Friday, April 23, 2010

Tonga - Tongatapu - Day 4

After waking up and waiting around for a while, Toni finally returned from a failed pick-up run, where the guests who were supposed to arrive apparently forgot to come to Tongatapu today. This was bad news for Becca and I, who were supposed to go on a tour with them around Tongatapu. Because of this mix-up, the tour is now starting at 10:30am, later than usual, and will cost 60 pa'anga each, as opposed to the 40 pa'anga each if the other two were here. Oh well, we figure that since everything is going to be closed today anyway, and we were both on a limited schedule, we may as well just pay the extra 20 pa'anga and go on the tour. Becca, a Canadian girl who arrived the night before, is leaving Tongatapu soon for one of the outlying islands. Having only two people in the van, it also menat that we'll have plenty of individual time with Toni, and hearing about how much of a character he was, I was both glad and unhappy about this prospect at the same time.

As 10:30 rolled around, we piled in to the van with Toni, and soon, we were off on one of the three roads that goes across the island of Tongatapu, heading east. Driving across the middle of the island on a Sunday morning, we saw many people dressed neatly in flowing skirts and grass wraps, as today is the day of worship. We passed numerous churches of various sizes, the older ones being simple concrete shacks with a stack of bricks holding a metal pipe as a spire. The most extravagant church was a Mormon temple behind a fenced and gated property - it was huge, a luxurious complex with a large gold statue of a man with a horn propped proudly high up on an imposing spire reaching towards the sky from the roof. Apparently, there is a sort of a religious battle going on, with different church denominations dumping huge amounts of money into Tonga to construct bigger and better churches to convert the populace. The Mormons have been doing quite well, and in the area around the temple, they have constructed a school and various other fancy-looking complexes where they offer free services, such as education, in exchange for conversion. It was obvious that the complexes and schools were run by missionaries from overseas who were concerned with converting both the beliefs and practises of the people, as there were signs around the school which announced in large bold letters, "ENGLISH ONLY." One of the more interesting facts about houses of worship in Tonga is that although some denominations worship on a Saturday, such as the Seventh-day Adventists, worshipping on a Saturday is extremely impractical, since it is ingrained in law that Sunday is the day of rest and worship. In these cases, the church recognises the original date line, leaving the church and its followers officially one day behind. While they, like everyone else in Tonga, worship on a Sunday, they believe that it still is Saturday on their day of worship.

Next up was a coconut tree. A three-headed coconut tree. Depending on who you as, the only three-headed coconut tree in the world, or one of a few very rare multi-headed coconut trees in the world. In any case, I was amused that apparently there are so few things to do and see in Tongatapu that this tree is a mentioned in many guide books and websites about Tonga! Even Toni joked that he was upset about people leaving bad reviews for his tour online - one of the reviews said that the highlight of the tour was a coconut tree! Although to be fair, a multi-headed coconut tree is quite rare, indeed!

Beyond the three-headed coconut tree, we came across plantations of various kinds of crops, which Toni explained to us. Apparently he had been involved in helping some of the farmers set up the fields for more commercial crops such as vanilla beans. However, he continuously complained and showed us that much of these crops were ill-maintained. Apparently the native crops are so easy to grow that people just didn't want to work at maintaining the fields for the more commercial, imported crops. For example, apparently cassava can be planted by cutting the stem of the harvested crop into pieces, which is just stuck into the soil. No watering, no weeding, and a few months later, the crop is ready to harvest. Toni estimates that the the locals only work in the fields for about four short work weeks in a year and they have all of their food. Sounds plausible, but he could be exaggerating for effect, of course.

Many of these plots of land were served by what is known as "China Roads" in the area. Apparently, China has been sponsoring the construction of new roads to provide access to these fields. Seeing one of the older roads, a mud track filled with puddles and potholes, one can see why this is an extremely important project. However, the most visible projects in the area were the water pumping and other projects by the Japanese, which always had a giant billboard beside the pump and road with a Japanese flag on it. Apparently, Japan has been spending a lot of money on aid in the Pacific island nations, where it buys most of its votes for legalising whaling in the UN elections.

We also passed some plantations owned by some of the nobles in the area. One of these used to be a coconut plantation, but is now converted into a pasture for cattle, as the uses and value of coconuts have dwindled. The fields were filled with very old (very tall) coconut trees, which were staring to fall over as they reach the end of their life cycle. The ground was covered with unused coconuts which have fallen off of the trees. The cattle, apparently oblivious to the danger of falling coconuts and trees, were happily grazing around all of this debris. We also passed a coffee plantation. Even though this plantation was overgrown by vines, the plants were drooping under the weight of the bright red coffee cherries on the branches. Toni told us how the noble who owned this plot of land was under investigation for the Princess Ashika ferry sinking tragedy last year, and the plot of land had just been left, completely neglected, even as this was the one of the three or four most productive years of the coffee plantation, being about six years old. Toni reflected on how much of a waste this was, as there was much international effort involved in developing this commercial plantation to help the Tongan economy, and just when the fruits of their labour were ripening (literally), the project becomes abandoned due to poor organisation, communication, and accessibility, which seemed to plague most of Tongan society. Well, if people only had to work for four weeks of the year and they had more than enough to eat, I suppose there wouldn't be too much motivation to do anything else other than relax and hang out with friends and family.

