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December 15, 2004

Polynesian Paralysis

I had looked forward to going to Tonga since before I came away on this trip. The idea of this tiny little pacific island (or group of islands) which few had heard of and even fewer had been was enchanting to me. I read about how Tonga still had their royal family with their palace and how it was basically a bit corrupt. (There is an absolutely farcical true story that happened a couple of years agoi about a man being appointed 'Court Jester' and who was allowed to invest millions of dollars of tax money in crazy schemes. Inevitably he lost all the money and had to flee the country. You just couldn't make this stuff up. If you want to read the whole story click here ) Either way the country sounded great to meand I was looking forward to getting completely off the beaten path by going there.

The South Pacific guidebook describes Tonga as a 'bit of a tourist backwater' but without being harsh it's a bit of a backwater in general. There are so few tourists in Tonga that you literally know by walking around the town of Nuku'alofa when a new plane has arrived. I would recognise the same faces and they would all congregate at certain places (like the only nice cafe in town or the weekly dancing and fire show).

Nuku'alofa is the capital of Tonga and means 'Abode of Love'. To me it means 'shabby and dusty small town'. There aren't really any parks or pavements or even street lights. It is only down at the harbour and around the palace that it is in anyway an enjoyable place to walk round. What immediately occurred to me when walking around Nuku'alofa is that it is a very unfriendly place. There aren't a lot of jobs in Tonga and a lot of people simply hang around. The amount of people leaning against walls and sitting on benches is phenemonal. Obviously if you simply lean against a wall all day (which I sincerely believe some of these people do) then I suppose staring at other people is just part of the day's entertainment. But for us walking around in a very hot and dusty place being stared at is the last thing you want. But no one comes to a small pacific island for its small shabby capital and thus it seems unfair to judge the place on it so my hopes were high for elsewhere.


We switched where we we were staying as the first place (although cheap) could only be described as 'a shithole' only by a very generous person. We changed to a B and B run by a Japanese lady who was the eptiome of a busybody (but friendly with it). She started to give us some insights into why Tongans are the way they are. A lot of it comes down to 'remittances'. Remittances is the name given to money sent home from abroad usually from relatives. Tongans receive the second highest amount of remittances per person out of any country in the world. This is because 100,000 Tongans live in Tonga and 100,000 Tongans live in New Zealand, Australia and the USA. Because Tonga is a poor country the Tongans overseas feel obliged to those left behind and so send a lot of money home.

Is there anything wrong with this? Yes and No. There aren't many jobs in Tonga but remittances have created a dependency culture. The title of this article is a phrase for me that gets this across. In Tonga it is very hard to get much done. Simply people can't be bothered. Everyone has relatives overseas and said our Japanese host 'how much easier is it to pick up the phone and ask for some money than actually go out and do a hard week's work?'. Here is a small example - On a small island we visited, some Australian-Tongans set up a new hotel/resort which focused on eco-tourism (hiking/climbing and so on) they couldn't find anyone who wanted to be a guide even for good money because no one wanted to trek around in the heat everyday. The Remittances culture is such a problem that some ministers have actually proposed stemming the amount coming in. The other problem is that Tongan society is based around sharing and the extended family. This was obviously sensible in times gone by. If one member of a family caught a big fish then the whole family would share it and they'd all get fed. Nowadays the system doesn't work so well: if one person has a job they are expected to share the wages within the family. So this means if you don't have a job you got provided for and if you do have a job then you need to provide for everyone else. In this sense Tongans think it's unlucky to have a job. As you can imagine the leves of motivation are quite low in Tonga and getting anybody to do anything or getting anything done can be frustrating.

My other main problem with Tonga was unfriendliness. (don't worry I'll get to some positive aspects soon). I'm now in Samoa and it is just soooo much friendlier that I find it hard to describe. Here people toot there car horn and say hello or shout out 'good night' as they drive by. In Tonga I thought, by the way a couple of people looked at me I must somehow at some point run over their cat - its worth pointing out that one of those people was a lady working in the tourist information office. Thanks very much! Tonga was christened by captain Cook the 'Friendly Islands' but I only really found a few people who were in anyway friendly.

What I actually did (finally)

We took a tour of Tongatapu (the main island) with a grumpy guy called Toni who was originally from Lancashire but had been living in Tonga for nearly 30 years. This was pretty good even though Toni's commentary was generally constricted to 'Church to the left', 'Mormon Church there', 'Another Church on the right' and he pretty much refused to answer questions. However. we did see some very impressive blowholes which was like a set of geysers along the coastline. The power of the sea was incredible to behold. The second best thing was probably some fishing pigs(!) which go out everyday at lowtide to snuffle around in the shallow water.

The best thing we did was probably take a trip to the small island of 'Eua where we did some hiking and saw a very rare parrot and some wild horses. 'Eua is pristine and has Tonga's only national park. The hosts there, Tony and Taki were really nice people and the food there was great.

Also in Tonga:
We saw the King
We met the minister for health (twice)
We went to a primary school end of year ceremony
We tried Kava
We met a strange German

Richard, Apia, 14th December

Posted by Richard on December 15, 2004 02:05 AM
Category: Tonga

Sorry you didn't enjoy Tonga much. Too bad you couldn't get out of Tongatapu/Eau. Vava'u is completely different - much more friendly and beautiful, and the Ha'apai group is full of island paradises. I heard Toni was a character and we booked his tour, but he was away in England at the time so we missed his curmudgeonly ways. Glad you liked Samoa though, I'll get there someday.

Posted by: Amie on December 29, 2004 01:58 AM
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