Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dispatch 46 Tonga (Niuatoputapu)

August 21 - Sept 4, 2009
Just a couple hundred miles from Samoa, we arrived at the northernmost island group of Tonga which spreads several hundred miles and 170 plus islands from north to south. This island, Niuatoputapu (referred to from now on as “N”), is remote and pretty primitive. The name means island of the many sacred coconuts. Of all the places we’ve been, this has been the one where our donations are most appreciated. We brought reading glasses to give away which are well appreciated here, and notebooks, pencils and pens for the kids. Just a couple weeks before our arrival, the ferry boat sank in high seas in Tonga. It was on international news because 70 plus people died as the ship went down very quickly (mostly women and children), but, it also happened to be the supply ship so this island received nothing of its usual supplies before we arrived (they only get supplies once/month)—they’ve had no supplies for more than 2 months. Even so, the people, though sad about the tragedy, have dealt with the lack of supplies with equanimity—they are not strangers to deprivation. Besides government jobs (and many of the people assume multiple roles in “government” here), we would be hard pressed to know how people actually make money here. There is no commerce per se, no tourism and the life is mainly subsistence. One islander makes money selling kava to his fellow Tongans and also travels to New Zealand to sell kava. The women make beautiful weavings that are sold in tourist shops in other islands and to Tongans overseas. The visiting yachties have been warmly embraced and become a vital part of island life, supplying donations of goods and sometimes money to keep things going. Today 5 of the guys went to see if they could get a village water pump working—vital because it serves the only health center on the island. More on that later.

On arrival, we are expected to ferry the 4 officials out to the boat for check-in. There were Customs, Agriculture, Health and Immigration officials. The Immigration official is also the principal of the high school so check-in had to occur after 4 PM. The Health official is the only health care provider on the island, a nurse practitioner, and she is also the head of the water commission. During the check-in process we arranged to visit the Methodist church in one of the villages followed by a luncheon at the local resort (singular), which rarely seems to have guests but whose proprietor has become integrated into the local community. The island consists of 3 villages (mainly extended family groups). When I asked about who everybody marries, the pastor’s wife giggled and says they often marry cousins but everyone ignores the family connections. The villages are all connected by a very rough dirt road, driving on either side of the road seemed to be okay unless you meet another vehicle and then the rules of the road apply but only loosely. Driving here is on the left side, we think.

The day after we arrived, a tour of a neighboring island had been planned and we came along. This island Tafahi is a perfect volcano cone, very picturesque and about 5 miles away. The husband of one of the Customs officials came from there and he leads tours there. We piled into his small motorboat early in the day and drove over to the island (8 of us) seeing humpback whale blows along the way (they come here and mate and calf this time of year, very exciting). The island has a primitive village at the base of the mountain which a couple of our group stayed at rather than hike. The rest of us hiked up to the top, an initially reasonable trail that became quite steep near the top and a little slippery. It was a good work-out and a dirty, sweaty, but satisfied group rested at the top. Niko, our guide, provided coconuts for liquid refreshment (using his machete masterfully to cut open the nuts so we could drink the juice), and collected bamboo to demonstrate the very fresh water within which we also drank. Niko was amazing. He caught 2 fish on our way over, cut down a banana stalk and quietly, in 5 minutes, fashioned a carrying device for the very heavy stalk, made of pandanus leaf and a green branch, as well as collecting the coconut and bamboo. He climbed the volcano slope in flip-flops and, when it got too slippery, reverted to bare feet. Meanwhile, in the village, they had collected mangoes, papayas and taro leaves for Niko to bring home. A woman in the village fashioned 2 baskets out of the palm leaves in just a short time to carry the supplies. A tired but satisfied group returned to our boats in a wild squall with rain so hard it blotted out all visibility for a short while.

The church visit was amazing for the beautiful harmonic singing and afforded us the opportunity to meet the minister, his daughter and her friend and his wife. We feasted with the nurse practitioner and her husband and family as well as other yachties that afternoon on the resort and walked around to some sunken lava tubes where we swam through lava tunnels and generally frolicked.