We passed quite a few plots of land owned by the royal families. Apparently, much of the land in Tonga is owned by the king and his relatives. I was fascinated hearing about how Tonga is still run as what is effectively a fiefdom. A fiefdom in this modern time and age! Can you imagine that!? Apparently, the land that belongs to the commoners, eight acres per family, is handed down by the father to the eldest son. In general, the amount of land shared among the relatives is enough to feed everyone, but when a family needs more land, a man without direct ownership of a land plot can request an audience with the local noble to ask for land. If he is lucky, his request will be granted, and he will be awarded eight acres of land, portioned off from the vast holdings of the local noble. In fact, the idea of an all-powerful king is still alive and well in Tonga, with the requirement that commoners must clear the roads and stoop in submission whenever the king passes them. The king can still do pretty much anything he wants, from appointing an official court jester (the last king had one of those), to closing down the only international airport in Tonga as his exercise routine involves him riding a bike back and forth along the runway, to making dubious and sometimes awesome fashion choices such as wearing a monocle! How awesome is that!? A monocle!

Soon, we reached the point where the three cross-island roads converged under a giant rain tree. Around here, there were trees filled with flying foxes, which are giant fruit-eating bats, and telephone lines on which giant spiders have built their giant webs across. Driving a bit farther, we reached a church near the end of the road. There was a monument which indicated that this is where Christianity arrived in Tonga, but Toni informed us that the pedestal was moved from down the road and the stone obelisk was moved from closer to the shore. I suppose it didn't really matter to the laid-back Tongans where the monument was. After reaching the western tip of the island, we drove back east along the southern road.

Along the way, we first stopped at a beach near one of the western resorts. Instead of sand, the beach here was made up of many small pieces of coral, many of them quite fresh-looking, with tiny features in the coral rock still clearly visible. Apparently, here was the best snorkelling one could reach from Tongatapu without a boat. I took this opportunity to try out my snorkelling gear, which I bought for the suddenly-cancelled Hawaii trip one and a half years ago. Dunking my head in the almost-warm lagoon, I was shocked to see so many fish! Even near the shore, there were countless schools of colourful fish! There were violet coloured parrot fish, schools of neon-blue fish, eels, and a variety of different tropical ocean life to enjoy. As a storm is brewing on the horizon, the water was a bit murky and quite forcefully sloshing around the coral at the bottom of the lagoon. I watched fish dart around for a while and just drifted around the lagoon a bit. I was surprised by a giant round coral, about as wide as I can stretch my arms and nearly as tall as my hips looming in front of me, which I glided over slowly. As we headed back to the van, it started to rain, and combined with the humidity, Becca and I decided that we were never going to dry off that day.

Next stop was Mapu'a 'a 'Vaca, roughly translated as the chief's whistles. This is a series of blowholes along the southern coast of Tongatapu, west of Keleti Beach. It was apparently quite a popular tourist destination, as there was a parking lot, a hand-painted sign, and a paved area with metal railings serving as an observation deck. I was quite underwhelmed by this attraction, identified as one of the top destinations of Tonga. There were blowholes alright, but they were nothing compared to the blowholes around Keleti Beach. The waves were also quite small around here, although one still could see them crashing into the coast for quite some distance. However, I heard that under the right conditions, due to the amount of water being forced through the small blowholes, the blowholes would whistle, earning them the name as the chief's whistles.

After Mapu'a 'a 'Vaca, we stopped at Keleti Beach Resort for lunch, where the people there recognised me. They thought I had gone away to 'Eua, but I informed them that I had returned from the visit already. After enjoying the view, we drove over what Toni described as "The Alps of Tongatapu," the highest point on the island at around 80 metres above sea level. Here, Toni stopped the van after driving through some grass that went over the roof of our vehicle. Turning down a tiny hidden trail from which we can see giant spiders hanging from the trees, we were treated to a beautiful view of Hufangalupe, a natural arch formed by a collapsed sea cave. The waves were making all kinds of vortices and splashes below. As with many of the land formations in Tonga, there were legends describing its origin as some combination of the god Maui and his spear being thrown or stabbed somewhere in anger. Walking a bit farther down the road through some quite slippery and slimy mud, we arrived on top of the arch, where some tourists, along with an Air Chathams pilot, seems to have plowed their car into a bush and nearly off the arch! The car was tilting precariously close to the hole above the churning sea. I was just glad that they didn't all plunge to their deaths! No wonder Toni had decided to stop the van farther back. From here, we enjoyed a beautiful view of the sea cliffs below us, although the weather was quite crummy and the sky was a dull shade of grey.

