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.

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