Thursday, May 26, 2016

Christianity, the King, and Culture
By Michael

With our Vagrant friends exploring the
limestone tide pools at 'Ene'io beach.
I’m not a cultural scientist, I’m just a visitor to Tonga who doesn’t speak Tongan. My assimilation into Tongan life has been extremely shallow. But I’m curious and have been trying to understand what I’ve been seeing since the day we arrived last fall.

I wrote about this in a post last December. I observed that Vava’u was being colonized, largely by Kiwi and Chinese ex-pats who were starting and running businesses. I wondered why the Tongans were sitting on the bench while foreign players were in the game, on Tongan home turf.

“Granted that ex-pats have ready access to more capital than the average Tongan. But there is a Tongan development bank in town. I’ve heard government corruption is a problem; is that limiting access to capital by entrepreneurial Tongans? Tongan life has evolved in a setting in which food and land are plentiful and the climate is friendly. Free time and attention are given to the church, to the family, to the kava bowl, and to a revered king. Have there been no cultural drivers or impetus to build business? And should there be?”

I concluded:

“Unfortunately for the people who have lived here simply and for so long, I don’t think they will have the option to continue with lives largely undisturbed and unaffected. My Western mindset is inclined to see change as progress and as opportunity for Tongans. But based on what I’ve seen, it’s not gonna happen that way.”

As we depart Vava’u for islands south, I have more to report. Following are some thoughts and anecdotes that have stuck with me.

Days ago, I happened to have a 20-minute conversation with a Tongan government official, a high-ranking person. About 110,000 people live in Tonga, not all of them Tongan (many of the aforementioned Kiwis and Chinese and a smattering of other nationalities call Tonga home). The official told me that last year, $200,000,000 in remittances came in to Tonga from Tongans living in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and other developed countries

I nodded, I regularly see long lines of people standing outside the Western Union office in Neiafu.

The official said this money leaves too many Tongans without a reason to work. He said it’s a big problem he and others in government want to solve. I got the impression he faces an uphill battle that involves more than economics. I got the impression he felt there were no answers at hand.

The average remittance can’t be large. Nobody here appears to be living the high life. Homes and cars and shoes are very modest. So how is it that this money sent home from Tongans abroad is enough to stifle entrepreneurial tendencies? Why does it still take a South African to appear on the scene to meet the demand for commercial laundry services—a booming business founded with only the capital needed to import 3 washing machines and 3 dryers?

A couple years ago, WorldatWork Journal printed an article titled “Culture: The Missing Link Between Remuneration  and Motivation” by Linda Herkenhoff, Ph.D. of St. Mary’s College. In the article, Dr. Herkenhoff tells a story from her time in Tonga:

“In a recent situation experienced by the author in Tonga, an American hotel owner wanted to provide perquisites as a performance motivator for his four management-level employees. He chose to provide company cars. He noticed the cars were usually missing even though the managers were at work. He later discovered that all employees from the cleaning crew upward borrowed the cars as needed. Tongan culture does not embrace hierarchy in business in the same way as the United States. Although Tongans have a hierarchical political structure that includes a king, prime minister and village chiefs, their day-to-day functional existence embraces an egalitarian notion that one can borrow from a neighbor without asking for permission if that person’s need is greater at that moment. This mindset limits crimes associated with stealing because Tongans are just borrowing and will return the item in good time, even if it is their neighbor’s prize pig.”

I’ll note here that, ironically, I haven’t been to a place I’ve felt more safe from theft (and crime in general) than Tonga. I never think twice about theft here.

We did some spring cleaning aboard and came up with a big pile of quality Tupperware-type containers we didn’t need. I put them in a bag and brought them down to the open food market where we buy produce from Tongan women who sell their veggies 6 days a week. I showed my bag to a seller. “Are you interested in trading for these?” She shook her head. I approached the next woman and asked the same question.

So let me set the scene, the Tongan market is small and rarely very busy. Every seller is aware of and is watching every transaction that takes place at another table. The second woman nodded and motioned for me to set the bag down next to her.

Eleanor on a hike with our friends
from Ambler. (photo courtesy Ambler)
“What do you want for them?” she said. I could hardly hear her.

“I don’t know…” I began removing pieces from the bag to display them before her. As quickly as I put containers on her table, they disappeared on to a shelf underneath. I sensed she was uncomfortable. “How about 12 dollars’ worth of your produce?”

She nodded quickly and motioned for me to stop, “That’s okay, that’s okay.” She said, pushing the bag under the table.

I picked out the veggies I wanted. She put more into my bag (I’m told that in Tongan culture, the worst trait that can be exhibited is selfishness or greed).

Then the others showed up. Two or three other women from around the market were at my side with veggies of their own, putting them into my bag. I was confused.

It was explained to me later that these women were laying claim to a share of the loot the other seller had acquired through my trade.

Going back to my conversation with the government official, he told me he no longer hires Tongan housekeepers. He said shoes will go missing and appear on the housekeeper's feet the next day. Hair clips, nail clippers, and food all disappear. He stressed that this was accepted, that the housekeepers bore no shame. They were not stealing, but borrowing, perhaps for a very long time.

There are four core cultural values in Tonga. One of them, feveitokai'aki, stresses sharing, cooperating, and fulfillment of mutual obligations. Apparently, it’s from this value that the permissiveness of borrowing at will originates.

The official told me he is Tongan but not raised to accept this interpretation. He said the “feve” culture strips people of the motivation to acquire. After all, anything you have that might be desired by your peers, you stand to lose.

'Ene'io beach wildlife.
He blamed the recent cyclone (Winston) on the relative shortage of certain root crops at the market these days. “But that’s not all. Nobody wants to farm. Our kids don’t know how to use a shovel to dig a hole in the dirt. 20 years ago, Neiafu exported crops that today we import. It’s sad, there is no excuse for importing things we could produce ourselves. We have the space, the soil, the climate. We don’t have the motivation.”

The other day we met a Japanese volunteer from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which is similar to the Peace Corps. His job for the past several months has been to teach agriculture—seed harvesting, sustainability, and the like.

The Peace Corps is here in force, we see them when they’re in town, American twenty-somethings clustered in drinking establishments not owned by Tongans. I wonder about what they’re learning about this culture before arriving. I wonder what they hope to change, to what end?

The last thing I heard on the VHF as we left Neiafu was an announcement: beginning July 3, the government will begin enforcing a law it suspended in 1982, following Cyclone Isaac. The law: no baking or selling bread on Sunday. Owners of bakeries that open on Sundays will be subject to fines and imprisonment. I’ve written before that Sundays are quiet around here. Neiafu appears deserted and the only sounds are from the churches. No swimming or play is permitted. But you could always buy bread from a back door of one bakery downtown, and from another just a few blocks away. No more.

More 'Ene'io, Windy with Shane and Ian from Vagrant.

Same place, Tina with Windy and the girls.

Andy doing some stainless welding for us at the Neiafu commercial pier.
See the pile of white stuff on the pier behind his transformer? That's
dead, broken coral. It's used extensively throughout town, for walkways
and as a building material, like gravel.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Switching Switches: Rule to Johnson
By Michael

This is our set up, pulled out of the bilge.
Note the black rectangle beside the lower
pump. That's our new switch.
Except when a boat is sinking, there’s no need for a functional electric bilge pump. It’s one of several pieces of equipment on board that we tend to and will likely never depend on. But still, common sense tells us it’s necessary to have a pump that’s ready to save the boat when things unexpectedly go south.

For five years our primary, automatic electric bilge pump has not always been ready to save our boat. When I last realized it was (once again) not working, it was days before we left for California, leaving Del Viento afloat and on her own for three months to face cyclones without a working primary bilge pump. As if the stress of leaving her wasn’t enough.

I’ve been a good Rule customer. Soon after I moved aboard, I bought a new Rule pump and float switch for the first Del Viento. That was 23 years ago. Since that time, I’ve owned a lot of Rule pumps and switches.

