Published: February 25th 2012January 20th 2012
One of Tonga's many churches
You have to live there to be able to photograph them all.
Secret? Not really. Strange? Yes, decidedly. We visited two of Tonga’s island groups. Tongatapu, which houses the capital, Nuku’alofa, and Ha’apai, a few hundred miles to the north, and decades in the past.
Tapu gives us the word taboo – the only Tongan word to make its way into English. Tonga meanwhile, means south. So Secret South it is. If the Tongans were solely responsible for their tourism, this is perhaps how it would remain. The few elements of tourist infrastructure that we saw tended to be run by foreigners, mainly Europeans. By their own admission, Tongans are not great business people.
They’re not particularly keen on the beach either, meaning on our visits we usually had the sea and sand to ourselves, along with the aquatic life. So untouched are some of the waters, that we saw, within a stride of the shore, snapper jumping out of the water, an eel looking for its dinner and too many crustaceans to count.
When the capital Nuku’alofa comes to life, as it did after the Epiphany, there is a sense that there is one city, at least, that might be going places. In all other places, and at all
Memorial to Cpn Cook's landing
Featuring our camp guide, Moni. Good to see many memorials to this great Yorkshire man, in the South Pacific.
other times, Tonga is happy to relax and let the world outside pass it by.
Tongans’ chief pastime, it seemed to us, is going to church, as early as 5am, any day of the week, with it still being the Christmas season. The sound of church bells, lively brass band and harmonious singing reverberate through every village, no matter how sleepy its initial appearance.
With churches such a focal point in Tongan life, it should come as no surprise to learn that come New Year’s Eve, most Tongans are to be found in their chosen place of worship. And we don’t mean the bar. So, we welcomed in 2012 in the refined surroundings of the Catholic Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua (who else?), followed by a brass band performance outside, and admired further singing at the nearby Church of Tonga.
Much of Tongan life consists of subsistence farming, centred round a small village. Often the villages have as many churches as shops. It’s quite common for a small village to have up to six churches, for each of the denominations in Tonga: Catholic; Wesleyan (Methodist); Mormon; Seventh Day Adventist; Church of Tonga; Free Church of Tonga.
Carved out by the sea. The South side of Tongatapu was an interesting place.
Unlike the churches though, the shops must stay closed on a Sunday, and are almost all run by Chinese. The only explanation we found (which was from a Tongan) was that when a Tongan opened a shop, they felt obliged to share their wares with their family, rather than charge them. Tongans have fairly big families, so the shop almost invariably went bust.
We witnessed much more ancient aspects of Tongan culture in the form of song and dance. The Polynesian connection with New Zealand's Maoris was strongly evident throughout the performance, which we saw in a cave on Tongatapu's east coast. The larger-than-life proprietor willed his performers to even greater heights of acrobatics and fire dancing, while he sang and led the band. He was keen to remind us that his proteges were not proper professionals, only local kids willing to have a go and learn. Let's hope he was paying them for their trouble.
On Tonga’s trees we saw coconuts, mangoes and pineapples aplenty, Tonga having excellent climate and soil for growing food. Much does not make it to the shop or dinner table, however, with many young Tongans choosing to pick New Zealand’s fruit,
with better wages the obvious incentive. So the fruit bats and the numerous untethered pigs devour the mangos, the coconuts lie on the ground, but we did eat a lot of pineapple.
Wondering what palangi means? Stay tuned for the next blog...
There are more photos below