About Richard
The Journey
World Friends

< previous report | next report >

Report: #20
Date: 13/11/01
Location: Pukekohe, New Zealand
Subject: Living off the Milk, Honey and Fat of the Land and Sea. (with September 11th Interlude)

Land of Milk, Honey & Swamp Wood

This year is absolutely flashing by. Winter's coat tails are just swishing out the door. But it's far from being all dismal, damp and drear. For me personally, things could hardly have been brighter, as my personal life took another small, but significant, step through the flames of love; Haruyo and I publicly declared our bond by marrying on June 5th 2001. The seed had already become a forest. The spark had already become a forest blaze.

Haruyo means Spring in Japanese.

I will now turn back the world and then get off in Tonga, where we started our honeymoon. We reckon we're still on it.

9 days of essentially seclusion and privacy with my new wife is, by definition, stuff that is not for the world's eyes. Nor is it the way to become deeply acquainted with a culture. But as it is far out there by the edge of time, and a world away from just about the whole world, I reckon it well deserves more than a mention.

Don't get me wrong, it's not JUST that it's a spit in a Pacific gale away from the International Dateline. It's probably not even that, because it's the other way round; That arbitrary line just happens to be near Tonga. But I'm sure location has played a great part in making the Tongan group of islands what it is.

Once beyond a small throng of awaiting opportunist drivers, hawkers and touts, then ducked and tucked into a minibus, and free of the meagre airport, the first thing that struck me was that we were very unlikely to strike anything. The speed limit was a leisurely 65Kph on the open road, and a glacial 40Kph in populated areas. There's only a little portion of Tonga that could claim to be built up. But the low speed makes it feel substantially bigger, but also makes it pleasantly longer to get to. If I'd been on my bicycle I could easily have exceeded the legel velocity

I got our driver to part with clues about the landmarks that crawled past. Indications of the make-up of a society in the middle of an ocean.

------Stop Press-------
Events in the USA have just overtaken me and put my life, as well as most other peoples', into grim perspective.

September 11th. 9 11. Emergency.
The New York emergency services' biggest call out.
Many never to return.
Life to dust.
A sick obscenity, foul to all who love peace.
Humanity incinerated and smashed.
Soot choked, black day.
A spectre to haunt us all through our nights.
A wake up call to a Hiroshima dawn?
Calculated, precision slaughter.
Retaliation assured. Revenge impossible.
Hatred inflamed. Polarisation designed.
"If you are not with us, then you are on the side of terrorism."
But out of the middle of the terror and the horror of ground zero,
has sprung the flower of love,
and flowing into it from all points
has gushed soothing oil of the love of the world.
And it washes over families in many nations who have been dragged down into sorrow.
When the towers fell.
And a large number of my American friends are expressing their wishes for a peaceful response.
Dare we hope for a solution?

Here I feel a responsibility to add my voice to theirs, especially since I have cycled through the Islamic countries, Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, and I have Muslim friends there and in my homeland the UK, in America, in Kenya, Uganda and India. I have looked into Afghanistan from the Khyber Pass, and mixed with their refugees encamped around Peshawar near there, in Pakistan. And I have been treated well and honourably by Muslims in all these places, plus in other lands where they dwell such as in Szechuan in China. I, who just passed through. A stranger.

Please don't generalise any people, just from what you hear about fanatics and fundamentalists. And I have seen the strife that continues in Kashmir, where atrocity breeds atrocity, and where, to halt the long line of violence, some people will just have to step back and forgive the rape, mutilation and murder of their daughters, wives and mothers, and the torture, dismemberment and killing of their sons, brothers and fathers. Which they have seen with their own eyes. But they keep fighting. And their sons, and their sons' sons will, too. And they keep on gaining fresh just cause.

can't blame them either, nor can I say they are wrong. I found it hard enough to forgive someone for doing me out of £1000 in London, because they caused a crash in which my car was destroyed, but they were, illegally, uninsured. So I can't judge someone who has suffered an infinitely greater loss than I did?

But can I urge us all to encourage and nurture peace, starting with our own front doorstep frontline, and building up. We are much more on the frontline now.

This can happen to us.

That hasn't changed. It's just that now we are more aware.

Our resolve must be for peace.

And we can destroy our fragile world as surely by ignoring environmental issues, as by bombing it. We mustn't be distracted from the main fight.

Here is a link to a website forum for discussion and promotion of peaceful means in reply to the attack in the USA.

but I would advise you to read any petition and, if necessary, edit it if there are things in it that you disagree with. I don't necessarily agree with everything espoused in this site, but I do agree that we have to keep pushing for peace, talking about it, and letting others know that that is our goal.

