A discomfiting feature of going to places off the beaten track is the surprise shown by the natives themselves. I recall traveling to Dushanbe from Moscow by Somon Airways; the flight attendant--a young Tajik woman--on learning that I am an Indian living in Washington, looked puzzled and asked, enunciating each word, "Why, may I ask you, are you going to Tajikistan?" The slight sense of alarm caused by the query hinting at faulty decision making on my part was heightened by Aristomene Varoudakis, a gifted economist and one of my advisers at the World Bank, pronouncing, ten minutes into the flight: "So far, so good." Those words, meant to be comforting, were disquieting in their suggestion that this was a journey in which ten minutes without a mishap deserved a toast.
The same was true as I headed to Samoa. The flight was full of Samoans who could have walked out of a Paul Gauguin frieze, a few surfers and some missionaries. Jimmy Olazo and I from the World Bank did not fit into any of these categories and faced the inevitable interrogation on why we were going there. Samoa is indeed an unusual country to visit. It is impossibly small, with a population of less than 200,000. Its resources are meager, consisting of fish, some agricultural products and spectacular scenery. To an economist the viability of an economy like this is a conundrum. Where do you get the economies of scale from to produce your cars, hospitals, clothes? How much fish and tourism can you supply to the rest of the world to pay for these? Is it possible to help Samoans organize a steady flow of workers, skilled and unskilled, to other nations and rely on their remittances? How do you provide any insurance against the risks of natural disaster and calamity, a concern that, as I discovered over the next three days, dominated the lives of the Samoans? How do you conduct monetary policy in such an impossibly small nation?