Painted banners crisscross the streets of downtown Nuku’alofa, balloons hang from storefronts and lamp posts, and kettle drums beat out the “Happy Birthday” song. Although I wasn’t perched next to the King when he blew out his birthday candles, I was certainly impressed with his birthday bonanza in Nuku’alofa. Royalty sure know how to throw a party, especially when they are commemorating an 88th birthday of such a highly-regarded monarch. Happy Birthday to the Tongan King!
Let the festivities begin – Tongatapo was decked out in glitter and glam for the week long Heilala festival, a yearly celebration to commemorate the flowering of the heilala, Tonga’s national flower. Since the festival coincides with Tonga’s King George Tupou IV’s birthday, both events are often celebrated together with parades, BBQ’s, a Miss Heilala competition, and various musical events.
And it was a shindig to behold. Excited locals came from near and far. Some were shuttled in on buses. Others squished in cars, sat atop truck hoods, or trotted in on horses and donkeys. A few walked, some bicycled, and many hitch-hiked, but all arrived in downtown Nuku’alofa at 9 a.m for the commencement of the Heilala parade. Kind of…..
Tonga time once again interfered. The parade didn’t actually begin until 9:45, and then it began with a bang….quite literally. The lead car, complete with flashing red lights and sirens, broke down in a cloud of smoke and had to be pushed off to the side of the road before the rest of the festivities could progress. Once on it’s way, the parade dazzled admirers with energetic marching bands, garishly decorated floats, and truly hilarious attempts at hip-hop dancing and other forms of entertainment. I was particularly fond of the traditionally dressed Tongan “warriors.” They don’t grow them like that in Illinois.
Following the parade, there were various musical events and food carts set up around town. Everyone was in high spirits, enjoying the fine, sunny weather and socializing with family and friends. Kids ran around with ice cream dripping off their chins, guzzling sweet, cola drinks and weaving in and out of slow-moving vehicles. Indolent mothers sat under shaded coconut trees, fanning themselves with tapa mats and catching up on local gossip while their husbands either attempted to chase the kids or wandered off towards the cold beer. It was a fine time to sit back and observe Tongan life slowly pass by.
Failed attempt to schmooze with the King – Contrary to prior beliefs, Gwenda and I were unable to sneak into the King’s special birthday feast. Although we tried our best to convince the young security guard that we were of noble blood and were expected by the King himself, he did little more than laugh and shake his head. However, we were allowed to stand at the red iron gates and watch the joyful celebration beyond. In truth, I was more mesmerized by the extreme loads of food passing through the gates than I was with the music and dancing taking place on the palace front lawns.
And then there was the Miss Heilala Pageant – As many small towns do, Tonga hosts a yearly queen pageant to display its prize collection of wholesome, talented young ladies. The Miss Heilala crown was up for grabs, a title fervently vied for by thirteen sweet Tongan lasses. Along with half the town, we showed up at the Village Hall later that evening to watch the battle and root for our favorites.
In order to pay for the massive expenses incurred during the pageant, many of the contestants are sponsored by whole villages or entire islands. For instance, there was a Miss Heilala Eua’, a Miss Heilala Ha’apai, and a Miss Heilala Blowfish (represented by one of the main bars in town). In addition, there were several contestants from overseas, including New Zealand, USA, Australia, and Fiji. The genetically well-blessed gals danced while covered in coconut oil, sang Tongan love songs, and swayed their svelte little hips down the catwalk.
Island entertainment at its finest.