Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Beginners Guide to Polynesia – Western Samoa

Polynesian Resource Center
Samoa and Tonga are the most traditional societies in Polynesia perhaps because they were the oldest being settled seperate identities for three thousand years. The Samoans have a term Fa'a Samoa which literally means 'the Samoan way', which sums up Samoan attitude and pride in their ways and their values. This is a conservative society and that is a fact not an implied critiizm. It fact Fa'a Samoa has helped Samoans make successes of themselves from Auckland in New Zealand to West Los Angeles in the States, in areas as diverse as NFL football were 40% of playeres are now Samoan to the opera stage in London.  There are successful Samoan musicians, comics and very commercially successful Samoan movies. That intense love of family and respect for tradition and ability for dicipline and hard work has seen Samoans survive, thrive and spread out to successfully colinise  the outer edges of the Pacific.  To visit Samoa is therefore to go to the root of this success.

To travelers used to the Nazis of US Customs and Imigration, a negative pattern of human interaction now spreading to many other countries such as Australia, the smiling Samoan men and women who are the officials who greet the weary traveler fresh off the plane are a tonic for the human soul and announce to the brain that this experience is going to be different. The warmth of the greeting is matched by the climate because you are now in the warm and gentle busom of the South Seas. Coconut trees, bannana palms and Trade winds greet your eyes and touch your face and it would take a miserable soul indeed not to feel happy. If you a lucky and strike one of those large middle aged Samoan women with a personality to match her frame as your driver to your hotel or resort then this happy impression is confirmed, and you are now sold on a positive view of Polynesians that will carry you through your life and the odd little disappointment cannot dent the love affair that you will have of the Pacific and its people.

And this positive first impression is important because it affects how you react to them as a people. If you are lucky a little bit of your reserve will slip. You will yourself be a friendlier person, less uptight and be prepared to met Polynesians with a smile, without the defensive wall that experience has taught you is the safest way to greet strangers. Your whole experience of Polynesia depends on this happening. In other words you must ignore all your acquired reactions to strangers and imbrace Polynesian attitudes which is exactly the process that Europeans have been going through since Samual Wallis ordered the Dolphin's anchor dropped in Tahiti in 1767. Because your goal in visiting Polynesia should not be to acquire a tan but rather to leave  better human being, and you will not do that if you do not allow the wonder of Polynesia and Polynesians to touch you.   

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Therefore your first goal in Samoa is get out of Apia because Apia is a town and therefore the meeting point of Samoa and Europe and full of negative influence of Western Society. Forget the Agie Grey Hotel or worse the Agie Grey Resort or any resort run by an Australian. Book yourself into a Samoan run family resort next to a real Samoan village and let true Polynesian values wash over you. I went to Lolomanu Beach to Lise Sini which was the perfect introduction to Samoa. This was back before the 2007 tsanami tore through the place and killed 9 people in the village and 103 0n this side of the island. Then accomadation was just a rough and tiny Fale on the beach with cold showers in a concrete abulution block and a concrete main building that the trade winds blew through and it was paradise. Warm, friendly and quaint, it will now I'm sure be just as warm and friendly but probably will have lost the quaint.

