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Tavi – the Kingdom of Tonga's legendary Ascetic
Tom (Tomasi) Riddle
© Thomas A Riddle, 2010

Part I

It was late 1974 and I was a fresh-out-of-university Peace Corps Volunteer who had been sent to the Kingdom of Tonga to teach English and science when I first started hearing stories about a Scandinavian intellectual living in Tonga who was, depending on who was talking, a yogi, Thor Hyerdal, Robinson Curosoe, or Tarzan. His name was Tavi, “the builder” from an ancient Tongan myth.

In those first days in Tonga I learned that Tavi was a Dane who had been given a Tongan passport, that he had lived in Tonga for more than twenty years, that he was about fifty years old, and that he lived alone on a remote part of the distant island of Tafahi. The director of the Peace Corps told me that Tavi had been adopted into the Tongan Royal family and that he frequently consulted with the Queen. But there were more than just facts connected with this man—he was a legend. Almost everyone I met knew him or at least knew of him.

A Tongan man who had sailed to New Zealand with Tavi told me how the boat that he and Tavi were traveling on had become lost at sea. In desperation the captain asked Tavi for help. Tavi lay down on the deck and closed his eyes—when Tavi stood up he pointed the way and they found New Zealand.

Another man told me that Tavi was an ascetic of Biblical quality, a virtual John the Baptist. Tavi, he said, slept naked on a rock and ate only papaya (papaw in Australia). A neighbor told me that the three smartest men in Tonga were the King of Tonga, who was the first Tongan to receive a university degree, Futa Helu, the founder of the only university in Tonga, and Tavi.

His myth seemed to follow me. When I lived in the village of Ha'ate'iho, on the main island of Tongatapu, I went to the church that Tavi had built; on my way from the village into the city of Nuku'alofa I rode past the Princess’s palace that Tavi had helped construct. When I moved to the island of ‘Eua, I discovered that I was living next to the sawmill that Tavi had engineered.

I made enquiries about how to meet him, but I was told that he had no schedule—he drifted around Tonga and the South Pacific as he pleased. I was sure that being a lowly Peace Corps worker my chances of meeting Tonga's virtually deified eccentric beach hermit were remote indeed.

Then in November of 1975 the Peace Corps decided to transfer me to one of the most remote islands in Tonga, Niuatoputapu, the island that neighbored Tavi’s home on Tafahi. No one from the Peace Corps had been to Niuatoputapu for longer than anyone could remember so the director of the Peace Corps suggested that I meet Tavi to learn more about Niuatoputapu. That sounded like a good idea.

In those days going to Niuatoputapu was about like walking unassisted up Mount Everest in that once people learned that you were serious about going there they treated you differently. The Peace Corps doctor gave me an extra pair of glasses, others volunteered to help me procure provisions. I was going to be, I was told, one of the most remote Peace Corps Volunteers in the world. I was going to a place where there was no airport or electricity and where, at best, the boat came once a month. Because of all this a friend of a friend arranged for me to meet Tavi at a mutual friend's house for dinner.

When I arrived everyone had already drank a few bottles of beer, everyone, except for Tavi who was sitting on a couch calmly sewing a very thin shirt. He stood up when I walked in and we shook hands. These weren't the hands of a beachcomber. They were delicate, well cared for hands with a yellow tint that I later learned was caused by an excess of vitamin A from all the papaya he ate. His eyes were sky blue and could easily become piercing as if he felt that by looking at you intently enough he could understand you better. He was of medium height, had long graying hair and a full beard, both of which, I would later learn hadn't been cut for years. His features were Scandinavian and one might even say that he was handsome. His was a gentle, even a wise face. He was thin, bordering on emaciation, but he held himself erect and had the smile of a young man. He wore only an old, well-mended lava-lava around his waist.

I immediately felt comfortable. With an air of non-attached humility he went back to his sewing. Presently though he finished sewing his shirt, put it on and said, “This shirt hasn't long to go. The seams are beginning to fall apart evenly throughout, but I've had it for a good many years and its only function now is to keep the sun off me around town.” It is illegal to be outside without a shirt on everywhere in Tonga except where Tavi lived, the Niuas.

I told him that I was going up to Niuatoputapu. He informed me that life was good up there and then began telling his standard stories about his life in Tonga. He told of years alone on the island of Hunga Tonga and how he wound up in Tafahi. “The old Havea,” Havea being the late noble of Ha'ate'iho whose church Tavi had built, “set me up in Hunga and would send a boat up there to bring me down here when somebody wanted me. But when Havea died I lost my transportation and had to find a new place to live. I chose Tafahi because I knew it had excellent soil, a good climate, and because I could get there simply by riding the copra boats to Niuatoputapu and then taking a local boat to Tafahi.”

Through the rest of the evening Tavi told more of his stock stories that were interesting, but I was anxious about life on remote Niua and wanted to know more about it. Tavi told me to relax and went on with his stories. I left feeling that perhaps he had spent too much time alone on his island.

Kuo 'asi mai 'a e motu. 'The island has appeared.' Niuatoputapu, and Tafahi, looked almost like one island when I first saw them in 1976. Tafahi is about five miles from Niuatoputapu.

My house on Niuatoputapu.
Tafahi from the beach in Niuatoputapu.
Tavi in Niuatoputapu in 1976.

I arrived in Niuatoputapu and found, after I had learned to relax, that life there was as good as Tavi had described. It is a beautiful island with long white unlittered beaches and well-kept villages. I was somewhat of a novelty and treated so well that I gained fifteen pounds (seven kilograms) in one school year.

Tavi's myth was very much alive on Niuatoputapu. He had blasted an opening in the island’s reef so that the bigger boats could use the wharf and he had helped build the Catholic school in Hihifo. In spite of this one of the chiefs told me that Tavi was not following God's wishes. “God gave him intelligence,” he told me, “but he doesn't use it. Instead he lives like an uncivilized man on that beach.”

I asked some people what Tavi did on his beach. “He is writing a book.” “He prays.” “He is thinking.” To the people of Niuatoputapu, Tavi was the subject of endless curiosity to the point that his beach had become a tourist attraction for Niuatoputapu people visiting Tafahi.

“Tomasi,” one man said, “I was on Tafahi and walked around to where Tavi lives. He lives like an animal.”

I too was curious. Tafahi is a volcanic ash cone that shoots straight out of the ocean to a summit of 550 meters (1800 feet) and looms down on flat Niuatoputapu which is 8 kilometers (five miles) away. Often I would stare at Tafahi, watching the clouds move around the summit of the island, and wonder what Tavi was doing, but by the time November came and the school year was almost over, I still had not heard anything from him. Then one day he appeared unannounced at my school with his bedroll and basket. I put him and his things in my one-room Tongan fale (coconut-leaf house) and went back to teaching.

“Did you get my message?” he asked when I had finished teaching.”

“What message?”

Tavi explained that he had sent a message over asking if he could stay with me while waiting for the boat to take him down to Tongatapu. I had never received the message. “They told me that they had talked to you and that everything was all right,” he told me.

I told him that indeed everything was all right—he was welcome to stay with me as long as he wanted. He went on, “This is the thing about life in Tonga: you can't really be sure of anything. You just have to do the best you can, forget about it, and hope that everything works out okay.”

He was the perfect house guest. I would go to school in the morning, leaving him sitting on the nail crate that I used for a chair. When I came home in the afternoon I would find him in the same position on the nail crate still reading his book. I asked him how he could concentrate for so long. “I've been reading a book on alternative energy sources,” he said. “It is quite interesting and if something really interests you there is never a problem of concentrating on it, is there?”

I agreed.

“You see,” he went on, “if you live simply you can do what interests you and that is the important thing, hum?”

We became friends. We were both vegetarians, preferred the simple life, and enjoyed our bachelorhood. Additionally we both liked the Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu and the Indian thinker Krishnamurti.

Tavi told me how he had come to Tonga. He had grown up in Nazi-occupied Denmark during World War II. By the time he graduated from university in Denmark with a degree in civil engineering he had reached two conclusions that, he informed me, had not since changed: Denmark was too cold and Western civilization was sinking. Tavi reasoned that life was so bad in the West that he would be better off dead. To that end, he had resolved to commit suicide if he did not find a situation to his liking before his thirtieth birthday.

What to do? He decided that he might find a place where life was worth living in the South Pacific and very possibly in the Kingdom of Tonga. He read that Tonga had land laws that would prevent Western domination and a sovereign that could be talked to rather than the impersonality of a democracy. The only thing left to do was to get there.

Step one was going to the United States and getting a job as a civil engineer in San Francisco where he helped build one of the city’s famous tunnels. In the U.S. he saved enough money to buy a small sailboat. Once he had the boat, he and another man sailed it through Polynesia to Tahiti. From Tahiti, Tavi continued on alone to Tonga, and this was before the invention of automatic steering. He docked in Tonga in 1951. In those days, before yachts turned the oceans into a huge trailer park, it was a big event for a little boat to sail to Tonga so a few days after he arrived he met the late Queen Salote and the future King Tafa'ahau, who at that time was known as Tungi. Soon Tavi found a job with the Ministry of Works, met the noble Havea, and then, just before Tavi turned 30, he retired to the uninhabited island of Hunga Tonga, a place that was suitable to his nature. He decided against suicide.

