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IN OTHER NEWS:
Top O’ The World to Ye: Did you know? On May 29 (that’s today!), 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay made mountaineering history when they became the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Accounts of the monumental event fail to address which, if either, of the men was the first to see how far he could spit off the top.
Welcome back, Clymbers. We trust you had a fun and active Earth Day. We celebrated by donating $1 from every order placed over the weekend to one of our favorite organizations, Leave No Trace. And on Friday, around 25 Clymb employees cut out of work early and spent the afternoon doing trail maintenance in Portland’s Forest Park. Good times were had by all. But you know the best thing about celebrating Earth Day? No hangover! We feel great and so should you because we’ve got an exciting week planned, starting now.
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There’s Still Time! Don’t Miss: Nemo, SPY, & Chaco
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George and Lisa Rajna of We Said Go Travel conclude their travel series with the final installment of their trip to Tonga. Here are parts one and two.
Turbulent Tonga Part III: “Humps and Bumps, Tonga Giveth, Tonga Taketh”
The Lonely Planet describes Neiafu, the main town on the Vava’u Island group as “ramshackle.” Although I somewhat agree, Neiafu has its charms. In fact, I would describe it as quaint. Families of pigs cross the road, a large white church perches above the town, and children stop to say, “Hello.” In addition, due to the expatriate yacht scene brought about by the Port of Refuge, a pretty and protected harbor, many good restaurants have sprung up including Cafe Tropicana, The Sunset Grill, and the Aquarium Cafe, all good places to sample tasty Western food. There is even a decent Chinese option.
The “Orange Vomit,” or the nickname that locals gave the old ferry, no longer runs but the current craft, both new and old boats, are quite basic, especially if you are planning on tackling the roughly 18-hour journey from Nuku’alofa to Vava’u. For this reason, we opted to fly and arrived in only 45 minutes. We checked into the Puataukanave Hotel where the room choices are deluxe, luxury, economy, and backpacker; due to the costs of traveling in Tonga, we chose the backpacker room that costs about $30US per night for spartan rooms with shared bathroom and a slew of mosquitos awaiting guest arrival.
Everything in Tonga is quite pricey. We ran into quite a few long-term travelers who mentioned, “I’m traveling for a year and I thought that Tonga would be one of the cheaper countries that we would visit,” and “The flight here from New Zealand was quite reasonable so we figured that Tonga was a budget travel destination.” Wrong! Everything in Tonga is expensive, from internal flights to restaurants, to food purchased in shops. Accommodation is a terrible value. At times it does not even seem like the Tongans really want tourism in their country. Yes, Tonga taketh, but Tonga also giveth. When Tonga gives, tourists are quite content. Still, expect to pay roughly three times what you would in South-East Asia and even more than Samoa for lesser quality.
Lisa and I spent our first couple of days wandering and taking in the village atmosphere. The locals appeared reserved yet friendly when approached. The expats were all very friendly and quite a party atmosphere developed at Tongan Bob’s, a local bar also run by an expat. On Wednesdays you can attend the “famous” fakaleiti night; what transpires here makes absolutely no sense to me. Basically, a man who is dressed as a woman dances on the stage to a song like, “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. While this man dances, men and women in the crowd, both expats and locals, approach the dancer and place local paper currency in the fakaleiti’s bra strap, g‑string, or anywhere money can be deposited. This is not my thing but the people there that night seemed to be having a good time.
The following day we left with Dolphin Pacific Diving to enjoy what I imagined to be the highlight of our trip to Vava’u and possibly even Tonga. We headed off to swim with humpback whales! Our leader for the day, Al, sat perched on the upper deck of our boat looking for whales. He said, “The first person who spots the whale gets to swim first. You spot them by looking for spouting water that will be exiting from the whale’s blowhole.” I kept close watch as we motored among a variety of islets that in total form almost a jellyfish-like shape.
The hues of the water, greens and blues, are as hard to describe as they are varied. About fifteen minutes after we left the harbor, Al dropped to the main deck area to inform us, “There are pilot whales here. We are going to take advantage of this even though we are looking for humpbacks.” We all nodded in agreement and prepared our gear that included wetsuits (the Tongan waters are cold, really!), snorkels and masks. We had to supply our own courage to swim with massive sea creatures. I asked Al, “How many pilot whales are here?” He responded, “They normally travel in groups of fifteen to twenty.” I excitedly placed on my gear and prepared to enter the water. To my dismay, the whales immediately dove toward the depths and disappeared. We removed our gear and mentally prepared ourselves for the next swim.
After the failed pilot whale swim, our luck did not improve. We glided over the choppy ocean for at least an hour, seeing nothing. I began hallucinating, thinking that every spray of water was a whale spout. Al heard over the CB radio that another boat had pinpointed the location of two whales. We quickly advanced toward the divine location but after we arrived we were informed that “yes there are two whales,” and that the rules state that “The other boat can swim with the whales for an hour before we have a shot since they spotted it first.” We were advised to eat the light lunch included in the tour, a sandwich with strange potato chips that tasted like barbequed squid. The whale watching day trip was a pricey $275US for the two of us, expensive like everything else in the island nation.
After 45 minutes, the other boat notified us that they had finished with their turn and that we could give it a go. Since our boat held only four people we were permitted to enter the water at the same time. We saw two whales over the bow and some spouting. We were told to prepare our gear and head to the stern. Our legs dangled into the ocean as the boat slowed and suddenly the boat driver yelled, “Go, go, go!!!” We swam frantically toward the whales. I heard Lisa coughing and I looked at her and asked if she was okay. She nodded. I continued to swim toward the whale but saw nothing. We returned to the boat and I readied myself for our next attempt. But there would be no more attempts. Al informed us that the choppy waters were not to our advantage and that we were heading back to the harbor. I was livid. I said, “One time? We entered the water one time and that’s it? We paid all this money just for one chance?” Al said, “Most people need to come on at least three boat trips to ensure that they swim with whales but even then, I mean, this is nature and you cannot guarantee anything.” My mood did not improve even though what he said made sense.
Later, as we approached the harbor, Al asked me, “Do you want to go out again tomorrow?” I said, “We are heading to Ofu Island tomorrow and have already scheduled everything.” Al handed me his card,“Here is my number. Call me when you are returning from Ofu and I will get you on a boat to have another opportunity.” I shook Al’s hand and thanked him for the kind offer. Then we went to town to get food to take with us to Ofu. Our first attempt with the whales was a failure. But remember: Tonga taketh, and …Tonga giveth.
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George and Lisa Rajna of We Said Go Travel continue their travel series with the second installment of their trip to Tonga. You can read part one here.
Turbulent Tonga Part II: “Toni’s Guesthouse Tour”
The Ukranian Dracula lady, had just finished assaulting Jackie when we arrived at 10:00am. Dracula had mistook the poor Brit for my wife Lisa, who simply “wouldn’t open the damn window” of the van when we arrived last night. The Ukrainian scowled at Lisa but didn’t dare approach her while I was in the room. Let’s just say it would not have been pretty.
We didn’t know that when we awoke in Toni’s Guesthouse, refreshed after the previous night’s debacle in the van. After a Cup O’ Noodles for breakfast we wandered over to the Green House. There we met the other travelers who planned to join us for the day tour of Tongatapu, the main island of the Tongan Archipelago.
Our tour was led by Toni, an expatriate from Liverpool who had lived over twenty years in Tonga. Other companions included Jackie, who’d quickly got over the unexpected attack, and Dallas, not an American, but a lady from New Zealand enjoying a one-week holiday in the South Pacific. Lee, another solo female traveler from the UK, who had lived on a sailboat for the last seven years, also came along with her partner.
