Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The end of the world as we know it

Last night around eleven, a few Tongan friends of mine thought the end of the world was near, and for good reason: the sky was falling. For the first time in remembered history, it haild here in Tonga, and today our coworkers can talk of nothing else.

Yesterday was one of the gray days we fear in Tonga, not because they’re dangerous but because like bad company, when they come you never know how long they’ll stay. A few months ago it started raining and didn’t stop for three weeks. Sure, a few hours passed without precipitation, but for the most part we had a constant downpour for 21 straight days. So you can understand why a gray sky like yesterday’s is enough to make us wish for anti-depressants.

In the evening, though, the rain settled and the air was damp and cold. Cliff called me outside at 10:30, and we watched lightening illuminate the whole sky, not in bolts but in dull flickers, like a florescent light that is struggling to come on in a dark room. Thunder started soon after – low, deep rumbles that rolled across the sky in a constant wave of sound. Soon the rain began – great downpours – and then we heard the clashing of tennis ball sized hail on our tin roof. The hail crashed down for four or five minutes then stopped, the skies cleared, and today we have sunny weather with no reminder of last night’s deluge except the awe it has inspired in the Tongans around us.

Piula, the first coworker to arrive at the youth center this morning, asked us about the hail immediately. “Did you see the ice-rain last night?” It had never happened in Vava’u, she said, though she once had heard of hail in ‘Eua, an island a day’s boat ride to the south.

Tavake, a coworker of ours, arrived next. He had been drinking kava with friends on a little plastic-roofed patio when the hail started. The men were convinced it was children shooting rocks at the roof with slingshots. Then ice started drifting into the patio. “It’s the end of the world,” Tavake joked; no one laughed. “Maybe there is a huge cloud of ice floating above us and it’s breaking apart,” one man suggested. One remembered hearing a story, passed from ancestor to ancestor, about rain that was like ice. Another man ran a few blocks to his own home and found his wife and children sitting in the dark, with the doors and windows locked, wondering what was happening.

For Cliff and me, hail is an frequent occurrence. It happens once every year or so, and our greatest concern (back when we had a car) was the damage the ice chips might do to our car’s paint job. For the Tongans, last night was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. It may never happen again, and certainly none remember it happening before. This strange weather phenomenon is enough to illicit apocalyptic concerns. As observers, Cliff and I can’t help but compare their first exposure to hail to the other “firsts” their Tongan ancestors have experienced. What must they have thought, for example, the first time a British boat pulled into the island’s natural harbor, carrying men with sticks that shot fire? That was, in some ways, the end of their world as they knew it. No doubt last night’s ‘alotamaki (bad weather) won’t change the culture, but people will be talking about it for generations to come.