Vava'u, Tonga - A very interesting cultural experience!

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Oceania » Tonga » Vava'u
April 18th 2019
Published: May 25th 2019
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Our next destination, Neiafu on the island of Vava’u was still within the Kingdom of Tonga. This island lies only 162 nautical miles north of Nuku’Alofa. To get there we crossed the second deepest section of the Pacific Ocean after the Mariana Trench. Known as The Tonga Trench, it averages a depth of 6,900 metres with the deepest part, the Horizon Deep, almost double the average at just over 10km to the seabed.

The smaller Holland America ships are trying to steer away from traditional on-board entertainment and are now being marketed as an innovative approach to cruising for travellers who are looking for thoughtful and immersive ways to see the world. The ‘seeing’ bit was provided by the nine Zodiacs that the Maasdam carries. In selective areas, the Zodiacs are launched and, for a price of course, passengers are accompanied by an expert to areas other excursions cannot reach!!The ‘thoughtful’ bit was provided by a series of enrichment lectures known collectively as EXC in-depth exploration. These were provided by experts and local scholars and included such themes as: photography; science and nature; arts and culture; food, wine and spirits and history (great topics for trivia, me thought!!), the idea being that there is something for everyone. The first few lectures covered the history of French Polynesia and archaeology in French Polynesia. There was also a photo workshop on composition and a Tahitian dance class. These topics are what I would expect but after a few days I felt the lectures started to become a little niche if not surreal. For example: Barkcloth, Tapa & Weaving of Tonga and Western Polynesia. Barkcloth? When you’ve got to start Googling words in the title of a seminar you know it’s not probably going to be for you. Then there was the talk on Quilts of Polynesia: Join Hilary Scothorn for an exploration of Polynesian quilts. Much as I’d like to enrich my in-depth exploration these early evening lectures clashed with the Ukulele singalong!!!

Although these enrichment lectures were the prime source of entertainment, there were some variety acts on the main stage. On the second evening at sea, a multi-instrumentalist, who had reached the final of the TV show Poland’s Got Talent, tried to impress us by opening his act with a plink plonk on the vibraphone. We were definitely witnessing an accomplished musician. He just wasn’t accomplished in choosing a repertoire that everyone wanted to hear!! This was demonstrated when, in the middle of his act he turned his talent to the piano and proceeded to recite fifteen minutes of obscure Chopin piano sonatas. Having visited Poland many times I’m very familiar with Chopin. In my opinion, even his more famous work is drab, an instant cure for insomniacs!! I should have asked if Hilary Scothorn had any spare quilts from her seminar!! There were only about sixty people in the theatre at the start of his performance and considerably less by the end. Thank God for David Copperfield. This multi-talented performer, now 72, used to be in a British comedy show alongside Tracey Ullman and Lenny Henry. He told us later that he has now retired from show business. He said a couple of weeks on a cruise ship several times a year, only having to perform two shows AND get paid for the privilege is not really work!! His madcap antics had gawfaws of laughter coming from passengers from both sides of the Atlantic (and some Aussies as well). No-one was safe. At one point he ran up the side stairs to the balcony to embarrass some poor folk who, at that distance from the stage, didn’t think they would ever become part of the entertainment!! He even managed to weave some Pavarotti in to his act. His rendition of Nessan Dorma was so moving that someone in the audience actually challenged him that he was only lip syncing. David Copperfield, although visibly ‘pissed off’ managed to turn this to his advantage, climbed off the stage, ran up to the disbeliever and sang a few verses of the Turnendot favourite an inch from his face with the passion and bravado of a professional tenor. After belting out a few verses, and to the immense pleasure and enjoyment of the rest of the crowd, he said in a very calm and collected voice to the shocked and rather red-faced passenger, ‘Do you still think I’m miming?’

