Friday, September 13, 2013

American Samoa - Definitely Off the Beaten Path!

12 September 2013

It's quite confusing - we're back in Apia, after our week in American Samoa - we left there on Thursday, 12 Sept., and after a 35 minute flight we arrived and it's Friday, 13 Sept. here.  But I'll use the Apia date for the day we toured around Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa.

And just to make things more confusing - Pago Pago is the harbour, and not really a specific town or village - even though it's also the capital.  We couldn't quite figure that out - there isn't one single town or city named Pago Pago, and it isn't the name of the island - but it is the capital.  Maybe it's more of a region.  We couldn't quite get a definitive answer on this issue, so we're left with the knowledge that Pago Pago is definitely the harbour (the big dent in the middle of the wedge-shaped island - check the map, above), and it is the capital.  But we don't know if we really were ever in Pago Pago.  Which makes sense, since we never quite knew what day it was, either.

Galu lolo (the G is pronounced like a soft NG such as at the end of the word "sing" - so the word is pronounced ngah-loo LO-lo) - this is literally a flood wave - the Samoan word for tsunami.  (Which is the Japanese word for tidal wave.)  Anyway, there are signs all over for the galu lolos, along with evacuation route signs, entering and leaving galu lolo zone signs, and sirens in each and every town.  (As well as in Pago Pago.)

As I've said before, Pago Pago harbour is a volcanic caldera - which means the center of the island was at one time a giant volcano.  I mean, GIANT!  Enormous!  GINORMOUS!  The Godzilla of volcanoes.

Because these are the hills that surround the harbour, and are the remains of that monster volcano.  And they are pretty monster sized hills.  Especially considering the fact that the island of Tutuila is just slightly larger than St. Thomas - maybe 4 miles wide at the widest, and about 18 miles long.  Not much bigger than the island of Manhattan.  Or Lake Washington in Seattle.  A smallish island, once home to a monster volcano, that erupted and ripped the middle out of the island and left towering hills and a gaping hole as the only evidence of its existence.

Oh, and some lava flow beaches, and the all-over-the-place igneous rocks and occasional sea stacks that look kind of volcanic.

Really, that photo is Pago Pago Harbour, with the craggy hills that were part of the volcano.  I was just amazed by the scope of the caldera and the hills.  MONSTER volcano, seriously!  (That's a freighter tied to a fishing boat - this is one of the prime tuna fishing areas of the world, and Starkist has a huge cannery here in Pago.  Other boats come in and buy fresh tuna - not sure if they eat it or sell it elsewhere.)

Anyway - we went out on an island tour on Wed/Thurs, depending on which side of the dateline you're on.  We made arrangements with Andrew, our very nice taxi driver whom we met when we first arrived on island.  He took us out to the east end of the island, then out toward the west.  And he picked up on the fact that we both like beaches, and so they were featured in our tour.  But we also learned more about the history and culture of the Samoan islands, how they came to be divided into two territories, and we also shared some information about our lives in the US and the USVI.  It was a great day.

Warning - I really like beaches.  I like the colors, the waves, the flying spray and foam, the crashing sound of the waves - and I like capturing all of that on film.  Artsy beach photos.  So if you get tired of the photos, well, sorry.  My dad the coastal geomorphologist trained me well, and I enjoy recording the beaches.  Those of you who think there are too many beach photos (that's like saying there's too much chocolate), please just skip over the photos.  Thank you.

It was a crazy windy day, so we had wild waves and foam and sea spray, as well as flying sand - just a perfect day for trying to visit the major beaches on the island.

One of the strange things about all the Samoan islands is that they're surrounded by coral reefs - so most of the waves break quite a ways off shore, and create calm or somewhat calm lagoons near the beach or shore.  This also keeps predators like sharks away from swimming areas, making nice safe swimming.  But, with the crazy waves and currents, there can be major rip currents and so people have to be pretty careful with swimming, diving, snorkeling around here.  (I was still getting over the respiratory infection, so we skipped the swimming and snorkeling part.)

Another interesting feature are the sea stacks - I'm not sure if these are former headlands where the connection soil and rock was washed away, or if they're giant chunks of igneous rock thrown out by the volcanic eruption, or what - but there are these funny little sea stacks scattered along the shore (mostly the southern shore).  They look like little baby mountains wading in the shallow ocean.  A few are tombolos - meaning the sandy connection is underwater at high tide, but above water at low tide, so you can walk over to the baby mountain.  (The Samoans have named a few, and two that are near each other are called The Brothers.  We didn't hear if there was any kind of interesting legend about them and how they came to exist.)

The water is so incredibly clear here, you can see the rocks and coral right through the water!  And the gradations of color were just amazing - all I could do was marvel at the beauty of the South Pacific.  (Really, what looks like beach fading into ocean is really sand under sea water that is so clear, it barely changes the color of the sand!)

