Thoughts on American Samoa

I’m leaving American Samoa today and will be in Tonga tomorrow. I have several hours to kill while I wait for my flight to Apia, so I might as well get my thoughts down now before I leave.

I didn’t know what to expect before I came to American Samoa. This is a place that usually just gets a footnote in US geography courses. Guam and Puerto Rico get way more attention than American Samoa does.

  • American Samoa is more Samoa than America. Spending time in Apia before coming here really drove the point home. Several cab drivers also pointed out the same thing. But for the government and a few other institutional things (school calendars and high school sports), there are no real differences between the two Samoas. The division is really artificial.
  • In both American Samoa and Samoa, there were two facts that I noticed that seems at odds with each other.
    1. Everything from signs, radio stations, TV, newspapers was in English. I could go anywhere and speak with anyone in English.
    2. No one spoke English. Not to each other at least. Everyone spoke Samoan to other Samoans.

    I think Samoan never being a written language is probably the reason for it. I think its a good decision for Samoans. They can keep their language and culture yet be connected to the rest of the English speaking world.

  • I flat out asked a cab driver if there was any movement for an independent American Samoa or to merge with Samoa. Without hesitation, he said “No”. They got a good deal going. For all practical purposes, they are independent, but they get benefits of being part of the US. They probably have seen what has happened to other small Pacific nations and don’t want to make the same mistake. There is a very steep price for a seat in the UN. I’ll have more to say on this subject I’m sure when I go through Tuvalu and Nauru.
  • It is pretty cheap here. I could take a cab from the airport to Pago Pago for about $13. Nothing really stuck me as expensive compared to urban areas in the US.
  • Pago Pago isn’t really a city so much as a village. It just happens to be the village where the harbor is. It isn’t even the biggest village on the Island.
  • When you go through immigration at the airport, I was expecting a US customs officer. I got an American Samoa stamp in my passport and it was American Samoan customs, not US Immigration.
  • Lots of the Western Union and money transfer places here. Many people come from Samoa to American Samoa to work and send money back home. Per capita GDP in American Samoa is about $8,000 vs $5,600 in Samoa.
  • Samoa (both) is more religious than the southern US. That is in no way an exaggeration. They call it the Pacific Bible belt. Everywhere where I went they had Christian music playing, often Samoan Christian music. Everything shuts down on Sundays.
  • All the buses here and in Samoa are private. It is very similar to what I saw in Tahiti. Buses are everywhere and cheap. The system seems to work well. The quality of the buses would turn off most westerners, but it gets the job done efficiently and cheaply.
  • I purchased a lavalava while I was here. In fact, I’m wearing it as I type this. It is basically a kilt that men wear here. I’ve had requests for photos of me wearing it. That will have to wait for at least a few days. I’m only going to wear it for the next few weeks while I’m in the region, then I’m sending it home. Mine is a solid color with pockets, not just a big hunk of cloth. It’s more of a formal one than what some guys wear. It cost a whopping $8. I got it at…and I kid you not….Mr. Lavalava in downtown Pago Pago.
  • Samoans are just really nice people.

McSamoa’s….or, Polynesians Got Back

I’m going to combine the Samoa and American Samoa McDonald’s entry because they aren’t interesting enough to do separately.

As far as I can tell, there is only one restaurant in each county. The Samoa McDonald’s is right in town a block off Beach St. and the American Samoa restaurant is out near the airport. It is quite aways from Pago Pago.

Neither restaurant had anything special on the menu. They have mostly paired down versions of an American menu. The signage at both restaurants looked identical indicating there might be some sort of connection between the two.

The place mat on the tray in the American Samoa restaurant was in English and Spanish. I estimate the population of Spanish speakers in American Samoa to be somewhere close to zero. I’m sure they got leftovers from the mainland.

In Samoa, they had NO DIET COKE!! They only had Fanta, Coke and Sprite. WTF. I think this is a national disgrace and really makes the nation of Samoa look bad. If I were the leader of Samoa, I would start an investigation immediately.

I don’t know how many more McDonald’s I’ll be seeing over the next month. I’m guessing Tonga might have one and I know Fiji has one I didn’t get to, but otherwise, most of the places I’ll be visiting are really small. Probably too small for McDonald’s.

