The local economies of our two villages are different, mainly due to the geography. Nuapapu has much greater access to farmland, so most men daily go to the bush and farm their plots. Those with a surplus of crops (which are usually limited to root crops, taro leaves, kava, and fruit) choose to share them with extended family or try to sell them in the market. Matamaka, on the other hand, has far less access to farmland, but their houses are much closer to the sea. So inadvertently, the men of Matamaka have grown to depend on the ocean. For the men who are hard working and want to earn extra money for their families, this means that they spend very extended periods of time spear fishing - filling multiple, giant coolers with fish to sell in town.
One of my closest friends in Matamaka is very hard working and seems to be a leader in the fisherman community. He and some other men typically spend multiple days and nights on "fishing trips" a couple times a month. At first, I assumed that they were merely going to a nearby island and spear fishing there - I figured that there were plenty of good spots. However, a few months ago, he told me that they actually go to a place that is very, very far away. Apparently, he drives his small boat with its meager 15 horsepower engine to a reef that is very close to Ha'apai.
Ha'apai is the middle island group of Tonga, between Tongatapu and Vava'u. Having spent the full 24 hours on the lumbering ferry between these island groups, I was already well aware that this was a huge stretch of ocean, with not much in between the island groups. Yet according to my friend, people from Vava'u have been going to this place for generations. It's an uninhabited place, with a few untouched, tiny islands and some massive corals reefs that are teeming with fish. Men from Matamaka spend around 8 hours on what is surely a treacherous boat ride to reach the spot. Then, they construct a small sleeping shelter and do nothing but eat, sleep, and fish for a few days. Upon hearing this, a few thoughts ran through my mind.
At first, I was amazed at the feat. How downright hardcore a trip like this seemed. But being quite familiar with what kind of seas these boats can handle, not to mention how many times I've already seen an engine break down, I naturally wondered about the safety of a trip like this. When I mentioned this to my friend and his family, they admitted that it is dangerous, but that they pray and trust the Lord to protect them.
About a week and a half ago during kava, someone told me about three fishermen who had been lost at sea. It had been a weekend of rain and some extremely high winds, the worse that we'd seen yet. The news quickly spread throughout Vava'u that a group of six men from a couple northern villages had gone to this distant reef, without having heard the projected weather forecast. The men arrived at the reefs and had split up at night with their gear, each scouring the vastly spread reefs for fish. The weather hit hard and unexpectedly, just as I remembered, in the middle of the night. According to everyone's stories, only three men managed to make it back to the boat, and with the weather only worsening, the decision was made to attempt the voyage home, leaving behind the other three men.
One of the men who was lost tragically turned out to be a brother of my fisherman friend. When the weather improved, the Tongan government sent a plane and ships to look for the men. Even my friend and some Matamaka men took his boat out to search the seas. But after a few days of unsuccessful searching, the men were pronounced dead. It was a solemn time around all of Vava'u, especially Matamaka. We mourned with and prayed for the families of the lost. A terrible tragedy and a grim reminder of the power and unpredictably of the weather and the seas...