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Theme Song for the Day:

Iko IkoThe Dixie Cups

Where was I? right….

Froests of Eua

Froests of Eua

Tonga was a fantastic way to start my next adventure abroad.  With the beauty of the natural surroundings and the incredibly friendly people, I couldn’t help but believe I had landed in paradise.  I was so very comfortable and in jaw-dropping awe, at times (although I tried to keep my mouth closed, as I already stood out a bit), as I explored just a portion of this tiny oasis.

My comfort and feeling of belonging were a big deal.  As confident as I am in knowing that ‘travel” is the right thing for me right now, I still face times of doubt (don’t we all?).  There are times when thoughts swirl through my mind… what the hell am I doing? WHERE am I going – the middle of nowhere? Oh, right…! Who am I going to meet… anyone? Will I be exhausted…bored…or worse: indifferent? Should I be settling down? Am I too old for this? Too young? Too too too?..

[*note: these bigger thoughts are intermittently intertwined with thoughts of a slightly lighter inclination…: will there be coffee?…should I bring powdered milk?  Should I have brought another pair of socks? How many times can I get away with wearing this shirt before I start turning away potential friends? Is it too early for a beer?]

Uh, yes, I digress. Anyway…I had explored most of the main island of Tonga: Tongatapu.  I decided to make my way, via ferry, to the small island of Eua.  The ferry ride was uneventful which was perfect.  Actually, we did spot some humpback whales in the strait between the two islands.  Hundreds of these beautiful whales come to breed each year and it’s easy to spend hours watching them play from the shore (which I was sure to do).

A Cave in a Cliff - Eua

A Cave in a Cliff - Eua

Eau is renowned for its hiking and caving and I was excited to be somewhere new.  Not only was I staying in a beautiful little fale, a self-contained sleeping hut, just minutes from the ocean…but I was sharing my accommodation with two great girls that I had befriended days earlier in Nuku álofa.  Gabi from Slovakia, and Heather from California; ski instructors who follow the winter season around the globe.  They take short breaks in warmer climates between seasons.  Tonga was one of these ‘breaks’.  Tough life eh?

Our first day out we also met up with a fellow from Vancouver and we all spent an entire day in the national park on the Eastern side of the island.  The views are breathtaking and although a lot of the trails are overgrown, it was easy to make our way through the undergrowth of the ancient forest (with the help of a hand-drawn map, from one of the locals) and we spent a bit of time in a cave on a cliff.

Hidden Talent Abounds

Hidden Talent Abounds

That evening we met up with some women from the small village nearby and they taught us the basics of weaving baskets from coconut leaves.  This is very practical in Tonga, as these baskets are used in lieu of shopping bags.  It’s an interesting skill to have for someone from a northern temperate climate…I’m not sure how the city of Victoria would appreciate me scaling the few palm trees we actually maintain (painstakingly taken care of as they have such a tough time in winter) in order to rip down fronds.  …mmhh…my plans was to make Christmas presents for people with my new-found skills, but I may need to re-think this.

Fantastic!

Fantastic!

This is when things went a bit funny.  I went online (the islands are amazingly well-connected to the internet although the roads are not paved, hot-water is an absolute luxury, and I couldn’t find cheese to save my life) and was surprised to see there was a huge earthquake south of Samoa (7.9 on the Richter scale).  This means it was between Samoa and Tonga – north of the island I was on.  A tsunami warning soon followed.   Now it’s common sense to stay away from the water and find higher ground in these instances – we had enough time to prepare …we weren’t worried about being swept up in the wave.  What was more worrying is that the infrastructure of the small communities can’t necessarily handle events like this.

Everything closed – all the kids were sent home from school – boats were moored.  People shut their doors and spent the day with their loved ones.  Although there is no official warning system in Tonga – everyone knew within the hour and we were soon wandering a ghost island.  Needless to say, the tsunami didn’t make it as far south as us.  There were some fatalities in both Samoa and very far north Tonga.  This little paradise has been through the ringer of late.  Tongans are a resilient people who continue to smile through even the toughest time.  My kind of people.

My flight to Australia left from the big island the next day.  I spent the night wondering if the ferry would leave in the morning.  It did (and it only backed into the dock once…everyone was silent). I made it to Oz as planned.  I wouldn’t have minded being “trapped” in Tonga for another week though.  I could have worked through it.

