Moby Goes to American Samoa (Part 2)


Pago Pago harbor. A sailor’s dream. In 1872 a US Navy commander negotiated with the Samoan high chief for the rights to establish a refueling station here. Huge piles of coal were soon here, the black dust washed into the harbor, and thus began the decline of the reefs. There was a full US Naval station here from 1900 to 1951. The Commandant of the station generally served also as the Military Governor of the territory. Just for the record, in the written Samoa language the letter “g” has an “ng” sound. So Pago Pago is pronounced Pango Pango. That would be Pong-o Pong-o, not Pawn-go Pawn-go. Like the pong in ping-pong, not like the bon-go in bongo drums. At least to my non-native ear.


The departure of the Navy was a big blow to the American Samoan economy, so tuna companies were enticed to use the harbor as home port for their tuna fleets in the South Pacific and to built tuna canning factories here. One enticement was that the factories were not subject to American labor laws, so there is no minimum wage. Also, the tuna can be labeled “Made in USA”, even if most of the workers on the boats and in the canning plants are from Tonga and other Pacific islands. And there were no pesky water pollution regulations, so the tuna offal could be dumped right in the harbor. Corporate Charlie Tuna liked these loopholes.


While the tuna cannery sewage is piped offshore now, the archaic (primary treatment only) municipal sewage treatment plant still dumps its effluent right into the harbor. But the harbor water quality isn’t so bad, and the locals swim and boat there, such as this crew we saw practicing. The annual race between these “fautasi” long boats are a huge deal here in Samoa. The boats are about 90′ long and hold 45 rowers.


Plenty of old WWII fortifications dot Tutuila. Cannons up high, bunkers below, and pillboxes on the beaches.


Cane toads were the gun crew at this cannon emplacement. This invasive species has wreaked ecological havoc on islands all over the Pacific.


Tutuila has only one main road with a few side branches. There is a steady stream of brightly painted, locally made, little mini-buses plying  the routes. You just flag them down, and for a buck or so off you go.


The older buses tended to be Toyota conversions, but the newer ones like this were Moby’s F-350 cousins.


Schoolkids in their uniforms waiting at the bus stop. The lava lava is the Samoan version of a sarong. Along with flip-flops, it is part of the Samoan national wardrobe. While not everyone wears them all the time, there is no place that they would be considered inappropriate. I saw them on lawyers in court, policemen, construction workers, you name it.


Rainmaker Mountain, at 1,700′,  looms over Pago Pago harbor. It is a rare day without at least one rainshower in Samoa. Sometimes many more. Rainfall on the mountain tops averages over 300″ per year, whereas it rains only 125″-150″ down below. Coupled with the blazing tropical sun it made for a miserably humid existence for us Idahoans. The weather forecast was pretty much the same every day: high of about 86°F, low of 80°F, occasional pounding downpours.


Once again, the trails here in Samoa such as this one over Rainmaker Mountain aren’t quite like the trails in most other national parks. In this humid climate I could work up a sweat just thinking about doing anything physical, so on such steep grades as this I sweated buckets.


In Idaho the winter weather report often includes the wind chill factor, so you know how much colder it feels compared to what the thermometer might read. Here in Samoa they include the heat index which factors in the humidity so you know how freaking hot it will feel. So the report might say “high of 89°F, but the heat index will be at 110°”. I kid you not. And at this latitude so close to the equator the sun made my bald head feel like I was standing under the oven broiler. At times, a tropical paradise it was not.




Roadside markets and stands all over Tutuila sold locally grown staples like taro root, banana, pineapple, breadfruit, limes, and papaya. But American Samoa does not feature third world prices, whether it be locally grown produce or imported goods. Low wages coupled with high prices keep a lot of people in poverty.


The locally produced bouquets were amazing.


I love street food. From Kazakhstan to Thailand to Turkey I have tried it all. Sadly, there wasn’t much available here in Samoa. But one Saturday  at the main Fagatogo market there was a woman selling luau povi and luau pipi. Povi is beef, pipi is turkey tail.




Street food should be eaten on the street, right? I went with the luau povi. And isn’t this a fine blob of glop? Janene as usual passed on the local street delicacy.


Luau povi is made by taking seriously fatty chunks of beef stirred with some coconut milk, wrapped in a taro leaf, then baked. A taro leaf is huge, about the size of a sheet of tabloid newspaper. But when cooked it shrinks and softens, like spinach, so in the end you get a big green blob of goo filled with greasy, fatty beef. Mmmm, mmmm. It was tasty. To my regret, I passed on buying luau pipi, made with turkey tail, at the market that day. It did not sound all that appealing. Little did I know it was the local favorite.


Prior to WWII the traditional diet of most Pacific Islanders was low in fat. Their diet was high in fish and vegetables. Pigs, dogs, fruit bats, and chickens were eaten in limited amounts on special occasions. When the war ended, the soldiers went home, but left untold tons of SPAM behind. All that leftover SPAM gave the islanders a taste for high fat, shelf-stable, processed meat. Hawaiians lead the states in per capita consumption of SPAM,  at 5 cans each. Residents of Guam today average 16 cans each.


