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Touring Tonga

Well, yes, I suppose I did enjoy telling people we were going "back to Tonga." No, I did not allow myself to add, "When we were there thirty years ago, no one had ever heard of Tonga"—although you could argue that my restraint had something to do with the fact that a lot of people still haven't. When I spread the word that we were returning to Tonga, there were quizzical looks even after I tossed out some Tongan facts to jog the memory. "Does Polynesian kingdom ring a bell?" I'd say. "Sometimes known as the Friendly Islands?" Still nothing. I found only one fact about Tonga that could bring a flicker of recognition, at least if the person addressed was of a certain age: In the 1953 coronation procession in London, it was the late monarch of Tonga, a magisterial six-footer named Queen Salote, who, alone among the visiting dignitaries, refused to cover her carriage after rain began to fall, observing Tongan custom that would have considered such an act disrespectful to Queen Elizabeth. As Salote rode through the downpour, her gesture was widely admired—although apparently not by the thoroughly drenched Malay sultan who'd been assigned to share the carriage.

Of course, I was aware of the pitfalls involved in returning somewhere after a 30-year absence. Both my wife and I had loved Tonga. What was meant to be a brief stopover between Fiji and American Samoa had been transformed into a week's stay through the vagaries of South Pacific air transportation in 1968 (I remember saying, "Polynesian Airlines' fleet of plane has failed to arrive"), and we'd always remembered our visit as the happiest of accidents.

The capital, Nukualofa, with its low wooden buildings and arcades and unpaved streets, looked like the sort of place John Wayne might mosey into after a cattle drive, except that on the edge of town, facing the harbor, there was what appeared to be a large Victorian summer-house: the royal palace. Houses in the villages were mostly fales, traditional Tongan structures with woven-mat walls and thatched roofs. Even the smallest village had two or three more substantial structures that turned out to be churches; Tonga had received the full brunt of the Methodists' 19th-century missionary assault, not to speak of a mopping-up operation carried out decades later by the Mormons. Nearing a village, we'd detect a noise resembling the steady pounding heard when carpenters are framing in houses; it was the sound of wooden mallets beating out the underbark of mulberry trees to make tapa cloth. Glued together in panels the size of a tennis court, the cloth would be decorated with woodblocks and then colored in a stunning array of browns.

Places other than Tonga make tapa, but that's like saying places other than Belgium make pommes frites. From our first trip we still have a gorgeous piece of tapa covering a 15-foot wall. Its pattern includes birds and lions and a coat of arms and (depicted horizontally, for some reason) the towering Norfolk Island pines that grow next to the Tongan royal palace. To this day, when I pass our tapa cloth, I'm reminded of the glories of serendipity.

In 1968, Tongan tourism amounted to an occasional stop by a cruise liner, allowing at most a viewing of the spectacular blowholes off the coast of the main island and a visit to Tonga's colony of the fruit bats known as "flying foxes." Only a year or so before our arrival, a simple but perfectly comfortable hotel called the International Dateline had been built as part of the preparations for the coronation of Queen Salote's son, an imposingly large man named Taufaahau Tupou IV, who assumed the throne after his mother's death. The hotel's name reflected Tonga's pride in being the first country west of the International Date Line, and thus "where the day begins."

We had the hotel almost to ourselves. In fact, as guests who customarily took our meals there—alternatives were not apparent—we were included in whatever event was being held in the capital's fanciest public space. I remember taking in the Miss Nukualofa Contest, won by Miss Friendly Island Biscuits. The presence of the International Dateline Hotel made Tonga the dream combination of a certain type of American traveler—an unspoiled place where you had your own bathroom.

We were under no illusions about any place remaining unchanged for 30 years. Fiji, which hadn't been an obvious tourist destination in 1968, now has so many sophisticated beach resorts that I've heard it called "a faraway Hawaii." But on those rare occasions over the years when a press item on Tonga caught my eye, the subject tended to be some scheme that did not involve hotels or resorts. King Taufaahau Tupou IV, still on the throne at 80, is a man of many ideas, and a tiny country with sovereignty and great beauty but no obvious way to make a living tends to attract other people with ideas. A scheme to grow a type of squash prized by the Japanese sounded promising. A national fitness program sounded sensible, particularly when led by the king, who dropped a hundred pounds or two himself as an example. A proposal to store hazardous waste sounded hazardous. A program that permitted the selling of Tongan passports sounded questionable. A scheme to turn salt water into natural gas sounded—well, cockamamie.

