Friday, September 12, 2008

Happy in Ha'apai

Well, we just pulled into Pangai, the port of entry for the Ha’apai group. We checked in here two weeks ago, and now we’re here to complete our exit formalities before heading west (ever west!) to Fiji. It’s September 11th as I write this. In six weeks or so we aim to be in Australia, well ahead of the start of the cyclone season. That means that we’ve got some traveling in front of us: the four hundred mile passage to Fiji, then the pair of seven hundred mile passages to get us to New Caledonia and then onwards to Oz. We figure we’ll get only two weeks in Fiji and a week in New Caledonia to break it all up. So the two weeks that we just spent in the Ha’apai felt like a real respite, a chance to take things at our own pace before the busy time about to come.


We left our mooring in Neiafu sailing under main alone. The best part about laying to a mooring is leaving it. There’s no messing around with the windlass, no stacking the anchor chain. Just put up a sail, slip the mooring line, and silently leave. Nice. We rode a fine northeasterly breeze out of town. But just as we were leaving the Vava’u group it died completely and we were left riding an oily swell with little palm-covered islands in the distance. The mixing elbow on our engine exhaust has started to leak, and I was hesitant to motor all through the night to the Ha’apai for fear of it getting worse. We talked about anchoring in one of the little islands in the southern part of the Vava’u group and waiting for wind, but decided that we might as well just get where we were going. A very good decision, it later developed.

We motored into the night, taking turns hand steering. At one in the morning we shut down and drifted to avoid arriving in the Ha’apai before dawn. It was a star-filled, still night, with just a bit of a roll to the ocean. We set the radar alarm and I woke every hour or so to check on things. At one point I realized that a whale was sleeping near us. I could hear the giant gasping breaths, and I could just see the occasional white patch of disturbed water over the beast’s back. It was close, and the night quiet enough that the sound of its breath was loud, and a little spooky. I turned the engine on and motored a half mile away to avoid any unwanted interactions.

We pulled dropped the hook off Pangai fuzzy-headed from our interrupted sleep. It was early afternoon, and a consensus was slowly building that we should delay the hassle of putting the dinghy in the water and rowing in to deal with officialdom until the next day. Even though we had only traveled within Tonga, we were still expected to check in with customs.

Then a voice came over the VHF.

“New yacht, new yacht, new yacht, this is harbormaster, harbormaster, harbormaster, do you read me over.”

“They beckon,” I said to Alisa. Then, “Harbormaster, this is sailing vessel Pelagic, sailing vessel Pelagic.”


“Could you repeat that, over.”


“Could you repeat that again please, over.”

“What I am saying is I am asking you to call me.”

Quizzical look to Alisa. “Um, OK, Harbormaster, this is sailing vessel Pelagic.”

“No, I am asking what time you will come to see me.”

“Um, how about in two hours, we still have to get our dinghy in the water, over.”

“I think, one hour, over.”

And so, our sense of enterprise was rekindled. We got the dinghy in the water, baby and adult crew in the dinghy, and rowed the quarter-mile to shore, all in the hour. But once we got to the village nobody could direct us to the harbormaster. Everyone was reserved, but friendly when approached.

The first man I asked was standing on the wharf.

“I have no idea where he is,” he said to me, successfully conveying his absolute ignorance concerning the harbormaster’s whereabouts.

I tried again, rephrasing my question like any experienced, yet patient, traveler. “Do you not know where the harbormaster man is, or do you not know where the harbormaster office is?”

“I have never heard of that person or that office,” he said, putting any lingering doubts to rest.

Another man knew exactly where the harbormaster was. He walked me to a vantage point in the middle of the staging area between the harbor and the military barracks and pointed down the coast. “There,” he said with great authority. “The office is right by that blue boat.”

When we arrived at the blue boat we found a mix of offices – the electric company, the revenue service, the customs service, but no harbormaster. Feeling the palangi’s burden of an appointment neglected, I stuck my head in the first office and startled a very sleepy bureaucrat by saying hello.

“Do you know where the harbormaster’s office is?” I asked.

He looked at my with perfect perplexity, and I realized that I likely represented the most surprising event to occur during office hours in recent memory. After pausing to parse his phrasing, the young man said, “I have never heard of that before in my life.” This was a response so airtight against any further enquiry, and so similar to the denials of the first man I had asked, that I began to doubt the harbormaster’s existence myself.

I figured that I might as well check in with customs while I was in the neighborhood. And the customs man directed me to the harbormaster’s office, which proved to be on the wharf, 30 meters from the first two men I had asked.

I found the harbormaster inside an open waiting room for ferry passengers under a galvanized roof. Two women sat in a corner next to piles of baggage. The harbormaster was in his mid-twenties. He had a big halo of curly hair and dewy eyes and wore a plastic port security badge with his picture and name on it. He was talking into a handheld VHF: “New yacht, new yacht, new yacht.”

Most Tongan adults that we have interacted with, even in the villages, spoke very good English. Not the harbormaster. I struggled to understand anything he said, but he seemed used to that, and just produced a sign-in sheet for me to fill in. The last entry from a boat checking in was five days old, which made me very happy. After I was done filling in the sheet, the harbormaster made me understand that he hadn’t heard from the other yacht that was anchored off the town. “They must check soon,” he said. “Overtime charges.” And as I left he got back on the radio, his voice an insistent drone. “New yacht, new yacht, new yacht.”

Elias was cranky, and the village of Pangai was not the kind of place where we wanted him to be rooting around in the dirt. Alisa was also done in from short sleep the night before, but she graciously let me take a quick wander before we headed back to the barky.

In my forty five minute tour, Pangai struck me as the archetype of the Pacific outpost that is sleepy in a way that is synonymous with poor, rural and tropical. There were banners across the main road celebrating the king’s recent presence during his coronation tour. Pigs grazed on a giant soccer pitch, a man in a skirt rode by on a one-speed bike. I talked to Mafi, the niece of a noble from Tungua Island in the Ha’apai group, who was sweeping up outside the palace after the king’s visit. And I met Asa, who spoke with a strong American accent, was heavily tattooed and missing his front lower teeth, and worked at a nearby resort that the Lonely Guide calls edgy and uncomfortable for lone travelers, especially women. And then we returned to Pelagic.


The next day we sailed south towards one of the many uninhabited islands of the Ha’apai. We were traveling inside the thirty mile long stretch of barrier islands and reefs that protect the whole group from the tradewinds. We passed a red yacht motoring north towards Pangai, and were gratified an hour later to hear a familiar voice on the VHF, droning on at great length without any response: “Red yacht, red yacht, red yacht. Red, red, red, red…).

After a few hours of sailing we dropped the hook off of Tofanga Island, a little piece of sand and coral heaven five hundred meters long and only thirty meters across. We rowed ashore and explored – Alisa and I checked out a new bird on the island (wattled honeyeater), Alisa found an exquisite shell the size of an apple, we took turns walking the beach that completely encircled the island, and Elias got busy picking up pieces of coral and digging in the sand. Another yacht was anchored about a mile away, but it left the next day and it was ten days until we saw another.

This is exactly what we had come for – a deserted tropical island. It’s amazing how infrequently we’ve had this kind of experience on our way across the Pacific. Every day we just read and played with Elias and worked on the boat and went to the beach and went snorkeling and just let the problems of the world take care of themselves for a while.

When Saturday rolled around we jumped five miles north to the village of Uiha so that we could attend church the next day. We were feeling very short on the getting down with the people side of our stay in Tonga, and, since Tongans are famously church-going, we figured that church was the place to meet people.

I’ll admit to a free-thinker’s jitters before the event, but it turned out to be a completely painless experience. The service, at the Free Wesleyan church, was entirely in Tongan, which spared me exposure to any theology. And the singing was strong, and crisp, and resonant, and different from anything I’ve heard before. A music leader gave the pitch before each song with a mouth organ and the little congregation of maybe thirty adults launched into two- and three-part harmonies and pulled them off very well. Men and women sat apart and little children wandered from relative to relative while old ladies dispensed smacks to keep them in line. The young men wore boldly printed shirts with ties and their tupenu, or skirts, and on the backs of the pews they rested corded forearms, broad palms, splayed fingers. The older men wore dark jackets and ties and tupenu. The women wore dark blazers and dark shirts and red scarves and tupenu and everyone wore the mats around their waists, the taovala.

After the service everyone walked together down the road, we guessed towards lunch, but we weren’t invited along. The vibe was very guarded, though friendly, and the people who did talk to us asked, “Are you going back to your boat now?” Alisa did share a great interaction with two old women and we both talked to Matetau, a big grey-haired man who we met after he rode up on his bike from the pre-service kava ceremony with the minister.

We went back to the boat and had lunch and printed up pictures as gifts for people we had met. Our return that afternoon was a mixed bag – Matetau smiled at the picture we had taken of him with his three grown kids, but then he seemed to get embarrassed and explained that his wife had died in 2006 and he was a poor man and did not have anything that he could give us in return for the picture. And the primary school teacher we had met seemed to barely remember us when we returned with some pencils and books we had said we’d bring in for her students. Even when there is no language barrier, communication can be so hard.

But then Alisa found one of the women she had been interacting with and completely bowled her over with the picture she had taken. She was a small bent woman in black with a smile that was the impish smile of a little girl, a smile that owed nothing to the resignation and wisdom of age. She was on her way to the second church service of the day when Alisa found her and she turned strait around and walked back home with the picture, holding it up in front of her face with both hands and smiling at it in disbelief.

On the way back to the boat Elias wouldn’t stop putting his hands into his mouth and this visit to a poor rural village started to feel like the limits of what we were comfortable doing with a two year old.

And then when we got back to the boat we switched on Australian Broadcasting on the shortwave and heard that Sara Palin would be the Republican nominee for vice president. General disbelief reined on board Pelagic, as well as an urgent, and of course unrequited, need to talk to some other Alaskans. Our reaction was two-pronged: she’s so inexperienced (“Three years ago she was the mayor of Wasilla!” “Two years ago she was doing Jock of the Rock on Kodiak public radio!”), and Barack’s a dead man (“He beat Hillary, he took down the Clintons, and now Sara Palin is going to be the one to stop him!” “Her political skills are so good. If she doesn’t fall flat on her face in the first week or two, everyone will end up loving her.”) Our snippets of news from the outside since then have tended to support that second immediate reaction. Sara Palin, a heartbeat away. Who would have guessed.


All that aside, the next day we headed south for another deserted island experience. The wind had been blowing strong from the southeast for a couple days, keeping Ha’apai-bound yachts that left after us stuck in Vava’u. We left Uiha with the wind gusting over 25 knots, and the dinghy soon began to surf uncontrollably from side to side down the following seas. We tried to pull into Tofanga Island to anchor up and get the dinghy on deck, but the wind had come around easterly and there wasn’t enough protection to anchor. We tried motoring back towards Uiha, but it was too slow going strait into the weather, so we turned around and continued on towards our destination, Limu Island. And a few minutes later the dinghy flipped upside down, and stayed upside down.

The load on the painter was immense, and after a quick try had convinced us that it was impossible to flip the dinghy back over in the midst of the crashing wind waves, we continued on. We both assumed that the loads generated by dragging the dinghy upside down would be too great for the painter and the boat, and we both silently assumed that the dinghy was gone. It’s hard to overestimate what a blow this would be to the trip –without the dinghy we can get nowhere, it’s our only link between Pelagic and the places we visit.

