Friday, April 30, 2010

The “Twilight Zone” is real?!?

I have vacation days I must use before the beginning of June (PC rules say we can’t take vacation within the last 3 months of service). I wanted to go somewhere, just didn’t know where. Tonga, Cook Islands, and Tokelau all sounded interesting but expensive or not easy to get to. So I decided to take the quick, cheap vacation to American Samoa.

Day 1 - Monday
The plane you fly on is a 19 seater prop plane and it wasn’t full at all. I haven’t flown on a prop plane since I was a little kid and my dad flew a tiny little plane here and there. I got to sit right behind the pilots; with a prop plane that small I felt like Indian Jones in Temple of Doom, luckily the pilots decided to not ditch the aircraft and leave the passengers to fend for ourselves (although I would like to try skydiving someday). The flight only takes 30 minutes and the view is nothing but open ocean. I kept looking for something cool like a whale or dolphins, nothing but white caps. As we came into land I saw the gorgeous mountains. They are steep and dramatic, much prettier than in Samoa in my opinion. There is no fringing reef (or at least not much) around Tutuila so the water gets deep really quickly and crashes into shallow coves or right on to rocky out croppings.

We landed and took the five minutes to get through customs/immigration/baggage claim (it’s not a busy airport). I rented a car at the airport for my 4 days. Oh the feeling of driving! Such bliss!! I then started out on my vacation.

I remember growing up watching the old episodes of “Twilight Zone.” I very much enjoyed this old show and the crazy possibilities the writers always came up with. Going to American Samoa was just like an episode of the “Twilight Zone”…it’s America, but Samoa.

I drove past Carl’s Jr/Green Burrito, KFC, & Pizza Hut and noted those were places I must eat at before I left. I’ve never been to Carl’s Jr back in the States; they aren’t in my neck of the woods, but I’ve heard about them from other PCVs who have been. I ended up watching baseball on ESPN while eating a chicken burrito, yum! I drove past the movie theater, high schools, and Ace Hardware. I enjoyed seeing the yellow school buses (both regular size and short bus mind you). The thing which took me a minute to figure out was the buses which went all over the island. They are loud in speaker volume and in paint job just like here in Western Samoa, but looked odd. At first glance they are the same wooden buses as in Samoa, but the front grill was really low and I couldn’t figure out why. I then got a good look and realized the engines were those of Dodge or Ford trucks, the big Ram or F-150 types, and the wooden frame was built on top of the truck base.

I enjoyed driving down the single road to Pago Pago, taking in the coastline as we curved with the natural features of the rugged island. I got into the harbour and marveled at its beauty. Pago Pago harbor is a natural harbor, made from the collapsed caldera of a volcano. The water is blue-green/turquoise and boats of all types are anchored in the harbor. I drove past the US Post Office and police station, past the 2nd McDonalds on the island (yes, you read correctly, there are 2 McDonalds on Tutuila), the Bank of Hawaii, and several restaurants.

I’m not allowed to drive a car while a Peace Corps Volunteer unless I’m on vacation. So I haven’t driven in a while and it has been even longer since I’ve driven on the right side of the road. It is just like riding a bike though. I only had one issue and that was a roundabout. It wasn’t the roundabout which was the problem, it was the direction. I’m so used to driving left around them that if it hadn’t been for a sign indicating I should drive right around it I most likely would have gone left. But no worries, all was ok, no accidents whatsoever.

I drove all the way out to the eastern side of the island that day. I drove past the tuna canneries. The Star-Kist tuna cannery somewhat remind me of the Del Monte banana packaging plant in Costa Rica, not really impressive but produces a lot of goods. I drove through the tiny villages and noted all the western style houses, only a few open Samoan houses. The beaches were beautiful, palm trees and rocky shoreline. I drove all the way until the road ended, turned around and saw it all again. I enjoyed my first look at the islands.


Day 2 - Tuesday
I got up early and went to the National Park of American Samoa. I drove up the mountain and down at about a 45° angle, a little steep. I hiked a little trail which led out to really nice point with a great view. No one was around, just me and the birds. I was surprised to see a frog! There aren’t any frogs here in Samoa, but in American Samoa there are bunches. I was shocked to see it. It reminded me of when I went to Fiji with the girls and we were so enamored by all the frogs there that people probably thought we were weird for being so obsessed with the frogs.

I drove further into the park to do another hiking trail. This was a short trail and took me to a beach. The waves crashed on the rocky beach and to the left was a large rock face with a bunch of arches carved out from the waves. Birds were all around in the jungle above. There are so many white rumped swiftlets around. Driving through the village near this trail I saw people doing exactly what people do in rural villages here in Samoa…play cards, sit around and chat, and wait for buses.


