In 1984 while channel surfing, I came across the opening ceremonies for the Summer Olympic games. The screen showed the parade of teams from all of the attending nations.
Some countries, like the United States, had hundreds of athletes and some had five or six; but what caught my attention was the single member team from the Kingdom of Tonga.
When the lone representative from that country entered the arena, proudly holding his nation’s red flag with a plus sign looking red cross imposed on a white field in the upper left hand corner, the entire stadium rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.
There he was walking around the track with a fifty-yard gap in front and in back of him, grinning from ear to ear and enthusiastically waving to the frenzied crowd of attendees. The harder he waved, the louder they cheered.
So contagious was the moment that I found myself standing in front of the TV loudly clapping my hands in utter amazement. The thunderous applause went unabated until he completed his walk around the track.
One of the commentators began to tell the viewing audience the story of this young mocha-colored man’s odyssey to the Olympics.
We were told that Tonga was an island nation in the South Pacific about fifteen hundred miles due east of Sidney, Australia; and in its entire history of fifteen hundred years, they had never sent anyone to participate in the games.
The young man’s name, which I have forgotten, had dreamed since childhood of participating in this sporting event. Every year he would tell his family he was going to go.
He decided that since his legs were too short, he could not run fast and compete in track and field. Even though his islands were surrounded by water, he was not a good swimmer. He could not participate in archery because his family did not have the money to buy the necessary equipment. He was not very good at Rugby, Tonga’s national sport, and besides Rugby was not a sanctioned event.
However, he noticed that the Rugby players in his small hometown made lifting weights out of iron pipes with cast cement blocks on each end. Some of them weighed over three hundred pounds. So as you can see, necessity dictated that he become a weight lifter.
He proceeded to train day and night building up his strength in order to make a decent showing at the games in Los Angeles. He had no illusions about winning; he knew that was out of his grasp, he just wanted to do his best and not shame himself or his country.
However, he did have a problem. He didn’t have the money to make the trip. The time soon came for him to make the preparations for the journey.
He went to the government office and got an official looking letter with his name on it, saying that he was a middle class weight lifter representing the Kingdom of Tonga and to please allow him to participate in the games.
He was also told that the Tongan budget was strained and the government could not offer him any financial assistance. He could go, but only at his expense.
Heartbroken, he returned to his village and explained to his family and neighbors that he would be unable to attend the games because he did not have the money. He went to bed that night realizing that his childhood dream was just that—a dream.
He slept in the next day too depressed to get up and face the dawn. Around noon, his father rushed into his room, grabbed him firmly by his arm and pulled him to the front door. Outside stood hundreds of people, not only from his village but also from the surrounding villages, all patiently waiting for him to rise.
Then, in the Tongan way, they passed around an old rusty water bucket and proceeded to donate Tongan dollars and loose change for his trip.
They gave him enough money for the round trip airfare to Los Angeles. He boarded the Air New Zealand plane with nothing more than the clothes on his back, a pair of old sneakers, a jock strap and a single pair of white gym shorts.
After being credentialed at the Olympic Village, he was given his number and escorted by a pretty young Asian guide to the dormitory reserved for the competing Olympic weight lifters. He found himself sharing a room with a massive young Canadian, and they quickly became fast friends.
His constant contagious smile soon endeared him to the entire weight lifting community. He brought a sense of joy and relaxation to the terrors and stresses of international competition. He showed them that weight lifting was fun; and if you did not have fun, then you should not be doing it.
His new found friends realized that a pair of old sneakers, washed out gym shorts, and a regular jock strap was not the proper attire for the competition to come so they took up a collection and bought him a power belt, weight lifting shoes, black leotards and silkscreened his country’s name on a fresh white T-shirt, which he accepted with the upmost humility and gratitude.
The international weight lifting community had by their collective actions adopted him as one of their own.
This was the story that the TV commentators joyfully relayed to the American public. It was such a beautiful story of how kind and good man could be that my eyes started to water up.
I swore to myself and finally out loud to my wife, that one day I was going to go to Tonga to which she responded, “I have no plans to go to Africa. If you have to go, you can go by yourself.”
Just one last comment: I found out later that my Tongan friend failed to make it past the first round; but at his competition, every member of the international community was present to cheer him on. When he failed to advance, they all gave him a rousing standing ovation, which he accepted with a gracious smile.
