Dispatch #60 - Not Everyone has an Oven
The day after we attended the memorable Tongan wedding and feast, we pulled anchor and set off for Kenutu, the most easterly of Tonga’s Vava’u group of islands. We went there because it featured a German-owned bar reputedly serving currywurst, a Berlin specialty which my Berlin-born husband dearly wanted to try. This unlikely establishment is also known as the easternmost bar in the world, as it nudges right along the international date line at a spot where the line makes an easterly jog.
It turned out that the Berlin bar was closed, although its owner was there, the only occupant on this otherwise wild and uninhabited island. She was eager for company and while she and Herbert chatted, the kids climbed around her imaginative Swiss family Robinson-style treehouse/guesthouse. On the beach we found some of the hugest giant clamshells ever, as well as many beautiful small shells, including the lovely pink-lipped ofu shell, which is said to be quite rare.
We scooped them up by the handful and my pockets were bulging by the time we returned to Northern Magic. Once our prizes were dumped out on the cockpit table, however, they surprised us by beginning to move and make small clicking sounds. it turned out that those shells that weren’t still housing their original gastropods were now occupied by hermit crabs. We were scrambling everywhere to contain our walking, talking shell collection and we finally dumped them all in a bucket and returned them to their rightful home.
At low tide we walked over the semi-exposed reef, dodging large sea cucumbers, starfish and sea urchins, to Kenutu’s uninhabited sister island, Umuna. We found ourselves treading softly through an unusual forest of pandanus trees, a type of palm tree that grows up on stilted roots that look like legs. We had no trouble imagining that this congregation of leggy trees was actually alive, and we kept turning our heads quickly, trying to catch them secretly stalking around when our backs were turned.
We had been trying to find a cave, but instead found something better. On an exposed cliff 160 feet above the crashing, bashing waves below, Herbert noticed a whooshing sound like that of a vacuum cleaner. Investigating more closely, he came across a pocket in the ground. Half of it you could step down into: the other half was a hole that led away somewhere underground. As Herbert stood beside it, the sound began again, and to his surprise, a great blast of air shot out of the whole, standing his hair on end as if electrified. The hole was obviously linked to a cave at water level, and as the waves rolled into the cave, air was forced out on top of the cliff high above.
We called over Michael and made him stand innocently right inside the depression. He obediently did, and we waited there with smiles of evil anticipation as he got the shock of his life. When the big roar came, Michael jumped, his hair stood up, his shorts billowed out and his shirt flew up Marilyn Munroe style. Even when you knew what was coming, the blast of air was shocking, so the kids continued to play in the airhole for a long while, throwing leaves inside it and watching them scatter with the blow.
Our next stop in Tonga was Pangaimotu island, the home of our new friend, Petiola. We had promised to visit her at home, both to bring her some gifts to thank her for inviting us to her niece’s wedding, and to recover the videotapes which her teenage sons had borrowed.
We prepared a little bag with some Northern Magic visors, treats and toys for her five children, the youngest two of which, girls of 12 and 3, are adopted. (‘It’s good to have a big family, and especially with lots of girls,’ she explained. ‘We Tongans say that girls are good luck.’) I included some of the brownie mix which had been a hit on Palmerston island.
By now we have visited lots of villages in remote places, and this village was larger and more prosperous than most. It even had electrical lines and paved roads. Perhaps it was the relative prosperity of the place, perhaps it was Petiola’s having borrowed our videotapes, or perhaps it was having seen her family in their Sunday best that had left us unprepared to see how they really lived. But whatever it was, we were taken aback by the little shack of a house we found. It was definitely the poorest home to which we have been invited yet.
Petiola, her husband and their five children live in a tiny three room house measuring perhaps 15 by 20 feet. The openings that serve as doors and windows were covered only by bedsheets. Inside the heavily trampled dirt yard was a huge breadfruit tree and a troop of friendly dogs. There were two small covered shelters in the yard: one for the outhouse and shower, and the other covering the open fire that was Petiola’s kitchen.
Inside the sitting room there was no furniture except for few wooden shelves containing a portable stereo, which represented virtually the entire wealth of this family. There were no appliances, no fridge, sink, running water, furniture or other significant possessions. Petiola rolled out a woven mat and invited us to sit on the concrete floor, but as we had come unannounced, she had no food or drink to offer us.
I couldn’t help but feel sad as I studied Petiola’s attempts to decorate her little home. The walls displayed many tattered and discoloured snapshots of weddings, old people holding babies, and guests sitting on mats in this same room. It was a windy day and the wind shot through the house, making everything move, especially the threadbare sheets that covered the doors.
