Saturday, September 18, 2004

Niuatoputapu - Tonga

09/07/04 - 09/18/04

By Chris

The day after our arrival we got checked into Tonga; a white van shows up on the wharf, honks and you have to pick up the four officials and bring them to your boat. We coordinated the pickup with De La Mer, so we had the pleasure of Michael on board for our entire entrance inspection. He kept cracking jokes, like “Aren’t you going to show them the hidden compartment?  What do you mean you don’t have pets on board?” Luckily the officials had a good sense of humor and the Doctor actually started making jokes about Michael. We heard things go smoother if you give them food and drink so KT made muffins and cookies, which disappeared in five minutes. I guess while they were waiting for some other officials, KT was talking to one of the head guys who had grabbed our photo album. After we had told them that we didn’t have any children, and that we weren’t married, he asked if the picture of KT pregnant was really KT. As she hemmed and hawed, and tried to explain everything, we started talking about the whole surrogate thing. After reading about the Tongan culture which shuns a lot of things like holding hands in public (between opposite sexes) and requires clothing that covers knees and shoulders, we thought they must think we were completely crazy. Luckily the doctor was interested in talking about it and explained to the others who smiled. Phew!! The doctor also explained that they had a bad case of elephantitis a couple of years ago, but it “seemed” to be gone now. They had pills for cruisers but they were out of them, because they had so many visiting yachts. Well this really got us thinking because of an article my dad sent us during his “information gathering” sessions prior to our departure. It showed a picture of a person with huge deformed legs, Yikes!!

After check in we joined a group on their way into the village so we could pay our fees. As we passed  through the various villages we realized how “poor” the people were. They had no running water or electricity. Most of the houses consisted of one room with no furniture were they would eat and sleep on the floor (the only difference was which mat they put on the floor). There was a second house for cooking and finally an outhouse for the obvious. We separated into a couple of groups based on the ability to walk and talk at the same time. KT stopped along the way and met Anita and her twin sister, who was the local mat maker. They also stopped at the weaving center and got some more ideas of what kind of mats they could get. Corbie was having a set made for her entire floor of the boat, KT just planned to have one made. We got a good tour of the three villages, after following a long dry dirt road on the leeward side of the island. We saw the administration center which also held the treasury and the post office in a single room. They divided it up by counter space, the treasury looked like an old western bank counter (except it was only three feet wide) with an old safe in the back. The post office was on the other side, along with the administration “counter”. The same woman worked all three, but you had to go to the right place to get the service you wanted. The $$ smelled very mildewy and felt slightly wet to the touch. We continued the tour trying to find the local “store”. It was a small building with a desk at the entrance, where you placed your order. We asked if we could look around and see what was available; not much, provisioning would have to wait. We had to stop at the hospital to pay our health fees and were given a tour by the doctor. There was one “operating room” which we all walked through without sterile precautions. They have done one caesarian operation during a typhoon when they couldn’t get the woman off the island. The crown prince who owns his own airline bankrupted the Tongan airline, so the island is VERY cutoff without airline service. There are stories of people needing to leave the island on the supply ships months before they need to be somewhere just so they are sure they can get there. One of the visiting yachts took a boy with a broken leg to Neiafu to get good medical attention. The doctor also told us there is a 60% incidence of type II Diabetes, due to the change of diets thanks to “modernization”.

Meeting the Natives

During our stay, we really enjoyed getting to know the people and the kids of the island. On our first trip back to the village we ran into the children returning from school. We felt like we were being mobbed as kids came running up holding our hands (boys holding boys and girls holding girls), asking all sorts of questions like “What’s you name, how old are you, where’s your wife/husband, where’s my lollie?” One boy got in trouble for putting his hand on KT’s shoulder; we’re still trying to figure that one out. The kids loved the cameras and kept saying “Photo ME!!” They would all pose with these tough expressions on their faces, even though they were constantly smiling until they hammed it up for the camera. They all wanted to see the resulting picture (on the back of the digital), and thanked us like we had given them the biggest gift. They were all singing and the boys were showing off by climbing trees like monkeys to get coconuts. They’d ask if we wanted a coconut and before you knew it they were up the tree and back down before you could blink. I guess they get a lot of their drinking liquids from coconuts. It was such a great experience to see such happy kids enjoying themselves as a group. From that point on everywhere we went kids would come up and say “hi KT” “hi Christ”, I guess they have a problem with an s ending. We saw them at school and they ran to the windows to say hi. We did a hike with Vema (one of the teachers), Meli, and a bunch of kids. We had a lot of fun  laughing and joking with them. Rick (from Emerald) was a big hit because he had muscular arms with veins and they kept poking at them. We skidded down a steep hill on our butts/feet, as they laughed hysterically at the two palangi (white people). They all went flying down the hill through the trees and some hit them pretty hard but jumped right up again laughing. We also joined them at a local fresh water-swimming hole to cool down before we continued back to the boats. Along the way we found a fallen palm tree that the kids rode like a horse. I grabbed it and made it shake even more as the kids went flying off. I have never seen kids laugh so much.

