Thursday, 26 December 2013

Aground in the Abode of Love 6

The naked Ha'apai chief who would determine Will Mariner’s fate was Finou 'Ulukalala the First. He called to one of the Hawaiians to fire a musket at one of the Tongans high in the ship’s rigging. The fall broke the man’s legs and fractured his skull. When Will later asked him how he could be so cruel, Finou laughed, and explained that he had been a lowly cook, and that his life or death had been of no consequence to society.
But Will was destined to be of major consequence to society, and to Finou. Over the next three days, the ship was stripped of her iron, had her guns and powder removed, and was burnt to the waterline. The guns would help Finou consolidate his rule over the rest of Tonga, and Will would help Finou accomplish this, for which was ultimately given the name Toki 'Ukamea. Iron Axe.
Over the next four years, Will would teach Finou about his culture, about how taking apart a watch doesn’t guarantee the ability to reassemble it, and about money.

“If money were made of iron and could be converted into knives, axes    and chisels there would be some sense in placing a value on it; but as it is, I see none. If a man has more yams than he wants, let him exchange some of them away for pork. Certainly money is much handier and more convenient but then, as it will not spoil by being kept, people will store it up instead of sharing it out as a chief ought to do, and thus become selfish. I understand now very well what it is that makes the white men so selfish — it is this money!”
For his part, Finou taught Will about his culture, about his love of cooked dog meat, particularly the neck and hind quarters, and the legend of the cave inside which I was treading water in. A young man chasing a turtle observed it dive, without surfacing. He followed it into an underwater cave of considerable size, with no outlet but the one he had entered by. The man forgot about the cave until, some months later, when the tyrannical king, who mistreated his subjects, condemned another chief and all his family to be drowned at sea, for opposing him. The young man was secretly in love with one of the condemned man’s daughters, a maiden who he would otherwise be deemed socially inadequate to marry. Thinking quickly, he declared himself to her, and found that she had also been secretly in love with him. No one knew what had become of her until, one day, a boating party saw what appeared to be the ghost of girl, rising from the heart of the waves, before once again disappearing. The young man had kept her hidden for several months, bringing food, water, bedding for the rough stone couch at one end of the cave, even torches safely wrapped in leaves, until he was able to arrange to be sent on an expedition to Fiji. Outward bound from Vava'u, he stopped his canoes, leaving his men perplexed as he dived into the water, only to reappear with his maiden fair, and off they sailed to Fiji, where they lived happily, until the tyrant’s death.
There was indeed a stone couch at the end of the cave. There was also enough evocative power in the legend, to inspire Byron’s use of it.

                 “The first yet voiceless wind to urge the wave 

                  All gently to refresh the thirsty cave, 

                  Where sat the Songstress with the stranger boy, 

                  Who taught her Passion's desolating joy...

                  The sun-born blood suffused her neck, and threw 

                  O'er her clear nut-brown skin a lucid hue, 

                  Like coral reddening through the darkened wave, 

                  Which draws the diver to the crimson cave. 

                  Such was this daughter of the southern seas...” 

                                                     Lord Byron, The Island

But inside Mariner’s Cave, I wasn’t thinking about Lord Byron. I wasn’t thinking about Will Mariner. I was thinking about the acoustics. Everyone that had come into the cave from our boat had left, including our guide, who told me to come when I was ready. But I wasn’t ready. Inside me, inside the cave, I had a tribute I needed to get out, to the love that inspired the legend. And to Luciano Pavoratti, whose good name required a little rehabilitation, from the beating it received at the hands of the less than good Samaritan American, at the Good Samaritan. And I sent Nessun dorma, from Puccini’s Turandot, ricocheting off the walls of the cave.

      “Tu pure, O Principessa,
       Nella tua fredda stanza... tremano d'amoree di speranza.
       Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me, il nome mio nessun saprà...
       Sulla tua bocca lo dirò quando la luce splenderà
       Ed il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio che ti fa mia...

      “Even you, O Princess,
       In your cold room... tremble with love and with hope.
       But my secret is hidden within me, my name no one shall know...
       On your mouth I will tell it when the light shines.
       And my kiss will dissolve the silence that makes you mine...
       I will win.”

