Adventures in the Vava'u Group
Moving the ketch to the yacht anchorage fronting the International Hotel, we found that space was a scarce commodity. A coral infested, 3-fathom shelf stood along one side of the otherwise deep bay, and this provided scant solace to some two dozen sailboats. Selecting a niche among them, we lowered the CQR onto the bottom.
The yacht anchorage fronting the International Hotel. Suka in the center of the photo.
With Suka secured, we rowed ashore and walked the mile into town. Most villagers wore the usual western garb, but many chose traditional Tongan attire: blouses and ankle-length skirts for the women, shirts with knee-length skirts for the men. And over western or Tongan apparel, many older folks wore the ta'ovala: a tattered woven mat wrapped round the waist. But to our cast-in-concrete occidental mentality, the most conspicuous garb was the school boys' uniforms: white collared shirts and blue skirts.
The Tongas are known as the Friendly Islands. And in the main, the citizens prided themselves accordingly. The Tongan men's brawniness often belied their usually amicable personalities. One individual was particularly mean and roguish in appearance. In California he would have readily passed for a motorcycle gang member. Except for his T-shirt, which proclaimed boldly: "FRIENDLINESS IS OUR WAY OF LIFE."
A Lavish Meal with Alofi and Family
At the appointed hour we met Alofi, who then led us across the far reaches of the village, through a gateway, past several more small houses, and finally to his little box-shaped wooden structure standing on stilts and featuring a large doorway in each wall. The furnishings were rudimentary. Actually, there were none. But nevertheless the place was spanking clean.
Alofi introduced us to his wife, behind whom cowered three bashful children, then he ushered us inside. The floor was covered with a hand-woven pandanus mat. The walls were painted, and decorated with a few pages from various magazines. Onto the center of the floor Alofi laid a tablecloth, and invited us to seat ourselves before it. Then his wife spread a lavish meal of broiled chicken (previously a member of the household brood, and known as Moa we were told), savory fish fried in a batter of coconut milk and seasonings, baked tapioca (the root of the cassava, or manioc plant), papaya, and watermelon.
Alofi said that, according to Tongan custom, Palangi eat first. It was also Tongan custom, we surmised by the lack of utensils, that Palangi eat like the Tongans: with the fingers. We felt more than a little embarrassed eating before them, but the smiles all around soon put us more at ease. Alofi's wife spoke not a word of English, but sat beaming at our obvious appreciation of her savory cooking. The three children giggled sheepishly close at hand, and watched wide-eyed our every move.
After the delicious meal the floor was cleared and the captive audience was shown hand-carved tikis, small mats and baskets, and an impressive tapa that measured some seven by fourteen feet. Tapa cloth dates back to ancient Polynesia, and is fashioned by pounding strips of bark peeled from the mulberry tree. Doubled pieces are glued together using arrowroot resin, and the coarse fabric is patterned with a natural brown dye.
Alofi wanted 35 dollars for this cloth his wife had produced. We said we would think about it. As a token gesture we bought a few small mats, then paid Alofi the well deserved second five dollars for the dinner. Then the family presented us with a parting gift: a sack of cola fruit, picked from their tree. The cola, similar to a lime but much stronger in flavor, is squeezed into a glass of water as flavoring for a refreshing drink.
Market day, Jenny selects a basket of papayas. These fifteen large papayas sold for one dollar, basket included.
Saturday, market day, Suka's crew rose early and motored the dinghy to the town wharf. The market place was alive in a throng of activity, as islanders from all reaches of Vava'u had come to sell or buy fruit and garden produce. Jenny selected a basket full of fifteen large papayas, which sold for one dollar, basket included. Also she purchased a stalk of bananas, two pineapples, a small pile of oranges and lemons, a bunch of scallions, a dozen tomatoes, a small woven basket containing nuts of some sort - called Tongan peanuts - two servings of a sweet tapioca dessert wrapped in green banana leaves and piping hot, and two freshly baked scones filled with papaya jam. All this cost a mere additional three and a half dollars.
Dinghy loaded with market day produce and a tapa.
We met Alofi and offered to buy his wife's tapa if he would bring it to the wharf. His lack of hesitation left me feeling we should have bargained for a lower price. We later learned we had paid two and half times the going rate for such an item. Also, we learned that Alofi was well known for competing inequitably with his fellow Tongans. His ploy was to spring upon new arrivals in an attempt to misrepresent the accepted rates of local commodities. As such, Alofi suffered a somewhat nefarious reputation, But even so, I had to credit him for his efforts. Like most of the local residents, he and his family were living in penury, and he was trying only to provide for his family. He did not appear to be given to liquor, and his wife certainly knew how to cook!
Fresh Air, King of the Sea Shells
After the shopping spree we stood aside to absorb some of the scene. Locals came and went, and a few yachtees wandered about, looking as engaged by the activity as were we. By and by, a rather distinguished native gentleman approached, introduced himself as "Fresh Air, King of the Sea Shells," and invited Jenny and me to his house, in order that we might inspect his shell collection. We agreed to meet him in town later that afternoon.
