8 - Dispatch From Guy Fawkes Day

How ironic to be in another former English colony today - this first Tuesday in November. It is a day that many people of such backgrounds take time for a bit of fun with fireworks and bonfires in celebration of a political event that nearly happened many hundreds of years ago. Why Americans don't, I don't know.

On this day, when our US Constitution bids we Yanks to choose our new government, an old guy named Guy Fawkes tried to do what many a frustrated American has dreamed of doing - blowing all the politicians to hell and starting over again. King James (also a Stewart) and Parliament escaped the plot and poor old Guy met a grisly fate. And so the children of the British Empire keep burning him up every November 5th.

Jean and I have been away through the last several weeks of the American campaign ritual and so avoided both Halloween extortion from the tiny tots (which has not caught on here) and the election's shrill TV anchors and the dinnertime robo calls. What a nicely timed bonus on this short visit to Tonga and now New Zealand.

We delve into learning more about the Maoris. We take a long walk and talk with Vern, a guide at the place where the Chiefs and the Brits first signed a pact that led to the country as it is today. Most interesting to see today, the results of some mutual respect, trust, and responsibility, as 2 strong but very different cultures, agreed to share the land they both had come to possess for their own. I have to ponder the results in America, both North and South, had the European and native peoples done likewise at the outset.

Everyone here is following the US election. We avoid the discussions as much as politeness allows. I could tell them that we already voted - but because California is pure Blue State, our vote has no effect. But that could lead to having to explain the electoral college system, or congressional districting, the filibuster or even to how our candidates could raise and eat up a billion dollars. Some things are better left un-explained … even if I could.

New Zealand is having her own election, just 3 days after ours. Their TV debates and media coverage are every bit as full of nastiness and empty of specifics - maybe more so. But they happily take a break from all that for something more important - a horse race. The whole nation, and neighboring Australia, drops everything for the Melbourne Cup. Jean even patches together a fancy hat to enter the pub's contest. Sadly, our horse, as well as her hat, are out of the running - but the beer, bar snacks and laughing Kiwis fill up the void.

Tomorrow we set off for home, another great trip. But tonight I lie awaken by firecrackers while Jean sleeps on. Kiwis on the street are not celebrating our new President Elect, but another Guy Fawkes Day. I like it. Perhaps, in the interest of international understanding, they would send us a Fawkeing starter kit home with me, in exchange for some Trick-or-Treat instructions. Why not? The more fireworks and holidays the better.

- Sparklers Stew

7 - Dispatch From the Northland

It is hard to be a gracious tourist when you are from California. Beautiful beaches - we've got 'em. Big trees - ours are bigger. Parks - heard of Yosemite? Waterfalls - ditto. Mountains - Sierras in Spanish. Deserts - yeah lots. It's the same for rivers, cities, bays, bridges, farmland, wine, wildlife, nightlife etc etc. So it is often the things the locals take for granted that impress us most about their homeland. So it would be of New Zealand.

We finally get to Auckland at 2AM, a day late and lots of dollars short. We gratefully find the "iSite" tourist info kiosk still manned. (These are all over the country ready to help the traveler.) and they quickly find us a few winks at an airport motel near a car hire. That would never happen at SFO.

We pick up a "Rent-a-Dent" and hit the road early to catch up to our pre-paid lodgings. Again we learn the lesson that it is far better to wing it than try to fit into a plan already made beforehand. What was to have been a casual few days of short drives between little towns and little B&Bs in this far north of New Zealand, starts out with "make it up on the road" tensions - while driving on the wrong side of that road.

Thankfully, big city traffic out of Auckland provides cars for me to follow and remind me to stay on the left side of centerline. Once in the countryside, cars are few and it is a constant effort to keep left while remembering to signal with the right hand lever and stop wiping the windshield at every turn. Jean wisely insisted on an automatic shift - eliminating the left-hand gear knob's additional confusion. The roads are narrow, hilly and very well signed - but I am nervous.

Most small intersections here are controlled by round-a-bouts. You drive into a circle where everyone simply keeps moving around to the left while yielding to the cars on the right. This is a marvel of practical efficiency - no stop signs, no idling at empty red lights or waiting for green arrows. As a Darwinian bonus - this system would probably cull some of our drivers - the ones who can't figure out who goes next at a 4 way stop. Taking them out before they give their kids driving lessons.

