A few days later, in settled weather we sailed away, bent on an extended inter-island excursion. Wishing for a fresh fish dinner, I tossed a lure by the board, and paid out a few hundred feet of line.
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Nearing the islet Mala we dropped sail and motored warily over rocks and coral, and reached a patch of sand in three fathoms. While Jenny lowered the anchor and slowly paid out chain, I backed down a ways - before remembering the fishing line. Suka's spinning propeller creates a strong wash that tends to draw any nearby, movable object through it. The fishing line's adamant refusal to be reeled in suggested it was now fouled in the prop. So after pulling the engine's kill cord I donned mask and fins; and clutching a knife I jumped overboard and began cutting away the line, which indeed had gnarled itself copiously around the prop shaft. Shredded fishing line in hand, I surfaced for air and found a rough-hewn dug-out canoe full of naked, brown children gaping at me wide-eyed. A young man had paddled them out to pay us a short visit.
The next morning we sailed around the corner of Kapa Island, and anchored above a patch of sand near its isthmus. Leaving Suka swaying gently to her well-secured bower, we motored the dinghy a mile to Swallow's Cave. Shutting off the outboard so as not to fumigate any denizens of the dark, (bats or what have you) we only paddled into the cavern. Once our eyes adjusted, we saw that the cathedral-like ceiling was indeed festooned, between hanging stalactites, with inverted and presumably sleeping bats. The cavern walls plunged vertically into hauntingly deep water that heaved and incandesced in fantastic hues of iridescent purple-blue. These colors were created as the refracted sunlight welled up from the deep.
That evening we motored the dinghy to a nearby steep-to, jungle covered chunk of rock known as Luakapa Islet. Fruit eating bats, called flying foxes, and much larger than the bats in the cave, hung in the trees. Their three-foot wing spans enable them to fly with the ease of hawks, which is what we had mistaken them for. But their high-pitched screeching, horror-movie sound effects were our first clue that these were not hawks. The flying foxes have a curious and seemingly clumsy way of landing. They would fly directly into their chosen tree branch, only to crash feet first. Then clutching mightily they would swing forcibly for a few moments, like a weighty pendulum gone wild. This commotion set the many upside-down reposing neighbors swinging uncontrollably, but oddly they seemed to pay little notice.
Lisa Bay, Tongan Feast
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Next morning we rounded the southern reaches of Kapa Island, and sailed north into an expansive and tranquil bight called Lisa Bay. There, in a tiny beach-side shack lived Isaiah, his wife, and three children. This Tongan fellow hosted a bi-weekly feast, scheduled for this particular evening, and a few yachts were already arriving for the occasion. Then at the appointed hour we paddled ashore canoe-style, sitting side-by-side athwartships on the sides of the dingy, and each swinging an oar.
The villagers had prepared the food well in advance, using the Tongan's traditional underground oven called the umu (Oou'-moo). This was done by scooping embers and hot coals into a pit, which they then lined with several layers of green banana leaves. Onto the leaves went the food, each entremets being wrapped in its own banana leaf. These items included lobster, octopus, fish, taro roots, tapioca, papayas cut in half and filled with spiced coconut milk, and a few other comestibles that we did not recognize. The fellows had then covered the food with more banana leaves, and buried the lot with earth, leaving the food to bake for several hours.
Hand-woven baskets, wood carvings, and sea shells for sale
The womenfolk had arranged their handicrafts along the beach and displayed them for sale. These included hand-woven baskets, wood carvings, and sea shells. The baskets were attractively woven, and they sold for but a few dollars each. We enjoyed selecting a few and chatting with their amiable weavers.
Tongan basket weavers.
Before the feast came the entertainment: Three guitar strummers, two ukulele players, and one banjo picker struck up a medley of lively Polynesian tunes, while singing exuberantly in the Tongan tongue. To this, a trio of women asserted their utmost vocals in rich harmony.
A young Tongan dancing with her mother's encouragement.
The little dancers, though, easily stole the show. In turn, the costumed lasses danced, with mom's encouragement and sometimes with her actual presence. The movements were demure and subdued. And so contrary was the gentle flow to the vigorous instrumental drumming that one was compelled to listen mentally to the intricate gesturing. The ten year old girls shuffled their feet lightly with the beat, while moving arms and hands in deliberate, graceful motions.
Our hosts unearthed the umu, then spread the feast lavishly and piping hot onto a long row of banana leaves, placed upon the ground. Then they bid us guests, numbering 25 or so, to sit cross-legged on mats before the meal. The aromas were out of this world.
Eating with fingers, Tongan style
Eating with our fingers, Tongan style, we found the food wonderfully flavored. An attractive Tongan host, Naomi, sat quietly next to Jenny serving us various dishes, and when necessary replenishing our banana leaf plates. Timidly, she answered our questions about the nature and preparations of the various foods. Then after the guests had eaten their capacious fill, the Tongan children were seated to a smaller version of the same feast.