Tavi on hunga
In 2006, Tavi's Danish biographer, Leif Møller gave me this picture of Tavi. This must be Tavi's hut on Hunga.

His tools in Hunga consisted of a spoon that he used to eat wild papaya and a stainless steel bush knife that he used to hack open sprouted coconuts. He had a small garden, but most of his food came from foraging.

Tavi stayed with me in my hut on Niuatoputapu for five days. Besides the stories, he gave me some pointers on Tongan cooking—how to find the sweetest breadfruit, how to get the correct ratio of proteins to carbohydrates, and what foods to combine to create a complete protein. Then, all too soon, the copra boat sailed for Tongatapu with Tavi on it. He could travel for free in Tonga and throughout the South Pacific in payment for work he had done for the head of the shipping line.

Part II

The school year ended in Niuatoputapu and I followed Tavi to Tongatapu on the next boat. By this time I had grown comfortable enough in Tonga to want to extend my two-year contract with the Peace Corps for a third year. In 1977 I taught school in the capital city of Nuku'alofa and at least initially saw very little of Tavi. He spent only a few weeks in Nuku'alofa and then I heard he had gone to the University of Auckland in New Zealand to visit two anthropologists he had met in Niuatoputapu, Garth Rogers and Wendy Pond. Nevertheless he was back in Tonga by March—the time when New Zealand and even the southern islands of Tonga were getting too cold for him. He headed straight from Nuku'alofa for the warmer climate of Tafahi.


The boat shelters on the beach in Tafahi. With a population of just 200 people most families on Tafahi owned a boat.

In August of that year I had a chance to return to Niuatoputapu and Tafahi to record some of the oral history of those islands for a university in Tonga. Two days after my arrival in Niua I found myself on Tafahi living with Tavi's friend Paulo Faka'osi, who, at twenty-five, was a year younger than I was. Paulo had become friends with Tavi when Paulo was sixteen and Tavi had just come to Tafahi. The Queen of Tonga, Mata’aho, had asked Tavi for a favor—would he send her some of the creeper called fue that grew on the cliffs of Tafahi. Tavi asked the young men of the island for help. Was there, he asked, anyone willing to scramble down the cliff side and collect the fue. Only one person volunteered, Paulo. After that they had became good friends and for a while they had lived together on Tavi's beach. After that Tavi helped Paulo find work overseas. Returning to Tonga, Paulo married ‘Eleni and became a father, all before his 20th birthday. Now, even with his family to take care of, Paulo was happy to bring Tavi food on Wednesdays and to feed him food cooked in an earth oven on Sundays. Their arrangement had worked out well: Tavi had helped Paulo build his concrete block house and Tavi had helped Tafahi build the primary school.

I was tremendously excited, when, on my first Wednesday in Tafahi, Paulo asked me to help him carry Tavi's food to him. We walked up to Paulo's garden, dug enough of the staple Tongan root crop, taro, to fill a coconut leaf basket, picked some taro leaves, and filled another basket with papaya. From there we hiked to the other side of the island to where Tavi lived. I felt as if I were going to visit Thoreau at Walden Pond as we walked on the path toward the lookout point of Vakameiniua and then climbed down to Tamatama, the beach where Tavi lived.

Suddenly we burst through the dense undergrowth onto the beach and there was Tavi under the coconut trees perched stark naked on a rock husking a coconut. He was happy but not surprised to see us. “The first thing I want to do,” he began addressing me, “is to thank you for sending me the newspaper articles about the earthquake in Tongatapu earlier this year. I found them very reassuring.”

I had sent him news of the earthquake and a picture of the church he had built in Ha'ate'iho.

hut on Tafahi

Although it looked ramshackle Tavi assured me that his hut on the beach in Tafahi was sturdily built and did not leak. He explained that it was thief-proof: after years of having nothing stolen he had proven that there was nothing there that a thief would want to steal.

Family on Tafahi
Paulo and ‘Eleni in their Sunday best in front of their house in Tafahi. Tavi was also in his “Sunday best.”

The bell tower had fallen down. Tavi went on, “I knew that something like that might happen so I built it so that the bell would fall away from the church, which it did.”