This area is called Northland, north of the population centers around Auckland. It is wide-open, green, and dotted with cattle - both meat and dairy. The sheep industry is on hard times and the cow is now king - at least in these parts. Northland reminds me of rural northern California's winding roads and rugged coast - but with fewer people, less trash, more parrots, roadkill possums - and the occasional roadside pub or teashop.

NZ seems to house a great number of people from somewhere else with a tale to tell. We meet Kiwis that were Slavs, Croats, Chileans, and my first Abkhazian. Example is a Dutchman, raised in South America who now owns our B&B, a 150 year-old house built for the postmaster of a lumber boomtown. The big trees here are long gone, but are fondly memorialized by a local museum - and ringing in my mind the Joni Michelle's song "… cut all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum."

A little ferry carries us across Hokianga harbor to continue up the west coast to a stop at the south end of 90 Mile Beach - the village of Ahipara. Like most locales, the Maori names reflect the integration of the original Polynesian and the later English culture into everyday life. There are no hyphenated New Zealanders, everyone here is equally a Kiwi, mixed marriages are common, and every drop of Maori blood is claimed with pride - even by little blond schoolgirls. "Kia ora" (hello) can be used by everyone here, like aloha is in Hawaii.

And friendly is far too mild a term for the people we've met. From snack bars, petrol stations and ferry drivers - all have time to chat and smile. A local we met days ago sees us and doesn't just nod or wave, he pulls over and gets out of his car to greet us. He was a professional caddy, knows Tiger and all the others. He built a tee box on his lawn and drops everything when local kids come by to learn the game and smack used balls out into the surf. His name is "Irish" and he was - but now is all Kiwi. Our hosts here are sailors from the US who landed years ago and never left. They refer to NZ as "our country" now.

Walter, a local Maori lad, guides us on a long quad cycle ride into wild lands down the coast. No contracts, insurance forms, warning labels or California liability suits - just hop on and fire it up. For hours we see no other people and little sign of others having passed before. Much of this lightly populated country is sill free of humans.

As we hug the shore at low tide we find their little green abalone are out of our reach - but not the big green mussels. We pry a bag full off the rocks to add to some good local wine waiting for dinner. It is late when we turn homeward and so he says "wait 'til tomorrow to pay - I'll drop by whenever you like." Remarkable.

While riding back into the village I pause to ask a surfer on the beach if he "got any waves today?" An hour later he drives up next to me on the street, gets out to introduce himself and asks if I would "fancy a surf" in the morning. No board no wetsuit, no worries - he has spares. In 45+ years of surfing California, nothing like that ever happened to me.

I do "fancy a surf" - and it is a sunrise 4 wheel drive to Shipwreck Bay - made famous by a scene in the 60's surf flick Endless Summer - where they had to re-load the camera to film all of one ride on the absurdly long waves found here.

As I sit waiting for another wave I see the huge tree-ferns towering over the cliffs, the waterfalls pouring from Maori sacred caves, and the ocean under my feet is a pristine blue. No noise from hiways or planes pollutes my ears. Andrew, my new Kiwi friend and I are the only ones out in the water all morning. They may take all this for granted, but I know I am not in California anymore.

- Surfin' Stew

6 - Dispatch From Tonga Time

Several airlines have attempted to serve the far-flung islands of Tonga. The latest is Chatham Pacific - a largely Kiwi bunch picking up the pieces of the last corporate victims of "Tonga Time." They are our only option for leaving the Kingdom, unless we stay another month and sail the boat down to New Zealand to wait out the typhoon season.

Our western values of time, and even our god of money, are having trouble taking root in a culture that has never had much need for them. Time of day seems to alter to fit the weather - hot days start sooner, pause longer at high sun, and last longer into the night. So breakfast could be an hour or so different day to day. Only the church bells are right on time - but just on Sundays. The rest of the week is on Tonga Time.

Our flight from Vava'u is scheduled to land back at the capital of Nukualofa in time for us to catch a taxi to the "international airport," which is in fact only a building on the other side of the same runway. From there, it's back into the 21st century on Air New Zealand to Auckland, for bit of "while we're there" travel.

But none of the Tongan airline's 3 planes are in evidence as our departure time comes and goes. No one seems much concerned, and the ladies in grass skirts chat on, and the groups of barefoot men waiting to greet those arriving just lean on the fence in typical Tongan relaxed poises.

