It sounds like one of those made up names that is used in a phrase but you are
never really sure it’s a bona fide word, much like ‘Timbuktu’ but shorter, and it rolls off
the tongue more easily. A two-day stop provided me with evidence that Tonga is indeed a
real place and officially it is the Kingdom of Tonga.
We booked a tour (properly billed as Ancient Tonga) while still on the cruise
ship. Friends of ours on the ship, who thought the price outrageous, were able to book the
same tour for about half the price once we left the ship, and they boarded the exact same
bus. Eleanor was our tour guide, OK? And English was not her first language, OK? She
added the OK to every sentence she spoke and after a while I was even writing it in my
notes of the tour, OK?
Our first stop was the palace of the king, and the flag flying at full mast indicated
that he was in residence. We were not invited into the palace grounds but we did get a
brief history lesson, including that the current king ascended to the throne when his
brother, the previous king had died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in China.
While we did not gain entry to the palace either, we had a tour of the Royal Graveyard,
awash in a sea of colour and beautifully maintained––as well as any botanical garden I
Ancient Tonga was not only the name of the tour we were on, but also the name
of the parent company operating the tour and the facility we visited. The organizers
seemed to have a good understanding that the attention span of a tourist is about three
minutes, and to say this show was fast moving would be an understatement. It was like
Disneyland on Cocaine. Each dance and musical interlude lasted about three minutes
before the next troupe took the stage. It was excellent, gave us the flavour of the country
and did not take up the entire day.
We did visit a vanilla farm that was between a working operation and a tourist
venue––a little of both. One person in our group failed to see the low roof over a tin
building and received a nasty cut to the top of his head. Rusty metal and a scalp wound in
a third world country are not a good mix, but a staff member on the cruise ship tended to
him with a first aid kid, ushered him out of sight and had a private vehicle take him back
to the ship.
The process of vanilla bean growing and extraction was more interesting to me
than to many others on the tour.
Next stop was a series of blowholes created where the incoming tide forces water
up through openings in the rock. An interesting phenomenon, and the view is much more
impressive if you do not understand the science of why it happens.
We stopped at a wayside market featuring a series of tables and vendors. I went
over to a lone table on the opposite side of the parking lot and found it staffed by a young
lady who seemed desperate to make a sale. Of course there are no prices marked on the
objects offered for purchase and some form of bartering takes place. I did not need any of
the items from her table, beautiful as they were, but she seemed insistent. Soon I was the
proud owner of a rare double-faced war club, a pearl necklace with matching earrings, an
ivory fishhook that would land a whale, and some smaller trinkets. All for under-40
bucks CAD. No one else ventured to her end of the parking lot and I wondered about her
approach. Was she a good marketer with a unique location? Or was she desperate to sell
something, as the look in her eyes seemed to say? The 40 bucks did not impact my
lifestyle and the war club was a big hit on the boat. It is still in a place of high regard in
our sunroom despite the monstrous crack it developed in our dry climate.
Day Two in the Kingdom of Tonga proved equally as interesting. I was amazed
by the lack of skill in money conversion. Officially the rate was 4.1 to one US dollar,
which means it is about a quarter. In some places they would give you 2:1 if you bought
Sandra and I spent some time on a taxi tour, which is exactly what it sounds like.
We hired a taxi at the dock and asked the driver to show us the sights of the island. He
took us to a park and drove as high up the mountain as he could, then pointed us to a
stairway, promising the view would be worth the climb. We believed him and made the
trek up the stairway in south pacific temperatures and humidity.
True to his word, the view from the lookout was unbelievable and worth every
huff and puff and drop of perspiration along the way.
We had to make one more stop in the market place, leaving with an impression of
the sheer volume of places selling their brightly coloured pieces of material.
I had the pleasure of finishing the day going beer shopping with a German lady
from the cruise ship. She was on a mission to buy some local beer, and to say she was
unimpressed with the math skills of your average Tonga beer vendor would be an
understatement of great magnitude. We did however secure a couple of six packs of brew
for a reasonable price and had a good laugh. We hoped the country’s engineers had a
better handle on numbers, and moved on.