After spending the day at the beach, we needed a fresh water rinse to wash the salt off before our drive home. We stopped at Togitogiga Falls, a series of smaller cascades that fall into an idyllic jungle swimming pool.
Despite being part of the nature preserve on the island, after parking the car, strolling along the path, finding a few fales and the falls, we didn’t see a single other visitor or park ranger of any kind. We were there later in the day, so perhaps everyone had already gone home, but the place had a forgotten feel. There hadn’t been many other patrons at the beach either, a few families, a few backpackers staying overnight in the fales, but Togitogiga felt like Samoa’s most secret garden.
We stopped by another water fall as we crossed back to the north side of the island. It was too shrouded in low lying clouds to really appreciate, but we did run into another group of tourists from the Bay Area, a woman who emigrated from Samoa as a child, returning home for the first time with a friend and two teenage sons. They were easily identified as Californians from their dress: the women were wearing shorts and tank tops (in Samoa, the most conservative place we’ve been, I didn’t see a local woman’s knees or shoulders for the entirety of our stay), and the boys were wearing basketball shorts instead of lavalavas.
They were from Hayward, and we chatted about the beauty of the island and the sincere friendliness of the people. They said that when they spoke English and introduced themselves as Americans they were treated with the same effervescent cordiality we had experienced, but when they spoke Samoan and went out with their local relatives the hospitality faded and they were treated as, well, locals.
While this makes perfect sense in some regards, it seems opposite to what I’ve experienced traveling elsewhere. In Europe I’ve had much warmer experiences when touring with locals than as a complete outsider, or when I blend in by looking similar to the local population or speaking the language. When I worked in service, I maintained a polite formality with travelers, but was certainly more gregarious with repeat customers or people I knew as local San Franciscans. Perhaps the Samoan difference has to do with the fact that, after many years of discouraging tourism and foreign development to maintain independence, Samoa is just now starting to invest in tourism as an industry.
Or, perhaps it has something to do with the evangelical nature of many of our interactions with Samoans. Small talk, with the taxi driver, with the museum guide, invariably led to inquiries about our Sunday plans and whether or not we wanted to join them at church to hear them sing (we politely declined, but the museum guide went ahead and sang one of Tusitala’s songs for us). We saw as many churches as we saw fales on the island and lost count of all the denominations represented: Catholics, Mormons, Methodists, Baptists, Church of England-ers, Presbyterians, there is a Baha’i House of Worship, and I even spotted a taxi with an Israeli flag.
Our visits to Lalomanu and Togitogiga fell on a Sunday, and throughout the day we saw Samoans, many dressed in all white with large, wide brimmed hats, carrying their bibles to and from church. I couldn’t help but imagine how proud all the missionaries from yesteryear would feel seeing the extent of devotion on the island today. We began to wonder if today there is something of a reversal to the traditional missionary pattern; it could be safely assumed that Samoans had a community of faith, while the we, the outsiders, were more likely to need new friends and a religious home, thus the gracious welcome (or, on a more cynical note, maybe the effect is economic, and we just stand out as having more tourist dollars to spend).
While at the cultural village, our guide said that pre-European Samoa already had a very hierarchical society that worshiped a singular creative force, so the shift to personifying that force as God and practicing Christianity was more organic than on other islands. In Kiribati, I’ve recently read, missionaries were as likely to be converted into supper themselves as they were to convert the population.
Our guide also emphasized the importance of giving thanks the sea, the land, the sun, and the family as the forces of life and survival on the island. So we did, at Lalomanu and Togitogiga, worship the bountiful natural beauty that Samoa has to offer.