Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Fish Balls and Freediving
By Michael
Ha'apai, Tonga

My bride.
Remember that school of non-descript fish in Finding Nemo, the one that formed shapes to communicate with the lost little clown fish and send him in the right direction? Well, I don’t think it is the same school that hangs out in the shadow of Del Viento here in Tonga, but Windy insists our school does make coordinated shapes—specifically that of the much larger fish they seem to be hiding from. Not a day after she made this pronouncement, another cruiser said the same thing. Anybody ever observed this?

So while our personal school is cool, we heard that in Swallow’s Cave there are schools of fish that must number in the hundreds of thousands, if not larger. “Really? We’ve been in there, we didn’t notice.”

“You’ve got to be in there at exactly the right time of day, roughly 3:00 pm this time of year, when the sun is perched just above those hills and the light goes straight into the cave opening. It doesn’t last long, but what you see will amaze you.”

Sounded to me like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones in the cavern, staff and crystal planted on the floor, waiting for that moment the sun shone through and aimed a beam of light on the map model on the floor, indicating precisely where the Ark of the Covenent was buried.

Such was our motivation for returning to Swallows.

“Eleanor!” the three of us called from the dinghy. (This is our thing these days, waiting on Eleanor. Doesn’t matter where we’re going, for what occasion, we’re in the dinghy waiting for Eleanor. If Del Viento ever sinks mid-ocean, rest assured Frances, Windy, and I will be in our lifeboat waiting for Eleanor.) There is no place to anchor near Swallow’s Cave. Last time we did what many boats do, leave one person to drive the mothership in circles while everyone else explores. This time, we opted for a long dinghy ride from Port Maurelle.

We got there late, the light was already illuminating the inside of the cave. It was a much different place. The schools of fish were immediately apparent. The girls jumped in the water.
Looking down at the bottom of
Swallow's Cave.

It was a blast swimming with the fish, as though we had a force field that would part the school as we swam through them, and allow them to join up again behind us as we passed. It was surprisingly difficult to get good photos. I didn’t figure out until the end that, counterintuitively, it makes more sense to shoot into the light.


Eleanor is the family freediving champion.

In French Polynesia, we got used to anchoring in clear water. I’d challenge the girls to dive to the bottom and bring me back sand to prove they’d made it. It became a thing and soon 15 to 20 feet was, literally, child’s play. Then 25 to 35 feet became easy. Recently, they both grabbed sand at 40 feet.

Then, working with another family (Hi Exodus!) to retrieve the blade of our Torqeedo prop that snapped off at the hub in 55 feet of water, Eleanor surprised us all. The father of this family and his teenaged boys are accomplished freediving spear fishermen. They were all in the game that morning—finding that broken prop was the order of the day. Tim was using an anchor with a line attached to pull himself quickly down to 45 feet where he could scan the bottom for a while before he ran out of air. Suddenly, there goes a determined Eleanor, kicking with her fins straight down, to the dark depths of 55 feet, where she grabbed a handful of sand (not my prop) and swam easily back to the surface, a huge smile on her face.


Do they spend their entire lives in the cave?

It looks like the fish are forming a human
figure to challenge Frances.

I seriously need one of those boxes that let me get above
water and underwater simultaneously.

Eleanor swimming through a fish ball.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Christianity, the King, and Culture
By Michael

With our Vagrant friends exploring the
limestone tide pools at 'Ene'io beach.
I’m not a cultural scientist, I’m just a visitor to Tonga who doesn’t speak Tongan. My assimilation into Tongan life has been extremely shallow. But I’m curious and have been trying to understand what I’ve been seeing since the day we arrived last fall.

I wrote about this in a post last December. I observed that Vava’u was being colonized, largely by Kiwi and Chinese ex-pats who were starting and running businesses. I wondered why the Tongans were sitting on the bench while foreign players were in the game, on Tongan home turf.

“Granted that ex-pats have ready access to more capital than the average Tongan. But there is a Tongan development bank in town. I’ve heard government corruption is a problem; is that limiting access to capital by entrepreneurial Tongans? Tongan life has evolved in a setting in which food and land are plentiful and the climate is friendly. Free time and attention are given to the church, to the family, to the kava bowl, and to a revered king. Have there been no cultural drivers or impetus to build business? And should there be?”

