Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Tonga Top 10

As we have passed the milestones of both the 3 month mark and the 100-days mark, I thought I’d do a bit of a compilation of my ten favourite experiences in Tonga thus far. I don’t know about having them in an exact order, let’s just say that it’s my Top 10 and leave it at that!

10. Swimming off the Wall in Nuku’alofa
This was my first swim in Tongan waters, and involved walking about 800m across a reef populated by squishy sea-cucumbers in knee-deep water, then floating precariously off the edge of the reef with the waves. The reward is enjoying the amazing array of fish and some colourful coral that exists so close to Tonga’s capital city.

9. My first exchange with a shopkeeper completely in Tongan
Yeah, this probably makes me sound better than I really am, but I was able to ask for 2 large bottles of water, and tell her that I came from Australia and had been here for 2 months. It’s pretty easy to get away with speaking English for the most part, so I like it when locals humour my attempts at giving the language a go!

8. The Tongan National Centre

Tu'i Malila, the tortoise Captain Cook gave to the Tongan people, who lived as part of the Royal Family until 1966

Nessie demonstrating how to make Tapa for the hideous cruise ship tourists

This place makes the list for a number of reasons, not least of which is the great collection of material that is on display there, including the stuffed and preserved Tu’i Malila, the tortoise gifted to Tongans by Capt Cook in the 1770’s. It’s also a special place to me because the staff know me, and I can put my halting Tongan to the test telling the dancers that they look beautiful and the tourists are hideous, right in front of the tourists!

7. Soy Coffee at Tropicana cafe

OMG I still remember the utter satisfaction of that first coffee!

I am going to give Vava’u it’s own entry, otherwise the Top 10 would pretty much mostly be experiences I had there, but I figure that that first soy coffee, after 3 months of total abstinence, deserves its own place on the list!

6.Blue Starfish

I just love them! There’s something about the blue starfish that just makes my heart sing!

5. Feasts
This encompasses the various farewell feasts I have enjoyed since working at the Tonga Visitor’s Bureau, from the numerous varieties of faikakai (a desert featuring coconut milk) to the delights of ota ika (raw fish salad). I really do love a lot of the Tongan cuisine, and my colleagues are always keen to encourage my enjoyment of this part of their culture - despite my weird food allergies and the fact that I’m a vegequarian!

4. Humpback whale and calf off Tongatapu

This occasion will stick in my memory for a long time – it was about 3 weeks into the whole Tonga thing, and I was having the first bout of really missing Clinton and feeling sorry for myself, when my boss called me and told me to bring my camera and go with him. When I asked where, he replied: “On a boat. To see a whale.” It was simply incredible, this whale calf breaching and diving and playing around, and we watched it for almost an hour. This was followed by my first trip to Pangaimotu Island and lunch on the Boss – cheered me right up, I can tell you!

3.Moving into the house at Longolongo

This makes the list because it was the first time I had that sense of feeling At Home since I’d arrived. The awesome kitchen has also been the site of some truly inspired cooking, I might add!

2. Vava’u

Outside the TVB Office in Vava'u

The incredible blue waters of Swallows Cave

Nuku Beach from the water

So this is an entire two weeks (well 12 days!) of bliss, incorporating the traditional stories of the island, the amazing Bruno (who runs the TVB office in Vava’u), the views from Mt Talau, days spent sailing, snorkelling and kayaking, and the beautiful Nuku Beach and Swallows Cave. It also includes having food I could eat at the Tropicana Cafe, walking, hills (and even walking UP hills!), the view from the Twin View Motel where we stayed, and the owner of the Twin View, who looked like the BFG. This time and place was truly extraordinary, and I can honestly say that I loved every minute of it.

1. Swimming with singing Humpback whales

Even though this is technically part of the total Vava’u experience, like the soy coffee it deserves its own entry for sheer mind-blowingness. I will surely remember this occasion for the rest of my life – watching a singing whale rising up from the deep below me was something so magical that words cannot even begin to describe it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Health - a Post-Script

Well, it turns out that the abomination on my fingertip was not merely eczema, it was INFECTED eczema. This is actually good news, because it means that with anti-biotics it will get better.

This inspires me to give you a run-down of all the health issues I have enjoyed since arriving here fourteen and a half weeks ago!

1. Bronchial chest infection
2. Urinary Tract Infection
3. Eye infection
4. Chronic allergic reactions - hayfever and eczema
5. Secondary skin infection.

But my story has another happy result - I actually returned to the good old Village Mission Pharmacy and Clinic, as I heard they had a replacement doctor. The new bloke has been in Tonga for a good while now, so I doubt much will phase him. This is good, because he seems sensible, and like he's in it for the long haul. Having a decent doctor is half the battle here!

