To Tonga and Tokyo: Part II
As we filed off the plane and stood in the customs line, the crowd seemed to be roughly 1/3 Tongan and 2/3 "Palangi" (foreigners). Josh and Christine, a young couple from Los Angeles stood behind me as we waited, chatted excitedly about their diving vacation ahead. As we shared a cab from international arrivals to the domestic terminal a few miles down the road, I explained IFAW's work on Humpback whales in Tonga and the purpose of my visit. As is almost invariably the case in my travels around the world, Josh and Christine expressed strong support for IFAW's efforts, particularly our work to protect whales. As the cab driver dropped us off at the Spartan concrete terminal, we realized we had no "Panga" (local cash). "There are only four ATMs in Tonga" Christine advised as she checked her meticulously organized travel notes. "You guys had better go back to the main terminal now to get cash." Our Tongan driver graciously offered to do the additional round-trip at no extra charge. As we drove along, I asked whether he could take me into town for the morning. After a bit of bargaining we agreed he would ferry me into the capitol city of Nuku'alofa and back over the next five hours for 130 Panga (or about $65 US dollars). After farewelling Josh and Christine and reloading my luggage into his van, I hopped up front and started to get to know my driver and new friend, Sione Lolo.
Sione had retired from the Tongan national phone company after a career as a lineman. Now in their mid-sixties, he and his wife had raised four children and now enjoyed seven grandchildren. "What's the best thing about living in Tonga?" I asked him. "That every family has land. Each family receives eight acres, which is passed down to the first-born son. I built my own house on my land. My siblings and my children have houses there as well," he explained as we drove along fecund fields full of yams, tapioca, and mango interspersed with small villages and roadside stands. Sione told me stories of last year's coronation of Tongan King George V, of the horrors of a massive ferry accident several months ago which killed more than seventy people. The recent death of a past prime minister, whose grave was still bedecked with ribbons and flowers.
With pride in his voice Sione noted that Tonga has never been conquered by outsiders, but also that during World War II, "the Americans came ashore and helped us fend off the Japanese." These days the Japanese come in peace and Sione serves as a hired driver for the Japanese ambassador every weekend. He showed me the small sticker with the Japanese flag affixed to his windshield. On the outskirts of town, a much larger version of the same rising sun symbol appeared on a billboard announcing that the Government of Japan had paid to dig a well beneath the sign to the local community. I told Sione about the humpback whale research team I would join in Vava'u and that I was then headed to Tokyo on my next leg of the trip for meetings with newly elected officials to discuss the whaling issue and how much I love visiting Japan. Sione confessed that he had eaten whale meat in the 1960s, and liked it. "No one eats it anymore," he said. "But I remember the taste, and the smell. It was tough to get the smell off your body once you’d eaten it. Very strong. White whalers had brought commercial whaling to Tonga in the early 19th century. By the 1960s the local hunts had been vastly outstripped by illegal Soviet hunting of humpback whales, which devastated Oceania's humpback populations, reducing breeding females in Tongan waters to perhaps as few as 15 animals. Whaling was ended by (farsighted!) Royal decree in 1978, and despite resurgent pressure from Japan, the Kings of Tonga has remained steadfast in their commitment to whale conservation. As we surveyed the King's palace and parade grounds behind ornamental gates in downtown Nuku'alofa, I fought the urge to lobby Sione on the whaling issue. I did note that if Tonga were to return to whaling and kill say, twenty animals a year, it would mean a maximum of two or three meals for each Tongan family. The world has moved on, and the killing is now being made taking tourists to see these magnificent creatures alive in their ocean habitat.
Having made my point, I moved on to tamer topics. "How do you say hello in Tongan?" I asked him as we drove along. "Malo e lelei" he said slowly. "Thank you?" I asked. "Malo" "And Goodbye?" "Nofua". .
As Olive had predicted, Tony Cocker was in his office at the Tonga Tourism Association and pleased to see me. We met for half an hour with Tony filling me in on the latest developments related to whale watching and ecotourism across the Kingdom -- a nation that relies in large part on tourism for its income.. "IFAW's been extremely helpful to our efforts here," he told me. "The whale watch workshops you put together have been really helpful to us. Things are improving here. The operators are doing a better job."
After a delicious lunch of typical Tongan food, Sione took me back to the airport stopping at his house along the way to show me his garden and the flying foxes in his mango tree!. We had become friends in our hours together, sharing stories of families and children, and perspectives on life with an openness too often reserved for strangers. He urged me to return to Tonga with my family. He pulled up to the curb and helped pull my luggage out of the van. We shook hands. "Malo. Nofua" I said to him. And we both smiled.
A quick hop on Chatham's Air to Vava'u and a short ride in the Moorings van and there we were. At the dock. Mike Donoghue came striding toward me. "Patrick, you made it. Malo e lelei!"