Paradise by the Running Lights

In 1777, Captain Cook arrived in Tonga while on his third voyage. Inspired by the kind reception from the natives, he named the group “the Friendly Islands.” Little did he know that while the savages were wining and dining him, they were actually plotting to massacre his entire crew and plunder his ships. Fortunately, the lack of organization on the part of the Tongans led them to abandon the plan and Cook narrowly escaped oblivious to the dastardly scheme. Two hundred and thirty years later, little has changed in Tonga. Enormous hogs still roam the streets, the country is still a monarchy, and, although most of the people are incredibly friendly, some of the natives are still devious and eager to rip off foreigners. Walking down the street in Nuku’Alofa, small children do a double-take when they spot a foreigner and call out a friendly “hello,” even if they are on the other side of the street. This friendliness towards foreigners is surprising mainly because the island is actually quite western. The main town is swarming with American Peace Corps volunteers, who I am told come to Tonga for their training. Tongans do not exactly live in squalor, but there is a certain neglect that is apparent throughout the town. Downtown Nuku’Alofa has the dated infrastructure of a waning South American town with an odd assortment of dollar-store-type shops and a dusty film of dirt coating the island similar to the brown tint that is common to villages in India. It is possible to rent American movies and there is even a cinema, so it has been nice to catch up on some of the films that I have missed over the past year. The chief drawback of Tonga has been that bribery and dishonesty are much more prevalent here than on most of the other islands that I have visited. Clearing in, I was forced to pay cash bribes to the quarantine and environmental inspectors that boarded the boat. In Vava’au, I paid another bribe to the customs and immigrations official there. Finally, after agreeing to a price with a taxi driver to take my family to the airport and return me to the boat, the fat man doubled the price. When I argued, we took our debate to the police, who sided with the taxi driver. There is a reason that Tonga gets a tenth of the tourists of Fiji despite having an arguably more attractive island group. In Nuku’Alofa, we are moored in the small boat harbor near town. The surrounding water is calm, but is far too dirty to swim in. We are directly downwind from the dock where fishing boats unload their catch, so the foul odor alternates between rotting fish and raw sewage from the holding tanks being dumped into the harbor. The mosquitoes are as vicious as the taxi drivers and even multiple coatings of bug spray do not stymie the unrelenting attacks during the night. The other drawback of the anchorage is the noise. At night, drunken Tongans take to the street. It is an oddity that Tongan children, up through high school, are generally thin and in decent shape thanks to the popularity of rugby. However, soon after they turn 18, both men and women just about double in size. If I was pressed to explain the sudden change, I would guess that the answer begins with “a,” ends with “l,” and has “lcoho” in the middle. Most Tongans are obese even by American standards and the most prominent display in most grocery stores is for huge tubs of edible drippings (i.e. pig fat). As with any hierarchical organization, the example comes from the top and the King of Tonga claims the honor of being the heaviest monarch in the world, having been listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as weighing over 440 pounds. On Tuesday morning, a couple came by our boat in a dinghy to offer bags full of provisions that they didn’t need. The two sailors were the crew on an 85-foot Swan from Sweden and the owners had just left Tonga after stocking the boat with far too much food. As a result, we received copious amounts of gourmet cheeses and vegemite. It turns out that the captain, Rich, is a rigger from Cape Cod and he invited us out to the boat in the evening for wine and, you guessed it, cheese. The boat was beautiful and it was interesting to hear stories from the four years that they have spent cruising in the Pacific. They showed us pictures from exotic locations such as Patagonia, Pitcairn, and Tasmania. Admiring the flawless teak decks, the glimmering crystal stemware, and numerous amenities including a laundry machine, we could not help but marvel at how different their sailing lifestyle is from our own. On Thursday, I was in the middle of applying an exfoliating facial mask when the wind began to howl through the small boat basin. The stern lines and anchor snubber squealed under the tension while the wind generator sounded like a helicopter was landing in the cockpit. Fortunately, the boat held steady. The same could not be said for the catamaran that was moored beside us. In the strong gust, their anchor dragged and they were pushed up against the unforgiving rock wall. Battling the horizontal sheets of rain, they managed to kedge their way off the rocks by dropping an emergency anchor and luckily escaped without incurring any damage. The sudden gusts and rapid wind shifts seems to be a typical occurrence in Tonga. A week ago, a 120-foot yacht was sunk in Vava’au when a wind shift caused the anchor to drag and the boat ran up on the razor-sharp reef. The knowledge that large ships with state-of-the-art weather forecasting and professional crews are being lost in the same waters that we are cruising is slightly daunting. On Thursday evening, I participated in an event with the Nuku’Alofa Hash House Harriers. The group describes itself as “a drinking club with a running problem.” My previous hashing experience with the Atlanta Hash House Harriers led my cousin Eric and me to scramble through rivers, waist-deep mud, and a quarter-mile sewer before being subjected to the post-run hazing and an assortment of crude songs sung over cases of cheap beer in a deserted corporate parking lot. This hash was different. The running followed scenic trails through villages and farms surrounding the rolling estate and palace of the crown prince. The crowd was older and less vulgar. The post-run party was more social and less wild. It was nice to meet an assortment of people that live on Tonga and the hashers ranged from Peace Corps volunteers to ex-pats to tourists visiting friends on the island. Much of the discussion focused on the failing health of the King of Tonga, who was removed from life-support on Tuesday and is expected to pass at any moment. At the royal tombs, a hole has already been dug for where the King will be interred. Due to the approaching death of the 88-year-old King, this is a particularly interesting time to be in Tonga. When we initially arrived in Tonga three weeks ago, most of the homes and businesses were adorned with black and purple bunting to observe the two-week period of mourning for a death within the royal family. In early July, the nephew of the King, who was apparently vocal in his support for Tonga to become a democracy, died in a car accident in California, along with his wife and his driver. At least according to the quarantine officer who boarded our boat upon our arrival in the kingdom, many Tongans suspect foul play and this sentiment was further fueled when the police officer assigned to investigate the death was assassinated. The upcoming transition from the long-reigning and immensely popular King to the far-less-popular Crown Prince could be a turbulent time. Although the monarchy is said to be popular among the people, the Crown Prince is known as a playboy who spends much of his time on the Riviera and he once said of Tongans: “left to their own devices, they would urinate in elevators.” There have been whispers of revolution. Between the tense political situation and the expected outpouring of grief for the beloved King, this promises to be a fascinating time to be in Tonga. In my entirely uninformed opinion, I doubt that there will be anything approaching a revolution in Tonga. For one thing, the death of the king has been a long time coming and the passing of an 88-year-old obese man who has long experienced failing health is hardly a shock to the populace. Walking around Nuku’Alofa on Saturday morning, there were no signs of discontent. My only past experience with revolutions came during my visit to Nepal in 2002. I was in Katmandu during one of the many tense moments in the ongoing Maoist uprising. At that time, a curfew was in effect and military patrols were a frequent sight. In the Annapurna region, gunfire could be heard at night and in the evenings people would crowd around radios to hear updates on the struggle. In Tonga, I expected at least some crowds around the Royal Palace or some speeches near the market. Surprisingly, there was no buzz or sense of excitement in the capitol. Despite the end of a 44-year reign, making King Taufa’ahau the fourth longest reigning monarch in the world (behind the Queen of England and the Kings of Thailand and Samoa), the people of Tonga appear to be either too apathetic or too lazy to start a revolution. On Saturday afternoon, I went for a run along the Tongatapu shoreline. As I moved further away from Nuku’Alofa, the scenery changed. Gone were the pollution-spewing trucks, the tiny shops peddling Tongan trinkets to tourists, and trash littering the streets. Instead, a wind-swept coast resembling the rugged shore of Cape Cod led to a shallow lagoon. Dense vegetation loomed inland. The landscape provided a view of the way the island probably appeared before development prevailed over nature. Several miles east of Nuku’Alofa, the bucolic scenery was suddenly interrupted by a huge dump. Extending nearly a half of a mile inland from the shore, the wind blew piles of trash onto the street and into the ocean. Over a hundred huge hogs sifted through the mountains of rubbish. There appeared to be no boundary to the dump and all attempts to halt the progress of the flows of garbage seem to have been abandoned. Just past the dump, there was a tiny village. The small homes in the village were constructed with metal, wood, and fencing salvaged from the heaps of trash. Each plot of land around the homes was meticulously manicured. The dirt was raked and a clear delineation existed between where the trash ended and the yard began. In the street, children played rugby with a coconut. There could hardly be a more extreme contrast than between the lives of these people living in dilapidated shacks and the rolling estates of the royal family. Although I have only been in Tonga for three weeks, it is impossible to ignore the sense of desperation and frustration felt by the people here. While the people are largely friendly, there is a feeling of barely submerged violence and longing just waiting to be expressed. This explains why Tongans tend to drink and fight more than the more prosperous neighboring island groups. The frustration felt by the people, particularly the young, has yet to find a positive outlet. As the reign of one King comes to an end, Tonga will understandably make a great demonstration of their grief and will complete the expected show of mourning for a beloved leader. However, after the King’s life has been celebrated, Tongans need demand more of their next leader. The country requires better education, an improved system of justice, and increased opportunities for the majority of citizens. If the next King does not address the pressing issues and poverty currently facing the country, the whispers for revolution will grow louder. The people of Tonga deserve better.

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