Aground in the Abode of Love
“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”
Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
You know you’ve arrived in Polynesian waters when the vowels begin to drown the consonants. Fua’amotu International airport was 35 kilometers from Nuku’alofa, and Nuku’alofa was a light year away from caring. The Tongan immigration fullback in the blue skirt was totally wrapped up in the frayed taʻovala pandanus mat around his considerable center. Each of his solid knees was the width of my head, and his solid head was a cube of muscle. Robyn and I handed him our declaration forms. No ‘potable spirits...microorganisms...used bicycles...obscene photographs... tear gas.’ These people had taken the missionaries far too seriously.
“Talitali fiefia.” He said. Welcome.
The Southern Sea had been a world of nothing-matters. But I was taking this trip far too seriously as well. We were on our way back to Canada from New Zealand, after finally deciding where we would live and work. It was the work part that was the problem. I wasn’t sure I was really ready to commit to anything other than Robyn. We had been married for three years, and had lived in relative poverty and absolute connubial bliss, while I had finished my medical residency. Only six months earlier we had stopped off in Fiji, on the way to a new beginning in New Zealand. But the signs of a future fulfilled professional life had been inauspicious, and I had sprung our need to return to the frozen north on Robyn, on our anniversary, in a restaurant, in Rotorua. She had cried.
I promised I would make it up to her, by allowing us to stop for a month in the Friendly Islands, on the way back. I think she knew that the delay wasn’t for her. She wanted to ‘get on with it,’ get on with the rest of our lives. Time isn't holding us, time isn't after us. Time isn't holding us, time doesn't hold you back....
I told her that I wanted it too, but that was only wishful. The delay was for me, to get my head around the inevitability of it all. My last kick at the can, my last island, my last diversion was the same that it ever was. Letting the days go by, letting the days go by, letting the days go by, once in a lifetime.
Nuku’alofa, the Abode of Love, seemed to be less comfortable with its appellation, since the arrival of the Wesleyans, and AIDS. Koe ‘eitisi ‘okau’ ma’u Hano faito’o ko ho’o Puke koe mate Kuo pau! Said the sign. Aids is incurable Once you get Death is certain Soon! Malu’I ‘a Tonga.
The annual Red Cross parade marched down Taufa'ahau Road, led by the big white Sousaphones of the uniformed marching band, and followed by floats carrying messages from both the microorganisms and the missionaries. Avoid going for men with many women; One husband one wife; Don’t shoot- see the red cross; Beware of death trap; Wickedness never was happiness.
When the last float vanished, it left behind the most sleep-dusted royal port in the Pacific. Even the most methodical of its Methodists had been losing out to torpor and poverty and chaos. Nuku’alofa, as charming as it could be, was a center of quiet, and of quiet capitulation.
Beyond the Vuna wharf, the town straggled over a good mile of space, with flowery houses of pretty verandas, and pathways of green grass, kept short by the supersized weight of bare Tongan feet. The pork fat had begun to drown the Paradise. Tongans were eating themselves to death. The fattest population on the planet, 92% of it citizens over 30 were obese, and almost twenty per cent suffered from diabetes. The smoky scenes from roast suckling pigs, spinning on their spits through three sumptuous feasts a day, at week-long church conferences, would have given Hieronymus Bosch hallucinations, and Jabba the Hutt heartburn. Twenty-one buffets a week, for people with thrifty genes, eating suckling pig and corned beef and lamb belly ‘flap,’ together with the taro and sweet potato and yam carbs, in the tropical heat, who cart their leftovers home in carrier bags, is not a survival skill of the first order.
Tongans aren’t actually inherently lazy, they’re just not materialistic. Rather, they have more spiritual aspirations- life revolves around the church and family, and a deliberate overindulgence of both. Ten is the magic number for offspring. The bronze statue of the current King, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, was monstrous. The grass never stood a chance.
All along the seafront was a wide double avenue of iron-bark trees and, to one side of it, the visiting facsimile of the HMS Bounty, which had never actually visited the place in her original form.
We came along to the Royal Palace, a white painted wooden Victorian gingerbread hybrid of Milan cathedral and German toy, with scrolled fretwork and pinnacles and gables, under a rust colored roof. It had been prefabricated in New Zealand, shipped to and erected in Tonga in 1867, and surrounded by green Norfolk pines and white orchids. A military band with a silver brass section and big bass drum changed the guard, and then came over to exchange beaming grins.
We ran in the same direction that Vuna Road did, west from the palace, the sea and reef on one side, and the stately old colonial homes on the other, to the old British High Commissioner’s residence, sporting a flagpole surrounded by the four cannons from the Port-au-Prince, the ship captured and burned by the Tongans at Ha'apai in 1806, after they had clubbed to death all its crew, except for the castaway.
Graves of elevated powdered white coral terraces, tiers and tears outlined by pebbled rectangles, rose from the ground inside the casuarina-ringed ‘tragic field’ cemetery of Mala’e’aloa, along with miniature cement chapels painted white and blue and rust, and more modern burial receptacles of colored tile and block. The Tongan graves that Robyn and I would encounter elsewhere were everywhere, sometimes in the front yard, ringed and decorated with what they had- Foster’s beer bottles shoved in the dirt under cloth canopies with embroidered tapestries flying in the wind, Jesus figurines, Last Supper posters, crosses, tinsel, plastic flowers, red banners, and Christmas decorations.