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63: What the Island Gives

Saturday, 14 October 2023

Given the twice-a-week schedules for the only flights into American Samoa from the states, I faced three more days on this tropical island. Since most of the island shuts down on Sundays (even most restaurants close by 2 p.m., if they open at all), I reserved that day to drive end-to-end-and-back to see the whole island (at least, all that's accessible by road). Monday I could wrap up with whatever else came to mind. I recall my mantra from Isle Royale - take what the island gives you.

Today, though...

Ever since my visit to Biscayne NP in March, I'd dreamed of another chance to snorkel. Until now, no opportunity had presented itself. Now I'm in the tropics - what place could possibly be better?

Issue #1: given the lack of a true tourist economy, I despaired of finding a place to rent gear. When I found that I could purchase a mask and fins for only $50 at home, I picked them up and squeezed them into my suitcase.

Issue #2: sheltered water makes a big difference in snorkeling. So where do I go? Ask Prof. Google: the web agrees that the best place for snorkeling in American Samoa is in the National Park portion of the isle of Ofu. Getting there, however, poses immense problems. You have to catch a four-times weekly flight from Pago Pago to Taʻū, then flag down a ride to the wharf on the other side of the (small) island, then convince a fisherman to take you across to Ofu. (Ofu does have an airport, but only has one flight a week - and Samoa Air doesn't schedule that more than a month out. There is also a 5-hour-long, weekly ferry ride which is notorious for making even the locals seasick.) The tiny island has only two lodges, neither of which currently have websites running.

I confess - the pictures of Ofu, and the prospect of wonderful beach walks on white sand and snorkeling turquoise waters, make it an attractive destination. What an adventure that could be! It just won't happen on this trip.

Feeling no time pressure, I took my time starting the day. Another chat with Prof. Google surfaced the name of Two Dollar Beach (which now costs $5 to use). As soon as I pulled over next to the beach, the chief trotted across the street to collect the admission fee. First, I asked if he'd recommend it for snorkeling.

He hesitated, the gave a qualified 'yes'. "But we passed low tide a little while ago. It will be much better at high tide, around 4:00."

Since the clock had not yet hit noon, I thanked him and said I'd return. That gave me time to enjoy the picnic lunch I'd packed and to look at the park pamphlets. Spotting a secluded bay on the north side, I drove over the ridge and through the park's woods, to Vatia Village I go. The horse knows the way to carry the slei- oh, wait, wrong song.

Vatia was where I caught yesterday's hikes.

Though waves crashed on rocks where I'd hiked, a reef cut down the waves further back, leaving a sandy shore. Keeping in mind the 'ask permission' doctrine, I approached a group of kids in their late teens or early twenties that lingered at a table there. "Excuse me. May I have permission to use this beach? I'd like to try snorkeling here." They looked at each other - almost as if they'd never had anyone ask them permission before - then shrugged their shoulders and said, "Sure."

Finally, time to put my new mask to the test. I grabbed my gear, ditched my shoes, and waded into the bay. The temperature of the water took me by surprise - I hadn't expected it to be THAT warm. Wonderful! I attached the snorkel, donned the mask, got onto my hands and knees, and put my face into the water.

I recalled Biscayne, where my first reaction to submerging my face was a drowning reflex. This time, I handled it with no issue. Within a minute, though, I noticed water seeping into the mask. Not good. I sat up, emptied the mask, tightened the straps, and tried again. Same issue.

Damn! If the mask leaks and fills with water, it would float my contacts out (a scenario I confirmed with my optician a week later). Okay, re-jigger my plans: on Monday, stop at Tourist Information to find a snorkel shop or outfitter that might give me a pointer.

As long as I was here, I wandered the shoreline, walking along a short stretch overhung by palm trees. Embedded on the shoreline, standing guard at the edge of the beach, a squat concrete pillbox silently watched the bay's water.

A shoreline gun emplacement, a remnant of defenses installed for WWII. I sat for a while, idly tossing empty coconuts into the lightly pulsing surf, watching them move back and forth.

For dinner, I tried to find a restaurant mentioned on my tourist map, to no avail. After three trips up and down the road, I settled instead for fast-food calzone. A short drive to a beach west of my room beckoned, for a chance at a sunset shot. I waited until the sun sank below the horizon before deciding the colors wouldn't bloom. Of course, by the time I got home, they'd improved. Sigh.

Sunday, 15 October 2023

Again, a leisurely start to the day. Thinking ahead to returning my rental car tomorrow, I used Google Maps to load directions to Avis onto my phone. That became my first stop for the day - except I couldn't find it. Instead, it took me to a street filled with auto dealerships and repair shops, all closed on Sunday. (I later determined that Avis had a desk inside the Toyota dealership, though no sign outside identified that.)

Time now to drive to the east end of the island and work my way back west,

Onenoa to Maloata. With businesses closed for the day, traffic stayed light, letting me concentrate on the scenery.

As I worked my way east, I could see the waves breaking well away from shore,

providing for the protected coves. As I approached the east end, the island of Aunu'u appeared a short distance off shore.

I'd seen online mentions that a ferry could take you over for a small fee, and that sounded like a nice jaunt for tomorrow (didn't run on Sundays). Unfortunately, I could not find any wharf or ferry as I drove past Au'asi - indeed, I noticed no place where it looked like a boat could dock.

I got out to stretch my legs at the end of the road. Onenoa sported a beach

and spectacular views into the roadless coast beyond.

A rooster, trailed by several chicks, scurried out of my way as I shot photos.

More WWII gun housings dotted the beaches.

