Breezy tropical islands are the stuff of glossy travel agent brochures, portrayed as "paradise", but how carefree and harmonious are the societies that populate them? My visit to the South Pacific island nation of Tonga would illuminate a recent major riot, a stratified society, chronic obesity, immigration rackets and racism. Would I still find charm amidst these challenges, and if so, to what extent would these problems detract from the overall feel of the country?
My trip to Tonga is in part motivated by a desire to see my Japanese friend Tomoe (To-mo-air, ともえ), who is living on the main island of Tongatapu at this time. This article could more descriptively be titled "Taking time out with Tomoe in tropical Tongatapu, Tonga", but then again, I am not in the business of inventing Tongue Twisters.
Tomoe is one of my two excellent former Japanese teachers that drilled important grammar points into my head, during my summer breaks in Miyazaki, Japan. She had subsequently decided to join JICA, the Japan International Co-Operation Agency, and with her eyes focussed Europe-wards, was posted to Tonga.
JICA is involved in various development aims and projects in Tonga, but Tomoe herself is teaching Japanese in Tongan high school. She has been in Tonga for almost all of her 2-year assignment, so it's my last chance to visit while I have an expert tour guide on the ground.
There are direct flights from Australia to Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa, on the main island of Tongatapu. I finish work early in Sydney, and am scheduled to be in Nuku'alofa by the evening.
As I am still healthy, I tend to visit the further reaches of the globe, saving easier, shorter trips for a day when I might be less steady on my pins. This particular trip should be one of the easier ones to make. Unfortunately fate is to prove otherwise. Fate is slightly unfortunate for me, but dramatically more so for the poor passenger on the incoming flight (but same plane) to Sydney, who passes away mid-trip.
The paperwork and other necessary particulars for this incident see us leaving several hours behind schedule. I don't have Tomoe's phone number, and I later find that Nuku'alofa airport isn't keeping the patient throng outside the terminal informed of the delay. Poor Tomoe is there for my mid-evening arrival, which eventually occurs around mid-night!
The local indifference is an immediate and probably appropriate introduction to island life - time doesn't matter too much, and islanders take delays in their stride.
First Morning's Exploration
Tomoe is busy at work the next day, so after a sound sleep I venture out for a stroll around town. In addition to being the capital, Nuku'alofa is also Tonga's biggest town. It has about 24,000 inhabitants out of Tonga's total population of 100,000 or so. With wide roads, open spaces, and light car and foot traffic, Nuku'alofa feels a bit like a laid back Australian country town, and it was unlikely to be busier anywhere else in the country.
I pass a school where the kids are sitting around outside, so I said hello and take some photos. There are plenty of Tongans in Australia, but it amazes me to see how strongly built these boys are at such a young age. One guy, tall and stockily built, but of pure muscle looks about 20, but he informs me that he's just 14. He's all smiles, but I wouldn't want to get involved in a fight with him.
It is a real shock and a shame then to discover (and clearly see!) that the majority of the adult population is not just overweight, but obese. I hear that some locals are known to put a machete into a huge tin of corned beef to open it, and voila - dinner! Diabetes is also a huge problem due to the excessive intake of sugary foods. Walking around the supermarket, most food seems to be processed, and imported from Australia or New Zealand, with tinned corned beef in varying brands and sizes. Without indulging in any fatty and salty preserved meat, I was gladly and willingly able to get my own salt fix via breakfast vegemite on toast, the Australian yeast spread comfortingly also available here.
Fortunately these young students all look pretty healthy. Hopefully targeted foreign aid and government action to address obesity have some lasting impacts.
The girls have their hair in plaits, Pippi Longstocking style. My initial impression is that the common hairstyle is sweet, but it's actually mandatory and symbolic of the uniformity and conformity that schools so love to push.
I say goodbye to the students and continue on towards the centre of town. The Free Tongan Church with its bleakish exterior and red spires provides an easy reference point. Across the road are the Royal Tombs, where Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, the former King of Tonga was buried following his death in 2006, the year prior to my visit. He was on the throne for 41 years.
Looking back, 2006 seems like a major inflection point for the country. Just two months after King Tupou IV's passing, protests in Nuku'alofa at the lack of progress with democratic reforms degenerate into riots. Six people die, and a large part of the central business district is destroyed. The gentle nature of the Tongans that I meet belies this reality. YouTube videos of the widespread looting on 16th November 2006 expose the gleeful faces of those with hands full of stolen goods, looking like all their Christmases have come at once. It's surprising in what is ostensibly a deeply Christian society.
I continue on down the road. A car slowly drifts past, the little boy in the passenger seat points at me, and calls out "palangi", the Tongan word for foreigner, as his driver mum looks, smiles and drives on. I make a stop at the central market to buy a couple of the many woodcarvings on display.
Further on, I come across a group of men and women on a makeshift stage, all wearing traditional skirts over other clothing. They practise traditional dance moves, then begin singing Christian songs. I'm not sure what the occasion is on this ordinary Thursday in October, but Christianity plays a huge part in Tongan society. Tomoe routinely goes to church, so I ask if she is Christian. She explains that she isn't, but that attending makes one more easily accepted in local society. Her landlady positively reinforces this behaviour - she cooks her a nice Sunday meal, but only if she goes to church! The following Sunday, I accompany Tomoe to church. I do my best to stay with her, but it's stifling hot with only some high ceiling fans circulating the still air. Feeling light headed, I leave after one hour, only halfway through the service. Whether it is our collective efforts, or Tomoe's alone, Tomoe's landlady brings out some lovely baked Sunday food for Tomoe and me. Hallelujah!
Continue Reading: Part 2 of 3 link below