Posted on June 25th, 2012
Ano Beach, Tonga, an August night after the millennium. Our sailboat is anchored next to one belonging to a sailor who laughs out loud to himself and sings at the stars. I feel similarly wild and happy, barefooted and naked under my dress, the salt breeze tangling my hair as the dinghy rides over the waves. Every slap of the boat against the ocean bottoms my stomach out again and again, an ache that borders on hunger for this night to never end.
On the beach under the palms: a Tongan feast. We slip our feet into the shallows, pull the boat up under the trees. Here is a sailor from San Diego with his German crew and a Norwegian family of four, halfway into a three-year journey to sail around the world. We learn these things quickly, greetings exchanged like radio shorthand, because our Tongan hosts beckon, smiling. Our dinner is ready, and we are not here to chat – we are here to eat.
We sit side-by-side in the sand, and the food appears, as if by magic, from the shadows. And oh, the uncommon delight of that meal! Everything eaten with our hands: slices of unidentifiable melon tasting of honey and citrus, fish cakes, banana shoots with seafood salad. Best of all, little packages made of taro leaves, baked in the sand under palm fronds, that the two young Norwegian girls and I grab like giddy beggars, steam blushing our cheeks as we unwrap them to dig our fingers into thick coconut cream filled with octopus, lamb, and lobster. Guava and passion fruit are picked straight from the jungle trees, and I press chunks of ufi, the Tongan yam, against the roof of my mouth with my tongue, trying to prolong the way its earthy sweetness is faintly salted by the smell of the ocean lapping the shore a few feet away in the twilight.
We all eat slowly, the way you can only after a day listening to the wind snap the mainsail and letting the South Pacific rock your bones. The conversation starts slowly and comfortably as the sunset fades across the water and the first stars appear, shifting among the sailors from sea stories to shark stories to island stories. The Tongans pull each of us up to dance in the firelight, and the Norwegian girls giggle at my name, vaguely similar to the Norwegian word for “stomach.” I laugh too, because I am all belly tonight and sticky fingers, drunk on Oceania. And on kava, which the Tongan men pass around in a hollowed root. Whatever taste it has is lost in the sensation it leaves me with: tingly, numb lips and the feeling that I am floating just a few inches above the ground, swaying along to the drummers even though I am sitting perfectly still.
Twelve years and a hundred lifetimes later, I remember this night with perfect clarity. I remember that I had tears in my eyes when I licked the last bit of coconut from my palm, that afterwards I danced with a small, shy Tongan girl who couldn’t look me in the eye but smiled all the while, that the boat captain from San Diego closed his eyes and lay back on the ground when he’d finished eating, one hand patting his stomach as if to make sure it was still there.
What I don’t remember, though, is how it ended. We must have eventually all hugged solemnly and motored through the dark sea back to our respective sailboats, where we slept deeply and dreamed of the ocean. Later, there were other meals in Tonga and elsewhere in the South Pacific, each transformative in their own ways. Yet, this is the one that has stuck with me: one perfect meal that was, in the way the best meals are, a seamless melding of unexpected fellowship and pure flavors that seemed entirely born of that island and that night. By their very nature, meals like this are brilliant flickers in the darkness, never to be recreated. And yet, I often think that, if only I could be transported back to that beach, with my toes in the sand, licking warm taro leaves under a sunset sky with two tow-headed, teasing Norwegian children, then I would be simply, magnificently happy.