The Return of the Blog
05 September 2009 | Nuku'alofa
Tomas and I apologize to everyone who reads and enjoys our blog for the past two weeks of silence. Since my dad has left the boat we have been very busy repairing Kena and ensuring that we run a safe and tidy ship. My dad's absence has shown me that when one has the job of captain, continuous attention and thorough, thoughtful action is required. My sleep has suffered severely as I wake up multiple times a night to check the weather, anchor, batteries, etc. However, Tomas and I have also been having an incredible time and are grateful for the opportunity to prove ourselves to our worried parents and to test ourselves against the elements. My stress levels have begun to drop as I feel more and more comfortable and confident in Tomas' and my abilities. We have been challenged by multiple problems, horrendous weather, sickness, and injuries as well as enjoyed sailing, racing, fishing and the company of wonderful people. So let us begin where we left off...
On my dad's last full day we started slowly, enjoying some coffee over discussions of math problems and potential entrepreneurial ideas. At around noon we went to the local market for fresh veggies and tapas, Tonga's most renowned craft. Tapas are fibrous cloth made from beaten mulberry bark and painted with stereotypical Polynesian designs such as turtles, humpbacks, fish and palm trees. The market is located in a large warehouse, divided into two sides, one containing fresh produce and the other local arts and crafts. Tonga is a third world country and is dramatically different from the other islands of the South Pacific we have visited. Tongatapu has been noticeably more polluted and run down and the people seem to be more desperate and eager to make a profit from the tourists. Similar to Latin America, the market seems to be the staple source of produce and general products, which is awesome since they have an amazing variety of fresh, locally grown produce available.
After the market we to an auto-parts store where amazingly we found the right sized alternator belt for our engine. Next door was a thrift store where we serendipitously found Tapatio Mexican hot sauce amongst the odds and ends. In celebration we went to the pool hall across the street and played a few rounds of cutthroat, a three player game in which you try to sink the opponent's balls. Two beers later we headed back to the boat. On the way we were lured into another bar that, as decorations, had nautical charts of the entire Kingdom of Tonga. The bar was owned by two Greek brothers. It was apparent that they both came from money and they owned real estate all over the world. One had gone to Egypt to build a castle out of marble, equipped with a draw bridge and moat. He said he "paid peanuts" for it and called the building of his castle a "hobby!"
Eventually we made it to the dinghy and began the upwind row to Kena. Inflatable dingys are notoriously hard to row. We battled into the wind singing sailing songs to pass the time as we inched along. As we passed Kalalau they waved us over and offered us some dinner and beverages...decline we did not. Cathleen's son and two of his friends, all fellow Fort Lewis alumni, had just arrived. We invited the boys, Drew (Cathleen's son), Nick and Torrey over for a few drinks and decided, since it was Friday, that a night out was in order. We said goodnight to my dad and left the boat at around ten. Our first stop as a nightclub next to the wharf, where we met a few local guys and had discussions of local politics and rugby over Mata Makas, one of the two local Tongan brews. We left with our new friends and on our way out one of them rolled his ankle and hit his head on a chair on the way down. He screamed and clutched his ankle, which sagged at the joint, obviously broken.
Stunned, and after making sure our new acquaintance was being taken care of, we continued our quest of debauchery. Just as we were approaching the center of town, from a dark alley we heard "hey palongis (Tongan for 'whitie'), have you ever tried kava?" In the alley there were three older Tongan men drinking kava. Kava is a narcotic drink made from the roots of a bush in the pepper family. The popular Polynesian beverage is produced from the roots of the kava shrub, which are mashed and fermented in water. The active ingredient is not alcohol, but an alkaloid. It is drunk widely throughout the South Pacific and is Fiji's national drink. It promotes a sense of 'well-being' and has a sedative, slightly hallucinogenic effect. In the western world it is sold in health food stores to relieve anxiety and improve sleep. It is customary to try kava if you are offered, not that we needed the incentive, and we indulged. It is served from a large bucket or bowl into half coconut shells. While we were conversing with these dark alley locals a car that was trying to pass another car at high speeds, swerved off the road through a line of hedges and plowed into one of Nuku'alofa's main monuments; a beautiful wood carving of dolphins and a large anchor form an old ship set into an arch. The dolphin statue was immediately knocked over, but the anchor slowly teetered, and luckily fell the opposite direction of the vehicle. We ran to the scene to help, and as it was downtown police officers where there momentarily. They proceeded to drag the driver from the passenger side, across the seats and stood him up, with no concern of head or spinal injury. He was bleeding profusely from the face and was obviously inebriated. To our surprise they did not slap him in cuffs, but let him stagger around the wreck, mumbling incoherently as they discussed the damage to the statue. Later we asked if this was normal procedure for a drunk driving accident, and was told that they normally put the culprit in cuffs and off to jail. Our conjecture was that it was most likely a member of the Royal Family of the Kingdom of Tonga, and therefore was allowed to walk scot-free.
