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How to Cross an Ocean

Since the invention of the airplane, the world has become a smaller place.  But when you’re on a cargo ship trudging from one distant island in Tonga to another, you realize just how large the world really is.  And that’s where I was, feeling more alive and part of the world than ever before; meanwhile, underneath the planks of the deck, there was a dead body.

The corpse had been an important member of the Tongan royal family.  He had died almost a week before, but since the ship only goes once a week his loved ones waited patiently for its departure.  He was placed in a corner below deck; I always wondered what a dead body smelled like, but I couldn’t smell anything besides the bushels of sweet frangipani and jasmine and hibiscus flowers surrounding him.  He was dressed all in black, except for the woven straw mat wrapped around his waist.  With his eyes gently shut and his mouth turned into a slight smile, it seemed like he was taking a nap, allowing the slow tossing of the boat to rock him to sleep.  Mere feet away from the corpse and his vibrant flower arrangements were multi-colored trucks that were filled with canned foods and lumber and huge wooden crates nailed shut with bushels of bananas and plastic toys and pieces of computers and televisions.

I was in Tonga, in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, on the Pulupaki.  The Pulupaki is a cargo boat that transports anything and everything from the main island, Tongatapu, to the outer island groups, Ha’apai and Vava’u.  It leaves once a week, takes 24 hours to complete the one-way journey, and is the only mode of transportation between the islands.  While the Pulupaki is strictly a cargo boat meant for carrying goods, it goes without saying that it carries people too; it was, on that very day, carrying me.  Me and about 150 other people escorting the body to the royal funeral.

Tonga is a country barely visible on the map, just east of Fiji.  Oh wait, no that’s Samoa…nope, Tonga is actually not visible on the map. I had heard that there was a cargo boat that would take some passengers to Vava’u, one of the more remote and isolated island groups in the country.  I heard its schedule was spotty, and the trip would be even spottier.  And thus I found myself on the top of the Pulupaki, surrounded by funereal-clad Tongans eating Spam out of the can, nothing for hundreds of miles but deep blue Pacific.

I was 24 years old and on a solo trip around the world.  Bright-eyed and excited to reach the farthest corners of the earth, I wanted to experience the world as a global citizen.  I had chosen Tonga as my first stop on the trip because I wanted to begin with the most isolated and strange location I could find; secondly, Tonga happens to be the first country after the International Date Line.  That is, it experiences each new day first, before the rest of the world wakes up.  It seemed like a fitting idea to start at the literal beginning.

Everyone that I met in Tongatapu had two reactions to my saying I was taking the next Pulupaki: first, a look of absolute horror and disgust (including but not limited to teeth bearing, eyebrow wrinkling and nostril flaring).  Then, everyone gave me pieces of advice, so that by the time I actually boarded the boat I thought I had it all worked out.

“Take a mat to sit on.”

“Try not to drink anything so that you won’t have to pee, those toilets are disgusting.”

“If they say it will take 15 hours, expect that to mean 25.”

But before I could board, the boat had to leave.  For four days straight I was told the boat would leave that night, but when I would arrive to the dock packed and ready, I was told that no, the Pulupaki would actually be leaving the next day.  Meanwhile, I was sleeping on the dirt floor of a Peace Corp volunteer’s hut and getting to know the streets and bus system of Nuku’alofa, the one-horse town that was the capital.

Finally, I arrived at the dock one night to find hundreds of people there.  Most were wearing black and had huge (and I mean square footage of your living room huge) traditional woven grass mats tied around and around and around their giant Tongan waists (Tongans happen to be the most obese in the world: over 90% of the total population).  I was by far the smallest and whitest person around.  By the time the boat was actually boarded two hours later, I was herded onto the Pulupaki, drowning in a sea of Polynesians.

We were directed up the stairs, past the dead body and onto the deck.  It was well past midnight, and everyone was competing to find the best spot for the night.  Aside from the corpse, we were illegal passengers on a cargo ship and were not to be given shelter.  Literally – there was zero shelter on the deck.  We were easy prey for the elements, squished like sardines under the open sky and the burning stars.  The wind was bitingly cold.  I searched for an open space on the ground, trying not to be too competitive or pushy as I already stood out the most.  I could feel the stares and hear the whispers when the Tongans saw me, a lone white female, wander aimlessly onto the Pulupaki.

