Evening among Headhunters: And Other Reports from Roads Less Takenby Lawrence Millman
We follow inveterate traveler Lawrence Millman to Tropical Retreats, Northern Outposts, The Back of Beyond, and Islands off the Map (the four categories into which this book is divided), and without fail, wherever this pied piper takes us, we are sure to be entertained by his enthusiastic, rhapsodic, wry, and opinionated observations. One reviewer said of Millman, "If Dr. Seuss wrote travel books, they would surely resemble this one. . . ".
- Brookline Books, Incorporated
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1998 Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.42(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.53(d)
Read an Excerpt
SOUTH SEAS REVERIE
* * *
It was in the Kingdom of Tonga, halfway through a life of somewhat befuddled politics, that I became a monarchist. This happened as I was watching the country's four-hundred-pound king, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, descendent of the ancient Polynesian sky-god Tangaloa and thus inheritor of the world's oldest scepter, gamely row his exercise boat in Nuku'alofa harbor. What better, more innocuous activity for a head of state, I thought, than a display of public aerobics. Alongside His Majesty, happily treading water, was more or less the entire Tongan army. What a splendid use for an army, I thought to myself. Better, far better than sending it off to occupy some foreign land.
I remained steadfast in my loyalty even after I learned His Majesty had given Imelda Marcos a Tongan passport. Imelda Marcos! It seemed like a typically Tongan joke. For whatever would that shoe-loving woman do in these ardently barefoot islands?
* * *
From his gingerbread Victorian palace in downtown Nuku'alofa, King Taufa'ahau rules over such a diversity of islands that it would seem to require a monarch of his considerable girth to embrace them all. There are islands built of raised coral, islands low-lying and scruffy, islands blowing out volcanic smoke, and even one island, Fonuafo'ou, that is sometimes completely under water. There's another island, Niuafo'ou, which is known as Tin Can Island because incoming or outgoing mail must perforce be sealed in biscuit tins and then carried to and fromsupply ships by swimming mailmen. Yet another island, Tafahi, lies so close to the jogged International Date Line that its inhabitants are the first people in the world to greet the dawn of each new day. Almost certainly one of Tafahi's vanilla growers will be the first person in the world to greet the twenty-first century as well.
There are islands where the matchsticks of outrigger canoes strake the beaches, and islands with beaches so empty the only marks are one's own footprints. Islands which seem to be composed entirely of pigs. Islands of women hammering paper mulberry bark into the ceremonial fabric known as tapa. Islands which boast the stores of the great South Seas traders, Burns Philp and Morris Hedstrom, and islands where nothing so exotic as a fruit stand, much less a store, exists. On one island, I was taken around by a woman, Faka'ilokimoana, whose name means "Report from the Bottom of the Sea"her grandfather drowned just before she was born. On another island, I met a man who thought computers were musical instruments. He wondered: Do you squeeze them like you squeeze accordions, or do you strum them like ukuleles?
Two forces hold together this largesse of islands. First, there's the King, an absolute monarch whose word is law or soon becomes law once it passes through a parliament of handpicked nobles. Then there's the idea of faka tongathe Tongan way.
A person who wishes to observe faka tonga will move slowly, almost imperceptibly, and structure his life in the simplest and most eloquent manner possible. He'll give what little money he makes to his neighbors or, more likely, his local church. He'll wear a wrap-around pandamus-leaf mat called a ta'ovala or a knee-length tupenu skirt. Also, he'll eat foods like sipi (fatty mutton flaps) in enormous quantities, thereby promoting a national physiognomy not unlike His Majesty's.
And since Tonga is the only Pacific country which has never known the improving hand of European rule (selected benefits: loss of culture, depopulation, disease), perhaps in faka tonga there is strength.
Or if not strength, at least some remarkable convictions. To illustrate:
One day in Vava'u I took a taxi ride from the town of Neiafu to 'Ano Beach. After a while, my driver began complaining of a headache.
"Would you like a Tylenol?" I asked him.
"Thank you, my friend," he replied, "but I don't take drugs." Then he went on to tell me that the difficulty lay not with his head, no, not precisely, but with his Uncle Pinati. Actually, it lay with Uncle Pinati's bones. A casuarina tree was growing near the man's grave, and its roots were making his bones miserable. All he needed to do was visit this grave and cut away the roots, and Uncle Pinati would feel just fine.
