Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tales of Samoa - o se asiasiga i Aunu’u

o se asiasiga i Aunu’u - A visit to Aunu'u

     It was a given that if you lived on the mile-wide island of Aunu'u, you would have very few visitors. Although barely a mile of open water separated the beach in front of the village from the boat landing at the village of Auasi on the island of Tutuila, it could be a daunting trip.
     The long ocean swells, driven by the steady trade winds slipped easily past the eastern side of Aunu'u, rolled across the channel, and crashed mightily on the point of land that gave partial protection to the beach at Auasi.
     The twenty to thirty foot long boats used by the men of Aunu'u to row across the channel each day at dawn on the way to jobs in town were carefully handcrafted on the island, the design copied from early Yankee whaleboats and handed down from father to son over several generations. During the day four, five or even six of these bobbed gently on the ends of their short mooring lines over the sunlit sandy bottom just off the beach of Auasi, sheltered from the ocean swells by the fringing reef thirty yards offshore where the waves spent most of their energy.
     A trip to Aunu'u most often involved waiting for the busses bringing the men and women back from work and shopping trips to the stores and businesses around Pago Pago Harbor. You would wade with the ten or fifteen people out to one of the longboats scramble up out of waist deep water over the side into the boat, finding a place to sit among the returning villagers and the woven coconut leaf baskets of taro, coconuts, bananas, store-bought goods, and occasional chickens or trussed live pigs.
     Fully loaded, the longboats sometimes had as little as four or five inches of freeboard between the edges of the boat and the surface of the water. Regardless, the six or eight rowers would run out the hand carved oars, and one man would sit high on the very tip of the stern, manning the steering sweep.
     Back-paddling on the oars, the rowers would keep the longboat from being swept with the current out through the break in the reef until, with a sharp "Ey-yo!", the steersman would call out the signal for everyone to pull in unison, as hard and as fast as they could. The boat would cut sharply through the choppy water, climbing the rising swell of the next wave just outside the reef line, and everyone would settle back and relax for the fifteen minute row across the channel. That was on a calm day!
     Living in the school principal's house at the school on Aunu'u, we were relatively isolated. The school was perhaps a quarter of a mile away from the main part of the village, along a sand and coral gravel path that skirted the shoreline. During the week after the students had gone home, and on weekends, the school grounds were usually deserted. Our connection with the rest of the world (in other words, the folks on the big, seventeen mile long island of Tutuila) was by single-sideband radio, which we kept on twenty-four hours a day, sitting on a low bookcase in the living room.
     To get in touch with anyone you picked up the microphone, keyed the button on the handle, and called, "Pago Radio, Pago Radio, Pago Radio, this is Aunu'u. OVER". Usually by the second or third call, someone in the communications office would reply, "Aunu'u, this is Pago Radio. OVER", and you would request a telephone patch to the Burns-Philp General Store to place an order for a couple of week's supply of groceries to be taken down to the boatshed on Thursday for delivery to Aunu'u. We could also call directly the same way, to the other schools scattered around Tutuila, the Manu'a islands of Ta'u, Ofu, and Olosega, and could even talk to the school on Swain's Island, 200 miles to the north.
     One Saturday morning we received we were hailed on the single sideband from Pago Radio. It was Kay Purinton, the photographer for the educational television station KVZK-TV calling. Her 70 year old mother had come to visit for a few weeks from the mainland United States, and Kay thought it would be wonderful if the two of them could come out to visit us on our little island over the weekend.
     We were delighted! We could show them around our little piece of paradise, and Kay could take pictures. There was only one problem; they wanted to come that afternoon. The longboats that took people to the Saturday market in Fagatogo on the main island had left Aunu'u before sunrise, and wouldn't return until just before sunset. Not to worry; I'd trot down to the far end of the village and talk with Gaosa, who had an old fourteen foot aluminum boat with a 15 hp outboard motor. He'd probably loan it to me. I told Kay to come on. I'd arrange a boat and meet them on the beach at Auasi.
     Gaosa wasn't at home when I arrived at his fale a couple of hours later, but his wife gave permission, and sent two teenage boys to bring the outboard motor down to the beach. The boat had seen hard use. Its thin aluminum skin was scraped, dented, and even had a few small cracks high on the sides where the middle seat was attached. The oars that the boys tossed casually into the boat were in worse shape. They were castoffs from one of the longboats. One had an inch wide crack in the paddle, and the handle of the other one was broken off, leaving a stub about three and a half feet long. No problem; we had the motor didn't we?
     The two boys and I had no difficulty sliding the boat into the water. The outboard motor started after four or five pulls and a bit of coaxing. We splashed easily over the small waves washing in to the landing, and quickly putt-puttered out into the cobalt-blue channel.
     The trip across was uneventful, although as we left the more sheltered water on the windward side of Aunu'u I noticed that the wind was stronger than usual, and coming from directly behind us instead of quartering from the starboard side as it usually did.
     The surface of the channel was choppy, but the swells were small, and since the white capped waves were all traveling in the same direction as we were it was easy to navigate through the break in the reef on the opposite side. We slid the bow of the boat up onto the beach where Kay and her mother were waiting.
     We gave them a hand into the boat. One of the boys perched himself on the bow, the second one shared the middle seat with Kay, and her mother sat on the stern seat with me. I yanked the lanyard to start the motor, but it was not cooperative. I yanked it again, several times, but was rewarded by nothing more than a couple of hazy blue coughs. I squeezed the primer bulb in the fuel line and tried several more times. At last the outboard rumbled into life. I eased the choke closed, moved the shift lever to forward, twisted the throttle, and started out through the short chop back to Aunu'u.