That was in 1984. Every month for the next five years, when things went good or bad, I told anyone who would listen that one day I was going to get out of this rat race and go to Tonga (a place that I could only find information about in an eight-inch single column piece in the Encyclopedia Britannica). Month after month, year after year, I dreamed of Tonga.
I was in the long haul eighteen-wheeler trucking business. I had my main terminal on the east side of Houston. It was a modest operation by any measure; I ran about ten owner-operators.
One Saturday, five years after the ’84 Summer Olympics, I had a load of dry goods that needed to be picked up in Fort Worth, Texas, and delivered to Los Angeles. The driver that I had counted on to deliver the load did not show up; so in desperation, I posted the load on the video screen at the local truck stop.
A couple of hours passed and no one responded to my posting, which happens more often than not. Just as I was about to give up and call the customer to inform them that I was not going to be able to pick up the freight, the telephone rang.
A male voice said, “I see you have a load going to Los Angeles. I am headed that way and I need the load. I sure don’t want to dead head (run empty) all the way to California.”
He told me his name was Virgil Lightly and that he lived in Littleton, Colorado. I quickly told him, “You got yourself a load, who are you leased to?” To which he replied, “Nobody; I am an independent owner-operator.”
I paused; and for a moment, was speechless because in the trucking business the scourge of the industry was independent drivers that took freight on a trip down bye, bye highway never to be seen or heard from again.
Virgil caught the hesitation on my part, and pleaded with me saying, “I know what you are thinking. You are afraid that I might steal your load. Don’t fret none; I’m an honest man. Just give me a chance and I won’t disappoint you!” I was desperate so I told him, “Come on over and we’ll fill out the trip lease papers.”
Thirty minutes later, a black Peterbilt eighteen-wheeler tractor truck rolled into my yard pulling a new silver-colored refrigerated trailer. The driver parked the truck in front of my building.
A medium built white man about fifty years old jumped from the cab; and with a broad smile on his face, shook my hand saying, “Hi, my name is Virgil Lightly. I talked to you on the phone about that load to Los Angeles.” I said, “I’m pleased to meet you, Virgil. Go into the office and have Sammy help you fill out the trip lease papers.”
Virgil headed for the door to my office; and I, with pencil and paper in hand, proceeded to inspect his truck, which was required by federal law; but I had another motive in mind. Not knowing anything about Virgil, I was looking for any serial numbers and license plate numbers that would lead me to him if he stole my load.
When I approached the passenger side of the cab, I noticed a dark complexioned woman sitting in the right side seat. She had broad features and a gracious smile. I thought to myself that old Virge liked brown sugar.
After satisfying myself that I had enough information to stand a reasonable chance of tracking him down if the worst-case scenario played out, I strolled through the office door into a large open area where most of my employees sat and worked.
Years ago, I had stapled a world map next to the entrance of my office with a red-colored pin implanted into the map at the center of the Island Nation of Tonga.
I had done this because every time I told someone that one day I was going to shuck it all in and go to Tonga, they would ask, “Where is Tonga? In Africa?” I would just point at the map.
I continued walking toward my office. Virgil stood next to my map, holding up the red pin, proclaiming, “Who here has been to Tonga? I have been to Tonga and my wife, who is out in the truck, is a Tongan.”
I could barely believe my ears. I knew from my encyclopedia that there were only 100,000 Tongans in the world; half of which live in Tonga and the other half are scattered throughout the world with most living in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
There was a small community of Tongans living in the United States. I later calculated that there were possibly 10,000 Tongans in the United States.
What were the odds of one of these people showing up at my office five years later to pick up a load of freight for me? Astronomical! I felt that destiny had again intervened in my life, and it had.
I said, “Nobody.” Virgil’s face clouded over in confusion. He said, “Then why the map and the pin?” I told him to come into my office and that I had an interesting story to share with him.
I explained to him about seeing the Tongan weight lifter on TV five years earlier. My lack of knowledge about the country and my saying year after year to all who would listen that one day I would go to Tonga.
Virgil half muttered to himself, “This is unbelievable. Let me get my wife out of the truck. I know that she will be glad to meet you.”
Moments later, he was back with her. She introduced herself as Essetta and she had met Virgil while riding on a bus in Tongatapu, the primary residence of the government and the home of the King.
All kinds of fascinating details of the country rolled off of their tongues, wetting my appetite for a Tongan adventure. As if ordained by a before life, we instantly bonded and became best of friends, even to this day. We talked for a good hour, but they had to drive to Fort Worth and pick up the load.
