Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Blame it on the Weather

After nearly a month in the Vava’u group of Tonga we have finally made our short farewells to explore more southerly shores of these South Seas. We have our sights on the Ha’apai group, the lonely and lovely Cinderella step-sister to Vava’u in the north and Tongatapu in the south. But our goodbyes are to be short-lived, as we will return (just a short 70-mile sail) to Neiafu, in Vava’u, in a few weeks’ time to pick up a package and check out of the country before our departure for Aotearoa (New Zealand to us white folk).

We do a have a couple engagements that draw us back to Neiafu as well, namely castrations. Lisa, the Kiwi owner of the Tropicana café in town has asked that we neuter her newest rescued puppy, Moppy. Also, if our paths cross, we’ve got our eyes on the gonads of little Rusty, another rescue fostered by the folks on DaMojo. Just a satisfying snip, and one less contributor to the gene pool. I’ve been dispensing dewormer as if to satisfy a personal vendetta against all nematodes great and small (insert wicked snicker). DIE, parasites, DIE!

As we gybed our way out of Neiafu in 18 knots of wind, I reflected on the taste this part of Tonga has left in my mouth so far – fruity, with a touch of halitosis. The backdrop is beautiful, with coves, islets, bays and lagoons tightly clustered in a labyrinth of sea, sand, spits, caves and false passes. You clear a point and set quickly to reorienting, as the landmarks by which you navigate rearrange themselves in the blink of an eye, luring you to the reef that you thought was a pass – something like tracking the stone under the coconut. Keep chart in hand and all is well. While the nautical mileage from anchorage to anchorage never exceeds single digits, we always take the trouble to hoist the sails because the prevailing winds and comfortable temperatures (mid- to upper seventies, for the most part) make the sailing quite a pleasure here.

In some ways, though, a gray pall dulls our experience of Vava’u—literally, the clouds hang low and overcast skies, bathed intermittently in sprinkles or downpours, draw a damp and mildewed shroud over the mood of the people and the place. In Vava’u our social interactions have centered more narrowly than we’d like around fellow cruisers and palangis (expats in Tonga). Of course, as I’ve described, this harbor is a bustling one, in the way of yachties, so it is a good opportunity to meet and be met, discuss future routes and compare notes. And yet, it’s no surprise that this creates a vortex of gossip and melodrama, not-so-intriguing intrigue. It doesn’t take much of this before I need “OUT!” And yet the conveniences of town tend to draw us back, back into the thick of things. *Sigh*

Then of course there are the palangis, who we encounter as the, seemingly, only business owners in Tonga. So, internet, laundry, restaurants and shops—palangis of British, German, Aussie, Swiss, American or Kiwi provenance, always a recipe for nationalistic comparisons and complaints. *Yawn* The invisible barrier between palangis and local Tongans is barely invisible, and really quite discouraging. Often a barrage of complaints about local lassitude, thieving and ignorance is peppered with “but we love it here” and, as I’ve mentioned before, alternates with complaints about other palangis of whatever other nationality. So, whatever. But then, when we think about it, what about our own interactions with local Tongans? Well, that’s been pretty spare as well. In general, the Tongan’s keep us at arm’s length, in contrast to the welcome embrace of other Pacific islanders we’ve met. Not to say we’ve encountered any type of open hostility, mind you. Perhaps that can be easily understood as a sort of “foreigner fatigue.” But even when we castrated “Beauty” for the immigration official, his attitude toward us was hardly what you’d call warm. While we have met some open Tongans, our interactions are simply more aloof than any we had with Samoans and French Polynesians, who were quite easy to get to know. Samisi, a Tongan married to a German Palangi, summed it up nicely. He felt his horizons had been broadened substantially by his mixed marriage, to the now unfortunate position of feeling disdain for his fellow Tongans, and for the quibbling Palangis as well. In other words, he belonged nowhere outside of his own household.

And then there are the pigs and dogs. I won’t go into detail but the Tongan relationship with animals is not only negligent but openly abusive. With few exceptions my veterinary skills are only sought out by palangis, no wonder.

Here’s the scoop on George Tupou, V, recently crowned King of Tonga. Evidently he’s a drunk; when he travels, he carts his booze along. He is known to pad his pocket and, while his grandmother, conscientious when queen, extracted a modest salary from the Tongan government (she even took out, and repaid, a loan of $20,000 to buy her NZ residence), the monarch is now worth ~ 500 million US dollars. An international agency has rated the Tongan monarchy the 4th most corrupt government in the world. Interestingly, but not uncharacteristically, when paying a visit to Ika Lahi Lodge (where we’d met the friendly Kiwi proprietors Steve and Caroline), he racked up a tab of $2000 and left without paying the bill. Recently, while falconing in the middle east, he made a disparaging remark in an interview about his “ignorant” subjects. Word got out, inciting numerous riots, and spurring New Zealand to send peace-keeping troops. Not to worry, all’s quiet on this front at this time.

Call me “Debbie Downer” but here’s my last complaint: we came in 4th on the Friday night regatta! It was a hard fall with all the inflated expectation of our fellow cruisers, who had laid it on thick and assumed we’d leave everyone in our wake. Unfortunately we guffed the start with a poorly-led jib sheet and that’s all she wrote—couldn’t come back from that. But, we had an upbeat crew (9 of us altogether) and had a great time. We were awarded a Vava’u whale-watching DVD for our efforts and spent the night out on the town, celebrating our 4th place in grand style.

Anyway, time to move on—toward sunnier climes and sunnier moods.

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