Samoa is stop #4 on my six-nation tour through the South Pacific. Formerly ruled by Brittain and New Zealand and known as Western Samoa, Samoa has been an independent, self-governing nation since 1962. Samoa is not to be confused with nearby American Samoa, which is a territory of the United States. On this tour, I only visited Samoa, which is my 176th country. I’ll see American Samoa some other time.
Before I tell you about my visit to Samoa, let me share two practical — but quirky — changes that recently happened here:
- Most of Samoa’s cars come from Japan with steering wheels on the right. Yet, during the 20th century, Samoans drove like Americans on the right side of the road. To improve road safety, Samoans voted for the great Samoan Road Switch. At daybreak on Monday, September 7, 2009, everyone in Samoa switched from driving on the right side of the road to driving on the left. Evidently, this was a smooth and successful transition. This is something I would like to have seen!
- Samoa does most of its commercial business with countries on the western side of the Pacific Ocean. So, they figured they should be on the same side of the international dateline as Japan, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, etc. At midnight on December 29, 2011, Samoa jumped forward to December 31, 2011. Meanwhile, American Samoa stayed on the same side of the international dateline with the United States. The result is that today when it’s noon on Friday in Samoa, it’s noon on Thursday in American Samoa — even though these two islands share cultural ties and .are only 130 km apart. Weird, huh?
I spent only 48 hours in Samoa, but it was enough time to do two important things:
- Make a pilgrimage to the final home and resting place of Robert Louis Stevenson
- Enjoy the spectacle of Samoa’s national independence day on June 1st.
On my first morning in Samoa, I hiked from Apia up to Villa Vailima, the home of Robert Louis Stevenson. He was a famous 19th century Scottish novelist, poet and travel writer who suffered from coughs and fevers. With the success and notoriety that came from writing Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson took his physician’s advice, left the cold, damp weather of Scotland and went off to find someplace more salubrious.
From Europe, Stevenson traveled across the US and chartered a yacht out of San Francisco. After two years of sailing around the South Pacific, he settled on Samoa. There, on a warm, sunny hillside with a view of the ocean, Stevenson built a grand home where he wrote, entertained, and lived with his family. Many of his later works are based on sailing adventures and tales from the Pacific islands.
Today, Stevenson’s home is beautifully restored. I had a personal tour with a guide who shared anecdotes about Stevenson that I’d never heard. Walking barefoot on the wooden floors, seeing first editions of his books, and sitting at his desk gave me goosebumps. Having written a book myself while living on a Pacific island, I can relate.
Stevenson’s estate is surrounded by waterfalls, natural swimming holes and lush forests.
Although Stevenson came to Samoa for his health, living here may not have extended his life significantly. He died of a stroke at the age of 44 and is buried on top of Mount Vaea, elevation 472m. On his tomb is a bronze plaque with his self-written epitaph, composed in 1880, (Click the photo to zoom in.)
I wasn’t the only tourist who climbed Mount Vaea to pay my respects. Here’s our group celebrating Stevenson’s life and his works, looking up and wishing him all the best.
The next morning, I accidentally attended the funeral of a well-loved village leader in Apia’s magnificent cathedral. After the service, I was warmly welcomed by the mourners and told about the all-wood, inlaid ceiling.
I timed my visit to Samoa to be there on June 1st — Samoa’s Independence Day. This is a national holiday. There were festive events all over the island with colorful costuming and enthusiastic singing.
Here’s a village group preparing for their performance. In Samoa, it’s considered good manners to greet everyone by waving. It’s a cultural thing.
On these recent travels, I’ve noticed that Pacific Islanders enjoy having their pictures taken. In Samoa, group photos are the norm. Every time I lifted my phone to take a photo of someone, they were immediately joined by all their friends who wanted to be in the photo, too. So, I ended up with lots of group photos.
If you travel enough and meet lots of people, you often run into folks you’ve met before. While walking down the street one morning, my buddy Fred drove by. Fred is from the Solomon Islands, and he happened to be working on Samoa this month. We had a long lunch at a bar on the beach and got caught up on each other’s news.
Samoans are famous for their tattoos. Everyone has them and enjoys showing them off. Click here to see a rich assortment of tattoos that you might see in Samoa.
After this brief visit to Samoa, I must admit that I was impressed. Samoa is my favorite island on this odyssey so far. The scenery is stunning and there’s something very genuine about the people. I can see why Robert Louis Stevenson chose Samoa.
There are still many more islands to see, so it’s time to move on to the next island. Stay tuned for my visit to a country that won’t exist 50 years from now.