09 September 2011

Top 5 memorable things about visiting Tonga

Buying fai kakai (Tongan sweets) at the market
We have just returned from arguably one of the greatest three weeks of our last few years: hosting our first visitors to Tonga, my parents and brother. From the rainy night they arrived and we ushered them home to our little house-on-stilts to eat lu and sweet potato to the tearful farewells at midnight at the Auckland airport three weeks later, we managed to see a huge number of things in Tonga and New Zealand, and -miraculously- had a relaxing time throughout. 

Making lu at home
Upon their return to the Northwest (US) and ours to Tonga, we asked them to tell us the 5 things they will remember most clearly about Tonga- and they gave us 15. "There were so many memorable things about Tonga," they wrote "that we had a hard time keeping it to only 5, so we did 5 each!"

Asa, my younger brother, gave me his top five while we were chatting on google chat one day last week. 
Asa, looking cool

At eighteen, he's just about to start his first year of university in the US after living for roughly the last eight years in Brazil. The most memorable thing, he told me, was meeting the people we work and have fun with:

1. Meeting the colleagues of Elena and Mark
In Asa's words, "I
 think that really the most memorable [thing about visiting] is being able to put faces to names and experiences to a lot of what we've read about in the blog and from what we've heard from you." He liked seeing Tonga Development Bank from the inside, checking out where Mark works at the Free Wesleyan Education Office, and browsing handicrafts at Langafonua GalleryHe's also a faithful reader of our blog, and was excited "to see where everything we've been reading about for the last 2 years has happened."

The whole family with Leta and Sina at TDB

Standing outside the FWC offices with Asinate

2. Eating Tongan food
Asa's favourite was lu, the taro-leaf wrapped meat baked with onions and coconut milk, saying "the 'lu itself is delicious" referring to the taro leaves, also called lu. In explanation, "the meat is also really good, but taro leaves and coconut milk.....mmmmmmmmmmm."
He also enjoyed baked fish in coconut milk, Tongan sweet potatoes, and fried breadfruit chips.
An unloaded 'umu (underground oven), made permanent in a recycled (clean) oil drum
Sunday lunch? As Asa said "mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...."
3. Kayaking to church on 'Ofu island
For several days during the trip, we stayed on a small island in the larger archipelago dottings of islands that make up Vava'u, the northern group of islands in Tonga. Never to be put off by the limitations of land, we kayaked to the neighboring island of 'Ofu that Sunday to enjoy their Free Wesleyan church service. Asa said he'll remember the singing, especially, "the great harmony completely unguided by instrumental accompanyment."
Asa in his kayak
Changed out of our wet clothes and ready for the service
Each verse is read before singing it so everyone knows the words
4.Learning a war dance with Mele
One stop on our rounds to meet colleague friends was at Langafonua, where they had a great time meeting the staff, and learning a dance with Mele, the colleague I'd gone with to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I asked him to describe what was going through his head while he was learning: 
"… must… keep… small… amount of dignity…. and face in front of…. people I've just met…. try to…follow along… as best I can…." He was a great sport.
"And a one...
"... a two..."
"a one two three four!"
Asa: "maybe I wasn't meant for war dancing!... "

5. Going to the fakaleiti show at Tonga Bob's
One night, we went to the weekly leiti show in Vava'u: a jovial, entertaining event that is somewhat of a cross between pageant and burlesque, all featuring the Tongan third gender: men raised as women; the tongan term meaning "like a lady." A one line explanation doesn't do it justice, so to read more about leitis, visit the blog post Sex, Gender, and Politics

Asa was quiet for the first part of the show, "I wasn't sure what an appropriate response is to men dressing like women and actually being pretty feminine in a masculine way," but after a while he started to have fun and cheer the performers with the rest of us. "if you're going to be at a relatively strange, and a little bit awkward event, just have fun with it," he reflected.

Rockin' the leopard print!

It was also wonderful to catch up with my parents again. This was a treat! We don't often get to be in the same continent, let alone the same country, as they live in Brazil, where they'll return to work in May after their short home assignment in the US. Before this trip, we hadn't seen them or Asa in 3 years. 
Looking sharp in new Tongan finery
Their list starts similarly to Asa's, reinforcing our high opinion of the wonderful people we work with: 

1. Gracious people: Asinate, Anaua, Elisapesi, Leta, Sina, John, Alfileti, Mosi, Mele, and others
who welcomed us with open arms and made sure we were well taken care of.

2. Worthy work that Elena and Mark are doing and how much they are loved and respected by their friends and colleagues

3. The sound of a choir singing in exquisite harmony wafting over the early morning breezes at around 5 a.m.

4. Kayaking to church! No kidding – we wrapped our church finery in plastic bags, paddled across the channel, changed out of our soaking wet clothes, and attended the worship service.
By the time we'd kayaked almost a kilometer, we were ready to eat Sunday dinner! 
5. Breadfruit and chicken wrapped in taro leaves over a slow fire at Anaua’s house in 'Ofu island.

'Anaua and Malia preparing the meal
6. Jumping off the “glass-bottomed boat” to snorkel in Swallow’s Cave where we were surrounded by thousands of tiny silver-blue fish
The water is so clear you feel like you're flying above the sea floor
7. Woven artwork on each beam of the dome shaped roof of the church at Tupou College.
Tupou College church

8. Pigs ahoy! Everywhere we looked, there were pigs grazing, snuffling in the dirt, scurrying into the bushes.

9. Quiet pace of life – when you slow down, it is easier to focus on people rather than projects and schedules.

10. The shining derriere that scared away the thieves. According to legend, a wise goddess of ‘Eua scared off the Samoan gods who had come to steal a mountaintop one dark night in Vava’u. How did she do it? By exposing her shining derriere which tricked them into thinking the sun was rising. Clever woman!

Now when are they going to invent teleporters so this can happen more often? 

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