The Henry

original since 1984


with one comment

To Seek A Newer World

NO ONE EVER FORGETS their first truly foreign country. The light, the architecture, the way they do their eggs. Red money. The dreamy disorientation. The smell of aviation fuel. A shift in perspective raising questions raising conclusions. No one ever forgets this paradigm shift. No one ever lets it go.

“Hi, do you know how to get to the surrounding islands?” I spattered in meager solicitation. The warm south pacific air clung to my body as I perspired under the weight of my pack. The sound of my voice wore the chords of a hopeful, yet deeply realistic and knowingly bleak reality.

The man looked up from his plate. He had white hair and his skin was dark, as if he had spent his life under the sun.

“Do you have a yacht?” I paused.

He maintained eye contact as his right hand pushed the fork through a piece of whitefish.

“Well then you’ll have to ask a fisherman to take you, but make sure you get him to return- mate, you don’t wanna get left on an island.”

On April 15th 2005 I was studying abroad in New Zealand. The University of Auckland had a 25 day break, during which mostly everyone scrambled to buy plane tickets to Australia, the south island of New Zealand, or surrounding travel destinations within Polynesia. I, on the other hand, was in search of paradise. For my break, I sought the most idyllic and remote island paradise and found the Kingdom of Tonga. Tonga is a small island nation that lies roughly 250 miles southeast of Fiji. Its people are known as the “friendly islanders” to no surprise, because no one ever travels there. As Pacific island destinations go, Fiji, Hawaii, Tahiti and the Cook Islands generally garner the majority of tourism. In fact, of all the Pacific islands, the Kingdom of Tonga is the only one without a tourist industry, its main export being bananas and sugar.

The Kingdom’s isolation became even more evident the moment Air New Zealand Flight 48 (pronounced EN ZED 48) broke cloud cover as the right wing dipped toward the glistening South Pacific Ocean. From my opaque oval window I could see two colors: the green island and the blue ocean. Touching down onto a dirt runway and processing through Customs in an airplane hangar with wild chickens scampering about confirmed my suspicion: this was going to be one hell of an experience. I landed on the main island, Tongatapa’au and took a cab to the main city, Nuku’alofa. No one could have prepared me for what I encountered. The life these islanders lived was in stark contrast to my suburban upbringing, and at first it was too much to handle. This was not the island paradise I had imagined. There was no pavement. The running water was not safe to drink. It was humid. I was tired. I was the only white man and I was alone. Developing nation is only the beginning.

I ventured into a café in Nuku’alofa and saw a man sitting alone in the corner. He was Australian and owned a banana plantation. I told him of my interest in the surrounding islands and his face lit up.

“Go to Nawa’Sali, Mama Balo’s family lives there, they would welcome you if you showed up.”

I walked down to the wharf and began asking fishermen about Nawa’Sali. No one spoke English. All the signs were in Tongan. The people were going about their daily lives without regard to outside influence. What was I doing here? And has anyone heard of Nawa’Sali?! Juxtapose this trepidation with 5 horsepower, half-rotting boats on which I was about to board, but there was no way I was going to spend 10 days on the mainland. I was abandoning all the things my parents had cautioned me about as a child. This was beyond “getting into a car with a stranger.” Although I was able to hear my mother’s voice resonating in my head, I was also able to shut her up. I made eye contact with a young boy. He couldn’t have been older than 15. I approached him and once again slowly repeated my phrase, “Do you know Nawa’Sali?

“Ahhh,” was all he said as his eyebrows raised and motioned with his finger towards the blue ocean. Before I could respond he had my backpack in his hand and was untying his small, wooden boat from the dock. I got on the boat. The motor buzzed and coughed out black smoke and we made our way in reverse out of the harbor. Thirty minutes had passed when we came upon the oddly shaped island. It was rather mountainous with beautifully white sand, incredibly dense forestry, and water so blue I could see the bottom. It felt like the world was glowing. The fisherman navigated around the coral reef and ran his skiff ashore. Three Tongan children who admired the fishing pole that was tied to my pack greeted us. Soon I saw a big woman walking diagonally down the beach. She was waving. I began to speak and started with the words “hi” as she touched my head and said, “you want to stayyye? Wel-come.” I turned and paid the fisherman 20 Pa’Anga, and said, “Come back in 7 days” as I handed him another 20 dollar note– I didn’t want to be left on this island. He smiled, nodded his head, turned, and shoved his boat off the beach.

