Independent Samoa is literally the last place on earth. In fact, from the westerly tip of the westernmost island in the Samoan archipelago, it is possible to see tomorrow! As well as these claims to fame, Independent Samoa is also one of the most beautiful, friendly and inexpensive places to visit in Oceania, with a rich and diverse past.
I suppose it is quite fortunate to us outsiders that a lot of Samoan culture and custom is driven by a need to impress and appease visitors.
As an example, in Samoa, it is customary for a family to serve a guest first, then eat any food and drink they might leave. This results in mounds of delicious food to be presented to the loweliest tourist - it's rude not to eat as much as you can!
The full swathe of Samoan culture is much too large to explore here, especially as it shares so many facinating similarities with other cultures, from Japan to South America. However, there a few idiosyncracies that seem to be unique to Samoan culture. One of these is that the ancient Samoan religion must be one of the few in the world that actually predicted its rejection. What the ancient religion mentioned a stronger, more powerful force that would usurp existing belief systems - this must surely be a major factor why the Europeans' religion was eventually accepted.
Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa talked of a relaxed social structure, where adoscelents are openly promiscuous; this attitude is clearly different from "traditional" Christian countries, where sex is taboo. Today, Samoans still marry early, and teenage pregnancy is a problem, but the extremely low STD rate just goes to show that this aspect of society is waning.
The fact that these customs exist at all is very interesting as Samoa manages to mix and incorporate its pagan and Christian pasts with great ease. Even today, it's possible to see glaring reminders of past traditions and religions (including the Pulemelei Mound - the largest prehistoric construction in Polynesia). Also, the pride Samoans feel in their culture and country is so evident - most people still wear lavalavas (tradtional Samoan sarongs), and many people have "Samoan pride" tattoos or clothes.
The first Europeans to visit Samoa were missionaries and traders from about 1720 onwards. Unsurprisingly, these gangs of palagi (white people - literally "sky bursters"), bringing disease and vice, as well as portents of neverending damnation, were not well received. After a few years of seafarers using Samoa as a staging point, the natives began to fight back, unfairly earning the islanders a violent reputation.
However, the attempts by a procession of missionaries proved surprisingly successful, and by the mid-1800s, the Samoan islands were fervently Chrisitian; to this day, they are seen as the Bible Belt of Polynesia.
By 1900, the Samoan Islands had attracted the attention of the expansionist world powers Britain, Germany and the US. Eventually, it was arranged that Germany would have the westerly islands, and America the easterly islands. It was in this was that Independent Samoa (then called Western Samoa) became a German colony. Under the autocratic Germans, Western Samoa suffered, and eventually a resistance group - the Mau Movement was created, which pressed for independence. World War I moved Germany's focus off Western Samoa, and New Zealand took the chance to liberate the islands; Western Samoa remained a New Zealand territory for 40 years.
In 1962, with the global trend away from imperialism, Western Samoa was granted independence by New Zealand. For the next four decades, the country continued to develop and modernise. However, a series of cyclones in the 80s and 90s caused widespread damage throughout the islands, and a fungal blight devasted the taro crop (the islands' stock food and main export).
In 1997, Western Samoa was finally completely emancipated from the colonial past it had striven to escape, and offically became know as the Independent State of Samoa. However, the new country attracted widespread international condemnation when it was listed as a "harmful tax haven", and Samoan passports were found to be on sale in Hong Kong.
Nowadays, Independent Samoa is slowly recovering from distastrous volcanic eruptions and cyclones, reducing the amount of foreign aid it accepts. Also, tourism is becoming one of the islands' main industries, which brings in a lot of money to the country (as well as the vices the original Samoans were so loathe to accept).
Places to Visit
Upolu is the second largest, but most important island in Independent Samoa. As well as important government ministries and officies, it also boasts an impressive range of tourist attractions, from perfect beaches to unspoiled rainforest to colonial relics. Also, Aggie Grey's Hotel is in Apia, which is apparently quite famous.
Apia is the capital of Independent Samoa, and the home of most of the new developments within the country. Not only does it house the only MacDonalds, it also has some of the few banks on the islands, a couple of internet cafes, a market and to top it all, an amazing marine reserve. Most people stay in Apia for at least a couple of days at the start of a trip to get themselves together and form a plan.
As well as being the name of Samoa's national beer, Vailima is also the name of Robert Louis Stevenson's former residence, and current official residence of the Head of State. It consists of a sprawling European-style house, with extensive gardens and a mountain, upon which RLS is buried.
The best place for snorkelling in Independent Samoa, Lalomanu is on the extreme eastern end of Upolu, and has breath-taking white beaches, turquoise waters and all the rest. Just imagine your perfect tropical beach - Lalomanu is it.
Sa'oluafata is a small island on the north coast of 'Upolu, within easy reach of Apia. There is only one place to stay - in charming beach huts. The snorkelling here is excellent, but the greatest attraction must be the way in which visitors are entirely absorbed into the family that run the accommodation. You eat Sunday lunch with them, play cricket with them, babysit their kids, everything. Also, until mid 2006, there is a nice Peace Corps worker there, Rose, who knows the best places to go in the area.
Known as "the big island", and rightly so, Savai'i is the largest island in Oceania. It has massively diverse scenery, flora and fauna, and is much more traditional than Upolu. As well as the highlights given below, just speaking to the locals will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.
Like Lalomanu, Manase has an awesome beach, along with the legendary Tanu's beach fales to stay in. Within short reach are the extensive lava fields left after an eruption in 1911, extinct volcanic craters, natural habitats of flying foxes and lots of extremely friendly people.
- Falealupo Peninsula
Recently, there has been a concerted nation-wide effort to preserve some of the natural rainforest. The Falealupo Peninsula, as well as Tuafuata and Uafoto, has been a direct beneficiary of this. You can see beautiful tropical jungles, meet the shy locals that live there and even sleep in a banyan tree.
- Olemoe Falls
This idyllic freshwater pool and waterfall supports a thriving shrimp population and is an amazing place to go and cool off after a hard day's relaxing. Close by are the Pulemelei mound mentioned above, and the wharf, which will take you back to Upolu
This island is even more traditional, and white people are quite a novelty. You can walk round the island inside an hour or two, and walk you must, as there are no cars. Or roads. The electricity supply is still a bit unreliable, and a shower will consist of a bucket of water and a bowl, but Manono is so friendly you won't mind.
If you want the true Samoan experience, Apolima's for you. There are only 250 people on the island, and you are only really allowed there with an invitation, but this must be one of the few places in the world that you can see unspoilt prehistoric society work on a day-to-day basis. IF you stay there for any amount of time, the village will absorb you so amicably and warmly that you will soon feel part of the 'aiga (extended family).
All in all, Independent Samoa is one of the least spoilt places to visit in the Pacific. It offers the benefits of being above third world status, having great scenery, delicious food and a very polite and welcoming culture. Also, it is quite cheap, and Samoans will not expect any of the haggling nonsense taken as commonplace elsewhere. You won't want to leave!