December 27, 2014

Tonga, part I

This post is in three parts, but this is the story.

I wanted to watch the Pacific from the plane, but for once, I fell asleep. When I wake up, we're landing in Tonga. The plane door opens and again the sweet smell of palm sap and dust flies across my tired face. Wind blowing strong outside. The warmth is there, like a glove soaked in tepid water passing on your skin. My sweater disappears into my bag and my hands find their way to my head, where they work an invisible dance to tie my hair (too long now) into a loose bun. An unconscious ritual to say farewell to the cold days.

On the truck that gives me a lift from the very thin strip of concrete that is the airport, my elbow finds its place on the windowsill and get gently roasted by the afternoon sun. I can hear singing in the fields nearby. Men walk along the road wearing black cotton tees and woven grass skirts. I close my eyes. This is it, I think. I'm back. I'm back even though I've never been to this country before, but the warmth, the tropical wind, the music, the golden dust flying under the wheels of the truck – this feeling of excitement meets fear in the face of the unknown – yes, this is it. It feels like home. I enjoyed my time in New Zealand, but I am so happy to be back in a different place. It feels easier for me to travel in places that don't work like home – is that weird ? Maybe it's just the endless summer. That night, I sit on the thin mattress under my mosquito net, in a room with electric blue walls and geckos on the ceiling ; and the words are flowing again. This place nourishes me.

Tongatapu is the capital of the country, but you can still walk from an edge to another in twenty minutes. I enter the market and I try to buy my food from as many different stalls as possible. Women are weaving flowers and flax garlands, and in the corner, men are distilling a golden liquid that taste absolutely foul. I open bananas big as my thumb and suck on the flesh – delicious, creamy flesh that tastes like hazelnut and grass and sunshine – seriously, what do they do to those fruits ? I don't think I'll ever be able to enjoy a banana again back home. In the café next door, red flowers are falling down the balcony. Women with mysterious eyes and luscious black hair walk down the street. The girls wear theirs done in the longest braids I've ever seen.

Soon I meet two dutch boys that just flew in from New Zealand as well and we decide to stick together. We attend a feast on a beach, tasting incredible food and watching gorgeous men dance with firesticks. A woman approaches me and places a flower necklace around my neck, and the perfume lingers in my hair and shirt several days after. We take a very slow ferry to a small island called Eua. Our homestay is a series of bungalows painted in pastel colors, with about a hundred dogs living around and barking all night, and the tiniest puppy that stole my heart. There are bananas trees around the property and we eat so many of them. We love it. For two days, we walk across the island until our feet blister, discovering hidden paths into the jungle, collecting shells, and swimming in lonely, shallow bays.

Religion is everywhere in Tonga. On the main island, home to a hundred thousand people, there is a church for fifty people – you do the math. Jehovah witnesses, Seven Days Adventists and Evangelists – they're all here. Churches are the biggest, newest, whitest buildings, seated amongst a crowd of miserable bungalows made of wood and tin strapped together. It's a strange view, and a sad testimony of what the missionaries have accomplished in the Pacific. The priests roll in Cadillacs while the average Tongan family lives on less than a hundred dollars a month, and still give a consequent part of it to – you guessed it – their parish, to secure their spot in heaven. I have nothing against religion, but so much more could be done for these countries with that much money. On sundays, the villages shut down completely as the Tongans attend service between two and six times during the day. Walking on the road, you can hear psalms being sung beautifully and echoed from one church to another, as there is one every hundred meters or so.

Our most intense experience happens on our first night in Eua. Guided by one of our hosts, we attend a kava circle. Kava is the traditional, social drink in societies throughout the Pacific and several countries in Africa. It is made from the kassava root, a type of starchy root that is dried, grinded into a flour and mixed with water - the result being a muddy, purple-grey liquid that tastes like soap and cloves. It is non alcoholic, but drunk in large quantities as the Tongans do, it has a narcotic effect. It's exclusively drunk by men, however, as I enter the room that night, it's clear that I am most welcome. In fact, I am so welcome that there is no way I'm gonna seat with my friends in the back : I have to seat in the exact middle, close to the massive bowl of kava, where everybody can see me. We serve the kava in a halved coconut that goes around the circle. You have to drink the whole bowl, then spit in it to clean it (ha!) and return in to the center. Most men in the room have been drinking from 7 am ; it is now 8 pm. Needless to say everybody is being pretty stoned. Oh yes, and they're smoking pot too – the strongest I've ever had. After having received the bowl around six or seven times, I notice that my speech is slowing down and that my eyelids feel heavy, but nothing bad. I munch on a piece of hard black bread to get rid of the soapy taste. After a couple of hours, we decide to head home. I snap a few portraits, ask for my hand back to the blurry eyed young man that has been fondling it for about twenty minutes, and finally manages to walk out the door, not without having kissed on the cheek about every man in that circle. We walk home in the dark, and as we are chanting euphorically « this is the best night ever », I am slighty glad that my two boys are here with me. In front of the house, a lonely horse is standing absolutely still in the light of a feeble streetlamp, like a statue, surrounded by the cicadas and nightbirds ; like a scene from a movie. Nights like these are magical, even though the morning after is a bit challenging – oh, the headache.

My boys head back to New Zealand and I spend th last two days on my own, filling them with small adventures. I take the smallest plane for a seven minutes flight back to the main island. I practice my tongan lexicon in the market – hello is « Malo e lelei », how are you is « Fefe hake ? », no is « ikai » and yes is a « iooooo » sound that stretches forever. I have long talks with Mick, a 60 years old scottish postman that has travelled all around the world – he's saving Antartica for his retirement. I cruise to a tiny paradise island with two charming kiwi ladies – they'll end up hosting me on my transit in Auckland. Numerous sailing ships are anchored here, families sailing from Central America across the Pacific. Their children form a small community of elfin creatures, with sunkissed skin and blond hair bleached by the sea. I look at them and their journey inspires me – I consign these new travel dreams in my diary, writing them in big letters to make them grow.

Before I leave, I try to capture the smell of flowers, the taste of fruits and the sound of laughter that is the essence of Tonga, but it all fades too quickly – I'll just have to come back, I guess. Alu'a !

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