My colleague, Anna, who runs ECA’s Sydney office, has recently returned from a data collection trip to the Pacific islands. Below she shares some of her experiences. Best wishes, Mark.
A kilo is a kilo is a kilo – is the slogan of Samoa Air who claim to be the first Airline in the world to sell your flight by the kilo! The website Q&As include such gems as ‘Hey I lost weight since signing up (Or my bag fell off the bus!)’ and ‘I had a great time and my return weight is 10kg over…’
When you book a Samoa Air flight you must specify your weight and your bag weight and your fare is calculated accordingly. In case you’ve been kidding yourself about those extra kilos, when you arrive to check-in you stand on the scales with your bag! Waiting in the airport for my flight between Samoa and American Samoa, the ladies I chatted to confessed they hadn’t dared book Samoa Air as they thought the flight would be more expensive. When we calculated the fare though, it would have been about the same as they’d paid with another airline – but these were slim Samoan ladies.
The Pacific is the world’s largest ocean and spread across it are the Pacific islands. Among them are American Samoa and Samoa (known as Western Samoa until 1997) both located in the South Pacific. To get to American Samoa from Sydney I took the night flight to Apia in Samoa and arrived a little dazed at 5am before transiting to the ‘other’ airport for my flight to American Samoa. And just in case I wasn’t dazed enough a quick 45 minute flight had me arriving in Pago Pago the day before I left – American Samoa & Samoa sit on opposite sides of the International Date Line. This wasn’t always the case but in 2011 Samoa decided to move the date-line to make business and personal communications with Australia and New Zealand easier. Arriving by air in American Samoa gives a beautiful view – the mountainous island rises out of the sea spectacularly and the capital Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango) has one of the best natural deep-water harbours in the South Pacific.
American Samoa is a US territory – officially unincorporated and unorganized – which doesn’t sound particularly flattering however it is a laid-back place and an interesting blend of the Pacific and America. The people are of Polynesian decent but have American accents, drive large American-style pick-ups and eat American fast food, they are American nationals but not necessarily American citizens. The logo of American Samoa is “Where America’s sun sets”. The majority of the population of 55,000 live on the island of Tutuila spread out along the thin coastal strip.
Tuna is big in American Samoa. The enormous Star Kist tuna cannery dominates one side of the harbour and is a major employer. A second cannery closed in 2009 following increases to minimum wages but word on the street is the cannery has now been sold and will re-open soon. In late September 2009 a tsunami devastated coastal American Samoa and parts of neighbouring Samoa. Today there is little evidence of the destruction but numerous signs warn of the ‘tsunami zone’ and evacuation routes – which I found a little disconcerting.
For literary types Pago Pago’s claim to fame is as the setting for Somerset Maugham’s well-known short story, ‘Rain’ which charts the moral disintegration of a missionary attempting to convert a Pacific island prostitute named Sadie Thompson. Today the Sadie Thompson Inn is a classic hotel and up-market restaurant near the harbour.
One of my favourite things in American Samoa has to be the local buses – brightly painted, no windows to let the breeze in and often with the radio turned up loud.
Considering that the two Samoa’s are just a 35 minute flight from one another they are really very different. The nation of Samoa gained independence in 1962 becoming the first Polynesian nation to do so and its Polynesian culture is noticeably strong. Samoa sits on the opposite site of the International Date Line to American Samoa and they also drive on the opposite site of the road (the left). In 2009 Samoa became the first country in 40 years to switch driving sides. Apparently a major reason was Australia and New Zealand drive on the left, and it is cheaper to import cars from those countries than from the United States and Europe.
Apia, the capital of Samoa is laid-back, welcoming and people are incredibly friendly. I immediately noticed the attire – most businessmen and school boys wear what looks like a skirt – it is actually a lava lava – a traditional garment which is cool and practical for the hot climate. As one expatriate I chatted to commented: “if it’s good enough for the (male) Prime Minister to wear a skirt and thongs (flip flops), it’s good enough for me”.
Samoa also has a literary claim to fame as the Pacific home of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In 1890 he built the magnificent Villa Vailima where he died in 1894. Villa Vailima was largely destroyed by hurricanes in the early 1990s but has now been restored. As I travelled around Apia for my research, my taxi driver insisted I visit and it certainly is a beautiful home set in tranquil gardens.
One thing the two Samoas do have in common is their great buses. As in American Samoa, Samoa has brightly painted buses doing the rounds and they add wonderful local character and colour to the vibrant yet laid-back towns of Pago Pago and Apia. I look forward to my next visit!
Anna Michielsen is ECA’s General Manager for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific and is based in Sydney. She and her team carry out ECA research trips in the Pacific.