Tonga Trip

tony zwig
Mon 30 Jul 2007 17:16


I was a bit harsh on my first impression of Vava’u.  I think it was “some of tension from the trip”, not totally inaccurate, though.


No question Vava’u is gorgeous; sand beaches; snorklable coral, easy breeze to temper the heat, green low undulating hills.  The people are wonderful In Niafu, everyone you meet eyes with, says hello with a smile.  Sounds like Kipling, London, and turn of the 20th century colonial, but is real.  For me, there is a sense of beauty being lost.  It is an open territory in that, much of the commercial opportunities are not yet staked out; but ohthey are going quickly.  The San Francisco couple that came 2 ½  years ago and stayed and opened the Aquarium internet café, bar, and travel and tour agency etc…. the Canadian couple   who came 3 months ago,  having bought a bar unseen over  the internet, the Aussie s Kiwis,/ South Africans running  dive  shops, marinas, bakery café s  and  Swiss /Italians with their restaurants .


All this has just happened in Niafu in the last 2 years and is happening as the waterfront is becoming spoken for.  Up on the high street, old colonial type establishments, like Edwards; operate a general store, car rental, airline ticket agency, money transfer, UPS outlet.  I don’t know how the Tongans really feel about this.


I’m not sure if I caught a glimpse when early today, really yesterday, because of dateline, I caught my  sandal  on a low step in the main street and fell, flying head over heels as my hip hit the pavement hard.  I was aware of people walking nearby and assumed someone would stop and ask of I was ok , but no one did, and I saw from the ground, people just walking over and around me.  I thought, maybe the thoughts towards we foreigners are not so sunny. After I got up and limped away, several did ask if I was ok.  Another explanation from the crew, was passersby might have thought I was just another falling down drunk.  There is a problem here with falling drunks, but generally on the weekend.


Flying from Vav’u, where babelfish is moored to Tongatapu, where international flights touch down,   I had an amusing   insight into local goings on.  I was having trouble getting a confirmed reservation on the local flight.  I asked the reason, given they only had 12 bookings for the 15 seats.  I was told they  need to balance the weight; if you are too heavy, you might not get to go; if you are too light to balance someone much bigger on the other side, you may be replaced with someone more substantial.  Remember the Tongans can assume considerable displacement.


At the airport, each passenger was weighed, in addition to their bags.  I watched this complicated procedure of distributing different weighted passengers to different seats.  I got on the flight, I think because 2 of the 13 were small kids.


Landing at Tongatapu

The 1 hour flight gave a gorgeous view of the 160 islands that make up Tonga.  We flew   low   and I could clearly see the turquoise water, the beaches, and most importantly, the reefs.  It would be wonderful to sail with this eye in the sky, vantage point.  It also reconfirmed in spades that you must sail these reef s   with the sun at your back. If so, much is visible and possible; if not, you are blind and vulnerable.


As we pulled up to the terminal, I wondered how such a small building would be able to process the 100 plus passengers of the  big Air NZ jet  going to Los Angeles.


My question was quickly answered when I asked for walking directions to Air New Zealand; I was told one can’t.


It is in another terminal on the other side of the runway, a cab ride away.


Upon arrival in Nukualofa, Tongatapu, David the cab driver offered to take me to the town, given I had a 6 hour connection.  My parents raved about the town and mentioned their delight in seeing the King rode his bicycle around for exercise.  As confirmed by a Kiwi woman I met and spoke to for ½ hour; the town seems to have deteriorated.  Last fall there were riots and many commercial building s were burned down.  According to David, the already high 40% unemployment has now soared to 70%.  Things have calmed down and the King (new last year) has promised more democracy.  But as David recounted, the previous King only dealt with affairs of state.  His son, the current king, built himself a new castle on the edge of town and deals in business; he happens to own the local cell phone company; airline; and etc.  He doesn’t take bike rides out among the people.  It seems people yearn for the old king.   The Kingdom is benevolent and paradise may endure if they can keep the tourists coming; it is only 1200 miles from New Zealand.  Many young people leave, never   to return.


I met an American who married a Tongan woman and they live in Vava’u.  He captains ships that service oil rigs around the world; right now in the Gulf of Mexico.   He works a month on and month off.