When we moved aboard this Del Viento, I bought a monster of a bilge pump, a 4000-GPH Rule with a snazzy built-in switch. Before we solved the problem of our leaking freshwater tanks, our new pump moved many gallons of water. I was pleased with myself. I’d spent a lot of money on that pump, but I could tell it was going to be money well spent, we self-insure.

Two months later, before we’d even left Puerto Vallarta, my pump died. I took it apart. The circuit board inside, part of the integrated switch, had been sitting and corroding in bilge water. It looked like water had entered the case via the wiring harness. West Marine refunded my money.

I went back to old school, replaced the fancy, failed pump with a 2500-GPH pump and separate float switch, same set-up for primary and secondary.

The pump failed after about 18 months. I replaced it. The float switch failed after another few months. I replaced it too. I stuck with Rule.

Things have been okay since then, a little over 2 years.

Until I tested the pump before we left Del Viento in Tonga. The float switch was the failure point, again.

I shopped for a replacement while we were away. I decided to steer clear of Rule. There are other manufacturers. I learned that Johnson offers a 3-year warranty on their non-mechanical bilge pump switches. Rule offers only a 1-year warranty. That was enough for me.

The new switch is a small black box. It senses water and completes the circuit. I can’t say whether it will prove itself over time, I can only point to the warranty.

In Tonga I told another cruiser about our Rule float switch failure.

“Ha! I think we’ve got three backups of those aboard, we’ve gone through so many.”

I decided to find out why my switch failed.

In short, water ingress. I don’t know from where. Check out the photos.

I took the float arm off the base. So far so good. It was
clear that as the arm rises, it rotates the axle on the base
and triggers a switch inside.

It was not easy to pry apart the float arm. Once I did,
dry as a bone inside, just air.

Prying to the two halves of the base apart was difficult too.
Once I was successful, water poured out. Note the black
wire detached where it corroded. Interestingly, the axle turns
a cam that closes something that looks like the points found
under the distributor caps of old cars. Frustratingly, there is
no excuse for not making this hardware water-tight, like forever.
If we can send a man to the moon...
Again, I suspect the wiring harness is the culprit.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Pig on a Pier
By Michael

Frances and Eleanor, my little sea stars.
A string of fronts had delivered nothing but wind and rain, and this morning dawned clear and still. The sun was low and the colors were rich and the water reflected it all. I had a mundane chore to complete: get parts to the welder, at the north end of town.

I dinghied past the small boat wharf and pulled up to a concrete pier closer to my destination. “Mālō e lelei” I said smiling at the Tongans offloading a bright yellow boat. I pointed to their boat and then to my yellow dinghy. “They’re like older and younger siblings.”

“Be careful,” a man told me, pointing to the pier I was tying up to. “It’s very slippery.”

Mālō ‘aupito” I said before climbing gingerly from the dinghy, parts in one hand. The surface, submerged at low tide, was covered in black algae. In my flip-flops, it was like walking on an icy, pitched roof. But the pier is stepped and I was sure footed on the dry concrete of the next level.

About an hour passed before I returned to the pier. Nobody was around, but ahead, sitting on the top of the steps before my dinghy, was a chainsaw and something in a dark burlap bag, the size of a large carry-on suitcase. I noticed the bag move. I saw a pink and white snout poke out a hole in the bag.

Now, you have to understand that pigs are everywhere in Tonga. I’ve never seen one tied up or in a pen, they just roam. Huge pigs root around in any available patch of dirt around town. Juvenile pigs surround them. At night they knock down trash cans like dogs. Mother pigs cross the streets in front of cars and tiny pink piglets run after them, a scene that never fails to delight the girls. Yet, the pigs are fearful of humans. You can’t summon one and if you move towards them, they scatter like hens.

