Our first Sunday in American Samoa dawned clear and blistering hot and all I wanted was to enjoy what we usually enjoy everyday: fresh sea air to breathe and clean, cooling water in which to swim. But we were anchored in Pago Pago.
All of the cruiser descriptions of American Samoa’s main port are quick to mention that the harbor is much cleaner and more tolerable than when the tuna canning factories used to dump the fish guts directly out the door, letting them stew in the narrow, enclosed, protected waters of the town.
Now they load the offal onto a boat and motor a few miles offshore to dispose of it, but the canneries themselves still smell like try pots for all the dirty underwear of the world. When black smoke billows out of the top of the Starkist factory, they’re making fertilizer, one local told us, which exudes it’s own greasy, noxious stink.
Between our boat and Starkist, an enormous generator roared 24-7, and from the hours of 8am-8pm, it was in stereo, as one of the resident cruising boats beside us ran his gen set all day. When it rained, which was daily, trash coursed down the city streets and streams and drifted by the boat in shimmery swirls of fossil fuel runoff. The American Samoa EPA posted ‘No Swimming’ signs along the shore and the daily paper ran a list of all the bays and beaches that had tested unsafe for swimming, which was pretty much all of them in the vicinity of Pago Pago.
I was craving the cool, pacifying effects of water, but it was Sunday in a country that had been ravaged by overzealous missionaries. Back in the day, they banned everything worth doing and imposed an oppressive dress code of long pants, dresses, and sleeves that’s still in effect today. The religiosity is impossible to avoid here – people pray over their meals in restaurants and tithe exorbitant amounts of their meager wages to whichever version of God has a grip on their soul. Villages with as few as 200 people can have up to half a dozen churches – Catholics, Lutherans, Protestants, Mormons, Jehovahs, Seventh Day Adventists – they’re all here and they’ve all ruined Sunday. Nothing is open. Buses don’t run. It’s culturally frowned upon to be seen doing anything. “On Sundays we go to church in the morning, and then we go home and sit inside and do nothing. And then we go back to church at night,” explained one teenager from a north coast village we visited.
I prefer to honor and ponder the great mystery of the world from among its particular wonders, not locked up in a stuffy brick building listening to a long sermon in an inscrutable language. I don’t care how pretty the singing seems. I’d seen people out and about on Sunday afternoons, sneaking around the coast with their fishing pools or letting their kids splash in the shallows. I was willing to risk it for a chance to swim.
But not in these gross waters. I was sitting in the cockpit, stewing in my sweat, when my eyes fell on the dinghy. This is exactly why we have an oversized, 12-foot inflatable with a powerful 15hp outboard – so we can get the hell out of town.
“Hey Brian, let’s pack up the snorkeling gear and cruise down the coast and find a place to get in the water!”
Minutes later we were zooming down the harbor, delighting in our rediscovered freedom. As we powered past the Harbormaster’s crow nest, I spotted a boat ahead changing course towards us. Blue lights flashed from its arch.
Seriously? What are they gonna do, put us in cuffs and drag us to Bible study?
The cop boat cruised to a stop beside us. Three big Samoans in uniforms, life jackets, and dark glasses regarded us. “Where are you going?” one asked as another leaned over and grabbed our port pontoon.
“Uh…we wanted to go snorkeling at one of the beaches around the corner. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, it’s okay,” one nodded.
Phew. There’s still separation of church and state here.
“Maybe you can help us? We’re looking for a man missing from a boat?” One of them said.
“You mean Dean, the American who escaped from Tonga?” we asked. We knew about Dean Fletcher. He’d been accused of murdering his wife and locked up in the Neiafu jail since July, but managed to escape just a couple of days earlier and sail away on his boat after a testy standoff with the Tongan police involving a flare gun and a can of gasoline. We’d heard the news via another cruiser on the Internet, and we’d been speculating wildly about what might happen next and where he’d try to “flee” on his sailboat, traveling at a top speed slightly faster than walking.
They furrowed their collective brows and shook their heads. They hadn’t heard anything about a fugitive murderer from their closest neighboring island, so I guess the two countries don’t share APBs. “No…this man is on a fishing boat. Chinese. A very bad man. If you see him, can you please call us?” One pointed to the cop shop phone number, painted on the side of their boat.
Of course. We parted ways and they continued their patrol while we scooted around looking for a good spot to get in the water.
We finally found it and were treated to some truly holy sights: a green turtle sleeping tucked under a shelf of coral as if it were a blanket; two pipefish mating; and our very first orangefin anenomefish nosing out its symbiotic nest. What a way to spend a hot Sunday No Fun Day.