I was so enthralled with their stories that I was tempted to call my customer and cancel the pickup. They left with a promise to return in a week and share more of their South Pacific tales.
I promised to reserve a load each week for their return trip to California. Thus, began the greatest adventure of my life; my dream of Tonga was about to come true.
When Virgil and Essetta returned the following week, they began to fill my head with stories of a selfless people, who put the needs of the community ahead of their own personal needs.
They told me that, if a villager needed sandals and had none to wear, anyone that he approached for help would gladly give him their shoes right off of their feet with no questions asked.
Their society was one of communal giving and sharing; this did not make them a utopia because there were people in their country and a lot of them who were just as greedy and selfish as anyone else in the world.
But it was this sense of community that drew them together and gave them strength as a people. I found this too good to be true. Was it still possible for men and women to live this way?
I had to find out so on the Labor Day weekend of 1989, I boarded a Continental Airlines flight to Los Angeles, where I made a connection to Air New Zealand and flew to Tonga.
From the time I left my home in Houston to the time the plane landed on the tarmac in Tonga, 24 hours had elapsed and I had crossed the International Date Line, where the time in Tonga was 6 hours behind Houston time, tomorrow.
I looked out the window at the primitive airport and sighed. I had finally made it to Tonga. My dream had come true. It was 11:00 pm Tonga time; and it looked as if the entire island turned out to greet the plane, which only flew there twice a week.
One flight coming and one flight going was their only connection to the outside world. I started down the stairs of the giant 747. There was a cluster of a dozen or so hand drawn four-wheel carts.
Bags were snatched from the plane’s baggage compartment, hastily thrown on the carts without concern for contents or damage, and men at a near run delivered them to the one story brick terminal two hundred yards away.
This process was completed time and time again. Before I could protest, a pair of brown hands quickly relieved me of my carry on items, but I didn’t care because I was in Tonga!
I cleared Customs, which was a mere formality; my visa was my return ticket home. The government did not allow visitors to take up permanent residence on their island paradise.
Satisfied that I was not going to stay in their country, I was allowed entry. I wondered what had happened to my luggage, but, as I approached the Budget Car rental to pick up my transportation, there in front of the counter was every piece including my prized Ping golf bag and clubs.
I wondered how did they know who I was. The rental manager was an attractive thirty-year old half cast woman who quickly and efficiently assisted me in filling out the required forms. She said, “ We have to hurry; the airport will be shutting down in a few minutes.”
I looked over my shoulder and noticed two things: The 747 was in the process of lifting off and the thousands of people had miraculously disappeared. Then someone started cutting off all of the lights in the airport.
I had just finished signing my name when a worrisome knot began to form in my throat. Anxiously, I asked the agent, “Say, there is no one here. How am I supposed to get to my hotel in town?” With a calm smile, she said, “Just follow those three trucks over there. That’s where they are going.”
Pointing out a burgundy Toyota Corolla, she tossed me the keys saying, “Welcome to Tonga. Have a good time and I will see you in a week.” That’s when the last light went out.
The only available illumination was from the headlights of the three trucks, and it looked like they were starting to pull away. I ran to the car, banging my suitcase and golf clubs along the ground, nearly dropping them.
I opened the back seat passenger door, threw in my bags, jumped into the front seat, and reached for the steering wheel, which was gone! I said mostly to myself, “What the… Did she rent me a car without a steering wheel?”
Then I realized that Tonga was a British Protectorate and that the steering wheel was on the other side of the car. Everything was reversed. The trucks were leaving the airport. I reached for the manual shift and turned on the windshield wipers. The manual gearshift was also on the wrong side.
I started the car and managed to fall in behind the three sets of taillights that were barely discernible in the distance. I mashed the gas petal to the floor and began to close the gap between us.
In about two minutes, I was comfortably behind the trailing truck in hot pursuit. I started to relax, thinking this was not so bad; within an hour, I would be peacefully resting in my hotel room.
As we progressed down the single lane blacktop road, I noticed that the vegetation was thick and dense and appeared at times to want to devour the highway. It was an overcast night with no moon or stars to light the way.
Occasionally along our path, I saw a dim light, coming from a window in a small wood-framed house that was set back twenty feet or so amidst the dense foliage, and then nothing.
