PART ONE of TWO
PLEASE NOTE: All characters in this piece except for 'Ana and her family are fictional. Islands are too small to tell the truth.
The winds around the island were wild and the waves crashed loudly around the boat. The sea was choppy on the ride from the small island of Mounu to Nei’afu, the town on the big island. Two years ago, I had worked in Nei’afu as a doctor. Now I was returning as a guest, to visit my former colleagues, many of them friends I had stayed in touch with over the years.
My wife and I were visiting Mounu on a holiday. We lived in the desert, five and a half thousand kilometers away from this cluster of islands in northern Tonga, which rose steeply out of the Pacific Ocean. From the sea, some islands were volatile volcanic cones, some were honeycombed limestone cliffs, some, like Mounu, sandy coral atolls. All of the islands were lushly vegetated with fruit and roots: taro, breadfruit and coconut trees. The sea was usually all shades of blue and aqua, but that day it was a uniform deep turquoise.
Claudia had stayed back at Mounu while I found a boat and a driver to take me across. She planned a day venturing out to meet whales if the weather settled.
The island boat was a sturdy gun metal cruiser, not large but strong. Its bottom slapped loudly over the waves. Lan was driving. I remembered him from my days working in the islands. He knew the ocean there like a city kid knows a peak-hour crowd.
His friend Reo came along for the ride and sat next to Lan, ranting. Reo's dark face was narrow behind sunglasses.
“They don’t know the earth like we know the earth,” I caught in the wind. “That’s right,” I yelled back. Reo continued, “They look for the answers in things that you buy. They tell us that buying new things all the time is what you should do.” Reo was perhaps nineteen. He had thought of these things himself. He was a deep thinker but lost his train of thought as a new thoughts came rushing in. Now he was on a rave about the Sabbath, something I didn’t care much about. “They don’t allow us to work Sunday but the true Sabbath is Saturday.” I wondered if he was raised an Adventist. I’d never met a Tongan Jew in these islands. I let him keep talking. He needed little encouragement. At one point I interrupted to say, “The answer is not in the bottom of a bottle, or a bong.” He flinched slightly, adjusted his sunglasses and went on talking about the end of the world.
Once ashore, I waited in the pharmacy till my friends were allowed to take a break. Our lunch was a happy reunion. Among my colleagues was ‘Ana — a joyful and generous woman. She worked as receptionist and health worker. ‘Ana looked after our patients with love and insight, often acting as interpreter from the Native language Lea Faka-Tonga for the English-speaking doctor. ‘Ana had luminous emotional intelligence and healing hands. She made us laugh, so that she and another dear friend, a droll Filipina pharmacist, could make fun of who would eat 'Ana's hamburger or a story of the doctor's obnoxious cat.
After our lunch, I had to figure out how to get back. Lan would not be returning until the next morning. Unless I found another boat to take me I would be stuck on the main island, away from my partner and friends, overnight. The main island could be a bit wild on a Friday night. It was high season and most of the accommodation was booked out anyway.
“How will you get back to the island?” ‘Ana asked.
“I’ll ask Jimmy to take me on the water taxi,” I said. “Should be alright.”
“It’ll cost a lot of money,” said ‘Ana’s brows were creased..
I walked along the narrow verge of the road, turning with the harbor’s edge, to look for Jimmy, the only water taxi driver I had heard about. I was a bit concerned that I would have the spend the night in town if he wasn’t able to drive me back to my smaller, remote island. I walked past a Guest House imagining the thin-walled rooms and the lumpy beds. I was missing my wife already. We very rarely spent a night apart and when we did, I missed her like I missed fresh air.
I waited for Jimmy for an hour or so. He returned to his office looking weary.
“I’ve got a headache from diving yesterday and I've just been diving today,” he said. “The wind is wild. It’d be rough and rainy and will cost you a lot of money. Cheaper to stay in town.”
“I’ll ask some other people,” I ventured. “You could come back if you're really stuck, I suppose,” Jimmy said, looking pained.
I walked along the harbor edge asking other boat people if they were going my way. Holidaying yachties got into their dinghies, only looking for the relaxation of the yacht. Local tour guides were packing up for the weekend, coiling ropes, looking for a beer or three. They smiled, but Mounu seemed very far.
Walking past my former workplace towards the other end of the harbor, I began feeling a bit lonely and desperate.
‘Ana came to the door, saying: “I will come with you. Hold on.”
Her husband Matiu appeared in their van, a pretty daughter reclining in the backseat. The family rearranged their afternoon plans. Matiu drove us to a desolate concrete wharf and confirmed that the school ferry wasn’t running — there was some kind of saints day and the schools were closed.
Matiu asked the fishermen at the co-op behind the market. I saw them shaking their heads.
‘Ana asks, “You really want to go home tonight, eh?”
I looked out over the choppy water. Grey clouds hung low over the green forested islands.
“I’ll be right,” I said thinly, “Claudia will miss me but she’ll survive.”