September 24, Sunday
OK, I know it's really Saturday, 9/23, for the rest of you, as we write this! The International Dateline is really strange - how can it be Saturday in Apia, Samoa - a few hundred miles east of here - and Sunday - at the same time, 10:15 AM??!! It's one of the great mysteries of the universe - for example, if I sent a package Overnight by FedEx from here to Samoa, it would seemingly arrive instantly.
We started out from Rochester a bit inauspiciously - setting off the house alarm by exiting the front door and having to let the security company know that it was just us. The we got to the airport and found that our flight to Chicago was cancelled due to mechanical problems. However, they very efficiently rerouted us on Delta to LAX through Atlanta with plenty of time to catch our Air New Zealand flight to Tonga at midnight. At that point, waiting in the boarding area, we realized that "we were not in Kansas anymore, Toto".
It was a long journey, and when we arrived in Tonga, we found to our great surprise that the King of Tonga had died (he was 86) and had the royal funeral had been two days before!! Whew - that would have been chaotic, I am sure. Even so, all Tongans are required to dress in black for 30 days, and no floor shows or dancing and music exhibitions during that time. Darn - we were looking forward to the Tongan custom of putting Tongan dollar bills on the dancers sweaty, oiled skin as our token of appreciation! The new king is not well liked, and the people increasingly want more democracy - presently, the king is an absolute monarch, and owns and licenses everything as he desires. I am glad we are here now, and I hope any change can be peaceful in the future.
We transferred over to the domestic terminal to check in for our Peau Vava'u flight from the main island of Tongatapu tp the island of Vava'u. We needed Tongan cash, and the airport ATM was broken so we hired a taxi to take us into town during our 2-hour layover, found a working ATM, got some lunch "to go", and had a quick tour of that island. This included seeing the Tongan "flying foxes" (actually bats), and the "blowholes" on the windward coast, created by the pounding surf hitting the rocky coast. As we stood there, William - a friend of the taxi driver - came out of his house and gave Anne a sample neck massage! Oooh - that felt good. The cemetaries here are interesting - many graves are decorated with large quilts!
We arrived back at the airport almost too late, and had to run out to the vintage 1944 DC-3 (yes, it really was!!) and took the last two seats, each of us sitting in an aisle seat next to a hefty Tongan male - it was a quite cramped. Apparently, airline security is not an issue with the domestic airline, as the cockpit door was open most of the time, and Tom was able to go up, in flight, to photograph!
Upon arrival in Vava'u, we found a taxi to take us to the Tongan Beach Resort to relax and recover from pretty severe jetlag and just exhaustion form being in transit for way too long. This is a gorgeous place, and unlike anything we have been in since the Bahamas or Belize years ago. There was a truly huge spider in the bathroom that we discovered at bedtime (and a monster cockroach in the bathroom at bedtime the next night), and roosters crowing all night behind and beside us, along with a snorting pig and an occasional barking dog. To top it off, we awoke at 5:00 AM to the sound of drums and bells, announcing the Friday morning church service! Soon we heard beautiful, harmonized singing - like we hear on NPR sometimes.
The food here is great and the people who work here are very friendly - (Captain Cook called Tonga "The Friendly Islands" when he found them). Dinner is sometimes served, elegantly, at tables on the beach. The bar area next to the office is like a sandy beach with a thatched roof cover - AKA "The Sand Bar".
The Friendly Islands Kayaking company phoned us on Friday to welcome us. (There are no phones in the rooms, nor TV at all.) They provided us with the option of joining a half-day whale watch on Saturday, so we went - no whales, too rough that day - but we learned a lot, and saw a lot of the Vava'u Islands. The northern and southern hemisphere humpback whale populations are completely separate groups. These local whales winter in Tonga and other parts of the South Pacific, where they breed, give birth a year later, but eat nothing. In the southern hemisphere summer, they migrate to Antarctica where they feed. The Tongan whale population has come back from near extinction, but not as robustly as in other South Pacific areas, and researchers are studying this. Some reasons are that swimming with the whales is done here, and our guide, Doug Spence, who owns the Friendly Islands Kayaking Company, is the only one who does not swim with the whales - it is controversial and not approved by ecologists. The whales are also quite intelligent, and are likely changing their known locales to protect themselves.
That night, the resort had a Tongan Feast, minus the floor show. It was excellent - more like a 7-course "tapas" meal, so we were not too stuffed.