Island Hoping

We so far had always thought our disastrous financial situation would not allow us to visit the Southern extremity of that great Polynesian. New Zealand’s immigration regulation ask not only for Beatriz as a citizen of Colombia to obtain an advance visa before travelling to the country, but they also require of any visitor to show proof of economic fluency to the tune of one thousand dollars per person per month of the intended stay. For the two of us that would amount to the respectable amount of $12,000 for the six months we need to wait out the Southern cyclone season, which is way out of line with the little we call our own in terms of material wealth. A little more asking around and investigating during the last couple days brought that issue from up in the stratosphere down to sea level in an amazing fall of regulatory domino pieces. First of all the Kiwi’s proud themselves as a maritime nation that understands the needs of seafaring folks. Therefore if one arrives in a sailboat, which guarantees ones accommodation, the proof of funds is reduced to $400 per month. Secondly the New Zealand consulate in Nuku’alofa insisted in our inquiring phone calls that Beatriz needs to apply for a visa on her own, not with me as her partner. So all of a sudden we only need to have $2,400 in our pockets to pass through the pearly gates. Thirdly, and here is the absurdity of it all, a credit line on any major credit card counts as proof of funds! Am I the only one left on this planet to think that this is a little odd?

We had already checked out of the Ha’apai Group with the intention to go back up to Vava’u when the last piece of this puzzle fell in place. All of a sudden our sailing destination changed from North to South. We were now headed for Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa some 95 miles away in the sizeable island of Tongatapu where Beatriz was required to appear in person at the New Zealand consulate to apply for her visitor’s visa. Since the approval process was supposed to take up to three weeks there was no time to spare. But then again, why hurry? There were a bunch of little islands on the way, so we decided to do a little island hopping.

First in line was Ha’afeva. Monday morning early we weighted anchor at our charming anchorage off the little village of Holopeka, which lies about two miles North of noisy Pangai. We had made some friends there and they came to bade us farewell with a stalk of green cooking bananas that would serve us well once in the capital, where everything would again have its price. Pangai Harbor is protected by a perimeter of reef patches you need to avoid when entering or leaving. There’s a pass to the North and one to the South. Both are marked with rusty can buoys. The first stretch of water was the same as when we had gone down to Uoleva and it wasn’t until we passed the marker on the fringe of Kito Reef that we headed into new territory. Our course had to meander a little around little islands and offshore reefs, which we saw sliding by and were able to use as reference points to check our progress.

“A whale, right in front of us!” Beatriz screamed at the top of her lungs. “No way, I don’t see anything!” was my usual grumpy and skeptical retort. And then it jumped, well, actually they call this breaching in whale speak. Maybe three boat lengths ahead of our bows! Emerging from a collar of white froth its white underbelly glistened in the sunlight just before the moment of suspense where time stands still for the eternity of a millisecond, and, did I really see that absolutely hedonistic grin carved on a whale face? A baby humpback, by now at the end of its winter season and obviously big enough to venture around without giant mama around, was having a big beastly ball right in front of us. After the big splash of re-entry into its element the creature swam a little to the side and passed us on the starboard side no more than a couple feet away. Then it swung around behind us and did three more ecstatic breaches in Aluna’s wake before continuing on its watery journey in the opposite direction to ours. Two sailboats were visible on the horizon behind us, and half an hour later we heard ecstatic human voices crackling through the static on the radio: “Whale! Whale at three o’clock!”

By mid afternoon we had rounded Ha’afeva Island’s northern coast and were altering course to enter through a pass in the reef towards the anchorage off the beach to the island’s Northwest. Breaking white rollers on both sides confirmed the presence of underwater obstacles concentrating the slowly dissipating wave energy of the long ocean swell to the breaking point and clearly marking no go zones for prudent masters to all kinds of aquatic vessels. The black silhouette of a wrecked fishing boat a little further down told a story of a less prudent master, or maybe just a less fortunate one. The golden sand on the beach seemed within arms reach when the anchor rode slid through my hands minutes later and I saw the metal contraption at its working end slide down into the azure depth like an winged submarine and land on a sandy patch surrounded by vast gardens of purple coral mounds.

It was only going to be an overnight stay. As much as I hated the idea, but tomorrow we would hop to the next island like some silly tourist in a mind numbing rush of a carefully structured vacation. At the very least we wanted to see the island up close. A short dingy ride over a sea grass bed that slightly bulged from the gentle incoming swell brought us to the concrete pier that aggressively jotted out from the virgin beach and reminded us that modernity with its petrol devouring transportation obsession had firmly set its heavy boot on this lonely outpost. While waiting to confirm the setting of the anchor we had observed a beat up passenger van drive a sizeable aluminum boat on a trailer down the access road and then unload it off the ramp at the end of the pier. With the roar of a genetically contorted lion on steroids the two oversized outboard motors started paying their technological dues and just to demonstrate their dirty potency they let out a cloud of light grey smoke that quickly drifted downwind. Four more of the roars were needed to get the beasts going steadily and once they did the boat screamed to a plane within seconds after takeoff and sped to the pass in the reef, soon pounding into the swell with jets of glistening froth shooting out from underneath its edgy belly like a swarm of panicking white feathered chickens.