I found a place near a smokestack; it was noisy, but just enough room for me to set out the straw mat I had bought in Nuku’alofa (it was true, the ground was coated in grease and dirt) and curl up for the night.  When I set my mat and my pack down, I smiled at the contingent of Tongans near me.  They smiled back questioningly, and then began to speak amongst themselves.  I heard the work “palangi” and knew they were talking about me.

Palangi– a word I came to know very well.  It means “sky-piercers” for the giant ships that Westerners first arrived to the islands on.  It’s the Tongan word for white people, and on that boat, it was the Tongan word for me. I tried to ignore the fact that they were blatantly pointing and talking about me.  I put on my favorite green zip-up hoodie, worn thin and full of holes, and curled up into a tight ball to go to sleep.  I had made it onto the Pulupaki.  I didn’t know what the next day would bring, but I hoped it was ready to meet its match.


I opened my eyes in the morning to the same sight to which I fell asleep: a family of fat Tongans staring at me in confusion.

“Why you on this Pulupaki?” one of them said in English.  “A young girl all alone on this boat? Where is your husband?  Where are you going?  Where did you come from?”   They offered me Spam and uncooked ears of corn, which I gladly accepted (I had brought only a few provisions: a box of crackers, a jar of crunchy peanut butter, and a bottle of water).  They ate packets of ramen noodles uncooked and threw the plastic wrappers into the ocean.  I watched in horror as men peed freely off the side of the boat, a grotesque image in front of the romantic rising sun.  Many people were sick from the rocky ride and held their heads over the railing.  I stood up and stretched my back.  Staring out at the vastness of the Pacific, I tried to picture where the Pulupaki was on the map, which I had studied laboriously for months after deciding to come to Tonga.  I imagined the boat as a tiny dot inching slowly across the blue.  Groups of Tongans summoned me over to sit with them, everyone offering more Spam and corn.  Sometimes we passed tiny islands, barely worthy to be called islands, but mostly there was nothing but blue to look at.

Well, I thought, just another 18 hours of this.

We were almost at Ha’apai, a halfway mark between Tongatapu and Vava’u.  I knew we would have to stop once we got there for the boat to unload and reload; this was, after all, the only chance this week for the people of Ha’apai to send and receive goods.

We docked at Ha’apai, where we waited for the corpse to be taken off; this process took over an hour.  They slowly moved his body from the Pulupaki to a small rowboat where he was to be taken to the outer island where he was born.  Over the night, the funeral goers had unwrapped themselves and used their straw woven mats to sleep on.  Now that we reached Ha’apai, everyone on the boat picked up their mats and wrapped them in the traditional way around their waists.  The mat, as I had learned in Nuku’alofa, signified formality; simply putting it on is the Tongan version of a suit and tie, no matter what you are wearing under it.  However, I noticed that funeral garb was a bit different.  Everyone wore black, and the mats were at least five times the size of the traditional mats.  They were tied around the waist with a string, and when they were completely dressed, the Tongans looked like they were drowning in their straw mats.  They dragged on the floor like the train of a wedding dress and sometimes came as high up as the neck.  If I had seen this image out of context, I surely would have laughed.  But in the funeral context, the floppy oversized mats and black clothes made everything look slow and bleak.  Everyone seemed somber once their mats were tied around them, like the giant weavings around their waists were weighing them down emotionally as much as physically.

The funeral goers took turns getting in the small rowboat that was taking everyone to the funeral.  I rested my chin on the railing and was sad to see the characters who had thus far played a pivotal role in my journey leave.

With the departure of the funeral, I was one of the only people left on the Pulupaki.  I didn’t know how long loading and unloading would take, so I disembarked, plopped my pack down on the dock and sat on it, waiting.  A few minutes had passed when another palangi, a boy about my age, arrived.

He had dirty blonde hair that hung on his forehead and almost reached his eyes.  He dropped his pack a few feet away from me, and before sitting down on it he reached over to shake my hand.

            “I’m Sam,” he spoke in a Kiwi accent. “You takin the Pulupaki, eh?”  We smiled at each other, a nonverbal way of signifying our mutual respect for embarking on such a crazy journey.

