On Intrepid Travel In Tonga
There is nothing quite as exciting as the idea of intrepid travel. There is a great theoretical appeal to
scenarios such as traipsing through the jungles of Borneo, armed only with a pair of sturdy boots, or backpacking through Asia on the trail of the Buddha. I can just visualise the adventure, the breath-taking scenery, the real-ness of it all! However, for myself this picture lasts approximately sixty seconds before I get somewhat anxious and remember the “dark side” of this kind of devil-may-care type of travel: the
mosquitos! The lack of WiFi and flushable toilets! The real possibility of eating roasted rats somewhere
along the way!
And so, while the idea of intrepid travel is indeed wonderful, I find myself avoiding the realities of it as much as possible. And since I am being perfectly honest, I might as well confess that I don’t even like
camping – I know as a New Zealander I am supposed to join in the national spirit of outdoorsiness, which is fine as long as I am able to enjoy it all knowing I am able to go back to a warm cozy bed at night with basic necessities such as a fridge stocked with gin and tonic.
I was keeping all that in mind when I agreed to travel to Tonga for three weeks. And before you start
pitying me for being overly xenophoebic, while you are flicking through your glossy travel brochure on
the Pacific islands, let me assure you that I had heard from very reliable sources that the kingdom of Tonga is not exactly a tropical paradise. For starters there is the little issue of epidemics like Dengue
Fever, and an entirely new disease with an unpronounceable name, which have been rampaging around
Tonga, infecting young and old alike through the bite of the pesky – and in Tonga unavoidable –
Cue to me rushing to the health food store to stock up on vitamin B1 and garlic pills (supposedly, just like their vampiric kin, mosquitos prefer their blood unflavoured); then on to the home-ware store for
mosquito nets; then the supermarket for every conceivable range of insect repellant, calamine lotion,
painkillers – oh, and not to forget the trip to the doctor for three different types of immunisations.
Paranoid? Maybe. Overly cautious? Most probably.
But hype and anxiety aside, as I have found out, there is some reality to the potential wilderness with
which Tonga came to be associated in my mind. Driving into Nukualofa on the main island of Tongatapu from the airport, one of the first things I noticed was that among the beautiful sunshine and the lush
greenery of the palm tress and other exotic bushes whose names I don’t know, are piles of
rubbish. Everywhere. Trying to ignore the rubbish on the roads, on the beaches, in people’s yards, etc.
has become one of my past-times since arriving in Tonga – this is no mean feat, as the rubbish comes in
all shapes and sizes, from plastic wrappers, to cans and bottles, as well as abandoned fridges and burned
out cars. The thing about rubbish on an island is that there is nowhere for it to go – and in the absence of
any infrastructure that is paid to deal with rubbish it just seems to remain a huge burden on the island.
The next thing I noticed were the roaming pigs and dogs – life is short here for either of those species,
and stories abound of dogs who roam too far and end up in somebody’s umu (traditional oven in the
ground). Like the time someone’s uncle saw a dog being run over on an intersection, to then be removed by the army for a tasty addition to that evening’s dinner. True story.
Few houses seem to have fences-and for those that do the fence seems primarily a way to keep the pigs
out of the garden. A short drive out of downtown – where even now you can still see the effects of the 2006 riots about democracy, where half of the old buildings in the town were torched and eight people lost their lives – is an area consisting basically of swampy mangroves, where a multitude of shacks house hundreds of people who have come to Tongatapu from other islands in search of a living. These are people who do not own land on this island, and so they live in this swamp, where mud and dirt reign supreme. Driving through these areas like the tourists that we are, many people smile and kids wave, calling out “Palangi”(non-Tongan).
The kindness and humour of so many of the Tongan people I am meeting is so contrary to the daily struggle that obviously affects many of them. So far they have tolerated my endless questions on possibly- to them anyway- fairly boring issues, they have stopped wondering what exactly a vegetarian eats (“so that means you only eat chicken and pork, right?”), they have tolerated me showing up in their beautiful, out – of -this -world kind of singing church services ( despite the fact that I don’t understand a word of the service and am not a Christian), and they have tolerated me poking my camera everywhere -one young man
even obliging to climb a coconut tree, in case I wanted an action pose.
This, alongside the beautiful climate and surrounds has meant that while there is most definitely an element of intrepidness to traveling around Tongatapu, there are also so many comforts and blessings
here, that I am totally prepared to ignore the fact that I had to spend several hours looking for tonic water to dilute the duty free gin.
With all that in mind, the next stop on our tour is the island of Ha’apai, where earlier this year the category four “cyclone Ian” wiped out much of the housing and infrastructure. And since I have found
out that the Tongan mosquitoes don’t actually care if you have just spent days fortifying your blood with garlic and Vitamins, I am possibly ready for devil-may-care adventure – so watch this space!