A Writer Writes

Eco-Bore Takes the Good Old Days Back to Tonga

by Tina Martin (Tonga 1970–71)

    I HAD THOUGHT of my village in Tonga as my Walden Pond though David Thoreau might not have recognized it. It was in the South Pacific instead of in New England, and while Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately, my woods had coconut trees. The pond was the Pacific Ocean — or maybe my lawn every time it rained, since my hut had been built in what appeared to be a ditch. Still, it was deliberately that I went to live in a hut with no electricity or running water. For two years I used a kerosene lamp and kerosene stove, drew water from the well, and bathed by soaping myself and pouring a quart or two of water over my body for the first and final rinsing. Everywhere I went, I took my hand-woven basket, and when I wanted a pound of sugar, it was poured onto a piece of recycled newspaper, which was wrapped into a package and placed in my basket.
         For almost forty years I told people about Tonga, where nothing was wasted. Tonga, where I had come of Eco-Age.
         Then, about the time that San Francisco banned plastic checkout bags at supermarkets and the mayor banned plastic-bottled water at City Hall, I heard that plastic had attacked, invaded, and occupied Tonga, and I flew off to rescue the island that I loved.
         Granted, there were other reasons for going. There was a coronation coming up, a Peace Corps reunion, and some Tongans I really wanted to see again, but I had a mission: Taking the good old days back to Tonga.
         Four decades earlier, one of my jobs in Tonga was at a teachers re-training center, where I taught methods of teaching oral English to children. Now I would be re-training them to do what they’d taught me: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
         Now, before I go any further, I should mention that I’m cursed by a passion for all sorts of things that produce gaping yawns in others. My office mate, Bob, whose imagination soars so high that he was hoping the coronation was mine, gives his students writing assignments allowing them to be Koko the gorilla and explain how frustrating it is that Dr. Penny and her Stanford-educated staff can’t learn one word of gorilla. Meanwhile I’m asking my drowsy students to write about the evils of bottled water. I was going back to Tonga as Eco-Bore — bearing a message, boring the people. But there was no stopping me now.
         I packed green shopping bags and Wrap-n-Mats, (squares of cloth with plastic centers to wrap around sandwiches to keep them fresh and then, once opened, to serve as mats for the sandwiches) something that appears to be modeled after the food packages Tongans put in the ‘umu, their underground ovens. Tongans used banana leaves and taro leaves instead of cloth and plastic for the food packages they put in ‘umus, and they tied them up with the rib of coconut leaves instead of Velcro’s, but the principle was the same. I would give these bags and Wrap-in-Mats as gifts. I packed other things, of course. Nick-knacks from Walgreen’s San Francisco Souvenirs aisle and pictures of Tongans and me, 1970–1971, which I’d made into collages and laminated like placemats. I also threw in something to wear to the coronation and something to wear every other day. Like the Tee-shirt, I would say, “I Recycle. I wore this shirt yesterday.” And the day before. And the day before that.
         Once over the International Dateline, where we dropped Tuesday and got right on to Wednesday, I was taken to a house in my former village of Ha’ateiho, where I found electricity and running water — even hot — as well as a microwave, and, gulp (or not) bottled water! Lots of bottled water with the Tonga label. The son and daughter-in-law of ‘Ana, who was hosting me, were watching “Lawrence of Arabia” on television, an invention that had never been seen by most villagers back in the 1970s, when we could see English-language movies in coconut sheds that had electricity and translators with good imaginations or in Nuku’alofa, where we paid 10 sentini and once saw “Romeo and Juliet” with the reels reversed, so that the lovers killed themselves for love of each other before they met. Now there were DVDs and TV. I was given a towel, a washcloth, and a cell phone, which doubled as my clock. I peeked out the window and saw a van under a canopy of net and soon noticed that in a village where people went by foot or by horse and cart back in my time, there was now a car on almost every lawn, and most of the cars were big. Well, Tongans were king size, and so were their families, but considering the price of gas, I suspected that Tongans were earning more than my 1970 living allowance of thirty-two dollars a month. I soon learned the word “Remittances.” They are now the main source of income in Tonga, it turned out, where relatives living in other countries send money back for SUVS and the other fine things in life. People also hire entire shipping containers to send home things like furniture and clothes. Some of the people living abroad had been deported back (recycled?), and Tongans were concerned about this. In the US, they’d learned “bad habits” like crime, and now they were back to teach those still at home what they had learned. (Re-used?)