By the time I thought that this would be a terrible place to break down, the trailing truck made a right turn at a fork in the road and disappeared into the night.
Should I turn or keep following the other trucks? I decided to follow the two lead trucks. I had been driving for twenty minutes and appeared to be going nowhere.
I wondered, “How large was this island, twenty or thirty miles?” I started to get anxious. I could see my body, years later, a skeleton with a wide-open mouth painted for all of eternity in a hideous scream of the forlorn and abandoned.
As these thoughts were racing through my mind, the second truck pulled into a grassy drive under a corrugated metal roof and cut off its lights.
Now I had only one truck left to follow down this long dark jungle road, with hope against hope of making it to civilization. There were no city lights in the distance begging me to keep driving, only the headlights of a single truck lighting my way.
Five minutes later, we came to an intersection; the lead truck made a sharp right turn and proceeded down the new road. I slammed on my brakes and stopped. Now what the hell do I do? Do I keep following him or keep on the current road?
My headlights showed me that the road the truck had turned onto was also blacktopped but narrower. I decided to keep on what I perceived to be the main road to town.
I drove and I drove for what seemed like years. I gave up hope. I had travelled over ten thousand miles to get lost in a nighttime jungle!
My dream of Tonga had turned into a nightmare. And then, Eureka! I saw a distant light. Could it be a streetlight? Yes! As I drove past the first lone sentinel, I knew I was headed in the right direction.
Shortly, I was passing one lamppost, then another, and then an entire avenue of lighted poles. I saw a large four-story structure with the name “Ramanlal Hotel.”
There in the middle of the road, waiting for my arrival, was the hotel owner who greeted me warmly, “Welcome to Tonga! Did you have a satisfying journey? I am so sorry; we do not have a room for you. It seems that the arriving plane from Auckland required extra maintenance and will not arrive until tomorrow morning. The guest in your room had to stay.”
I thought to myself, “Great! What else could go wrong? First, lost in the jungle of vegetation, and now no where to sleep.”
The owner kept talking, “But don’t you worry; we have made arrangements for you at the Tongan International Hotel, and we will pick you up tomorrow morning and return you to our fine accommodations.” That is how my adventure in Tonga began.
The next morning, true to his word, a bellman arrived from the Ramanlal Hotel, put my luggage in the trunk of his car, and told me to follow him back to the hotel. I figured that by taking my luggage with him was one way to keep me from jumping to another hotel, which would have been difficult since there were only two hotels in the city.
It was a sunny, cloudless day, and I could see the clear blue Pacific Ocean dominate the horizon on my left as I followed him along the ocean drive back to the main road. Brown skinned, almond-eyed men and women were busily moving about conducting business and talking with acquaintances.
As I drove down the main street, I noticed that the hotel was the tallest building in what passed for a downtown. One-story buildings lined both sides of the street for six blocks, offering for sale the usual fair of food, clothes, shoes, and other merchandise. There was a noticeable lack of a McDonalds or a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Every building, including the hotel, looked as if it needed a fresh coat of paint. The road was pockmarked with chuck holes and broken asphalt. The place had the feel and look of a 1930s town depicted in a John Steinbeck novel; and an occasional piece of discarded litter blew down the street emphasizing the point.
But the people were friendly, almost to the point of being embarrassing; everyone that I passed had a warm hello and a broad smile of greeting. I guessed that my western wear and pale skin signaled that I was a visitor to their delightful country.
Their dress was more standardized. Men wore the standard long wraparound solid gray skirt called a lavalava, topped with a white or blue roll up sleeve dress shirt; this was the proper business attire. Younger men dressed in the same lavalava with a flowered print short sleeve button up shirt. All wore open-toed sandals.
Basic black seemed to be the choice of color for the majority of the women. They all were dressed in a black button up blouse and a skirt that reached to the top of their sandaled feet. They all had a foot wide cummerbund fashioned from a brown woven straw-like material wrapped tightly around their waist.
The women’s thick black hair were combed back from their faces into tight buns on the back of their heads with two eight-inch long needle-shaped hair pins, which kept the buns of hair from falling apart.
I checked into my hotel, which I can only describe as one and one half stars, and decided to go for a drive to get the lay of the land. I quickly found out that there were no street signs, but the capital city only had a population of thirty thousand, and most of them lived on streets barely wide enough for a car.
