17 May 2010

Drowned Princess, Drag Queens, and Faikava

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

I hadn't come to Tonga for my health, although I was eating less and getting more exercise. I hadn't come for the waters either, although Tonga had water in abundance. Six months before Meleline and I had arrived here, the Waters of Tonga had proved to be decidedly unhealthy for 74 people. The Pacific Ocean has swallowed them in the night as the Princess Ashika was suddenly swamped and pulled under. This was why I had come to Tonga: to study the public reaction to the accident, write a dissertation, and earn a PhD. As the first paragraph of my dissertation introduced the research project:

The 6 August 2009 sinking of the MV Princess Ashika is one of the most controversial events in the Kingdom of Tonga in recent years. A millennia-old island culture scarcely can be a stranger to maritime tragedies, yet the circumstances surrounding the loss of the ferry have provoked considerable public outrage. In the face of 74 lives lost, have Tongans forgiven--or will they forgive--parties involved in bringing on the disaster? On one hand, there is the lenient Polynesian attitude of forgiving faults and mistakes; however, on the other, there has been sharp criticism of the ruling class for two decades. Also, do Tongans accept the findings of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Sinking of the MV Princess Ashika in Tonga with regard to its determination of the parties to be principally at fault? Given the rising resentment against the Tongan elite, if the Commission's finger of guilt points too low in the hierarchy, it is possible that its findings may have limited credibility among the people. Another question is the role that the media have played in informing the public and in shaping opinion with regard to the sinking.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry's work was now completed. It had submitted its official findings to His Majesty, George Tupou V, on 31 March 2010. The pubic release of the Commission's findings was expected the following week. Over Easter weekend, people were wondering whether the King would ask for the Prime Minister's resignation; some even speculated that he might sack the entire cabinet.

Although not strictly necessary to the subject of my dissertation, nevertheless, I would have liked to have observed a day or two of the Commission's proceedings. Unfortunately, the demands that I already had on my time on campus had made it infeasible. But, there was more drama to come; central figures in the disaster had already been indicted, so perhaps I could sit in on a few days of the trials. I wondered whether the Tongan lawyers dressed up in black robes and white wigs as they did in Britain.

At Cafe Escape, an effeminate man occasionally waited on Meleline and me. In fact, Meleline had assumed that he was a woman. All the employees dressed alike in tropical shirts and tupenus (wrap skirts), so that was no clue. "No, that's a man," I said. "Look at the flat chest and the narrow hips. Look at how he walks. Look at the bone structure of his face, the straightness of his arms when they're extended." I've learned a thing or two living in the San Francisco Bay Area most of my life.

In the course of conversation with 'Uta and others, Meleline and I came to learn that it was not uncommon for families having too many boys to raise one as a girl so that there would be a young member of the family to help with the housework. Whether these fakaleti ("make a lady" is my guess at translation) become homosexual or simply remain transvestite, who can say, and frankly, no one seems to care. It is an accepted part of Tongan culture. When Tai and 'Uta took Meleline to a hairstyling shop on Vuna Road, sure enough, the two hairstylists were fakaleti. Even in the social sciences, some things appear to be more or less universal constants. It is said that heterosexual women enjoy associating with fakaleti because it's like having a male acquaintance and a girlfriend in one package. They tend to be very witty; I can understand how they might view other facets of human society with a unique sense of irony. 'Uta used to carouse with fakaleti in her youth. There's an annual drag queen contest called "Miss Galaxy" held at a downtown establishment, and Futa Helu often served as one of the judges. If it was radical, Futa jumped on it with both feet. Yet another reason why local church leaders called him "demonic."

Some said that the fakaleti were a recent phenomenon, having their advent in the 1980s or thereabouts. Meleline suspected that the fakaleti had a deeper root in Tonga culture, and that it was merely their open association with each other, their sense of community, that had developed as they learned of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) communities in other countries. Meleline pitched the idea of studying this phenomenon to one of her students. It was the sort of study that only a Tongan could do well, and it would be cutting edge. Her student had concerns about being taken for a fakaleti if the research project were to become widely known, so he wanted a certain level of information security. It would be a classified project. He also came up with a method of operational security, anticipating that he might be able to rely on a female friend on some occasions. I labelled the study "Project F." Unfortunately, the student bailed out of the project a week later. He wasn't ready to be on the bleeding edge of science.


Meleline was adamant about not attending that evening's faikava, in part because she was tired and in part due to the irritation of having this sprung on her at the last minute. "I haven't researched kava to find out what the effects are." Some sources say that it's a mild hallucinogen. Maikolo claimed that the Australian Northern Territory had outlawed it. I had seen some students show up for class somewhat the worse for wear in the aftermath of a faikava, which could last until 0300 hours. Meleline would make the excuse for our absence that we had a conflicting engagement; this became a retroactive truth when 'Uta invited herself to dinner. At about 1920 hours, as Meleline prepared dinner, Maikolo phoned from the faikava to remind me that my bike was still at Lolo Masi Hall... unsecured. Well, I had to go get it or it might not be there the next morning. Meleline admonished me not to get dragged into staying for the faikava but to come straight home. I set off on foot in the darkness just as 'Uta and Mata arrived from next door.

