What is it like to live in Samoa?
An answer to that question depends largely on where you’re coming from.
If you’re coming from San Francisco, for example, you’re either on holiday, or you’re escaping from racing rats and other first world problems. Either way, here’s how to help ensure you actually get to “like” Samoa :)
1. Walk slowly.
No, like, really slowly. Watch how Samoa people walk, then walk slower than them. Rushing around at your usual city pace will, trust me, see your knees literally wobbly after 40 minutes. Persist, and you will, like me, suffer days of muscle-straining, bone-aching heat stroke. Just, don’t.
2. Speak softly.
No, like, really softly. Quietly spoken, Samoa people make an art form of humility and respect. Some colleagues of mine, visiting from around the island region, were utterly astonished at how quiet our newsroom was. Visitors are forgiven lots of cultural blunders, but raising your voice because they don’t understand your accent is akin to threatening a fight.
Trust me, that’s something you do not want to do. And raising your voice to aid communication is like poking people in the eye so they can see better.
They’re not deaf. Nor dumb. Samoa people use not one but two language versions - one informally for every day interaction, and more formal language for writing and oratory, stretching back thousands of years.
3. Samoa is fun.
People like to laugh. A lot. Humour is an almost competitive sport across the islands, and Samoa are masters of these darker arts too, of mockery and applied absurdity. So much so that aspects of humour are actually ritualised into parts of traditional ceremony.
Outside of custom, parents tease their children, family of similar age and definitely friends. Children tease each other, endlessly.
But not elders - laughing at elders is again akin to starting a fight. Note: Foreign humour is unlikely to translate well. Please leave your “back home” jokes for when you are actually back at home.
Sit back, listen, and enjoy thinking in a different humour from your own. For a change, ay? Coz that’s why you leave for overseas.
4. Samoa is beautiful.
There may be more visually spectacular locales in the world, but Samoa has an ethereal tranquility all of its own. If the word ‘savage’ can be traced back to a French word “sauvage” that includes definitions of wild, as in untamed and unspoilt, then Samoa is largely savage, outside of the sadly gauche office blocks in the capital, Apia.
5. Samoa is beautiful - people edition.
“Samoans” is not a word, in either English-speaking countries or Samoa, and I don’t like using it. The people of Samoa are habitually dignified, and universally proud of their homeland. They, not unreasonably, consider themselves and their land the centre of that universe, if not its actual origin.
Watch closely when they dance - every last second of the last 3,000 years of their culture is poured into every movement. Tip: don’t just watch the eyes or hips of the dancers, as in the European fashion. Follow the time-and-space bending fluidity of the hands, and the loving stroking of the Earth, with their feet.
So what’s Samoa really like, I hear you object?
What’s the nitty gritty? I’m somewhat biased, because as a reporter I get to see, hear and write about exactly that - the nitty gritty. The same assaults, rapes and murders that happen everywhere else in the world also happen here - shock, horror, they’re human.
There is corruption and poverty and injustice.
But those qualities are universal, despite the many jokes and exasperated sighs from locals about “only in Samoa.” Yep, there is some essentially, uniquely Samoa silliness, but yeah ... same-same as most places.
What Samoa is ‘like’ is an experience outside the usual blablabla of western verbosity, if that’s where you’re coming from. Much is unspoken, non-verbal communication revealed not so much by the raise of an eyebrow, or the swivel of a hand, as the fact that your comment, question, or criticism is being left utterly hanging. It’s your role, as visitor, to respect your hosts, absorb their silence, and use the imagination as to what answers might be. Or go to church for insights. Which brings us to our second-to-last like.
6. Samoa is religious - deeply and occasionally violently so.
In some villages, young men who are official village guardians will punch your car as you pass or throw screen-smashing stones if you drive along the road during prayers, and have the full backing of elders to do so.
Instead of shaking your head, or making dismissive noises, dress up, grab a fan, and attend a church service at least once - only there will your questions come into sharp relief. You will also help make up for all the very many insulting behaviours that more unwitting visitors leave behind.
7. Samoa is earthy.
The local food has an unprocessed, natural flavour that can be a shock to western palettes used to industrial levels of meat, fat, sugar and flour. But this is food, real food. Try the traditional feasts. Don’t go starving - you’ll only be disappointed. Instead, go half-full, and try a little bit of everything. Eat slowly. Let the flavours discover you.
8. The westernised towns of Apia and Pagopago are not Samoa.
Visitors coming from afar should catch ferries that take people and cargo between islands - the one you want to see is Savai’i, and its western-most point, where ancestral souls departed for fabled, heavenly homelands.
This point is so powerful that the name is paid homage across the Pacific - Savaiki in the northern Cook Islands to the east, Havaii in Tahiti and Rapa Nui, Hawaii in, well, Hawaii ... Avaiki in the Southern Cook Islands and Niue, and Hawaiki in New Zealand.
Samoa is, as indicated above, quiet, ancient and deeply layered. It can also be raucous, modern and superficial. What Samoa is “like” is as a deeply human part of the world, where most everyone knows most everyone else, unlike the millions rushing by each day unseen in any city you may care to name.
I like it. I like Samoa very, very much.
*Jason Brown worked in Samoa as the Deputy Editor of the Samoa Observer from 2013 to 2014. This blog was written for www.quora.com