A trip inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson turns up a culture as vibrant as the buses that ply the roads, as traditional as the island home built by the writer.
Even in darkness, on the way from the airport, Samoa didn't look like anywhere else I'd been in Polynesia -- not like Rarotonga or Fiji, not like Tahiti or Easter Island.
Open pavilions dotted the roadsides, almost as frequent as the small houses. Some were more brightly lighted: Shaped like ovals and sometimes squares, their thatched roofs supported by pillars, they glowed like cages in the hot tropical night.
In some small ones, families were watching TV, as if the pavilions were open-air living rooms. In the largest ones, men were sitting as still as cross-legged statues, one at the base of each pillar. A church service, perhaps? But we were passing dozens of churches. A ceremony, then?
The pavilions were the first things I asked about on a visit to the Samoas last winter, though they weren't the reason I'd come, and my reason wasn't all that typical to start with.
Most tourists come to the Samoas in search of the picture-perfect South Seas paradise: green mountains sloping to white beaches, coconut palms framing deep-blue ocean and friendly people with flowers in their hair. And all that is here.
But I had come for a house -- an old house and a long-dead hero. I wanted to see Vailima, the carefully restored Victorian villa that was Robert Louis Stevenson's last home.
Drawn by fragile health and a wandering soul, the prolific author began building Vailima with his extended family in 1890 in the hills above Apia, independent Samoa's small capital. He died there four years later, about as far from his native Scotland as he could get.
I could identify with that. I was a Minnesotan trying to escape the cold. Besides, I'd once dreamed of plying the Pacific in a white schooner, as Stevenson did.
Now I rode wildly colored Samoan buses, made a sweaty climb up a small mountain to pay homage at Stevenson's grave, toured Villa Vailima a couple of times and lingered there one afternoon to read Stevenson's poetry in the breezy shade of its verandas.
The rest of the time, I asked locals about ancient customs and modern contrasts, everything from those mysterious pavilions to the incongruous presence of McDonald's, rush-hour traffic in downtown Apia, even coconut biodiesel, an attempt to reduce Samoa's dependence on imported oil. Its time is surely coming, given that the potential fuel literally grows on trees here, free for the gathering.
Family and God
Just about every conversation led back to Fa'a Samoa -- the Samoan Way -- a tradition that still shapes the society of this small, mid-Pacific nation and its closest relative, American Samoa, a half-hour's flight to the east.
Fa'a Samoa centers on two things, "the family and God,'' said Dwayne Bentley, marketing manager for the Samoa Tourist Authority in Apia. "And 'family' almost always means your extended family, everybody from the nuclear family out to your aunties and uncles and second and third cousins.''
The pavilions are part of it, too. The small ones are traditional-style family dwellings.
The big pavilions function as meeting halls, each the purview of a chief, or matai, as the leader of an extended family is known. The matai's job, people told me, is to keep peace and harmony within the family and with other families and to make sure that everyone is behaving properly.
"In Samoa, law and order don't come from here,'' one woman said, indicating the big white parliament building on Apia's Beach Road. "Law and order come from the village itself.''
Matais are ranked low to high, from family to village to national government.
"Every leader, every member of Parliament, has to have a matai title,'' said Savea Sano Malifa, editor of the Samoan Observer newspaper in Apia and himself a matai. But the system is not hereditary: "Everyone in Samoa is entitled to become a matai," he said.
The tenets of the matai system explained why I saw office workers crouch down when they spoke to a boss, keeping their heads well below his.
It was why people didn't stand in the aisles on buses, even when they were crowded. "You sit down!'' I heard one bus driver admonish a young French backpacker. "You don't stand over people! They'll make room for you!''
It was also why so many women wore modest ankle-length skirts and why men wore knee-length ones -- the traditional garments called lavalava -- and why tourists weren't supposed to wear shorts and swimsuits anywhere off the beach. In villages, as one dignified older lady explained, "you cover yourself up.''
"They say we are very churchy people,'' she added, smiling at her own understatement.
Protestant missionaries arrived in 1830, and Samoans swiftly converted, which accounts for the multitude of white churches. Church fit right in: The matais were responsible for proper moral and religious behavior, too.
So government offices, most businesses and sometimes whole villages shut down at noon on Saturday and don't reopen till Monday morning; really traditional villages still have a "prayer curfew" every evening.
