You know those slap-to-the-face moments. The ones where you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you don’t fully appreciate the situation, then you stop, take a fresh look around and SLAP you realize how amazing it actually is.
This was one of those moments.
Its early in the evening and we’re sitting on the floor in a barren room inside the Pangai Naval Base. Nick, Dralle and I are sitting next to each other forming part of a circle. Nick is on the melodica (an air powered miniture keyboard), Dralle is singing and playing guitar and I’m playing charango (a south american ukulele). Completing the circle is Conner (from Ardea) and about a dozen young Tongan men. In the center of the circle are two smooth black half coconut shells and a large metal bowl filled with Kava. Kava is a traditional drink made from a root ground up into powder and then used to create a tea-like infusion that tastes very much like mud, they make it by the bucket full. After a bowl or two of Kava your mouth begins to go numb and after a few more you find that, while you can still think perfectly clearly, you’re no longer really in a hurry to do anything. Its like the opposite of coffee, except much much weaker. Tongans love it.
Between songs one of us makes a hollowed out clap, the universal sign for “more kava please”, and once everyone has been served we move on to the next song. At first we play some ‘American’ songs; Bluegrass, Johnny Cash, etc … but quickly realize thats not what they’re into. They begin making requests, “Can you play slow love songs?”, “Do you know Celion Dion?”. Celion Dion is not something we know. We dig deep into our memories and try to think of any song we know how to play that could be classified as a slow love song. Turns out Ween does not count, we tried. We have a songbook that we pass around, this way they can decide what we should play next. First request: Joy to the world. Its still October, but why not. The crowd goes wild! Half the times we’re just repeating the same lyrics, but everyone is singing along, some of them are really getting into it. I glace up from the songbook and take a look around. We’re in a run down naval base in the backwaters of Tonga playing christmas music (in October) to a kava circle. SLAP!
We play a few more songs on their request, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Silent Night”. I’ll never be able to hear those songs again and not think of Tonga. We said our goodbyes around midnight and made our way back to the boat. The next day we talk with Steven who works at the Naval Base, he hosted the kava night and stayed up till 4 drinking kava, slept two hours and then started his Navy chores. As far as we can tell he’s the only actual member of the Pangai Navy. We’re not even sure the Navy owns a boat (maybe that could explain why he keeps interchanging the words Navy and Army?). Steven looks up at the sky and seems deep in thought, after a short pause he tells us, “Good kava drinking weather”. Its always good kava drinking weather in the Tonga.
Thanks to a few waves of bad weather we ended up spending quite a bit of time in Pangai, the largest town (but by no means a large town) in Tonga’s Ha’apai group. When we first arrived we stumbled into a school supply store for no reason other than to kill some time. The shopowner was a big smiley lady (both her and her smiles were big) who seemed to be enjoying the novelty of us white-folk browsing her store. She asked if we we’re enjoying our time in Ha’apai and we gave the mandatory “Yeah we LOVE it here” then asked, “So what should we see while we’re in Pangai?” Her response came covered with a thick serving of pride, “Oh, theres nothing to see here! People come here to relax.” She wasn’t joking either, downtown theres a cafe that will serve you a hamburger or pizza while you browse the ultra slow internet, you can buy (really pretty amazing) fried chicken from the blue house near the wharf, veggies from the market … and thats … about … it. At night the kids wander around throwing rocks at mango trees trying to score themselves a late night snack. There are no bars, and at first glace you might think the young men just stay at home at night. Then you walk by the naval base.