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 www.ratebeer.com, 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.

No comments: