Pago Pago, American Samoa Report of what it's like to live there

Personal Experiences from Pago Pago, American Samoa

Pago Pago, American Samoa 02/12/18


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. I have also lived in Calgary (Canada), San Pedro Town (Belize), and Galway (Ireland).

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

USA. Flights from the east coast of the United States take approximately 44 hours usually routing through LAX or DFW, then into HON, and then onto American Samoa. Flights into American Samoa are only two days a week.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Lived there 3.5 years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Most housing is small houses, though a very few apartments a few "gated" communities exist. Mostly it is small 2-3 bedroom houses in rural villages.

Samoa does not have a tourist-based economy and so most housing is not meant for or used by expats. Generally people have to take whatever is available at the time they arrive. Usually that means 1-3 choices. Then you hope to upgrade to a nicer house when another expat rotates out of the country.

Commute times are usually around 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. There is one road in a ring around the island and the average traffic speed is 10 mph.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Availability is rather hit or miss. The common method of shopping is to hit 3-5 different small stores to hope to find what you are looking for/need. Being an island, costs are higher than mainland US, but (remarkably) lower than Hawai'i.

Choices are limited and often stock is not replenished, so once it is gone from the shelves many products never return. There is a mix of Korean, American and Australian/ New Zealand products. Fresh local fruit is available from street vendors, but prices vary depending on if they know you live there. Milk is only available in UHT boxes.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

We missed teas and coffee. Some are available locally but of poor quality.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There are only 2-3 restaurants in the country. Generally they do not meet low US standards. There is no takeout. The "best" restaurant that Palagis (i.e. expats) used to "frequent," closed due to a local land dispute.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Expect ants and roaches in all buildings as well as geckos. Centipedes occasionally. Mosquito netting must be checked regularly, but the geckos do a good job of getting the few strays. We stored virtually all food (even dry goods) in the refrigerator to keep it away from insects.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

US Mail is available. A customs form is required both ways in shipping. It usually takes 2-3 weeks. Next day air can be paid for and it also takes 2-3 weeks on average but if it is timed right, mail sometimes makes the next flight off the island.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Some expats have household help, mostly the expat New Zealanders. Most other expats do not. Typically cleaners are Tongan women and charge $10-15/ day to clean the entire house. Household help is not common, certainly there are people willing to do it, but you have to find them by word of mouth.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

None available. Maybe a neighbor has some free weights. Otherwise a few of us went swimming, but that is rare.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Hit or miss. US credit cards are taken at some stores. There were 3 ATMs on the island that I knew of. They are safe to use but often ran out of money to dispense.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Greater than 80% of church services are in English. The few Samoan services are in remote villages. Predominantly Mormon.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

None. Samoan (or Tongan) is useful for getting local price at fruit stalls on roads, but otherwise Korean is helpful at the grocery stores. None required though.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. No infrastructure in place. Constant and significant flooding.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Sort of. Local buses make the loop around the island. They are safe, but play music at around 110 decibels. Even with earplugs expect permanent hearing damage. That is not hyperbole. Often inappropriate rap lyrics. Expat parents that have occasion to ride the bus have asked music to be changed or turned down. This is usually met with laughter from the entire bus and is not changed. It only costs $1, so you get what you pay for.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Anything. There are only a few roads and all are paved, but with numerous potholes. Bring something that is not going to break down. Most expats buy vehicles from other expats rotating out. The salt spray will destroy your car, you will not want the rust and roaches, so those that do ship cars to post rarely depart with them.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Not usually available. Becoming more available, but at 1980s US dial-up speeds when you can get it.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Most cell providers don't work. Mountainous terrain and little infrastructure makes them unreliable at best. They are available but I knew few that had them. I had a cell phone for work, I used it maybe once a year.

We relied mostly on satellite phones. Even those only had spotty coverage for about 6 minutes/ hour.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

There are no vets in the country. No real quarantine (depends on who is working at the airport when your animal arrives). Feral dogs are common. Pet dogs are not "pets" in the US sense, they are usually feral dogs that live at someone's house. Dog bites are common- but most of the island dogs are small (25-30 pounds).

There are many diseases carried by mosquitoes so any medications must be shipped in from a US vet. Due to these constraints, few expats bring their pets. They are often left with family back in the US.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Most expats work for US federal agencies, the court system, tuna canneries, or the local banks. There are few, if any, jobs for spouses. Occasionally contract work will open at one of the local government agencies, but money laundering and fraud is rampant so few take them if available. Internet is spotty at best so telecommuting is not usually possible. Federal employees make normal US wages. Expats in general make 80% of normal US wages Locals make on average $6000/ year.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Occasionally something is available with the National Park or NOAA (usually expat spouses).

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Very casual. Flip-flops are acceptable at the Governor's mansion and in court. "Formal" dress sometimes consists of a shirt and tie in court. Generally board shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops are common. Hawaiian shirts and shorts are common for those with more of a "dress code".

