Issue 11.4: August/September 2008

Return to Olosega

story by Liza Simon
photos by Monte Costa

 

My husband is haunted by Olosega. In our ten years of marriage, he’s told me numerous tales about the island’s dark nights. He talks of strange animals appearing on the road with gleaming eyes, making car batteries stall and foot travelers turn and run. Then he assures me with bravado that he would not run. Those animals on the road? They could be the spirits of his ancestors. Puleisili comes from a line of high chiefs, or matai, who are buried on Olosega in the shade of a coconut grove near the family’s fale. One of his oft-repeated stories is of drifting into sleep in the fale one afternoon after an uncle’s funeral and waking to find a small lizard on his chest, watching him.

“I wasn’t startled. I just accepted it as the ancestors welcoming me home,” he chuckles. Puleisili seems to find everything about Olosega comforting. So many times he has attributed his ability to handle the stress of cityscapes—Manhattan, Long Beach, Seattle, Honolulu—to his home island. “Wherever I am, I am an Olosega man,” he repeats triumphantly.

Now we are bound for the island together. It will be my first visit. We’re going to attend Puleisili’s family reunion, which is being held, naturally, at the family’s place of origin. To me, the very premise that we all belong to a place is foreign. History dealt my Lithuanian forefathers a one-way ticket: war, famine, Ellis Island, acculturation, great refrigerators and no talk of return. But my husband comes from a culture where there was constant movement back and forth between islands—at least so say more and more archeologists studying Polynesian navigation. Perhaps, I think as we board the plane in Honolulu to fly south, the massive family reunions that are so commonplace in Samoa today are a legacy of that rare ability to make migration go in reverse.


 

American Samoa’s tourism office isn’t much help when I ask what to expect on Olosega. The office doesn’t get a lot of inquiries about the island, which sits in the outlying group of Manu‘a. Manu‘a is comprised of the large island of Ta‘u and the sibling-like isles of Ofu and Olosega, and visitor traffic to the area ranges from negligible to the occasional government-sponsored junket. There is no place to shop other than two or three “Samoan stores,” converted parlor rooms with a stock of overpriced crackers, sardines, Vailima beer and batteries. And while the Manu‘a group is only about 70 miles east of Pago Pago, nature is known to stretch the distance—as when, for example, planes approaching the tiny Ofu airstrip are forced by windy conditions to turn back. History also separates the Manu‘a group: This trio of islands was important at the very beginning and in more modern times, too. It is known as the birthplace of Samoa, and it was also—determined to resist the incursion of outsiders for as long as possible—the last part of American Samoa to raise the stars and stripes.

By the time we arrive in Ofu
, the reunion has been in progress for two days. There is no wind, and we land on the island easily. But my suitcase does not; it got left behind on the runway outside Pago. I shouldn’t be upset, the woman at the Ofu airport explains calmly: Our pilot was exceptionally conscientious and, after tallying passenger and cargo poundage, removed any excess weight that might jeopardize the flight. I’m slightly dismayed that the first lesson I learn as I journey to my husband’s island is the oldest one in the book: Be patient, because impatience helps nothing. At the moment, I want the swimsuit and snorkel gear packed in the missing suitcase. The coral reef within walking distance is so pristine that a US federal agency has declared it protected. But then I remind myself that beach visits are prohibited on Sundays—the Sabbath is serious business in Samoa—and today is Sunday. I can’t swim anyway so why am I upset?

We hop in the back of a pickup and bump along the road that leads to Olosega. It’s the usual island artery with green cliffs on one side and blue ocean on the other. The asphalt ends abruptly—apparently where the government funding did—and the tailbone-crunching ride continues along a rock- and coral-strewn surface. Then we reach an anomaly, a sleek new suspension bridge—the link between Ofu and Olosega. As Olosega comes into sight, my husband smiles blissfully. The mountains stare down, a majestic welcoming committee.



At the base of the cliffs, at the Asaga Inn, I meet the human welcoming committee. It’s a mishmash of personalities and nationalities and generations. Cousin Rosalie is the first to rise and give me a bear hug. She explains that her Australian accent comes from a life in the Outback, working as a nurse for a humanitarian organization. She’s arrived for the reunion with her four brothers and two nieces, all of whom live in New Zealand. Wait, I ask, why New Zealand?

Rosalie holds my hand in hers as she answers. “You see, my mum, Auntie Pu‘e, fell in love with a Maori man long ago and converted to Catholicism,” she begins, pausing to note that this was an extraordinary move for the daughter of a Protestant preacher. “Eventually it was OK, but she and my dad made the hard decision to go to New Zealand, where they thought the children would get a better education.” The children are today a mix of engineers and social workers, testament to their parents’ foresight.

It’s been forty years since Auntie Pu‘e set eyes on Olosega. As her children tell me her story, Pu‘e herself sits with her three siblings under the artfully thatched roof of the Asaga Inn’s porch. The four elders sit back, laugh and indolently fan themselves. There’s my husband’s father, a quiet, observant man, Puleisili Sr. There’s Auntie Malologa, who raises tropical birds and longhaired cats back in her yard in Pearl City. And there’s Auntie Saumolia, whose emphatic voice I notice right away—even though, unlike the others, she speaks only Samoan. In the coming days, she will insistently see to it that I wrap my tongue around the vowel-laden vocabulary, and I will end up learning more from her than I have from my husband in a decade.

