Don't worry, it's the island way

By Jim Eagles

The most useful piece of advice I got before heading to Tonga for the first time was: Take it easy, remember you're on holiday and you're in Polynesia, it'll all go much better if you just hang loose and take things as they come.

That's good advice on any trip but it's especially relevant somewhere as relaxed as Tonga.

No plane tickets? No accommodation booked? No tour organised? No worries. It'll all turn out just fine.

We got an early introduction to the delightful Tongan way immediately after landing at Fua'amotu International Airport, on Tongatapu, when it turned out the onward flight we were supposed to be taking to Vava'u had been cancelled - "they do that all the time", said another passenger - and we had several unexpected hours to fill in. No worries, a delightful young woman from the Tonga Visitor Bureau said she would take us on a tour of Tongatapu, which was fascinating; the royal palace and the royal tombs, lovely churches and beautiful beaches, ancient stone monuments and a modern bustling market.

Best of all, there was a taste of the Tongan approach to things. As we drove past the local prison our guide drew attention to the lack of fences. "Scary, eh?" Just down the road was a Seventh Day Adventist School surrounded by a towering wire barricade.

When I later mentioned this to an expat on Vava'u, he reckoned there was a sign on the gates of the prison there, warning: "Prisoners not back by 6pm will be locked out." Fantastic.

Things were similarly relaxed when we got back to the airport.

The tickets for our Vava'u flight on Airlines Tonga weren't ready but all the other passengers were boarding and the pilot was keen to make an early departure. Not a problem. They boarded us without tickets.

Thanks to the early departure, we arrived at Lupepau'u International Airport on Vava'u ahead of time and our lift wasn't there. Somehow I didn't feel the slightest concern and whiled away the time checking out the airport's fire appliance (a luggage trolley with two fire extinguishers on it) and the royal terminal (a small shed near the main terminal).

Sure enough, before long, a driver there to pick up some other passengers asked who we were waiting for. "Oh, I think he was fixing up some signs, he may not know the arrival time, I'll take you."

Halfway to the main town of Neiafu, we passed a van heading to the airport. "That's him," said our rescuer, skidding to a halt and waving furiously, and we swapped vehicles and continued into town.

There was a bit of confusion when we came to fly out of Vava'u and still didn't have any tickets. The check-in lady made a few calls but no one was home. "It's okay," she said. "I know who they are. I'll get the money off them." We boarded the plane anyway.

Back on Tongatapu, there was supposed to be someone to meet us at the airport because there was a wait of several hours before our flight to 'Eua, but half an hour or so passed without anyone turning up. When we inquired if there were any messages, the airline staff said: "Oh, yes, they said they thought you might prefer to wait for your flight at the airport."

The flash-looking airport cafe was closed - in fact I never saw it open - but wandering down the airport road we soon came to a brightly painted, heavily barred cafe where a man was eating curried chicken with taro.

Unable to see how to get in we asked if it was open. "Oh, yes, come in," he said, showing us where the door was, then shouted something in Tongan to the effect that two palangi customers had arrived. A woman appeared from the back and we had a very nice cup of tea for three pa'anga ($2).

There were interesting sights all around, piglets running around the beautifully kept household gardens, smartly dressed schoolchildren arriving home, Tonga's main military base, the huge unfinished Royal Tonga International Hotel, which had evidently run out of money (the security guards obligingly opened the gates to let me take a photo), ancient trucks resting beneath the big old trees, trucks piled high with people heading home from the city markets. It was very pleasant.

The flight to 'Eua was delayed for some reason but this time we did get tickets. Noticing that the return coupon had no time or date on it, I asked if I needed to make a booking for the flight back. "Oh, no," said an amiable local. "These are Tongan tickets. Just turn up at the airport and you'll be fine." And so it proved.

In 'Eua, a driver was at the airport to take us to Hideaway Resort but anywhere else in the world we might not have had a place to stay.

My itinerary had advised a few weeks before that we would be at Hideaway but it seems no one had actually mentioned this to the resort.

Resort owner Taki Hausia said he had rung the local office of the visitor bureau the previous day "about something else and I was told that an important New Zealand Herald journalist was coming to stay.

"I rang head office to check if it was true and they said, 'Oh, yes, a very important journalist, you must look after him.' I said, 'If he's so important why didn't you tell me?' But I did manage to fit you in."

I didn't like to ask how he had managed that, because the resort was full, but I did hear the people in the cabin next door mumbling that they had been forced to cram in together. And I wouldn't be surprised to find that, rather than let someone down, Tongan operators like Hausia will shuffle their bookings.

There was another example of the Tongan way of doing business when the time came to pay the bill. The resort's credit card machine had broken down and we didn't have cash.

"No problem," said Hausia. "Just leave an envelope with $100 in it at Friends cafe in Nuku'alofa." We did just that and, a few days after returning home, got an email thanking us for the money. I'll take the Polynesian way any time.

One of the biggest inconveniences created by the new aviation security rules is the ban on taking liquids, aerosols and gels.

If you want to clean your teeth, get a pre-landing shave, apply some deodorant or offset the dry aircraft air with a bit of moisturiser you have to make sure the containers are small enough to comply with the 100ml maximum and remember to bring a plastic ziplock bag (easy to forget) to carry them through security.

Now there's another option: Just buy your lippy or shave foam after you've gone through the security check.

Craig Sinclair, previously group general manager at Air New Zealand, is heading up a new firm called Convendium which has installed electronic vending machinescontaining a range of inflight approved products in the departure areas at Auckland International Airport.

Payment is by credit card or mobile phone so you don't have to worry about having the right currency.

- NZ Herald

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