We’d spent a couple of hours alone on a palm-bordered beach. Swimming in the South Pacific. No one in sight. Crystal clear waters. Now, it was pushing five, and we were a bit miffed about the prospect of missing Happy Hour cocktails at the hotel. We’d giddily knocked back two each the night before; then plunged into a bottle of bubbly for good measure.
But we’d arranged a whistlestop tour of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, with Faupula; your average guy on a bike with T-shirt and tupenu (traditional ankle-length skirt worn by males in Tonga); who’d stopped us within minutes of our arrival here the day before and offered to show us the sights. We’d waivered; but the revelation that he reported for the local paper AND the local radio station proved too much of a match with my own ’print and air’ past, and clinched it.
He clearly knew everyone in this capital ‘city’; bordered by sea, shanties, and shops. There was a respectful wave from the Minister of Tourism as he drove by. A cosy chat with the duty cop on the central police station’s front desk. Banter with the cabbies on chairs; waiting for fares. They weren’t motoring, but we were. At this rate, we’d be in time for a couple of Dirty Martinis at the very least. So yes, please…we’d love to see his home. We were stopped before we crossed the road by eleven year old twin girls, immaculately dressed in their school uniforms, fresh from a key exam; now grinning broadly at these English visitors, keen to hear about our visit.
To be fair, as city centre locations for a busy local reporter go…this was close on perfect. Spacious, too, overall, with enough spare rooms to rent out. But shacks, really, in a garden setting.
Like this one:
Until a couple of days ago it had been home, he told us, to a working mum and her two children. She’d been booted out that week for late payment of rent. Two months rent came to around the same as we’d paid the night before, for two starters, two mains, and a bottle of wine. For this, the mum, a nightclub worker (childcare arrangements:unclear) had got a broad shelf for herself and her two kids to sleep on, chicken wire at the window and a shared shower and kitchen. It was about half the size of the playshed we’d bought our two young daughters for arts and crafts in a leafy English county town, I realised.
Faupula would have shown us the sleeping quarters down the corridor, but a shiftworker was resting. So we smiled at the little girl from that space as she stood in the doorway. She smiled back shyly at us, eyeing up children from another household across the yard as they played, dark eyes darting from their games, to the chickens and heavily pregnant mongrel bitches who completed the picture.
I gulped. And held back tears. I had a million questions for our new friend, the landlord of this little lot, and a maternal yearning to scoop up the little girl and show her my world.
But this was home. It was what she knew. And it was a place our guide was proud to show us.
‘Now MY place,’ he said with the kind of flourish a Canary Wharf banker might show a visitor his penthouse. We passed a ramshackle shed, and a pig pen, whose hungry recipient snuffled its way towards the vegetables raining down from Faupula’s carrier bag.
‘See?’ he gestured proudly, towards an almost cosy looking double bed, perched on pallets. ‘This is my place, and here….’ he gestured towards a bottle of water and another of juice, ‘I have my drinks’. His clothes, meanwhile, hung around the walls above his bed.
We made happy hour by the skin of our teeth.
And left what we realised were happy people … with … compared to lifestyles back in the UK … practically nothing. Smiling, grateful, happy people.
We downed our cocktails … somehow tasting a little bit different to the night before. And realised again, that travel changes you. It shifts your horizons, your perspectives, your sense of what you need and what you want. And what actually makes you happy.
Many thanks to Faupula Soane for inviting us to view his Tonga.
Have you had travel experiences that have affected you profoundly? Even changed you? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.