On the Road with Kids, the Extended Version

The name of this Tongan church gave us a shock: of course it is dedicated to Saint Matthew. I just don’t think we’d ever seen Matiu’s name in letters that big!

Church of Matiu

It occurred to me that I might write a little about what this has been like for Matiu and Dani (and what traveling with them has been like for us). Since I can’t get inside their heads (and since because they’re boys they never tell you how they’re feeling), I have to intuit their experience based on their behavior, which has been what I would describe as mixed.

Admittedly, we are asking quite a lot of them: get up, go here, go there, do this, eat this weird food, greet these unknown family members, visit this heap of rocks. On the whole, they’ve been great, though, naturally, not always. Over time they have developed a tactic that I find really maddening. They have become Refuseniks. When they have really had enough they simply refuse to leave the hotel room. They will sometimes do this even when they need food; in fact, the hungrier they are the more intransigent they become — low blood sugar having a well-known and deleterious effect on children’s cognitive abilities…

When it gets really bad — we leave them. Even if they’re hungry. But when we come back we bring food. Fortunately, this only happens once in a while. For the most part only one child at a time is lost in the serious sulks and it’s been quite heartening to watch each of them, at different moments, try to jolly his brother back to some reasonable frame of mind so that we can get on with whatever it is that we have to be doing.

So, in honor of their continuing efforts I want to post a few pictures that will suggest some of the other techniques they’ve used to cope with this journey…

Here, for example, is a photo of Matiu and Dani in an Auckland hotel:

Dani and Matiu in NZ

And here they are in a hotel in Tonga:

Dani at Little Italy

Matiu at Little Italy

Here they are thinking about how close they can get to the cliff edge:

Matiu and Dani

And here they are horsing around on the beach:

Matiiu and Dani with stick

And here they are horsing around some more in, wait for it, another hotel room:

Matiu and Dani in Melbourne
I have to say I have loved traveling with them—except once in a while, when, had it been possible, I might have sent them home. Fairly early on in the trip I told them the story about how one of my cousins was sent home from a trip at about this age, but it can only have had the weakest of effects on them since (a) they knew I couldn’t actually do it and (b) they knew I never would.

Tonga to Australia by way of

New Zealand (again)

In the Kingdom of Tonga: Food and Friends

I want to make sure I finish the  Tongan hospitality story, because it doesn’t end with pick up (and drop off!) at the airport or even the loan of the car! On the night before we were scheduled to leave — by which time I should note, we had sussed out quite a number of Tongan systems and were almost beginning to feel like old hands — Sateki and his wife invited us to an umu (a New Zealand hangi), which is to say food cooked in an earth over, at their house. There was enough for about 30 people, but fortunately Sateki has several children (and a cousin turned up to eat as well) so I didn’t think anything would go to waste. Foolishly, we did not think of photographing the spread before we tucked into it, but here is a photo of what it looked like after we were done.

Tongan umu

The pig was fantastic, as was the chicken, the octopus, the salads, a kind of sweet dumpling (which I noticed the children liked), and something wrapped in some kind of (banana?) leaves. There was enough food for about 30 people, but fortunately, Sateki has several children (a cousin came to help us eat as well) so I figured the extra would not go to waste. Here are a couple of photos of the family –Sateki with two of his beautiful children:

Sateki with children

His beautiful and gracious wife, Fine, who made the most moving speech of welcome to us—even Matiu, our 15-year-old, was overwhelmed by her warmth and generosity—and their three girls:

Sateki's wife and three girls

And a picture of the entire family, including the cousin in the back.

Uasike family

I had an extremely interesting conversation with their eldest daughter (in red), who is something of a scholar. We left her the first two books in the Harry Potter series, which Dani has been reading. She may still be a tad young for them (English, after all, is not her first language), but I hope she gives them a whirl. I don’t know a child who hasn’t gotten hooked and it would certainly be easy enough to send the rest  (her parents have only to say the word and we will send them an entire library!!!).

I still really can’t get over how nice — what an inadequate word! — they were to us, and with absolutely no expectation of any kind of reciprocity. It does make you want to return the favor, though, if only you could figure our what would be most useful to give or do…

On the Road with Kids, the Extended Version

A Very Quick Tour

Tonga is such a complex place: this incredible hospitality; almost no tourist infrastructure to speak of (they burned the city of Nuku’alofa down in a fit of civil unrest a couple of years ago and there are still places that have not been rebuilt); a lot of highly visible poverty; an enormous number of churches; oh, and did I mention that it’s flat?

The island is like a big coral biscuit, the windward side of which is undercut in places leaving these amazing limestone shelves with holes (and even caves) in them. Up on the western end there are a series of blowholes that are not to be missed where the surf comes roaring up and crashes into these cliffs, blasting up through holes in the surface exactly like a whale. Even sounds like a whale clearing its blowhole.

windward coast Tonga

Here are a couple of shots of what you’re walking on when you get out to the edges of the island (that is where it’s not mangroves and mud):

coral

coral

And here’s what it looks like from another angle:

Tongan coast

We also visited the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon, but which I believe is the largest megalithic structure in the Pacific outside of Easter Island. Here it is, with some people we met there for scale.

Ha'amonga Trilithon

This, actually, is what I went to Tonga to see, because until you see something with your own eyes….well, you’re pretty much just faking it.

In the Kingdom of Tonga:

Food and Friends

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

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

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

Shifting Gears

Five islands (7 if you count the ones we landed on) and 3 archipelagoes later, we have said farewell to French Polynesia. Our last day of travel was pretty challenging. We left Rangiroa around 10 am and flew back to Tahiti where, in a moment of clarity, I had booked us into a hotel. We had to be at the airport at midnight for a 2:30 am flight to New Zealand and originally the plan was just to wait it out somewhere. Fortunately, I realized that this was a really bad idea and instead we went to a hotel with a pool and a restaurant. The room was ordinary enough, but the view from the lobby was impressive.

lagoonarium

Abraham and I took a taxi in to Papeete around 4 pm just to have a look around, but when we got there we found that they were hosing down the sidewalks and most of the shops had put up their shutters. The sun sets early in the tropics and we only had about another hour and a half of light. The city had what we both identified as a sort of Saigonesque feel. Of course, neither of us has ever been to Saigon, so I don’t know where we got that idea exactly. But it’s French and tropical and sort of seedily charming. I would have liked more time there but I didn’t much fancy wandering around after dark, so when the sun set we went back to the hotel to catch a couple of hours of sleep.

Well, that was a fond hope. Two single beds, 5 people; you do the math. Dani got a little bit of sleep, and I got a little, but I’m really not sure about the rest of them. Here’s a photo of the boys doing a really good imitation of Zombies at the Faa’a airport around 1 am:

Papeete airport

The only thing that salvaged the experience was this great group outside the international arrivals area, apparently waiting to serenade some homecoming friends. The woman with the guitar [sic] was particularly wonderful.

Faa'a Airport

So, now it’s on to New Zealand. I think we’re all going to miss French Polynesia, having kind of gotten the hang of it by now. Another couple of weeks and I’d have had them all speaking a bit of French; Seven was well along and Matiu, who actually knows a little, was at least helping me translate the menus. We had even mastered a few words (of the hello, please, and thank you variety) of Tahitian. As for the bigger picture, I have been trying to ascertain what exactly I’ve learned but I think it’s going to be a while before I can process it all. On that point I was rather struck the other day by this passage in The Biographer’s Tale by A. S. Byatt:

“We see most clearly at a distance; details confuse us; we must get away from what we desire to judge; summer is best described on a winter day.”

The Prodigal Returns