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Published: October 4th 2018
A flight East brings us to a new South Pacific archipelago and a new culture. Tonga is very different from Vanuatu.
The plane landed late. Queuing for immigration and baggage we hear gentle Tongan music and it's not recorded, there is a small band playing to greet us, at one o'clock in the morning. The music, and the band’s clothing, make us realise that we have arrived in Polynesia. They all wear the tupendu, a sarong like garment, and they are all big. All Tongan men look as if they play rugby!
Nuku'alofa, on the biggest island Tongatapu, is small and laid back. It's a proper capital with a parliament (just 30 MPs), a palace for the King and so on. It's just not very big and feels gentle and friendly. Nuku'alofa suffered a direct cyclone hit in February 2018, the worst storm here in sixty years. As evidence, there are still houses without roofs, including the house next to ours. In the bay are at least four shipwrecks from that terrible night. The sea view from our Airbnb apartment was actually improved as cyclone Gita broke limbs off a huge old mango tree and felled some coconut palms.
Our second day in Tonga is a Sunday. There are two things to do on Sunday – go to church or go to the beach. We do both. The churches are busy and the singing wonderful, audible from many streets away. The Wesleyans even have a small brass band accompaniment, a bit special. To dress smartly for church, or indeed any other formal occasion, a woven mat is worn over one's other clothing, held on with a rope belt to form a sort of skirt. If one has suffered a bereavement in the last year then the other clothing will be black.
The beach we choose is on the tiny island of Pangaimotu, a short boat ride away. The island is the epitome of a South Seas' desert island with palm trees overhanging the white coral sand beaches.
This is Sunday life on Tonga because working is illegal without a special licence. So every office, shop, cafe and market stall is closed; nearly every restaurant and bar is closed; the airport is closed; there are no buses nor taxis; there are no sporting events. And you are expected to not wash your car, garden, mow your lawn
or drink alcohol in public. This is a devoutly Christian country.
We have a few days out of town on Ha’atafu beach. A traditional wooden falé is one of ten, set amongst coconut palms. The long beach is pure white ... and then we spot humpback whales out to sea, jumping and splashing, giants at play.
There are a few little resorts along the beach and two of them offer “traditional shows”. We walk along the beach to our nearest show; a proper stage and seating for maybe be 150. This is a little baffling as there are so few tourists but it soon becomes clear that these shows are primarily for a local, Tongan, audience: birthdays, anniversaries or just a night out with the girls or family.
The buffet meal is confusing – sweet potato that looks like beetroot; octopus wrapped in a sweet spinach; roast suckling pig. To follow? Watermelon; taro jelly – like ginger Turkish delight; and coconut balls – glutinous on the outside, chewy in the middle.
The show’s dancers are traditionally dressed but the dancing is a bizarre mix - somewhere between traditional war dance and street dance. The audience love
it. Throughout the performance, ladies from the audience walk onto the stage to poke bank notes, tips, into the waistband of their favourite dancers – while they dance!
We need to check our onward flights with RealTonga, the wayward national airline. Ah ha, they tell us, the take-off time has changed. Again! This is the fifth take-off time. Locals warn us, it still may change again! Better check the day before ... though that's no guarantee either!
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