Our introduction to the Tongan Way began one afternoon when a heavyset, elderly man, clad only in a t-shirt and dark blue, shin-length wraparound, rowed out to where we’d anchored in a bay near Neiafu. His smile stretched from ear to ear. As he pulled alongside, he handed me a large basket made from a banana leaf and filled with pineapples and mangos.
His English was excellent, if a trifle formal. “Welcome to Tonga. My name is Isaake. I hope you like mangos. I can bring you bananas or papaya if you would prefer.” Tom invited him aboard. I listened with fascination to Isaake’s stories, each more colorful than the previous one. While Isaake made his living as a farmer, he told us he came from royal lineage, the second of several sons.
Pointing to a wooden bungalow on the beach, a large and gracious if somewhat dilapidated clapboard house with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the water, he explained it had been built by a German missionary in the late 1800s. As the second son, much like in the English tradition, Isaake had inherited the house and a ceremonial role in the village, while his older brother served as a minister in the King’s court.
As Isaake left, he invited us to dinner a few days later. I’d been struck by his generosity and wondered what I might offer him in return. Nothing that came to mind had the elegant simplicity of sweet ripe fruit in a handmade basket. With some hesitation, I offered him a bag of butterscotch candies for his grandchildren.
When we arrived for dinner, Isaake introduced us to his wife Anna, a slender, soft-spoken woman with a mass of thick, grey hair piled loosely on top of her head. After showing us around the house—devoid of furniture—he led us into the solarium we’d seen from Salieri. Intricately detailed handwoven pandanus mats covered the floor. A sofa and a small table, both white wicker, were the only furniture in the room. He motioned for us to sit on the sofa while he sat cross-legged on a nearby mat. Anna brought in a large tray, laden with platters of fish, bread and vegetables. Laying it on the mat, she placed a section of banana leaf in front of Isaake and another in front of Tom. When she’d ladled several mounds of food onto the banana leaves, she sat on Isaake’s left. Isaake began to eat with his fingers, motioning Tom to follow suit.
Anna and I watched in silence as the two men ate, also in silence. I had no idea when—or whether—Anna and I would eat. I couldn’t believe they’d invite us to a meal and then not feed me, but I wasn’t sure. Finally, when the men had finished a second helping, Anna filled another banana leaf and laid it in front of me. She filled one for herself. We, too, ate with our fingers, in silence, with the men watching. Ill at ease watching the men eat and in turn being watched as I ate, I felt even more awkward trying to eat the soft shapeless foods with my fingers. Instinctively, I read the absence of silverware as primitive, the absence of furniture as poverty.
The silence, as odd as it seemed, saved me from having to make conversation when I had no idea what to say. Even so, it struck me that Isaake was a very gracious host. As things turned out, we saw Isaake each time we returned to Neiafu. Many aspects of his life felt familiar. A tireless worker, he ran a large and efficient farm on which he raised vanilla beans as well as fruits and vegetables, relying heavily on principles of crop rotation and modern techniques of fertilization. He doted on every member of his household, including several children and a dozen or so grandchildren. He was a deacon in the Methodist Church and encouraged us to come with him to church on Sundays. Isaake admired many aspects of western culture, and I soon discovered he and Anna operated far more easily in our world than we did in theirs.
When they joined us for dinner on Salieri, they sat on the settee, were adept with silverware and seemed unfazed by the four of us eating at the same time. Conversation flowed easily throughout the meal. As I got to know this thoughtful and generous man, I realized he was neither primitive nor unsophisticated. He was just different.
Out of respect, I wanted to be as functional in his world as he seemed in ours. I practiced sitting cross-legged until my knees bent easily, and I grew adept at eating with my fingers. Eventually, I came to understand that if you grow up sitting on the floor, chairs are uncomfortable, much as sitting cross-legged had been uncomfortable for me. If you grow up eating with your fingers, silverware feels like an affectation, a bit like chopsticks to a westerner. In a patriarchal culture, no one questions “why” the men eat first.
Perhaps the most profound lesson came with my discovery that Isaake and Anna were wealthy. As a prosperous farmer, Isaake could afford to buy whatever he wanted … for Anna, a sewing machine powered by a small generator, for himself a motorbike. But they did not want much. Put another way, there were few things they valued that they did not already have … a comfortable house, plenty to eat, a large and healthy family. Furniture and silverware had no appeal to them. Appliances could break and had to be maintained. “We bought the wicker couch,” Isaake eventually told us, “because so many yachties seem uncomfortable sitting on the floor.”
Despite all the “stuff” we had on Salieri—books, music tapes, games, dishes, bicycles, tennis racquets—it struck me that we were poor by Isaake’s standards. I began to reassess the value of the furniture, clothes and artwork Tom and I had so carefully stored in a New York warehouse, things that made life complicated, created worry and work. The simplicity of Isaake’s life appealed to me. I wondered if my life would be simpler if the warehouse burned down.
One afternoon shortly before we were to leave Vava’u, Isaake arrived with a small wood and steel implement, crudely made. As he came aboard, he handed it to me. “A memento of Tonga,” he said. “Isaake, what is it?” “A coconut scraper. I made it for you. Get me a coconut and I’ll show you how it works.” Tom split a coconut with his machete. We watched with amazement when Isaake scraped out the hard, white meat as easily as if he were spooning out ice cream. His gift, a response to a genuine need, had cost him nothing, but was priceless to us.
I wanted to leave them a memento of our visit, something equally special. But what? I asked Isaake what Anna might like. Tom asked Anna what Isaake would like. Comparing notes, we found that both of them had responded with “nothing.” Having nothing to give them made me feel poor in a way I’d never felt before, even in my college days when I had no money. For days, I struggled to think of something I could leave with them. “Would they like some books?” I asked one day over lunch, looking at the yards of bookshelves that surrounded us. “No … the only thing they read is the Bible. Isaake says they already have about two dozen copies, gifts from yachties who preceded us.” Another time, Tom asked, “What about some cooking pots for Anna?” “No,” I replied. “Anna can afford to buy a pot if she needs one. Besides, I want to give them something of ours and we don’t have any pots to spare.”
And then one morning, as I made up the berth, I knew what my gift would be. Anna loved making clothes for her granddaughters. She could afford to buy fabric, but the selection of dark colors and fussy Victorian prints available in the Neiafu market did not appeal to her. Our sheets, while not new, had bright colorful designs and were wrinkle-free. I wrapped up one set of clean sheets and raced over to the house. By the next evening, her three granddaughters all had new dresses.
I felt richer than I’d ever felt before.