Tongan Tapa cloth

Tongan Tapa cloth

One week in Nuku’alofa, Tonga – My visit to Tonga coincided with the King’s 88th birthday, the Heilala festival, and a week long gathering of Methodist church members in Nuku’alofa.  Originally, I planned to travel through the Tongan Islands for two weeks, allowing sufficient time to explore the main island of Tongatapu and a few of the outer islands.  However, with all of these fabulous festivities taking place on Tongatapu, I extended my vacation by another week.  Who knows – I could get use to this island life and stay all summer. I do like to wear flowers in my hair after all.

Gwenda, my beautiful English friend I met during my travels in Thailand and again in Tasmania, was meeting up with me ten days into my trip. Until then, I was on my own, but I never have to travel far before I meet friends and travel companions.The “Friendly Islands”, a.k.a Tonga, have already exceeded my expectations.  The locals offer hellos and flashy, gold accented smiles, the schoolboys profess terms of endearment, and I have had no trouble hitchhiking….none at all.

Toni's Guesthouse in Tonga: Local + Lime Green

Toni’s Guesthouse in Tonga: Local + Lime Green

Where to stay in Tongatapu – I arrived in Tongatapu on a short flight from Auckland.  Leni from Toni’s Guesthouse picked me up in a ramshackle van and we went careening off on a banana-tree lined dirt path towards Nuku’alofa.

Though about 3 miles from the epicenter of Nuku’alofa, Toni’s Guesthouse was both affordable and painted a brilliant shade of startling green. Who could say no to such unrestrained artistry?  Toni and Leni also offered free transport into town, a “famous” island tour, and self-catering facilities.  The stove top certainly came in handy after a failed attempt at finding a cup of coffee inside the town limits.  I fired up that iron stove and made my own.  Four doctoral students from the UK were also bunking at Toni’s.  They were in Tonga for a month to fulfill their internship / overseas mandatory doctoring time.  The girls worked a few hours in the morning while I wrote and wandered, and we met up in the late afternoons for dinner and island fun.

Sampling of Tongan Festival food

Sampling of Tongan Festival food

The Tongan Church Feast Experience – Hundreds of visitors from the surrounding islands journeyed to Tongatapu by boat or plane for the Methodist Church festival.  This week long festival was filled with meetings, family worship and, my favorite, thrice daily community FEASTS!  I emphasize FEAST as these were no ordinary meals.  Food was provided by different church families. Sometimes entire villages took over the responsibility of cooking for a particular table or section of tables. It was a huge task and a considerable economic tax on the families who prepared the food. However, it was part of their dedication to the church and community.  Everyone was exceptionally friendly, especially when inviting hungry, intrigued tourists to join their table, or in our case, argued with neighboring tables as to whom would host the tourists. Let it be stated that we attended at least four feasts while the festival was taking place. Good food = happy traveler.

The centerpiece of our Tongan feast.

The centerpiece of our Tongan feast.

Just what is a Tongan Feast?  – Usually a Tongan feast is prepared in an umu, or a Polynesian underground oven.  The food is usually wrapped in banana or tapa leaves and slow cooked in the umu for hours, allowing all of the flavors to be fully absorbed. Everything is thrown into the umu: fruits are bakes, vegetables are roasted, and meat is cooked to just the right tenderness.  Quite amazing for a simple hole in the ground.

Now. Talk about food – – OH MY GOODNESS.  Dozens of long picnic tables were stacked high with every type of food available on the island or fished from the surrounding waters. There were pigs, lobsters, crabs, eggs, noodles, sweet and sour chicken, taro, potatoes, bananas, mussels and octopus, breads and sweets and, of course, coconuts for drinking. Applause to the farmers who supplied all of the pigs for the festive occasion. Assuming each of the sixty tables had two or three pigs for each of the three daily feasts, it’s quite an impact on the island’s population of little Wilbur’s running around.  As a vegetarian, I was caught more than once looking fondly (or sadly) at the wee pigs sitting in front of me. (I may have even patted one on the head in a moment of weakness).  But I support the Polynesian customs and didn’t launch into any of my “equal rights for animals” tirade.

My favorite Tonga feast food was to’akuto, a coconut ball deep fried and sprinkled with sugar. There was also an interesting concoction of mystery fish and green vegetables that always seemed to be available and was actually tasted quite nice.  The locals got a kick out of filling up our plates, passing along seconds and dear-god, sometimes thirds.  Half the time I had no idea what I was eating and probably didn’t want to find out.  The festive, full-tummy atmosphere was alive with conversation, warmth and livened spirits – quite an experience!

Toni’s Tongan Island Tour – We spent one of our non-feasting afternoons on Toni’s famous island tour. Toni is an expat from the U.K. and an exceedingly interesting character to chat with. He took us around the whole island of Tongatapu and pointed out various highlights, most of which were the heavily ornate Mormon churches.  On the other hand, the blowholes on the eastern side of the island were fabulous. With the high tide swooshing in and out, they were certainly a spectacular sight along the coast.

Blowholes along Tongatapu's coast

Blowholes along Tongatapu’s coast

After Toni’s island tour, we went back to the guesthouse and shared some of Toni’s famous kava. I don’t know how anyone would want to drink that stuff again after trying it once.  Seriously.  The gritty concoction actually tastes like muddy dishwater with a bit of sand thrown in. And there is no clear way to test the waters with a dainty sip.  Nope, one is expected to chug the entire bowl in one gulp – similar to downing an enormous shot (and I left that type of behavior behind in college).  Although I originally thought kava was an alcoholic drink, the mixture apparently only has a mild calming agent that induces numb lips and feelings of tranquility.  Either it didn’t fully work on me or I was too nauseous to feel the tranquil effects, but after ten cups, I set my little bowl aside and simply took in the group camaraderie while watching others enjoy the lip-numbing fun.  Toni told us that many Tongans drank kava on the weekends or as an evening toddy.  Hmmm….hence the jovial demeanor perhaps?  Onward with my Tongan adventure.