January 19: Pago Pago
American Samoa: Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango,) is absolutely beautiful and looks exactly like a tropical island should. High, bush covered peaks descend steeply to blue coves and bays. Rocks, artfully arranged by nature along the shoreline, add focus and interest to the seascape. The high hills trap rain clouds which in turn shower the lower land and keep it rich, moist and fertile. Truly a tropical paradise.
The beaches are mostly covered in stones, but there are a few places where the stones give way to sand. We stopped at one of these for a swim. Oh, the joy of bathing in warm, tropical waters! The waves were so clear you could see right through them – a strangely turquoise glass effect. It was so beautifully pristine to those of us used to murky, colder waters.
It was extraordinarily windy all day, and my wide and floppy brimmed sun hat, bought specially for this holiday, proved more menace than asset. I wore it when we left the ship to explore the market set up in the town, but discarded it later as more hassle than it was worth. The market was the usual mix of shells, colourful wraps, swimsuits and hats. We made our way to the local museum which had excellent displays of traditional fishing techniques, early colonial memorabilia and portraits of many tribal and significant Samoan leaders. There was a nice section on local fauna, and how the plants were used medicinally in pre-European times.
We took a bus tour eastwards (there is only one road, so your options are east or west). The bus was delightful – a sort of gypsy caravan, wooden, open windowed and cheerfully decorated in bright colours. The guide told us Samoans don’t like air-conditioning, believing that freely circulating air which doesn’t harbour noxious germs trapped in air-conditioning systems is a far superior system. I was happy enough to believe her.
Although the Americans have had a naval base here since the nineteenth century, the port really came into it's own during the war in the Pacific in the 1940's. I wondered how the young mid-west boys from Idaho and Arkansas had felt during the war when they were based in such a sensational place. I kept humming tunes from South Pacific. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific suddenly seemed very alive and real.
Tour guides the world over are trained to be politically discreet, so I wasn’t able to ask how the local populace felt about the continued American involvement in their country. Independent Samoa is, after all, only a few sea miles away. Do American Samoans resent being controlled by a foreign power, or are they content to accept it as a trade-off for foreign investment in their roads, health system and social welfare? I suppose I’ll never know the answer.
We passed the fish factory, which unfortunately was a bit of a blot on the landscape and stank to high heaven. I’ve mentioned the bus was open windowed, and however hard I worked at holding my breath until we were well past the offending factory, the smell pervaded everything. The guide told us it was the easiest place on the island to find work, but the hardest form of work going. The hours are grindingly long and arduous.
So far the island seems extraordinarily unspoiled by modern tourism. We saw no Hyatts or Sheratons. I’ve no doubt they’ll arrive soon, but in the meantime it would be hard to find a more lovely island.