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Vol 3, Iss 3: The Tongan Feast
September 13, 2023 | ‘Uiha, Ha’apai, Kingdom of Tonga | 19º54’14”S 174º24’54”W | Wind: 25 kts SE | Weather: 75ºF mostly sunny with the occasional tradewind squall
Co-Captain’s Log, Vol 3, Iss 3: The Tongan Feast
‘Uiha, Ha’apai, Kingdom of Tonga
“Palangis are coming! Palangis are coming!”
We hear the gleeful warning calls of the little Tongan children waiting on the small concrete wharf as we paddle our kayak to Lape Island. The school-aged kids disappear up the path as we beach the kayak, but we catch glimpses of their faces poking out from behind trees to study us foreigners.
Cordio, today’s host, shuffles quickly down the sidewalk to greet us with a bright smile and warm handshakes. “You came! I didn’t think you would remember, but when I heard the children, I knew, I just knew, it would be you.”
We met Cordio a month ago when he and his toothless brother-in-law stopped by Ana María on their skiff. He invited us then to return to Lape Island for a mass and authentic Tongan feast to celebrate the Assumption of Mary, the island’s patron saint.
We’ve shown up today with no small amount of trepidation. Are the festivities still planned for today? What’s this going to be like? What time should we have come? Are we wearing the right clothes? Are the brownies we baked from our last Betty Crocker mix the right thing for us to bring? Will there be enough food? Will this take all day? Will Cordio remember inviting us? Will he even remember us?
Yet we’ve shown up, drawn here by the memories of Cordio’s friendliness and a curious appetite for the advertised Tongan feast.
Cordio is one of four permanent residents on the small island of Lape. Cordio, 76, and his brother-in-law care for Cordio’s wife, 74, and a 95-year-old aunt. Last week a Methodist minister was assigned to live on Lape to pastor the brother-in-law and aunt. The minister arrived with his wife, 5 kids and an assistant, effectively tripling the population of the island.
Our host has dressed up for the celebration in typical Tongan church fashion: an ironed white dress shirt, maroon necktie, and tie clip that have all somehow found their way from the thrift stores of the American midwest paired with a sky blue traditional lava lava (an ankle-length wrap skirt worn by men here), a woven tapa wrapped around his waist, and flip flops. Tongan American fusion fashion at its finest!
Cordio’s English is excellent as he moved to American Samoa in his 20s to teach in the Tongan expatriate community in Pago Pago. There he met his wife, a native of Lape Island, and they had 3 children who all joined the US military and moved to the States. On our first meeting, he regaled us with funny stories of his visits to them in Alaska, North Carolina, and Arizona - all climates and cultures very different from Tonga.
His mild manner and friendliness probably aren’t that unique among the Tongans here, but his English allows us to experience it fully. He is a man of faith, but at no time, neither when we first met him nor today, do we feel he is pushing us, proselytizing. Instead he merely explains his faith, inviting us to share with him the aspects of his life he considers the most precious.
After depositing the covered 9x13 pan full of American brownies with the women folk who are preparing for the feast in the kitchen, Cordio invites us to sit in the yard with the men at the folding table covered with a bedsheet. We aren’t sitting very long when the Methodist minister’s assistant gingerly walks out from behind the house carrying a baby bathtub full of brown murky water. It takes me a second to wipe off the weirded-out look on my face when the teacher sets down a ladle and a stack of dried coconut shell halves.
Whatever this brown water is, we’re about to drink it.
Unbeknownst to us, we’ve been invited to participate in a “kava circle.” I’ve read about the ceremony but never did I imagine a circumstance in which we’d actually take part in one. Normally I, as a woman, wouldn’t be invited to join, but Cordio is making a cultural exception for me as a palangi.
The Methodist minister picks up the ladle, stirs the cloudy emulsion with one sweep, two sweeps, three sweeps, then ladles out a cup into a coconut shell and hands it with a grin to Andrés Jacobo. Andrés Jacobo and I communicate telepathically as he accepts it with hesitation. “Should we drink this? We have no idea where this water came from. We could get very sick. But we really can’t refuse….” He lifts the cup to me and I know he is saying “Cheers!” in his head before he tips the kava back into his mouth. The minister repeats the same motions and I have a kava-filled coconut in my palm in short order. Crossing my fingers to ward off food poisoning, I taste the kava for myself. The liquid tastes bitter and makes our tongues and lips tingle.
The men take turns sipping the kava and throwing the leftover residue over their shoulders. We stop at one cupful, not wanting to be drunk or high or whatever effect this is supposed to cause, but the rest of the men have several rounds. With each round they become chattier in their Tongan and you can see their stances relax into their folding chairs.
“It’s time to open the oven. Would you like to watch?” The schoolteacher stands and invites us to the other side of the yard where smoke is coming from the ground.
Finally, the moment we’ve been waiting for: the feast!
Kava (Piper methysticum or “intoxicating pepper”) is a plant endemic to and enjoyed in islands across the South Pacific. The plant, once five years old, is harvested and its roots are dried then pulverized against coral or a rock before being blended into water. The emulsified mix is drunk in Kava circles during celebrations and often before and after a religious ceremony. The bitter drink has been popular for centuries thanks to the fact it acts as a sedative without impairing cognitive function.
Here in Tonga, as white foreigners, we are “palangis.” Tonga is the only country in the South Pacific that was never ruled by a European power so the presence of palangis is less ubiquitous than, say, French Polynesia. We palangis are a small minority despite the seasonal wave of tourists from New Zealand and Australia. Since this is the first year the country’s borders have been open since Covid and the 2022 volcanic eruption and tsunami, we are the first palangis some of the children have ever seen.
When we leave our bubble of fellow cruisers, it is uncomfortable to be a palangi. Kids yell “Palangis! Palangis!” at us from the playgrounds as if we were lepers getting too close to the village. Men see us, talk to each other in Tongan mentioning “palangis” then laugh and laugh. We get the distinct sense there are systems and traditions and customs and power structures that we not only don’t participate in, but don’t come close to understanding.
If traveling is about broadening your horizon, for us both literally and figuratively, then living as a palangi is a fantastic experience. To live as a minority - not just imagine it - builds our empathy for those around the world who live every day as a minority. We cannot hide our minority status since, with our skin color, clothes and language, we stick out like sore thumbs. We can’t even fall back on the “security blankets” Americans typically take when they travel internationally: There is no US embassy to run to in Tonga if something goes wrong and, while we have money to spend here, there isn’t a lot to buy. So we live as minorities, at the mercy of those in power, and hope one day we can be as kind to minorities as the Tongans have been to us.
We’ve discovered the horror of flying carpenter ants. Or shall I say, the horror of flying carpenter ants have discovered us! Researching them, we’ve discovered they play a vital role in the forest ecosystems by helping to decompose dead trees, but we have established a “no mercy” policy aboard Ana Maria.
We follow the teacher over to the ‘umu, the underground oven, in which the feast has been roasting over a fire since early this morning. We stand next to the ‘umu, fascinated with this huge culinary device. We stare at the novel ’umu, as the Tongan children, familiar with the ‘umu, stare at us palangis, a novelty for them.
The minister’s assistant uses a shovel to clear off the mound of dirt covering the oven. The minister’s oldest boy steps up to help the assistant pull back the two bed sheets protecting the oven from any stray dirt. Once again picking up the shovel, the assistant uses it to brush off the enormous tree branches serving as insulation. With a great heave of the shovel, the assistant pitches away the corrugated tin roof serving as an oven lid and our nostrils are filled with the smell of smoke and the heavenly smell of roasted pork.
A few more branches are thrust away to reveal the feast: two pigs parceled up and surrounded by veggies steamed in foil and palm fronds. The teacher, assistant, and oldest boy lift the chicken wire full of food up and onto the tin roof. The teacher packs the food into palm-frond baskets woven this morning while the assistant lifts out logs sitting directly on the coals at the bottom. Turns out, these aren’t logs, but “kahokaho ufi”, 3-foot-long, 8-inch wide tuber root vegetables that taste like sweet potatoes for giants when slow roasted.
Our mouths begin to water.
The Catholic priest who lives an hour’s boat ride away in Neiafu must either have excellent timing or he smelled the oven being opened because he shows up right as they finish unpacking the ‘umu. We rejoin him and the other men at the kava circle. He doesn’t look like a priest in his rumpled American-thrift-store, American Eagle collared shirt and cargo shorts, but you can tell he is good-humored and respected by the easy way all the men converse with him and laugh at his jokes. When he’s drunk enough kava and smoked enough hand-rolled cigarettes, he stands and moves to the porch. That’s our signal: it’s time for mass.
Neither Andrés Jacobo nor I were familiar with the story of JFK’s heroics in the South Pacific during World War 2. So when we stumbled across this story from a 1944 edition of The New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1944/06/17/survival), we climbed into the cockpit so Andrés Jacobo could read the story aloud - complete with an excellent JFK accent! We were captivated by how much we related to even the very first sentence: “Our men in the South Pacific fight nature, when they are pitted against her, with a greater fierceness than they could ever expend on a human enemy.”
