Samoa: curious culture in a Pacific paradise

The Pacific specks of Samoa are as far as you can go without being on the way home again. But the local culture – traditional and unique – is well worth the trip

8 mins

I turned around: behind me my own footprints (and no one else’s) dented the golden sand, meandering between the swish of the Pacific and a vanguard of coconut palms. I picked up a fallen nut, rolled it in my hand, tossed it into the blue.

I walked on, semiconsciously adopting what I fancied was a model-ish sashay – because clearly I’d been dropped into some sort of tourist board or chocolate bar advert. I giggled to myself. This was just too perfect.

And it was probably the least interesting thing about Samoa.

I’d come an awfully long way to reach this beach. The volcanic burps of Samoa – two main islands and a handful of smaller ones – lurk out in the South Pacific, just below the equator, just east of the International Date Line and just about as far away from the UK as you can get without being on the way home again.

Easily added as a stopover on the way to or from New Zealand, Samoa was still going to need to offer more than a nice seaside to justify the air miles.

Luckily, that wasn’t a problem.

Chiefs & transvestites

It was clear there was more to this Pacific paradise as soon as my guide Anthony and I drove out of harbourside capital Apia, on ’Upolu island. He slowed the car to let a lady cross the road – or so I thought.

“Fa’afafine,” grinned Anthony, nodding to the feminine – yet on closer inspection, undeniably male – figure flouncing along under a parasol. Samoa is a conservative Christian nation but it’s concocted a separate gender for its transvestite population (“they’re not gay, they’re girls in men’s bodies”); in this way the camp, cross-dressing fa’afafine are not only tolerated but affectionately embraced.

I was in Samoa to learn such things. The South Pacific has a profusion of idyllic island nations, so why should any traveller choose this one? There’s no doubt Samoa could do with the visitors – in 2009, just as it was establishing itself on the tourist trail, it was battered by a tsunami (more of that later).

But it’s quickly cleaning up, and now promises a unique mix of curious culture and beach beauty. For the next six days I’d be hopping around the archipelago to find out what makes this one of the most authentic pieces of the Pacific.

For Samoa, thanks to its extreme isolation and lack of any real industry, has developed a rather unique and idiosyncratic way of life that persists in the face of modernisation. Poor Anthony: as we left Apia’s low-rise spill for the super-luxuriant interior – so green and profuse you could practically hear it breathing – I bombarded him with questions.

The Samoan way

Fa’a Samoa – the Samoan way – is still the code by which most islanders live, a complicated structure of village hierarchies, family groups and matai (chiefs). This encompasses various levels of chief-ness, a village-based justice system (where an extreme punishment might involve having your plantation burned down), and a mix of Christian tenets and Polynesian mythology.

After a 20-minute intro my head was as full and tangled as the forest outside.

And all the while, as Anthony attempted to explain his country’s convoluted social structure, we were driving past the physical evidence: still-traditional villages, lush with wild ginger, breadfruit and taro, comprising disproportionately large churches and clusters of fales, the open-sided houses that mean Samoans really need to get on well with their neighbours.

I mulled what it must be like to live in a house with no walls; certainly Samoa has the climate not to need them. It was sweltering – the idea of sitting out the heat under a shady thatch with Pacific breezes wafting through seemed genius, privacy issues notwithstanding.

After the tsunami

These days you see more solid fales, the sugar-cane-leaf roofs replaced with corrugated iron, and hardwood posts swapped for concrete – in part a reaction to the two cyclones that walloped the islands in 1990 and 1991. But it was more recent devastation that I was about to see, as we headed to Lalomanu, on ’Upolu’s south coast.

On 29 September 2009 a tsunami slapped into Samoa, killing more than 200 people and destroying the flimsy structures along this perfect stretch of cliff-backed turquoise lagoon.

It was those cliffs that gave me goose pimples – there was such a narrow strip of land between ocean and precipice that any people caught between when the wave hit would have had nowhere to run.

Now the idyllic sands are backed by fallen fales, beaten-up cars and pig-snuffled debris as the rebuilding process gets slowly underway. We had fish and chips at the first tourist fale complex to reopen here; looking out at the few contented sunbathers and snorkellers to have returned, it seemed impossible this ocean could have been so brutal.

Island amble

The tsunami also hit the coast of Manono island, though not with such force. This tiny atoll just a short boat ride from ’Upolu escaped major damage; Leiataua and Faatepa, my hosts for the night, told me they’d been chilling on their veranda when the “white thing” advanced and battered their guest bungalows.

But they were open again in a matter of days, and the incident left them unfazed. When I asked why they lived on minuscule Manono, they simply replied: “There are no cars, no dogs, no pollution – it’s paradise.”

It certainly seemed pretty close to it, as I made a circumambulation in the late afternoon. It took about two hours to walk around the entire island, where the only creatures in a hurry were the chickens scuttling away from the cookhouses. Fishing nets were hung to dry in the trees, hinting at some earlier exertion, and a group of children played rugby with a deflated ball, but otherwise all was serene – just flitting bats, lolling elders and swaying flowers of rainbow brightness.

My stay was, sadly, brief – a bad weather warning made it advisable to get off the island while we still could (though there are worse places to be marooned...). I’d been hoping to linger a little, maybe learn to make palusami, a delicious mix of coconut cream and taro leaves. But now Samoa’s big island, Savai’i, beckoned across the water.

After the ferry ride over from ’Upolu, Anthony and I drove south from the port and, in intermittent sun and torrential downpours, fought our way to our first stop, Pulemelei.

You’d think the largest ancient structure in Polynesia would be a little easier to access, but enigmatic Pulemelei, a 1,000-year-old, 12m-high mound of basalt rocks of unknown purpose, has fallen foul of fa’a Samoa.

Local villagers and a plantation corporation both claim ownership of the site; the dispute remains at the appeal court, so in the meantime, the road that used to lead right up to the mound has become overgrown. The only way in is on foot.

But it was so much better this way. Anthony warmed to his pioneer role, seizing a stick and bashing us a path through the bush. We forded a river, where I slipped and dunked my camera; a small lizard ran into my sandal (and, thankfully, out again); long grasses rasped at my legs leaving me cut and grazed. But it was a great mini adventure.

Above us coconut palms swayed perilously in the wind, like bowlers rolling their shoulders, warming up for a throw. I hoped this wasn’t the case – death by falling coconut (though in some ways a fitting demise for a travel writer) seemed too ridiculous. It’s a real concern though – best not pause to read the sign declaring ‘Watch Your Head!’, which is unhelpfully nailed to a potentially fatal coconut tree.

As we clambered on we only gradually realised we were standing on Pulemelei itself – but this is no slight on the site. The jungle has reclaimed it, having no truck with human squabbles; shrubs and butterflies have moved in, temporary guardians.

We scrambled up top, where cairns let us know we were actually standing on Polynesia’s biggest mound, and where views swept across to the ocean and into the vine-tangled forest.

After hiking back out, we popped to next-door Afu Aau Falls, one of many pretty plunge pools that dot the islands. You used to be able to access this jungly swimming spot directly from the Pulemelei path, but following the ownership dispute Afu Aau’s guardians took a bulldozer to the through-route; now you have to backtrack – and pass the fee-gathering men sitting in the fale at the entrance.

It didn’t look like a four-man job: Anthony and I were the only visitors. But there was a quartet of middle-aged men, chewing the fat and collecting entrance fees from the odd tourist.

The man who took our money was sporting traditional Samoan tattoos – I could just see them extending below the hem of his lava-lava (sarong). I winced involuntarily: a Samoan tattoo can take weeks or even months to complete, the designs punched into the skin with boars’ tusk combs and a mallet, and extending from above the waist to below the knee – an inky agony, bigger than a pair of board shorts.

Could I be Samoan?

I didn’t fancy a tattoo myself, but there were certainly some attractions to the Samoan way of life: a desire for comfort and enjoyment over exertion, a close-knit family and a village structure that ensures someone will always help you out.

However, the problem with a society where individual is secondary to collective is that it perhaps stifles entrepreneurship and development.

“My father was an Italian travelling doctor,” Paul Caffarelli, MD of Siufaga Resort told me over dinner that evening. “He heard that Samoa was the world’s poorest country so decided to come. He was amazed when he got off the plane and saw a load of smiling, healthy people! The Samoans had no money but they had loads of food and pretty simple needs.”

Paul was describing the country 50 years ago, but the same could be said today. GDP is woefully low, but it seems impossible to go hungry here – the trees are practically throwing fruit at you.

This fecundity was further in evidence the next day as I followed Australian guide Warren Jopling up the slopes of Tafua, one of the island’s youngest volcanoes and a veritable Lost World of rainforest in south-east Savai’i. Swifts fed on the wing and Samoan flying foxes swooped for tava berries as we trooped up over fallen trunks and fat buttressed banyan trees to get to the top of the crater rim.

There are more than 450 volcanic pimples on Savai’i, Warren explained as he climbed (incredibly lithely for an 80-year-old) – unsurprising then that, being a geologist, he’d ended up settling here.

He told me about Samoa’s explosive beginnings and the legacy of all that lava, but he also gave me an outsider’s view on the culture.

“I’ve been here for 17 years, and nothing much has changed,” he said. “The fales have electricity now, but the way of life is the same. Oh, they’ve changed which side of the road they drive on – what a waste of money that was!” Warren was forthright with his opinions, good and bad.

He also spoke of the Samoans’ faith, about their big churches and their love of the ceremony and socialising of religion. The following day – a Sunday – I put on my glad rags (stifling in the heat) and joined the service at Safotu’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church to see this for myself.

Sunday best

A steady stream of worshippers were passing beneath the twin towers of the basilica, one of Samoa’s oldest, into the cool interior, blessedly aerated by the doors flung open down the nave.

The man in the pew in front of me wore a lava-lava bearing the words ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’; the sarong of the man to my right declared ‘Happy Christmas’ (a few months too late). A dog padded in from one of the open doors and settled down for the service.

I didn’t understand a great deal of the proceedings, conducted in Samoan; at one point the priest sounded very angry, at another he seemed to be praying that the cyclone currently threatening offshore would blow off.

The choir were in fine voice though, and the congregation eager to join in (Samoans love to sing). That is, save one little boy who spent the duration playing with a plastic dinosaur and making faces at me if I caught his eye – much to his dad’s annoyance. Some things are not so different even if you do go to the other side of the planet.

Fa’a Samoa faces some 21st-century challenges. Anthony, aged 25, admitted he hadn’t been to church for a fair while before escorting me, and wasn’t as well versed in the old customs as perhaps he should be: “Why would you go to a village meeting when you could go to the cinema?”

But fa’a Samoa is so deeply ingrained, even the young and more globally exposed can’t shake it off entirely. Anthony may have preferred the movies to meetings, but he still lived at home with his family – and saw no reason not to – said grace before meals, respected his elders and felt keenly his responsibility to look after his relatives.

This way of life – laid-back, community spirited – suits the steamy, world-removed islands of Samoa, something I mulled as I ambled along my chocolate-bar beach.

Ahead, I spotted Frieda, owner of my fale home that night, sitting on some wooden steps, gazing out to sea. It was a view she saw every day, but she seemed just as transfixed as me. It suddenly all seemed so simple: the kiss of the breeze, the blue of the water and the eternal swish of the ocean.

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