Tonga: Lost Palangis

One last boat ride through the crystal clear waters between Kapa and Vava’u mainland. The sky is overcast and it’s windier than ever so I think we’ve really killllled it with the weather. Our poor boat driver is getting absolute smacked by waves and is soaked by the time we reach land. So sorry mate.

We get picked up by the same driver that brought us here 4 days ago, back when we were so surprised to be getting on a boat at all and had no idea what waited for us on the other side. That seems like so long ago.

He tells us that another couple had left a few days ago and he’d thought it was us, but then noticed the guy had way more tattoos and had grown waist length hair in the span of 2 days, so realized it couldn’t have been. There is a small pause and then he says “that girl is famous” and we realize he’s talking about the unnamed pop star who was staying at our same resort.

I don’t want anyone to get too excited, but I was totally just confused for a celebrity.

He tells us at least 30 people were waiting for her at the airport when he dropped her off (not a lot of people, but a lot of people for Vava’u and it’s airport). I’m not sure how anyone knew when her flight was but with such a small population I guess word travels quickly!

I’m not much of an Air BnB-er but Chesney used them all over Europe. What he finds online is cheaper than anything I can see on Hostelworld or so we book it – Lady Maria’s Place. This spot is aaaaaaadorable. The owner’s son lives on Tongatapu but handles all the bookings online and just texts his mom up here in Vava’u when guests are arriving.

It’s a three bedroom house and totally gigantic next to anything else on the street. The downside is that it’s a bit of a trek from the central town but this way we’re immersed in a true Tongan neighbourhood. There are no rental or booking offices, restaurants, or bars nearby. Just two big churches about three doors down from one another, and a local shop. We have a full kitchen, double bed, and private bathroom, but no one else is booked for tonight so really we have the place to ourselves.

It’s much more our backpacker vibe than the lavish resort we’ve been spoiled with the last few days.

Maria sits us down in the living room while trying to clean up around us – asking the usual questions about where we’re from and where in Tonga we’ve been. Eventually she sits down too and tells us all about her life and how she came to be running this guesthouse. It’s only been open since April, and doesn’t sound like it was a small dream of hers that she’s been able to realize in retirement, but more so like something her son convinced her to do. She shares some of the arguments she made against her son before opening:

“The Palangi people want everything! Hot showers, wifi, and they think the church bells are too loud”.

Palangi” is a bit like Paheka in Maori – which just means white people and is entirely harmless. Though, sometimes people choose to take offence to it, and I’m sure from time to time it’s used with that intent as well… Personally, I love it.

She’s such a people person and so bubbly that I’m certain she enjoys the Air BnB thing now, but it’s funny to listen to her stories of protest against her son, who I assume is about our age. It makes me laugh. I can almost see myself trying to convince one of my parents if they were in a similar situation.

There are pictures all over the walls as in any normal home, including one striking drawing of a woman looking over her shoulder, framed and hung by the door. We comment on how beautiful it is and Maria tells us it’s her sister.

She and her five sisters used to do traditional Tongan dance as entertainment for the ships down in the harbour, and an artist was inspired. Some years ago, Maria was in a museum in New Zealand and saw this picture hanging as part of the display. She asked how much she could buy it for and didn’t have the whopping 900NZD that they wanted. But when she explained that it was her sister, the museum gifted it to her for free.

We’ve only been here a few minutes but I already gather she’s an interesting person who’s lived an interesting life. I’m a fan.

I ask her where she stays if all the rooms in the house are for guests and she tells me there’s a room for her downstairs. Later, when we’re heading to town, I catch a glimpse inside. There is a window but without any glass, and the door frame is covered by a sheet. A crib and single bed can be seen inside a space that must be half the size of our guest room.

She lives in there with her young grandson but I don’t ask why or where his parents are. When two rooms are available in the more comfortable upstairs house, I can’t see why she would choose to sleep downstairs but maybe it’s like she said, we palangis need too much.

We plan to call a taxi to town but Maria asks her neighbour to drive us instead. We feel like we’re being too demanding and imposing but she insists that she’d rather her community make the money than a taxi driver. Good point!

We stop off at a food-truck like place for lunch on the main road. We order a mystery dish, feke, and a sorta mystery dish, bbq. Feke turns out to be a delicious peppery octopus stew, and bbq means a quarter chicken covered in thousand island dressing. Both come with some starchy root vegetable that Chesney refers to as “aggressively bland” in contrast to our delicious mains. They also have something called “Kentucky” which we can only assume is fried chicken….but will have to come back another time to confirm.

We visit the airline office to book our tickets back to Tongatapu for tomorrow, but are told there’s only one seat left. Guess Ches will just have to stay here, sorry byeeeeeee.

Out of options, we decide to book for the next day, Wednesday, at 6:50pm. I am not stoked about this. We only have 10 days here total and I am keen to see as much as we can. We’d planned to hit Eua, an island next to Tongatapu for a few days, but with this set back we won’t be able to make it. Vava’u doesn’t exactly seem like its chock full of activities besides the whale swim, and I feel like we’ve basically done Tongatapu after renting a car and exploring on our first day.

I don’t want to be stuck here but I also don’t want to spend too long in Tongatapu. It’s frustrating. Our flights here were both empty so how could we have known the flights would all be booked?!

After some deliberating about how to spend the next 2 days here, we rent some bicycles and do some Googling but don’t really find anything of interest. We follow signs to the Rock Wall, which I imagine to be like a smaller Stonehenge situation, or something climbable. After 20 minutes we come to a fork in the road with a sign including a description which I can’t recount word for word but let me break it down. Basically it says hey we put another rock on this wall for every generation of person born in this family or whatever, but now some of the rocks have been removed for ‘more practical purposes’.

So not only do they obviously not really care about the rock wall, we can’t even find it. Have so many rocks been removed that there is no longer a wall? We lean our bikes against a pile of stones and make a left at the fork, following the road to a dead end and climbing down a treacherous slope to find a beach covered in garbage. No wall made of rocks here. Guess we’ll try the other direction. This road just goes on forever with, again, no rock wall. Back to where we’ve left our bikes, and about to leave, it hits Chesney. His eyes go dead and he points behind me.

The “rock wall” IS the pile of stones behind a fence where we’ve left our bikes. Rock wall is a strong word. It could be described more as….a trail of rocks, perhaps? Extremely underwhelming. 1/10 do not recommend.

Nice bike ride though.

We look at a map and see a little island attached to the mainland by a bridge. Cool! Let’s go exploring.

We cycle through more rural land and over the little bridge to another dead end in the road at what looks like the end of the island on the map, so we park our bikes and follow a trail that may or may not be someone’s private property?

2 minutes in we come to a fenced off area of farm land and a smaller dirt trail that looks like it’s for pigs. I’m not feeling that adventurous today. We admit defeat, turn around, and head back to town for some harbour-side beers.

The only downside to our Air BnB is how far out of town it is. The roads aren’t well lit at night so we have to make it back by sundown. There’s also a giant hill to climb which I am not hella stoked on but again, the value in staying in this village with such a nice woman and away from any tourist stuff is way worth it.

Another smallll downside, that may cost me my life, is a concerningly dark picture of Jesus (I think?) hanging above the beautiful image of her sister. During the day it was chill and I didn’t even notice it but now it just looks like it’s going to come to life and possess me. Maybe that’s why we’re alone in the house.We’ve been keen to try some Kava (yes, with a K. Not the Spanish sparkling wine) while we’re here which I can’t yet really describe because I don’t know anything about it. It’s a beverage men drink here traditionally that makes you a little loopy or drooly, I’ve heard. Not really a drug but also not a cup of tea. I’ve also been told it tastes gross.

Maria sends us across the street to a little community centre where women are weaving and the men will apparently be going later for kava.

We try to explain to them what we’re after but they don’t really understand. One girl shouts out the window back across the street, in Tongan so I can’t be sure, but something along the lines of “Maria! Come get your palangis! They’re lost”.

There is no kava happening tonight. “Probably tomorrow”, she says, “they do it almost every night”. I’m determined to have some before we leave but am also not so interested in forcing her community members to drink their evening kava with palangi strangers if they don’t want to.

One thought on “Tonga: Lost Palangis

  1. Incredible to look at the map of Tonga and see how remote it is, and particularly its remote islands. The limited transportation makes sense … and yet there’s WiFi! What an interesting world you are experiencing!


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