Bouncing and careening, jolting and jarring, the taxi negotiated an endless series of potholes, any one of which could have given a person a very respectable headache ... only not in Tonga. In Tonga, family-strong and flora-rich, headaches derive from nothing so boring, so wholly unserendipitous as mere potholes in a road.
* * *
Serendipity. I admit that I bent the sense of that word a little when I used it to describe a pas de deux between roots and one's uncle's bones. A more conventional definition, according to my dictionary, is "the faculty of making fortunate and unexpected discoveries by accident."
I made one of these discoveries the day I was shown the place outside Nuku'alofa where Captain Cook landed in 1777. Not only did Captain Cook land at this place, but he also took a nap here, my guide informed me. She pointed to a rather morose-looking stumpall that remained of the original banyan tree under which the Yorkshire navigator took his presumed nap. Then she grinned, as if to say: That's it. Tongas tourist attraction. Not all that photogenic, is it?
Now comes the fortunate and unexpected part. I expressed an interest in seeing mulberry bark whacked into tapa, so we moved on to the neighboring village of Lapaha. Not long after we arrived, I noticed a man sitting cross-legged on a pandamus mat directly inside his doorway. I halted immediately.
Tongans have the unique ability to sit cross-legged on their pandamus mats for hours, maybe even days at a time, so that's not the reason I stopped. It was because I detected something vaguely familiar in this man's features. Where, I asked myself, had I seen that dignified and moral countenance, that strong brow? In retrospect, I realized I'd seen these features in old lithographs of Captain Cook himself. As it turned out, the man was the Reverend Samson Cook, a lay preacher in the local Wesleyan Church and a lineal descendent of the same Captain Cook whose stump I'd just visited.
Had the high-principled Yorkshireman sowed his seed abroad in the manner of his fellow sailors?
Not at all. Samson Cook gave me an account of his celebrated pedigree. His grandfather, Albert Edward, a nautical jack-of-all-trades and a whaler, was the fifth grandson of Captain James Cook, born fifty or so years after the latter's death in Hawaii. In 1885, Albert Edward was sailing from England to New Zealand when his four-masted schooner struck a reef off Tongas Ha'apai islands. He managed to swim ashore and shortly thereafter, in the time-honored custom of shipwrecked mariners, took a local wife. From this union came a prodigality of sons, all of whom Albert Edward educated in the art and craft of catching whales. One of these sons, Ned Cook, was Samson's father. From Ned, Samson himself learned this same art and craft, pursuing humpback whales in an open boat right up until the international ban on whaling in the 1960s.
"When the King told us about the whaling ban," Samson said, "I was sad ... sad to think that never again would I hear a whale say, 'Oh Mr. Cook, you have shot my heart.'"
Now it was this whale-catching reverend's turn to ask me a question. Why, he asked, had I come to Tonga? Obviously, I wasn't a missionary or one of those aid-bringing palangis (foreigners) with the E.E.C.
I could have given him a riff on Kipling's "For to admire an' see this world so wide," but dusk was already falling and my guide was impatient to get back. I stammered an answer:
"To visit you."
Whereupon the Reverend Samson Cook smiled benignly, even serendipitously, as his illustrious forebear might have smiled after learning that some Tongans had crept aboard his ship and stolen a couple of his personal effects, including his chamber pot.
* * *
Tongans are a people full of surprise, now easygoing and dotty, now deeply traditional and taboo-ridden. They use empty beer bottles, goldfish bowls, and university banners to decorate their cemeteries. They'll stomp their feet repeatedly on the ground to stop earthquakes. They eschew the impropriety of bathing suits and simply jump into the sea fully clothed. Half in jest but also half seriously, they'll tell you Christ was a Tongan.
On the subject of taboos, peer into virtually any Tongan backyard and you'll see a coconut thatch shed, usually of quite flimsy construction. Chances are, it'll be occupiednot by pigs or chickens but by one or more teenage boys. That's because the brother-sister taboo (eating together, sleeping under the same roof, and so on) is so powerful that once a boy reaches puberty, out of the house and into the backyard he goes, lest anything indiscreet take place between him and his sister. Teenage boys, indeed, are the lowest class of humanity in Tonga; at meals they get fed next to last, just before the dogs.
