Among the Tongans

We hadn’t planned on going to Lofanga, but after three hours of bashing upwind into the 25-knot breeze and short-chop seas (and covering only 10 miles), we put off our plans of returning to Pangai and took shelter instead behind Lofanga’s southeast reef, in spite of the poor review in the guide book.

After snorkeling on the spectacular reef (we’re really lamenting the loss of our camera!) while being serenaded by humpbacks, we took a stroll along the beach.  There we met a fisherman named Moana who suggested that we might like the bay on the other side of the island better.  He agreed to show us.

Though we opted to stay put where we were, we ended up with an invitation to join Moana and his family the next day for their Sunday umu feast and church service.  We met him on the beach at 0700 Sunday morning and he led us down the main drag to his family’s home.

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Moana lives in a small traditional Tongan hut behind his parents’ house, and his brother lives a few houses down, so they share nearly every meal together.

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When we arrived, preparations were already in progress.  Moana’s mom Alofa and his sister-in-law Leialofi were sitting under a magnificent mango tree, assembling chicken lu (taro leaves stuffed with chicken, onions, and coconut cream).  An audience of the family dogs sat in rapt attention.

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The dogs were repeatedly shooed away if they got too close, but one little pup was especially insistent on keeping watch on the process.  He had the advantage of being a less conspicuous size than his elders.

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As we sat and watched the women, other family members brought us various appetizers, including fresh fruit and samplings of grilled pork and conch.

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Meanwhile, Moana worked to scrape the meat from 10 coconuts and made the coconut cream for the lu,

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and his father Onesi and brother Koaneti prepared the tubers.

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The pups didn’t hesitate to cash in on the spent coconut.

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There were a couple twists on last week’s umu feast on Matuku Island: Alofa used banana leaves instead of tin foil to wrap the lu in neat little packages, and tied them with fiber from the spines of the banana leaf.  Then she prepared one of our new favorite dishes – papaya filled with coconut milk.  The peeled papaya was nestled into a coconut shell and joined the rest of the feast to bake in the umu.

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While the dinner was left to cook, we changed into our “goin’ to meetin’” clothes and followed the family to their church.   Actually, Moana’s sister Eleanor lent S a church-going skirt and shirt after the ones she brought from the boat apparently didn’t pass muster. It turns out Moana’s family are the only active Mormons on the island.  Koaneti led the service and the family filled the well-maintained chapel with heartfelt prayers and hymns.  In typical island style they produced a joyful noise that belied their small gathering.

After the service,  Koaneti’s daughter Tomafa escorted S back home beneath the protection of a parasol. Tongans like to avoid the sun, we’ve read.

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Moana showed K the small hut where he lives.  S is pretty sure K secretly wishes he had such a ‘man cave.’

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In a short while the family reassembled for dinner inside Leialofi’s detached dog-pig-and-chicken-proof kitchen and dining shed.

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All the dogs were banished, the chickens were busy with spent coconut shavings, and the little piggy was tied to a shed, but the one cat made it in.

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The feast was scrumptuous and we ate til we could eat no more.

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The next day we came back to the family to see if K could help get their generator working.  Koaneti and his son Taofa helped as much as they could but then sat back while  K worked to diagnose the problem.

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Koaneti didn’t seem to hold out much hope.

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Unfortunately, while he did get the motor working, the 240 volt generator could only squeeze out a paltry 4 volts with the venerable Tecumsah 10 hp in overdrive. It was frustrating not to get the gennie humming but it was actually just a spare. The other one was running great, used mostly to power the SkyTV satellite dish for the all important NZ-Australia rugby match.

The pups lost no sleep over it, either way.

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Leialofi insisted we join the family for lunch.  They treated us to coconut fish stew and “Tongan chicken.”  S was very pleased to finally get to taste one of these home-grown birds.

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Before we left the family loaded us up with more fresh fruit than we could carry – oranges, papayas, bananas, lemons, and mangoes! And a SIM card for our cell phone.   Taufa gave S a lollipop from his stash (it was shaped like a foot).

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In fact, there was an escalating competitive gift exchange under way by the time we left. Eleanor won, hands down, when she gave S a huge Triton shell.

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Leialofi was keeping this little haymaker in reserve in case we came up with our own ringer gift. S was heartbroken to have to leave her new little dirt colored puppy in Lofanga.

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Truth is, we really couldn’t compete well with Tongan hospitality, but the family seemed to enjoy our gift of printouts of family pictures we took each day.

It’s hard to believe how fast people in this culture will adopt (or “familify,” per K) visitors.  It’s even more amazing when you consider the language gap and completely divergent lifestyles we have. This was our second Tongan foster family in about a week, and just as on Mutuku, they take their hospitality seriously. The most heartbreaking part is that the ladies always cry when it’s time for us to say goodbye (K is used to this but it’s new for S).

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When we were getting battered by choppy seas and head winds with no good anchorage in sight we suspected that our plans were about to change, and that we could be in for a serendipitous “experience”. What a shame it would have been to miss Lofanga!

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19°49.87’S 174°32.85’W   14-Sept-10 02:45 UTC

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3 Responses to “Among the Tongans”

  1. Mel says:

    I have no idea how you are resisting all the pups. I would have my own ark by now ….

  2. K & S says:

    It’s not easy, Mel. K says “maybe” when we get back home…..

  3. Varis says:

    This is cool.