Fifth of seven parts
One day on Tutuila was enough to convince us to search elsewhere for the Samoan culture. We soon found it in the Manu'a Islands grouping within the territory, about 60 miles east of Tutuila. These are the islands of Ofu, Olosega (connected with Ofu by a bridge) and Ta'u.
When I first became interested in visiting American Samoa, I had contacted the National Park of American Samoan via e-mail on the Internet at NPSA_Administrator@nps.gov. The response had indicated the possibility of assistance with accommodations in the national park areas. There is now a web page about the program: www.nps.npsa/homestay.
St. John resident John Garrison, executive director of the Friends of the V.I. National Park, attended a national coral reefs conference in American Samoa last summer and returned to St. John shortly before we left. I contacted him, and he assured me American Samoa was a step back in time and well worth the trip. He also encouraged me to contact the National Park Service.
At the Pago Pago National Park Visitor Center on Tutuila, my wife and I we were shown an interesting collection of artifacts and a videotape of the territory's pristine reefs and beaches. Fortunately, the park superintendent was in, and we were able to chat. Learning that he had served in the Peace Corps, we shared stories about our experiences with Peace Corp volunteers when we worked in the Kingdom of Swaziland. Finally, he introduced us to a young Samoan named Tamara.
It appeared that Tamara was just beginning to put her finishing touches on a "home stay" program for visitors that had been in the works for some time. The program matches visitors interested in adventure travel with Samoan families who serve as their hosts. The visitors become members of the family for a couple of days and participate in various facets of village life. Tamara had just returned from visiting the first perspective hosts and was in the process of developing a guidebook. Since we had lived in the African bush and were familiar with subsistence living conditions, we were offered the opportunity to be the first participants in the program.
We would have a bed and sort of private room in our hosts' home, but would eat and work with the family. Some homes offered guests a private toilet; others required sharing the facilities with the family. None had hot water for bathing. The program sounded interesting to us, and we signed up for three days with a family on Ofu, two days with another on Olosega, and three days with a third on Ta'u in the village of Faleasao.
Tamara made a couple of telephone calls, and we were set for the home stays. The real hurdle turned out to be obtaining a seat on Samoa Air. There is a boat from Tutuila to the Manu'a Islands every now and then, but Samoa Air has two flights a day. However, the small planes are generally filled with island residents, family and consumer items — especially food.
Requesting two seats for Friday, I was notified there were none available then and only wait-listing for Thursday and Saturday. Finally, I got a reservation for Sunday. On Thursday, after my wife talked to a Samoan acquaintance who called Samoa Air, we were advised to stand by for the Friday morning flight.
We arrived at the airport at 5 a.m. along with some 20 other people. When I checked with the agent, I found we actually had two seats and was advised to go to the office and purchase my tickets. The next hurdle was a lack of credit card slips in the Samoa Air office. Fortunately, cash conquers all, and we have learned to carry a sizable amount when traveling uncharted waters.
We returned to the check-in counter, where a Samoan lady took our tickets and gave them to the agent. We later learned she was our hostess and was bumped off the flight as she was bringing a great deal of merchandise for her store. Her son had broken his arm, and it had been set at the Pago Pago hospital. He went on the flight with us, as did another gentlemen we later learned was to be our host on Faleasao.
Arriving at Ofu, we were met by our host for that island in his 4-wheel drive vehicle. Tau wore a colorful lava lava — the Samoan man's traditional wrap-around garment tied at the waist — and a T-shirt. He is a matai, which is a government-registered position as head of an extended family, a type of chief. Tau played football in California and was a tile setter in Hawaii before returning to his family property on Ofu. His uncle runs the Vaoto Lodge on Ofu, one of the few tourist-quality accommodations in the territory.
Tau drove us along the coast, through the community, and up around the mountain to his plantation. The 30-minute trip was a tour of fairyland: crystal waters, an extensive inner reef, multiple lava outcroppings within and at the edge of the inner reef, and ferns, taro, coconut, breadfruit, mango and assorted other trees. Cliffs dropped from the heights to the sea, and everything was surrounded by azure waters with foaming white surf.
We passed a community elder working in his taro patch, chopping away. His shirt had worked itself up and his pants down, exposing extensive torso tattooing. Once we thought to look for it, we realized that most Samoans seemed to have some body tattooing and that the practice was very much a part of fa'asamoa, "the Samoan way."
On Ofu, we had a private bedroom, as did Tau and his wife, Ruta. Their sons, Jonathan and Joshua, along with several Samoan relatives who worked in the house, on the plantation, and in the store, slept in the living room on palm mats wrapped in a sheet with a pillow for a headrest. We all shared one modern bathroom which, as promised, had hot water. The shower was a half-inch pipe with a plastic cap which had several holes punched in it. It was most adequate and refreshing.
The community was built on a narrow shelf of land between the rugged slopes of the mountain and the sea. It appeared to me the Manu'a Islands are actually the edge of a huge volcano which blew up eons ago leaving them as remnants. There is a wonderful lava mound or hill next to the beach on Ofu. When the tide moves in and out, it scours a deep pool between the rock and the beach, resulting in one of the most picturesque community swimming pools you could ever imagine.
We could have spent our mornings on Ofu working on the plantation and the nights fishing, but we didn't. Instead we spent the days reading, swimming, walking, and adjusting to a pace of life which we had totally lost sight of — if we ever experienced it. At the end of our three remarkable days learning to accept fa'asamoa, Tau drove us, via the connecting bridge, to the next island on our itinerary — Olosega.
Next: Total relaxation in the land of flying foxes and commitment to an imported church
ISLAND HOPPING: OFU, MANU'A ISLANDS
Fifth of seven parts
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