Visiting the Parks: National Park of American Samoa Isn't Easy to Get To, But the Trek is Definitely Worth It
The still life of the beach was like many others – rocks and shells, flotsam and jetsam. But the view! I had just emerged from a tree-shaded walk and stood on a rocky beach with waves pounding the beach not 20 feet away. In every direction I could see ocean, or tree-covered hills, and what I couldn’t see was any sign of man. This was part of the National Park of American Samoa.
The drive from Pago Pago, over Fagasa Pass, had been beautiful. Mountains, bays, flowers – so much natural beauty, and from up high you could see forever out to sea. Once through the village of Vatia, we followed an unimproved forest road from the village on to the furthest point, where we found what has to be the National Park Service’s smallest parking lot. In truth, it was just a clearing in the trees large enough for a couple of cars and an NPS parking sign.
It was definitely the “end of the road.” From there we walked through the lush, green rainforest along a path for a few dozen yards to the rocky beach. Despite the continual self-composting brown underfoot, the prevalent scent I inhaled was from the ocean mist, not the decomposition. From that beach there is actually a rocky path along the cliffs towards Pola Island, also known as ‘cockscomb.’ I wasn’t quite up for it, but our friends – a local Samoan couple and their children – enjoyed it as an easy trek.
This bit of paradise is just past Vatia on the map, and the start of extensive and wild national park lands wrapping around the north side of the main island of Tutuila. The village of Vatia is but a finger’s breadth cross-country on the map away from the population center of Pago Pago, yet enough of a drive around the mountain that my host’s wife had never been there. The pictures I brought back, some of which accompany this article, hardly do the natural beauty justice.
These lands of the National Park of American Samoa are about the furthest flung from the rest of the National Park System. The only unit of the Park Service that is located south of the equator, the park is approximately 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, 1,800 miles this side of New Zealand, and is found between Tahiti and Fiji. Flights to or from Hawaii are only twice a week – three times a week during the school summer break.
Still Recovering From the Tsunami
The old park visitor center sustained significant damage from the tsunami of 2009 and the park is progressing well in its recovery, as is the rest of the territory. The old visitor center was at the base of Pago Pago Harbor, where the force of the incoming waves was channeled for maximum effect. Museum artifacts and documents from the first floor of the facility were severely damaged or washed out to sea.
Throughout the island the devastation was terrible. There was a tragic loss of life and in some areas of Tutuila families are still living in desert colored FEMA tents today, awaiting reconstruction of their fale’s [houses].
My wife and I were in Honolulu last October, shortly after the tsunami. She was there working for the Park Service and I was on vacation. While local artists in Samoa were able to restore some artifacts, the wooden artifacts in the collection were evacuated by military airlift to Pearl Harbor along with 11 waterlogged and contaminated filing cabinets full of park documents and archives. My wife – a museum curator - was pulled from a routine paperwork project to support the expert paper and wood object conservators that arrived from the NPS Conservation Center at Harper’s Ferry.
The wooden objects are part of the park’s collection of Samoan cultural artifacts; carved storyboards, kava bowls, talking sticks, and decorative carvings were among the items sent to Honolulu. World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument has a curatorial facility at Pearl Harbor – their staff hosted the remote recovery efforts and provided significant assistance to the conservation team. After the wooden artifacts were cleaned and repaired, they were held at the Pearl Harbor facility until they could be returned to NPSA.
In June of this year my wife, along with another curator from a Hawaiian park, couriered the conserved artifacts back to Samoa from Pearl Harbor. The return of the artifacts was announced in the news when they were welcomed back into Samoan hands. I scheduled vacation to share some of the experience with her. Mike Reynolds, superintendent of NPSA, and his entire park staff couldn’t have been more welcoming and accommodating.
The temporary visitor center and administrative offices for NPSA are currently in Ottoville, near the airport and half an hour drive from Pago Pago. The Ottoville site is much further from most of the park lands than the old visitor center. A series of staggered plans are being made to move to a more functional temporary facility that will be more centrally located, while further and more permanent plans are being made.
A Territory Amid the United States
The territorial government of American Samoa has a unique relationship with the United States. Residents carry American passports and are proud to be well-represented in both the U.S military as well as throughout professional sports in the United States. At the same time there is a fierce pride of fa’a Samoa – ‘the Samoan way.’ Very encompassing as a term, fa’a Samoa includes a strong family and community structure, pride in the Samoa language and culture, and other traditions of responsibility and behavior. Modesty, courtesy, and respect are all key parts of this. At times one can see apparently incongruous combinations of the traditional and the modern. The growing pains of this mix are part of the everyday experience in Samoa.
