A Palangi in Tonga

Every person’s life is worthy of a book. I hope you are writing yours, or saving and collecting the material to one day write it.

I am in the midst of mine.

For those of you who just tuned in, this is the next installment of my memoirs currently in production. The previous installments are available on my web I hope you find it interesting.

The book is titled, Live Long*,  Learn a Little, Laugh a Lot.

“Pa” (edge) “Langi” (sky) shouted the big brown man as he pointed far out on the Pacific Ocean. At the line where the sky meets the sea the mast of a sailing ship was appearing over the horizon. Not large by ocean going vessels of our day, but mammoth compared to their “poupau” outrigger canoes. The ship anchored off shore. The English sailors who rowed in, from the ship, were small and pale skinned compared to the natives. The brown people who greeted them were so hospitable that the English ship captain, James Cook named these “The Friendly Islands.” According to one account, the friendly natives were soon secretly planning to murder the captain and crew, and confiscate his ship. He left before they could pull it off, and never suspected the plot. And so the name stuck, and it fits, at least that was my experience. They have big hearts in their big bodies.

The natives migrated from islands north of them. We know this because they named their tiny islands “Tonga” which means “south” in their language. They christened their visitors, “Palangi” the people who came from the edge of the sky. Later when some of them learned English, the rechristened their visitors “Europeans.”

As time passed the Tongans were still hospitable, but careful. They saw how the New Zealand Maoris, the Hawaiians, and others lost their culture to an incoming flood of foreigners. The Tongans told me they had preserved their kingdom and culture at no small cost. They had conquered the Lau Islands, which lie between them and Fiji, and traded these to the English in exchange for remaining an independent kingdom. They were strict about who could come and how long they stayed. Their law allowed only one foreign minister for every thousand members a church had. In 1957 there were 3,000 Mormons in Tonga.

That same year there was one Mormon in Payson Utah waiting, and waitng by the mail box. One day the phone rang.

“Be patient. You are worthy, and you will receive a call, but we are working out some things concerning where you will be sent,” said the friendly man calling from Salt Lake City.

The counsel of the Brethren is not always easy to follow, and being patient is not an inherent trait of 20 year old men, at least not this one. But I labored at that virtue and continued my work as a life guard at the city swimming pool and then as a government fruit inspector in Orem, Utah. Eventually the letter came. The call was not to Brazil where my two uncles had served and I anticipated I might.

It was to no place I had ever heard of; tiny dots on the map of the South Pacific Ocean. My voyage there would cost me one of the Christmases of my life. I crossed the International Date Line on December 24, and arrived in Tonga the next day on December 26. Of course I picked up an extra day when I passed back across the line on my way home. I received an extra Friday the 13th. On certain grumbly days I wonder if that exchange was an omen on my life.

The 176 islands of the Kingdom of Tonga consist of 289 square miles washed by 270,000 square miles of the Pacific. The “big” island uses up 100 square miles. That leaves the other 175 with a little more than a square mile apiece on average. The first year I spent on the big island of Tongatabu (Sacred land of the south.) It is a coral rock flat as the top of a pool table. You can climb a palm tree anywhere and be the tallest person on the island unless somebody else climbs a taller one.

The last year and a half I lived in the beautiful volcanic islands of Vava’u. My home island was about two miles by three. Other smaller islands surrounded us at various distances. The beautiful deep harbor wound its way among the islands protecting it from the big waves of the open sea.

Tongans are adventurers of the sea, and fierce competitors in a contest. Beating within their chest is the “loto mafana,” The hot heart. This can be translated as enthusiasm or raging temper depending on if they are on your team or the opposition. Brigham Young University began tapping the Polynesian pipeline years ago for their football teams. It helped them become number one in the nation in 1984. Now the strapping, speedy, hard hitting men of the islands with the long names are everywhere on the top university teams, and the National Football League.

But with all this, I was (with a couple of exceptions) always treated with kindness and respect even when I did odd things like having my hair cut flat on top, and cutting my toenails straight across.

Today missionaries learn the language of their destination from expert teachers in some of the world’s premier facilities. My first experience with the language was on location; at supper with a mimeographed dictionary at my elbow. My companion across the table was a Tongan boy who, if he knew a word of English was too shy to speak it. I was a little concerned that I might starve before I learned to say, “Please pass the….”

The Tongans I knew in 1957 to 1960 were gifted, enthusiastic; very good at sports, and fearless in learning. An entrepreneur on my island dumped a pile of asphalt on the ground, smoothed it somewhat into a circle bought a few skates and opened the first roller rink they had ever seen. The place was immediately a mass of sliding, stumbling, laughing bodies. As an average American youth, I had spent some portion of my growing up years on roller skates. I became the star of the show when I ventured out. They cleared a spot for me, watched, cheered and applauded. But mostly they studied my actions. I didn’t make it back there for a few weeks. When I did, I was no longer the star of the show. I wouldn’t have made the chorus line. I was amazed how they could turn, jump, and skate backwards.