     We hadn't cleared the reef by more than a hundred feet when the motor gave a shudder and died. I gave the rope start handle several quick tugs, and this time we were able to travel another fifty feet before the motor quit again. I told the boys to use the oars to keep us from drifting too close to the breakers while I tried to restart the engine. Kay moved cautiously to the front of the boat, and the two boys faced front and paddled from the middle seat since they were not able to actually row with the ancient oars.
     I tried for another five minutes to restart the balky engine, while the boys paddled energetically. I had just about given up on the motor. When I turned around, I noticed that we were not where I expected to be. There is a very strong current that sometimes flows through the mile-wide channel between Tutuila and Aunu'u. Depending on the tide, it may move east toward the open ocean or west along the coast of the big island. This afternoon it was moving us parallel to the shoreline, and we were no longer anywhere near the opening in the reef. It was too late to try to get the boat back to shore. There was nothing to do but to try to paddle to Aunu'u. I tilted the motor up out of the water to reduce the drag a bit, and the boys really put all their energy into paddling now, dipping and swinging in unison to keep the boat pointed in the right direction.
     The boat pitched vigorously as the bow crested each sharp wind-driven wave, slamming down into the trough behind it before rising immediately into the next one. Wind blown spray soon had us all soaked. Kay took off the towel she had wrapped around her shoulders, and began using it to soak up the water that was beginning to accumulate in the bottom of the boat. She wrung the towel over the side each time it was saturated, but was only staying even, not making any progress in lowering the level of the seawater sloshing around our toes.
     The boys and I took turns, each paddling as hard as we could for the next half hour, but it was soon apparent that we were not getting anywhere heading directly into the short choppy waves and strong headwinds. In all that time we had succeeded in moving no more than a few hundred yards offshore while the current had carried us east almost a half mile. Now what?
     We had no hope of paddling to Aunu'u, and there was no way to get back to Auasi. Between us and safety back on the beach were eight foot high waves crashing loudly on the edge of the jagged coral reef. Were we worried? Not particularly.
     We had the wind and the current working to assist us with an alternative. We would simply stop fighting the forces of nature and use them to our advantage. Down the coast of Tutuila just a couple of miles was Cape Fogausa, and just beyond that the sheltered bay and beach of Faga’itua. We'd head there. It would take us a couple of hours, but we'd be safe, and I could use the single-sideband radio at Faga’itua High School to call Aunu'u and let them know we were OK. We had turned the boat and were beginning to paddle in that direction when Kay's mother pointed across the stern toward the east and said, "Look!"
     Coming around Matuli Point just east of Auasi was the grey boxy outline of the LCM, an old WWII landing craft that was used by the Department of Education to bring weekly supplies from Pago Pago around the island to the north shore villages and schools where there were no roads. Its course back to Pago Pago harbor would bring it very close to us. Not more than two minutes later Kay's mother pointed again, this time toward the island of Aunu'u, and called, "My goodness! Look over there!"
     Someone on walking on the beach, perhaps Gaosa's wife, wondering where we were, had spotted our little boat struggling against the wind and waves, and had summoned help. Heading our way, alternately appearing and disappearing above then behind the intervening waves was a big white longboat, manned by eight oarsmen and another on the steering oar. They were coming at full speed, smashing through the chop as if they were competing in the annual longboat races. A young boy sat in the bow, beating a tattoo with two sticks on a large battered cracker tin, setting the pace for the rowers. Faintly we could hear a voice in the wind, calling, "Malo i galue! Malo I fa'auli" - "Good work! Well done on the steering oar!"
     It was evident that the longboat from Aunu'u would reach us before the lumbering supply boat. The rowers were only a few hundred yards away when I heard the long, loud blast of a ship's horn from the west. Turning around to look the other way I saw the sleek white shape of the Coast Guard cutter slicing through the waves toward us at 20 knots!
     The longboat pulled up alongside us and threw us a line. About then the Coast Guard caught up, and after a brief exchange with the men on the longboat, threw them a line, taking both boats in tow. By the time the cutter had started, dead slow, on a course over to Aunu'u the LCM supply boat, rolling along in its own accompanying cloud of diesel fumes, had passed by slowly with shouts of laughter and encouragement. As the entourage made its way back parallel to the Tutuila shoreline we could see quite a few people standing along the road, on beaches, and by their stopped cars, all watching the spectacle. In a place where life usually moves at an unhurried, seldom changing pace, our fa'alavelave, our disturbance of the serenity, was great entertainment!
     The Coast Guard cast off the towline less than a hundred yards from the Aunu'u landing, and waving cheerful good-byes to our shouted words of thanks, roared off again at top speed toward the harbor at Pago Pago.
     We scrambled out of our little boat on the shore as the men from the longboat leaped out into the shallow water, calling to the children watching from the beach, "Aumai se lago!" Bring the short logs that we use to slide the longboat up above the high tide line! We all gave a hand pulling the heavy longboat up out of the water onto the dry sand,helped prop it up with sticks on each side so that it would remain upright, and shook hands all around, expressing our gratitude for the rescue.
     The two teenage boys that had been with us disconnected the culprit outboard, and went strutting like conquering heroes back toward Gaosa's fale, accompanied by a swarm of younger children all shouting questions at them.
     As Kay, her mother and I headed down the path toward the house at the school Kay's mother turned to me and said, "You know, I think that's the most fun I've ever had in my whole life!"


