Captain's Log

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Family Life and Feasting in Tonga

By Kate “Bob” Addison

I went with Captain and Tammy to the market yesterday, and we were invited back to one of the ladies’ (Betty) houses to see some tapa cloth that she had made. Tapa is amazing stuff, like South Seas wallpaper, it’s the thickness of a few sheets of paper and comes in sheets from small squares for framing to huge cloths big enough to cover any wall or ceiling. It’s made by pounding bark until its flat, joining pieces with more pounding and then hand painting geometric designs using a traditional ink made from burnt nuts.

Betty’s house was very different to your average house in the UK, made of wood and corrugated iron with free-range pigs in the back yard and a separate kitchen hut where copra or dried coconut husks are burnt in a ground oven, (after the pigs have eaten the coconut). Captain and Tammy’s 8-month old son Dawson was a great hit here, being happily passed around the family and entertaining their small children by making faces and laughing. There might not be much money around here but I did get an impression of strong family harmony.

Betty teaches dancing to the girls in her village and we got to see them show it off at a traditional feast that night put on just for the Picton Castle crew. We were shown into an open building by the beach where there were benches to sit on and a long table spread with all sorts of treats. The table cloth was banana leaves and the food was served in the stalks of a banana leaves – they look like giant celery sticks and you can use them as a funnel to sort of pour the food into your mouth, and then stack the empty stalks like the little plates in a sushi restaurant. There was fish in coconut milk wrapped in baby taro leaves and cooked in an umu or underground oven, raw fish with coconut, clams baked with coconut, papaya with coconut, octopus, roast pig, taro, sweet potato, banana, melon, and more coconuts to drink.

After the feast we moved outside to watch some traditional dancing, which was rather similar to the Samoan dancing with incredibly intricate and quick hand movements telling the story of the song. Quite captivating. But the most memorable thing was how much fun the performers and band seemed to be having. Less polished professionals, and more kids and parents who had make their own costumes of grass skirts, feathers and shell, and we’re having great fun dressing up and showing off. Betty’s granddaughter Vi stole the show with the last dance of the show – a very impressive hula.

Back on the ship, work is continuing with the on-watch as usual – we’ve been focusing on varnish on the quarterdeck, painting all over and Sam and David Brown have been making up a new spar to replace the fore topgallant that sprung on the sail from Samoa. The spar is being made from planks of pine, laminated in layer with epoxy. It’s set hard now and the process of shaping the long cuboid into a cylinder has begun to the sound of handsaws and DB singing. Meanwhile a gang are chipping away at the old yard to get the hardware off and we’ll have the new yard varnished and aloft in no time.

Dawson checks out some Tapa cloth
feast night
feast night dancing

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