Of the four major island groups in Tonga, we visited the northernmost one called Vava'u. The numerous limestone-cliff islands provided a different kind of stimulation for the eyes compared to the atolls. We had come quite further south and the cooler temperature was a welcome change. Breathing in crisp cold air in the morning was very refreshing! As we took an evening walk through the residential part of town with Totem, the frequent sightings of pigs and adorable piglets, which apparently exceed the human population, had us all giggling.
Over the course of the following two weeks, our experience was a bit tarnished due to the ex-patriot business owners who dominate the local businesses. The morning radio net on channel 26 gave us a glimpse of the vibe of the cruiser community and ongoing issues. There's always one vocal person who likes his stage personality a bit too much and there is always at least one of those in every cruising community. One issue that seemed to be the subject of debate was regarding safe whale watching practices. While similar industry in the Pacific NW went through growing pains perhaps 20 years ago, both Canada and US currently have well-established guidelines. What we observed was that a guideline existed but it was set by the Whale Watching Association of Tonga which is not an actual authority and is composed of the eco-tour business owners -say, conflict of interest?
(Insert Mike:) This is apparently the last place on earth where you can swim with the whales. Even one of the companies is named "Endangered Encounters". While every other country with an eco-tourism industry has deemed it unwise to put tourists in the water with whales, Tongan businesses have exploited this lack of insight by the Tongan Kingdom and base their businesses on a "swim with the whales" theme. There was some tension between some cruisers and ex-pat business owners who then try to claim that is not safe for cruisers with their own boats to go and swim with the whales and that it is only safe if you pay for the service with a local operator. One would then expect, based on this argument, that the local operators have specific training or knowledge that allows safe whale viewing. Our friends on Oso Blanco who paid to go on one of these whale excursion trips reported that when the whales were found, the boat went full throttle towards the whales and these were the exact words from the boat captain: "Get in and swim as fast as you can at the whales!" Evidently, there is a double standard in practice: The whale watching company was not following their own guidelines to 1) keep the distance of 300 meters between whales and humans, 2) have a dive flag up, or 3) have no more than 4 people in the water at a time. Yet when it came to cruisers, in the name of protecting the whales, our friends in their dinghy were harassed by a whale watching boat even though they were complying with the so-called regulations.
It became obvious that these business owners view Tonga as basically the wild west where anything goes, and you grab what you can when you can. It was a very disappointing experience to see how the foreigners exploit the local Tongan resources without regard for established first-world eco-tourism practices and treat the place as a money grab without regard to the true locals or wildlife.
Another interesting but disappointing observation was regarding a capsized catamaran. A few weeks ago, a 57-foot catamaran named Ana had capsized en route to Tonga. The owners were rescued off by a freighter and their boat drifted towards Tonga. You see, there is something called salvage rights - whoever comes upon an abandoned boat may claim a finder's fee up to the full value of the boat. Although I did not hear the details, just having the radio on revealed a glimpse of the tension between the vultures out there looking for the capsized boat. Imagine being the owners of the boat, having gone through a traumatic event of having your boat capsized, having to abandon it, and be rescued. Your boat is badly damaged and it must be stressful enough moving on from there without other vultures to deal with. And for such activities to come from other cruisers!
On the contrary, none of the above were noticed when we visited various anchorages and villages away from town. Natural beauty does not hide itself and it was lovely to walk through the iron-rich red soiled islands, seeing a tapioca tree for the first time. Together with Totem and Oso Blanco, we were invited to visit the local government public schools to meet the kids and teachers and exchange gifts. The kids sang us traditional songs (and what voices they carried!!) and we left school supplies and toys. Thanks again to the Mulhollands who brought many donated items for children. We found them very useful and much appreciated by the locals we met. The children go to school in the villages until age 12. Starting age 13, they must stay find a way to live in town for the remaining school years, either by living with relatives or by having the family split during weekdays and reuniting for weekends. We learned from a man who gave us a tour that the population in these islands is decreasing as young people move to New Zealand or elsewhere for employment and take their parents with them.
Christianity is huge in Tonga. Nowhere else had we felt such presence. It was in the school uniforms, cross necklaces, and in the Sunday morning songs carried from about six different churches. We learned that the Mormon church spends more money on infrastructure than the King. We asked the local villager about Tonga's traditional religious beliefs and he answered that it is similar to the Methodist church. I did not know what to make of that.
In town, visiting the local market was probably my favorite part. I felt it was easy to make friends with the ladies at the market. It was a learning experience on how to trade our items for their handi-crafts, tapa cloths, and coconut shell bowls (for kava). On the day of departure, we were blessed to have a rare shipment of apples from New Zealand. I had not had an apple in about four weeks, since Bora Bora, and was never so happy to take a satisfactory bite into a crunchy apple. Also, thanks to Behan on Totem, in a place where yogurt was not available, we started making yogurt ourselves and enjoyed it every day. Pure joy in the simplest things!
So overall, it was a strange mix of different vibes we felt in Tonga. In our observations, we have not forgotten that there are exceptions: like the lady in town who is apparently interested in the education of the local youth and supports the library. Overwhelmingly, it was our friends that made the experience enjoyable.
Hyo-jung & M