Jean is not relaxed. She has gone against all of our rules of travel and scheduled an itinerary for us after leaving Tonga - including prepaying for a quaint (read "expensive") B&B just outside of Auckland. After a while, it becomes obvious that the deposit money is gone - and even leaving this island in is doubt - as the phones are not getting thru and no one knows where the plane is exactly.

But on Tonga Time it does arrive - after having made an unscheduled stop at another island. It is shiny Convair 540, built when Ike was president. They also have a DC3, built when he was a colonel. As we finally depart on Tonga Time for the capital, I note my watch shows our Air New Zealand flight is long gone. Next flight out is in a couple of days.

We hunt down the airline's office in town, an unsigned shack near the market square. It is locked but my insistent knocking rouses a very solicitous employee who is quick to point out that they are not responsible for providing us a place to stay or paying the costs incurred by our missing the connecting flight - much less the un-used B&B beds in New Zealand.

But the phones are working and a call to a lady driving the van to the airport, who is also in charge of customer relations, brings an offer of a refund for the inter-island flight. It will be paid when they get a credit card system up and working. That is to be in a "few weeks time." I forgot to ask if that was my time, or Tonga Time.

- un-Scheduled Stew

5 - Dispatch From the Anchorages

The area of Tonga we are sailing is called Vava'u. It has to be one of the places God made for sailors. The cooling trade winds are steady, the waters clear and warm - and the scores of green wooded islands are lined with colorful coral reefs and sugar-sand beaches. Anchorages are everywhere and only a mile or two apart - sometimes not worth the effort to hoist our sails. In fact, recent DNA research may point to this being the starting point for the advanced sailing technology that allowed the great Polynesian voyaging culture to span the Pacific not so long ago.

In a food stall, we meet Mark, a "papalangi" (white man) wearing native dress. He has his own small island here and invites us to drop by and use the mooring in front of his little pier. A couple of days latter, we sail up to do just that. The setting is beyond dreamlike and the channel running by is a highway for humpback whales that return to Tonga each winter. Jean and I paddle a sea kayak out to find them.

Bobbing in the violet blue water we are surrounded by darting tuna and diving birds attempting to devour a huge ball of baitfish that are themselves, desperately trying to hide under our boat. A great show … but no whales. As the sun climbs hotter, we drop into the water to view the best reef diving I can remember. Arrays of coral species unknown to us, with some individuals big enough to rate a note on the map.

We hoist anchor, leave Mark's and move to a place called "Blue Lagoon". It is truly blue, but also a bit rolly - so no worries, off to another anchorage a few miles downwind, an island called Hunga. It is a dead volcano with a very narrow cut thru the rim to access it's flooded 2-mile wide caldera. It offers perfect protection from any weather in any direction - and stunning views of forest above, and coral below. A pod of porpoise loiters at the entrance. I swim over to play, but they are busy jumping high out of the water, seemingly just for the fun of it - while waiting for the cut's tidal current to deliver their sushi dinners.

Flying foxes flap their leathery bat-wings toward another tree full of ripe fruit. Jungle birdcalls echo off rock and water. A green turtle surfaces and looks over at our intrusion. Then the nightly choir of crickets kicks off and another star-studded show begins. Looking aloft, the stars are mostly unfamiliar, and those I know are moving backwards across this southern sky. But the comforting anchor light is lit atop our mast - and our beautiful world spins on, mindless of me - but not me of her.

- Star struck Stew

4 - Dispatch From the Revolution

Tonga is the last of the Pacific monarchies. Tahiti sold out to the French, "protectors" took care of other Polynesian kingdoms - and we Americans did the dirty deed to the last queen of Hawaii. But King George Tupou V of Tonga still owns it all. Coroneted just last August; he already has faced riots and burnings in the capital city. His aloof style and harebrained economic schemes have a large part of the otherwise proud and happy population acting very un-Tongan. Dissent and calls for democracy are openly voiced - if an interested tourist should ask. I do.

Elected representatives fill only nine of the national offices, all the rest are appointed by the King. Population has swelled and half of the Tongans are now living elsewhere. Much of the economy is simply the funds sent back home. The king has dreams of royal grandeur and expensive tastes - very un-Tongan traits.

These are loyal but proud people who still honor the Sabbath - no fishing or swimming or business of any kind. They still all gather early each Sunday to sing the roofs off their numerous churches - while a family feast slow cooks in anticipation of the weekly family reunion.

