The Kingdom of Tonga

There are direct flights from New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji to Tonga, which made me think it might be busier or more touristy than the other islands. Coming from Samoa, which has direct flights to the same places plus the US, it seemed like a tiny village, but still busier than many other islands. Tongatapu, the main island, was totally flat, so flat that the only incline I ever walked on was the stairs up to my room and down to the beach at low tide. Without any mountains, there was less rain, and I always felt like I was just around the corner from the sea.

I thought Samoans were really religious, but Tonga takes religion to another level. The Mormons had multiple churches in some villages, and apparently their mission is to make Tonga the first entirely Mormon country in the world. They wear neatly pressed white dress shirts, a tie, and a skirt, sometimes made of the traditional woven bark other Tongans like to wear. The missionaries learn to speak perfect Tongan, in order to improve their door-to-door conversions, but then teach Tongans that English is the only language they should speak, since without it, you can’t be saved (?!?!).

Mormon's going to work in their bark skirts

Mormon’s going to work in their bark skirts

Tonga is a kingdom, and the royal family lives in a bright red and white wooden ‘palace’ that looks more like an old-style British plantation house. The king doesn’t always live there, nor his family, but the last king lived in another mansion facing his mother’s estate who had access to 2 cannons facing his house (so she could blow him up if he misbehaved). The royal family encourages everyone to do nothing on Sunday except go to church, so taxis, shops, restaurants and even the airport are completely deserted. There are flights every day except Sunday, so this conservative schedule is actually imposed on the international airlines who can’t do anything about it – no one can work at the airport on Sunday.

a sunny Sunday retreat to Pangiamotu island

a sunny Sunday retreat to Pangiamotu island

The only place that may have some life are the tourist resorts, most of which are set up on their own private islet. On Sunday, I went to Pangiamotu, only 15 mins away by boat, and so did 100 other people. It was a mix of westerners, Japanese tourists, and majority Tongans, all enjoying an escape from obligatory church attendance and/or the ghost town that had become Nuku’Alofa, Tongatapu’s capital.

this is not the only 3-headed coconut tree in the world

this is not the only 3-headed coconut tree in the world

My entire visit to Tonga was facilitated by a British guy named Toni. I took Toni’s Tours airport shuttle, stayed at Toni’s guesthouse, and took Toni’s tour to the blowholes. He took me proudly to the world’s only 3-headed coconut tree, but I later found out Tuvalu has a few too. He’s lived there for more than 20 years, has a Tongan wife and owns a few houses, and he’s basically the go-to guy for any backpacker in town. The tourists are few, despite all the airplane traffic, since most people coming and going are Tongans and their relatives. Still, he runs his business, at prices no one else could match, and struggles to feed all the mouths that have latched on to him for financial support. It must be a lonely world for him there, but he says he doesn’t miss England one bit, and as long as the cashflow covers the bills, he’s not going anywhere or unadopting any kids. So If you ever make to Tonga, Toni’s your man, and you should help support his retirement in paradise.

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Samoa, part II

Samoa is a place that inspires me to write. I’m constantly thinking of things I need to remember and describe, jotting down notes on the backs of receipts and scraps of paper I know I’ve lost along the way. Even before I can get to my notepad in my iphone, I’ve forgotten something important I wanted to write down, and its been an especially annoying struggle since wifi and electricity have been nearly non-existent in the beach fales I’ve now been living in for 2 weeks. The other problem with writing too much is that you forget to take pictures… oh well.

The village life is very social, and privacy is nearly non-existent in the wall-less houses people share. They live in this structures called fales, which is just an open space surrounded by beams supporting a roof over their heads, and the concept of walls or rooms only exists in the separate toilet building. There are fales to live in, nap in, go to the beach in, and for tourists. I stayed at a fale nearly every night, each on its own beautiful plot of beach or ocean-front, and for the $30 charge, your breakfast and dinner were included. They kept getting better and better, each fale with its own charm, and it didn’t matter what direction you went or how far you traveled, you could always find a serene little fale to call home for the day.

my princess bed in the beach fale I called home for the night

my princess bed in the beach fale I called home for the night

Every village had a volleyball net, and it was common to see 10 or 20 people playing a game of volleyball. Boys had the tendency to turn anything into a rugby ball and spontaneously burst into a game of rough rugby. Samoans have their own special version of cricket where dancing and singing is actually incorporated into the game plays. I saw a few cricket pitches but never stuck around to watch a whole game… they can take days to finish! Its amazing how the tanned, silky-smooth, hairless Samoan men can dance around in flowery pink lava-lavas (“sarong” in Samoan) can still look ultra-masculine. I was mesmerized watching a group of men practice for their fiafia (a dance show), and even their blurry tattoos added to their ultra-man effect.

There haven’t been many tourists here either, but I noticed a couple of men who make a holiday home and holiday family out of some village women. There was a Canadian man in Saolufata who had 3 children with a Samoan woman, but he only visited over Christmas, since he still had a wife and some grown-up kids back in Canada. Then there was the Italian guy who walked with a cane, maybe in his mid 50’s, but he had a child here and thus an entire extended family in Fao Fao village. Ex-pat Samoans were everywhere, since more Samoans live in Australia and New Zealand than in Samoa, but they keep their language and extended family ties very strong, with regular visits and family reunions both in Samoa and abroad and don’t consider themselves tourists in Samoa.

there were more tourists in Savai'i, to see attractions like these blowholes at Alofaaga

there were more tourists in Savai’i, to see attractions like these blowholes at Alofaaga

Its cyclone season, or just the hotter-humid rainy season (there haven’t been any cyclones yet), and I don’t mind one bit since the wind blows a little harder at night (making it easier to sleep in the heat), and the touristy places are underpriced and empty. Back home I’m known as more of a social butterfly, or a “do-er”, but here, Im a loner and a lazer. I’d spend more time with people if I met anyone, but the shortage of other travelers means Im left with the locals to engage with. I love the elders and the women, when they have nothing better to do than chat with me, but the younger men are always a little pushy and too flirty, and the children don’t speak much English. But everyone will exchange a smile and a talofa (“hello”) excitedly if you smile and wave, and I can’t get over how much the children can keep on smiling and seeking your attention without being able to communicate.

I love the rain, since it means the days will cool down a few degrees and the wind may even counter-act the humidity enough that you stop being sticky and sweaty. It makes it cosier to lie under your fale and listen to the rain pound down on the coconut leaf roofs, and the mosquitos may temoporarily stop flying and attacking your blood stream. I love lying in my mosquito net, which feels more like a princess chamber in paradise, and knowing I’m finally free from the risk of dengue fever and chickungunya (they’ve had an outbreak here since 2014). I thought I had chicken goonja, but my achy joints and sore muscles were just from hiking around Apia harbor for 4 hours in the blazing hot 36` sun. The only bad thing that happened to me might have been the stray dog that peed on me… not sure how that happened but he was behind me and I didn’t see it coming.

“Fa’a Samoa,” the Samoan way

There are 2 Samoas, the American one and the Independent, western one which is better known as simply “Samoa.” It was the first independent Polynesian island after all the colonies had finished dividing them up, but its funny to see the similarities between this self-identified island (who has closer connections to New Zealand and Australia) and American Samoa, which has the same cultural, linguistic and religious histories, but American Samoa, with all their big Ford trucks and diesel Dodges, tend to look down on the Samoans for having more poverty and people. The only differences I noticed was the American Samoa was less touristy but more expensive, and Samoa was a lot more social.

Samoans were so friendly, it was actually hard to match. I felt like I never smiled big enough or at enough people, since every glance, even if for a second, was met with a big toothy smile, and kids couldn’t wipe it off until you were out of sight. Sometimes the’d repeatedly yell hello and wave, or run after you to ask you your name. The adults always waved too, even at a passing bus or car, and I wouldn’t be left alone in on the street or in a village for more than 30 seconds before someone wanted to talk to me. The normal questions went pretty much exactly like this: “Whats your name? Where are you from? How old are you? How long ar you in Samoa? Do you like it? Where did you come from? Where are you going next? Where is the mister?” So after that interview formula, they knew all they needed to know about me, and then they’d ask if I needed help or if I was lost.

I got the feeling Polynesians were quiet, private and religious people, but the rumors about them being promiscuous is certainly true too. I’ve only been plain-out offerred sex once before American Samoa, by a grounds guard at the Beachcomber hotel in Tahiti. He just casually asked if he could accompany me to my room, and I just had to act equally casual about saying no, without any shock or terror in my voice, even when he asked twice more if I was sure sure sure. It happened again in Independent Samoa, this time by one of the fiafia dancers, who I nicknamed the coconut man. He could shred a coconut in about 5 seconds with his teeth and then crack it open on his head. He opened a few for me on the beach after the show, then assumed he could sleep in my fale, but I used a nervous giggle and the single mattress and narrow mosquito net as an excuse to stay alone.

fiafia dancers practicing for a big show

fiafia dancers practicing for a big show

Samoans are really friendly and hospitable in other, more acceptable, ways, and I loved traveling there. Besides sex, the normal things to be offered were usually coffee, tea, fresh bananas or tobacco in some form. If you got in a car with someone, it was a cigarette, and if you checked into your beach fale for the night, it was a cup of warm drink. If you sat with someone in their shaded fale, it could be a banana or some rolling tobacco, and they never let me stand on the side of the road waiting for a bus in the sun, so I often ended up in a fale eating or smoking with some elders while one of their children got sent to the side of the road, waiting to flag down my bus for me.

fales on the beach

fales on the beach

Samoan’s aren’t the best chefs, especially compared to neighbouring Fiji, and the quality of products (compared to Australia and New Zealand) was mediocre, and the selection of food minimal (compared to American Samoa and its super American imported super markets). Canned corned beef and instant noodles are staples, as well as anything fried, rice and taro (a rich potatoey thing). They did have very good table manners, and often sent a child or staff to stand over you fanning your food while you ate (to keep the flies off).

If you join Samoan’s for mealtime, the evening family worship has to be taken first. I attended one family service, which was all in Samoan, but I recognized the tunes of some of the hymns, and they closed with a prayer in English, which I could actually join in on since it was the Lord’s prayer. They have church service often, both at home and in church, since each village has a church or two or three. There may only be a few families in the village, and still there’s enough of a congregation to support all the churches. They’re all different denominations too – Catholic, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mormon, and even Baha’i’. Its amazing that it’s already the church capita of the world, and still I saw missionaries around. I don’t know who they’re saving, but it looked like they must have been Mormons trying to convert the already redeemed souls.

American Samoa

Samoa and American Samoa are part of the same island chain, with similar language, history and cultural traditions, but one is an American Territory, and independent Samoa is more closely connected to Australia and New Zealand. This makes them worlds apart, though they’re only a short ferry ride or plane ride away, with different cars driving on different sides of the road and noticeably less tourism in American Samoa. Even the International Date Line separates the Samoas, and the 1 day and 1 hour time difference is pretty confusing (especially when you’ve only travelled for 35 mins), but works great if you want to skip a day (like a dead quiet Sunday) or have a day twice (like New Years Eve).

My  new years eve party deck

My new years eve party deck

I actually did both, though my new years eve in American Samoa was much quieter than the one in Auckland. There were no fireworks, no music… not even a countdown or a crowd. It was like they were purposely ignoring this perfect time to celebrate, and instead every church in American Samoa was filled with people for their night services. But, they ended before midnight and people disappeared quietly back to their homes, and it seemed as if no one cared the year was ending and a new one just beginning. I ended up sitting on the balcony of my beach bungalow drinking half a glass of red wine alone, watching the time on my phone turn to 00:00 while a cloudy moon gently reflected off the oceans’ waves to add a little sparkle to the moment.

Tisa's bar nestled in the trees on her private beach

Tisa’s bar nestled in the trees on her private beach

I stayed at Tisa’s barefoot bar, and didn’t leave much in the 4 days I had there. The first 3 days were all holidays, and then it was a Saturday, so not much was open or happening… except a lot of church services and rainfall. I spent nearly half a day at the Pago Pago airport because the flight I was on had “too many big people” on it, so the luggage was too much excessive weight and they flew my bag over 3 hours later The taxi driver who took me to Tisa’s only wanted to talk about inappropriate, promiscuous subjects (like the naked Chinese girls who like to dance on boats and the Fijian customer he had sex with at the airport), and when I was just about ready to jump out of the truck, we finally got to Tisa’s and the owner himself was at my door before I even opened it. They only drive at 10-20 miles an hour (I’ve never seen people drive slower! The roads that weren’t even that bad), so I could have just dropped and rolled out the door, but I had all my luggage with me and it was dark, and he did just flat out ask me if I wanted sex and accepted my “no” without any persistence.

rainy Pago Pago

rainy Pago Pago

Besides that, most of my American Samoa visit was safe and peaceful. I lived in a wooden bungalow on a private beach, had breakfast cooked every morning for my by a man called Candyman, and drank a glass of wine with Tisa or the other guest each evening. Carolina was also staying there, an American who wanted to hike the national park trails on the island, but unfortunately she wasn’t much for new years parties.

Some Kiwi stories

I wonder if I should bother to write a blog about Auckland, since I should rather write ten or none, but here goes one (very) long one. I didn’t plan on going to New Zealand, since I’d already been there back when I lived in Australia, but I realized there was no way to get from the Cook Islands to neighbouring Niue… or Samoa, or Fiji, or anywhere else except through New Zealand. In Rarotonga, the main island of the Cooks, I met 2 people who pretty much set up my whole New Zealand experience.  First was Bjorn, the British-Kiwi guy who has a super Icelandic name. He’s a dancer, a very good dancer, and had a very pretty friend named Amber, who was also an amazing dancer. She met up with me in Auckland for Sunday night salsa dancing, and we salsa’d, zouked and tangoed our little butts off.

that sand is hotter than it looks

that sand is hotter than it looks

I stayed with Amber and her family for a couple of nights, went beaching to some super-hot-black-sand beaches, and attended her friend’s house warming party where the focus of the night was watching the movie “Love Actually” and getting into the holiday spirit. An ever-abundant source of chocolate-dipped strawberries, Lindt chocolates, champagne, and cider helped too. On boxing day, I went to the races with my couchsurfer and his friends, and Auckland already started to feel smaller when I ran into the house-warming host at the Ellerslie race course, where she was Ms. Ellerslie (go figure, she was blonde and beautiful).