One of the beaches we visited is named Shark and Turtle, and there is a resort there of the same name.  Andrew told us the legend of Shark and Turtle, and why this beach has this name:

The people who live in the town by Shark and Turtle Beach believe that there was a man and a woman, who were turned into the shark and the turtle.  The man became the shark, and the woman became the turtle.  (I asked Andrew, and he wasn't too sure why they were turned into these animals - he guessed that it was some kind of curse.)  The villagers have a special song, and they will go to the beach and sing the song, and it calls the shark and the turtle, who return to the beach when they hear the song.  And this ONLY works if the people singing are from the village - other people might know the song, and sing it, but this will not call the turtle and the shark back to the beach.  Only if the singers are from the village.

There are also two beach fales (little open thatched buildings) - one for the shark and one for the turtle.  Or, more accurately, for the tourists to stand in while the villagers sing the song and everyone looks for the shark and turtle to return.

So, I'm guessing they were some star-crossed lovers who could only be united in the ocean.  That wasn't in the version of the legend we heard, but, well, it just seems as if it fits.  Sort of the Samoan Romeo and Juliet, or something.

Anyway, we drove to the eastern end of the island, and then around the corner and bam, there we were on the north side of the island - the road continued for just a little way to a village, and then just stopped.  Really.  The road just ended, and we had to make a U turn and go back the way we came.  There are few villages on the north side of the island, and no connecting roads that run the length of the north shore.  There are a few cross-island roads that go to a village or two or three,  and end.  Because not too many people live on the north coast.  There aren't accessible beaches, there may not even be any beaches - it looked pretty much like rocky cliffs all along the shore from where we were.  But, well, it's just the way it is.

From the SE corner, we could look across at the tiny island of Aunu (OW-new), a small village there, and gorgeous beaches.  There were small boats that ferry people across - but it was a wild waves kind of day, and so we opted to stay on the big island.

All I could do was marvel at how incredibly gorgeous the beaches were, what an amazing day it was, and how this island is known almost as a legend, and rarely as a destination - we saw few other tourists, only Samoans going about their daily chores or business, and Andrew, our very nice driver.

To the west of Pago Pago Harbour, the "beaches" are mostly volcanic rubble, lava flows that have solidified to rocky shelves, and dramatic cliffs.  With, of course, roaring crashing waves and sea spray shooting high into the sky and all the thunder and drama that the ocean can summon on a sunny but windy day.  We visited a few of these lava flows, enjoying the flying spray and vertical waves.

And we ran into two young people from Washington DC.  We had seen them at the restaurant where we stopped for lunch.  They work for the US government, and they visit the various US territories and protectorates.  They meet with various local officials, and then, using their degrees as economists, estimate the gross domestic product of each US possession.  They had been in St. Thomas, USVI, just the week before.

How coincidental could that be?

The young woman and I had fun trying to catch the waves as they reached their apex of spray, and chatted, while Richard and the young man talked economics and politics and GDP and who knows what else.  (You can tell I find that about as boring as Richard finds my descriptions of beaches.)

But just in case it wasn't odd enough to meet these two economists who specialize in American protectorates, who had just been where we used to live - no - turns out the young woman went to the same university as Richard.

We chatted some more, didn't explore any more of these small-world-moments, and wished each other safe journeys as we headed off to another amazing crashing waves on volcanic cliffs kind of beach.

Richard thought he may have seen a humpback whale off one of these rocky shores, and it wouldn't surprise me.  I didn't catch a glimpse of it, but it was so similar to the area of Savaii where we saw a whale, well, it just seemed totally to fit.

I would love to figure out how to make a mini-movie of this series of photos - the waves and spray build to such a major crescendo!  And yes, that's spray and foam shooting up behind the cliff on the last photos.

The cliffs were probably a good 10-12 feet above the average water level - so I'm estimating sea spray shooting up may 20 feet?  25?  More?

Last beach, with views of the back of the hills that ring Pago Pago Harbour.

Oh, another Samoan word - moana - pronounced moe-AH-nah - means ocean blue.  Yup, one special word for the color of the ocean, which changes depending on depth, weather, time of day, light.  One word for all of that.  Moana.

And then, for the artists in the family, and all my artist friends - just a few photos of the wonderful paintings that were in the little restaurant where we had lunch.  These are by Mark Ashley Faulkner, an artist in American Samoa who is of Solomon Islands and Australian descent.  His paintings are a wonderful mix of tradition Samoan patterns and the natural elements surrounding these beautiful islands.  These photos are just a few examples of his work - I really loved the polyptych, with the five paintings that visually connect even across the open space.  But my favorite is the ocean blue with golden fish.  So, this is your moment of art for the day. 

And that is our week in Pago Pago - one day of gorgeous weather, and six days of rain.  At the hotel that is the setting for "Rain."

Could life be any more coincidental?

Addendum:  My apologies.  Richard has pointed out that there is indeed a town or village of Pago Pago, you can see it on the map at the narrowest point of the harbour (as in the far inland point) - but no one seemed to say that this exactly was Pago Pago when I asked, hence the confusion.  We may or may not have driven through this town.  We don't know for sure.  My personal opinion is that Pago Pago is like Shangri La, or the Room of Requirement - it shows up when you need it.  Otherwise, it isn't there.

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