There are those who wish to build big resorts here and bring in outsiders to motivate and cross-pollinate the most ethnically pure people in all of Polynesia. I suggest that they be careful what they wish for. The harmony of their choirs across the water might be drown out by the drone of a disco. They may get the new roads and big hotels, but when they turn on the streetlights, I fear they will no longer be able to see their stars.

The King has been hoodwinked by investment scams and even tried selling citizenship - leading to some unsavory additions to the neighborhoods. Just as problematic are the returning gang-bangers from our big cities - just out of US jails and deported to a land they left as infants. They bring their urban skills to a land devoid of any such crime, violence, and greed.

I meet with one such young/old man. He is tending to some pineapple plants near his grass shack overlooking a billion dollar view. His tattoos, speech, his mannerisms and downcast darting eyes are pure jailbird - totally un-Tongan. He fears those "looking for him" and asks not to be in our pictures. He also asks us for help in getting trained people to show his kind how to deal with becoming Tongan again. More like him are coming back every year. Fallen angles from paradise, so sad.

Tonga IS a paradise - with few taxes, no hunger, no need to lie cheat or steal to live - Tongans seldom die for reasons unrelated to old age. But this 3000-year old culture has no answer for the outside problems and revolutionary ideas that are knocking at the palace gate. Something painful, I fear, is to come to this paradise. Birth pangs or death peals - time will tell.

- Revolutionary Rod

3 - Dispatch From Homework

When off to a new land, a session of homework is always advised. As this would be a sailboat trip, I studied charts, weather, tides, local customs, Tongan word for "beer" and such. Jean is far more practical. She downloads flight schedules, exchange rates, and the local food information - and makes up menus to keep any crew hail and happy.

A week before we left for this trip, I found a sink-full of baby ocopods in my kitchen. Jean and her friend Jewel were practicing a Tongan meal (or so they thought). Jewel will be happy to know that the Internet is correct - both squid and octopus are "plentiful in Tonga". Probably, because they don't often eat them. A puzzled local fisherman showed us his squid only after we asked. I think it was his bait.

Local clams come by the bag full - not paper or plastic ... but woven. The only octopus we could find was a big old fellow frozen into a plastic-bagged block of tentacles. Local suggestions were unclear … to boil it for 3 hours or maybe that it had already been boiled for 3 hours - was cleaned or maybe it needed cleaning. 98% of Tongans are literate but the small percent of words we miss are often important ones like is/isn't, will/won't, or should/shouldn't.

As we provision for our sail, Jean is not put off by lack of menu ingredients found in the scattered food shops or even amongst the sea of mangos, melons, taro, and coconuts that fill the local market stalls. It might appear that Tongans don't use hot peppers, but Jean finds they just don't bother bringing them to market - as they grow wild, free for the taking.

So while she has me in the bush picking peppers, we also load up on the local wild spinach called pella leaf. Mixed in with the squid, it tastes more like Swiss chard. So much for food homework.

We are happily settled in aboard a friend's 50-foot sloop - all because another of The Usual Suspects phoned us with an idea - and off we went. He is John Bill, or just JB. And no, the boat is NOT the Sloop John B, but is called Cheyenne - a vintage New Zealand build racer, cruising her way from California back to the land of her construction.

JB has almost more days at sea than I've had days - so I can relax and let him worry about doing all that captain stuff. I will go diving, write dispatches, help Jean pick peppers, figure out how to saw her frozen octopus in half - and do the dishes. I have done plenty of homework on that.

- Rinsing Rod

2 - Dispatch From the Friendly Islands

Dawn's early light finds us changing flight crews in Samoa. The transit lounge is peopled by Polynesians going and coming, their wide feet, grown free of shoes, spread out over the sides of their flip-flops. Equally wide smiles spread over handsome faces - right out of a Gauguin painting. They can smile without coffee - we are trying to learn that skill after an 11-hour flight.

Their ancestors once loaded up in huge sailing canoes that could run rings around the ships of the European explorers. With skills and technology only now being appreciated, they spread their enduring culture across the Pacific - from Tahiti to Hawaii to Easter Island to New Zealand - and everywhere in between. An area larger than all the land empires of the world combined.