And if you are at a loss as to how to help victims of the WTC and Pentagon tragedies, then you might find some ideas at:

and no, it has nothing to do with adult magazines, if you the URL brought to mind that particular British publication. No apologies for harping on about something which has overwhelmed the media, and probably been in your face, from every angle for more than a long fortnight (to date of writing and much more beyond). Here in far off New Zealand it has dominated the airwaves and press too. I have been glued to the TV, trying to sift through the fall-out of information and assemble some meaning.

One of my rules of travelling is not to discuss politics and religion. So far it's been successful, even though I've broken it a few reckless times. [ I think I've mentioned George Shrub... I mean George Jungle... no, that's it, George Bush once in a while.] Even where I come from they can be emotionally unstable subjects. That's politics and religion I'm referring to, not George Bushes.

If peace is political or religious, then I'm more guilty than I imagined.

When I was in Khartoum, Sudan, just before the Gulf War, a massed crowd demonstrating for Palestine Day, with banners and umbrellad by military helicopters, chanted "Down, Down USA!!" repeatedly at me alone, standing raised on the roadside curb, white face above the sea of turbans and black hair. Smiles were on their desert-toned faces directed at me. Friendly smiles. I didn't detect any real malice, despite the superimposed message and the enthusiasm with which they voiced it. I grinned back, though I was nervous. I had no other option. They were just going through the motions of what they were expected to do, perhaps for the cameras, and perhaps for the national leaders who'd bussed them in their remote villages to the party, to tow an official line. On TV screens thousands of miles away, this could easily have been portrayed as fanatical hatred, but the filmed "facts" can be as hollow in substance as the screen is physically. I got away with it that time.

Even so I've been as much a rabbit caught in the headlights of the goggle-box (TV to those unfamiliar to that colloquial English term) as the next man, hoping that what I feel is shock, and the need to feel and focus the shock as deeply as I can. Hoping that what is gripping me is not morbid fascination.

Once, in Gloucester, in south west England, I witnessed an accident. In a busy shopping street, a pedestrian dodging between slow moving cars was hit by an overtaking motorbike, and felled instantly by a helmet blow to the head. I was stunned. Shocked. I couldn't move** from the spot where I stood, staring until long after the ambulance had come and taken the victim away. I was surprised at my reaction. Previously I had thought that those who hung around gawping at accident scenes were just morbid and a bit twisted. But I know when I am being morbid and twisted, and that wasn't one of those times. Perhaps this is a widely felt, involuntary reaction, stemming from being able to imagine somewhat what it's like to be in someone else's shoes.

[** I didn't say "rooted to the spot" because rooted has sexual connotations in Australia and NZ.]

And so I think there must be many people across the world who are suffering real shock from what they have seen on TV now. But perhaps they don't have the "rightful" outlet of grieving and mourning because they weren't directly involved. I'm not saying that I am one of them. I'm just trying to say that now, especially, is a time for hearing our friends and being aware of their emotional health, as non-judgementally as we can.

I have friends who were close to the catastrophe. One who was late to work that morning in the World Trade Center and so avoided harm, was fortunately as close as they came.

I also have some good, Pakistani Muslim friends in America, and I fear for their well-being now.

My thoughts go with all the above people, the people who were hurt in whatever way, and those innocents who may well be hurt in the backlash.

I wish you Peace.

All this has kept the lid on the news, brewing for a good while now, of a Trans-Tasman war breaking out. Meaning between Australia and New Zealand. It seems that Air New Zealand has presided over the demise of the Aussie airline, Ansett, which has just layed off many staff. Whatever the ins and outs of the affair ,the news here has reported threats of violence aimed at the Air NZ management. And I have heard of an incident concerning Kiwis taking a taxi in Australia, where the driver stopped and ejected them from the vehicle after learning their nationality.

I don't suppose this bickering will have much of an effect on Pukekohe here. It isn't really a major tourism magnet, or anything. Then again, if the Aussies put an embargo on potatoes and onions, you never know. But I think most of the ones from here are shipped to Europe and Asia. And I doubt that Aus would go as far as sinking ships, unless they want to give the sharks a taste for meat and two veg, and bad breath!

Time to take myself back to Tonga. I don't mean physically, though it might be a good move, but here, on paper. Even if what I'm "writing" may never make it onto paper, I'll still say that, not "on screen". To make it seem solid. Substantial. Important.

