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Ducking jets in American Samoa


The big Hawaiian Jet whooshed over us just seconds before setting down on the end of the runway, and the wind displacement that immediately followed almost knocked us off the wall.  Just a minute ago we had been standing on this rock wall in total darkness, swatting mosquitoes and facing the long runway just beyond the ten foot chain-link fence in front of us.  We could barely see the terminal lights at the other end when suddenly the colorful surface lights turned on, illuminating the path.  A few seconds later the strobes came on and we pivoted around to see the giant bird descending directly toward us, it’s headlights blinding.  It’s a small thrill, and make no mistake: it IS a thrill to see this Boeing 767 jetting toward you, as if you are it’s target.  And understanding precision instrumentation doesn’t dull the amazement of this big-ass airplane flying across thousands of miles of water to land precisely on this little island, and then slow itself soon enough not to continue into the Pacific just beyond that last terminal gate.

If you’re living on this American territory in the middle of the great Pacific, you know that “watching the plane come in” is more than a 60s sitcom entertainment.  You’re living, even temporarily, on the island of American Samoa, 2500 miles southwest of Honolulu, closer to Australia than the US mainland.  The really cool thing is that you can avoid those extremely long airline jaunts from California to Australia or New Zealand by island hopping a bit through the Samoas – shorter flights and much to experience.  And like the 767 you have to cool your jets quickly – you’re definitely out of the fast lane here!

My partner and I hopped off the wall and drove the five miles on a poor road to the terminal where island girls were selling fresh flower leis.  We bought a plumeria lei for our friend, Barbara, who walked through the immigration/baggage section door moments later, wearing a poorly tied orange sarong over her khaki pants.  We pushed through the crowd that always welcomes the Hawiian flight to welcome our friend and help her with her luggage and her drifting sarong.

My partner and I are staying at the Sadie Thompson Inn overlooking the great Pago Pago Harbor.  It’s a deep U-shaped harbor where you might see tuna boats, cargo ships, sailing yachts, fishing boats, traditional long boats and occasionally, a cruise ship.  It is over 300 feet deep, protected by the jagged rain forest peaks around it, and was particularly useful during World War II.  The Inn where we are staying is comfortably aged with twice-weekly Fia Fia nights, featuring local talent and traditional Polynesian and fire dancing shows.  Once we have exited the airport parking lot we drive around the coastal road to the Inn, moving no more than 30 mph because of the poor roads and because, after all, we are living on island time.  We leave the car windows down to enjoy the nighttime breeze and the wonderful singing from the Samoan family in the pick-up truck bed ahead of us.

Barbara has asked us to show her American Samoa, and with only two days we concentrate on the main island of Tutuilla.  Our first day includes a ride in an Aiga bus, breakfast at the Deluxe Café in Nu’uli, and a tour of the western end of the island.   We enjoy cruising through the traditional island villages with their thatched pavilions, called “fales” and a prolonged visit to Sliding Rock, a huge piece of horizontal, volcanic shale that is always wet and fun to slide on, surf-like or on the bum.  There is a blowhole here, a natural hot tub and clear water full of colorful fish.  This is also a terrific spot for surfers with a challenging entry point.

Our afternoon includes a return through the interior of the island, past the community college, around the harbor road with a lunch stop at Mom’s Place and a brief rest at the hotel.  We then pack swimwear and drive in the opposite direction past Charlie the Tuna and eastward.  After twenty minutes of curvy island coast we find Tisa’s Barefoot Bar and Grill and walk down the sandy steps to a driftwood bar and dining deck.  Two more steps and we are spending a couple hours on postcard perfect Alega beach. We snorkel the great reef; we kayak the half-moon bay; and we later dine on fresh caught fish and vegetables served on banana leaves.  Our hostess, a Polynesian beauty and savvy businesswoman, glides through the crowd in her traditional sarong, taking time to help Barbara tie hers securely – finally, and makes sure we are enjoying the moment.  (It’s also possible to get a fabulous tattoo if Tisa’s brother is around.)  We drive back to Sadie’s for a restful night, awakening to roosters crowing and a busy harbor.

On Day Two we breakfast at the hotel and ask for a prepared lunch before driving a few blocks to the National Park Office and deciding on a day of discovery in the American Samoa National Park.  We then drive across the mountains to parkland and remote villages, hiking, photographing incredible views, collecting coral, and a beach picnic. We arrive back at the hotel for a rest and cleanup before having dinner ten minutes away and up a steep drive to Fale Pule, feasting on gourmet cuisine while gazing at another view of the harbor below and the sea beyond.

Barbara and I will fly together in the morning to Apia on Samoa, sixty miles away, and actually a fun little half hour flight.  After two days on that delightful island, she will continue on to Tonga and Australia, and I will return to Pago.   Barbara, now sarong savvy, contemplates the straw market!

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