And yet Tongans are an exceedingly generous, even indulgent people. Consider the time I asked to see a makafeke (octopus lure), but somehow got the word confused with fakaleiti (transvestite). Sure enough, my Tongan host showed up an hour or so later with a fakaleiti. "No, no," I protested, "I want to see one of those rat-shaped lures I've heard about, the ones for octopus fishing." As it happened, the fakaleiti knew all about makafekes. Once upon a time (he told me) an unusually nasty rat left a scatological gift on an octopus' head, so ever since then octopuses have hated rats and attempt to drown them whenever they can. Hence the rat-like appearance of these lures.
Then the fakaleiti himself went out and an hour or so later returned with a makafeke so rat-like any octopus would have loved to hate it.
* * *
The Friendly Islands, Captain Cook called Tonga, and the name stuck even though these same friendly islanders had been planning to kill him and, in all probability, eat him. Not, I dare say, everybody's idea of friendly behavior. In their defense, Tongans say they acquired this sort of behavior from Fiji, that murder is not at all faka tonga and that they've always preferred pork and taro root, not to mention sipi, to the putative joys of Yorkshire navigator.
It was in the Ha'apai archipelago where this murderous deedforestalled, apparently, by an indecision over whether to do it after lunch or after dinnerwould have taken place. It was also in Ha'apai where almost the entire crew of the English privateer Port-au-Prince was killed in 1806. One of the few survivors, William Mariner, told the tale of this massacre to a London physician named John Martin; the resulting book, An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, remains the best ever written about the alternately murderous, alternately ingratiating habits of Tongans.
No attempts were made on my own life when I visited Ha'apai myself. Far from it. Everywhere I went in these palm-dad, beach-girt islands, I was greeted with twinkling eyes and a smile, armfuls of fruit or a mat in the shade, and always, always, whether I was coming or going, delighted shrieks of "Bye, bye, Louie." That line, from a radio commercial for Raid bug spray, was the only English most people seemed to know.
To call Ha'apai languid would be to imply a level of abandon far beyond its normal pace. There's a story about an Australian engineer, a man named Doolittle, who once fetched up on the capital island of Lifuka. "Your name, Doolittle," he was told. "It's so beautiful. You must be one of us."
Whole days pass here with the only noise being a pig rustling the brush or a rooster exercising its raucous larynx. At any given moment, half the population seems to be strumming ukuleles or catching a snooze under a palm tree. Fishermen tie hook and line to a coke bottle, bury the bottle in the sand, and then retreat to the nearest palm tree themselves. If you asked them about this, they'd cite the infinite superiority of m'ui nonga, a peaceful life, to the sweat and rigors of work.
One day I joined a Lifukan family for a picnic on the uninhabited island of 'Uoleva. At an American picnic, there'd be volleyball, frisbees, swimming, maybe some beachcombing. At this picnic, the girls juggled guavas (hiko, or juggling, is the favorite sport of Tongan females), but that was it. The men and boys slept. I got the distinct impression that both sexes thought life too precious to waste in meaningless flailings and wrenchings of their bodily parts. Like Zen Masters, they aspired only to a condition of repose. And the vast quantities of food we consumedpork, fish, breadfruit, plantains, papayas, yams, cassava, coconutsencouraged this repose, nay, insisted on it.
"Sit down, sit down," Ha'apai people always seem to be saying, as if even standing up were an arduous endeavor, and one evening I sat down on the porch of my beachfront fale to find my host's aunt and uncle sitting there, too. They'd heard I was feeling bad (I'd strained a ligament), so they were here to cheer me up. They sang me songs about His Majesty, the Crown Prince, local fishing, and the wondrous rotundity of local pigs. They sang sweetly, gently, in lilting rhythms, to the soughing of wind in the tops of palm trees. And I was so transported that I wouldn't have minded at all if they'd killed and eaten me after the last song.
* * *
In the 1830s His Majesty's great-great-great grandfather Taufa'ahau, High Chief of Ha'apai, later King George Tupou I, swam through a cut in the Ha'apai reefs and shouted defiance to all sharks. He waited. Nothing happened. The sharks neither ate the High Chief nor otherwise mutilated him. So much for the reputed powers of the Shark God. Henceforth Tonga would be as devoutly Christian as previously it'd been devoutly Shark. Henceforth, too, Sunday would become a day of such universal rest that it would make Sunday in a Presbyterian church seem like a riotous bacchanal.