         I quoted the headline from the SF Chronicle: “Gas prices turn drivers from gas guzzlers to gas sippers,” but I benefitted from the big bad vans. By my third day I had contributed quite a bit to global warming, making round-trips into Nuku’alofa to see the Kava ceremony where the King was presented with about a hundred ‘umued pigs, another to go shopping at every market on Tongatapu to get food for the coronation feast, another to see the coronation itself, which turned out not to be mine (Sorry, Bob), and still one more for the Tutupakanava, the traditional torch-lighting spectacle around the wharf in honor of the newly-crowned king. I went shopping with the driver, Finau, and we must have driven to every market and store on Tongatapu to get the food that would be prepared for our village’s contribution of ten tables. Everyone in the village was contributing twenty pa’anga. I “treated” at the counter whenever they’d let me. And I put what I could into the green bags.
         On the day that I decided to support the bus system, after an hour of waiting I decided it wouldn’t support me, and when a van full of policemen drove by, I hitched a ride back to Ha’ateiho, only I wasn’t quite sure just where in Ha’ateiho the house was once we got off the main road. Didn’t the police know? After leaving our carbon footprint all over the neighborhood, I called ‘Ana on my cell phone, and she walked outside to where we were making the call about three yards from her door.
         ‘Ana, who had already told me about the bad effect of deportees sent back to Tonga, told me, “We kept seeing the police drive by, and we thought they were looking for someone who’d committed a crime.”
         “That was me,” I said, thinking of my carbon footprint. “They found me and deported me from Nuku’alofa.” I gave her another green bag.
         It turned out that a shop in town, near the Café Escape and just yards from empty blocks where buildings had stood before the 2006 riots, sold green bags that said “‘OUA ‘E TALI TANGAI MILEMILA.” Don’t use plastic bags. But everywhere I looked people were using them.
        When I gave a green bag and a Wrap ‘n’ Mat to Vika, ‘Ana’s daughter-in-law and a doctor at the Vaiola Hospital on Tongatapu, she told me, “I remember the days when my mom would take us shopping and she’s always say, ‘Go get the basket.’” Were those days over?
         My thoughts soon turned to water — the subject of water, that is. I found out that ‘Ana and her family had had to go to their other house to get water because their tank no longer had any. I didn’t understand this business of tanks. When I was in Tonga in 1970–1971, I drew water from the well and poured it a bucketful at a time into a Gerry can, and when I needed water, I scooped it out a cup at a time. But how did tanks work, and why did the house I was in still have enough? I wondered, too, if I was depleting the water supply. I visited the school where I had taught in 1970, and it seemed unchanged except for the cell phones in the teachers’ hands and the vans that picked up the children who in past ages had walked to and from school; and, while there was a water tank, there wasn’t enough water for the children, who were asked to bring water from home. Back in the 1970s, the children had lined up to brush their teeth. They didn’t do that anymore. Water was too scarce.
       I stared at the bottles of water on the kitchen sink — the bottles ‘Ana had provided for me. I could see through them to the grassy lawn and the coconut tree. But where did they come from? Who were the bottlers? Did they deplete the water supply? What was this about ground water? Rainwater? Tanks?
         I went to a beautiful new home owned by a family who had lived in a hut forty years earlier. It was a mansion. But there was no water for the toilet.
         Then my persona of Eco-Bore could feel an assignment coming on: a research paper for any students unfortunate enough to sign up for my class instead of Bob’s, where they could be writing from the point of view of Koko the Gorilla or advising George Bush on the difficulties of learning their native language if he thought English was too hard. But, hey, my students were finding web sites like tapping.com, giving not just three reasons not to consume bottled water but twenty, including that it would give you smoker’s lips: those unsightly fine lines and wrinkles from constantly wrapping around an object.

    THEN CAME SUNDAY, when the Tongan Constitution makes it unlawful to work. (Article 6: “The Sabbath Day shall be kept holy in Tonga and no person shall practise his trade or profession or conduct any commercial undertaking.)

         Before church I got to watch every step of the ritual of the ‘umu, the underground oven, at ‘Ana’s home. I’d never seen such a labor-intensive task, but since I wasn’t among the laborers but did get to eat what came of it, I can say it was worth all the effort and art, and it was one hundred percent natural (if you don’t count the cans of corned beef) and nothing was wasted.
         Here’s the recipe for an ‘Umu Casserole

    Preparation Time:
    All morning before church on Sunday.