I concluded:

“Unfortunately for the people who have lived here simply and for so long, I don’t think they will have the option to continue with lives largely undisturbed and unaffected. My Western mindset is inclined to see change as progress and as opportunity for Tongans. But based on what I’ve seen, it’s not gonna happen that way.”

As we depart Vava’u for islands south, I have more to report. Following are some thoughts and anecdotes that have stuck with me.

Days ago, I happened to have a 20-minute conversation with a Tongan government official, a high-ranking person. About 110,000 people live in Tonga, not all of them Tongan (many of the aforementioned Kiwis and Chinese and a smattering of other nationalities call Tonga home). The official told me that last year, $200,000,000 in remittances came in to Tonga from Tongans living in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and other developed countries

I nodded, I regularly see long lines of people standing outside the Western Union office in Neiafu.

The official said this money leaves too many Tongans without a reason to work. He said it’s a big problem he and others in government want to solve. I got the impression he faces an uphill battle that involves more than economics. I got the impression he felt there were no answers at hand.

The average remittance can’t be large. Nobody here appears to be living the high life. Homes and cars and shoes are very modest. So how is it that this money sent home from Tongans abroad is enough to stifle entrepreneurial tendencies? Why does it still take a South African to appear on the scene to meet the demand for commercial laundry services—a booming business founded with only the capital needed to import 3 washing machines and 3 dryers?

A couple years ago, WorldatWork Journal printed an article titled “Culture: The Missing Link Between Remuneration  and Motivation” by Linda Herkenhoff, Ph.D. of St. Mary’s College. In the article, Dr. Herkenhoff tells a story from her time in Tonga:

“In a recent situation experienced by the author in Tonga, an American hotel owner wanted to provide perquisites as a performance motivator for his four management-level employees. He chose to provide company cars. He noticed the cars were usually missing even though the managers were at work. He later discovered that all employees from the cleaning crew upward borrowed the cars as needed. Tongan culture does not embrace hierarchy in business in the same way as the United States. Although Tongans have a hierarchical political structure that includes a king, prime minister and village chiefs, their day-to-day functional existence embraces an egalitarian notion that one can borrow from a neighbor without asking for permission if that person’s need is greater at that moment. This mindset limits crimes associated with stealing because Tongans are just borrowing and will return the item in good time, even if it is their neighbor’s prize pig.”

I’ll note here that, ironically, I haven’t been to a place I’ve felt more safe from theft (and crime in general) than Tonga. I never think twice about theft here.

We did some spring cleaning aboard and came up with a big pile of quality Tupperware-type containers we didn’t need. I put them in a bag and brought them down to the open food market where we buy produce from Tongan women who sell their veggies 6 days a week. I showed my bag to a seller. “Are you interested in trading for these?” She shook her head. I approached the next woman and asked the same question.

So let me set the scene, the Tongan market is small and rarely very busy. Every seller is aware of and is watching every transaction that takes place at another table. The second woman nodded and motioned for me to set the bag down next to her.

Eleanor on a hike with our friends
from Ambler. (photo courtesy Ambler)
“What do you want for them?” she said. I could hardly hear her.

“I don’t know…” I began removing pieces from the bag to display them before her. As quickly as I put containers on her table, they disappeared on to a shelf underneath. I sensed she was uncomfortable. “How about 12 dollars’ worth of your produce?”

She nodded quickly and motioned for me to stop, “That’s okay, that’s okay.” She said, pushing the bag under the table.

I picked out the veggies I wanted. She put more into my bag (I’m told that in Tongan culture, the worst trait that can be exhibited is selfishness or greed).

Then the others showed up. Two or three other women from around the market were at my side with veggies of their own, putting them into my bag. I was confused.

It was explained to me later that these women were laying claim to a share of the loot the other seller had acquired through my trade.

Going back to my conversation with the government official, he told me he no longer hires Tongan housekeepers. He said shoes will go missing and appear on the housekeeper's feet the next day. Hair clips, nail clippers, and food all disappear. He stressed that this was accepted, that the housekeepers bore no shame. They were not stealing, but borrowing, perhaps for a very long time.

