April 1, 2010. Waking up at 4:30am, with only about four hours of sleep, I was surprisingly energetic. Today, I will be heading off to the Kingdom of Tonga, my first trip to the islands of the South Pacific other than New Zealand. Last night just before bed, I hastily packed four shirts, four pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, jandals, snorkelling gear, guidebooks, toiletries, medicines, a raincoat and some other simple supplies into a small pack I can carry on my back. I got ready very quickly, and as I was just about to walk out the door, I picked up my bag. Immediately, disaster struck! One of the straps snapped right off the bag! I just stared at the bag for about a minute as I was still half asleep, but as I got my wits about me, I rummaged around my closet and found a sewing kit I collected from a hotel stay at some point in the past. Throwing that in my bag, I started off towards the airport bus station to catch the 5am bus.
The walk to the bus station was against like swimming upstream. There were many drunk people walking out of the city centre to turn in for the night. The area in front of Showgirls, a well-known strip club on Custom Street, was especially packed. As I reached Queen Street, I realised that I did not know where the bus station was, so I walked towards the ferry terminal, the supposed terminus of the airport bus. Asking directions from an old man, I found my way. I spent my time waiting for the bus sewing the strap back onto the bag, which proved to be quite successful. I stuffed the sewing kit into the bag, hoping that airport security wouldn't mind. I was still quite half asleep as the bus showed up. I spent the rest of the time watching the drunks walking around outside the station, and said hi to one of the cleaners working the graveyard shift.
The bus to the airport became surprisingly full as we made our way through downtown picking up bleary-eyed passengers heading to the airport. Some of them were young backpackers, some of them were old businessmen. Although it was still dark outside, the inside of the bus was filled with chatter, and we were kept company by a giant stuffed tiger perched inside the front window.
I arrived at the airport one and a half hours before my flight at 7:15am. Check-in was quite smooth, and I was quickly whisked through security in no time. In New Zealand, it isn't even necessary to take off one's shoes to go through airport security, and the atmosphere is much more relaxed. It turns out that I was once again going to quite a familiar gate, gate 68, where I boarded my flight to Hong Kong just three months ago. The first thing I noticed was that, wow, there are so many Tongans around! There were much less tourists than I expected! In fact, I felt kind of intimidated, all these large Tongans wondering what I was doing on a flight to Tonga! After ducking in to the bathroom to brush my teeth and freshen up, I sat down to wait. All of a sudden, I noticed that out of the adjacent gate was another flight, scheduled for the same time as mine, going to Sydney! As boarding for the Sydney flight started, nearly all of the few non-Tongans in the area piled into the Sydney gate, leaving me as one of the very few foreigners still waiting for the Tonga flight! In fact, all through the check-in procedure and while I was waiting at the gate, attendants would ask to make sure I was not going to Sydney, apparently making sure I was catching the right flight as most probably assumed I was flying to Sydney. While waiting, I quite enjoyed listening to people chattering in Tongan, as it sounded so foreign and exotic to me.
When the time came, I boarded the rather empty flight, and had a row all to myself. Since this was Pacific Blue, there wasn't much to do on board and I had to pay for all my beverages, although the fare is quite cheap. I spent the time trying to relax, nap and read my Lonely Planet book for some last-minute studying before arriving in Tonga. Since my plane was arriving at 10:05am, and I had another plane flying out to 'Eua Island at around 4:20pm, I wanted to spend some time exploring close to the airport. I had a plan of walking through Fua'amotu Village to Fua'amotu Beach, only about a three to four kilometre walk from the airport. I was going to find some food in the village then see if I can learn how to ride a horse, as I had read in the guidebooks that it was possible to rent a horse for cheap from owners in nearly any village in Tonga.
Before I knew it, we started our descent into Tonga. It was rather late in the descent when I finally caught a glimpse of land, the first land I had seen in the past three hours, the last time being about ten or fifteen minutes after take-off. This view left me quite excited. I saw below me a tiny flat island of crisp greens and yellows in a sea of varying shades of blue. The island was covered in tens of thousands of palm trees, with small clusters of buildings visible here and there connected by dirt roads. The capital of Nuku'alofa was visible on the other side of the island, along with the lagoons and small islets around it. The sky was blue with puffs of fluffy, cotton-like clouds dotting the sky above the precious terrain. As we flew over the coastline, I could see large waves pounding the reefs below, spurting white foam high into the air. As we descended into the palm trees, I wondered what new experiences I will soon have on this small, remote piece of land in the vast, turbulent ocean.
With a gentle thud, our plane was on the ground of one of the few remaining near-absolute monarchies in the world, although theoretically, this is soon about to change with the upcoming reformed elections taking place in November. This change was spurred by the riots in 2006, which burned down the entire capital of Nuku'alofa, which they are still in the process of rebuilding. Currently, however, the king still holds near-complete control over his kingdom, even though the country is technical a constitutional monarchy. At the time of writing, the reigning monarch of Tonga, King Siaosi (George) Tāufaʻāhau Manumataongo Tuku'aho Tupou V, has the privilege of appointing the country's cabinet, prime minister, and twelve of the thirty seats in parliament, while his relatives in the royal family has the power to appoint an additional nine of those seats, leaving nine parliament seats to be chosen via public elections. In addition, the King also keeps a strict control over media coverage of Tongan politics. It will be very interesting to see what changes will happen to Tonga after the democratic reforms planned for later this year. In a way, it is sad to see the royal family relinquishing their control on one of the last absolute monarchies in the world.
As we descended the stairs from the plane to the tarmac, I was surprised at how humid and hot it was. The airport building was quite small, with an observation deck filled with anxious waving family members and small children running around and climbing on the fences for a better view. There was even a small, what appeared to be hand-painted sign that said "Welcome to the Kingdom of Tonga. Malō e lelei." I went through customs very fast, and was in fact the first person in the "Visitors" line. I realised just then that my original plan of taking a cab then the ferry to 'Eua island would have worked out, but due to reading an article on the Internet about how the Tongan customs can take a long time, I thought it would be safer to take the flight rather than risking missing the 12:30pm ferry from Nuku'alofa. Well, I suppose this just means some extra time to explore the surroundings, although I would miss out on what is supposed to be quite the interesting experience of taking a ferry in Tonga.
As we got off the plane, I chatted to a another visitor. He told me that he was visiting his brother, from Australia, who is living in Tonga for half a year to teach Tongan kids soccer. At the airport, I asked him for suggestions on what to do, which led him to arrange for me a taxi trip to nearby Keleti for 20 Tongan Pa'anga. So much for the carefully laid plans of exploring the area around the airport. Climbing in to the taxi with two of the driver's kids, we set off from the airport into the greenery of the Tongan landscape.