… and pretty much stays completely still.
I’m being completely serious here. As the first country to the left of the international date line, Tonga actually is where time begins. So while Hawaiians are stumbling home in the wee small hours of a Saturday morning, Tongans are shushing the cockerels and putting on their glad-rags for Sunday morning’s church services. Weird or whaa?
However, although this is where time officially begins, for some reason this is also where it gets stuck. Having flicked through a couple of diary entries from the past two weeks in Tonga, after the first day or two there is a conspicuous lack of dates and times. As we soon realised, Tonga works on Tongan Time (see Ref. 1) , just one of the many endearing quirks and characteristics that make Tonga a real-life undiscovered treasure.
Quick bit of background – The Kingdom of Tonga (for that is what it is) is an archipelago of 170 islands that stretches over 800km and roughly gathers into 4 main groups; Tongatapu, Ha’apai, Vava’u and Niuatoputapu. The latter is so darn far away it might as well belong to Samoa. No joke. Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa is situated on the main Tongatapu island and is home to a third of the island’s population. The other two thirds are scattered among the other islands and despite many Tongans having defected either to Nuku’alofa or indeed to the bright lights of Auckland (known colloquially as Auck’alofa due to the high concentration of Tongans) traditional cultural and living patterns are still much in evidence across this Pacific island paradise.
So what is Tonga actually like? Well, old and new collide in Tonga, perhaps more evidently than anywhere else, and this makes for a pretty memorable experience. Teenagers walk the streets listening to rap music on their mobiles, yet gather for kava ceremonies as a way of catching up with their nearest and dearest. Unlike Pacific neighbours Fiji and Samoa, Tonga is the only island nation to have resisted formal colonisation and whether a result of that or not, it remains untouched by mass tourism. When the guidebook says ‘untouched by mass tourism’, it doesn’t just mean that queues will be shorter and drinks cheaper; it means that the infrastructure, the accommodation, and even the hospitality sector are not in any way geared up for tourists. People walk the streets wearing woven mats as skirts, coconut trees count as a valid reference point when giving directions, public transport consists of imaginatively decorated hand-me-down vehicles that operate on a system with no particular timetable or other formalities. Ever the naive traveler (and not ones to actually heed any advice), it took us a while to get used to this and although in retrospect it was a blessing it’s probably better to know this BEFORE you book.
For a start, we were pretty pressed for accommodation. On the islands you have a handful of high-end beach resorts (aimed for the whale watchers and diving enthusiasts) and for those not prepared to remortgage their house for a mere two week holiday, there is little else in the way of accommodation. Guesthouses and hostels were slightly more in our price bracket, although finding one was not only hard but also quite risky – in terms of quality, not safety – and you genuinely have to rely on luck and meeting the right people. Take a wrong turning or make a wrong decision and you might end up spending the night with an insect menagerie and a toilet that seemed to have been imported from ‘Trainspotting’, as we unwittingly did.
In terms of transport, getting from one island to another is a mine field. (Well, it’s not actually a mine field, it’s an ocean. But that’s just pedantic Celyn Thomas) Most palangi (white people) go for the safe option, and hop on one of the flights connecting Nuku’alofa, Ha’apai and Vava’u. However, even these are subject to frequent changes at short notice and the miniature planes don’t fly in the rain, in the wind, or if the pilot doesn’t feel like it. We spent a couple of wet days with a honeymooning Norwegian couple who were essentially trapped on Ha’apai as their flight had been cancelled and there was no next one for four days due to Easter Weekend celebrations.
For non-palangi-folk and irritatingly hippy travelers like ourselves maaan, the other option is to catch the ferry. Now, Tonga owns 2 ferries – when one is heading north from Tongatapu to Vava’u, the other is heading south in the opposite direction. They probably meet and wave at each other half way.
What we didn’t know was that while one ferry is brand spanking new and has THREE TOILETS and electric lighting and A ROOM WITH AIR CONDITIONING, the other is a battered 1963 Danish cargo ship with an average speed of 3 knots per millennium. Somehow, we managed to end up on the latter. For the record, we’re generally pretty patient people, but after spending 23 hours cooped up in a cockroach-infested cabin with three generations of a family and nothing but a tin of corned beef and a homemade crossword to pass the time, the end of both our tethers was in sight. We had tried to research the ferries, I promise, but there were no internet sites, no offices, no working phone numbers and somehow nobody ever seemed to know what was going on. Although it seemed irksome at the time, in retrospect, it does have a lot of comedy potential as we found out when trying DESPERATELY to find out about the ferries going back to the main island…
Us: Hello. We were just wondering if you knew when the next ferry is due to leave Ha’apai?
1st woman (owner of the guest house we are staying in): (shakes head) Oh no, no. no.
2nd woman (first woman’s mate): You know other couple stuck here because their ferry 12 hours early.
Us: Yes we do know that. That’s why we’re asking about this one.
2nd Woman: Tee hee
1st Woman: OK (looks skyward and thinks) Maybe Tuesday. Or Thursday. Or Monday.
3rd Woman (she was just passing..): No NO. No ferries AT ALL next week
Us: (PANIC) None at all?!
3rd Woman (resolutely): Definitely no.
1st Woman: (clicks tongue and shakes her fan at 3rd woman) No that’s not right. It must be.. hmm.. (under breath) it leave Vava’u on Friday, no maybe Saturday, so it leave Ha’afeva on …one, two, four… (thinks and counts days on fingers) Saturday.
Us: But that’s TODAY.
1st Woman: Oh. (confused) OK then. Not Saturday. Hmm, Monday?
4th Woman – (shouts up from the cafe below. She’s probably been listening all this time): MONDAY!
Us: Is it?
4th Woman: Yes yes. I just spoke to a ferry agent. It’s Monday morning DEFINITELY.
Us: OK, great. Thanks!
4th Woman: Oh wait. Hang on. Monday evening actually.
Us (CAN YOU IMAGINE THE EXASPERATION??): Evening?
4th Woman: Yes. Definitely evening. Around 6. Or perhaps 9. Or sometimes 11.
Us: So you would advise…?
4th Woman: Don’t worry. It will blow horn when it is leaving.
Us: But we need to be ON IT when it leaves.
4th Woman: Oh yes. OK. (smiles sweetly) Well just maybe wait there all day.
So fantastically POINTLESS yet hilariously funny. It not only shows the superfluity of any sort of timetable when taking Tongan transport, but also clearly demonstrates the geniality of the people and how they will try so hard to help you whether they know the answer or not.
You know, Captain Cook was said to have called Tonga ‘The Friendly Islands’ because of the warm reception he received on arrival in 1773 (was this before or after their meaty dinner…?) That friendliness is still very much in evidence today and is probably why all those who visit leave with happy memories and one of those little half-smiles; like an eccentric relative, you’ll find a soft spot for it yet it’ll never cease to be totally MENTAL.
Tongan Time (n) – sim. to normal time but plus or minus any length of time including days, weeks, months and even years. Most likely due to high humidity levels.
Example: Breakfast is served from 8 – 9.30 Tongan Time = All day breakfast.