Monday, December 14, 2015

On the Bench
By Michael

I love the slogan on the Tongan beer.
And wrap your head around this:
If I stay up until 12:00:01 a.m. (easy) and
take a swig of any beer here in Tonga
(just on this side of the date line), I'm
probably among the first few humans
on Earth--maybe the first--to drink a beer
that day....duuude.  
“Excuse me…”

The Neiafu, Tonga shopkeeper, whom I judged to be Chinese based on her appearance and based on repeated references to the “Chinese stores,” was hunched behind the counter, intent on not missing a single pixel of whatever was displayed on her smartphone. She’d not responded to my cheery mālō e lelei greeting when I’d entered her store. That wasn’t a problem, but now I’d uncovered something on her crowded, dusty shelves that piqued my curiosity.

“Hi, I have a quick question.”

She rolled her head up and I could read nothing in her expression.

“I was just wondering about,” I turned and pointed to an endcap filled with hundreds of dark, dust-free bottles labeled Vaikita. “What are those?”

“Tongan medicine.”

“What for?”


“But for what? What sickness does it treat?”


She stared at me for another beat before deciding our conversation had run its course and then she returned to her phone.



I’ve heard and read repeatedly since we arrived that Tonga is a wholly independent nation that’s never been colonized, making Tongans fairly unique among South Pacific island populations. That’s true and it’s interesting. But is Tonga being colonized in another sense?

During the six weeks we’ve spent exploring in and around Neiafu, I’ve been struck by one thing in particular: It’s not Tongans who are meeting the needs and sating the desires of the very small number of tourists who visit each year--nor, to an extent, of the Tongans themselves and their own burgeoning need for goods.

A few Tongan carvers and weavers market their goods at the open-air vegetable market. But two blocks away, Kiwis have set up boutique displays of the same goods for retail. Tongans work in the few local restaurants and bars that cater to foreigners, but few of these establishments are owned or managed by Tongans. The strong demand for a 4-machine clothes washing business was met by two former cruisers. There are dozens of tiny, tiny stores attached to Tongans’ homes, but nearly all of the large food stores catering to cruisers and charterers are owned and run by Chinese. Do you want to take advantage of Tonga’s non-restrictive laws that permit tourists to swim with the visiting whales? The tour boats are owned by non-Tongans. The few planes operated by the single national airline are flown by Kiwi pilots.

The ingredients are eucalyptus oil
and camphor suspension.
It seems like Tongans are largely sitting on the bench while the game being played on their home turf goes on. I’m not sure why. Granted that ex-pats have ready access to more capital than the average Tongan. but there is a Tongan development bank in town. I’ve heard government corruption is a problem; is that limiting access to capital by entrepreneurial Tongans? Tongan life has evolved in a setting in which food and land are plentiful and the climate is friendly. Free time and attention are given to the church, to the family, to the kava bowl, and to a revered king. Have there been no cultural drivers or impetus to build business? And should there be?

Maybe there should be. Tongan land is not for sale to foreigners, but at least this part of the country is being settled ex-pats who acquire lifetime leases. A direct result of this settlement is that Tongan society is under increasing influence of tourism and technology. Accordingly, Tongans are beset with increasing rates of obesity and other health problems as a result of the introduction of processed foods and a decline in activity formerly associated with acquiring food. More plastic and disposable goods are being imported and creating more trash. Health care is poor.

We arrived at the same time this year as friends who were last here 17 years ago, who lived here for 2 years. They are seeing a very different Tonga. And change in Vava’u seems to be coming fast, now. This season, Neiafu is buzzing over the new foreign-owned haul-out yard that may change the cruising dynamic, making Vava’u a rare, viable South Pacific option for getting work done on boats and hauling out for the season. Additionally, a crew of contractors just returned to their home country after living here for weeks, installing equipment at the single-runway airport that will make it IFR-capable and open Vava’u to direct, international flights.

Unfortunately for the people who have lived here simply and for so long, I don’t think they will have the option to continue with lives largely undisturbed and unaffected. My Western mindset is inclined to see change as progress and as opportunity for Tongans. But based on what I’ve seen, it’s not gonna happen that way. And stockpiles of Vaikita in the Chinese stores will not help what’s ailing the Tongans.

The produce markets are
excellent, more on these in a later post.
The girls did face painting aboard Vagrant, the boat of our
good friends, Shane and Tina. I don't know why I ended up
with a blue nose and beard. A cool thing in this photo (click
to enlarge it) are Windy's lips. They form the head of a
whale shark, swimming right at you, courtesy Eleanor.
But it's scary when she shows her teeth.

Shane and Tina.

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