Though the Solomon Islands are a thousand miles from here, the story could have easily taken place in the reefs and channels surrounding the Ha’apai islands. As we read, we feel in our bodies the strain against the wind and waves in a 2-person canoe, the painful steps over the sharp coral, and the immense fortitude it must have taken to swim to an island 5 miles away while carrying an injured comrade.
What a story, what a hero!
We left the protected waters of the Vava’u Islands for the less protected islands of the Ha’apai in search of long white sand beaches. Man, have we found them! We’re loving circumnavigating these islands without ever having to slip on shoes. Ha’apai has the best beaches we’ve encountered anywhere.
We are struggling to live fully in the present during these final weeks and months of sailing. A big transition to landlife and all that entails is waiting just around the bend. It’s easy for our minds to drift to the comforts and conveniences of the next season, e.g. a dishwasher and washing machine, or to the mountain of boat work we must do in New Zealand. But we don’t want to waste this precious time by living for the future. After reading William Bridges’ classic Transitions, I am doubling down on my mental and psychological discipline to not rush the ending so we can complete this adventure well.
One by one, the sixteen of us make our way to the porch, slip off our shoes, and sit cross-legged on the floor. The porch has been transformed since we last saw it. At one end, a white ironed bedsheet hangs from ceiling to floor. An altar has been constructed using a small folding table, no higher than 2 feet off the ground, and covered with another bedsheet. The altar is adorned by two small candles and a tiny crucifix set upon a mason jar covered in aluminum foil.
We’re sitting on a beautiful hand-woven tapa mat. In Tonga, tapa mats are woven from tree bark that is first dried then pounded flat. Large pieces of tapa - often as big as 30 square yards - are given to young couples at weddings and to grieving families at funerals.
The priest has slipped on a white embroidered robe. (Cordio keeps trying to put on his oversized suit jacket, but we can tell even in their Tongan that the group is teasing him so he smiles and leaves it folded on the porch railing behind him.) The priest pulls out his “mass-in-a-box” briefcase. He pours grape juice into an exquisite brass chalice and spikes it with clear liquor from a flask. He takes the wafers from a small Tupperware and lays them on the brass plate. He opens his big black book and mass officially begins.
He welcomes everyone in Tongan and welcomes us, as special guests, in English then everyone around us begins to sing. They have no hymnals, no sheet music in front of them to read, yet they sing in perfect harmony. It’s as if each Tongan is born already knowing the songs as well as his or her part to sing. Cordio and his wife both read passages from the Tongan translation of the Bible. Amazingly, it’s only been a few decades that mass here has been in Tongan and not Latin. The priest, as a hospitable gesture to us, reads of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary from the Gospel of Luke in English. He steps out from behind the altar so he and Cordio can serve the elements.
As I watch Andrés Jacobo take a sip from the beautiful brass chalice, I realize these humble people in their humble clothes on this humble porch have invited us to enter into a sacred space.
The mass has been full of reverence, but once finished, the priest rather unceremoniously takes off his robes, clearly preferring his cargo shorts to his priestly uniform. We take the opportunity to greet everyone and thank the priest for his considerate inclusion of us throughout the mass.
Cordio, knowing the strong winds won’t allow us to stay in the anchorage for long, comes up to us, our covered 9x13 pan in-hand, to escort us back to the beach. “Thank you for the cake. The children will love it. We have put some food in here for you.” We snap a picture and make promises to keep in touch somehow. He waves from the wharf as we paddle back to Ana María.
Our stomachs grumble the whole way and it takes all our willpower to leave the mystery-filled pan covered on our trip home. Once in the cockpit, we open the pan to find a big hunk of roasted pig leg and a chunk of kahokaho ufi. We devour the crispy skin, juicy meat right from the bone, and sweet flesh of the kahokaho ufi, grateful for today’s once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Cordio showed us the best that Tongan life has to offer: the best food, the best faith, the best community, the best hospitality.
For the past month, we’ve been studying the weather daily in order to understand the weather patterns in the South Pacific and identify a good weather window to sail from Tonga to New Zealand. We’ll leave when the weather window opens up. The 1,000+ nm sail will take us at least 10 days, more if the conditions permit a layover in Minerva Reef. Sometime in October (exact date to be determined by the weather), you can sail vicariously with us by reading the Captain’s daily passage log at https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/AnaMaria
Fair winds and following seas, my friends,
For more pictures and videos of the Tongan feast, check us out on Instagram @CoCaptainsLog or find me on Facebook.
Did you miss last month’s log about swimming with humpback whales or July’s boisterous sail to Tonga? Catch up on the logs at www.CoCaptainsLog.com
©️Katherine González 2023