Polynesians can scamper up a palm tree with just their hands and bare feet, which they often did to bring me a coconut to drink. With no running water on the island, and the cistern rainwater too potent for a Palangi, I enjoyed drinking from a lot of green coconuts. They told me in a gentle almost condescending manner that my system was not strong enough to handle their water. I proved the wisdom of their kindness by picking up a tropical fever bug that left my eyes yellow for years, and almost sent me home in a palm box.

Sometimes the irresistible force of their “loto mafana” meets the immovable object of their polite manner to visitors. Then something has to give. I saw that one day discussing our concept of God with an elderly minister of another faith. It was obvious he didn’t want to let my companion and me into his grass hut, but his Tongan politeness prevailed and we sat down on the mats on his dirt floor. As I explained our doctrine, that Jesus had a perfected body after his resurrection. He got more and more agitated. Finally the “loto mafana” could not be bottled up any longer. He spat out, “Oku i ai ai ngaahi kasele i hevani?” (Are there toilets in heaven?) I was a bit taken aback. Such a question in our society would be marginally inappropriate in polite conversation. But multiply it by an infinite factor in the Tongan culture where such subjects are beyond vulgar. Even the word “navel” is considered crude. For a man of the cloth to broach such a subject was a verbal slap in my face.

I gave the true answer, “I don’t know.” But I could have done better. I might have added, “I only know what the scriptures and the prophets have written and said about the afterlife. But I think we can assume that since everything else in heaven is beautiful, comely, and decorous, surely whatever celestial bodily functions occur there are similarly accomplished.”

I wasn’t sent there to speculate, so I would never have told him my opinion that the unpleasant aspects of our bodily functions are in the same category as weeds, flies, and poison snakes. They are things out of their correct places. This is one of the results of the fall that occurred when Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and were cast out of the Garden of Eden. We expel substances because our bodies can’t use them. When all things are restored to their rightful place, all food and drink will be used by the body and nothing need be disposed of as waste.

The Pacific islands are often called paradise. The Tonga I knew was such a place. But not for the reasons we usually think. The sunsets, the pristine beaches, the deep blue oceans with their rolling white capped waves are definitely celestial picture post cards. On the other hand, the fleas jumping off the pigs that camped under the floor of my wooden shanty and chewed on my legs were not paradisiacal. The heat and humidity, the occasional hurricane, the mosquitoes bearing the leg ballooning curse of elephantiasis, these and other tropical irritations and miseries will never pass the Pearly Gates until they change their habits. And the people were not perfect. They had a jail. But since it was on its own island, there was a sign outside. “Prisoners not in by nightfall will be locked out.”

But what was a vision of heaven were the best characteristics of these people. Their willingness to sacrifice to do the Lord’s will. Their simple faith that they could approach their Heavenly Father in prayer, and he would answer them, and their unselfish care one for another; these were glimpses of the better world to come.

Their custom of “kole” in the old days was that if a man admired another’s shirt, or canoe the person gave it to him without hesitation. The law of the kingdom was you could eat of any of the fruit of the trees and the produce of the land belonging to anyone so long as you did it on the site.

Perhaps the most moving example I saw was one night when my companion, a young Tongan man named Alama, and I were visiting a family with eight beautiful children. I commented to the father how fortunate he was to have such a family. He said, “Yes, we are very blessed. My wife and I were unable to have children, so each of our neighbors gave us a baby.”

When we learn to love and care for each other at that level, the world will be heaven no matter what the scenery is like.

Novelist Thomas Wolfe added to the English language the statement, “You can’t go home again.” The Tonga I knew is no more. They have electricity, and many more live in “European houses,” less comfortable but more prestigious. They have more paved roads than the several 100 yards or so in front of the royal palace. They even had an uprising a few years ago quelled by the New Zealand army summoned there by the king. Instead of a weekly boat from the outside world, they have an airport. I assume they are more comfortable.

Of worldly wealth they had little when I was there, but of riches of life their cup ran over. Among their natural talents is a love of music, and the ability to express it. The women sing well. And virtually every man carries within his throat and rib cage a pipe organ worthy of a cathedral. When they gather on the dock and sing to you as your boat pulls away for the last time, “God be with you ‘till we meet again,” you are never the same person.

Everybody I know is busy, including me.  Where are those golden years I was planning on of sitting on the back porch picking my guitar? So I will send just one little part of the book at a time. You can give it a quick read and tell me what you think if you would like.

I’ve slimmed that process down to two questions, and four strokes on the key board (six if you count “Reply” and “Send.”)

The questions are these:“A” How much did you enjoy this?

“B” How much do you think a person who doesn’t know Duane Hiatt would enjoy this?

The rating is:1. Glanced at it, printed it out and lined the bottom of the bird cage with it.

2. Sped-read it and filed it with my tax return receipts

3. Thought it was about as interesting as a well written obituary

4. Could have put it down, but didn’t want to

5. Couldn’t put it down. Put it in a magnetic frame and stuck it onto the fridge door

So your response would perhaps be A-4, B-3, (Or maybe A-5, B-5, I’m expecting a minimum number of those.)

Also feel free to add comments if you like.

Also, also, feel free to forward this material to anyone you want to.

Your next installment is: Shouting of the Spirit