Thursday, October 04, 2007

American Samoa, Sept. 16

American Samoa was fascinating. Whether it was sharing the English language, affinity with palangi (white people) or just friendliness, we had a blast of stimulating conversations and experiences.

We met “Teapot” (short for Tipoti) around 6 pm one evening waiting for a bus. He told us we would have better luck on the main road at that hour and followed us down the sidewalk trying to make conversation. His English was not very good, he was a little too friendly and we were suspicious.

Teapot told us he was 51. He said he had been born and raised on the island and taught carpentry and electrical at the Voc-Tech. His wife was a swing shift supervisor at the cannery and their teenage kids lived in her village at the east end of the island. Unlike other Samoans we spoke to in Pago Pago, Teapot had not been to the US nor did he mention any relatives who lived there.

Teapot flagged down an SUV – a taxi- and ushered us in. The driver was an acquaintance. Teapot pulled out a brown paper bag with a beer in it. The driver did the same. Teapot had him stop at a store. He bought more cold beer, some sodas, and a bagful of snacks, and thrust them on us. He would not accept “no” or payment. At our stop, the driver let us all out. Teapot paid him in cash and beer but our offer of payment was refused.

Teapot told us he had never been on a yacht. It was dark and windy and he was tipsy but we took the chance and invited him onboard, the least we could do for the generosity he showed us. He told us all kinds of tales and tried to answer our questions. Every narrative quickly became nonresponsive to the subject and was transformed into an affirmation of Teapot’s belief in God.

We offered Teapot supper – spaghetti. He had never eaten spaghetti before. We showed him how to eat it. He had a few bites and then asked to take it home to show people. In contrast, Teapot was very familiar with Western music – Ray Charles and 80’s bands like Abba being a few of his favorites.

Teapot kept drinking his beers and then asked what we had on board to drink. We poured him some rum. He grabbed the bottle and filled up his glass. Every five minutes he pointed to the contact information he was leaving us – 3 different phone numbers, his cell, his place in town, his place in the village – and told us to call. He was upset we didn’t have a phone number where he could reach us. When he finally left the boat he was really drunk and tried to get Tom to take his cell phone so we could call him. Tom refused, saying what if his family called trying to reach Teapot?

The evening with Teapot was interesting because we got to experience Pacific “bubuti” up close and personal…someone generously offers you something…you do something in return…things start flowing your way without the exchange of money…at some point your stuff becomes his stuff, you become part of the family and so does your stuff…very different from our Western sensibilities. We chose not to pursue this one any farther.

I toured the Chicken of the Sea cannery – and am still eating canned tuna! We had dinner the same night with its general manager, a South African specializing in food processing workouts around the globe. We also had a drink with a tuna boat owner from San Diego (the fleet has moved to the South Pacific but is basically dependent on US government mandates to buy American product), and talked to a Samoan who is importing the competition from Thailand with great difficulty. This glimpse into the tuna industry was a fascinating study in management of natural resources and globalization.

Briefly, the US seems to be maintaining the local industry with support and subsidies but the product is still noncompetitive with Southeast Asian competition. The product is labor intensive with real people doing the skinning and boning of the fish by hand under US OSHA and FDA regulations. The labor pool comes from Western Samoa and Tonga to work for the entry wage of $3.86 per hour and to give birth to scads of children who are entitled to US citizenship. The American Samoans move to the US (often after surviving a stint in the US Armed Forces) to work for good money and settle in LA, Seattle, Salt Lake City (the top US destination in the South Pacific due to the success of the Mormon movement here). The canneries threaten to close imminently and throw 10% of the population directly out of work. More US government support arrives and delays the inevitable.

We also spent time with a former pipe layer from New Zealand who went native 17 years ago. He now sports a traditional full body tattoo, is a servant to a chief, lives with the chief’s daughter, and with her runs an iconoclastic bar on a gorgeous deserted beach. He taught us about local agriculture, food, tattoos, construction. Together they fed us and about 20 others a traditional umu feast, complete with little girls dancing and singing. He also gave us an introduction to the man who runs NOAA’s weather station which enjoys the first and second best views on the island and “the cleanest air in the world” (upwind from the tuna canneries). He is deep in the technical chain of climate study (he feels the recent research is showing that the present climate change is within the context of previous historical variation and that human activity has some effect but is not the major determinant). He told us white people receive royal treatment in Samoa but knew from his Filipina wife’s experience that other races are not treated with respect.

All in all, an amazing twelve days even though it was stormy at least half the time. We had a minor mishap when Silkie’s (another yacht’s) mooring buoy lost its footing in the middle of a windy night. Talk about things that go bump in the night – the other boat crashed into ours. Fortunately there were just a few surface scuffs and everyone was fine in the morning. We wrote a limerick to commemorate the event:
The night of September 14
Miss Silkie she came a courtin’
She kissed Rasamanis,
Whose crew cried out “Please cease!
We’re naked and we need our clothing.”
Apologies to those who are offended. The other cruisers found it pretty funny,

We left Pago Pago Sunday, September 16, crossed the international date line, and skipped September 17 entirely.

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