Meli invited us to join her for church, where we enjoyed some of the most amazing loud singing we have ever heard. When we sat down there were seven adults sitting around, when they started singing both KT and I looked at each other wondering when the choir had shown up. We turned around and it was still just the seven adults belting it out at the top of their lungs. Meli lives in a house with 10 brothers and sisters and her parents. She has a sister and brother that are somewhere around five years old, both with blond hair and cute as can be. They both took a liking to us but didn’t say much and sat there a smiled in a shy kind of way. We went to Meli’s house for a feast that they had arranged for us. It turns out Gumbo Yaya was supposed to join us but they were double booked. The whole setup was rather confusing for us. It was uncomfortable for us at the beginning because they set out all this food, and appeared to be waiting for more people. Meli explained that her parents were upset that there weren’t more people there; they wanted to know where all the other cruisers were. They had cooked a huge feast with an entire small pig and all the trimmings, easily enough for ten people. I was the messenger who was sent to see if we should wait for Gumbo Yaya or just eat. KT and I both tried to get them to eat with us but the entire family sat there and watched us. They had no forks or spoons; you just ate with your fingers. If you have ever tried to eat warm papaya, corned beef with vegetables and other soft mushy foods with your hands you’ll realize quickly that it is not “first date” food. The father, who was also the minister that day, handed me a knife, said, “enjoy” and pointed at the pig. I looked down and thought that this was obviously a big deal for them and I didn’t want to screw up; it was the entire pig, skin, head and all. I asked him how and he explained that I should start with the legs. He kept telling me I should have more but we couldn’t eat anything else. So we sat there eating with the entire family staring at us and laughing at EVERYTHING we said. Finally Gumbo showed up but neither of them ate any pig so I think the parents were upset that they had killed one of their precious pigs but no one really enjoyed it. Oh Well. The two little kids walked us out to the dinghy and we headed back to the boats. We saw them a couple of days later and I kept chasing the little girl around. She kept saying “heah” and running. We did that for a while and then I stopped to talk to someone. Then all the other boys would try to catch her and present her to me ... I had to explain that it wasn’t ok to treat her roughly; I hope everything returned to normal after we left.

Later we gave them some things like plastic cups, some plates, fishing stuff and some paper, crayons and colored pencils. They invited us in to say goodbye and presented us with a HUGE tapa cloth. We thanked them for their food and hospitality and they said we were welcome anytime. The cute little kids followed us out. They helped us get the dinghy through the thick mud, as I was pulling I grunted. The little boy followed suit, grunting the entire time. As we exited the long pass, both of the little kids actually spoke to us. The boy said “bye KT” and the girl said “Bye Chris”. It took everything we had not to throw the kids in the dingy and take off with them.

Experiences with Whales

When you read our cruising book about Tonga the author talks about hitting a sleeping whale returning through the pass at night in his dinghy. After seeing the two whales during our entrance I knew this was bound to be a Whale of a good time (that joke is for my dad). The other cruisers started talking about their dinghy trips out to snorkel with them. I asked Scott from Apsara to explain what you had to do to see them. We were standing on the motu during the Tongan feast while he was explaining how much patience it took for a quick glance at a whale. He was pointing and showing me where to go when he re-explained the patience, just as a whale broached EXACTLY where he was pointing. I kept thinking, “This looks easy”.