The people of Polynesia evolved to suit this life of long sea voyages - feast and famine - and a diet limited to fewer than a dozen staple plants - and an occasional bit of lean meat. Their 'save the fat' gene is still working well, and those of them who have joined our world and our diet, suffer badly from the result. I expected to see those sizes here, but an American WalMart checkout line has more thunder-thighs than I can find in Samoa or Tonga.

Tonga is only a few hundred miles from Samoa, but the flight will take over 25 hours. We will miss Wednesday entirely, as the dateline erases a day - depart Samoa at dawn on the 15th, and land in Tonga, 90 minutes later, on the 16th. The setting moon avoids the confusion and glows down equally on both mornings' sunrise.

As we board, the equatorial Samoans and Tongans are bundled up in the 75-degree "chill" of dawn. The visiting New Zealand members of their race - are in shorts and tank-tops, basking in the tropical warmth - instead of their homeland's half-way-to-Antarctica spring weather. Each traveler has bags packed to the last ounce of luggage allowance. They may fly rapidly across their ocean realm in today's jets, but still seem to pack in the supplies for a slow canoe trip - including sufficient quantities of our junk food.

As we land in Tonga, I look for the canoes-full of bare breasted beauties that paddled out to greet Captain Cook in 1776. Alas, that dress code is long gone, as Tonga has been long overrun by missionaries. But the beautiful people and their smiles are still here to greet us visitors. Cook called these the "Friendly Islands", and he might do so again, if he came back today.

- Smilin' Stew

1 - Dispatch From a Suspect

Late October. Our otherwise unbroken stream of political ads, lawn signs, and bumper stickers is interrupted by the season's first frost warning. Escape is on my mind. How to evade the weather, the economic meltdown and the media monoculture of an election? How to dim the TV's shouting anchors and the Internet's attack rumors? How to stop worrying about what I can't change? How to stick my head-in-the-sand until it's all sorted out? How?

Only thing to do is pack up and go … go to where they have no need for elections, where they have no word for frost, and where they have plenty of warm white sand into which I can stick my head. Where their head-of-state is simply crowned - no campaigns, no smears, no 24/7 CNN tension-toned television. A warm and friendly place, full of beauty, devoid of stressed out people - and empty of presidential politics. A paradise in the South Seas, at the ends of the earth - the Kingdom of Tonga.

A friend called with a boat to sail. Air New Zealand has a special deal on a direct flight out of LAX. Just turn off the paper and lock up the house. Then taste a last rush hour on the ride to SFO, fly down to LAX - the first leg, the first layover.

We walk out of the terminal and I look up at the airtraffic control tower that I manned way back when we were young and responsible - in other words … a long long time ago.

"We should call someone while we wait," I say.
"Who ya gonna call?" asks Jean.
I look at her, she at me … we nod and together blurt out the undoubted answer … "Harry!"

"Hi Harry - can I buy you dinner?"
"No thanks, I just ate - where are you?"
"Here at LAX with a couple hours layover."
"You will be needing a beer then - I'll pick you up."

Harry is a prince. One of a select list of friends we refer to as "The Usual Suspects." These are the friends who you can call on at any time, with any crazy idea. They are the ones that will respond with, "Yeah! We're in!" - even if the idea has not been thoroughly thought through.

Usual Suspect episodes have included Harry and me falling down a Porto Rican waterfall, chasing wind-tossed tents in the Grand Canyon, searching for overboard boat upholstery in Turkey, hangover hurling to the fish in Greece, swimming through bat-shitty Caribbean caves, snap rolling a canoe in California, blowing off a mainsail in Mexico - and getting very very lost going up Lost Slough.

His wife Jane, well experienced at being a Usual Suspect, greets us with leftovers and a hug. Soon we are sipping suds and vino at Jane & Harry's first-class transit lounge. Airport layovers can be good!

Later that night, as we soar over the immense Pacific Ocean, I am emotional overwhelmed by my fate. Born as a late 20th Century white male American - with the ability to span half the world at a whim. With a time-tested list of Usual Suspects that I can call - and that will call me. And a perfect partner - to make double the pleasures of my life's ride.

Tonight, that ride is illuminated by the full moon glowing down through a thin crystal overcast onto Air New Zealand's polished wings. Then down farther to the backlit drama of the trade-wind clouds billowing by below. Each cloud's shadow cutting black shapes out of the moon-glow shining back up at us off the sea.

I wish the Usual Suspects were all here with us tonight. I raise a toast of good Air New Zealand wine to you all. And to all, a good night.

- Usually Suspect Stew