    Serves: 50 palangis (non-Tongans) or 15 Tongans. (I should add that I’m a Tongan in this case.)

    Banana leaves
    Taro leaves
    Volcanic rocks
    Mackerel (or corned beef, beef, chicken or nothing)
    Chopped onion
    Coconut cream

    Prepare the 'Umu: Dig a two-foot hole. Put firewood in the bottom of the pit (smaller pieces in the bottom and larger pieces on top. Wood used must be hardwood, otherwise the stones will not heat properly.) Once fire is well lit, put volcanic rocks on top. (Too many and the food will burn to a cinder and too few will mean uncooked food.)

    Make 'Umu dishes (for food packages): Clean and de-rib banana leaves. Soften banana leaves by warming them over the fire.

    Assemble food packages: Place taro leaves on each banana leaf.
    Add about 1 1/2 cup of canned mackerel or other filling (corned beef, fresh fish, beef, chicken, etc).
    Add chopped onion and coconut cream.
    Sprinkle with salt.
    Wrap up taro and banana leaves.
    Secure with a rib of banana leaf.
    Identify with aluminum or other marker.

    Once firewood burns down and stones are white hot, remove remaining big pieces of wood from the pit, and spread stones evenly on the bottom and sides of the pit.

    Put taro, breadfruit, and yams on top of stones. 
    Put thin pieces of wood on top of food to ensure air circulation.
    Put in food packages on top of these pieces of wood. 
    Cover with banana leaves.
    Cover banana leaves with a flour sack or blanket. 
    Cover with dirt. Let bake 1/2 hour.
    Serve after church.

     The next day the Peace Corps Reunion took place to celebrate the fortieth year of Peace Corps Tonga. It was at the country director’s home so close to the ocean that I had the impression of being in a houseboat under a floating palm tree. There six of us were interviewed by a reporter from the Tongan newspaper Talaki, and I, as the oldest Return Peace Corps Volunteer, was also interviewed for Tonga TV. I made a point to thank ‘Ana Taufe’ulungaki for hosting me and even spelled her name — down to the glottal stops. Then I resumed my Eco-bore spiel.
     Two days later when I went into the Vanuatu ABC Book Store in Nuku’alofa, the salesclerk said, “I saw you on television last night!”
     “Oh, really?” I asked. “What did I say?”
     “You said that we should go back to taking our baskets to market and not use plastic.”
     I had gotten my message across!
     I then went to the Post Office, where I passed through a door with an ad for the commemorative stamps of the coronation of Kingi Siaosi Tupou V on one side and a flyer with Barack Obama on the other, saying “U.S. President Obama? — Good for Tonga?” Following it was “Commentary by Michael G. Horowitz, Ph.D., University Dean.” But it was scheduled for Monday evening August 11, the day I was leaving Tonga.
     When I approached the window to buy stamps, the postal worker, not disgruntled, said, “I saw you on television last night!”
     “What did I say?”
Her report was much the same, but she added, “You said you were glad we still had the ‘umu.”
     My message had been heard! I had returned to Tonga what Tonga had given me.
     Then the Talaki came out, and there were six of us with our pictures Question Man style, responding to a question about the “hilifaki kalauni,” which is the coronation. (Kalauni is crown, not clown, in a language that has no r, no consonant clusters, and where every word ends in a vowel sound.) Under my pictures was “Tina Martin, 62.” And on another page, there was a report on our impressions of Tonga, translated so that it looked as if we were speaking fluent Tonga the way we should have been.
     “Oku ou faka’amu ke foki pe ‘a e kakai Tonga ki he 1970 ‘o ngaue ‘aki ‘a e kato ‘oku lalanga mei he louniu ke fa’o me’akai ai kae tuku atu ‘a e milemila.”
     In other words, “Don’t use plastic bags!”
     Eco-Bore had struck again. And now it was time for a few reunions with the people whose wise ways I had recycled.

Tina Martin is a teacher who writes. She has taught on four continents (Oceana, Africa, Europe, and North America) and in the past three years has traveled back to Tonga, to South America, China, and on a cruise around Turkey with three other RPCVs from Tonga. Her hobbies include her Meque (MEjor Que Un Esposo), writing new words for old melodies, writing letters to the editor, listening to Sarah Vowell, and being an Eco-bore. She is an instructor at City College of San Francisco.