I didn’t know what I was doing. In a bid to find a Pacific island paradise for my Kiwi friend and I to chill outus maximus, I was conducting late night Google image searches of the various options: Fiji, Rarotonga, Tonga, Niue. It was impossible to choose, they all looked the damn same. Idyllic, but the same. It was only when my eyes caught the words humpback whale swimming on the results page, and my finger’s frantic clicking confirmed that this was ACTUALLY A THING, that the search was categorically over. The whale-and-dolphin-obsessed nine-year-old inside me was vomiting at the incomprehensible coolness of it all. I emailed Rose: “We’re going to Tonga, because we can SWIM WITH HUMPBACK WHALES.”
We arrived at night from New Zealand to the tiny international airport of Fuaʻamotu, where a group of performers greeted us with a lively show of traditional music and dancing. Everything was loud and colourful; the clothes, the singing, the drums. The music was uplifting and vibrant, and I felt invigorated by the exotic sounds that I’d never heard before. My soul was transfixed by the guttural, meaty harmonies that shook my core.
Enter Tony. This was the skinny 70-something guy with a scraggy ponytail who was holding up our accommodation sign. He’s from Lancashire. Obviously. We hopped in his people carrier, which was in the same state of battery and disrepair as all the other cars we could see, and he gave us some downbeat commentary as we took in glimpses of shadowy palm trees and the shacks by the edge of the road that cropped up every few hundred metres. Tony had been on the island for 30 years. He runs Tony’s Guest House (not where we were staying) and operates tours of the island; you guessed it, Tony’s Tours. He is one of only a handful of British expats on Tonga, whose number also includes a Welshman who Tony told us claims to know him… “but I don’t know who he is!”
“There aren’t really any beaches.”
Tonga is a collection of 196 islands, with three main groups. We were on Tongatapu, part of the southernmost group and the island that hosts the capital, and we would be flying to Vavaʻu – the main island of the northern group – in two days’ time to swim with humpback whales. Tony was quick to tell us how unnecessary this was, “you can swim with whales on this island!”; share the positives of the island, “there aren’t really any beaches”, and use an interesting turn of phrase to explain the dwindling German population, “they don’t seem to replace themselves when they die out”. Welcome to Tonga.
We made it to our accommodation via Chinese-funded roads and we were introduced to Issy, though we weren’t quite sure what his role here was. And oddly, there was a sixty-something-year-old man silently scuttling behind him. We weren’t sure what his role was either, and it was so bizarre that I was relieved when he eventually spoke (in a kiwi accent) to tell us that Celina, the owner and his wife, would be back soon. On Tony’s advice, we made a dash to the shop – it turns out this is what the roadside shacks we’d seen on the way were – to purchase some water before it closed at midnight and would be shut for the entire next day – Sunday.
Celina arrived and was more forthcoming with her speech, but her plodding pace left us hanging on every word. The pauses between words were so vast that we weren’t sure when was polite to leave; it was impossible to tell if she’d finished speaking. When we did, we closed the door of our room and giggled at the strangeness of it all. Chilled out: tick. We’d learn that nothing was going to be fast here, least of all the talking.
The next morning, on Celina’s recommendation, we walked the two miles to the capital to catch a boat to a small resort island, where we were promised a nice beach and some lunch. This was a good idea largely because there was nothing else to do on a Sunday. Almost half the population of Tonga is Christian, and the first Sunday service kicks off at the ungodly (clearly subjective) hour of 5am. Nobody needs to worry about oversleeping because the church bells ring out at 4am, 4:30am, and finally at 5am (this one is more of a “you’re late”). It’s a miracle if you’ve slept through the racket of the chickens and roaming packs of dogs in the first place. At breakfast (an odd affair where Celina stood by, watching us eat our Weet-bix), Celina told us that she would be at church most of the day, but had slept through the bells (pardon?) and therefore missed the early service. We passed a large, looming church on our walk through town; gleaming white, it was seemingly on a pedestal, raised high with sweeping staircases curving around each side of its entrance. The singing that emerged sent goosebumps down my spine; it was overflowing with joy and full of the rich harmonies that had captivated me when we first landed. I began to think that the 4am start wasn’t so bonkers after all, and I suddenly wanted to be part of this local world that I was already beginning to feel was out of reach.
‘Palagi’ was the one word we understood.
Perhaps we could have just strolled in, but as tourists on Tonga, mingling with the locals never seemed to be encouraged. There were touristy things to do and there were locals living their lives, and while it was inevitable that these distinct groups brushed at the periphery, they never edged close enough to overlap. We were the palagi – white people – and many Tongans seemed to view us as wealthy aliens who were in equal parts amusing and weird; laughing and chatting about us in Tongan without realising that ‘palagi’ was the one word we understood.
After identifying our boat, and passing two recent shipwrecks on the way, we landed on what was my first experience of Pacific island paradise.
It was postcard perfect, but as I stood with my feet in the sand looking out at the waves and the equally-idyllic neighbouring islands, I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t feel something more. Here was honeymoon mecca; the kind of palm-fringed beach that people stuck in offices dream of. I’m not sure what I was expecting – overwhelming happiness, perhaps? – but I stood on the beach feeling as if I were waiting for something that never arrived. Like the washing machine engineer when you’ve booked the day off. In a nutshell, this is why I’m back in London. I realised I get happiness from people, not palm trees.
“I’m pretty hacked off, actually.”
On returning to the guesthouse that evening, I sought out Terry, Celina’s husband, to arrange a transfer to the airport for the following morning. Pretty straightforward, right? Not in Tonga. Celina was still at church and Terry was “pretty hacked off, actually” that she wasn’t back yet because “Celina is the one that sorts all of that stuff out”. Right. I made a conscious effort to respect the fact that I was on a Pacific island, and not in London (“Okay, no worries!”). It wasn’t too long before Celina returned, saying that if she couldn’t get hold of Tony, our Lancashire friend, she would personally drive us to the airport. This was sweet, but I couldn’t work out why Tony was the only other option. With this height of efficiency, it wouldn’t take Angela Merkel to work out why the Germans might be “dying out”. I felt a pang of guilt the next morning when Celina greeted us bleary-eyed at 5:30am to drop us off. At least she’d slept through the Sunday bells.
The domestic airport was basic: a few plastic chairs, a low wooden counter with a couple of check-in staff behind, and scales that you actually stand on. After standing on said scales (giggling our heads off) and being handed our ticket – a scrap of paper upon which our flight details were handwritten – we went to check out the café, by now desperate for a coffee. There was an A4 piece of paper plastered to the side of the coffee machine: “NOT WORKING”. Never mind then (I was still on a high from the hilarity of the scales, anyway).