We went to Tonga . . . where to begin? Well, I'll start with the why, move on to to the how, transition into the when, glide through the what, and finish with a triple lutz. You'll have to hang on by the seat of your sequin studded tights.
Leslie and I were trying to figure out where to travel once we left the Sout Pole, and we fell upon some ice cheap tickets to Tonga (ice is the dirt of the south). Cuddled together in our quonset hut, and connected wirelessly to the Virgin Air website, we booked a ten day return plane ticket to a place that we knew not a single thing about.
After three weeks of the type of fun that only New Zealand can offer (think Vegas, but wholesome), we departed for the island nation of Tonga.
Here's a few background facts about Tonga, in case you are interested. Tonga is a constitutional monarchy and claims to be the only South Pacific island nation to have avoided direct colonization. The Archipelago comprises 169 islands, 36 of which are inhabinted. The spattering of islands are split into three main groups: Ha'apai, Tongatapu, and Vava'u, plus the uniquely rain-forested island of Eua. If you drew a line from Auckland to Hawaii, 1/2 of the way there you would find Tonga. Half of Tongan's live abroad, and remittances consist of a significant, if not the only, source of income for many Tongans. Many suplement their income with subsistence farming - root crops, coconut, banannas, vanilla beans . . . There is little 'industry', tourism or otherwise, to speak of. The main export is squash - go figure. The islands are covered, literally covered, in coconuts trees, whcih have become a relic of the past. The coconut oil market flattened, and now millions of the nuts fall to the ground and rot. Coconut flesh is considered 'pig food'. There is a large Chinese immigrant population, and despite the xenophobia of some Tongans, they have gained a foothold in the capitol city of Nuku'alofa, on the main island group of Tongatapu. As you ride the streets, you find a chinese grocery every block or so. The Chinese often provided the most variety and best quality at the vegetable market pictured below) in Nuku'alofa.
My first impression upon arrival to the country: Tongans are some big mother%$&#$'s. The average weight of a Tongan woman is almost 100 kilograms (you do the math) - 70% of the women aged 15-85 are obese. I'm sure the men aren't far behind. It didn't take long to gain insight why this is . . .
Leslie and I landed in Tongatapu, the main island of the Tongatapu island group and home of the Tongan capitol city, Nuku'alofa, in early March. The first thing that hits you (hopefully not the massive Tongan on the airplane, whom was inhabiting not only their seat, but 2/3 of yours) was the humid heat. Determined to make the most of our short trip (11 days), Leslie and I made some ambitious plans. The first day we rented bicycles and attempted to circumnavigate the island. After a few wrong turns, we trimmed our goals down to simply finding our way back to our hostel. Five hours in the Tongan sun burned our skin and paled our will. You could actually feel the energy draining from you in the heat, floating away like a soap bubble. You couldn't lay down, becasue when you got up, you would feel even weaker. And when you were up, all you could think of was finding a fan and a hammock. The first thing a visitor to Tonga has to learn is that you have to ditch your breakneck tourist speed, and adopt a Tongan speed of life. Tonga offers a whole new definition to the expression, "Island time". At first, you want to speed past the pedestrians as they lazily plop down the street, then you learn that they move at an ant's pace, literally, for a reason - to conserve energy in the endless sun. They speed up for no one, and they slow down for no one (or car, for that matter). Mid afternoon, nearly everyone was found sitting down, under a tree. Some Tongans apparently did very little, and some rose very
early to work, but they all operated on island time.
Leslie and I did our best to prevent our energy levels from sagging too low. The heat definitely forced us to adjust our itineraries. A siesta became the norm. We checked out the craft and vegetable markets, and toured the island. There wasn't much to see really - mostly flat coconut fields and shantytown neighborhoods. We visited an underground cave lake and went for a swim, which was pretty out there. Some foods were cheap, some were not. Generally, prices were higher than you might expect for a country with a barely visible monetary sector. Generally, Tongans did not haggle for a price. I was struck a couple of times by an apparent indiffernce to money (not to say that we didn't encounter greed, either).
After seeing all there was to see on Tongatapu (which only requires a few days), we decided to skip town for the island group of Ha'apai. You have two options when travelling between island groups: ferry or plane. The inverse variables are, of course, time vs money. We opted for a ferry. After a day long search for the ticketing 'office' of the ferry company, that led us to the port authority, the docks, a liquor store, the tourist 'information' center, a brewery, and an unmarked office building, we purchased two one way tickets to Foa island of the Ha'apai group. This was the 'non-touristy' place to travel aboard the distinctly 'non' touristy ferry. The lady who ultimately led us to the ticketing office for the ferry (who also happened to be the tour guide at the only Tongan brewery), highly discouraged us, with an exaggerated finger in the throat display, from taking the ferry. In typical fashion, that only encouraged me, despite my weak stomach . . . Leslie was sporty enough to go along for the ride.
The Ferry ride turned out to be a distinctly memorable experience, but not for the reasons we had feared:
Surprsie #1: We boarded the ferry at 10:30 pm, which was the exact ETD. We had been warned that the boat is prone to leave several hours early or late, without notice, due to any mumber of factors - mechanical, tardiness of the cargo, tardiness of the workers, weather, etc . . .
