Tonga is delightful. From the incredible stretches of uninhabited beaches to the huggable, lovable nature of the islanders, Tonga proves to be both a visual gem and cultural stunner of the South Pacific. (Of course, all of the South Pacific islands are beautiful…and gorgeous…and so much better than you can possibly imagine.)
Sometime in your life, I highly recommend traveling through the majestic islands of the South Pacific. Pack some swimsuits, throw in a few thick books, and add some Jimmy Buffet to your iPod. Leave the rest at home…including your Western expectation that things – all things- operate on time. Here in the trade winds – they just don’t.
That leaves time for more reading, right? During my four weeks of travel between Tongatapu, Ha’apai, and Eua’, I encountered so many backpackers that constantly complained about the “laziness” and “inefficiencies” of the Tongan culture. Instead of simply taking a nap in the shade while waiting for the ferry to arrive…or for church to begin…they started arguments or created obnoxious (unnecessary) scenes. Do not follow their example, my fellow travelers.
Our Western expectations demands that transportation systems run on time, stores forever stock milk and bread, and post offices open their doors during normal operating hours are kind of thrown out the window here in the islands. None of the locals seem to panic, and they seem pretty skippy about life. Maybe we in the Western world need to take a hint and adopt the Tongan’s carefree attitudes about dealing with some of life’s daily disturbances.
Local Travel: I wanted to visit Ha’apai, a neighboring island and couldn’t justify paying for a flight. It was an easy decision to take the overnight ferry so off I went in search of the Nuku’alofa ferry office. The “Tonga Official First Ferry Office” was but a small, dusty room boasting a single computer with a hole in the monitor. The office was quite full of people, so figuring that this was the waiting line, I grabbed a seat and waited my turn. Thirty minutes later, I was still sitting and waiting. After another twenty minutes, I approached what I assumed was the sales desk to ask whether I needed to take a number for my place in line. That’s when I was told that the ferry office was actually closed for the day and may or may not be open the following day. The people in the office were just locals having a bit of a visit, and nobody actually worked there or knew when the Ferry Official would return.
Further conversations went like this. “The ferry will leave the next morning. Or the next morning. Either one.”‘ “Yes, for sure!! But maybe at 3 a.m. or perhaps not until after 6 p.m.” and “You mean the ferry to Ha’apai? The ferry is broken down and getting fixed. No ferries for two weeks.” After a group huddle, the loitering locals told me to just come back tomorrow to ask the Ferry Official….if the office was open that is.
Extracurricular Activities: Gwenda and I were planning on SCUBA diving on Eua’, an island off of Tongatapu. Our guesthouse owner assured us that the dive operators had definitely taken out some dive tours the previous day. He knew this because his cousin’s best friend’s boyfriend told him, and this guy knew everything about what happened on Eua’. After a rather long ferry ride to Eua’ and another wearying bus ride to the south side of the Eua’ island, we found the dive shop. It had been closed for a year.
Unexpected Guests: Upon arrival at my guesthouse in Ha’apai (yes, I eventually made it there), I discovered that, although I had confirmed my reservation twice, the guesthouse owners were gone for a week’s vacation on the mainland. They had lovingly left the house open for me along with a note on how to wash my own sheets. In the hand washing tub in the middle of the yard. That had a goat sleeping in it.
On Meeting New Friends: Taxi’s are never on time. And when they finally arrive, there are frequently a few extra passengers/brothers/cousins/kids/pigs to join you in your ride. Don’t worry. Use this opportunity to make new friends or future travel buddies. Invite them out for a drink or show around pictures of your mom. Mom photos are always a hit.
Lessons learned: So the mail might not go out for a month, you will most definitely have to hitchhike at some point, and you will probably be asked to step into the back of the restaurant and help make your dinner at least once (extra hands to chop vegetables). Remember that on average, it will take two or three days to find out any information and another day because this information is wrong and has most likely changed again. Take it in all in with a smile and a laugh. Sketch some palm trees while waiting for your plane, and then perfect your sketch when you return the following day due to a canceled flight. Yes, it is frustrating to constantly juggle your itineraries. Yes, it is annoying to suddenly loose your almost finished, unsaved travel blog because of scheduled, yet unannounced, power outages at the internet cafe. But instead of getting upset or blaming the local culture for your grumps, remind yourself that YOU ARE IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC. Go get a beer and enjoy your vacation for pete’s sake.