Treacherous Travels to the Kingdom of Tonga
The Kingdom of Tonga is one of the most wild and beautiful nations in the world. This island nation in the South Pacific, although economically and politically questionable, is home to an unspeakably rich culture and incredibly unique society. Many of Tonga‘s customs seem totally incomprehensible to outsiders. However, those customs are what make Tonga such a special country. In 2008, when I was 18 years old, I was fortunate enough to spend four months of my life there. The lessons I learned, and the stories I have to tell are numerous. However, in order to fully understand how I got to Tonga and what I was doing there, it is important to understand a little bit of my background first.
The story of my time in Tonga began with a high school student’s desire to study abroad in Italy. After months of applications, countless essays, and innumerable sleepless nights due to anticipation, I found myself in a difficult situation. I was rejected from the program in Italy I had worked so hard to get into. At first, I was absolutely crushed. But eventually, after a few weeks, I resolved that I would, somehow, live abroad and make a difference in the world within the next year despite this initial setback.
Many of Tonga’s customs seem totally incomprehensible to outsiders. However, those customs are what make Tonga such a special country.
I soon realized that I was actually eligible to graduate from my high school one semester early, and the pieces just started falling into place. My pastor is the one who suggested Tonga. It turned out that he knew a man who married a woman who had family in Tonga. The family lived on the same island as a woman in the Peace Corps. After months of nearly impossible correspondence, the decision was finally made. I would leave for the remote island of Hunga, Vava’u, Tonga on January 13, 2008 to assist this Peace Corps worker in an elementary school for roughly four months.
The first lesson I learned: Getting to Tonga is long and hard!
The trip from Tennessee to Tonga was actually one of the most intense experiences I encountered. It involved layovers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Fiji, Tongatapu, and Vava’u. For those who have never been through Fiji, once past security, the airport is lovely. However, during my experience, getting through security alone took over three hours. Upon exiting the Boeing 767 in Nadi, Fiji I proceeded to wait in line amongst the rest of the 200 passengers on the airplane.
It involved layovers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Fiji, Tongatapu, and Vava’u.
After patiently waiting in line for two hours and fifty-three minutes, I was fifth in line from the security checkpoint when a strange thing happened. I began to hear my name over the loud speakers telling me it was my last call to get to my airplane. I pushed my way to the desk, told them to call the plane, rush me through security, and get me to my plane. Missing that flight was not an option.
Upon actually making it onto the plane and sitting in my chair, I began to feel around for something. It was my moneybag, which just so happened to contain all of my money, my passport, my remaining plane tickets, and the phone numbers of all the contacts I had at the time. My life flashed before my eyes (I feel sick even thinking about it now). I ran to the stewardess who was in the process of closing the plane door at the time. I told her my situation, and at first she told me, “Sorry lady, we’re already late because of you.”
However, upon getting on my knees and literally begging for the first time in my life, she conceded and merely said, “Run.” So I did… back through the airport, back to security, where I had left it. A nice Fijian man ran me back to the plane once again. I sat back down in my chair, where I proceeded to have a miniature breakdown. However, from that breakdown I was able to connect with a lovely Tongan girl who sympathized with me after she had passed out on her previous flight. I also received an extra fruit cup from the stewardess, out of pity, I think.
It is important to note that Tonga is known as “The Friendly Islands” for a reason. They are some of the most hospitable, generous, and just plain friendly people you will ever meet.
Once we arrived in Tongatapu, the capital city and largest island of Tonga, I met with my travel agent, Malili, for the first time. She greeted me with a homemade lei and drove me to the domestic airport. From this airport, I took a plane roughly the size of an egg carton to Vava’u, the primary island in the Vava’u island group. There are four island groups of Tonga, and each contains many small islands. Those four groups are named Tongatapu, Vava’u, Ha’apai, and the Niuas.
After leaving the egg carton, I was supposed to meet with Malili’s brother, who was then supposed to drive me to the wharf. At the wharf, I would meet the people who would take me by boat to my final destination, Hunga. However, after waiting about an hour amongst heckling cab drivers, I gave up on waiting for Malili’s brother. When I was back in Tennessee, my pastor drew out a map of the main road in Vava’u, and I still held onto it as my primary map of the island. I showed that picture to the cab driver and asked him to take me there.
He dropped me off at restaurant run by New Zealanders called the Cafe Tropicana. Luckily, they had a phone I could use. So I called Malili, the only Tongan I knew at the time. She proceeded to tell me that the Hungans were not coming due to bad weather, and that I would be stuck in Vava’u for at least one night. She then told me that her brother would come by the restaurant shortly to pick me up. “You will stay with him tonight,” she said.
From the distance, I could see locals paddling on a homemade raft, children playing in muddy water, an upturned canoe hanging from two trees with the words “Welcome Home” splashed across the bottom, and a large protuberance of giant rocks that jutted into the lagoon.
It is important to note that Tonga is known as “The Friendly Islands” for a reason. They are some of the most hospitable, generous, and just plain friendly people you will ever meet. Soon he was at the restaurant with his big blue van and his granddaughter, who just so happened to be my age, was also visiting from the States, and was able to understand English better than Tongan. Through her, I found out that I was actually staying with the chief of the local village, Liematu’a. I also found out that the reason she was in Tonga was because her father had died.
He had died about nine months prior, and she was sent to live with her grandparents for the next year. One tradition she told me about was a proper ceremony after a close Tongan relative dies: It is mandatory for the family to wear all black for an entire year: black shirts, pants, skirts… black everything. One of the clearest pictures in my mind is of a clothesline in their backyard, which was hung with entirely black garments, with the exception of a few undergarments and towels.
Treacherous Travels to the Kingdom of Tonga.
After spending my first night in Tonga with complete strangers and receiving the true epitome of Tongan hospitality, my next and final transporters arrived to take me with them to Hunga. In their party were four dark-skinned men: three young, one older. I got into their van, they took me to the wharf, and we loaded their boat. None of them could speak English very well, so my primary goal was to soak in as much of the atmosphere as possible. In total, the ride from Vava’u to Hunga took about two hours, even though it seemed like forever for my weak stomach on the waves. A lagoon provided a natural barrier and entrance to the island of Hunga.
From the distance, I could see locals paddling on a homemade raft, children playing in muddy water, an upturned canoe hanging from two trees with the words “Welcome Home” splashed across the bottom, and a large protuberance of giant rocks that jutted into the lagoon. The boat drifted to the farthest point of those rocks, which served as a wharf for the island. After the boat was tied securely to one of the rocks, a slight jump was required to get out of the boat and onto the wharf. I took that leap, and as the villagers around me stared, and I cringed at the rocks and water below, I officially landed in my new home.
Treacherous Travels to the Kingdom of Tonga photo credit by Jennifer S,