Well I guess it was for us. We took off with Emerald and De La Mer into a VERY flat calm sea. I explained what Scott had told me, about how you should shut off your engine when 100 yards away from the whale and paddle to get closer, that’s a lot of paddling. We chased a bunch of them but never got close enough to get in the water with them to see that  much. We were way out when I saw what looked like whale blow right besides the island about 2 miles away. I peeled off towards them while KT thought I was seeing things (so did I for a second). Finally we saw them and headed west to cut them off. We stopped the dinghy, KT started filming (while trying to put on her gear at the same time, when I realized that the reef came out and got closer to us (25 feet) and that they were coming right at us (you could easily see the bottom in 25-35 feet of water). KT jumped in commented on a big fish and then immediately started laughing ... “get in, get in .. drop the camera and get in .. drop the &*^*ing camera and get in the water”. It was amazing, you could clearly see six Humpback whales swimming right for us. Three of them swam right under us, while three tried to squeeze between the reef and us. One of them had to turn around and I stared in awe as this majestic creature weighing 40 tons turned with such grace. I even dove down to try and touch one as he swam under me but in the haste I had forgotten my fins. I got within 10 feet of the tail flukes, so close I  could feel the power of the water it was moving. Behind that set were four more and immediately ten whales surrounded us. Then the lead ones turned around and came back under us again. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling; it was as if we were in our own private fish bowl with 10 whales. It wasn’t until later that we realized exactly how close we were to such HUGE and powerful creatures, I think we used a bunch of our black box in luck that day. We continued to follow them and called over Emerald and De La Mer, who both got to see some of the pod. Rick actually got some good video of the same pod in deeper water. We followed some more around and had some other close experiences. KT got most of the action, she would lie on top of the dinghy pontoon all geared up and sometimes wouldn’t even let the  dinghy stop before she was in the water. The closer she got, the better. I think I had more fun watching her than the whales (after the initial experience). At the end, all I wanted to do was share the experience with EVERYONE. Get you all on a plane to share this once in a lifetime treat. I didn’t really realize how lucky we were until we got a chance to share it with others that had been there for a while. Tiffany on Clare was so great, she over heard me explaining to Rod on the satellite phone that I was dieing to share my experience with other people. She came over and said, “I heard ... go on share it with me”. KT and I were walking on water the rest of the week. We also tried to get others out there including the free diving Swedes, I guess Axle got within 2 meters of the tail flukes and just followed the whale as it swam. It was not as good of a day but everyone got to be in the water and see at least a couple up close.

As we left Niuatoputapu we had De La Mer to our starboard while I was down below setting up our route on the computer. KT was on deck watching for Whales (to avoid) when De La Mer called and asked if we saw the whale between us. Before he finished the sentence I was up the companion way and shut off the autopilot. The whale surfaced about 40 feet way and was heading straight for us. I immediately turned the wheel away from him as he dove and went right under us. KT was looking further out and had actually been thinking about the strange color in the water, but thought it was a reef or something else. Billy from Clare also had a similar experience; he almost tried to anchor his dinghy on a whale, thinking it was a reef until it finally moved!

Our next experience was not so pleasant. We had had a great sail during the day when the wind began to drop and move behind us. In order to keep our course I put up the spinnaker and we were flying at about 6.5 to 7 knots. Usually we think about taking the spinnaker down at night but the breeze seemed to be dying so we left it up. After dark, at 7:50 to be exact, we heard a loud wave (like a low rumbling noise), kind of like the breaking waves that come out of the night, except there were no seas. All of the sudden we slammed into a whale. Water came over the rail and KT got rather wet. The boat slowed to about 1.5 knots as our spinnaker collapsed and the boat felt like it was going bow down. I immediately got on the radio and told Emerald that we had hit a whale and were checking for damage. We both ran around frantically, checking the steering, which didn’t feel right. I checked under the floorboards and had to raise the dinghy to check in the watertight compartment but there was no water. Finally we got enough boat speed and the steering felt fine, as we both breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was planning on checking under water in the morning but the weather had different plans.

