APIA, SAMOA >> During a picturesque drive along Upolu’s northeastern coast last week, Hokule‘a and Hikianalia crews were hard at work cracking up one another — mostly with bad impressions of crew members — as their caravan neared the village of Faleapuna.
They were giddy and more than a bit anxious to get back on the water. Their journey — the Samoa leg of the canoes’ worldwide voyage — started just a few days prior with a swift overnight sail from Pago Pago to Apia Harbor.
Despite all the laughs, apprentice navigator Celeste Ha’o was all nerves. For the 27-year-old Hilo native, this drive to her family’s village marked the end of a voyage that began 10 years ago.
It was not the ending she expected and certainly not the one she hoped for. But she believes that everything happens for a reason. She chuckled at a botched impression that was supposed to resemble a New Zealand accent but instead came off sounding Russian. The car snaked onward alongside glistening turquoise waters.
Ha’o journeyed to Samoa with her teacher, pwo (master) navigator Kalepa Baybayan, to fulfill a promise to her grandfather that they would all eventually meet in Faleapuna. To get this far, she helped navigate Hokule‘a across some 700 difficult miles of Pacific ocean, against some fierce winds.
But far more difficult than the winds, she said, was leaving behind her husband and three small children, including a newborn girl, back in Hilo so that she could complete her monthlong trek.
“It was not an easy sail,” Ha’o said. “When you understand your purpose, and your
vision is very clear, you have to go. But it doesn’t make it any easier.”
This is only Ha’o’s second trip ever to the South Pacific nation, but she already carries the highest title a woman can have in Samoa’s traditional society — what’s known as “taupou.” The role is akin to a princess, someone responsible for her village’s well-being.
During her first visit 10 years ago, Ha’o’s grandfather, the paramount chief of their family’s village, surprised Ha’o by bestowing her with the title. The move also shocked her mother, Ha’o said. She worried that taupou would be too much responsibility for her young daughter living several thousand miles away with no real experience of Samoa.
However, Ha’o’s grandfather, Taua’a Tialavea, assured them that Ha’o could continue her life in Hawaii despite being taupou, she said. He told her to learn all she could there.
When the time was right, he would call her back to Faleapuna to benefit the village of some 700 or so people.
IN SAMOA, traditional designations such as taupou aren’t just ceremonial. They still play a key part in society. The islands’ chiefs still meet to discuss local affairs and to help address disputes on a grass-roots level, often resolving such matters before the police or courts need to get involved.
“We’re living it. It’s alive,” Ha’o’s uncle, Alaiasa Schwartz Hunt, said of the social framework that’s persisted despite Western influences on the islands. Ha’o “carries more than a title,” said Hunt, a local chief. “It’s her whole being in a title.”
Ha’o finally did get a phone call from her grandfather in March 2012 to make a return visit to Samoa. She had just spent the past several years learning traditional wayfinding navigation at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii under Baybayan’s guidance.
“I was looking for someone who could learn quickly” to help teach the concepts, Baybayan said. Ha’o, an education associate at ‘Imiloa, showed a passion for the craft, a willingness to learn and an attention to detail — all essential qualities for any skilled navigator.
Ha’o was also mother to a newborn son and several months pregnant with her second child when her grandfather’s 2012 call came.
Meanwhile, Tialavea was living in Southern California to get medical care for heart problems. He knew all about his granddaughter’s studies with Baybayan to learn the navigation techniques of her Samoan ancestors. When he called, he requested that she sail a voyaging canoe from Hawaii to Samoa with a crew and Baybayan to meet him there so that the village could honor her teacher.
It was a huge request, but Ha’o told Tialavea she would do her best. With Baybayan’s help, she pored over possible ways to complete the task, but they simply couldn’t find a way to make it happen. Reluctantly, she called Tialavea to let him know “there’s just no way.”
Tialavea wasn’t worried. “When the time is right, everything will fall into place,” he told Ha’o, as she recalled.
On May 28, Polynesian Voyaging Society President and Hokule‘a captain Nainoa Thompson sat in ‘Imiloa’s planetarium with his crew for a training session on the stars, two days before they would leave Hilo Bay for Tahiti and the voyage’s first international leg.
Thompson was impatient. There was still so much to do to get ready and not enough time to do it all. Then he sat back in the chair and looked at the planetarium’s ceiling. He was blown away.
