When I was in New Zealand in 2011 I decided I wanted to go to one of the islands in the South Pacific. I wasn’t sure when I would be on the other side of the world again, so I took that chance.
My friend Konny and I looked into flights and Tonga it was. I wasn’t expecting much. I thought of white beaches and turquoise water.
Unfortunately there weren‘t the white sandy beaches I was expecting because Tongatapu Island is surrounded by a reef. One afternoon Mele, the owner of the Oceanside Guest House took us to a nearby beach but it was low tide, so a swim in the ocean would have been followed by bloodstreams and a few open wounds by swimming/scratching on the reef 😉
Diving into a completely different world
When Konny and I arrived I was overwhelmed with the completely different world we were entering. The owner of the guesthouse Mele picked us up at the airport. The drive to the guesthouse in Afa Village as quite bumpy, there were wholes everywhere and cars tried to drive around. I was wondering why there were chinese workers building and fixing the road. “The Kingdom of Tonga is very poor and that’s why we have an agreement with China. They’re sending chinese workers to help building the roads” Mele explained.
She pointed out the prison and mentioned that it happens easily that a prisoner escapes. “What where should they go? This is a small island. So they visit their family and the next day the police picks them up again and brings them back to prison” she said.
Then Mele suggested not to go on a bushwalk. We would clearly stick out as tourists and not that something has happened to tourists before but we should better avoid that.
Poverty on Tongatapu Island was very obvious. The further we were away from the city the more houses just had corrugated iron roofs and sometimes not even had a door. Then the entrance was blocked with corrugated iron so that the pigs wouldn’t run into the house. The Oceanside Guest House seemed to me like a little palace between the other houses and properties.
I hadn’t been in such a poor country before, so I was struggling the first day – a lot! Escaping prisoners and not being able to go for a walk made me feel quite unsafe.
It was such a completely different world from what I knew and the temperatures were also not helpful. From 15°C in New Zealand to humid 30°C, my body didn’t like it. I remember I spent my first day on Tonga in the shade, just reading a book and trying not to freak out.
Now, a couple of years later, I would say this trip was one of the most important journeys I did so far because it changed me.
Anecdote with a wink
One evening Mele asked her niece and nephew to sing and danced. Both probably in the early 20’s. Her niece danced, her nephew played the guitar and sang some traditional Polynesian songs. It was wonderful!
But I’m still not 100% sure if their performance had something to do with the fact that this happened after Mele found out that Konny and I are not married, not even in a relationship and just friends for decades.
Maybe Mele was just really willing to entertain us because we were the only guests for a couple of days. So let’s just say she wanted the best for her guests 😉
Culinary and cultural exploration
Every morning we got freshly baked bread (delish!!) and fresh water melon, bananas, pineapple and papaya.
In the evening we mostly had fresh seafood. I was never a fan of seashells but the way Mele cooked them (with coconut milk and onions) made them super delicious!
Mele took us to the fish market and showed us where she gets the fish and shells for our dinner.
I was not excited about seeing that the fish and shells were not stored in a cooler or on ice. But we had eaten fish from the market before and no food poisoning, so I guess you can keep seafood like that for a while when it’s 30°C…
One evening Konny asked Mele if we could have a traditional dinner with her family. At that time I was quite unsure if that was an appropriate question and I wasn’t very open about the idea to have a typical Polynesian meal. But in retrospective I’m really happy he asked because Mele and her family felt very honored that we wanted to know more about their world and traditions. Never had someone asked before. They were so excited!
We made a typical Hangi where you dig a pit in the ground, place heating stones and make a big fire. I can’t remember what the name of the dish was that was made with corned beef, onions and coconut milk wrapped in leaves.
The little leave packages were put on top of the stones and two pigs were roasted hanging on two sticks for hours.
It was awesome!
Not everyone did speak English so Mele translated.
I learned that Tongans work 6 days a week and that they have long breaks or just work very slowly.
On Sunday almost everyone goes to church. Mele explained that so many people go to church because they don’t know what to do on their day off. So everyone meets at the church and celebrate for hours.
Mele’s family described Tongans as happy people despite all the poverty.
Our dinner lasted for hours, we were talking and laughing; and that evening I had a moment when I thought “Don’t be like that again. If Konny wouldn’t have asked and wouldn’t have made a step towards another culture, I wouldn’t sit here and have one of the best and unforgettable evenings”.
Not that I hadn’t been open-minded before. It’s just that in this specific situation – being overwhelmed with so much difference – I didn’t know how to behave, how to react. Now I would always ask – no matter what and where. And it’s up to the person I ask if he/she replies.
The most important lecture for me
When I’m –for whatever reason – too insecure or anxious to dive into a new world, then I let someone take my hand and go on a cultural expedition! Now, 5 years later, I feel like I’m the one who takes people’s hands 😉
But there will always be unpredictable and unknown situations that make you feel uncomfortable or insecure. So reach out your hand and let yourself guide by a curious and courageous friend into foreign worlds!