Exploring the South Pacific as a Digital Nomad in American Samoa
Located five minutes east of downtown Apia, Samoa, Fagali’i (pronounced “Fong-ah-lee-ee”) International Airport isn’t your typical transportation hub. A generic blue-and-white sign with block letters adorns the top of the building, giving it the appearance of a former flagship store in a rundown strip mall. The open-air layout ensures you have no respite from the heat or humidity with the exception of a small store that sells ice-cold Cokes and ironically — piping-hot curry pies. This is just the beginning of being a digital nomad in American Samoa.
Beads of sweat form on my forehead and cascade down my back. I sip water casually to fight off dehydration, all while straining to hear a muffled announcement over the loudspeaker. Through the distortion, I can’t tell if it’s in Samoan or English. Good thing I’m two hours early for the flight from Apia to Pago Pago (that’s pronounced “pong-oh pong-oh”), American Samoa.
Aside from Hawaiian Airlines’s astronomically expensive flight from Honolulu, my route is the only other way to get to America’s most remote territory. A 10-hour ferry ride is also a possibility, but locals assured me that flying was a bit heavier on the wallet, but much lighter on the stomach, mind, and soul. I heeded their recommendations.
After an hour or so, an employee from Samoan Airways makes his way over to me. “It’s time to board. Please follow me,” he says. He leads my partner and me up to the desk where they weigh our bags and tag them appropriately. Then we’re asked to hop on the scale.
That’s right. Because the small plane can only carry a certain weight, modesty is kicked to the curb. They know your weight and assign you a seat to balance the aircraft. An innocent gesture such as switching seats with another passenger suddenly becomes a life-and-death matter. And this is just the first step in my journey of becoming a temporary digital nomad in American Samoa.
Getting on the Flight
If you’ve never flown in the minuscule planes frequently used by small airlines in the South Pacific or the Caribbean, you’re in for a thrill (or pure terror). These 10-to-20-passenger aircrafts handle only short flights and with good reason. They feel a bit dodgy and a tad unstable, or at least enough for you to contemplate whether they’ve met all the latest IATA (International Air Transport Association — or the international equivalent of the FAA) regulations.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” I repeat over and over again.
I smile to my partner as she tries to stave off nervousness. Between my extreme fear of heights and her mild fear of takeoff and landing, we’re a sorry sight to behold. The 12 other Samoans on the flight don’t seem bothered by any means.
When you enter the door to the airplane, a man points out your seat. “You’re in 4B — right next to that woman.”
I stop dead in my tracks. At this juncture, I’d like to point out that Samoans — at least in many regards — aren’t the smallest of people. The woman in the two-seat row categorically fits the large Samoan stereotype, taking up her seat and just over half of mine. Finding a way to twist into my seat and find the seatbelt seems fruitless. A Samoan man watches me fumble for about five minutes and chuckles to himself until he offers to vacate his seat and move to another.
“It’s tough sitting next to my wife on these flights, but I always love trying to see other people try to give it a go,” he says in a perfect American accent. I don’t ask him if switching seats is problematic or causes a flight imbalance. I simply trust him. If I don’t, I’m rife with fear.
Takeoff and Landing
Turning my attention to the aisle, or roughly the foot of space in between the two rows, I can clearly see the pilot and copilot fiddling with instruments, knobs, and levers. The engine is too loud to hear what they’re saying. As I stare out the window a bit dumbfounded, the sudden speed throws me into the seat. We take off.
The plane pitches and rolls while windshield wipers in the front of the plane allow the pilots to see the whiteness of clouds more clearly. Nothing like flying blind, I suppose. But as we rise above the cloud line, a calmness comes over me. Aquamarine waters lined with white sand beaches and lush jungles are enough to help you relax and swallow your heart back down into your body.
For the next 35 minutes, I soak in the scenery over about 75 miles. I’ve never felt so remote and yet so invigorated. When you travel to places like Samoa or American Samoa, you’re almost at the modern frontier of wilderness. It’s exciting, but also scary.
Last year, over 28,000 people visited the National Park of American Samoa, which is a decent litmus test of how many visitors the islands had overall. Most come from cruise ships, while a handful comes from the west as I did.
As the plane touches down on this rainy afternoon, I see the American flag fluttering in the breeze. It’s a welcome sight, even with the seemingly perpetual political turmoil in the United States. (That, I haven’t missed.) I feel like I’m home in a place I’ve never been to before. And thus starts my experience as a digital nomad in American Samoa.
The Little Things
Just coming from Samoa and Fiji before that, I started to understand the pace and customs of local life. But American Samoa was different. It had an American influence that was evident as soon as you reached customs.
As I fumbled through my phone to find the Airbnb address of where I was staying, the once-stern officer suddenly speaks.
“Don’t worry about it,” he assures me with a smile. “With this passport (U.S. passport), you’re good to go.” I’d never heard that from TSA employees at any airport, including international and domestic flights out of LAX, STL, SFO, TPA, and every other airport I’d ever been to. Ever.
After a DEA agent sized me up about my intentions and reason for visiting American Samoa, I finally make it to a falé — an open-air Samoan pavilion found just about everywhere in Polynesia. With ATMs absent, I head to the exchange place to exchange my Samoan tala to U.S. dollars. It’s a strange feeling to handle American cash, especially in the middle of the Pacific. But it also makes me feel a bit closer to home.
Taxis are meter-less here and all of the colorful buses on the island are owned by individual families, giving you two interesting options to get around the island. Seeing a Carl’s Jr. on Google Maps, my partner and I set out in a taxi to get a taste of America — something we rarely get to experience on our expeditions. We eventually wolf down our fast-food cornucopia, watch a bit of ESPN, and set out to our accommodation.
I ask our taxi driver to come back in 30 minutes so we can finish our food, and the driver doesn’t disappoint. His English isn’t great, but he’s able to get us to our destination without any problems. This 20-minute drive (oddly enough, just about half as long as the flight) gives me time to see the little differences between American Samoa and other Pacific nations. American flags are everywhere and are almost always paired with the American Samoan flag.
By far the strangest observation was around the high schools. Getting in at 3:00 p.m. gave me the chance to see high schoolers head out to the football field for after-school practice. That may not seem weird to outsiders, but rugby is a religion in the South Pacific; American football or gridiron — as it’s called around the region — is seen as a softer version of rugby and often the brunt of jokes. What’s even stranger is the number of NFL pennants and flags (definitely Seahawks and 49ers territory) you see as you get closer to Sunday. At some point, they start to outnumber the Stars and Stripes.
The Un-American Aspect of American Samoa
One of the more shocking aspects of American Samoa is the level of poverty. Nearly 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, which is immediately obvious in some of the dilapidated houses and businesses. Yet American Samoans are the nicest and most giving and caring people I’ve met after visiting nearly 20 countries. Happiness, it would seem, is not a product of wealth. It’s the result of mindset and values.
When you look around, it’s easy to understand why people are so happy and friendly. The giant mountains of the national park dramatically rise out of the ocean, giving the coast a landscape that goes from sea level to 1,600 feet in just a matter of a quarter-mile or so. The water sparkles from every angle, combining majestic waves in the distance with calmer, crystal-blue waters near the coastline.
Birds sing in the distance and dogs play with children in front yards. It’s the wholesome scene that’s almost like it’s out of suburbia — but 4,300 miles away from California.
Digital Nomad Time
After getting my bearings, it’s finally time to settle down into my semi-usual routine for the next eight days as a digital nomad in American Samoa. Luckily, my Airbnb had reviews saying that the Wi-Fi was the fastest on the island. It didn’t disappoint. My tech-savvy host — who now lives in San Francisco — made it a point to have super-fast internet. It easily outpaced any of the internet speeds I found in Fiji or even most of New Zealand, much to my surprise. One look at a map shows how isolated you really are, and the speedy Wi-Fi was a welcomed surprise.
If you aren’t lucky enough to find free Wi-Fi at an Airbnb, your options are limited. Throughout the main city of Pago Pago, free Wi-Fi doesn’t exist. A few hot spots will pop up near the limited number of hotels, offering internet for $5 a day (1 GB) or $50 for the week (15 GB). If you’re desperate, Sadie’s by the Sea is the only hotel that offers super-slow and super-free Wi-Fi. You can also walk over to the BlueSky store (the only mobile telecommunications provider on the island) near the market and buy a sim card and data for anywhere from $3 a day (1 GB) to $35 for the month (12 GB).
For a writer like me, this is expensive but more than enough to suffice. Other freelancers and digital nomads that need a more powerful connection may struggle. Because internet connections are expensive, cafes are hard to come by as well. However, Don’t Drink the Water Cafe is a welcome refuge where you can get good, old American drip coffee or fancy espresso, soak in the sights of the harbor, and enjoy the rarity of air conditioning.
Free Time Fun
If you’re a digital nomad in American Samoa and you’re an outdoorsy type, you’re going to love the territory. Throughout the beautiful grounds of the National Park of American Samoa, you can hike to the top of a tropical mountain, snorkel through an unspoiled coral reef, take pictures of the harbor from above, or check out some World War II-era guns. Take the bus out to Tisa’s Barefoot Bar on the east side of the island for a bar/restaurant experience on your own private beach for the evening.
The food is also a bit more friendly to the Western palate, as you can get burgers, hot dogs, pizza, and salads without much trouble. Fresh fish is everywhere, so if you love sushi or sashimi, you’re going to love your time in American Samoa. Oka — a type of lime-cured fish in coconut milk with fresh vegetables — is also refreshing and amazing.
For another dose of something completely different, take the bus to the north of Pago Pago. Here you’ll find the Starkist tuna factory and the overwhelming smell of tuna that I can’t quite describe nor can I un-smell. This factory is the number one employer on the island, but interestingly enough, I didn’t find cans of Starkist to be any cheaper. Go figure.
Is American Samoa a Digital Nomad Haven?
Although American Samoa is slowly acclimating to modern times via improved internet speeds and more accommodation, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a digital nomad hot spot. If you’re in the mood for adventure, the island has lots to offer. But you may find that the pace of life is a bit too slow and the internet speeds too lackluster to meet deadlines or finish projects.
And that’s okay. American Samoa doesn’t seem bothered by its frozen-in-time mantra. The pace and the warmness of its citizens say it all. Sometimes it’s nice to leave the digital world behind, even if it’s only for a few days.
Have you ever wanted to visit or become a digital nomad in American Samoa? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube to share your thoughts. We’d love to hear from you!
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