If you don’t know where Tonga is, don’t worry, you’re one of many. When I told people I was traveling to Tonga to see my sister the customary response was “Where the fuck is Tonga?” Not to be confused with Togo which is a small country in West Africa, Tonga is an even smaller country situated literally in the middle of nowhere. Not quite half-way between Australia and South America, Tonga’s one of a number of South Pacific islands boasting white sands, crystal clear waters and general lazy living. Sounds like paradise, huh? Well, you’re half right, there are parts of Tonga so beautiful it makes you never want to leave – I didn’t want to leave. But by the same token there are also parts that invoke a rather contrasting feel.
Like I said, I traveled to Tonga to visit my sister, brother-in-law and their four children – my nieces and nephew. Other than the odd Skype call it had been about four years since I’d seen any of them and I was super excited to catch up and play with the kids – two of whom I had never even met before. The plan was to arrive late in the evening from Sydney to Tonga, stay overnight and catch a boat to Fa Fa Island Resort, stay for 3/4 nights, then come back and stay a last night on the main island before flying back to Sydney – a simple plan. Interestingly the good folks at Virgin Atlantic had other ideas and decided they’d let us wait in the terminal for six hours with a few coupons to keep us company – thanks. Trying to make the most of it we lagged around Sydney Airport and somehow found ourselves strangely allured by an empty and typically uninspiring Dim Sum restaurant of which I can’t even recall the name. Anyway, they accepted our coupons which thankfully covered the majority of the tab and we left with a little less confidence in our forthcoming bowel movements and vain hope for Virgin Atlantic’s amenities aboard the four-and-a-half hour flight – please fasten your seat belts and enjoy the flight!
Economically Tonga has its’ struggles. It relies heavily on aid provided primarily from Australia and New Zealand, exporting little and relying on tourism for its’ main source of hard currency earnings. Life can be hard and this was obvious before we even got there. Standing in line to check-in at the airport and again on the way back home, the airwaves were thick with the sound of sticky-tape unravelling, encircling, encasing and safeguarding the many huge packages brought by the traveling Tongans. I’ve never heard the Tongan national anthem but I wouldn’t be surprised if the percussive element included a few ‘rips’ and ‘sticks’ of the sticky-tape shuffle. The Tongan people have a heavy dependance on the remittances from half of its’ population which actually lives abroad – mainly Australia, New Zealand and the United States. So back and forth they frequent with huge sacks, bags and whatever they can piece together with sticky-tape simply because provisions are scarce. Things are tough for my sister too. One week at the supermarket you might find some milk or pork, the next week there’s none – try again next week. A challenging hurdle if you’re planning your family meals for the week.
Despite scarcity and the everyday struggle a Tongan might face, to look at them you’d assume they lived rather lavishly. They’re MASSIVE! Honestly, the guy who picked us up from Fua’amotu Airport is literally the biggest person I’ve ever seen. Not the tallest, not the fattest, just fucken massive. I don’t think I’ve ever really been gobsmacked before but I just couldn’t pick my chin up off the ground – I was completely astounded. According to Wikipedia “Ninety percent of the nation’s population are considered overweight… with more than 60% of those obese. 70% of Tongan women aged 15–85 are obese. Tonga and nearby Nauru have the world’s highest overweight and obese populations.” Hmm… Tongans apparently love their food too! Just like me! But why are Tongans so big? Well, looking for answers online I found that coupled with their cultural love for food and eating is a high influx of cheap and high-fat content meat such as cornbeef and lamb belly rated as favourites among many locals. Also, in contrast to the stigma attached to being overweight in Western society many South Pacific cultures actually revere large bodies – interesting huh!
Do you ever get the feeling after a holiday that you haven’t really had a holiday? You get back from a trip of sight seeing and shopping and running around from this place to the next, only to be exhausted and feeling like you need a “holiday” from your holiday – that’s what I was a little worried about. Up until now I’d been rushing around LA and Hawaii, and whilst in Sydney I was working hard trying to catch up with friends and family as well as trying to take Jill around to show her the sights – I needed a holiday!!