Gina and I visited the health center one morning. There we were aghast at the rudimentary conditions in which the nurse practitioner works. There are so few supplies or medicines, no lab testing facilities to speak of and so little equipment. Also, at the time we visited, the water pump was not functional so there is also no running water of all crazy things at a health center. But we were impressed with the public health nurses statistics on the entire population (1010 people), their diseases and health status and goals for each year’s improvement in population health. The nurse practitioner does an amazing job with what she has to work with. We offered to come work with her and I consulted on a puzzling case she was dealing with. This is the kind of place where anybody can help because the people have so little.

The villagers are delightful. The children see us coming and run out to say “hello” or “bye” (which I don’t think they understand). They say “what is your name” and “where’s my lolly” (which means candy) almost all in one breath? It is odd their training to beg for candy but they are distractable and take no for an answer and enjoy interacting with us in other ways after the initial contact. Richard was a hit with his camera and the kids love to mug for pictures and giggle when shown what they look like on the digital screen. And by the end of our visit, “where’s my lolly” was replaced with “take my picture”. Progress. On Sunday we took advantage of the bakery which only bakes that one day and doubles as a police station the rest of the week—the police chief is the baker.

Our calendar seems to be fuller here than anywhere else we’ve been. There was the volcano visit, the church visit and luncheon, the health clinic visit and subsequent volunteer mornings at the clinic, the water pump work party, the resort party, the village fundraiser with dancing, a feast, demonstration of weaving and chance to sample kava and a traditional pig roast. In between we cleaned the bottom of the boat and tried to enjoy the marine life—whales outside the reef and snorkeling on the reef. Yet, it is the least developed of the places we’ve been. It is wonderful to be drawn into the village life and we hope that we have been able to help, all in our unique ways. For the most part there have been around 7 or 8 boats here and we are all dragging our heels a little because the next island group in Tonga is where hundreds of yachties are finally drawing together for their last South Pacific destination before the cyclone season and the run for Australia, New Zealand or north of the equator. We are relishing the relative quiet and the marvelous community here.

One morning, Gina, an RN on another boat, and I went to the village clinic near the wharf. The nurse practitioner for the island rotates between the villages during the week and, at this village, she has to bring traveling supplies because they see patients in the community hall—a big empty room. Patients sat on mats waiting, kids playing, and we health care people sat on another set of mats on the floor seeing patients one by one. There is no privacy so no real exams are done (just the relevant part shown). But the nurse practitioner did make use of the gathered patients to do some group teaching on hypertension and diabetes (weight loss and exercise) since the gathered group had many people with these problem. There was no running water in the building and the mats we sat on were filthy so it was a stretch for me to tolerate those kind of conditions, especially when presented with several kids with disseminated scabies (!) But the people were stoic and patient with interesting medical issues and there was always lots of laughing. While the nurse practitioner went to deal with the water pump problem (wearing her other official hat), I saw patients myself, adding my notes to the charts. Her nurse was an excellent support, providing some translation services. Regardless of how busy we were, we stopped for tea around 11 AM which on this tropical island turns out to be coconut water (from fresh coconuts) and bananas. Very civilized. When we packed up to go, someone had brought more fruit for us to take with us and some cooked sweet potatoes as a gift. Overall, it was a lovely experience and enriched my life of travel.

3 boats went to the high school one afternoon to see the students practice a dance and singing presentation in preparation for an anniversary celebration of the school. We were placed in chairs watching the kids in formation doing their dance. The “conductor” stood on a plastic chair and beat on it with a wooden stick to keep time. We watched them practice the whole routine twice. At the request of the principal they also did some singing including the Hallelujah Chorus, done in their magnificent harmony. We so enjoyed being able to see the kids in their element. On a subsequent visit, we were given gifts of a placemat woven by the students. The high school happened to also be the only place where internet is available on the island so we made one journey there to use the computer. We timidly poked our head into the classroom where the computers were and found the economics instructor in the middle of class. He motioned us in and let us work on the computers on one side of the room while the class went on in Tongan and English on the other side. They had to start up generators for us to use the computers which the school clerk quietly did on our arrival.