An unpaved road led across the interior of the island, first through a stretch of uncultured jungle with pandanus trees on pyramidal stilts, slender weathered palm trees shooting skywards, broad leaved Fau trees with bright yellow flowers and an army of creepers ready to engulf whatever was within reach of their spirally little green fingers. About half way across the jungle started to make way to plantations of giant taro, cassava, banana, yams and with the odd cow tied to a stalk, grazing lazily, raising its horned head only slightly to examine the two visitors strolling just as oddly past her. A little village awaited us on the windward side. A couple of white baby goats were grazing not far from mom, their strange eyes examining the fickle greenery in front of their busy snouts. Maybe forty houses were lined up along a dusty main drag, mostly timber frame construction on short stilts, weathered and termite eaten. Houses in rural Tonga don’t have doors. A light curtain keeps out the flies, most of them at least, and swings in and out with the wind, letting the curious visitor have a peek inside to see the inhabitants sit or lie around on mats and chat. The locals out on the street contested our friendly “hello” with a just as friendly “bye”, unless of course we stopped for a little chat. In that case we were usually asked in very limited English for our names and where we come from.

A young lady in a black T-shirt stepped out of her house and came towards us. When I asked her what she had written on the piece of crumpled paper she held in her hands, she explained with a degree of embarrassment that she was composing a poem to submit to the local cell phone company, hoping that she might receive credit for calls on her phone in return for her artistic efforts. “I don’t have no money to pay the bill”, she underlined her quest.

Half way through the settlement we passed by the mandatory Mormon Church. Literally every village in Tonga, down to the very smallest we have seen, seems to have its very own Mormon Church and they are all exactly alike. Eggshell colored concrete buildings with a spire crowned by an aluminum spike piercing the sky, a black marble plaque on the wall with a silver grey inscription, a man high cyclone fence around the whole compound without even a trace of a human soul inside, a basketball court fenced in once more and the parking lot in front of it complete with the yellow concrete stopper bar, it all makes for an absolutely uniform impression, in short, an imported piece of suburban US architecture that seems to have been pulled straight off the middle class ridden outskirts of Salt Lake City.

A pot bellied priest with a black bible in one hand and the other pushing a stoller with a little girl crossed our path next and even he didn’t seem to have command of more English vocabulary than “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” Although I did have the impression that inside that holy head there was a good portion of grumpyness that kept our conversation in check. The friendliest of the local bunch was a teen-aged boy with mongoloid features who clearly wanted to cultivate a more thorough conversation with the two strolling strangers that had penetrated his everyday normalcy. Alas, his mother followed not far behind and dragged him away with an uneven smile, heading hastily for, well, you guessed it, for church. In lightning speed a very unsettling thought crossed the threshold of my awareness. What if divine destiny had thrown me here to be born into this wicked corner of the globe? The mental narrowness in conservative Switzerland of my youth all of a sudden seemed like a liberal Garden of Eden with gurgling fountains of freedom spouting rivers of limitless choices to flow frolicking over a land of plush, pleasure and plenty. I quickly shrugged off that nightmarish invasion and continued marveling at the little chicks chirping panicky running after mama hen, which had decided in the splurt of the moment to go and pick through the loose topsoil on the other side of the road. What a supreme luxury we possess in the fact that we were able to enjoy this baren human scenery as a fleeting frame in a movie of voyaging on the waters of the ocean, instead of being trapped in it for a weary lifetime of measuring your hindered development with the grudges of you neighbors down the road!

Before nightfall we were back on Aluna’s spacious deck staring at yet another blood red sunset. Soon the sparkling stars sprinkled their twinkles across the firmament, staring down at us seafaring earthlings from their trillion and one little lighted homes in the mysterious depths of space. Soozing sweet slumber awaited us under a light bedsheet ruffled slightly by the tropical breeze within the plywood-lined womb of our streamlined ocean-ploughing vessel. Dreams of exotic far-away destinations had long been replaced with the lazy longing for a safe and steady haven where purpose-soaked belonging and irreverent uprooting are on top of the everyday laundry list.

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3 Responses to “Island Hoping”

  1. Jacques Says:

    You Made my day.

  2. Thomas Says:

    Ah so the global pieces fall in place it looks like. Is the plan then to hop to NZ since the monied gates are not a high as they may have appeared? and yes the world still wants to believe that a little rectangle of embossed plastic is a valid talisman. They should come with a hole in them so they can be worn on a string around the neck, a version of the cowrie shell. Good luck my friends! Your voyage continues to be amazing. I wonder if it had been so if you had gone with a proper western sailing kitty, a pension or the arrogance of as much as $1M. Would the bananas have come to you then?

  3. Thomas Says:

    Sitting here in Seattle in the early morning cold cloudy gray about to head off into the jaws of the life sucking machine, I realize that it is 28 months since I stepped of the stern of oh so beautiful Aluna and back into the not so beautiful meat grinder of a work a day world. Life starts on the fringe. The grass is not so green on the other side and the cash earned slides elusively through one fingers – whether open or clenched into an angry fist.

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