With no little effort we lugged our booty to the wharf and loaded it into the dinghy. Then before lifting the fruit aboard Suka we gave each piece a thorough dunking in the sea, to help purge it of any bugs. From there, Jenny hung the bananas from a shroud in the traditional maritime fashion.
At the appointed hour we returned ashore and met Fresh Air, who had obviously been waiting for us. His geniality put us at ease, and as we walked to his house he expounded on various aspects of the township. Jenny was keen on learning a few basic Tongan words, such as hello, thank you, and good-bye; and Fresh Air instructed us on these. At one point we passed by a group of young people working on a giant spread of tapa. Fresh Air explained that this masterpiece had been years under construction, and was to be a gift for King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. In fact, the ruling monarch was slated to visit Neiafu the following month in order to preside over the annual Agricultural Festival. The atmosphere was already buzzing with the coronal discharge. The tapa makers seemed delighted that we were interested in their project, and when we asked permission to photograph them, they scrambled into posing positions with shrieks of delight.
Fresh Air and his sea shells.
Arriving at Fresh Air's cabin, we passed through a gateway leading into a well-groomed yard festooned with fruit trees and decorative foliage. In one corner stood a small portico shading a picnic table loaded with sea shells. These were neatly arranged in little boxes and sorted as to kind. Additionally, to one side stood many boxes of shells. None of the shells were spectacular or rare, but many were interesting.
"Now Tongan custom," Fresh Air informed us: "you choose what you like, then I tell you price."
I could not conduct business in such a manner, so I asked for a few sample prices. "How much for this shell?"
After receiving a few reiterations of policy, I finally persuaded him to give us a few sample prices:
"This one: 25 cents, this: 50 cents," and so on. After admiring his collection and deliberating the choices, we selected a medium sized pile. "OK, six dollars," he said.
We handed over the bills and placed the shells into our rucksack.
"Now I give you present for coming to my house." Fresh Air began selecting more shells and placing them into a pile that soon exceeded the size of our purchase. "And would you like a bundle of bananas?" he asked.
We Discover Cockroaches in the Sea Shells
Back aboard, that night we were relaxing belowdecks when with sudden aversion I noticed a three-inch cockroach scurrying across the cabin sole. After a frenzied pursuit we dispatched the unwanted guest. Fresh Air's sea shells were immediately suspect; we placed one into a bucket of seawater, and several large, writhing roaches floated helplessly to the surface. How many had escaped before we had discovered the first one?
Cockroaches are commonplace in the yachtsman's world, and consequently many vessels are plagued with them. They were never much of a problem aboard Suka, though, because whenever we found one aboard, and this occurred perhaps half a dozen times during the voyage, we scoured the ship stem to stern. Every cupboard, locker, drawer, and cabinet we would empty. Each we cleaned, then powdered the inner and outer edges and corners with boric acid. In theory, after the insect walks in this toxic powder, it cleans its feet of it by licking them. The technique seemed effective, and by the same token we considered the threat of bug infestation a favorable incentive to maintain the brig in ship-shape condition belowdecks.
Sunday in the Kingdom of Tonga
Sunday in the Kingdom of Tonga is a day of rest. Not only is work forbidden, but so is swimming and even playing games. Lave, the alcoholic cop, had related that Tongan law forbids private airplanes to arrive on Sundays. In effect he said that for committing such an offense, the pilot and any hapless passengers were granted a day's accommodation in the local jail. The law did permit, however, certain yachtees to seclude themselves belowdecks to mount a massive anti-cockroach campaign. And apparently it turned a blind eye on any foreigners venturing ashore to spend the evening at the nearby hotel watching a movie, as long as we sat quietly and showed no expression of amusement.
Louisette Blows a Warning Horn
One afternoon a wind slashed across the bay with such fervor that it constrained the crews aboard their respective sailboats, standing anchor watch. For hours Suka's bower grumbled vexatiously, but the noise eventually fell silent. Perhaps ten minutes later, hearing an urgent horn blast Jenny peered out the hatch to investigate. "Hey! Looks like we're moving," she reported. "Sybaris isn't our neighbor anymore." I sprung on deck and found that Suka lay broadside to the wind. In the absence of current this is a reasonable indication of a dragging anchor. And indeed, the fleet and the shore had receded into the distance. Apparently our anchor had plowed its way through the brittle coral until it had fallen off the shelf. We found it dangling vertically at the end of a hundred feet of chain. After laboriously hauling aboard the ground tackle, we motored the distance back to the anchorage and selected a slightly different place to heave the hook. And once reestablished, we waved our gratitude to the French folks, Louisette and Yves Guillou aboard their ketch Dy Chior, who had noticed us dragging and had blown a warning horn.