We’re currently in Nuku’alofa in the Kingdom of Tonga… where reality is far weirder than fiction.
Example: our immigration boarding official wore all black. Even his skirt was black. “That’s because he’s in mourning,” whispered my wife Carolyn to me.
“If a family member dies, they have to wear black for a year… if a friend dies, like, maybe, for a month… if they ever met the deceased or even saw them go by in a car… a week or so!”
It is true. At times it seems as if everyone in the country is in mourning. Once we saw a guilty-looking Tongan guy slink by in normally-colored clothes, and Carolyn said, “…sad, eh? I mean, he’s obviously devoid of both family and friends!”
Yes, death is always lurking coquettishly in Tonga.
The graves in the very crowded, often-visited cemetery are decorated with flowers, true, but also large quilts and–the latest traditional Tongan touch–solar-powered garden lights!
Nothing is quite what you think in Tonga–and the language barrier doesn’t help. Yes, they speak English… no, you can’t understand it. Or, even if you do, you think you don’t. Example: I was telling a local guy about how clever our cat Joker used to be, and he blurted out, “The fisherman are pigs here!”
Well, that hardly came as news to me. I mean, commercial fishermen around the world tend to be sloppy, their boats stink and they often litter the harbor with fish guts. So what?
It wasn’t until weeks later, at dead low tide, that I realized the guy had been telling me the literal truth about a closely-related animal subject, i.e., the local fishermen were, literally, pigs!
Now, exactly why both the wild and domesticated pigs of Tongan expertly ‘fish’ for shellfish during every low tide I do not know. But they do. Regularly. And well!
While I was standing under a tree and marveling at the pigs at water’s edge, I was hit by a piece of half-eaten fruit dropped by a flying fox… which is really neither! (“A ‘tree-leaping-rat-bat’ would be more accurate,” Carolyn said as I shuddered).
Of course, in the Kingdom of Tonga the King is, well, front-row-center in every aspect of daily life.
The current king is a spry 87 and has recently slimmed down to a mere two hundred pounds or so… a mere shadow of his former 444 pound ‘king-sized’ self.
His name in King Tupou IV and he can (and evidently does, often) recite his royal ancestors back “…a millennium or so.”
Every Sunday he attends the local church–and everyone prays for his continued reign. (Especially, the Tongan business community since the entire country basically shuts down for at least six months following a monarch’s passing).
The current king is a pretty nice guy, and has, at least in church, a big smile and a broad wink for everyone. (Well, at least, according to Carolyn–I don’t attend, fearing a lightening strike!)
But during every reign some rain must fall, I guess.
A slick American fella blew into town awhile back and convinced the King he needed more money–and could get it by selling Tongan ‘satellite rights’ to other countries. The king, of course, was a tad skeptical.
However, he didn’t want to look a foreign gift horse in the mouth, and–since Tonga didn’t have any satellites nor want anything (kava bowls, perhaps?) placed in orbit–the king decided to give it a try.
It worked. The Kingdom received several million dollars. In appreciation, he offered his new American financial advisor a royal favor… pretty much anything the guy wanted. “To be appointed ‘official court jester,’” was the guy’s only request.
“Done,” said the king, and that’s the end of the story.
Well, except for the fact that a few years later, 350 million in gold was missing and so was the court jester… but, by official decree, no one knows anything about this nor do they ever talk about it in any way… which visitors usually learn within minutes of arriving in gossip-happy, don’t-tell-I-told-you-so Tonga!
Tonga isn’t really a global power, nor does it often make international news. The last time it did was when King Tupou’s mother (Queen Salote) visited England in 1953. She became world famous as the ‘most polite person alive’ for refusing an umbrella while the Queen of England was being rained upon while riding in an open carriage during her coronation. (Tongans are, if not drinking alcoholic beverages, extremely polite people).
Tonga is, for the visiting yachtsmen, heaven. Each of its 171 major islands (scattered over 500 miles of Pacific ocean) are beautiful, more beautiful and most beautiful. Safe harbors abound. The weather is benign (except for hurricanes) and the warm tradewinds are usually gentle.
While modern marine services (chandleries, ship yards and mechanics) don’t exist–that’s its (slowly, slowly disappearing) charm.
It’s the people, really, which make Tonga so special—-how they love to visit with you, come on your boat and invite you into their home… and yet never once attempt to ‘sell’ you anything on any level.
That’s why they are poor. And that’s why they are so wonderful to visit.
Tradition Polynesian culture runs deep here. Whole villages still honor the king every day by wearing the traditional ta’ovala (pandanus mats, woven out of palm fronds) dresses–both men and woman!
Seeing a 600 pound Tongan warrior attempting to fold him AND his stiff dress into a small Honda Accord… is a sight never to be forgotten!
Politeness counts here. Cleanliness, too. Respect, for the Lord and for the King, is all important.
It is their country and it is their rules. (For minor crimes or small rule infractions the international visitor is sternly forbidden to visit Tongan again for a period of one year… a VERY harsh penalty in the eyes of local framers!
In a sense, ocean cruising isn’t as much a quest for the perfect harbor as for the perfect hosts. Tongans come close. The people are still extremely friendly to visiting yachties, constantly inviting them to their Sunday ‘ umus’ of suckling pig roasted in earth ovens—-in hopes of (only) the pleasure of their company. (Polynesians will automatically give you a gift just for showing up to eat their delicious food!)
All that’s required is politeness and tolerance:
Tongans don’t think their political system is perfect but they believe, for the most part, that it serves them well. They’re happy, and they want everyone to be happy around them. And if that isn’t the basic requirement of paradise, I don’t know what is.
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of “Chasing the Horizon” by American Paradise Publishing, “Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies” and “The Collected Fat.” For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com