Sailing to Tonga
We met dolphins, almost run over a great big sea turtle resting on the surface of the sea, and landed a 6-kilogram dorado or mahi-mahi- two names for the same big ocean fish with beautiful golden-green skin and white delicate flesh. Our dinner for the next four days.
We crossed the dateline, which is a very confusing event. The Dateline is running from the North Pole to the South Pole, passing through the middle of the Pacific Ocean, following the 180° line of longitude, and demarcating the change of one calendar day to the next. From Tuesday, we sail directly into Thursday, skipping an entire Wednesday, and finding ourselves in the Domain of the Golden Dragon. Sailors, who cross the International Dateline enter the Domain of the Golden Dragon; those who have crossed the Equator are no longer Slimy Pollywogs, and become Trusty Shellbacks, and those who pass through the Panama Canal belong to the Order of the Ditch- all honors we now proudly possess. But this does not change the fact that an entire day has been lost beyond recovery because of an invisible imaginary line.
Two hours before sunset, the first islands of the vast Tongan archipelago begin to pop up from the ocean on the western horizon. It has been 48 hours since we are slowly motor-sailing with wind between 6 and 10 kts behind us, rarely reaching 16 kts, covering 210 from the 230 nautical miles passage from Niue to Vava’u- Tonga’s northern island group. We have been using our engines a lot more lately, since we crossed the Pacific. We are no longer “purists” strictly sailing, dropping and lifting anchor and even catching moorings on sail, spending 50 dollars for fuel annually. We have become “normal”, trying to avoid bad weather and bad situations even if it means motoring and spending more money for fuel. A storm has been predicted- the first for the season, so we want to make sure we are safely at anchor before it hits after a day or two, even if this means 20-30 hours of engine.
Only 20 NM to go. With average speed of 4-5 kts we will have to navigate in complete darkness for a few hours between invisible reefs and shadows of islands. Ivo is watching closely the chart plotter with Garmin charts, the backup on the i-pad with Navionics as well as OvitalMap showing Google Earth view of the area with our GPS position- a great software for the South Pacific. We slow down as we approach the reef pass and it gets shallow. The sea is calm. We proceed carefully without problems. The charts are spot-on.
At 9 o’clock in the evening we enter a deep very protected bay near the first of the Vava’u Group islands- Pangaimotu. It’s completely dark on a cloudy moonless night. We can see a few boats sleeping in the night without anchor lights or any other lights. The more we approach the anchorage, the more boat silhouettes appear closer and closer, dark and lifeless, barely visible. Of about 20 boats only a couple have anchor lights! The rest are almost completely invisible. Both Ivo and I are bitching about it as we are dropping anchor in a tight spot between two monohulls. Once we are done dropping anchor a guy in a dinghy shows up telling us in a very friendly manner that this is a paid mooring field, that boats on moorings don’t need to turn on anchor lights, as they are not at anchor, and that we should reanchor further away from the moorings. We do that and go to sleep. It might be legal and according to the rules to have your boat moored without a single light at night but it also seems stupid and risky to me. Is it because it’s called “anchor light” and not “mooring light” that the law allows this? I wonder how many of these dark invisible vessels have been run over at night, causing damage not only to themselves, but to the unsuspecting arriving vessels.
The next day we meet once again our friend Kim Philley aboard S/V Philiosophy and he introduces us to the cruising community in the bay. Every Saturday evening these guys organize potluck BBQ on the beach. They are great people, experienced sailors, full of stories and good advice, some have been around the world twice. I just wish they turned on a small, economic LED light at night…
We remain in the bay of Pangaimotu for the weekend. It is a hurricane hole tucked in between islands and reef, protected from wind and waves in all directions, and a perfect place to ride out the storm we are expecting to hit any minute. But the storm hits the islands of Samoa some 300 nautical miles north of Tonga and all we get is rain. Buckets of it!
The day after the big rain it’s sunny and the world is beautiful again. Time to step on land in Tonga for the first time in our lives.
Being for the first time in a new unfamiliar place, of which we are not a part, is always very exciting and somewhat uneasy and overwhelming. We are visitors in a new country and everything is interesting.
The Kingdom of Tonga is an archipelago of 169 coral, limestone and volcanic islands of which only 36 are inhabited by some 100,000 people (most of them on the main island of Tongatapu). With total land area of about 750 square kilometers scattered over 700,000 square kilometers of sea in the southern Pacific Ocean, Tonga is divided into three main groups – Vava’u, Ha’apai and Tongatapu. Its neighbors are Niue to the east, Kermadec (part of New Zealand) and New Zealand to the southwest, Fiji and Wallis and Futuna (France) to the northwest, New Caledonia (France) and Vanuatu to the farther west, Samoa to the northeast, and Tuvalu and Kiribati further north-northwest.
Tonga has been nicknamed the Friendly Islands since 1773, when Captain James Cook first visited the area and was warmly received by the local people at the time of the Inasi festival, the yearly donation of the First Fruits to the Tuʻi Tonga (the islands’ paramount chief). There was a failed plot by the local chiefs to kill Cook, but they didn’t do it and he never found out, and so the islands remained “friendly”.
From 1900 to 1970, Tonga’s status was that of a British protected, with the United Kingdom looking after its foreign affairs under a Treaty of Friendship. But throughout history, Tonga never relinquished its sovereignty to any foreign power and remained the only Pacific nation to retain its independent status as a traditional kingdom. And even during the colonial period, Tonga has always governed itself, which makes it unique in the Pacific.
Meeting Hina in Pangaimotu
From the bay of Pangaiotu, we walk up on a steep paved road cutting through lush farmlands. Tall coconut palms, banana and papaya trees dominate the rolling hills with green cassava and taro plantations. The air is still, the land is dry and silent in the intense heat of the island’s interior.
We seek the shades on the side of the road and stop to rest under an old mango tree. A little further, the first houses of a village begin to appear. Humble homes with vast flowering gardens, populated by chickens and pigs. Graves with white crosses and flowers lie in front of each house. It’s noon. The shades have shrunk and the sun is burning hot. Dehydrated, we pause once again on the side of the road, not far from a white church. Surely, we will meet people here and maybe a car will pass and give us a ride to the big city of Neiafu on the other side of the island.
A woman’s voice is calling us from the blue house across the road. She is waving at us making a sign with her hand to go to her, offering us water. There may be a restaurant at her place, I’m guessing, or maybe the woman wants to sell us something, like the locals in so many other places we’ve been to, who always try to sell us something. We have to be careful. So often people invite you and show you things and then ask for money. You can tell when people are honest and have good intentions- it’s something in the way they talk and smile at you, something in the way they approach you with caution and respect, something in their eyes that defines them as genuine and trustworthy. This woman- the first Tongan human being we meet- has such eyes. All about her is bright and calm and beautiful. Her name is Hina.
There is no door in the low fence around her house, so we have to climb over it. No, there is no restaurant and Hina is not trying to sell us anything. She saw a man, a woman and a girl, strangers in her village, in the heat of the noon, and offered them shade, water and friendship in the form of the most infinite famous around the world Tongan Hospitality. From the moment we entered her home and met her daughters and sons, from the moment we sat on the mat of her porch and accepted a cup of refreshing fruit juice, from the moment we told her our names, so hard to pronounce and remember, we became Hina’s guests of honor and best friends.
Hina’s home is clean and humble, consisting of one big spacious living room, almost empty, with no other furniture than a cabinet along the wall and a TV on a small table. No dining table, no couch or chairs. The walls are covered with family portraits. In the back, there are a couple of bedrooms, which we didn’t see, and an open floor kitchen with a stove and a table. The big front porch looking towards the street is on the west side of the house and the pleasant shade there will soon be chased away by the afternoon sun.
Hina works at the big market in Neiafu, a few kilometers away, selling souvenirs and hand-crafted baskets she makes. We promise to visit her there, as we will be sailing to Neiafu the next day, where we have to check-in in Tonga officially. Normally, visiting yachts are required to check in immediately upon arrival, but a day or two later is usually acceptable in many countries we’ve visited. Ah, so maybe Hina is so friendly with us, because she is trying to sell us her souvenirs, I suspect. But when we do visit her at the market the next day, she greets us like royalties, with hugs and kisses, and insists on giving us small souvenirs- two shell necklaces for me and for Maya, and wouldn’t accept our money! She wants me to choose and take for free one of her baskets as well. I can’t accept, this is too much. It takes her a few days of hard painful work to make one basket. But I am happy to learn how to weave and make my own basket.
