A Lape Island house with very old solar panels wired up (by visiting yachtsmen) to power the island's only refrigerator
We left the mooring at Neiafu yesterday for a lovely sail between the islands and anchored off the tiny island of Lape (18 degrees 43 minutes south, 174 degrees 05 minutes west). The enterprising and very friendly villagers invite yachties to a Saturday afternoon tour of the village followed by a Tongan Feast.
Lape has a tiny village of just 7 families and a school which currently has 11 children attending. The villagers are pretty self-sufficient, growing sweet potatoes, bananas and taro roots as well as coconuts and they produce traditional craft work such as tapa (a stiff fabric made from the beaten fibres of the hiapo tree bark which is then decorated with ink), woven baskets and mats made of pandanus leaves, dried in the sun. The mats are used on the floor for eating and sleeping upon but a finely-woven version is made as a ta'ovala, wrapped around the waist as a decorative skirt (worn by both men and women); it signifies respect to 'God, King and Country'.
The Tongan feast was quite an event. It involves an 'umu which is an underground earth oven – a fire is built in a pit lined with stones and, when the fire dies down, the hot stones slowly bake vegetables and meat, which are wrapped in banana leaves, with earth piled on top. We also had a pig roasted above an open fire and all the delicious food was served on 'plates' made of the bark of banana trees, after a Tongan prayer led by the minister and a wonderful unaccompanied hymn sung by half a dozen locals.
The donations they receive in return are used for village projects - for example an impressive new landing jetty was completed recently - and they are looking to start a little kitchen producing taro and sweet potato crisps to sell in the Neiafu market. Very enterprising for a village of just 7 families and 28 people!
Our brief time in Tonga so far has given us a better insight into the country and its people. The Vava'u group of islands (the apostrophe features frequently in Tongan – it signifies a brief pause, so Vava'u is pronounced vah-VAH- oo) are beautiful and in most other parts of the world would have lots of expensive resorts and hotels, with rooms perched on metal stilts above the clear waters, just as we saw in Bora Bora. However in Tonga all land belongs to the crown so land can only be leased for limited terms. Add to this the slightly random nature of internal flights from the international airport at the capital Nuku'alofa 150 miles to the south and it becomes clear why the tourist facilities are pretty low key. Visiting yachts constitute a major portion of the palangi (westerner) visitors and the rest are mostly back-packers and eco-tourists.
The Tongans themselves lead pretty simple lives. To our eyes their homes are pretty impoverished, with open floors devoid of furniture and cooking is often done outside on open fires. Most houses have pigs running around the gardens. On our first night in Neiafu we were taken to a local house in the village for a traditional meal, served in multiple dishes on floor mats whilst we sat, uncomfortably crossed-legged, and tried to ignore the flies (at least each dish was covered in cling film as it was brought in). It was quite a culture shock and our western eyes struggled to adjust to the scruffy surroundings and worrying standards of food hygiene. However the family were charming and it was explained to us that social etiquette, personal dignity and respect are valued in Tonga before material wealth. There are very low crime rates, virtually no begging and no homelessness here – no one goes hungry as goods or money earned are often shared with the wider community and the churches play a very central role. On Sundays work is forbidden and no sporting events take place and Tongans act and dress very conservatively at all times – men will be fined if seen without a shirt in a public place and women are expected to cover their shoulders and wear long skirts or trousers.
We're looking forward to learning more about the place – at last we've found a part of the Pacific where western standards and values are tolerated but not necessarily adopted.