Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dispatch 49 Tonga (Ha’apai and Nuku’alofa)

Oct 18 - Oct 26, 2009
Briefly we stopped in the long set of islands and reefs between Vava’u and Tongatapu called the Ha’apai group. These islands are small and lovely with white sand beaches and have extensive reef surrounding them. The navigation is a little more challenging because of the reefs. We only stopped at 3 of these islands but enjoyed long beach walks and shell collecting here. There were whales here as well although no close encounters for us. We stopped at one island with a village and were accosted by the local children once again asking our names, our ages and asking for lollies. We were impressed with the English these children had at a much younger age than elsewhere, then learned there was a Peace Corps worker on the island teaching them English. We also met the nurse practitioner who provides th
e health care here and at about 6 other islands (around 1800 people altogether) and found her with a whistle around her neck left over from her athletic event with the children that morning. Part of her health program is to get the kids out every morning to do some kind of sport. I also learned the expression for no smoking in Tongan at the health center: Tapu Ifi Tapaka.
Our stay in this group of islands was short and sweet because we were on a schedule to arrive in the capital in time for the big “end of the season” party. As luck would have it, the party was scheduled for my birthday and it is also called a “birthday” party for the resort that hosts it—its 7th birthday. The resort is called Big Mama’s Resort on a little island called Pangaimotu. When I e-mailed to RSVP our attendance I mentioned that the day was my birthday and was promptly e-mailed back that Big Mama’s chef wanted to bake me a cake. Wow, what fun.

Pangaimotu is a 15 minute ferry ride from the capital city of Nuku’alofa. Big Mama has figured out all the things that cruisers need to make life happier and she offers them at her resort. Besides the obvious food and drink, they offer to fill jerry cans of fuel, arrange for larger fill-ups at the town
dock, do laundry, sell crafts, offer several ferry rides into town for grocery shopping and will do virtually anything to make your stay better, for a price of course. From the moment we arrived we felt taken care of—the anchorage was calm and full of our friends and Big Mama was very warm and friendly. We got a few things done before the party, but some of our time had to be spent with Big Mama because she had bought some fabric to make a traditional Tongan outfit for me to wear at the party and to take as a gift. I was floored by her generosity.On my birthday, we spent the day shopping in town, came back for a final fitting of my outfit and got ready for the party which was a costume party for Halloween. One other cruiser who had helped arrange the party had a Tonga outfit made for her too and she and I were treated like queens. We had a traditional woven skirt covers put on with beautiful woven belts and were seated on “thrones” in places of honor. The woven skirt covers are thick, hot, and awkward in case anyone wants to know—as best I could tell, they are indistinguishable from the weavings that are used as floor coverings! Dinner was a traditional Tongan feast preceded as usual with speeches of thank you by Big Mama, etc. I forgot to mention that this whole evening is FREE. Marcy, the other “queen for the day” and I sat on our thrones wondering whether and when we could go partake of some food, when, magically plates full of food
arrived in front of us and our drink orders were filled. WOW! To cap the whole thing off, Big Mama had made a cake for her resort’s birthday and another cake for mine— chocolate because that’s the only type she likes. A woman after my own heart! As more speeches were made, a group of my girlfriends from this cruising season came up and presented me with their birthday gift: a lei of giant chocolate bars purchased in town and decorated with ribbon. I was blown away. At last I was free to take off my overskirt and, as there was a live band, we danced until the party ended. It was a birthday I will long remember.At the birthday party, I met a Tongan woman named Malaia who had lived much of her adult life in the US and had married a US man. They have since become divorced and her two boys live with him while her daughter has moved back to Tonga with her. She had some amazing stories to tell. She was working for a company as a secretary when they had some embezzlement and fraud issues. Because of her role in the company, her name was on fraudulent documents so she was indicted with the rest of the employees. But, as a green card alien, she became immediately deportable and was considered a foreign detainee. Because her husband and children were living in the US, she opted to go to prison in the US as a detainee rather than be immediately deported to Tonga. She spent 5 years in prison and has written a memoir, I was an Alien to describe her experience which, as she told it to us over the next couple days, sounded pretty deplorable. She, for some reason, took to me and invited Richard and me to church and then a traditional Tongan Sunday meal afterward. Our friends from the boat Migration, Bruce and Alene, joined us as well.

Malaia brought us to the church in town where the King usually attends although he was out of town and not there, but his mom (the Queen mum) was in attendance. We were seated in an area where the nobles usually sit and listened to, as usual, the beautiful singing and the Methodist service. After the service, we went to Malaia’s boyfriend’s house where we enjoyed the Sunday feast of food cooked over the umu (oven in the earth). Her boyfriend was a banker, now retired, who is distantly part of the noble family. Interestingly, his house burned down over a year ago, and, in contradistinction to how any of us would have dealt with that, especially given that he was a banker and clearly of a socioeconomic strata one would expect something different of, his house remained a shell and he was living in some temporary shelters on the property along with his pigs and dogs and many children. He came from a family of 10 kids and he has, I think, 11 children and many grandchildren. We met several of the family members during our lunch.
The Sunday feast took place out in the driveway on a folding table and featured exquisite food. Malaia understood that we would enjoy taking part in a “regular” family occasion and this was just an ordinary Sunday luncheon at a Tongan family house. Dish after dish was pulled from the umu with pork, chicken, corned beef, veggies, all cooked in this earth oven within packets of taro leaves, some with coconut milk to flavor them. We ate until we were stuffed and then were brought back to the ferry dock to go back to our boats. The next day, Malaia took us on a tour with Sio, her boyfriend. We saw most of the island with them. We saw a tree where the flying foxes nest, then went to an area where there were blowholes. I had almost
encouraged them to skip the blowholes since we had seen plenty in our marine travels. But, this coastline was astonishing. There were about 4 miles of coast with a cliff/porous rock material that create infinite blowholes. When the waves hit the coast, the blowholes spout all the way down the coastline in sequence and it is quite spectacular. There were 10 foot waves hitting and the reflected waves combined with them to give some 20 ft waves or so for our viewing
pleasure. It was quite a scene! We also saw the Trilathon, a Stonehenge type gateway of very
huge stone that nobody quite knows the purpose of. At a lovely protected bay we learned that Captain Cook formed a favorable impression of these islands (calling them the Friendly
Islands). Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, the locals were plotting his murder, thwarted
only by their own disorganization.
Over the next several days, we enjoyed visiting with various friends while we readied t
he boat for the next big passage to New Zealand. When we finally felt ready enough, we checked out from Tonga. In the end, we spent nearly 2 ½ months in the country and would happily return!