There were not a lot of streets wide enough to allow two cars to pass, and at some point, they all intersected the main street so it was almost impossible to get lost.
Since I was a mainlander, I automatically headed for the ocean road; seems like we are naturally attracted to large bodies of water.
I drove along the ocean until I got to what passed for a port, where thirty or so empty ocean containers were neatly stacked here and there along the wharf, which extended for two or three hundred yards.
There were no ships docked, waiting to be loaded or unloaded, and there was no one around so I looked for other points of interest.
I noticed a yellow dirt road running away from the dock so I drove down it, through heavy foliage of high grass and palms, and broke out into a picturesque lagoon that was fed by the ocean. The water was calm and did not appear to be too deep.
But what caught my eye was a ragged hut made of palm leaves that looked to have been tested by the elements for many a year; although of solid construction, it was clearly on its last leg.
In front of the hut, was a large black kettle with some steamy substance brewing. I had no idea what was cooking. Strangely, there was no one home.
I thought I had seen poverty in the United States that was bad, but this took the cake. How could anybody live like this? I had seen enough. I turned the Toyota around and headed back to the ocean road.
I spent the rest of the day sightseeing, meeting strangers, and exchanging stories. I spent a lot of time with Essetta’s sister and mother, who quickly offered me the hospitality of their home for my stay, but I respectfully declined.
Around five o’clock, I went back to my hotel to have dinner. The hotel restaurant did not start serving until six so I decided to have a coke at the bar while waiting for it to open.
As I sipped my drink, a fiftyish-looking businessman (I could tell by his clothes) approached me, extended his hand for a shake, and smiling said, “Welcome to Tonga, my friend.” Happy to make conversation, I grabbed his hand and returned his handshake.
He introduced himself and asked, “Where are you from, my fine friend?”
“Texas. Houston, Texas,” I replied, knowing that everyone on earth knew where Texas was because of the thousands of movies.
“By your accent, I knew that you were a Yank. Aha,
Houston; I have been there many times and I just love Galveston, it reminds me so much of Tonga. What brings you to my fair country?” I repeated the story of the Tongan and the Summer Olympic games.
To which he responded, “The fates have sent you here for a reason; I hope you are successful in your quest. I have been fortunate to be able to see a lot of the world.
I was educated at Oxford, worked in the States and Australia. I have been to the Orient, done business with the Japanese; but in all my travels, I have found that there is no place like Tonga.”
“She is my mother, my home.” By now, we had been conversing for over thirty minutes, when he asked, “Tell me, honestly, what do you think of my country?”
I hesitated for a moment, thinking of the impoverished hut on the lagoon, but I felt that I had known this man all of my life and thus felt comfortable enough to say, “Tonga is perhaps the most beautiful place on earth.
The people are friendly, the climate perfect, and the laid-back way of living is something to behold; but I was driving about this morning and came upon a decrepit hut on a small lagoon. I just honestly have to say that I thought we had poverty in the United States but I have never seen poverty like that!”
He grinned and said, “So, you saw my house!” And he started to chuckle.
I was so embarrassed that I could have killed myself. I started to utter all kinds of apologies ending with, “I had no idea that it was your house. I had no intention of offending you!”
Laughing lightly, he said, “No, no, no offense taken.” Almost unable to contain himself, he went on, “You see, my new found friend, you have been trained to view the world through Western eyes.
Now I said to you that you saw my house; I did not say that you saw all of my houses. I am a very wealthy man. In my home village on the other side of the island, I live in a large very comfortable home with many rooms. I also have homes in Sidney and San Francisco.
I am a leader in my community and have been for years. But let us talk about my hut house. For a moment, look at it through my eyes. You are correct in saying that it looks to be in disrepair, but looks can be deceiving.
In the heat of the day, the palm leaves on the roof keep the sun off of my head and it is cool inside. When the rains fall from the sky, the same leaves keep me dry; and when the strong winds blow, I can seek shelter inside.
The boiling black kettle that you saw contained the noon-time meal for my fishing fleet. I have five boats, each with a three-man crew.
My wife, whom you did not see there, was preparing their meal in that black kettle. Can you think of a better way to cook for fifteen men? Your Western eyes are trained to not see the utility of the hut.”
I never thought of it that way. Of course, he was right. I was not looking at the hut and a lot of other things from the right perspective. Then he dropped the hammer on my way of thinking.
