My last trip of 2015 was in Samoa: the most extraordinary, distant, exotic (and expensive) of my life.
Fate wanted to take me to Samoa, thanks to a coincidence of events, a relatively cheap airfare, and the impulse to click on the “book now” button. After three days of travel, two changes and the bad luck of losing my suitcase among the airports of the planet, I found myself in a paradise archipelago between New Zealand and Hawaii, the classic postcard where winter doesn’t exist and where the local culture is still well rooted.
These islands are not very well known in Italy and, more widely, in Europe: on the internet, I found little information and almost no one talks about it, except for a couple of Australian or American bloggers in very basic posts. When we think of the Pacific Islands as dream trip or honeymoon destination, our mind likely goes exclusively to Tahiti or French Polynesia. European tourism is poorly developed in Samoa, while there are numerous visitors from the rest of Oceania.
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I went out of the European borders for the first time and choosing a place so far has had a significant impact on me. Before this trip, the only destination I visited with a “different” culture was Turkey. Those who have traveled to the world, especially in Central and South America and Asia, will surely have a different view of Samoa if compared to my first impression: probably these travelers are more familiar with this kind of landscapes and lifestyle. In my case, everything was new, even what could seem obvious, but let’s start from the beginning of the story…
After a stopover in Abu Dhabi, I took the final plane to get to Apia at the airport of Sydney and, surprisingly, I was the only tourist aboard. I felt observed, but later on, I realized that my paranoias are due to the tiredness of the long, long journey. I had already met Samoan guys on the ships, but finally, I also saw women, wrapped in their traditional colorful clothes. They are on average taller and more robust than Mediterranean women and compared to them I felt tiny. On the plane, I sat next to a girl who, curiously, asked me where I came from, what were my plans in Samoa and then, with a sincere smile, wished me a pleasant stay in her country.
Shortly before landing, the onboard hostess distributed the documents to fill in: the reason for the visit, the place of residence and the goods to be declared. Once arrived, immigration workers (and also all the others at the airport) asked me again the same questions:
“Why are you here? Where will you go? How much do you stay? Ah, but how come you have the Samoan boyfriend? Where did you meet him? How long have you been together?”
For a moment I doubted to what extent these questions were related to immigration policy. Wasn’t that man too curious? In the meantime, a group of three played and sang Samoan songs next to the luggage carousel.
It was 5 am, and the sun began to color the sky of different shades of bright pink, and the road to the city center had a line of palm trees close to the sea. I started to spot the first houses (fale), colorful independent houses all facing open structures called “faletalimalo“ (or guest houses) used for meetings, to receive friends and relatives, and where children can play. On the way home, I noticed that all villages are marked by a red and yellow wooden signboard.
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Samoa, Samoa… Before meeting the boys on the ships, I had heard of these islands only in the studies of anthropologist Margaret Mead during my university courses. I would have never imagined to end up there, and I couldn’t be any happier.
Definitely positive, despite a single case of “I’m gonna scam you for being a tourist” in a fantastic accommodation where I almost thought of staying one night. Samoans are cheerful, hospitable and fun people, and their laughter is loud and contagious. Crossing the villages by car, everyone greets everyone with a smile or using the horn of their vehicle, and all the children were playing in the streets say hello and waving their small hands “Faaaaaa! Bye byeee!”. It’s a continuous greeting. Seriously. Here in Italy we hardly talk to our neighbors living next door! On the contrary, in Samoa young people (even strangers) use friendly terms like “sis” (sister) or “sole” (boy) to call each other, and I certainly find it a much more affectionate way to address to people, far from the European habits.
Samoa has a small number of inhabitants, and I consider this a lucky fact that makes them united and strongly patriotic. The Samoans are apparently less stressed and happier than the Western people: they always smile, they live at a slower pace, they work a lot even after their workday hours to help the business of a friend or a relative. I have never heard them complaining (although on board they have one of the toughest jobs) and are friendly to everyone. There is not the phobia of the stranger as we have in Europe, and I also happened to give a ride to unknown women asking for a hitch-hike.
They are also extremely religious: it is very typical to see them dressed up in white on Sunday as they go to mass. The family is the other important pillar of their culture, and by “family” they mean the extended one, not the basic parent-children core. Grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunties often live in together with the rest of the nuclear family, depending on the will of the spouses. Having such big extended families make their homes always populated by playful children and adults who collaborate with each other: each one has a role and who is temporary jobless always takes care of the house and the family plantations.
These relationships also mean big ceremonies and family reunions to gather and meet all the farthest relatives, especially those who live in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. During the Christmas holidays, flights to Apia are always fully booked, and family members from overseas are always accommodated in second homes and pensions, once the places in their own house are all taken. Then they rent cars and book locations suitable for their ceremonies. I noticed several signs around, and I understood that these family reunions have a high value for them.
My trip lasted only two weeks. Although I spent the entire vacation with local people and I tried my best to immerse in their culture, I still have a lot to learn about their lifestyle. Unlike other Polynesian islands, Samoa has a very rooted culture and struggle every day to keep it strong despite the continuous Western influences. Tradition is present in every aspect of life: food, clothing, managing money, living spaces, house structures, and family upbringing. I elaborated a vague idea of their way of life, so in this post, I would just like to express my first impressions and trying to avoid Eurocentric banalities.
However, I also had moments of weaknesses (calling them “cultural shocks” seems too powerful), in the sense that I have been totally immersed in habits, landscapes, and thinking different from my own. Sometimes I missed Europe because at home I just behave spontaneously and everything is obvious regarding good manners. In Samoa, I was often afraid of being unconsciously offensive, and this uncomfortable situation made me feel very frustrated, especially when I was with the elders. I had no clue about what was considered good or bad. The more my boyfriend was explaining to me, and the more I was aware of the huge culture gap with Europe.
Going to Polynesia means changing absolutely everything: such as the way you sit or the way you must enter a house. I assume that everything depends on one’s ability to adapt: I asked many questions trying to integrate as much as I could, but for the first time, I was shocked to realize that my European identity was deeply rooted. I’ve never felt this feeling, yet I’m constantly in touch with people from all over the world.
Okay, in these terms seems I have been traumatized by this holiday, but I assure you I wasn’t at all, despite giant spiders and cold showers because it’s summer all year round (you will not find hot water in any home, just in resorts for Western tourists). My two weeks in Samoa have been unforgettable, and my dreams finally came true.
Besides the incredible beauty of this unspoiled country, I was impressed by Samoans’ determination to preserve their identity, and I found remarkable the close bonds with the extended family and their way of being always helpful and friendly to everyone, even to strangers.
You never feel alone, you always have support in case of need, either for serious matters or simply to have someone to spend a Saturday night with. Their way of life is much simpler and spontaneous than ours, and it made me reflect on our Western lifestyle: we are often nervous, dissatisfied, obsessively attached to money, time-slaves and above all filled with mental paranoia about career and personal growth. Are we really happy? I guess we should learn something from them.