The next stop was a drive-by of the king's or queen's old former residence, passing a car on the road with a licence plate that was just the letter 'Q' and a single-digit number following it. Apparently, this was one of the queen's cars. The residence was nothing too spectacular, but considering its age, it would have been quite a structure when it was built. It had the standard royal style of white walls and red, gently sloping, peaked roofs. Following a sloped road down towards the sea, we came across a village graveyard where seaside graves are decorated with old bottles and other colourful bits. Apparently, the decorations of the graves in Tonga are to represent the different levels of the sky and heaven. We were told that the road continues to the royal beach, now handed over to the villagers, who are guarding the entrance and charging visitors for the privilege of visiting a beach which was previously only accessible to nobles. On the way back past the old royal residence, Toni pointed out some goats, which were apparently quite a status symbol. One of the volunteers told me that "in a village, it is better to hit a child than a goat."

Our next stop was the Ha'amonga 'a Maui on the eastern extreme of the island. Just to test the theory that everyone knows each other in Tonga for a final time, I asked Toni if he knew of some ROTC volunteers stations near here, in the village of Niutōua, and he did in fact know that there were some ROTC stationed around here. Ha'amonga 'a Maui, a 12 ton stone trilithon built from coral rock at the beginning of the 13th century, and is supposedly the only trilithon in the South Pacific. It was build from two thick slabs of coral rocks on either side, with notches at the top in which a large stone beam is placed. This trilithon, as with Stonehenge, which it is commonly compared to, also has some astronomical alignment functions, and may have been used as an observatory or calendar. Getting up close to it, I could see many pores in the rock, and some rather sizeable plants were even growing out of some of the holes. The beams were massive. Although I was quite impressed, I didn't have much time to look around as Becca was exhausted and stayed in the car, and even though I heard the waves close by and wanted to investigate, I decided against it.

On the way back, we made a quick stop at the ancient tombs of past Tu'i, or kings from the Lapita culture. These were large tiered structures scattered around the town of Mu'a. Once again, the tiers symbolise the different levels of sky and heaven. On our way back to Toni's, we drove alongside the lagoon for quite a while, and Nuku'alofa was visible in the distance. There were small fishing boats in the area, and many, many trees that were toppled over by the recent cyclone. Apparently, some of these huge trees were as old as 800 years! It was really quite a shame to see such gorgeous trees felled. We saw a frigate bird soaring overhead, an area by the lagoon where it is suspected that people first arrived in Tonga - the starting place of Polynesia, and the supposed landing site of Captain Cook. We saw a few bakeries, open illegally on Sunday, but decided that we didn't want to stop to pick up food.

Once we arrived back at Toni's, we rested a while as we chatted to the other guests and helped them formulate travel plans. I made some more dinner, kumara and corned meat again. Becca decided that the kumara was enough for her after having it for dinner last night. Seeing that there wasn't any food around, I picked up a breadfruit that fell off the tree outside our guest house (one or two fall every day, and they all seem to disappear after an hour or two) and offered it to her. She tried to make kumara and breadfruit fries, which turned out burnt and undercooked respectively. I did get a chance to try some breadfruit earlier, which I found quite delicious and was quite like a spongy potato, except for the amazingly sticky white resin that oozes out when cut open before cooking. At one point, one of the German girls (I forgot her name), showed up with a bag of bananas. Apparently she went to church, was invited home with one of the local families, and she was given a bag of extremely ripe bananas off of the family's tree when she left. These bananas were extremely thin-skinned, and tasted very sweet, with a hint of pineapple. This reminds me - one of the Australian volunteers told me that if you go to church or just walk around on Sunday, you will almost be guaranteed to be invited to a feast at a local family.

Soon, it was kava time. Heading over to the blue house, which was in fact much better than the green house that I was staying in, but 5 pa'anga more a night, we sat as kava was prepared. Although there were a lot of people here to keep up company, only three of us were drinking kava - Dave, Becca, and myself. Kava is the drug of choice in Tonga, with each village having their own "kava kalapu," or kava club, where men socialise over a bowl of kava. Apparently, women are not allowed to drink kava with men at these kava clubs, only to serve them! I heard that going to a kava club was quite an experience, with singing and conversation, but one can get lost quite quickly as everyone happens in Tongan. With that in mind, we decided to drink kava at Toni's in a much more informal environment, and one where females are welcome as well.

As we waited, the kava was prepared in a large red plastic bucket and then strained into the traditional kava bowl, a large round wooden vessel resting on a four sturdy legs. The kava itself was a thin brown muddy-looking liquid and didn't look very appetising. As it turns out, kava is drunk in rounds. As the our host stirs the kava bowl to pick up the small particles at the bottom, he quickly fills a thin bowl made from half of a coconut shell. When passed the bowl, the kava is downed quickly in one go, leaving a small amount at the bottom, which is thrown out along with the hard particles that have settled out. Immediately, my entire mouth, lips, tongue, and throat started going numb after drinking the mild, peppery liquid. This effect, which some describe to be like drinking Novocaine, only became more pronounced and more pleasant over the course of the night, crescendoing to a pleasant numb tingling after a few more drinks. Kava also has a similar effect on the mind as well, and the many, some yet-to-be identified, psychoactive kavalactones lulls the drinkers into a calmer, more focused and more social state of mind. After quite a few drinks, and an order by Toni to stop using more kava as it does cost money for him, we retired to our respective houses. Although I felt like I could just pass out, I stayed up for a while longer to chat with the other guests before I have to leave for home the next day. As I went to sleep listening to the sounds of the fighting dogs outside, I looked forward to the vivid dreams promised to me as a result of drinking kava.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tonga - Nuku'alofa - Day 3

I woke up at 7:30 in the morning. Having a flight out at 9:10am, Taina suggested that we leave at 8:00am. This was a much better time than the ones who took the ferry at 5:00am in the morning. I was awoken when they left at around 4:30, when I refreshed my mosquito coil. We arrived at the airport at around 8:15 or so, where there were many people around, many who have arrived in trucks. The airport did not appear to be open, so I sat down and waited. I tried to take a walk around, but there didn't seem to be anything of interest in the area other than a small "Welcome to 'Eua" sign with a few paragraphs on 'Eua, which I read.

As I waited for my flight, a Tongan woman started talking to me. As it turns out, she was a with a group of Tongans, all dressed in black and wearing the traditional grass wraps. She was going to a funeral, and as she was sick, she was taking the flight instead of the ferry. We talked for a short while as the family was sobbing loudly in the background. Eventually, at around 8:45, a woman showed up, unlocked the tiny room in the airport with a desk and sat down, making busy-sounding phone calls. After a while, she looked up at me and asked me if I was Mark. I said yes, and she busily scrawled out a boarding pass and gave it to me. The woman going to attend the funeral was telling me a story about her family and situation, and I got the feeling she was trying to get me to pay for part of her ticket as someone with the money failed to show up. However, as the person showed up in the last few minutes leading up to the flight, she asked me to take the money to the counter, which I did. The person at the counter looked at me suspiciously and asked me if the woman asked me to do this, to which I said to her it was the woman's money. Since she didn't have the right change, I ended up paying an extra two pa'anga for her, but I figure an extra two pa'anga was probably going to make a bigger difference to her than me.

The plane swooped around and landed at around 9:00am. The pilot got out, along with just two passengers, a palangi couple. After they had a chat with the pilot, I decided to go over and say hi to them. I re-arranged my already checked-in bag that was sitting by me, and went over to the other side of the covered seating area to say hi. By the way, if you haven't figured it out yet, 'Eua airport is now the newest "smallest airport terminal" I ever flew out of. Just as I was about to introduce myself, the guy said "... you look familiar... are you... Mark?" As it turns out, this was the Swedish couple I contacted through Couchsurfing - they told me that they couldn't host me as they will be moving around during my visit. What was even more astonishing was that during the hike, some of the Australian volunteers were talking about a Swedish couple who were doing some research in Tonga and were travelling around - they thought they might even be on their way to visit 'Eua. I didn't pay too much attention to their discussion, as although it crossed my mind that it could be the same Swedish couple, I thought the chances were too remote to really consider it. Who knew that I would bump into them at the tiny 'Eua airport! Once again, the coincidences of people meeting each other are just amazing in Tonga! Although I would have liked to chat for longer, my plane was just about to leave, so after a hasty good-bye, I boarded the plane over the sounds of the sobbing family members growing louder.

After another short flight, I was back in the domestic terminal of Fua'amotu airport, where I started my journey to 'Eua just a day before. As I waited in the luggage pick-up lounge, a small room with a shelf at the bottom of two open holes in the wall, more family members dressed in black and the traditional grass wraps waltzed in, sobbing loudly, to greet the woman who was going to attend the funeral. We greeted each other as she left. As all the bags were taken from the shelf, the man who rolled them up to the window climbed through it and, lying on the shelf, went to sleep.

I was picked up by Peter, who was a very nice fellow and a distinct face as he had what appeared to be two large, messy tumours growing out of his chin. We chatted as we drove to Toni's Guesthouse, where I would be staying in the very reasonably priced 15 pa'anga/night Green House. It was just after 10:00am when I arrived, and seeing that the next 1 pa'anga shuttle into town doesn't leave until 11:00am, I went to grab some Internet, which was surprisingly difficult to access, as the Internet here seemed to fizz out whenever it started raining. At least this is better than 'Eua, where only half the island has internet as it was knocked out during the recent cyclone. I spent the rest of the time unpacking, setting up the mosquito net around my bed, and chatting with Larissa, a Finnish girl who has been here for a while and seems to have run out of things to do.

