7 These Friendly Isles
Few men who come to the islands leave them;
they grow grey where they alighted;
the palm shades and the trade-wind fans them till they die…
R. L. Stevenson
With wind, current and sun all behind her, Atom shot out the coral-guarded inlet and away from Bora Bora. A day later, we approached Motu One, a single, lonely low atoll directly on my course line for Tonga. In retrospect, I could have laid a course farther north to safely avoid it, but I hoped to sight the island during daylight to confirm my position; an island sighted and confirmed being worth more to a navigator than a supposed position on paper. In this case, I was counting on a couple of well-timed star sights to guide me past. Then, as the clouds rolled in, I put the sextant away for the night.
I assumed the island was 20 miles ahead, yet I could not be sure. To be cautious, I hauled in the sheets, swung Atom into the wind, and reluctantly hove-to for nine hours. With this fair wind, I had given up 50 miles of easy progress during the night. Better the lost miles than to pile headlong onto an unseen reef. As it turned out, ocean currents combined with our drift to carry us halfway to the island during the night.
This leg of my Pacific crossing was to Tonga's Vava'u Island; the last stop before crossing the vague ethnographical line between Polynesia and Melanesia. At dawn, I sighted a line of green marking an island so low that the coconut palms looked to be rooted in the sea. Passing this danger marked the boundary of French Polynesia, and I packed away my French dictionary until next year.
With the wind steady from the east, I set up my running rig. One reef in the mainsail, pushed all the way out to starboard, balanced with the number two jib held out to port on the spinnaker pole. This slowed the boat by about one knot from what she could do under full sail, but the wind vane steered a better course at this lower speed, and with less sail up there was more time to react to rising winds or a chance midnight squall. With Atom looking after herself, the hours and days drifted by as I tucked into my books, performed sets of deep knee bends and push-ups between the bunks, mended sails and generally got back into my sea-going routine.
I grew to appreciate the compact world within a small boat. Within two steps of my bunk I could reach all my tools and possessions. This was convenient living, everything within arms reach of everything else. When I felt the need for more space, I walked ten steps from the cockpit to the bow and clung with one hand on the forestay, scanning the wide-open western horizon.
I attempted a haircut on the foredeck with dull scissors and no mirror. Using my fingers to judge the evenness of the length, I kept snipping in corrections until I was mostly bald. With no crew on board I was not in the least embarrassed, and I would have nearly two weeks to sprout a less scary-looking head of hair before going ashore. It became a habit of mine to cut my hair nearly to the scalp at the beginning of each long passage. I saved water and shampoo and found this ritual shearing of the crew in some way symbolic of the rebirth and new beginnings each passage represented. I also took to wearing, if nothing else, a wide-brimmed straw hat to prevent sunburn.
The moon was waning, rising later each night and showing smaller slices of itself until, within a few days, it disappeared. As compensation for losing my lunar companion, the star watching was all the better without the competition of moonlight. The strange patterns of stars visible to the south were still new to me. To learn to recognize them in their constellations, I stayed up on deck many fair nights referring to star charts with a penlight held between my teeth.
A broach at seven knots jolts me back from my mental wanderings among the stars of the Southern Cross. Too much sail, tuck in another reef. Atom settles down on her course and I take seven hours of sleep interspersed with hourly peeps through the hatch to confirm all is well with course and sails and the unlit path ahead. By morning the winds were caressing the sea so gently that I hoisted all sail and we crawled along at two miles to the hour all the day through. The relative stability of our stance on the water gave a good opportunity for baking bread. I managed to turn out a lumpy loaf of oatmeal bread by placing a baking dish inside a large aluminum pot, strapped down on the kerosene stove rail as a makeshift oven. On most days, pan-fried cornbread was the easier recipe on a rolling boat.
During our slow crawl across the sea, I spent some hours lying flat on deck with eyes trained over the side, dangling a hand into the water and watching the ecosystem trailing under the boat. Small fish sought sanctuary close to the hull until chased away by larger tuna and dorado, which also kept station around the hull for days at a time. The Spanish called them dorado (the golden ones) because their flanks flash gold among their many colors. They break away at a blinding speed to inhale an unwary flying fish, and then fall back in patrol formation under the shadow of the hull.
A year earlier, I would have set a lure or gone for my spear gun at the sight of this potential meal. For now I was an observer, not a hunter, and welcomed the shared company. When living alone on the sea and blessed with abundant stores of food on board, even fish became precious companions. Like using a fast to strengthen the spirit and purify the body, I felt stronger through my odd disciplines.
I had lived higher up the food chain and would do so again. For now, I lived a more passive coexistence in the world. There's no way to feel this state of being, alone in the sea-world, or even to understand it, if you spend most of your days and nights hidden within the walls and roof of a house, then take a car to an office or factory. Men have stood on the moon and told us about it, yet what do we really know of how it feels to stand on the moon?
After passing Palmerston Atoll – a tiny islet in an otherwise empty spot of the ocean – the barometer took a quick dip. Nothing to worry about since cyclone season is months away, I told myself, as the wind freshened and backed to the north. Cataracts of rain came down on us. The wind kept backing into the northwest, indicating the center of the disturbance would pass to my south. It was confirmed that night by lightning displays in the southern sky. At midnight the second squall line caught me asleep. Atom heeled sharply, then, overpowering her wind vane, turned into the wind as flogging sails shook her rig. Seconds after being comfortably asleep, I was battling a wildly flapping jib that nearly threw me over the side before I got it down to the deck. Try pulling a bed sheet off a clothes line in a hurricane at night, while walking on ball bearings, and you'll get an idea of the awkward ballet I performed.
The squall passed quick as it came but I didn't trust the weather and hove-to until dawn when the storm had visibly passed, replaced by a faint resemblance of the normal trade winds. For the next two days, there was only the lightest puffs of air from astern. By using the light spinnaker and some hand-steering, while constantly adjusting the sail trim to the fickle breeze, I made acceptable progress.
A flock of sea birds, probably terns of some type, kept me amused with their fishing antics. As Atom cleaved the calm waters, small fish scattered ahead of us. When a bird hovering at masthead height caught sight of a fish, he cocked back his wings in a vertical dive, hitting the water like a missile. They usually emerged with their prize clenched in their beaks. Tuna were also in high spirits for some reason, taking to the air in arching leaps and nearly landing on deck a few times.
The sunsets off the bow were, if possible, even more unbelievable than any before. The red, yellow and whites of the pulsing spinnaker cloth matched the shifting tones on the horizon behind it. To the north, spiked clouds indicated a distant mountain range that my charts told me were pure illusion.
Now and again, usually a few times on each passage, the earth's atmosphere struck just the right balance to produce the sailor's fabled Green Flash. But it's no fable, despite the claims of color-blind or otherwise unseeing sailors who claim it's a myth. In simple scientific terms, the atmosphere at the horizon acts on the setting sun as a filter for the rainbow spectrum contained in visible light. With red blocked by the horizon, and orange, yellow, blue and violet scattered by molecules and absorbed by the atmosphere, green is left as the last prominent wavelength for the observer. It takes a clear sky with the right amounts of moisture and pollution-free clarity of air to bring off a good green flash. Being near the tropics helps. To know a thing you must see it first, and to see you must look with an open mind.
The setting sun, having made its flashy departure, handed the sky over to Venus, which glowed low in the west next to a sliver of new moon. Arching back across the heavens were the familiar celestial lanterns of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter. I took a sextant shot at Jupiter, bringing her down to the water with the mirrors. A few calculations produced a satisfying line of position on the plotting chart. To add more certainty to the position, I shot three prominent stars as well, all done during the half hour of twilight while there was still a discernible horizon.
To the uninitiated, the practice of celestial navigation is both archaic and mysterious. A brief description will dispel some of the mystery. First, the star is identified, either through memory of its position in a constellation learned by referring to star charts, or by pre-computing likely visible stars referenced in a book titled Selected Stars. Then, the sextant is used to bring it down to a dimly visible horizon. This is done by rocking the sextant's arm and making final fine adjustments to the vernier screw knob to bring the mirrored image of the star down to touch the horizon during the single second that the boat crests a wave. The instant of this event is noted to the nearest second. And it is a meaningful moment, considering that a few seconds off could result in a position error of a mile or more.
The sight reduction tables are then referenced, using the sextant altitude reading in degrees, the exact time, and an assumed (guessed at) position in latitude and longitude. Using the tables and making some twenty sets of simple addition and subtraction, a position line is obtained. Two of these position lines make a fix. Three is better. The precision of a two star fix taken in average conditions cannot be assumed to be better than about three miles, depending on the accuracy of your clock and sextant, and your skill using it. The tight triangle of a three star fix may get you within a mile or two at best. And that is as good as it gets.
To those who know, celestial navigation remains a mark of competency that sets a true navigator apart from merely a satellite-guided sailor – one who wouldn't have the remotest chance of finding a not-so-remote island a few miles off their bow if they happen to lose their GPS. This, and lesser calamities, causes today's adventure-averse sailors to reach for the rescue beacon.
From my journal of August 28 comes the following entry:
I crossed the International Dateline last night and advanced from Tuesday directly to Thursday. So for me, Wednesday the 29th never existed. The strange part is that the time zone Tonga belongs to puts those islands geographically firmly in Tuesday. Yet by some creative bending of the dateline, Tonga declares they are in Thursday. Then they set their clocks to minus 13 hours from Greenwich Time, bringing them briefly to…Wednesday?
Even though I understood the necessity of the date change, I was somewhat confused with the mechanics of it and was perhaps unreasonably mourning my lost Wednesday.
Thirteen days after departing Bora Bora, I approached the northern coast of Vava'u Island. The steep shoreline exhibited white scars of landslips here and there. On the western coast, I passed through deep passages between bold rocky islets and the main island in a scene looking more like a Scandinavian fjord, except these valleys were cloaked in sun-soaked grooves of coconut palms and tropical gardens. The channel wound around to a landlocked bay where I laid Atom alongside the concrete quay in downtown Neiafu to clear in with customs and immigration.
Two large Tongan officials asked only a modest three dollar fee for port charges, then returned to their card game as I moved Atom further into the harbor to the yacht anchorage off the Paradise Hotel. For four dollars a week I had the use of the Hotel's dinghy dock and freshwater tap, the swimming pool and showers, even a movie once a week in the lounge, all unexpected luxuries.
This last remaining Polynesian monarchy, which regally calls itself The Kingdom of Tonga, contains over 150 significant islands in three main groups, stretching 200 miles along Polynesia's western margin. To the south is the country's capital city, Nuku'alofa (“The Abode of Love”). Other sailors had warned me that Nuku'alofa was not so lovely as its name implied – more of a congregation of squatter settlements. Not an abode of love so much as the abode of natives who have migrated to the capital in search of things they wouldn't find, though they have seen enough of tourists bearing traveler's checks and unceasing demands.
The central group, called Ha'apai, is a cluster of dot-like islands where Captain Bligh stopped to take on water just before his crew mutinied and set him adrift. The northern group of Vava'u, where I landed, was seldom visited by Westerners before one of the better known visitors here a few centuries earlier wrote in his diary:
[Because of] “the friendly behaviour of the Natives who seemed to vie with each other in doing what they thought would give us pleasure...this group I have named the Friendly Archipelago as a lasting friendship seems to exist among the Inhabitants and their Courtesy to Strangers entitles them to that name.”
Little did Captain Cook know, the local chief was craftily planning to make them feel at ease, then catch them off-guard, murder the sailors and capture their ships. Cook left his “Friendly Islands” just before the plans could be carried out. And though this nickname is still used and applies very well to today's Tongans, at least a few of the early European visitors might have said that “The Treacherous Islands” would better describe the natives' disposition.
The best known of the unlucky ships to visit these islands was the 500 ton, three-masted square rigger, Port-au-Prince. In 1806, the ship was roaming the South Pacific indulging in a bit of whaling and piracy when they headed to Tonga to make repairs. Unfortunately for them, they anchored off the island of Lifuka, the same island Cook had stopped at in the Endeavor, 30 years before. The islanders had patiently waited and plotted for Cook's return. This time the Friendly Islanders would not miss their chance.
As the crew repaired the ship's leaking hull, Lifuka's chief came aboard bearing gifts, welcoming the captain to visit ashore. Meanwhile, hundreds of Tongans armed with clubs and spears climbed aboard the Port-au-Prince. Captain Brown refused to believe they were in any danger because, after all, hadn't the great Captain Cook himself named these the Friendly Islands? Captain Brown then stepped into a canoe, was taken ashore, and clubbed to death. The natives on board screamed Maté! Maté! (Kill! Kill!) and quickly massacred most of the crew. The fate of Captain Brown should make a cautious sailor a bit skeptical of island descriptions in pilot books and cruising guides.
Since none of the Tongans knew how to sail their prize ship, they beached it and stripped it of every piece of metal they could find. To stone-aged Tongans, any metal was of such rarity and usefulness that they burned the ship to collect the iron, bronze and copper bolts that fastened her timbers. Of the few crew who were spared and kept as slaves was 15-year-old Will Mariner. Chief Finau took a liking to young Will, adopting him as his son and giving him the name Toki. Will quickly learned the Tongan language and ingratiated himself with the chief by teaching his warriors how to fire the cannons salvaged from the Port-au-Prince. With Will's help, Chief Finau became ruler of all the Tongan Islands. In gratitude, Will was made a chief himself and given a plantation on Vava'u Island where he lived four years until a visiting ship picked him up and returned him to England. Today, white men are still referred to in Tonga as Papalangi (“Sky-Burster”) after the incredible tall rigs of the sailing ships that rose over their horizon 250 years ago.
At the yacht anchorage, a man named Matoto watched my arrival from shore and paddled out in his canoe to welcome me to Vava'u. For $5 per person ($3 if you don't eat the lobster, he told me) Matoto organized a “traditional” Tongan feast at nearby Ano Beach. That Saturday, a small bus took ten of us from the visiting yachts to a secluded beach. When we arrived, a band of guitar, banjo, ukulele, wooden drums and a screechy violin were warming up.
We sat under the palms by the beach and watched a solo dancer as she played out an ancient story with intricate, graceful hand motions and subtle movements of her ankle-garlanded feet. Then she was joined by other girls also decorated with flowers, shells and beads over their pareos. Honey-colored skin shone with a generous coating of coconut oil. Their bodies swaying to the music captivated me like underwater coral sea-fans set in motion by surf passing close overhead. Hands and feet moved in a gentle wave-like motion, as hypnotizing to the sailor as the roll of the ocean. The women then performed another dance peculiar to Tonga, sitting cross-legged on the grass, their hands, arms and shoulders moving in precise unison.
Some of us swam off the beach while our hosts placed the food in a rock-lined fire-pit oven. Before sunset, we sat Polynesian-style, cross-legged on pandanus mats, while the unearthed food was carried out on long trays of plaited palm fronds. In front of us were heaped piles of lobster, octopus, fish, a whole roast pig, fruit salads of papaya, mango and pineapple with coconut cream. My hands quickly fell to the corn, taro, breadfruit, yams, cassava and sweet potatoes, all locally grown in the sun-blessed island of Vava'u. We ate, each according to his taste and capacity, until we fell back, one by one, in satiated bliss. It was noon the following day before I could think of eating again, and then it was from the basket of leftover vegetables Matoto insisted I take home with me. Poor Captain Brown arrived 180 years too early.
An itch to find the untouristed Tonga led me to fill my backpack with camping equipment and set out to walk to Longamapu Village located at the end of the road that wanders across Vava'u. I walked along a shady lane, past villages, hills and bays with dreamy, soft-sounding names like Taoa, Faleolo, Ha'akio and Feletoa. In the small villages, I never passed anyone without being greeted. If a Tongan who knew some English spotted me, I was obliged to stop and visit. They were the most socially inquisitive people I had ever met. If I responded to their, “Hello,” with the Tongan version, “Malo E Leilei,” they smiled hugely and asked all sorts of personal questions in a friendly way that came natural to them.
The standard questions were asked, in the same order everywhere, almost as if they were checking off points in a survey: where was I going, where was I coming from, my name, marital status, family size, and so on. Each greeting was conducted like a job interview and all the while I was scrutinized from head to toe, with a sympathetic smile. Actually, it was wonderful to partake in these interviews with total strangers, even if the questioning was mostly one-sided. It was a first step in being recognized as something more than a tourist.
As I walked through the village of Tefesi, a teen-aged boy with the Tongan curly mop of black hair introduced himself as Malakai and instantly decided to join me for the walk to Longamapu. He knew little more of English than I knew of Tongan, but by referring to my phrase book we had a type of conversation. More out of desire to practice Tongan than any real need to know, I asked in Tongan, “Are we close to Longamapu yet, Malakai?”
A mile farther down the road I tried, “Is it one more mile?”
“Yes, one more mile,” was the smiling response.
So we walked at a fast clip for two and a half more hours. “That was some mile, my friend!”
Tongans, I learned, have an overwhelming urge to answer “yes” merely to be agreeable. Why disappoint the temperamental, demanding foreigners with a “no?” To Tongans, agreement is more highly valued than accuracy, which is maddening to tourists. After I got used to it, I learned how to phrase my questions more carefully and avoid inquiries that only showed my impatience.
As we walked, I saw that most of these gently-sloped hillsides were in cultivation with one crop or another. Wide groves of taro, cassava, yams and bananas bordered the road until it ended at Port of Refuge Bay by the village of Longamapu. We walked down to the seashore where I staked out my tent and Malakai built a fire on the beach. When the driftwood burned down to red embers, we tossed in a whole breadfruit to bake. A few minutes on each side to burn the skin black and we rolled it out of the fire with a stick and cracked it in half to eat the soft, bread-like center pulp. Actually, the texture and taste were like a combination of yam and bread. As we ate, several people from the village came to join us bringing papaya and oranges to share. Will Mariner had been chief with a plantation here, but not a single local person I spoke to had ever heard the story of the white Chief Toki. For all I knew my hosts may have even had a few drops of Will Mariner's blood in their veins.
A man in his early 20s, named Ilangi Vea, looked long at my tent and asked if I really was going to sleep in that “thing.” He warned that the south wind would be cold at night so would I please stay with his family in the village. Nights in Tonga couldn't get cold enough for my liking but, seeing no clubs in their hands, I was happy to go along. The hospitality in the islands, like the solitude found at sea, increases as a direct function of your distance from the crowded cities.
On top of a hill overlooking the bay, Ilangi led me to a two-room thatched house that sheltered his family of nine. In the grassy yard was a single breadfruit tree that reached over to shade the house from the afternoon sun. Inside was not a single piece of furniture. The floor of crushed coral was covered with finely woven mats. These houses are light and airy, but must be rebuilt every second or third year as they weather and dry out. Last year's hurricane, called cyclones in the South Pacific, took many of the houses down early. Since then, some of the people here switched from thatch to tin roofs, which are less work, last longer, and are more secure, but make a horrible racket in a heavy rain. Some of the richer families have burdened themselves with homes built of cement blocks and tin roofs. These are both noisy in the rain and unbearably hot in the sun; their sole attributes being their longevity and the relative sanctuary of cement walls during cyclones.
The island's electrical grid had not yet reached Longamapu Village. As darkness fell, the kerosene lamps and cooking fires lit up the open doorways of each home. Ilangi and his brother unhooked a guitar and ukulele from the thatched wall and played Tongan songs with the rest of the family singing along. I don't know how long they played. I was tired from the five-hour walk and the sweet sounds sent me to sleep under a rough tapa blanket made from pounded tree bark.
I was awakened by the Polynesian pre-dawn concert of crowing roosters and barking dogs. This was replaced with the sound of chopping wood to fire the kettles for morning tea. From nearby homes came the sweet choral singing of Tongans joyously greeting a new day. We sipped tea brewed from the dried leaves of a neighbor's orange tree. Ilangi and Malakai took me to the community house where women were painting patterns on tapa cloth and gluing lapped edges together to form long sheets used for blankets, clothing and wall coverings. The cloth comes from the haipo, a type of mulberry tree, which are planted and carefully tended for two years until they mature. The bark is then stripped off and the soft, white inner layer is hung to dry in the sun. Then it is beaten flat and thin with a wooden mallet. Two of these pieces are fixed back-to-back with arrowroot glue. Traditional geometric designs, or the Tongan coat of arms, are then painted on using black and brown dyes from the sap of mangrove roots.
The women also weave handsome baskets and mats from specially prepared pandanus leaves. Tongans wear these mats, called ta'ovala, around their waists. Under that, the men wear a knee-length skirt of patterned cloth. Women's skirts were all ankle-length. It had surprised me to see the bank manager, wearing a white shirt and black tie, stand up from behind his desk to reveal the ta'avola mat around his waist on top of a skirt. This was the formal attire in Tonga.
When I left Longamapu, Ilangi made a gift to me of the tapa blanket I had slept under the night before. I had made the mistake of openly admiring the blanket and now was obliged to take it, according to custom. I thanked him and presented him the only extra shirt I had with me and carefully folded the multi-layered cloth into my pack.
On the way back to Neiafu I traveled a different, higher route that offered a better view. Norfolk pines lined the ridges and family-sized plantations patterned the hillsides. I happily lost myself in the tonk-tonk rhythm of ironwood mallets sounding throughout the valley as women pounded the tapa over logs. Each hour or so a passing vehicle would stop to offer me a ride. It was as if they had never seen anyone walking long and far just for the enjoyment of it. I thanked them for the offer, answered their barrage of questions, and continued walking so I could better appreciate the slowly unfolding landscape. You can always drive to your destination, but a true journey is made on foot.
Over a century ago, King George Tupuo's Land Act gave each male Tongan a parcel of land upon reaching his 16th year. That piece of land was 100 ofa square, an ofa being the span of the king's outstretched arms. As long as the man farms it and pays a small tax, he can keep it. None of this land could be sold; in title it still belongs to the crown. Today, with the growing population, these land grants have likely been reduced, if not stopped altogether.
Although Tonga was a British protectorate for a time, mainly in order to keep it out of the grasping colonial hands of Germany and France, the country craftily managed to retain its sovereignty. The ruler at the time of my visit was King Taufa Ahau Tupuo IV, who took over in 1965 after his mother, Queen Salote, died. Tupuo IV is of kingly size, well over 300 pounds, and was reported to be a skillful surfer, at least in his younger and slightly leaner years.
A Tongan friend invited me to the Kava Club in Neiafu on Friday night. The mildly narcotic kava drink is made from the root of a pepper shrub, traditionally prepared by virginal maidens who chewed the roots to soften them. The saliva-soaked roots were then squeezed into bowls of water to extract the kava. Either kava-chewing virgins are now a rarity, or spit-flavored kava has gone out of favor. Today, the drink is prepared by beating them with clubs (the roots, not the virgins!) and the powder placed in a mesh screen and squeezed into a pail of water. It comes out looking and tasting like stagnant muddy ditch water – just as they like it. They drink this in a social way, much as we do coffee or beer. It numbs the mouth and its strange earthy flavor is, what we might call, an acquired taste.
The kava clubhouse held over a hundred men sitting on mats, in groups of five to ten, around huge wooden bowls that servant girls refilled with kava by the bucketful. A girl kneeled behind each bowl, scooping out a half coconut shell full of kava to one person at a time. Each man swallowed the brew in one gulp, and ritualistically threw the cup to the floor to be picked up by the server and refilled for the next person. With some effort, I held back from spraying the first mouthful all over my smiling hosts. I then threw the cup down with perhaps a little more enthusiasm than was called for. So we sat, hour after hour, the kava cup making countless rounds. Actually, I did count, and it tasted considerable better after the fifth cup when my mouth was completely numb.
I had read the story of a young American sailor who visited Tonga and was served kava by a girl named Foi'atelolo, meaning “fat liver full of oil.” That is some flattering name considering the Tongans love of oily food, especially pig's liver. Tongans start out slender in their youth but grow quite large, sometimes enormously so, as they mature. A woman's beauty is measured in kilos, with those at the heavy end of the scale being most highly prized by Tongan men.
Between gulps from the kava cup, the men told stories and spread the latest gossip. As the only Westerner there, I was urged to use my numb tongue to tell our group about myself and why I was in Tonga. With one of the men acting as interpreter, they queried (you might say quarried) every nugget of detail from my story. My tales of sailing among the isles of the Pacific seemed to stir in these men some atavistic memories of their warrior ancestors who voyaged throughout the central Pacific to conquer or settle new lands. Sadly, the voyaging canoes are no more, though the faint longing for a voyage beyond their home island lives on.
After each ten rounds of kava, a collection was taken up for the evening feast with each group trying to outbid the others. The groups gave themselves names like The Fishermen, and The Sailors, and the amounts they donated were tallied and called out to keep the competition going. Some of the money would go to the local college, whose brass band was booming and blaring British marching songs right outside our door to insure we could not forget them at donation time. In my honor, our group chose the name Amerika, and I in return, emptied my pocket of its few coins and bills. They may have thought Amerika would be at the top of the cash donation list. Instead, when the speaker read off the final tally, it was The Fishermen over The Amerikans at $35 to $27. When I stood up to leave, I found the numbness had spread from my tongue down to my feet. As I left, my fellow Amerikans loaded me down with a basket of food to bring back to my boat.
That same weekend I went to sample another feast on the beach. This time a different group performed, the girls dancing wave-like in the center with athletic young men leaping about in frenzied accompaniment. Then the men alone performed the kailao, the Tongan war dance. Drums beat out a steady rhythm as the men stomped the ground, kicking up sand, grimacing and shouting, their leafy costumes rustling as they swung wicked-looking war clubs at their imagined enemy. Next, a long-haired man with a wild set of eyes and two twirling machetes leapt out in front of us. After dark, he came back and did some tricky juggling of flaming clubs.
This feast and dancing went on for six hours after which, we all piled into the back of a pick-up truck for the ride back to town. When the paid guests had filled the truck to capacity, the musicians squeezed in around us. Then the dancers, the cooks and the women selling handicrafts wedged their way in with their piles of gear. Those who couldn't get on top of us hung along the sides. As we bounced down the dark, rutted road, the Tongans sang at full vigor, even the old woman with a breaking voice tried to be heard above the rest. Leading the singers was the crazy-eyed fire dancer, who finding no other spot available, was sitting on my lap like an overgrown infant.
