I had landed on a dusty airstrip in Fua’motu. It was one of the strangest airports one could imagine, the chaos, noise and colour reminded even more of the Margao Bus depot, than any swanky airport. I was in the Kingdom of Tonga, expecting to expect the unexpected! Indian citizens require Letter’s of Invitation (LOI) prior to arrival. But getting a LOI in Island standard time, makes the Portuguese word ‘susegad’ seem like a mad rush. The Immigration Officer too, was the happiest officer I had ever met. Never had I met such a cheerful immigration officer.
I was keen on getting to know the culture of the Kingdom; a local invited me to a Tongan feast. They love their pork, much more than us christao Goans I confess. There was a huge pig roasted as the piece de la resistance, with raw fish in coconut milk, steamed octopus, fresh clams in lemon, sea weed salad and of course the Pacific staple taro, tapioca and yams- a tropical spread, accompanied with a bellow of male singers and Polynesian maidens cupped in coconut shells; mesmerizingly swaying their hips to local songs - an Island feast just like I had imagined! Except for the roast pork, everything else was raw or steamed, as close to the sea as one can get!
One of the most baffling sights for me in Tonga was the amount of coconuts lying on the island. There were thousands, as if no one had ever picked them up for eons. Bewildered I asked a farmer who was busy planting his crop of tapioca, “Why are there so many coconuts on the ground, does no one collect them?” He said “we don’t use them”. Yea rite!, I thought, I had just eaten coconut milk in my lunch, who was he fooling? “oh we get that coconut milk from Indonesia” he said non plussed. Stupefied I asked, “why?”. “Because it is too difficult to peel a coconut.... much easier from a can.” For a tender coconut at least, someone on this island would be climbing a tree wouldnt they? but... “No... too much trouble to climb such tall trees, and my man, if you wait long enough they will fall down anyway.” Let me get this, what he was saying was, on an island with 6 million coconut trees no one eats coconuts?!. I was wondering if he was taking the mickey, when he continued…. “Oh we do break them sometimes, to feed the pigs.” At this I was sure my mind was playing nasty tricks on me, and with uncontrollable horror I exclaimed, “What! Why would you rather feed pigs the coconuts and not eat them yourself?” He gave me a look, a look that you give to someone who asks a particularly stupid question, and replied “because my man, pigs taste better than coconuts...”
Life is inextricably linked to pigs it seemed, eternally thankful to Captain Cook who introduced them to the islands. The secret of the best roast, the fisherman began; “first you get a little child...” he asserted and there was an uncomfortably long pause. What the devil is wrong with this country I thought! “This is the most important part of the recipe, which I will tell you later”. The anxiety was killing! “Then you catch a pig and prepare a wood fire”. “Then you must use the children...” I gulped; “because they have to sit and turn the pig over the fire, while we drink kawa!” bursting into an uncontrolled hearty laughter! “this is why if you want to have fun, you must not tell anyone when you want to roast a pig, or else all the children will hide...”
The most popular drink all over the South Pacific is made of a crushed up dried plant root-Kawa. I joined a group of men as they had a kawa party. The tradition is to sing as one drinks this potion, and a party, which is every night, can go on for 3-4 hours. The powdered root was mixed in the bowl of fresh water. The men soon began to sing, taking turns to dunk a coconut shell full of what now looked like muddy water. I felt as if I was in an Obelix’s Gaulish village, all huge brutish islander men taking their turns to drink a magic elixir from the cauldron, I being the terrified roman of course! I thought it looked like roadside rain puddle. Swirling it in my mouth like a wine connoisseur it was- muddy, woody, a little body... until a disapproving look caught my eye. The drinking is more like a ritual, very systematic, such that you have at least 5 minutes between every gulp of Kawa. With good reason because the root has a “mild toxin...called cyanide”, put very mildly I reckoned, because cyanide in my country is willingly consumed only for suicides. I had already drunk about 3 big shell’s full of kawa by then. I don’t know if it was my imagination, but could almost immediately feel a tingling in my feet and my ears, and my tongue felt heavy, slurring; I excused myself to the loo. Kawa I am told affects each person differently, and the jolly men refused to let me slink back to my hotel thereafter. I soon was downing shell after shell, each time whispering to myself, “last cup Hansel”, but it never stopped. And then suddenly I felt something, my bladder was bursting. I tried to rush, but my legs were as heavy as sand bags, staggering to the veranda. I had a bladder workout that night- the penny dropped! I slept that night like never before and never had a hangover, because you never get one!
On the islands fringing Va’vau, I chanced upon a book, an account of an shipwreck sailor who wasn’t eaten by the erstwhile cannibal warriors because he was only a boy when they found him. A cave is named after him, because he hid a Polynesian princess from raiders, and so the cave is called ‘Mariner’s cave”. The directions to find the cave were typically Tongan; “find Swallow’s Cave... a cave full of birds, go further until you see a coconut tree, look below into the water and you will see the entrance”. There was only one entrance to the cave- under water. None of us had been there before, but we knew of it, that there was air on the other side. How deep and how far I didn’t know, but i knew it could be done in one breath. Easier said than done. I dived down, swimming, pushing myself deeper and towards that black hole in the rock- and then panic set in! My mind said “yes go there”, but my body wouldn’t budge- a very strange frustrating feeling. The anxiety made me lose my breath, and my lungs were bursting by the time I came back unsuccessfully to the surface gasping. 6 attempts later, I was still gasping by my boat and getting impatient. It was going to have to be mind over matter if I had to do this. kicking as hard as I could, I pulled myself down about 3m about deep to the mouth of the inky black entrance of the underwater cave. Turning over on my back, I grasped the coral on the ceiling and pull myself under the rock into the limestone cave. Bubbles of air trapped looked like shimmering liquid mercury-I remember this because I was running of oxygen, and I still had further to go. I was too deep inside to turn back. What was only 5m under solid rock of the island, seemed like an eternity, before I gasped, breaking into the air pocket-“darn tourist trap!” I muttered. So here I was in an air pocket completely isolated from the atmosphere. Funnily no one told me it was depleted in oxygen. Now I was in the cave but couldn’t get my breath back! What a mighty fine mess I had got myself into; literally getting myself into a hole! But my alarm soon dissolved. It was breathtakingly beautiful; the light filtering from below made the water appear fluorescent. The cave was like an underwater cathedral, the stalactites and stalagmites seemed like enormous pillars and the sound of the waves outside resonated inside. Amazingly every time a wave swell crashed outside, the transferred swell compressed the air inside, fogging the pocket for the few seconds before, as suddenly, vanishing when the swell went down, popping my ears as the pressure dropped. In reality I was still gasping for oxygen, and not wanting to further deplete my the rarified pocket; with the deepest breath, I went under, swimming towards the light, much shorter it seemed as my mind knew where to take me. Thinking I would never do things again!
On my way out of the country, I was stopped at Immigration. Apparently there was a “small mistake”. Though I had an entry stamp on my passport, there was no record of it in their database! Had the friendly officer forgotten to enter me in? An hour of a lot of anxiety later, I was apologised to, because “though this is rare, it has happened before.”
Life is so interesting and unexpected isn’t it?