Friday, April 9, 2010

Tonga - Nuku'alofa - Day 1

As we pulled in to the domestic terminal of Fua'amotu International Airport at around 2:30pm, it started raining hard. The domestic terminal, for some reason, is separated from the international terminal by not too far, but due to the way the fences are placed, it would be a surprisingly long transfer between the terminals. As it turns out, the domestic terminal was surprisingly busy. This would be the smallest airport terminal I have ever flown out of. The airport is nothing more than a small concrete building with some benches outside. The inside is a hall with some additional seats. There is a small information booth, which I would never see open during my trip in Tonga. There is a small café serving coffee and sandwiches in the corner, by the doors marked "Arrivals" and "Departures." Two more doors lead to small bathrooms. The hall was pretty simple, adorned with a few pictures hanging on the otherwise empty walls. The most important part however, was a small desk, wide enough to fit two people, beside a simple printed sign that said "Chathams Pacific. The Friendly Islands Airline." There was also a scale beside the desk, which I took to mean that it was the check-in counter. Behind the desks were two windows to the outside, filled with the passengers' luggage. On the other side of the desk was a small whiteboard, with a list of flights for the day scrawled across it. It was quite uncomfortable inside as it was crowded, dim, and humid. Although the crowd was mostly Tongans, some wearing bulky-looking traditional grass skirts and wraps, there were a few palangi, or Caucasians, hanging around.

I went up to the check-in desk, hoping that I could drop my bag off before taking a quick walk to Fua'amotu village and the beach. However, the check-in clerk told me to come back at 3:30pm, as they were busy clearing everyone for a flight to Vava'u. I sat outside, waiting for the rain to at least slow down before attempting to go for a walk. As the rain lightened, I decided to try to visit Fua'amotu village, which we drove through on the way to the airport, only about a fifteen minutes walk away. I put on my raincoat and was disappointed to find that I would not zip it up with my bag inside. Well, no matter, the rain was much lighter now, and the only important things to keep dry are my bag and camera. So, I bravely went out into the rain. As soon as I reached the first houses near the airport, I realised that I was getting quite soaked and uncomfortable, so I decided to turn back. As I got back to the airport, everyone was looking at me and probably wondering where this foreigner came from, all soaked from the rain. I sat down and decided just to wait for my plane, seeing that there was only about an hour left before the flight. As I waited, the airport became rather empty after all the passengers for Vava'u boarded a rather antique-looking Convair double propeller plane designed in the 1940s. Many of the drivers and family members of the passengers asked me if I was on the flight - it was good to see that there are still areas of the world where people are still looking out for others.

At around 3:40pm, I decided to go check in. The check-in clerk suggested I check my bag in as there is not much space on board, so I dropped off my bag and went to wait for the flight. The clerk gave me my boarding pass, a slip of printed paper template on which she scribbled my name, flight number, seat number, and boarding time. At this time, there were only a few other passengers around, as the flight to 'Eua may have been the last flight of the day, and the plane only holds up to nine passengers, if one of them sits in the co-pilot seat. Seeing one palangi girl in the waiting room, I decided to introduce myself and have a chat with her. It turns out that Marian (or Mary-Anne, or some such name), is an Australian volunteer on a one-year assignment to Vava'u, helping the area's arts and crafts shops develop their appeal to tourists. She was on her way to meet a group of Australian volunteers and one Peace Corps, who were all taking a short break to visit 'Eua, all staying at Taina's Place, the same guest house I was staying at! She told me all about how everyone knows everyone else in Tonga, especially the foreigners since there are so few of them around. I had heard about this phenomenon, colloquially known as "coconut wireless," with which everyone in Tonga seems to know a surprising amount about everyone else, where they are, and what they are doing.

As we were chatting away, a birthday cake materialised and went into the office, were we heard the staff singing happy birthday. We, and some of the other very few passengers waiting around joined in the applause and cheering afterwards. Soon, the woman whose birthday it was appeared, walked around the terminal with cake and offered a slice to everyone. So everyone in the terminal had cake. Apparently this is a very Tongan thing to do, to share food with everyone if feasible. Although I have been in other cultures where offering food is the norm, this is the first time I have been in a culture where when food is offered to strangers, it is not expected to be automatically refused! I didn't know this at first, and as I was the first one being offered cake, I said no. I ended up sharing the slice that Marian got.

As it got close to boarding time, the airport attendant made an announcement. In such a small airport, it turns out an announcement is made just by the person walking to the middle of the room and talking. Since there was only about five or six passengers around, it felt like she was walking directly to us, even when she prefaces all announcements with "attention all passengers for the flight to 'Eua." As it turns out, the rain was too heavy for the tiny plane to take off, so the flight has been delayed to wait out the rain. For the next two hours, the plane became more and more delayed as the rain would not relent. We watched the pilot walking in and out, and carefully monitored his expression as he reported his finding to the front desk. When he walked into the airport with his bag, we knew that there would be bad news. At around 5:30pm, it was regretfully announced to us that the plane has been cancelled, and re-scheduled for the next day at 7:30am. Much like the other passengers, I wasn't too worried or shocked. I've already heard that when in Tonga, it's going to be hard sticking to any kind of a schedule because no one is ever in a hurry. If things change, things change. In fact, one of the other travellers I met told me that the activity he has spend doing the most of in Tonga is waiting.