I then drove to Cost U Less. Oh the wonderful smell of bulk goods, large appliances, and patio furniture!! Cost U Less is basically Costco or Sam’s Club. I bought some food and wished I had brought a bigger bag in which to take more back to Samoa. I caught a movie that afternoon as well, of course enjoying “The Backup Plan” with some “Raisinets.”

On the drive home I realized how much I miss driving. There is nothing like the freedom of being behind the wheel of a car, belting out (off key naturally) the words (or what you think are the words) to a song. One thing that struck me is the courteousness of the drivers; they let people out into traffic a lot more than in the US. That being said it is a good thing the speed limit is at most 25 miles an hour, pulling out into traffic when one should not is rampant, glad the brakes on the rental car were good.

Day 3 – Wednesday

I hiked in the National Park again this day. I drove up the Fagasa Pass and hiked up Mt. Alava. The trail was 7 miles roundtrip and I did it in 3 hours 54 minutes (including 40 minutes at the top for pictures, water, and banana chips). The trail was rated moderately strenuous and I believe that. At first it isn’t so bad, then come the rocky inclines which go on for a couple hundred feet. The views are amazing! If you go to American Samoa and enjoy hiking, take advantage of all the trails, you will not be disappointed.

I was the only hiker in the park that day (and yes I know Mom, I shouldn’t hike by myself but what’s a girl to do when she has no one to go with? I’m not missing out on a great time). It was just me and the birds, and the several lizards I startled by tramping through their turf. Lots of species call the mountains home. Most numerous are the white rumped swiftlets. I saw some pigeons and a couple of purple swamphens as well. I saw tadpoles hanging out in a puddle at the top of the mountain.

At the top of Mt. Alava, all 1,610 feet above sea level, there is a cable car station. The cable car no longer runs, but it is fun to see the wires and gears. There is also a tower for tv broadcasts up there too (that is still in operation). From the top, you get great views of the harbour, Rainmaker Mountain, and Mt. Matafao (the highest point on Tutuila). The view is breathtaking. Again, if you go to American Samoa and you like hiking/nature, hike up the mountain. It’s a lot of fun.


After the hike I drove til the road ended in Western Tutuila. Those roads would make any West Virginian proud…steep, curvy, mountain passes. I had a blast winding my way to no where. I went past more beautiful coves and rocky shorelines, past deep drop offs and very nearly ran into a school bus (had to back up so the bus could pull forward so then I could go forward).

I went past Leone and some of the tsunami affected villages. These villages still look pretty bad. Still lots of rubble and plenty of people are still living in tents or shacks. I hope they can get back on their feet soon.

I drove past a high school practicing football. And not the football I work with everyday, but good old American gridiron. I also saw a bus which was marine themed; I tried to take a picture, but could never get a shot.

Day 4 – Thursday
Last day of vacation. I ate a pancake breakfast at Sadie’s Café. The restaurant was nice, I recommend it. The pancakes were a cross between American and Samoan pancakes, kind of odd. They weren’t as light and fluffy as American pancakes, but tried really hard to be, yet looked more like Samoan pancakes. This probably makes no sense, but if you had seen them you’d understand. The half-breed pancakes were good by either standard.

I wasted some more time driving around and doing not much of anything. I bought some more stuff and managed to find a spot for it in my suitcase. I went to KFC for lunch and watched CSI as I enjoyed my chicken and more importantly…the buttery biscuit. I returned the car and sat under the “Big Ass Fan” I kid you not, this was the brand of the fan. I watched ESPN and awaited my departure. My Twilight Zone experience was coming to an end. But not before going through immigration and straight to the plane. No bag check whatsoever. This made me laugh. I’m not sure if TSA has jurisdiction in American Samoa, but if they do they probably wouldn’t be happy at the non-existent security screening. Even the little Fagali’i airport here in Samoa did a little inspection of luggage. Oh well, they know all people want to do when going from American Samoa to Samoa is smuggle in bulk goods from Cost U Less anyway.

So ended the “Twilight Zone” experience. I drank as much “Mountain Dew” and root beer that I could find, especially root beer, I’m kind of addicted…it’s like crack. Spending the US dollar but hearing people speak Samoan was odd. I didn’t notice as many lavalavas as here in Samoa, much more Western style clothing even out in the rural villages. People in rural villages still wave at a palagi driving by. Seeing a high school practicing football was just bizarre, haven’t seen football in person in a while. Sending a package from a US post office was a fun little experience too…I felt like I was home. Watching American TV was of course amazing! I ate a bagel with cream cheese!!

The experience was weird…Samoa, yet America. But I think it made me finally get excited about going home. Up until this point I didn’t think I was ready. I didn’t really want to stay here in Samoa, but didn’t want to go home either (that’s not really a good predicament to be in). After being in American Samoa I think I’m ready to go home. I’m going to freak out over really stupid things and get excited about things I wouldn’t normally get excited over, so much that I’ll probably embarrass whoever I’m with, but that is part of the fun too.

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