Until you sat in a college friend’s dorm and listened to George Carlin making a joke about Pago Pago, you had no idea such a place existed. Nor did you expect to be flying to it today, or learning that the United States owns it – American Samoa, the only US territory south of the Equator, a miniscule 76 square miles comprised of five, rocky volcanic islands. The flight from Honolulu was miserably long, and you’ve been awake for most of the night, but it’s time to smell the salt air.
Though simply the pride of saying you’ve been to a place named Pago Pago is pretty impressive, the reason for your visit is actually another accidental discovery: that the US National Park Service maintains a park in American Samoa, and you have the opportunity to see it. Sure, getting there is a nightmare, but more than worth it for the sunrise view as the plane makes its final approach to the single runway of Pago Pago International Airport. An hour later, you step onto the rattiest, privately-owned tour bus you’ve ever seen and prepare for a jolting ride down narrow streets, straight through Pago Pago and out to the peripheral village of Fagatogo. The bus abruptly deposits you in the market place, a wash of women in colorful outfits and children playing the way they still should in the states – with soccer balls and sticks. You have a boat to catch, which will take you out towards the remotest corners of the park to your home for three days – a coastal hut facing east on the second-most distant island in the chain.
While living in a completely primitive hut for three days isn’t what many could consider a good vacation, this one will be different. After years of busying yourself with pots and pans and vacuuming carpets, it’ll be nice to simply pick the lizards off the rickety plastic table, set them on the porch, and go back to your travel book about the history of the area. One beach, for example, has sufficient archeological evidence to prove more than 3,000 years of continuous habitation. That’s near Ofu beach, and you intend to see it when your boat guide Peter, who speaks excellent English (and only charges 11 dollars a day) motors his canoe around that side of that island tomorrow. Later in the day he will teach you to snorkel, and after years of taking photos of people and plants, you’ll be using an underwater camera to capture the most brilliant clown fish you’ve ever seen – erratically swimming through the rocks in the azure waters. In fact, under the water is more beautiful than above it. The colors are truly stunning.
What’s so amazing is that even though the Pacific is known for its fierce storms and unpredictable currents, this little clump of islands is remarkably calm. Pete (as he insists on being called) navigates small swells expertly, keeping the bow in the waves and chugging along with an antique outboard engine you pray won’t quit. Though the sea life scatters at the sound of the propellers, peering over the front, they haven’t heard the sound in the water just yet and you’re treated to a myriad of small fish, tiny sharks, jellyfish, and clouds of sand that indicate a ray just fled the scene. You’ll undoubtedly see one this afternoon when you get in the water. There’s no rush out here. There’s a bright blue sky, a deep blue sea, banana trees on the beach, and Pete won’t even let you carry your own bag. This is home to him, and he loves it. He’s excited to introduce somebody else to it.
You chug through the water towards your island hut. Once your bags are delivered and you’re changed into more tropical attire, you have a paradise to explore…
After two days out in the water, with Pete sailing you around the islands, you figured a day at the market on Fagotogo would be a nice relief from peering over the front of a small dugout canoe and floating in the shallows. Besides this, the more you ask Pete about the area and the culture, the more you wanted to see it, too, not just tropical fish, and the volcanic islands and azure water. Instead of sailing that day, he'd pick you up from your hut at 9AM and transport you back to town. As much as you hated to do it, you needed to get a couple souvenirs for people. You'd promised.
On the way back, you asked Pete more about how he found himself supporting the tourist trade. "Well," he sort of paused, "I grew up fishing with my dad, but he got tired of the water and only barely making enough to pay for fuel and a little food to put on the table. When he decided to give me the business and do other things, I refitted the boat for touring. I still get out on the water, I still see the fish, and these islands, and the water. I love it out here; and I love showing it to people."
It made sense. This was home, and he loved it. You asked a little about his family. He and his wife, Belga, had been married for fifteen years. It would have been at 18 if her father had allowed it, but he made them both wait. "You need a better job," her dad had insisted. When he started the tourism bit, Belga's father had relented. He’d waited five years for her, and it was worth it. They now had 5 children; the eldest being a 15 year old son (who Pete occasionally enlisted for extra help with large tour groups), and four younger siblings ranging from 8 to 12. When they weren't in school, they were raising holy hell around the house and in the surrounding streets. They sounded like normal kids.
"Can I meet your family?" you asked. It seemed more interesting than hunting for souvenirs - and more meaningful.
