In the Kingdom of Tonga: First Impressions

Abraham left us in New Zealand and made the 24+ hour journey home, emailing us from LA to say that he had lost his wallet in Auckland after going through passport control but that the immigration officers had helped him find it. This did not surprise me terribly (either that he lost it or that they helped him), as the New Zealand immigration and customs officers are by far the  nicest we’ve met.

We were all very sad to see Abraham go and wished he could have traveled on with us, but he had to get back to his summer job. We, meanwhile, got on another plane and headed for the Kingdom of Tonga, our very first view of which looked like this:

arriving in Tonga

The people in the lines definitely did not match up with the signs over the lines (the people in the  so-called Special Lane looked exactly like the people in the Tongan Passport Lane, who resembled a lot of people in the Non-Tongan Passport Lane), and somehow we managed to be the last people to go through any of the lanes, though we were by no means the last people to disembark. This, as it turned out, was typical of our experience in Tonga, where we frequently had the feeling that we were missing some crucial piece of information.

In order to fully understand our Tongan experience you need to know that my niece is a kindergarten teacher in California and that her mentor teacher this past year was a Tongan woman named Ana. Now I have never met Ana, though I am hoping to catch up with her in San Francisco on the way home, but I did call her for advice some months ago when I first decided that Tonga should be on our itinerary. She was extremely friendly and helpful and suggested, among other things, that we bring a jar of peanut butter for Dani so that he would have something to eat. What I didn’t realize—what none of us realized—at the time was what it would mean to have a Tongan contact once we actually reached the Kingdom.

We arrived about 8 pm—it was dark, and we were hoping to be met by someone who would take us to the place where we were staying. But when we finally emerged from the airport there were not one but two people waiting for us. The first was the driver from the hotel; the second was Ana’s brother-in-law Sateki, who was making his—wait for it—second trip to the airport that day. Apparently there were two flights in from NZ that day, the first of which  had arrived at 2:30 am, and not knowing which of them we would be on, he met them both!

This, however, was just the beginning. After dropping us at our hotel, Sateki drove all the way back home (about 40 minutes) and then returned in a different vehicle which he was giving us to use for as long as we were in Tonga. He and Seven then drove back to his village, Sateki pointing out the landmarks in the dark and Seven memorizing the turns—left at the China Aid sign, left then quick right, left again, past two villages—through a landscape that looks something like this in daylight:

IMG_3165-1

Amazingly Seven succeeded in finding his way back to us by about 1 o’clock in the morning.

By then it was Sunday morning (early) and it turns out that EVERYTHING is shut in the Kingdom of Tonga on Sundays. I do not, by the way, recommend scheduling a Saturday night arrival for anyone considering a visit to Tonga; we, of course, had completely failed to grasp how closed everything would be. There are no stores, no tourist offices, no rental car agencies, no banks, and most importantly almost no restaurants open on Sunday. Had we not had the use of Sateki’s car, we would have been sitting in our bungalow getting hungrier and hungrier—not to mention thirsty since you can’t drink the water in Tonga (you can’t, by the way, drink the water in most of Polynesia)—until Monday morning. Again, this only dawned on us slowly, but over the course of the next couple of days we realized what a lifesaver the loan of this vehicle really was.

Here’s a shot of the place where we did, eventually, find a meal at the westernmost end of the island:

Sunday lunch

This was a sort of  “resort” and at first it looked more or less recognizable, but even here we seemed not to really get what was going on. Here is a picture of us waiting in what we thought was the restaurant—we had by this time ordered food, though admittedly off a rather confusing menu  from a girl who didn’t speak much English, while the few other people who came and went only ever seemed to have drinks…

waiting for lunch

An hour and a half later, we discovered that what we had ordered was lunch, not breakfast, that it wasn’t served until after 1 pm, that it was served in another place entirely, and that it consisted of yummy but completely foreign foods, not one of which we could even tempt Dani into trying. I tried to explain to him that the round purple starchy slices were just a kind of sweetish potato and that chicken was chicken no matter what it looked like, but he wasn’t having any of it. Seven, however, was ecstatic over the feke (octopus) in coconut cream, kumara, and something we think might have been cassava. Not for the last time did I wish I’d brought the peanut butter like Ana recommended…

A Very Quick Tour

New Zealand: Parting Shots

Before we head for the Kingdom of Tonga, I thought I’d leave you with a few parting shots of the Land of the Long White Cloud.

One Tree Hill (in fact, surmounted by one monument), Auckland:

One Tree Hill

One cow hill, somewhere in the north:

One Cow Hill

Matiu at dusk on Ninety-Mile Beach, even farther north:

Ninety Mile Beach

Matiu and Dani playing basketball with their cousins Rehia and Repeka in Kaitaia.

Matiu and Dain playing basketball

Rehia and Repeka’s sister, Jessica, with their cousin Jason’s child:

Jessica

Seven’s sister Liza and his brothers Bill and Ngawati, who drove up from Taranaki and Wellington respectively (!!) to have lunch with us.