The following morning. Bing bong. This woke Roisin and I up with a start. A 7am announcement from K K, the Cruise Director: ‘A very good morning everyone, the time is now a few minutes past 7am, immigration has just boarded and we are waiting for clearance’, Just because she can’t sleep it doesn’t mean she has to disturb others. It’s not important that we know Immigration has boarded. Get back to us when there is something useful and interesting to say that affects us all!! It wasn’t long before there was!! K K continued: ‘We where scheduled to depart from Vava’u at 15:30. This has now been extended until 19:00. Captain Whittaker will make a further announcement at 08:30’ What’s that all about? Why do we have to wait another 1 ½ hours before the main man explains what’s going on? Is that because he doesn’t start work before then? This can’t be good news. It never is when the Captain schedules an announcement. Deep down we both had a sinking feeling in our stomachs like when the reality of a rotten situation strikes home. We checked the weather ahead. There were no adverse weather fronts developing. What was the reason why we feared the worst, probably more than most on the ship? Our next port of call; the reason why we took this voyage; the place top of our bucket list since the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002, was Alofi, Niue…

…Sure enough, the Captain made his announcement at exactly 08:30 and sure enough our visit to Niue had been cancelled, not to high winds, not to strong currents but to a supply ship arriving two days early and, whilst there is no dock to speak of, the jetty on the island had been taken over with the offloading of the cargo. The captain emphasised that supply ships took precedent over cruise ships. I could accept if the weather conditions were responsible, I could even accept this if the supply ship had arrived on its due day which happened to clash with our date (although it would have been poor planning by the Niue Port Authority) but for a supply ship to have arrived two days early!! It’s not as if the island had run out of Pringles, M & Ms or beer!! We can’t understand why the supply ship didn’t anchor offshore for eight hours to let the Maasdam and its passenger bring some much needed tourism to the area. I’m sure the small delay (well it’s not even a delay as they were early!!) wouldn’t have made much difference to the world economy!!

09:15. It was now time to meet up for our one and only official excursion during this trip. A cultural extravaganza on a beach where we would be treated to local dancing, weaving and culinary demonstrations and a kava ceremony. It was another overcast but very humid day with a threat of showers.

We made our way to the ship’s main theatre where we were given a sticker with a number. It wasn’t long before our number was called out and we were led off the ship, on to a waiting tender. The trip to the quay side took 15 minutes. The water was choppy which led to a bumpy ride to the discomfort of Roisin. As the small tender slowed to come alongside the quay, Roisin’s grip on my arm tightened as the vessel was tossed around. We were led through the quay gates, passed a brass band welcoming us ashore with a variety of famous melodies, to our awaiting transport. I say transport. Our vehicle was a 14-seater minibus with little suspension, broken seat beats and ripped upholstery. Not the first impression I was expecting, even from a remote South Pacific Island. There were three buses that were allocated to our particular excursion although only two had turned up. Nobody was going anywhere until that third bus turned up. He’s on his way, we were told. Ten minutes, we were told. Thirty minutes later we were still waiting on this, rather grubby excuse for a bus. Due to the lack of air conditioning and the ever-increasing humidity, a few of our compatriots were starting to voice their displeasure of the situation. Finally, the tour supervisor made the decision for the two buses to go on ahead. The missing bus would soon catch up. Our guide boarded and we were off.

The guide was very young, perhaps late teens/early twenties. I refer to her as ‘the guide’ as we never even learned her name! It was very evident that this was her first time, which she confirmed at the beginning of the thirty-minute journey to our rendezvous point. All guides we have encountered from Malta to Mongolia, Beijing to Brussels, have spoken impeccable English, a requirement for the job, one would think!! Her command of English was far from fluent. She was a woman of few words. (probably because she only knew a few words!!) One of the passengers asked a reasonable question. ‘How large is the island?’ Another asked, ‘What is the population of Vava’u?’ These are questions even the poorest travel guides should have had the information for. Her response was to laugh rather sheepishly and then admit she didn’t know. The rest of the journey was suffered in silence, mainly due to the dodgy suspension and lack of tarmac on the main roads!! The bus veered off the main road to a single pot holed track with vegetation and undergrowth within touching distance from either side of the bus. Shortly before arriving at the beach our guide suddenly turned to the group and said: ‘We’re nearly there’!!

The track opened up in to a grassy clearing. Thirty-foot palm trees fanned out creating a natural border between the grassland and the beach which consisted of a two hundred metre thin strip of sand. The water was abundant in seaweed giving the wet sand a dirty look and feel as the tide ebbed. Several small rusting boats littered the beach with a further ‘tub’ anchored a short distance from the shore line. Despite the best efforts of the palm trees this looked like anything but the idyllic location associated with the South Pacific Islands.

We were greeted by a lady who was obviously in charge of proceedings, and shown to rows of benches under a makeshift gazebo. Once all assembled, she explained the programme of events.