Where was I ? Indications of the make-up of a society in the middle of an ocean. Still out in the sticks, the driver pointed out the prison. It had a vegetable market. For flogging the results of its hard labour to the locals, perhaps. He then said that the school fence was higher than the fence of the prison! It looks like doing hard lines is tougher than hard labour here. The driver made us laugh harder when he told us that the Police Training Academy had higher fences still!!

A typical feature in the urban areas was the walk-by grocery stores with service at a barred counter or hatch. The bars give the look of an area with a security problem, but I reckon they're just easier and cheaper than glass. And maybe more hurricane resistant.

We lapsed by a few landmarks at easy discussion rate; the residences of the prince and princess, respectively either side of the road in extensive grounds, comparable only with each other; and past churches of various denominations, vying for the uncluttered skyline and souls; Wesleyan, Catholic, Free Church of Tonga and Mormon, I think in that order of popularity, with some other kind of temple claiming a few. The catholic one actually didn't have a spire pointing at heaven. That would have had to be horizontal and aiming at one of the outer lying islands! Instead, it looked like a stadium and had a restaurant attached. Sunday at the Free Church would provide an opportunity to experience the enthusiastic, musical Tongan throng at worship with their king, on a tour by our very own taxi driver. At a cost, naturally. But as great a spectacle as it may have been, we weren't there to see the king nor his boss, so we declined. The island of FaFa would be our sanctuary.

A large number of the people themselves are monumental; bulky, and imposing; both men and women. Though they wear their weight very attractively. Adorned with colour-splash flowered sarongs and dresses. Men were no less men, proud in their smart sarongs, belts and neat shirts. Women were formidable AND elegant with woven mats around their waists too. Schoolkids were eye-catching in their white shirts and bright red shorts or skirts uniforms.

No suburban home looked complete without a lazy dog or a family of hairy pigs.

Japanese aid and assistance was evident in an unexpectedly funny way. If you laughed at the movie about the Jamaican bob-sled team, then you'd probably crack up seeing cars with ski carriers on top, or buzzing along on studded snow-tyres, on a tropical island!

Some taxis bore the markings of Japanese driving schools also. In any other place with more jet-age speed limits, this might have been unnerving.

And so to our island for one, insufficient week. An easy, forty minute boat ride across slightly choppy blue and we were deposited a further step down on the stress scale. We were given a relaxed welcome accordant with luxury accommodation and, without rush, shown to our secluded, traditionally built "fale". That's a hut or cottage made of unobtrusive wood and palm-leaf thatch and panelling. No TV, no fridge, and only small, solar-charged lamps and water-heater, with air-con provided by propping open a panel window with a stick or opening a door. Behind;- an open air loo and bathroom, screened by palm and mangrove forest and hibiscus-laden fence, and patrolled by parrots (koki), kingfishers and mozzies. Out front;- beyond the double hammock suspended between palms, the turquoise yonder. A brief, but not too brief sandy walk to continental breakfast, filleted snapper, grilled prawns, tempting lobster and irresistible fruit salads.

Actually all walks on Fafa are short, so long as you don't stroll the 20minutes around it too many times, having lost your camouflaged fale. Or depending on how long you spend turning starfish onto their backs in the shallows and watching them right themselves, on the way.

Of course, if you walk more slowly than the average sea-cucumber, like us, then you're going to take a few minutes more. And even at that pace, intense scrutinisation would reveal no more than one piece of rubbish on the immaculate shoreline.

Talking of sea-cucumbers; in Tonga they are jumbo sized, say 50cm long by 10cm wide, and there are heaps of them. [That's heaps as in NZ lingo; lots, not heaps as in piles.] When you're wading in the sea cucumbers....... I mean in the sea, it's impossible to avoid stepping on one. This induces an interesting, somewhat startling sensation, mainly because, as I now know, they are very, very soft, though quite firm, slippery, and, well, alive.

Settling in.
Meeting the jumping crabs in the shower. Checking out the neighbours; the blue-tailed skinks. Defending our coffee creamer sachets against attacks by roving swamp hens. Assimilating to the aerial bombardment of gecko shit from the rafters.

One gecko exhibited remarkable marksmanship (marksgeckoship?) with a turd that bulls-eyed the spout on our hot water thermos flask. There! That'll reassure you that this isn't a travel brochure.

Then the business of eutopiating.
Toes in the sand. Eyes following the diving, white terns plunge into the waves and searching for where they surface some-improbable-place else. Snorkelling the coral fringes. Challenging little striped fish protecting their particular fronds, either bravely or somehow aware of their evolutionary advantage over me in that environment. Making the sand fly. Volleyball with the resort staff. Being eaten by the sand fly. Gazes sipping down the last streaks of minestrone sky*.

