We were told by sailing books and puddle jumpers of years’ past that we should come prepared to trade. Supposedly, locals would come up to us in pangas and offer fruits, vegetables and fish in exchange. So, in Mexico we purchased baseball hats, fishing lures and toiletries that we could use as bargaining chips when the time came; school supplies, wooden toys and goggles as gifts for kids. We had no idea what we were doing but figured we would give it a shot.
Prior to our arrival in Tonga, our trade had been fairly limited. The islands we visited thus far had conventional commerce, where produce was purchased for money. We had only one opportunity to exchange with families that grew their own. Maybe we weren’t trying hard enough? Our most successful barter had been with other sailors, where scone baking mix, green dragon sauce, chocolate and Dr. Bonners soap was exchanged for Baileys, shelf stable whipping cream and Alaskan canned salmon.
Upon first landfall in the Ha’apai island group, the poverty level in Tonga was palpable. According to the CIA world fact book, 22.5% of Tongans live below the poverty line (2010 estimate). We ventured into a small village with an eagerness to engage. We needed fruits and vegetables and had baseball caps, fishing lures, toiletries, pencils, crayons and children’s books in hand.
As we tied up our dingy, two sets of kids and one lady sat on the shore by the small concrete wharf – a golden opportunity. I approached a small girl in a blue dress, flashed a big smile and said “hello”. She starred at me and walked away, reminding me how utterly awkward I am with kids. “I have a gift for you”, I said, still smiling. Her brother walked towards me, took the books, and ran back. Baby steps, I thought. The second set of kids eagerly took the crayons, and their mom explained to us that finding fruits or veggies was unlikely. She pointed towards the dirt road that hugged the beach and we continued on.
The village was tiny. A quiet collection of structures, with pigs roaming freely and a few houses scattered along a single dirt road. We met one lady who was weaving baskets to sell in the neighboring island. We mostly met kids and gave away all of our books, pencils and crayons.
We turned back feeling somewhat defeated. As we took the last corner back to our dinghy, a gentleman greeted us from his back porch. He was wearing a Colorado Rocky Mountain National Park shirt, a straw hat and a huge smile.
“That’s where we are from!” Andy said, pointing to the shirt. The Tongan let out a deep chuckle and replied “oh, from a bin in Tongatapu!”.
I mentioned we were looking for vegetables. He said something to his wife in Tongan and a minute later she popped back with two cucumbers in a bag and two very curious children.
“That’s all we have”, he said, embarrassed. “Thank you, we appreciate it!” we replied, “We have none!”
We opened our backpack and pulled out a hat, six bars of soap, one bottle of nail polish, a children’s book, and a couple of nice big fishing lures. “We’d like to trade!”‘ I replied, smiling. Their eyes widened in excitement. We walked away with fresh coconuts, a big bushel of bananas, and new friends.
Receiving bananas presented a conundrum. Bananas are banned on Bravo, they are bad luck. No bananas, banana bread, banana boat sunscreen, banana grams, banana republic clothing, banana thoughts or banana wishes. As the bushel of bananas approached, Andy and I exchanged looks – we could not insult them by rejecting their generosity. We exchanged hugs with the family and rode back to Bravo. The bananas didn’t make it past Charlie, which is technically not Bravo, so no bad juju rules were broken. We gave them to a sailboat of Aussies anchored in the same bay. Not before I ate two of them (on Charlie). Sweet goodness. I was seasick the next day. Andy blamed it on the bananas. I regret nothing.
I look back at this experience and acknowledge the Tongan family was willing to part with their last two cucumbers for nothing – we hadn’t made it completely clear we had items to trade. Tonga is known as the Friendly Island, and today they had truly honored their name.