Turbulent Tonga — Part 1

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.

Mul­ti-head­ed Palm, Ton­ga — cred­it: Lisa Niv­er Rajna

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.

Lisa and George in Ton­ga — Cred­it: Jack­ie Duggan