"Nobody's asked me that before," he remarked, surprised. "But yes, that would be nice. Certainly. Would you join us for lunch today then?" You immediately agreed.
As you stepped off the dugout, Pete, as usual, grabbed your bag and wouldn't let you carry it, despite your protestations. It's just what he did. "Follow me," he said, and you could see a bounce in his step...
Despite it being him that was carrying your bag, it still seemed like a long walk. You humped past the marketplace, which didn't really look that interesting anymore. You could stop for souvenirs some other time. Pete's family would be more memorable, and far more interesting that trinkets probably made in China anyway. Thirty minutes later, after wending through dirty, mud streets and through rows of ramshackle homes, you arrived at his. Four barefoot children were kicking a soccer ball off the walls and between each other in the street. A curious aroma of something spicy greets you from inside their small shack. It can't be more than four rooms - which you quickly confirm when you walk in. There's a main bedroom, a kitchen, a common area and one final bedroom. That's it. The seven of them all lived there...
You meet Belga, who is a plump happy woman adorned in bright colors and singing to herself as she bustles over a gas stove and a mess of ancient pots. You have no idea what she's cooking, but it smells fantastic, and it looks like it goes with the rice. You ask if you can help, but she shoos you out of the kitchen. “My dear, I cook for a crowd every day!” This will be good.
Silea, his eldest son, is a bit shy, but warms up quickly when you ask him about helping his father out on the water. "Yes! I got out sometimes, in the other boat. My father takes the rich people, but I get to take the curious people. I show them places even HE doesn't know about. Like the shallows along the far island where all the starfish and urchins are at low tide. The water turns gold in the sunsets." You see Pete smile, like maybe he does know about it, but he lets Silea THINK it's his special find. Let him have his fun.
As Silea gets called to help Belga in the kitchen, Pete introduces you to the rest of the children, who have been peering in the open door frame, their faces set in curiosity. You quickly forget the names, since they're fairly long and not like any language you've ever heard before. But they're eager to play soccer with you, and they're surprised that you actually know HOW to play. They thought all Americans played either football or hockey, which you explain is actually more of a Canadian sport. Before long, you, too, are barefoot in the street and running after a ball you're convinced they kicked poorly just to watch you chase it. It's still a great experience.
As Pete calls everybody in for dinner and you pull up benches and a few rickety chairs to the table, the most amazing thing happens. For the first time since you've met them, the children all quiet down. They all hold hands, quickly grab yours, as well, and Pete says a blessing, in his native tongue. Somewhat confused, you just listen...but then he repeats it in English. It was beautiful; a prayer to bless the food, the hands that prepared it, and the guest who honored them with her presence. It was touching, to say the least, and heartening to learn that you're among Christian brethren.
As you had anticipated, the rice dish was amazing. It tasted like curried fish served in a red sauce over rice. It also made your nose run a little, but spicy food is better when there's a bit of a zing to it. Dessert was some unidentifiable tropical fruit, though you can't pronounce the name of it and they didn't know the Anglicized word for it. It tasted like a mango, but less juicy, sweeter, with a hint of pomegranate scent to it. But it was yellow, not orange or red. Very sweet, too... After eating, you had to fight the urge to roll up in the corner for a nap.
As the table was cleared, the children were tugging at your shirt again to go back to soccer outside. Today was a Saturday, so there was no school. Silea told his father he was going to go out with friends and disappeared, and Belga kicked you out of the kitchen while she cleaned up.
After a little time with the children, you figure that you'd give Pete a break. Rather than motor back out to the island and your cabana that night, you'd just walk back to the market (it was a pretty straight shot), and meet him in the morning at the harbor. You had some shopping to do. Since Fagotogo was the staging point to the islands, you'd just stay at one of the many hotels in town. Pete assured you there were at least five.
At the market, most everything looked like trinkets, and more or less confirmed your hunch that it was all made elsewhere. But, you promised a souvenir for your family, so you settle on a stone chessboard with "hand carved" pieces. You assumed they were made in China, but they still looked nice. Of the many sets, the one made in shades of grey was most interesting. There was a dark grey side, a light grey side, and the board was checkered red and gray. It was intricate, but probably made elsewhere. It would suffice, though. Your family would cherish it as exotic.
Checking into the first hotel you came upon, you were given a room where the last occupant had to be a 400lb fat man. The bed sagged horribly in the center and looked dirty. You slept in all your clothes and used your pack as a pillow. Not very comfortable, but after a day of walking and playing soccer, it didn't matter. It worked, and you slept well...
