It’s taken me a few days to sit down to write. When you realize the end of a life-changing journey has arrived, it’s difficult to digest. The people with whom I’ve shared some of the highest and lowest moments of my young life will be out of the picture in five days. “Temporary” goodbyes become more permanent with each passing day, and promises to stay in touch prove to be nothing more than coping mechanisms to dull the pain of the present fading into the past. This is where I now stand. I am lucky to have spent the past week in the remote South Pacific island of Tonga — one of the few legitimate monarchies that remain standing in this quadrant of the globe. For my own memory, here is a summary of the trip’s events.
When you fly into Tongatapu (the main island that holds the capital of Nuku’alofa) from the south, it looks exactly like a map — every road, lagoon and land mass is visible from the sky. Five of us arrived mid-afternoon on Monday, June 17 and went through customs for an hour before meeting our driver. My initial observations of the country were that it bore a strong resemblance to Cuba, with its palm trees, tropical climate and incredible roadside poverty. We stopped at a market to buy supplies for dinner, which amounted to nothing more than dry pasta and the duty-free alcohol we purchased in Auckland. These markets, better yet convenience stores, litter the main roads of Tongatapu every mile or so and are the only means of supply for the villages. They have no doors or entry points, but require an attendant from behind a chicken-wire window to get you what you need — unfortunately, these places have less than the basic essentials. The majority of the shops are owned and operated by the Chinese, who speak Tongan but no English (very few people in Tonga speak English proficiently). From what I gathered throughout the course of my visit, the locals hate Chinese presence in their country — the culture simply doesn’t translate. Tongans believe that American business and tourism will be a saving grace for their country.
Anyways, we headed to the western edge of the island to our accommodation, the Heilala Holiday Lodge. For three nights, we stayed in these little huts or “fales” that sat two minutes from a private beach. Our first afternoon, we spent a few hours snorkeling. The waves on this side of the island break a good 1000 feet away from the shore, so there is this incredible ecosystem that has developed in and around rocks and underground canyons. Never in my life have I seen such massive starfish the most brilliant shade of blue. Barracudas roam freely, but thankfully we didn’t run into any sharks. We waded in the water for a while, passing rum until we fell asleep on the beach. My second wind kicked in right before dusk and I took a bike ride through the village to the very tip of the peninsula, the Abel Tasman landing point. I felt more connected to Tonga at this time more than any other during our trip. 75 degrees, the breeze whipping my face, I just rode into a fucking village. Families were out chopping up wood to cook their dinners, pigs roamed freely in and out of homes (most of which dont’ have doors but open-air breezeways covered by tapestries) and children played and laughed in the street. No cars ever came — I take that back, one came. A man was taking his daughter to get ice cream at the store, and she stood on the top of his truck as he drove. The friendliness, my god how beautiful the Tongan people are. Everyone stops what they’re doing to smile and wave at you, a stranger of a foreign skin and tongue. This country and its people have yet to be spoiled by tourism and development like neighboring Fiji and Samoa. The village/island way of life is EXACTLY what we spend all of our lives working to achieve — amazing food, family bonds, natural beauty and happiness. It reminds me of that story of the Mexican fisherman who is encouraged by American businessmen to increase his catches so that one day, he might be able to retire and find exactly what he had all along: “Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.” That is life. As far as we have come as a species in terms of development and technological growth, we have moved equally as far in away from our core values and basic needs. Funny how that works.
On Tuesday we woke at the crack of dawn to the sound of stray roosters and dogs fighting outside our hut, but the hangovers quickly put us back in our beds. When we finally got moving, we had an incredible platter of tropical fruit (papaya, coconut, pineapple, watermelon and bananas) for breakfast with lemongrass tea. As soon as you get up in Tonga you have to start stuffing your face or you won’t have time to eat everything. We got a ride into Nuku’alofa from our accommodation and spent the day exploring the city. The town is incredibly small, but I guess it’s a sufficient capital for an island monarchy in the middle of the ocean. We scoped out a few stores — their biggest are full of what we would consider “dollar-store items” — then headed to this barbeque hut that was billowing smoke into the air. Little did we know that our lives would be changed forever. So this joint is called Sabrina’s Chicken. Now, at Sabrina’s they don’t speak English and have like three things on the menu. In the back of this shack, they have huge cookers twirling lamb and chicken over an open flame all day long. For six Tongan dollars (roughly 3.50 USD), we got a feast: absolutely insatiable BBQ’ed chicken and lamb smothered in this Polynesian sauce with green peppers and chilis poured on top of a steaming heap of yuca. We went back to this place four times. I would post a picture but it just doesn’t do it justice and just upsets me. We wore off our meal by walking around town all day, checking out the Royal Palace (where the king is supposed to be living), random monuments and government buildings, a bar where we got the local brew PoPao, the royal tombs (where the last five kings are buried) and the Talamahu Market. This place is a big, open-air facility for locals to come sell their artwork and goods to both tourists and Tongans: wood carvings, paintings on tapa leaves, handmade jewelry using shells, etc. Attached to the “goods” section is a fruit and vegetable market. Just a developing nation market, pretty sweet would visit again. Good place to haggle prices and get a taste for the culture if you’re a fatass and have been sitting on a resort your whole holiday. We ended up at this amazing bakery, where we discovered the hunger we all had for Tongan bread. It’s hard to describe something so simple as this bread, but basically it is really hard on the outside, almost like it’s stale, then extremely warm and nearly doughy internally. There is no such thing as sliced bread here, so we bear-clawed our way through ten loafs during our stay. The banana bread . . . oh man. After about six hours in the city, we headed for the buses — an interesting setup in itself — and headed back to Heilala.
