The Friendly Islands

February 28, 2020,  Kingdom of Tonga.

February 28, 2020,  Kingdom of Tonga. 

I set the alarm for 7.  It went off when my phone thought it was 7 but the ship’s clock thought it was 6.  Ship’s clock wins but so do we because as Suzi opened the curtains she said “Rich, put on some pants and grab your camera.”  I went out to the promenade deck right outside our cabin window.  It was so hot and humid the camera lens immediately fogged and the picture I got was muted, ran back to the room for a lens cloth, I had gone out without my key, Suzi let me in, and I was in and out while Suzi took pics out the window.  Welcome to the Kingdom of Tonga, the place Captain Cook named the friendly islands because the residents were so friendly.  (Our Polynesian “ambassador” told us they were secretly plotting against him behind his back.  Fortunately, he made a timely departure.)

Tonga is Polynesia’s last remaining monarchy, the royal house established a unified kingdom over the islands in the 1800s, bringing other tribal chiefs and kings under the current royal house.  Again, according to our “ambassador” this was done with the help of Methodist missionaries.  The king’s constitutional monarchy rules over just over 100,000 subjects.

We docked right off the royal palace which kind of looks like a Victorian grand hotel in Cape May, New Jersey.  We knew the king was not in because his standard was not flying.  We could see most of the capital, Nuku’Alofa, which sits on Tongatapu island.  After we docked, I took pictures from the boat while a brass band was welcoming us with “YMCA” followed by Polynesian drummers, dancers and singers.  I noted that most of the officials and dock workers were wearing facemasks.  (It was hot and by the end of the day most of the face masks were hanging loosely around the neck.)

We took a tour to a beach because everyone, even Lonely Planet, says the local bus service is unreliable.  There were tours to several beaches, we went in small buses, an airport shuttle that carried only about 20 people.  We were the only folks at our beach.

Timing is everything and our beach timing was not great.  Our guide told us it would be much better if it were in the afternoon because now was high tide and there really wasn’t much of a beach.  The high tide waves broke over the protecting reef and carried over the reef making the lagoon pretty rough.  Some people had trouble with that, especially getting in and out of the water.  One of our cruise mates had to crawl out.  We spent the better part of an hour in the water and another hour on the beach enjoying the freshly picked fruit offered to us (very small and sweet bananas and pineapple.)  From the beach we could see another island.  According to our guide the Tonga Trench ran between us and that other island, the trench is the second deepest part of the ocean, more than 35,000 feet deep.

Our guide was very thorough, pointing out anything that could be of interest on our ride to and from the beach.  “On your left is the post office, on your right a pizza restaurant, on the left a petrol station, further up on your left a parking lot.  Oh, it’s full.  Must be a lot of people visiting the hospital.”  We passed by some of the major sites, the royal palace, royal tombs, the parliament and the main town square, Raintree Square, recently re-branded as Digi-Tel Square. (Naming rights?) 

But he also told interesting stories.  There are a lot of boarding schools for kids from outlying islands.  But he went to one even though he lives on Tongatapu.  It taught him many important life skills like doing his own laundry, ironing, making his bed and helping prepare food in his dorm kitchen.  Some of the schools are run by the kingdom, several have royal patrons, but the majority are religious.  We passed Catholic, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Mormon and Tonga Community Church run schools.  Religion is very important and Sunday strictly enforced, no one works, no planes or ferries, no restaurants or schools, no sporting events.  It is all prayer and families.  Some exceptions recently were allowed because they are trying to promote a tourism industry and that requires restaurants and hotels to have some services.  But don’t try to arrive or leave on a Sunday.

He spent a good deal of time telling us about funeral practices, triggered by a cemetery on the beach that is decorated with old beer bottles.  A beer bottle collector would have a field day if he wanted to become a grave robber.  When someone dies their body is held in the morgue until family and friends from the surrounding islands can arrive.  By the time the body is released the home has been draped in purple and black bunting.  That is a sign for all neighbors to play no music, or have no games, even kids stop playing in the neighborhood, for three days.  On the first day there is church and the burial, on the next two are visits.  Unlike the Cook Islands there are no front yard graves.

He told us about the three different dialects on the island, the royal, noble and common and how and when to use them He also talked about the ranking of people withing families and societies.  His little sister has a higher rank than he.

And finally, he told us about the controversy of which we are a part.  The Health department canceled the last three scheduled cruise ship visits out of fear of the COVID-19 virus.   The tourism industry protested; they were losing their livelihood.  So, our visit was debated in Parliament.  We won.  The ship had to send all sorts of assurances, certification that no one had been in China for 14 days, where we had been, and the state of health of the complement.  We were allowed on.  We will not be so lucky on future scheduled stops.  As we left port the Captain came on line telling us that after we leave Australia we will have 7 port cancelations, one by the port for fear of COVID-19, others by Holland America because they didn’t want to be shut out of ports further along the line (the Westerdam sailed for 14 days looking for a port because she had been to Hong Kong) and one because of civil unrest.  That will be the topic of a future post.  We may not know exactly where we are headed but much of our travel has been that way (like the time we headed for the Black Hills and ended up in Churchill Manitoba or the trip to Istanbul that ended us up instead, in Montenegro. More about that in tomorrow’s post.)  No matter, we always enjoy the journey.

We set sail to music, the Tongan band, drummers, singers and dancers sent us off as we sailed into a sunset as beautiful as the sunset we sailed in with.

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