Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Welcome to the Friendly Island!

on March 12, 2016

So there has been a bit of a gap between now and my last posts in 2013…! Since finishing my roadtrip with Laura and Hugo in the US and Canada, I travelled to Columbia and Ecuador and then headed back to Australia. After living in Katherine in the Northern Territory for 18 months and back home in Melbourne for about 6 months, I have landed in Nuku’alofa, Tonga where I am starting a 12 month assignment with Scope Global as part of the Australian Volunteers For International Development program, an Australian Government initiative. I will be working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Forests and Fisheries’ Women’s Development Unit as a Health Promotion and Nutrition Officer where I will be helping the local staff to develop health promotion programs and resources aimed at promoting home gardening, healthy eating, and healthy cooking to help prevent non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease), the largest contributor to the burden of disease here in Tonga. My partner Ben has also come along as my trusty ‘dependant’ (in the official program lingo).

We started our adventure by arriving at the airport in Melbourne super early to sort out excess baggage with our airline after having been handballed to 4 different departments over the prior 6 weeks. We had a 23kg allowance and they are pretty strict about not allowing pre-booking of extra bags to the pacific islands (we have been told by previous volunteers that this may be due to islanders previously attempting to bring extreme excess baggage such as washing machines…) but for whatever reason they like to charge you an arm and a leg to bring anything extra on the plane and do not guarantee that anything you bring will be allowed to be taken with you… Bit of a pain when you are uprooting your life for 12 months! Anyway, thankfully we had a very helpful supervisor at the service desk who checked with their operations team and allowed us to take our 1 case and 1 bike box each, and let us pay the pre-booked baggage rate which we were very relieved about. It took a while to figure it all out and had been quite frustrating as every person we spoke to about excess baggage told us a different rule so wherever possible when travelling to the pacific, I’d advise to stick to your luggage limits! After grabbing lunch with my sister Cara and Ben’s mum, Marg, and taking the obligatory airport snap with Caz, we were off!

We flew from Melbourne to Sydney where we met up with the other 3 volunteers mobilising with us (Sarah from Tassie, Ina from NSW and Emma from Brissy). We had our intro to ‘Tonga Time’ when our flight didn’t board at its scheduled time with no announcements telling us what was going on, but when we did finally take off an hour later than we were meant to, our flight was pretty uneventful. We were provided with our ‘meal’ (as referred to by our flight itinerary) or ‘dinner snacks’ (in the words of the air hostess…)- literally a box containing a bread roll, a pack of crisps, a mini quiche and a muffin for our dinner! It was like they had run out of meals and had to chuck together the leftover snacks from the bottom of the barrel! Since we had been overfed for a week before we left at our pre-departure training in Adelaide, we weren’t too worried!

We arrived in Nuku’alofa at about 2am local time. Ben and I were last of the volunteers out of the terminal not knowing how to gracefully push into the queue of determined Tongans with our trolley of cumbersome bike boxes! We were greeted by a little 3-piece band playing lively tunes outside the terminal (still going strong at 2.30am!) and were met by our in-country management team, David and Una. They transported us and all our gear to Sela’s Guesthouse, our home for our first week of orientation. Sela’s is a little locally owned B&B with some very interesting décor!

For those of you who have not heard much about Tonga, I will diverge a little here to enlighten you. Tonga is an archipelago of about 170 islands in the South Pacific Ocean. For my assignment, I am based in the capital city of Nuku’alofa which is on the main island, Tongatapu. Around 70% of Tonga’s whole population (a total of ~100,000 people) live on Tongatapu, but it is not a large island. Apparently it would take about an hour to drive end to end (and the local speed is around 60km/hr!). There are many uninhabited islands in Tonga, and small populations living in the other main island groups, ‘Eua, Ha’apai, Vava’u and the Niuas. The official languages are English and Tongan (a Polynesian language). We had some basic training in Tongan as part of our orientation. So far my favourite word is ‘fakapikopiko’, which means ‘lazy’.

Tonga is the only remaining monarchy in the pacific, and is the only pacific nation to never have been colonised, a fact which Tongans are very proud of. Just in our first few days we have seen that culture is strong here, with many people wearing traditional garments such as the keikei (an ornamental belt worn over the skirt for ladies) and the tupeno (wrap skirt, for men and women) and tuvala (woven mat, worn by both men and women). The current king is HRH Tupou VI who was crowned just last year in July. The Kingdom is undergoing a transition toward democracy with the king relinquishing some of his constitutional powers in recent years, and the people now having elected members of the public in parliament (not just the nobles). Tonga has held 2 democratic elections so far in 2010 and 2014.


The waterfront in Nuku’alofa

Tonga was given its nickname ‘The Friendly Isles’ by Captain Cook. The story goes that when he arrived in the 1700s, the locals actually wanted to kill him and his men and take their boats so they threw a big feast for them as a decoy. However the chiefs then had a disagreement which foiled their plan, so in the end, Captain Cook sailed off unharmed with a full belly telling everyone how friendly the locals in Tonga are! I’m not sure if that story is true or not, but I must say the locals sure are friendly for real here. Riding or walking down the street, everyone smiles and says hello (or “Bye!”). I talked to another customer in the bank on my first day here, a girl who works in a local café and when I visited the café a few days later and she saw me, she remembered my name and greeted me like an old friend!

Explorers and missionaries of Cook’s era brought Christianity to Tonga which remains a strong part of Tongan life today. The main religion followed is that of the Wesleyan Church, but there are also Church of Tonga, Catholic and Mormon followers. Sundays are officially a day of rest, most people go to church in the morning then come home for a lunchtime feast cooked in the ‘umu’ (ground oven), often followed by a food coma/afternoon nap (like Christmas every week!). Most of the shops are closed (with the exception of bakeries and a couple of restaurants at hotels) and it is frowned upon to exercise or go swimming at the beach (unless you head out of town to a resort where anything goes). I plan to use Sunday as my baking day, and Ben plans to take up the local hobby of Sunday eating and naps!

We were lucky enough to experience a church service at the King’s church during our orientation (sadly the King was not in attendance that day though). Unfortunately, Ben missed it as he was down with what he has dubbed as ‘Tonga tummy’ L But I went along with Ina and Emma- our language teacher Poli was excited to dress us all up in tupenos and tuvalas to celebrate the special occasion of our first Sunday in Tonga. We headed to church with her daughter Seini and her friend Nelu while she prepared the umu. The service was in Tongan but was very enjoyable as it was interspersed with beautiful harmonies from the amazing choir as well as a brass band.

After church Poli spoiled us with 4 types of lu (a taro-leaf-wrapped package of meat dressed in coconut milk and cooked in foil)- she had corned beef (the tinned variety, very popular here), salty beef (what we would know in Australia as corned beef), as well as fish and lamb (mutton flaps), served alongside ufi (yam) and kumala (sweet potato which is often purple here). There are the biggest yams I have ever seen here, more than half a metre long!

We also had some amazing ‘ota ika, a local dish which I think of as the ceviche of the pacific- raw white fish is dressed in lime juice and then mixed with a range of chopped veggies (carrot, capsicum, tomato, chilli) and coconut milk. It is delicious! Poli very sweetly packed up a Tongan-sized take home umu pack for Ben to try as well (sans ‘ota ika at my request- I wasn’t sure raw fish was the best cure for Tonga tummy!).

So far we have been very impressed by Nuku’alofa and it seems like it will be quite an easy place to live. There are like 10 times the number of cafés and restaurants than we had in Katherine! There are Korean, Italian, Indian, Filipino, Chinese, local and western options to name a few. Though some ingredients are more expensive than back home there is a good range of foods available in the shops. The roads in Tongatapu are quite good too, most are sealed and there’s not too many potholes which has been good for riding. Lots of the volunteers get around by bike, and Ben built us one each from old parts before we left. They have ridden well so far, apart from a few minor mishaps with my left pedal falling off, my front wheel being dislodged (luckily not while riding!) and Ben’s back brake getting stuck on the wheel a couple of times.

We have moved into a share house with another Aussie couple, Matt and Naomi, who are from NSW. It is a 3-bedroom place which means we have a spare room for visitors! (Yes, you! Come visit us!) It sounds like there is plenty to see and do both in Tongatapu and the outer islands which Ben and I are looking forward to exploring on weekends and holidays. There are lovely beaches a-plenty, sea kayaking adventures, great snorkelling and diving, and one of the biggest draws is swimming with humpback whales. So if you feel the need for a tropical island getaway in the next 12 months, definitely let us know! So now that I’ve completed the shameless plug, I’ll sign off for now. Toki sio (see you later)!

8 responses to “Welcome to the Friendly Island!

  1. Kimmoi says:

    I am in awe & incredibly jealous if your next 12 month adventure. Volunteering, nutrition, women’s health & pacific island life. You are living my dream!!! Looking forward to reading future blogs xo

  2. Lesley Hil says:

    It is lovely to hear your adventures so far Mandy and all sounds good. Hope Ben is over his Tonga tum and eating well again .Looking forward the next episode Much love Nan and Pop xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  3. Tara Southgate says:

    Awesome update Mandy! How come the word for lazy is so long and hard to say? Also the tuvala seems similar to the custom of my people of Richmond of wearing their yoga mats to Coles 😊

  4. Keith and Pek Hill says:

    Great newsy and informative update Mandy. Sounds like you have both settled very easily in the Tongan lifestyle. Hope the work is going well.

  5. Sandra Eccles says:

    Sounds wonderful Mandy, I am sure your 12 months there will fly by. xxxx

  6. Angela says:

    The blog is back!! Can’t wait to read all about your adventures 🙂

  7. Peter says:

    Great to see your blog writing skills at work again Mandy. Tonga sounds wonderful.

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