We talked for a few minutes more and then Tavi buried the taro in the sand to preserve it and placed the papaya on an elevated board so that the rats would not get to it. I looked around. Tavi did not sleep on a rock, but his hut consisted of just a lean-too roof over the crotch of two rocks. There wasn't enough room inside to stand up, but there was a narrow bed made from sticks and a board that could be placed across the width of the house to give Tavi a place to sit down . In essence then, his hut was a pup tent made out of coconut leaves placed between two rocks. Between the house and the beach was a neat line of coconut trees that Tavi had planted. Just downwind from the house was an open fireplace and a patch of sand that I later learned was his unenclosed latrine.

On that day Paulo and I were walking around the island so we did not stay for lunch. We told Tavi that we would see him again on Sunday in the village. Indeed, every Sunday Tavi went to the village to have a woman wash his hair in water from a rain catchment tank, to eat lunch, and well, even though he would never admit it, to see other human beings. He felt that if he left his beach early in the morning and returned in the late afternoon the journey was not too hot. He usually had his noon meal on Sunday with Paulo's father.

On Sunday afternoon I met Tavi at Paulo's house; we talked about my work and gossiped about Tafahi life. I discovered that even though Tavi professed to have no interest in the village and claimed that he only went to the hot dusty village because he had to wash his hair, he knew by name most of the people in the village had a story or two about many of them.

The Tafahi people had a few things to say about Tavi as well. Paulo considered Tavi to be his second father. Vaka, the chief of Tafahi, told me that Tavi honored the island by staying there. One woman was trying to organize a movement to make Tavi stop going naked on his beach; she feared that the innocent young maidens of the village would not maintain their purity of thought if they saw Tavi in the raw. The fact of the matter was that Tavi rarely ventured forth from his coconut grove to the hot sunny beach, which itself was quite remote. Most of the people of Tafahi, however, viewed Tavi with typical Tongan curiosity and tolerance; they couldn't understand the man but they were willing to let him live as he pleased.

By my second Sunday in Tafahi I had finished most of my recording work. I hinted to Tavi that I would like to stay with him on his beach for a few days. He silently mulled that over for a minute before telling me that his house was too small for company but that I was welcome to sleep in the cave behind his house. I told him that I'd sleep under the coconut trees and we agreed that I'd come with Paulo the following Wednesday.

On Wednesday it took Paulo less than an hour to build me a small coconut leaf shelter on the beach. He went home before noon.

That afternoon I helped Tavi string up a piece of wire that would thereafter function as his radio’s antenna. After that we both read our books, and promptly went to sleep when it got dark, about seven in the evening. (Tavi couldn't be bothered to have a lantern.)

By seven fifteen the next morning, just after listening to the morning news from Samoa on his radio which, thanks to me, now worked much better, Tavi was up and out of his house and, as always, naked. “How did you sleep,” he asked.

“Okay,” I said, “And you?”

“Last night,” he began as if I had just asked him a very serious question, “I was able to hear the eight o'clock news very clearly. It brought a little excitement into the night. I fell asleep shortly thereafter and woke up only once to put on another layer of tapa cloth. On the whole it was a very pleasant sleep.”

It was time for breakfast. We began by husking two coconuts—a green one whose milk we would drink and a mature brown coconut whose meat we would shortly eat. The coconut husks were put to use as well. I was instructed to put the moist soft green husk near the open latrine where it would later be put to good use. The husk of the mature coconut was set aside to provide kindling to heat up lunch. We then each picked a papaya off the rat-proof board, and, with me carrying the husked mature coconut, walked out to the beach, which he said was always clean and pleasant in the early morning. Breakfast then consisted of half of the ripe coconut, a papaya and, back at Tavi's house, half the juice of the green coconut with three heaping teaspoons of skim milk powder added. “It's a hardy breakfast,” Tavi concluded. “It keeps me going quite nicely until noon.”

After breakfast he brought out his tapa cloth, sleeping mat, and bed sheet, to air them out. A bit later he rolled them back up saying, “Jesus told the sick man to roll up his bed and go home and that's what I do every morning. You know, there are a lot of pleasures in life, and a lot of pleasures that can easily slip away from you, but one of most pleasant things in life that almost no one can take away from you is the pleasure of a good night's sleep. I have found that if I sleep well at night the tensions of the day don't seem to build up so much.” This led him into a story about his old friend Havea, the Tongan chief on the main island of Tongatapu. Tavi explained that Havea was one of the few men able to combine the best of Tongan and Western cultures. “He was a good man,” Tavi concluded, “and he tried hard to do what was best for Tonga. But what killed Havea was this: he got frustrated and those frustrations kept building up inside him until they killed him.”

