Monday, August 26, 2013

Travel Breaks Out

I don't like to use the word "cruising" to describe what we've been doing with ourselves over recent years. There are a few reasons, I guess, and one of them is that "cruising" seems to imply a very self-centered, pursuit-of-one's-own-happiness approach to being out in the world. It's a word that aspires to hedonism. Travel, on the other hand, implies an outward-focused approach to being away from home - the whole point is to extend yourself in order to engage with people who come from someplace very different and don't share your basic assumptions about the world.

So normally we stay away from "cruising". But in Tonga that's just what we've been doing. We knew that Vava'u would offer us the opportunity to stay disengaged from the local scene while I finished up my PhD, which is why we came here instead of going to the more engagement-demanding nation of Vanuatu. We've been very happy to treat Vava'u as a playground of the tropics, to flit from anchorage to anchorage for bouts of swimming and snorkeling and playing on the beach, to socialize with other sailors and to limit our interaction with Tongans to waves at passing boats and occasional chats with people at the market.

On Saturday night, though, Alisa was inspired to change that.

"We should go to church tomorrow," she said. "It's our chance to go to church in Tonga in a small village."

So the family dutifully scrubbed and dressed and trooped ashore the next morning, looking more or less civilized. We parked the dinghy on the brilliant white beach and followed the track across the narrow isthmus, past the sharpened stick set in the ground where someone had been husking coconuts, to the leeward side of the island where the track led along the shore, in the shade of the trees, to the village of Taunga.

And, suddenly, we were traveling - walking into a rural village where we knew no one, during the sleepy hours of Sunday morning when no one was stirring, confident enough that we would be welcome, but also a little unsure of how the interaction would go.

After one false start, when we learned that church didn't start until 11 (which gave us time to retreat to the boat, swim off the jupe, reshower and re-dress), we again repeated the bit about walking into a village where we knew no one. We soon found the church, with a few people already in the pews. We stood on the verandah, smiling, waiting for someone to invite us in. That's our usual approach in a situation like this, to hold back for a minute and wait to be invited to join in, rather than to assume. In this case it was Amelia, a bent old woman with a smile that conceded nothing to age, who came out and greeted us and invited us in.

The singing is always a highlight of church in Polynesia - the unapologetic volume, the well-segregated parts and the correct harmonies, just strident enough to excite your heart. And then the vowel-rich preaching by the minister, the perfect chance to look out the open windows at the shade and beach and blazing light on the sea, and to let the mind wander. To think about this bit of western culture that is now completely on autopilot and self-sustaining, and firmly part of the Tongan identity, here on the little island of Taunga. To imagine the scene here, in the same shade on the same beach, when missionaries arrived, what, only 150 years ago?

After the service a few people welcomed us and shook our hands, and Amelia chatted a bit, her smile still conceding nothing to age. Then, on the track out of the village, we came upon Violane, sitting in the shade of a tree with her grandchildren. She soon invited us to lunch, which appeared out of a wheelbarrow, the various dishes wrapped in the banana leaves they had been cooked in - octupus, and chicken stewed in tarot leaf and coconut milk, and roasted manioc, and a special dish of uncooked clams in coconut milk very similar to ceviche and just for us.

For all the "cultural events" for pay that dominate yachtie interactions with Polynesians these days (more on that some other time), this is still what I look for - a chance encounter with locals who aren't demonstrating their "culture" in set events, but who are gracious enough to share a bit of their everyday life with you...


Meanwhile, the season is moving along. A slew of familiar yacht names announced their plans to depart for Fiji on the net this morning. Last night Alisa and I had rum drinks in the cockpit after the boys were asleep and looked at distances and timing for the various passages that we might want to make during the remainder of the year. We're well into that phase where off-the-wall ideas are winnowed down, most of them forgotten, but some being planned for, perhaps to be acted upon.

I've been hoping to get a pesky science paper that I've been re-writing to the point where I can send it off to the journal and have a clear conscience and uncluttered mental landscape before we sail off for Niuatoputapu, but the day is soon coming when we'll be sailing away, whether or no.

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