Then came refrigerated containers. Fresh and frozen products could be shipped over the world. Things like turkey tails. Yes, turkey tail is a big favorite in Samoa. A ten pound bag is often the loss leader advertised on a sign out front of the many little groceries stores, or “bush markets”, that dot the island. Cheap and high in calories, they sell well here and in other Pacific Islands. They are also popular in the deep south of the USA.


At 200 calories each, just four turkey tails will give you a full day’s quota of saturated fat. Samoa always comes out near the top of various rankings of the most obese counties on earth. Depending on the measure and definition of obesity, 40-80% of Samoan adults are considered obese.


Ron the rescue dog. Ron was not worried about obesity. Maybe six months old, this little guy showed up on the back porch one day. He was limping on three legs due to a hugely swollen, pus-filled lump on his ankle. He had what appeared to be a pork rib bone wedged in his back molars, which stuck out giving him  sort of a tusk that drooled constantly. And he stunk real bad. But he was so sweet we decided to alleviate a little suffering in the world by taking him to the vet. For $20 he got his tusk removed, his leg cleaned up, a course of antibiotics, and a bonus neutering. Such a deal. Nick and Lachelle now have a guard dog.


Termites are relentless in Samoa. Nothing made of wood is safe. Not only are the houses eventually destroyed, but all the furniture inside them is susceptible too. This much sawdust would appear in one day after the floor was last swept.


At Nick and Lachelle’s every day little piles of termite dust would build up under the kitchen cupboards. In one house I visited the kitchen cabinets were riddled with termite tunnels. They looked like a cut-away view of a termite colony.


Samoas is tough on metal too, as exemplified by Ian’s pickup. There are not very many old vehicles on the island because they all rust and break down within a decade.



Cockroaches. Yes, plenty of them here in Samoa, and big as well. But they have an undeserved  bad rap, and really aren’t any big deal. Until one runs across your wife’s neck in the middle of the night and causes a big commotion.66

Pago Pago is a popular stop for the South Pacific yachting crowd. But this sailboat stayed too long and has succumbed to the Samoan funk. Someone living off the grid I would guess. Will they ever set sail and return to their home port?


Not likely to ever sail back to Nevada is my guess.








We are all used to warning signs in National Parks, such as this one from Yellowstone Park.


The blue tsunami warning sign I have seen in many places. But here on Tutuila’s portion of American Samoa National Park, on the road to Vai’ava Strait National Natural Landmark, was a sign new to me in national parks: “Beware of Dogs”. Turned out the danger was not in the parking area itself, but rather came from the pack of dogs at the house seen on the left that you had to drive by on the way to the parking area. The metal frame box behind the tsunami sign is a stand to hold garbage cans up and out of reach of the dogs. Once again, these island are not pedestrian or biker friendly.




I would have liked a nice graphic sign like this, but preferably in National Park Service brown





Janene was just glad there were no such signs as this. J.T. the Safety Monitor was pleased to discover that there are few snakes on American Samoa, and none are poisonous.




Vai’ava Strait, one of seven national landmarks in American Samoa.


Vai’ava Strait in the background to the east; we hike down to the tidepools at Craggy Point.


This can be a perfect swimming pool, and the kids were ready to go in. But we adults decided the tide was a bit too high, and the surf a little too large. Awhile later a sneaker wave came surging over the rocks and turned the pool into a churning cauldron of froth. We were very glad we had not gone for a dip!


Looking west from Craggy Point. The north side of Tutuila is steep and rugged, has little road access and few villages.


Tisa’s Barefoot Bar is the one hip place to hang out in Tutuila, the kind of place that makes it into Lonely Planet Guidebooks.


Tisa’s is in a lovely setting, and has plenty of local color. This village self-enforces their own fish sanctuary, so the fish viewing was excellent while snorkeling.


While Tutuila has only a couple hotels, there are a number of small bed and breakfasts , and other places that offer accommodations of some sort. Tisa’s would be my top choice on Tutuila.


But that would be only because I don’t know of anything available on the remote north side of the island. If someplace was available in this village of Vatai, I would stay there. Quiet, little traffic, no tourists. And achingly beautiful.


Sa’ilele, another idyllic north side village. This beachside shelter is a small version of the traditional Samoa building structure known as a fale.


Originally, fales were made entirely with local logs, limbs, palm fronds, and had thatched roofs. Suspended woven mats could be raised and lowered depending as needed for ventilation, or for dividing up these communal family living spaces. Home sweet home.


These days communal housing is still quite common, but families share a large house of modern design. But most places still have a fale out front. Most of the fales are made of concrete, and are covered with corrugated metal roofs.They serve as a gathering place for big family get togethers, and as a place to hang out and catch the breeze in the evenings.


Fales out front, houses behind. The funky tower on the right is a tsunami warning siren. A big tsunami hit Samoa in 2009, causing much death and destruction.


I applaud the Samoan people for keeping title to almost their entire island. But as a tourist this is a real drawback, because that means everything is privately owned, including all the beaches. So you can drive by and look, but there aren’t many places to stop and swim. We figured the bus stops were a public space, and used this one in Masefau for a picnic shelter. Shade is everything in the Samoan summer.


