Friday, September 26, 2008

In Praise of Vava'u

So here I am in a true tropical island paradise – the island of Vava’u, capital of the Vava’u group of islands, about 300km north of Tongatapu.

So far I am hard pressed to think of ANY way in which Tongatapu is better than Vava’u. I have half a mind to ask to be transferred here, for at least 3 months of my get a better idea of the heritage and culture of Vava’u...or something!

Here, the breezes blow gently (and sometimes not so gently) over the hills, the heroes of legend are brought to life through the place names, and the history lives strongly in the minds of local village Chiefs and Town Officers, guardians or local heritage. Also, there is soy coffee at the Tropicana cafe. It might be a backpacker establishment which I would ordinarily shun, but seriously, for a soy coffee and a dairy-free Muesli slice I’m anyone’s!

So far our adventures (I am here with the intrepid A-Lee, fellow AYAD and flatmate extraordinaire) have been confined to land, however this has been no second-rate experience, as Bruno, my host at the Vava’u branch of the TVB, has been a font of knowledge and assistance. He has arranged encounters with important community leaders, who retain the myths and knowledge of the past associated with heritage sites many palangi don’t bother with, their interest being confined to the sea. This is a shame, as Vava’u has a lot to offer in land-based tourism for those willing to spend a little time exploring.

For example – the Kilikilitefua Wall. The name comes from kilikili – the smooth black pebbles used on graves – and tefua, meaning a cluster, in particular reference to people. So it’s a cluster of stones, but also referring to people. This is because, in an ancient from of census, every time a baby was born a stone was added to the pile. The pile has diminished somewhat, as the coral rock was put to more practical purposes by generations who had more modern methods of recording births – things like computers and birth certificates. But for around 300 years, the births on all of Vava’u (and it is speculated that possibly all of Tonga) were recorded here, in a site which is unique in the South Pacific.

I have also been privileged to hear many traditional myths and legends. It is wonderful to be doing things the traditional Tongan way, hearing stories directly from their custodians (and translated by Bruno), rather than reading them in books as I’ve been doing in Nuku’alofa. This feels like the real Tonga, despite the prevalence of tourists who swarm the main streets of Neiafu, the capital. Once you get away from the waterfront though the tourists vanish, and the palm trees and fields of kava again assert their presence.

I feel a tremendous love for this place and its people, who are so willing to share their history and their traditions with me. I am so glad to have spent this past week soaking up the culture rather than the sun, though of course I also look forward to getting out onto the water and experiencing the other side of Vava’u!

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