Memories from Tonga: A diary

It’s about one in the morning. After a disastrous series of events I find myself on the floor of Auckland airport and it looks like I am going to be here for a while. The good news is I have some time to tell you about my most recent little adventure, a week in the friendly isles of Tonga!

This is a bit of a change of tone from my previous posts because everything actually went really well; for the most part…

I arrived into Nuku’alofa fresh as a daisy because I’d managed to bag myself some exit row seats on the plane. I didn’t really know what to expect, my plan was to do some diving but apart from that it was just going to be generic happy beach times.

We pulled up at the hostel, the gates opened and two lovely lazy dogs craned their necks and wagged their tales to greet us.

“Hello lads!” – I waved at them like a nan would wave at a ferry… anyway, the point of this bit is that basically as soon as we arrived, before we’d finished checking in, we were given a plate full of Tongan goodies: Octopus, fish, taro, kumala, bread fruit and lots of other stuff that I can’t remember the names of (helpful). I hadn’t tried any of it before, even the fish had a flavour like I’d never experienced before. After everything a part of me was waiting for a charge or some sort of social pressure; it never came. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer welcome.

On the second day we went into town to explore. It was the perfect day, just the right temperature to amble around with no agenda (the Tongans call walking like this “effa”) without fear of getting heat stroke or becoming a sweaty mess. Everything throughout the day fell into place, we needed SIM cards and then what do you know, by the side of the road there were some friendly people selling SIM cards. It was the same with food, shortly after saying “I fancy something made fresh, almost as if we are guests in a local house for dinner” we stumbled across a house with a blackboard outside it and an old guy in an apron. “Do you make food mate?” I asked hopefully. “Yeah, but it’s not ready, we make it here just for you” – perfect. We sat down in the little courtyard at the front of his house under the keen gaze of a stray panting dog.

The food came and again it was absolutely lovely; a large plate of fish, chips and a salad all for 7 pa’angas (about ¬£2.50). The place had a real community spirit about it. A couple of gents came and sat with us in the courtyard, then out came the chef in his apron, and we just chatted for a while about Mormons (I had no idea that Tonga had so many Mormons, the guy said it was about 60% of the island but don’t quote me on that) and the correct number of wives to have.

Later that day we organised to go and try kava. Kava is a local drink that is made from straining water through some kind of pepper routes (again don’t quote me); if you drink enough of it then it’s supposed to give you a calming numbness and it’s also supposed to be good for bringing a sense of clarity to your thoughts. As well as the drink there was going to be music and stuff so it sounded perfect.

Outside the front of the house we arranged ourselves into a circle, all sat on cushions, wooden blocks and  plastic chairs (like the ones you had in school) that had the legs removed. The place itself felt like it was in the middle of the jungle, loads of bush and trees around but also lots of unfinished buildings among the trees. Whilst the kava was being prepared an increasing number of dudes appeared from the darkness to join the fun, each with their own nickname and a musical instrument or talent. Before long there was about fifteen or twenty of us in the circle at the front of the house, all ready for kava. It was ready. One of the guys emerged from the side of the house with a sloshing bucket, a large plastic washing up bowl and another few smaller bowls. The rest sang songs and played guitar, it was like being in a cult!

The kava itself looked like dirty river water, once mixed it was poured into the little bowls and passed around. The idea was that each time that you are handed a bowl (containing about a pint of kava) you down it in one, no messing around. It tasted pretty much how it looked (dirty dishwater) and it was passed around every time that the guys finished a song. We sat there for hours and hours, listening to them sing, chatting and drinking stupid amounts of the kava (every time that a big bowl was finished the same guy would come from the darkness with a huge bucket and refill it). By the end I’m pretty confident that we’d at least had 50 litres of the stuff between us, it was madness. Gradually the circle became more sedate. I didn’t really feel anything apart from a numb tongue and the feeling of being way too full. Apparently the more you have and the more regularly you do it the more affective it is, but it wasn’t for me, once was enough to try. I loved the vibe and the songs and stuff but personally I wouldn’t recommend the kava.