Now here we must intoduce a warning. These resorts beside villages have a funny sort of dispensation to European values, in other words short shorts and bikini tops are acceptable but do not walk into the village dressed like that. Suddenly smiles will disappear. This is just respecting local social mores like removing your shoes before entering private houses but it will also apply to resort building if they are run by Samoans. If you are staying a week make sure you go to church on Sunday, firstly the singing is superb and the experience is at least interesting but it is a when in Rome do as the Romans do moment. If you are on friendly terms with the Samoan staff you will find your visit to church is commented upon and you have gained brownie points. It is a nice touch and usually takes your relationship with the locals to a slightly different level. One small point is worth noting because you can be caught out. The pass the plate part of the service is there as in most Sunday services in any Christian church so make sure you have some notes or coins, but when you arrive and join the milling throng of locals in their finery there will be a trestle table set up where people are paying money and their contributions being noted in a ledger . This is tithing for the upkeep of the church and for the local minister's salary. You are not required to contribute but again if you do it will be noted. If you do ten dollars is about right as a gesture of solidarity with the locals. This tithing is a interesting custom as it is of course common in Christian communities worldwide, but as always in Polynesia it has its own slant. The careful noting in the ledger of everyones contribution results in a list for the whole village to see, which shames those who failed to contribute, which makes life difficult in a tight community like a Samoan village. So locals who earned no money or spent it that week will borrow from their relatives. This is Fa'a Samoa in action and has echoes through much of Polynesia in true Polynesian values of sharing resourses. But of course this creates tensions in families as Western ideas of individual ownership of money and possessions creep in.  To some extent this was probably always the case but is just exaserbated by Western ideas of non corperate ownership. Most human beings in large familes love each other dearly but also fight like cats and dogs it is as the French like to say with a shrug 'normal'. We Westerners would probably find it clostrophobic in the extreme, but that only proves our total disconnect from the norms of human existance for the history of Man on this earth.

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In the small resorts the village kids will put on a show for the visitors on a Saturday night with skill and enthusiasm. If its boys it will be slap dances and as the kids are having fun you will enjoy it. There are tours around the island usually you end up at the local beauty spot often a waterfall which as I come from a country with waterfalls everywhere this is boring, but sometimes you will get to see life as lived by the locals and this is interesting, even quite domestic stuff as how Samoans traditionally cook and like all Polynesians Samoans are skilled gardners and horticulturlists. In small Samoan run resorts you can ask the staff to arrange for a trip out with the locals fishing either inside or outside the reef. This is not a fishing charter but going out with uncle Sione' for just a bit of hunter gathering with a few laughs thrown in, with you and you clumpsy Palani ways providing the main entertainment, but if you laugh harder than everyone else you will be regarded a good sort and if you take the boys back to the bar at the resort and buy them a few beers you will have made new friends and ceased to be a tourist.  Polynesians have a wicked sense of humour often slightly grubby and in such moments you can see the real people with the Sunday School morals put aside. Being teased is a compliment and is far more likely to be a true sign of affection that undue deference being shown.

In the Samoan resorts it pays to keep a eye on your fellow guests, as you will sometimes see how not to behave around Samoans. On my first trip a group of young urban Australians were in residence who seemed to think anyone with brown skin was a lower form of life. The rude manner they adopted to the locals was stupid in the extreme and my partner and I had much fun imagining   the Samoan staff in the kitchen taking turns spitting on their meals. In reaction to this we went to extravegant lengths to be pleasant to the staff till it became obvious even to these young Australian arseholes that all the fun and laughter happened at our table. But there was an interesting result that the Samoans were very aware of what was happening and why. Therefore a great affection grew between the Samoan staff and ourselves which resulted on the last morning of our stay with an incident which surprises me still. We arrived at breakfast and my little friend who is very blond and pretty was enveloped in the ample arms of one of the Samoan waitresses who then burst into tears and cried  “You leave today! You leave today!” Now bear in mind that historically public displays of sorrow when an honoured guest departs is part of Polynesian cultural practice, but this is the 21st Century and therefore this spontanious reaction was guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat. It is my abiding memory of Samoa and Samoan people and my affection for both will never leave me. These are a truly wonderful, wholely admireable, happy and industrious people living in a slice of Paradise whose friendship is worth earning through humour, respect and mutual goodwill.

In the end Samoa is propably the society holding truest to Polynesian values, other islands groups such as Hawaii and New Zealaland while experiencing a cultural rebirth suffered too much loss of life, language and land and dislocation, so lack the dicipline and cohesion still so evident in Samoa.   The Polynesia witnessed by Wallis and Cook still exists but diluted and diminished, yet in Samoa if you look there it still exists running very true to its source. Polyneian values have much to teach us with regard to how to live life.

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