139 and Counting – Tonga Tapu, Terminal Taboos, and a Belated Merry Kiritimani in the Isles of Kiribati


When I go back to Apia from Pago Pago to catch my onward flight next day to Tonga, the place is under water, worst rainy season in years, and there’s a major storm coming in Saturday. Hopefully I’ll make it out before the deluge. Hopefully I can find something to eat in Tonga on a Sunday. My cheap-ass taxi doesn’t show- you get what you pay for- but I make it up by talking my way out of the exit tax at the airport by explaining I’m in transit from American Samoa (but I didn’t tell them I spent five days in Apia before that). Airport security is a joke, kids running around begging for coins, while ex-pat palangis use the forex booths to do their monthly banking, cashing personal checks and walking around with thousands of dollars in cash. I feel like I’m tripping. How do you maintain security in an airport with no exterior walls? Not so very carefully…

We beat the rain out of Samoa and soon we’re flying in bright sunshine, same in Fiji, and same continuing in Tonga. But it’s too late, because I’m coming down with something, my self splitting gently at the seam, whether a continuation of that cough that I finally kicked or something new I don’t know. Even so, it’s nice to have to have some sunshine after constant rain for so long. Supposedly there’s a cyclone moving south after it does its damage in Samoa, but who knows how far or how fast? The owner of my guest house in Tonga makes it sound like the storm of the century, but then he’s full of BS on a lot of issues, typical Brit ex-pat, lived here twenty-two years and doesn’t speak a word of the local dialect (“they’re supposed to be learning English”).

Tanaka- the Japanese girl from Samoa- is on my flight to Tonga also, but she ends up elsewhere in the shuffle at the airport, even though I’ve recommended my guest house to her, so I don’t force the issue on her. Well, next day she shows up at my guest house with a nasty dog bite, and having stayed who knows where. I can only figure that the airport ATM- last point of reference- had no cash, and so someone took pity on her. She’ll be okay. I’m more concerned about my shoes, which are fast falling apart. Duct tape is really not an option, since they won’t let you take that on a plane.

The next day is Sunday, so someone should take pity on us all, out in the boondocks with nothing but crackers to survive on. Everything- I mean EVERYTHING- is closed on Sundays (by law! What is this, Iran?), so my airport driver stops at the local Chinese sh*t-n-git the evening before so I can stock up. How’s that for service? Fortunately I’m half-way prepared, so no big deal, noodles with egg in addition to what I brought from Samoa. What about the traveler for whom it’s not normal to get off the plane with a shopping list? At the guest house there’s no food, no TV or fan in the ‘living room’, no comp coffee or tea, nothing nada zippo zilch, fun fun fun. The guest house owner gets excited about being the master of kava ceremonies, but not much else. So what if the guests are starving. Let ‘em drink kava!

Fortunately the Finnish guy Sammy has already made plans to go to a nearby Mormon church, so we get together for that and end up making it a Sunday morning of church-hopping. Besides that there’s the local folk art par excellence to be surveyed- ready for this? Graveyards! Not only do the defunct get to rest in peace and symmetry, but they get special quilts to keep them warm (hey, it sometimes gets down to 15c-59f in winter)! This more than makes up for a culture and architecture somewhat less traditional than the Samoan. And if the sarong-like lavalavas are absent here, they make it up with a grass mat worn around the waist for ceremonies, i.e. Sunday. We even get to sit in on and observe a traditional wedding ceremony and feast!

Next day I get up early to go to town, since I’ve already spent half my time here and haven’t even seen downtown Nuku’alofa. So what if I’ve got flu-like symptoms? F*ck ‘em… I walk the five clicks to town and the loose collection of villages gradually coalesces into… not much. This make 1995 Vientiane look like Manhattan, no McD, no KFC, no Pizza Hut, so… pretty nice, if a bit boring. Nuku DOES have something that I’ve yet to see in this region so far, though, and that’s a couple of decent bars, where locals and foreigners can both hang out with some decent music and decent prices. Tonga is friendly, more so than Samoa I think, so somewhat intriguing. It might actually be more interesting to live in than to tour.

If this is less of a city than Samoa’s Apia, one can only imagine what it’s like on Tuvalu, an entire nation of 10,000 souls! If that seemed daunting at the outset, I think by now I’d find it interesting. I still lack Tuvalu and the countries of Micronesia- not to mention the Philippines- so future itineraries in the South Pacific are looming… or I may just wait for the sea levels to rise from global warming. Some countries have already made contingency plans. The quick stop at Kiritimati will be a little taste of that future trip.