The next time that I left the guest house (a full day later, perhaps the kava did have some affect after all) was to go to the north west of the island to go and snorkel the reef (there wasn’t enough interest in the SCUBA to justify a boat going, if I’d wanted to do it I’d have had to pay a silly amount as it would have been me alone). The beach was really nice, the sand was big and grainy (almost the size of those little polystyrene balls that you get in packaging) until you got very close to the sea. The first part of the water was very shallow and you could see the reef by just standing at the water’s edge, beyond that was the deeper water so the waves were breaking way out in the mid ground, beyond that, deep blue sea (on DVD…).

We had fun snorkelling for a while and saw a perfect blue starfish and loads of other crazy little colourful fish, I never used to like the sea but now I’m all over it.

We came out of the water and lay in the sun for a bit. At this juncture I’ll stress the importance of sunscreen (Baz Luhrmann eat your heart out) because within minutes I heard “Jacque! You arrrre pink!!” (french accent) I had really bad sunburn.

More or less as we were leaving one of the girls spotted something out to sea, a spray of water, it was whales! What luck! They were absolutely beautiful, just slowly drifting by without a care in the world. Another thing that made it special was that we were right at the end of the season so even out on a boat with an expert you were not guaranteed to see whales, and then there we were, just standing on the beach watching them drift by. It was magic.

That night we went to a big Tongan feast. It was at a large family run resort on the south of the island (Tongatapu – The big one) in the most picturesque location, the kind of place that makes you want to paint, I wish had gone back there in the day to take it all in: caves, beautiful white sand, trees, like a bounty advert.

At the feast there was a load of different traditional Tongan dishes including raw fish stew and a full roasted pig. The place was amazing, right on the beach (I made the mistake of wearing shoes so I got sand everywhere…some is still in my shoes now!), it had rows of benches, all with banana leaf table cloths and a view of the band.

After the dinner the guy that ran the place (Tonga ran through this guy like words in a stick of rock) beckoned three dignified frail old ladies to come to the stage. They oozed importance, one of them was Lady Tu’imala “The nightingale of Tonga” Kaho (I just looked her up) and she had a jewelled necklace on her that would make a pharaoh jealous… a little Faberge egg of a woman.

After a long introduction (making multiple references to his “beautiful wife”) the old ladies proceeded to rock out; one with a ukulele, the other two were singing, swaying side to side and patting gently on their laps (like they were trying to secretly call a dog across the room without the owner noticing). The whole thing was really sweet. My favourite part though was the tipping system. To show appreciation, instead of just handing some money people would march up, grab one of the nanas by the shirt and proceed to stuff notes into their collar. It was mad! They kept singing although they were (at least it looked like they were) being manhandled, it was so strange. After they had finished, the ladies hung around for a few pictures and then left, probably to go and get another shirt full of cash elsewhere, what legends!

After the nightingale had left we all made our way down into the cave. This was the best part of the night, it was really dark in there, only lit with candles and a few coloured lights. When we were all inside the cave our voices reverberated around the walls, you could feel the excitement. Then silence. The head of the family (the same guy as before) gave a bit of a preamble about his family (“beautiful wife”), Tonga and a little flavour of what we were about to see; then it started. The drums and other instruments sounded amazing in the cave, so loud and intimidating. Then there were some traditional dancers and a few guys in all of the Tongan warrior gear which was cool. The highlight was the end when three lads (one of which was only five years old) did a display with flaming sticks. Drums, fire, food, what more do you want!? The whole night was really good fun.

The next day we went back and explored downtown Nuku’alofa and some more of the markets. The agenda was to pick up some nice colourful clothes ready for our trip to the king’s church the following day. I ended up in full fledged tat mode. Picking up and almost buying every little thing that I laid my hands on. I really like the ornaments (old age setting in) and crafts and stuff, the main reason I think I was so keen was because they weren’t forcing anything on me. I’d pick something up, we’d have a nice chat and then before I knew it I was buying the thing. Sales genius!

