Ideas Gone Awry and Lessons Learned

Schlepping my aging self along dusty Vuna Road, the main drag along Nuku’alofa’s waterfront, I’m finding myself racking my brain up and down the mental list of documents I will need to present to the officials at the shabby custom office over at the container port to get our clearance papers necessary for our imminent departure from the Kingdom of Tonga. A bright yellow trailer sneaks into my languishing peripheral vision on the port quarter. It noisily announces Western Union money transfer services at the corner of a gravel parking lot and is staffed by a young and eager couple in color matched jerseys and oversized sunglasses that hover in style between the absoloutely cool and the decisively hot. Their luring white smiles crown gold-chained necks and their shiny new cars stand immaculately clean not far from their very causal workplace. But it’s not their allure that draws my gaze away from meticulous planning towards curious contemplation. Just beyond the screaming colors of their ambulant office amongst other industrial rubble an archaic shape of great proportions shimmers through a wind-swept cyclone fence. I had seen them before but never dared to venture closer knowing darn well that I would have to shed some bittersweet tears if I would. Now on my useless journey to serve officialdom the distraction was comparatively soozing and quite welcome indeed and it easily diverted my gate across a narrow stretch of grassy lawn, a foot-wide, trash littered rainwater ditch, and the already mentioned gravel parking lot.

It’s a sad scene I had had to whitness in many of the Pacific Islands along Aluna’s route of travel like a sweet dream turned nightmarish at the blink of an eye. Somewhere along the waterfront of the main population center there stands a shed harboring a derelict historical canoe of usually quite sizeable proportions. It is clearly abandoned and in a state of total disrepair, transpires an air of absolute despair and exemplifies albeit passively and irrevocably how spiritually lost we modern denizens are, Western and Eastern alike, cosmopolitan and indigenous alike, locals and cruisers of all sorts alike, intellectuals and sentimentalists alike.

At the threshold of the new millennium a lofty wave of enthusiasm swept across the Pacific Isles, churned up by the crazed but very determined and deeply passionate progenitors of the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawai’i and their martial crew on the mighty ship Hokule’a. All of a sudden and quite literally out of the blue, every island nation found it necessessary to build a traditional canoe, replicating in modern materials ancient shapes and hoping fiercely that by some supernatural magic things like national self-esteem and ethnic pride would be generated en masse along the way. Profound connections to a long forgotten ancestry were drafted, mounds of mightily modern money was raised, some bureaucratic hurdles were bravely breached while others were hauled on board the newly built vessels to serve as ballast stones. Some of those awe inspiring crafts made it across the treacherous waters of the Pacific and anchored center stage at massive events where ancient gods were worshiped and much of modernity vociferously dispised. Others floundered shortly after being ceremoniously sprinkled with coconut water and tossed into the wet with many a transcendental chant.

Here behind the cyclone fence and under the standard corrugated iron roof I saw two probably a good seventy feet long hulls of a replica kalia, the most recent type of traditional Tongan double canoe that had seen the incorporation of Fijian lines and construction methods. We’re talking late 18th century, maybe until the beginning of the 19th, after which they all but diappeard. The missionaries prohibited interisland voyages amongst their newly found flock! The two hulls were lying upside down blocked up on the grass and one had its entire bottom missing. Weathered hull segments were strewn along the sides, where there were also long pieces of tree trunks stored under black plastic sheets. Those would have clearly served to complete all the necessary repairs and make this maritime marvel seaworthy again. But there was no sign of any kind of recent activiy. The funds for the lofty projects had long dried out and the Tongans of nowadays are too busty thumbing around on their newest cell phone to worry much about the catastrophic loss of their vast and mystic lore of traditional heritage. The wave of national pride and newly found access to ancient rituals had ebbed and spent its shortsighted splurge.

What those projects were quite obviously lacking was a practical component. The splendidly built canoes did not fullfil a real purpose. Most of them had germinated from the meager spirit of envy and imitation. No tangible community need was addressed. Once the hype of launch and luster had waned, and the photo ops had withered, what had been so carefully constructed was soon abandoned and left to rot under the tropical sun. No motivation for maintenance was generated. The buzzword of sustainability had not yet been spun into the media frenzy of the Western world.

That very word was prominently featured on a poster inside the palmleaf thatched guest hall of Big Mama’s resort on Pangaimotu Island, in front of which we had been anchored for the last couple of weeks. Big Mama is the sizeable owner of the place and originary from Niutoputapu, a tiny island up in the Niua’s, the most Northerly and remote of Tonga’s four island groups. She oversees a local nonprofit organization that collects schoolbooks and other goods here in the capital to be shipped up to the tiny outpost, where a couple hundred sturdy inhabitants edge out a living far away from the flirt with consumer craze of the kingdom’s capital. The shipping is precisely the sticky point in all her operations. It costs way more to transport the donated wares than all the effort needed to collect them. Extremely expensive and highly sporadic might be the crowning attributes of any means of transportation to and from the islands, by sea or by air. The poster therefore promotes the building of a modern cargo/passenger trimaran that would operate under sail and create a sustainable line of traffic up and down the island chain.

The brain behind the project is Big Mama’s uncle Dr. Sitiveni Halapua, prodigal son who has returned to the homeland after studies and a successful carreer in the States. He is now a member of Parlament and came out to the resort one night to entice the yachties to his proposed journey of sustainability. “When I went back to my people”, he muses, “they told me: You have Western Education. You should be able to solve our problems!” Having gotten tired of teaching the blatant lies of standard economics he set out to design a grassoots organization growing from the needs of his community and involving them in every step. Clearly post-capuitalist in his approach the project is steaming ahead, you can read more about it, and hopefully follow its progress, at talanoa.org.

“Hi, I’m Stephen!”, he introduced himself when visiting us aboard Aluna the morning of our departure to New Zealand. Big Mama had also rolled herself on deck and over coffee we went through the challenges ahead, extrapolated some lofty discussions about contemporary man’s dilema and made great effort to keep them well grounded in the sea. Dr. Sitiveni had not much more than a chuckle left over when I sidetracked the conversation to the ruins of the kalia under the rusty shed across the Bay in Nuku’alofa. Apart from sighing: “This was a very expensive ship!” he enlightened us with some truly disheartening gossip about its short and furious lifespan.

Apparently, while there were expert carpenters employed for the building, the same attention had not been paid to selecting a proper master of the ship. Once triumphantly launched under the ever-vigilant eyes of his at that time still highness King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, father to the present King George Tupou V, the sails were hoisted without the proper knowledge of how to handle them. The mighty vessel spread its wings immediately, shot out of the harbor at high speed and calls were coming back on the radio that the crew was incapable of stopping the ship. As soon as the debacle was evident, true to his duty as protector of his people, the king dispatched the one and only ship of Tonga’s impressive naval forces. The warship promptly set out to sea in pursuit and the proud canoe with its flabbergasted crew was towed back to its homeport. Such was the only maritime adventure of the historical reconstruction. Its intended stimulation of the Tongan national self-esteem must have suffered similar lack of diligent control. May Dr. Sitiveni’s project be blessed with the benevolent effect of those painful lessons learned from the misshaps of the past!

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