My Tongan Family

My Tongan Family

That evening, before I flew out, my new friends and I were invited by Julie and Aki (locals that showed me around in my first couple of days in Tonga) and their family, to have a Tongan feast.  This was a perfect way to end my adventure.  We got to spend time with a beautiful family in beautiful surroundings.  The food was amazing, the dancing was graceful.  New friends and new experiences…I felt that I had everything I needed….there was even coffee.

Julie, Aki, and Jill

Julie, Aki, and Jill

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Theme Songs of the Day:

90-Mile Water Wall – The National

Pigs of Tongatapu

Pigs of Tongatapu

Anyone who thinks that roosters only crow at dawn has obviously never stayed on a farm and has definitely never been to Tonga.

I awoke every 20 minutes from about 3:30am onwards, as my feathered friend hoarsely announced even the possibility of the sun rising within the following few hours.  As I grew accustomed to the cock-a-doodle doing and was drifting back to sleep, I heard the beautiful sounds of church bells.  Tonga is an extremely religious country and over 98% of the population attends religious service.  It was still dark but the sound was pleasant….at least the first twenty rings or so.  As the bells continued – 25…35…50… I started to wonder if this was some kind of warning system – was something wrong? …would someone come get me in my lone room in the upstairs of my out-of-the-way guesthouse?

I decided that at the first yell I would evacuate – to where, I’m not exactly sure.

View from Pangaimotu

View from Pangaimotu

Well as it turned out – the bells topped out at about 60 rings and only moments later I heard the beautiful sounds of a church choir.  All was well.  I didn’t get back to sleep but I was happy to know that nothing too exciting was going to happen on my first full day on the island of Tongatapu…little did I realize the poignancy this dose of foreshadowing would hold.

My ten days in the Kingdom of Tonga were amazing.  I have never been anywhere quite like this little south Pacific gem.  Although its four main island groups are some of the least visited in the region (everyone goes to Fiji), this is a county that retains its natural beauty and culture.  The people are so friendly!

One of the highlights of my trip was watching fire dancers leap around while I enjoyed a feast of traditional local foods (including the delicacy of roast pig cooked in an umu, an underground oven).

Fire Dancing at Oholei

Fire Dancing at Oholei

All of this took place in a huge cave on the beach.  As I sat there watching the beautiful dancers and eating my roast tapioca and fresh fish soaked in coconut milk, I wondered if I really needed to continue on to Australia…could I eke out another few months in this paradise? Would it be so bad to spend maybe another few weeks going to the market for fresh vegetables and reading my days away?

Then I remembered that damned rooster.  A couple of weeks was probably enough.

After a few days of exploring on my own via bike and foot, I was honoured to get a personalized tour of the entire island by new, local friends.  It’s not hard to see all the sites (albeit briefly) in one or two days.  Tongatapu, the main island (meaning: Sacred South) has an area of around 260km² and is home to over 70% of the population (approx: 73,000).

The Trilion Near Niutoua

The Trilion Near Niutoua

To put this into perspective for all you folks living in BC – Togatapu is not even double to size of Saltspring Island.

My tour was fantastic and I was given an abundance of information from my exuberant tour guide Julie and her personable fiancé, Aki.  At one point we stopped at Julie’s aunt’s house and picked up an array of roast vegetables and meat.  The four of us (Milo the driver, provided bread and corned-beef) parked at the beach and enjoyed our Tongan picnic before I went for a swim in the surf.  You don’t get this on every tour, but I was lucky to meet such fun and friendly people. My trip wouldn’t have been the same without them.

The next day I made my way, via ferry, to a small island 2.5hours off the southeast coast.  Eua was meant to have exceptional hiking and caving.  It was going to be an adventure, I was sure of it.  And I wasn’t wrong.

Theme Songs of the Day:

Eyes Wider than BeforeScott Matthews

Else Built to Spill


The Empress Hotel, Victoria BC

The Empress Hotel, Victoria BC

So a new adventure…the perfect opportunity to get re-inspired.  My short visit home provided a lot of opportunity for visiting friends and re-connecting with the beauty that is the west coast of Canada.  Although I continued writing while I was back home, I wasn’t as inclined to share as I have been on the road…everything was too concentrated – to upfront and real….raw; a personal journey that was better left between myself and my word processor.

