January 28: Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
We were all set to leave on our excursion to Rarotonga this morning, but then the captain announced that the ocean swells were too big and tendering ashore would be too dangerous. Later in the morning, he announced that a tropical storm was brewing to our west which was going to force us to alter our course even more. It’s heartening to know that he has no wish to subject us to nature’s gifts any more than is necessary. So even though we had to miss a couple of ports, we had an unexpected but welcome at-sea day.
January 30: Crossing the International Date Line.
Strange as it sounds, this date did not exist for us. Somehow, crossing the International Date Line caused the ship’s clocks to be set 23 hours forward. I hope no one ever asks me to explain how that works.
January 31: Nuku’alofa, Tonga.
We’ve had to change our itinerary because of the aforementioned storm to the west. This was really an at-sea day because we didn’t arrive at this port until early evening. Unlike the islands in French Polynesia which we visited, the islands of Tonga are low, with very little change in elevation. We could see lots of trees and beaches from the ship but none of the rugged mountains that were so characteristic of Nuku Hiva, Tahiti, and Bora Bora. We will be in Tonga during the next two days as our ship “hides” from the storm.
February 1: Nuku’alofa, Tonga.
We had no excursion scheduled for today, but during the morning, we went ashore with our new friend Jim, just to get off the ship and see what this island is like. We walked and talked for a couple of very pleasant hours together. This island seemed more prosperous than others we’ve visited in the South Pacific. The streets were wide and paved and had sidewalks. Tourist information people had set up a kiosk at the dock where they made available very nice maps with a walking route clearly identified. Parks were plentiful and well maintained. There were a number of government buildings along our walking route, as well as schools, churches, police headquarters, and a royal palace.
Since it was Sunday, church was happening. Most of the people attending church seem to have arrived in cars. People were very nicely dressed in their Sunday finery. Women were wearing either colorful print or sober dark dresses, some with woven decorations around the waist. Little girls were often in frilly pastels. Men and boys were dressed alike, many in long dark-colored skirts with a length of tapa cloth (fiber made from mulberry plants, I believe) fastened around the waist. We stopped outside two different churches (the king was in attendance at one of them) and listened to the singing, which was joyous and uplifting.
February 2: Nuku’alofa, Tonga.
Our excursion this morning was a scenic drive around the island of Tongatapu, which is the name of Nuku’alofa’s island. We left about 8:30 and returned to the ship about noon. First, we drove through downtown, which had a ton of slow traffic moving towards town. A note about Tongan cars: they’re a mess. I never saw a new one, and the ones on the road seem to be held together by tape and wire. Inside, the seats, dashboard, etc. are in total disrepair. The cars were also very noisy, so much so that it’s almost impossible to carry on a conversation while walking along the main street. In our tour bus, we drove out into the countryside past homes that looked poor but generally neat and past cultivated fields where manioc and other crops were growing among the coconut palms. We made photo stops for a three-headed coconut palm and then for flying foxes (really bats) which were flying among the tops of trees beside the road. Our first big stop was at the blow holes near Houma. We had to run a gauntlet of vendors on our way to the viewing platform, but we stayed there a while and saw that the blow holes became active only when the bigger swells hit the shore. If we had been there at high tide, I’m sure the show would have been more spectacular.
Our final stop was at a resort by the ocean, where the attraction was not the beach but rather the grounds of the property. The landscaping was not great, but there were plenty of places to sit and contemplate the ocean. After a few minutes of wandering around the grounds, we were ushered into a pavilion where we were served a fresh fruit buffet of coconut, papaya, bananas, and pineapple. A band with violin, ukulele, guitar, drums, and vocals provided background music as we enjoyed our snack. Then the main event started. It was a show of Tongan singing and dancing. Four women and four men wearing traditional dress performed several dance numbers which are important in Tongan culture. The Polynesian dances we have seen emphasized the female dancers’ hip movements, but for the Tongans the hands were far more important. For both men and women, especially the women, their hands were tracing beautifully graceful movements throughout their performance. In characterizing the men’s dancing, I would say it was manly, but not violent, if that makes any sense. A subtle but very appealing aspect of their performance was a singular head movement which reminded me a little of that head bob done by some Indians. Both men and women would briefly tilt their head to one side as they performed. Together with their eye, hand, and body movements, this head tilt made this form of dance very appealing.
As we were driving through small villages in the countryside, we noticed that every village has at least one church. The most prosperous ones seem to be the Mormon churches because their properties were invariably perfectly groomed and maintained, somewhat of a contrast to the other properties in these communities. There also seemed to be many large meeting halls and also curious-looking little open-air storefronts along the road every so often which could not hold much in the way of products. As on the other islands, fruit trees and flowering shrubs were everywhere.
We returned to the ship for lunch and then went out with Jim for another look-see around town. We walked up the main street again without finding much of interest in terms of stores. After a while, we noticed that school had been dismissed and numbers of high school students were walking along the road. They were an interesting phenomenon. They were all wearing uniforms. The girls wore long maroon dresses and had long braided hair, which was decorated with yellow hair ribbons. The boys wore grey skirts with tapa cloth waist ornaments. Everyone wore sandals. What was most amazing was their behavior. They were not rowdy, they were polite, they were friendly. Jim walked among them for a time, and they made him feel very welcome. In fact, everyone we met was friendly, with a smile and a shy hello.
As the ship was preparing to leave the dock, passengers were entertained by the police brass band and a group of Tongan singers and dancers similar to those we saw earlier in the day. They continued waving to us and calling good-bye as we sailed away. We felt very loved.