Roofless in Ha’apai
Arriving on the Tongan island of Ha’apai is a pretty unique experience. A fifty minute flight from the main island of Tongatapu on a thirteen–seater, ex-Indonesian, seemingly at least fifty year old plane – which deafened our eardrums on take-off – is really something else. Not a good “something else,” but nevertheless memorable. Flying low over the numerous shallow reefs and the open sea the view was – admittedly – absolutely stunning, but while one passenger claimed to have been able to see whales down below, I mostly just saw the terrified whites of my eye-balls staring back at me through my reflection in the window. The feeling of holding my breath throughout the flight did not lessen when we arrived in Ha’apai and I saw that the landing strip ran the width of the Island (ostensibly somewhere between 500-1000 meters), and straight through what looked like one of the main roads. Yes, there were gates to keep the cars from driving across the landing strip, but still! A runway through the main road? Come on!
But this, I was soon to learn, is simply Ha’apai styles, where innovation is absolutely, one-hundred percent necessary for the survival of the people and the island itself.
Getting off the plane to crouch down and kiss the earth, I noticed that the airport itself consisted merely of a rectangular, shed-like two story building, with askew lettering, telling us that we were at Salote Pilolevu Airport. But at least the building was still standing, which is more than what could be said of many of the houses in Pangai – the main town of Ha’apai – where at the beginning of this year a category five cyclone (puzzlingly called “cyclone Ian”) touched down in full force, with up to 240 km/h winds raging for an entire day and destroying much of this town’s – as well as the neighbouring islands’ – housing and infrastructure.
These days, more than seven months after the storm, there is wreckage – planks of wood, bits of tin and everything else that once made a house – piled up all over the island. Boats that were thrown onto the beach still lie there, overturned. Some house foundations still stand, but without roof, or windows. On one house site there is just a built-in oven left, while across the road, the old townhall resides about five meters from its original foundations – intact, yet on a strange lean and without the concrete stairs which were left behind on the original site.
With all the fencing ruined, pigs have become the kings of the island. They run around, unchecked, rooting up anything edible and destroying crops wherever they can find them. A small herd of scraggy horses wanders around the backstreets, stopping intermittently to graze on thin grass verges. The roaming dogs make a wide berth around pigs and horses and, just like on Tongatapu, are particularly – annoyingly – active in the middle of the night, when you can hear them fighting and scavenging.
And the people. What is a way to describe someone who probably started off with very little to begin with, and now has even less than that? What are the words that don’t sound hollow and predictable? Resilient, survivor, stoic, hopeful, heartbroken? The people of Ha’apai seem to be all of those, and yet to reduce them to such descriptions is not possible.
After that fateful storm – where people ran from shelter to shelter, where many got hurt and one person lost their life, where people were letting the water out of their water-tanks in a final effort to find refuge, where there was a sudden lull in the storm and the sun came out to an eerie quiet before the storm raged on again, where people talked about tasting the salt of the sea from the rain pouring down on them – after that storm, people got up and they asked for help. After some time help arrived through the Tongan military, and food and water was bought in. Tents were bought in for temporary shelter. The tents are still there today – people store their belongings in them, as they are too hot to sleep in, so they sleep outside under make-shift shelters instead. Despite the fact that there was foreign aid, there has been no rebuilding process as yet. The last estimate of the Tongan government was that rebuilding will begin at the beginning of next year. One whole year after the cyclone.
And yet, through the midst of all that chaos there is the indefatigable beauty of these islands. As though nature is making a stand about regenerating itself faster than the humans are regenerating themselves or their living conditions, the palm trees, bushes, flowers and growth that were simply razed to the ground by the storm are coming back – lush, green, wild and unruly, their determination to flourish equals the hope that is expressed by many of the people in Ha’apai – those that stayed (and many didn’t) have a way of “getting on with it” that is humbling and sobering when I consider my very own “first-world” problems.
There is an edge to Ha’apai and it is exactly the kind of edge that gives you a kick-up the backside of your pre-occupation with things that don’t matter. Ha’apai is a place of contrast – I saw ugly, shambolic and poignant scenes, just down the road from the most sublime natural beauty imaginable. Our stay on Uoleva Island, fourty minutes boat ride from Pangai – a place without roads, shops or electricity – only served to reinforce this.
And that is why I will be returning to Ha’apai. On the rickety plane, landing and taking off on the miniscule runway. I would even brave the twelve-hour ferry from Tongatapu to Ha’pai – once nicknamed “the orange vomit” (need I say more?) – and that, surely, sums it all up.