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Touring Tonga

Some people who'd written about Tonga since our first visit had been put off by the Tongans themselves. Tongans are handsome people, often quite large in stature. They tend to move in a deliberate way that some foreigners find dignified and some foreigners—those who happen to be in a different mood or in a terrible hurry—find passive-aggressive. Tongans do not snap to. They are unapologetic about customs that are not always convenient for visitors—such strict observance of the Sabbath, for instance, that the Nukualofa airport shuts down from midnight Saturday night until Monday morning. It is not unusual for a Tongan to attend church three or four times on Sunday. The Tongan writer Epeli Hauofa, who writes satirically about his country in the tone early V. S. Naipaul novels employed to write about Trinidad's East Indian community, has offered one theory to explain why Tongans do not demonstrate more get up and go: they work so hard on the Sabbath that they have to use the other six days as days of rest.

However many times they go to church on Sunday, Tongans are often described as much more Tongan than Christian—devoted to the Polynesian extended family, more interested in sharing than in striving, willing to accept a caste system that divides people between nobles and commoners. On this trip to Tonga, we still heard tapa cloth being beaten out, in fales built behind wooden houses. Even the students of a small college that emphasizes subjects like Socratic philosophy gather on Friday nights to drink kava, a mildly narcotic South Pacific drink; they sit silently on the floor until someone starts one of the chantlike songs that Tongans sing with harmonizing that seems so natural as to be genetic.

We spent the Sunday we were in Tonga reacquainting ourselves with Tongatapu, catching a few bars of hymn-singing whenever we passed through a village. We revisited the blowholes, watching the jets of water spring out of the coral one after another every time a wave hit—like a line of Yellowstone geysers that had finally learned to go off in formation. After some roaming around, we found the flying foxes, which had relocated after the 1982 storm disturbed their food supply; they still looked like tiny foxes that somehow found it entertaining to pull a black cape around themselves and hang upside down in a tree.

That morning, we'd gone to church—to the Centenary Chapel, a concrete building that, except for a couple of narrow stained-glass windows high above the pulpit, might be taken for a large gymnasium. We arrived half an hour before the 10 o'clock service, lured in by the hymns. The entire congregation was singing, with the young women from Queen Salote College, dressed in white blouses and blue pinafores, taking the lead. The church holds 2,000 people, and it was obviously going to be nearly full. Three sides of the building were pretty much open to the outdoors, and we could see families approaching. The children were in Western Sunday best. The women, their hair pulled back in buns, mainly wore long print dresses. The men were in crisp long-sleeved shirts and the ankle-length wraparounds called tupenus, which tend to come in colors that might have been selected by a Milanese designer—pearl gray or rich chocolate brown or deep blue. Almost all adults wore the traditional pandanus matting around the waist—in some cases mats no larger than a cummerbund, in some cases mats the length of a skirt. Even congregants who were approaching the building just before 10 walked in the customary erect, stately pace. Watches were not looked at; children were not hurried along. Inside, congregants fanned themselves with mat fans and sang hymn after hymn, including a Tongan-language version of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." The harmony was magnificent. If someone were hovering on the edge, I whispered to my wife, it was a scene that could make a believer out of him.

I've always divided beach resorts between those where you're tempted to take home some of the soap and those where you're sort of sorry you didn't bring any soap from home. Tonga isn't likely to have the first kind—as if commenting on that fact, Fiji's Air Pacific hands out souvenir cakes of coconut soap to its business-class passengers on the way to the kingdom—but some fine versions of the second kind had been built on Tonga's outer islands since our previous visit. Whatever they lack in aromatic lather they make up for, it seems to me, in their ability to exist without destroying their surroundings. Atata, a small island off Tongatapu, is amiably shared by a pleasant resort and a fishing village. The voices of a few locals who entertain in the resort's dining room blend beautifully, and so do the voices of the schoolchildren who reward visitors to their class with a song or two.

The Haapai Group, with one beach resort and some guesthouses, remains the sort of place where the single road crosses the airport runway, and shops are corrugated iron sheds with arcades to protect customers from the sun. On the island of Foa, after a morning of being alone on what seemed to me a perfect beach with snorkeling reefs just offshore and more gorgeous seashells than you could ever gather, we took a walk with the owner of the small resort where we were staying. The route included the wild shore facing the Tonga Trench, one of the deepest parts of the Pacific, and then a trek through what seemed to be a jungle but was actually agricultural plots devoted to complicated mixtures of the various root plants and other vegetables that Tongans traditionally grow. Toward the end of our walk, when we were feeling the need of a refresher, three young men who'd been reef fishing were kind enough to send one of their number up a coconut tree and then, with a few whacks of a machete, provide each of us with a coconut full of milk ready for drinking.

From my window at the International Dateline a few mornings later, I watched some other fishermen arrange their catch on a jetty—a lot of snapper, some parrot fish almost as brightly colored as the ones I'd seen underwater in Haapai, a turtle whose shell was two feet across. People were strolling along the seawall path, and a few—participants, perhaps, in the king's fitness program—were jogging. I looked out over palm trees and frangipani. I could see the islands off Tongatapu. On the grassy strip, I could see the tonga 2000 sign. It wasn't that difficult to imagine a harbor full of cruise ships on the big night. The celebrators are out on the decks, taking in the fireworks. George Bush might be asking Barbra Streisand if she'd do just one more chorus of "People" before midnight strikes. The more I thought about the scene, the more I thought I might even be there myself. After all, I'd travel almost any distance to hear 2,000 Tongans sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," let alone Handel's Messiah. Toward the end of this year, when a lot of conversations are bound to turn toward New Year's Eve plans, I might be saying, "We're going back to Tonga."


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