Taking off, again swerving to avoid a cluster of potholes, Toni switched on a microphone that was linked to a rear speaker to make his discourse more audible. We passed the opulent mansion of the Tongan king and his sisters, heading northwest toward the local plantations. Tony stopped to point out the only three-headed coconut tree in the entire world, a must-stop photo op; a pic of it proves that you’ve been to Tonga. He then stopped to point out a variety of crops including coconuts: “No, nobody wants to touch that stuff. They are everywhere! Look around you for Christ’s sake!!” We saw papaya (“Em, the Tongans would eat this but they are all exported.”), taro, kumala, mango, bananas, and pineapple. We then halted at the most northern spot of the island’s coastline. Toni claimed it was a very good beach. We exited the van but were disappointed. The weather was dreary and rain began to fall as we checked a surfing beach near the Ha’atafu Beach Reserve. Its break looked weak, compared to the big-league waves of Samoa.
At this point Toni’s voice became slightly hoarse over the microphone and he began to cough up phlegm. In response to Dallas, who asked, “Why don’t you sell beer at the guesthouse?” Toni said, “I gave up smoking about five years ago but I still have this cough. I don’t drink any more either. So why would I want that stuff around? Besides, the Tongan government has harsh rules. For example, if a tourist who stayed at my guesthouse got out of hand while inebriated, it is me who would get fined by the police, even if I was home asleep. It’s just not worth it.” Lisa looked at me and said, “I think that he is the only person I have ever met who should have kept smoking,” referencing his voice’s guttural quality.
We headed south and stopped at the famous Mapu’a a Vaca Blowholes. Sheets of water poured down and I exited the van only long enough to take a photo. Toni claimed, “Today is not a good day to see the blowholes because the tide is moving at an angle and it is not hitting the rocks directly. You see how it hits?” We left disappointed. However, we returned to these same blowholes at the end of our trip and they proved amazingly powerful.
We continued in the rain and stopped for a decent “Chinese-type” lunch above Keleti Beach. Even on this depressing day, while standing in the rain under a veranda in the cold, I could appreciate the view. Blowholes exhaled the ocean’s foam here as well but they were not as impressive as those at Mapu’a a Vaca.
After a brief lunch we continued the tour northeast to see the “famous” Ha’amonga Trilithon Reserve, South Pacific’s Stonehenge. I agree that the the ruins are similar to those of famous English site but only one structure is constructed from coral stones, in the shape of a square gate. This gate was supposedly used to track the change in seasons. We decided to not to visit the Hina Cave, possibly a mistake, since it is situated right next to the Oholei Beach area, perhaps the nicest place to stay in Tongatapu, We didn’t discover this until we returned three weeks later. Oholei Beach is well known for its feast on Friday nights with a live band perched over a scenic beach.
At the end of the day we returned to Tofa after stopping at a lovely overlook with an eroded hole framing a lovely ocean view. The tour ended and Toni drove us into Nuku’alofa. We wanted to see the infamous (mentioned in 1,000 Places to See Before You Won’t See Anything Ever Again) Heilala Festival. This is a multi-week bash that involves a mix of cultural events including parades, live music, dance, art, as well as beauty and sports competitions. Yet we could not understand the Tongans enthusiasm, or I should say, lack of enthusiasm, regarding the festival. We stopped by the cultural center and asked where the Heilala Festival events took place. The lackadaisical response was, “Oh yeah, it will be on the field…I think.” “Are you going?” I asked. “No, I’ll just stay home and watch TV.” I was stunned. After seeing Nuku’alofa, a depressing and gloomy town with very little action, you’d think that the locals would be thrilled to have a few weeks of special fun. Worse for tourists, the festival begins around 7:00–8:00pm and aside from the island tour, there is not much to do here. Because of this small detail (and the poor weather) we decided to purchase tickets to Vava’u (islands in the northern Tonga) the next day.
Still, a group of us from the guesthouse that included our fellow veterans from the van tour managed to see an evening event called, “Tonga’s Got Talent”. Here people of all ages, mostly from six to their mid-twenties, performed a variety of acts — either singing or engaging in “hip-hop,” where Tongans dance individually or in groups to hip-hop tunes. The event was entertaining if at times painful. What surprised me the most was that the emcee almost spoke entirely in English. The following night we returned to see the teen beauty contest and we were given prime seats right behind the beauty queens themselves.
