Weekend Work (And Fun!!)

Garbage and litter are big issues in Vava’u. There is no garbage collection. Most people burn their personal garbage while commercial businesses take their garbage to the landfill. It sounds fairly simple, but it gets complicated because there are no public trash cans anywhere on the island and most Tongans just throw their litter on the ground or out the car window. Apparently there was an attempt to put out some garbage cans in public areas a while back, but the plan failed, not because the cans didn’t get used, but because Tongans started bringing their personal garbage and dumping it into the public cans. This overwhelmed the cans and they eventually got removed.

There is recycling of aluminum in Vava’u but there are not that many recycling bins and they don’t get used a lot. The bottom line is that there is a lot of litter here and there is not an easy solution on how to deal with it. Early Saturday morning, I joined 9 of my fellow volunteers and a Tongan women’s group to pick up litter in downtown Neiafu.

I filled an entire bag with aluminum cans in less than an hour and that was just in a three block area and the truck you see behind us in the photo above was quickly filled with all kinds of rubbish.

As I was collecting litter, several of the women called me by name. I couldn’t figure out why they all knew my name even though by now I should have gotten used to that. As it turns out, the women were all from a group where the bank manager and I had done a presentation on Friday night on the importance of personal budgeting.

After our early morning liter collection, the Peace Corps “boys” and the Peace Corps “girls” all went their separate ways. The women were cooking a women’s only dinner at the house of one of the volunteers and the guys went to the eastern tip of Vava’u to hang out and see the cliffs.

We caught a ride as far as we could and then hiked through the woods to get to the top of the cliffs. There is a nice meadow at the top of the cliffs with a great view out to the ocean below. As we stood on the top, we pointed about 45 degrees to our left and said “America is that way”. We then headed down to the water. The climb is not as treacherous as it might look from the photo, but you certainly would not want to slip. At the bottom there are small pools where you can immerse yourself into the cool waters of the Pacific. You can only do this at low tide and as the tide started to come back in, we quickly realized we needed to get out of there and start climbing back.

A little work and a little fun. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday in Tonga.

***Other News***

When President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, it was designed with three goals, goals that the agency still lives by today. Most people are most familiar with the first goal, which is to provide help where requested. The second goal is to teach people of other cultures about Americans and the final goal is to provide Americans with information about other cultures. Basically this goal says to bring the world home to Americans. By keeping this blog, I hope that I’m helping to fulfill the third goal, not just for US Citizens, but for people everywhere who happen to stumble across these pages.

One person who has become a regular reader is a Canadian by the name of Larry MacDonald. Larry is actually a friend of a friend even though we’ve never met. Larry and I both share an interest in Tonga and we’ve exchanged e-mails. We also share an interest in writing about Tonga. While I write about what it is like to serve in the Peace Corps in Tonga, Larry has written about what it is like to come here as a tourist. Larry gave me permission to share a story he wrote that I hope provides you with a different perspective on Tonga. Sharing his story seems like a great way to further the third goal of Peace Corps.



By Larry MacDonald

When one thinks of Tonga in the South Pacific, the mind conjures up images of a Polynesian paradise – lush tropical islands with white sand beaches, sprinkled like emeralds on a turquoise sea. Supplement that image with quiet anchorages, warm breezes and crystal-clear waters and it’s understandable why Tonga is considered one of the world’s premiere sailing destinations.

Tonga’s remoteness, about 1300 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand, may be partly responsible for the islands retaining their unspoiled beauty and timeless character. However, for Canadian charter sailors, it’s a long way off; 17 hours flying time from Vancouver on three different airlines … we know, we’ve been there; and would return in a heartbeat. It’s amazing how quickly travel fatigue is dissipated by the excitement and anticipation of visiting a new culture.

Sandy and I with our friends Barry and Joan scheduled a bareboat sailing charter with The Moorings for two weeks in March. We booked our flights from Vancouver, via Los Angeles, to the main island of Tongatapu. However, we wisely decided to use Pacific Travel Marketing (a Tongan travel agency) to book our inter-island flight to Vava’u, the primary sailing area. When our flight from LA was delayed, our agent Ruby rescheduled the inter-island flight, booked us into a comfortable B&B on Tongatapu, met us at the airport and toured us around the island. This fortuitous adventure gave us an opportunity to experience the bustling capital city of Nuku’alofa, a world away from life back home. Our one-hour flight on Airlines Tonga to the Vava’u island group would take us even further back in time.

