Travel: Samoan enchanted evening

It was a blind date to remember. But that Saturday night on a South Pacific island was not what Cleo Paskal had expected
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What's the key to living happily? Well I found one answer on the South Pacific island of Samoa. And it wasn't just the standard-issue white sands and palm fringe...

With a big grin, the Chief pulled up his shirt, dropped his wrap-around skirt and said: "This represents my devotion to my village."

I stared, fascinated. He was certainly very devoted. A lacework of intricate blue-black patterns covered the Chief from mid-thigh to mid-chest. The famous Samoan tattoo.

What I had asked to prompt this Full Monte of Fealty was if traditional Samoan culture, known as the Fa'a Samoa, was still the main governing force in society. The answer was carved into the Chief's skin.

He explained that, as a young man, he went through a month's long, painful, ritual tattooing process to prove to his village that he was literally willing to endure whatever was necessary for the honour and privilege of serving them. They must have been convinced because they then elected him as Matai, or village chief.

In Samoa, the Matai have complete control in the villages, or as my new, partially clothed, friend put it: "Whatever the Chief says goes. Whether it is right or wrong." They are lawyer, judge, jury, policeman, court reporter... you get the idea. They decide everything from how long you can grow your hair to when you pray. If you have a job that brings in cash, the money goes straight to the Matai, who redistributes it throughout the village according to need.

The laws are clear and strictly enforced. If a married man runs off with another woman, the wife's brothers get the nod from the Matai to go and "revenge". Assault a child and you'll probably soon be dead. There is practically no crime in Samoa.

It all sounded a bit oppressive, if effective. But Samoa is, after all, in the South Pacific, a region renowned for being laid-back. I asked the Matai if he could suggest anything fun. "Ah," he said, with a slightly dodgy twinkle in his eye, "you must meet my fourth son, Tosi." And he picked up the phone and set me up on a blind date.

I was to meet Tosi that night at Margreyta's show bar in the Samoan capital, Apia. It was Saturday night, and Margreyta's was packed. Behind the club, there was a large patio and at the far end was a huge stage. The set was made up to look like a parody of a Polynesian Nights Spectacular. Palm trees, fake waterfall, the works.

When I arrived, the show was in full swing. Tosi was up on stage fronting a live band. He had just called up volunteers from the audience and was teaching them some dance moves. He himself looked spectacular in a floor- length evening gown, matching high heels and full make-up.

The dance seemed to revolve around Tosi cooing the word "Banana" and the volunteers "shaking it to the front". The audience, some of them also in full drag, was in hysterics. A raucous good time was being had by all. Amateur anthropologist (and keen Abba fan) that I am, this led me to conclude that perhaps the Fa'a Samoa isn't all harsh rules and strict discipline. I spent a pleasurable few hours dancing to faux-Hawaiian guitar music and picking up make-up tips.

At the bar after the show, a glowing and sweaty Tosi explained that, in Samoan terms, he was a fafafine, a boy-girl. He seemed a bit bemused at my curiosity and more keen on gossiping with his pals than answering my bland sociological questions.

So, the next day, I arranged an appointment with the Samoan Minister for Women's Affairs, Foisaga Etevati Shon. I arrived at her office early, allowing me plenty of time to admire how well her male secretary had matched his red skirt and vermilion nail polish.

Minister Shon, a charming middle-aged woman who spent time working as a social worker in Utah, explained that: "In this culture there was never any stigma attached to effeminate boys. They are still fully accepted in the families. It's just not as big a deal as it is in many other countries of the world."

Effeminate boys here are still seen primarily as brothers or cousins or uncles. They are not a threat to the society, so the society accepts them. But I wondered if there was a limit. I asked Secretary Shon if that acceptance extended to people who were openly homosexual. She said: "Homosexuality is not condoned by our people." There it was. That firm limit to what the society was willing to accept.

It seems that, yes, there is some social flexibility in the Fa'a Samoa, but within very clear limits. The Matai accepted and was proud of his fafafine son, but had Tosi openly declared himself gay, it would have been a different matter.

In a small country like Samoa, everyone knows the rules. Some are negotiable and others aren't. And the key to living peacefully is knowing which can be overtly broken and which can't. But the key to living happily is knowing how to look fabulous in a floor-length evening gown.

Fact file

THE SENSIBLE airline to travel on is Air New Zealand (0181-741 2299), which serves Samoa as part of its South Pacific network. You can include Samoa on an itinerary to New Zealand or Australia for less than pounds 1,000 return, so long as you book through a discount agent and make sure you avoid peak periods.

Cleo Paskal is presenter of a new series called Small Worlds, which begins today on the BBC World Service. She has spent the past four years travelling to the microstates whose entire population is outnumbered by places like Crawley, in search of Utopia in places seemingly as diverse as Iceland and Kiribati, Monaco and the Maldives. The six-part series is broadcast on Saturdays at 1.30am, Tuesdays at 9.15am and Fridays at 3.15pm.