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ColumnistsPeter Nelson's TravelsPeter Nelson's travels - American Samoa

Peter Nelson’s travels – American Samoa

by Peter Nelson 

In San Francisco, I bought a mileage ticket to Sydney, Australia.  With that kind of ticket, you can take up to a year getting to your final destination.  Plus, you can stop off anywhere along that route and stay as long as you like.  Loved that concept — the freedom, the serendipity.

First stop, Honolulu.  I’d never been to Hawaii before, so was expecting to spend a month or two looking around.  But when I got off the plane and walked across the tarmac, a half-dozen ‘hula girls’ came sashaying towards us, handing out plastic ‘leis’.  Even worse, Don Ho’s voice boomed out from the terminal loudspeakers, “Tiny bubbles, in the wi-ine …”

Right.  TouristCity, or what?

So I beetled into the terminal, went straight up to the nearest ticket counter and booked a seat on the very next plane out of there.

Next stop, American Samoa.  Step off the plane at 8:00 in the morning, and the muggy air smacks you in the face like a pan of tepid dishwater.  The temperature’s only 80°, but the humidity must be 300%!  Enough to knock you over.  And it’s only 8 AM!  What’ll it be like at noon?  Standing on the tarmac, gasping for breath, I nearly got right back on the plane.  But the island looked ultra-gorgeous from the air, so I shouldered my pack and hopped onto the bus for the short ride in to Pago Pago.


Of the 400+ people on that big 747, only 5 deplaned at Pago Pago, all of us backpackers.  We chatted on the bus on the way into town.  The other four went off in search of a cheap hotel/campground.  I went off in search of something even cheaper (free).

After tooling around most of the day with no luck making any connections and getting soaked to the skin three times by torrential downpours, I finally got talking to one of the locals, Lalomilo by name.  And he immediately invited me to stay with his family.  I met him out on the west end of Tutuila, so I was hoping he lived in one of the villages, but he lives right in downtown Pago Pago.  Pago (pronounced Pawn-go) is a thriving bustling berg.  A tad dirty but picturesque.  Natives are on the heavy side — not fat, but large-boned.  Loud-voiced and out-going.  Smooth brown skin and dark wavy hair.  A solid folk.


Lalomilo’s father is the chief Methodist minister for American Samoa, and the large extended family lives in this huge three-story concrete house adjoining the church.  The house constitutes a very vocal fundamental Christian community on the island.  Every evening, there’s an interminable service, the bulk of which, strangely enough, is observed with the devout crouching down on all-fours.  But, hey, I’m a student of anthropology, right?  Weird customs don’t faze me.  All part of the game.  And there’s a wonderful bonus with every service — the hymn-singing.  These people are so gifted in harmony.  You should hear “The Old Rugged Cross” sung in Samoan, absolutely delightful.

Must be a hundred people living in the house, and I never managed to figure out all the complex interrelationships.  Most of the young ones speak a bit of English.  Lalomilo and his wife Donna are both bilingual, so I don’t have much difficulty getting along.  Spoken Samoan is quite beautiful to the ear.  I manage to pick up a few useful phrases — “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Thank you”, and “I love you”.

And that’s all you’ll ever need to say when you’re living in paradise!

The sheer physical beauty of the island Tutuila is just staggering.  Steep green mountains plunge right down into this restless crystal sea.  Magnificent.  And hitching is effortless.  Quite exhilarating to roar around the winding coastal road in the back of a small pick-up.  But it’s even better to walk, because then you don’t miss any of the smells — mimosa, lemon, hibiscus, and a thousand others I can’t identify.  Every bend in the road seems to have its own unique scent, beyond the all-pervading background aroma of heavy wet greenery.  Tall palms, squat palms, leaves big enough to cover a man, heavy drooping vines, huge dripping flowers.  The variety is positively cosmic.


I hitch around to the western tip of Tutuila, where the road ends, and then start walking around to the north coast, where the road begins again.  Luckily, the island isn’t very big, so I can do the whole circumambulation in an afternoon.  Really hot though.  No beaches on this side, it’s all black lava.  Since they were formed from a relatively recent volcanic eruption, these rocks are new and quite sharp.  You’d slice your toes off walking on them in your bare feet.  Forget swimming on this coast.

Wandering amongst the rocks out in the sea, the tropical sunshine dumps down in brutally blazing bucketfuls onto my poor unprotected head.  Got a glorious sunburn, needless to say.

Here the locals are cooking breadfruit. It was given that name, because when it’s heated, it smells just like freshly-baked bread.

For some reason, the Samoan airport authorities gave me a shorter visa than any of the other backpackers.  Do I look dangerous?  Or maybe like I won’t contribute much cash to the local economy?  Whatever, the heck with them, I stayed a few days past my visa expiry date anyway.  Immigration officials look closely at arriving passengers, but rarely bother with departing ones, so I slipped past their radar unnoticed.




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