The morning was gorgeous on the island, and the profusion of oxen and mopeds in the street gently awakened you soon after sunrise, getting you moving early enough for breakfast in the lobby downstairs. It wasn't much more than cereal and coffee, but it was ample to get you moving. You paid your tab and walked out to the harbor to meet Pete. This was your last full day. He would be boating you to your hut to pick up the remainder of your provisions, sailing you around the far island (the rockiest and roughest, but perhaps the most beautiful), and returning you to Fagotogo for the night. You'd bus to Pago Pago in the morning for your flight...
The more you thought about it, the most memorable experience you'd had during your stay wasn't the fish, or the islands, or the exotic little cabana on a remote beach, but spending time with Pete and Belga, and meeting a family that you found to be fascinating, happy, though definitely lacking in material provision. You decided to carefully broach that subject with Pete on the way back.
"Is there anything you guys really need down here that you just can't get?"
He sighed. "Not really. We don't have much, but I have beautiful wife, and five great children. We get by."
"But is there anything you guys really need but can't get?"
"Not really." He brightened as he thought of something. "Our radio broke this rainy season. It was sitting on the table and the roof leaked one night, and it hasn't worked since then. We used to listen to the music from Western Samoa, which is pretty nice. They don't really have good stations over here. I'd like to get a new one that can play..what do you call them? Tapes?" You fought the urge to laugh.
"Well, we have discs now that play music."
"Discs?" You didn't bother to explain. At any rate, he wanted it more for the radio.
"Anything else you need?"
"Oh no. God has been good to us. I work, my family is fed, my wife is maybe a little chubby, but she's more beautiful to me that way. We're happy." You vowed to send him a radio, somehow.
You explained that you'd really had a great time out with him and meet his family, and you wanted to send them all a thank you card when you returned home, so you asked if he had access to a post office. He did, though it was in Pago Pago and he typically stopped by there only once a month, but didn't get much of anything except tourists trying to ask him strange questions. You promised you wouldn't do that. You just wanted to say thank you more formally with a letter. He recited the address for you as you motored slowly into the harbor.
"Unless you have plans this evening, we have a gift for you," Pete suddenly announced, as he tied off the boat. He elaborated that his family wanted to take you out to dinner. He would not accept no for an answer, so you eventually relented and agreed to meet him in the market at dusk.
"What time is that?" He didn't know. Just dusk. Maybe 8PM? After he insisted on carrying your bags for you back to the hotel, you promised to meet him later. You needed a nap, anyway. The Pacific sun was wearing you thin after days on the water, repeated exposure, and probably not enough water to drink. An afternoon of soccer didn’t help much, either. It was time to relax. After the trip around the outside of the far island today, and photographing of some of the most colorful birds you'd ever seen, you were ready to take it easy.
At 8, you walked up to Pete and Belga sitting on a bench near the square. They rose to greet you enthusiastically. "We're glad you could come. My brother owns a restaurant here that has the best, I think you call it shawarma, on the island. He never really liked fishing, which is why I have the boats and not him."
He walked 50 feet to a long table and sat down. "My brother will bring out the food in a moment. They're gathering the dishes."
Sure enough, Jone walked out, arms laden with bowls and dishes, and his wife carried pitchers, and three dark-eyed daughters were carrying silverware and napkins. He, too, had beautiful children. They were all smiling, and after quick introductions everyone took their seats. After another bilingual blessing, you began another delightful, albeit strange meal. No WONDER they were all well-fed. As little as they may have had, their food was fantastic. Dessert was a candied pastry, similar to those in the middle east. You caught yourself wondering who invented it. Just like the shawarma, it was probably claimed by several cultures: the Arabs, the Indians, and the North Africans. At any rate, it was superb, and filling. Chatter throughout the meal was about work, about the children, and how Jone didn't like how boys were starting to stare at his daughters. Pete assured him he smacked Silea every time he caught HIM staring at a girl that way. "He may be the only gentleman on this island" lamented Jone. “And he's a cousin, so it is unfortunate.” You listened and laughed. Parents, it seemed, were the same everywhere.
After coffee to stave off a sugar coma, they asked you questions about America. Even though they were US nationals in American Samoa (a territory), they didn't have nearly the federal protection or oversight that the states enjoyed. Nor even the cultural exposure. You dispelled as many myths as you could, and tried to ignore the fact that you lived in a land of unhappy yet fortunate people, while here they were mostly impoverished, yet content. It had more to do with faith, anyway; not wealth.