Just before we left, we heard from a boat struggling in wild conditions 20 miles away—they wanted to come into our anchorage after dark. We responded on VHF radio and arranged for Niko, the one who took us to the volcano, to take Richard out to the entrance and meet the boat and guide them in and to an anchor spot for the night. We well remember the feeling of looking for relief from a nasty passage and how grateful we were for the help of our fellow cruisers and this was a chance to give back. Richard and Paul encountered 8 to 10 foot waves outside the reef entrance and were able to bring the boat in successfully. The crew was tired, grateful and thanked us with dinner the next night. Ultimately, the day came to leave the island when the wind finally calmed to a manageable level. Time to move on.

This was one of the most enriching experiences of our cruising life. So rarely are we brought into the local people’s lives to the extent we were here. The Tongans we met were friendly, warm and self-sufficient, generous with whatever they had to share. Perhaps this is why Tonga is referred to as “The Friendly Islands” since the time of Captain Cook!

Dispatch 45 Samoa

August 4 - 19, 2009
Next stop, Samoa. We had intended to stop at American Samoa, a 450 mile voyage from Suwarrow. On our way there, we heard from friends by e-mail that the place was so unpleasant they had literally only stayed 15 hours, long enough to buy supplies, pick up schoolbooks for their kids and get some rest. American Samoa is the only American port south of the equator and has “enjoyed” a longstanding reputation as a dirty, unpleasant port. One friend said they couldn’t distinguish the anchor buoys from the trash in the water. Another saw floating dead rats and cats washed down the river into the harbor by some of the nearly daily torrential downpours (one of the wettest ports in the world). The bottom of the harbor is littered with plastic bags and boat wrecks thus creating a poor holding ground for anchoring and the possibility of fouling one’s anchor on wreckage such that it cannot be retrieved. Add to that the $150 fees for checking in and out (to our own country?) and we were beginning to wonder about our plan to stop there. Unlike some of our friends, we had no supplies waiting for us there and, although the lure of the giant bags of M & M’s at the Costco like store was intense, we realized we could probably survive without “American style food” for a while longer. When, just in the nick of time, we heard from friends in Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) that we could likely buy any food we needed there, we diverted, spent another night at sea and went directly to Samoa.

The Samoans are Polynesian and theoretically this was one of the first island groups populated by Polynesians in about 1000 BC. From here, the Polynesians spread to French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Easter Island, New Zealand. Yet, each of the Polynesian groups seem distinct to us in looks and traditions. The similarities include the crafts—carvings, tapa cloth painting (as we saw in the Marquesas), basket making—and the heavenly singing that is universal in the Polynesian churches—multi-part harmony done effortlessly and without accompaniment except drumming usually, and sometimes ukulele.

As our Samoan tour guide assured us, “Samoans LOVE to eat”, thus their ahem often bulky body habitus (and frequent occurrence of diabetes). But they are delightfully friendly people. The islands are verdant, hot and humid with steep hillsides and volcanic rock formations. The weather is HOT—feels hotter than previous places. When I mentioned this to the marina representative, and then puzzled about the heat because it is, after all, winter here, she replied, “Yes, but it’s only winter at night”—when it cools off enough to be tolerable. We tied up calmly at a very modern marina, built 2 years ago because the harbor wasn’t big enough for the visiting yachts at anchor and the huge freighter supply ships that arrive. It looks good, but there are still a few glitches like the coral heads that inhabit a few of the slips and trip boats up in the main fairway! Samoa has some lovely very upscale resorts, yet, it is very affordable, a nice change from French Polynesia. The primary language is Samoan (a Polynesian language) with the second language of English which is taught in schools. English is not universal, however, and many of our taxi drivers and people we met on the street had pretty limited comprehension of English.

Sample conversation with teenage girl:
Her: Hello
Us: Hello, how old are you?
Her: Fine, thank you, how are you?

