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Tonga: Tongan people

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Tongan people | Tonga | Oceania

[Visited: September 2012]

When reading about Tonga before I touched down, I had seen the motto "Friendly Island" several times - and discarded it as one of those slogans used by tourist offices around the world to promote their country. Actually, the term was dubbed by Captain Cook on his first visit (not knowing that those friendly people who offered him and his crew a lavish meal only did so to be able to kill them), and the label has sticked to our days. It was quite soon after I started walking the streets of Nuku'alofa just after I arrived, that I started realizing that there is a lot of truth behind the words. I was amazed at how peope would greet me in the streets, showing their most charming smile, stopping for questions out of genuine curiosity, helping me if I needed it, being more than willing (and often even thankful) if I asked them to take their picture, and never being pushy in any way.

Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Young boys posing in a street of Neiafu on Vava'u island

Before I knew it, I enjoyed being among Tongans as much as doing things or seeing the country; being with them actually equalled seeing the country, experiencing it, living it. The Tongan way to share touched me, and I by giving something back, I hoped I lived up to their norms. On the very first day, it looked like I was stranded, as there were no more buses going back to Nuku'alofa. A policeman took me in his car to his station, and helped me find a ride back to town; the driver even took me right to the place I wanted to go. Walking past a school, asking if I could have a look inside, made the teacher set her students to work, sit down with me and share a few mangoes that the kids had brought in from the big mango tree that morning. Standing next a boy peeling an orange: even before he would have a bite, he would offer me first. Tongans appear to have a good sense of humour, too: walking on a beach, I found a few girls posing for pictures, and it was just natural to start a conversation when one of them asked me if I would want to be on a picture with the most beautiful girl of the island. When I reached the far north of the island of Vava'u, I came across a guy with sizable tattoos, a menacing look, a well-built body, and not least a big machete hanging from his shoulder: in any other circumstance, he would impose some sort of fear. Here, in this isolated spot in the woods of northern Vava'u, however, we had a very friendly chat, in which he announced himself as being the next Messiah, wanting me to become king, so that we could make the north of the island a better place. Or there was this ride I was offered without asking; a very friendly guy driving me back to Nuku'alofa from Houma when the last bus had already passed. We quickly got involved in such a lively chat, in which he told me many things about Tonga, and was curious to know more about my own country; not only did he drop me off at my guesthouse, but he even offered a sweet smelling frangipani-necklace which I gladly accepted, and used to chase away the muff air in my room.

Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Dressed up in the traditional Tongan dress in the streets of Nuku'alofa

Those are just a few examples of the amazing, genuine kindness of the Tongans. But the most intense experience I had on the ferry back from Vava'u to Nuku'alofa. Instead of being just a way to get back to the main island, it turned out to be a great socializing event. Even before we left, it dawned on me that I was the only palangi (foreigner) on the boat, and people regularly came to me for a chat, while I tried to console a woman who seemed heartbroken to leave the island behind. While we were leaving the green islands of the photogenic archipelago behind, the talks continued, until I was the only one out on dekc: the Tongans were all inside, either sleeping or watching a boxing match on TV screens. I stayed out because I wanted to see sunset, and was duly rewarded when a pod of whales passed by just as the clouds were turning from orange to grey. When I later took a place next to an old man lying on the wooden deck under a tent-like structure, hoping I could sleep on the hard floor. Drops of water woke me up after two hours: the roof under which we were lying, was almost giving way to a relentless rain falling with force on it. There was plenty of space, and we moved a little to a dryer area, where we eventually fell asleep after a long wait in Ha'apai. After a few more hours, I was woken up by someone tapping on my ass, after which the arm embraced me, and took my hand. I had been pretending to be asleep until then, even though it now dawned on me that we had docked again, as there was a lot of noise all around of women chatting loudly, laughing, and getting settled on the floor. When I turned around to see who had decided to hold me in my sleep, I looked into a big smile belonging to an older Tongan woman. When I took her hand in return, the tent filled with laughter. The next few hours, the women did not stop to sing religious songs; sleeping was impossible. I was offered another cup noodles, and saw the bag of chips I had bought before disappear: sharing goes either way and is almost automatic. I could only laugh about it. Every song was applauded by the women themselves with a loud Malo; in the end, another old lady stood up, and started dancing in an explicit way. The woman who had been courting me, stood up, and showed that she, too, had some dancing talent: she gave a pole-dancing show with gestures and looks that did not leave much to the imagination, that drew lots of other passengers to our deck tent, and that ended in total hilarity in which especially the younger girls were screaming with laughter. On top, the women were rewarded by others putting money into their bras. I was surprised: so far, I had the impression that Tongans are quite conservative, and prudish, and had never expected this. In other circumstances, it could have been a very exciting show to watch; but the old woman with the regular Tongan features was merely great fun. They got off at Nomuka, but in the hours after that, many others came to talk to me, mentioning the dancing they had heard about: rumour spreads fast, also in Tonga. After all the positive experiences with Tongans, I now somehow felt initiated to their inner circle.

Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Tongan girls on the boat from Tongatapu to 'Eua island
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Girl in Mu'a posing for a picture with flower in her hair and cell phone in her hand
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Young boy posing for the camera on Ofu island
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Girls posing for a shot in Nuku'alofa
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Posing for a picture on one of the many beaches on Vava'u island
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): A nail job well done on this Tongan girl
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Girl dressed up in traditional Tongan dress in a dance event
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Granddaughter in the arms of granddad in 'Utulei
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Friendly inhabitant of Ofu island
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): All those muscles, and the machete on top - a fearsome man and the next messiah
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Kids at school in Ofu island
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): My wife for a few hours on the ferry between Vava'u and Tongatapu
Picture of Tongan people (Tonga): Market woman on the market of Neiafu

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