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Some, but it is generally safe. Break-ins at expat houses are common. Rapes have occured. The longer you live here and the more locals you know the safer you become. The idea is that expats have no families to dole out retribution upon lawbreakers: live there long enough and if local community accepts you and you get de facto protection.

The "prison" has no locks. The lawyers (always expats) who prosecute criminals live right next door to the prison.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Dengue Fever, Filariasis/ elephantitis, insect bites, fungal infections, marine life injuries (urchins, lionfish, stonefish, etc.) Health care does not meet US standards. The one and only health care facility is a "hospital" on island. It has a few expat doctors, but still the work is in a remote tropical medical center. Serious medical issues are evacuated off the island to Hawaii (anything beyond broken bones or that can be treated with antibiotics). Flights are two days a week and take many hours once flight is scheduled to leave. There is an ambulance service, but it is better to self treat or drive oneself to the "hospital."

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Excellent. No industry and in the middle of the Pacific. Some fungal concerns, but we knew of nobody that complained of allergies except to certain foods.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

If you need medications bring it with you. Plan on sending away for it periodically. It is far too damp in country to stockpile medications in your house. They will go bad in a matter of weeks.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Frustration with "island" mentality and work ethic. Expect it to take 6-7 hours to pay a simple electric bill (in person). Often expat spouses spend days just trying to find the groceries they need and paying bills.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

It is hot and very humid. Usually 90 degrees F everyday with 70% chance of monsoon deluge. There is a wet season and a wetter season. It rains 8-13 FEET a year. Highest rain on then mountain tops, but expect side roads to be flooded out regularly- but only for 5-6 hours. We actually kayaked down several to give you some perspective.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are two private schools. Certainly not international in the normal sense. Generally education is not encouraged and is often actively discouraged. These two schools are easily the best in the country. They are taught in English, but expect bullying and very sub-standard curriculum. Many federal agencies designate this an unaccompanied post for this reason.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Generally none. You might get a specific teacher willing to do something, but highly unlikely.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

No. No. Not applicable. No pre- or after-school care.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

There are football teams at the local high schools. Never heard of an expat student playing.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Very small. You will quickly know 80% of the entire community quickly. Morale varies depending on how long one has been on island. Most expats come on two-year contracts, but the average stay is seven months. Expats that make their full tour are rare. Those that do know everyone. I met some great people and because it is small it tends to be very close knit.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Local expat get togethers (barbeques, parties, beach days, etc.) There was a scuba diving club that brought expats together weekly (almost no Samoans can swim-the ones whole can tend to be fishermen/poachers so they obviously don't scuba dive). There are no clubs.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It is better for people without children (due to schooling issues and bullying from local kids). Couples and singles will find a close knit expat community.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Yes. LGBT is very accepted- sort of. "Fafafines" (essentially transvestites in Samoan culture) are widely accepted, but openly non-heterosexual actions are not ever seen. Generally so long as you don't advertise your sexuallity people would know, but otherwise not care.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Yes. Significant. Distinct caste system. Expats tend to have positions of authority and so are tier 1 or 2 "elites". Gender inequality tends not to be an issue except on a personal level. I never saw any indication of religious prejudice, but there tended to only be Christians or atheists on the island. Not sure what reaction there would be to other religious groups. I tend to think there would be none.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Excellent scuba diving. Wonderful hiking. Great friends in expat community. Easy travel to (Western) Samoa and cheap flights throughout Pacific Islands and to Australia and New Zealand.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

There is only hiking, beaches, and for some diving. If you like the outdoors there is lots to see. If not, very little to do. Hiking the National Park trail to Mt. Alava at night is nice. Lots of fruit bats and nice views of the island and island lights.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

No. Some handicrafts, but most are imported from Western Samoa or other island nation and China. Most expats head home with Kava bowls, and tapa cloth (both are usually imported in from other islands).

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Not much to spend money on so wages can be saved. Nice outdoor experiences.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Don't bring anything important (i.e keepsake or irreplaceable) to the island. The climate will destroy/ reclaim all. The longer you live on the island the less likely you can bring an item back with you. Everything gets covered in mold, rust, etc. Leather gets covered in fungus within days/ weeks. Photographs "melt" for lack of a better term. DVDs delaminate and stop working. Laptops corrode internally and die. Furniture will be infested with roaches. Anything metal will rust quickly. Bring only the bare essentials. Buy cheap items once you arrive and plan to leave lighter than you arrived.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes. It was a great experience. But I would only move there without children.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Expectations of a "western" work ethic and cell phones.

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4. But don't forget your:

Sunscreen, insect repellent, acceptance of cultural differences

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost (actually about living in Kiribati, but entire thing reads just like living here)

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6. Do you have any other comments?

This is TECHNICALLY a part of the United States- a territory. In practical terms it is significantly closer to other small Pacific island nations. The culture is still very much an island nation. Corruption is rampant, and the island still runs on the tribal Matai (chief) system.

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