The next drinking hole we went to was above the pool hall that we had been at earlier in the day. Within fifteen feet after entering we were approached by fakaleitis. One of the most distinctive features of Tongan culture is the fakaleiti, men who dress and behave as women. It is a modern continuation of an ancient Polynesian tradition. While most fakaleiti are probably gay, not all of them are. Many consider themselves ladies and seem to only relate sexually to men. They get away with promiscuity with men on a scale that is forbidden to biological females. It is strange in such a conservative and Christian society that the fakaleiti's open flaunting of sexuality and transvestitism is completely accepted. They remind me of the lady boys that are ubiquitous throughout Thailand, and just as aggressive towards westerners. Anyway, we politely declined their offer and went to the dance floor to strut our stuff. Again, we were moved in upon by bearded women and decided to move to another establishment.
We headed back in the direction of the boat, and after a quick stop to have some kava with our alley friends we ended up at a bar owned by the Greek brothers. The brother who built a castle as a hobby was standing outside, leaning against the fanciest car that I have seen since I was in the states, counting a large wad of money. He recognized us and in flamboyant Greek greeting embraced us and took us to the bar for drinks. The bar was packed with palongis, obviously the westerner/backpacker hangout. As we battled the crowds to get to the bar, Tomas and Torrey were singled out as Americans by two Australians. If you know drunk Australian men in bars then it will not surprise you that they started making fun of Tomas and Torrey and trying to one up them with wits. It has been my experience that young, drinking Aussies just love to stir things up and provoke fights. Luckily, they were a bit low in the wits department and I ripped into them, and soon their friends were laughing at them and no longer Torrey and Tomas. They seemed impressed by my shit talking abilities and suddenly we had gone from enemies to friends.
We made another attempt to make it back to the boat and ended up at the Billfish, right next to the harbor. This was definitely the place to be on a Friday night if you are local. We were approached by many local women and men, and found their behavior very strange. They would come up to us, start a conversation, and in the middle of it, just walk away. No bye, or nice to talk to you...nada. I understand if you were trying to hit on a woman, and she was not interest that she would walk away, but they were approaching us. Feeling like a total outsider I decided to ask the Tongans if we were doing anything wrong. They all shook their head no, and then as if to mock me, turned and walked away. Later, after talking to other palongis we found out that Tongan's culture has many subtle nuances and mannerisms that are alien to us. The Lonely Planet states that "although Tongans are open and extremely hospitable, due to cultural nuances, many foreigners feel a bit at arm's length." I'll say. Also, the concept of keeping face is extremely important to Tongans. So much so that when you ask a question, they always say yes, even if they have no idea what you are talking about. After a few times of being misinformed and some wild goose chases we learned not to trust what they tell you. They just want to appear to have answers. Very interesting. Another interesting cultural difference is that they say "bye" as a greeting. It was quite odd at first to have everyone say "bye" to you as you walk down the street.
Needless to say, my dad had to drag us out of the bed the following morning. Previously we had arranged to be taken around the island by a local taxi driver/preacher/kava club president. We left at around 9:30 in the morning and it appeared that David was in worse shape than we were, sleeping in the car at every stop. He said he had been up till three in the morning drinking kava. To be quite honest, Nuku'alofa did not have many great or interesting sights to see. The Royal Palace looked as if it belonged on a modest Victorian era estate that you would find in the deep south in the US. It profoundly showed the difference between the economies of our countries and theirs. We visited a variety of royal burial grounds and again they were modest and not ornate in anyway. The two most interesting sights that we visited was the eastern coast which had incredible blow holes for as far as the eye could see. We spent about 30 minutes taking it all in and photographing the plumes of spray. The other was what is known as the 'Stonehenge of Polynesia.' It consisted of 3 large rectangular blocks made from coral, two up right and one that lay horizontally on top forming an arch. My favorite part of touring the islands was the massive fruit bats that inhabit the island. They collected in Australian gum trees in the hundreds. After our circumnavigation of the island it was time for lunch, and then to take my dad to the airport. Over our meal we talked about all the last minute worries, concerns, and thoughts about leaving the boat in my hands. I reassured dad that, of course, I would do my best and I asked him if he was sure that he was comfortable. He said very matter of factly, "of course, I would never have offered if I thought you were incapable." After lunch it was time for David to take my dad to the Airport. I haven't cried in a long time, but tears rolled, even Tomas was teary eyed. It was very sad to close the chapter of sailing with my parents. Tomas and I went back to the boat and had a lengthy discussion about our fathers. Tomas lost his dad five years ago, and enjoyed spending time with my dad very much. In my dad's honor we had a nostalgic evening, watching multiple episodes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. We have missed him very much, and it is not be the same without his endless puns and fantastic sense of humor.
The next day was spent provisioning and preparing Kena for our trip north the Vava'u. The morning weather report showed 25-30 knots of wind and a high wind and wave warning for all of Tonga. David, our cab driver came by the boat to visit and invited us to his kava club that he is president of. We asked if we could invite the boys from Kalalau, to which David replied, "the more the merrier."
At 8pm David picked up Tomas, Torrey, Nick and me and drove us the short distance to the club. The kava club was a large, bare walled rectangular building, with no furniture, and lit with those horrible florescent lights that sting the eyes with their harsh white/blue glow. About ten large mats were laid out with large wooden kava bowls in the center, around which 15-20 people sat cross legged. Altogether, there was over a hundred and fifty people. Each group had a collection of musicians. On group would play a traditional Tongan song and when they finished another group would start up. This process continued throughout the night.
Women are not allowed into the kava ceremonies. Apparently, Tongans used to have much more respect and appreciation of woman and many were queens and held high standing positions in the community. Unfortunately, our western chauvinism has infiltrated their culture.
Kava is served into half coconut shells by the most senior and respected individual of the group and passed around to others. The Tongan way to drink kava is to chug the whole coconut half at once. It is not the best tasting drink, earthy and tea-like, and was hard to choke it down in one go. Although, when you did they all cheered you on. We were one of the first groups of palongis to visit the club, and everyone was eyeing us to see how we did. We held our own. Kava numbs your mouth which makes the following quantities easier and easier to get down. The sense of 'well-being' kicked in quite quickly, and we chatted with the locals and enjoyed the music. Many of the people that were there do this every night of the week, and although kava is supposed to be beneficial, twenty coconut shells a night is a bit more than therapeutic.
One of the younger Tongans in our group brought a new touch iPod. Soon all the older men were crowded around the tiny screen, infatuated. Curious about what it all the excitement was about, they turned the tiny screen to us to show a porn video playing. I imagine to them, the majority of them without computers or internet, this was quite exciting, however, it made us a little uncomfortable and we decided to head home for kava induced slumber.
The following morning the high wind and wave warning was still in effect. Regardless of the nasty weather we checked out of customs and prepared to leave. I was anxious to leave and begin my first journey as skipper, but nervous about the heavy weather. Although I had been in similar weather previously on this trip with no problems, I had never been in charge and with inexperienced crew aboard. Right before we were about to leave, I made the decision to stay another day and wait out the weather, so instead we watched a movie and had an early night.
The following day the high wind warning was dropped for southern Tonga. I looked at the GRIB files, which indicated that the winds were decreasing, so we did a few last preparations and around 2pm we pulled up the anchor and began our journey to Vava'u. Little did we know what was in store for us...