Neiafu's weekly market
Neiafu's weekly market traditionally occurred on Saturdays. At half past five in the morning Jenny and I paddled ashore and met Isaiah. Climbing the steep staircase, we surmounted the embankment behind his hovel, and in the revealing light of dawn we walked a mile into the village of Panga (pang-guy'). There, a few villagers were gathering for their weekly trip to the market.
A small pick-up truck pulled to a stop. At Isaiah's bidding we climbed into the back, and sat on a wooden bench. Eight other villagers occupied the remaining seats, then between us all, and even onto our laps, went a load of fruits and vegetables. As the truck jostled along the dusty road, Jenny and I sat enjoying the company of the jovial Tongans, who chatted to one another amiably in their native tongue.
The morning's activities were already well underway when we arrived, so after paying the taxi fare we began ambling about the grounds. Two hours later we found Isaiah, and were surprised to see that he had bought an even greater quantity of produce than we had. Into the back of another truck went our booty for the jostling ride back to within a half mile of Lisa Bay. Along with his provisions Isaiah was lugging a five gallon plastic water jug, as, remarkably, his dwelling lacked a water supply.
When we asked about a church service, Isaiah invited us to attend the one in Panga. So Sunday morning at the appointed hour we pulled ashore and found that the man of the house had crawled into the woodwork, so to speak. He did not go to church, we surmised, but his wife Rosaline did, and she had been appointed to accompany us. As we walked the road, Rosaline, who spoke no English, pointed out various plants and trees along the way. The most exquisite was the mohokoi, (Mo-ho-koy') a spindly, orchid-like flower emitting a powerful fragrance. Rosaline explained that the islanders use the mohokoi to perfume their coconut-oil body lotion.
“We understood not a word of it, but the vehemence eroded our nerves.”
Entering the white-painted wooden church, we sat at one of the pews. Before long the room had filled nearly to capacity, and the service began with the congregation singing a-capella, not softly but with gusto. We enjoyed listening to the rich, intriguing harmonies so characteristic of the South Seas islanders, despite any damage to our eardrums inflicted by the intense volume of perhaps 60 people belting out at their fullest. The sermon, however, we did not enjoy so much. The preacher yelled and screamed at the top of his powerful lungs for half an hour. We understood not a word of it, but the vehemence eroded our nerves.
Lunch with Isaiah
Back at Lisa Bay, Isaiah professed to having taken (conveniently) sick that morning. But now he was feeling much better, and he invited us to stay for lunch. Only one other yacht lay anchored in the bay, the French yacht Dy Chior. Her crew, Yves (pronounced Eve) and Louisette were also invited to lunch. Unearthing the umu, Isaiah served a scrumptious meal of grated taro leaves mixed with tinned corned beef, all wrapped in more taro leaves. In addition, he had prepared sweet potatoes, and papayas baked in half- coconut shells and seasoned with coconut cream. For drink there was a blend of pineapple and coconut juice.
“We three couples sat for hours exchanging one story after another. Never mind that none of us understood the other's language.”
The occasion was memorable in an amusing sort of way. We three couples sat at Isaiah's picnic table for hours, exchanging one story after another. What distinguished the conversation was that, excepting Isaiah who spoke a little English, none of us understood the other's language. Jenny and I had come to know Louisette and Yves fairly well since the day Yves had warned us with a toot of his horn about our dragging anchor. So the language barrier between us was not a great obstacle, especially in light of our many common experiences. A little gesturing usually conveyed the point aptly.
Imagine Yves telling this story in French, gesticulating descriptively:
"We saw a whale near the Galapagos Islands. It was huge. It came close to the boat and started nudging it with its shoulder. We were terrified! This went on for half an hour. The worst part was its revolting breath. Blah!" (Shaking of the fingers as though they were burnt.)
A Hike Around Tapana Island
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After those few days of pleasant tranquility, we sailed to nearby Tapana Island and anchored under its lee. Now late in the afternoon we went ashore to stretch the legs. The farther we strolled along the beach, the more intriguing the jaunt became. At the island's far side, for example, we passed by the sole inhabitant's rudimentary thatched roofed house, Robinson Crusoe style. This was encompassed by a tidy yard, and featured a little boat.
On we walked, the sun ever lowering. Because we had traveled well over half way, it seemed expedient to continue around the island. But what we did not realize was that a long line of cliffs, plunging into the sea, blocked the way a mere quarter of a mile this side of our landing.
Reaching the wall, we began traversing it. Impenetrable jungle above precluded bypassing the cliffs, but the tide was low, and in some places a narrow, sloping shelf at the water line afforded passage, albeit at times precariously. As darkness began to fall we reached an impasse. The day was too spent to backtrack, and we found ourselves in somewhat of a predicament.
Leaving Jenny clinging tenuously to handholds, in the fading light I jumped into the sea. Swimming 50 yards along the cliff, while unable to see an inch into the water before me, I feared striking jagged coral or a bed of spiny urchins, or encountering jellyfish, poisonous sea snakes, or sharks. But the passage went without mishap, and after circumventing the long line of cliffs I hauled myself, safely but breathing heavily, onto the beach. Collecting Jenny by dinghy was then a simple matter, and we returned aboard not until well past nightfall, glad to be home.