On that note – I think a pinnacle turning moment for sharing occurred on my stopover in the LA airport.  As I sat in one of the only two restaurants in the terminal, taking extra care in reading every available menu item and then ordering very slowly, one thing at a time; an attempt at killing six hours… I naturally began to notice the patrons at the surrounding tables.  Airports are a special kind of transit purgatory- it really does take all kinds.   I liken the mix of people one finds at airports, to the crowds found in malls as Christmas approaches.  Even the strangest and most anti-social people both travel, and give gifts during the holidays.  This creates a nice healthy mix of folks and forms the perfect breeding ground for an experiment in sociology.

Anyway, I was enthralled by this man beside me.  He looked homeless at first glance, but then the costly watch around his wrist peaks out from his ratty cuff–and his satchel is weathered, but made of good quality leather.  He orders a glass of champagne.  Just as I’m reminding myself not to judge a book by its cover, I notice him dipping his hands into his satchel. He’s intermittently sneaking goldfish crackers from his duffle bag and scooping tuna from a can into his mouth with his fingers. As he notices me noticing him, he scowls.  This is the moment I realize I have entered the realm of professional people-watcher…oh, and also that people in LA are crazy.

Englishman River Falls...home

Englishman River Falls

So unbeknownst to me, my flight from LA was to stop briefly in Samoa before heading south to Tonga.  The first I heard of this was as I strapped myself into my seat and we were heading out onto the runway.  My panic was brief but VERY real as the pilot told us the information for our flight to Samoa.  My neighbour assured me that the plane continued to Tonga but I couldn’t help feeling as though the communication was a little lacking.  I had read about this…that things are a little more relaxed in the South Pacific. My feeling is that the mild chaos is marketed as “laid-back…

Although I’m fairly organized, I let a lot of this go when travelling. I am more content having a broad outline as opposed to too many set plans…  this impromptu stop in Samoa allowed me to see another beautiful South Pacific Island, at least briefly, and also allowed for a good laugh.

Never being one who is able to sleep on planes with any regularity, I get that funny over-tired-alternative-reality thing on long haul flights. It was about 5am local time and it was quiet in the one-roomed Samoan airport.  Abruptly this man stared to yell and bash the wall.  He was yelling into the cafe/bar which was locked and looked closed.  …no one could figure out what he was doing, although I wouldn’t blame him if he was just extremely eager to get a coffee.  I thought I might just get up and join him – a flat white would have been divine – but just then a dazed looking man suddenly popped up from behind the bar. He gave his head a wild shake and slid open the grate.  Within moments he served his first patron, all the while wiping drool from his chin.  So this is the laid-back South Pacific.  I love it already!

After our touch-down in Tongatapu I was escorted to the pre-paid shuttle that would take me to my guest house.  It was warm and sunny.  The palms and strikingly beautiful abundance of lush green were enough to wake me up a little.  I had made it!  I was somewhere completely different than I’d been before.  The infrastructure for tourism is hit-and-miss, but everyone is so helpful!  As I looked at the throng of locals and visitors at the tiny airport with a dopey grin on my face I realized I had arrived in paradise.

Outside the Guesthouse in Nukuálofa

Outside the Guesthouse in Nukuálofa

I was quickly brought back to reality as this beautiful young woman called out my name over and over – scanning the crowd with an out-of-place frantic, wide-eyed sense of loss. After a bit of confusion (relaxed-chaos) it was realized she was my shuttle driver…the other van driver was trying to scoop some cash off me by dropping me off but making me pay again.  Oh right…the helpfulness may, at times, have ulterior motives.  No one is trying to be dishonest, it’s just that, in general, if a Tongan doesn’t understand you he will just answer yes. This is the shuttle to my guest house, it’s paid already?yes

But never mind, I didn’t mind much at all…between the sleepiness and the happiness, I had my south-pacific-attitude down to an art.  I can make a go of ‘laid-back’

This was going to be fun.

The North Coast of Tongatapu

The North Coast of Tongatapu

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