For thousands of years, Tongans have been making handicrafts that are still a large part of their culture, and in many islands, this is still a major source of income. Mat weaving is one of the ancient Tongan handicrafts. Today’s demonstration was how to prepare and make tapas. I was already rummaging for my trusty spork, last seen in Beijing, when I was informed that Tongan tapas is a type of Barkcloth that can be woven in to mats. (now if I had gone to the seminar…!!) The mats are used for a variety of purposes. Woven mats are commonly used for bedding and flooring. They are also presented at special occasions such as births, deaths, and weddings. Mats are often passed down from generation to generation and historically, they were a symbol of social status. In death, Tongans are wrapped in mats as a sign of respect.

A ground sheet was laid and a rather rotund middle-aged
Vava'u - The three tour guides 'hanging out'Vava'u - The three tour guides 'hanging out'Vava'u - The three tour guides 'hanging out'

When shall we three meet again In thunder, lightning, or in rain? Err..,nah, your OK. Just Facetime me!!
lady appeared from behind a tree carrying a long stick! She sat cross legged behind a small log and started to strip the bark from the stick. Remarkably, after a few well placed incisions in to the stick, she managed to strip the bark in one movement. Next, she took a blunt instrument and, placing it on the log, started to pummel the bark with a blunt instrument known as an ike. The stick was actually a branch from the mulberry trees. The trees are grown on plantations and in people’s back yards. As the lady was working the bark, a commentary was provided to explain every stage of the process. We were shown how when the layer is thin and if a larger tapa is desired, multiple pieces can be pounded together using tapioca as a glue to bond them. A typical tapa usually consists of two layers to increase the thickness. Once the cloth is flattened and dried then the design can be painted on it. As time was pressing on, two assistants entered the stage and unrolled a finished tapa in a Blue Peter ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier’ moment!! Towards the end of this demonstration, our third tour bus finally arrived. Once they had gathered around, the commentator decided to quickly run through the process once more for those who had missed it.

It was now time for the Kava ceremony. Kava is a drink made from the root of the piper methysticium plant indigenous to these islands. The word ‘kava’ means ‘bitter’ in Polynesian.

Another groundsheet was laid and the Apa’apa (Master of Ceremonies) appeared flanked by two young assistants, still, by the look of it, in their school uniform!! All three took up the Fakata’ane position on the ground. This is the ceremonial sitting position; knees widely extended, flat on the ground with the feet folded beneath legs and the body inclined forward. The two assistants poured ceremonial water in to the ceremonial kava bowl from a much smaller bowl. The apa’apa then stood and taking the root, held it up showing the onlooking audience before dunking it in the water several times before dropping it in to let the root soak. He then turned to his assistants, fished out the kava root before squeezing the sodden mess back in to the large kava bowl. The kava was now ready. Imbibing Kava numbs the lips and tongue. It also makes you feel very relaxed. A portion of the liquid was scooped up in to a small ceremonial bowl and passed to two other volunteer schoolkids sitting opposite. I have witnessed a kava ceremony once before in Samoa but never got to experience this intriguing concoction. The bowl was not passed amongst the audience. The wait continues!!

Everyone clapped. Music started up from a cassette player and makeshift public address system. Three young girls and two young boys started with a traditional Tongan dance and for one moment they were almost in time with each other!! They were not, however, in the traditional colourful costumes I had envisaged. It seemed like someone had given the girls a prop to wrap around for a little more authenticity. The boys were wearing grass skirts over their school uniform that looked as if they had been made, late last night using strips of green crepe paper.

The next dance we were subject to was a coconut shell dance. This was a female only dance. The girls faced front holding half a coconut shell in each hand. They then turned to each other, bowed and ‘clacked’ their coconut shells in acknowledgment. The girls then clacked their coconut shells against their partners shells before facing the front again. All this was done to the rhythm of the music. Clever, I though. By letting the girls take command, its no more than traditional Tongan dance movements but if you let the boys have a go, by using coconuts instead of sticks, it would probably look more like Tongan Morris Dancing!!

The final and possibly most authentic event was the culinary demonstration. I did notice a few of the school lads digging a couple of holes at the back of the grassy clearing. By the time everyone had gathered around, coals had been placed at the bottom of the holes and thick grey smoke was rising where they had been lit. Someone asked how the fire was started expecting some ancient method but one of the lads produced a bag of fire starters and a cigarette lighter!! OK, so perhaps the weaving has been the most authentic craft today!