 A few months before, there had been a sister to the Pulupaki, another cargo boat that made the once a week trip to the outer islands.  This boat was on its weekly journey when, somewhere between Tongatapu and Ha’apai, it sank into the Pacific Ocean, killing everyone on the boat (including three travelers like me).  As it turns out, these boats were gifts to Tonga by the Chinese – unwanted boats that couldn’t pass any sanctions to be on the water in China.  Everyone in Tonga knew someone who had died in the shipwreck (the population of Tonga is only 10,000) and it was brought up in conversation enough to make me uncomfortable.  But I was assured that the Pulupaki was different (which I translated as safer).  All of my fears were quelled however when I met Sam and Tu’i.

 Sam had a smile that was both endearing and cocky at the same time.  His mouth turned up high enough to be categorized as a Dr. Seuss character.  Sam first came to Tonga as a crewmember on a yacht.  When he made it to Tonga, he was appalled by the lack of environmental awareness on the islands.  Even I had noticed that this was true; people threw their trash on the ground or in the sea and they burned garbage.  Sam fundraised and organized all of Ha’apai to participate in Tonga’s first great trash pickup.  They collected tons of trash, bagged it, and were bringing it onto the Pulupaki and to a waste facility in New Zealand.  He was wearing a shirt promoting the event and even took out his camera to show me just how much trash he had collected.  We chatted for a few minutes before he said, “Its hot out here…” as if he had not noticed the blistering sun beforehand.

            “Let’s go.”  He helped me up and we each pulled our heavy packs onto our backs.

            “You can’t get on yet.” The man guarding the entrance to the ramp dismissed us.

            “Yeah, mate, I understand that.  But I’m friends with Tu’i, see, and he is expecting us on this boat.”  The guard contemplated for a second, looked Sam up and down, and then moved aside.

            “Thanks, mate.” Sam helped me up onto the ramp and up the stairs back to the deck.  I started to put my pack down in the same place I had spent the night.

            “Come this way, I know the captain.”  Sam waved me to the side where there was a door; he pushed it open and stepped inside.  I couldn’t believe what I saw: after spending all night curled up on the hard floor under the open sky, there was this room with three couches, a table and a private bathroom.  We had reached the captain’s quarters.

            “Alex, this is Tu’i.  He is the captain of the Pulupaki.”

            “Nice to meet you,” I stuck my hand out and spoke slowly, ready for a conversation full of language barriers and hand gestures.  Instead, I was surprised to hear Tu’i’s perfect American accent as he responded, “How are ya?”

Tu’i’s accent formed a bridge between here and there, and I suddenly felt like I wasn’t so far away from home after all.  Tu’i had lived in California for many years working for a computer company.  He was intelligent, witty and worldly.  His family owned the Pulupaki and he had moved back to run the family business.

Tu’i brought out the largest watermelon I had ever seen, placed it on the table and cut it open.  Juice spilled out and ran over onto the floor, but Tu’i continued to cut as if he didn’t even notice the mess.  He handed a huge slice to me and to Sam.  Leaning back against the couch, he jumped into conversation about environmental issues in Tonga with Sam.  I gathered from their talk that they had spent time together on the Pulupaki before.  We had sucked down almost the entire watermelon before Tu’i turned to me and asked the obvious.

            “So, what are you doing here?”

 Usually when this question was posed to me, I found it hard to answer.  Well…I’m here to see you, I always wanted to say.  I’m here to see the world, to see how others live.  But it was hard enough to ask someone for directions, let alone try to explain my abstract reasons for continent hopping.

I felt like I could somewhat explain this to Tu’i, however.  He understood, assuring me that the people of Tonga were some of the nicest in the world (something I had already come to know, and would learn again and again later) and that he was happy to see young Americans exploring his homeland.


Finally, we reached Vava’u.  It was past midnight, over 24 hours since departing from Tongatapu.  I had set out on my own personal odyssey to see the world, but it struck me as my feet happily met land that over the past 25 hours, I had seen it.  I saw life, a deck teeming with large bodies, all abuzz with the excitement of the journey.  I saw death, a corpse making its final voyage.  I saw poverty in the squalor of the deck and the villagers who embraced it.  I even saw wealth, Tu’i and Sam and the captain’s quarters.  I saw life and how other people live it, and in the microcosm of this strange world that the Pulupaki turned out to be- I felt satisfied.

The BEST holidays

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