“That's what is happening to many people throughout the world,” I added.

“Well you see, I wouldn't know about that,” Tavi said, “as so many of my life experiences have been here in Tonga.”

Putting his bed in his house, he asked me to tell him when it was 11:30.

At 11:30 we made lunch. I grated what was left of breakfast's ripe coconut while Tavi peeled the taro and prepared the taro leaves. Everything was then put into a pot, into which was poured what was left of breakfast's green coconut. The pot was then placed over a fire of small sticks and mature coconut husk. Tavi tilted the pot so that nothing would spill out of the small hole in one side. Besides the hole, the pot was in badly dented. On the whole it looked like something that Captain Cook might have discarded in the early 18th century. I finally remarked to Tavi on the sad condition of the pot.

“Oh no,” he said, “it is the prefect pot. Don't you see? If it was any better someone would steal it.”

He was right.

When the food was cooked we took it out to the beach, sat in the shade of a large black rock, and ate lunch.

The grated coconut and the coconut milk sweetened the taro and the leaves. I told him how good it tasted. “Oh yes,” Tavi said, “I have had this almost everyday now for twenty-four years and I never get tired of it.”

I asked him what he was doing in his hut and learned that he was reviewing his notes from an anthropology course he had taken at the University of Auckland. He went back to his work after lunch, asking me to tell him when it was 5:30.

At 5:30 I remembered to tell him the time and he promptly came out to bathe in the sea. I asked him if he wanted to use my soap. “No thank you,” he said, “I have found that the salt water has sufficient cleansing agents.” He then instructed me to choose a tide pool that suited my fancy and to scrub up with some dry coconut husk.

I did as Tavi had told me and then stood there naked and shivering. Tavi had a solution, “You will find that if you walk to that rock over there, by the time you get back here you will be perfectly dry and if you brush the salt off with some dry coconut husk you will feel as clean as a baby.”

I did as Tavi told me. He was right again.

For dinner we finished the rest of the food we had prepared at lunch. It still tasted good.

I stayed with Tavi at Tamatama for three more days. Then together we packed our belongings and left the peaceful beach. Tavi was going to return to Tongatapu to repair the church he had built in Ha'ate'iho and I was going to Niua Fo'ou to continue my work of recording the oral traditions of Tonga's most northern islands. Our paths didn't cross again for thirteen years.

Part III

I left Tonga in December of the next year, 1978, went to India to study yoga and meditation, spent four years working in the refugee camps of Southeast Asia and doing more meditation, checked out Japan for a few months, and then managed, partially thanks to Tavi's encouragement, to pick up a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Hawaii which is just on the other side of the Polynesian triangle from Tonga. After I graduated in 1989 I decided to return to Tonga to teach anthropology in Tonga’s only university, ‘Atenisi.

All the while Tavi and I had been sending letters back and forth. He had made his annual trip to Tafahi for a few more years. He dedicated one year to reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, “How many of the ideas expressed there I found to be what I thought my very own!” he wrote. He kept traveling around Tonga, did some engineering work for the Tongan Royal family in Tongatapu, took a cargo boat to Hawaii, and made a couple trips to New Zealand. On one of those trips to New Zealand, in the late 80s, he had had a heart attack—he was walking up a hill in Auckland when things went black. The King's personal physician told Tavi that if he wanted to live more than another year he would have to undergo heart surgery; Tavi thought about it for a day and then announced that he wouldn't do it— he wasn't as interested in living a long life, as he was interested in living a good life.

So he returned to Tonga with his damaged heart and decided to take up permanent residence on the island of 'Eua, which was just a three-hour boat ride from the main island of Tongatapu. On 'Eua, which was at best a half-hour jeep ride, a 15-minute plane ride, and then another half-hour drive by car from the nearest hospital, he felt he could endure the winter in the King of Tonga's summer palace, which was near the lowland leeward coast. He felt, however, that the so-called summer palace, was in fact too hot for the summer. He would therefore, he decided, spend the summer months on the cooler summit of the island. He had made provision for his burial at sea, but he seemed to have better things to do than die.