But we motored on gamely, keeping our speed below three knots. And when we finally pulled into the Limu island anchorage, the dinghy was still with us. There was some fiberglass damage to the joint between the two halves of the dinghy, but I was able to fix that the next day, which was a bit of an adventure in the thirty knot winds. And we both have a new appreciation for the dinghy, not realizing how much we valued that little boat until we almost lost her.
It blew hard for the first three days we were at Limu Island – we saw our first steady 35 knot winds of the whole trip, and our first 40 knot gusts. Limu sits at the apex of a ninety degree angle in the barrier reef, and we watched tremendous seas crashing into the reef on both sides of us. When the wind abated we found incredible snorkeling on the reefs around Pelagic, and another fantastic deserted tropical isle experience when we went ashore.

The world was reduced to a new set of elements: soft sand, turquoise water, and white clouds. And we had this slice of creation all to ourselves to discover, to reflect upon, and to enjoy. In the week we were at Limu we saw one local fishing boat in the distance, and no other yachts. Meanwhile, less than a hundred miles away in Vava’u, hundreds of cruising yachts were congregated. It felt like the cruising route across the Pacific was a six lane highway, and we had found a little cul-de-sac without any traffic at all. I figure that everyone out cruising in a sailboat makes the itinerary that most interests them, and there’s no cause to criticize other people’s selection of routes as better or worse than anyone else’s. But it is remarkable that we were in this place that offered everything that fuels the South Pacific dream, and so few other yachts had ventured down from the well-traveled environs of Vava’u to check it out. I think that our time in Alaska may have made it easier for us to be alone in a wild anchorage in the Ha’apai when a gale is blowing, and that we are at ease with the psychological demands of solitude and independence. And I also think that as much as people might say they want a deserted beach all to themselves, they’re a little more comfortable with a tropical experience that has been interpreted and validated by other visitors.

After Limu we sailed to the island of Ha’afeva, where we had a very interesting lunch experience in the village that I don’t have time to describe. Because it’s time for us to go into Pangai and check out, and tomorrow we set off for Fiji. More to follow from there.


We rented a mooring while we were in Neiafu Harbor, which is what most yachts do, as the water is very deep and the bottom full of obstructions. We were near the steep shore, where some building half-hidden in the trees was the sight of relentless band practice. In the mornings and late into the evenings we were regaled with the full kit of tubas, trumpets, trombones and various reeds playing vaguely martial music at broken cadences and slightly off-key. We assumed that we were hearing preparations for the coronation celebrations. But the practicing continued unabated after the king left. The band music became a part of our Neiafu soundtrack, along with the calls of the Polynesian starlings in the trees and the roosters crowing through night and day and the afternoon chatter of boys swimming at the water’s edge.

Neiafu is a rural town. The business district is a humble couple of streets that quickly give way to rambling neighborhoods of breadfruit trees and chickens and houses with corrugated roofs. Pigs run free everywhere.

One of the first things you notice in Neiafu if it is your first visit to Tonga is the way people dress. Both sexes where skirts, men to the knee, women to the ankle. And both sexes wear taovala, woven mats wrapped around the waist like a second skirt. It’s a very traditional look, and the sight of so many people dressed that way made me feel like we’d discovered a really out of the way corner of the world. Clothing is somber, trending towards the black. Color is provided by school uniforms – boys and girls in green and blue skirts.

For our purposes, what was interesting about Neiafu was the vibrant expat scene based upon the influx of yachties and the bars and restaurants that serve them. Our two big jumps from Raiatea to Suwarrow and then to Vava’u put us out of synch with the group of boats that we have been seeing in port after port ever since Mexico, and it was a bit of a relief to see new yachts and new faces. After the ludicrous expense of French Polynesia, Neiafu seemed nearly cheap, and we celebrated our arrival with the first cook’s night out since Mexico. Elias behaved superbly at the restaurant, even accepting our explanation for the fact that the lobster we had promised he would share was not on the menu. For days afterwards, he could be heard saying “lobsters got away!”. We were seated at an outdoor table overlooking the harborfront and the crowded mooring field, and Elias calmly sat in his chair and waited even though a twenty-person party of Japanese tourists had gotten their orders in before us. He did so well that we decided to brave the Wednesday night fakaleiti contest at Tonga Bob’s (traditional Polynesian crossdressers vamping up a western-style drag queen show). We were disappointed to find it canceled. “Pageant in Nukualofa,” the bartender explained. “They’re all there.”

