Planning a Cultural Holiday in Samoa
Samoa is the home to perhaps the largest population of pure Polynesians on Earth. They keep to the traditional culture of their communal way of life; activities are done together and the three principle elements are always there: family, faith, and music. Many live in a traditional fale (house), which has huge roofs and no walls. As many as 20 people may sleep in the same fale.
The Samoan way of life "Fa'a Samoa" is alive and thriving on both Upolu and Savaii - this is one of the best South Pacific destinations to experience traditional Polynesian culture. By contrast, American Samoa is disappointing as a cultural destination with traditional life eroded by the American influences of convenient fast food outlets, large guzzling cars and the flexibility of moving back and forth to the United States.
In Samoa, both Upolu and Savaii islands have a string of pretty fishing villages along the coastal road so engaging the Samoan culture is relatively easy. Although the people are generally shy to speak to tourists, kids are always there to joke around and overall the people are warm and inviting. Most houses are open sided wooden structures raised off the floor with just one large open room and mats on the floor. These houses, or fales as they are called in Samoa, are ideal for the tropical heat. At night, coconut fronds are rolled down the side of the house to give privacy or protection from the wind or rain.
This open style living is typical of Samoan social structure. Samoans share everything they have, from food to wages, with their extended families, and with the church. The church is the focal point of village life and the larger the church, the more esteem the village has over its neighbouring villages - the reason for so many elaborate churches around the island. Village life evolves around the home for women, and the plantation or sea for men. School education is not considered of great importance, and although most children do go to school, it very often finishes at midday.
After school, it's back to the village way: smaller kids help out at home by sweeping the garden, whist the older girls help wash the clothes and the older boys go to the plantation to fetch root-crops, feed the pigs and bring back coconuts. At the end of the day the youth gathers on the village green to play kiriti (a wild local form of cricket), volleyball, touch rugby and to bath in the sea.
Traditional dance is common in village life and is quite different to the displays put on for tourists at the hotels and for national events. In the village, the dance is more spontaneous, more lively and accompanied by laughter and jokes.
Another traditional life that is thriving in modern Samoa is the art of body tattooing. Samoans wear their tattoos with pride, often covering much of the body and etched into the skin using the traditional method using a hand carved bone needle.
Samoans, like all peoples of the South Pacific, are known for their love of feasting. Every Sunday, after church, the umu commences - pigs, fish and root-crops are prepared in banana leaves and cooked in an underground oven for several hours or more depending on the size of the feast. For large events such as weddings, an oven may take up to six hours to cook. The most important ceremony at the feast is the 'Ava ceremony, held to welcome and initiate guests. 'Ava is a traditional drink, consumed at all ceremonial occasions across the South Pacific where it is known as Kava in other parts of Polynesia or Yaqona in Fiji. Extracted from the roots of a Pepper tree family and mixed with water, this murky brown drink has an unusual taste and gives a tingling sensation to the tongue. Drunk in volume, 'Ava is mildly narcotic.
Whilst all these scenes are happening in every day life, nothing in Samoa can be depended upon. To visit a village you must be prepared to go with the flow - even if you try to prearrange a specific activity. The village functionality comes first and if there is an unexpected event such as a death or the visit of a church pastor, then all else will be put on hold.
While Samoans welcome visitors with open hearts, it is important to understand and respect their ways of life. There are a few "rules" that all visitors should learn and respect, including the 10-20 minutes of evening prayers, often marked by the blowing of a conch shell, when it's best to avoid walking through villages; never wear skimpy clothing or swim wear in the villages; remove shoes before entering a fale and don't point your feet at others in a fale (tuck or cover them); never stand in a fale when an elder is seated; don't offer village children money; and never take a photo in a village without first asking permission. These are rules of respect and long-standing tradition, and are the best way to fully enjoy your holiday in this magical place.