So three cheers for the health issues looking a bit more promising now!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Health (or the lack thereof)

WARNING: The following post contains gross images of actual physical maladies! Do not read if you are sickened by the sight of pulpy eczema fingers!

One thing about living in a developing country is the issue of health. And I’m not talking about the exotic diseases you might catch, or the traveller’s diarrhoea, which let’s face it, is just a matter of time. No, I’m talking about the regular little things that if you were back home would be easy to manage, however in the tropical paradise that is Tonga become overblown and have AHI recommending your return to Australia.

I’m talking here about allergies. The smoke and pollution of Nuku’alofa have wreaked havoc with my eyes, hayfever and eczema. Over the past 2 months I have experienced waking up EVERY day with red gross eyes, the worst hayfever ever, and the grossest case of eczema I’ve yet to live through.

Most Tongans don’t get the concept of allergies. There’s certainly no Tongan word for it, and explaining the concept (especially when they’ve just grasped the food allergy idea only to have me come in with irritated eyes from the smoke in the air) has been...challenging. To the people in my office who bear bemused witness to my many ailments and absences I am just a sickly Palangi, whose maladies are probably exacerbated by my strange insistence on vegetarianism.

As my allergies have gone from the irritating to the incapacitating, I have contacted the designated health insurance medical advisors of the AYAD program to see if there was anything further I could do. Sadly, all they could suggest was going home. This is not something I’m prepared to consider – yet.

Oh yeah, and this is completely besides the other viruses I’ve enjoyed since being here, that is a tasty bronchial infection in my first few weeks, and recently some kind of glandular extravaganza. My flatmate, the intrepid A-Lee, has been laid up for the past week with some kind of flu from hell. Seriously, the tropical diseases are the least of our problems, it’s the everyday stuff that’s the killer!

Getting suitable medical treatment is also somewhat challenging. The last time I went to the Villiage Mission Pharmacy I had the doctor take my temperature and look in my ears, only to later see the little ‘disposable’ covers for the ear-gadgets being washed for re-use. Now, something that gets stuck in my ears, fine, whatever, reuse and recycle, no problem. However, I am not keen to get any kind of blood test here, in case the same principle applies to syringes and needles. And with what we were told in PDT, that is quite likely...

When I next rang the Village Mission Pharmacy to make an appointment, I found out that the Palangi doctor who I’d seen only the week before had fled the country after just 2 weeks in the job! Perhaps it was because she couldn’t handle the washing and reusing of supposedly sterile earpieces...?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Whale Swim

On the first day of October I had the privilege to swim with Humpback whales, in their natural habitat. It was AMAZING, truly one of the most memorable occasions of my life, and I hope that it will stay with me forever.

Very soon after we left Neiafu and reached the open water we came across an adolescent male, who was singing. I was fortunate enough to get into the water, and hear his song from above - the sounds vibrated through my whole body, it was truly incredible. Then he rose up from the depths, slowly, only metres away from us - breathtaking! He checked us out, and then surfaced. Seeing that - a whale surfacing only metres away from you, from the water - was simply fantastic!

The rest of the day was spent searching out other whales, and we saw over 10 in total, most of them single adults. We came across 5 "singers", individual males who were singing, either to attract a female or to mark their territory. Their sounds are just... I cannot describe it, except to say that it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

The final swim was with a whale which I spotted from the boat. He was sleeping, but singing at the same time - they do this because only half their brain sleeps at a time, to regulate their breathing. He was huge - about 15 metres long! After coming up for breath he went back down, and we lay flat on the surface of the water, watching him from above. After about 10 minutes he rose up, straight past us, and surfaced. The people in the boat got a tremendous view of his tail as he dived below again.

I initially had my doubts about the whole whale swim thing, not sure if the whales appreciate these intrusions into their space. But after seeing the way Dive Vava’u ran the trip it became apparent that the whales were in control of the experience. The guide has years of experience with whale behaviours, and can monitor signs of discomfort from the whale. If a whale moved away from us she could tell if it was travelling, if it was sleeping, or if it just didn’t want a bar of us. This left me feeling satisfied that we were in the hands of ethical operators, who had the best interest of the animals at heart.

Sadly, not all operators are as scrupulous. There are not as yet any laws regulating the industry, only Guidelines, which are not legally binding and therefore not adhered to by everyone. It is hoped by all those who do have the best interest of the whales at heart that a law will be in place by the end of the year, to ensure hefty fines for all those who intrude on the whales, and jeopardise this unique experience for everyone.