Special guest post by Robert Bryce in Tonga
Tonga is a wonderful mix of culture and humor. Humor prevails in Tonga. Like a theme park, Tonga has all the characters. Living here is challenging, elusive and most interesting. Orderly chaos might describe its internal functions. Like a beehive, the closer in you get the more confusion and disorder you see, but somehow critters that aren’t meant to fly do and things get done, problems get solved or just go away - this is Tonga. If the plane does not fly today, it may tomorrow and that gives you another day to enjoy your stay. Friendly is what Captain Cook called these islands - though he was almost roasted on his visit to Tonga. The people are friendly, gracious, helpful and generous with everything they have. There are four different groups of islands that make up Tonga, each with their own expression of the Tongan creed. If you are looking for adventure but do not want to risk your life, Tonga is probably the choice, be it for your holiday or a better place to live.
Tonga is politically and functionally independent; no country owns or presides over Tonga. The King has wisely not sold out to, or aligned himself with, any larger country outside the region. Sometimes it feels as though the the Tongans know something about life that the rest of the world is in the dark about. There are no fears, no rush and no concerns important enough to interfere with the daily fishing and there's always a big smile and a genuine laugh, even if the outboard motor falls off the back of the boat. Tongans take life as it unfolds and they make the best of it, good or bad.
Tonga sits on the International Dateline so the travel brochures promote it as the land “where time begins.” It is also where time doesn’t matter. Stress-free and loose schedules are a way of life on the islands, unlike the more punctual Northern Hemisphere. It is interesting to consider that each day on this planet begins in Tonga. Not exclusively, but regardless of who you are, your official calendar day starts here. We live it first and by the time the Stock Exchange opens in New York, it is tomorrow in Tonga.
So, where is elusive Tonga? Somewhere in Africa?… is where most guess who have not heard of the islands. There are even a few stories around about people sending mail or freight from the USA to Tonga and having had their freight end up in Africa, and sometimes that is where it stays. I guess most people in the world don't really know where their day begins.
Tonga is located in the middle of the South Pacific (tell your postman) about 20 degrees south of the equator and 180 degrees west latitude. It was one of the last group of islands in the South Seas to be discovered by the European explorers. Tonga continues to be discovered today by pleasantly surprised travelers and tourists. Though on the map most vistors to the South Sea islands fly right over Tonga on their way to more popular tourist destinations like Fiji. French Polynesia is to the east and Fiji just to the west. New Zealand is to the south about 1,500 miles away, and American and Western Samoa just to the north about 400 miles away.
Modern sailors have no problem finding Tonga, for the Vava’u Island Group, the crown jewel of the Kingdom of Tonga, has long been a popular port of call for yachts cruising the South Pacific. Vava’u, once spelled Vavaoo, which is closer in spelling to the pronunciation, is home to our family. We too, arrived by sailboat about 4 years ago, checked in at the main port of Vava’u and we are still here. The “Port of Refuge,” the main harbor of Vava’u is very well protected, as is the entire island group. A huge reef system which forms up to 60 emerald islands, shields the islands from the relentless ocean tides that pound the walls of coral and volcanic rock. Even a tsunami would spend its force on the walls around Vava’u. Within the protected islands, white sand beaches, caves, coves, and blue water lagoons decorate each island. Small boats can safely navigate the relatively calm inter-island waterways making this island group unique. There are a few small resorts on the many islands, all of which offer the vistor a true Robinson Crusoe island experience, but with all the amenities. The islands are perfect for charter yacht sailors - no big waves, gentle trade winds and lots of beautiful anchorages.
Humpback whales have made Tonga their holiday destination as well. Each year the Humpback whales migrate here, probably because they don’t need a “Transit Visa". Here they breed and bear their young, schooling them for their big trip back to Antarctica in October. Tourists that somehow find Tonga may attend classes with the whales, swimming with whales is an incredible experience. This is the only country in the world in which you can swim with whales.
Governments are like magnets, attracting some and repelling others. Thank God we can still move around the planet. And, it is nice to be free without having to be brave.
Government is usually where things break down in most countries, but Tonga is blessed with a stable constitutional monarchy, successfully in business since 1860. A Kingdom with a real King and a Royal family that are benevolent in their rule. But like with any bureaucracy, a little political wrangling probably keeps everyone busy and, merrily, most of us feel like we are in a classroom with no teacher. Freedom is having fun without someone being there with a gun; and guns are something they don’t have in our little haven from crime and punishment. The police are armed with smiles and respect the populace. Crime in most of Tonga is very minor. They tell me the prison in Vava’u used to have a sign on it that said: “Not in by 9 PM, you'll be locked out” Things have toughened up some lately. Now they have to be in by 6 PM. It’s true, during the day you are basically free, but better get back on time or you will miss out on the Kava party. No one fears getting shot at McDonalds on Tonga … anyway there are no McDonalds.
Life is good in Tonga. The bugs and animals mirror the harmless populace. There are no harmful bugs, except for one species of centipede, no malaria, no snakes, no critters lying in the weeds waiting to harm you. In fact, there aren’t many wild animals at all. If this were Disneyland, we would be on the little kids ride where a child walks safely through the jungle. We do have pigs so, ‘good fences make good neighbors.’
Peace of mind has to be mentioned as a part of the appeal of these islands. You take it for granted after awhile. Peace of mind creeps up on you quite naturally, due in part to the fact that you can rid yourself of the “bad news” addiction you've acquired from watching too much evening television in the States. We have TV, but it is not very popular. Real life is so much more interesting in this Land of Oz than any soap opera and we certainly have no bad news to report. Most of the bad news generated in the big countries has nothing to do with us, anyway. Folks returning from the “civilized world” after a two-week visit, arrive in Tonga exhausted and depressed, but very happy to be back home in their island paradise. Watching all that crime and propaganda everyday is a huge pill to take for a cleansed soul that is not used to any more trouble than some spilt milk - milk being mostly imported.
No traffic lights, is how I answer the question; “Why did you choose Tonga?” Well, that is part of it. I also enjoy my new freedom of not having to keep one eye on the rear-view mirror. A police officer on every corner may create more crime than it prevents, as evidenced by the success of the law enforcement system in Tonga where you rarely see an officer. Common sense and mutual concern rule. You find you don’t break the rules, written or otherwise, out of concern for others, and not because some uniform might arrest you: concern replaces fear in Tonga. Policing yourself is the key to real freedom.
Discover that TV is boring compared to the discoveries one makes in Tonga, particularly in the Vava’u Island Group. Vava’u is like an oasis in the ocean. The huge ring of protective reefs combined with islands strung like emerald pearls results in a sea within a sea, with the pattern of islands resembling an ink spatter on an azure canvas. The islands come in all shapes and sizes and some come as round as a silver dollar. You see colors, hues and views that even a $5,000 camera can’t get right. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the real thing is worth a million. The ambiance is all encompassing. You are surrounded by pure nature and all your senses are activated and enhanced. The air is pure, oxygen laden, with hints of floral scents and exempt of any pollutants. The sea is clear, clean with all the iridescent hues of blue. What you cannot see you can feel and the combination of it all is the appeal. For a delightful experience, put Tonga on your map.
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