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Aground in the Abode of Love 5

   “If the blood in the water is light, it is the shark’s blood and the man  
     has won; if the blood in the water is dark, it is the man’s blood, and  
     the shark has won.”                                                                                                                            
                                                                                            Tongan Proverb

“Just hold your breath.” He said. I asked him for how long.
“Until you’re there.” He said. I asked him how I would know.
“You’ll be out of breath.” He said.
I lined up on the pinkish rock in front of me, and the black shadow ten feet below. We had come off our boat on the west wall of the north end of Nuapupu Island, a few miles southwest from our hilltop refuge in Neiafu. Robyn had decided to stay on board. She was always the smart one.
“Don’t worry.” He said. “There’s plenty of time.” But I wasn’t worried about time. I was worried about space, and swimming blind through fifty feet of tunneled darkness, into a cave that was supposed to have air inside. The penalty for failure wouldn’t be pretty.
“What about Captain Luce?” I asked.
“Who?” He said. In 1865 a Captain Luce, of the HMS Esk, had succeeded in entering the cave, but rose too soon on leaving, lacerating his back badly, against the sharp underwater coral spears. It took him a few days to die.
“Swim towards the light.” He said, and jack-knifed down towards the entrance. The instruction was not quite reassuring. I bit into my snorkel, and drank in the only lungful of air I would be allowed to take onboard, for this long day’s journey into night. My own movement followed his fins.
The inside of the tunnel was shot through with schools of tiny blue and black fish, jostling each other, and me. Just as I thought I was going to suffocate in one large saltwater gasp, my horizons widened out and up, onto a pink volcanic opening arching into a high blue and ochre roof. The only light was the filtered cerulean luminosity that had accompanied me through the entrance, like the glow of a nuclear reactor, the most astounding and ethereal radiance I had ever seen. The seal inside the cave was so tight that, when the swells rolled in, the water compressed the air briskly enough to create a fogbank. As the swell retreated, the air clarified to crystal, just as fast. It was sublime.
“Welcome to Mariner’s Cave.” He said. And I thought of him, our castaway. On December 1, 1806, William Mariner was only fifteen years old when he witnessed the captain of his ship, the Port-au-Prince, clubbed to death, stripped, and left lying in the sand. He watched the rest of his twenty-two crewmates outnumbered, overwhelmed, and massacred in the swift and brutal attack, beaten so badly about the head, as to be unrecognizable, before being laid out naked on deck, in regular order, to be counted, and then thrown overboard.
Will was led around unclothed and barefoot under a blistering sun, while the Tongans compared his skin to that of a scraped hog, spat at him, poked him with sticks, and threw coconuts at his head, until he was cut in several places, and led away faster than the soreness of his feet would allow him to walk.
When he finally stopped, it was to looked upon the short squat naked man responsible for the slaughter, seated with a blood-soaked seaman’s jacket thrown over one shoulder, and an ironwood club splattered with blood and brains resting on the other. He appeared to Will to be about fifty years of age on both sides, with one eye blinking faster than the other, above a convulsing mouth.
How he ended up here on the Port-au-Prince, on the sands of Lifuka, the main island of Ha'apai, had been quite different from how Robyn and I arrived on the Olavahu. Will had signed on as a ship’s clerk to the privateer at the age of thirteen, during the war against Napoleon. The commander, Captain Duck, had been given a ‘letter of marque’ from the King, permitting him to seize the cargo of any French or Spanish ship on the high seas, and loot any of their settlements along the way. The Port-au-Prince was 500 tons, with 24 long nine and twelve pound guns, and 8 twelve-pound carronades on the quarterdeck. Her owner, a Mr. Robert Bent of London, had given Duck a twofold commission- to pirate any New World Spanish ships and, failing that endeavor, to sail into the Southern Sea in search of whales to be rendered for their oil. They sailed on February 12, 1805, in a rough Atlantic crossing that brought them off the coast of Brazil by April, and around Cape Horn in July. The captured a number of ships, but little of value, and had a similar lack of success with the whales. When Captain Duck died of an injury, the whaling master, Mr. Brown took over command, and embarked the Port-au-Prince from Hawaii in September, on a heading to Tahiti. He missed it, and instead sailed on westward, toward the Tonga islands, arriving in Ha’apai on November 9, 1806, almost two years since departing England, and leaking badly. It didn’t get any better.
In the evening, a number of natives came on board with a large barbecued hog, and a quantity of ready dressed yams, as a present. With them came a Hawaiian named Tooi Tooi, who knew a little English from his former experience aboard an American ship, and convinced the ship’s company that the locals were favorably disposed to them. Tonga was named the Friendly Islands by Captain Cook, on his first visit there in 1777. He had arrived during the ʻInasi Festival,’ the annual donation of first fruit to the Tuʻi Tonga, and invited to the festivities. What he didn’t know, and what Will Mariner found out only later, was that, beneath their seemingly genial reception, the chiefs had been maturing a plot to murder him and seize his ship, but could not agree on a plan.
The few Hawaiians from the Port-au-Prince were not as reassured that they had weighed anchor in truly Friendly Islands, however, and advised Mr. Brown of their opinion that the Tongans were hostile, and to keep a watchful eye. Mr. Brown, to his ultimate detriment, disregarded this sage admonition. The next day he was invited ashore by the 300 natives that had swarmed the boat. For him, and most of his crew, it was their last voyage.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Aground in the Abode of Love 4


   “Letting the days go by, letting the days go by, letting the days go by,
     once in a lifetime
     Letting the days go by, letting the days go by, letting the days go by,  
     once in a lifetime...”
                                                       Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime 1981

The crush on Queen Salote wharf was crushing. I suppose Robyn and I could have flown to Vava'u, but at this stage in our lives, we had more time than money, I was letting the days go by, and a trip like this was a unique once in a lifetime cultural experience.
You could barely see the red and white hull of the inter-island ferry, for the boat traffic and human commotion surrounding her. When the boarding ‘process’ was almost over, her name emerged from behind the cargo nets and shouting. Olavaha. She was slow, uncomfortable and ‘bobbed like a cork,’ but she had made the weekly northern trip through the Ha'apai group, and further on to the Port of Refuge, in Vava'u’s principal village of Neiafu, for the previous eight years, in a mostly dependable manner. And she was cheap.
Her replacement nine years later, the MV Princess Ashika, would sink in Ha'apai on August 5, 2009, with the loss of at least a hundred passengers. No one really knew how many were crowded below decks went she went down, before midnight, but they would have had no chance. Cargo had shifted in high seas. The only survivors had been sleeping on deck, as we were.
The Olavahu made several outer island stops, to more crushes of boats five deep, passing cargo and commotion and children, and gigantic upside down coir rope-bound sea turtles, from hand to hand, to upper deck. We stopped in Lifuka, the main island of Ha'apai, for half a day, to unload and reload. It was a garden of glades under a blinding sun, less than a mile wide, and less than ten long, facing west and east, steeped in sunrise and sunset, perfectly flat, and hemmed round with white sands. Lifuka had one little street, bordered with breadfruit and mangoes and coconut palms and feathery iron-bark trees, and a handful of brightly painted shops, all closed on Sunday. Robyn and I encountered an old woman, smiling a Southern Sea smile.
“Ma lo laa.” She said. It is good to be alive. And it was, as it would have been for our castaway as well, in 1806.
Half past us, she turned, and smiled again.
“Afa atu.” She said. Love to you- health.
The sun set to our port side, and rose on our starboard. The night on deck had been cool, almost cold. But Robyn and I had our sleeping bags, and each other, and the ship’s funnels, and two hundred Tongans to keep us warm. We awoke to new islands, with four hundred foot cliffs sprinkled with red soil, and green vegetation where it had managed to find a foothold, above the deep black caves and hollows below. They were like chains of tall cakes, freshly turned out of their tins. We steered through the narrow strips of blue and white spray between them, and the clouds of sea birds about the base of every precipice. In some Asiatic languages, green and blue are one color, and should have been that way here. It was a brilliant day.
“Let’s live here.” I said to Robyn. But of course, we couldn’t.
The cliffs gave way to clumps of trees, running down to the Neiafu’s harbor, the whitewashed church at the top, and a quay thronged with lava-lavas and anticipation. We watched a ghostly white muslin-wrapped body float off the lower deck of the Olavahu, hardly touching the hundreds of swaying arms above which it was suspended in space. The were large numbers of large women crying on the wharf, and it made a hurried retreat into the covered bed of a lorry, to escape their grief.
“What does your shirt mean?” Asked a voice to my right. I turned to find a young Swiss fellow, pointing to my chest.
“AMFYOYO.” I said. “It’s an acronym.”
“What does it stand for?” He asked. I told him it was the parting message that every Critical Care physician had for his replacement, at the end of every shift. “Adios. You’re on your own.”
He started to ask about the other letters, and thought better of it. Which began our association.
