Tears in Tonga as we bid a final farewell

20160224_201202There are six bloody pockets in these hilarious zip off hiking trousers. Six. But despite five minutes of frantic wriggling and searching, I couldn’t find a single tissue.

The cab driver, probably suspecting I had ants in my pants, now had to endure a couple of loud, theatrical sniffs from his female fare in the back seat. I couldn’t help it. A slightly crackly, traditional Tongan folk song with the sweetest harmonies had come on the radio…and had moved me to tears.

img_20161007_092700We’d been attempting to speed down the one long, dusty road to the airport, to fly us away from the island I’d waited decades to see, so my heart was already heavy.

Catching sight, once more, of the simple shops and makeshift stalls we’d first gawped at from a taxi window soon after arriving, made me sadder still. Rows of freshly laundered children’s clothes stretched proudly along washing lines: all, for sale. A woman sitting at a rickety table which was piled high with locally caught fish, the seller attempting to ‘chill’ her wares by gently waving a raffia fan over the polythene bags, all of them perspiring in Tonga’s 30 degree heat. Children gripping the bars of one of the many Chinese general stores, as they peered through to make their sweet selections. Taxi drivers blaring their horns at dogs so desperate for a scratch that they’d sit suddenly, mid-carriageway, for a scrape, cars or no cars.

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Those were the sights that had made my heart sink in the minutes after we’d arrived. I knew already this place wasn’t going to be a Maldivian paradise. Our personal, ‘warts and all’ tour by a new Tongan friend had made that brutally clear. But it had taught us some vital life lessons, too. That, apparently, you don’t need ‘stuff’….to be happy. We’d seen some of the smiliest people with…by our standards… nothing. They were the ones with the warmest welcomes; the happiest hellos. And so now, I understood why my father’s own trip on royal bodyguard duties all those years before, must have hit home, and why what he’d told me about this place had made me, as a small girl, want to see it for myself.

img_20161007_091534Our cabbie’s attempt at ‘speeding’ to the airport came to an abrupt halt as a marching band, accompanied by scores of people in traditional dress, uniforms and military regalia, filled the road, blocking our path. We turned ninety degrees down an even smaller dirt track, then another ninety down little more than a grassy path, all in a bid to give the parade the slip, the taxi driver happily texting and taking mobile calls from behind the wheel as he –somehow—drove.

Safely at the airport, we screeched to a halt behind another cab, its exhaust belching noxious, smoky fumes; its ridiculous body kit bumper consisting of more holes than fibreglass; its driver emerging gingerly, one arm in a sling. Yes, Tonga’s shambolic in places. Unsafe in others. Impoverished, for sure. But its natural beauty, and the dignity of its people, had moved me more than once, to tears. We climbed the steps of the plane and I glanced back at the terminal building, as Dad must have done, smiling, no doubt, at the families waving their relatives a fond farewell.

I can’t say if I’ll ever make it back to Nuku’alofa. But I owed it to the eleven year old girl whose dad bought her gifts from a far away island, to do my damndest to see it for myself. And now, like him, I know that Tonga’s full of people and places I’ll never forget.

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