Becoming my friend and teaching me traditional basket-weaving is the greatest gift Hina gave me. Spending a few days with her in the cool shade of the covered market, sitting quietly, getting to know each other, sharing lunch- these are the most intimate and beautiful moments of my Polynesian experiences. It’s quiet at this time of the weekday in the gifts and souvenirs corner of the market. It’s dim when you enter from the sunny street and your eyes need some time to get used to the darkness. The long tables are covered with wooden figurines and carved masks, jewelry made of seashells and pearls, and all sizes of woven baskets and traditional ornamental girdles. A few women sit near their tables, waiting for customers, weaving. I am sitting next to Hina in the far corner of the vast shed. We are both working on our baskets, silently. The place is quiet like a cathedral. Like in a dream, Hina starts singing – a soft, gentle beautiful tune in her strange Tongan language, in which a simple word like “hello” makes your tongue dance- “malo e lelei”. I hold my breath as if a fragile butterfly has just landed on my shoulder and I don’t want it to fly away. Observing it with the corner of my eye, I want to perceive and remember each detail of this short moment of my life.
Sunday Celebration and Umu
Hina invites me, Ivo and Maya to a traditional Sunday celebration and feast at her house.
- I will make umu for you, the food of Tonga, for you to try. – says Hina.
Her English is not very good, but we understand each other perfectly. I ask if we can pay for some of the ingredients she will use to prepare the food on Sunday- five kinds of meat, taro, cassava and sweet potatoes, fish, lobsters and oysters, fresh fruits and vegetables. Her family has a plot of land not far from her house, in the fields we passed on our way when we first walk to her village, and they are producing most of the root crops, fruits and vegetables, as well as peanuts, which they sell. But most of the meat, fish and oysters she has to buy from her neighbors or the market. But she is not accepting my money offer. She is inviting us as friends at her house, not as customers.
After a bit of negotiating, I convince Hina to invite also our friends from another boat- a French family with three adorable kids and a young crew member aboard S/V Excallibur (six people in total); to make a big feast and accept a little money per person (for her food expenses), and our gifts (some school materials for her kids, clothes and dry food products). She likes the idea.
Sunday morning, we are ready to go. We have arranged for a taxi for nine people from Neiafu to Pangai to pick us up from the port at 8 o’clock. Ten minutes later we arrive in Hina’s house. She is happy to see us, as always, and already busy preparing the umu. She greets us with a platter of pineapple, papaya and mango fruits and fresh juice. Her two daughters- the most beautiful young college girls we met in all of Tonga studying to become nurses, are helping wrapping goat meat, pork, beef, fish and oysters in taro leaves, with chopped onions and coconut milk. Preparing the food is traditionally the women’s task.
In the meantime, Hina’s husband and two boys, prepare the underground umu or “earth oven”, which is the men’s task. They put some large rocks inside a hole in the ground in the backyard and make a fire on top. When the fire burns down and the rocks get really hot, they place large banana leaves on top and put the food inside the hole. All the meat wraps, as well as the yams, taro and cassava. Then they place some more banana leaves on top to keep the heat and cover the hole.
After this, everyone goes in the house and gets changed for church. The women put on long colorful dresses ornamented with a kiekie -a handcrafted girdle. Maya gets a golden dress and I chose a bright red one with large flowers- the best clothes our hosts possess.
The men wear clean shirts with tropical flower prints, long dark skirts and the Ta’ovala- a traditional woven mat used for all formal occasions. Ivo, Nicolas and his two sons look totally insane wrapped in the skirts and the straw mats, which also turn out to be rather uncomfortable. It’s a jolly commotion choosing and putting on the Tongan clothes; we are almost late for church!
While the food remains in the underground umu oven slowly cooking for hours, we all go to church, a few meters away from the house. But we have to hurry up; Hina is a bit nervous, as she sings in the church choir and want to be on time. I remember her beautiful voice.
Since Christianity arrived about 200 years ago, the vibrant tradition of unaccompanied choir singing has been established in Tonga. In the late 19th century, missionaries introduced hymns popular in England and Australia, keeping the Western tunes but translating the lyrics into the Tongan language.
The church bells ring and everyone is already inside as we arrive and take our places in the back. There are about fifty people, young and old, all dressed in their Sunday best. They all sing the most beautiful church music imaginable. Young and old women voices ring with acoustic, joined by powerful male voices in perfect harmony. We listen to the long and very fiery cerement of the priest delivered entirely in the Tongan language. It seems as if he is accusing us of some horrible sins, screaming and gesturing very seriously at us. And I mean- at our group of visiting white people. The congregation is respectfully silent. I think, we will burn in hell for being late, or because the kids got bored after two hours, or because Ivo looks ridiculous in traditional ta’ovala, or for some other unforgivable sin we have surely committed.
After church, family and guests go back to the house. The men take the food out of the umu oven and the women place it on a table made of banana leaves. After a prayer to bless the food, the feast begins.
Watch the short video about our beautiful friend Hina in Tonga and the Sunday feast. Tonga’s Underground Cuisine
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