Smelling Safety

“When you get the videos, phone me!”  Sefo has been sounding like an impatient ten year old waiting for his best friend to try out a new video game.

Sefo, a grandfather who diligently keeps his family and close friends well versed in Rotuman tradition, has been phoning every day to see if the videos arrived in the mail.  (Reference for Sefo:  The Rotuma-Canada Connection)

“Sefo, they haven’t arrived yet.”

“But I sent them days ago!  What’s taking them so long?  You’ll love them!  Phone me and let me know when they come.”

With every call, I have promised, yet here he was again…

Sefo and me on a Walk-About

The two videos are anthropological studies that came to the attention of a professor friend.  When she described them, Sefo recognized an extraordinary opportunity to learn forgotten navigation skills used by his ancestors.

The videos record the knowledge and skills known by one elderly gentleman of Micronesian descent who lived on Satawal, a small island in the Caroline Islands north of Papua New Guinea. Papa Mau was one of the six remaining Master Navigators able to navigate the ocean without instrumentation.  He was invited to Hawaii to share and record these skills.  It’s more than using the senses.  It includes using intuition.  Though not a simple process, its procurement has now proven invaluable.  Papa Mau died in 2010.

These recorded skills describe ancient abilities also used by Melanesian and Polynesian races for navigating open waters.  Papa Mau’s knowledge confirms stories that island people traveled to other islands long before European ships began exploring these exotic lands.

Years ago when Sefo first described Rotuma to me, he explained that Fiji, the closest neighbour, was 400 miles south of Rotuma.  I asked, “Besides the stars, how did your ancestors navigate the open water without instrumentation?”

“The ocean has currents.  My people learned how to read them.  Also, when we come closer to land, we can smell it.”

I had neither considered the ocean having streams nor the land having scent.

Yesterday, when the phone rang, I saw “Sefo” on caller ID.  I hit the talk button and immediately said,  “It’s not here, Sefo!”  I felt impatient.  Could he just ask how I was doing instead of talking about videos?  A resentment was rising.   Throughout these days of video-focus, his enthusiasm over sharing his ancestry quelled my desire to say, “Hey, I need to talk.  I need our friendship.  I don’t want to talk about Rotuma or navigation or which star to watch to read the weather!”

There was a pause, then the familiar laugh.  “Sorry if I’ve been bothering you.”

“Well, Sefo…do you remember that you asked me to write my response to the videos?  I said I would.  I promised I would.  Yet you call everyday and ask about the videos.”  The tone had not improved.

“I wanted you to call so I could listen to my messages and hear your voice.”

“Are you being sarcastic?” I asked.

“No.  I’m doing negotiations with clients right now.  I’m meeting with each difficult client.  So when I come out of one of those meetings, I need an anchor.  I listen to my messages because even if you just said ‘hello’, your voice somehow calms me and gets the adrenalin back down to normal.  When there’s no message, I go to my car and listen to Rotuman music.  It’s how I come down.   Just talking helps – no matter what we talk about.”

My soul took a dive into warm, fragrant, turquoise water.  “Oh, Sef, I don’t know if I’m fit to be anyone’s anchor right now.”

“I just need to hear your voice.”

I knew what he meant.

A crack appeared in my heart’s veneer.  How did I ever end up with a friend like Sefo?  He teaches me that Love lives beyond all character defects.   Love oversteps petty annoyances.  Love forgives in the face of the minutiae and the monstrous.

I don’t have to see the videos to confirm this beloved Polynesian knows how to navigate currents, follow stars, and smell safety.  He’s been surviving my storms for 25 years.

73 thoughts on “Smelling Safety

  1. lucky you to have such a friend. you have such a diverse population of friends. they come from all walks of life. i trust you enjoyed the videos and let Sefo know.
    love ya

    susan c

    • Hi Susan, the videos just arrived minutes ago. I haven’t yet watched them, but you know I will shortly! One of the things I have enjoyed my entire life is opportunities to become friends with people from various parts of the world. And people who do incredible things like you do, Susan…training working dogs to save peoples’ lives! No wonder I think the world of you!

  2. Love and friendship are among the last things on this planet to be quantified by an instrument or explained by fact seeking scientists. That is because they shouldn’t be categorized or understood at all. They just should be enjoyed and never taken for granted.

    Thanks for reminding us what is important.


    • Welcome again, Mish. Yes, I am blessed! 😀 As years streak by, both of us are even more grateful for one another. BTW – Your 100 word challenge was intriguing. I’m considering another blog dedicated to writing challenges so as to maintain the writing objective on this one.

    • Well, Granny, the videos arrived and I am going to find out. You caught the softness in his eyes. That was a good day. You should see them when he’s angry! I’ve seen them so piercing that I was convinced his ancestors put people like me in a pot!

    • He is a comfort, Becca. When I listen to some of the troubles that people have in partnerships and marriages, I feel doubly blessed. I realize it’s different just being friends, but those kinds of life issues wound and distract and take me away from my purpose.

  3. I read somewhere that Australian abos can track land by smell too.

    “I just need to hear your voice.”
    That is the simplest statement that convinces me to dump my reluctance in using phones Amy. Happy navigation to Sef and you.

    • Yes, Poch, it would make sense that the Aborigines also used the sense of smell. But I puzzled over what sense could be used when one was 300 miles away from a piece of land! The videos will likely have the answer, but Sefo told me they used a type of intuition. That is of great interest to me!

      Now Poch, my precious Philippino friend! You are forgetting that your presence is important to others. Unless one is a raging egotist, it’s so easy to forget that other people need a short sweet message from us occasionally – as Sefo reminded me. Don’t hoard yourself, Poch. I know you are full of beauty! I’ve been peeking.

      • LOL I don’t think I’m an egotist Amy. It’s just that I only use phones for emergencies and instead of chatting using the phone, I could chat with someone over the Net where I’m available almost all the time.
        Btw, the right word is ‘Filipino’ but it doesn’t matter to me if you want your own version which is more sweet sounding.

        • Land Phone use is changing so radically that I’m wondering why I have one! Land line phone numbers seem a convenience for spam and scam solicitation. How long will it be before they squeeze into cell phones? You may even have information on that!

          Oh, boy, Poch…I do know it is Filipino. I get myself into trouble because I think too much about words: Why don’t we use Filipines instead of Philippines? Or, Philippines and Philippino? After all, Ruy López de Villalobos named your home “las Islas Filipinas” after Philip II of Spain. In Spanish, he is Felipe. There’s another spelling!!

          I apologize for my slip. I would not want to be called a Kanadian!

  4. “we can smell it”…:-D Fantastic!
    What a sweet person your friend sounds like. And even though I’ve never heard your voice, I can easily imagine that it has a calming and loving effect – it’s the same energy that vibrates through your written words 🙂

    • What an incredibly kind comment, Leila. Many thanks. Yesterday, I phoned Sefo and sang a message, “I just called to say I love you. I just called to say how much I care…” Of course, that is hard to do for a South Sea Islander who is used to being surrounded by incredible voices blending and harmonizing with each note. Know what he did? He played it for a fellow countryman who was cutting his hair! I could have crowned him.

      He insisted the barber said I had a great voice, but he was probably feeling sorry that Sefo had someone do that to an IPhone.:D

      • Not sure what I love the most…the fact that you left him a singing message…or the fact that he played it for his barber…! You are two very cool people indeed!:-)
        I say barbers knows these things – if anyone knows about singing voices, it’s the barber:-D

        • I hadn’t thought of that, Leila…the Barbershop Quartets et al. As an addendum, I learned another part of the story. The barber is Fijian. When he said I had a good voice, Sefo said, “Wait a minute…I’ll play it again. I don’t think you heard it.” What an imp!

          But the barber came out on top. He told Sef he wanted to apply stuff to make his hair (fringe) shine better. Sef’s vanity is enough that he bought the ruse. Aha! Grandpa’s grey hair has disappeared. The barber dyed his hair! I hope his family has a good laugh. 😀

  5. What an amazing friend that you have there Amy. It is so sweet that he just wanted to hear your voice, how blessed you are. And how wonderful that you had the fun idea to call back and sing to him. The whole singing thing was very special to him as he wanted to share it immediately. Isn’t it wonderful when we can make someone smile or laugh, just by being us and reaching out to one another. Those are the moments that sustain me and make me want to reach out to even strangers. I would never have met you if it weren’t for your blog. Just think how many people that you touch with your life.
    P.S. I kinda chuckled when you answered the phone, I thought there goes that impatience again.LOL

    • When Sefo reads all these comments, Dee, he may have a little trouble putting a hat on! Aw, no…we all need reassurances. He’ll do an even better job with all those negotiations.

      “There goes that impatience again.” Yes, Dee, I am very impatient with spam calls. A friend from Arkansas uses some International phone plan. After he calls, for a period of time, I receive a rash of spam calls…unbelievable. You phoned a day after he called. When I answered, I saw the “unusual” Caller ID # as I hit the talk button. Too late! So I snarked a hello and was ready to hang up during the pause that alerts us to spam. Fortunately, you responded quickly.

      Thanks for calling!

  6. One and a half weeks to go 30 miles? sheesh!
    It’s so encouraging to learn about people like Sef who value their friends that even after 25 years just hearing your voice helps him to feel grounded.
    I’d like to hear more about the walk-about…

    Nice to see a photo of you Amy. I only know you by the gravatar image.

    • Yes, Rosie, the water is a mighty barrier. But on the other hand, it discourages us from being over-crowded! 😀 The walk-about? Sefo and I don’t visit frequently and like to be outside walking while we visit. That photo was taken after a long stretch of not seeing one another. Sef and I both have worked all over the province and he’s has been so good about phoning regularly – for which I am so grateful. Seeing him with his IPhone makes me marvel that he could possibly have come from an island in the middle of nowhere with no modern conveniences.

  7. This is just such a beautiful and ‘feel good’ post Amy…thank you!
    There are so many aspects in it fighting for top slot…friendship…love…two such beautiful souls…the care and consideration…the picture…and the singing episode later…beautiful 🙂

    This is the sort of human interaction that uplifts the soul and reaffirms all that is good and pure and worthwhile in life and relationships…What a joy to read about it…God bless…

  8. More than anything, Amy, this story brought me close to that largest of all realizations, the moment that we are humbled. How many times have I listened “halfway” to what a friend might be trying to share with me or hastily deciding their intent everytime they began to speak? To be needed is one of the most huge gifts that another can gift us with. It is “HUGE” that just the sound of a friend’s voice can lead to such calm. Thank you for this and your unselfish way of sharing your stories with us. Gentle reminders.

    • He is a story! When he was young, he thought growing up on a small island was horrific punishment. We have some great laughs about it, but it would have been hard. One story he tells me that really caught my attention – years and years ago, a woman from California arrived on Rotuma with her typewriter. Sefo and his friends had to fish daily for her – she would have had no clue how to feed herself.

      I have wondered what she was writing.

  9. Hi Amy .. I’ve been waiting to get to this post .. it is amazing how much humans have learnt and can learn without our modern aids – I’m sure the progress of humans will be curtailed as we cut the umbilical cord to earth and our abilities to read our land.

    This just adds so much to the little I know of those Polynesian travellers of yore .. the ancients ability to live more harmoniously with nature and still do really what we do today – without the stress .. as they were living each day at a time as other animals do …

    Love this – then his need just hear your voice .. Sefo must be one amazing man especially (!?!?) as you say he’s weathered your storms for 25+ years … wonderful to see the photo too … on a walk-about …

    Fabulous post – thanks so much Amy – with thoughts – Hilary

  10. As much as I love technology, makes me a bit sad to know that one day, there will be nobody out there, able to navigate the oceans without the reliance of technology…then again, I hope others, like your friend learn, and pass on the skill. Lovely photo by the way.

  11. Amy, this is so wonderful! You are skilled at weaving stories with a surprise, and I have come to really look forward to reading you. This one is a testament to that dratted old tendency I have to assume. How precious that Sefo was calling and seeking his life preserver.

    I am also thrilled to hear about this navigational ability that comes out of a different way of listening and smelling, using the senses, not just manufactured tools.

  12. Is it a surprise, then, that just looking at your picture soothed me? It sends a message that all’s well in this world. Really. I took a deep breath and made a mental toast to the friend who “knows how to navigate currents, follow stars, and smell safety.”

    Thank you, Amy.

    • Hi Priya, good…I’m happy that the photo brings good feelings. Sefo tells me he’s been reading the comments so he’ll receive your toast with great delight. (This one is from India, Sefo!) It makes me happy to receive your visit, as always!

    • If we have to be a friend to have friends, I feel I lucked out big-time with this one, Tammy! He is consistently present in the lives of his family and friends so his brand of friendship reminds me of spiritual values our culture has let slide. I’m working on a post that will provide links to other, shorter videos that are very interesting, too.

  13. I am so glad that you landed upon my poem Sacred Fire (I think that was it). Now I want to figure out how to email you. I completely relate to all that you have felt. Extraordinary.

  14. It was touching, Amy, to learn of Sefo’s need to simply hear your voice. But equally moving is your ability to be yourself with him at all times, to react and say what you feel with no fear of damaging the friendship. “Love forgives in the face of the minutiae and the monstrous.” This was a joy to read.

    I’ve often wondered about the long-ago ability of people to sail from one tiny island to another in the middle of the huge ocean. How did they even know the other island was there? I want to see those videos!

  15. the sense of smell is so very powerful; the smell of our true home so close to our hearts.
    There is a tradition of something called the Wind Rose, a kind of mental compass used by the sailors in the mediterranean, of recognizing certain distinctive smells from a long way off shore, of knowing where you are because of the scent on the breeze.
    Thank you for a very thought provoking post.

    • Hello Viv – Thanks for visiting. I hope the sales of your book are climbing. I like your writing – not only the topics, but your excellent ability to say a great deal with so few words.

      When I first learned that mariners “smelled land”, I was awed. Then I considered how landlubbers know the smell of a freshly plowed field, a grove of flowering bushes, or a landfill site. A breeze could certainly bring the smell of land. But from such distances?? Learning about Mau’s ancient navigational techniques has been like a cool shower over sizzling curiosity. I had not heard of “Wild Rose”, but will look into it. I wonder if different waters brought out the sense or skill best suited for the environment.

      • I guess we underestimate our senses. I sometimes wonder if I had been a perfume “nose” in a previous life, because I can identify components of both smells and tastes really well.
        On my last but one work trip to London this year I discovered French perfumers L’artisan parfumeur ( and had an enjoyable half an hour sniffing and assessing scents. The assistant and I had a lot of fun and I bought a small size of a perfume called Mechant Loup (The Big bad Wolf) because it made me grrrrrrrrowl (but in that sexy way!)
        I have a kind of wardrobe of perfumes, and use a different one most days, according to how I feel. It”s a kind of alchemy for the psyche, to alter and enhance moods with scents.
        Thnak you for asking about the books; yes, they are slowly growing and I am happy about that. I’m happier still when people like yourself tell me how much they enjoy stuff I write.
        Years back, I worked at a nature reserve as an education officer, and we did use some activities based on scents, to get the visiting youngsters to really engaged in multi-sensory explorations.
        I really enjoyed reading about your adventures and your new friend.
        Be blessed!

  16. “My soul took a dive into warm, fragrant, turquoise water”

    I know how this feels. It’s tough to remove myself from such a blissful condition when I merge with you, but I know I can always return for another dip whenever I need to get away from the sharks on shore.

    Thanks for being there for such revitalization and refreshment!

    • Michael J., what an incredible compliment. If I have been able to offer that to you, then my hope that people will look deeper has been met!

      With love to you my irreplaceable blog buddy!

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