On the way back, I stopped for a picnic lunch that I'd procured from the mart in Pago Pago (at least they were open). The scenery continued to entrance me.

The eastern end of the road, where Hwy 1 ended and Hwy 009 took over, took on a wilder, more remote persona. The road twisted along 80 curves in only a couple of miles, piercing through a lush rainforest.

The final settlements barely clung to the steep land.

I meandered on the way back, waiting for a glorious sunset to mark this adventure as complete. As I scouted potential vistas, I saw a sign for Lagoon Falls pointing down a side road. There must be many waterfalls on this isle. There's something to check into tomorrow.

I found a few possible pullouts looking to the west. For many, rocks got buffeted by the roaring surf, sending waves shooting into the sky.

At one pullout, I stumbled upon a trio of men sharing a beer on this pleasant Sunday. They told me that a picture of them would elevate my trip from 'special' to 'incredible', so I of course obliged them.

I had to wait for the sunset.

Not the brilliant, streaming, purple-and-orange vista I had hoped for, but enough to satisfy me. Of course I could have waited longer - the best colors come once the sun disappears - but didn't want to chance finding the driveway to my room in the dark. Besides, I would have one more chance tomorrow before my late flight...

Monday, 16 October 2023

I returned to the Tourist Information Center to set my plans for my final day in the tropics. Her recommendation for my last attempt at snorkeling: "Umm. Well, Utulei Beach is just west of here, and it's a public beach, so it's convenient." Wow, quite the enthusiastic recommendation!

She also recommended an outfitter who runs snorkel tours (who of course had no helpful hints for me). I asked about a place to shop for a Samoan shirt, and she mentioned a shop near Paradise Pizza. When I asked for a good waterfall, she directed me to one behind the shirt shop.

Okay, all set!

I revisited spots from the last few days, always looking for the perfect picture.

After another lunch with the roosters at Sadie's by the Sea, I wandered over to the shirt shop, finding one that appealed to me. The clerk rang me up, and then directed me a few yards down to the road to get to the falls. Could it be close enough to walk to? No, as I quickly got lost and had to ask for directions again. Back in the car, I then saw the sign to Nu'uulu Falls. (I would pronounce that as "Now... Ooh! Ooh! Look! Ooh!" but that's just me.) It only took twice more asking for directions to actually reach the spot. No official trailhead, no signage, just a large space where bulldozers moved earth around. I parked on the far side, hoping I wouldn't get in the way.

I expected great things: Nu'uulu had tunred up in my Google searches as THE waterfall to see on Tutuila (though none of the sites had mentioned where to find it). The terrain, backed up to steep, forested cliffs, provided the perfect setting. However, the short path only led to a small set of cascades.

I'd guess that a more impressive fall lurked just upstream, but that either required another trail that I didn't see, or bushwhacking through the rainforest. Take what the island gives you.

Time for my last shot at snorkeling. I headed back to Utulei, geared up, stepped into the water, and - what's that? Sprinkles? Great. Let's wait a bit and see if it lets up. As I returned the mask to the car, I heard music in the pavilion a few yards away. A cultural group was practicing their music and dancing, so I lingered on the edges, watching them for half an hour.

Okay, time to stop stalling. The clouds still clung overhead, and a breeze rippled the water, but I needed to ignore my despair and try once more. The water didn't seem as warm as Saturday, but I could handle it. I further tightened the mask and gave it a try... but still water found its way in. That, combined with the wind making the water far from placid, convinced me to admit defeat. I would have to try again on a future trip to ... somewhere.

Time to gas up the Avis car (I managed four days here on only one tank of gas - not bad!), since I didn't know how late the stations stayed open. Had a moment of panic when the attendant at the first station said they didn't take credit cards - cash only (and I didn't have enough). The next station gave me same story, but they referred me to another station that did accept plastic.

I again made the short drive down to the west-side pullouts, hoping for another sunset, but the clouds cluttered the sky, blocking any red rays.

Oh well. I'd planned an ending celebration dinner at Paradise Pizza, since I'd enjoyed my Friday dinner there. Oops! They're closed on Mondays. Looks like I'll make do with fast-food fried chicken and have a nice meal later. Take what the island gives me.

Monday-Wednesday, 16-18 October 2023, in transit

Now came my 31-hour ordeal to return home, living on planes and in airports for two overnights. I returned the car to the Toyota dealership with no problems. At the airport, I had plenty of time to work my way through the crowds checking huge crates and suitcases onto the flight. The couple from my first flight and first hike stood in the security line behind me, so I chatted with them. Luckily, I caught a few precious hours of shuteye on the flight to Honolulu.

After claiming my bag and checking it in for my remaining flights, I faced an eight-hour layover. When I realized that Pearl Harbor was only a short Uber-ride away, I headed out as a typical tourist. On the USS Arizona memorial, I followed the crowds looking at the wall of names of the people entombed on the ship,

and looked at the placid waters covering the ship. Even though over 80 years have passed, the ship still leaks oil, with the sheen coloring the water.

However, as one ranger mentioned, sealife has returned to the wreck, with fish swimming amongst the sunken metal.

On land, museums and ships further tell the story of that day of infamy. I wandered the exhibits for a couple of hours - past scale models of ships, newspaper headlines, debris of a Japanese torpedo,

and more. Then I Ubered back to the airport, ready as I could be for the flights to LAX and on to Philadelphia.


And now I'm back home. No more travel in the immediate future... but I still have more blogs planned. Next post, in a few days: Wish List! In the meantime, enjoy a bit of tropical atmosphere:

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