15 Oct Nuku’alofa, Tonga – Friday, 12 October to Monday 15 October, 2001
The Kingdom of Tonga feels very “foreign”. Nuku’alofa feels a little like La Paz in Mexico, with a wide boulevard stretching the length of the waterfront, except everything is in English instead of Spanish. Tonga feels more like a foreign country than anywhere we have traveled so far in the South Pacific. Paul Therioux in The Happy Isles of Oceania says that “Tonga is itself” and this seems true. The people are big people and not as physically attractive as in other Polynesian islands. They are not very friendly, but not really unfriendly either. Mostly, they just leave you alone, with the exception of the few hustlers, selling a tour or carvings. It is the only place that we have visited that when I asked permission to take the picture of a woman at the market, she said “:no”. Nuku’alofa, the center of the government, is run down. The best hotel, The International Dateline, is a dump. There is garbage in the harbor and on the streets. Walking down the boulevard you pass large cemetaries that look like carnival sideshows with huge displays: a blanket set in an upright frame, plastic flowers, pop bottles impedded all around as a border to the grave. It is as if the dead are competing for the attention of the living. The Tongan people wear ratty-looking woven mats tied around their waists to “show respect”. Absolutely everything shuts down on Sunday and Tongans are offended if a person works or plays. Judging by our experience of Nuku’alofa, the Kingdom of Tonga is a very strange place.
The best part of Nuku’alofa is the Public Market, a true farmer’s market but with limited variety of product. We see mostly root crop: taro, manioc, sweet potatoes and other similar items that we wer’nt able to name. It is a market for the locals and we watched them haul away large palm woven baskets of root-type foods. We also saw lettuce, tomatoes, pineapples, watermelons, green beans, some papaya, onions, eggs carrotts, cukes. Upstairs we find a marvelous craft market and booths selling used clothing. Upstairs is where the teenagers hang out, many wearing hiphop high fashion. The most striking feature of the market is that we are the only tourists.
Sunday morning, while drinking our morning coffee on the flying bridge, we decide to go to church. It’s the men and women walking down the street in their woven mat skirts that prompt us to go; we are inveterate “people watchers”. We head off to the King’s church and have to walk about a mile, as no taxis work on Sunday. Wrong decision! It is the longest (1 1/2 hours), most boring church service we have ever attended; even the music is boring. Church services have gone downhill ever since Tahiti, but this was the worst yet. It is enough to cause us to swear off church permanently. Sunday evening, based on Bob McDavitt’s weather report, we decide to leave Tonga for New Zealand on Monday.