The circumstances that scattered these four apart are as dramatic as the ones that at one point cleaved my family and probably yours, too. My husband has told me the story. It began when the four’s father—my husband’s grandfather—passed away very young. Two of the children stayed in Olosega, and two were sent to Pago Pago to be raised by relatives. In those days, the pain of separation was compounded by the difficulty of long-distance communication. But the children never forgot each other. Here in Olosega, the story takes on greater poignancy as Auntie Malologa tells me how, when they were old enough, they searched for one another in Pago and cried for days at the joy of finally tracking one another down.

Like my husband, these elders never doubted they would return to Olosega. One of the delights of being in their presence now that they have returned is the way they marvel over how little has changed. They’ll wander along, suddenly stop and let out a cry of joy over a coconut tree from childhood. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren, preoccupied with electronic gadgets, are only vaguely aware of how momentous this occasion is for the older generation. But Olosega will get through to them, I know.


 

“This is yours,” says my sister-in-law, a government employee from Pago and the de facto organizer of the reunion. She’s handed me the de rigueur gear of a Samoan family reunion: a T-shirt done with iconic family symbols and a lavalava carefully chosen from an array of cloth bolts stacked in a Pago dry goods store. She also distributes a CD on family genealogy, arranges recycling containers and makes sure everyone has programs of planned reunion activities, printed in both English and Samoan.

And first on the agenda now is church (remember, it’s Sunday). With all my belongings on the runway in Pago, I thank some prescient sense that led me to wear a flouncy white mu‘umu‘u on the plane. Walking through Olosega village to the service, we are a small pageant of a family. I enter the church beside my mother-in-law, and even if I can’t understand the sermon preached in Samoan or the lyrics that the choir is singing, I feel transported to a peaceful state. The nearby waves beat a rhythm.

Walking back to the Asaga Inn is mesmerizing. The sand sparkles, fresh-baked by the equatorial sun. This is a place that dazzles, but it’s not without intense humidity and occasional hurricanes. More than once, nature’s fury has required rebuilding the island from the ground up. The climate in Olosega challenges human resilience for, I think, just like love, it is all-encompassing—and it will not be denied.


 

A party unfolds on our first night. First we pray. Again, yes. The minister who gave the emphatic sermon earlier presides over a ceremony heavy with proverb-laden speeches and the presentation of fine mats. It is sweltering in the Asaga Inn parlor. Food is served, gracefully orchestrated by the commanding matriarchs, including Peka, the mellow wife of my husband’s Uncle Fili Laolagi, who, with Peka by his side, runs both the inn and the attached store. Later, she will tell me their story: After running two bars and a barbershop in a Los Angeles neighborhood, Laolagi knew that Olosega was calling. “And so he brought me here first in 1985,” she says. “We had pillows and a cooler, and we went swimming. He said, ‘We won’t stay if you don’t like it,’ but I did.”

After the minister is presented with a white envelope, the formality ends and the ‘ukelele come out. Some of us go strolling near the water’s edge, followed by packs of ever-present dogs. The Olosega night sky, wallpapered with stars, comes into sharp focus. Out back behind the inn, my husband and his Kiwi cousins are sitting on upturned coolers, warming themselves with the heat from the umu, the rock-heated open-air oven pit now roasting breadfruit and bananas.

Talk turns to the history of Olosega. Though I’ve heard tales from my husband, tonight there are other versions. Trevor, Puleisili’s cousin and the former principal of the only school on Ofu and Olosega, is prancing catlike during his narrative, launching into centuries-old stories of Olosega warriors fending off invaders. It’s history, but it’s also a series of family anecdotes, and I realize that the two are inseparable to those who seek their roots on Olosega. I am beginning to love the island for this lack of abstraction: Things I would normally read in books are here memories acted out around a campfire.

My husband decides to set out on a night dive with his cousins. They plan to take along a massive net that some of the family teenagers have been busily patching as their wide-eyed Hawaiian and Kiwi cousins look on. The holes in the net are the work of sharks. “Oh, just small sharks,” shrug the guys. I remind my husband to be careful because he is, for all intents and purposes, a weekend warrior. And then they head off, for the never-ending work on this subsistence-oriented isle is to feed everyone. Not easy work, either, Auntie Malologa reminded us earlier as she told of being a terrified young girl required to paddle a small paopao, or canoe, across the mercilessly dark channel alone at night (this was in the pre-bridge days). “Were the old people cruel to ask something like this?” my husband asked, rhetorically. “No, they knew Olosega. Its peace. Its safety.”

Perhaps he tempted fate with those words. Early the next morning, when I am in Ofu to pick up the missing suitcase, I get a call that my husband suffered an attack in the water. Not a shark—as the Olosega boys said, only baby sharks invade the nets—no, it was a jellyfish that wrapped its tentacles around my husband’s arm. “They got me again,” he says, referring to a similar encounter back in Hawai‘i. Still, he announces proudly, last night’s haul is enough to feed the reunion for a week.

