Saturday, August 18, 2012

Am Sam

I will (semi) proudly display my complete lack of informed citizenship here and say that American Samoa and (Western) Samoa used to be part of the same country, but they split at some point in the past and one is now an independent country and one is a US territory (right?). Having lived in both the US and Samoa, I went to Pago (aka Tutuila aka American Samoa) fully expecting to encounter some mix of US culture and Samoan culture. Kind of, but not exactly.

But before I get into some kind of analysis of expectations vs. crossing boundaries, let me discuss Pago as a tourist destination. I was only there for 3 days, so I can’t quite make a full evaluation of the merits and shortcomings of Pago, but coming from Samoa, it is an excellent destination. The plane ride is only a half hour (boat takes about 5 hours I think, but you get more luggage allowance). It’s a tiny little hopper plane that holds maybe 10 people and their bags. The plane is so small that you have to step onto the fancy bag scale at the check-in counter with your carry-on bags so they can balance out the plane by putting you across from someone who is roughly your size and somewhere along the aisle that you don’t cause too much disturbance to the fore or aft of the aircraft. It was the best plane ride I’ve ever been on. Since it is a hopper plane, you never reach “cruising altitude,” and you get a nice aerial tour of Samoa. I was close enough to the ground that I could literally pick out roads, buildings, fales, and other sights that I pass on a regular basis. I was on the wrong side of the plane to see my fale, but I did get a glimpse of my running route along my end of the island.

Pago is very easy to get around. The buses run at all hours of daylight, and a limited number of buses even continue running after dark (although they do take a break at some point). There are about a bajillion buses in Pago, although it was pointed out to me that maybe it just seems that way because Pago is so small that the buses all run alongside each other as opposed to Samoa where the buses go to different districts. You can drive from one end of Pago to the other in a few hours, including bathroom breaks and photo opportunities. The one main road runs along the south coast instead of circling the whole island, and there are maybe 2 or 3 big town areas (separate big towns) along the road that have a million places to shop and eat.

My whirlwind 3-day tour of Pago included tons of shopping, tons of eating, as much internet time as I could squeeze in, and a leisurely driving tour of the island. I felt more comfortable driving in Pago than in Samoa (I’m putting this down to driving on the right side of the road in a car with the steering wheel on the left – something I’ve been trained to do – although a 25mph speed limit instead of a 55kph speed limit may have something to do with that as well. Yes, I know that’s not a big difference when you do the conversion, but maybe it’s a mental thing – there’s a big difference between 25 and 55). We made a quick stop at the national park that included a picnic of cheese and grapes, and visited Tise’s Barefoot Bar, which feels like it belongs in Peter Pan because it’s the coolest tree house ever. It may not be quite the tourist destination that Fiji or other tropical islands are, but I thought it was an excellent vacation. Scenic views, food options, and internet time seem to be my requirements for a good vacation these days, and all of that can be found in Pago.

Going over, my checked bag weighed 7 kilos (14 or 15 pounds? probably half of which was the bag itself – I brought maybe two shirts, a skirt, and my toothbrush and toothpaste – oh, and Chacos, that’ll do it), but coming home it weighed 36 pounds. Purchases included: running clothes (best investment ever), a few other clothing items, cat food (ridiculously cheap in Pago compared to Samoa), ranch dressing (same), and what felt like a million pounds of chocolate bars to share among my families and teachers.

I kept alternating between expecting to see America in American Samoa and Samoa in American Samoa. In many ways it is very American. The money is American, the post office gives domestic rates, and in case you haven’t heard, you can stay at hotels that have FREE WI-FI! That doesn’t even exist in Australia – I have always had to pay for internet in the Pacific. At one point while riding the bus, we passed a beautiful picnic-y beach area. Tons of people were playing in the water, there were two or three volleyball games going, and people barbecuing off to the side. That scene overall felt very “American summer” to me. That feeling was encouraged by the signs all over the place advertising “back to school” sales and specials. Oh ya, this is the US where they start the school year in August. On paper, it’s very American – US laws, money, schedules, etc, but everything else is still very Samoan. Hotels and restaurants advertised for fiafia nights, gift shops displayed all kinds of traditional crafts, and lavalavas and ava were everywhere. Everything was really lax. The airport in Pago was smaller than the airport in Samoa, and we didn’t even go through a security scanner before we got on the plane. We were allowed to take full-size open water bottles that still had ¾ of the water in them onto the plane (and this was under US law that we got away with this). Throughout my 3 days there, I kept thinking “I wonder if anybody in the States realizes that we have such a unique culture as part of our country?” and then I remembered that Pago is a territory of the US, not an actual state.

Maybe it’s because I was only in Pago for 3 days, or maybe it’s because I was expecting to see both distinctly American and Samoan aspects of the country, but I didn’t see much blending of the two. At times it was just like home (US) and at times it was just like home (Samoa), but it never really felt like both of them together. It would take a lot more time and a lot more interpersonal interaction to begin to see how much each of the cultures influence each other. Does gossiping follow more closely the social norms of Samoa, where it’s out in the open all the time, or the States, where it’s all behind backs? Who has power, how much, and why? How do the schools work (the buildings and uniforms look exactly the same as Samoa, are the actual classes closer to US classes or Samoan classes)? What does friendship look like? Are all the soles as cheeky in Pago as they are in Samoa? It would have been great to stay there longer and see what everyday life is like, but I’ve learned that I’m not so good at taking my own vacations. I loathe spending money, and three days was just about perfect to get enough restaurant food, shopping, and chocolate without overdoing it. But I could see myself living in Pago. There’s still a lot I’d have to get used to, but it’s at least familiar on all levels, and I’ve always said my ideal weather would be 85 and sunny all year.

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