The Dancing Ladies of Tonga.

Sat 8 Oct 2016 00:03

The Dancing Ladies of Tonga.

It has been an interesting week with Blue Water Rally Events to enjoy and some excellent talks and presentations on passage planning from here to NZ and what to expect when we get there in the form of customs entry requirements and the superb local and national places of interest and activities to take part in.

The first event was a flop though because of a mysterious change of venue at the last minute resulting from some tedious bickering and political issues between different business interests. I don’t know the details but the result was a hastily prepared evening in a little used hotel dining room where the lights went out every few minutes.

The next morning, Monday, we joined the crowd of fellow cruisers for a delicious hot breakfast at the lovely Mango Bar. Sitting right on the edge of the water this attractive and shady bar restaurant is run by lovely ladies wearing colourful matching tshirt tops and long skirts. At least this venue has got its act together.

John Martin from ICA (International Cruising Association) New Zealand, has done the passage 38 times and the worst experience was the first time. So he has set up weather forecasting and route planning using computer profiles and apps to assist and now spends much of his time passing this invaluable information on to the likes of us.

His first question to us was, “What do you do if the wind drops on passage?” The answer he wanted was maintain speed with the engine and I’ll explain why.

From Vavau in north Tonga we will cruise south through the island groups to south Tonga, Nuku Alofa on Tongatapu. We will wait there with 40 or so others for a favourable weather window to take us the 200 miles out to the Northern Minerva reef which is south west of here.

This extraordinary and fabulous reef is vast and just below sea level at high water. Inside the reef there is deep sand for the anchor and enough room for 500 or so boats. From a safe secure anchorage one can watch winds up to 60 knots rage past outside along with mountainous seas without so much as a single palm tree to block the view.

We leave there around 24 hours after a low pressure system has passed, to let the swell and waves settle down. From there it is around 700 miles to Northland, the north end of NZ, and as the lows come once a week it is then possible to reach NZ before the next low comes through provided we maintain our speed average of 6 knots no matter what the wind strength, which we tend to do anyway. Hence the need to be prepared to use the engine.

From now we have six weeks in which to decide our window for departure to NZ.

In the evening we listened to an excellent talk from the biosecurity team led by Mike who will be meeting us on arrival as part of the clearing in process. They will check certain food items, outdoor hiking shoes, our medicines, any shell bone or wooden items we have procured on route and any outright illegal and banned items the last two of which we are innocent!

Tuesday morning we stood on the sidewalk outside the Tropicana restaurant amidst a shared mood of anticipation. A family pulled up in their car and mum got out opening the door for her son to alight onto the pavement. She took him by the arms and stood him still while she tied the pandanus leaf mat around his middle and made sure he was all in order. Then we could see a band making their way along the street behind a small group of very young children, with their teachers guiding them.

The children carried wide white banners between them and the band was together and competent. All us cruisers joined the genial little march as it progressed right at the firestation, up the hill out of town and then left to a small grass field where three sides of a large square were furnished with shady canopies for the buffet tables and forms for us to sit on out of the burning glare of the sun.

In home-made costumes of real and paper flowers, garlands of fresh leaves and frangipani flowers around their necks children from the pre-school and infant school performed for around half an hour. During the performance adults came and tucked money notes into the collars of the dancers as is the custom here. They then went for juice and a change of costume while we danced an inelegant and confused Conga, but it was fun.

I sat back down, cross legged on the ground, next to Clare who is a journalist and writes the Pacific, Asia and Far East section of the Superyacht Services Guide. We chatted comfortably and it was such a pleasure for me to converse with another woman with whom I had many things in common, a love of travel writing for one.

Towards the end of the performance a row of older boys and girls were ushered forward by their teachers. A little girl of 7 then stepped forward. As with all the children her brown skin shone with coconut oil. She wore a brown dress with white roses decorating it and wore a few more around her ankles. Her black hair was tied back.