And so began an experience that has permanently changed who I am today. As I reflect back upon what I did and how I felt I am at awe with how frequently I look to the future with confidence, knowledge and reassurance that if I could do this, I could do anything. Independence, self-reflection and self reliance were all areas of tremendous growth during my 7 days on the island. I will never forget the feeling I had when I saw the boy gas his boat past the coral reef and out into the open ocean, without me on board. This feeling was even more intensified when I entered the main part of their village where pigs, dogs, chickens, cats, rats, tropical birds and small island children ran about. There was a main path connecting the beach to the village and it was outlined by shells, rocks and coral. The air was thick with the smoke of burning trash, and the ground was a fine powder mixture of sand and dirt. There was a wide variety of coconut trees, species of colorful plants, and incredibly dense brush that surrounded, outlined and defined the boarders of the village. A constant breeze ran through and as it blew, shifted the streams of sunlight that cascaded through the canopy of overhead coconut trees.

My senses were on overdrive and I noticed everything- and the fact that everyone was staring. I was white, Caucasian and flagrantly noticeable. God, I couldn’t have been any more uncomfortable. There was a man moving soil with a hoe that had stopped mid plow and was standing, staring. There was a woman with a long, red hair covering hand washing her cloths in a bucket. Children sat on the ground in Indian style looking with their mouths open. The whites of their eyes looked at me without emotion, lending themselves to their curiosity. It was not until later that night that I met the people who were staring.

I placed my backpack under a coconut tree and walked to the beach. It was glowing blue. The wind picked up and was constant. Despite the strength of the sun and the humidity, the wind made it a bit cold and made me feel isolated. The wind hit my body with the stinging realization that this was not going to be a vacation by the pool, drinking rum from a coconut. That this was going to be unlike anything I had ever experienced.

I tried to read, but I couldn’t focus. The wind kept blowing the pages and the sand stung when it hit my skin. I looked up the island and could see green shrubbery blowing wildly. I took out my journal and began to write, and then fell asleep and awoke to the sound of the wind. The tide had come in and the sky was a dark blue. I walked around part of the island and into the village. Mamma Ritchie, the woman who had greeted me on the beach took me to my ‘room’ which was a wooden floor, 4 wooden posts and a thatched ceiling; no walls, no mattress, no pillow. She showed me how to untie the handmade curtains to make the ‘fale’ somewhat enclosed. I harbored a small amount of hope that there were others on the island like me. So I asked, “is there anyone else staying on the island?” I had a ball in the middle of my throat the entire time I had been there, and her response made it even bigger; “no-just-you.”

That night I ate dinner with mama riche and her family. We had potatoes, papaya, guava, carrots, and whitefish. I was starving. We didn’t talk much, and sat on a mat on the floor and ate with our hands. I spoke mostly with a young boy who had been to New Zealand once. He also spoke English fairly well. I was picking a fish bone from my mouth when a Tongan man sat down next to me. He said something to me, but I couldn’t understand. He spoke slowly and softly, with a great deal of bass. I recognized one of the words, “kava” and knew what he was referring to.

Kava is an indigenous root that grows throughout the south pacific islands. It is harvested, dried in the sun, grated into a powder and then mixed with water. Men sit around in a circle and drink it from coconut shells at night and socialize. It tastes like dirt, but numbs the mouth and makes the body relaxed. In large doses, it is considered a mild psychotropic beverage.

I walked down the beach with the man whose name I could not pronounce to the sound of a drum. There, I found a small fire and 6 men sitting Indian style in a circle. They were all very silent and sat stoically smoking cigarettes. They would light up, puff and then extinguish it, five to ten minutes later, relight it and repeat the procedure until it was done. I spoke to one man, the one who had invited me and had to keep my English very simple. He told me that even though I couldn’t understand him, he could understand me. That, English is “easy to understand, hard to speak.” When I spoke everyone blankly stared. There was an old man who said nothing at all, he must have been 60. The others played a broken guitar and listened as I answered questions about America and New Zealand. They were good natured and inquisitive as to whom I was and where I came from. There were bugs everywhere and to my chagrin my repellant was back in my backpack. To them, everything in the Kava circle was communal, so they were drinking from each others water, smoking each others cigarettes and passing bits of coconut around. Everything was communal in the Kava circle, including information and this was the center stage of male gossip. Although, there were limitations to the extent to what was shared, according to one man, “everything we share, except for women.” We laughed together and drank Kava for about 2 hours and by the end, my mouth was completely numb and I was tired. I told everyone I was going to sleep, they taught me to say a few Tongan words, we joked and laughed and I respectfully left, walking in the dark towards my fale.

