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Out-Gifting Polynesians

It is almost impossible to out-gift a Polynesian. No matter how much you give them—clever people that they are—they figure out a way to give you more. For example, the famous pearl carver Becko of the Tuamotus. I gave his kid a stuffed Duracell hopping bunny (which, of course, I got free in a department store promotion) and then thoughtlessly added a compliment as well. “I like your Good Luck hook,” I said to Becko.

Becko is a superb carver and was wearing one of his best pieces around his huge neck. (Maui, one of their many Poly-gods, fished up the islands with this hook—thus its good luck symbolism).

Becko immediately took it off and presented it to me. I tried to refuse but he wouldn’t have it. “It is nothing,” he said. “A mere trifle!”

“Thanks,” I said. “And if this is mere trifle… well, I’d love to see your good carvings!”

Boy, I can be a thoughtless jerk, eh?

Becko returned home and—knowing we were leaving the following day—worked all night carving my name and three intricate Polynesian themes on a single giant black pearl… which he presented to me the following morning.

I was stunned. I’ve never SEEN anything as nicely done—and couldn’t believe that he, who was living in a very basic dwelling, refused all monetary payment.

“…wanna a cappuccino?” Carolyn asked Becko, to give me time to think.

Becko probably wouldn’t have said yes, but he could reciprocate immediately so he said okay.

Carolyn gave him his cup of coffee and Becko immediately handed her a plastic baggy of 72 pearls, saying modestly, “…some have small flaws.”

Carolyn and I looked at each other. It was obvious Becko was going to keep giving us stuff until… well, bankruptcy! And he’d already given us his truly best gift… his undying friendship… so we shoved off without further escalation.

While visiting with Becko, we learned his dream was to own a Harley Davidson T-shirt and/or a Harley Davidson belt buckle. It seemed a strange dream for a gifted artist—but one culture is, literally, unable to judge another without the prism of their own… so we have sent various Harley Davidson gear to Becko from Kiwiville, Oz, and India… we even had Carolyn’s 78 year old mother wade into a Harley dealership in Chicago and buy half the store.

Becko is currently drowning in Harley ticky-tack—and, finally, (ha ha!) can’t reciprocate… WE WIN!

Isn’t this a nice way to do business?

 We recently were in the Ha’apai group of Tonga, and invited to dinner ashore. Our guests were upper-middle class by their standards, desperately poor by ours. Their shack consisted off… well, nothing. Just palm fronds and sticks to keep the rain out. Goats and pigs and dogs wandered in & out… and did what animals do. There was no running water or chairs or table… merely a hard-packed dirt floor. No metal hardware anywhere. No windows or doors… no… nothing!

…except their trophies of wealth: eight (unwashed, to prove authenticity) …eight empty tin food cans proudly nailed to their living room wall… proof of the generosity of their yachty friends over the years. 

The dinner was actually a fairly elaborate multi-course Polynesian feast… taro, breadfruit, yams, fish, octopus… even a sip of flat Fanta at the end!

We gave them a cheap fillet knife and a can of Spam in return—and slunk away in shame.

How did all this come about?

Well, I’m not sure. But Polynesians were early traders, with a twist. They had no concept of money, so they just went to other villages/islands and GAVE them stuff. And, if the people they gave stuff to didn’t have anything… well, that just proved how wealthy and wise the traders were in comparison!

But Polynesians are an extremely proud, competitive people—and refused to be ‘beaten’ by accepting gifts… so they naturally ‘gifted back’ to the max!

It is a difficult concept for a Western to grasp… but the trader who walks away with the most stuff… loses! (I understand that some Eskimo tribes have similar rituals, which makes sense considering both migrated from Asia).

Yes, it is odd. Once we went ashore to dinner on a remote island of French Polynesia—and were both given Big Fat Pearls just for showing up.

“You give us you and so we give you them!” said our host in happy explanation.

Last week in Tonga Carolyn made a giant plastic bag of popcorn—and then went ashore to the tiny village we were anchored off to distribute it. It was a strange and wonderful experience. Every one enjoyed the popcorn despite never having seen anything like it. More than one villager—when I offered him popcorn at his front door—ran out his back door, yanked up a hairy root from his garden, and returned proudly with his ‘gift!”

