Monday, August 30, 2010

Tonga Part 2: Cultural Show, Church

After cleaning up from the day of whale watching we walked down the beach to a resort that hosts a cultural show and buffet with traditional foods.

Our cultural buffet
If you like protein and starch the food was fantastic! There were more potato varieties (Taro, Kumala, and others - which are popular crops among the islands), meats, salads, a few stir fry options, and a pig that had been roasted on a spit.

The dancers started after dinner and performed traditional island dances from across the South Pacific (including the Hula from Hawaii and the Haka from New Zealand). The energy was really high and the dancers seemed to be enjoying themselves which infected the audience with the excitement. Fire eaters and dancers that spun flames on poi finished the night.

The excitement from the dancers worked it's magic and all of us felt the need to go dance in town. We piled into a van and headed to town to try the “tourist friendly bar” – Bill Fish.  Instead of calypso island music, it was songs were from the US Top 40, with a few old songs thrown in. The only difference was that they weren’t the mixes of the songs I was used to hearing, and after about an hour or two we knew the tracks by heart.  There were Tongans at the bar but there were just as many tourists (with sunburnt skin and bad rhythm they weren't hard to spot).  It was the most fun I've had dancing in awhile.  (We met enough people there that when we turned up the next night we felt like regulars as we waved to the familiar faces.)

Lindsay in her favorite hammock
Saturday was spent lying around and generally relaxing on the beach. The day was gorgeous and we took full advantage of it with naps in hammocks, reading on the sand, and snorkelling. It was exactly what I was hoping for on my vacation.

Sunday morning I crawled out of bed early enough to get some breakfast before we went off to church.  As many know, I'm not a particularly religious person so this would be my first time at a church service in years.  But it's a big part of the culture in Tonga.  In fact, everything shuts down on Sundays (even the taxis stop running) and work isn't permitted.  Tonga is primarily a Christian culture.  We found our way to the Free Wesleyan Methodist Church in a small village past our lodge.

Free Wesleyan Church
At 10am when the church was still almost empty we were a bit worried that we picked the wrong one in this small town (there were three to choose from).  But at 10:15 the bells rang and the people started to fill the church.  It was island time afterall.

It was well worth the wait and the heat for the experience.  The music was incredible!  Each voice alone may not have sounded spectacular, but together the congregation was awesome.  An older man in front of us turned around and handed us his hymnal (he knew all the songs by heart) so we sang along with the choir and conducter in Tongan - or at least attempted to sing along.  For that hour I didn't feel like a tourist as much as I felt like part of the culture...even if I couldn't understand a single word that was said or sung, I got the meaning.

More to come:  Bike ride to the blow holes, a Tongan send-off at the airport, Photos

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tonga Part 1: Exploring, Whale Watching

At first inspection the islands of Tonga are the same as many of the islands in the Caribbean, but after spending five days there, I've come to appreciate the more subtle differences.  Tonga is a group of 176 islands (only 36 are inhabited) in the South Pacific.  If you look at the International Dateline it veers around the islands just to the East, making them one of the first countries to start each day.  So for four days I saw the sun rise and the night fall before 99% of the rest of the world....pretty awesome.

Arriving at the airport
Tonga is the only Pacific nation to never have been ruled by a foreign power.  It isn't as touristy at the other islands in the South Pacific which can be great, as long as you know what to expect.  The trip to Tonga was planned about a month ago when I just needed to get away.  I would have been happy to go alone to spend some time by myself on the beach, instead I had what turned out to be a great group of friends join me.  Janine (my English flatmate), Lindsay (Janine's Scottish friend), Amanda (one of my Kiwi friends), and Robert (a South African guy I had met a few times through mutual friends) all piled into my Honda to head to the airport at 4:30am on Thursday morning.  Each of us from different countries, with different backgrounds, all seasoned travellers..this was just one more experience.

We arrived in Tonga with our luggage in tow and our duty-free liquor purchased, the weather was overcast and a bit rainy so after checking into the hotel we headed into the main town on the island and the capital - Nuku 'Alofa.  There were a few main streets and as our hostess from the Heilala Lodge (also our driver in this case) gave us a short tour she pointed out the main sights including the markets, a few cafes, a tourist friendly bar (unbeknownst to us at the time we would be regular visitors during our five day stay), and the two storey building that was until recently the tallest building in the Kingdom.  It was a nice tour around the town and we took advantage of it to get our bearings before setting out on foot.

Even with valiant efforts potatoes don't stir fry

After lunch, we found our way to the fruit and veg market where we purchased some things for a stir-fry dinner (which really just turned into a starchy mess, but tasted good despite appearances).  We stopped at the only ice-cream place in town and headed to the grocery store before heading back to our hotel on the far west side of the island.  Overall, it was a good introduction to Tongatapu (the main island) and a nice way to spend a day that wasn't ideal for the beach.

The next day we organized a whale watching tour with one of the few outfits on the main island.  It turned out to be the five of us and our Swedish skipper, Yves.  So for $750 NZD we chartered a private 54' sailboat for what became an awesome day of whale watching.

The Sea Star with our Skipper, Yves
The Southern Humpback whales migrate to Tonga every winter for mating season making July-October ideal months for whale watching.  The day was really windy so we had trouble seeing much of anything in the morning.  Around lunchtime we were distracted by a few porpoises playing in our wake when Yves slowed down the boat and pointed just off the side where he was predicting a whale was going to surface.  Sure enough a ginormous whale emerged about 20 feet off the side of the starboard side.

During the rest of the day we estimated that we saw approximately 10-12 whales, some on multiple occasions.  We saw whales surfacing, fluking (raising their tales as they dove deep), breeching (jumping into the air), and mating.  When two of them swam under our boat (we saw their huge white bellies go by in the crystal clear water) I nervously realised that we were truly at their mercy.

