Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bonga Bonga hits the Kingdom of Tonga

In August, I was incredibly fortunate and honored to be invited as a "last-minute entry" on a sailing adventure in the South Pacific Ocean. (Someone had to back out of the trip. I selflessly volunteered to take his place. It's the very least I could do, right?) ANYWAY, some friends of mine who are experienced sailors organized the entire trip, which involved bareboat chartering three 42-foot catamarans (each outfitted with 4 cabins and 4 heads, a kitchenette and a small salon). "Bareboat," by the way, means that you crew your own boat. It has nothing to do with nudity; albeit, there was some rum-infused flashing of arses at one point during the trip. It could have been a South African and a New Zealander, but I'm not naming any names.

ANYWAY, there were Austinites on two of the boats, and one boat full of Kiwis (our buddies from New Zealand). Together, we set sail among the 171 pristine islands that make up the Kingdom of Tonga. Specifically, we sailed among the island group known as Vava'u. Look it up on Google Maps. Go ahead. I'll wait.... You see those dots that look like someone spilled crumbs on a blue rug? That would be the Kingdom of Tonga.

We traveled for 1.5 days from Austin to LAX to Auckland, NZ, to Tonga to Vava'u. The journey was worth every recycled breath of stagnant airplane air I ingested. I offer Exhibit A at right as proof. Observe, dear friends, the Bonga Bonga Files. (Click on the image to view the entire album.)

By the way, "Bonga Bonga" is a term coined by the founding fathers of these annual sailing adventures that take place in far-flung corners of the world. The founding fathers are the awesomest skipper ever, Mr. Michael Landry of Austin, Texas, and the greatest sailor south of the equatorial divide, Mr. Grant Headifen of Auckland, New Zealand. I want to take this very public opportunity to once again say thank you to these guys for an amazing seven days of sailing in Paradise. (And, yes, that's paradise with a capital P.)
This trip represented many firsts for me: first time in the Southern Hemisphere, first time living on a boat, first time to ingest kava, first time to use a hand-pump toilet, first time to snorkel with sharks, first time to see a whale, first time to use SPF 100, first time to see the Southern Cross, first time to sit at a table with a glazed pig staring me in the face, first time to speak Tongan ("Fakamolemole!"), and I'm sure there are many more firsts that escape me here.

I liken the whole experience to camping at sea. We took military-style showers, woke every morning to witness the sun rise, and ended each day watching the moon climb into the night sky. My boat mates and I morphed into sun-kissed creatures (I heart being tan!), and we lived in our bathing suits. None of the women bothered with makeup or their hair. Our days were filled with good conversation, good eating (thanks to my bunkie, Allison "Party Pants" Waddell), world-class snorkeling, gratuitous napping and sunbathing, sarong wrapping, vodka mixing, anchor lowering, anchor raising, dinghy beaching, rum drinking, making jokes, making toasts, collecting shells, reading maps, reading books (thanks, in particular, to Natalie for her excerpt readings from Chelsey Handler's "My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands"), beer drinking, applying and reapplying sunscreen, drinking coffee, boat bacon!!!, laughter, and nicknaming. (It seemed we all earned nicknames before the week was over. I was dubbed "Geez Louise" because I exclaimed these words upon spilling plastic cups and dishes all over the deck.)

Yes, it was a one-of-a-kind adventure, hands down my best impulse buy of 2010. I brought a journal and recorded some moments in writing. These, I'll share with you here:
Scenes from The Flying Fox Cafe
The women behind the counter at The Flying Fox cafe in the Tonga International Airport are amazed at all the travelers who suddenly have descended upon the premises -- Americans, New Zealanders, Japanese ... and a few Tongans. I was told that only 17,000 tourists a year visit these islands. The oldest of the cafe employees (the kind-faced woman who served me an ice-cold coconut with a straw in it) has a camera in her hand. She points it at the modest collection of tables in her cafe, which is now full of people of all dialects and color. Everyone is giddy with excitement. There's chatter about snorkeling and sailing. People are getting to know each other. Bursts of laughter here and there.
I walk into the gate area just outside the cafe. A group of Tongan men and women dressed in black shirts and woven grass skirts sit quietly. I take a seat next to a man whose fingernails are overgrown and clodded with dirt. He smells of tobacco. I read my book. He sips his coffee. "We're going to a funeral," he says, and I realize he is talking to me. I ask if the deceased is a relative of his. No, he says. He was a friend.
Apparently he was only 40 years old, a farmer who died unexpectedly. The talk among friends and relatives is that he wasn't handling his pesticides correctly. I nod, as if this sounds logical enough. I tell him that I'm sorry for his loss. He says thank you and then abruptly stands up, wishes me a good trip and steps outside to look at the airplane parked on the tarmac.
Not Your Mama's Lullaby
I've decided to sleep on deck under the stars tonight. I bring my pillow and blanket out to the trampoline. It's close to a full moon and I cast a long shadow as I unfurl my blanket and then roll myself up like a burrito. I take stock of the milky streaks of constellations. The boat gently rocks underneath me; the breeze intermittently brushes my bangs away from my forehead. I want to stay awake, stay in this moment, but, man, this is relaxing. My eyes close and I start to drift.

Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train
And I's feeling nearly as faded as my jeans!
A man's voice bellows across the black water. Now several other voices chime in...
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained,
It rode us all the way to New Orleeeans!
Apparently the party isn't over on the Bonga Bonga catamaran that's anchored several meters from ours. I had left the festive gathering 30 minutes early, eager to stake out a place to slumber under the stars back on our boat.
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose!
Nothing don't mean nothing, honey, if it ain't free
And feeling good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues,
You know feeling good was good enough for meeeeee,
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee!

I start giggling and I hear Deb, wrapped in her blanket a few feet from me, giggling too. Judging by the passion and conviction with which these partiers are belting out the lyrics, I don't think the night will be silent for some time. I continue to listen to the string of serenades coming across the water -- everything from John Denver to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Miraculously, I eventually fall asleep, anyway.
Not your mama's lullabies -- but effective, nonetheless.
Morning Routine
Sitting on deck in my PJs and watching the sun come up over the palm trees on the horizon. An orb of soft yellow grows larger, with wispy clouds continuously shaping and reshaping into dramatic displays of pink, lavender and orange. Someone turns on the stereo below deck. Big Head Todd's "Bittersweet" reaches my ears. I smell coffee, onions and bacon. I hear grease frying in a pan. Newby sits a few feet away, elbows resting on knees, a mug of coffee between her hands. I hear Kennedy and Landry at the back of the boat. They're messing with the masks and flippers, talking about a morning swim. A big splash. Some shuffling. Another big splash. I turn back around to face the sun, which now hangs several "feet" above the island in front of our boat. I get up from the trampoline and head below deck. Time to get some coffee and put my swimsuit on. It's going to be another good day.
Like Lewis and Clark, Sort Of
We beach the dinghy on a small island whose entire circumference is comprised of white, sandy beach. The interior is thick with palm trees and other tropical varieties. A swirling, chatty flock of birds circles above the treetops. Jared and Deb take seats in the fine sand underneath the shade of the treeline. Langford starts collecting small rocks and making a design in the sand. The two couples pair off for a leisurely stroll. Allison follows the shoreline and collects shells. I follow her lead, staying a few yards behind her, but eventually ending up several yards ahead of her.
I'm enjoying this solo exploration -- just me, my sippy cup of rum and juice and the constant crashing of the waves as I circle to the backside of the island. I come across an intricate arrangement of large, gray rocks -- each measures maybe 8 to 10 feet in diameter. Their surfaces are perfectly smooth and flat, like larger-than-life stepping stones. It makes me think of landscape architecture, and how nature is The Original.

I collect shells and pieces of coral of all colors, textures and sizes. The farther I walk, the pickier I get about my collection. I start swapping out previous finds for better ones. I'm meticulously combing the sand and pebbles under my feet, but intermittently I stop to look up and assess the view in all directions. There are times when I'm the only human in sight. I bet it has looked this way for hundreds - maybe thousands? - of years. The thought sends a tingle up my spine. I must never forget this moment! I'm on a thumbprint of an island in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. Pinch me!

I eventually reach the point where I began. I slurp down the last few sips from my Camelbak thermos and join the others. The guys have noticed that the wind is changing direction; we need to get back to our anchored boat. I toss my two handfuls of shells into my empty thermos for safekeeping and follow the others into the dinghy.
We motor across the choppy turquoise water toward the Tigress, leaving behind the birds, still circling and swirling above the treetops.
Peeping Tom
I wake up to find the moon peering in at me through the open hatch above our bunkbed. I meet his silvery gaze for a few seconds and then drift back to sleep.

The Big Race
On my belly in a lounge chair at the Tonga Beach Resort, I peer over the top of my book to watch a hermit crab and a lizard race across the beach. The lizard seems to be the clear winner until he suddenly ducks into a hole and the hermit crab steadily waddles past toward an unseen finish line.
The Whole Boy Bird Meets Girl Bird Thing
We're anchored in a cove. Our catamaran faces an island whose trees are various shades of green and yellow. Two white birds catch my eye. They chase each other from tree to tree, swooping, diving and intermittently coasting in sync on the ocean's breeze - their wings broad and still. They duck in and out of sight several times, but always reappear together, never straying more than a few yards from one another.
I keep thinking that this chase will end, but it doesn't. I follow them with my eyes for what seems like 15 minutes. Eventually the chase begins to look more like a well-choreographed dance. I wonder if this is some sort of mating ritual. Am I watching a courtship transpire? You know what they say: The chase is always the most interesting part.