Although I was thinking of going to Toni's Gueshouse, where I booked my last two nights on Tongatapu, Marian invited me to stay with her at a friend's place. After a phone call, it was all confirmed and we were on a taxi headed to Vaha'akolo, with directions given to the taxi driver using the names of the house owners - since, once again, everyone in Tonga apparently knows everyone else. I enjoyed the ride into town. Just like the other taxi, this van had strands of fake flowers decorating the car near the dashboard. Passing by an new gated multi-story hotel near the airport, the road winds through many small villages filled with people walking around the muddy roads. It seems that any store in a village becomes a popular hangout spot for the locals. Along the way, we passed many sights such as the king's residence, a modern-looking villa set far back from the road among the fields with a gated entrance and a manned guard post. We also passed a few schools and universities. Since it was Thursday at around 5:30pm, school was just going out for the weekend, and we saw the students heading home. The students from one particularly prestigious school were wearing their school uniforms, white clothes and a woven grass wrap around their waist. Shoes appeared to be optional, and they appeared to be optional in most other facets of Tongan life as well. I was kind of surprised at what people walked around on all day without shoes though, the roads were generally gravel or dirt, with numerous sharp coral rocks strewn about.

As the rain stopped (what terrible timing!) to a mix of international pop and Tongan music on the radio, we turned down a tiny road. At the end was the house we would be staying in. The neighbours were out in their yard, and a little kid came over to whisk away the puppy that wandered over to see what the action was. Marian told me that pets weren't treated with respect in Tonga at all, and as I observed, they seemed unwelcome in more situations. Marian told me that the puppy was actually the only one that was still alive out of five puppies that they kept from the last litter, with the rest being killed by other dogs, run over by cars, or having some other tragedy happen to them. She even told me a story about how one of the Australian volunteers was offered a dog to eat as a gift from a neighbour when he arrived in Tonga, because the dog was being naughty.

Stepping out the the car, I saw the Australian guys I met at the airport just getting into another car! As it turns out, they were friends and they were just heading off after a visit! Not only that, but this was just the beginning of a long series of such coincidences and similar experiences, which turned out to be one of the main reasons I loved my visit to Tonga so much. After dropping off our stuff in the surprisingly modern and spacious house, contrary from what the house looked like from outside, Marian and I went for a walk around town. Cathy, a German-Australian, had a call from her dad so she decided to join us later on.

Our route took up to the waterfront and into town from the west. As we passed a few stores, I popped in to see if I could find any Tongan foods or drinks to try, without any luck. Well, I say "pop in" in the loosest of terms. As it turns out, many stores in Tonga are shacks with a long window made up of metal bars through which you tell the attendant what you want. We passed by a few official-looking houses on fenced and guarded properties. We also passed a few Western-looking hotels, the only one that looked clean and tidy being the hotel and restaurant complex Little Italy, which with rooms starting at 230 pa'anga per night, is apparently quite a popular destination for more up-scale palangi visiting Tonga. Eventually, we made it to the Royal Palace, a stately-looking wood structure built in 1867. The palace is very well maintained, with a fresh-looking coat of red paint on the roofs and whitewashed walls. The complex is surrounded by an old one metre tall sacred stone wall, which has been extended upwards using a combination of chain-link and barbed wire, which is starting to fall off. The entrances are guarded by red iron gates displaying the Tongan coat of arms. Sadly, the palace no longer appears to be in use, as the new king prefers to live in his modern mansion, the one we passed on our way from the airport. However, the palace does serve as a powerful symbol, occupying some prime space in downtown Nuku'alofa along the waterfront.

As we reached the tiny town centre, we got a call from Cathy. Apparently some of their friends are having dinner in town, so we decided to join. Walking up Taufa'ahau Road, Marian waved to a few people she knew, some of whom she met in Vava'u. I asked her if she happened to know the family of a Tongan Canadian I met at one of the Couchsurfing meetings in Auckland, and after a bit of thinking, she said that she did in fact know a Tongan Canadian family living just out of town near a hospital. Following this line of questioning, I asked her if she knew any of the Couchsurfers I contacted before my trip here. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember all of their names, but we decided that she must know the Peace Corps volunteer on 'Eua, as she did know a few Peace Corps who are stationed there.

Eventually, Cathy met up with us on her bicycle. As we walked up the street, we passed the royal tombs, consisting of a few decorated and raised platforms in an otherwise large empty grassy lot. We passed numerous churches and cathedrals, the two most impressive ones being the round Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua, rising to a dramatic peak, and the large, Gothic-looking Free Church of Tonga. All the churches were full tonight, as there were going to be all-night services leading up to Good Friday. Ever since the introduction of Christianity in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Tonga has become overwhelmingly devoted to Christianity.

We ate at JJ's Indian restaurant, newly remodelled - it was now a "pretty fancy" place, with a counter to order from and some plastic tables and chairs in a lounge surrounded by large windows and curtains. We sat for a long time while the old friends chatted and caught up with each other's lives. After dinner, we went for a quick drink. I was disappointed to find that there are no longer any beers brewed in Tonga. Ikale, the only beer brewed in Tonga, was discontinued only months before. Tonight, this bar had more bouncers and security guards than customers. After the beer, Marian and I were both ready to pass out as we both had to wake up early today to catch flights. As we waited for the cab we called to pick us up, we compared numbers in Tongan and Maori, which turned out to be very similar. In fact, I could even understand simple numbers when I hear them in Tonga speech!

The drive back through dimly-lit, palm-tree surrounded, heavily pot-holed roads was slow. Once in a while, we would pass a church, with their lit crosses becoming beacons of light, and were filled with people for the all-night services. As I got back, I was happy to find that their house had hot water for a shower, and after a shower under a trickle of water, I fell asleep on the couches to the sounds of the rain, dogs fighting in the streets, chickens crowing in the yard and pigs squealing.

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