I couchsurfed with 4 or 5 nights with Wade, possibly the nicest 30 year old guy in New Zealand, with the friendliest mouthful of braces I ever saw. His front lawn and adjoining neighbours had become the rearing ground for some baby ducks, and my room had a little balcony looking over them. Wade and his friends also took me to some boiling-hot-black-sand beaches and accompanied me to the races (where we won lots of money…. well not lots, but some, and lost some money we won when our winning ticket blew away from the 3rd storey stands).

The second important person I meet in the Cook Islands was Gaylene, a hostel neighbor who donated all her and her friends’ food and alcohol when they left a day earlier than I. The others still at the hostel feasted on eggs and bacon breakfast and vodka raspberry cocktails with me, and I decided I had to visit her and somehow return the karma. Instead of being able to repay any of her hospitality except cooking a few meals, she showered me with more beautiful surprises and Christmas gifts and the love of her whole family.

Raewyn on her competition horse Tahi

Raewyn on her competition horse Tahi

She lives on a small farm with her mom Raewyn, a handful of sheep and cows, and 4 horses. Yes, 4 horses! And one of them was a grey, purebred Arabian – I had hit the jackpot. When he didn’t buck me off and could keep up with Raewyn’s endurance competition horse, we decided to take him to his own competition. We placed third in the 20 km race, and Raewyn won first in her 50km. We rode some more trail rides in the forest and on the coast, and my last ride with her was a 30km day in the rain on a never-ending black sand beach. I was in heaven.

Franklin street christmas lights

Franklin street christmas lights

I met some more ponies along the way – a 1 day old Friesian foal and Wade’s best friends’ girlfriend’s eventing horses. I was happy as. My allergies were not, but at least Auckland has pharmacies. It was just beginning to be full-on summer in the city, so there was tons of pollen floating around and freshly cut grass to tear up my eyes. The weirdest part of summer here is that Christmas marks the start of it, and the last thing I think of doing in summer is decorating pine trees or drinking eggnog. People still get into the holiday spirit, and there’s one famous street where nearly every house tries to out-do the next with bigger and brighter lights, nativity scenes, Santa Clauses and reindeers, and mistletoes to kiss under (complete with a candid camera).

Christmas lunch

Christmas lunch

My Christmas was spent with Gaylene and her family on the beach in Coromandel, a beautiful peninsula a couple hours drive from Auckland. On Christmas Eve, I had baileys and coffee for breakfast and Raewyn and I went riding on the beach. Then we set up our tents at the beach house where 12 others joined us, barbequed a feast fit for kings, and drank baileys for desert while playing card games. Christmas day was much the same, and we barbequed breakfast too. We opened our gifts in the morning, and I couldn’t believe the stack of presents with my name on it, in this family where I had just days before been a complete stranger. After a short break came champagne and chocolates and Christmas poppers for lunch, but then we ran out of room for dinner.

I had lots of good food while in New Zealand, and the lamb was nearly as good as Icelandic lamb, but the fish and chips were better. Apparently they say “fush’n’chups” but I finally started to pick out the difference between Aussie and Kiwi accents but I cant quite hear the “u” in fish or chips. Whittaker’s chocolate bars, in all their glorious flavours, were definitely a favourite, and I’ve never eaten more chocoloate in 3 weeks than I did in New Zealand over the holidays.

I did some solo-traveling up north Paihia and Russell, camping for a couple nights in a tent I bought in New Caledonia for 13 euros and a $400 feather-down sleeping bag that I found on the side of the road (I washed it, don’t worry). It probably fell off the back of someone’s’ motorcycle, and a little yellow snail had claimed it, but I figured I’d get more use out of it than him.

quaint little Russell, the first capital of New Zealand

quaint little Russell, the first capital of New Zealand

New Years eve was spent in Auckland, and it was the only night in 3 weeks that I had to sleep in a hostel dorm bed. I only slept in it for 2 hours, so it was kind of a waste of $25, but I ended up wondering the streets, wharf, and bars all evening and night with a UBC alumni named David. At midnight, we drank pink champagne under an exploding sky tower and kissed, just for fun, and then we spent the rest of the night chasing down Tinder girls he had matched with since they were all at different bars and we wanted to bar hop. When he found one he liked, I snuck away to take my hostel power nap, and then dragged my feet to an 8 am flight to American Samoa… where I could do it all again.