*Beach hopping and passive hitchhiking*
23.11.2011 - 24.10.2011 25 °C
On Sunday in Tonga, everything shuts down and everyone goes to church. This leaves tourists and heathens somewhat high and dry with no shopping, tours, taxis, etc. But natural beauty is available seven days a week. I’ve been hearing about one Keleti Beach a few kilometers from the hostel that is supposed to be gorgeous, and figure I’ll check it out. Toni, not being Tongan, is running an island tour today that will include Keleti Beach. I, being me, decide to pass on the tour and get there on my own.
I slather on sunblock and set off along the road, taking in the scenery and the sounds. In a way this could be any island. A hot, dusty road. Modest homes with chickens strutting amidst palm trees and brightly colored flowers. Dogs barking, roosters crowing, tropical birds singing, the occasional groan of a car lumbering by. But this is Tonga on a Sunday, so there are also church bells ringing out, and voices raised in song. And there is a palace/estate belonging to the king off the right, followed shortly by a house belonging to the queen off to the left with twin lions guarding the gate. It is lovely.
Presently, a car with a Tongan family dressed in their Sunday best slows down to ask if I am alright walking. I say yes, thank you very much. It happens again, this time a small truck with the family filling the truck bed; again I say I am fine, thank you very much. I don’t really want to interrupt anyone’s commute to church, and I just don’t know what’s appropriate. The third car that slows down is a van from a downtown hotel, empty but for the driver. He asks where I am going, and I say Keleti Beach. He is going that way and can take me, he says. I finally relent, realizing that this will just keep happening because Tongans are simply too nice to let me walk. I think my trudging along the side of the road is somehow an affront to their collective hospitality, and as long as I’m walking cars will keep stopping. My new friend’s name is Mo, we have a lovely conversation during the ride, and he invites me to visit him where he works downtown.
Keleti Beach is gorgeous. There is a ridge of very cool rock formations perhaps twenty meters out, going up and down the shore which acts as a breakwater for the strong ocean waves, making for gentle, crystal blue waters along the beach. I spend the first hour just wading up and down through the tide pools, then go back in with goggles to get a look at the rocks and fish from underwater. Then I spend some time lying on the beach and soaking in the sun. There are a few other people – some tourists, some Tongans – but it does not feel crowded. It feels… rather like paradise. I spend some time wandering around the grounds of the nearby resort to see if there are any freshly fallen coconuts, because I could sure go for one right about now, but no luck. Not that I would really have any way to open a coconut if I found one.
As the sun grows lower, I figure I should head back because I have a few kilometers’ walk ahead. I set off along the unpaved road leading back to the main road. A ways up ahead, I see a car moving very slowly, then stopping all together. A Tongan woman gets out and appears to be moving some things around in the car. She is still there when I walk up, and asks me where I am going. To Tofoa, I respond, the village where Toni’s Guest House is. “I go that way too. I take you. you come with me,” she declares. Her grandson is in the back seat (perhaps that is what she was moving around). Her name is Anna, and she has a son going to college in the US, so I get his name and promise to look him up. Meanwhile, I am just floored to realize that she must have seen me in her rear view mirror, stopped and waited for me. Having twice set out to walk and twice wound up ‘passive hitchhiking,’ I can only conclude that Tonga is a special, special place. I make oatmeal in milk for dinner, sweetened with a little ginger lemon honey, and eat it while swaying gently in the hammock under a palm-fringed lavender sky.
On Monday, everything is up and running as usual. I decide to take advantage of the Tongan bus system to get to another sight on the island, the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon, touted as ‘the Stonehenge of Tonga.’ There is not actually a public bus system, rather a handful of private operators who run buses to the various villages around Tongatapu. Per Lonely Planet, to get to the Ha’amonga you just “catch the infrequent Niutoua bus and get off about a kilometer before the village.” Sounds reasonable enough. And in a stroke of perfect timing, as I approach the Nuku’alofa bus depot a bus with a Niutoua sign in the window is just pulling out. I run to catch it.
I am the only non-Tongan on the bus. The rest of the people are a mixture of young children, school children, adults, and elderly. One man has a plastic bag full of frozen – but slowly defrosting and beginning to drip – chicken. Other people have bags of fruits and vegetables from the market. There is one woman with long hair sitting further up by a window, and I am enthralled by her hair waving like a medusa in the wind. When people want to get off, they just let the driver know and he stops wherever. When someone wants to get on, they just wave at the bus and the driver brakes wherever. You can smell the brakes burning up each time. The ride takes close to an hour and costs T$1. Much better than a taxi in every way, I decide.
When I get off at the Ha’amonga Trilithon, it feels like the middle of nowhere, but for a couple women selling necklaces and a large stone arch. One thing that's special about the trilithon is that it weighs about twelve tons. Just how the 13th century islanders transported these huge slabs of stone and set them in an arch is a mystery that has inspired various theories and myths. There has also been speculation that it has some astronomical significance.
There is another large stone further back, but there is a rather large pig in a pool of mud blocking the way. I could skirt the mud pool, but deem it better not to risk the pig’s ire. He looks happy where he is, happy as a pig in…
Having taken an hourlong bus ride and had a ten minute look at the trilithon, and finding little else to do there, I decide to see if there is a perhaps beach nearby. After a few minutes of following the road, I see what looks like a promising path in the direction of the water. There is indeed a beach. And how.
I spend a while wading around in the shallow tide pools and enjoying the gorgeous scenery. I also manage to cut the arch of one foot on a rock leaving a shallow inch-long gash, and stab the other heel on another rock leaving some sort of dark matter under my skin. It does little to spoil the beach, which I have completely to myself. After I finish swimming, I apply antibiotic and band aids (yes I have that stuff in my backpack – I know myself) and walk back out to the road and wait for the bus. There is a little store there, just your typical island shop with a few kinds of cookies, pasta and shampoo which you can buy through a window in the metal bars. I soon find myself talking with a young man behind the window. He is a teacher, and his mother owns the store and lives next door. During the hour it takes for a bus to show up, we have a lovely conversation and he brings me a bowl of watermelon from the house. After the beach, the fruit is deliciously refreshing. I still cannot wrap my head around how nice Tongans are.
The bus rumbles up in a cloud of dust, and I am again the only non-Tongan on the return trip. I hop off in Tofoa, and on the brief walk back to Toni’s, encounter another guy staying at the lodge who has made friends with four Tongan boys around 12 years old. We all loaf around the neighborhood together for a while, taking pictures and talking in whatever bits of English seem to serve. Another lovely Tonga day. I think I'm getting used to island time, that feeling of having nowhere pressing to be.