She raised her arms to chest level and danced with her hands. The look of mature, serene concentration on her face was magic that we were privileged to see. I glanced at Clare and her _expression_ reflected my feelings.

The little girl’s hand movements were smooth and full with _expression_, she told us her story in the order in which she had learned it, made it her own and loved it. Quite rare and beautiful.

By contrast, a little tongan lad ran up to the open hand bag into which all the money notes were being placed. He struggled with the bountiful content of his little pockets, emptying the contents one by one into the bag. He came to the last pocket, put a couple of notes into the hand bag, looked at the last note, thrust it back in to his pocket and ran off. Clare and I laughed together.

The performance was the annual event of the Hosea School and was laid on just for us. The money collected, plus what our sponsors have already given, will buy the school a photo-copier. Last year it bought a trampoline and the year before The Blue Water Rally sponsored the fencing of the school grounds. Our way of giving.

On Wednesday we used the internet in the near empty Tropicana while twelve of the yachts went off for an informal race and in the evening, along with Christina and Verner we were collected from the small boat marina for the short trip to Utulei beach where Topu and her family have a beautiful home. The panoramic view photograph took from their waterfront home is one of the most beautiful pictures I have been fortunate enough to shoot.

Topu usually speaks at length about her life at these Weds and Sat evening gatherings but today the poor woman was recovering from a damaging fall in her home and sat with both legs in black support braces, one of them needing a cast which would be done the next day.

She calls her show My Tongan Home. Years ago she left Tonga for good and became well educated elsewhere in the world, but events and attained wisdom brought her home for good.

The little dance show is put on by members of her family from three generations. Once again a lovely girl of around 7 years did a similar hand dance as we had seen before at the Hosea School. To fathom her concentrating mind as her hands moved to perfection held the same awe as snorkelling in a colourful coral garden.

Then her four year old sister joined in as she has been learning by copying her sister and couldn’t wait to perform. Then her granny led the singing as another young lady performed and two adolescent males showed off their energetic prowess.

It was then our turn. Most of us sat in a semi-circle as the singing continued and we copied granny’s hand movements as the golden sunlight settled down behind Mt Talau.

The Kava drink ceremony reminded me of the Chinese Tea Ceremony and I wondered if it had its origins there in times past. Kneeling infront of us a young lady put some dried kava root powder into a fine mesh bag and then squashed it into a wooden bowl of water so the powder remained separate. Then one by one we had to announce we were ready for the drink and small wooden cupfulls would be brought to us. This hospitality ceremony is carried out at all gatherings throughout Tonga, even official meetings. The non-alcoholic slightly bitter drink is a relaxant having similar effects as camomile.

As the electric lights replaced daylight we gathered around the buffet table for some delicious fish, taro and kava root, salads and a small spit roasted suckling pig. It was a pleasure to talk with visitors who had come to Vavau by plane from England, Godzone (NZ) and Aussy and when we had all finished Topu’s partner returned us to Vavau in time for the Faka Laidi Show, Glamour girls of the Pacific, held every Wednesday for the last 13 years at the Bounty Bar. (Love that name).

By way of dramatic and fun contrast this show, in the packed bar area with its tiny stage, about 30’ by 20’ features mature ‘Laidies’ dressed appropriately who put on their individual self-styled dances and either they take proferred notes from the revellers or the revellers lodge notes on the dancers, if they dare.

To get a good view Christine, Gail and I stood precariously on chairs and I kid you not I have not laughed so much in ages, perhaps years!

Tony and Gail surprised me by saying that in many years of sailing they have never learned to fillet a fish. Some friends had radioed them to say they had left a tuna on the side deck of their boat Cetacea, so I volunteered to help.

We followed them through the darkness of the mooring field, lit only by town lights and masthead lights and just before midnight, under the glow of Cetacea’s deck lights I showed Tony how to fillet a fine Dog-tooth Tuna. We then helped him to taste his delicious Rum and Brandy and returned in a surprisingly pseudo-sober to dear Zoonie just before 2.30am. What a fab night!!