The geography is stunning. The islands are volcanic. The interior mountains are comprised of rain forest with many waterfalls. The coast has some beautiful beaches rimmed by coral. We enjoyed a drive around the country with a verbose and enthusiastic guide. He explained the practice of burying “Mom and Dad” in front of the house to keep them nearby. He has enthusiastically encouraged his fellow islanders to clean up the rubbish and plant attractive gardens to better attract tourists. We saw a deep volcanic trench with a pool in the bottom that communicated by underwater cavern to the ocean. We were supposed to have seen a 100 meter long waterfall but it was enshrouded in fog, part of our very rainy day of touring. But we did appreciate the beauty of the island. Robert Louis Stevenson spent his last four years in Samoa and his house is now a gorgeous museum. We hiked up to his grave on one of the mountainsides and slipped down the trail as the rain became ridiculously heavy on our way back. There is a marine reserve just outside the main harbor and we snorkeled there one day. There was a surprisingly rich undersea world especially over the reef drop off considering it was right next to a city harbor.

Samoans live in “villages” that are made up of extended families. There is a chief or matai of each village and disputes are settled by the chiefs sitting down together to talk. Apia, the major town on Samoa’s island of Upolu, is made up of several “villages” lumped together. It has most goods and services available although some searching is required for obscure items. Transportation on the islands is done often by bus—very colorful painted all wooden buses. Alas, these are soon to be obsolete because, just after our visit, the country is changing from driving on the right side of the road to driving on the wrong side, I mean, left side of the road. This is because so many of the imported cars are British style and have right seat drive. The buses will need to be replaced. We had mixed feelings about missing this momentous event—surely we will miss witnessing mayhem on the road! We also enjoyed watching the police marching band which marches from the police headquarters to the government building Monday through Saturday just before 9 AM to raise the flag. The men in Samoa wear skirts (lava lavas) as do the women, a practical way to dress given the climate. We also now know the best time of day to rob the bank in Apia, Samoa.

While in Apia, I took the opportunity to call the head of the local hospital and go up and take a tour. He was pretty distracted by the swine flu outbreak on the island but took some time to talk to me and Gina (an RN from New Zealand who we’ve befriended) about their medical issues in Samoa. Diabetes and its complications are a big part of their medical care (what he called “lifestyle diseases”) unsurprisingly. But he assured us they had good programs to deal with their issues. What was more fun was talking to the actual doctor on the wards during our tour while they regaled us with the “reality” of medical care there: the lab test results come back so late they are of no use in caring for the patients. Sometimes the machinery doesn’t work and they don’t have the supplies they need. It certainly looked like challenging work conditions in our brief visit. Although I offered my volunteer time, they never contacted me, and, in retrospect, I suppose I’m glad not to be exposed to swine flu.

With another boat, we explored the other major island in Samoa: Savai’i. We anchored off a shoreline that, within a half mile walk comprised 5 villages. A “village” is simply a family group. One could see the change by the color of the raised garbage containers outside the homes. This island had beautifully maintained yards and was very rustic. The people raise horses, dogs and pigs, all of which run mostly free (except the horses). The people were shy but open to our overtures albeit with limited English. We always learn the local words for “hello” (Talofa on Samoa) which vary from Polynesian island to island and try to learn “thank you” and “goodbye”. This island is mainly formed by one large volcano and evidence of its many lava flows from the early 1900’s still abound. Apparently the lava flowed so slowly everyone was able to avoid it and there were no fatalities. But some of the churches had lava flow right through them dramatically. Some of the villages are built right on the lava.

We stopped at a variety of tourist attractions where we were charged a small amount to see the sights. There is a rainforest canopy walkway. One end is anchored to a couple hundred year old banyan tree and the walk up the stairs around the tree was magnificent. Alas, the canopy walkway was “closed” because it wasn’t safe which we learned after Richard ducked the board that blocked the entrance and made it all the way across without incident. Oops. We saw a lava tunnel and little swiftlets—birds that nest inside. We stopped at the “Virgin Grave” where the lava swirled around and missed this patch of land, “because the virgin was so pure.” The tour guide told us she had a husband and children but could not explain why she is referred to as a virgin (?!) Mysteries abound on Samoa. The scenery was dramatic. Perhaps our most memorably experience was when we stopped at the “women’s collective” building in a village where we had heard there was some of the best traditional weaving. Around 20 women were gathered weaving their own pieces, talking and singing in harmony as we approached. They allowed us to take pictures and answered a few questions, but, just to observe their craft and hear their singing was moving.

After a lunch of fish and chips, we returned the rental car and readied the boat to leave that very evening for Tonga. Never let a fair wind go unappreciated!