Here we're descending a portion of 178
steep steps from the highest point in Vava'u.
So there is a snout poking from the wiggling bag 20 feet in front of me. I stop. Please don’t keep moving. The pig knows I’m close, it’s getting more agitated. Please stop. I glance around, there is nobody in sight. The bag is moving. No, no, no. It goes over the edge, falling two feet onto the next level. Stop, stop! I run forward. It continues wriggling, off the pier, into the water. I race down the stairs to the next level, eyes on the pig in the bag in the water. There is nothing for my feet to grab and I’m on my back, sliding, scrambling, toward the water. I stop.

Now I’m desperate to save a drowning pig, but just to get across to him on this slick surface, I’ve got to move at the speed of an astronaut on the moon. When I can finally get a fistful of burlap bag, the pig is still struggling, but I’m overwhelmed by how big and heavy it is. I lower my center of gravity and try and wedge a foot so I can reach down with both hands. The bag is ripping where I’m pulling and now a leg pops out of another hole. Like the 100-pound wife who lifts the family car to save her pinned husband, I somehow managed to get the pig onto the pier with me. I’m crouched, streaked with algae-slime, and holding a shredding bag filled with a panting, angry, and terrified pig. There is still nobody in sight.

I hear a loud whistle and lift my head. A fisherman in the small boat wharf 200 feet away is aware of my plight. He is yelling urgent Tongan to someone I can’t see. He turns and waves to me. I nod lamely.

It was another minute before the young Tongan guy rushed up to relieve me of the pig. In that time, the pig and I both calmed. I’d saved his life, but I knew there was only one reason he was in the burlap bag. By tonight he’d be the main course of a family’s feast. Our brief adventure would be his final act.


The girls at the overlook. That's Neiafu, center left in the photo.
Del Viento is someplace on a mooring in front.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

For You?
By Michael

This guy is shown about actual size.
The girls and I went hiking into the
dense vegetation around our
anchorage and saw these guys
everywhere we looked, in webs
that spanned 8 feet in some
cases. I think they're just garden
spiders, but they're enormous.
For a while now I’ve been thinking about writing something in this space to inject a bit of perspective I feared was lacking. I post the prettiest pictures from our lives afloat and I really don’t have anything bad to say about how we’re living. The four of us enjoy ample time without distraction. We’re learning and discovering things together, a unique aspect of perpetual family travel. After nearly five years, there’s not much I would change.

The problem is that I’m a cheerleader for a way of life that I know is absolutely not for everyone.

We regularly get emails from excited, prospective cruisers and cruising families. On one hand, I’m excited for each of them. On the other hand, I can’t help but think at the same time of all the cruising couples and families we know or have heard about who have poured a fortune into a boat and radically changed their lives to take the plunge into the voyaging life, only to abandon their dream a short time later, for one reason or another.

Should I more loudly broadcast the challenges that impact all cruisers, impacting some to a degree that makes cruising untenable?

I can assure you that cruising is scary at times (and very scary, we nearly lost Del Viento one night, a couple years back). I am aware of cruisers who have been injured and some who have lost their lives. I can warn you that living in close quarters is more togetherness than some will want. I know of relationships, of marriages, that could not withstand the stresses of life aboard. I can promise you that cruising will not be like your last Caribbean charter, that you’ll work like a pioneer to meet basic needs. That getting the water, food, and fuel aboard might take days and there’s a good chance you will not enjoy the chore. That it’s you who will fix the stuff when it breaks. And even if you install all the bells and whistles on your boat, you won’t come close to replacing the land-based creature comforts and conveniences you’ve taken for granted all your life. One or more of your crew will likely and often get seasick. I can point to the inherent risks to crossing oceans and living away from immediate access to comprehensive medical care. Of the cost of living apart from extended family and close friends.

The reasons a voyaging life doesn’t work for many are varied and personal. In the end, there is no litmus test for determining what kind of experience anyone is going to have out here or how they’re going to respond to it. Even if I knew a person very well, I don’t think I could accurately appraise their suitability to living the way we do. I think I would be surprised by some I’d think were obvious land lubbers, and I think I would be equally surprised by some I’d be sure where better suited. I’ve just met too many different people out here, from all walks of life, all nationalities, all shapes and sizes, with no discernable common thread. I can’t articulate the reasons it works for us and others. Dumb luck plays a role.

I think the best anyone can do is to respond to their interests. If exploring this planet by boat appeals to you and your crew, if managing the risks and confronting the hardships seem more like a challenge than a bad idea, and if you’re physically and financially able to make this dream happen, go. Because the destinations are indeed pretty, the adventures are grand, and the gifts unexpected. Go because life is short. And pursuing your dreams, even at the risk of learning they weren’t your dreams, is the surest way to feel alive.

My 30th high school reunion is this year and I know that if I was somehow able to attend, and if everyone there was fit, attractive, and bought a new Porsche every year, I would still feel like the luckiest guy in the room. I took a risk to learn that.

This is where we landed, scrambling up this volcanic-rock shore
to get into what we learned was spider land. I wanted to get a
better view up above for some picture taking, but we could
not get a sightline out of the dense growth.

Del Viento in the afternoon sun of Port Mourelle.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Prickling at PFDs
By Michael

The contentious photo.
"In spite of all the efforts of the Power Squadrons, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, state and local boating safety courses, etc., sailors seem to be oblivious to the risks of children (and adults) not wearing life jackets. In ‘Sailing into Paradise’ (Feb. 2016), there is a large picture of a child hanging over the side of a boat underway in a position to slip under the lifelines and go overboard….Is there a chance [Cruising World] editors could exert at least a little influence to encourage those submitting…articles to show people behaving responsibly?"

That is an excerpt of a letter to the editor of Cruising World, published in the April 2016 issue. The child “hanging over the side of a boat underway in a position to slip under the lifelines and go overboard” is my daughter.

My first reaction is to assure the letter writer that I’m on their side, that I agree how important it is to ensure the safety of kids around water and to set a good example.

But I’m not on the letter writer’s side. I’m not even sympathetic to their sentiment.

On what basis can the letter writer assert that this photo is evidence that, “sailors seem to be oblivious to the risks of children (and adults) not wearing life jackets?” I’ve met a lot of sailors—sailor parents in particular—and they’ve never seemed to me to be a bunch oblivious to the risks of children not wearing life jackets. But nor have I met any sailors who think those risks are fixed and omnipresent. Risks rise and fall with changes in conditions. Far from being oblivious to risk, we sailing parents are constantly gauging risk as conditions around us change. When we decide the risk of not wearing a life jacket is too high, we put one on and request our kids put theirs on.

Cruising World published the full-page photo of my daughter on the rail because it’s an awesome photo, capturing a happy moment of our life under sail. The letter writer can allege that we are not “behaving responsibly” and that is fine. The letter writer may have asked their daughter to don a vest in the same circumstances; that’s the letter writer’s prerogative. But I would ask the letter writer to direct his objection to me. I’d be happy to explain our rationale, in this particular instance, for not requesting Eleanor wear a vest. But to ask the Cruising World editors to engineer photo submissions so that the magazine might present a world in which all kids are in vests at all appropriate times…times deemed appropriate by whom?...accomplishes what?

We take the safety of our kids (and ourselves) very seriously. We are hyper-aware of the danger posed by a man-overboard scenario. We sometimes sail in rough conditions on the open ocean in pitch darkness where we know that the likelihood of recovering any member of our family crew who goes overboard, is close to zero. We are aware of the danger inherent even in returning to the boat by dinghy when the tidal flow is strong, when it’s dark, when it’s rough, when the water is very cold. We address the risks that are a part of our cruising lives with an arsenal of tools and strategies, life vests being only one.

Situations are complex, people are complex. Do I wear a seatbelt while driving and make sure my kids are buckled up too? Yep. But might I have last year let my kid sit on my lap, unbelted, so she could steer while we drove down an empty dirt desert road in Mexico at 15 mph? Yep. And allowing her to do that was probably just as responsible as allowing the same girl to sit on that rail that day without a life vest. How responsible? You’re welcome to decide that for yourself. But please let us not advocate a world where broad-brush edicts and assertions take the place of judgment and personal responsibility.

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