Note the pattern of arcs in the grass left by the weed eater machines. Much of Samoa looks like a golf course, with perfectly manicured short grass. Turn your back, and I am sure the jungle would take over fast. I only saw one lawnmower in action in five weeks, and that was at the lodge on Ofu. But I did see scores and scores of guys out wielding weedeaters. And they weren’t just trimming up little patches of grass like this by the bus stop. No, I saw people trimming entire yards at their houses, road crews trimming the shoulders of the entire highway system, even a crew cutting all the grass around the runway at Ofu’s airport. I am talking acres of grass. I think the weed eater should be declared the national tool of Samoa.

81Another remote northside village.


And another.


American Samoa has a mind boggling number of churches. Mind you, I am from Oregon, which is not a very religious state. While I have never been to the Deep South Bible Belt, I have traveled a lot through Texas and was struck by how many churches there were, and how many pickup trucks were in the parking lots on Sundays. But Samoa makes Texas look like a vast land of unwashed heathens in comparison. There are huge churches everywhere, and the percentage of Samoan pickup drivers beats Texas too. In many villages, on every evening, ten minutes before 6 p.m. a gong is sounded. It is time for “sa”, or prayers. Squads of men, the village morality police, all in matching colored lava lavas and white shirts, line the streets. At 6 p.m. the gong sounds gain. On the main highway traffic continues, but on side streets it must stop. Everyone hangs quietly, or has prayer time, until the gong sounds again after 10 minutes.



Fa’afafine. The Samoan third gender. Translated as “in the manner of a woman”.  At first, this gender is a mind-bender for most outsiders. At least it was for me. It adds yet another twist to the LGBTQ construct. An outsider like me should probably just leave the subject alone, as I will no doubt be unable to do it justice. But I think it demonstrates an twist in the traditional binary male/female gender roles. A fascinating one. It is estimated that 1-5% of Samoans identify as fa’afafine.


images-1I had a vague knowledge of the existence of fa’afafine, but the concept became reality in the airport waiting room on our flight from Hawaii to Samoa. In walked what I assumed was a Samoan family. A family of huge Samoans to be more precise. I can be a bit slow on the uptake at times. But in this case I pretty quickly decided that the largest in the group, at about 6’3′, 300+ pounds, despite wearing some lovely strappy sandals, a red dress, flower behind an ear, lipstick, and nicely plucked eyebrows, was what I would have normally considered a man.

Fa’afafine identify themselves as a third gender, and are a part of traditional Samoan culture. Fa’afafine are male at birth, but in their life show both masculine and feminine gender traits in a way unique to Samoa. Their behavior can range from extravagantly feminine to conventionally masculine.


Traditionally, if a family had more boys than girls or not enough girls to help with women’s duties about the house, male children would be chosen to be raised as fa’afafine. Samoa’s social acceptance of fa’afafine has evolved from the tradition of raising some boys as girls. These boys were not necessarily homosexual, or noticeably effeminate, and they may never have felt like dressing as women. They became transvestites because they were born into families that had plenty of boys and not enough girls. In families of all male children (or where the only daughter was too young to assist with the “women’s” work), parents would often choose one or more of their sons to help the mother. Because these boys would perform tasks that were strictly the work of women they were raised as if they were female. Although their true gender was widely known, they would usually be dressed as girls.As they grew older, their duties would not change. They would continue performing “women’s” work, even if they eventually married (which would be to a woman).


Modern fa’afafine differ in two fundamental ways from their traditional counterparts. First, they are more likely to have chosen to live as women, and, secondly, they are more likely to be homosexual. These days, young Samoan boys who appear effeminate, or enjoy dressing as girls, may be recognised as fa’afafine by their parents. If they are, they will usually be neither encouraged nor discouraged to dress and behave as women. They will simply be allowed to follow the path they choose. If it becomes apparent that a boy wants to become a fa’afafine, he will be taught the duties and crafts of women.

And now for some birds of a different feather . . .


Red Junglefowl – These guys start crowing about 2 a.m. every morning and are free range in Samoa. Their lovely neck feathers make great fly tying feathers, but they were safe as I was afraid the customs agents would not be very understanding if they found a bird skin in my luggage.


Purple swamp hen. Brilliant purple and red colors.


White-collared kingfisher. I’d never seen a saltwater kingfisher before.


Like the Vermillion Flycatchers I once saw in Texas, these Cardinal Honeycreepers love to land on vehicle front doors to admire themselves in the rear view mirrors.

white-tailed-tropicbirdWhite-tailed tropic bird. They have an angelic glow when the sun shines through them as they pass overhead.







In 18 hours we went from the smokin’ hot, sweaty tropics  to . . . .



frozen snowy desert. The return to Boise was both a climatic and cultural shock. Not to mention the pain of cold-turkey grandkid withdrawal.

Moby regretted that the five weeks in Samoa caused him to miss all that time he could have been 4x4ing in the snow here in Boise.




5 thoughts

    1. Tammy, I can only wish that our photos were as beautiful as yours. Perhaps you can do a blog post on making Swiss-style luau povi.

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