Final Days in Vavau
30 August 2010
We've been enjoying Vavau. We arrived in the country Monday August 9th and it is already the 30th. Yesterday we studied our charts and Eric put our speed and distance into one of his excel models to determine what time/day we should leave for Fiji; at 440 miles we estimate a 3 ½ day passage. Looks like we'll leave sometime end of this week. Tuesday is too soon, Wed and Thurs would mean we arrive on the weekend (customs is closed or may exact a hefty fee for after-hours entry) and Friday is not an auspicious departure day if you are a superstitious sailor. We have left on Fridays before. We'll next consult the weather charts and wind predictions before making our final decision.
Finn's 7th birthday is September 1st - it will be nice to be ashore for his celebration. He's wanted to have a special item on the breakfast menu at the Giggling Whale & Thirsty Turtle in Neiafu: chocolate covered French toast! Maybe we'll head to the Poolside Café later on that day for his favorite spaghetti Bolognese and a swim in the pool (the only one in town, about the size of 8 hot tubs.)
The Giggling Whale is owned by a couple who live 6 months here and 6 months in Banff for ski season. Turns out the proprietor is the President of the Ski Canada Association and was an official host at last year's winter Olympics. This we learned after asking him if he'd heard of Whistler/Blackcomb (duh.) The Poolside Café is owned by a nice Italian man. The Aquarium Café was built 7 years ago by a young couple from California who recently sold it to Mike who had lived in Gig Harbor, WA for years. The young kids now run the Kart Safari tour we took earlier this week as well as a couple of other endeavors. Word is they bought a small island and are building a house on it. The Coconut Café (for laundry, breakfast and cold beer) is run by Canadians (judging by the accent) and the Café Tropicana is run by a couple from New Zealand. There is a Moorings and Sunsail charter here too, apparently now under the same holding company in Germany. A few businesses are owned by locals, but the thriving places seem to be foreign- owned and managed. I've been wondering about this situation since we got here. Why is this the case? Is it good or bad for the Tongans?
Island life is largely subsistence living. There are no heating bills, plenty of fruit and vegetables; fish, pork and eggs can be had for free. The missionaries made certain that clothing was not optional so there is some expense there, but generally speaking, one could live without an income. Thus the incentive for working quite hard and making money is just not that strong. However, Vavau has highly desirable natural resources (beaches, coconuts, blue green seas, and migrating whales) that call out to sun-starved vacationers. Enter the foreigners who see an opportunity to serve their sun-starved cousins and live in the islands! Foreigners don't have the same access to the free food - every fruit bearing tree or taro plant is owned by someone local, even that papaya tree you might notice in the village square - so they have to provide a service and charge a fee, or show up with a trust or retirement fund.
I've concluded that the foreign-owned businesses most likely benefit the locals who are hired to fill out the workforce. The Tongans are getting some training and bringing home some money to help with what expenses they do have such as new shoes, clothes, school fees, potato chips, canned meats, soft drinks and unfortunately....liquor. (Alcohol abuse is an epidemic throughout the Pacific Islands.) But just as we notice at home when job security is high and consequences for not working hard are low, performance is weak. Most of the foreign shop owners work very hard to please, but often the local waitress forgets to tell us that they don't have what we ordered (20 minutes ago) for lunch, or the cashier counts out the wrong change (often in our favor to which we always alert them), or they just go AWOL in the middle of their shift like the guy who was supposed to be in charge of cleaning silverware the night one of the restaurants had a big feast. Suddenly they ran out of clean table settings and people couldn't dig in to their fish cakes. The worker was tracked down hanging out with his friends, the dancers, who'd come over from another island to provide the evening's entertainment.
We've heard people say that a couple of years ago Neiafu was a thriving town and that today it is much diminished. We've noticed in the outer lying islands that where the guide book says there is a resort or a restaurant; there is often just a deserted building or random people who look confused when you ask where to find it. We assume that the global recession has hit these islands as it has elsewhere. Compared to passage-making when our community is just the 5 of us, Neiafu seems like a bustling kind of place despite the alleged down turn.
We've had a beautiful week in the outer-lying islands, relaxing and filling the days with a summer like routine. Tonight I write this as we are back in Neiafu, planning Finn's 7th birthday. We'll have dinner together with our friends from Na Maka and maybe even get to surprise Finn with a birthday cake. We've had some gifts stored away in the Jenny P's hidey-holes since early May. It'll be fun to watch him enjoy his special day.
PS - the King of Spain's boat is now anchored in the harbor. We haven't heard any rumors about the King himself actually being aboard, but we did wonder if that wasn't one of those dream jobs for young, single people: sail the King's boat around the South Pacific and keep it nice for him just in case he wants a little "down time."