Five flights. That’s what it took to get there. We could have flown Air New Zealand straight through from San Francisco via Auckland to Tonga and connected to Ha’apai through Tongatapu, but that would have ended up costing $500 more per person. Air Pacific routes through LAX and for that money, we decided to go with the cheaper airline. Five flights. SFO>LAX>Nadi, Fiji>Suva, Fiji,>Tongatapu (overnight)>Ha’apai. On the morning we arrived in Fiji, we took our domestic transfer and then waited for our flight to Tonga. For breakfast I ordered a plate of fruit, hoping for papaya, mangoes, pineapples–I don’t know, something tropical. Instead I received some brown edged apple slices, squishy grapes, and orange segments. After all that traveling, I had started to question why I had gone all this way. Then I glanced outside as the morning light broke. The poor plate of food no longer mattered.
I always tell people, to their raised eyebrows and contorted lips, how I love being on planes. Turbulence doesn’t bother me. Being still doesn’t bother me. I am a restless person who’s addicted to constant motion and the need to take care of things as soon as they arise, but being on a plane soothes me. Perhaps it’s knowing I’m in transit, so being still doesn’t bother me. Although, I have to admit that all those flights–and the time in between waiting for flights–took a toll on me. When we finally arrived in Tonga, my first concern involved finding a shower. After that, we walked to the edge of the lagoon, staring at the murky water swishing over the rock and boulders. Murky water. Brown water. And goosebumps covered my skin. I started to worry I hadn’t brought enough warm things to get through my stay.
The next morning we headed over to Ha’apai, where the owner of Sandy Beach Resort, Jurgen, picked us up. He wanted to stop by town briefly before heading over to Sandy Beach. At the market, his eyes grew wild and huge at the sight of lettuce. ”You can get sick of eating fish real fast,” he exclaims. I look around the market and note to myself to eat all the greens and vegetables put in front of me at dinner.
Tonga’s main sources of income are from government assistance (namely Australia and China, who is trying to establish a presence strategically in the Pacific) and from Tongans abroad sending money home. Often the family at home will use the money to build these suburban style homes, sprawling monstrosities that look like McMansions melting in the heat (I am not a fan of sprawling houses). The jarring juxtaposition of shacks and these huge houses, sometimes adjacent to each other, made this trip slightly different for me. I came looking for paradise, but I found something different. The Tongans seemed to have developed a love/hate relationship with the Chinese. They are grateful that the Chinese have taken an interest in their country, bringing in much needed supplies, opening local shops where people could pick up the essentials like aspirin, pouring money into improving their infrastructure like paving roads and building water catchements, but they are slightly resentful that the money being made from the local shops are not being made by locals.
Of all the Pacific Island Nations, Tonga had never been colonized. They had always remained their own kingdom. Even with the support from Australia and China, Tonga remains on its own. In French Polynesia, where tourism is the primary source of GNP (although their economy is heavily subsidized by the French government), Tonga doesn’t have that. Not many people go to Tonga. In fact, not many people even know where Tonga is. Tongatapu is the hub for tourists visiting and I found everyone I encountered there friendly, kind, and sweet. Most travelers, when they leave the main island, go to Vava’u. We, on the other hand, opted for the less travelled Ha’apai island group.
A while ago, I read Paul Theroux’s “The Happy Isle of Oceania.” He did not paint the people of the Pacific Island Nations in a happy light. I have to admit that I didn’t find myself in a very welcoming group. It was obvious and clear that I am an outsider, not one of them. One afternoon, while Steve napped, I walked past a group of local men to the tip of Foa Island to drift snorkel the current. As I walked past, I received some jeering remarks that culminated in “I love you, American Girl! Let me have a kiss!” I kept my head low, stayed polite, and walked hurriedly back to Sandy Beach. I doubt that I ever was in danger, but I didn’t feel comfortable.
I spoke to some of the other travelers, and a few of them had sticks and rocks thrown at them by the children. I am not sure what to think about this. I don’t write this to discourage anyone from going to Ha’apai as for the most part, the people I encountered were friendly, but this is not like any of the other places in the South Pacific I have been. Being informed and knowing what to expect makes for a safer traveling experience. Again, I want to reiterate–at no time did I feel unsafe. Just as an American, don’t go expecting cheek to cheek smiles and beaming eyes ready to acquiesce and assist you with anything and everything.
Anyway, I didn’t come for a cultural immersion. I hate to say that, but I came specifically for whales and after my experience, I contented myself to stay in the hammock and watch the water–something I never, ever do. Steve recently described me as a hummingbird on speed, a surprisingly apt description. I do not know how to sit still. But here, sitting in the hammock and gazing out at that water–I did it happily.
Okay, so maybe I didn’t do too well with the staying put.
I don’t have any final thoughts on Tonga, even now, almost half a year later. The experience for me was not about the bluest water or the most pristine coral or even the best food, but being somewhere that not a lot people have been to. To get a glimpse of something magnificent like those few seconds looking into the eye of a whale or hearing their songs vibrating the floorboard of the boat, of how the rain felt so good on my salt baked skin, or when I snorkeled at Mushroom Rock during our lunch one afternoon, I turned the corner and saw the most amazing corals I have ever seen. Yes, I panicked on my dive. Yes, I felt uncomfortable at times. Yes, I wish I were eating different food. I wouldn’t trade any of it though for that feeling of knowing even the most remote spot on earth is reachable, but it is still far enough away that it takes time and careful planning to reach. I also learned that I could let go. In the evening, I would float in the water, face to the sky, just taking in the empty stretch of beach, feeling the evening wind come in, and let the water keep me buoyant.
Being still is something difficult for me. And here I am writing about that as I am preparing to leave for Tanzania next week.