[100128,0041 UTC, Neiafu, Vava'u Group, Kingdom of Tonga; 18°39.46'S / 173°58.92'W]
It's almost impossible to believe it is already 2010. We have been in Tonga almost three months and are enjoying the rural island ambience, Tongans and their culture, the comraderie of our small over-cyclone-season group, and the simple, natural beauty of the place.
When we last wrote we had just weathered a brush with cyclone Mick, which hit Fiji squarely, destroying one cruising yacht and taking the lives of a few Fijians. Since that time we have had no other threats but we are ever-diligent about watching the weather. Here in Neiafu it's a daily ritual to discuss, sometimes at length, the weather around the southwestern Pacific on the morning VHF radio net broadcast around the archipelago via repeater stations. In fact, this morning we learned of Nisha, a newly formed cyclone over Samoa that is supposed to move to the east, threatening the Cooks and the Societies, though we are watching its movements carefully in case it decides to veer west towards us instead.
Just after hurricane Mick, Neiafu hosted a Tonga Tourism Cultural Festival. This two day event featured dancing, singing and handicrafts competitions, a handicrafts market (carvings of wood and bone, basketry, pandanus mats and tapa), plus food and fun. Every village in the island group seemed to be represented in one competition or another, with every member of a village dressed in identical costumes.
The event was supposed to begin at 11:00 am and it seemed like everyone was prompt except for the guest of honor, the prime ministress, who breezed in a government-owned SUV about ten minutes after 1:00 pm. And since it would have been impossible (or at best disrespectful) to proceed without her, everyone waited. Perhaps "time is irrelevant" as one of our Tongan guidebooks suggests, but this day, the sun got ever-hotter while Tongan interpretations of rock and country music blasted from huge speakers making talking difficult. Contestant's costumes wilted and children got more antsy while waiting to get on with the show. Occasionally, a man or woman would relieve boredom by strolling out and dancing in the center of the park.
Women dance demurely with slight body movements and intricate but subtle hand movements. Men's dancing is much more interesting to watch: they crouch then move forward and back and sometimes twirl around, they slap their hands first in one direction then the other and then their thighs. While dancing they give a smart sideways and small jerk to their heads. Sometimes even the festivities' MC, a Tongan living in the USA who was back for a visit, would join the dancers all the while wearing his smart western suit and tie which was overlayed with a woven pandanus ta'ovala wrap.
Also present at the event were a college rugby team from Hawaii (mostly composed of native Tongans, all dressed in matching collared flowered shirts), Ms. Tonga, Ms. Tonga Tourism and a professional singer of Tongan descent who was visiting from Hawaii. Each of the lovely women (not the rugby players thankfully) got up and danced or sang, which in every case brought one or all of the rugby team members into the park bearing fistfuls of one and two pa'anga notes to be stuck or tucked onto the performer. We have been told that the origin of this custom - called fakapale - was to support the expenses of dancers who would travel amongst the islands performing.
Ms. Tonga Tourism performed a (solo) tau'olunga, dressed in a sensuous flowing dress with bare shoulders, her skin shining from a liberal application of coconut oil. Each of these women were adept at ignoring the swarming gleeful young men, though Ms. Tonga's beauty and beautiful dance got the team so excited they threw their wads of bills into the air, creating a melee as seemingly every ambulatory Tongan present swarmed the field, grabbing for the money. Surprisingly, most of the money was collected, and presented with a submissive bow, to the honorable Fredricka....(of five or six names), the prime ministress.
After a bunch of speeches, mostly in Tongan, some ethereal singing by an elegant choir dressed in black with pandanus palm ta'ovala wraps, and contributions by the high school marching band, the native dance competitions began. For the following hours, we watched mostly children performing the kailao, a Tongan war dance, in the blazing sun. The dance involved moments of silence and still followed by a barked order from the leader and then a flurry of stomping and dancing and the thrusting of wooden spears - called pate - to the rapid beat of wooden and tin-roofing drums. These kids were beautiful, disciplined and sometimes flustered as they tried their best to perform in the heat, sometimes with parts of their costume falling off or into their eyes.
The following day we watched as large groups of villagers, one village at a time, stood up (lakalaka) or sat (ma'ulu'ulu) in front of judges and dignitaries and sang songs which conveyed legends and stories.
Soon after the festival, the Christmas season was upon us, though thankfully, there was not a kitschy decoration to be seen anywhere, nor was there excessive shopping since most families have little extra income to spend on frivolous gifts. The only similarity we saw between Christmas here and Christmas in America, was an abundance of food. Singing, churchgoing and feasting seemed to go on for two weeks, day and night, creating a shortage of, of all things, eggs. What eggs were seen at the usual public market stalls were definitely "NOT FOR SALE", having been promised to friends, family or fellow church-goers. Restaurants still served "imported" eggs or found "black market" eggs for breakfast but no one was sharing information about their sources!!!
We spent Christmas alone anchored at an island inhabited only by goats and chickens watching the tradewinds kicking up white-capped waves less than a quarter mile from our cozy spot. The day was sunny and warm, so we explored ashore and then stayed close to home, listened to seasonal music and indulged in baking cookies. It could only have been more perfect if we had had with us, all of you.
Your friends of the yacht Carina,
Philip, Leslie and fat cat, Jake