We warmed up to Tongatapu as we prepared to depart; perhaps our new feelings corresponded with the improved weather. At any rate, our next stop in Tonga was Vava’u, where we planned to swim with the humpback whales, one of Tonga’s principal attractions an an excellent reason to visit the island country.
Stay tuned for the third and final installment of their Tongan adventure. All photos courtesy of George and Lisa Rajna.
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When George and Lisa Rajna of We Said Go Travel offered to share some of their world adventures with us, we understandably said yes. They share a spirit of adventure and appreciation for other cultures that we at The Clymb definitely relate to. In the first of a blog series, George recounts their turbulent arrival in Tonga.
After three glorious weeks on the beautiful islands of Samoa, we boarded the two hour Air Pacific flight from Apia to Nadi in Fiji, the most convenient access point for Tonga. We noticed there that the onward flight from Nadi to Nukalofa, Tongatapu was likely delayed and could not seem to get any accurate information from anyone. No big surprise, just another typical traveling experience.
Suddenly, we heard an announcement stating, “Air Pacific Flight FJ211 to Tonga will be boarding shortly.” I turned to Lisa and said, “I guess we can wander around the shops for a while.” Literally, as these words left my mouth, a second announcement trumpeted, “Passengers on flight FJ211 to Tonga, please proceed to the departure gate.” I gazed somewhat dumbfounded toward my wife who stated, “They have to announce that they will be boarding the plane before they can board it.” Ah, that explained the heads-up advisory seconds before the actual boarding announcement.
The flight to the island of Tongatapu was scheduled to last an hour and thirty minutes. A few massive Samoan passengers among us were also boarding and I quietly prayed that none of these giant people, who should really have two seats each, would be placed next to us. Thankfully, a quite delicate great grandmother from Oregon, but who had been living in Taveuni, Fiji sat next to me. She was loquacious and amiable and informed us, “I have to make this same trip every four months because I cannot get residency in Fiji. I think it is because I am too old. I purchased a plot on Taveuni but now I’ll have to sell it and move back to Oregon.” I listened to her story and thought that she was quite gutsy for a lady of her age. Later I tackled a Suduko puzzle and read some of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
It was then that the pilot announced that we would be arriving shortly in Nukualofa and that the flight attendants should prepare the passengers for landing. While Lisa dozed, catching flies with her mouth agape, I watched the plane descend in darkness toward the well-lit airstrip. The next thing I knew, we were ascending back into the clouds and night. The pilot spoke over the intercom, “The conditions are such that we were unable to land the plane. So, we are going to swing around and try again from another angle.”
I sat in my seat and tightened the belt buckle. I waited and hoped that our second attempt would be successful. We again approached the runway and it seemed that we almost touched down on the tarmac and suddenly, vroom!, we zoomed up at a steep angle. I tightened my belt even more and looked at Lisa, who was still asleep. I thought, “No point in waking her up for this.” After the pilot abandoned the third attempt I began to question if he had the confidence and ability to land the airplane. He had not spoken to the passengers since the first failed attempt. I was concerned and slightly frightened. Finally, on the fourth attempt we landed, skidding, and slowed. The passengers rightfully applauded the pilot and the Tongans ended their prayers.
Our next challenge was getting through Immigration. We stood near the end of the line because we boarded an airport shuttle thinking that the baggage claim area was far. But the vehicle came to pick us up only due to the heavy rain, the same reason that the aircraft had such difficultly landing. I later acquired this information from a Tongan lady at the airport candy shop. This line was not terribly long, but with Chinese and Tongans cutting into it, we were at a standstill for a good 45 minutes. The Chinese seemed to proceed via both the foreign and Tongan lines, and even utilized the “disabled and elderly” queue, although the majority of them appeared to be in their thirties and were traveling with children.
Finally, after an hour, we cleared Immigration. Our bags were sitting there already and our hostel pickup service was ready to head into town. It was already well after 8:00pm due to the delays and night had fallen. We were greeted by Peter, who held a Toni’s Guesthouse sign and sported a massive goiter on his neck. We entered the van with about a half dozen travelers, all who were to stay at Toni’s Guesthouse. After roughly ten minutes, Peter stated, “Everyone will get out here and Toni will take you the rest of the way. I am going back to the airport to get more people”. We looked at each other somewhat shocked; it was still raining. But all the tourists followed his instructions. Toni arrived in another van within a minute so we did not get terribly wet.
Toni was quite a character with his strong Liverpool accent. He advised, “Tomorrow is Sunday and everything will be closed. So if you want, we can stop at a shop and pick up food for tomorrow.” We all agreed that it was a good idea even though I knew the Chinese restaurants would still be open. At the shop we purchased eggs, peanut butter, crackers, canned pineapple, bottled water, coke, cup-o-noodles, and milk for our cereal. We re-boarded the van and a lady with a draconian accent ordered Lisa, “You will close the window.” Lisa either did not hear her or chose to ignore the instruction. Dracula repeated loudly, “You will close the window!” Lisa said, “No. I need the fresh air.” The lady growled to herself and muttered, “She won’t close the window” under her breath. Then she began sniffling, an indication that she was falling ill.
We subsequently discovered that this lady, a Ukrainian, verbally and almost physically attacked another girl the following morning whom she mistook for Lisa. The victim, Jackie, was at first stunned by these unwarranted attacks and then was able to ameliorate the situation when she realized that the whole affair was a misunderstanding.
At any rate, after Toni turned off the main road, swerving to avoid a cluster of potholes, he asked who was staying in the green house. We were not sure what he meant but Lisa said, “We booked online but I’m not sure what color house we are staying in.” Toni said, “Well, what’s your name?” “Rajna?” “No.” “Niver?” “No.” “Lisa?” “Yes, Lisa, you will be in the green house. A couple, right?” Right.
We dropped off a Finish couple and the other solo travelers at the blue house. We thought that we were heading to the upscale green house. Then Toni stated as if factually, “So there are only two of you left, right?” I did not say anything even though the Dracula lady was still with us. He asked again, “So there are only two, right? I can’t see back there since I’m driving.” A Tongan girl who accompanied Toni finally said, “There are three.” “Three!,” he shouted. “How can there be three? Who else is there? Hello? Where are you staying?” Unfortunately for Toni, Dracula did not understand him. Toni briefly stopped the car, exasperated. He turned to see who was left. When he noticed the Dracula lady he yelled, “For Christ’s sake! She’s already staying with us. We’ll drop her off with her bags, that’s where she needs to be!”
We debarked at the green house. The Tongan girl in the van showed us to our room. We had requested a room with a private bathroom; the ugly brick room that we were shown had the toilet and shower outside the room and open toward the courtyard, not at all an en suite arrangement. I must have looked disappointed because the Tongan girl said, “This room is not very nice.” I said, “No, it’s not very nice.” She followed with, “The yellow house is much nicer. I think that it would be better for you two.” I asked, “Is it available?” She said, “It is available but it costs 40TOP and the green house is 30TOP (about $5 US more). I requested to see the room in the yellow house. It was much nicer, an actual home. We took the larger room that shared the bathroom since no one else was there and being that the country shuts down on Sundays, we knew that no one would be there until Monday at the earliest.
We requested a towel, key, and matches that were not wet so we could heat water in the morning. The helpful Tongan girl brought us everything we asked for and mentioned that Toni was going to have an island tour that would depart at 10:00am. Since everything was closed on Sunday, we deemed it a good idea and agreed to head out on the tour even though I generally detest tours. After she left us, I poured us two rum and cokes with the duty free alcohol that I had purchased in Fiji and we toasted to our “safe” arrival and laughed that after three weeks of sleeping in beach fales (Samoan beach huts) that we had a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house to ourselves, with photos of two children placed above the television entertainment center.
I thought, if this arrival was any indication of our upcoming Tonga experience, we were in store for quite a ride.