You don't have to pray then, the same dignified lady advised me gently, but you do have to be quiet and stay inside. "They say it is tapu to move,'' she said, using the Polynesian word that became "taboo'' in English.
Two nations, shared history
From what I'd read, Robert Louis Stevenson was a sort of freelance matai who got involved in Samoan politics and is still deeply admired for it.
"He's the one fighting strongly for freedom, in those days,'' my guide at Vailima said as we stood among the antiques in its redwood-paneled Great Hall. "He gives good advice for our people.''
The islands must have been easier to explain in Stevenson's day than they are now. There was only one Samoa back then, though three world powers were arguing over the archipelago when he arrived.
Great Britain eventually dropped out; the United States took possession of Tutuila Island and the littler islands in the east, creating American Samoa, and Germany claimed Western Samoa, the islands of Upolu, Savai'i and their smaller neighbors. New Zealand became Western Samoa's trustee during World War I and granted it independence in 1962.
Thirteen years ago, Western Samoa officially dropped the adjective from its name. American Samoans protested -- in vain -- on grounds that the change diminished their own cultural identity.
But people on both sides of the international border are still connected by language, tradition and kinship. A year ago, their bonds were further tightened by shared tragedy.
Early on Sept. 29, 2009, undersea earthquakes triggered a tsunami, sending huge waves smashing into the southern coasts of Samoa and American Samoa and the northern coast of nearby Tonga.
Nearly 200 people died; 5,700 were displaced and many more moved permanently to higher ground, breaking their age-old ties to the sea.
The biggest loss of life was around Lalomanu, on the southeast coast of Upolu, independent Samoa's main island. One day I had a taxi take me there from Apia. Even five months afterward, the damage was shocking.
Cliffs rise steeply behind what used to be a picture-perfect beach, but the churches, pavilions and houses that stood there had been smashed and broken. Even the sand had been scoured away.
"There was no place to run,'' said Samoan writer Lani Wendt-Young, author of "Galu Afi -- Wave of Fire,'' a new book that was commissioned for the first anniversary of the disaster. No time to run, either, she said: People had dashed out of their houses when they felt the earthquake, and the tsunami struck while they were still in shock.
The first response was pure fa'a Samoa: "When relief workers came in, they wondered where the refugee camps were,'' Wendt-Young said. But there weren't any. The people who'd lost their homes had all been taken in by the rest of their aiga, their extended families.
Beauty of American Samoa
Despite sizable populations now -- 220,000 in independent Samoa, 65,000 in American Samoa -- they still look like paradise, and they aren't overrun with tourists.
True, Apia has modern grocery stores, traffic jams and the occasional giant cruise ship in port, but it didn't feel particularly busy when I was there. Next door in American Samoa, Pago Pago was so low-key that it made Apia feel like Manhattan.
I spent an astonishingly quiet Sunday there, driving the twisting coastal road on 20-mile-long Tutuila, taking side trips across its steep spine and through the spectacular scenery of the National Park of American Samoa.
I stopped often, but I never encountered another tourist. The only people I saw were locals on their way to church, or in church, or coming back from church, or getting ready for family dinners after church.
It was the closest I've come to what may be every tourist's secret dream: having some exotic place all to oneself. But with a catch. There was almost nowhere to stay.
From Pago Pago eastward, until the paved road ended at the village of Oneona, the only accommodations I found were a bar-restaurant with a few rooms; an occasional beach that permitted camping but had no campers, and a pair of pretty fales on a pristine strip of sand in front of a village called Avaio.
The fales were sheltered from the gentle surf by a motu, a tiny islet that looked like a volcanic cupcake, black lava mounded with tropical greenery. There were no guests there, either, just a group of children playing with a litter of puppies. I asked what the place was called.
"Two Dollar Beach,'' one of the girls said. "You pay two dollars, and you can stay.''
Robert Louis Stevenson probably would have. I imagined his white schooner tied off at that motu and was envious. But I didn't have a sleeping pad or a mosquito net. Or time. That was the real problem.
I used to think that 19th-century travel was harder than ours. Now I think it just took more patience. Stevenson couldn't drop in on another culture the way I had dropped from the sky to see Vailima, nor could he zip back out on a night flight.
But he didn't have to base his travels on nonrefundable airline tickets, either. Right then, on Two Dollar Beach, a slow white schooner had a lot more appeal.
Catherine Watson is a former travel editor of the Star Tribune and the author of two collections of travel essays, "Roads Less Traveled" and "Home on the Road."