As the even wore on and the children started to look tired, they let you help them clear the dishes and move them to the kitchen. They'd clean them tomorrow. Jone would be up early, anyway. It was Sunday, and they'd have a huge lunch to prepare before they went to church. As much as you now wanted to join them for that, you had to a flight to catch. Your trip seemed too short, as they always do. But a busy, hectic week awaited you after another 18 hours of grueling travel. This time you asked for a photo, and Pete said he wanted you in it. "You treat us like family, so you need to be in it, too!" He asked Jone to take it, who quickly figured out the focusing and took several of the whole family - smiling, tired, but happy."
You readied to leave for your fat-man's bed at the hotel down the road.
"Did you buy your souvenirs today?" inquired Pete. You told him you got a chess board for your family, but you weren't sure if it was actually made locally.
"My father makes some of them. What color are the stones? Grey and red?" They were.
"Yes, then my father made it. Promise me, when you get back home, and not UNTIL you're home, look at the king, okay? But not a moment before you're home, okay?" You promised, more curious than anything about what was possibly there. You hadn't seen anything, but really nor were you looking. Fair enough. You'd wait.
As you hugged his whole family, you handed Pete his payment for the three days of travel in an envelope; a meager $11 a day. You told him it had a thank you letter in it, so wait until he got home. You didn't tell him, but there was an extra hundred in there. They needed it more than you did. Maybe the kids could get a new soccer ball or something. Either way, you were sure he'd find something to do with it.
You slept in your clothes again in the fat-man bed. Heaven only knew what little things were on the sheets. You slept well, though. It's been a long week, and you had a lot of flying left to do, which was always terribly exhausting.
After more cereal and unimpressive coffee in the morning, you waited for another rickety bus to take you back to Pago Pago, negotiated security at the airport, and tried to settle into your seat to sleep away the long flight to Honolulu. Sleep or not, it would still be unpleasant
20 hours later, after a delay in LAX, you were finally trudging to your car in the parking lot and paying the ridiculous parking fee. You wanted nothing more than to simply sleep, but the short ride to the house came first. You'd throw down the windows, crank the music, and try to sing along so you didn't slump over the wheel in exhaustion.
As you locked the door and dragged your luggage up to your room, you found yourself missing Pete's irritating insistence on carrying your bags. You flop onto bed and look at the time. The sun was out, barely, and you needed sleep. As you prepared to drift off, however, you remembered Pete's admonition about the chess set and started rummaging to unwrap it from all the clothes you'd bundled around it to protect it during transport. Thankfully it appeared unscathed. Opening the bag with the individually wrapped pieces, you eventually found the king. Inspecting it, you found nothing at all. Strange. No markings, no text, just a stone king, though a beautifully carved one. You dig for the other one - the light gray piece.
Again, nothing. Was it a joke? Pete didn't seem the type. You check again, running your thumb over the green felt on the bottom. The light gray one had a divot! Carefully peeling back the felt, you expose a small hole, with what appears to be a paper rolled up inside of it. It looked like parchment. Grabbing it carefully with a pair of tweezers, you pull it out and unroll it gently.
"The Lord bless thee and keep thee,
The Lord make His face to shine upon thee
And be gracious unto thee.
The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee
And give thee peace."
It made sense now. All of it. Pete's faith was from his father's strong faith. You could picture him slowly carving each piece and praying over each set, and blessing the purchaser and his or her family and life, much like an old Hebrew builder prays over the door posts to a home. This was the man's ministry, and you were the honored recipient. Now you understood why Pete always looked asleep when you strode up to the boat. He was praying. And you suspect it did that quite often anyway in the back of the boat. YOU sure were - that the boat wouldn't capsize in the swells. But he knew it wouldn't, so he was praying for his occupants. He was blessing you, too, just as his father did in his own way.
Amazed, exhausted, overwhelmed, and missing Pete and Belga and Jone and all their children, you curled up to sleep. It was light now, and you were overdue for rest. Whenever you woke up, whatever time that may be, you would go radio shopping. Pete missed the music, and you intended to make sure he heard it. His story, his life and his family and faith, were certainly music to your heart....
*The above is a fictitious account, a mental hiatus from my norm, and probably reflects poor writing. Hopefully, however long, the story was worth the read.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved