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17, 2003-front page
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event the e-mails are returned from the above addresses --
Report Seventeen from the Otter: A Look at Vava'u,
Kingdom of Tonga
Aboard the yacht Otter
Opua, New Zealand
Dear Friends and E-mail Family,
As I write this I am anchored in Opua Harbor in New Zealand. The day is
rainy and a brisk wind whips small whitecaps across the flat water.
Iíve been working for days on the journal notes and reading in the
evenings. Iíve just finished a book, First you Have to Row a Little
Boat, by Richard Bode. He quotes from Thoreauís Conclusion in Walden
"It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in
Bode goes on to say, "I once met a man who said he had visited every
exotic place from the Grand Canyon to the Great Wall, but when I questioned
him closely I discovered he hadnít seen the songbirds in his own
There is a kind of buzz among cruisers when they get together in the
larger hangouts like Neiafu. It goes like this "Have you been to
Anchorage 16 yet? Oh, you must go!" and "Have you been toÖ donít
miss it!" (The anchorages are numbered on the Moorings charts since the
place names are difficult)
You become a conscious collector of peak experiences, all the while
knowing you canít possibly see all 34 anchorages and explore and do all
the island has to offer.
Yet there are the cruisers who dive, snorkel, shell, cave, kava, drive,
feast, souvenir, and appear to do it all. We anchor at another new island
and, greedy for experience, we do the tourist thing -- rushing from one spot
to another with our cameras. And what do we learn that we couldnít find at
The anxiety that weíll miss something unique or important motivates a
constant search. It feels a little like when Iíd get zoned in front of the
television late at night with an uncomfortable feeling that I was waiting
for a real experience that never came.
Even in the most beautiful and exotic places, when Iím among a large
group of cruising yachts, that feeling occurs. Thereís always another
village to visit, always a far anchorage.
At the risk of counting more cats, I continue.
Weíre all on the journey,
Tonga Overview --
The Kingdom of Tonga is 1,200 miles north-northeast of New Zealand. Neiafu
is 300 miles southwest of American Samoa and Fiji is another 300-plus miles to
the west. Neiafu is the main town and part of the northern group of islands in
the Tongan chain. It is on the Island of Vava،u, which gives
its name to the group.
The Tongan chain runs 200 miles in a north to south direction and has three
primary groups. The middle is the Ha،apai group. The Southern
is the Tonga Tapu group. On Tonga Tapu is the capital of Nuku،alofa
where the king and royal family live.
All mail and most supplies arrive from the capital of Nuku،alofa
on inter-island freighters. Overseas mail is brought in once a week on the
Tonga is the only country in the South Pacific never to have been
colonized. There is a visible pride in the bearing of the people that reflects
Tongans tend to be physically very large and a womanís beauty is thought
to increase with size. Neiafu feels unkempt by comparison to Rarotonga or Niue
Ė while I was there it rained often and the red clay ran into the streets
and made mud everywhere; when it dried there was clay dust.
Thursday, October 28 --
I entered Neiafu harbor and picked up a mooring off Don Colemanís marine.
I found I had to take the boat over to the main pier for Customs and Health
for inspection, so I motored the short distance back and tied alongside Taranga
II, a French-Canadian yacht.
The Customs officer was very large, like a football linebacker, and did his
The Health Officer, however, took a little longer and after asking about
alcohol, cigarettes, and fruit, none of which I had on board, accepted a
bottle of soda (my last) and some cheese and crackers. He filled out a few
forms and left my last two onions on board.
Larger yachts, I was told later, needed to "offer" him cartons of
cigarettes, and he confiscated all vegetables and fruit on board. Whereas in
New Zealand, it is certain that the items confiscated would be destroyed to
prevent pests or seeds from harming the environment, here it seemed certain
the items would wind up on the Health inspectorís dinner table.
I was then told to go to the Immigration office, located behind the police
station, to finish my clearing in.
Back on Don Colemanís mooring, I straightened up the boat and dressed up
a bit in jeans, white shirt and shoes, as the cruising guides said the Tongans
are very formal and things would go quicker if the visitor shows proper
Don Coleman had come to Tonga over 20 years ago to run the first yacht
charter business in Tonga. He married a Tongan woman and settled into a Tongan
His ĎMarineí consists of a finger of reclaimed land with a concrete
dock on the outside end where he dispenses diesel and water. Then an open shed
where various projects, ancient and new, look stalled. There are piles of
marine stuff everywhere.
In a small shed, Donís Tongan brother-in-law collects the mooring rental
fees and appears to keep the place together. Don shows up in the afternoons to
watch the sunset with his friends from a row of three canvas lounge chairs.
To the left of Donís Marine is the Mermaid Restaurant, a totally thatched
building, roof and sides. Itís run by Donís daughter and her
French-Canadian husband, who attended chefís school in France. When they are
open, they roll up the mat-shades that drop over the window openings when theyíre
To the right of Donís is a longer pier that belongs to the Moorings
charter boat operation. At the back of the pier is Anaís Cafť and behind
that going up the steep hill that backs the edge of the water are the Moorings
offices, gift shop, and supply sheds.
From the dinghy dock I begin my trek to Immigrations. I walk through Anaís
Cafť, then up a steep flight of stairs past the Moorings offices to the main
road, 40 feet above.
To the left, the center of town is a 10-minute walk, past the large,
colorful Catholic church that dominates the hilltop and the view of the
harbor, and past the small restaurants and a long row of local stores.
As I walk through this sleepy town I donít see even a hint of a chain
store. Pigs wander the streets with chickens. The Tongan women dress
conservatively and wear woven mats or ta،ovala over the
dresses like a second skirt. Men wear them as well over their vala or kilt.
Some are extremely fine work, almost like lace. Others are much coarser, and
some workmen even have beat-up, ragged mats tied around their waist over their
At the post office and its huge fig tree I turn right and go up a wide
dusty street. Behind the police station, which is an unmarked building, I pass
through what feels like someoneís back yard, and find a door for the
Inside the office there is a long counter. Behind it sits an
imposing-looking Tongan with white hair to the sides of his dark, smooth face.
He impassively looks at my passport and boat papers.
I fill in a form with a fine-point, black, Bic Pilot pen. He asks if he can
use it. He carefully writes into a large ledger book with well-worn heavy
green covers. His writing is very neat and precise. I offer him the pen. His
expression doesnít change. He accepts.
As I head for the communications center, I notice that all of the
buildings, without exception, look old and worn.
The communications center is next to the post office. Inside I find a row
of booths, and after giving one of the two operators behind a counter the
number you wish to call, they dial it. Once it starts to go through, they tell
you which booth to use. When youíre finished, you pay them for the call.
I get through to Sandy and have a good talk. I then call Mom and Dad;
routine arrival procedure. They call the others.
The communications center is an active meeting place, and while Iím there
waiting for the phones, I talk to Bruce, a Vietnam vet from Hawaii.
Bruce has white hair pulled back into a pony tail, is balding, heavy-set,
and talkative. He tells me he sailed in as crew on a yacht and is looking for
a yacht south to New Zealand, but in the meantime is staying with a family in
a village on the other side of the island. He has dinners with them and the
kids wake him up and comb his hair in the morning. He loves it out there and
has had an offer to come build a small house on the ownerís property. He
says heís considering it.
I stop at the post office and look through their large book, where they
write in all the General Delivery arrivals by date. I find one letter, but Iím
expecting a small package from my daughter Laura. They say they donít have
it. But next Wednesday is the next mail arrival.
A friend from Norwalk, Connecticut, Jeff Price, e-mailed me in Rarotonga
about how the stamps of Tonga are world famous, cut out metallic bananas and
the like. When I ask for the exotic stamps Iím told that this branch doesnít
have any of them. Iíll have to go to Nuku،alofa.
The women behind the grillwork have the same impassive look as the
immigration officer. I imagine them thinking Tongan mantras in sync: "We
donít have itÖthereís nothing we can doÖit doesnít matter."
Friday, October 29 --
Since Halloween is on Sunday, a day when everything is closed, Anaís has
its Halloween party tonight.
Anaís is owned by the Moorings, and Louise, from England, is the manager.
Small, with lots of energy, she has organized activities for the evening.
There is a boat race with costumed crews. Childrenís games and
apple-dunking. A costume prize and pumpkin-carving contest.
At home every year I have carved six to 10 pumpkins as creatively as I can
and lit them and set them all around the porch, for the trick or treaters that
arrive for candy. While handing out candy I had one child ask if I was a
professional pumpkin artist. So here was my opportunity to get into the
Tonga has a large agricultural production, much of it pumpkins, small green
ones, that are shipped to Japan. In the large, open-air market by the
commercial wharf I found the last four large pumpkins. The woman vendor told
me, "the American yachties have taken all the other big ones."
I ask Don Coleman if I can use his workshop to carve and he says OK, but he
wants me to wrap up all the pumpkin seeds and mush for him. The workshop is
perfect for pumpkin carving, especially since I find old cans full of rusty
drill bits to make holes for nostrils, tears, and hairlines.
I use bits of welding rod ends to hold on the ears and horns Ė and to
keep the eyeballs floating inside the eyes. Gouges make sockets to hold the
candles. I use my anti-mosquito citronella candles from Otter, for this
"good cause" Ė winning a contest!
Itís dark by the time I finish. I set them in the cave off the back room
with the other pumpkins, then go back on the boat to change for dinner. All I
can think to do for a costume is make a cardboard Lone Ranger mask in the few
minutes I have on the boat.
When I arrive at Anaís, almost everyone is in costume. My mask isnít
much, but itís enough and gets a few laughs.
The evening is wild and a lot of fun. Apple-bobbing and "count the
candy in the jar" contests. Some of the costumes are amazing! Tim on Forever
Young wins the menís category in a full captainís uniform -- white
jacket with epaulettes and badges and a hat with lots of scrambled egg.
Hilde, his wife, who is dressed as Jeannie in "I Dream of
Jeannie," says they carry 10 or 12 costumes just for Halloween. I barely
have room for an extra T-shirt on Otter. It seems like a wonderfully
extravagant excess of space.
The judges for the pumpkin carving award me first prize, which is a canvas
carrying bag from Jackaranda, a cruising sailboat that does
professional sail work and repairs. I find it as satisfying as the Halloween
window painting contest I won in 8th grade painting the window of
Page Hardware, on the town green in Guilford, Connecticut. Somewhere I still
have that bronze plaque.
Toward the end of the evening, as the crowd is thinning, the children from Camille
and Glide ask if they can have my pumpkins. Iím glad to give them an
appreciative home for the next few days.
Saturday, October 30 --
A large group of boats head out to anchorage #7, #8, or #11, I forget, to
have another large party. I hear later the kids dressed up again and went from
boat to boat in their dinghies Ė trick or treating, and that Glide, a
large catamaran, had a great party. I was invited, but had decided to spend
Saturday evening at Matotoís Tongan feast.
Matoto is a soft-spoken Tongan. Heís thin with a big smile loaded with
big gaps between snaggly teeth turned brown from his chain smoking. He is the
owner of Ano Beach, one of the prettiest beaches near Neiafu.
It is a 20-minute van ride from Anaís, where he picks up a group of us:
Dee and Kosta from Savoir Vivre, Rodney, the Australian crew on Boozewater,
a young English backpacker couple who have emigrated to Australia, and me.
There is one other boat that has made reservations with Matoto Ė they
were going to bring six people. They donít show, and it becomes awkward,
because Matoto has prepared food for them.
When we arrive at the beach, however, Silent Lady, a black topsail
schooner from Hawaii, sails into the anchorage and dinghies ashore with
another six people. So we are 12 total after all!
While the food is baking in the earth-pit oven, there is a display of
crafts by the local women. Spread on the large grassy area are mats with the
wares of 12 or 15 women, many of whom are making or weaving items as they sit.
It reminds me of a Tongan Sono Art Celebration. (The Sono Art Celebration is
an annual summertime arts and crafts festival with sidewalk booths I helped
organize twenty-some years ago in South Norwalk, Connecticut.)
I realize that we are the only audience for this display. The single carver
tells me he needs to pay his childrenís school fees from the sales he makes
here each week.
Parents are charged a monthly fee for each child they have in school. Even
though itís only $20 Tongan ($15 US) per child, for some larger families itís
more than they can afford.
I feel an urge to try to buy some small thing from each person.
None of the women have change Ė at all. I ask a woman, who turns to be
Don Colemanís sister-in-law, to help. She goes around with me and for each
item I take, she marks down who I owe and how much.
I buy $2 bracelets and $3 necklaces and $4 fans. My budget, I say, is $30.
By the time Iím through Iíve spent $45 and then Donís sister-in-law says
"for all my work, now you should buy a piece of my Tapa."
All her pieces are very large, about 5í x 12í Ė I have no idea what I
will do with one. The Tapa cloth is made from the bark of Mulberry trees, and
then, it is painted with large designs and used to wrap columns during
ceremonies. The more Tapa cloth, the more honor is given. After the ceremonies
the cloth in long rolls is cut into smaller pieces for sale to tourists.
The piece I buy for $10 is folded down and put in a plastic bag. Itís not
until much later, in a hotel room in New Zealand, when I open it up to show
Sandy that it appears to glow in rich tans and deep browns, a treasure.
By the time Iím through Iíve spent $55, almost double my budget. The
list and my cash goes to Matoto, who will get change and distribute the money
to the women next week.
The next phase of the evening is childrenís dancing. We gather under the
roof of a long, open hut, the thatched roof supported by posts, the hut open
on all sides, with a central area covered with woven mats.
We take our seats on the mats, and, in front of us, men play guitars and
mothers sing and clap while their children dance for us.
The children range from two to thirteen, mostly girls. They have grass
skirts, headdresses, arm bands, and shake to the music. They perform
individually and in groups. It is a tradition to oil their bodies so the
dollar bills from the audience will stick.
One small boy who is particularly cute gets confused as people come up to
apply money to him and forgets and stops dancing to check out the money. This
is a long way from the choreographed professional dancing at the hotels in
The main event is the feast itself. The food is dragged into the long hut,
steaming-hot out of the ovens, and placed on large banana leaf sections. All
the food is wrapped in small leaf packets and tied with strips of palm frond.
Each packet is a surprise. Taro, breadfruit, a dozen different vegetables
baked with coconut cream. And seafood -- fish, squid, octopus, clams large and
small, crayfish. And pork and chicken. The flavors are all subtle and unique.
I shake the packets to find the ones with steamed clams. My favorite. Itís
all eaten sitting on mats with the hands and occasionally pieces of leaf
folded to make a rough spoon. The steaming pile in front of us seems endless.
Even if the extra six people had shown up, finishing would have been
hopeless. I talk to the crew from Silent Lady, who have all worked in
the tourist charter business in Hawaii. They say the Hawaiian luaus are
nothing like this for variety and flavors.
I also discover that two of the crew went to college with the son of a
client of mine in Norwalk. So here on Ano Beach in Tonga we laugh and tell
stories about Avrick Furniture and Lou Avrickís party habits. Small world.
Iím assured the unused food wonít go to waste: the women who did the
preparation will divide it among themselves to take home to their families.
Sunday, October 31 --
I walk to the Free Wesleyan Church opposite the police station. It is the
Kingís denomination and has been since the Wesleyan missionaries converted
King George Tupou I and helped him defeat rival dynasties in 1845. King Tupou
IV, the present monarch, is a direct descendant.
Methodist minister Shirley Baker helped draft the Tongan Constitution,
which declares the Sabbath forever sacred. More than any other place, Tonga
observes this law and nothing is open. The island is quiet and visitors
are also expected not to work.
Notices at Anaís advise yachties not to do visible boat work, like
sanding or varnishing. The notices also say that visible, on-deck showering
may lead to legislation restricting those activities. This is certainly not
At church, the hymns are accompanied by a brass band and one of the choirís
selections is the Halleleuia Chorus. The service and sermon are in Tongan.
During the sleepy, hot afternoon I wander through some of the cemeteries
near the church. The graves are boxed off areas with sandy mounds in the
center. Behind many of the graves are 4"x 4" posts, between which
are hung 10í x 10í banners that look like quilts.
They are heavy, woven, and ornamented fabric, some with designs that look
similar to Pennsylvania Dutch hex symbols. Many are in brilliant, reflective
metallic cloth that sparkles like those shiny, reflective, shimmer-disk
billboards. Others have fist-sized lumps of fabric woven into them. It reminds
me of contemporary fiber art.
When I ask later about them Iím told vaguely that they are to show
respect. I locate the marker of the missionary David Cargill, who rendered the
Tongan and Fijian languages into writing.
The day is quiet. On the boat I work on my postcards and journal.
Monday, November 1 --
This morning I wake from dreams in which a man is showing me a large
journal. It is full of collages, maps, conceptual ideas, poetry, drawings, and
daily entries. Itís fascinating. In my dream, I determine to do the same.
When I wake the inspiration dies a bit as my critic voice says, "As if
you donít have enough to fill your time, now youíre going to start another
endless project!! Be realistic!!"
This morning I hear on the VHF that Woodstock has gone aground in
the Ha،apai group on Hakaufisi Reef.
Over the next few months pieces of the story drift in. It seems that Rich
and Pepper, the couple on Woodstock, a Hylas 50-something, were exiting
the Ha،apai group at night with no paper charts. This group
is renowned for its many dangerous reefs.
Woodstock had all of its charts on computer and had punched in
way-points into their autopilot. They had decided to pass close to the
Their charts were off by two miles. They were below when they struck. In
high winds blowing onto the reef, there was no way to get off. Another yacht, Juana
Lucina, stayed near them all night until the Tongan Navy arrived.
In an attempt to tow the boat off the reef it sank in deeper water. The
owners and their dog were safe, however, and brought to Nuku،alofa.
There are as many opinions about what happened as there are people who know
about it. But it is sobering to think that even with GPS and all the modern
systems available on a fully-outfitted contemporary yacht, loss still occurs.
I listen to the coconut milk run and weather reports.
Since Rarotonga Iíve noticed that most cruisers have an obsession with
Some have connections to the Davin report, a weather service that for a fee
advises yachts when to move and when to sit still. Similar to Herb Huldeberg
in the Atlantic.
Some get weather fax printouts and there is a lot of chatter each day about
the predictions. It all seems a bit pointless. Most storms last only a day or
two and when itís time to go you pick your day and as long as no big front
is imminent, you go. Then deal with whatever is out there.
Some of my attitude comes from not having the equipment or knowledge to
interpret weather faxes.
But because the next leg to New Zealand is 1,200 miles and can be almost
certain to contain some uncomfortable weather, there is a lot of anxiety over
the best window. Anything over 20 knots of wind and 6í seas keeps people in
I walk to town to make phone calls to my children, Laura and Scott. While
there I talk to John of Haniteli Ngaluafe who is from Holonga and he
invites me to come to a Kava party in his village that evening. He tells me to
meet him at 6:00 p.m. at the Taxi Stand if I want to go.
Skip Price, the skipper of Silent Lady, has invited me to an early
Thanksgiving dinner they are having on board with the couple on Redwing.
They are celebrating surviving a severe storm on the sail here from Samoa.
The two boats were near each other and in radio contact most of the storm,
keeping each otherís spirits up. I decide to visit Holonga as Iíve heard
of Kava and want to try it.
When I arrive, with my overnight bag packed, at the taxi stand, Bruce the
Vietnam vet is there, too: Johnís nieceís familyís house is where heís
The taxi ride to Holonga takes about 40 minutes and passes through small
villages all in agricultural areas. The taxi driver is a friend of Johnís
and charges us $7 for the fare. He lives out this way and wonít be going
back until tomorrow.
Bruce seems to know a lot of the locals as we pull into Holonga Ė he
hangs out the front window, waving and calling to people off in the fields or
their yards. They all wave back. John and I sit in back.
Holonga is a farming village. The road turns from gravel to a dirt lane as
we approach. Small one-story concrete block and wood houses with curtains for
doors are scattered in the flat expanses of wild grass. Clusters of large,
dark pigs roam the yards. Children run and play.
The only store in town is a shed about 8í deep by 12í long with a
freezer with different meats, canned goods on shelves, flour and rice in
sacks, and cold sodas.
There is also a village community center, a rather drab-looking concrete
block rectangle with a concrete floor. It is a large, open hall with a porch
all the way around it.
This is where the Kava party will be held. Bruce and John explain to me
that this party will be to benefit the farmers. There is a community garden
area that the men spend one day a week working in. This benefit will help
compensate them for their labor, which is usually donated.
The men from different villages come to help support Holonga, as Holongans
do in exchange for the other villages. Since it starts late and runs late, we
decide to have dinner first.
The taxi lets us out in front of Johnís nieceís house. The house is
similar to the others. It has a very rough kitchen of knocked-together wooden
walls against rough upright posts, a corrugated, sloping, tin roof, and a
packed dirt floor. Chickens and pigs run through the entire house.
Letifa, his niece, shoos the pigs out of the kitchen when they get in her
way; the opening has no door. Off the kitchen is a rough washroom and toilet.
Water needs to be lifted from the cistern in a bucket and poured into the
toilet tank to flush it.
The drinking water comes from the cistern, which Bruce tells me heís been
assured itís safe. I look into it through the opening in its corrugated tin
covering only to see sticks and spider webs and floating things. Iím not as
Letifaís husband, Sifa, is in the bush, where he spends almost all
daylight hours working on their crops. John ushers me into the main house and
down a short hallway, off of which are two bedrooms. Bruce is staying in one;
the other is for Letifaís two young boys.
In the living room, there is a couch to the right, near another door. There
are two armchairs and a low coffee table in the middle; all the furniture is
well worn but comfortable.
The living room also has a mirror-less dresser against a wall with family
photographs adorning it in odd spots.
Bruce has bought some chickens and bread and cheese. As John and Bruce and
I talk with the afternoon sunlight flooding in the dusty windows, Letifa makes
us dinner. She places it, piping hot, on the coffee table.
Itís a delicious, simple meal of chicken, cooked carrots, potatoes, and
something like cabbage, plus a drink of warm, flavored water.
Letifa and the children donít join us Ė they eat in the kitchen.
As it starts to get dark, the dim electric lights flicker, then go off.
John says the generator for the village shuts down occasionally, and it will
be hours, maybe longer, before itís up again. He lights a kerosene lantern
that gives off a bright, warm glow.
John tells us about himself. He is 72 years old, and a tall, solidly built
man with a gentle manner. He has a lionine shock of thick white hair that
drifts back from his face, which is graced by a broad, open grin with bright,
I think he must have been very handsome when he was young, and his stories
of his lady friends confirm it.
His wife died a few years ago. He is a retired electrician who worked all
his life in Nuku،alofa. He was raised on his father and
grandfatherís property in Holonga until he was 15, when they moved to the
He has six grown children with families. His wife converted to Mormonism
many years ago and he followed along. Some of his children went to be educated
in a Mormon university in Salt Lake City and have since settled in Texas.
His children want him to move to Auckland and live with one of his sons. He
thought he would go, then thought that he would prefer to return to his land,
where he was raised. He knows many of the people in the village, even though
he was away 55 years. And they know him.
Johnís niece had taken over the house of his father and was "looking
after" his property. John doesnít plan to live with them too long. He
hopes he can build a small cabin farther out on his land and live the rest of
his life there.
He has ideas that maybe Bruce will come back with some money and they will
get a container shipped up from Nuku،alofa, filled with the
materials they need.
Bruce, too, talks wistfully of the cabin. But Iím not sure heíll do it.
Itís now very dark and Sifa comes home. He introduces himself. A dark man
with broad features, dark, curly hair and curly beard, he moves easily and
looks very strong. He excuses himself to clean up.
There is a flashlight in the hall, and we hear a womanís voice. It is
Lindsey Smalls, a 24-year-old Peace Corps worker who lives in Holonga. She
says, "I heard there were two Palangi (whites) over here so I
thought Iíd check it out." Itís a rare occurrence and news travels
She sits in a third easy chair and visits for a while. "Will you be
coming to the Kava party?" I ask her.
"I donít think so," she replies. "Itís for men only and
women are invited to be servers, but not to drink. Some of the girls like it
as they get to see and be seen by the eligible young men."
She continued, "But itís very different out here, and thereís a
lot of sexual joking and teasing that I donít like, and would never tolerate
at home. So, after going once, Iíve never accepted again. Some of the girls
here donít mind the joking, however."
We talk for awhile, then she leaves. Another blast of Middle America here
in the bush.
Itís now time to go to the Kava party. John and I and Bruce walk to the
Community Center. Thereís no moon Ė only stars on this dark night. With
one flashlight we pick our way through yards and small fields.
The Community Center is dark except for a few candles and Coleman lanterns.
But the men are already there. We arrive and enter a circle of 20 men in a far
corner. Our server is about 18 or 19 years old and very beautiful. There is a
large 24" diameter bowl in front of her. It has a dirty gray liquid in
it, which she stirs with the coconut half-shell in her hand.
She has a distant smile. She lifts some liquid and pours it into another
half-shell, which is then passed to the end of the circle.
There are about five of these in circulation, and when the recipient has
drunk one down without stopping, it is passed back, refilled, and sent down
one side of the circle again Ė the same is done on the other side.
When everyone has drunk there is a pause, sometimes five minutes, sometimes
longer. During the pauses there is quiet conversation, laughter, joking. And
our group and two other of the six groups have guitars.
The songs are haunting and melodically very rich. John tells me they are
local folk songs about this area.
Outside on the porch, a group of men work by flashlight at the Kava mixing.
They pour powder into a five-gallon plastic pail, add water, then mix and stir
for awhile before it is brought inside and poured off into the serving bowls.
My first drink tastes pretty bad, itís a little like the dirty dishwater
as advertised Ė yet it has a very slight bitter edge, which Iím told is
similar to cocaine powder.
After three or four bowls my lips feel a little tingly Ė thatís all.
But I notice that as the night wears on and as hours go by cross-legged on the
mats I feel more and more connected to everyone in the room.
I feel mellower and "smiley-er." The singing penetrates deeply.
At one point John Ė who canít sit cross-legged and has his legs in front
of him Ė leans back on his arms and starts singing with his eyes closed, a
beautiful, lonely melody.
I ask him afterward what it was. He says itís a little-known folk song by
a local poet who wrote about the beauty of Holongaís beaches. Heís trying
to teach it to the younger men before it is lost. "They donít sing some
of the old songs anymore," he says.
After 45 minutes my bladder is full. John shows me the thatched enclosure
thatís the designated rest area; itís 100 feet away in a field. About
every 30 minutes for the rest of the night I have to use it.
Some of the men never seem to get up. Iím impressed, as we are slowly
drinking gallons of this stuff. Time seems to melt away. Iím told that for
some people their legs feel rubbery. Mine donít, but I do feel lighter and
just a little more graceful in movement.
The circle of men seems to become brothers. Itís a rough-looking group,
mostly field workers in old work clothes and flip-flops.
There is the village idiot, a 25-year old man with an odd-shaped, shaved
head, protruding mouth, and wild eyes. He stares at me when we enter. Bruce
tells me to pay no attention, heís harmless. He wanders from one group to
There are only a few men in the room that look like they donít labor with
their hands. Sifa has a natural ease and poise that sets him apart from the
The young men around our server start to laugh with each other, then look
at me. They point to the girl and they make some suggestive gestures. Iím
confused, I donít know if I will offend them if I donít respond Ė or
offend her if I do Ė they laugh again. Playing with the new Palangi.
Girls and young boys lean in the windows to listen to the songs and talk
with their friends.
The servers are all silent during the entire night. Finally, about 1:30,
some of the crowd has drifted away, and John is tired.
The four of us go back to Sifaís house. Letifa has put down mats on the
living room floor with sheets, blankets, and a pillow. Even though the floor
is hard, I sleep very soundly.
Tuesday, November 2 --
I wake with the sunrise and the roosters.
Sifa is up and I hear him getting ready to go into the fields -- his
bedroom is next to the living room, separated only by a curtain.
Letifa is already in the kitchen making his breakfast and lunch. The boys
are still asleep, as is John, snoring gently on the couch.
I close my eyes and drift into a shallow dream for another while.
I get up a little later and move to an easy chair. I look out into the
early morning sunlight, looking past the flowers at the edge of the window,
past the fields, past the near-jungle, past the low hills beyond, and watch
the white clouds floating above them. I know why John has come home.
Breakfast is flavored water with cheese and butter sandwiches. John will
take us on a hike today -- we are going to see where heíd like to build his
As we tramp through the jungle, the trail is almost invisible. But John
spent his boyhood here and knows his way. Once in a while he has to look
around for bearings. We pass some isolated fields of squash or pumpkin.
Bruce and he talk of all the plants and their names. They talk of crops
they may grow when the cabin is built. Bruce thinks they can grow their own
Kava locally, and that coffee beans might flourish here.
We come to a beautiful rise in the land and ascend the hill. At the top is
a grassy place that has a matted area in the center, near some trees and the
remains of campfires. Field workers come out here for days at a time and stay
rather than make a long walk home in the dark.
John says this is the hill heís thinking of. We go on. About 45 minutes
later we come to the edge of a steep descent toward the beaches, all still
covered in forest.
John looks around, then leads us to a cave halfway down the slope. We sit
inside and he tells us it was his secret place as a boy. And when he was a
teen he brought his first girlfriend here and they stayed for two days,
building fires at night.
He smiles as he remembers that time. He tells us we are the first two
Palangi to ever visit this cave.
Farther down is the beach where he had picnics with his family.
The area is beautiful and Bruce strips and goes swimming. I stay on the
beach with John. We have some fruit he has picked along the way. Mangoes. John
naps while I draw.
The sand flies and mosquitoes surround me. There are clouds of them. They
bite my ankles and feet. Iím wearing only flip-flops for this hike.
Yesterday I didnít know we would be doing this, and packed light.
I pick up a green branch with leaves on it and use it as a flywhisk Ė
constantly moving it around my face and arms. It helps, but makes it hard to
The bugs are a good reason this beach, as beautiful as it is, will never be
flooded with tourists.
Back on the trail we take a new path at the top of the cliffs and turn
right, to the north. John takes us to an old, gnarled, ironwood tree and a few
princess palms around a concrete slab foundation covered with vines and grass
in the cracks that are on a point of land with an overlook 600 feet above the
sea. The view is spectacular.
To the right is the beach we were at. To the left is another larger beach,
totally isolated, with large, white combers rolling in onto the reef just off
shore. Straight ahead is open ocean to the north.
I can see Toku, the next island in the chain, 40 miles away. Otter
sailed past this headland in the dark on the way from Niue. The sea looks so
peaceful and blue. I imagine my tiny white sail out there, barely a speck.
We rest awhile in the hot sun. John says Queen Salote came here to survey
her property many years ago, sometime in the late 1950ís. The land still
belongs to the Royal family.
They built a special gazebo and viewing platform for her and brought her
through the jungle on a sedan chair to spend an afternoon at this most
John said the Queen planted the ironwood tree, which has grown rapidly. She
planted the princess palms, too. He then talks about the Second World War,
which happened when he was young. He said he liked the Americans: they had a
big base in Tonga, and had cigarettes, which they gave away freely.
He said the New Zealand boys had only coarse tobacco and rolling papers. He
said the Americans also taught the Tongans how to make home brew. With their
stills, he said, "they could make whiskey from anything."
He liked the Americans; there were lots of parties. Bruce talks of his time
in Vietnam and what it was like for him. This peaceful spot brings up distant
We walk back through more jungle, then through some high grass to a dirt
track. We walk past cultivated fields where some workers are collecting their
tools and loading a beat-up old truck. Theyíre on their way back to the
When we get to the village, Bruce buys us three cold sodas at the small
store. We walk across the road to the Community hall. Itís still extremely
There are four women weaving a large floor mat from leaves. John speaks
softly with them. They smile. He leaves half of his soda with them. I see his
gesture and do the same. Bruce says they will work for a week on one of these
mats and maybe earn $30.
At the house, Bruce and John take yard showers, but I decide to wait until
this evening when I get back to the boat. John convinces us to stay for dinner
While Letifa is preparing dinner and they are taking showers, I walk a few
houses down to visit Lindsey.
Her house is full of teenagers. She says itís the end of a birthday
party. She invites me in and serves lemonade. While we talk the others drift
She signed up for two years in the Peace Corps and was assigned to Holonga
to be a Youth Director. So she organizes activities for the teenagers.
Volleyball games, other sports, parties. She helps at the small village school
as well. She studied Tongan and speaks it fluently.
She has less than a year left, and as much as she feels connected here, she
is looking forward to going home. She tries to get into Neiafu each weekend to
hook up with the six other Peace Corps workers on Vava،u. Her
friends help her keep a perspective on the culture conflicts, and she gets to
have ice cream.
She also tries to get some of the teenagers to come with her. She feels
they stay too much in the village and become very sheltered.
As a young, single woman in a culture where only loose women would live
like she does, sheís attracted male attention. She has lived alone in this
house for over a year, and has had some problems. One young man, Sifaís
older boy (who doesnít live with Sifa), had tried to sneak into her home at
The caught him twice, the second time telling him she would report him to
the police if she it happened again. The next day she told Letifa and some of
the women in the village about his attempted entries.
Some asked her not to make trouble and hurt the boy by calling outsiders
and giving him a record. Others thought she was doing the right thing. Either
way, her message was clear: she has been left alone since, and she feels she
has gained respect in the community.
In the photographs of her family in her kitchen I see a life in Texas that
looks very privileged by comparison to the life in Holonga. I ask why she is
here. "I wanted to help, and also be far from home," she says.
Dinner is ready. Bruce has bought some pork from the small store. He and I
split the cost. It is served again with vegetables. The three of us eat.
Sifa has come home. Hearing that we are leaving, he goes back into the bush
and returns with four pineapples, come cucumbers, and squash for me.
The taxi comes for us. Iím not sure how word got to him, as no one has
Letifa and her two young sons ride with us as far as the next village,
where they will visit a relative. I sit in the back with her while Bruce and
the taxi driver joke and call to passersby. Letifa tells me of her older
children. I realize sheís older than she seems. She tells me she is very
poor. There is a trace of sadness.
Back in town, the harbor is filled with yachts and the restaurants are
jumping at night.
Jason, a crewmember on Nina, a Spray replica, brings his
guitar to the Mermaid. Before long, some tables are pushed together, and weíre
all singing folk songs and American blues songs!
This day has been full. I will think of it often.
Wednesday, November 3 Ė
Colleen on Theta Volantis comes by to interview me for an article
sheís writing for a British yachting magazine. Sheís particularly
interested in watch keeping and loneliness. She says her husband, Brian,
thinks that were he to sail alone, loneliness would be his biggest problem.
That night the Mermaid has a show of local childrenís dancing. Iím
expecting about the same as what I saw at the Tongan Feast.
The young boy dancers steal the show. A group of eight of them come running
and screaming into the dance area with long sticks.
The dancing is gestural and warlike, fast and active with a lot of shouting
and stick twirling. The boys love it. Itís a great way to get hyperactive
kids to channel their endless energy.
They get a standing ovation when they finish.
Sebastian, the tiny, very white, and very blonde three-year-old son of
Kristen, who runs the Moorings, is being taught to dance by a Tongan family
that has adopted him, and tonight is his first performance. The crowd loves
Kristen is sitting next to me at an adjoining table and tells me of her
work with school children. They have very few supplies, paper and pencils are
scarce. The next day I drop off my "trade" items to her Ė a dozen
inexpensive boxes of colored pencils I got in Panama and the typewriter Iíve
Thursday, November 4 --
I spend the day doing boat chores, errands, and watercolors.
Friday, November 5 --
My last day before leaving. The day becomes full of last-day chores.
Topping the water and fuel tanks. Pay Don Coleman for the mooring. Check out
with Immigration, the Port Captain, and Customs.
In the Immigration office, the officer again opened the book I saw last
week, all clean and neatly lettered in pencil. All of the entries since I left
my Bic pen are now written in clear, black ink. I tell him I may return in
April; he asks me to bring him fishhooks.
The Port Captain has no pen at his desk. I leave another one when Iím
finished filling out the forms.
Iíll have to remember to buy a box of inexpensive pens to leave in
Make departure phone calls. Last fruit and supplies run to the store. Check
the post office one last time and, "Eureka!" Theyíve found a small
package from Laura that has a Halloween card, two smooshed candies, and photos
of the grandkids!
I had made up a bag of stuff that was excess on the boat to leave here with
John. A pan, a towel, some shirts, a cold thermos, some scented "Florida
Heís in town today, so we dinghy out to Otter to get the bag and
show him my home. He comes down below and looks around and exhales. "Saahh,
saahh" he says in a low whisper. My tiny home must impress him.
I look around, too, at the sunlight coming through the brass portholes
lighting up the rich, wood-finished interior. Through his eyes I see a
miniature palace, a place of wonder, in the precise woodworking, the brass
clock and chronometer, the flowered cover on the nav station seat. The boat
has been scrubbed and stowed as I do prior to departure. And no chickens or
pigs in sight.
We talk. He drinks a soda. As he stands to leave he looks at me and says,
"Our friendship is for the future. It is for our grandchildren." I
feel a deep link. He gives me a strong hug and we go ashore.
I walk back to town with him to do my last bits of shopping. John walks up
the street toward the taxi stand. He has the bag I gave him over his shoulder.
He turns and waves, then walks on.
It must be a trick of the eye, because I suddenly see an ordinary old man
getting smaller on the dusty road.
End of Report Seventeen