Now I'm going to protect the closer details of my honeymoon as vigorously as that little clown fish protects its coral. Threaten me with a monster thirty times my size, with a glass face, blowing bubbles and wearing one pink flipper and one green, and I might just give way, though.

A transpacific wind arose and dropped the temperatures, increasing our use of the thermos for hot tea and coffee.

We took a day back on the main island to find local crafts and purchase a packet or two of Tongan coffee. As we went we made some superficial observations and I chatted to a cafe owner during coffee and cake, to try and take away slightly more than just a passing idea of this country.

One intriguing aspect to Tongan life is the lack of old people around. It appears that the trend to obesity severely reduces life expectancy as well as aged mobility. But deep fried dough balls (similar to doughnuts) continue to be a hugely popular snack.

Another noticeable lack, but a positive, fortunate one, is that beggars are nowhere to be seen. Out of all countries, not just so-called "less-developed" ones, this is amazing! I was told that the poor are well looked after, either by friends or community. Alongside that, visitors like us are left alone and never pestered, which is also pretty rare in less industrialised countries. Nobody tried to drag us into a carpet shop, whispered "hash" or "jiggy jiggy" in our ears, approached us trying to sell watches, sunglasses, art-gallery-tours or sarongs, or tried to polish/buff our sandals. They are a very self-contained people, with the confidence to match, made evident by a proud bearing; friendly, but not excessively so, but with a certain detachment. I shouldn't dwell on these kinds of generalisations though. Anything about apparent friendliness depends, naturally, upon my own openness, character, personality, attitude and appearance, too. All easily questionable, I'm sure. [If you automatically want to add "smell" to this list of attributes, you might want to drop off my mailing list soon.] To stack things even more against me, my ability in Tongan language was less than rudimentary. And, although most people I encountered spoke good English, if you can't make a good show of speaking some of the native language, then you'll only scratch the surface of the surface.

What goes inside most Tongans is tasty Fish Curry and rice.

What goes into many Tongan lungs is tobacco smoke. Not many people don't smoke; male or female. Is it the national pastime?

And what goes out of the country are some business profits. 100% foreign-owned companies are permitted.

To survive living on a South Pacific island, practically everyone learns to sing AND swim. I don't think simultaneously, unless that's what attracts whales to these parts. The delightful singing and dancing of Tonga and a number of other Poly- or Micro-nesian islands were giftedly displayed in a floor show on our last evening on our island. The resort staff plus some of their friends from other nearby islands (including some Fijian nationals living in Tonga) put their whole hearts and souls into thoroughly entertaining the guests and themselves too. They could easily have been mistaken for being professional performers, though none were. Except to the extent that we, the guests could express our appreciation, mid-performance, by sticking small Tongan cash notes to their skin, oiled expressly for that purpose. I tell you; putting those notes on isn't too easy during some of the war-like moves. Perhaps I should've consulted my travel insurance terms and conditions beforehand.

The relaxed ease with which vocal harmonies and 12-string guitar and ukelele cascades were crafted was hypnotic. Especially as just about all were getting silly on kava, being passed around in a wooden bowl with legs, and drunk from a ladle. It's not alcoholic, but even the little I had was enough to numb my gums. I found that out after the show, when Haruyo and I joined the cast circled around the guitars, sitting on the floor in a corner of the restaurant, lilting into the night; the crash of the waves and the whistling of the bowing, bending palms almost forgotten background accompaniment.

With no morning-after effects from my mouthful, or two, of gum-number (pronounced 'nummer') we enjoyed our last few hours in paradise. Last swim. Last lounge around. Last wander through the sandy mangroves and coconut palms. We were kindly allowed to use our fale until the late boat off Fafa. Then with a few of the other islanders going home late from the party, we bounced across the waves in a small tub with an outboard motor, to Nuku Alofa. The next day they would have the luxury speedboat to ferry guests to and fro, but it was our lot to use the ordinary people's boat because the good one was being repaired. Which was fine by me; I prefer not to be excluded from the ordinary people category.

They'd shown us the Millennium Boat in Nuku Alofa harbour before, and if that was anything to go by (or not, more like!), it not having been finished in time for the real millennium Jan 1st 2001, let alone for the intended fake one, Jan 1st 2000, then perhaps the Fafa speedboat might not be ready this century.

The M Boat was being built to an old traditional wooden design and, though not complete, to my eyes it was very boat-esque. In fact, lying at its moorings in the rich daylight of early evening, it showed a kind of royal, serene impatience in its majesty of warmly glowing timbers.