We left Neiafu to check out a jam session at a very funky restaurant run by two Spanish expats on a little island near nothing in particular. Then we came back to town for the coronation events, and left again to visit a few anchorages with Macy. Everything is very close in the Vava’u group, and there are many good anchorages. The only down side is the number of cruising yachts and charter boats. Being “alone” in Vava’u means finding a spot where the nearest other boats are two hundred meters away. There is also this very tacky phenomenon whereby everyone refers to the different anchorages by their number in the local charter operator’s cruising guide: “Hey, we were at number 27 yesterday, you gotta check it out, great beach!”

The number of boats and the booming expat scene in Neiafu make Vava’u feel a bit like a theme park. There were some great places to see there, and great people to meet, but when we came back to Neiafu from our sojourn with Macy we were suddenly very ready to be gone. There was a new crop of yachts in town that for some reason didn’t seem as much fun as the ones that were there when we first arrived. We had burned up almost two weeks of our 31 day visas, and we hadn’t even been to the Ha’apai group yet, which is south of Vava’u and has the reputation of being more Tonga and less theme park. And so, after running the standard few days of errands that have kept us lingering in towns from Port Townsend to La Paz to Uturoa, we left.

The Lion Crown the King

Burning Spear is a reggae band that has been on heavy rotation in the Litzow/Abookire world since, well, before there was a joint Litzow/Abookire world. One of our favorite songs is about the coronation of Haile Selaise:

The lion, the lion crown the king.
The lion, the lion crown the king.
In Addis Ababa

Heady stuff. One of my finest travel moments ever was when Tom Van Pelt and I, completely unexpectedly, came across the unburied casket of Haile Selasie in the crypt of an Ethiopian Orthodox church in Addis Ababa. Although his body had been repatriated after the fall of the Derg, the question of whether he would receive a state funeral was too politically sensitive to be answered, so his casket was in limbo, behind glass, in the well-lit basement beneath the altar, where we were ushered by a priest after paying a few birr “to see the crypt”, no mention of the last Emperor of Ethiopia being made. And that was really heady stuff, for anyone who has been casually pumping reggae into their ears since high school, to suddenly be presented with the earthly remains of Ras Tafari, the Mighty Lion of Judah, the last representative of a monarchy claiming its legitimacy from the union of King Soloman and the Queen of Sheba.

It all becomes less heady after you read The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuściński, which will be all the corrective action that your imagination will ever need for the story of that particular historical figure.

With Haile Selasie deposed and dead, the universe of old-fashioned monarchs, people who enjoy significant political power based on heredity, shrank significantly. Alisa and I recently got to listing the remaining monarchies in the world that we could bring to mind. There’s Saudi Arabia, of course, but that’s a tough travel destination. And, there’s Tonga. We knew before we arrived that Tonga was a kingdom, but we didn’t know what a chance we would have to see the trappings of Tongan royalty on display.

We tied up at the customs dock in Neiafu, the biggest town in the Vava’u island group in the northern part of the kingdom, and the first thing we heard was the king was coming.

Lofi, the nice old man who meets every yacht that he can, took our lines and sold us a loaf of bread for five dollars US, which turned out to be five times what it cost at the bakery. “I brought you bread. I bring bread to every yacht,” Lofi said. He also said, “The king is coming on Sunday. There will be festivities and feasts and you are welcome to join in. You are very lucky to be here now.”

A parade of officials followed: the health inspector, the customs guy, and a third guy who I think represented “quarantine”. They all enjoyed coffee and leftover birthday cake in the cockpit, charged us a few bucks, and bummed smokes from our stash of trade-and-gifts and parenthood-is-getting-me-down cigarettes. The customs guy told me, “Don’t do any business with Lofi. He pesters all the yachts.” All three officials agreed that we were lucky to be visiting at this time. The word “coronation” came up a few times, and I realized that a new king was being installed. The last king had reined for about 46 years, one of the officials explained. After an interregnum of two years following his death, his son had just been crowned in Nuku’alofa, the capitol, and was travelling to all the island groups of the kingdom for celebrations of the event. The three officials left, and, after I had visited the immigration office and fetched local currency from the bank to pay our quarantine fee, we were cleared into the country.