Liza, Bill, Wati in Hamilton

And finally, the view from the house where we stayed in Paihia, early morning:

Paihia morning

In the Kingdom of Tonga: First Impressions

The Last Uninhabited Land

New Zealand is certainly an interesting case in the great Polynesian migration story. Settled last and so different from all the other islands in climate, flora, fauna, etc. that it must have come as a real surprise. I begin to see the significance of a detail in the stories of Kupe the explorer, who is said to have discovered Aotearoa—see the following plaque from the monument atop One Tree Hill.

plaque on one tree hill

Kupe returned from New Zealand to report that although he had sailed right round the islands he never met with another human being. The only inhabitants were birds.

If you think about how big New Zealand is, and how resource-rich compared with many of the Pacific islands, it really would have been remarkable to have come upon it, so late in human history, and find it completely unoccupied. Nor is it surprising to find a mention of the birds, which in the absence of competitive and/or predatory mammals, had evolved in some pretty spectacular ways. One species of moa was said to be 12 feet tall.

I’d really have liked to have made a pilgrimage to Wairau Bar, where they made the first major discovery of materials from the so-called Moa-hunter period; the earliest phase of Maori settlement of New Zealand. But I guess I’ll have to come back to do that because, you guessed it, we still have more family members to see.

New Zealand: Parting Shots

And Then There Was That Business about the Coffee

Being in New Zealand is forcing me to confront all my missteps and another thing  I caught a surprising amount of flack for (this time from the urban literati) was my description in Come on Shore of a particular drink I used to have in the Far North as “what passes for coffee in New Zealand.” It was a kind of powdered instant that we drank with hot water and plenty of milk and sugar. I always enjoyed it-—I still do—I just didn’t think it resembled coffee very much.

Anyway, this clearly irked a segment of the NZ population, who will waste no time in telling you that the coffee served in New Zealand is the best in the world. Twenty years on (from the time I was describing) I would have to agree. We have had coffee everywhere and it has been unilaterally exceptional: huge cups of a great dark brew with beautiful foamy milk. So, clearly, that’s another line I’ll have to change in the second edition.

You know, I would never have been able to write that book if I’d been living in New Zealand—another illustration of the principle I mentioned in an earlier post about how we see things clearest at a distance. Working from memory can be exceptionally fruitful; it forces (or perhaps allows) you to tighten the focus, but, by the same token, it almost invariably has a warping effect—the natural consequence, I think, of selectivity.

Ok, enough philosophizing. I will leave you with one of my favorite pictures from the trip so far. I call it “Contemplation à deux.”

Abraham and me

The Last Uninhabited Land

Clearing up a Couple of Points

One of the things we got to do in New Zealand (on the way to visit another branch of the family) was to climb up Rangikapiti pa, which is just outside the village of Mangonui. This excursion has prompted me to make a couple of clarifications about my book.

The early New Zealand scenes in Come on Shore are set in a village that was known in olden days by a two-part name, of which Mangonui was the second half. At some point they dropped the Mangonui part, and for a long time now the place has been known simply by the first half of the name. In an excess of caution, I “disguised” the name by using only the dropped part. Also, in an effort to protect the privacy of Seven’s family, I changed their names when they appeared in the story (this is all explained in the author’s note).

It turns out, however, that some of the people whose names I changed thought this was a bad idea; perhaps because, among other things, I managed accidentally to use the name of a living person for a character who dies in the course of the book. And just to confuse matters even further, there’s another town not far away that actually is called Mangonui.

Anyway these photos are taken in the Mangonui that you would find on a map today. It’s an extremely charming place, well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Here is a shot of the main drag:

Mangonui

Here’s me sitting on the dock across the street:

Mangonui dock

and here is what I am looking at:

Te Aurere
This was an extremely interesting discovery — looks like a modern replica of a voyaging canoe, of which many have now been built all over Polynesia. We asked a guy sitting in a car if he knew whose boat it was and he said he thought it came from Whangarei. Looks like something we’ll have to investigate….

We also spent a happy hour or so up on Rangikapiti pa, which is a terraced hill at the entrance to the harbor with an unbelievable view. One of Abraham’s panoramas might almost do it justice….

Mangonui panorama

Pa are fortified villages which, in the old days, were built on prominent hilltops and headlands where you could get a really clear view of the surrounding countryside and not be taken by surprise by your enemies. The upper parts were terraced and fortified with ditches and palisades and even fighting stages; there are terrific descriptions of them in Cook’s journals (see also Elsdon Best). These days — except for the ones that have been reconstructed for tourists — they are just terraced hills, but even so they are pretty astonishing — the sense of power you have up on top, the commanding views, the magnitude of the terracing. Dani thought it was fantastic and spent the next few days nagging us about going back. Eventually we took him to One Tree Hill in Auckland, which is also pretty impressive.