Rosalie, the Outback nurse, has checked his vital signs. He will be OK, though the romance that this trip was supposed to nurture—well, it’s not going to bloom as he huddles under the covers, draws the curtains and blasts the air conditioning.


 


Maybe it was supposed to happen like this: Now I must experience Olosega without my husband as a filter. Days pass. We pray, we clean fish, we weave laufala into baskets, we make the umu, we clean graves. “What better way to break the ice with family?” asks Uncle Tommy as he supervises the painting of an elaborate grave marker that belongs to his great-grandfather. Tommy is assisted by his dimpled 8-year-old son, William; “nourishment for the soul for the young ones” he calls the day as he bends over to wipe paint off William’s face.

I am in a reverie watching when, “Careful, don’t step on our baby sister!” warns cousin Manuel, somewhat to my horror. The black lava rock at my feet marks the grave of the baby who became sick while sailing into Olosega and didn’t make it. The island still has only a part-time staffed infirmary, though there is hope that this will soon change, as I discover when I wander solo through Olosega village and run into rehearsals for Flag Day, the bittersweet commemoration of the first raising of the American flag in Manu‘a in 1904. The Olosega minister has composed songs and dances that convey a wish list to be presented to dignitaries in neighboring Ta‘u: They will be asking for a better infirmary and improvements to the road and harbor. I meet several Olosega women at the rehearsal. I befriend Alofa, the school librarian, who later shows me the painstaking work she has done reconstructing book spines, even though more and more kids just want to watch videos. I meet Sala, a mother of seven who, as the island’s only certified computer teacher, has the momentous job of introducing technology. “The kids learn fast,” she sighs. “But now, as much as we need to see the world, now the whole world sees us.” To be sure, I am realizing, life in cyberspace is the very antithesis of Olosega, which is all about being here. As I learned from my missing suitcase, you use whatever you bring and learn to do without. Well, with the exception of Flag Day, when it doesn’t hurt to put in a few requests.

Back at the inn, the reunion continues with badminton and volleyball. I am becoming increasingly amphibious, one day choosing to wade along the coast rather than walk the road. I pass my husband’s cousin Anetone and his two teenage charges from Pago. The boys have shed the hip-hop duds and edgy adolescent looks they sported on their first days here and now seem beatific as they haul to shore buckets of matapisu (limpets), octopus and reef fish.

When I swim, I watch yellow-striped Moorish idols feeding on a huge brain coral. When they see my shadow, they vanish in an instant. Next, I hover horizontal above an implacable seahorse that seems lost in its own reverie. No two moments are alike: The ocean is a chameleon, like Olosega itself. This tiny isle, I sense, holds a space vast enough to tie the past and present together forever.

Is Olosega really so timeless, or have I been consuming too many salt peanuts and Vailima beers from those Samoan stores? Answers vary, but the general consensus among Puleisili’s family is that the island can’t stay like this forever. Travel to Olosega might still be negligible, but an inn does exist here where before it did not. Change can be good business, Peka the innkeeper’s wife shrugs in her easy, candid manner. “We had a group of ham radio operators here. They wanted to see the umu and how we eat. We had Italians who wanted to watch us live,” she says without a hint of irony.

On the last night of the reunion, all the adults participate in a Samoan-style council on an issue of ultimate importance for the island: Who will next take the matai title? Some matai have sold their lands, and no one in this family wants to see that happen. Even my husband has roused himself from his sickbed for this momentous occasion. “When I look at the talent and intelligence right here in this family, I am gratified that Olosega will always be our home,” pronounces Rosalie after the final decisions are agreed on.

After one last breakfast of fresh papaya and coconut, a caravan of trucks heads to the airport. My husband and I will stay on in Olosega a little longer, but I ride out to the airport to say farewell to the family members who are leaving. On the tarmac, we hug and pledge passionately to stay in touch by e-mail. On the way back, in the cab beside Laolagi, I think what a meager substitute e-mail will be. I miss everyone already. I realize that I am only half-listening to Laolagi as he discusses Olosega’s hottest debate: whether extending the asphalt road will tempt the island’s drivers (all fifty or so of them) to speed.

When the Asaga Inn comes into view, I am hit in the solar plexus by its loneliness. Where there were tents and volleyball nets set up, there is now the unobstructed horizon. Where there hung dozens of sarongs on the plumeria tree, now there is only one left, whipped by the wind into a ragged knot. Shell ashtrays are grinning, scattered and empty. As I stand in the parlor, the straight-backed chairs seem pompous without the grace of my husband’s distinctive elders. The whole room seems to beg for their presence. I have met the ghosts of Olosega, I realize, and they are us. Everyone who comes here brings something special, as if no arrival were random. Everyone who leaves leaves behind a void, acutely felt in a place so small. I sit down in one of the chairs and realize that now I, too, am haunted by Olosega. I think of Puleisili’s words, “Wherever I am, I am an Olosega man.” How I understand them now—and the comfort of the ghosts who will await our return. HH