We sat in the plyboard entrance of Marco's Pizza, a long table full of volunteers sitting on a motley collection of plastic chairs, old bar stools, a bench, a cooler (me), and a paint bucket (Mark). However rudimentary the seating may have been, the food before us was five-star; antipasta with hand-cured salami, handmade sausage, and mozzarella cheese, large plates of savoury pasta with mushrooms and cream sauce, and thick, handmade pizza hot from the oven. Marco takes his cooking seriously.
"Do you want to hear the story about the earthworm and the whale?" Paul, a volunteer visiting from the island of 'Eua says from across the table. Immediately the table goes quiet after a chorus of "yes"s. "I heard it from the TCC guy who drives around in that beatup van with no drivers seat," Paul continues. "That guy!" I exclaim. "He gave us a ride several times," referring to hitchhiking rides during our stint in 'Eua almost two years ago.
"Yeah, he's taken out the back of the seat so he can drive comfortably." Mark chimes in.
"He is a pretty big guy," Paul agrees, "I'm always a little nervous about his van, but he's so nice. I wish we could remember his name. He picked me up one day and just started telling me this story. Apparently he knows a dozen more Tongan stories and loves them!"
After another bite of antipasta, Paul launches into the story.
"A long time ago, maybe a thousand years ago, the earthworm and the whale both lived on land. Although I didn't ask him about the mechanics of how that worked." There is a beat of silence around the table as we all imagine a whale living on land.
Not to be unduly distracted by technicalities, Paul went on.
"The whale and the earthworm were great friends, and always spent their days together. One day, the whale had to move into the ocean. The guy telling the story to me was unclear exactly why the whale had to move into the ocean, but obviously that's the way it went because whales are in the ocean now, right?
"So as the whale was leaving the earthworm, he was very sad, and - they were good friends, remember - the whale told the earthworm 'if you ever get into any trouble or need anything, just yell out, and I'll come back and help you.'
"Now, the 'ufi harvest is always right around this time of year, maybe a little later," Paul went on. There were nods from volunteers all around the table. We had all seen the huge piles of yams stacked at the market, as big as a man's leg, and some of us had been to the yam harvest celebrations last year and had eaten large delicious fluffy white chunks of yam, straight out of the underground oven.
"You know when you're unearthing 'ufi, you have to dig all around it with those spades so that you don't chop it up while you're getting it out of the soil. And you can imagine that in the process, it chops up a lot of earthworms as well!" Smiles start breaking out around the table as we all figure out the rest of the story. "Every year the earthworms get mad during the harvest, and start yelling for the whales. And you know what that does? It calls all the whales to Tonga, and that's why it's whale season right now. The whales come back every year around this time because the earthworms call them."
We are just starting whale season, when huge humpbacks move through Tonga, delighting anyone looking out to sea with their waving flippers, slapping tails, and fountains of spray. They must have heard the earthworms calling.