I've had a chance in the past week to meet some really fascinating people and go to some interesting places. I'm in the Ha'apai island group in the Kingdom of Tonga. Ha'apai is located about halfway between the main island group of Tongatapu and the Vava'u Island group where I live. As part of my job, I come to Ha'apai twice a year to work with businesses and conduct business training workshops. This visit I spent all my times on small outer islands (and a lot of time in boats).
The Island of Ha'ano
It takes about an hour via boat to get to Ha'ano but it is well worth the trip. This small outer island is one of the cleanest places I've seen in Tonga. With friendly people and a beautiful setting, it's also an island of surprises. The village of about 120 people has underground electric service and city water service. At night, there are even street lights to illuminate the paths through the town. I never expected to find such "luxuries" on a small island. The power is provided by generators but it only runs for eight hours a day, generally from about 6pm until 2am. Every drop of diesel fuel is brought to the island in small cans. The cans are filled up on the main island, carried to the dock and then transported by boat to Ha'ano where they are emptied into the generator and then returned via boat for another fill-up.
Of course, not all the modern conveniences are great. During our workshop, we had one participant whose cell phone rang at least 20 times, if not 30 times. It rang so many times that even some of the Tongans started snickering every time it rang. I later learned that the reason no one said anything to her was because we was married to the town officer.
One of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers Grant lives on this island, however, we actually were not on the island at the same time. As I was arriving on Friday morning, he was just leaving in a boat to the main island. We quickly shouted across the water that we would get together for dinner that night on the main island.
I first met Patti on my last trip to Ha'apai in June. She was building a resort on a nearby island. I told her if I could do anything to help, to let me know. So a few weeks ago I heard from her. Was I available to come out and work with her? After a few phone calls it was agreed that I would come out Saturday and return on Sunday. I also asked Patti if my Peace Corps friends Grant and Phil could join me on the trip to her resort which is on the island of 'Uholeva.
None of us had ever been to the resort before and didn't know what to expect. We packed as if we were going camping taking stuff to prepare meals and other camping gear. However, we quickly realized that none of this would be needed.
As we stepped off the boat, we could not help but be impressed with what Patti has created on this island. She has a piece of property that stretches from one side of the island to the other and she has constructed small "fales" or buildings on both sides to host her guests. There are 11 buildings, each constructed in Indonesia and shipped to Tonga. Five are for sleeping.
While this might not seem like a big feat, let me tell you a little bit more about Patti. She retired from the Four Seasons in Hawaii where she was a massage therapist. During a sailing trip she found the property where her resort is now located. She made an offer on the spot to lease it and then began the process of figuring out how to get it built. She moved to Ha'apai by herself, not knowing anyone and with little business background. She has now created a really amazing place which I find remarkable for a woman who is just a few years younger than my own mother.
She plans to open in early January.
If you want to get to Patti's island from the main island, you will need to go by boat. We were lucky enough to get Jimmy and his boat to take us. Jimmy is quite a colorful character and he kept us entertained during the two hours we spent with him. (one hour each way). He told us stories about his youth, about funny things that have happened to him and bragged that he had been smoking heavily since 1965. If you ever happen to be in Ha'apai and need a boat. Ask for Jimmy.
I've heard a lot of jokes from my friends and family comparing living in Tonga to the CBS Network show "Survivor". It's really not the same thing. However, this week I met a man from French Speaking Switzerland who is living the true Survivor experience. His name is Xavier and he is spending 10 months alone on the island of .Tofua. Tofua is an active volcano and for the most part uninhabited. Xavier decided to go there with no more than a knife and some very basic camping equipment to live life away from what he calls the trappings of modern society.
He's also shooting a documentary about his adventure. He's been on the island for three months and just made his first trip back to the main island. He could no longer charge his video equipment and came to town to try to get that resolved.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, we are not allowed to travel to Tofua because some former volunteers got stuck out there and had to be rescued by Peace Corps. So until the rules change, I'll have to wait for Xavier's documentary to see what it is like.You can also follow his adventures on his website which he updates each week.
The Island of Mango
Monday morning we left the main island of Ha'apai and traveled six hours south by boat across open water under the starlight skies to island of Mango. We got up at 2:30am to begin our journey. My friend Grant decided at the last minute to join my Tongan counterpart Kololesa and I for the trip. We were also joined by Paula, (man) who is a loan officer at the Ha'apai Branch of the bank. Grant and I slept for most of the trip. Finally, I heard the boat's 60 horsepower motor slow and peeked out from below deck to see the lush tropical island of Mango. It may have been one of the most inviting places I've ever seen. Even before stepping onshore you knew you were somewhere special. Perhaps it was the nicely planted flowers along the water that marked the path to the village or the lovely sandy beach. Once onshore, the first impressions held as we wandered around the island warmly greeted by the people.
A couple of kids quickly adopted Grant and I to show us around the village. However, because I was not feeling well, I ducked out and found a small Tongan hut on the beach and laid down on the mat inside. The people of the village quickly realized I was not feeling great and a little boy showed up at the hut and asked me if I wanted some Otai, which is a drink made from fresh fruit and coconut juice. A while later, someone brought out a bottle of Pepto-Bismal. (I declined) and then anther told me he had some pills that could help me feel better. (Again I declined)
I wasn't actually feeling that bad but the people of the island seemed so concerned about me, it was really touching.
The reason we stopped in Mango was because there one link to the outside world, a radio telephone had stopped working. We had brought a replacement on the boat, but unfortunately it didn't work either, so when we left, this people of this island had no communication with the outside world.
The Island of Nomuka
For the past two years, there have been two Peace Corps volunteers living on Nomuka. Both just completed their service. They are also the two volunteers who I don't know at all having met Ada just once and Janelle twice. Nomuka is really in the middle of nowhere. I had hoped that both volunteers would still be there when we arrived so that I could get to know them better, but they had just left even though we were told that Ada would be returning.
Even though I don't know these volunteers well, I have a new found appreciation for them after spending 24 hours on Nomuka.. It's a dirty little island and the people are not that friendly. In short, it is everything that Mango is not. It's one redeeming quality is the beautiful lake that sits in the middle of the island. (Note: This is NOT the lake in the photo below, but it was a more interesting photo than the one I took of the lake)
It's also where we held our bank workshop. We had arranged to hire a small portable generator for the three hour workshop so that we could power our computer and projector for the PowerPoint Presentation. However, about five minutes before the workshop, we were told they only had enough Petrol to give us one hour of power. I quickly changed the presentation and we made it work.
The Island of U'iha
After our workshop, we got back in the boat and made the four hour boat trip to U'iha. We arrived just before sunset and couldn't help but be impressed with this village that looks west into the setting sun. I've always been fascinated by Sunsets. It's a relaxing way to end the day and a beautiful way to usher in the evening. It was a great welcome to U'iha.
We spent two nights on 'Uiha and quickly became big fans of the island and it's people. The town put us up in an empty house and provided us with mats for sleeping and even pillows. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed warmly and the scenery was really great.
Details of a Tongan Business Trip
During my TV Career, I often took business trips, usually staying in nice hotels and eating at great restaurants and flying in either business or first class. This business trip could not be more different than those trips. I' slept on the floor most nights with just a sheet over me. There is only one restaurant in the entire Ha'apai island chain and it is located on the main island. Meals have ranged from traditional Tongan meals of fried fish and root crops to cold cans of spaghetti eaten on crackers.
Our travel has been aboard a 38 foot hand-made Tongan boat with a single 60 Horsepower Outboard Motor. By comparison this is a really nice Tongan boat. One of the best I've used.
Looking at this photo, just imagine traveling across the open Pacific Ocean in it miles from the nearest land. That's exactly what we did.