Our third day on the island, we booked a private tour with a 40-year-old local named Vei. In a six-seater van with a sliding door that had to be opened from the outside, the five of us cruised around Tongatapu from sunrise to sunset. The sights themselves are worthy of paragraphs each, but quite frankly this little entry has taken three days so far and I need to start clearing out my apartment to go back to the States. We hit: the Mapu a Vaea blowholes, a landbridge and cliff overhang, a private beach with the purest sand and clearest water imaginable, the ancient royal tombs, the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui trilithon (Stonehenge of the South Pacific), and the Anahulu cave where we spent a good hour cave diving into a pool of freshwater. We literally covered every corner of the island, from the easternmost point to the westernmost, seeing everything in between. The beauty you witness just driving through the countryside — the simplicity of the culture is astounding. Vei, a humble man, was an amazing host. He told us a story that really blew all of our minds. Since the age of 11, his eldest son has been highly praised by international rugby scouts — he was actually offered the opportunity to live and train in New Zealand then. As it would turn out, the principal of the school that his son had been attending for the last five years was not an educator — he was a scout for a Super 15 Rugby squad in New Zealand. According to Vei, the principal came to him after his son’s graduation and told him that he too would be leaving Tonga, as his work there was done (he no longer needed to watch over the “Tongan Torpedo”). Hard to believe this is how it all went down, but hey, we do it in South America for baseball players.
We headed away from Heilala early Thursday morning and lugged all of our things to the docks in Nuku’alofa. I broke a promise I made to myself earlier that semester when we almost died boating in the Bay of Islands and got back onto a skiff headed for Pangaimotu Island, just north of Tongatapu. After fifteen minutes of hell we arrived to island, where we spent the day hiding from the rest of the world. The main sight on Pangaimotu, which takes about an hour to walk entirely around, is a sunken boat about 40 feet from the shore. The pile of rust and decay just melts into the crystal clear water — it’s an incredible view. We lounged around all day, ate some fried fish, had some beers and waded in the water before heading back to town. Our next accommodation picked us up late in the afternoon, and we jetted to the center of the island to the district of Veitongo. Toni’s Beach House was the new joint, a private house in the middle of the jungle with an incredible view of a secluded beach. Only two other couples were staying there, so we got the entire upstairs and balcony to ourselves. We stayed up all night watching the waves crash against the rocks, eating Sabrina’s and listening to Legend.
Our final day was incredible. We did literally nothing. After bustling around the island, taking in the culture and scenery for four days, we finally just sat our asses in the sand and took it all in on a private inlet down a beaten bath from Toni’s. There were quite a few blowholes out in the water, which was too shallow to swim in, so we sat in this geyser-like craters and waited for the waves to crash down on us. A good nap later, we headed to the Oholei resort for a feast and entertainment. Christ was this food amazing. Every Friday the resort hosts a huge feast for TOP 50 a plate, and it is worth every cent. A huge roasted, suckling pig was the centerpiece of the buffet, which also consisted of feke (octopus boiled in coconut milk), sweet potatoes, grilled fish, clams and a whole spread of additional dishes. Coma status after three rounds. After dinner we walked into the neighboring cave for an hour of traditional Tongan dances and fire shows. With the Southern Cross above our heads and the Pacific breeze whipping our faces, we headed back to Toni’s for a final night of relaxation and reflection.
That’s pretty much the end of it. I’m writing this now in California, sitting in my office at work. Maybe one day, when I’m old and my body starts to fail on me, I can move to a small coastal fishing village where I can sleep late, fish a little, play with my kids, take siesta with my wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where I can sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. Or I can just go now.