Tonga is a group of 170-plus islands, about 40 of which are inhabited, in the South
Pacific. From south to north, the four major island groups are: Tongatapu (the main island, including the capital, Nuku'alofa);
Ha'apai; Vava'u; and the two Niuas, Niuatoputapu and Niuafo'ou.
The land of the inhabited islands, from an aerial view,
is divided up into lush green bush (farmland/rain forest) plots, including ubiquitous palm trees. (Interesting side-note:
Tongans living in Hawai'i are often hired for their ability to shimmy up coconut trees and pull off all
the coconuts, out of fear that one will drop onto the head of an unsuspecting tourist.)
'EUA, an island 2 hours south
of Tongatapu by boat, is well known for its caving, waterfalls, mountain-biking, and a host of other properties not found
in the other islands.
TONGATAPU is as flat as a pancake and hence very pleasant for using a bike as a primary means
of transportation. One can drive from the eastern-most end to the western-most end of Tongatapu in about one hour. [The maximum
speed limit is 65 kph (40 mph), and the widest roads in Tonga are
only two lanes.]
HA'APAI can be traversed from end to end in a long jog, as it is only 12 km (7 miles) long. Ha'apai
probably fits the stereotype of a "tropical island" most closely, as it possesses the most stunning views and the most beautiful
beaches of all the island groups.
VAVA'U:The Vava'u group is the "yacht-ty" island group, so a lot of tourists go through
there, especially during yachting season. Allegedly the best place for snorkelling and SCUBA diving in Tonga is Vava'u.
NIUAS: The two Niuas are actually so far north as to be closer to Samoa than to Tongatapu.
They are fairly far apart latitudinally, so they have no business being grouped together, yet they are anyway. The Niuas possess
the least infrastructure of all the island groups, including no running water or electricity. Niuafo'ou is an inactive volcano.
There are two other volcanoes in Tonga, one of which is active on rare occasion.
Most of the borders between
the Tongan islands and the ocean are not sand beaches, but rather coral reef, which makes for amazing snorkelling most places
among the islands. There are also a few sand beaches in each island group.
The islands are inhabited by about 100,000
Tongans, about two thirds of which live on Tongatapu. The capital, Nuku'alofa. About 35,000 Tongans live in Nuku'alofa.
2. CLIMATE & WEATHER
As a tropical archipelago, the islands in the Kingdom of Tonga are subject to very mild temperature changes throughout the year. The coldest it gets in the most southern-most
islands during the winter (June-September) is about 13 degrees C (55 degrees F). The hottest it gets in the northern-most
islands in the summer (December-March) is about 38 degrees C (100 degrees F).
The humidity may go as low as 50% during
the winter months, but normally hovers around 80%. Therefore, since there are no dryers, clothes and towels made of thick
or plush material can take an excessively long time to dry.
Since the humidity is so high and the temperature so ideal,
all forms of life flourish and thrive here, which can be both a blessing -- the land is very fertile -- and a curse (even
the smallest cuts won't heal without special attention because bacteria thrives in the heat and humidity).
season, or "windy season" as it's politely referred to, is from January-March. Tonga typically sees only one or two hurricanes per year. This year there was only one small one, in early March.
3. MONARCHY & GOVERNMENT
Tonga is the only remaining "constitutional monarchy" in the world. This means that
the supreme ruler of Tonga is a monarch, and -- unlike Britain
-- he maintains power over the government and the country, and his word is law. However, his (I am using the male pronoun
because the current monarch is a king) power is bounded by a constitution, which was drafted and put into force in 1970.
the ministers in the government are appointed by the king, and almost all of them are of the "nobility" classification in
the Tongan hierarchy. There is a parliament elected by the people, but their power is limited.
The current monarch
is King Tupou Taufa'ahau IV. He is in his 80's and fairly feeble, and is periodically out of the country to receive medical
treatment in New Zealand. He is very visible among the people, going to a large public Wesleyan church
in Nuku'alofa most Sundays and regularly attending community and national events.
is a growing sentiment among Tongans toward democracy and a political system more akin to the British system, which would
mean significantly less power for the monarch. However, out of respect for the monarchy and the hierarchy which is deeply
ingrained within the Tongan people and the Tongan culture, an interesting dichotomy develops: asking Tongans face-to-face
about their opinion on whether the king's power should be reduced in favor of a democracy, most will either say "no" or give
a carefully guarded neutral response. At the anonymous ballot box, however, the majority of Tongans choose representatives
who are pro-democracy. It will be interesting to see how this develops.
4. DEVELOPMENT & INFRASTRUCTURE
Tonga is one of the poorest of the South Pacific island countries, yet it is proud that, unlike most of the other island
nations, it has never been colonized (although it was a protectorate of Great Britain until 1970). Development lags behind other island countries,
like Fiji and Samoa, but is well ahead of the third-world
countries which usually come to mind in regard to the Peace Corps.
