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