At 11:00am, Larissa, I, and Kira from Estonia climbed into the van to go to town. On the way, it was decided that we would be dropped off at the weekly flea market taking place by the fish market. Toni was nice enough to act as a guide on our drive through town, pointing out to us various points of interest, such as the first girl's school set up by Queen Salote, the Centenary Chapel, where the royal family attends church, the Tongan parliament buildings, the largest building in Tonga - the five story tall National Reserve Bank of Tonga, holding around 150 million pa'anga of foreign reserves at the time of my visit, enough for six months of imports, and a fountain that was gifted to Tonga, but was knocked off the dais by a drunk driver. Apparently the fountain had never been in operation anyway.

Kira and I walked around the market for a while, as she was looking for a new dress. I bought a coconut to drink - this one was a bit sour and tasted a bit like yoghurt - which I hoped was OK. When I finished the coconut, I bumped into Toni and asked him where I should put the rubbish. Surprisingly, it turns out that there were rubbish bins all around, unlike many other countries I have been to. However, Toni informed me that the coconut isn't rubbish, and proceeded to smash it open on a nearby concrete planter, revealing the soft white insides. We also wandered over to what we thought was the fish market, but it was quite empty and had what appeared to be only a few fish there. As we left, I stopped at a stall to buy some food as I haven't ate for the day yet. I was quite a good deal, 5 pa'anga for a box of grilled chicken and a hot dog on a bed of cassava. Seeing the opportunity, I also asked the vendor to help loosen the flesh inside the coconut I had with me, which took a surprisingly long time, but was completed eventually, with no complaints.

As we walked down the calm northern shore of Tongatapu amongst the street stalls selling root vegetables and some other food, it started to drizzle. We passed many young people, all of them smiling or waving at us with a hearty "Bye!" Along this stretch, we passed the Chinese embassy, which was built for the Taiwanese, but taken over by China as relations between Tonga and China strengthened. We also passed the International Dateline Hotel, a modern-looking imposing hotel in downtown Nuku'alofa. Although it used to be one of the most up-scale accommodations in Tonga, travellers now avoid it due to a rash of problems after some Chinese owners purchased the property. In fact, the Chinese seemed to have taken over most of the shops and businesses in Tonga, to the point that some Tongans I met even told me they though I might have been a shop owner! Although this has been causing a lot of tension between the Chinese community there and the Tongans, as Toni puts it, the only crime the Chinese have committed is working harder than the Tongans.

As we passed the Tongan Development Bank, a one story-building made famous by being depicted on the back of the old 20 pa'anga notes, Talamahu Market came into view. The main market of the town, two stories tall, was both surprisingly filled with activity and empty at the same time. Outside the market were stalls selling root vegetables, lu (the leaves of the taro plant) and clothing. There were a few small store-like stalls along the wall, selling a range of products from tobacco to cold drinks to eggs. Inside the main section of the market were long rows of tables with each producer occupying a section. There was surprisingly low choice in produce, with the main items appearing to be tiny tomatoes, overripe bananas and a few other vegetables. Strangely, every single stalls seem to have placed all of their produce into neat piles - with every single pile costing 3 pa'anga! Whether it's four tomatoes the size of ping-pong balls or a ten-kilo basket of kumalas (sweet potatoes) in a woven straw basket, everything was 3 pa'anga! I bought a pile of strange yellow fruit, which I later identified as yellow passion fruit - they tasted like how artificial air fresheners smell. I also picked up a bunch of bananas - very short and stubby with pink-tinted flesh. There were also large fruit-looking things that looked like a less spiky and larger version of durian or jackfruit, but when I asked how to eat one, the vendor replied "it is not for eating!"

Surrounding the main produce section of the market, along the walls and narrow corridors were women sitting on the floor, pounding out large sheets of tapa cloth, a traditional fabric made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. These large sheets were all over the market, but smaller, painted sheets were as well. In the back of the market and on the second floor, there were a variety of stalls selling handicrafts, kava bowls made of coconut, grass skirts, wraps and decorations, as well as grass bags and some other items, some geared towards locals, some geared towards tourists - of which the only ones we encountered was Eddie, a Finn who I discovered was staying in the same room as I was.

As we walked out of the market, I decided to pick up some kumala, seeing that everything will be closed tomorrow as it will be Sunday. As it turns out, it was impossible to buy a small portion of kumalas. At the vendors, I asked if I could just pay one pa'anga and pick a few kumalas off the top of the giant pile, but was told no. In the end, Kira and I decided to split one of the giant baskets of kumalas for 1.5 pa'anga each, which we carried around town in overfilled plastic bags. Walking back towards the town centre, only one or two blocks wide, we passed the Tongan parliament building, which was only the size of an oversized shack. After making a stop at the ATM, we decided just to take it easy at the popular Friend's Café in the middle of town, as it started to rain quite heavily.

