A slim and strong Tongan man with fuzzy black hair grown long enough to just barely pull back in a ponytail sits on the edge of Riki’s dive boat. One foot is propped up on the edge of the boat, the other rests firmly on the bench inside. His arm rests on top of his bent knee, and he takes long slow drags from a glowing cigarette. “Where are you from?” He asks us.
“The U.S.” We reply.
He nods, and takes another drag from his cigarette. He shakes his head. “I moved to America for a little while with my Aunt. I didn’t like it; just too fast paced.” We ask if he is going to dive with us today. He laughs. “No way! Too cold for me.” He explains, complaining that it is still only Spring. We laugh, knowing how quickly we have acclimated to tropic air and water temperatures that swing at most five degrees.
This particular Tongan friend has joined us on Riki’s Dive Boat for the day. He is going to watch over the boat while we are underwater to make sure it doesn’t float away or otherwise go missing. He is also helping us with the dive gear, tanks, etc.
We dive the wreck again at 100 feet. As we descend, the water wraps me in a pleasant pressure. I slow my breathing, concentrating on taking quick sips of air, then blowing the air out in a measured pace. Wait three seconds. Take another sip. I concentrate on relaxing my whole body. I float weightlessly, only “thinking” the direction I want to go. I move only when strictly necessary to achieve the location of my choice. Time slows down. We sink below the stern to inspect one blade of the propeller so enormous that the one blade is bigger than Riki. We are only down for forty minutes, but it feels much longer.
I see more when I am calm. And there is so much to see on this wreck that we could spend the entire week diving here and not get bored. Now that I’m not thrashing about with fear and anxiety I get to notice things and point them out to fellow divers. I am able to see tiny fish, perfectly camouflaged into their home. I see tiny translucent shrimp, no bigger than your pinky fingernail, their body looks like a sun sparkle on the water.
After the dive, we meet other divers for lunches or dinners and swap photographs. We end up sitting around restaurants talking to Pelangi Locals, other travelers, other sailors, Peace Corp volunteers. As compared to French Polynesia, Tonga is thick with Ex-Pat Americans. One topic starts to repeat itself: work/business. Stories are told of businesses being started, succeeding and growing rapidly, then being shut down by fees or licensing or other troubles. The Ex-Pat explanation: “the business was competing too well against its competitor.” The Pelangis groan with frustration. They complain about the slow pace of business, make jokes about Tongans working at all. “They just don’t want to make their businesses grow. They are satisfied, they never look ahead to the future.” The Ex-Pats sneer.
“Oh and don’t ever raise your voice at a Tongan,” one Ex-Pat complains. “They will show you their capacity for infinite patience.”
After being here for more than a month now, we have heard these stories told and retold. The irony is not lost on me. Andrew and I quit working to sail off and putter around on transportation that moves more slowly than just walking. Somewhere in the center of our hearts we value something in common with these Tongans who can sit on the top of a crumbling cement pillar and watch the world go by for hours. They need so little to be content, and it is true. Their patience knows no bounds. Their smiles are so bright, their demeanor calm.
But, Andrew and I are still Americans. The seed of our souls are born from a people who look around them and see potential. Our natures are driven to make more from less. Even though I am out here enjoying, I can’t shake the nervous energy inside me that wants to harness this stage of my life into something larger, more meaningful, and/or more profitable. Build on what you have! Grow! As Americans, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, whoever we are being is never enough. Maybe I am overgeneralizing, but I don’t think so. For me, this concept is the “American Spirit.” It is our cultural power, but it seems it can be our cultural weakness. How would our families, environment, and lives benefit if we could increase our potential for infinite patience and easy contentment? What if we could combine the two seemingly opposed manners, harnessing patience and contentment when appropriate and the desire to build and grow when appropriate?
I am very curious to see how we fit into the American Puzzle over our visit in November/December. We can count on our fingers the number of stop lights we have encountered since February. I am fairly certain there are more people milling about in one Las Vegas casino resort than there are in any city we have visited this year. I know we are going to dress like Michelin Marshmallow Men when we visit Salt Lake City in December. What about the Pacific pace?