My sweet tentacly god, this place is schizophrenic. American Samoa is at once a vibrant and depressed country: where the residents are fiercely proud of their Samoan identity and culture, while also having become one of the biggest welfare states in America. A place where you can get a dental checkup and a filling, along with almost any other routine doctor’s visit for $15 total, but where the local McDonald’s has an “after school special” of a “Baby Mac” for $2 and where there aren’t even any McfreakingSalads for a little bit of roughage to go along with your meat(?) sandwich and reconstituted french fry-shaped objects. A place of karaoke brothels and wage-fixing at the tuna canneries, but also of soaring mountains, abundant and varied animal life and really and truly friendly people. As this paragraph goes on (and on and on), you can see how much trouble I’m having describing American Samoa to you. It’s really something you have to experience, this mix of decrepit and lush. I’ve decided I like it, for what that’s worth, mostly because it’s always surprising me.
The local newspaper is always a kick because it’s filled with stories of the entrenched political corruption here. As an example, the prior governor of American Samoa was indicted and brought to court in Honolulu for taking bribes. His defense? “I’m the chief; that’s how we do things here!” And frankly, I don’t doubt it; that does seem to be how things are done here. There are many lovely beaches here, but most of them are owned by the village in which they are found and you’re required to ask permission from the chief and maybe pay a fee (or if it’s really rural, some sort of gift) before using it. This includes the famed $2 Beach, which recently became a victim of inflation and is now $5 Beach, though the sign remains at the original price. I’m not really sure if this entrepreneurial spirit came before or after the American influence, but it seems to be a perfect fit.
Our friends Dan and Gabriela were kind enough to play tour guide for us on a recent weekend. They drove us around to the east side of the island, and it was truly a beautiful trip. It really made me appreciate American Samoa so much more. Prior to the trip, all I had seen were the somewhat seedy villages of Pago Pago, Fagatogo and the other accumulated villages by the airport and all the big box warehouses and stores to the west. It’s all been pretty populated, and trash is a constant, but in our tour of the more remote north and east sides, we got to see the small, clean villages surrounded by palm trees and giant breadfruit trees. There were actual white sand beaches, lush jungles and really amazing and rambling houses. It makes Pago Pago, with all the pollution and squalor, even more surprising, knowing how beautiful Samoa can be when left mostly untouched. There has been a major public awareness campaign about litter with admonishments all over the bus stops and a sassy lady on the radio saying “I am NOT yo’ mama…Pick It Up!” Everyone who we’ve spoken to who was here 20 years ago says it’s so much better, but how can that be when we constantly have chip bags and Styrofoam containers floating by us in the harbor? Where some of the beaches have more plastic on them than sand? I’ve seen the same lack of care with nature by some native Bahamians, too. Maybe it’s an island thing; when you’re in it every day, you start taking it for granted, the fact that you live in such a vibrant and amazing place.
These contradictions are what make this place so fascinating. I’m always inwardly shocked that I can, for the most part, speak to the people here in English, especially having come from French Polynesia on the last cruise, because it’s just different enough to feel totally foreign. Just enough stray dogs and tin roof shacks to feel Third World, but with the fresh and shiny McDonald’s, Toyota dealerships and cell phones to feel like the First. Whether the political corruption is First or Third, well, we’ll just call that a tie.
In searching my files for a picture of the trash I’m talking about, I’m happy to announce that I couldn’t find any. On the contrary, I did find a picture of a team picking up all the litter along the harbor shores on this recent Sunday. Foot, meet mouth.