Friday, 20 December 2013
Most Tongans went to church three times on Sunday. We thought once would fill us with sufficient spiritual replenishment to last the week.
The Wesleyan Church had been constructed of coral block in 1888. It looked like a rib-buttressed pig thorax, with four gigantic red wax crayon points peeking out of the square stone missile silos at each corner. Inside was a large statue of Christ, crucified on the tapa cloth background above a fiber-optic Christmas tree. Robyn and I dressed as neatly as could be expected, in our sinful itinerancy. The service was long, the choir operatic. We felt pity and scorn in the glances and bellows of the believers. Perhaps I should have worn a tie, or an expression of rapture. Perhaps the faithful had detected my anxiety about our imminent return to the secular materialistic trappings of the middle class working world.
“Where do you go tomorrow?” Asked the big lady beside us.
“We’re heading to the far western point of Tongatapu.” I said.
“Where the Reverend Thomas first landed, and brought us the joyous word of God.” She said. “Where are you staying?”
“A place called the Good Samaritan.” Robyn said.
She was almost blinded by the light.
Letting the days go by, letting the days go by, letting the days go by, once in a lifetime.
* * *
“You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?
You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?”
Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
At first there was very little to be seen, on the way to the western peninsular promontory, although once we got away from Nuku’alofa, the enchantment began to catch us up- a wonderful variety of foliage, villages, and people. Somehow, there was the eternal sameness of all tropical islands here, the whole light and joyous spirit of diversion, a Forever Young playground where no one had ever needed to work. Every boy, on reaching the age of eighteen, was given a half acre of land, and three acres of bush, in his own earthly paradise, in his own village, and a few coconut trees, a few fowls and pigs.
For the rest, the people danced and sang, and strummed softly on their guitars. They feasted, and played football and cricket on smooth green glades in the centre of every little hamlet. There was a roughly marked-out tennis-court, with a fishing net hung across. As we drove through evening villages, people laughed and sang and called to each other in vowel-drowned words, as though garden parties were forever in session.
But, also on the way West, we came to Kolovai, the place of the gigantic trees of feathery casuarina, where thousands of great sacred Pacific flying foxes quarreled and defecated and dozed upside down in sheets of black drapery, and then, at precisely five o’clock every evening, took wing, and rose in a screaming cloud from the trees, like a cyclone of broken umbrellas. Black banshees with membranous wings extinguished all the light in the sky, until the streams of bats separated into long flowing tributaries, dividing away in the dusk. They would fly forty or fifty miles in the night, to islands and plantations more than twenty miles away, to feed on the bananas and mangoes and pineapples of the unhappy islanders, some of whom would lose entire crops, because only the King was allowed to hunt them. They would return shrieking and squabbling at dawn, to compete for the uppers branches, shoving and biting the toes of those already occupying the choice places they wanted, until they let go.
We turned, through the deepest potholes on the planet, headed for the western coast, and the Good Samaritan.
It was probably just as well that we arrived on sunset. A big rosy peach tumescence, with small silver stars behind, sank like the first stab of love, leaving a bloodstained rag on the long Southern Sea horizon. The white coral beach was stunning, and utterly deserted, but the Good Samaritan was also utterly deserted. It was soon pitch-black, except for the hurricane lanterns. It was just us and the bats, and the ten-dollar Australian filet mignon out of the freezer, which cost the same as our thatched fale, every night. Thirty bucks a day for Paradise, including animal protein.
And that was the other reason that it was just as well that we arrived on sunset. Robyn and I lived to be close to nature. Here, there were more species inside our shotgun shack, than out of doors. We fell asleep to the chirping clicks of a gecko, inches from our heads. He seemed to have a little trouble keeping up with the mosquitoes and ants, but they were assisted with enthusiasm by the gigantic spiders in all four corners of the fale. The cockroaches that came out at night, were only remnants in the morning, recycled by swarms of other insects I had been previously unfamiliar with. But the apex of the food chain, and the major nocturnal celebrants in our hut were the rats above us, who were considerate enough to wait until we were almost asleep, before beginning their roof parties. Good Samaritans.
In the mornings you could have either eggs or pancakes, but the choice wasn’t ours. A horse and cart clip-clopped by, carrying copra. I worked on my shell collection, wading out to the reef, into brilliant pools of vivid purple and green rocks, as clear as jewels, with pink branching corals and feathery green seaweed. Tropical fish and sea anemones, and delicate silk jellyfish puffed out thick with water, were carried out and in by the tremendous roar of jade-throated waves, and then falling into laughing white foam. We had bucket baths, and Robyn did our laundry in the same plastic receptacles under the coconut trees. Let the days go by.
In the evening, costumed Tongan friends arrived, singing and playing their ukuleles, same as it ever was. One evening, we met an American, who, unlike most Americans enjoyed opera, but was, like most Americans, strong of opinion. He told us of his contempt for Pavarotti. I remonstrated. He presented his argument. But this was not the place to argue, as we were all immersed in one last trance before having to awake back into the real world. This was not the place for conformity. This was only the place to ask the question. How did I get here?
