Having been up late the night before, I took a nap between 1400 and 1700. By then, conditions were noticeably worse. Also, Melelini and I had acquired three more house guests: ‘Uta’s sister Tai, and Tai’s daughters, Tapuaki age 13, and Joy Lily, age 8. The extended family was becoming more immediate. Like ‘Uta’s husband, Tai’s husband was out of the country (there are more Tongan subjects living overseas than in the Kingdom). Melelini said that the five other women were frightened by the storm, and that I needed to stay in the main part of the house to reassure them. I was The Man.
Melelini, ‘Uta, and Tai prepared dinner, and since “everything is in the crate,” and we did not have chairs for everyone, we sat on a fala (a pandanus mat) on the floor in traditional Tongan style around 1800 hours. Of no particular relevance to our situation, I noted with irony the Orwellian plates off which we ate: in China, what more could “Freedom” mean than the brand name of an export product? As far as we knew, the eye was passing us and the worst was over. Then Maikolo sent another text message at 1830 to update us on the situation. René had slowed and turned. The new projection was for the passage of the eye 50 kilometres to the west around 2100 hours. Expected winds were 125 knots, or 220 kilometres per hour. Some enchanted evening. Around 1900 hours pieces of ‘Uta’s metal awning to her porch broke away, and it seemed that the failure of metal roofs was imminent. It sounded like Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart were jamming on our roof. Tai knelt on the fala and lead us in prayer in the candlelight. I ventured outside to fill a pail of water so that we could keep flushing the toilet. No power meant no water pump, and therefore no water pressure. Our yard was almost entirely under water, as much as 20 centimetres in some places. I thought of New Orleans during Katrina, as I had seen it on a wide-screen TV in a hotel lounge in Long Beach, California while attending an aerospace conference. Suddenly, it was my turn. The escalating wind sounded more threatening given that René was bearing down on an island that was small enough to slip in his pocket and walk out the front door without tripping a security alarm.
Around 1930 the storm began to taper off, and by 1950 it was dead calm. We were in the eye of the cyclone. ‘Uta said, “Maybe the storm is over.” No, this wasn’t the end. This wasn’t even the beginning of the end, but it was the end of the beginning.
I spent most of the next hour standing on the front porch, absorbing the contrast between the peace of the present and the violence of the past 24 hours. I had heard that in the centre of an eye the sky is clear and that one can see blue sky in the daytime or the stars at night. We didn’t appear to be in the exact centre; the sky was still cloudy, although no rain was falling. I moved my head slowly from side to side while focusing on the sky, as I had learned to do as an Air Force back-seater, and the stars were there, although very dim. Joy Lily offered me a mango. They were all over the place, shaken out of the trees. Around 2110 the wind began to pick up again. That seemed an hour early by my calculations, for if the eye passage really had been at 2100 hours, and given that we had had more than an hour of calm before that, it seemed to me that we should have had more than an our of calm after eye passage. That the wind came up an hour ahead of schedule I took to mean that eye passage had actually occurred about 2030. I also expected that as the wind came up, conditions would deteriorate as rapidly as they had improved, but by 2215 there was still only a steady wind with occasional gusts, but nothing very threatening, and no rain. The trailing half of the cyclone appeared to be much less violent than the leading half. Of course, René had been predicted to weaken to a Category 2 cyclone as it continued south into cooler waters. As I drifted to sleep, the wind in the trees sounded like the gentle surf of Monterey Bay.
I awakened Tuesday morning to the trailing wake of René: light breezes and steady rain that one associates with a warm front in temperate climates. Melelini, ‘Uta, and Tai prepared a morning meal for all of us, and again we sat on the fala. I will note here what, as far as I know, is fairly standard Tongan flooring. Forget about carpeting; in this steamy climate it would only provide an environment to be colonized by God knows what. And, with all the rain, one needs flooring that will stand up to constant moisture. The solution is a simple one: cement. The material covering the cement floor is equally utilitarian; it is plastic sheeting that is available in a half-dozen or more decorative designs.
After breakfast, ‘Uta resumed a task that had busied her for part of the previous evening by candlelight, meticulously picking through her daughter’s hair. I hadn’t taken much interest in this, only wondering in passing whether this was what it appeared to be, as the weather conditions were more than enough to satisfy my curiosity. In the calm of morning and the light of day, however, I gave a bit more scrutiny, and saw that occasionally ‘Uta was pinching her thumb and forefinger, drawing them along the length of a few isolated strands of Mata’s hair, then bringing her pinched fingers to her lips. As I observed this ten million year old hominid ritual, there was the 21st century sound of a chainsaw in the distance cutting away trees felled by the cyclone.
Melelini wanted to know from Maikolo whether there would be classes today. Being more experienced at text messaging, I handled communications. Maikolo said that roads were impassable and students couldn’t get to campus. He asked whether we had water. We had potable water, but water for flushing the toilet would become a problem because the bucket outside the house was no longer filling up quickly enough to keep up with the demands of seven people.
I offered to do a damage assessment recon mission to the campus, and Maikolo, who lived about six kilometres from ‘Atenisi, took me up on it. Our house was no more than a kilometre from campus.
