I benefited from the experience of being roused from my Pago Pago hotel in the early hours of the morning due to a tsunami threat from the M8.8 Chilean earthquake of Feb 26. This is the second emergency in the two weeks I have here. I know now what is important for me to grab in an emergency: passport, computer and power cord, back up hard drive, field note books, camera; cell phone and water. I drove to high ground at the Fagasa Pass near Pago Pago. There seemed to be a party going on – folk spread out on blankets, much laughter with children and dogs ricocheting off each other.
The Pass is also the trail head for the Mt. Alava ridge trail in the National Park of American Samoa, one of the most spectacular in the US National Park system, albeit with little drive-in accessibility but then with no Yosemite Valley clamor. Given the party at the Pass, I decided to wander along the trail a way. Then wander some more. Then get on to Mt. Alava. Then – what the heck- why not go all the way to Vatia? So I hiked about 6 to 7 miles in rugged rain forest, often in the rain. In flip flops. I did not even use those except for stony ground, bare feet sufficing for much of the hike in mud, mulch and where footing was uncertain. Much of the trail beyond Mt Alava was very rugged with long stretches of stairways and ropes.
There was a great view advantage from being on the ridge during the tsunamai watch/evacuation. I could watch for the tsunami since my view was miles out to sea. A flotilla of yachts and ships ahd left Pago Pago harbor for the open sea. I had spectacular views of all of Pago Pago harbor and was impressed at empty roads, and no people walking. There was occasional siren, church bell and ship horn clamor, with loudspeaker demands for people to evacuate. Well, I assume demands, but they were mostly in Samoan.
Folk apparently have learned to heed the official warnings – memories of the September 29 2009 tsunami are still fresh. Indeed, souvenirs are to be seem everywhere – ruined buildings, piles of trash, yachts and fishing boats, stranded on-shore. So, it seemed that if I was to be lucky enough to see the tsunami make landfall, I would have a perfect seat on the ridge top. But I waited in vain no dramatic run-out of the ocean to be followed by a crashing wave. Instead, I enjoyed the views, the bats, the terns, the occasional showers of heavy rain; and a litter-free part of American Samoa. I saw two pieces of trash in over 6 miles of hiking. You cannot walk 50 feet elsewhere in Pago Pago without seeing garbage tossed aside.
I flip-flopped about turning back several times. Maturity of the 61 years of age Kind murmured “Go back. Be safe”. But my insistent, dammed need for adventure loudly urged me: “Go onward. Have fun. Get wet. Muddy yourself. See bats.” I hate going back the way I came, you see. So I continued my walk to Vatia. I walked about 5 hours, which is the furthest I have walked since my knee operation last year. On this hike I gave my knees much down slope exercise. Down slope was almost vertical for long stretches – there were very well constructed rope stairways with anchored lengths of ropes for handholds. Those were barefoot sections, as were the mud and mulch parts, especially when it rained.
I was charmed by the flying fox bats, which hung like black fruit from the trees next to the trail. My blundering stirred them to through the leaves in flapping fright, to soar a while, and return to hanging. And I was reminded of my hiking days in Hawaii in its rain forests; the clatter of rain, the drippings onto leaves and muck underfoot; springs and cascades. And the glorious greens; patched with rust, black and gray knobs and streaks by basalt rock; splashed with moss, bright orchids and ginger.
I reached the village of Vatia in the early afternoon. The emergency had just been called off. Apparently the tsunami had been inches high, not the feared many feet. I needed to get back to my car, but no buses were running. I was in for a very long walk so I hitch-hiked. I was lucky and scored two rides, which took me back to my days as a devoted hitch-hiker. My first ride was with high school students in a pickup truck. Being picked up I stretched out in the pickup bed and answered questions from two curious young ladies. My second rode was with a very elegant lady in an elegant SUV who said she picked me up because she felt sorry for me. Well, I looked a sorry mess – muddy legs, flip-flops soles flapping, tee-shirt filthy, wild fair full of twigs. But she looked like she though she may have made an error in judgment when I hopped in- I could almost see her saying to herself: “Oh dear; is this scruffy palagi (white man) going to be a problem?” But she squealed with delight when she learned I was a geologist and engineer. She and her husband badly need one for a foundation investigation and there are no geotechnical engineers/engineering geologists on the island. Perhaps I had hitched my way into some business? Hitching as a marketing tool! – I’ll have to tell Ron.
On leaving the car, I asked the elegant lady how come she looked so lithe, given that most people I have seen in Samoa are large. The kids are slender but the adults are bulky. (I was told by one lady that the bulking happens as kids “develop”). The elegant lady told me that she watches what she eats. I assume that “watching” means she does not the eat chips, and the like, which judging by the ubiquitous trash wrappings, folk seem to live on. Also, she may not patronize the two very fancy-looking McDonalds’ on Tutuila, which amazingly for an island of 55,000 people, has the highest average sales per of any of McD’s 30,000 worldwide stores.
By the time I finished my hike the emergency was over; but my flip flop watch for the tsunami was a splendid way to end my three week stay in American Samoa.