My last trip in 2015 was to 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 plane ticket, 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, I found myself in a paradise archipelago between New Zealand and Hawaii, just like the classic postcard where winter doesn’t exist and the local culture is still well rooted.
These islands aren’t very well known in Italy and, more widely, in Europe. On the internet, I found hardly any information and I also found that almost no one talks about them except for a couple of Australian or American bloggers who have written on the topic but not in much detail… When we think of the Pacific Islands as a dream trip or honeymoon destination, our mind likely goes exclusively to Tahiti or French Polynesia. European tourism is poorly developed in Samoa, although there are numerous visitors from the rest of Oceania.
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For the first time, I went past the European borders and chose a place so far that has had a significant impact on me. Before this trip, the only destination I visited with a “different” culture was Turkey. Those who have travelled the world, especially around Central and South America and Asia, will surely have a different view of Samoa if compared to my first impression: probably these travellers are more familiar with these kinds 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 boarded 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 realised that my paranoia was 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 colourful clothes. On average, they are 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 my plans in Samoa where and then, with a sincere smile, she 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. Upon arrival, immigration workers (and also all the other people at the airport) asked me the same questions again:
“Why are you here?”, “Where will you go?”, “How long do you stay here?”,“Ah, 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, three guys in a group played and sang Samoan songs next to the luggage carousel.
It was 5am, the sun began to colour the sky different shades of bright pink, and the road to the city centre had a line of palm trees close to the sea. I started to spot the first houses (fale), colourful independent houses all facing open structures called “faletalimalo“ (or guest houses) used for meetings, to host 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 the anthropologist Margaret Mead during my university courses. I never would have imagined ending 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 playing in the streets say hello and wave their small hands “Faaaaaa! Bye byeee!”. It’s a continuous greeting. Seriously. Here in Italy, we hardly talk to our neighbours living next door! On the other hand, 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 people, far from 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 Westerners. They always smile, they live at a slower pace, they work a lot even after their workday hours to help their friend’s or relative’s business. I have never heard them complaining (although on board they have one of the toughest jobs) and they are friendly to everyone. There’s no phobia of strangers as we have in Europe, and I also happened to pick up unknown women who wanted to hitchhike.
Samoans are also extremely religious: it’s very common to see them dressed up in white on Sunday as they go to mass. 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 aunts often live together with the rest of the nuclear family, depending on the will of the spouses. Having such big extended families always makes their homes populated with playful children and adults who collaborate with each other. Each person has a role and anyone 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 distant 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 only lasted two weeks. Although I spent the entire vacation with local people and I tried my best to immerse myself in their culture, I still have a lot to learn about their lifestyle. Unlike other Polynesian islands, Samoa has a very rooted culture and it struggles daily to keep it strong in the face of the continuous Western influences. There is tradition in every aspect of life: food, clothing, managing money, living spaces, house structures, and family upbringing. I vaguely described the basic idea of their way of life, so in this post, all I want is to express my first impressions while trying to avoid Eurocentric banalities.
However, I also had moments of weakness (calling it “culture shock” seems too powerful), in the sense that I have been totally immersed in habits, landscapes, and thinking differently 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, 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 your ability to adapt. I asked many questions to try to integrate as much as I could, but for the first time, I was shocked to realise 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 it seems I have been traumatised by this holiday, but I assure you I wasn’t at all, despite the giant spiders and cold showers. It’s summer all year round and you will not find hot water in any home, just in resorts for Western tourists. My two weeks in Samoa were 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 the close bonds with the extended family and their way of being always helpful and friendly to everyone, even strangers, truly remarkable.
You never feel alone. You always have support if you need it, whether it’s for a serious matter 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 our career and personal growth. Are we really happy? I guess we should learn something from them.