It displayed the stars as they had been organized by cultures from around the world, all on the same ceiling. It linked humanity through navigation — precisely what he hoped to accomplish by sailing Hokule‘a around the world.
“Who did this? Who did all this research?” Thompson asked Baybayan, his fellow pwo navigator.
Baybayan pointed to his student, sitting nearby. It was Ha’o’s 27th birthday.
Thompson didn’t know Ha’o, but he saw her work and her passion through the planetarium. Even though it wasn’t what the PVS typically did, he approached her and invited her to participate in the voyage.
He suggested she join an upcoming Samoa sail from Pago Pago to Apia — a quick hop that would work well because she was new to Hokule‘a. Baybayan would also be aboard.
When he suggested Samoa, Thompson didn’t know of Ha’o’s Samoan background. He had no idea of her grandfather’s request to return there.
“Of all the places he could’ve asked me to join, he picked that one,” Ha’o said.
She agreed to go, pending a talk with her husband. She decided to join the canoes well before they got to Samoa, meeting them instead on the small atoll of Aitutaki to ensure her journey would be sufficiently long and challenging. Ha’o wanted to earn her homecoming.
Everything was falling into place.
IN AUGUST, as the canoes neared Aitutaki in the pre-dawn after sailing from Rarotonga, Baybayan saw a motorboat approach Hikianalia, which he was captaining at the time. They were set to dock in several hours, but Ha’o couldn’t wait to meet them.
Once they regrouped on shore, Ha’o opted to leave Baybayan on Hikianalia and join the Hokule‘a crew, where she wouldn’t have her teacher to fall back on. During nine days of punishing weather, she co-navigated the canoes to Samoa with two other apprentices, Kaimana Barcarse and Bonnie Kahapea-Tanner.
It was a tough sail, but Ha’o could look forward to meeting her grandfather, as promised, when they arrived. She was so close to her goal.
When Ha’o got to the island of Manu’a, the first stop in American Samoa, her mother gave her the news: Tialavea had suffered two heart attacks while Ha’o was guiding the canoes home. He remained critically ill in California and wouldn’t be able to meet them in Samoa.
Ha’o is still trying to make sense of the turn of events. Everything seemed preordained up until she came ashore on Manu’a. “It turned out to be a heartbreaker,” Ha’o recalled last week. “I wasn’t expecting the news. All of this was for him.”
Nonetheless, she resolved to keep her promise to Tialavea and to finish what she had started. She also held out hope, right up until the moment she and Hokule‘a’s upbeat crew arrived Thursday at her family’s beachfront property in Faleapuna, that he would be there to greet her. It wasn’t to be.
Ha’o still hasn’t been able to get in touch with Tialavea since she arrived in the Samoan islands due to his health and challenges in calling overseas to California.
As she arrived at the family-owned resort in Faleapuna, Ha’o’s uncle Hunt and about a dozen relatives warmly greeted her and the crew. They then held a traditional ava ceremony (kava in Hawaii) to welcome her home, with attendees taking turns sharing the root drink using a coconut cup.
Dressed in traditional grab, Baybayan and Ha’o sat across from each other on mats beneath the shade of a talie tree. When it was Ha’o’s turn to drink, she held the cup over her head to honor Atua, or God, and Tagaloa as her kupuna, the deity of the sea. The tears started to flow as she spoke.
“I kept my promise to my grandfather to come home the way my ancestors did by way of the sea and the stars,” she declared to her family and her crew. “I fulfilled my duty.”
Baybayan sat quietly, his head resting in his hands. Afterward, he would explain that he’d already thought about what’s the next step for Ha’o when she returns to Hilo.
“We’ve come this far, but I’m never satisfied with the present,” Baybayan said. “It’s always about what we’re going to do next, what’s the next challenge. I think that’s the process of life.”
Ha’o, for her part, looks forward to reuniting with her family in Hilo in mid-September. She also plans to develop curriculum that can be used to teach navigation beyond ‘Imiloa.
Thompson hopes she might one day help lead navigation classes specifically geared for Samoans, to teach the descendants of the explorers who helped find the Hawaiian Islands how to find their way around the South Pacific without modern navigational tools.
“If they’re successful at it, we’re successful at it,” Thompson said of the idea. “We need to think about what we leave behind here in Samoa.”