History Exists, After All

We were clearing the deck to move, finally, to a different anchorage. I was running down internalized lists of things to be done before being able to actually weigh anchor and go. Sail covers off, check. Sheets unraveled, ready to hook onto the bridles, check. Solar panels stored, check. What’s next? The rain catcher needs to be doused. It has seen ample service for the last couple days and quite a good portion of our plastic bottles of all sizes and shapes are again full of the life sustaining liquid. All the while I’m keeping an eye on the sky, trying to get a sense for what the weather is up to. It has been fickle over the last couple days. Rain here in Vava’u seems to be always associated with the passage of a front spawned by what the meteorologists tamely term the SPCZ, the South Pacific Convergence Zone, where warm and moist tropical air masses clash with their cold brethren from the South and wreck all kind of havoc. With the first rains the wind backs from the steady East to South East of the trade winds to the North East for a day or two, then the weather deteriorates further and the winds continue backing around the full scale of the compass rose. Once they’re past the South the weather stabilizes again for usually a week or two. At this time the process had just started and I scanned the clouds for a clue on how fast things were going to develop.  But my gaze was not able to linger for long in the weightlessness of the clouds. I didn’t know that yet, but the heaviness of history was pulling it down over the wall of green jungle to the line where that one is caressed by the surface of the water.

A. C. Haddon and James Hornell in the twenties and thirties of the previous century undertook an extensive and quite pedantically detailed survey of the watercrafts used throughout the vast region of the Pacific Ocean. The renowned Bishop Museum of Hawai’i published the fruits of their labor in three volumes from 1936 to 1938, the book simply called Canoes of Oceania.

Although reprinted in 1975 and then again in the 1990s it is rare to get your hands on a real copy of it, its price for used copies on Amazon.com surpasses $200. It’s a pity then that during our motion drenched passage from American Samoa to Tonga my precious copy got a little soaking from seawater sloshing on deck and seeping in through the hatch above the bookshelf where it is stored. I’m guessing its resell value is now dramatically reduced and we will have to look for alternative sources of financial sustain should it come one day to a full out sale of Aluna’s many treasures, because we have finally managed to squeeze out every penny from dwindling cruising kitty, which does not seem to find even the most basic nutrition anywhere on this vast ocean.

The most amazing content of this book has fortunately not been at all denigrated by the sodium saturated sprinkling and I do have the habit of leafing through the sections corresponding to the areas we are visiting while we are there and dream about the glorious days way back in the past when the people of the Pacific were a proud and courageous bunch, plowing the sea in vessels of such sophistication that it left the early European explorers in awe and envy. They had arrived here at a time when the most humongous feat of exploration and settlement ever accomplished by our stubbornly innovative human race had long culminated and was in definite decay. In its heyday their ancestors were frying wild boar steaks Asterix and Obelix-style in frigid caves uncovered by retreating glaciers. So far sadly enough the dreaming has always been the end of my fascination, the terminal line of my very own voyage of exploration, reality always being poor and dilapidated compared to the technological refinement depicted in this and other historical books.

You must now be able to understand the strong gravitational pull exerted on my optical perception towards that floating object on the bay. Two people were fishing from a slender outrigger canoe, so slim that they seemed to be seated on the very water they were dunking their hand lines in. A quick peak through the binoculars revealed the canoe to be an exact replica of a type of canoe described in the book for the area of “Vavao”. The way the outrigger float was attached to the beams, apparently unique to the islands of the Northern group of the Tongan Islands, corresponded precisely to the illustration in the book, “a pair of tough flexible withies to each boom, each withy bent into a deep bow or U shape.”

It didn’t take long to collect my camera and jump into our own bastardized outrigger canoe and take up pursuit of that ephemeral appearance. As if to avoid our overtly intellectual curiosity the two canoeists took up their paddles, made for the mangrove thicket on the shoreline and disappeared behind an outcrop. We were not about to be long nosed like that and continued our pursuit. Rounding the outcrop we came to a landing area and there it was.

Pulled up on the beach I could finally see up close the first true hollowed log outrigger canoe I have seen in actual use. The nicely propped up replicas in the frigid preservation tombs of the little museum in Pago Pago got axed by my general distain for the dusty artificiality of museums. Here was the real deal, actual life, not pretty and neatly labeled. The young fishing lady’s English unfortunately wasn’t all that good and people here are definitely on the shy side when it comes to opening up towards us strangers. But we were allowed to take pictures, were shown the fishing lures and learned that the builder of the canoe was her father. The hold of the little vessel was stacked with fish of all kind, clearly illustrating the home turf advantage of the locals, when I compare the bounty to the meager catch we’re bringing home from our own hand lining outings on Alunita.

A couple of mind bogglers to spice up your appreciation of the situation:

–       Metal: Opportunity and availability shapes the technology. The only major difference between Haddon & Hornell’s description and this contemporary incarnation are the attachments of the U shaped withies to the outrigger float. While at the author’s time wooden pegs were driven into the float and the withies then attached to them, today’s builder incorporates metal. Nails are hammered into the float, consequently bent around the base of the withies to realize a much more sturdy joint.

–       Plastic: While the blue basin seems an obvious choice for transporting the slippery catch, the various pieces of discarded plastic utensils resting senselessly amongst the fallen leaves on the ground are more of an eyesore for our eyes. While easy to fall into the groove of “Why don’t they clean up their trash?” it is also very obvious that the concept of trash is one bound intimately to our own culture of use and abuse. That some utensil after being utilized needs to be dealt with and disposed of in a certain fashion is truly a foreign concept for them. Their dishes of banana leaves, baskets woven of palm leafs, cloths made from pandanus and burlap, and even their huts of palm trunks will eventually wither back into the earth by themselves. It will probably take some time for the fact that those pieces of petrol based materials will stay there for a long long time to sink in and lead to the organization of an indigenous environmental clean up day.

–       What about the Bon Jovi T-shirt? I’ll leave that one to you for elaboration…

Now that my dreaming had a little consolation from the wicked web of reality, now that I’ve had the dubious honor of witnessing the fruit knowledge passed down through chains of generations, now that I have savored the elixir of chancing upon a link of correspondence between the ancient and the new, will I ever get the opportunity to wake up from the nightmares of cultural decay and lay my eyes on one of these:

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