And what’s the verdict for this two month trip? Polynesia is cheaper than Melanesia. Even the grocery stores are reasonable- when you can find them- prices more or less the same as the US, which is good. Anybody who thinks the US is expensive has never been around very much. I suspect the current priciness of Australia- and Papua NG and Solomons- has much to do with Oz’s current strong exchange rate, likely the result of Chinese investments more than anything else, that and high interest rates, though I’d be hard pressed to say which is cause and which is effect. Not so long ago AUD traded at far less than the USD, down around $ .75 where NZD is today, or less. Now Oz and US and Canada are all almost equal, convenient for arithmetic, but a fall from grace for US. That’s okay; it’s lonely at the top anyway.

Melanesia might be friendlier than Polynesia, but the general lawlessness of Papua New Guinea, and the increased friendliness of Tonga vis-a-vis Samoa may cancel previous judgments out. None of the cities are especially pretty, but supposedly the nicest one- Frenchified Port Vila in Vanuatu- I didn’t even stop in. So if less is more for Pacific cities, then Nuku’alofa maybe ranks higher that way. All in all Fiji is not a bad mix of the region’s various aspects (and the easiest immigration policy: four months, don’t work- simple), and the cheap Indian cuisine is very welcome.

All of which brings me back to the question of pre-Melanesian people inhabiting the area, specifically Papua New Guinea, the subject which got me into a fight with a British ex-pat lawyer in Honiara, S.I. The existence of a myriad of non-Austronesian ‘Papuan’ languages makes the question moot, if still confusing. And Melanesians have a distinctly African appearance, while that of Polynesians is distinctly Asian (and believe me, I’ve looked at a few Asians). While the historians gloss over many details, there must have been a major migratory thrust from the mainland of Asia (fleeing Hans migrating south?) through Taiwan that splintered in the Philippines into two main groups, one of which went toward Borneo and became Indonesian while the other went toward New Guinea.

There these eastern ‘Austronesians’ must have mixed with native Papuans to a greater or lesser degree and became Melanesians while others remained on the fringes unmixed and eventually become Polynesians. The fact that Polynesian languages have cognates with Malay that are absent in Melanesia must be accounted for somehow. Some words cross over between Melanesian and Polynesian, but those are more cultural- e.g. mana’, kava, tapu (‘taboo’, which can mean ‘sacred’ y/o ‘forbidden’ BTW)- not so much core vocabulary. Language may not be an exact science, but it doesn’t lie… wait a minute…

So the 25th of January starts rather stormily, howling winds and rains lashing through the night in Nuku’alofa. By dawn it’s all died down, though, so we get away on time. My driver stops in town to pick up one other passenger, then lopes his way to the airport with one hand on the cell and one on the steering-wheel, always fun to watch the shifting of hands and gears (Polynesians are the world’s SLOWEST cab-drivers BTW). The Air Pacific plane even arrives on time and I have Wi-Fi in the airport cafe, so life is good. All’s smooth on the flight to Fiji, but they make me go through immigration, so I inquire about a day trip to Suva. They don’t recommend it. That’s just as well, because it starts pouring down rain soon thereafter. So I kill half a day reading an L. Ron Hubbard book, something I picked up in Pago Pago, and have never done before. It’s disjointed, chaotic, and non-linear… not bad! At this point I just want to get out from under the cyclone threat and back to the US, though the fifteen hour wait is trying…

As the calendar turns to the 26th we’re soon boarding the plane, but when we take off we’re almost immediately back to the 25th, courtesy of the International Date Line. From there it’s cop some zzz’s as cop can, little consolation that the flight I just watched take off from Fiji to LA will be arriving almost simultaneous with my arrival in Honolulu. That’s all so I can stop in Kiritimati (pronounced something like ‘Christmas’, no relation) Atoll, in the island country of Kiribati (pronounced something like ‘Gilberts’, no relation), not to be confused with the Christmas Island that refugees wash up on in their quest for Australia. My flight from Fiji to Honolulu makes a ‘technical’ stop there… so that counts, number 139 of 192 UN member countries under my belt. If that sounds tricky on my part, it’s more than that. Transit passengers don’t even get off the plane, but the view is priceless, one of the world’s most remote border posts, complete with VIP lounge! Some people DO get off, though, locals and surfers mostly. Beachcombers and castaways came before the conquistadores and missionaries in this region, remember. I log it in to memory.

Honolulu is a breeze, just a quick chat with la migra. “I see you made it out before the storm.” I heard about it. “It’s supposed to hit Tonga today.” That’s where I just was. “Welcome to Hawaii.” Then it’s another three hour wait, albeit with free WiFi, and then another five hour flight on to LA. By the time we finally pull up to the ramp at LAX it’s pushing 10:30pm, still the 25th. It’s too late to risk the Metro line, so I catch the Super Shuttle and get a quick tour of the rising new downtown LA before heading up to the hollies. I fumble with the keys… and finger-nail clippers and bottle opener, no stethoscope… it turns. I’m in, Trinity.
“Honey, I’m home….”
It’s been a long day.

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