Ambassadors, Burlesque Potlucks, Volcanos, Whales and Heavenly Voices
16 August 2009 | Niuatoputapu, Kingdom of Tonga
Niuatoputapu (Nee-ew-ah-toe-pu-tah-pu), say that ten times fast! It's a beautiful island about 180 miles southwest of Samoa and is the first point of entry to the Kingdom of Tonga. There's about 1,000 inhabitants here and fortunately, it's a place we can officially check-in with Customs and Immigration. Upon arrival, the local officials are notified and they gather together on the town wharf, beep a horn on the truck that transported them and await a dinghy to pick them up. Flashback, Karma and Zen all arrived within an hour of each other. The 4 smiling officials entered Zen's salon, had some lemonade and cashews, while pleasantly filling out paperwork and stamping our passports. It set the tone. Within a day, we were standing over an open fire at Sia's house, the Customs Official, learning how to prepare local yams, lobster and the many flavors of coconuts. She, her husband, Niko, and her 3 boys couldn't have been more warm. By the end of the evening, while sitting under their breadfruit tree on hand woven mats, we were stuffed, educated and readying ourselves for tomorrow. SCHOOL! Both Cammi and Cole would attend the local high school and primary school respectively per Sia's invitation.
We've been made to feel welcome in many places, but here, it came straight from the Director of Education, Laviney, a lovely woman who also serves on Parliament for the island. She opened her school doors widely to her new American students, Cammi and Cole. They loved every minute. Cole was especially happy. It was Friday, he was in uniform, borrowed from Sia's son, and was heading for church first and then a day of physical education, aka rugby. The primary school is taught entirely in Tongan, so rugby and church were perfect. Language was not a barrier at all. Cammi, on the other hand, had a full day of English-spoken classes, including science, social science, health, English and one class of Tongan history, taught in Tongan. The end of her day focused on cultural dance and singing, in which she joyfully participated. Tommy, Krista and I walked to the high school for the 3:00 dance practice. Her first words upon seeing us arrive at school were, "Are we going to be here on Monday? I'd love to come back!" Cole, on the other hand, was smiling from ear to ear, dirty from head to toe, had a small cut in his lip from his rugby match and had stapled his thumb. Seems our little US cultural ambassadors were quite happy with their jobs in "building bridges".
That same night there was a ridiculous amount of incredulous laughter on our little Tongan island. All the cruisers were invited to a little hotel, run by an English woman, Laura, for a pot luck dinner. This has become tradition for her during the sailing season. To get to the hotel, a term used loosely, one has to walk from the dinghy dock, across the whole island, on dirt roads with no lights, through miniscule villages, then across a salt water channel, where at low tide, it's up to your knees, dodging reefs and large clumps of mucky seaweed. All of this takes about 45 minutes. But...we said "yes" earlier to her invitation and I was bringing the pizzas. Upon arrival to Laura's, we shake off the sand, roll our pants and sarongs back down, and chalk up the trek as "adventure". The meal is served buffet style. There are some locals present and about 18 cruisers are having fun and chatting with the lively music playing over the stereo. Soon, Laura, who is about 6-feet tall, lanky, with light blue eyes and blonde hair, wearing a modest floral dress, is setting up the audio equipment and is announcing it's time for her magic show. OK, it's getting interesting. Next, out she comes from the kitchen with the microphone in hand and she's singing a French song and doing a dance...kind of burlesque style. We are all laughing with her and she's having a good time. This seems to be definitely part of her plan as hostess. Lastly, she does this risqué song and dance about a threesome with a local man and one other local woman, all has been rehearsed. Now it's getting a little uncomfortable. Phew, the music gets louder and all are invited to the dance floor. Laura's entertainment segment is over. Cruisers are mingling w/locals and dancing. Here's the kicker: Laura was originally Lawrence! He-she has an ex-wife from Italy and 2 kids. They are living overseas. You know my husband, he's aware of this and is trying to contain his facial expressions and laughter during this whole surreal experience. If he starts cracking up, it will soon evolve into full-on howling. Thankfully, Laura aka Larry, has kindly arranged for a transport car to take us back early because our kids have had a full day of school and are exhausted. We leave with Karma and one other boat, but not after wading through the muck and sand in the pitch black for 10 minutes to bring us back to the 'main island". The rest of the cruisers party until the next day. It was one of the most hysterical things we've done in over 10 years!! Our friends, especially the Barkmans, Doug and Kim, and Tim Jemison and his family will so appreciate this story. A full reunion of our Newport gang is needed for Tom to recount this one in person.
Sunday morning held my favorite Tongan experience thus far. Catholic mass at 10am in the local village was utterly moving and completely spiritual. The acapella voices of about 75 people were harmonized so beautifully, and had such strength, Krista and I felt like we were floating. Sia's family ushered us inside the small chapel and sat us in the first row. All the responses from the congregation were sung in intricate harmony in the Tongan tongue. We had goosebumps for an hour straight. I can't wait for next Sunday, whether I am here or elsewhere in Tonga, I will be in church, maybe secretly tape-recording these roof-raising heavenly choirs. Shortly after mass, all the yachties were invited to Sia's home for lunch. Sundays are quiet in Polynesia. Legally nobody is allowed to work or be overly loud. The lunch was delicious but chatter was reserved and calm.
Monday was volcano day. Flashback and Zen boarded Niko's open boat and motored about 30 minutes in open sea to the neighboring island where Niko was born. There's even less inhabitants there, but the dormant volcano lures tourists wanting adventure. Niko escorted us to the top of the volcano, up, what seemed like 180-degree, vertical trails, covered in vines and jungle growth for over 2.5 hours. When we reached the top, we had gone through a cloud and could not catch a glimpse of the sea below. The trek down was just as challenging as the ascent, forcing us to rely on walking sticks to balance us and offer better footing on wet, slippery leaves. I was making the most sound effects, evoking laughter from myself and fellow trampers, Cammi and Cole were the bottom-sliders, giving their pants new dirt designs, and Niko sashayed up and down without missing a step or breaking a sweat all in bare feet. He even treated us to fresh water, mysteriously encased in bamboo reeds, mangoes and papayas plucked fresh from the trees on the descent. If that wasn't enough, the finale was a big humpback whale playing just an arm's length away on our boat ride back to the anchorage.
On the sailing front, it looks like Zen will skip Fiji this year. After looking at the daily weather reports, taking into account the effects of El Nino, and advice from seasoned cruisers, Fiji's 400+ islands will be saved for a subsequent cruising season. No problem, we go with the flow. As you can tell from this long and enthusiastic blog, the Kingdom of Tonga has plenty to offer in terms of entertainment and culture until October, when we turn our sights on NZ.