Friends Café gave off quite a strange feel to it. The staff, all dressed in the same flowery shirts served what appeared to be solely a crowd of foreigners in a well-maintained building along with a patio covered by a wood and grass roof. Inside was very fancy, and as Kira put it, you can't tell that you are not in Europe. The prices of the coffees and pastries were also European. Sitting on the patio and watching the run-down cars and stray dogs passing by in the rain outside the iron fence, I felt like I was back in the old British colonial times (from what I can tell from movies as least!). It wasn't surprising that there appeared to be no locals in the café - the price of an item here is about 4 pa'anga, and with the unemployment running into the double digits and the average hourly wage of a worker being around 2 pa'anga an hour, this café would have been quite expensive for the locals.

As we waited for the next shuttle back to Toni's, we bumped into Eddie again. As I sat there, I enjoyed a cup of Tongan coffee, a tasty coconut and chocolate square, and a bottle of Mata Maka, a beer brewed in New Zealand specifically for the Tongan market, the closest I will be able to get to a local beer while in Tonga. I was surprised to find that this beer is apparently so obscure that I could not find it listed on, one of my favourite sites that lists and rates beer from all over the world. After a while, we caught a ride back to Toni's with a quick stop at a local supermarket, where I still could not find any good locally produced foods! I ended up purchasing two cans of what I thought was corned beef from New Zealand. It turns out that they were cans of "corned meat," consisting of beef, mutton and beef hearts. Apparently, many of New Zealand's less desirable cuts of meat, including mutton flaps, are exported in large quantities to Tonga.

That night, I boiled some kumalas for dinner and ate them with a can of corned meat. Many of the kumalas kad worms in them, which took me quite a while to cut out. To a degree, it was fun peeling the kumalas with a knife, as I soon discovered there were three kinds. One was red-skinned and had a yellow-white flesh. Another kind had white skin and yellow-white flesh. My favourite, however, was a white-skinned variety that had purple flesh, the sweetest and most flavourful one. I figured that the purple one must also be healthy, as the purple pigment must be composed of natural anthocyanins, a potent anti-oxidant (although recent studies have shown that these chemicals may not actually be absorbed effectively from foods). Getting into the Tongan sharing spirit, I made some extra for the others. We had our meal as we piled together on the couches in the common room, protected by a mosquito coil, watching Snatch on Larissa's tiny netbook screen. Apparently this had been done in the past few nights, as although there was a DVD player in the room and a bag of DVDs, the only movie that was not scratched to oblivion was Casino Royale, which I saw people watching at least three times in the two nights I stayed at Toni's. Although I was waiting for "kava night" to be set up, which David and I had been looking forward to drinking at together since 'Eua, everyone decided to call it off as they didn't start setting up for it until about 9pm. Well, I hoped that I would bump into David the next day, as I had promised to deliver a message and contact information to David from Sibylla, an Australian volunteer working for the Tongan ministry of tourism that we met while on 'Eua. I went to sleep under the sounds of rain and movies relatively early. The dim lights and lack of activities made it seem much later than it actually is - which I was glad about, as my sleep cycle started to adjust to a more natural setting instead of one influenced by bright artificial lights.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tonga - 'Eua - Day 2

I was quite unhappy about having to wake up early two days in a row while on vacation. Waking up at 6:00am, I quickly gathered my stuff and was out the door and into the taxi, the same one that took us from the airport, by 6:15. We checked in and waited for the flight at the airport, which was delayed, once again, this time due to winds that are too gusty. We passed the time chatting, and helped some other bored passengers straighten the pictures hanging crookedly on the walls. Luckily, the pilot deemed it safe to take off at around 8:00am, so we piled into the full flight. As the lucky man who got the co-pilot's seat got in, the pilot warned him not to bang his knees against the flight controls. After some quick safety instructions and a warning that take-off is going to be loud, we taxied to the runway and took off with no delay. Our aircraft, a Britten-Norman Islander, was quite bumpy in the gusty wind. Although its paint was chipping off, its body had numerous rusty spots, and there were numerous warnings on the control panel for low fuel and for the navigation system being out of date, the upbeat, easy-going British pilot made me feel quite safe.

