My trip began in Tonga, a pacific island nation near Fiji, where I was meeting a friend from my hometown who's volunteering in the peace corps there. I knew that Tonga was a developing nation, and that is wasn't just going to be a glamorous beach vacation, but some things just blew my mind. In the capital pigs run across the streets freely. On the outer islands many people don't have running water, and electricity is only available part of the time.
I was lucky staying with Sarah, because although her house is small she has lots of amenities. Her house is about 15'x15'. She has a small bedroom, a living room, a tiny kitchen, and an indoor bathroom and shower. Most importantly though, she has electricity. (I met one peace corps volunteer who can't even refrigerate food, can you imagine how hard it would be to live that way?)
While I was there, I got to experience a lot of real daily life, but Sarah also arranged for us to do all the fun touristy activities too. One day the local dive shop took us out snorkeling. Sarah saw a reef shark while we were out, but I missed it. The coral was amazing though, it's incredibly healthy and untouched, and the fish are so colorful! Another day we borrowed a kayak from a nearby resort and kayaked all the way around an uninhabited island. We stopped a couple of times to come onshore and chase crabs, collect shells, and lay in the sun. And then of course there are the beaches. They are never crowded, and a lot of times no one else is even on them, the shells are phenomenal, and the water is so many shades of blue!
Who Knew Starfish Were Blue?
On the Uninhabited Island With Sarah
I also got to do a lot of traditional things that most tourists don't get the chance to experience. On a Friday night I got to serve kava, which is a drink made from a mildly narcotic root. Traditionally only men drink kava, and women serve it to them (but men can serve it if no woman is around to serve). Apparently serving kava can be incredibly boring, but we actually had a good time. The guys played instruments and sang, watched some tv, and just talked while drinking. On Sunday I went to church with Sarah and we both wore traditional Tongan clothes which consist of a long skirt with matching shirt called a puletaha, and a woven belt/skirt thing called a kie-kie. I got to go to school with Sarah one day, and help her teach. The kids were so cute and so excited when they saw me! Even though they had all seen me around the village you could hear them gasp when I walked into the classroom.
Traditional Tongan Wear
Teaching at Sarah's School
On Friday, Sarah and I were supposed to fly back to the capital and spend the weekend there before my flight to Japan on Tuesday morning. But here's where things get crazy. There is one airline that flies domestically in Tonga, and apparently it doesn't have the best track record. Now, I don't know all the details, but to the best of my knowledge this is what happened. The Ministry of Transport had a meeting with the airline on Tuesday, and told them they needed report every mechanical failure they experienced (which they had not been doing.) On Wednesday a plane's landing gear didn't come down, so the plane was unable to land at the airport it was headed to. It had to go to the capital (which has better chances of handling disasters), and it crash landed. No one was hurt, and apparently the pilot did an amazing job under the circumstances. But the airline didn't report it. Of course everyone on the plane told everyone they knew about it, and the Ministry found out. So the Ministry, in order to send the airline a strong message, grounded all of their flights until further notice on Thursday. As soon as I heard this I panicked, but Sarah reassured me that this couldn't last long, we had gotten a flight far in advance, so surely I could get to the capital before my international flight, and if I had to, there was a ferry going to the capital. I was all for taking the ferry, but in Tonga things don't run on schedules. The ferry was supposed to leave at 4:00 pm and go straight to the capital. But there was a noble on another island who needed to get to the capital, and couldn't fly. So the ferry gave 15 minutes notice that it would be leaving at 12:00, and it takes at least 30 minutes to get to the ferry from Sarah's house in a taxi, so there was absolutely no way of getting on it.
I continued to panic throughout the weekend as flights continued to be canceled, and Sarah did an amazing job of putting up with me, as well as calling different airlines, the ferry, and anyone else she could think of, and keeping me entertained and well fed. Although I was mostly stressed out, I met a lot of the other peace corps members, and had a great time hanging out with Sarah's friends. On Monday afternoon the airline called and said they had a flight that evening, which was perfect, I would get in just before my flight the next morning. So we packed up my bags and raced to the airport. I was the last person to get my boarding pass (hand written) and check my bags before they announced the flight was canceled, and that there would be no flights the next day. It turns out they didn't actually have clearance from the Ministry. So we went back to Sarah's house where I laid on the floor and cried while Sarah frantically tried to cancel my flight the next day and rebook me (not they we knew when I would be able to get to the capital) None of the news was good though. My flights were with two different carriers, who were not partners, one of which didn't operate in Tonga at all. And my flight only went twice a week, and it was full for the next week and a half.
On Tuesday we again got a call that there would be a flight that evening, so we went back to the airport, fully expecting to head back to Sarah's house half an hour later. But it turned out that the flight was real, so we made it to the capital. The next two days we spent almost entirely on the phone with different airlines or in their offices (sometimes both at the same time). And in the end it was the wonderful people at Air New Zealand that saved me, even though I wasn't their responsibility at all. Neither of the airlines I was flying on were able to get me a complete flight from Tonga to Japan, but Air NZ is partners with both of the airlines, so they were able to access both systems, and find a flight leaving on Saturday (only 4 days late) that I could get on. The only really sad part was that I lost my day in Fiji, and instead was only there from 8:00 pm until midnight, so it wasn't worth leaving the airport at all. But at least I had a flight!
For our last nights in the capital I decided we were staying in the most expensive hotel in the country ($115/night) where we could have air conditioning, hot showers, and amazing beds. After all our struggles with the airlines, I thought we deserved some luxury. During the days Sarah showed me around the capital, and I got to help her shop for supplies to take back to her island.
A Cat Asleep on the Counter at One of the Biggest Stores in the Capital
Despite all the frustration and stress, I really enjoyed my time Tonga. It was great to see Sarah and amazing to experience the country the way I did. But I think the most meaningful part was my hotel shuttle back to the airport. One of the ladies who worked at the hotel rode with me, and talked with me about my trip. She knew that Sarah was a peace corps volunteer, and so she told me about how much the people in Tonga love the peace corps. She told me about the peace corps member (although she may have meant Australian aid worker) who her family has over for lunch every Sunday, and explained that Tongans know what a sacrifice these people make to come live and work with them, instead of living in America in huge houses where they can make lots of money. It's this generosity that means so much to them, even if they don't accomplish huge things with their projects. Even though I had seen the projects many volunteers were working on, and had gone to school with Sarah, it was so moving to hear this woman speaking with such gratitude. It was absolutely the best way to end my trip.