We finished off the day with a tour of a small island (Fafa Island) off the coast with very nice (aka expensive) accommodations.  The fales (pronounced "fa-lay" which is Tongan for house) had open bathrooms and cleverly designed power and other conveniences which meant it was a cross between a beach hut and a modern apartment for the low price of $500 NZD per night.  After our island tour, we headed back to our own more moderate hotel for a quick change and shower before walking down the beach for a cultural show and night on the town.

More to come:  Cultural Dances, Local Bar, Church, Bike ride, Tongan Men (and women), Photos

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Knowing When to Quit

In the past few weeks things have been tough at work.  It's amazing what kind of a toll that can take on a person, particularly when the job is what is restricting me from travelling around the country.  I was frustrated and miserable as I made my way into work for yet another day last week.  I'm a hard worker and I fully expect to experience highs and lows in every position but lately, I started to feel like I had lost the point of my trip to New Zealand.  I've been so busy trying to figure out how to stay longer, I didn't stop to consider if that's still what I wanted. 

New Zealand is a beautiful place with amazing people.  The landscape is diverse and there are endless activities all year long.  I'm a very independent person and I believe I can adjust to just about anything.  I work for an international company with definite possibilities to grow my career.  And I have made so many wonderful friendships here.  But in the end, it's my ability to communicate with my family and friends back home that's been my biggest demise.  I can't just pick up the phone to share stories with them, but more than that I'm not getting in the travelling that I came here for, and mostly I'm afraid I'll wake up in three years and wonder where all the time went.

So what do I do?  Well, if you're me, you quit...or at least make it clear you aren't planning to extend your visa past its expiration in March.  And, you put all of your energy into planning the rest of your time in the country and your return home. Because let's face it, when you are halfway around the world, just jumping on a flight to get back to the States isn't nearly exciting enough.  I think I'll go the long way...

"You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own.
And you know what you know.
And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go."

- Dr. Seuss, "Oh, The Places You'll Go!" (1990)  I, like many others, received this book from my mom when I graduated college.  The immortal genius of Dr. Seuss lives on.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

No Wonder Everyone's Happy

I've only had to call a customer service line in New Zealand once and it was for a bank account I had recently set up.  It went surprisingly well and I was calling long after business hours for help with the website.  You can imagine my amazement when a REAL person answered the phone. This occurred at the beginning of my visit here.  I wrote it off as a freak accident. Apparently, that's not the case...

I was recently assigned the task of finding out more about getting a toll free number in New Zealand. This is an odd task to write about on my blog but bear with me because this simple request lead me to realize just how much of an alternate universe I must have stepped into.

Now, as a side note, the phone numbers here vary based on toll free numbers, local and cell. Most calls only require 9 to 10 digits but others (like cell phones) have more.  This particular call was a four digit number that promised to connect me to the NZ Telecom customer service line.  I had my doubts.  Dreading the call to a telecom company (notoriously bad in the States and a call that I have had much experience making), I sucked in my breath, bit my tongue and dialed the number.  Amazed when a real person answered (one that spoke English no less), I sat in stunned silence momentarily waiting for the beep or tones requesting an action on my part. 

On the other end of the line, the operator finally got my attention.  "Hello?"  I explained what I was trying to do and she politely said I would be transferred.  Ok, I thought, here we go - let the musical chairs begin.  But I was shocked yet again when the expected cheesy elevator music or advertising pitches didn't come, instead, another person answered!  I was a bit quicker this time and again explained my questions.  I was asked for our company's current 0800 number in order to look up our account.  I waited patiently anticipating the next questions about authority and passcodes and rights to my first born child, etc....none came.  In fact, I wasn't even privy to the background conversations of other callers in the call center.  Where was this place?

The entire call lasted 5 minutes.  I got all of the information I needed, including our current plan, who runs it in our company, what the process is for setting up a new number, and all the other details I didn't even think to ask.  I was so shocked that I asked the person on the other end where he was located..."Dunedin," he said.  Wait...what?!  That's in New Zealand!  "You aren't located on some small island off the coast of Asia?"  I was so thankful for all of his help he probably thought I was just another overly excited American.  But let me tell you - you would have been too!  There are a few American companies that could take a lesson from the customer service here...they actually treat customers!

Things to be thankful for:
- Small delights that keep my day going
- Patient family and friends that deal with my ever-evolving plans and directions
- Five successful months on the other side of the world!
- Spring is finally on its way in

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dreaming...isn't it weird

I woke up last night after having a dream that included someone from my distant past, someone I was sort of friends with in elementary school.  It wasn't a vivid dream but it was occuring in present day.  The weird part about this is that I haven't talked to this person for over 12 years and even before that we weren't really friends, so much as acquaintances. 

Me, age 7, at home in Weston, MO
It's weird to be so far from home and have someone pop into my subconscious that hasn't even been in my conscious mind for so long.  What could have triggered the memory of this person?

In my groggy woken up state I decided that I should email him to see how he is.  After all, that's one of the beauties of Facebook - I can communicate with people that I haven't seen in years.  Then the logistics of this very odd email hit me...

"Hi, How have you been?  I know it's been many many years since we last said even two words to each other but you were in my dream last night and I thought I would see how you're doing now. Ok, well, talk to you soon.  Your stalker, Jessica"  Not only would that sound creepy, it would definitely give the wrong impression about my dreams. 

After drifting back to sleep and waking up with more reason this morning, I realized why send an email when I can stalk appropriately and without shame...another beauty of Facebook.

Editor's Note:  A special note to some of my family members that are reading this as they are gathered for the reunion in Pennsylvania.  I hope you are all doing exceptionally well and enjoying the time together.  I also hope I'm able to see you all when you do it again in another two years - please pick a good location. Much love to you all!