  1. Hi Siaosi,
    Thanks for posting these wonderful memories from your time in Samoa. I didn't even know this bit of history about Aunu'u. What a wealth of information I've gained from your blog!

    Aunu'u is such a peaceful little island compared to Tutuila. It feels almost as if time has passed it by but I think that's what makes it so beautiful. I'm scared stiff of those aluminum boats they use to get there and back (not much has changed in that respect from the time you were there) so I've only been to Aunu'u twice.

    I hope you post more memories from your years in Samoa. BTW- thanks for visiting my blog "Daughters of Samoa." Anyone and everyone is welcome to comment, male or female, Samoan or palagi:-) so I'm glad you left a comment. Soifua, Teine

  2. Wow Siaosi, thank you kindly for sharing a glimpse of how it was living in Aunu'u for you. Gaosa is my grandfather Leifi Fa'avae Tautolo's first cousin. I can only imagine how it was for Kay and her mother on that boat because when my family came from California for our Tautolo Reunion in Aunuu, we arrived Thursday night and from the Hawaiian Airplane straight to an aiga bus that took us to Auasi. Of course I had no clue what we were about to experience, but once on the boat with my parents, grandfather, nieces, husband and kids to Aunu'u, I literally thought my life was over. I remember the boat going oh so high and coming down so low, my nieces and kids were like, "Ooh, aah, yehhh." I was more of "I didn't get to do too much in my lifetime." Eventually we made it safely over, and had to deal with another challenge of carrying my luggage from the wharf to Gaosa's house.

    Life is beautiful, and as I write this, I am currently living in American Samoa and totally LOVE it here. Thanks again Siaosi for sharing. God Bless you and your family.

  3. Talofa, my name is Jane Sweazy Carruthers. I was born on Aunu'u in 1964 to a young, Samoan woman named Perenise Maliga. I was adopted soon afterwards by a palagi family, Bud and Vivian Sweazy. My dad worked at the tv station there. Originally, I came online today to see if I could find more news about the tsumani. I found your blog through the "Tropical Browns." I was wondering if you knew my Samoan or palagi family. I now live in Atlanta abd have 4 beautiful children. I hope that I can take them to Samoa one day. Thanks so much for your blogs about Samoa. I have SO enjoyed reading about your adventures there!!

  4. Jane, I hope that you will read this; you didn't leave an email address for me to answer your question.
    If you will go to (you will have to establish a new free account there if you don't already have a Yahoo ID) you can do a search for
    coconut_telegraph. There are currently 106 members there who live or have lived in Samoa. Some of them I am certain knew your dad. I knew OF him, but didn't know him personally.
    Here's another hint: join Facebook if you haven't already. There are lots of Samoan connections there, and even a group specifically connections to Aunu'u. Search for "Samoa mai Aunu'u" will be delighted.

  5. Thanks chief Siaosi. What a beautiful journey and the LoVe for our people. I'm so thankful people like you make us Samoan appreciate more where we came from. Faafetai tele lava manuia oe ma le aiga pele. Soifua. Faaui Hunkin.