I lay on the wooden floor with my head on my cloths and listened to the sound of the ocean and wind. I was still uncomfortable with my surroundings and missed home. I began to question why I had done this and counted down the number of days I had left on the island. The last time I had felt this way was in summer camp. Fortunately, the Kava took effect and I fell asleep shortly after lamenting my traveling choices.

I awoke to the most brilliant scene. Everyone on the island was working, the wind was calm and the sun shone bright. There were bright red island birds called “naka naka” that zipped around acrobatically defying physics as they swooped in and out of the village, picking up scraps of fish along the way. I put on my board shorts, flip-flops, and sunscreen and walked around the island. Every island has a windy side, rocky side, sandy side and forestry side and I found each side. Between the sandy side and the rocky side there was a blue lagoon no deeper than 2-3 feet until the waves of the south pacific broke on the retaining coral reef. I hiked up the mountain and found nothing, only dense, dense forestry. The top of the mountain was a good vantage point for seeing God himself. Many poets connect god to nature and this was no surprise. The brilliantly blue water went on forever. The ocean looked smooth from this perspective, and in the distance I could see tracks that boats had left in their wake. With not a cloud in the sky the wind picked up and moved my hair across my forehead. This was going to be my home for the next week and it was true paradise. I had a blue lagoon on the south side, beaches along the west, rocks, then the windy side with lots of fallen coconuts, and the village. I spent the morning in the sun, and by mid day began to get red. I found shade under a palm and opened my book.

I had brought 2 books on this journey- Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Reading Faulkner made me fell better, especially when I read of Benjy and his limited perspective on life. Perhaps I found solace in the fact that both he and I were living in a society that was just outside of our reach. Like living amongst natives on an island—being alone and totally isolated within our own worlds. Then again, my situation was very different than that of the Compson children.

I began to mull over the classical notion, often romanticized, of being stranded on a deserted island. I reflected upon my situation, laying on the sand and eating fruit I found or what the Tongans had planted and thought how this is the only habitat a human could survive in if they had absolutely nothing. This was a minimalist environment and provided for the most hospitable conditions, minus the bugs. Having a shipwrecked story take place on a fruitful island bursting at the seams of life—with life; made the concept entirely plausible. I could live here, even without the village. I could feed myself, cloth myself, teach myself. I could live here. I began to feel more independent, yet I was still alone.

Isolation lends itself first to vulnerability, then to sadness, and then to madness. As the days passed I felt disconnected from the people in the village. I watched from afar as they played a game that looked like soccer. I watched as they climbed coconut trees by wrapping their legs around the trunk and snaking up. I studied how they interacted and came to the conclusion that they lived in a skill orientated society. Those who garnered the greatest amount of respect and social prestige had the greatest amount of skill. Like the boy who could pitch a rock 25 feet up into a coconut tree and have a coconut fall- without having to climb the tree. Or the one who could sing and play the only 3 chords available on this broken guitar and make it sound somewhat musical.

What skill did I have? Dealing with the prospect of fitting in with these people made me frustrated and I decided to do something I hadn’t done since I arrived- fish. I retrieved my fishing pole from my bag, assembled it, went to the village and got scraps of fish from the trash in the kitchen area and walked to the lagoon. Sloshing through the lagoon, I reached the perimeter wall of the coral reef and climbed on top of it. My feet and legs were bleeding in various places from the sharp reef and the saltwater stung. I broke off a piece of the reef and tied it six inches from the hook as a sinker and cast out.

My father and I had taken fishing trips as a child and I recalled the time a deckhand on the boat yelled to me, “always cast with the wind.” Thus, as I learned, fish school congruent to water current and water current runs congruent with the wind. I felt a tug, waited and SNAP, began to reel it in. The water was so clear I could practically see the fish bite the hook! These south pacific waters are so clear and fruitful that I caught fish every minute and a half. Since I had nothing better to do and fishing was free, I continued until the sun began to set. As the sun set, it drizzled and the wind picked up. I saw some Tongans on the beach just beyond the lagoon and they had been sitting under a tree watching me. I saw a young girl walking out through the lagoon towards me. She was yelling “fish-fish-fish” in a little, squeaky voice. I looked down at the twenty to thirty fish at my feet, their scales reflecting bright orange in the setting sun.

