American Samoa

American Samoa

November 21st, 2018

On my second day in Samoa I went on a day trip to nearby American Samoa. The flight from the small Fagali’i Airport in Samoa to Pago Pago Airport is only a short 20 minute hop in a small prop plane. One important thing to remember is that the International Dateline runs right between the two islands, so you arrive in American Samoa one day before you leave Samoa. It's a bit confusing, and I initially made the error, and tried to book my guide on the wrong day.

I had an island tour with a local guide booked though TourAmericanSamoa, which I can highly recommend. They were very responsive and helped me get the entry permit. American Samoa has its own immigration laws independent of the US visa waiver rules. Citizens of most EU countries can travel to American Samoa visa free, but you have to get an entry permit letter in advance. My guide Luou picked me up from the airport and we started the island tour straight away. We first drove to the dramatic South-West coast with its black lava cliffs and azure blue waves crashing into them.

American Samoa consists of 5 main islands, of which Tutuila is the largest and most populous. The total population is around 55,000. The islands are an unincorporated territory of the US. American Samoans are US nationals but not US citizens, which means they cannot vote in US elections, but can live and work in the US or join the US military (in fact a lot of them do, as American Samoa has the highest rate of military enlistment of any US state or territory). The territory is largely under US law, but has maintained some of its traditional laws and governance structure of local chiefs, who among other things decide the distribution of ownership of land.

Unlike its rugby obsessed neighboring islands, the number one sport here is American Football. It is the main way for boys to get to college in the US. In fact the local high school teams tend to be so good, that US college scouts frequently recruit almost the entire graduating class to play college football. The most famous NFL player with American Samoan roots was Troy Polamalu the former strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The economy is closely linked to the US. The two largest employers on the island are the local government and the Starkist Tuna Corporation, which has a large tuna canning factory right by the harbour and exports several 100 million USD worth of canned tuna to the US every year.

American Samoa is similarly religious as its neighbors, and the small island is filled with many beautiful churches:

We also stopped by the memorial for the victims of the 2009 tsunami. On 29th of September that year an 8.1 magnitude earthquake centered to the north of the islands caused a large tsunami that swept over Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. It killed nearly 200 people across the islands (about 20 of them here in American Samoa, with the majority of the victims in the coastal villages in Samoa). The tsunami wave was estimated to have reached a height of 14 meters when it hit the shores.

Next we drove inland to a lookout with great views over the western part of the island, which is where the majority of the population lives.

From here we drove to Pago Pago harbor, which is a large and deep bay and one of best protected natural harbors in the Pacific. We had a very nice lunch of fresh grilled tuna at Sadie’s, a beautiful resort and restaurant overlooking the bay.

After lunch we first drove up to the Afono Pass for an even better view of the harbor. On the other side of the pass is the boundary of the American Samoan National Park, which is the only US National Park in the Southern Hemisphere. We did not enter the park, since there was not enough time on my day trip. Instead we drove out to the much less populated east side of the island. This part of the island is dominated by very steep mountains leaving very little habitable or arable land between the mountains and the sea.

An interesting architectural detail you notice here and in Samoa are the large number of these open-air but covered structures. They are called guest houses. And not only every village, but almost every house has its own. I learned from Luou that every chief, from the lowest family chief to the village chief, has to have one of these guest houses as a meeting place.

I was dropped off back at the airport at 3:30 pm for my short flight back to Samoa. American Samoa was well worth the trip. I had a great guide and learned a lot about this beautiful little outpost of the US in the center of the Pacific Ocean.

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