Hanging from the ceiling was a large silver and blue foil Christmas star, a sad attempt at cheerful home decor. Even sadder were the ancient tattered crepe-paper streamers, which once upon a time had been bright blue, tacked along the upper edge of the walls. This poor faded attempt at brightening up the home seemed only to draw attention to its shabbiness. Suddenly I remembered how we had haggled over the price of the beautiful carvings we had bought from smiling, maternal Petiola and felt ashamed. How stingy we had been, and how generously she had treated us in return!
The brownie mix I had so carefully chosen as a gift was a dud. Petiola looked carefully at the instructions, and then asked, ‘Do I have to bake this in an oven?’ It was then I realized that she didn’t have an oven: all her cooking was done over a backyard fire. A Tongan oven is simply a hole in the ground. I felt sheepish, just as I did when I gave an electric mixer to a Cuban woman who was too poor to own a mixing bowl.
However Petiola had told us how much her family had enjoyed the powdered milk we had given her before, so we decided to give her all the rest of the skim milk powder we had. We had bought a tremendous supply of it back in Canada, and still had a whole 10 gallon drum full, so we made a date to return with the milk the next afternoon.
Petiola was waiting for us, and this time not unprepared. She had, to my dismay, spent some of what little money she had buying a loaf of bread, a tiny stick of butter and a container of long-life milk with which to entertain us. We certainly didn’t need or want any more of her hospitality, and in fact room temperature ultrapasteurized milk is one of my least favourite drinks, but we were touched that she would have thought to offer us not Tongan food, but something she judged more pleasing to our western tastes.
We chatted about her children, especially her oldest daughter, a beautiful girl of 20. This girl had married unwisely at 17 and soon found herself with an abusive mother-in-law and a husband whose ambitions rose only to the level of breaking and entering. Soon he was gone, the police in hot pursuit, and she ended up, pregnant and desolate, back with her parents. It was her sweet little daughter that Petiola had adopted as her own, and was now raising, while the child’s mother worked as a chambermaid and waitress in the larger town of Neiafu.
’Do you know any palangi men who would like to marry my daughter?’ Petiola asked, in all seriousness, supposing that a foreign husband was a better prospect than a Tongan one. It was important, she explained, that the man own at least ??:00: this is the amount needed to pay for the girl’s divorce. Petiola and her husband were trying to save up the money to set their daughter free from her vanished husband, but so far hadn’t been able to manage it.
’Do you realize that if she marries a palangi, she will leave Tonga?’ I asked.
’Yes, I know,’ she answered serenely, ‘but it’s more important that she find someone who will take good care of her.’
The subject of our discussion herself kept to the background as we spoke, looking fetching in a red Northern Magic visor. Unfortunately, we knew of no eligible bachelors, so we could not help her with this problem.
After making our farewells to Petiola and her family we returned to the town of Neiafu for the last time. Our send-off was to be a night out at the Mermaid restaurant, recommended to us many times over as the best in town. Since it is owned by a Canadian, we knew we couldn’t leave Tonga without stopping in.
Our night at the Mermaid was in fact the best entertainment we have had since Tahiti. Canadian Ron Cherry is the owner of this small restaurant, whose walls and roof are constructed out of bamboo and thatched palm leaves, and which features an outstanding floor-to-ceiling carving of a tiki made by Petiola’s husband. There’s a big Canadian flag mounted under the bar, and we signed it, adding our names to those of the other Canadians who have visited there.
Ron is a 34-year old B.C. Native who was chef at the famous Sooke Harbour House restaurant on Vancouver Island and served his apprenticeship under top chefs in Toronto. Ron married a Tongan woman in Canada, started his family there, and then moved to Tonga in 1992 to raise his four children in the more relaxed and unpressured Tongan environment.
The highlight of the evening was dancing by a wonderful troupe of young Tongan dancers, including Ron’s own children, who betrayed their Canadian heritage only by the colour of their hair and skin. The girls danced in a style exactly the opposite of the hip-jiggling style of Tahiti: they tell stories with their arms and hands while their lower bodies stay almost immobile.
The young men particularly thrilled us with their extraordinarily enthusiastic and energetic moves and shouts. Ron’s oldest boy, age 10, with painted face and grass skirt, stomped and leapt with the best of them. As the children danced, members of the audience, particularly Tongans, would come up to the dance floor and push bills into their costumes. After each dance all the money was put into a basket that was collected and used for the children's education.
Thanks to Ron and his dancers, we had a wonderful finale to our visit to Tonga. Now it was time to prepare for our voyage to Fiji: Cyclone season is coming soon, and it was time to be away.