*Edit* Looks like I’m right. Here is a list of countries with McDonald’s. This list is more complete than the McDonald’s website which doesn’t list Samoa.

Considering I’m not going to be seeing any more restaurants in Polynesia, I think this is as good a time as any to address something which is sort of the elephant in the room (no pun intended) if you travel around the region.

What is the elephant? Polynesians are fat.

This isn’t just my opinion. I’m from Wisconsin and we got our share of fat people, but the islands make Wisconsin look like a bulimia convention. Hawaii, Rarotonga, Samoa, and to a limited extent the Maori and Tahitians all had obesity problems. From everything I understand, its just as much of a problem north of here. It will be interesting to see if it is a problem in Tokelau, given how isolated they are.

I don’t think you can just write this problem off to things like fast food. In Rarotonga, there were no fast food restaurants. (well, there was a place called Raro Fried Chicken. The thing I remember about it was that wild chickens would roam around outside the restaurant. I found it hilarious that they milled about while their kin were being served up inside)

I think the reason for polynesian obesity is two fold. One cause is behind obesity in all humans and the other is unique to polynesia.

To understand why polynesians are overweight, you need to realize that for most of human history, the daily concern for most people was getting enough calories for survival. Food was serious stuff. You hunted, you fished, you picked berries, and eventually you farmed. This was all done for the goal of just surviving. In the case of polynesia, think about what the typical polynesian diet consisted of prior to the arrival of Europeans: taro root, cassava root, breadfruit, coconut, fish and they might have brought some chickens. That’s about it. They had to eek out a survival on a small patch of land with little room or good land to grow crops. Getting enough food was a big deal. This was an issue for everyone in the world, but it was a particular problem if you lived on a small island.

Fast forward to 2007 and we have pretty much solved the problem of food. Famines usually only occur in rare cases when you have civil wars or other armed groups preventing the supply of food. Obesity is now a bigger problem than malnutrition in even the poorest countries. We have basically infinite calories at our disposal but have kept our primal desire to clean our plates, have as big of portions as possible, and eat as much as we can. In a very real sense, the “crisis” of obesity is a testament to our ability to conquer the problem of eating enough food…..with an obvious downside of course. That is why there are McDonald’s in Samoa.

The diet of polynesians has also changed dramatically, more than it has in other places. I’ll address this in detail when I pass through the nation of Nauru, which provides one of the best examples on Earth of what happens when you dramatically change the diet of a population.

Everything I’ve described above applies to everyone on Earth. The only difference in polynesia has been the degree.

There is something however unique to polynesia that has compounded the problem: Darwinian Natural Selection.

Go look at a map of the Pacific Ocean and try to get an idea of the size of the area compared to something you are familiar with, like the continental United States. It’s huge. It’s enormous. And it was all settled before the arrival of Europeans. Bands of people in outrigger canoes with no compasses, maps, or even the North Star in the south, managed to migrate thousands of miles from SE Asia all the way to Easter Island and Hawaii. It really is a much more impressive accomplishment I think than anything Europeans managed to pull off in their large sailing ships. Only Captain Bligh came close to that sort of navigation when he was tossed out of the HMS Bounty and made it all the way to Fiji in a rowboat.

Imagine being on one of these boats. They’re not big. Its a big canoe with all the food and water you’ll get. We know about the survivors, but there had to be countless boats that never made it to an island. Maybe they didn’t take enough supplies. Maybe their navigation wasn’t quite good enough and they missed an island by 10 miles. Some people probably died on the boat and had to be thrown over while the rest managed to make it to dry land.

In a long ocean voyage like that, who do you think has a better chance of survival: the fat ones or the skinny ones? The answer of course is, the fat ones.

The process of expansion throughout the Pacific may very well have been a selection tool for people who had a predisposition to store body fat.

I’d like to know if anyone has done a study on this. In particular, you should see a greater propensity to store body fat as you travel east from Asia. Hawaiians should be fattest and Melanesians should be the skinniest. You’d also need to factor in things like standard of living, diets and other stuff which might make the study impossible, but it would be interesting.

I should also add, that at least here in Samoa, guys that aren’t fat are still big. As in linebacker big. There is a reason why Samoa has a uniquely large representation in the world of American Football, wrestling, ruby and weightlifting for its size.