TONGA - “BEEN THERE, DONE THAT AND BOUGHT A T-SHIRT!!”
We have been to many islands in the South Pacific and can truthfully say that we have not found one to which we would pay to make a return trip. Add Tonga to that list.
Carolyn had agreed to participate in a privately organized tour. One of her correspondents on Cruise Critic arranged it with Tony’s Tours. We are to meet in the lobby on Deck 1 at 7:30AM. So here is the first question of the day, why 7:30 when the ship does not dock until 8AM? The answer: So we can be first off! Tourists!!
So we get a room service breakfast and gather up some time before 8AM. The ship docks on time and we are among the first people ashore where we are met by the traditional dancers, music, etc. Also, as usual, vendor stalls are set up along the pier to the new wharf where we are docked. By the way, the new wharf was a gift from The Peoples Republic of China along with numerous other buildings and facilities we see during the day.
Tony is waiting at the end of the pier and after some confusion about waiting for a separate third group we tell Tony we want to get started. We are soon loaded into two very tired eight-passenger vans. Tony drives one and a young Tongan man, Monet’, drives the other. He is wearing the traditional woven mat wrap skirt and explains that a man (or woman) is not fully dressed without this apparel; sort of like a man in a suit without a tie. With the windows open and Monet facing forward, it is very hard to hear his tour prattle and it has to be relayed from front to back in a three step process.
We have a drive-by look at the Royal Palace, near where the ship is docked, and of the royal tombs, just West of town. Tonga is still a Kingdom with a King and royal family. We then drive for quite a long way (15 miles) and finally stop to see Ha’amonga Trilithon, an 800 year old gateway of two upright slabs of coral rock, 15 feet high, and a cross piece, slightly longer and morticed into the others; each weighing some 30-40 tons. It is now believed that it was used to mark the Autumnal and Vernal Equinoxes. Along the way here we got a passing view of the Terraced Tombs at Mu’s; Tonga’s answer to the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, Egypt.
We then stop at Captain James Cook’s landing place along with two bus loads of Japanese tourists off of a ship that pulled in after us. There is nothing worse than flock of Japanese tourists! They block all the good photo spots and must have there picture taken several times in front of anything that remotely looks interesting; including, in this case, the sign on the building containing the toilets.
In addition, we stop to see the blowholes on the coast near Houma (not Louisiana) and the site of the 1643 landing of the explorer, Abel Tasman. The blow holes are blowing pretty well and some waterspouts can be as high as 50 feet on a really rough day.
There seem to be cemeteries everywhere and they are garishly decorated with colorful cloths that look like quilts, beer bottles stuck in the sand, things that look like Christmas decorations and anything else they can think of to make the grave standout. Monet’ says this is traditionally done for the first year after a death and after five years it is legal to place an additional body in the grave.
During all this driving we are getting an agricultural tour of the island and its products, such as cassava, vanilla beans, taro, sweet potatoes and bananas. Unfortunately, the bananas have contracted a blite that produces brown patches on the green bananas. We are told it does not effect the edibility of the bananas but does prevent their export and thus has ruined that business and the banana plantations are going to seed. In addition to plants, we see numerous pigs running wild and are told they know their way home and will come in the evening if called in the proper way by their owner. They are a meat staple in the diet. There are hundreds of dogs roaming everywhere. We are told they are not pets, but are to guard the home and are roasted and eaten at a celebration once a year...yuck! We also see Flying Foxes (fruit bats) another yuck factor.
About 1:30PM, we finally arrive at Tony’s home for lunch. Carolyn has told him from the beginning that we will not be staying for lunch and he agrees to take us back to the ship; a 20 minute drive. He is not particularly amused as no one else wants to leave early, but he fulfills his agreement. It is a good call to go back as it is stiflingly hot and humid by now and they are serving hot food. This was also suppose to be a beach stop, but the beach is about 10 feet long and 3 feet deep in a tiny cove with a rocky shore line. To get to it one must climb down a washed out area about 150 feet from the patio area. There are no steps or prepared path down.
We go onboard and grab a light lunch (another Panini and fries) down a coke and a bottle of ice water from room service and then go back onto the wharf area to look for a souvenir since we are reasonably certain that we will not be back to Tonga. Dick buys his second T-Shirt of the trip, a record for him, and Carolyn buys some jewelry items made of shark’s teeth and south sea peals. Just little collectibles. Back on board, we wait for sail away at 4:30PM. They have to hunt for someone on deck 5 so we are away about 15 minutes late in a heavy rain shower.
We get cleaned up and Carolyn reads and that turns into a nap. Dick plays on the computer for a while then we go to the Lido and have two of the made to order pizzas and a salad for dinner. We are exhausted and barely manage to get in bed before falling asleep. Thank goodness for two seas days in a row!
Our impression of Tonga, along with most of the islands in the South Pacific is, if not actually negative, certainly not positive. The climate is so hot and humid that it seems to sap any energy the people might have and just existing is an effort. Tonga was trashier than Western Samoa and much worse that American Samoa. We liked our day in American Samoa best...the people were very unaffected by the tourists and they were very eager to share their culture and the unique things about the island. They also have retained their culture better than the other two islands. But, you still have the problem of the climate, no economy to speak of and a general lack of opportunity in all these small island countries. Tongans, more so than either of the Samoas, seems to have lost some of their cultural pride. Lip service is paid to it but we did not see much evidence of it in practice. Like the two Samoas, Tonga is 98% Christian. Methodists comprise 31% and the other two large blocks are the Mormons and the Catholics. They make their presence known with churches on almost every corner and many schools.