Samoa is a South Pacific paradise and the final resting place of author Robert Louis Stevenson who considered this land a true treasure Island.
With a population of 180,000 people, Samoa is governed by a parliament based on the Westminster system, but provincial administration and many local matters are still left in the hands of the matai, or chiefs. There are more than 18,000 of them.
In the South Pacific, where many small countries – East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga — are commonly troubled by political upheaval and social uncertainty, this blend of religion, indigenous law and introduced politics seems rare, but more importantly, it seems to work.
Since the tiny nation gained independence in 1962, there has never been a coup.
This nation has no army or navy, just a 450-strong police force handling law and order. The people and their matai are mindful of the rocky social and political road down which many neighbouring countries have gone.
There are problems with unemployment and disaffected youth – but there is also great respect for culture and tradition. There is hope that the need to feed tourists with local produce will help maintain rural village life.
The villages are generally tidy, the beaches clean, and in most cases, pristine.
Rubbish is controlled with refuse baskets mounted on waist-high posts to ensure the pigs and dogs can’t get at it. It works.
The village peoples’ pride in their neat, well-tended gardens, is reflected in the open countryside. The verges along the main roads are clean and well kept. Roadside rubbish seems almost non-existent.
On the island of Opalu, waterfalls tumble over high drops of volcanic rock. The water is filtered through the black basalt to re-emerge as bubbling springs on the coast. With no mining and little agriculture or grazing carried out on the rugged mountainsides, the run-off water is crystal clear and sweet. You can swim in it.
It takes 90 minutes to cross Apolima Strait between Upolu and Savaii islands on the blue-painted ferry. The inter-island truck drivers compete with each other to “sleep away” the crossing in the shade of their trucks.
The “big island” of Savaii offers a variety of natural pleasures, not the least of which is an even more laid-back lifestyle than on nearby Upolu, which in itself seems hardly possible.
Passing more than a couple of cars on the road that rings the island constitutes “rush hour”.
Children sometimes wave as visitors drive past the coastal villages on the right-hand side of the road, a legacy of brief colonial rule by Germany in the early 1900s.
It takes about five hours to circle the island by car, which makes for a great day trip on which you can swim with sea turtles at Satoalepai, explored the desolate Saleaula Lava Fields and climb to the top of a tropical rainforest at the Falealupo Canopy Walk.
You can also watch an old man nervously drop a coconut husk into the Taga blow hole so it can be hurtled 30m into the air by the next surging wave. For a small fee, of course.
Scottish author, Robert Louise Stevenson, who wrote the famous novel Treasure Island spent the last four years of his life in this country.
Stevenson, who suffered from chronic lung disease, came to these islands to improve his health. He died in 1894 at the age of 44, but not before he had won the hearts of the local people, who called him Tusitala, “The Teller of Tales”.
He had defended their right to independence. The matai and villagers respected him so much that, in order to fulfill his dying wish to be buried overlooking his home, Vailima, and the land he loved, they hacked a track through the jungle to a plateau just below the summit of nearby Mount Vaea.
They then made a human chain to pass his coffin from hand-to-hand up the mountainside to Stevenson’s final resting place.
Today, outsiders might look upon this tiny country and call it some kind of “paradise”.
The locals call this place Samoa.
And they live Fa’a Samoa, “the Samoan Way”.
* For more information, visit the Samoan Tourism Authority website at www.visitsamoa.ws
Photos © Vincent Ross