The children helped me bring the fish from the reef to the village. People in the village were looking at me, and were impressed. Apparently no fish is too bony to eat, as that night we all sat down on the ground and ate the fish I had caught. The entire village, all four families came to the eating circle with their mats and feasted. It was delicious, the best fish I’ve ever had. As I sat there, on the periphery and looked into the crowd I began to smile. The Tongans were interacting socially, over the fish I had caught, and I was the reason for it. They came together and laughed, smiled and argued, they were licking their fingers and eating fervently. I fed this village and those who ate knew who had caught the fish. They admired my fishing pole, with friendly banter made note of my red, sun burnt skin and welcomed me into their Kava circle.

The following day was sultry and I smelt like fish. The stench was everywhere and the heat of the sun made me most attractive to bugs. I hadn’t showered in a long time and my body was dirty, my armpits stunk and I had dirt under every nail. My legs were scabbed over from the reef and the white portions of my bathing suit were now black. I spent most of my time swimming around in the lagoon.

The second thing I had brought other than a fishing pole was a snorkel; a friend who lived in my building had lent it to me. Snorkeling alone is scarier than you may expect especially when you get to the really deep or dark parts. Perhaps this is why so many brochures illustrate a man and woman holding hands as they marvel at the underwater wonders. It truly is another world. A unique shivering sensation overcame me when I was above some of the coral reef caves. I allowed my mind to wander and imagined an aggressive creature coming up to attack me. I swam away as fast as I could in fear. I felt like a sissy as I sat on the beach looking back at the lagoon.

My throat was dry and I was dehydrated. There were big tanks of freshwater on the edge of the village that the Tongans had purified for themselves. It tasted terrible and was more brown than clear. I found a coconut and started banging it between two rocks. I took out my knife and began to cut the exterior shell. That was no use. These things are naturally impenetrable. Nevertheless, my attempts to access the sweet juice escalated until I was throwing it at maximum speed at a pile of rocks by the shore. This continued until a man from the village came out with a long, hand sharpened machete. He spoke no English and just wore a smile. Pinning the coconut to his chest with his bent forearm and biceps he raised the machete in his other hand and swiftly swung down and sliced away at its top in short, almost surgical stints.

My heart jumped in fear that he would hurt himself. As his seamless skill attests, he had done this before. He held the coconut out to me with a smile and nodded his head. To this day, I have never tasted anything so sweet. My skin had grown dark from the sun and I also itched because of all the mosquito bites. I shaved my gums a few times trying to eat the coconut meat off its shell. I felt tired and found a nice place to fall asleep, it was a makeshift bed made with coconut palm leaves covered in sand under a large hedge. I crawled inside of it to see how comfortable it would be; it was, and I fell asleep.

When I awoke I saw a young boy and his friends sitting near me lying on the ground talking. They were watching me and when I awoke yelled, “Andrew.” As they approached I stood up and said, “Mike, my name is Mike.”

Apparently Andrew was the name of the last person who had visited the island and he struck quite an impression with these adolescent boys. They wanted to know if I knew how to throw a football. They said, “Joe Montana” and motioned as if they were quarterbacks. When I told them of California they asked me if I was a surfer. This word-place association game continued for 10 minutes and had garnered a crowd of six or seven kids. They looked at my bathing suit and tried to read the words off the knee. I was a marvel to them and they all knew who I was, but hadn’t felt it necessary to approach me. The oldest of the group was named “Tim,” but that was obviously a name he told only to the Palangi, or white people. Tongan names are difficult to pronounce and out of ease, they generally just give or take on a Caucasian name. I first noticed this when I was on the mainland café, and surprised at how many “Franks” and “Jims” I saw printed on the waiter’s nametags.

The boys and I played a game called “se-aa—key” which was a more elaborate version of keep away or at least based upon its most fundamental concepts. When it was over I met some of the other men, or Tongan males who were old enough to have to work on the island. Presumably these men were over 18 and had significantly more visual muscle. It is interesting to note the simplicity of the Tongan’s social organization. Those with the most capability or ability have the most popularity. Was this any different than the system we all grow up with?

Generally social structures like this model openly welcomes diversity and influence—partly an explanation as to why they were so easily overrun by the British Colonizers. Unfortunately their natural inclination of friendliness became a liability rather than an asset. To them, being friendly was a part of who they were; when in reality, it became self defacing. This was the system I was welcomed into.

