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)

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

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

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