Saturday, May 01, 2004

Planes, Boats and Automobiles: One month of travel in The Friendly Isles

It was almost four, yesterday afternoon as I stood in line to purchase airline tickets for my sister-in-law, Kim. The airline, which opened just two weeks before, has its offices in a building roughly the size of a large bathroom, and shares space with a radio station and a car rental company, all owned by the Crown Prince.

My Tongan language instructor, Elenoa, was there with me. She and I were the only people in the waiting room weighing in at less than 200 pounds. The room was crowded: ten people sitting and standing in a formation tight enough to induce claustrophobia. Most of the people in the room traveled to Vava’u for a church conference. They were dressed in traditional Tongan style, with woven mats big enough to cover a living room floor belted around their waists. From my position in a corner chair, my knees and nose were in jeopardy of rug burn.

After 40 minutes of not-so-patient waiting, I finally earned my turn at the chair near the lone employee’s desk. “I’m here to purchase the tickets I reserved this morning,” I said, with every hope that the endeavor would be just as simple as the sentenced sounded.

TONGAN TRAVEL LESSON NUMBER ONE: Nothing is ever quick in a country where fakapikopiko (lazy) and fiemau malolo (need to rest) are valid excuses to give your boss when you want to call off work for the day.

“The 10:30 flight?” the clerk asked.

I hesitated. The flight time was earlier than the one I’d been given before, and the new time made for an impossible connection between Kim’s international and domestic flights. The clerk, who was amazingly relaxed despite a full day of servicing pushy crowds, saw my hesitation and explained: the flight time had changed, for the third time in three days.

TONGAN TRAVEL LESSON NUMBER TWO: In a country whose stone monument from the 13th century still defies engineering logic, nothing modern is ever set in stone.

I cancelled Kim’s ticket on Ea Peau Vava’u (Air Waves Vava’u), and moved down the street to the other airline, Air Niu (Air Coconut), which also opened two weeks ago. These two new airlines are the replacement for Royal Tonga Air, which went belly-up (thankfully, I mean this only as a figurative expression) right about the time Cliff’s parents decided to come visit us.

Darlene and Elmer landed on the capital island, Tongatapu, and planned to spend two quick days there, recuperating from jet lag and seeing the few sites the main island has to offer. Their stay extended from two days to six when Royal Tonga Air’s only working plane experienced mechanical problems. (RTA had two other planes, one that had been out of commission for five months and another that was recently repossessed by the Sultan of Brunei.) Getting stuck in Tongatapu is about like flying into U.S.A. for the first time and only seeing Detroit.

But RTA came through for us, and four days late we were able to meet them at the airport in Vava’u. We spent a week showing Darlene and Elmer around our tropical island and then the four of us began to prepare for the final leg of their vacation: a week together in Fiji.

TONGAN TRAVEL LESSON NUMBER THREE: No question is a dumb question in a country where this verbal exchange can take place:
Where’s Makoni?
With the cooler.
Where’s the cooler?
With Makoni.

Two days before our scheduled flight from Vava’u to Tongatapu, to catch a connecting flight to Fiji, I stopped by the RTA office to pick up our tickets. Back at the restaurant where Cliff was dining with his parents, we looked at the tickets and noticed the four of us had been placed on two different flights. So I went back to the RTA office to have our tickets changed.

“Sure I can change your tickets,” said the man behind the counter, “but there’s really no need to make the change. We aren’t going to have any flights on Wednesday.” Ten minutes earlier he had given me the tickets, and now he was telling me they were as useful as Confederate war bonds. My fault for not asking, as I took the tickets, “So, this flight will happen, right?”

RTA, we were told, was having additional mechanical problems and planned to suspend flights for nine days. (The mechanical problems turned out to be a little thing called bankruptcy.) The last flight was scheduled for 9 that same evening, but it, said the folks behind the counter, was for people who were scheduled to fly the following day. Unless we could get on that flight, we were stranded on a tropical isle, with no hope of making our international connection.

As many of you readers know, Cliff has great puppy dog eyes and a fair bit of acting ability. The woman must have been moved by his look of utter dejection because a few minutes later she mysteriously found four seats on the 9 p.m. plane. We closed up work, packed for Fiji, and started our vacation two days early.

Eight days later, back from vacation, Cliff and I were stuck in Tongatapu with better tans and return tickets for a now defunct airline. A cargo ship was our only option for returning to our island.

There are three ocean-going cargo ships that make frequent trips between Tongatapu and the distant islands. The Olavaha, nicknamed the Orange Puke, is the biggest, but slow. The Otu Tonga is smaller than the Olavaha and designed more for cargo than passengers. The Pulapake (which Cliff’s dad referred to as the Porta-Potty) is fast, and feels like a cruise ship compared to the others, though I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t meet U.S. safety standards.

Given the options, the Pulapake was our number one choice, but it had run aground on a coral reef in Ha’apai the week before. The Olavaha had engine problems and was puttering to Fiji for repairs. That left us, and about 200 other passengers, with the flat-bottomed, motion-sickness inducing Otu Tonga.

TONGAN TRAVEL LESSON NUMBER FOUR: Be careful where you roll while being spooned by an 80 year old Tongan woman. Also, always bring toilet paper.

About 60 of us stuffed ourselves onto the top deck, which fortunately was sheltered by tarps from the chilly rain. The deck was about the size of a small living room, with a row of benches circling the outer edge and mats covering every inch of floor space. Cliff, our friend Victoria, and I shared the space of one mat, about the size of a dining room table.

There’s not much to do on a cargo ship except sleep, so by the time night fell most of the boat was already snoring. Our mat space grew more limited as a large, elderly Tongan woman one mat over stretched her legs and arms in her sleep. At one point, Cliff awoke to find himself in her clutches, her ample knees almost folded into the backs of his and almost half our mat space given to her intruding form. To quote the John Candy movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, “Those aren’t pillows!”

The only thing less pleasant than Cliff’s sleeping partner was the bathroom. There were two on the boat, one that never flushed and one that occasionally did. Neither had toilet paper, but Girl Scout that I am, I came prepared. After 27 hours on the boat, the smell was so rank that even being in the same hall as the bathroom was enough to bring on a gagging reflex.

What I have just described may sound like a night in h-e-double hockey sticks to you, but Cliff and I actually climbed off the boat feeling a bit exhilarated. The ride itself was not as unpleasant as we expected. We’d had a few good conversations with our Tongan boat companions, and, after a month of travel woes, we’d safely made it home where we could rely on the fleet of unreliable taxis to drive us around our island. This was exactly what we’d imagined serving in the Peace Corps would be like. Which leads us to …
TONGA TRAVEL LESSON NUMBER FIVE: In a country called The Friendly Isles, where malimali (smiling) is a command and fiefie (happiness) is a way of life, don’t let palapolema (problems) spoil your ava pe (vacation).