Jean Pierre and his wife, Maria, were from Montreux, taking the long way home, like Robyn and I. They knew of a place to stay, with big fresh rooms and ocean views, on the hillside. There were no cars to be seen in Neiafu. We hoisted our packs, and walked it. The thin, nervous middle-aged German who greeted us, had come to paradise to unwind, but it hadn’t seemed to be working out that well for him. He was too hardwired to use the software. Just reading the list of rules on the back of our door would have consumed the entire diversion. There were forces outside his control, however, that would make our stay more interesting. Not the mosquitoes, which we expected, although not in the numbers that filled our dusks and dawns.
Maria’s scream announced the first molokau, writhing on her mosquito net. It was a foot long, the size of a small snake, and jet-black. His head rose off the mesh, before vanishing under their cupboards, like the evil alien he was. He was fast.
“Giant South Pacific centipede.” I said. “They like to hide in dark, wet places.”
“Are they dangerous?” Asked Jean Pierre.
“Very painful bite.” I said. “Leaves two holes. Can cause temporary paralysis. Plus, they eat the geckos that eat the mosquitoes.” Everyone was careful how and where we walked from then on, particularly at night.
It was not the only poison in paradise. Some had been moored in the Port of Refuge for months, avoiding the hurricanes in the Southern Sea; others for years, avoiding the ones in their lives. Bandana’d and barefoot Boat People, on Beneteaus rather than barges, bobbed within the offshore refugee camp at the end of the world, Rolling Stones and rolling cigarettes.
Yachties wanted to be apart and together at the same time, losing speed and social connectivity with each tacking manoeuvre, and futilely beating against the winds of their inevitable extinction. They had set out to become their own Robinson Crusoe, but stopped short of making the commitment, shipwrecked on their fears of becoming shipwrecked. Instead of landing, coveting, claiming, conquering, converting, they stayed in their in their confined cabins in their crossings in their cyclones, counting coins, avoiding the end of the world, which they had gambled would occur somewhere they were not. But there was no neutral ground on or off the water. They would either have to contend with the natives they had fooled themselves into thinking they were seeking, or their own culture, which they had fooled themselves into thinking they were escaping. When they battened down, they were only locking their demons inside. Very painful bite. Leaves two holes. Can cause temporary paralysis.
Still, if there was going to be an end to the world, there would be no more perfect place to meet it, than the Port of Refuge in Vava'u.
Our second day in Neiafu, Jean Pierre and Maria and Robyn and I rented a red Isuzu jeep. We drove out past the refrozen rethawed imported provisioners of Burns Philip and Morris Hedstrom, to beautiful beaches, a church that could have been a Spanish mission except for the Koelaro Holulaumalie koe sirsi o tanga 1929 over the lintel, and a small cove, where we met a Vanilla farmer, and helped push out his small boat, loaded to the gunnels with drums of diesel, out towards his plantation island. And we ultimately came, right on course, to two young boys peeling the shavings of long yams lengthwise with big knives, which led to another kava ceremony, an old man seated in the shade, in shades and frayed pandanus taʻovala cummerbund, who indicated with his loaded cigarette holder, to where the roast suckling pig would come. Same as it ever was. Much later, we performed an impromptu concert on the village wooden slit gong in appreciation, and waved to the pigtailed girls in our rearview mirror, on the way back to our hilltop refuge.

 “If a boat ends up on a reef you don't blame the reef;
 you don't blame
  the boat;
 you don't blame the wind;
 you don't blame the waves;
  blame the captain.”
                                                                                Tongan Proverb