After standing up and facing me, as I sat on the bar stool, he backed away to make some room between us. With both arms at his sides and at the same time demonstrating by extending both arms with palms opened facing down, said, “You see, my friend, in your country, the greatness of a man is measured in how much he takes.” He quickly made a fist of each hand and instantly brought both hands to his chest as if he had grabbed some invisible fists full of money.
Dropping both hands to his sides, he said, “But in my country, the greatness of a man is measured in how much he gives.” He slowly raised and extended both arms, palms facing upward, fingers extended, as if he were offering me his last dollar. He added, “In my village, I am considered a great man.”
Needless to say, I was stunned. He was so right on point, and to think that I had to travel halfway around the world to receive this message.
My Tongan friend insisted that I spend my days in Tonga at his residence so that he could share more of himself with me. Little did he know that he had shared and given me all of his riches, and now I share these riches with you. And like most things in life, I never saw or heard from him again.
Over the years, I have shared this story with hundreds of people both individually and in assemblies. Most of them think it is a great story.
They gasp and laugh with delight at the part where I give him my opinion of his hut and they appear sober and thoughtful when I finish the part about how the greatness of a man should be measured.
But I often wonder how many take the message to heart and change how they live their lives. Now you must ask yourself, “Do I choose to be great in the true sense of the word?”
To further illustrate how a so-called third world country can live their lives in a more humane and loving manner than so-called western civilized society, on my second day in Tonga, I woke up with a scratchy throat, which I thought was a prelude to a viral infection.
I did not want to get sick on my great adventure so I asked the hotel manager where I might find a doctor to write me a prescription.
Laughingly, he told me that a doctor’s office visit was not required in order to obtain the medication. He gave me directions to a local pharmacy and sent me on my way.
After a five-block walk, I found myself in a line of about seven or eight people who were waiting for the pharmacist to arrive.
I looked at my watch and it read 9:30 am. I was told that he would arrive around 10:00 am. I thought fine and started up a number of idle conversations with the other waiting people. Ten o’clock came and went; 11 o’clock passed; I began to wonder what was going on.
The waiting people did not seem concerned in the least that the pharmacist was tardy, and some of the older ladies opened black umbrellas to ward off the approaching midday sun.
Finally, I asked a gentleman standing behind me why was the pharmacist so late? He informed me that all of the island people lived on “Tongan time.”
Tongans realize life is too short to live burdened by such things as being on time and when people agree to meet at a certain time of the day or open their businesses at a specific time, it really meant that they would arrive when they felt like it.
Like I said, since I did not have a planned itinerary to follow, I was really in no big hurry. I settled into waiting with my newly acquired sense of timing.
Around 12:15, a semi-portly brown-skinned man, who looked to be in his late fifties, arrived and opened the door to his small office.
He smiled graciously to all, calling most of them by name, and gave them a genuine, heartfelt, “Good morning, or is it afternoon?” They all laughed, including me.
One by one, they entered his office where after asking a few questions he distributed medicine to them. Sometimes he looked down their throats, took a pulse reading or checked their blood pressure. I decided that, since I was a visitor to his country, I would wait for him to finish with his regular patients before I made my request.
When his last patient had left, he warmly welcomed me into his cramped office and spoke to me in English with a slight hint of a British accent. He asked me where I was from and what had motivated me to visit his fair country.
I told him of seeing a Tongan in the 1984 Summer Olympic games and how a chance meeting with Virgil and Essetta had brought me here. He found the story to be amazing and added that there was no such thing as chance meetings, which I had to agree with.
We had been talking for about fifteen minutes before he got around to looking at my throat and giving me some antibiotics. When I asked him how much would the prescription cost, he said nothing.
I was completely surprised, and a little bit shocked, knowing how things worked in America. Furthermore, he told me that no one pays for any medicine in Tonga.
I told him that I had but one goal in life and that was to live out my days in Tonga. Upon hearing this revelation, we started to talk in earnest.
My new friend said to me, “I have spent most of my adult life abroad. I was educated in England where I obtained my pharmacy degree and worked there for many years.
But I was never happy. It seemed everyone had only one goal in mind and that was to acquire wealth and materialistic things at any price.
Since I was born and raised in Tonga, this kind of thinking goes completely against what I know to be the true way that a man should live his life.”
I told him, “Like you, I am tired of the rat race, always running and going nowhere. I was so busy making a living that I did not have time to live.” He vigorously nodded in agreement.
