Sunday, 24 August 2014

The other side of the world - literally

Tonga (pronounced dtong-ah) lies some 9800km west of Chile and 5000km East of Australia in the Pacific Ocean just to the side of the international date line. Cross this line going west on a Friday morning and you arrive on a Thursday. Weird!

Tonga is a group of some 70 volcanic islands that support 103,000 people and are ruled by King George 5th. To be big in Tonga is to be beautiful and the kingdom holds the title of having the largest people in the world both in height and girth. The recent king who died in 2006 was over six ft and 440lbs.

There is something distinctly Caribbean about Tongatapu – the main island on which we are staying. The people are laid back and friendly and everything happens in ‘Island time’. The villages are raised in largely wooden houses and shacks that stand beside the poor, often dirt, roads. This, however, does not diminish the sense of pride that exists here. The Tongans are the only island in the South Pacific that were never colonised and that is something we have heard proclaimed on several occasions

Our guesthouse beach
We arrive on Saturday in our guesthouse that is set just above the crashing, startlingly blue sea that washes over solidified lava stacks before washing up on our little beach. There is another family from France here but they leave the next day leaving us to have free roam of the place. Our room is on the first floor with views over a coconut plantation at the rear. We have use of a 1st floor lounge outside our door but since we are the only room upstairs and only people in the place it is effectively like a suite. Just outside this is the balcony with the view as described above.

Reana, Rachel and Chris

Our house manager is a Tongan Flalfal. The youngest boy in the family and consequently (as per old Tongan traditions) has been brought up a girl. Her name is Reana. She/he is 28, quite pretty for someone with 5 o’clock shadow and very feminine in movement, gesture, voice and general appearance. She is quite lovely, laughs a lot and has made us very welcome.

Village Church
Saturday evening a couple from another hotel come by to be nosey and after a chat and a couple of glasses of our duty free gin arrange to collect us the following morning to go to the Tongan Free Church Service. We are advised to dress smart and when Rachel presents herself before Reana prior to leaving she is greeted with a hand on the hip posture, accusatory pointed finger and the comment of “Are you wearing THAT for church!” Rachel is chastised and taken back to her room to have Reena find a skirt that she says will do. She offers her a pair of her size 7 stilettoes which she has to decline. We arrive a little early and take our seats in the rear as the church slowly fills. The building is large free standing hall with corrugated roof. Windows are arched and along with the altarpiece skylight are all filled with coloured stained glass plastic with each window having a different colour. It’s all pretty funky. The locals start arriving and all are dressed in their Sunday best. Gaudy, flouncy numbers with big hats and reed fans for the ladies and dark suits for the men. Many of the women (and some men) wear a sheet of woven palm leaves wrapped around them called Tapa which is tied in the middle with a belt or piece of ribbon. The bottom of the sheet reaching the floor and the top splaying out just beneath the sternum. It is traditional to wear these in memory of a dead relative an one large woman we spoke to said she had worn hers for a year in memory of her father. Any way. The service begins and the preacher is belting out a fire and brimstone style address in Tongan. Lots of shouting, eye wiping and fist waving to keep his flock on the straight and narrow. Suddenly we all jump up and a huge baritone voice hits a powerful first note closely followed by and even stronger tenor and then the assembled choir and congregation start singing. It is a joyful, full bodied and gloriously loud sound that fills the small church and spills out of windows and doors so all around can hear the force of belief from the faithful. No mournful dirge is this but a throated and stirring tune that moves you to hear it. Rachel and I both have goosebumps and feel honoured to experience this. On leaving I congratulate the choirmaster for his voice and find my hand lost in his huge meaty paw.

The weather at this time of year (their winder) is an average of 22 degrees but the sun seems much stronger. It is however perfect. Hot enough to wear little all day and just a hint of a nip in the air at night so no aircon or fan is needed. The Roar of the sea is constant as it is so close and we sleep like babies. Rising each morning to look out to see for whales. The Humpback follows the Tongan Trench (2nd deepest in the world) on their migatory trail in order to have and raise calfs so we can see blow holes spurting up plumes of water several times a day from our balcony. Next blog will tell you about swimming with whales.

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