After a restful night’s sleep at the Paradise International Hotel and their sumptuous breakfast, we proceed to The Moorings base. Sirocco, our 41’ Beneteau gleaming in the sunshine, is awaiting our arrival. We stow our gear and receive a thorough boat and chart orientation; then take a short cab ride into downtown Neiafu to purchase provisions. The experience is enlightening, and most likely amusing to the locals. Following a visit to the ATM, we fill the trunk with items from several small grocery stores, a bakery, meat supplier, wine store and an outdoor market. The sun is hot; the pace slow; considerably slower than our frenetic efforts to finish the shopping so we can go sailing. We enjoy practicing the language and learning the currency, which initially involves holding out a handful of cash and allowing vendors to pick the correct amount!

Vava’u is a cluster of 50 islands scattered across 15 miles of ocean, protected from swells by outlying reefs. The Moorings’ navigational chart of this area identifies 42 designated anchorages, half of which are approved for overnight in prevailing southeast winds. The area is small enough that one can sail from one end to the other in just a few hours. Yet, in two weeks it is impossible to see it all. However, we do manage to visit a few villages and more than a few deserted islands for beachcombing, snorkeling and replenishing our souls.


Waves lap softly against our hull; a rooster crows; church bells ring. I peek through one eye at my watch. It’s 0500. What? Who goes to church at five o’clock on a Sunday morning? In the village of Matamaka, everyone does – all 350 islanders young and old attend church at 5 am; again at 10 am; and then again at 4 pm. Religion, we’re about to discover, is a very important part of Tongan culture.

Late yesterday, we anchored just off a crescent beach bordering the village. This morning, after tying our dinghy to a coconut tree, we amble ashore to explore. Almost immediately, we receive a warm welcome from Fa’aki and her husband Ben, who live in a small house with their five young children. All are dressed in their Sunday’s finest, clean and colorful. We ask if we can visit their village. In very good English, they graciously offer to show us around. Six churches, a school, playground, Kava House and an array of small houses line the dirt path that meanders through the village. Only the churches and the Kava House have electricity; which means there are no refrigerators, stoves, washers or any other electrical conveniences that we Canadians take for granted. Domestic pigs, dogs and chickens wander about. Columns of smoke rise from outdoor cooking pits. Everyone we meet smiles shyly and says hello (“Malo e lelei”). Captain Cook, in 1777 called Tonga “The Friendly Isles” and we can certainly see why. We feel like we have been transported back a couple of centuries, when people lived off the land and sea, bonding together to ensure survival.

Since it is nearly 10 o’clock Fa’aki invites us to join her family at their church service. We accompany them up a hillside to a small building made of coconut tree 2x4’s with open doors and windows. While we sit on woven floor mats with a dozen faithful villagers, the young minister plays guitar and everyone sings along. Their voices are incredibly clear and inspirational. After a passionate sermon in Tongan by the minister’s wife, punctuated by “Hallelujahs,” the minister thanks us for joining them and wishes us a safe journey. The young girls pick wild flowers and present them to Joan and Sandy. A young boy offers his hand to help Sandy down a slippery bank, a spontaneous gesture so characteristic of Tongan kindness.

As we pass the Kava House, Barry asks: “What goes on in there?” Ben invites us into the small building occupied by a half-dozen men sitting in a circle on the matted floor. Kava is a brown, watery drink made from the dried roots of a pepper plant. It is widely used as a ceremonial drink throughout most of Polynesia. The Kava House serves as a meeting place, mostly for men it seems. After introductions, we are offered half coconut shells as cups and invited to try it. We describe our first taste as bitter with a slight tingling of the lips and tongue. The men smile approvingly with stifled laughter. Apparently, after a few drinks, the effect is a feeling of calmness, which to Tongans represents renewal. After our drink, some conversation, laughter, and an awareness of the importance of this tradition in the daily lives of Tongans, we bid farewell and continue back to the boat.

On the way Ben and Fa’aki invite us for lunch and we agree, but only if they join us on board. They arrive in their small fishing boat with fresh mussels cooked in coconut milk, boiled tapioca root, and a mango-coconut cordial. We are extremely honoured by their generosity, sharing their meager food supplies with relative strangers. In return we offer them a roll of aluminum foil, dry pasta, canned goods, a Canuk’s hat, and some lollipops and gifts for their children. After they leave, Joan and Sandy conspire to “adopt” this lovely family and immediately start planning a care package to be sent to them at Christmas.