As we lifted off, we could see 'Eua Island in the distance right away. After all, the seven minute flight across twenty kilometres of ocean is one of the shortest regularly scheduled flights in the world. Before I knew it, we were crossing over the shores of 'Eua Island and lining up with the runway. Even from the air, I could see that the runway at 'Eua Kaufana Airport was in poor shape. The unsealed coral runway looked as if it had many potholes, and parts of it appeared washed out. As we made a final bank towards the runway, the plane shuddered as it got caught in a gust of wind, which definitely caught my attention. I tightened my seatbelt to prepare for a rough landing, which the pilot warned us about before take-off. As it turns out, our pilot also realised that the runway was not in good shape, as he chose to land the aircraft on the strip of grass beside the runway instead. We were quite lucky, and our landing proved to be quite smooth in the co-operating weather conditions.

After a having our luggage wheeled to us on a derelict wood trolley and a phone call, we were on our way to Taina's Place in a van. We stopped briefly on the way at a farm, then on the road, where some people and some kids jumped in. As it turns out, they were all family members who help out around Taina's Place. When I arrived, Taina informed me that she already gave away my bed and that they were all out of rooms for the night. However, she can let me sleep in a bed in the "office" section of the common room for 20 pa'anga, which I gladly agreed to. I relaxed for a bit and chatted with the other Australian volunteers and the Peace Corps volunteer. I also met the guy who's house it was that I stayed in last night. After a while, everyone decided to go on the three hour hiking tour, which me, along with a couple from Hong Kong and an older American man who has travelled to over 150 countries and published a few books, have committed to. As we were waiting for the hike tour to start, the people who came by ferry yesterday said it was quite a trip. Apparently, the two and a half hour ferry ride turned into over five hours as the seas were extremely rough. The boat was tipping from side to side, causing everything on deck to slide from one side of the boat to the other. Even the people who said they have never been motion sick before said they were all throwing up. By the end, everyone was soaked from the rain, and glad to be alive as a few of the large waves they hit made them fear that the boat may capsize. Although I am glad that I traded that for an eight minute flight, I felt that I may have missed out on another adventurous experience and story!

At 10:00am, everyone piled into a few vehicles and we were dropped off at a large grassy field surrounded by trees. Apparently, this was the largest group they had taken for a hiking tour, so we were assigned three guides to keep an eye on us. As we started off into the bush, one of our guides, Taina's daughter, who I believe is also named Taina, pointed out to us some guava trees and picked some for us to eat. As it turns out, these are pretty common, and a few of the travellers, especially David the American travel writer and photographer, ate them throughout the hike.

The first stop was a huge banyan tree. The tree, growing on the side of a wide sinkhole, was enormous! The roots formed a forest of interconnecting branches that one could walk through and explore. We spent some minutes exploring the root system of this tree and taking photos. Most people, including me, have never seen anything like this and were quite amazed. The tree itself it very tall, supporting various ferns and other plants in addition to its own leaves high up in the rainforest canopy.

Trudging through trails serving farmland, with the occasional horses or cows tied to a tree, we came to the next point of interest, Matalanga 'A Maui, also known as the Smoky Cave. Matalanga 'A Maui was a dramatic depression in the earth. Following a steep slope down a bit leads to a sudden vertical drop. Standing on the edge of this drop, none of us could see the bottom. On one side, there was a stream, turning into a waterfall plummeting into the black abyss below. The other walls of the sink hole were covered with ferns and other tropical plants. As the water cascades into the depths, one could also see a white mist gently wafting out of the hole, dissipating near the top. Although it is technically possible to use the vines to climb to the bottom of the hole with some skill, we did not have the time to do so. Taina also told us of a tale of how an American man fell into the hole a few years ago after being lost in the forest with his brother and trying to find their way home in the dark. His brother managed to make it to Taina's Place, where she called for help, but when they found the man who fell down the hole, he was dead.

As we continued on, it became more and more muddy as the rain started up again. We passed through huge patches of mimosa, the plant that folds its leaves when touched. Although it was quite pretty to see, this is in fact an invasive species from South America. Eventually, we entered the main rainforest area of 'Eua National Park, where I immediately slipped and ended up with my right pant leg completely covered in mud. It turned out it didn't matter much anyway, as by the end of the trip, I was fully covered in mud halfway up to my knees, and I had to wash my pants and shoes to make sure they got past Biosecurity New Zealand anyway. This turned out to be quite a gruelling hike. Due to the category four cyclone that passed through Tonga just a week and a half prior, there were numerous downed trees. Finding the path was difficult enough, but now it was compounded by the problem of climbing over and under the numerous tree trunks and branches in the way. What was supposed to be a three hour walk turned into a five to six hour hike. As we gained altitude, we travelled through a variety of different rainforest landscapes. We heard many birds around us, but saw few. We were especially on the lookout for rare parrot that can be found only in the rainforests of 'Eua.