He said, “I have just met you, but it seems that we have known each other for years. From our brief conversation, I know you to indeed be a very fine fellow.”
Then out of nowhere, he made the most generous offer I had ever heard, “I am not a rich man, but I am a man of some means. On the northern most island of Vava’u, I have some truly choice real estate that sits near the top of the highest mountain and overlooks the Bay of Last Hope.
There is no finer piece of land in Tonga. When you return, my friend, to make Tonga your home, I will give you enough of my land to build your new house on. It will be free to you as a gesture of my high esteem for you.”
Of course, I tried to refuse the offer but he continued to insist that I accept his gift. After ten minutes of debating the point and after he told me that it is considered a very high insult once a gift is made and the recipient refuses it, I finally relented and accepted his offer. Now can you imagine this kind of generosity anywhere else in the world?
Before I left the country, I did spend three days in Vava’u and climbed the mountain, which was three thousand feet tall at its summit that by Tongan standards is the highest point in the country.
And, from that lofty height on the property that my new friend had so graciously offered, looked down on the Bay of Last Hope, so named because in a hurricane it was the last refuge for a sailing vessel for fifteen hundred miles.
I can honestly say that the view of the blue Pacific waters in the Bay below sprinkled with the white sails of boats from around the world has to be one of the most breathtaking sights on earth.
About six months prior to my traveling to Tonga, I had made an acquaintance of a Seventh Day Adventist pastor by the name of Frank Hill, who remains a steadfast friend to this day.
I used to kid Frank by saying, “You Seventh Day people have the Bible right but you are confused by what day of the week to attend worship services.” Frank never had too much to say about my comment but would just smile and more or less ignore me.
I bring this up because in Tonga there are no public schools for kindergarten through high school. Various church schools including the Seventh Day Adventist do the educating of the children. The Mormon schools have pristine immaculate campuses that speak of money. The Catholic and Episcopalian schools are no different.
Although the Adventist school is worn, weathered, is in a state of disrepair, and has a lack of adequate funding, they do have the most generous enrollment policy of any school.
If any student, boy or girl, from Polynesia or Micronesia can make it to Tonga, they will provide them with a free education, including room and board. The Adventist school in Tonga was named Beulah College; it was not a college, in our sense of the word, but a high school.
Out of curiosity, I went to the missionary husband and wife team from New Zealand who was assigned to run the school for three years. Two small little girls played in the front yard of the modest white two-story frame house that served as their home and administrative offices for the school.
The living quarters were on the second floor, and the offices on the first, so I climbed the stairs in the back of the house to where they lived.
Just as I was about to knock on the screen door, it opened and a small medium-built blond-haired young man of about thirty-five opened the door and invited me in saying, “I saw you driving up.”
He introduced me to his almost pretty young wife who was also in her thirties and inquired, “What brings you to Beulah College?” I, again, explained my Olympics Tonga story to which he responded, “Fascinating.”
It was a little bit pass midday when he offered to show me around his campus, which must have occupied fifty acres with another five hundred acres for raising the food that the students ate.
I quickly found out that all the classroom buildings needed new corrugated metal roofs. From every classroom, I could look up at the ceiling and see blue sky in numerous places.
In the corner of each classroom, sat a fifty-five gallon oil drum filled with thirty or forty umbrellas that were used by the individual students when it rained.
All of the mostly native teachers and students greeted me warmly in perfect English, wishing me well and cajoling me to stay. It was a beautiful sunshiny day so the umbrellas remained in their drums.
All of the students wore sky blue uniforms trimmed in white. Everyone wore the wraparound lavalava skirts; the girls wore blue matching blouses, and the boys wore white and blue short sleeve button up dress shirts. Although worn, almost to being threadbare, they were clean and wrinkle free.
My host explained to me that he had five thousand students and it was a constant strain to provide for their daily needs. The teachers taught for nothing; or, in some cases, next to nothing.
The classes were overcrowded; food and clothing were in short supply; and morale, particularly his, was low. He had been there a year and a half and was burnt out. I took a good look at him; it was written all over his face.
We walked across an expansive area that was the equivalent of four American football fields of green mowed grass toward the back of the compound where the kitchen, dining room and living quarters for the students were housed.
He explained that this large open area situated between the front and rear row of buildings was the parade grounds.
The older students were responsible for preparing the meals, serving the food, and maintaining order. Younger students worked the fields and were responsible for keeping the living quarters clean.