Electricity is almost as reliable in Nuku'alofa
and on Tongatapu (the main island) as in any first-world country. It is also reliable on the major islands, such as Ha'apai,
Vava'u and 'Eua, but is supplied only by gas- or solar- powered generators on the smaller and more remote islands, such as
the Niuas, Ha'afeva and Nomuka.
Running water is pretty reliable in Nuku'alofa, but less so outside of Nuku'alofa.
Since rain is so plentiful, most houses have a concrete rain-water tank in their back yard. Rain water runs from the tin roofs
into the gutters, and from there into the water tanks. In places where there is no running water, rain water is used for everything
from drinking to showering to washing dishes. In Nuku'alofa it is generally used only for drinking and cooking.
forms of infrastructure exist and run smoothly: main roads on Tongatapu, and the main road in Ha'apai, 'Eua, and Vava'u respectively,
are well paved; the postal system works and most areas are fairly well-kempt. The government and social system function smoothly,
even if they are not the most efficient in the world.
The number of cars in Tonga has been increasing steadily over
the past two decades, but even at the height of "rush hour", downtown Nuku'alofa is not very congested with cars, especially
when compared with big cities like New York, Washington D.C., or Cairo. On Ha'apai and 'Eua a vehicle passing by on the road
is still occasion for people to glance out the window of their house. On smaller islands there are only a few, or no, vehicles.
Tonga is a country on the move. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who finished their service in Tonga thirty, fifteen, or even only five
years ago often marvel at all the latest infrastructural developments and the rapidly increasing number of cars in Tonga.
5. RELATIONSHIP WITH FOREIGN COUNTRIES
Politically, Tonga enjoys a good relationship with both Western and Asian countries. Despite its warlike and empirical past (Tongans
will gladly boast that they once ruled most of the South Pacific), Tonga poses no military threat to any country nowadays. Most of the
major countries around Tonga, both in the west and the northeast (but not in South America, which is geographically closer to Tonga than North America), have some sort of international foreign aid projects underway in Tonga, whether in the form of volunteers or funding. Most commonly
seen around town are volunteers from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Japan. Frequent donors for funding to development projects also include Britain, China, Canada and the EU.
About as many
Tongans live overseas as in Tonga. Almost all Tongans have relatives in New Zealand, Australia, or the U.S. (Most are in New Zealand; Tongans in the U.S. congregate in Hawaii, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. There are very few on the east coast. Despite the obvious monetary reasons for living abroad, Tongans love to marry
Tonga is dependent on income from overseas to sustain the economy -- both in the form of remittances sent home by family
living overseas, and aid from foreign governments.
The Chinese present an interesting quandary. From 1987-1996, the
Tongan government basically sold Tongan passports to any foreign national willing to cough up US$10,000. Many Chinese jumped
at the opportunity, and as a result there are now a plethora of Chinese shops all around Tonga, competing with Tongan business
owners. Due to this competition, there is resentment and racism among Tongans toward the Chinese -- never mind that Tongans
are the ones who are buying from the Chinese shops -- and in at least one area, a new Chinese shop has been knocked down by
Tongans who live in that area. This sentiment contrasts sharply with the government's positive attitude toward China.
6. TONGANS PHYSICALLY
Moving on now from "Tonga" to
"Tongans", the first thing one notices about Tongan adults is that both men and women are, in general, big. Skinny or scrawny
men are rare... this may be due to the fact that most of the men have spent significant time throughout their youth and adult
life working in the bush. They also seem taller than the average worldwide. According to some study, the distinction for best
male physiques in the world belongs to Tonga.
As the adult men are replaced by their younger relatives on the family
bush plot, their massive calorie intake, which remains constant, begins to catch up with them and they gain a lot of weight
in the form of fat. The muscle is still there, but it is obscured with fat. Moreover, the higher one's rank in the social
hierarchy, the sooner s/he eats at communal meals. Therefore, as men age, they get the first or second pickings at meal time
instead of the third or fourth pickings, as children do, so the quality and quantity of their food intake increases.
obesity is not a cause for concern among Tongans. "Fat is Beautiful" definitely applies in Tonga. Fat is a sign both of a healthy appetite and access to enough food to satisfy oneself. Being skinny in Tonga is not good.
Women, although they do not usually work in the bush, tend not to be overweight throughout their
youth and teenage years. This may be due to either genetics or the same third or fourth pickings at communal meals as their
brothers. Their weight gain usually comes after childbirth -- but again, unlike the eating-disorder-promoting U.S. culture, it is not a cause for distress. Tongan women, especially older women, are perfectly happy being fat.
are Polynesian, which means that their skin is lighter and their hair less kinky than their Melanesian and Micronesian counterparts...
most Tongans would probably pass for half-African American, half-Caucasian in the U.S.