After getting lost a few times and retracing our steps (I can't imagine how we would have found our way without the guides!), we reached a clearing where a wood platform was built. Stepping out onto the platform, we were treated to a view of the rounded and vegetated cliffs of 'Eua island towering over rainforest covered in vines leading up to a beach being pounded by the rough surf. White-tailed tavake birds were gliding amongst the treetops below. Although we were quite high up, we were still not at the tallest point of 'Eua island, Te 'Emoa. From time to time, a break in the forest canopy would allow us to catch glimpses of the cliffs above us leading to the peak. We took this opportunity to take our bags off to cool down in the strong breeze and take a snack. I had grabbed a bunch of bananas hanging in the yard (a large bunch of probably over a hundred bananas cut from one of the numerous banana trees of her property) from Taina's place, and had a few of them. Remembering that I was in Tonga, I offered some to the others, but no one else wanted any. After another short walk, we came to another viewing platform with similar expansive views over the cliffs, rainforests, and the Pacific Ocean.

Continuing onwards, we stopped at Ana Kuma, The Rat's Cave. Once again, it pays to have a guide with you when exploring the rainforests of 'Eua. Ana Kuma was nothing more than just a small hole between some rocks by the base of a tree. However, climbing into it reveals a dark passage filled with some stalactites and stalagmites. Making your way towards the light at the end of the tunnel reveals an expansive view over the forests and coasts of 'Eua. There is a ledge that one could carefully climb down onto, but seeing that we were already well behind schedule, we decided to just get a quick look and continue on. As someone put it, Rat's Cave is probably named that because you feel like a rat when entering and exiting the cave.

After another long hike, we reached a small pool in the forest. The pool is made of a concrete barrier built at the bottom of some small streams and waterfalls. The water was murky, which was undoubtedly due to the recent heavy rains. A traveller who has been here before remarked that last time he was here, the water was perfectly clear, very inviting on a hot and humid day. The area around the pools were also in a terrible state, filled with many fallen and rotting trees, no doubt from the recent cyclone. After sitting for a rest, some people decided to head back, with a few intrepid folks determined to go on to the last point of interest, only a short walk from here. Not much was said about the last point of interest other than we'll like it - in retrospect, perhaps Taina and the other guides could have done a better job of selling the attraction!

After carefully crossing the concrete barrier and walking up some muddy trails strewn with fallen trees, we reached what were were looking for. It was a huge banyan tree. I was wildly impressed with the first banyan tree, but this one was much bigger! Not only that, but it was growing out the side of another sink hole, which was really the entrance to a subterranean cave system. Following a steep path, we descended to the bottom of the sink hole, and climbing through the roots of the tree, we arrived at the cave entrance. It was spectacular! The tree towered above us, visible through large holes in the rock between the rock bridges above. The cave, with large stalactites, stalagmites, and a small river or pool of water was visible, although it was not possible to see too far into the cave, even with a torch. The natural beauty of the place reminded me of the Hometree in the recent hit movie Avatar, and someone even pointed out that the Hometree in Avatar was called Eywa, which sounds just like 'Eua!

Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this place as much as I would have, as I really needed to go to the bathroom. This is the second time this has happened this year - I needed to go to the toilet really badly after a walk longer than five hours - I hope that this is just a phase and doesn't continue to ruin my longer hikes! I was very glad when we started to head back. If I wasn't in such discomfort, I would have climbed up the roots of the tree out of the sink hole as a few others decided to do. Just as I was about to give up and run into the bushes with some toilet paper, which I always carry when travelling, we reached a series of fenced-in fields. After some more walking, a truck suddenly showed up, and following the guides, we jumped in. There were fishing nets in the truck, and the truck stank of old fish. One of the volunteers remarked that they don't know how they do it, but everything seems to just work out in Tonga. After what seemed like a torturous long drive, we finally arrived at Taina's Place, when I dropped off my bag on the patio and went to the bathroom. When I got back, I had a bowl of curry chicken soup and two purple kumalas waiting for me - I didn't see any for anyone else, so I wondered why I was getting this special treatment - probably due to me having to sleep in the lounge that night. Taina also brought in some fresh macadamia nuts, still with the fleshy fruit around it, collected from a tree on her property for everyone to try.

After washing my shoes and pants, I spent the rest of the evening resting and chatting, sometimes just sitting there and letting my mind blank while listening to the wind and the rain. For dinner, there was a miscommunication, as they forgot to make some for me even though I told them I would like them to make me dinner (I think they even told me that they would give me the dinner for free due to me not having a bed in a dorm, but I suppose that might have been an actual misunderstanding). Luckily, they found a bit of extra food for me. David and a Danish guy who told me about the tensions between Tongans and the Chinese in Tonga, donated some of their dinner to me. After the volunteers played some board games and amused themselves with trashy magazines, the lounge cleared out. Positioning the mosquito coils, I went to sleep at just before midnight, wrapping myself up in the blankets to protect myself from the vicious mosquitoes in Tonga. I didn't have too much to worry about for the night, as apparently, only the daytime mosquitoes carry dengue, which supposedly most of the volunteers who have stayed for over a year has contracted at some point.