We came upon a shaded concrete cricket pitch, covered in an immense spread of ngatu tapa cloth, under grey velvet shadow patches of light falling between the golden green leaves of the trees. Here were the tapa ladies, stripping and pounding paper mulberry bark, wetting and pulping and beating it into square foot flat sheets with four-sided ridged wooden mallets, and then gluing it all together so skillfully with cassava, that no joint was visible. Fifty-two segments, representing the number of weeks in a year, were glued end-to-end, and then expanded in a matrix laterally by thirteen pieces, symbolizing the number of lunar months. The result, an immense white sheet, soft as silk, was stenciled with geometrical and symmetrical designs, in black and brown, using only the point of a triangular scrap of wood as a paint brush.
A fine pattern of ochre emerged along either edge, with a repeating cubist motif of diagonals, diamonds, checks, wings, and zigzags, extending in from the two sides, until they met perfectly in the middle. The promises of the weddings and the birthdays and the funerals of the future would be covered.
Robyn and I took a left on Wellington Road, past the Centenary Church where the king and queen worshipped, to the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga that we would attend the following day.
In between were the Mala’ekula Royal Tombs, containing the remains of all the monarchs from the first king, George Tupou I, who died in 1892 at the age of a hundred, to the much beloved Queen Salote Tupou III, in 1965. Salote became the darling of London during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, when she rode through the streets in an open carriage in the pouring rain, waving and smiling all the way.
The stucco gave way to wood again, with the shops of Taufa’ahau Road, scantily stocked with oversized clothing, kitsch kitchenware, and cheap perfume and jewelry. We didn’t linger in the sincerity of the Sincere Variety Store, but made for the Maketi Talamahu market, to admire the whopping watermelons, coconuts, banana bunches, sugar cane, papayas, string beans, pineapples, huge taro, and cylindrical yams, each in their special open-woven green pandanus baskets. One of the smiling lava-lava women was weaving something three-dimensional, with several endless celluloid ribbons of old movie film.
Robyn and I checked into a decrepit Southern Sea guesthouse. On a Saturday night, in the capital of the only Island state that had never been colonized, the loud festivities that went on outside our window, were the full feral fights and flights of squealing pigs and barking dogs.
The only thing to do the next day, in fact the only thing one was allowed to do, was go to church. There was a specific clause in the constitution that covered Sundays. The Sabbath Day shall be sacred in Tonga forever and it shall not be lawful to work, artifice, or play games, or trade on the Sabbath.
All commerce and entertainment ceases from midnight on Saturday until midnight on Sunday. Stores are closed, airplanes don't fly, taxis don't operate, and restaurants, other than those in the hotels, don't open. Cheques dated on a Sunday would not be cashed. The penalty for breaking this rule is three months in jail at hard labor. Church people will let the air out of your tires, if you drive.
Ninety-eight per cent of the population was affiliated with one Christian church or sect, or another. But the anothers were making fast inroads on the Wesleyans. Nametags came knocking. We had passed 27 Mormon churches on the way into town from the airport, and some villages had more than one. It was a deadly sin for a Tongan man to be without a shirt, or for a Tongan girl to swim without full metal jacket clothing.