One Sunday I took a boat from Lifuka to 'Uiha, the island just beyond 'Uoleva, with the local Catholic priest. As the priest was saying Mass, I walked around and regarded the lofty spiritual plane of a Tongan Sabbath. It is a day when flights do not fly; fishing is prohibited; digging taro root is prohibited; and acts of public agnosticism, like hanging up your wet laundry, are punishable by fines. Even Seventh Day Adventists, who elsewhere consider Saturday a day of rest, observe Sunday in Tonga and rest accordingly.
From one end of 'Uiha to the other I walked, passing the Catholic Church, the Wesleyan Church, the Free Wesleyan Church, the Mormon Temple, and the Church of Tonga. The last of these, especially, struck my fancy. It had turrets and battlements and slitted holes for archers. Later I found out that a 'Uiha man once visited Disneyland and was so impressed that he drew up the plans for the new church back home based on the somewhat irreligious model of Sleeping Beauty's Castle.
Never was I out of earshot of a hymn, a service, choir practice, or the thumping of a lali drum to announce one of the above. Nor did I see anyone else even remotely ambulatory except en route from home to church or going home again. Yet the varnish, I thought, was thin, easily chipped away. There seemed to be the same profound casualness, the same spirit of m'ui nonga, to all this sitting and singing, this communality, that I'd observed during the rest of the week. Except that now it was church-sanctioneda blessing put around the urge to make one's voice melodious and to arrange one's body in the most comfortable of postures.
In the wooded northern part of the island, I was searching for the stony ruin of Makahokovalu (an ancient pigeon-catching site, I'd been told) when suddenly there came a loud snort. I readied myself for a stern-visaged 'Uihan to inveigh against my misconduct on the Sabbath. Then the snort materialized; it belonged to a large black pig who'd been busily rooting up the brush. We gazed at each other for a moment. Then the pig went his way and I went mine, two apostates in a land of sublime indolence.
* * *
North of Ha'apai lies the Vava'u archipelago, fifty or so raised coral islands clustered together so intimately that they appear to be a single island. Vava'u is justly celebrated by yachtspersons for its excellent harbors, unruffled seas, and coves so secluded they seem to invite an anchor. I wanted to find an uncelebrated Vava'u-an island, so I asked a German who was a longtime resident of Neiafu, the archipelago's capital, one of my stock-in-trade questions:
"Assuming the law was on your trail, which island would you choose as a hideout?"
"Hunga," he answered without hesitation.
Off by itself, a high-cliffed solitary, Hunga is the least accessible island in the group. Whereas most of Vava'u's harbors are on the leeward side, Hunga's is tucked away inconveniently on the windward side. The Polynesian fisher-god Maui established it there, so the story goes, to discourage other Vava'uans from coming over and helping themselves to Hunga's immense bounty of pigs and produce. Thus does each island, however pocket-sized, believe itself a veritable Eden compared to its neighbors.
I hired a small boat in Neiafu to take me to Hunga. All went smoothly until we ventured beyond the Pule Pule Kai Passage; then the boat began to lunge and corkscrew at angles that defied the laws of gravity. I noticed that the boatman, a Hungan named Sione, hadn't bothered to pack any oars, life jackets, or emergency fuel. To pack such things, I knew, was not faka tonga. On the other hand, not to pack them struck me as faka risky, particularly with waves riding above our gunwales.
As politely as possible, I asked Sione, "What happens if we capsize?"
"We won't capsize," he said. "If there's trouble, we'll just float on over to Fiji."
"Yes. It'll take maybe two weeks. Have you ever been to Fiji before?"
Much to my relief, after some rearrangement of my semi-circular membranes and a bit of moistening from the sea, we made our eventual landfall on Hunga, not Fiji. Here, too, I encountered nothing but friendlinessgifts of fruit, an English-speaking school-teacher to show me around, and swarms of kids eager to hold my hand. Soon I found myself eating a meal Tonga style: the guest eats first, then the women and girls, then the men, and then the teenage boys. This makes for a rather protracted dining experience, but no one ever accused Tongans of rushing a meal when they could linger over it for half a lifetime.