Nothing could shout louder that we were in the Third World than the dilapidated condition of the ‘Atenisi University campus, yet it also communicated something else. Somehow it had the feeling of a Mediterranean archaeological site, of a place that had been built to be much more than it was now, although the buildings were largely intact, and fresh coats of paint all around would have considerably improved appearances. One could walk around and easily imagine what the campus must have been like in its heyday 30 to 40 years earlier. It was also a place where still another historical period could be sensed; Futa Helu had built this campus largely with his funds, with his own intellect as an architect, and even with his own hands to some extent, as a temple of the classical philosophers, in the belief that philosophy and mathematics were the foundation all other learning. Against one building leaned several columns ingeniously fabricated from aluminium sheeting, scoured in regular interval with parallel lines to suggest fluting, and turned into tapered columns. Also, the loose-fitting clothes of the Tongans suggested Greco-Roman tunics. It was a tableau out of an H. Rider Haggard adventure, a lost civilization in the jungle. Here in the tropical steaminess stood a tarnished treasure, still standing, not in the aftermath of barbarian rampage, but against the merciless and unrelenting onslaughts of time and poverty. Here one saw Futa’s struggle to ignite a spark of learning and to keep it alive on an impossibly small budget, a struggle that Maikolo had inherited.
The physical state of the campus was also a monument to the neglect of the modern age, of a world that is forgetting the value of classical learning, that is training workers rather than educating students. We had seen no barbarians here, but we had seen their work in America. The “corporate model” was inexorably wresting the reins of academia from the soft and enervated hands of benevolent government. Under the guise of keeping learning alive, they were busy bending the educational system to their own immediate purpose, to create an advanced race of widget producers and consumers without the critical thinking skills to question the direction in which the elites might be taking civilization.
Fortunately, in the aftermath of René, there was no obvious damage to any buildings except to the science building, which Maikolo wanted to tear down anyway. The science classroom itself was usable, and Firitia started teaching classes in it two days later on Thursday. The “laboratory,” as it was called, had pools of standing water and very poor exterior lighting, which was the only light to be had during the power o’Utage. A lone wasp did his best to ignore my intrusion. In the dimness stood a telescope; all of the optics were missing except for its four-inch mirror, and that was either dirty or was losing its reflective coating. There were several microscopes on the shelves, the skull of a large mammal, and row upon dusty row of bottles labelled with ominous sounding chemicals. It is strange how things long disused silently cry out to the imagination of how they were once handled, of how they themselves were participants in processes of discovery by eager young minds. “We remember when….” One can look up at an unflown Saturn V launch vehicle on museum display in Huntsville or in Houston and hear her say, “My older sisters took men to the Moon; and I was ready to take them to Mars.” In this dank laboratory on an obscure island in the South Pacific, neglected instruments and bottles gave their own mute testimony to dusty dreams of discovery.
The scene at the shipping company, east of downtown Nuku’alofa in the light industries area, was something akin to Gilbert and Sullivan, Monty Python, and Douglas Adams. None of the customs officials seemed to know how to do his or her job. Nearly a week earlier, we had come to an agreement with Peter Nash, the head of customs for the entire Kingdom, but rather than put it in writing, he had simply given us his card and had told us to phone him if the customs agents at the shipping company gave us a problem. They did. No one wanted to stick his neck out and take our word for what the boss had said. So, phone calls were made, then everyone had to go to lunch, and after lunch several hours were wasted entering numbers into computers and printed out on forms that Mr. Nash ignored when we brought them to him, because his people had entered the wrong codes. I hate to say it, but there are times when Tonga appears to be the B Ark, but I daresay that the reasons for this are complex, having to do with, inter alia, cultural differences and language barriers. At least this time, Mr. Nash annotated the form to note the fees that we were to pay, but there was yet more bungling when we returned to the shipping company. When we finally did get our crate home, we emptied it in probably not much more than an hour, so eager were we for its contents.
On Friday morning, Tai, ‘Uta, Melelini, and I went off on yet another shopping trip. First stop was the duty free shop at the International Dateline Hotel to pick up a bottle each of gin, vodka, and bourbon; the credit card reader wasn’t working, so we had to go draw cash out of the bank before we could complete that transaction. On this shopping trip I decided it was time for a haircut; this climate was definitely made for short hair. The hairdresser at the hotel had the price of 20 pa’anga posted, but Tai had a better idea. She dropped off ‘Uta and Melelini at the Maketa Talamahu, a fruit and vegetable market on Salote Road, and then she took me to a barber next to the Immigration Office, which was about a block from the market. I had overlooked this business establishment when Melelini and I were working out visa issues two days earlier; the barber carried out his trade in a tiny shack made of corrugated metal and plywood which looked to have been constructed back in the days when my paternal grandfather had made his living as a barber. The shack stank as though something had been trapped underneath and had drowned during the flooding from René, and was now rotting in a stagnant pool. Even Tai commented on the smell later. I was glad that the only lighting was from the daylight outside, as I preferred to see as little as possible. However, the elderly Paola, whose command of English was perhaps slightly better than my knowledge of Tongan, did a first rate job for five pa’anga. In Tonga one learns to appreciate people for who they are, not for what they have. At Paola’s age, my grandfather was dying of heart disease, but owned a barber shop on San Francisco’s Mission Street that employed several other barbers, including my uncle. I reflected on the fortunes of families across generations and national economies. I, the grandson of an illiterate Calabrian barber, was in Tonga to earn my doctorate. Where were Paola’s grandchildren heading?
Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga