Sunday, October 14, 2007

Vava'u, Tonga, October 14

We have been in the Vava’u Island group of Tonga for almost three weeks. Of 17 days here, it has rained 12. I am not talking about a tropical downpour that clears in an hour, nor am I talking about drizzle and mist. Real rain, day after day, in what is supposed to be a tropical paradise with calm “inland” waters, numerous green islets, whales to watch, coral reefs to explore, and a small tourist town with a handful of bars, restaurants, and cafes owned and run by palangis for palangis.

There is quite an expatriate population here, maybe a few hundred people. In the weather we have been having, they seem quite insane – scurrying about trying to buy up islands to build resorts, building tourist oriented businesses. Most don’t seem to last long. We hear, however, that there is a feeding frenzy for these businesses when the owners decide to sell – more expats buy them sight unseen, bidding the prices up against each other. Even if the weather was great, the obstacles to success are huge: remoteness from centers of population, undependable airlines and ship supply, a government that is ranked 175th on a scale of 180 for corruption, political instability.

The palangi relationship with the islanders seems almost colonial, which is strange because Tonga remained a kingdom during the colonial period and Vava’u was historically independent. The islanders live their own lives, frequent their own businesses and don’t engage with the outsider’s world. One day I asked three different islanders for directions to a palangi business that turned out to be a block away. Two of the three did not know the business. The third gave me bad directions.

Wandering around, behind the main street and on outlying islands, things look as hardscrabble as Nuiatoputabu. The paved roads become dirt roads, then paths. Stout homes with metal roofs are built along the paths. There are village centers with small shops and churches, everywhere. You can walk along a path in the evening and hear magnificent choral singing – an evening service or a rehearsal. Bartering works, sometimes much better than cash.

There are many boats here in high socializing mode, getting ready for the final passage of the season to New Zealand. This consists mainly of “waiting for weather”, developing passage strategies, studying weather reports, and waiting for direction from the weather consultant we have retained. Forecasting this season has been terrible, and with an estimated seven days at sea it is hard to forecast the weather in any event, but we are taking a lot of precautions to make it a good trip to New Zealand. Preparation also consists of consuming a lot of the food you have stored on the boat. New Zealand is a bio-secure country and forbids the import of meat, poultry, dairy products, produce, nuts, seeds, anything that is not processed in a factory, and anything that can sprout. Pets must have pre-arrival physicals, spend three months on the boat in quarantine, and be visited weekly by a government inspector at your expense. Some friends with two cats on board estimate it will cost $2000 to bring them into NZ for the season, and they will repeat the exercise if they bring the cats to Australia.

Our daughter Amy is arriving on October 20 to join us for around six weeks. We plan to leave Vava’u October 15 and head for the capital, Nuku’alofa, taking a few days to stop at islands along the way. We will be ready to leave for New Zealand before the end of the month but since we have no control over the weather, we have no idea of what date we will actually leave. We hope to take advantage of visiting Tonga’s southern islands while we wait.


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