A couple of days ago I was reading this article about solo female travel in Samoa from and while I enjoyed it, I was surprised and a little disappointed with the authors take on solo traveling for females. It was so different to my experiences which were overwhelmingly positive.
[A little background]. I lived in Apia for six weeks in 2013 whilst conducting fieldwork for my anthropology master’s degree. During that time I traveled all around Upolu both by myself and with expats, volunteers and locals. I returned the following year to visit my friends and adoptive families, and to show them the research I had completed (it was a very difficult and abstract concept for them to get their heads around while I was there). On the second trip I took my mother along as her 60th birthday present and we spent a week there; 2 days on Upolu and 5 days on Savaii. On both occasions I /we were treated with respect and kindness.
Having said that there were some definite cultural adjustments I had to make so I thought I’d share what I learned over my time there in the hope that it will allay any misconceptions and fears you may be harboring.
In Samoa the word for white people (regardless of nationality – if you have pale skin you’re ‘white’) is Palagi. It comes from the word papalagi which literally means “sky breakers”. It was a term coined when the first missionaries arrived in the 1850s – as their boat sailed on the horizon it appeared as if it was breaking the sky open. You hear “Palagi” a lot. People introduce you as “this is Pippa my palagi friend” (which always struck me as odd because they could clearly see I was white). As you walk past a group of teenage boys they’ll mutter something in Samoan but you’ll catch Palagi at least once. If your being talked about at a bank or shop you’ll catch the word “palagi”. You really do hear it all the time. At times it feels very strange, and you feel as if you’re being identified purely by the color of your skin – which isn’t uncommon around the world I guess. What is uncommon is that in this instance you’re skin color elevates you to a position of prestige.
Here’s the thing, in Samoa white people are seen first and foremost as rich. But it’s not just rich in terms of having more money in their wallets – it’s that they have a better lifestyle. They have big houses and big cars and fancy phones. They can afford to take holidays, they can afford to stay independently of their family and pay for people to cook and clean for them. It’s not hard to see the appeal of a Palagi to young Samoans – it’s the ideal life and for some an escape from the societal norms they are bound by.
Additionally, Palagi are considered somewhat exotic in the same way we might find an Italian or Spanish individual attractively exotic. Palagi’s have colorful hair, pale skin and freckles, eyes the color of the ocean, and often many of them are ‘skinny’ (at least by Samoan terms).
An example of the treatment you can expect as a Palagi…One Sunday afternoon I had been invited to a to’ona’ai at a friends house just out of Apia. Giving directions in Samoa goes something like “it’s on the street where that church is, turn at the mango tree and it’s behind the pastors house”. They don’t have street signs or letterboxes. Now I’m geographically challenged to the point where I can’t read a map (seriously I get confused which way I’m going and coming from) so ambiguous landmark directions like that are my worst nightmare. To make it easier my friend told me to catch a taxi to a bus stop on a main road and he’d pick me up from there and take me to the house. I found the bus stop okay and called to let him know I was there. While I was waiting a group of teenagers came walking past and seeing a Palagi sitting in a bus stop caught their attention. They stopped to talk to me and were delighted with my broken Samoan. Before long I had one on either side of me and we were posing for selfies. I was in an area that I didn’t know, on a day when everything was closed and no one was around, and I was surrounded by strangers – but I can honestly say that I didn’t feel unsafe or even uncomfortable. As soon as my friend arrived they scattered much to my amusement and everyone at the to’ona’ai thought it was a great story.
Ready for church. It turns out wearing you hair down to church is a big no-no as one of the old ladies quickly informed me.
I can’t truthfully say that I ever got used to being treated differently in Samoa, and at times I found it immensely frustrating that I was treated better than others based on my appearance, whilst at other times when I was hot and tired and I didn’t feel like being stared at it was just downright annoying. But, I learned to accept it, and it certainly wasn’t the worse treatment I received while traveling alone. I experienced far worse in Central America where some of the men would purposely brush past me or occasionally block my way and leer at me while their friends looked on and laughed. And there were times when I felt distinctly unsafe in Los Angeles and San Francisco where I was openly shouted at, offered car rides and drugs – and once when a homeless man grabbed my arm then started shouting “a black man touched you, a black man touched you call the police call the police!”.
At other times though I must admit I appreciated the attention being a Palagi awarded me. Several times I would ask for directions and the person I approached would leave whatever they were doing and walk me to wherever I needed to go all the while smiling and chatting happily away. When I walked to the local shop in my village the parents would send their children out to accompany me to chase the dogs away, and protect me from any ‘cheeky boys’. One day during my second trip my mother and I caught a local bus around Savaii – it very quickly filled up but each time we tried to offer our seats to someone else we were shouted down. When we wanted to get off (they don’t have buzzers you just rap on the window) four or five people yelled at the driver to stop as soon as we indicated, and they waved goodbye to us as the bus drove off.
↑ The only Palagi on the bus ↑
The Samoans are a warm and generous people at their very core. They will go out of their way to be helpful and kind even to complete strangers. Also, each and every one of them understands and largely embraces the importance of tourism to their small nation – they know that they can’t survive without it so they look after tourists. I’m not saying there aren’t some bad apples, of course there are but they really are few and far between. If you ever feel in the slightest bit uncomfortable, unsafe or just unsure – make it known. Ask someone, call out for help, walk away obviously – and I can guarantee someone (probably many people) will come to your aid immediately.
As a Palagi you will be treated differently, but you have to take it for what it is; flattery. I’m not saying you will like it, or that you should encourage it, and please don’t abuse it – but when you’re a guest in another country the least you can do is respect their customs.