” Welcome to Fa Fa Island Resort!!! “
This was just what I needed. One pearl in a chain of twelve offshore islands north of Nuku’alofa, the place is pure paradise. There’s nothing on the island but the resort and that only consists of thirteen bungalows (called fales), so even if it’s full to capacity you still feel like you’ve got your own little private beach. Since it wasn’t full at the time, Jill and I got upgraded to the deluxe fale where we had a private room, outdoor bathroom, hammock and entrance onto our own little stretch of beach. We were surrounded by tropical bushland with the other fales, restaurant and bar connected by little bush trails. Even with my sister’s four kids running around it still felt relaxing! I’m hesitatnt to write too much detail for fear of losing readers to a ‘jealousy max-out’, and to be honest the pictures speak for themselves. Basically, we spent our days drinking cocktails, eating food, lying in the hammock, swimming, reading, lazing by the beach and playing with the kids – it was awesome!
The food! Fuck, this is a food blog isn’t it! Umm, ok, I fucked up and didn’t take any pictures of the food so sorry. In fact based on what my sister had told me about the food on the main island I didn’t have very high hopes, but actually it was really good. We mainly ate seafood which was totally fine by me and I don’t recall having a bad meal. The standout favourite was the lobster tail we had with garlic butter – Jill’s first lobster!
I didn’t want to leave Fa Fa and Jill and I still say every now and then that we wish we were still there. It kinda reminded me of the life I led at Lucky Lake Hostel in Amsterdam. Except for the fact that Fa Fa was a tropical oasis, the lifestyle and approach of the staff felt very similar. Everyone was so nice and helpful and I can see how people can just allow eight or nine years to wash away living the comfortable island life. I could have stayed at Lucky Lake if it weren’t for our visa’s expiring – maybe I’ll do a Lucky Lake Hostel post sometime…
Anyway, we headed back to the main island for a final night in Tonga before heading home to Sydney. The first night we stayed at the Waterfront Cafe & Lodge which was actually pretty good and the rooms were fine, far better than the Sea View Restaurant & Lodge which was where we found ourselves for our final night in Tonga. Run by German couple Gudrun and Franz Strauss, the place just made me laugh. The pair were in every way nice and accommodating, but I could barely keep a straight face looking at the interior decor. It was as if Gudrun and Franz had moved there from Germany in 1970 and time had simply stood still for them. The restaurant was filled and completely cluttered with wooden carvings, water features, bits of shit hanging down from the ceiling and just about every size of plate and glass and serving dish they could get their hands on – what a nightmare! An early night ensued and we blazed a trail for the airport the next day.
The taxi from the Sea View Restaurant & Lodge to the airport was experiencing some “sliding door challenges” which was unnerving but also opened the door for me to take some quick snaps along the journey. As I leant out the door and captured a few brief moments of Tongan life, I was struck by the stark contrast between some of the buildings. On the one hand you had tin shacks and run down, pieced together buildings, and on the other hand I saw vast and well kept churches – almost on every corner! My sister had offered what insight she had of the role of religion in Tongan society, and as I looked around I felt like there was some obvious bullshit affecting the locals – all the money’s going to the church! What the fuck?
From what i can gather (and I don’t claim to be any kind of expert), religion is a very big deal here and significantly affects the local’s way of life. The Sabbath is kept holy, so much so that written into their constitution is law against trade on a Sunday except essential services but only after special approval by the minister of police – those that break the law face a fine or imprisonment. Sunday is for church and followers may find themselves attending services up to three times throughout the day! There are a few main denominations; Methodist, Roman Catholic and Anglican, but rising in popularity interestingly is the Mormon faith. So perhaps herein lies the root of my concern; Mormons are expected to regularly donate a portion of their earnings (around 10%) which is referred to as tithing. My sister tells me that on a regular basis the church will essentially call out the donations of it’s followers in public, which, depending on how much you’ve donated, will either fill you with pride or shame and judgment from other followers. No wonder all their homes look run down, they’re donating all their money to the church! This just doesn’t sit right with me. I’ve been through Catholic school and hated it. Now, I have my views on the role of religion and do think there is a place for some of its’ teachings, but to take from people that already don’t have much just so you can have a beautiful church on nearly every corner doesn’t make sense to me. This isn’t going to turn into a religious rant, it’s just an interesting take-away from my time in Tonga.
So there you have it. Tonga has its’ troubles but Fa Fa Island is amazing. Definitely recommended if you find yourself hopping around the South Pacific – say hi to Gudrun and Franz for me!
Next episode, Tokyo…