T is for Tonga!

11/30/2008, Nuku’alofa, Tonga


Nuku’Alofa, Tongatapu, The Kingdom of Tonga, November 30, 2008
We’ve been in Tonga for the last two weeks, mostly anchored in the yacht basin near the town of Nuku’Alofa on the island of Tongatapu. We’ve spent the time preparing for our passage to New Zealand and seeing the sights.

Tonga is an honest-to-goodness kingdom, as was evidenced by the big arch and crown framing the entrance to the commercial wharf. “Long Live Your Majesty!” it read. (Clever Tongans. No need to change the signs with the gender of the monarch.)

We weren’t able to snag a meeting with the new king. We learned that he was just coronated this year, at 60, after his 80-something father had passed away last year.

We heard many different takes on what it is like to live in a Kingdom. Most of the more colorful stories were told by “Palangi,” as non-Tongans are called by the locals. “He’s an absentee king – having been educated abroad, he spends most of his time there. He has a huge manse in Las Vegas where he spends all his time.” “The Tongans consider him a Palangi.” “His family nationalized a number of industries, re-sold them to new private interests, and pocketed millions.”

But the comments from the locals were much more benign. “He’s a good king.” Maybe there are some problems, “but it’s only with the administration and the powerful types around him.”
Maybe just as the Palangi stories are a bit overly-fantastic, the locals play it close to the vest. Everyone thinks that he is “nice,” and had not much to say after that. But we did learn that two years ago there were riots in Nuku’Alofa, when a handful of buildings were burnt. We also learned that the King has agreed to put a constitutional monarchy in place.

We’re definitely closing on New Zealand. The Kiwi accent predominates among the locals here. And everyone, from small children to adults plays rugby and cricket in the parks. No more of the soccer that we saw throughout French Polynesia.

One quirk that we have seen in all parts of Polynesia is the eyebrow raise. We saw it faintly in other parts of the South Pacific, but the Tongans have brought it to an art form. When you ask a Tongan a yes/no question, 99% of the time the response is a faint smile or full smile and sharply raised eyebrows, sometimes accompanied by a soft humming. It kinda sorta means “yes,” but it is given ALL the time, regardless of what the noise real answer is. “Hey, do you know if this café is open tomorrow?” Eyebrows. It is? Eyebrows. But when you press, “Do you know what time it opens?”, the eyebrows come up again.

Same in talking to a children, who, again, approached us regularly. “Do you play sports?” Eyebrows. “Which do you like?” Eyebrows. “I mean, which do you play?” “Hmmmm. Mumble mumble.” Eyebrows. And it isn’t just in talking with Palangi that they do this. They use it with each other, and there are cultural jokes that make fun of them for doing so (“Hey, I heard you pick up the phone. Why didn’t you answer?!” “I did!” Eyebrows, eyebrows. )

“Do you like the King?” Eyebrows. “What do you like about him?” “Hmmmm. Sucking of teeth. Head nod. Eyebrows.
Hey, did you know the moon was made of green cheese?” Eyebrows. “Hmmmm.”

Obviously, with this form of communication, getting directions was a challenge. But though they aren’t so good at reading maps (who uses maps when you live on a small island?!), the Tongans provided directions around town in a different manner. On three different occasions, when we asked how to get somewhere, we were guided there on foot. Once, for example, we were trying to track down a tailor to sew a tear in our dinghy cover. We’d initially been steered to the second floor of the town bazaar, and after half a dozen eyebrow raises, and a personal escort, had cornered a fellow who said that the tailor was away on another island. The shop keeper explained where another tailor was located. But he spoke not to us, but in Tongan to the woman from another stall who’d shown us the way. She walked us out of the bazaar, leaving her own stand, and took us on a 15 minute journey to the tailors.

As we started out, we said, “Hey, are you going to walk us all the way there?!” Eyebrows. “That’s really nice.” “Hmmmmmm.”

We had heard that the Tongans were spectacular dancers, and regularly win inter-island dance contests. So we went to see a performance. We were blown away. We’ve certainly not seen lots to be able to make sophisticated comparisons, but we had seen shows on other islands where the dancers had mailed in their routines. This troupe, however, was really into it. Led by a solidly-built fellow marine (as we later learned), they poured their hearts and souls into it. Sima had seen a show in Bora Bora, and had taken some video. We both agreed that the show there seemed choreographed by a HS student and, for lack of a better word, lame. This was something entirely different, and seemed without western influence. They finished it off with a version of the Maori Haka, the war dance made famous by the New Zealand All Blacks. It was intense.

Sundays are sacred here. Some of the women and men too wear grass skirts during the week, but on Sundays they are more ubiquitous. The church was huge, and filled to near capacity. It’s unlawful to work, and, we learned, even to swim! We’d been told that some youths had recently been arrested for doing so.
We went to see a local service on Sunday. We often go to Sunday Mass not as a profession of faith, but instead because we’ve found that Christian services provide a view of local culture that is neither prepared for tourists nor uniform from island to island. The Mass in Nuku’Alofa did not disappoint. As we entered, a chorale group filling several of the forward pews was booming out a song, urged on by a baton-waiving conductor. The lyrics of this song and those that followed were Tongan, and the melody seemed to be too, as it was nothing either of us had heard. The song filled the huge, vaulted church, was rich and resonant, and seemed to fill your body. It was really, really beautiful.

A short time later, it was time to sing again. But this time a different chorale group, to our right, got up. They were just as good. Later, yet another group got up, to our left. Just as good.
But the prize was still to come. At the time of the offertory, all three groups got up and sung together. The powerful song boomed filled the huge space. If you’ve ever heard the singing South African group Lady Smith Black Mombozo, it would give you a sense of the richness and type of sound, albeit with about sixty more singers.
Culture always finds an outlet. Song, it seems, has found its expression through the church.

The radio, on the other hand, cracked us up. We got two stations, sometimes three. One was 24/7 Christian talk and music. The other was scratchy oldies. The third was contemporary, though they too snuck Christian rock in from time to time. We learned that it is acceptable here to hold the microphone really close to your mouth and yell into it, maximizing distortion. We heard it at a local night club and on the radio. It was all wonderfully provincial. Between commercials that seemed to be done in someone’s garage, the DJ on the contemporary station came on at one point and said, “Of all the stations in Tonga, you’re listening to Magic 89.9, the best station in the Kingdom!” Like we had many choices!

The talk here among other cruisers has been weather, weather, and more weather. The passage to NZ has a reputation for being a bit rough. (If you want to read about some of the challenges folks have had, Google “‘New Zealand’ Tonga sail gale passage.) During November of each year, dozens of cruising sailboats gather in Tonga to prepare to the trip south to get out of the cyclone area. The cyclone season officially starts in November, but the substantial risk doesn’t come until about mid-December.

The vast majority of boats left in the days just before and just after we arrived. Many of the cruisers pay weather routers to help them predict safe passages, and these professionals had declared “weather window” at around the 10th of November. Picture one of those sixties beach movies, where a bunch of surfers are hanging around hamburger and ice cream joint near the beach, when someone bursts in and yells, “Surfs Up!” We can picture folks tumbling over chairs and each other, rushing for the exit. Some thirty to forty boats, relying upon the weather window, left en masse just as we were pulling in to Tonga.

That was good news for us. Crossing the Pacific behind the heard, it has meant we’ve had anchorages pretty much to ourselves, and that was again the case in Tonga. We were fortunate to meet some great folks who are looking to make the trip at about the same time as us, at the end of November, and we’ve been chatting with them about, you guessed it, weather, and when our own window might open. We’re not using a weather router, but we’ll see if we can’t pick a good time to leave.

We note that, of the dozens of boats that left before us, all made it safely, although many had a bumpy and challenging ride. We hope that it’s easier for us.

We had a moment of adventure in the yacht basin. We were “Med moored,” meaning that we had an anchor out in front, and two ropes pulling us back towards a jetty. One day, the wind began blowing at about 25 knots on our side. Boats aren’t meant to rest at anchor with such strong winds blasting them sideways, and we noticed that Leander was beginning to sag back toward to the rocky jetty. The tide was also dropping, and we heard the rudder touch one of the rocks. We went to work trying to pull Leander closer to the anchor, away from the rocks, but instead the anchor pulled out of its very hard, clay-like holding. In seconds, before we could untie the lines leading to the jetty, the boat was blown back sideways and against the rocks. Not good news! We quickly got the aft lines off, but we couldn’t pull away, as rocks beneath the rudder kept it from being able to move forward. The rudder was caught. We were able to flag down another sailboat across the basin. We attached a line to our stern, and he gently pulled us off backwards. Thankfully, we came away easily, and no damage was done.

The next day, we pulled up anchor from the yacht basin, and moved to a little island called Pangaimotu, where we’ve been relaxing and preparing for the trip. Our decision not to leave until after Thanksgiving was rewarded when we met Jim and Cindy aboard “Summer Sky” from San Diego, and through them arranged a Thanksgiving dinner with Will, Jubee, and Richard aboard “Fuerte.” It was a wonderful dinner. Sima made pumpkin and pecan pies that were scrumptious. Cindy and Jim went out and purchased and then cooked to perfection a big fat turkey. Jubee made a cranberry sauce from reconstituted cranberries that were soaked in red wine that were delicious. Add in the traditional fares of mash potatoes, gravy, string beans, etc., and it made for a memorable meal and day.

12/22/2008 | Jackie
Hi Paul & Sima,

Thanks for your recent entry. It makes for nice reading and the pictures are great too.
Your church experience reminds me of my first trip to Hawaii. Vicki’s friend, Janet Kaufmann had arranged for us to attend a dawn Mass which featured all kinds of “costumes”, with torches, great local cultural singing, etc. Also, when we were in Hawaii on another visit, Tommy invited us to an opening of a protestant church. Boy, the shows & entertainment that encompanied the service were nearly priceless – better quality and authenticity couldn’t be found anywhere.
Well, hope the travels “home” for both of you go well.


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