Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sadie's Hotels, Pago Pago, American Samoa

     I’m still in Mexico, although the following is about two hotels in American Samoa. I lived in the South Pacific for many years and still work with Sadie’s Hotels in Pago Pago. The Sadie Thompson Inn and Sadie’s by the Sea are both great places to stay and in the name of shameless self-promotion, they display and sell my artwork. This time last year I stayed at Sadie’s by the Sea for a month to put my prints up in the rooms and work on their web site .  I hadn’t been to American Samoa for six years, although little had changed. That’s the up side of the South Pacific; change happens even slower than the pace of life. I used to own a thrift store and when I told people it would take a month or two to get what they were looking for, they inevitably responded with “That soon?”
      I hiked to the top of Mt. Alava for photos of Pago Pago Harbor with the Flying Doctors who were visiting at the time. The National Park has recently built trails that are adventure hiking at its best. They wind along the ridge of the island offering views most often seen by soaring sea birds. Most of Tutuila, the largest of seven islands that form American Samoa, rises vertically out of the sea. There is little arable land and most of the population lives along the edges, in many places just wide enough for a two lane road and a few houses. Where the trails climb cliffs that mountain goats would lose footing on the park has installed flexible ladders and provided ropes so you can haul yourself up. The jungle is thick, even the air feels dense as it rains most afternoons. Three days without rain constitute a drought and the foliage actually wilts. The rain is warm though and if you are not easily fazed you’ll fall into the local custom of walking around oblivious and dripping wet until it passes. 

     Samoans are not camera shy, the opposite is true. They will break into a run to be photographed. While I was talking pictures  of the staff I caught an employee sprinting into the group shot. 
Click on any photo to enlarge it. 

     When I arranged with the cleaning staff to take their photos they knocked on my door early the next morning dressed and eager. It might have been the only time they were early for work. When I held up my camera on the street to photograph one of the many colorful hand painted buses the driver slammed on the brakes and leaned out the window to wave with both hands. The passengers all lurched forward, waving and smiling as well. The buses are rolling works of art; hand built on the beds of pickup trucks and painted with characteristic Samoan flair.  

     When cruise ships dock, usually for just a day, the population in Pago Pago doubles. People hop on tours for an, albeit brief, ride around the island. The owner of this bus is a fan of the movie so he painted the sinking ship on both sides. This day it was filled with tourists fresh off a boat. 

                        This bus I have no explanation for. 

     Tom Drabble, the owner of Sadie’s Hotels, first restored the Sadie Thompson Inn and later leased the beach front half of the old Rainmaker Hotel. He did a miraculous job of bringing it back from near total ruin. The other half of the Rainmaker is still a rotting hulk. While abject disrepair makes interesting photos, many people see the old hotel as a disheartening eyesore. I think there are more ghosts in the place than in most cemeteries so I wrote the following after researching the history of Goat Island, the rock the hotel was built on. The web master who created the Sadie’s site was not amused and didn’t post my story, calling what is left of the Rainmaker an abomination, but there is more to the story.
       Rumor has it that the ruins of the old Rainmaker are haunted.  Local women used to swim from shore to the naval officer’s club that was perched temporarily on the rock. Origins of the island’s name are unclear.  Possibly it came from sailors who left goats on small islands so they could easily be captured for food, but more likely it was an association with the nickname for Navy personal.  The young women swam through shark infested waters in the dark to the precarious clubhouse to carouse with the officer’s. Why the gals couldn’t walk on the gangway probably had something to do with the surreptitious nature of their visits. Promises were made and forgotten, girls left behind waited in vain for their officer’s to return. More than one heart was broken on Goat Island. The ruins are fenced and entry is forbidden, but there are mysteries to explore. Wet footprints have been seen on the steps of the ruins with no explanation, although some of them were mine when I snuck in to take photos. Still, mysterious wails emit from the structure at night. Some hear laughter from far away, wafting over the surface of the bay when the wind is still. 

    Goat Island Officer's Club, 1940. Pago Pago, American Samoa

         Sadie’s by the Sea and the dark brown roofs of the old Rainmaker Hotel just behind, 2010. The shoals between Goat Island and the shore were filled to create the land to build the hotel.

        Goat Island, or the rock that remains, lies under the building on the right. The original Rainmaker was built in 1960. In 2005 Tom Drabble, the owner of Sadie's Hotels, restored forty six rooms to create the modern resort that is Sadie’s by the Sea and the Goat Island Café.
   The old hotel buildings are an ambitious restoration project for anyone dedicated to preserving the perfect fusion between British Colonial and Polynesian architecture. It is certainly unique and a treasure of the South Pacific, or so I say. The right developer would need a highly philanthropic spirit with enough capital to rebuild the crumbling foundations that were damaged when an airplane crashed into the hotel in 1980 killing seven people and demolishing an entire wing. They would also have to combat supernaturally tenacious mold and, of course, exorcise ghosts. Tom did a fantastic job with the beach front section, so it can be done. I have another idea though, with a little scrubbing and paint the ruins would make a very cool miniature golf course.   

     And if ruins with ghosts aren’t enough, there are bats the size of Chihuahuas with three foot wing spans that shriek like cats in heat. I love this place. It’s hot and steamy, people are big and friendly and there are no snakes in the jungle. To see all the beautiful pictures you can stand, check out I took the photos a year ago so they are still current, but I posted the weird stuff here, for people like me.  

                                           Keep smiling!

Monday, July 18, 2011

La Ciudad de los Muertos, La Paz, Mexico

     Panteón de Los San Juanes, the oldest and largest cemetery in La Paz, is not found on tourist maps even though it is heaven on earth for photographers. The dearly departed lie undisturbed in a quiet neighborhood in the back of town in a breathlessly hot valley surrounded by jagged dessert mountains. I set out with friends on foot to climb a long set of stairs for a view of the city with no idea what to expect. Once over the top I thought were looking down at a massive ghetto, but what at first appeared to be acres of tiny homes in disrepair were instead row up row of­­ crypts. When it dawned on me the miniature city was the final resting place for the dead, rather than abject squalor for the living an odd moment of relief washed over me. 

     Walking through cemeteries is a reminder our time is limited. Grave diggers moved slowly in the heat or sat quietly in the shade. The crypts ascend in age the further you walk. And the numbers of children’s graves certainly speak to a harsher life. Some family lines must have vanished as neglect coupled with entropy left many crypts and markers in the older section worn, broken and forgotten. Still, the craftsmanship was not lost, until we walked even further. The more recent dates revealed the gradual death of artistry as well. The graves and crypts turned from carved stone and wood to simple, clean lines of cement and cinder block. The newest structures, painted in bright, happy colors looked like a day care center, giving none of the somber feeling cemeteries usually inspire. However, they were highly effective as a reminder that life is a celebration. 

     We stood in the shade of a dusty, gnarled tree to escape the midday sun, which was hot enough to spontaneously combust body hair. Even fake flowers appeared dry and wilted. The patina of dust equalized the elaborate and humble structures in monochromatic brown earth, as if the power of man to stratify between rich and poor turned out to be a silly waste of time in the end. I suggested we go find something to eat. There’s nothing like a stroll among the deceased to work up an appetite.   


Saturday, July 16, 2011

No Comments?

       Anyone out there? I’m still learning and am not sure I have the options set correctly. Please do me a favor and try to post a comment. Has 'Blogging for Nimrods' been written yet? I’m back in La Paz for a few weeks with time to figure this out. Any language is fine, Urdu even, I would really like to see if it works. Since I’m back where I can’t order food without pointing, pay without holding out a handful of change or get a plastic bag without an interpretive dance it really doesn’t matter if I understand the comments. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll probably use a translating program out of sheer curiosity and gratitude.

     La Paz is a wonderful city. If you’ve never been, put it on your list. It’s easy to fly here, so I did when the house in Los Angeles where I’ve been staying sold. The future is a wide open blur again, just the way I like it. Seven years ago a talented medium told me I would be living near a church with two towers. A little vague, but every time I moved somewhere new she asked me to send her a picture of the local church. I have many times and none of them matched her mental image, until now. I sent her this picture and sure enough it’s the one. I first visited La Paz twenty years ago and the city keeps drawing me back, confirmation from the great beyond accepted.  

    Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Paz (Our Lady of Peace) is a simple stone building dating back to 1860. The city took its name from the church and the park in front of the simple facade is alive with family entertainment such as bingo, puppet shows, music etc. In the evening it’s a lovely, low key place to absorb the culture. And the pews are a fine place to sit quietly when it’s too hot to do anything outside but fry bacon on the sidewalk. The chunky black object in the foreground is a replica of the famous Mushroom Rock of Ballandra Bay just south of La Paz. Rumor has it the real rock was destroyed in a storm, but reproduced and replaced so visitors would not be disappointed and this is a spare in case it happens again.

     There is another Catholic church, a good walk from downtown and much larger than the modest original church. As things go it will be a long while before it is finished, understandably the project has been affectionately nicknamed Our Lady of Perpetual Construction. Southern Baja has very few problems, except a lack of tourism as a result of U.S. State Department warnings about visiting Mexico, but how can anyone resist visiting when natural wonders are faked just to keep tourists happy?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


     Just shoot me for not learning Spanish. The best beaches are in Latin countries and the food is better so it’s a shame I blunder through a menu like a mentally challenged chimpanzee. I held a yard sale last Saturday in Los Angeles and it would have been a lot more rewarding to be able to speak Spanish. I love how the language sounds, but trying to roll an ‘r’ gives me an instant speech defect, like having a mouth full of wet sand. Bargaining in Spanish was out of the question. I would love to understand what the majority of people in California are saying as well as order something besides tacos. Does anyone know the best way to learn a new language? I want it to be easy, like putting a text book under my pillow so my brain will absorb it while I’m sleeping. Only I believe dogs will speak English before that will work so please make practical suggestions.
     During the many years I lived in American Samoa I didn’t have a clue what people were saying half the time. I smiled and nodded a lot, but for all I knew I agreed to give them my car and put their kids through college. There was an upside to living in the dark, verbally that is. I asked a woman to translate for me while we were practicing for an outrigger canoe race.  I enjoyed the endless laughter and asked her what the guys in the boat were saying. “Sure, I can tell you”, she said. What followed for the next twenty minutes was a stream of potty talk I could not have made up. “Okay, so the guy up front said he just peed in the boat and it was going to run back on our feet, then the guy behind you said the guy up front had to pee in the boat cause his dick’s not long enough to hang over the side, then another guy said he already got even cause he peed in everyone’s water bottle”. I checked my water bottle, it looked clear but I didn’t touch it anyway. I never asked again and blissfully went through my days enjoying the gentle sound of the language without being privy to the meaning. It was heaven, but I still guarded my water bottle. 
      Once again I find myself wanting to know what’s being said. I want to learn and not just swear words, which for some reason are incredibly easy to remember and often get a laugh so they are sorely tempting to use. I might not make quality friends though. Is there a language injection? Or an IV drip since I don’t seem to pick things up very fast? I recently discovered that the Playboy channel has the option of Spanish subtitles, but so far all I picked up was No, No, No (long sigh) Si, Si, Si. Not much help in normal conversation.    


Monday, July 4, 2011

Gun bling

     Apparently you can wear a gun in plain sight in California as long as it is not loaded. But what for exactly? Wearing an unloaded gun must be the guy equivalent of breast implants. Although just to say, it won’t have the same effect on women that hooters have on men. I used to sail with a British couple who had the privilege of flying the blue flag on their yacht. Royalty flies a white flag, Piers of the Realm the blue and commoners, a red version. They didn’t want to appear pretentious so they flew a red flag posing as commoners...only there was more. When British company arrived on the boat the blue flag mysteriously appeared on the table and excuses were mumbled about not flying it. This is the British equivalent of having an unloaded gun that is hidden most of the time. I didn’t grow up with the British capacity for understatement so the flag thing struck me as slightly silly. But why wear a hunk of metal that is less effective than a coffee cup for self-defense? I like guns, but as jewelry they’re no different than wax food in restaurant windows. Beyond looking good (and that’s a matter of opinion) it’s still a sham.
     Some people will assume your gun is loaded and that’s a whole new can of worm chow. Keeping guns and ammo separate during transport makes sense, but how many guns actually need to be taken from one place to another shoved in the front of a pair of pants? If form follows fashion, before long one gun is not going to be enough. Although, wearing multiple weapons would enable another fashion statement that just won’t die; your pants will fall down even lower. Welcome to LA.