Wednesday 11th August
I have promised you for some time a bit of a blog
about Tonga and now I am finally going to have a go:
Tonga is split into three main island groups,
Vava'u in the north, Ha'apai in the centre and Tongatapu to the
south, though there are also some remote islands to the north. The island
groups are arranged in a roughly north south orientation along the 175th
meridian to the west of Greenwich. They have however chosen to swing the
international dateline over to their east to put themselves roughly in the same
time zone as Australia and New Zealand which is entirely sensible as they are
the big economic influence in the area.
Most yachts visit Vava'u only and this is a shame
as the other islands particularly Ha'apai are spectacularly beautiful and
because of their remoteness it is much easier to interact with the local people
and find these remote spots and experiences which many may pass by. Vava'u on
the other hand is very easy sailing whereas Ha'apai in particular is very
When we reached Tonga we felt that we were leaving
polynesia and many aspects of Tongan life and culture started to hint towards
Asia. It is in fact believed that people moved to Tonga in a South easterly
direction from Melenesia some 2900 years ago.
Tonga is known as the "Friendly Islands" yet they
have a history of being warriors and in fact were expansionist for a period
taking over other islands in the area and running raiding parties to Samoa and
Fiji. Our experience of Tongans is that they are very friendly but we are told
on many occassions that when "the boys get fighting" you do not want to be
around them. Rugby is a big part of their sporting life and their character, I
think, is particularly suited to Rugby. Gentlemen off the field - hooligans on
it! Many teenagers we met dream of going to New Zealand or Australia
and playing Rugby there.
The islands are deeply religious with churches
dominating the landscape and life in Tonga. Tongan Free church are the largest
denomination with Methodists, Mormon, Seventh Day Adventists and
Catholic folowing. But there are also many other denominations, it seems to be
ripe territory for churches recruiting congregations and followers and the main
island in particular has many many religious colleges from all denominations.
The mormon set up however has to be seen to be believed. They occupy a huge area
with immaculate buildings on the campus as well as many many bungalows for
accomodating mormon followers who may visit the college and temple each year for
study. These buildings, their security and the fleets of new cars and buildings
in stark contrast to the surroundings and Tongan living accomodation and
standards in general seem to me to be absurd. Many villages also have immaculate
mormon schools where "only English to be spoken" signs are to be
We have not seen any Muslims, Hindu or Jewish
Mosques or temples so it seems the islands are a Christian "stronghold".
Sundays are taken very seriously and it is illegal to operate a business in
Tonga on a Sunday, though a few, generally palangi, have a dispensation.
Tongans do not go out on their boats or fish or any such thing on a Sunday and
it is very easy to offend their traditions and culture if you are anchored near
to a village on a Sunday. So, though we are palangi and it is kind of OK for us,
the order of the day it to be away from people on a Sunday if you are going to
practice any kind of activity. What is very
interesting is that there seems to be no conflict between any of the churches
nor any animosity shown between one denomination and another.
Dress code is also very important. Women
must always have their shoulders covered and clothing, preferably skirts,
must be at least knee length. Swim wear etc is entirely unacceptable and in fact
Tongan women bathe in the sea almost fully clothed. Going topless is an offence
- for men! If you appear on the street with no top on apparently you will be
fined - no doubt women would be jailed!
Interestingly in Tonga also it is good manners to
remove your shoes before entering many buildings. In contract when I did this in
the Virgin Islands the Customs official gave me hell. It's hard to keep up with
the changing cultural practices, but that is why travelling is such an
The strangest thing is that despite this strict
religous observance and rigid dress practices etc Fakaleiti are everywhere. They
are men, but men who behave generally in an extremely feminine and camp manner.
Most are probably homosexual but certainly not all, some are married.
This practice seems to be related to a continuation of an ancient
polynesian tradition we have witnessed in other pacific islands where the
last male in a family is raised as a girl. We met many of them in French
Polynesia. In Tonga however they seem to be a great source of amusement to
other Tongans and the Fakaleiti get away with outrageous behaviour, including
sexual behaviour, forbidden to other Tongans! When we went dancing in Lifuka one
night we were highly entertained by the Fakaleiti who accompanied us to the
dance along with the rest of our motley crew!
For the first time on our travels we also note that
many of the men wear a wrap around skirt known as tupenu. It is often also worn
in accompanyment with a woven mat wrapped around the waist and tied often with
natural rope, called a ta'ovala. This is worn to signify that you are in
mourning over the loss of a loved one and is worn for sometimes up to one year,
therfor sometimes it seems as if almost everyone is wearing one. Women wear
something similar called a kiekie. Government workers also wear a similar wrap
around at the waist as do students, whose are brightly coloured and very very
Another interesting observation is how Tongan
burials and graves are carried out and kept. Graves are dug then lined with
concrete and the body placed in the grave in a coffin. The grave is then filled
with a very large amount of coral sand and gravel to form a large loose mound on
top of the grave. This then is highly decorated. Some have what we would
recognise as a grave stone many others have a large framework behind the
grave with a large and colourfully decorated tapestry framed. The grave itself
is covered in bright plastic flowers, plants, shrubs and other kinds of
decoration. Many also have lots of small solar power lights on the gravel
pile. Cemetries are therefor very colourful places day and
On the negative side, we were taken aback by the
dirt and squalour many people are prepared to live in when it is just not
neccessary. We found Tonga in general very dirty and was a real contrast after
French Polynesia. Litter is strewn everywhere. The country is clearly very poor
and in many of the villages we felt we really were in the third world.
Tongans eat a lot of starchy carbohydrate and
tapioca, yam, taro and sweet potato are just a few of the vegtables they eat.
They also eat a lot of pork and pigs are everywhere. They will roast one at the
drop of a hat, and the roasted pig generally forms the centre peeice of a Tongan
feast. For some reason also Tonga must be the corned beef capital of the world
and sometimes it seems that every little shop exists on selling corned beef.
They are generally very big people - not so much obese, but just very big
It is however one more of the wonderful places we
have visted and as always the things that make that visit extra special are the
people. We really did find Tonga the friendly isles and while we are sad to
leave we are also looking forward to Fiji next.