Gone troppo in the Tongan bush, around the kava bowl. Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas
A pretty English girl is sipping a fruit drink at a beach resort when I wade up out of the ocean like the lizard man in the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
“Hi!” I say, as I pull up a barstool next to her, certain that she will be delighted to spend some time with a fascinating person like me.
She jumps off her barstool, tipping it over in alarm, and says, “Have you gone troppo?”
This is the first time I have heard the expression–gone troppo–which means, according the Outback Dictionary, that the person it refers to has “succumbed to a state of tropical madness; to have lost the veneer of civilization after spending too much time in the tropics.”
How could the English girl have thought this about me? After more than a week of sitting out a low pressure system at anchor aboard Flying Fish, I was eager to get off the boat and interact with other living human beings. That I hadn’t washed, shaved, brushed my teeth, or changed my clothes in longer than I could remember didn’t seem to me like it should have been a problem. Had I really “lost the veneer of civilization?” I never even knew I had it.
Bad weather on a boat is a perfect petri dish for ennui. It’s not that the weather was dangerous, although there was continuous rain and the wind was blowing a steady 30 knots with gusts to 35. I had two good anchors down on the leeward side of Lifuka in the Ha’apai Islands of Tonga. Hatches and portholes were leaking from the rain. It felt like water torture as drops of rain dripped onto my forehead. I could almost see the mold growing on the inside of the cabin. I love my boat but the walls were closing in.
Sensing my unwelcome at the resort bar, I set off on foot through the bush across the island of Lifuka. Rain or no, it feels good to move my legs. I imagine myself as the character Pig-Pen in the comic strip Peanuts by Charles Schulz, leaving a trail of dirt in my wake. Walking is liberating.
The Kingdom of Tonga is known as The Friendly Islands, given the name by explorer Capt. James Cook in 1773, who was apparently unaware of a well-developed plot by a Tongan chief named Finau intended to kill Cook and seize his ships. Upon his arrival, the Tongans had welcomed Cook with gifts of fruit, pigs, turtles, and extravagant hospitality.
I think about this as the road I walk turns into a track and then ultimately into a footpath. Despite my appearance, the Tongans I encounter on my walkabout receive me with enthusiasm, and in english.
“Where are you going?” asks a man feeding his pigs, without the preamble of a greeting.
I am walking to see your island, I answer, and to get some exercise.
“Why?” is his reply.
An elderly woman tending an open fire rendering coconut oil in a charred iron caldron asks, “Where is your wife?”
The question catches me off guard. She is where she wants to be, I say.
This does not translate so I answer more directly. She is working, I say. And this response further complicates the conversation.
“Why is she working and you are walking in the bush on Lifuka?”
What might seem like random banter with the coconut oil woman is insightful to me on many levels. I have always appreciated direct communication and in Tonga directness is a conversational precept. Tongans see into a person and discard their evasiveness. The woman pulls three bananas off a stalk and hands me a green drinking coconut. She says, “You are hungry and thirsty.”
Further along the footpath, two boys emerge from a trash heap of junk food wrappers and empty beer cans that litter a grove of banana trees and taro plants.
Hello, I say. Mālō e lelei.
“Give me money,” the larger of the two boys says in english. He is maybe 10 years old. He is menacing and holds a homemade slingshot.
Why? I ask. Why should I give you money? I can see that the boy understands my question but he cannot not answer it.
“I want money,” he repeats. And then his younger companion chimes in, “‘Io, gimme money, too.”
I turn away and continue walking. Then I see the boy’s hand raise with the slingshot. He has a piece of coral rock wedged between the rubber bands. I whirl around and take a step toward him. The boys flee down the trail. As they disappear into the trees I hear one call out, “Pālangi!”
The encounter with the boys is disturbing but the word Pālangi is not necessarily an invective. Cook speculated that the word translated to “cloth men” or foreigners who arrived in boats with sails. Earlier etymologies link Pālangi to the expression, “People from the Sky.” But, the boys wanting money delivered this word with venom. In their usage, Pālangi described a foreigner as a “white pig.”
As a stranger in a strange land, I must constantly remind myself to walk softly in these beautiful and unfamiliar places. I straddle a world where on one side of an island there is a beach resort and on the other side of the island hard-scrabble families struggle for their daily bread. This, too, is part of my voyage of self discovery.
It is time for me to return to Flying Fish for a shower, a shave, and a clean change of clothing–and to remember who I am.
There he, sitting in the moonlight
Not found, livin no city
He smile, mucho in a sunshine
High life, counting de fruit bat
Troppo, gone troppo, troppo
It’s time you know I gone troppo
—Troppo by George Harrison 1982
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