As a fairly free-spirited child of the '60s, I had been warned by many websites during my pre-trip research that I would have to respect the more conservative mores of the Samoan way – such as, for example, wearing a T-shirt when swimming in the ocean, out of modesty. I’m not a very modest fellow, but I observed this courtesy out of respect. Later, a Samoan friend told me that no one would actually correct me for violating this custom, as their correction of me would be seen to be as rude as my immodesty had been.
Nearly all activity on the entire island is scheduled with a core of Sunday being a day for family, church, and community activities. Other ways that the Samoan way manifested were in the news, where entire villages took part in the correction of misdemeanor offenders, or the amazing ifoga tradition of families formally seeking and granting forgiveness when terrible crimes have been done by one member of the family.
So Far Away, But Worth The Effort
Distance and physical isolation alone tend to limit the visitors to National Park of American Samoa, although every day of my two-week visit I saw visitors from both the United States as well as from other nations.
Park Superintendent Mike Reynolds says that among his visitors are a dozen or so each year who come specifically to ‘finish’ their tour of the 58 "national parks" or 392 Park Service units.
I must say that I’m quite proud of my rarely obtained National Park Passport NPSA stamp. With any closer proximity to the U.S. mainland the culture and beauty of this park would make it a highly visited site. A unique feature of NPSA is that none of the 10,000+ acres of parkland are owned by the park or the U.S. government. Instead, under the traditional communal ownership of fa’a Samoa, the lands are under long-term lease from the village chiefs.
It is impossible to visit NPSA without immersion in the people, culture, and daily life of American Samoa itself. Visitors will find that their non-Samoan cell phones probably will not work there. The speed limit for cars on the entire island is 25 mph. Everything which you encounter will be slower than you are used to on the mainland, and I found this to be exactly what I needed.
It was tremendously refreshing to find out how to wear a lava lava, the ubiquitous wrap-around garment worn by both men and women. I found that the more I wore this comfortable garment, the more smiles I got from the Samoans I met. Strangers would walk past me and comment, “Nice lava lava,” as thanks for embracing their culture. Similarly, my riding the buses, eating the local food, learning a few words of basic Samoan language – all were well received. You come to realize that everyone you smile and wave at as you drive around Samoa will be smiling and waving back at you. Without a doubt, the Samoan people I met were the friendliest people I’ve encountered in a well-traveled life.
The buses are family owned and run from dawn to dusk. Each is homemade on the original chassis of a small pick-up truck, and colorfully decorated according to the whims of the family. They each play reggae over loudspeakers. A simple wave of the hand gets them to stop for you and when it is time to get off just knock your knuckles on the seat or window. Each trip costs a buck, generally dropped onto a carpeted dashboard, and it is by far the best way to get around. I usually had the impression that I was the only person on the bus that didn’t know everyone else on the bus. Don’t be surprised if the bus takes a side trip without announcement for a few blocks to ensure that a child or elder gets home.
There is not a lot of hotel lodging on the island of Tutuila, and none on the island of Ta’u, but the Park Service participates with and encourages a home stay program. There is a lot of information about this highly recommended program at the NPSA website, and I would suggest emailing directly to the park management to personally negotiate details.
We did not home stay, but we were honored to be invited for a formal Sunday midday meal with a Samoan family that we had become close with. On arrival we were greeted formally, given flower and bead lei’s, and brought in to meet be introduced to an elder in the extended family home who is a high chief.
It was obvious that a lot of effort had been put into preparing the home, to show us respect. My wife and I sat on the draped sofas with our friend and the chief. Through the interpretation of our friend, the chief talked with us at some length of his life, the work he has done to ensure that generations following him had better education than he, and his observations on Samoan life. When served, there were just the four of us at the table while other younger adult members of the family served or fanned us.
I had been told that the children had previously eaten and the rest of the family was to eat after the honored guests left. I tried to sample each of the platters but the table was totally filled with dish after dish. Soups, various fish, chicken dishes, vegetables, and all so very good. I never learned what the fish was – someone had gone into the ocean and caught something. After the meal we returned to the sofa for a gift exchange with the chief. This meal and the experience with the family elder was a high point of our entire visit to the territory.
This trip we were not able to visit the other islands beyond Tutuila that include park land. Transportation was simply not available – a local inter-island airline that you might find mentioned in older websites no longer serves Ofu. It is Ofu, according to everything that I’ve been able to read or ask, that has some of the most beautiful beaches and the best snorkeling in the world, the pristine nature of which is preserved by its very remoteness. We are determined to see it on a future visit.
There is much more to the Samoan experience and to the richness of the National Park of American Samoa than I was able to put into this article. Feasts, people, customs, vistas, tattoos, and even flying fruit bats. I’ll try to write again, perhaps after the next trip.
Tofa soifua! [Farewell]
Traveler footnote: Rick, knowing the odds were highly against Traveler Editor Kurt Repanshek making the sojourn to Samoa, was kind enough to mail him a postcard with the park's passport cancellation.