There is little individuality in personal appearance. There are three different ways females keep their hair
in public -- either in a braid, a bun, or a ponytail -- and probably upwards of 98% of Tongan females have long hair. Men
have only two hairstyles: short on top with a fade on the sides, and short on top without a fade.
A very strong Christian faith
is one of the most cardinal traits of modern Tonga and Tongans. The
missionaries -- which only started arriving a century and a half ago -- really did quite a job with Tongans. Churches abound
throughout Tonga, even on the most remote islands. The largest sect are the Free Wesleyans (AKA
Methodists), which lay claim to more than 40% of the population, including the monarchy. Also popular are Catholicism, Church
of Tonga, Baha'i and Mormonism. However the Mormons are somewhat looked down upon by
In fairness to the missionaries,
however, they should be credited (blamed? ... never mind, that's a philosophical debate) with bringing Tonga into modern Western civilization. Cannibalism used to be practiced by a small portion of Tongans prior to the arrival
of missionaries, and they did not have materials or resources which Westerners would consider basic, like timber or iron.
is a part of everyday life in Tonga. Most Tongans say a prayer before every meal, at the beginning and end of every
meeting, in schools, at work, everywhere. The more formal the occasion and the more distinguished the guests at a gathering,
the longer the prayer. Going to church on Sunday is perhaps like a person in the upper middle-class in the U.S. going to university: one does not have to go but is expected to, and is regarded more highly in the community if
Intolerance and ignorance can lead people to say similar things for different reasons. Intolerance is born
out of fear and misunderstanding; ignorance, having never been taught or exposed to a different way of life, does not connotate
the same sort of ill will and spite.
8. TRADITIONAL CULTURE & HUMILITY
Unlike America, where "newer" might as well be synonymous with "better", Tongans take pride in their traditions and culture,
which are still a part of their everyday lives. For example, clothing is traditional, and fund- raisers for youth groups ()
often include "faiva"s, which are graceful traditional dances.
Sometimes it is hard
to distinguish traditional Tongan culture from that imposed by the missionaries. For example, it is now unacceptable -- actually,
illegal -- for either men or women to be shirtless in public, and bare-shouldered Tongan women are fairly rare (although a
few can be seen in Nuku'alofa, the more Westernized capital). Prior to the arrival of missionaries, though, shirts were not
worn by either men or women.
Traditional houses, "faletonga", are simple structures built of bamboo, palm fronds and
coconut trunk, and wallpapered with tapa (traditional art). Some families, especially on the outer islands, still live in
Tongan culture is also very humble. Bragging is simply not cool in Tonga, and people sometimes go to great lengths to avoid being singled out for high achievement
In the Tongan language
there are words such as "fiepoto" (lit., "wants to be smart") and "kaiimu'a" (lit., "eats front", fig., wants to be the best),
both of which are typically said in a tone of derision to keep ambitious and immodest individuals in their place. Sometimes
I really do not know whether students like being praised in front of the class, or would rather I did not single them out
for laudatory remarks because they are afraid of being ridiculed by their classmates.
9. HIERARCHY & RESPECT
In the Tongan culture there is a clear hierarchy: Monarchy - Nobility - Chiefs - Commoners. This hierarchy exists even
nowadays, when many Tongans are more Westernized. One gets the impression that, no matter how "rebellious" an individual Tongan
might be, challenging the traditional dress code, gender roles, or authority, for instance, it would not occur to him to challenge
the hierarchy... the realm of challenge-able aspects of the culture does not include the hierarchy.
Even within a level
there are hierarchical divisions. No two Tongans are on the same level; rather, one is always slightly higher or lower than
the other. This contrasts sharply with America both in theory and in practice: in theory, all Americans are equal -- the President
has the same rights and civic responsibilities as any other law-abiding citizen -- and in practice, people are vaguely divided
into a hierarchy based on social class, which is determined by money. In Tonga,
on the other hand, the town officer can be (but rarely is) the most destitute man in the town, yet the highest on the hierarchy.
Tongans know the kings' and nobles' languages but actual dialogue with nobles and the monarchy, especially on formal occasions,
is usually entrusted only to the "talking chiefs". Talking chiefs are men specially trained in all the cultural and linguistic
intricacies and nuances of dialogue with members of the monarchy and nobility.
Respect is an integral part of the
Tongan culture as well. Respect for one's elders, teachers, and especially those significantly higher in the hierarchy is
ingrained into children from the time they are young. People are expected to be respectful of those higher in the hierarchy
than themselves, even going so far as to smile cheerfully and put on a veneer of good will to those whom one dislikes.