That year, 1990, I visited Tavi on 'Eua three times. On my first visit, soon after I arrived in Tonga, I found that he was still the great host—insisting on doing the cooking, glad to see me, and still the great talker. As host he was even willing to help me to finish a bottle of Sherry that a friend had told me to carry with me when I visited him. He wanted to tell me everything, “We have so very much to talk about. Let's not waste time. Perhaps we should make a list of things to talk about?” He had claimed that the heart attack had reduced his mental ability, but I found him to be just the same, even if he was now wearing clothes. He still enjoyed the same Chinese and Indian philosophers that he always had, but now he said his interest had expanded to include universal laws. One of these laws was Murphy's Law that to Tavi meant, “Everything that can go wrong will go wrong in ways that you don't expect. ” “Murphy was right,” Tavi said beginning a story, “He was especially right for Tonga. Take Tafahi for example. When I first went there you couldn't find a fly in the village, and why? Because there was nothing for the flies to eat. When nature called, people found a quiet place to do their business and a pig would instantly devour it. Then the health workers came to improve the sanitary conditions of the village. They told the villagers to build latrines. But how can you build a good latrine on an island that is mostly volcanic rock? Nevertheless, the Tafahi people didn't want to appear uncivilized so they built them, and after a few more years they actually started using them. And what happened? The flies found an unending feast in the human excrement that was in the shallow pits that pigs couldn’t find and now the flies and the diseases they carry are everywhere.”

Another of his recently acquired laws was the law of gravity that he explained to me after I volunteered to sweep the floor, “Wait a minute, just a minute, just a second,” Tavi said in a voice that one might use to gently prevent a child from putting his finger in an electric light socket, “Now look here: I believe in the law of gravity which is always true except for one-100,000th of a second every 15 billion years which we don't have to worry much about. With gravity being what it is—everything will fall toward the biggest mass, in this case the center of the earth— it is far better just to leave that dust where it is and let the law of gravity keep it right there on the floor rather than creating even more dust by trying to sweep it up. My slippers keep my feet clean, so let's not argue with nature, shall we?” With the law of gravity on his side I knew that there was no use in arguing with him. I couldn't help but wonder though what a different world it would be if everyone gave the law of gravity the same perspective.

The King's summer palace, where Tavi was staying, was just a few hundred yards away from the premier agricultural school of Tonga, Hango. The Westerners who worked at the school had come to adore Tavi. They would stop by occasionally to bring him his mail or just to see how he was doing and he would give them nutritional or philosophical advice, consolation, or stories about life in old Tonga. Tavi had, after all, assisted Elizabeth Bott, in writing Tongan Society at the Time of Captain Cook's Visits. It seems that old Havea, who had adopted Tavi as his son, had told Tavi all the old legends and the history of the nobility and the Tongan Royal family and as always Tavi hadn't forgotten a thing.

Tavi was very aware that he could have a heart attack and die at any second and that it was his own wits and discipline that kept him alive. One of life's great pleasures for him was still a good night's sleep. Nowadays that pleasure would end for him at about 6:45 every morning at which time he would take his pulse. Gently then he would turn on the radio, having still not opened his eyes, and listen to the morning news from Australia followed by the news from England at 8 o'clock. Finally at about 8:30 he would open his eyes, not to get out of bed, but just to look around. He would then feel the air to try to determine how cold it was, after all, the temperature would determine how many layers of clothing to put on. (It rarely gets below 60 degrees in Tonga.) He reasoned that not enough clothing could make his body cold, which could result in heart palpitations, which could produce too much oxygen in the brain and then a stroke, and death right there. Anyway, at 9:15 Tavi would get out of bed and crack open a sprouted coconut that one of his neighbors had brought him.

His diet hadn't changed much. Now though he included in it a range of vitamins that included large quantities of vitamin C (he had become a disciple of Dr. Linus Pauling) and spirulina, a type of algae that was, he explained, rich in B vitamins.

Tavi on the way to visit his neighbors on 'Eua.

He very rarely left the King's summer palace, which was really just a cottage that the Queen has deemed proper to let Tavi have one room of. Late one afternoon though he decided that he would like to walk up to the island’s agricultural school, Hango. He carried his umbrella to keep the sun off and ventured forth. Although the terrain was almost perfectly flat he wanted to stop every few yards to take his pulse. When he was certain that his heartbeat was steady, we would continue. Tavi had definitely taken an extreme stand on his health, but it was working: a doctor who had examined him at the time of his heart attack said he was sure that Tavi was going to die any day and that was two years ago! At the school, the director's wife, being Australian, served us Milo and biscuits and the former hermit from Hunga and Tafahi was as social as a fly in a bar.

Later I asked him if his view of humanity had changed over the years. My question, as always, brought forth another story. “You see, when I first went to Hunga I really wanted to be alone, to be left completely alone, to get away from the human race and once I went most of a year without seeing or speaking to anyone,” he began. Then one day a ship floundered on Hunga. It was only eighty or so miles (130 kilometers) from the main island of Tongatapu to the Ha'apai group of islands. Hunga Tonga was the first of those islands from Tongatapu so when the boat full of Ha'apai people bound for Tongatapu saw that their ship was in trouble they somehow maneuvered themselves over to Hunga rather than risk the rest of the trip. They landed on Hunga and asked Tavi to help them. Being both an engineer and a great sailor they had asked the right man. Tavi took his entire supply of dental floss aboard ship and after a few days had their sail functioning again. He then volunteered to captain their ship back to the main island of the Ha'apai group. Everyone thought that was a great idea, so that's what he did. As soon as they reached the main island the hero to everyone on board, Tavi, told them that their ship was not seaworthy and that they had better find another way to get to Tongatapu. Everyone agreed with him so Tavi was very surprised when that night they all secretly re-boarded the ship and set sail for Tonga, without him. Their clandestine departure had left Tavi far from home so he decided to make an unplanned visit to the main island of Tongatapu on a regular inner-island boat. When the Ha’apai people whom he had saved learned that he was on Tongatapu they gave him an immense feast and celebrated his name around Tonga. All of this gave Tavi food for thought: he, after careful deliberation, decided that perhaps humanity wasn't so bad after all. Or at least it wasn’t so bad in limited quantities. Thus inspired, Tavi somehow arranged to bring a few young Tongan men to Hunga whom he then tutored. One of his students went on to become a famous boat captain in Tonga. In those years Tavi was an avid sun-bather. “Every day I would stretch out on the beach and have one of my students read out loud to me Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams.” To Tavi those were some of the happiest days of his life.

I visited Tavi again just after my first term as a university lecturer was ending. It was summer in Tonga so he had moved to the highest and possibly the coolest point of the island of 'Eua and was staying in another one of the King's residences, Mahina Hopo, or Moon Rising. The house at Mahina Hopo was known as “the castle” by the locals. It had been built by a German Baron only a few years previously on a cliff some 300 dramatic feet above the ocean—from there one could look up and down the coast and see the waves crashing on the windward reef far below. The castle had been abandoned by the Baron after his wife developed skin cancer. After that the Tongans had looted absolutely everything of value from the castle with the exception of the two worthless toilets which, just for fun, the vandals had broken off of their foundations. Tavi had put a board over one of the toilets and was using it as a chair when I visited him.

At this time my personal life in Tonga was in dire straights. I had fallen in love with a woman who was apparently just learning the joy of sex and her joy was such that she wanted to enjoy it with as many people as possible. I told the story to Tavi and he was understanding. He had by chance met the woman when she had visited the island the year before and he wanted to very seriously tell me something about her that he thought might change my life. He hesitated for a long moment before speaking, “It is a situation that I would get myself out of immediately and I don't see any way that you can come out of it in a positive way. I have talked to several people about her and we have concluded that she is” He paused for another moment, “promiscuous.” He said promiscuous with the same tone of voice that others might say, “carrying the HIV-AIDS virus.”

“That may be true,” I pleaded, “but after dull, boring graduate school to be with a woman again—I can't help it, it's wonderful.”

“Not wonderful!” Tavi interrupted, still serious and thinking of my betterment, “Heaven! It is heaven on earth to have a woman beside you in bed rubbing your shoulders, stroking your hair. I know it is. I know it very well.” He then launched into a long story about a Tongan woman whom he had met near Hunga when he had first come to Tonga. Although they had never consummated their relationship, their affair had been, according to Tavi, second only to Romeo and Juliet in passion and feelings. They had considered marriage and were virtually on the way to the altar when Tavi realized that her family would never let him live in peace if he married her, so he told her mother that there would not be a wedding.

“So what happened to the girl?”

“She married a government official and as far as I know she has lived a good life.”

“So there was a happy ending?” I said, hoping the same for myself.

“Happy? Let's not say happy. Let's say that it ended in such a way that I felt completely at peace with myself for having done the right thing, the honorable thing, and the thing that I felt I had no choice but to do.”

“I see.”

That settled, he asked me to help him find a place to commit suicide. Living there alone in the abandoned castle with the nearest person more than a kilometer away, he felt that if he had another heart attack it might be a week before anyone would know it. Rather than linger in pain after another stroke he had decided that he would take a dive off one of the cliffs. The problem was finding a cliff that would give him an uninterrupted free fall to the rocks below—he didn't want to become stuck on a nearby rock or hang suspended in a tree. So together we walked out to the seaside cliffs. He stood at the edge of a few cliffs and I scrambled around and part way down to the bottom to see which cliff had the best potential to provide a lengthy free fall. After an hour or so we found a suitable spot and marked it with a rock.