Food isn’t the only thing they give away. Our cultures have vastly different views of reality… which isn’t. I mean, reality SEEMS like it is real & concrete & rock-solid… but reality can be thought of as just another cultural opinion or societal frame which we view life through.

For example, we thought all Tongans didn’t have the right word for ‘hello.’ When we’d stroll through the village they’d say, “Goodbye!” when we met. Although we certainly didn’t correct them, we did demonstrate to them the correct usage by saying, “Hello!” Immediately, they would stop in bewilderment… almost as if we had said, “Halt!”  This puzzled us and it obviously puzzled them too. Finally we learned that when a person strolls passed a Polynesian and is leaving… they said good bye. When a person is NOT leaving… is going to stay… they say… ‘hello!’ Thus, we were both being perfectly ‘right’ and literal in our own worlds… and utterly confused by the others. 

That’s the best part of traveling: discovering what we know to be true… isn’t, necessarily!

And the distant past is much closer than you’d think in Polynesia.

The ancient Tahitians knew something about the gene pool—that the more diverse it is, the better. That’s why their biggest annual inter-island sporting event (the Heiva festive) is specifically designed to be part sports competition and part sex orgy… so the ‘strongest, best, brightest’ genes are equitably distributed throughout Oceania.      

This tradition isn’t completely forgotten.

“Our father was a chief and he’d always ask the passing sailors to sleep with us,” one elderly Polynesian woman told my wife Carolyn and I. “He said that was best, that if we fell in love with a guy from another island, we’d move away and he’d lose a daughter… or, worst, our new husband would come to live on our island and he’d gain an unwanted son-in-law… either way, a disruption of the family & village. Sailors were best! They were usually only there one night… make a deposit… then… gone forever!”

Currently northern Tonga and Samoa are still accepting deposits.

This is true. People might think I’m exaggerating for comic effect but I am not. I’m 55 years old, balding, have yellow teeth and am fairly ugly… at least by current, cosmetic-surgery Hollywood standards. I’m also almost dead broke.

…but I’m Brad Pitt in northern Tonga.

Thus when I walk into a village in Niutoputapu, the mother frantically entertains me in the front yard after ordering her daughters into their finest… and, when they finally proudly parade before me, the mother asks hopefully, “Which one you like?”

This isn’t sleazy or directly profit-motivated… I mean, she’s not pimping them… she’s honestly hoping for marital bliss… for the entire family.

And never forget, you are not marrying just the daughter… but the whole family. No, marrying one does NOT allow you to stay on the island but DOES allow you to take the WHOLE family to YOUR island… are you getting the picture, lover boy?

“Every time I come home from a fishing trip,” an American long-liner who married a Tongan wife told me. “There’s a new uncle-niece-cousin-grandmother living with us!”

At first I thought it was just the parents attempting to foist off the kids for their own old-age benefit. This was certainly reinforced when one mother canoed out with three daughters and said, “…it sure would be easier to row back with only two!”

But I and Jim Sublett (an American sailor older and uglier than me) were recently pick upped by two young giggly girls (far younger than my daughter Roma Orion)—who insisted on being our island tour guides. They were wonderful kids and we had a fine day together… but towards the end… I started getting a little nervous. Finally I invited them out to my boat. They immediately accepted with hop-up-and-down glee.

“Don’t worry,” I told them. “My wife is there… aboard my boat.”

“Ahhh… ohhhh… sure!” they said and suddenly ‘remembered’ all the stuff they had to do. 

Our friend Star on Tongatapu was extremely disappointed in the utter selfishness of her little sister—‘proposed to’ by a passing English sailor—and yet refused for the stupid reason she was in love with the Tongan boy next door. “It would have been WONDERFUL to have a palangi in the family,” said Star sadly.

Yes, Polynesia is different. If you don’t believe me, ask Margaret Mead. She discovered all-of-the-above almost a hundred years ago. Sure, things have changed in the well-traveled, airported cities. But remote islands are just that. Change comes slow—for better or worse.

Editor’s note: Carolyn and Fatty are currently in Samoa, covering the XIII South Pacific Games.

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