The next morning, after the unpredictable breakfast, I left my beautiful house and my beautiful wife, washing our beautiful clothes in our beautiful bucket under our beautiful coconut palms, and headed south, along the beach. I was alone on a ribbon of white powder, high green symphonic sentinel fronds and ferns on my left, and the turquoise and white foam ocean moving unsteadily under my feet, on the right.
Three beaches and as many rock promontories down, or perhaps it was four, lying on the firm sand, was a translucent castaway from the deep, glistening in the sun. Its Italian name had given us the term for fine bone china, vitrified and resonant. Porcellana. It didn’t look as if it belonged here, but of course it did, more than I. I picked up the most spectacular gigantic spotted cowrie. The underside looked like a long toothed vulva. As I placed it in my daypack, there was movement in the corner of our eyes.
I turned to find a young boy, sitting at the end of a long shadow from the curved coconut palm protruding onto the sand. He looked like the kind of child they turned into deities or sun kings- big voluminous dark eyes, receding fine hair, poised carriage, serene countenance. Except that he was playing with a metal and plastic toy crane-excavator twice his height, and producing the noise that went along with the real ones. It was emblazoned with the name of the manufacturer. Tonka. Maybe it should have said Tonga, but it didn’t. And then I caught another movement, not far from the first one. A man with sunglasses, khaki shorts, a T-shirt that said sunbuns, armed with a leashed corgi. I must have looked puzzled.
“King’s grandson.” He said. “Prince. Someday king.” And then I realized whose beach I had just committed a capital offense. But no one seemed offended, and I played with the future king of Tonga’s Tonka, and the once and future king.
His grandfather was like a big version of the gecko on the wall of our beautiful home. He seemed slow and impassive, like he was missing thyroid hormone but, behind the heavy eyelids and broad mandible and gravel voice, His Majesty King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, wore the crown of coconuts and cannibals, on a first-class throne. And it is, it is a glorious thing, to be a Pirate King.
All foreign dignitaries that desired an audience had to wear a striped morning coat and silk hat. He once told a visiting Soviet naval captain that he wanted a ‘titchy guitar from Hawaii.’ The information was recorded on his KGB file, and because every visiting Russian brought one, the King’s titchy guitar collection eventually contained over a hundred specimens.
He stretched the 180 meridian eastwards around his kingdom, enabling Tongan time to be 13 hours ahead of Greenwich, instead of 11 hours behind, allowing his subjects to be the first in the world to greet the new day. Taufa'ahau wore his favorite leather jacket to state events, even though he was over four hundred pounds, and the temperatures were tropical.
Fua’amotu International airport was closed one day a week to allow him to ride his custom-built bicycle up and down the runways. He had a gold watch on each wrist, a pair of glasses in each breast pocket, and two canes on either side of his waddle.
Taufa'ahau was a progressive sovereign, as far as medieval megaton monarchs go. He monetized the economy, and enabled commoner access to increasing material wealth, education, health care, and overseas travel.
But he wasn’t without controversy. Taufa'ahau considered making the country a nuclear waste disposal site, sold Tongan Protected Persons Passports to shady outsiders, including Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, resulting in the naturalization of the purchasers and sparking ethnicity-based concerns within Tonga, with the proceeds deposited in a US bank account; registered foreign ships engaged in illegal activities, including shipments to al-Qaeda; claimed geo-orbital satellite slots from which the revenue went to Princess Royal; held a long-term charter on an unusable Boeing 757 sidelined in Auckland Airport, resulting in the collapse of Royal Tongan Airlines; built an airport hotel and potential casino with an Interpol-accused criminal; approved a factory for exporting cigarettes to China against the advice of Tongan medical officials; imprisoned pro-democracy leaders and imposed press censorship; and lost 26 million dollars to Jesse Bogdonoff, a financial adviser who called himself the king's Court Jester. Two hundred years after Captain Cook’s observation that commoners were required to touch the sole of the chief’s foot as they ambled past, King Taufa'ahau had definitely touched them back.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Tongans were dimwitted bovinoids. Paul Theroux had little respect, considering them big people with flimsy houses and island structures, not really cooperative, bereft of enterprise, slow of speech, casual of manner, indifferent to schedule, unable or unwilling to anticipate, physically clumsy, no manual dexterity, dropped things, forgot things broke promises, a society used to dealing with beachcombers, who had all the time in the world; every other day late, unapologetic, envious, abrupt, lazy, mocking, quarrelsome, sadistic to their children. Spat and swore.
But that wasn’t the way that Robyn and I had found them at all, five years after he had made these pronouncements. The locals we had met, outside the Good Samaritan, were Good Samaritans, and invited us home, for earth oven ʻumus, on festive mats laid out under their mango trees.
It began with a faikava, the kava ceremony presided over by the touʻa, a young single woman server, unrelated to anyone else in our kalapu. She stirred the kava in the kumete, as big as a round sponge bath, legs and all carved from a single tree trunk, enameled by many years of use. The peppery dirtwater that she had poured into polished ipu coconut cups, were passed hand-to-hand to those sitting farthest away, in rounds. We spoke of politics and rugby and traditions, until the jokes and guitars and smiles and Robyn and the big women came out, flowers and maidenhair ferns in their maiden hair.
Then the banana leaves were raked off the ʻumu, and the steam came up off the hot stones, together with the fish and chicken, and taro and yams and breadfruit, and the palusami, my favorite Polynesian dish in the world, made from chopped taro leaves and coconut milk and, here in Tonga, with tinned corned beef imported from New Zealand. There were hot dogs, go figure, because what the men took off the spit, what had originally arrived under white muslin off the flatbed truck, already gutted and stuffed with herbs and lemons, was a tremendous roast suckling pig, or two, or more- not the gaunt hump-backed long-nosed swine brought by Cook, but their thick blubbered porker hybrid descendents that had turned the Friendly Isles into one big big pig farm. One of the men would take the butt end of his large knife and smash the thick orange crackling around the throat of each hog, and we would tear it with our teeth and fingers, and eat it with salt and saliva. We got pig grease all over the back of a truck that we helped push out of the sand, and returned to our mats back under the tree, for papaya and watermelon and the young girls singing and dancing for us, advancing, retreating, beckoning. And the next day was an even bigger feast, with even bigger pigs.
The owners of the Good Samaritan gave us their big car for a day, and Robyn and I made the grand tour of Tongatapu, behind the wheel of a large automobile. Most of what we saw was about what men and water can do to volcanic rock. The waves that crashed into the reef near Houma village drove the Southern Sea up through the natural channels of the Mapu'a 'a Vaea blowholes, high into the air with every surge. The Tongans had two kings, one earthly, who did the hard work of government, and a heavenly king, the Tui Tonga, who was worshipped as a god. They were buried in great rectangular raised enclosures of rough-hewn fitted slabs of coral, 150 feet long by 90 feet wide and three-terraces high. Robyn and I found two of them near the village of Niu toua, hidden in tangled thickets of low bush, and worn by trees and traffic and time. Another structure, the Trilithon, consisted of two massive limestone coral uprights, between 30 to 40 tons each and twenty feet high, linked by a lintel, built by a people who were supposedly unfamiliar with mechanics.
We stopped to ask directions from a large lady holding a blue and yellow and white umbrella, under the white and powder blue vertical wood slatted Friendly Islands Marketing Cooperative Maketa Iki Fish Market. She knew of the location of the monument, but not whose landing it commemorated. Perhaps it was faka Tonga, the Tongan way, the attitude to outsiders reflected in a history of no invasion, no occupation, no colonization, no immigrants, no investors, and no desire to look beyond. We were palangis, sky-bursters, and even the kids I invited and encouraged to listen to the music on my Walkman, did so out of courtesy, rather than any real interest. Still, you would think she might have known.
‘Here stood formerly the great banyan "Malumalu 'o Fulilangi" or
Captain Cook's tree under the branches of which the celebrated
navigator came ashore on his way to visit Pau, the Tu'i Tonga (sacred
king of Tonga) on the occasion of the 'Inasi (presentation of the first
fruits) in the year 1777.’
Wednesday, 18 December 2013
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.
Monday, 16 December 2013
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.
“I was now landed, and safe on shore, and began to look up and thank
God that my life was sav’d in a case wherein there was some minutes
before scarce any room to hope. I believe it is impossible to express to
the life what the extasies and transports of the soul are, when it is so
sav’d, as I may say, out of the very grave….”
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Seven years after Rousseau submitted his Second Discourse, he published his neo-romantic novel Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse. Extolling a love for nature, and the ‘mythe du bon sauvage’ hidden in its pages, its release was so popular, that it was rented by the hour in French bookshops. Rousseau’s hero was modeled after George Anson, the English naval commander, who had been contracted by the South Seas Company in 1740, for a mission to disrupt or capture Spain's Pacific possessions. Poorly provisioned, and with impossible orders, his benefactors expected his expedition to live off the pillage of the sea, and the land. By the time he limped into Juan Fernández, at daybreak on the 9th of June of the following year, Anson had lost sight of his five other ships, having taking nine days, and the further loss of an additional eighty men, to even find the islands, because of the mistake in his navigation charts. The delay, however, may have save his life, as he arrived after the last Spanish ship had left. His crew was too weak to lift the anchor, and took several weeks to recover their strength. Their improvement led to questions that eventually helped identify vitamin C deficiency as the cause of scurvy. Anson’s later capture of the Acapulco galleon, Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, off the coast of the Philippines, made him a rich man. His circumnavigation of the globe laid the basis for subsequent scientific and survey expeditions by Captain Cook. Only 188 of his original 1854 sailors had survived the voyage. Anson’s exploits were documented in the 1748 publication of A Voyage Round the World. He served as the prototype for Patrick Obrien’s Aubrey-Maturin series, which in turn provided the inspiration for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. An incident on his round the world voyage was the subject of William Cowper’s famous rhyme of this ancient mariner.
‘They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind...
No poet wept him: but the page
Of narrative sincere,
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
Is wet with Anson's tear.’
The poem was called The Castaway.