Meeting New Cruisers

Even though we have traveled so far we are still meeting new boats, which have traveled the same routes but with slightly different timing. I was expecting to meet more Kiwis and Aussies here (who come up for to the western pacific for the season) but we’re still meeting people from the States and Europe. I had met Scott on Apsara briefly in Bora Bora as he came over to ask if we wanted any of the things (a cruising guide and some Tupperware) that he didn’t have room for on his brand new Swan 65. I laughed and said if you don’t have room how do you expect me to have room on my little boat (of course I took it). We spent a little while shooting the breeze about all sorts of things including his trip from the factory in Europe and the fact that he had a crew of eight (I think) to do the Atlantic crossing, including a French Chef to do the cooking. Yikes, please don’t let KT find out about that ... I guess there is another world out there. Well Scott was one of the people who helped us through the pass so we delivered cookies to them the next day and met his wife Nancy. I spent most of my time walking around town with them, and had a great time. Turns out he was a Venture Capitalist in the health care business, while Nancy was in a pruning position for a CEO. Hey, I’m interested in what people do (or did) now that I am looking for new career ideas. We shared a dinner on their boat with Clare (a boat from Chicago with Billy and Tiffany on board). Scott and Nancy gave us a tour of their AMAZING boat in which they played a large part of the design criteria. I love looking at great ideas on boats and this one had lots of them. We settled into the cockpit for drinks while we waited for Clare to arrive. We first met Billy and Tiffany in Suwarrow but didn’t really get to know them that well. Billy is a very bright X-options exchange trader with a very southern accent (from Florida I guess), which is rare in the cruising fleet. He always makes fun of himself, “you’all think I’m stupid”. They both have tons of energy and are really funny to hang out with. Well they both got on board and were rather quiet. Finally Billy asks “You’all talk about the whales yet?” Scott said no that they were waiting for them, as all four of them exploded in to high energy stories about their experiences that day. Tiffany was laughing because she said Billy spent an hour telling her about his 5 minutes with the whales and then asked her to tell him her version of the same story. They just couldn’t get enough. We still had some special California wine on board which everyone awed over and we all savored. Nancy made some great enchiladas that KT was drooling over ever since Dragonfly told us they went out for Mexican food when they got to American Samoa. We had a great night; I don’t think we stopped laughing the entire time. Another night Apsara had a cocktail party with almost everyone from the anchorage on board. The food was amazing, including smoked salmon with caviar on toast. Who said cruising is just like camping?

We met a family on a HUGE catamaran, Dulcinea. They are a family of five who has already sailed across the Atlantic and back through the canal to the South Pacific (someone actually wrote a kids school book about their trip across the Atlantic that I got for Kari). They were trying to find a spot and I yelled out to let them know that we were not sitting to our anchor (the wind had died so our anchor was in a different position then straight off the bow).  They thanked me and as Michael and I were coming back from a coconut hunt, she waved us over and invited us on board. This boat was HUGE; it was so big the salon looked like a great room in a normal house. They immediately offered us cold beers while a couple of the Swedes from Equity also arrived (no doubt to chase the two daughters). I had heard about the Swedes from Emerald who said we would get along great. We did. There are four brothers in their 20’s sailing from Sweden to New Zealand with their Dad. Mom stayed at home, but they call her on the Sat Phone almost everyday. These guys are crazy and a lot of fun … when entering a pass, I guess they figure that they only need one person to steer the boat and one to watch for coral so the other three typically get towed through the pass with their snorkeling gear on. Although, they did have to get out of the pass in Suwarrow because the sharks were so aggressive! They are amazing free divers, Corbie said she saw them at about 90 feet once (while she had on full dive gear). As we got to know them it was amazing to see how well they worked together. They actually redirected compliments to other brothers and each one took turns being Captain. They always had meetings to decide what they would do together. I talked to Peder, the father, one night about how great of an experience he must be having, how unique to share such an adventure with his sons at that age. After the feast we gave Ola (the oldest) a ride back to their boat, and he dropped his sunglasses in the water as he was leaning over to tie up the dinghy (just as the sun was setting). I saw them and dove in the water to get them. He was forever grateful and invited us onboard for a shower and drinks. Well that turned into an impromptu party that lasted until one AM. KT got up the courage to ask a couple of the brothers how they dealt with THINGS, ”you know, there’s four of you brothers all in your 20’s on a boat with your dad, what do you do if you meet a girl and want to bring her home..” It was funny to watch them duck the answer, and after what seemed like hours KT gave up.


The Anchorage Lagoon, and the Volcano

The islands provided an amazing landscape, a beautiful lagoon with lush trees and a small mountain ridge down the center of the island. We got a great panoramic view from the top, the three villages on the leeward side (with 1100 people and 12 churches), lush coconut trees on the windward side and the volcano to the north. The island name means “Very Sacred Coconut” and the island is covered with them. We also hiked down the other side where most of the families have a small piece of land, “the bush”, where they get their food from, and around the south west side to a motu with a “resort”.

The Outer Side of the Island

We hiked the volcano after an “interesting” boat ride across the channel; I don’t think we could count the number of Coast Guard regulations that were violated during our trip. The boat was small and the seas were big, and the boat smelled like fuel, which made for some sour stomachs.  Once you leave the beach you hike up what seems like 1000’s steps just to get to the village of Tafini, which has about 150 people. We were exhausted already but this was like base camp, we still had most of the 2000-foot peak to climb. The volcano was so high there were actually different weather systems at different altitudes. The locals grow their fruits lower, and then the Taro and Kava at higher elevations. Luckily it got cooler as we went up and one point we entered what seemed like a rain forest because it was mostly in the clouds. We were treated to some amazing views and incredible foliage changes along the way. We also saw 1000’s of fruit bats (which the locals eat), as we neared the top. It was very vampirish as he banged the tree and the huge bats flew around the volcano. The climb was very difficult, sometimes your arm could reach out straight and touch the hill in front of you, and we enjoyed our rest at the top VERY much.

Island Politics

One thing about traveling to remote islands is the cruisers can have a great impact on the locals. A lot has been written about the “Tongan Way”, which is to give freely and expect nothing in return. When some of the earlier cruisers were there, they were treated to HUGE Tongan feasts that were free. As time went on and the locals visited the boats and saw the differences between our lives and theirs, they started focusing more on the cruisers as a way to make $$. One of the cruisers suggested they have a local craft fair where they could change $$ for their crafts (which were incredibly cheap). Meli, the woman who arranged it, said that this was the only fair way to do it, and that all cruisers should go to her to ask for crafts instead of individual islanders.  The “theory” being that at the craft fair the money was somehow shared amongst all the woman (and their families), but if cruisers purchased crafts from individuals then only that person/family benefited. (KT bought crafts from both the fair and individuals, figuring she was covering all the basis).  Well, then one individual pulled KT away to receive a phone call (yeah VERY strange to hear a phone ring in a shack that looks like a kids roughly thrown together fort) from another woman who was at the fair who said HER village was having one, and she “forgot” to mention it in front of everyone else at the other one. Somehow they discovered fundraisers and next thing you know everyone was having them. First Seia had a Tongan feast to benefit the island, although it turns out it only seemed to benefit a few people and maybe just their vacation funds (it was $15 payanga each .. about $7.50). It seemed reasonable for a fundraiser but expensive if it wasn’t to benefit the whole island. Then they had dancing fundraisers, and then the Hospital had another Tongan feast to raise money for a new generator (the price was $20 because “the previous one was $15 and we’ll have more seafood and dancing”). Then that night there was ANOTHER fundraiser for the water district of the middle village (I’m not sure anyone even went). There also seemed to be some competition between Meli and Seia, Meli tried to cover the same Volcano hike as Seia’s husband but was ill prepared (no water or machete to cut coconuts) and the cruiser who went with her got VERY dehydrated and sick. Then she told us that we should tell the other cruisers that we should go with Her instead of Seia, which just didn’t seem right. The whole time this was happening De La Mer had befriended Latte, one of the main officials on the island, who really didn’t like what was happening, “It’s not the Tongan Way”.

The final straw was when one of the locals wanted a ride to Neiafu. Seia told Clare that the man’s son was in the hospital and that he really needed to get there to help him. Well it turns out his son used to be in the hospital, but was better and that the dad just missed his family and wanted to visit. Latte would not give Clare permission to take the man, and Seia came out to Apsara, crying and begging Clare to take him. It was crazy, if they had just been upfront and asked, I don’t think it would have been a problem. We also had a hard time with Meli, because one day she just showed up on the boat while we were working. We had talked to her the day before and said that we were busy but maybe we would see her in town and we might invite her back. Rick was in town and said that Meli told him she had plans on Billabong for the day so he gave her a ride out to the boat. She just sat there while we worked. Then we made a special trip back into town just to drop her off, but ended up giving her a ride back out to another boat… ugggh. It all felt very strange .. and sad.

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