During my 6 hour sojourn around town, I was admiring a sundial when a woman on the other side asked how it worked.  As we talked, she described her visit, which was attending a conference on the Tongan environment, an interest of hers.  She lamented the deterioration in the last 15 years.  When I described how I came to be there, she said she and   her husband had sailed up from New Zealand many years previously in a 20 ft. boat.   I thought I was brave!  When I mentioned having had to miss   Niue, despite great crew crankiness   S he exclaimed “Bad harbour; no protection, don’t go there”


I reconnected with David at our appointed time for the drive to the international air terminal.  He told me he used to be a fisherman, but it was very hard, and he is content and doing well, owning his cab and home free and clear.  Fuel costs approx $1 CDN/litre but cab rides are very cheap by our standards i.e. Airport to town and back ($20 CDN)


After I checked in, I stopped to watch the activity; the travelers arriving with family, and friends   A midst the banter and jocular kidding and laughing, I detected a persuasive sadness; you saw it more clearly in the eyes if the women, who, while not being seen to tear, would frequently look away from their group; even with the groups of friends of men, the intervals of silence that overcame the talk, when these was nothing left to say, or more properly, nothing anyone wanted to say.  The thing was, these imminent departures were not trips with a short and definite time until the travelers' returns.  In the nature of Tonga and its people and history, these travelers were the young, who were leaving forever.  Even though the voyagers themselves were smiling; they knew they must go; but they seemed to feel the imminent separation.  I felt a strong sadness for these Tonga people, but foreign remittances are the lifelines. 


It all had a “Casablanca” feel, as it was dark when the big New Zealand Air, jet landed with a roar from Auckland.   Despite  repeated   calls  to check  in and  pass  through  passport  control,   most p u t off the  inevitable  until the last minute, and  then made the fevered  good  byes  and  waves. I was struck that no one made us pass by the security screening machine or even bothered to turn it on.  At our first stop, in Samoa  after 1 ½ hours ,  all was clarified as we were  told we were being shuffled off the plane to be screened according to the US requirements before commencing the 9 ½ hour flight to Los Angeles.


The international dateline continues to confound me; how does one do celestial, especially given the dateline jogs around Tonga and so it not always on the same meridian.


I’m still wondering if GPS is affected.


The dateline also   makes for an interesting flight schedule  I left Tonga on a Tuesday at 10 pm and arrived in Samoa on Monday at 11:30 pm  on Monday night (only 1.5 hours later)   After waiting 1 hour  in   Samoa , I left there  on Tuesday at 12:3 0  am, (just after  midnight) to arrive in LA 9 ½ hours later on Tuesday at 2 pm.



So, now having sailed 6,500 miles (Los Angeles – Tahiti – Tonga) out of 8000 to get to New Zealand; what have I done? What have I seen? What have I changed? What has changed me? And, after New Zealand? I have just touched these places, I don’t “know” them, but I have gotten an inkling of what the geography looks like, what the people out here are about.  The lands are beautiful; as beautiful and unchanged as described in the lore of Cook,  Bligh  and  Melville  and  London . The people are as people everywhere. As we are; concerned and carrying about their family; their family's future. Often in Tonga, the initial “ice breaker” question, posed by a Tongan is whether you have a family and what is its composition.  This is a touchstone and point of reference.  I don’t believe you become part of a community, if ever, unless you work or marry   in it.  Ergo, I don’t believe I’m missing much of interpersonal substance with my lightning short stays as I would never get beyond being a tourist even if I stayed longer in each place.   Hawaii was Florida with many Orientals; French Polynesia was beautiful, and as described in the literature, but long ago gripped by French colonial and business interests and staked out for the tourist.  Bora Bora was a transition from the Europe of a Tahiti to the South Pacific. 


Tonga is now “on the radar” and being discovered.  What my interlocutor and parents saw,    seems to be gone.  What I am seeing is another world, but I believe evanescent and will also soon be gone.  While in Vava’u, a 150’ private yacht was anchored in the bay; and by the time of my departure, no one had learned the name of the supposed “rock star” on board.  One resort owner bragged of having a floating studio in a yacht anchored off his docks.  And why not; isn’t visiting different and out of the way places, what rock stars and etc. do?


So, far it has been glimpses of different places at a time, and of course, the sailing and especially, the navigating, has been rewarding and terrific.  I don’t want to “count my chickens ” prematurely, so don’t want to say much at this time, but I feel the start of  a  sense of accomplishment; having got 3 different crews and Babelfish across 6500 miles of open ocean without injury or crippling damage or loss of crew or  yacht.  Current periodicals continue to report many incidents of this.   We handled gale force winds, defective equipment, the one piece of self  inflicted damage (wrapping the prop),   charts that have imprecise or deficient information.   An interesting new challenge is dealing with charts that show specific land forms, but have notationsaying they actually were somewhere other than shown.