Tonga Tale

Which of the following can you do in Tonga?

Eat tapas at a Basque tavern

Swim with humpback whales

Attend a transvestite show

Win free beer

A little background:

Tonga is a kingdom of 107,000 people in the South Pacific. It consists of over 170 islands in three groups spread from north to south over approximately 500 miles. Like other South Pacific nations, it has a history of incursion by foreign powers and by Christian missionaries. Unlike other South Pacific nations, it managed to fend off the colonialists and has remained a hereditary monarchy, now ruled over by King Tupou VI. Tongan and English are the two main languages, and though tourism is not well developed, the main island in the middle group, Vava’u, with a population of 15,000, is a popular stop for cruisers. The anchorage is probably one of the best we have visited, almost landlocked, spacious and serene.

Corroboree in Vava’u harbor

We quickly discovered that Tonga is a place of surprises.

Take the Basque tavern. The main city on Vava’u is Neiafu, and though you can walk the downtown street in less than 10 minutes, you can, in the same distance, dine at Basque and Italian establishments, three eclectic waterfront restaurants with enticing vegetarian options, and a Chinese takeout. You can eat nachos made with taro chips, pizza, curry, and stir-fry and sip an Australian sauvignon blanc or a Tongan beer. A fish-and-chips houseboat is moored in the middle of the anchorage. Rarely have we come across such a range of culinary choices in such close proximity, and we sampled our share. We accompanied the tapas—a Mediterranean salad, a creamy potato salad and feta-stuffed red peppers—with sangria and a game of pool at the restaurant’s pool table.

We did not swim with the humpback whales. But you can—it is one of the main tourist attractions here. Local small boat operators take groups of humans just offshore to mingle in the water with the migrating leviathans. We are told you can approach within yards of them, including mothers with calves. But while we recognize that this is a boost for the Tongan economy, after thirteen years as whale watch volunteers in St. Augustine it just didn’t feel right. In the United States, it is illegal to come within 500 yards of the endangered North Atlantic right whales, and though no such prohibition exists regarding the humpbacks here, we can’t forget that these are huge, wild creatures that are capable, whether intentionally or accidentally, of inflicting great harm. There is also no way of knowing what stress our presence might be causing them.

But we have seen the whales. Oh, have we ever! En route from Samoa to Vava’u, we stopped midway at the tiny island of Niuatoputapu, nicknamed “New Potatoes,” at the northernmost tip of the Tongan group. From shore we saw the humpbacks breaching on the horizon, their huge blunt shapes lunging out of the water like torpedoes. We also observed numerous blows. Sailing out that afternoon, a whale tail flipped up and disappeared a stone’s throw from us, and far off we saw as many as three blows at a time. Counting conservatively, we spotted perhaps a dozen whales total that day. Here again, some sailboats deliberately go out to find them. No thanks. Back in Tahiti we met a sailboat that unintentionally crossed paths with a whale, and the impact was so strong it pushed the propeller, shaft and transmission into the bell housing of their engine and shattered it. We saw the skipper working on the broken pieces on the dock. They don’t know what happened to the whale.

It’s a big day when the once-monthly supply ship arrives at New Potatoes (population 900). Just on the horizon is where we saw the humpback whales.

We did attend a transvestite show. We walked into one of the waterfront restaurants to inquire about their menu and movie night, and there on the chalkboard was the announcement: Transvestite Show Wednesday Night. Never having been to such an entertainment anywhere, how could we resist? It turns out the performance has been running weekly for thirteen years, and the show presented four costumed performers strutting, posing, dancing and flirting outrageously with the audience while lip-syncing to popular songs. The audience of about twenty people stuffed bills into their bodices, and we did, too. The logical part of my mind is still trying to puzzle out why it was so hilarious. Would it be so funny if women dressed as men twined themselves around the spectators? I don’t know, but the fact is, it was hilarious, and the audience roared with laughter.

I missed the moment of Eric stuffing a bill into the performer’s bodice but you can see his reaction

What makes this still more interesting is that where the foreign political powers failed to take over, the missionaries thoroughly succeeded, and Tonga, like other South Pacific nations, is highly Christian. Yet these “effeminate men,” as they are called, appear to be openly accepted. In Samoa, where they are called “fa’afafine,” the tourism booklet even devotes a page to them and encourages visitors to attend one of their shows. In addition to being performers, they run government departments and successful businesses, and the prime minister is a patron of the Samoa Fa’afafine Association. The brochure does note that while Samoan culture respects fa’afafine, “Western culture through religious influences does not” and that “different villages and districts treat fa’afafine differently.” Nevertheless, in the days after the Tonga show, I twice saw men in dresses and makeup in the local shops and no one batted an eye.

Then there’s the free beer, which we won in a quiz night at a popular bar. Teamed with an Aussie couple who run a B&B here, we aced the other four teams, and Eric and I scored on two bonus questions as well. Reward: two free Makas for each of us, the local Tongan brew. A few nights later Eric did an open mic stint at another restaurant. Though it was not the best venue for his type of songs, it was a valuable experience upon which to build. Don’t be surprised if by the time we get to New Zealand, he is a full-fledged street troubadour.

View from atop Mt. Talau

Taro farm

We also did several hikes and climbed to the top of Vava’u’s highest “mountain,” 131-metre Mt. Talau. On the way we passed some children on recess at their school. On seeing us, they swarmed to the fence, shouting hello and demanding to know our names. We tried to get their names in return and to learn if any of them had visited the United States, but it was impossible to make out individual replies amidst the clamor. When I asked if we could take their picture, they immediately began mugging, posing and flashing the peace symbol. Note the little scamp in the center, sticking out his tongue.

Tongan schoolchildren

More and more we’re finding that in visiting a new place, it’s best to set aside any preconceptions and expectations you may have and simply be open to whatever comes. Every day is an adventure.

Thanks for a terrific time, Tonga!