Surprise #2: We were the only gringo's on board (along with our new friend in whiteness solidarity - Johanna), among a sprawl of locals sitting among hills of clothed goods.
Surprise #3: The sea was as calm as a Tongan at noon. We endured only a slight rocking throughout the trip, and we were able to maintain control of our stomachs.
Surprise #4: Despite the regularity of nightly thunderstorms at this time of the year, we remained dry the entire night. This was a godsend, as we were hunkered down on the open deck. The few spots on the vessel that afforded cover had been snatched up by the pushing hordes that fought their way onto the boat first. We were relieved and comforted by the sight of the hazy orange moon throughout the night.
Surprise #5: Despite starving and dehydrating ourselves during the day, we were unable to avoid using the bathrooms during our twelve hour ride - maggot infested bowls and sloshing sewage tsunamis on the rusting floors. I think I have PTSD.
Surprise #6: The tourists from Singapore with a laser pen. Yep, they packed a laser pen, on their ferry ride in Tonga.
Surprise #7: The ferry arrived late morning, as scheduled and on time, to the island of Foa. There was a slight delay for offload; we had to wait while they delivered a body to an awaiting funeral procession onshore. Tongans have an extensive mourning period; immediate family members will live by the grave for a month.
Surprise #8: Sadly, this ferry sank in late August this summer - falling to the ocean floor with dozens still inside.
Once on the island, we trudged through the heat down the only road on the island, searching for a hostel. A kind soul took pity on the fish out of water, and drove us to a lady who rented out rooms in her house. We were happy to have arrived, and took two rooms (we were now travelling with Johanna, a young German girl). We were simply glad to be out of the sun, and we had landed in a gorgeous location . . .
. . . but we soon found that we had made a rash decision. The rooms were dirty, and the kitchen was . . . well, lets just say it was a meal in progress, a very . . . exotic meal in progress. Normally, I wouldn't be fazed. But we were hot, sweaty, and just a little traumitzed from the conditions on the boat. We wanted to get away from the infestation . . . and the next day we did. We set off early-ish to make a low tide crossing to the uninhabited island of Likufa. Our hitchhiking attempts were less successful than the day before, and we ended up attempting our island crossing a bit late. The current was surging, but only knee deep - we made it across in an hour or so.
Along the way, we met Ron (pictured below), who was making the crossing on horseback in order to feed the pigs he kept on Likufa.
We chatted it up and Ron invited us over to his hut. There, he called his animals with a conch he had pulled from the reef, and then proceeded to put on an impressive pig feeding show, in which he masterfully split fallen coconuts in thirds with superbly aimed machete blows (his hand only cm's away). He then climbed a coconut tree and retrieved a few nuts for us to drink from. We were equally parts impressed and grateful. Ron had mentioned that he kept horses, and we asked him to guide us on horseback around the island. He agreed to bring horses over the next day.
Delighted, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening absorbing the absolute paradise that surrounded us. We had a fairtale beach to ourselves, with what must have been world-class snorkeling, and all the cocnuts in the world. All I can say is WOW.
Our night was not as pleasant. The breeze calmed and the mosquitos swarmed. We were travelling light, without spare clothing, sleeping bags, or a tent, and had nowhere to hide. Not much sleep was had that night, and we were glad to find the sunrise. Ron trudged over with three horses early in the morning, and we mounted up. It was a brutally hot day, and the horses were none too happy to oblige our commands, but Ron was able to keep them in line. We plopped along the beach, while Ron shadowed the shore with a crumpled fishing net in hand. Suddenly, the net would sail, extending over the water in a perfect arc. Ron had the skills, and before long he had lunch and dinner for not only the four of us, but his family as well.. He said he was having a good day - I wonder if he was being modest. By noon, our butts were sore, our throats dry, our skin reddened, and our minds were slowing. It was time for a watering hole, but we had only trekked halfway around Likufa. Enter luck. We came upon a fala on the beach. We informed Ron that we needed a break, and water, and that we were going inland to explore. We found ourselves on a modern compound of buildings, fala's, shade structures, and water tanks. We had come upon an empty resort - the kind of place that comes with a pricetag above our means.
A man named Semi (pronounced Sammy) approached and asked us if we wanted some coffee. We respectfully declined but requested water. He returned quickly with our full water bottles and began to explain what he was doing in an empty resort, by himself, on an uninhabited island. Semi was the caretaker of the resort, and fiance to an American from LA, who was financing the project. He was caretaking while she got the website going. He hadn't had guests in over a month, and was dreadfully bored. He invited us to stay a few days, to allay his boredom. The only payment he requested, was a few games of UNO. The joy began to bust from our guts, and we meekly and cheerily accepted his invitation. He made up a bed for us in a Fala on the beach made from Indonesian hardwood. Plush would be an understatement. We spent the next two days enjoying paradise from the lap of luxury. Semi was an overly gracious host and a self-defeatingly honest UNO player. It was too much - we were awe-struck by our good fortune.
Before long, however, it was time to make our way back to the main island to catch our flight, and we bid a heart-sinking farewell to Semi.
Thank you, Thank you, Thank you Semi - our gratitude is inexpressable . . .