The next day was Sunday. Everything closes on a Sunday so the only options were to go to church or go and see another island close by. We decided to do both.

In hope of seeing royalty we got into our Tongan finery and headed for the king’s church in town. I was expecting a really fun, happy clappy sort of vibe, instead however it was a really quiet somber affair. The choir and the band started playing, it was really powerful, instead of joy I got a sense of awe, and fear! The music was really beautiful but it felt ominous. Then the preacher at the front started barking out in Tongan and I immediately felt like I was sat in trouble in front of a head teacher. Thinking back however, royalty was in the building, he was probably just giving it the extra gusto to try and impress them.

We left the church a bit early and head for the wharf. Waiting there was a tiny little boat with “Pangaimotu island” painted on the side. We got in and sat on the edge. Immediately I thought, “ahh here we go, you haven’t taken sea sickness pills so now you are going to be sick in front of all of these people like every other unprepped boatride”. To my very pleasant surprise however the water was as smooth as glass, we glided over to the island with no problem whatsoever.

Close to the shore there was a huge shipwreck, it was rusted and sticking out of the water almost upright like a gammy old wafer in an ice cream. It made me think what it must have been like for people when they were first discovering these islands, this was a relatively new boat and it’d crashed, the old ones probably didn’t stand a chance (what do I know).

The island itself was very beautiful, and small you can do a lap in under an hour (apart from one rocky bit on the back of the island that we couldn’t be bothered with). We were in the middle of our little exploration when in the distance, out toward the international date line (the imaginary line where days begin and end… not a sketchy multinational telephone matchmaking service), there was a huge storm – it looked amazing, and because of where it was, over the date line, it technically lasted over 24 hours… the time zones around this area really confuse me so I’m going to abandon this train of thought.

We enjoyed the rest of our time on the island and then head back, watching some local lads doing backflips and dives from the shipwreck into the sea as we left (back to our place on Tongatapu).

The next day was my last full day, I decided to take a bus from Nuku’alofa to the south of the island to see the blowholes that are just outside of Houma (a small village). This should have been a really straight forward task however I got talking to the old dude next to me and before I knew it I’d missed my stop and the bus had looped all of the way back to more or less where it started.

Second time was a charm, I mentioned what had happened on my previous attempt to the girl next to me and she made a real point to make sure that I made it off at the right place, she also made sure that I was going in the right direction and gave me some “if-you-end-up-in-a-pig-pen-you’ve-gone-too-far” style directions. Above and beyond friendly, I never got to properly thank her because it all happened so quickly, maybe she’all read this some day… Thanks lady.

A short walk later a sporadic noise kept happening in the distance. It sounded like a thousand people blowing jets of air from their nose (we all know what that sounds like), or the sound effect for a dragon breathing fire. I kept going a little further and soon I could see the water spraying up through the blowholes from the sea. Sometimes the fountains of water were absolutely  massive, like a fire-hose being shot vertically. Also, I was expecting just one or two but there were jets all along the coastline, as far as the eye could see in both directions. It was phenomenal and to make it even better there was not a single other person there. I stood for a little while trying to take some pictures with my telephone but nothing will ever capture just how amazing the place was (go!).

The next day it was time to leave and I got a bit down, it was raining as well so I felt really sorry for myself! I still feel sad now, I’ve got the post holiday blues even though I’m sat in Auckland waiting for the next trip to start! It must be because I’ve sat here writing like a madman for hours now… I better go and eat!

To conclude, Tonga really is one of the friendliest and most special places that I have ever been to; everyone that I met was just so nice and I cannot recommend it enough (whether you are a lone traveller, a couple or in a group you’ll have a wonderful time). If you take anything away from this ramble it should be yourself… to Tonga! Go and get amongst the beautiful scenery, the welcoming culture, the smiles and the infectious laughs of what are very aptly named “the friendly isles”.

Happy travels!