Each sleeping quarter had two bunk beds attached to opposite walls to accommodate four students. Unmade beds, tossed mattresses, and scattered clothes gave every room an unkempt look.
Kind of reminded me of my daughters’ rooms back home in Texas, only worse. Everything needed a fresh coat of paint. At Beulah College, every student was required to work in order to pay for his or her education.
We entered the kitchen, which was an open area behind the dining room, under a corrugated metal roof, opened on two sides without walls. In the middle of the room, was a fifty-five gallon oil drum sitting on top of a wood fire in which Sava was being prepared. For clarification, Islanders refer to it as their potato.
It is a huge, four foot long, twelve inches or more in diameter turnip-looking vegetable with a strange taste to the western palate. It grows quite abundantly in the hard Tongan soil and requires pickaxes to dig it out. It has the texture and look of a light yellow boiled sweet potato.
It is the staple of the Polynesian diet. I, personally, don’t like it. But it is cheap and there is plenty of it; and this is what the students ate three times per day. There was a complete lack of meat in their diet.
The students filed into their lunchroom and waited their turn as a cart rolled down each aisle and a large portion of the steaming food was ladled onto clean metal plates along with a thick crust of dark bread. They ate talking loudly to each other with the exuberance of teenage youth oblivious to their bland cuisine.
After they finished eating, my missionary host and I were talking, standing just off of the parade grounds. The loud rhythmic beating of a base drum interrupted our conversation. I could also hear the sound of feet moving from behind the living quarters marching in time with the drum’s beat.
And then right on cue, a loud brass section of trumpets, trombones, and tubas kicked in led by the beat of the base drum. I looked at my host and said, “What’s happening?” He replied, “The students are giving you a parade to honor you. They don’t do it for everyone. It is spontaneous; we don’t make them do it unless it is some holiday.”
I asked, “What did I do to deserve this honor?” He said, “Nothing special; they just do it for certain people. It is like they just collectively know now is the time to parade. I have never been able to figure it out, and they never seem to have a logical explanation for doing it.”
And then they came around the building, all five thousand of them, marching four abreast with big smiles on their faces, waving at me as they passed by. First in line were the small lower grade boys and girls, next all of the older upper class girls, then the boys and young men to be.
At the rear, marched the band that was about thirty strong, playing with a determined unison and perfect clarity. All in all, it took over thirty minutes for the procession to pass. I thought, “What an amazing country!”
I spent the remainder of the day with my host, sipping a strange flavored iced tea and exchanging stories about my country and his, until I noticed the evening shadows had started to appear.
Before I left, I reached into my wallet and pulled out nine one hundred dollar bills and gave them to my friend. I told him to go into town and buy some kind of meat for the children to eat.
He sincerely thanked me and firmly shook my hand inviting me back anytime to be his guest. I took my leave, got into my rental car, and was driving ever so slowly back to the blacktop road.
The sun had started to set in the direction that I was heading; and since the school sits high up on a bluff overlooking the ocean, I had a perfect panoramic view of the setting South Pacific sun; and as the evening twilight approached, its golden rays reflected off of the darkening blue waters.
Then unexpectedly out of nowhere, the dirt road to the highway was lined by all of the Beulah College’s girls and they started to serenade me. Their voices were so sweet and harmonious sounding that I could only think that was the sound of Angels crying.
I was stunned, tears came to my eyes, and I could barely see the dirt road. Mixed into this incredible caroling, I could hear first one voice then another saying, “God bless you.” “Come back and see us again.” “Come back.” “We will miss you.” “Don’t forget us.” Shaken and moved to the core of my being, I drove back to my guesthouse.
Later that night, I boarded the plane for home; or, had I just left my true home? Lessons learned: There are things in life that we are destined to do in order to advance our understanding and appreciation for what and who we are. There are no coincidences in life; everything happens for a purpose.
The Tonga adventure, because it was an adventure, demonstrates that if you live your life taking instead of giving, you are lost. It also shows that the rat race life we have chosen to live is inappropriate and destructive to our well-being and those around us.
And finally, like the Beulah College staff and students, you can be financially poor and spiritually rich. They sang for me, not because I had donated money for food, they had no way of knowing this, but because I had given of myself by coming and sharing myself with them.
I share this story and the stories to follow with you because you too are predestined to read and know of these things.