Yet I detected a slightly different atmosphere on Hunga than in Ha'apai. People would look me in the eye a little longer; women seemed to pound their tapa a little more insistently; the shrieks of "Bye, bye, Louie" were a little more aggressive; and kids reached for my hand with the assurance that they'd get it. When I mentioned this to the schoolteacher, she related the following story:
Many years ago so many people wanted to live on Hunga that something had to be done to keep their numbers down. Something was done. Baskets of food were flung over the cliffs at Fofua. Whoever could not retrieve one of these baskets was labelled a weakling and dismissed to some other part of Vava'u. Whoever managed to climb down and bring back a basket was allowed to settle here.
Present-day Hungans, the schoolteacher added, are descended from this fearless breed of cliff-scalers. Small wonder that their children grasp a visitor's hand with such assurance ...
Sione and I left Hunga at low tide. It wasn't long before I heard the unmistakable crunch of coral against the boat's hull. "It's too shallow for us to go through here," I said.
"Only if our hearts are shallow," replied Sione. He climbed out and began pushing the boat. He pushed it around one mine-field of coral after another until he got it safely to deeper water.
One should never question a Hungan boatman's heart.
* * *
A few days later, I paid a late evening visit to a kava club outside Neiafu. There I joined one of several circles of Tongans seated on their pandamus mats. In each circle was a man pounding kava root between two stones, a man straining the pounded kava through a twist of hibiscus fiber, and a young woman ladling the finished product into a coconut cup. Each person was obliged to toss back this cup in a single swallow; two or more swallows would be considered an insult to the pounder, the strainer, the ladler, and the kava grower as well.
Derived from the Piper methysticum plant, kava tastes like a blend of liquefied mud and muddy rainwater, with a dollop of dental anaesthesia thrown in for good measure. Imbibing it, I felt as if I were running my tongue along the topsoil of someone's taro plantation and at the same time getting a cavity filled. But Tongans themselves aren't too concerned with the way kava caresses, or refuses to caress, their taste buds. They don't drink it to get drunk, either. Rather, they drink it for the quality of amiable serenity it imparts to their not necessarily unserene souls. One dedicated drinker told me that kava made him want to kiss all of creation, including molekaus. (A molekau is an eight-inch millipede capable of inflicting a very nasty bite.)
I confess that kava did not make me want to go out and kiss all of creation. There were still certain entities (Jesse Helms, Amanita virosa mushrooms, radio talk show hosts, and so on) which I deemed wholly unkissable. However, it did give me a curious sense of well-being, along with an equally curious sense of disembodiment. "You like kava?" the man sitting next to me asked. Palangis aren't supposed to like the drink at all.
"Tastes great. Just like the earth itself."
Cup after cup I drank, cup after cup the ladler ladled, until I felt myself far above the mundane world, treading space as if I were treading water. When at last I touched ground again, I was in a flyspeck country ruled by a monumental, aerobically-inclined monarch. It was a country where time seemed to be of no consequence, none whatsoever, and where ... but then my reverie of this doubtless fictitious place was interrupted. One of the kava circles was singing "Lead, Kindly Light" in such rousing fashion that it sounded like a fight song at a soccer match.
* * *
Back in Nuku'alofa I decided to conclude my Tongan travels with a royal audience. The King himself had gone to New Zealand for his annual medical checkup, so I settled for an audience with the Crown Prince. Crown Prince Tupouto'a, current Minister of Defense and heir to his father's throne, was a more or less ordinary-sized person who spoke with a clipped English accent, a testimony to his Oxford education. Over a pot of jasmine tea, we chatted about a variety of topics: London's pubs and clubs; wolf hunting in Siberia; the mysterious attraction of raw jellyfish to the Tongan palate; and His Royal Highness' new villa, which he detestedhe said it looked like a Howard Johnson's.
At one point we began talking about Tafahi. Aha, I thought to myself, here's an opportunity to score a hit on a sacred cow. So I said that Tafahi wasn't in fact the first place in the world to greet the new day. The first inhabited place, yes, but not the first piece of land. That honor fell to Big Diomede Island in the Bering Strait, which lies a hairsbreadth closer to the International Date Line than Tafahi.
"Well," the Crown Prince said, "we'll have to change that."
"How, Your Royal Highness?"
"By picking up Tafahi and moving it a couple of degrees closer to the Date Line, of course," he smiled.
I smiled, too.
For both of us knew that nothing in Tonga would change, much less be picked up and moved, for quite a while.
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