The food, chicken with bread fruit, were wrapped in a banana leaf and placed on the now, hot coals. This was covered with a wooden frame and then more banana leaves before the holes were filled in and then left for one hour. The two lads at the core of the demonstration, moved to a space a few metres away and started carefully excavating their lunch! Unlike the kava, this food was passed around to sample. The small piece of chicken I was offered tasted, surprisingly, like chicken but the bread fruit.. now I know why they call it bread fruit because amazingly this starchy fruit tastes like freshly baked bread whilst having a similar texture to a well baked potato. This cooking style is all very commendable but still seems like a lot of hard word in this day and age. Don’t they have microwaves in Tonga?

As we were shepherded back to the bus, the weather, despite still being relatively humid, was starting to turn. There were definitely more than a few spots of rain in the air. This excursion had felt like it had been organised for a village fete using volunteers from the local school and the Tongan women’s Institute, borrowing an amplifier to feed the PA system and hey! We can use that gazebo you had for your Jessie’s graduation!!! This was far from the professional and colourful cultural show we witnessed in Samoa. However, whatever the organisation, this in itself was a part of the Tongan culture. Yesterday, in Nuku’Alofa, the transport for many of the island tours booked through the tourist office (and also the ship’s official tours) where owned by friends and neighbours. It was a case of ‘all hands on deck’. The convoy of cars parading down the main street in the capital were of all shapes and sizes from small hatchbacks and 4 x 4s to rusting pick ups and utes. ‘Hello, Derek? Are you busy? Yes, we’ve got a couple from the cruise ship who want a tour around the island. Are you able to get down to the quay? He says he’s just having his breakfast but should be down here in about forty-five minutes!!’

As we headed back to the ship the rain got heavier. Thankfully, despite the condition of our bus, the windscreen wipers still worked! Our guide (I use the term loosely) did not say one word during the whole of the journey. Not even ‘How did you like it?’ She just sat there, facing everyone, avoiding eye contact. We arrived back at the quay. The queue for the tender was almost at breaking point as everybody was trying to shelter from the torrent under a canvas rig. Then our guide spoke. ‘You stay on bus if want. Not get wet’. And with that she stepped off the vehicle only to step back on fifteen minutes later. ‘You must get off bus now. Kevin has to pick kids up from school’. WHAT? We’re getting kicked off because the driver has to do the school run!!

The rain continued as more people arrived. There were now about three hundred passengers waiting to be ferried back to the Maasdam. We managed to take refuge under open tents opposite the tender station by a bunch of chairs and music stands to one side of us. This is where the welcoming banded played as we all arrived this morning. To the other side of us, a small market consisted of several stalls selling handicrafts. Word now started to filter through that due to the weather, it was unsafe to continue the tender service until further notice. I’m surprised the Captain hadn’t foreseen this earlier in the day. We remained stranded for just over two hours until the rains started to subside. However, entertainment was provided. After about half an hour a large flatbed pickup truck arrived with twenty-five school kids on the back followed by a small van. The kids jumped down and took their instruments from within the van. Five minutes to set up and we were entertained for an hour by the brass band from earlier playing everything from Rock Around the Clock and Chantilly Lace to TV themes such as Hawaii Five-O and Last of the Summer Wine. At this point, I was half expecting a bath tub to come sliding down over the hill and in it, the Tongan equivalents of Foggy, Clegg and Compo!!

It was chaos at the quay once the tenders started up again but despite the lack of queuing there was also a lack of pushing and shoving. It was very orderly chaos. We just found ourselves shuffling along as we neared the tender. Within half an hour of the first tender arriving we were on our way back to the relative comfort of the ship.

Its was a bizarre day all around. We can’t complain, after all, everything promised to us was delivered. One had to accept that on these small, remote South Pacific Islands, things are done differently with many of the islanders rallying around, striving to make our visit pleasant and memorable. In one respect, the pulling together of the community who had visibly limited resources, all working together, is something that has been lacking in the western world for a long time. After all this rain, I was I little disappointed that we didn’t at least get a piggin’ rainbow but I guess there are somethings even outside their capability of organising!! As we leave the Kingdom of Tonga, I finally see why they are also known as ‘the Friendly Islands’.

Additional photos below
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