I ate with them later that night and saw some other friends I had made from another family. They congregated together no differently than I do with my own. We played games, worked planting and cropping, I fished and leant my fishing pole out freely, and people began to open up to me, to trust me. Was this a matter of trust or were they feeling me out, as I do with new people.

These were the people I ate with, the people I laughed with, the people I eventually learned to communicate with. I am convinced, at least in Tonga, that body language represents over 80% of total communication. Methods of gesticulation—both facial and kinesthetic exemplify some of the most fundamental forms of a human interaction. Besides, this was a skill-orientated society in its most basic form. There is limited talking in activities—which is why I called upon my childhood in many situations. Could this be a sign indicating a difference in intelligence or simply culture?

This however, was my second to last night. My presence or at least I perceived, caused them to first be shocked, then reticent, then curious, and then finally accepting. We joked about bodily functions. We humored about girls. We did the type of stuff I did in 7th grade. We even played with our food.

The most defining separation, however, was the way they treated dogs. In Tonga, there is no such thing as a cute little doggy. They are all wild, feral, unleashed and rabid animals who are not to be trusted. They congregate by the masses when food is present and do not hesitate to bite, growl or initiate unprovoked aggression. While in Tonga, your most harmful predators will always be dogs, the sun, and bugs—and you learn to deal with them. I would never hit a dog, but I’d hit an island dog ready to bite real quickly. This changed me. It was the small, miniature perspectives on life that I really recall. Just a shift in perspective was all it took.

A lot of wild realizations occurred during this experience. My time on the island was, like my time now at Kenyon—upon the threshold of change. I had effectively mastered the skill of living on an island. I had my share of bug bites, feelings of despair, failure, pain, yet I survived, emotionally and physically. For there is a very fine line between being by yourself and being ok and not, and it’s up to you to walk that line.

The islanders began to really appreciate my presence. I felt like a celebrity. I began to notice those I never saw, because I was too timid to look. They were behind the scenes, generally older men and women who had more conservative principles. Tonga is a monarchy. The older generation reveres the king and his principles, while the younger is more progressive, worldlier.

It was the morning of my departure and I had people talking about my boat. One of them saw the man out fishing and spoke to him about me. He was curious as to what I did; and perhaps, what they thought of me. Living within this village was no different from living in the village of Gambier. People got together and talked. The message I was given from “Alo” was he would be here after his fishing in the morning. It was great; I was a part of their lives. That day I was given a carving made out of Trevally tree, a native species in the island center. Some of the people I had met came together and carved it. It was a statute replica of the King’s shield- offering protection and good luck.

Alo arrived with the boat and people came out to say goodbye. I hadn’t realized how big the village was until now. People were giving me parting gifts, from fishing line they found to bananas and roots. It was endearing. I will never forget the sincerity of their looks. This was not a hostel. This was not a hotel. This was not a regularly traveled location and they realized what I had done, and were grateful. This was a fair exchange of culture; I had impacted them as much as they had me. The only difference here was that I went home and didn’t move in to subjugate and oppress.

Kenyon, like my time on the island makes me who I am today. As I look to the future, I look to the past and see what I have achieved. I am not really sure what to expect or encounter, but I know I can handle it. It may be different, unconventional, but if you step back, you realize you were looking in the wrong place. Anything is possible—even failure, no matter how hard you set your mind away from it. And being aware of failure moves one to change, augment and adjust and thus to success. Life is cyclical, and I hope the experience I have gained will appear again, in different forms, and I can further refine and learn how to exist within a baffling, yet ever-changing world. I may dislike change, but it is crucial for life. Embracing it is much more victorious than fearing it. I reflect with the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses in mind. I like how he explains, far better than I could the single-minded determination I’ve endured as I await with eager anticipation the still-unwritten upcoming chapter of my long life:

Ulysses begins by reflecting on his odyssey:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those

That loved me, and alone.

I am become a name;

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers.

Then he considers what may lie ahead:

I am part of all that I have met.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains: But every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things;

And this gray spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Old age had yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done.

Then, determined to take on one final mission, Ulysses summons his followers:

So come, my friends

Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, ’til I die.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Renewed by time and fate, still strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


Written by michaelhenryhersh

November 2, 2008 at 9:02 PM

One Response

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  1. What an amazing adventure (and good story telling)!


    December 1, 2008 at 1:03 AM

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