The only mention of tourism had been fairly recent: speculation that, since Tonga is where the day begins, people who want to be the first to see in the new millennium might transform Nukualofa into a sort of saltwater Times Square on New Year's Eve 1999. Our concerns that Tonga might have gone the way of Fiji evaporated, though, when we learned that the International Dateline was still probably where we should stay in Nukualofa, even though the hotel, which is run by the government, apparently is not keen on renovating between coronations. Checking in again, after an absence of 30 years, I said to my wife, with great relief, "This is definitely the place. I think I recognize that carpet."

On the grassy strip between the hotel and Nukualofa Harbor, the Bank of Tonga has erected a TONGA 2000 sign reading WHERE THE NEW MILLENNIUM BEGINS. The same motto was on T-shirts in the hotel's gift shop. Tonga seemed to be treating the dawn of the third millennium as a rare opportunity to shine—its first big publicity break since the rain fell on Queen Salote. It's true that as 2000 approaches, other places are claiming that the break belongs to them. Kiribati has some territory close to the Date Line, although its tourist facilities apparently make Nukualofa seem like Waikiki. On New Zealand's Chatham Island you could see the sun sooner than on Tonga, at least if you were standing on a mountain. But have these other places been calling themselves "Where the Day Begins" for decades?Do they have a beer whose motto is "The First Beer in the World Every Day"?

No, I think it's safe to say that celebrators will be heading for Tonga, even though it appears that there will be no place for them all to stay. No new hotels seemed to be under construction, and most of the existing hotels claim to have been block-booked for the big week by outfits such as First Dawn Celebration, which plans to fly a jumbo jet full of people to Tonga for New Year's Eve and then hop over to Samoa, just across the Date Line, to do it all over again. A man from the Tongan Visitors Bureau told me that a number of people would be coming by boat; 14 cruise liners are already scheduled to be in Nukualofa Harbor on the big night. And what will the entertainment be?There are still meetings being held to decide that, he said, although it seems to be clear that the king, who is churchy in the Tongan way, would like to have 2,000 Tongans singing Handel's Messiah at the year 2000.

The visitors' bureau man told me that one millennium luxury cruise from Honolulu will supposedly cost $42,000 per passenger. He said it's rumored that George Bush and Barbra Streisand have already made their reservations, and he asked me whether that sounded plausible. I told him that I'd treat that rumor with some skepticism, although I did see a touch of verisimilitude in the fact that neither Henry Kissinger nor Barbara Walters had been mentioned. He also told me some of the ideas a millennium committee is considering: A marathon. A huge Tongan feast. Twenty-four hours of fireworks. One idea he found particularly interesting was to have Bill Gates and King Taufaahau Tupou IV interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. "Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, whose products represent the future, and the king is the last remaining South Pacific monarch," the visitors' bureau man said, in case I hadn't caught the symmetry. "What do you think?"

"I think it's an excellent idea," I said.

"Do you think Oprah would come?"

I told him that when Oprah was being sued by the beef industry, she did her show from Amarillo for six weeks, so it wasn't as if she lacked an adventurous spirit. The visitors' bureau man seemed pleased.

The role of the International Dateline Hotel had apparently not changed between our visits. In the area where events are held, I noticed a banner for the International Water Week festivities. Since we'd arrived a month or so before the summer season, we had the hotel almost to ourselves again. Tonga still attracts only 25,000 or so tourists a year. Some hotel proprietors blame that on transportation difficulties caused partly by an effort to protect Royal Tongan Airlines. Tourist officials think there's too much competition from places like Tahiti. Some analysts of the Tongan political structure think that the king, who presides over what is close to a feudal society, has a limited enthusiasm for attracting foreigners with their foreign ideas. It's also true that Tonga has taken some knocks from travel writers, a subject I bring up reluctantly, the way you might bring up the unkind Broadway reviews of a play for which you acquired an almost proprietary affection in out-of-town tryouts.

Nukualofa has been called down-at-the-heels. It now has paved streets and several buildings sufficiently large and modern to irritate any cinematographer trying to shoot a western. At times, the traffic moves slowly. At times, young men who haven't found their place in the cash economy and haven't left to seek work in New Zealand or Hawaii gather in small, bored groups on the street corners. The hurricane of 1982 finished off most of the traditional Tongan fales, and many villagers took advantage of an aid program that provided a simple wooden house for $600. A visitor to the main island of Tongatapu who wants to get a feel for Tongan village architecture is directed to the Tongan National Centre, which was built with help from the Japanese.

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