American Samoa National Park is typically the last on everyone’s list due to the difficulty in getting there. Nestled approximately half way between Hawaii and New Zealand, American Samoa is nearly 5000 miles away from Pullman and the only National Park in the Southern Hemisphere. The only US flight to Pago Pago (pronounced Pongo Pongo), to the only airport on Tutuila (the main island), happens twice a week from Honolulu and is approximately 5.5 hours in length. Jake had a conference in Honolulu last week that got us half way there, so this was our chance.
Drama started the week before departing Honolulu. Chelsea was researching arrival requirements and restrictions to learn that three of our key travel assumptions had failed: 1) American Samoa is a U.S. Territory, so an international passport is not required. — WRONG. Unlike other US territories, American Samoa requires a passport for entry. 2) The Airline will require us to enter a passport number to purchase a ticket if one is required. — WRONG. 3) Jake’s passport card that he uses as valid ID at airports will substitute for a passport. — WRONG. Passport cards are only valid at land and Sea ports, NOT airports, but still function as approved ID at airports, just not passports. We lucked out that we’d happened to put in Chelsea and M’s passports just in case. But was Jake going to have to stay in Honolulu with his passport at home? Friends are who you call when all your assumptions fail. Thankfully we have an emergency house entry procedure if we are ever away and we remembered where Jake’s passport was stored. Friends shipped it to us overnight and we had the passport well in hand before departing Honolulu. (Thank you again friends!)
Now for some historical context — American Samoa is considered an “unincorporated” US territory. From what we can tell, the US considered American Samoa to be of primary value as a ship and aircraft refueling location of little economic interest. Ship refueling relies on a stable native populace, so the traditional ways of land ownership and use (based on villages ran by familial chiefs) were allowed to continue, despite likely disagreement with the US Constitution. About 1/4 of households in American Samoa are considered owned by individuals not part of a familial village. To ‘own’ land in American Samoa you must be at least 50% Samoan. This is why few chains common in the US have managed to setup locations there.
Booking accommodations prior to arrival was challenging. We’d considered flying to the remote island O’fu within the National Park only to learn that we’d have to reimburse someone locally for purchasing us the tickets on arrival. We knew a rental car would be needed despite the 25 mph speed limit. We only learned the week before that we were able to reserve one. There are no chain hotels on the island. A cursory review of the hotels/resorts did not inspire confidence so we took a risk on an Airbnb and had little way of knowing if it would work out. When we arrived in Pago Pago we met our rental car agent, from a local company, who was very nice. She asked where we were staying. We told her, “an Airbnb not far from here.” She said with a smile, “Oh Victor’s place.” Which gave us the clue we’d chosen wisely. Victor’s wife’s Law Degree from Harvard finally clued us that continuing anymore unchecked assumptions here was unwise.
The first few days on the island were rainy and windy which gave plenty of time to get our bearings. For starters we visited the National Park of American Samoa Visitor Center and talked with a park ranger. On our first drive around the island we noticed something very different from American culture. The driving habits were very different, people went out of their way to let others into traffic and indicated their intentions with a quick friendly horn beep or light flash. We also noticed many frequent food marts and “pavilion” areas, known as Falals, along with the repurposing of old gas cylinders as bells of some kind. We later learned the pavilions are the village centers used for welcoming guests, celebrations, and decision making. The bells are for announcing curfew from 9-11 every evening and Sunday, which is part of Fa’asamoa, “The Samoan Way.” This way, epitomized by the Samoan proverb, “O le’auala o le pule o le tautua (the path of service is the path to authority),” were refreshing doses of kindness we see too little in mainland American culture.
Our first drive into the National park we hiked into Vai’Ava strait, a national natural landmark. We had the place to ourselves for over an hour. We’re no strangers to beach combing and were pleasantly surprised by the density of wildlife along that small section of beach. This area was not part of one of the many marine preserves around the island so we were excited for snorkeling in the coming days.
The next day we met Iosefa, the guide at the NOAA Tauese P.F. Sunia National Marine Sanctuary Center. Iosefa unleashed an amazing tour experience for just the three of us, and helped us plan snorkeling adventures around the island for the coming days. For some reason we didn’t trust the locals when they told us we could go snorkeling, “anywhere along the beach.” It took a few trials to realize they were right. Turns out there are several types of Marine preserves in American Samoa — the federal NOAA type, and the local village type. Some of the local villages have their own preserves marked with signs like this one.
The coral reefs are teaming with incredible life here. NOAA estimates 30% more marine life here than in Hawaii. Having just come from Hawaii, we believe the estimates.
One of the friends we made from Victor’s recommended we see the Turtle and Shark National Natural Landmark which features old lava tubes that have become blowholes. The blowholes are much more fun out of the water than when you’re snorkeling in Fangatele bay and watch schools of fish get sucked into and out of them, knowing you could be next!
No trip to another culture would be complete without a culinary experience. Tisa’s Barefoot Beach Bar was likely the best eating experience we’ve ever had, by far. The owners and sole employees, Candy and Tisa, preserve their end of the beach by making their restaurant on it. By reservation only, we had the place to ourselves for nearly two hours. M was free to wonder down to the beach, which was full of coconut crabs (some even inside coconuts). This was a place where you had whatever Candy felt like making — all of which was sourced by them on their 7 acre plantation, complete with 17 species of bananas, coconuts, papayas, and what they catch from the ocean. We were invited back on Sunday to go snorkeling.
Candy helped us understand many aspects of the island. From the library with actual moon rock from the Apollo missions that all landed near hear (for the record, the astronauts were only quarantined back on the mainland), to the energy challenges the island faces. He also gave us great tips on which trees in town have actual fruit bats, a.k.a. flying foxes.
What we found here, the most remote National Park in the US, was like most of the other national parks — friendship. The other two apartments at Victor’s were occupied by a school teacher and mother-son adventurers. Exploring the beaches of American Samoa was so neat with friends coming along for the adventure. This is a place we’d very much enjoy coming back to given the chance!