Here is an artist’s rendering of what this pa might have looked like in the old days, just to give you some idea.

Rangikapiti pa drawing

And here we are coming down off it to give you a sense of scale:

rangikapiti pa

And Then There Was That

Business about the Coffee

Whanau, Whanau, Whanau

My family is really rather small, only about 10 people who are close enough to give Christmas presents to. Seven on the other hand, has an enormous family: a mother, nine siblings, numerous sisters- and brothers-in-law, and at least 25 nieces and nephews, I have no idea how many aunties, uncles, and cousins, never mind all the people who stretch out laterally and have the status of nanas, aunties, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews,  and so on. So you may imagine what his familial obligations are in New Zealand, not to mention the fact that he hasn’t been back in 12 years.

It’s a little like one of those fairy tales in which the princess is supposed to separate a mountain of barley from a mountain of wheat in the course of a single night. But I have to say that Seven certainly gave it his all. As soon as we reached the Bay of Islands, he left the rest of us and shot off to see his mother — who turned out not to be home (this was before we’d gotten the telephone working). Still, there were all these other people to catch up with: his cousin Rata, his sister Grace, Auntie Luana, her son Bronson, Milton, Fred, Auntie Mae, etc., etc.

Here’s a picture of Seven’s cousin Rata, whom I was really sorry not to have seen, as we spent a bit of time together in Australia back in the day.

Rata

The reason I never managed to catch up with Rata is that when Seven went back with the kids the next day, I was curled up in front of the gas fire with a case of food poisoning. After our first wonderful meal in New Zealand, we had a second, pretty ordinary one at a place in Paihia that looked like it should have been ok but wasn’t. I’m thinking it was probably the shrimp, but in any case I was, fortunately, the only one who got really sick.

I was especially glad that it was just me because I really wanted the boys to see where Seven had grown up; and of course, everyone there wanted to get a look at them. Here are some pictures of a few of the things they saw:

The landscape on the drive out there:

near Paihia

Bronson, one of their cousins:

bronson

the view from Bronson’s mother’s house:

view from bill's house

And an extremely beautiful and interesting beach on the opposite side of the peninsula with these great basalt (?) columns and even a cave!

columnar rocks

cave

Here is what Abraham was doing while the other two were clambering up and down the rocks:

abraham with camera

and here are a few of his pix:

rocks

point

gorse

Hey, you Kiwis, remember this plant???

Clearing up a Couple of Points

The Prodigal Returns

I think the kids were a bit relieved to land in New Zealand where, amazingly enough, everyone spoke English. I’m still impressed at my own failure to grasp how fundamental this difference is to one’s experience; but the other very obvious difference is that it feels like winter here. We are down in 36 degrees southern latitude now, not nearly as far as you can go and still be in Polynesia (the Chatham Islands off the coast of NZ lie on the 44th parallel), but still pretty far south. Of course, for those of you in New England, you can just forget the notion of “winter” altogether – think California, more or less. When the sun is out it’s warm (maybe in the high 60s?), even hot if you’re moving, but at night it drops down into the 40s, which for us at the moment feels pretty darn cold.

Abraham, who was last here when he was 7 (Matiu was not quite 2; Dani still in utero), finds it at once strange and familiar. He said he thought it looked like Australia, and I know what he means. It’s the flora, for starters, that gives one this antipodean feeling. It’s so unlike what we have at home — Norfolk pines, tree ferns, ti tree, manuka, all that olive colored bush — yet we are now clearly in a temperate climate and not in the tropics anymore.

new zealand landscape

And then of course there is the ocean; even in the temperate zones the Pacific just does not resemble the Atlantic Ocean in any way, shape, or form. And especially not in color.

As soon as we got off the plane we headed for the Bay of Islands, stopping in Orewa (a seaside town a bit north of Auckland) for the best breakfast I think we’ve ever had (mind you, we’d been on the go for something like 18 hours with just one proper meal and not nearly enough sleep). I am compelled to list all the things we ate, just because it was so impressive:

4 meat pies (steak, mince, steak and mushroom, and steak and cheese)
a double cheeseburger
fish and chips
2 fried eggs and hash browns
2 fruit muffins
2 HUGE lattes
4 chocolate milks
2 fruit sodas

Did we like it because it wasn’t — for the first time in weeks – hot cocoa, baguette with jam, and a runny omelette? Perhaps. But also to be fair it was extremely good. Even Dani – who has been surviving for three weeks on French fries, eggs, bread, pineapple, orange juice, and KitKat bars – got a full-on meal.

Here, courtesy of Abraham, is a photo of one of Australia/New Zealand’s true culinary delights:

meat pie

Why don’t we have these in America?

But the other thing that is different about New Zealand is that we are not strangers here. Well, I’m still a bit of a stranger — having never actually lived her and only visited — and it’s all new to the children. But Seven is home — for the first time in 12 years. Which means that we have a lot of people to say hello to.

Whanau, Whanau, Whanau