Alisa and I were genuinely excited about this chance to get such a unique look at Tongan culture. We had a few days before the festivities began, so we checked out the town and caught up with some old acquaintances and made some new ones and we went to an outlying anchorage to hear music at a Spanish restaurant. And then we came back to Neiafu and met up with our friends on Macy, whom we had last seen in Raiatea. They knew from email to expect us, and had been sitting in a waterfront bar waiting for Pelagic to pull into the harbor. Seeing them tearing out to meet us in their dinghy, big grins on their faces and their hair pushed back from their faces by the wind, was one of the best people moments that we’ve had on Pelagic in a long time. We caught up on each other’s news, and I told them the story of my missed 40th birthday. They returned for dinner with a birthday gift, a bottle of Panamaniam rum that we put away that night. And they began the process of cooling our ardor for the coronation celebrations.

They had been in Nuituputapu, in the far northern part of the kingdom, when the coronation had been celebrated.

“We waited at the airport for four hours,” Dave said. “And we didn’t see the king for more than two minutes. There was another event we went to, all these kids from the school were dressed up and ready to perform, and the king never even showed.”

That, it turned out, was a foretaste of the general attitude among the yachties we spoke to. The chief complaint was that there was no telling when the various events would happen, since nothing in Tonga can be counted on to begin on time. When we told the crew of one boat how excited we were about the impending festivities, we were met with knowing expressions and a response of “Yeah, the king was supposed to be here last week, but he never showed.”

There was also more than a bit of knowing cynicsm among resident expats about the new king’s character. He was a little simple. He was a sixty year old man who still played with toy soldiers. He wasn’t married and had no children. For years he had escaped the confines of Nukualofa, the capitol, and come up to Neiafu to party. The local people couldn’t take him seriously. He lacked the common touch.

The Tongans I spoke to said the king was a savvy businessman. He had already signed the papers to institute democracy in two years. Or, in two years he would abdicate in favor of his younger brother, who has children, so that the continuity of the monarchy would be guaranteed.

Armed with a schedule of events from the visitors’ bureau, we managed to find our way to two instances of celebration. First, we managed to find our way to the kava celebration for the new king. This was held in a field at the local college. Men dressed in white were sitting in a huge circle in the field, with the king sitting under a canopy at one side of the circle and officiants, and the kava bowl, at the other. In the center of the circle were gifts to the new king: twenty-odd hogs, kava root, and a couple hundred baskets of food.

We were waved away from the area behind the king’s canopy by an army officer, and we sat down with other spectators far back from the kava circle. One man was singing or chanting the same phrase over and over on a loudspeaker, and a few people were coming and going at the far end of the circle, by the kava bowl. We had no idea what was going on. We had arrived late, and soon the king got up and left.

Once the king was gone the ceremony was over and the security relaxed. I wandered over to the pile of gifts, where the men in white were milling around. I met two of them, who introduced themselves as Tuamololu and Mafilauncave. They explained that they were matapules, the “hands of the nobles”, who serve at ceremonies such as this. Tuamololu is the man with the colorful necklace on the right in this picture. The title of matapule is hereditary, with a son assuming the office only after his father has died, which explains the older demographic that you see here.

After they sat for a group portrait, the matapules began dividing up the gifts: the hogs (tuaka toho), the baskets of food (umu kaveitau) and the kava root (kava tohu).

In these baskets I saw cooked chicken and spareribs, taro, canned sardines and hot dogs still in the wrapper. Tuamololu explained that the food was divided among the king, the nobles and the higher order of common people.

It was a fun spectacle, but this sort of event is all opaque when you’re an outsider who has no idea of the significance of anything. I was provided one little piece of perspective by an account of pre-Christian Tonga that I’ve been reading. It was written by William Mariner, a fourteen year old clerk on the English ship Port au Prince, who was stranded here in 1806 after the rest of the ship’s crew was massacred by Tongans. Mariner writes extensively about the matapules, who at that time were advisors to the Tongan chiefs. Having read that, it became great fun to meet some real matapules, and see the continuity of the tradition.

There was an officical reception that night that I talked big about crashing, but we settled for rowing by the waterfront hotel where it was being held. A military band was playing old swing tunes from a landing craft that was docked bow-on at the hotel. The guests looked listless – no dancing, no obvious fun. The king was obviously either gone or had never arrived. But the band sounded good (“American music,” I said to Alisa as they launched into Glenn Miller), and it was a beautiful and romantic setting, these uniformed musicians playing under the stars in this South Pacific port, with a circle of fires that had been lit all the way around the bay in celebration.

The next event that looked appropriate for a couple of palangi with a two year old was the military parade the following day. We returned to the same field where the kava ceremony had been, and again arrived late, just as various soldiers and sailors were finishing their drill around the parade ground. Soon after we arrived, the king departed from the reviewing stand.

We expected that he would be part of a general parade into town, though we had no idea what route that parade would take. It turned out that the king’s motorcade was leaving the event alone, and, to our surprise, he took a right-hand turn after leaving the field and headed right for us.

We happened to be the only people standing on this section of road. As the king passed us, Alisa gave him her biggest uninhibited-in-public American wave. The king looked right at her, smiled, and waved.

And then the moment was over – the motorcade drove into the palace, and the king was seen no more. Alisa was ecstatic. “Did you see that?” she asked me. “He looked right at me! I didn’t know what to do, should I wave, I asked myself, and I thought, yeah, that’s the king right there, why shouldn’t I wave? So I gave him a big wave and a smile and did you see that little look and that wave he gave me? He was looking right at me there was no one else there but Eli. Wow, I hope you got that on film.” And then she laughed, “ha ha”, just like that, and I was suddenly back with the twenty two year old grad student who I first met in Fairbanks fourteen years ago, who was prone to outbursts of unbridled enthusiasm at any moment of the day, before she became a serious government biologist and then an occasionaly frazzled mother of a two year old. “Wow!” She punched me on the arm and looked up with a big grin. We were walking down the hill back to town, pushing Elias in his stroller. “Wait ‘till those other yachties hear about this.”

That turned out to be our peak experience of the celebration. A block party was on the schedule for the next day and we figured that would be the event that would live up to the excited descriptions we had heard on the customs wharf, our real chance to feast with the locals and watch their traditional dances and entertainments. But it rained off and on through the day and when we showed up downtown all we found was about a hundred Tongans under a tent in the middle of one of the main streets, far gone in beer. Not the scene for two palangi with a two year old. But we did stay long enough to hear some local musicians play one song. They were just sitting around a table and playing for themselves, and I was struck by how similar the music sounded to what we had heard in Anaho Bay, in the Marquesas, and also how similar it sounded to what you might imagine music from Hawai’i to sound like. As in other music we had heard in Tonga, the ukulele featured heavily, and there was the same longing, plaintive, lilting, resigned air as what we had heard in Anaho. Really beautiful stuff, and it’s a great instance of how strongly pan-Polynesian culture persists. It’s too bad that most Polynesian music seems to fare so poorly in the recording studio.

The king was evidently a no-show at a few events, including the celebratory church service the Sunday that he arrived in town. “There were all these school kids ready to perform, and he never even turned up,” a yachtie told us. I wondered if that was part of the royal mystique, the fact that he wasn’t beholden to appear just because the people were putting on a celebration of his ascendence to the throne. And of course we weren’t looking to be particularly impressed by the king in any case. Being in a monarchy just gave us the American’s perogative of entertaining democratic ideals and being faintly amused at the notion of hereditary political power.