As the plane descended toward Tonga I had a gander out the window to see as many palm trees as I had ever seen in my life in one place. It honestly looked as though they had planted rows of them in an effort to remind people where they were in the world. I needed no reminder.
Before I had even boarded the plane, several natives to the island had asked “Is this your first time?” To which I could only respond candidly, of course it was. What followed was almost uniform in nature: It won’t be your last. I can say without a doubt they are correct. Tonga is many things, and to say I know them all is arrogant and absurd. But my observations were brief, so it should be expected.
But I will return to Tonga. This was a series of islands, and I only visited one of them. The people were warm and welcoming as was the island life. This was apparent early upon arrival.
My phone didn’t work (as I should have expected) and a friendly driver greeted me upon walking from the brief customs check. “Do you need a ride?” He asked without a hint of what I would call… pushiness. “Trying to figure out my phone, but maybe.” I was actively trying to get my phone to work. After about 5 minutes I punted and gave him a knowing nod. He laughed and affirmed what he already knew of his home: There is no phone service here… Unless you can get a SIM card. But this is where Tonga started to show me who they were. The first man I met was my driver and he brought me into his life.
A drive that would have been a 20 minute trek from the airport to my AirBnB turned into an hour. My driver stopped at a favored “convenience store” of his and even bought me a giant bottle of water and offered me some of his dessert cake that he picked up. I honestly assumed he would charge me for all of this at the end of the ride but I was thirsty so it was all good. After this brief stop he asked if it would be alright if he stopped by home and talked with his family to which I was amenable. It’s all good, just happy to be on a random island in the Pacific. We pull up to a home and he gets out and shows me his home and his dogs. One of his kids came out and waved and said hello. For real. It was a strange scene by any standards on my side of the world but I was honored.
Once I had been delivered to my AirBnB, my driver offered to pick me up the following day for my flight out to which I agreed. If some twist of fate ever shows him this then I’ll just apologize now. I couldn’t be on anyone else’s time on a day when a flight was leaving. I had already paid for the flight and the island had 3 flights a DAY. So it was nothing personal.
I walked through the yard gate of where I was staying and saw an old home in relative disrepair (normal for Tonga). Just behind it was a small (not quite tiny) home with a shed-style roof and full of windows to let all the brilliant sunlight in. A sliding glass door was the entire front of the home and there upon a couch sat my host for the day. I greeted my host with a handshake/hug combo, one of those “bring it in” kind of things and he asked how things were. I told him the truth: Things were blurry and my time in Tonga would be all to brief. He was a consummate professional as a host and invited me out with another one of the “tenants” for some drinks and food at his favorite spot. I could not turn down an invite. I was hungry, thirsty, and knew this was about all I could see this time around.
Since this would be a minute I had time to sort out the SIM card logistics. A store was about 500 feet away that could sell me $5 worth of service which would suit me fine for the ~30 hours on the island. Upon inserting said SIM card, my phone screamed to life. All of the bullshit from the other side of the world started streaming in and I quickly dismissed most of it. To my great joy, however, my mother had contacted my local bank and got my debit card functional again. <3 you mom.
Once I had shaken some of the jet lag and mosquitoes off, my host stopped by my room and said they were about to head out. Wasn’t out to impress anybody with my appearance so I hopped up and headed out.
What followed was a brilliant evening with a couple of awesome guys. My host was originally a native of New Zealand and had become a professional level rugby player. He was only a few years younger than I am and had already retired from the sport and started an organization to teach young men to become professionals in rugby. It was obvious in the way he spoke that he was extremely passionate about what he had achieved and what he helps young men do. Very cool. He was about to become a father for the first time and was nervous and excited. As we were chatting through the evening some friends of his had children and he held an infant at one point and the child was simply enamored with him to which a couple of us said “Oh he’s ready…” almost simultaneously and had a fine laugh.
The other man with us was from London and was on Holiday/residency of sorts. He had traveled to Tonga to do a portion of his med school training and was also using it as a holiday. We discussed American politics as well as British politics because I was honestly curious. I was happy to share my view of things as they had been occurring and he was happy to share his. It was a great conversation and I hope I did well to represent us as more than the stereotypical “gun-toting-freedom-loving” douchebags we no doubt look like sometimes. I know you aren’t supposed to discuss religion or politics while drinking but we discussed both and got along fine. Maybe that old rule just needs some modification. Know your company and steer clear when it seems obvious that those conversations will end badly. I read the room and felt it would be fine and it was.
All in all, it was a great evening, and a primer at best to show me what Tonga was. I will go back in a heartbeat, given the opportunity.