You should be aware of several customs of this conservative society. A briefing paper prepared by the Pacific Basin Development Council for the American Samoan Office of Tourism gives some guidelines that may be helpful:
- In a Samoan home, don't talk to people while standing, and don't eat while walking around a village.
- Avoid stretching your legs straight out in front of you while sitting. If you can't fold them beneath you, then pull one of the floor mats over them.
- If you are driving through a village and spot a group of men sitting around a fale with their legs folded, it's probably a gathering of matais to discuss business. It's polite not to drive past the meeting place. If going past on foot, don't carry a load on your shoulders or an open umbrella.
- If you arrive at a Samoan home during a prayer session, wait outside until the family is finished with its devotions. If you are already inside, you will be expected to share in the service. If you go to church, don't wear flowers.
- Whenever possible, consult Samoans about appropriate behavior and practices. They will appreciate your interest in fa'a Samoa and will take great pleasure in explaining their unique way of life.
Finally, should you be invited to stay overnight in a Samoan home, let them know at the beginning how long you will stay. Upon leaving, it's customary to give a small gift known as a mea alofa. This can be money -- between $5 and $10 a day per person -- but make sure your hosts understand that it is a gift, not a payment.
Most Samoan villages charge small custom fees to visitors who want to use their beaches or swim under their waterfalls. These usually are a dollar or two and are paid by local residents from other villages as well as by tourists.
In all cases, remember that almost everything and every place in the Samoas is owned by an aiga, and it's polite to ask permission of the nearby matai before crossing the property, using the beach, or visiting the waterfall. They will appreciate your courtesy in doing so.
Don't Wear Skimpy Clothing -- Don't wear bathing suits, short shorts, halter tops, hip-huggers, or other skimpy clothing away from the beach or hotel pool. Although shorts of respectable length are worn by young Samoan men and women in Apia and Pago Pago, it is considered very bad form for a Samoan to display his or her traditional tattoos, which cover many of them from knee to waist. Even though Samoan women went bare-breasted before the coming of Christianity, going topless is definitely forbidden today. Traditional Samoan dress is a wraparound lava-lava (sarong) that reaches below the knee on men and to the ankles on women.
How to Drink Kava -- Nowhere is Samoan ritual more obvious or observed than during a kava (pronounced 'ava in Samoan) ceremony. The slightly narcotic kava brew is made by crushing the roots of the pepper plant Piper methysticum. During a Samoan ceremony, coconut shells are scooped into a large wooden bowl of the gray liquid, which looks like mud and tastes like sawdust. The host passes a cup to one person at a time. When you get yours, hold the cup straight out with both hands, and say "Manuia" (Good health) before gulping most of it down in one swallow. Save a little to toss on the floor mats before handing the cup back to your host. And remember, this is a solemn occasion -- not a few rounds at the local bar.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.