Matoto invited me to visit his church with his family on Sunday. Everyone on Vava'u Island was devoutly Christian. Even the smallest village had at least two churches. There are Mormons, Seventh day Adventists, Free Weslayans, Catholics and other more obscure groups represented. The Adventist church believes Sunday in Tonga is actually Saturday, despite the man-made deviation of the International Dateline (Atom's navigator agrees!) and so hold their services on Sunday instead of their usual Saturday meetings. It's not clear to me if they live the rest of the week twenty-four hours behind their neighbors or if the dual dates are only necessary for the religious calendar.
Introducing Christianity here had been a deadly task. In 1797, the London Missionary School landed ten missionaries on Tongatapu Island. They were welcomed at first and promised protection by the chiefs. They soon discovered the natives were more interested in stealing their supplies and tools than in saving their souls. Two years later, civil war broke out across Tonga and three of the missionaries were murdered by the natives. The rest were burned out of their houses and fled to the coast where they lived in caves for a year until a passing ship picked them up. Years later, they tried again and eventually they baptized the chief, giving him the name George, after the King of England. Following the royal example, Tongans flocked to Christianity, embracing it with the zealous fervor of the newly converted.
The missionaries have unquestionably brought peace and order to the islands. They have also reversed the natural and ancient customs of the Tongans. Even today, the women discreetly cover their bodies from neck to ankle, even when swimming. The Tongan dancing is mostly reserved for paying tourists. Men on this tropical island are forbidden to go shirtless in public! The liberal-minded Gauguin had no idea how good he had it in French Polynesia.
Church bells ring out to announce services for one denomination or another nearly every day of the week. Everywhere is heard the songs of practicing choirs. Sundays immobilize the island like a general anesthetic. No work or shopping is permitted. It is possible you might be arrested for fishing on a Sunday, and shame on the couple caught holding hands on any day of the week. When cultures as fragile as those of Oceania are overturned by a foreign civilization, these vigorous-hearted people may be inclined to take the instructions of the new deity to extremes. Not even Mohamed himself could have done a better job of straitjacketing a pagan culture.
My friend Matoto belonged to the Free Weslayan Church in the village of Pangiamotu. The wooden building's large open windows let in the light and air and let out the music of the choir. The congregation, wearing their finest clothes, sat barefoot on floor mats. When they sang it was like the angels of heaven in ecstasy. I'd never heard 30 mouths sing so loud with such rich voices and perfect timing without musical accompaniment, effortlessly holding a four-part harmony. During the sermon, the preacher slashed at the air with his arms to punctuate an emotional speech, but since his words, and the songs he directed, were all in Tongan, his passionate message flew over my head.
After the service, I shook hands with the entire congregation and then followed Matoto to his house for the big Sunday dinner they had begun preparing on Saturday. Again, I surprised myself by overeating and had to sit back to catch my breath and wonder if this gluttony was a sign that my own cooking was lacking something. But then, it could be that overindulgence in all manner of things is the natural state of a sailor on shore leave.
I asked Matoto about the abundance of food on this island. Plantations thrived everywhere. Sugar, flour, and tinned meats and fats were at the top of their imports. Many Tongans were obese and burdened with one of the world's highest incidences of diabetes. There were little, if any, crops exported and the island's sole vegetable market was overstocked. Matoto explained that this year they did have a surplus, though with the vagaries of the weather and the occasional cyclone, some years many of the crops failed. They could not predict what would happen from one year to the next. Judging by the size of the people, they had enjoyed some bountiful years recently.
In Matato's house there were four heavy sacks of taro roots harvested from his own garden. “Will you sell some of your surplus at the market?” I asked.
“No, this I will share with my friends,” he said, then went on to explain, “The Ha'apai group of islands south of here also produced more than they needed this year. Because they are poor, we let them sell their crops here.”
In Tonga, the essentials of life; from food, to spirituality, to friendship, are available in abundance.