We then got into an uncharacteristic hurry.

Miss Sun was busily looking for her striped pyjamas (or pajamas if they're stars'n'striped) and one of Tonga's to-die-for sights was slipping from possibility. The minibus transfer to our final night's accommodation, the International Dateline Hotel, was late and we then dragged the same driver away from his waiting family and dinner by offering him the fare to race us across the island at, of course, under the sedate speed limit.

Past pre-sundown games of volleyball and football, shutters coming down on the barred shop fronts, and more pigs and dogs. Turn right. By fields of tapiocre and giant-leafed taro and turn left near a regiment of tall coconut palm sentinels in regular rows, and beyond to a mangrove coast, in a beaten up Mitsubishi with a cracked windscreen, that didn't want to start again if the engine was switched off. It was funny that the driver owned a very swish looking motor launch, much bigger and better than his job wagon. Then again, the performance of the boat was more likely to be tested than that of this restricted vehicle. If we'd had a ding (NZ-ish for crash. Even when serious with fatalities!), we wouldn't have dented a chick driving an eggshell head on.

And so to the Blow Hole Coast.

The coast arced round to where the Miss Sun neared the horizon, her white hot dazzle barely diminished in the unadulterated, clear atmosphere. But she was intermittently fuzzed out by the spray of a thousand or more fountains jetting from an array of fine, hollow terrace formations standing brimming with water just proud of the surf below the cliffs.

Apart from if we'd been able to wait for Miss Sun to kiss the horizon, we could hardly have been there at a more spectacular time. But we didn't want to let our driver's engine or his dinner get too cold. He went beyond his duty by stopping to show us the nightly fruit-bat exodus from a particular stand of trees. Then he deposited us at our four star hang out.

The hotel resounded to the strains of a packed concert of opera and Polynesian music, but we paid it little heed. Part of the reason was that we needed to be at the airport while it was still dark in the morning.

[Censor's cut.]
Outside the terminal there were a few security guards with their jackets kind of at half mast down their backs and arms, ready disabled, almost inviting someone to take a swing. I didn't see anyone do that, though.

We checked in and paid our T$28 (aboutUS$15) departure tax, which seemed mildly ridiculous considering the meagre facilities and absence of a sign to indicate where we should proceed next. And when we did pass through the right door to the waiting area, we sat on plastic chairs probably cast-offs gifted from Japan! I write this only because we found it funny. It had no negative impact on the enjoyment of our trip whatsoever. Moreover, it injected a smile into our sadness at leaving.

With a kava bowl and a CD of Tongan music to help trigger memories in the future, we arrived back in NZ to news of a possible introduction of a tax on fat content in food because twice the number of people dying on the roads, are dying of obesity.

I'm tempted to examine the theory that maybe if you're overweight, you're likely to be more visible to motorists, and have extra, protective padding. Thus you are less likely to die on the road! But I might be stretching your patience.

Better go and examine my navel instead.

On the other hand, I much prefer to get out to a local farm with my friend, Dean, to dodge the dung from a row of cows' backsides during milking; or to slather a spoon load of NZ clover honey (it's tastier than the antibiotic Manuka honey, also NZ, any day) on a toasted slice of Haruyo's homemade bread and down it with a glass of that full, fresh cow juice; or drop into my mate Rob's home workshop and turn a few more shavings off my cracked-block/potential-bowl of swamp Kauri wood, dug up from a bog in Northland where it might have lain for hundreds or thousands of years; or go trawl a big net strenuously along the edge the Waikato estuary with 80years-young Bill all morning in an effort to net a couple of Kilograms of tiny whitebait (which sounds more worth it when I say that it's about NZ$140 a Kg! And we'd rather eat it fried in patties than sell it!!); or go dredge through the mud of low tide at Clarke's Beach with looong-time-friend, Onion-man Simon and his boy Hyugo, to pick off a full quota of the spitting Scallops, large and plentiful this year after a ban on harvesting them last year due to some toxic bacterial infection ( Mmmmmm...?? They are sensational, though; grilled with soy sauce and grated cheese.)

But it's raining. With a vengeance. And I'm behind with my writing.
UberPeace to You

And here's something funny I just thought of:
Perhaps American Intelligence, after making a spelling error whilst eavesdropping on the telephone calls of Afghan carpet salesmen, deduced that the Taliban wanted to use the profits from selling drugs to fund terrorism.

* Minestroni sky: copyright Haruyo. Although she's forgotten saying it, I got the expression from her. Genius, eh?


< previous report | next report >