There are four core cultural values in Tonga. One of them, feveitokai'aki, stresses sharing, cooperating, and fulfillment of mutual obligations. Apparently, it’s from this value that the permissiveness of borrowing at will originates.

The official told me he is Tongan but not raised to accept this interpretation. He said the “feve” culture strips people of the motivation to acquire. After all, anything you have that might be desired by your peers, you stand to lose.

'Ene'io beach wildlife.
He blamed the recent cyclone (Winston) on the relative shortage of certain root crops at the market these days. “But that’s not all. Nobody wants to farm. Our kids don’t know how to use a shovel to dig a hole in the dirt. 20 years ago, Neiafu exported crops that today we import. It’s sad, there is no excuse for importing things we could produce ourselves. We have the space, the soil, the climate. We don’t have the motivation.”

The other day we met a Japanese volunteer from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which is similar to the Peace Corps. His job for the past several months has been to teach agriculture—seed harvesting, sustainability, and the like.

The Peace Corps is here in force, we see them when they’re in town, American twenty-somethings clustered in drinking establishments not owned by Tongans. I wonder about what they’re learning about this culture before arriving. I wonder what they hope to change, to what end?

The last thing I heard on the VHF as we left Neiafu was an announcement: beginning July 3, the government will begin enforcing a law it suspended in 1982, following Cyclone Isaac. The law: no baking or selling bread on Sunday. Owners of bakeries that open on Sundays will be subject to fines and imprisonment. I’ve written before that Sundays are quiet around here. Neiafu appears deserted and the only sounds are from the churches. No swimming or play is permitted. But you could always buy bread from a back door of one bakery downtown, and from another just a few blocks away. No more.

More 'Ene'io, Windy with Shane and Ian from Vagrant.

Same place, Tina with Windy and the girls.

Andy doing some stainless welding for us at the Neiafu commercial pier.
See the pile of white stuff on the pier behind his transformer? That's
dead, broken coral. It's used extensively throughout town, for walkways
and as a building material, like gravel.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Switching Switches: Rule to Johnson
By Michael

This is our set up, pulled out of the bilge.
Note the black rectangle beside the lower
pump. That's our new switch.
Except when a boat is sinking, there’s no need for a functional electric bilge pump. It’s one of several pieces of equipment on board that we tend to and will likely never depend on. But still, common sense tells us it’s necessary to have a pump that’s ready to save the boat when things unexpectedly go south.

For five years our primary, automatic electric bilge pump has not always been ready to save our boat. When I last realized it was (once again) not working, it was days before we left for California, leaving Del Viento afloat and on her own for three months to face cyclones without a working primary bilge pump. As if the stress of leaving her wasn’t enough.

I’ve been a good Rule customer. Soon after I moved aboard, I bought a new Rule pump and float switch for the first Del Viento. That was 23 years ago. Since that time, I’ve owned a lot of Rule pumps and switches.

When we moved aboard this Del Viento, I bought a monster of a bilge pump, a 4000-GPH Rule with a snazzy built-in switch. Before we solved the problem of our leaking freshwater tanks, our new pump moved many gallons of water. I was pleased with myself. I’d spent a lot of money on that pump, but I could tell it was going to be money well spent, we self-insure.

Two months later, before we’d even left Puerto Vallarta, my pump died. I took it apart. The circuit board inside, part of the integrated switch, had been sitting and corroding in bilge water. It looked like water had entered the case via the wiring harness. West Marine refunded my money.

I went back to old school, replaced the fancy, failed pump with a 2500-GPH pump and separate float switch, same set-up for primary and secondary.

The pump failed after about 18 months. I replaced it. The float switch failed after another few months. I replaced it too. I stuck with Rule.

Things have been okay since then, a little over 2 years.

Until I tested the pump before we left Del Viento in Tonga. The float switch was the failure point, again.

I shopped for a replacement while we were away. I decided to steer clear of Rule. There are other manufacturers. I learned that Johnson offers a 3-year warranty on their non-mechanical bilge pump switches. Rule offers only a 1-year warranty. That was enough for me.

The new switch is a small black box. It senses water and completes the circuit. I can’t say whether it will prove itself over time, I can only point to the warranty.

In Tonga I told another cruiser about our Rule float switch failure.

“Ha! I think we’ve got three backups of those aboard, we’ve gone through so many.”

I decided to find out why my switch failed.

In short, water ingress. I don’t know from where. Check out the photos.

I took the float arm off the base. So far so good. It was
clear that as the arm rises, it rotates the axle on the base
and triggers a switch inside.

It was not easy to pry apart the float arm. Once I did,
dry as a bone inside, just air.

Prying to the two halves of the base apart was difficult too.
Once I was successful, water poured out. Note the black
wire detached where it corroded. Interestingly, the axle turns
a cam that closes something that looks like the points found
under the distributor caps of old cars. Frustratingly, there is
no excuse for not making this hardware water-tight, like forever.
If we can send a man to the moon...
Again, I suspect the wiring harness is the culprit.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Pig on a Pier
By Michael

Frances and Eleanor, my little sea stars.
A string of fronts had delivered nothing but wind and rain, and this morning dawned clear and still. The sun was low and the colors were rich and the water reflected it all. I had a mundane chore to complete: get parts to the welder, at the north end of town.

I dinghied past the small boat wharf and pulled up to a concrete pier closer to my destination. “Mālō e lelei” I said smiling at the Tongans offloading a bright yellow boat. I pointed to their boat and then to my yellow dinghy. “They’re like older and younger siblings.”

“Be careful,” a man told me, pointing to the pier I was tying up to. “It’s very slippery.”

Mālō ‘aupito” I said before climbing gingerly from the dinghy, parts in one hand. The surface, submerged at low tide, was covered in black algae. In my flip-flops, it was like walking on an icy, pitched roof. But the pier is stepped and I was sure footed on the dry concrete of the next level.

About an hour passed before I returned to the pier. Nobody was around, but ahead, sitting on the top of the steps before my dinghy, was a chainsaw and something in a dark burlap bag, the size of a large carry-on suitcase. I noticed the bag move. I saw a pink and white snout poke out a hole in the bag.

Now, you have to understand that pigs are everywhere in Tonga. I’ve never seen one tied up or in a pen, they just roam. Huge pigs root around in any available patch of dirt around town. Juvenile pigs surround them. At night they knock down trash cans like dogs. Mother pigs cross the streets in front of cars and tiny pink piglets run after them, a scene that never fails to delight the girls. Yet, the pigs are fearful of humans. You can’t summon one and if you move towards them, they scatter like hens.

Here we're descending a portion of 178
steep steps from the highest point in Vava'u.
So there is a snout poking from the wiggling bag 20 feet in front of me. I stop. Please don’t keep moving. The pig knows I’m close, it’s getting more agitated. Please stop. I glance around, there is nobody in sight. The bag is moving. No, no, no. It goes over the edge, falling two feet onto the next level. Stop, stop! I run forward. It continues wriggling, off the pier, into the water. I race down the stairs to the next level, eyes on the pig in the bag in the water. There is nothing for my feet to grab and I’m on my back, sliding, scrambling, toward the water. I stop.

Now I’m desperate to save a drowning pig, but just to get across to him on this slick surface, I’ve got to move at the speed of an astronaut on the moon. When I can finally get a fistful of burlap bag, the pig is still struggling, but I’m overwhelmed by how big and heavy it is. I lower my center of gravity and try and wedge a foot so I can reach down with both hands. The bag is ripping where I’m pulling and now a leg pops out of another hole. Like the 100-pound wife who lifts the family car to save her pinned husband, I somehow managed to get the pig onto the pier with me. I’m crouched, streaked with algae-slime, and holding a shredding bag filled with a panting, angry, and terrified pig. There is still nobody in sight.

I hear a loud whistle and lift my head. A fisherman in the small boat wharf 200 feet away is aware of my plight. He is yelling urgent Tongan to someone I can’t see. He turns and waves to me. I nod lamely.

It was another minute before the young Tongan guy rushed up to relieve me of the pig. In that time, the pig and I both calmed. I’d saved his life, but I knew there was only one reason he was in the burlap bag. By tonight he’d be the main course of a family’s feast. Our brief adventure would be his final act.


The girls at the overlook. That's Neiafu, center left in the photo.
Del Viento is someplace on a mooring in front.

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