With my duties to him finished and my being the better off for his wise counsel, I spent the rest of my holiday practicing the meditation I had learned in India and Southeast Asia years before, with Tavi silently providing me with food.

My last visit to 'Eua to see Tavi was just before I left Tonga at the end of 1990. By this time he was living back in the King's summer palace near the agricultural school. We both knew that it would probably be the last time for us to meet. I gave him my short wave radio and rigged up another antenna for him.

He said that he had a present for me as well and that he would give it to me later that night.

Through the course of the visit I gave him a full report on my personal life, which had sorted itself out. As always he was full of advice and sympathy. “You know,” he said, “a woman has never made a fool wise, but many women have made a wise man foolish.” I had come to know what he meant very well.

By this visit I had gotten to know his routine pretty well. Dinner was always the same. I had initially brought some fancy soybean meat loaf and then canned peanut-burgers with me, but Tavi said that they gave him indigestion so we ate our standard taro with taro leaves cooked with coconut. When he stayed here, in the palace, (and it was always “the palace” instead of the poorly built and horribly maintained cottage which it really was,) he had a luxury that the “castle” lacked: electricity. The electricity gave him light at night and powered a refrigerator that functioned to keep the taro leaves a little fresher than they otherwise might have been, but his diet had stayed exactly the same.

Now that we had electricity we would postpone dinner until 8 o'clock or so, which gave us time to have a long glass of sherry between darkness and dinner that always took place in silence so that we could listen to the news on the radio.

Dinner was in the bedroom. It was warmer there and afterwards Tavi could, after brushing his teeth, get straight into bed.

After dinner on our last evening together he remembered his gift to me. He opened up his trunk (the box that I had built to store my things in when I went to Niuatoputapu 13 years before) and after considerable shuffling brought out a cloth purse that he handed to me. I opened it. Inside was a piece of gold.

“I did some work for the shipping line a few years ago and used that money to buy a piece of gold, thinking that if things ever became really severe I could use it as a final reserve, but now I can't imagine that I'll ever need it, but you might. So why don't you take it?”

I didn't know what to say. I looked at it: it was quite pretty like a piece of gaily wrapped bubble gum. It was cold though and when I tossed it up in the air it was heavier than anything I had ever handled before. I held it under the light to read what was written on it: “The Perth Mint West Australia 1 oz fine.”

Naturally, I've kept the gold that Tavi gave me..

I thanked him for it and said that I would treasure it. To me it was the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for decency. I was extremely honored.

I was going to take the plane back to the main island the next morning which meant that I'd leave the palace at 7 a.m. Tavi was certain that he would not have ended one of the most pleasant things in life by that early hour. So rather than risk me waking him up in the morning and thus possibly giving him a fatal heart attack, he wanted to say good-bye now. We had said good-bye many times before. Part of his charm was his great sincerity and when he said good-bye he always made me feel that later he would be a little lonely as if something would be missing. We shook hands. Clearly and forever, his were not the hands of a beachcomber or of a Polynesian idler, but of a man whom I had been very fortunate in meeting and in getting to know. I felt a little teary, but then somehow teased him about his impending death, “Well,” I said, “if you make the trip to the other shore before we meet again I hope that it is a pleasant journey.”

He didn't understand my teasing. “Other shore?” he said, “I'm going to stay here in 'Eua.”

“No,” I said, “I mean if your thumper stops, I hope that it goes smoothly.”

“Oh that,” he said with a laugh, “well, you never know, you might be making that trip before I do.”

“Yes, you never know.”

So I left him there on 'Eua, in the palace, and did not see him again.

Tavi returned to Denmark in 1991 or 2. He died on April 11, 1995. The official version of his death is that he had a heart attack. The unofficial version is that when the doctors told him that he would have to have his legs amputated, he took an overdose of medication and committed suicide. In other words, in his own way, he found the spot on the cliff in 'Eua that together he and I had marked and rather than linger, he used his wits to leap into eternity. Peace be with you, Tavi.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

End note

Now, in 2010, I’m older than Tavi was when I first met him. These days I still buy my shirts with two front pockets, the way he advised me to do, “after all, shirts are basically a way to hang tools effectively from your body.” Unfortunately though, I don’t live quite as simply as Tavi did, but more than one person has told me that I own fewer possessions than anyone they know. They didn’t have the good fortune to know Tavi.

I was sorry to see Tavi leave the world, but now, by writing this, like any son, I'm hoping to keep my father’s memory alive.