Thursday, October 04, 2007

Nuiatobutabu, Tonga, September 24

The morning of September 20, Tonga time, we learned by email that Ellen’s father had passed away the night before. He had been in decline for many years. While we were prepared for this eventuality and had made arrangements last spring with Ellen’s mother and the nursing center where he lived, the timing was sudden and the shock was hard. We were anchored off a remote island but were able to reach the family by satellite phone generously loaned by a fellow cruising boat. Our cruising companions sat shiva (Jewish custom) with us for a couple of nights; it felt very supportive.

Here is a brief obituary of Arthur Jay Schreier from Ellen (who is an obituary junkie). Born in 1928 in New York, NY, he was the only child of Dr. Herbert and Chari Griffel Schreier, who met went they immigrated on the same ship from Eastern Europe to the US after WWI. Arthur was a late walker and talker and very spoiled by his parents and doting grandmother. He turned into a fine student who went off to college at 16 and finished in three years, moving on to medical school and a specialty in psychiatry. He married my mother Judith Rosenblum in 1953. They had grown up in the same apartment building in Greenwich Village and had maintained a secret romance (at least to their parents) during college years. My dad served in the Navy during the Korean War, practiced at the Institute of Living in Hartford, CT, City Hospital in Queens, NY, and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Montrose, NY. He retired in 1983 and spent winters with my mother in Portugal, Mexico, and Florida and summers in Savoy, Massachusetts where he enjoyed wood sculpting and writing poetry. Around 1995 he became a full time Florida resident and has lived in assisted living facilities since 1999.

Dad suffered from bipolar disorder throughout his adult life and in his later years became increasingly disabled by that condition and dementia. He was predeceased by a son, Edward, in 1961, and a daughter, Diane, in 1979. He leaves Judy, his daughter Ellen, and two granddaughters, Eve and Amy. I loved my dad and I will miss him a lot. In his last years he was very sweet, and that is what I now remember.

So there we were, in Nuiatobutabu, one of the northernmost islands in the Kingdom of Tonga. About 1000 people live there in a fairly traditional, hardscrabble existence. People are wiry. The pigs are so active it is hard to distinguish them from dogs. There are a few solar panels for electricity and a few motor vehicles that run between the three villages on the island (“first village”, “middle village” and “the capitol” which is distinguished by a bank from the era of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the government office, with broken floorboards and rugrats of many species - kids, dogs, insects - roaming around). People are very religious (Catholic, Methodist, Mormon) and everyone covers up onshore. (Tonga has a $25 fine for a man who goes shirtless; don’t know what the fine is for women.)

The economy on the island is still largely based on barter. Cigarettes are like gold if there is anything you want from the natives – handicrafts, fruit, fish, lobster. We arrived the week before the monthly supply ship was to arrive and were deluged with requests for cigarettes-from the customs officials who searched our boat to verify whether we had any to whoever could lay their hands on a boat to come out and make the request. And you could not walk 25 steps on the island without a child coming up and asking “Where’s my lolly (candy)?”

There was lots of entertainment. The agriculture inspector, all 350 pounds of him, sported a baseball cap with a big marijuana leaf embroidered on the crown when he came to clear our boat. (And just in case one didn’t recognize the insignia, the word “marijuana” was embroidered on the back). He and his colleagues (Customs, Immigration, Port Captain) demolished a big tin of Almond Roca candy we brought out to keep them from the beer.

Niko and Sia, the hosts to the yachties, invited us all to a pig roast at their home. We got to ride around and collect two of the piglets, live, stuffed in a gunnysack. They paid for the pigs with cigarettes – five packs per pig. At the dinner we drank Niko’s homemade beer (fermented canned peaches) and mango punch, and ate baked papaya and breadfruit, taro leaves in coconut cream, and raw fish in coconut milk. Niko used to be in the recreational drug business (not exactly illegal in Tonga at least until recently). Now he has the cigarette concession, direct access to the yachties and a seasonal job in New Zealand.

We went to the disco – a basketball court walled with palm fronds stuck vertically in the dirt around the floor – playing unidentifiable pop music. It was a fundraiser for the youth, admission $1. Not many people dancing but the action was in the corner, a whole bunch of men drinking kava, the local intoxicant. It is made from pepper plant roots that are squeezed in water. The concoction looks and tastes like dirty dish water and is served from half coconut shells, passed around a circle. Not hygienic, not very tasty, but it did numb our tongues a little and everyone in the circle had goofy grins.

The weather, the snorkeling, and the views here were beautiful. We left on September 24 for a twenty four hour sail to Neiafu, in the Vava’u group of Tonga.

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