On the most western island of Hunga in front of Ika Lahi Lodge, we tie to a mooring buoy for $10 Tongan, about $6 Canadian (a small price to pay for sound sleep!). In anticipation of a visit to the village school the next morning, we gather together some school supplies and various children’s toys. Our visit is delightful. David, the principal, holds an impromptu recess and invites us inside. Although the children are initially reserved, Sandy and Joan soon have them gathered around, intent to learn some Canadian English, eh? And to sing along “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands….” Later in the village we meet an elderly woman who proudly shows us her beautiful flowers and then offers us a few mangos. She reluctantly accepts our handful of change.


The Moorings arrange a Tongan Feast on a centrally located beach for their charterers, a score of sailors from various countries. Guitars and drums accompany graceful young dancers, followed by an authentic meal of local foods. Conversation mostly involves things to see and do in the islands. Everyone has his or her favourite snorkeling reef or secluded sandy beach.

One of our favourites is Maninita, a small island furthest south, designated as a bird sanctuary. Under sunny skies and brisk easterlies, we beam reach for a couple of hours with two other charter boats. Along the way, a school of Spinner dolphins play in our bow wave. A serpentine turquoise path through a matrix of coral leads to a sheltered lagoon. Boobys, petrels, terns and various other sea birds circle the forest canopy as we respectfully explore this special place blessed by Nature. The shallow reefs are teaming with colourful fish; the beaches look and feel like granular sugar. Designated as a “day anchorage,” we reluctantly weigh anchor and retrace our route to yet another picturesque island.

Another breathtaking experience, literally, is Mariner’s Cave. The entrance to this submerged cave is three metres down (at high tide) and four metres horizontally beneath an overhanging rock. The assent is another three meters before surfacing inside a cavernous limestone grotto. Some local knowledge and commitment are required for this dive. Jim and Simon, fellow charterers who had dove it last year, supply the local knowledge. Since there are no signs indicating the entrance, they dive first and don’t return; which means either that I am in the right spot or they’re never coming back! I take a deep breath and commit … popping up inside like a walrus gasping for air! Standing on a ledge, our ears plug each time the misty air is compressed by the incoming one-metre swell. Going out is less intimidating as we can see sunshine through the opening. Incidentally, one can practice for this feat by diving underneath the boat keel from one side to the other, or better yet bow to stern. Nearby Swallow’s Cave is another popular natural feature. This large cavern at the waterline can be entered and explored by dinghy, which suits my non-committal crew just fine!

Each morning on VHF Ch 06, sailors are provided with tide and weather information, including a forecast. Most days we get a mixture of sun and cloud with 10 to 20-knot breezes providing comfortable sailing. On our last day 30-knot “breezes” prompt a reefed jib and main sail. Charging back to The Moorings base, we’re totally pumped and at the same time saddened by our adventures coming to an end. After lifting off the runway and gaining altitude, we peer out the window at our now familiar playground with the hope that this pristine paradise will always remain timeless and welcoming to future sailors.



The Tongan government is one of the few absolute monarchies in the world. For the past 40 years a beloved and benevolent king ruled the island country. His death in 2006 and the succession of his son to the Throne set off previously unheard of civil disobedience in the capital city of Nuku’alofa. Angry rioters, expressing dissatisfaction with the lack of democratic reforms, damaged a significant number of buildings. During our visit four months later, the town was rebuilding and islanders were more inclined to “give the new king a chance.”

On Taunga Island in the Vava’u group, a groundbreaking ceremony took place just prior to our visit. A group of foreign investors are building a large five-star hotel on the same island that is also home to a tidy little village; the same village in which Joel proudly showed us around, in which Alice gave us a bag of mangos, and in which Betty sold us her handmade woven baskets and bracelets from a Panga (small boat).

One can only hope that future directions will not compromise traditions or values of these beautiful people.


During Larry’s visit a year ago, he met Sarah Kate, one of the Peace Corps volunteers with whom I now serve. Sarah Kate remembers meeting Larry and especially meeting his wife. She says Sandy was a great teacher and taught the kids to point out where Canada was located on a world map. She says it’s amazing that now, a year later those kids still remember where Canada is located, but they can’t find their own country on Tonga on the same map.

Larry also mentions the ground-breaking for a new five star resort. As of early March, that project was on hold due to disputes over land rights with some of the people on Taunga. Warwick Hotels, which has resorts and hotels around the world, is the company who wants to open what would become the first real resort in Tonga if the disputes can be settled.

My experience at Mariner’s Cave was a lot like Larry’s and I have also been to Swallow’s Cave.


The Peace Corps Times, which is the magazine distributed to all current Peace Corps volunteers worldwide, quoted from my blog in its latest issue. It reprinted an entry from last November about how the current volunteers surprised us with mail during our training.

The blog also got mentioned in the local newsletter that is disturbed to the volunteers and staff here in Tonga.

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