The faikava is a traditional male social event; the men sit around and drink kava, sing, and tell stories until nearly dawn whilst being served by a few women. Yet another thing that Futa Helu did to infuriate traditionalists was to invite women to participate as equals, although the servers remained exclusively female, I believe. As I arrived to find the faculty represented by Maikolo, Firitia, and Virginia Helu, and then myself. 'Elaisa Helu was also there. Students included Feleti, the two 'Ofas, Tevita, Muna, and Paia. All the men sat at the large table at the front of the classroom, whilst the women sat at other tables. That night I supposed that this arrangement was in deference to Tonga taboo against unmarried men and women sitting together, but at future faikavas I saw men and women sit together.

Maikolo insisted that I sit on his left at the table. It didn't take but a moment for the male 'Ofa to ask me whether I would like some kava. I was sitting next to the dean, and it was in my contract. A cup was ladled full from a huge bowl, and I was immediately reminded of the initiation ceremony in the 62nd Tactical Fighter Squadron in which we newbies had won our flying scarves. As the cup was passed to me, Maikolo informed me that I was expected to drink the entire cup in one gulp, exactly like in the 62nd TFS. "Roger, I know the drill." I drained the cup and then placed it upside down on my head. Tevita then told me that that was not allowed, and that I had incurred a five drink penalty. OK, so their customs were a little different from the 62nd TFS. "Can I negotiate a reduced sentence on account of this is my first infraction?" I turned to Maikolo, "Do I know how to plea bargain or what?"

He nodded in agreement. I didn't see Maikolo drink any kava, although he claimed to have had twelve before I arrived. "It tastes like Tide detergent, doesn't it?"

"More like Axion, with just a hint of Comet." That and it looked like miso soup.

As I was given my second cup, I noticed that my mouth was going a bit numb. "That's about all you're going to feel," Maikolo said. "This is pretty tame stuff." As a student at Brandeis in the mid 1960s, he had done about all that there was to do. "Na'aku 'osi 'i ai, na'aku 'osi fai 'a e me'a koia. Been there, done that."

"Sono stato la, ho fatto quello. I'm sure not seeing any bright colours exploding in my head."

"And you won't."

"Well, that's a bummer!"

A conversation ensued regarding 'Atenisi's heyday, when Greek and Latin were part of the curriculum. Maikolo sounded out the students about reviving theses studies, but the response was muted. "I don't know any Greek, but I know a bit of Latin. Italus sum, ergo, Romanus sum." I am an Italian, therefore I am a Roman.

To which Firitia responded with something every schoolboy knows, "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres."

What gall! No one quotes Gaius Julius Caesar to me with impunity. "Alea iacta est. The die is cast." I treated him to a couple of my original epigrams. "Dei omnes laudamus si existunt." Let us praise all gods if they exist. I think that one might have amused Futa Helu. "Quod ad Pompeium incidet ad Pompeium se tenet." What happens in Pompeii stays in Pompeii.

"What happened in Pompeii?"

"Oh, that was a rockin' little town in its day, and whatever you did there, you didn't tell anyone about it when you got home. You know, like Las Vegas? The phrase has a double meaning now. What happened in Pompeii is still in Pompeii."

One of the effects of prolonged, heavy use was reported to by dry, scaly skin. 'Ofa and Tevita had mentioned this one day while explaining why 'Ofa was wearing sunglasses in the classroom; heightened sensitivity to light was another side effect. "Are you turning into a lizard?" I had asked 'Ofa then. So now I asked him, "At what point do I turn into a lizard?"

"Do you want to turn into a lizard?"

I turned to Maikolo, "I seem to recall I already did that once."

"You probably did," he nodded.

"Sort of the Franz Kafka trip, but not the praying mantis."

As the evening progressed, the more experienced participants instructed me in the finer points of faikava etiquette. One grasps the cup by the edge with the thumb and a couple of fingers, rather than holding it from underneath. Once drained, one gives the empty cup a quick flick over the shoulder, then flicks the cup across the table in a spinning motion back to the grog bowl. This I did repeatedly and with considerable accuracy.

Around my eighth or tenth cup of kava 'Elaisa broke into song, and the other Tongan men joined him in perfect four-part harmony. It was very impressive. It immediately brought to mind the reference to barber shop raga in This Is Spinal Tap. Not that I ever intend to belittle or trivialize something so beautiful as this traditional Polynesian musical form; rather, it's a shorthand description, however inept. Maikolo stepped outside briefly to take a call on his cell phone whilst the men sang, and when the song was over, he told me, "That was Marilyn. She just ordered you home."

As I mounted my bike, I left the faikava with one final Latin phrase, "Gubernaturi te salutant. Those who are about to drive salute you." It was a fitting farewell. Although I wasn't feeling much of an effect from the kava, and so there was no danger due to being impaired, the back streets of Tufuenga and Longolongo were poorly maintained and even more poorly lit. I was about two-thirds of the way home when I rode straight into the deepest crater on the route. The bike shuddered to a halt as the front wheel collided with the upside of the crater, whereas I still had my full measure of 1/2 mv2, so there was no question that the bike and I were now on distinctly separate trajectories. I rolled right to disengage from the vehicle, and as near as I can reconstruct the sequence from my superficial injuries, I executed a six-point roll, coming down first on my right foot and both hands, then on my right knee and right elbow, and finally on my right flank. Couldn't have done any better than that right out of parachute training. I hadn't rolled off a bike in 15 years, but if it weren't for the satisfaction of learning that I could still do it, I would have just as soon skipped the whole thing. I picked up my bike, ascertained that the vehicle was still operable, and I was home about a minute later, washing the gravel out of my abraded knee and elbow. I suppose that sympathy for my road rash saved me from a tongue lashing from Meleline, but as to which of these fates would be the more painful, it is not my purpose to speculate.

Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga