Travel Journal

Tonga and beach umu

(Friday 3 July 2009) by Dopps Family
Lagoon Lodge, Tonga (June 30th- July 3rd)
When we landed at the Tongan airport it was obvious that this was a small island still living the simple and relaxed life. One plane at the terminal, one immigration officer for screening tourists, one baggage carousel and one ATM machine. We hooked up with a taxi driver, Mana, who took us to town and checked out the first hotel, and cheapest, listed in the South Pacific travel brochure we picked up at the NZ airport. We hadn’t really done any homework on Tonga and still hadn’t found a Lonely Planet or other travel guide. We had really hoped we’d be bumped from the Air New Zealand flight and been given $1400 NZ dollars for our troubles since they told us they had overbooked the flight by 16 passengers and were looking for volunteers to take the next evening’s flight. For $350 per passenger (that’s times 4 for us) and since they’d pay for our hotel that night and we’d have more time to figure out our plan for Tonga, we actually wanted to not get on the plane. As it turned out, 24 passengers didn’t show up so we had to get on the plane (wasn’t our luck after all). When we arrived at Lagoon Lodge, which wasn’t very busy, they told us their self-catering apartment was $189 Tongan dollars (that’s about $95 USD). Very expensive considering what we’ve paid everywhere else and the fact the average salary is only $3 per day for Tongans. We got them to agree to $150, but after some more negotiating Carola got them down to $120. The next day we got them down to $110, or about $55 US dollars which is much more reasonable.
The island is quite small and only has 45,000 people living on it, with its population decreasing every year as Tongans move to New Zealand and other larger countries with better pay. Their taxes are high, roughly 50% paid to the King for every dollar earned. Tonga is one of the few countries remaining that is a true kingdom where the King owns the country and had absolute authority over the government. Also, the island is very flat and has no mountain, hills or volcano to speak of – which makes the climate very temperate over the entire island with little humidity. But with fewer people and fewer tourists there is little competition for accommodation and restaurants so prices are higher than we’ve been used to. The food in the cafes is actually higher than in the US. Carola’s soup during lunch was $18 Tongan dollars, or $9 USD. So we are now buying our groceries and cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner – except for yesterday when our taxi driver, Mana, and his wife, Irene (whom we’ve now become friends with) took us to the beach on the East side and prepared and cooked a traditional umu feast. An umu is an underground oven that can be used anywhere you have dirt, rocks, and wood. We picked up all our food and supplies by driving through the markets (felt like “drive-thru” grocery shopping) where we bought tarot leaves, chives, watermelon and an assortment of meat. On the way Mana stopped at a couple of his many cousins and his brother and raided them of coconut shells (for the fire), sweet potato, a dirty blanket (for covering the fire pit) and other supplies. At the beach “picnic” site which already had a previously used fire pit (made out of a half barrel dug into the sand, Mana gathered up some firewood while the Carola and Irene prepared the meal made of different kinds of meat wrapped up in tarot leaves and filled with coconut juice then covered by tin foil. The fire was created by first using dried coconut shells then covered by wood then covered by rocks. As the fire turned the wood into coals and the rocks heated up, the bundles of tin foil covered meat, yams, cassava and taro root where placed into the hole. This was all covered by banana leaves (to keep everything from getting dirty), then covered by pieces of sheet metal that were lying around, then more banana leaves, then the dirty old blanket, then covered with dirt. After playing a couple games of Trouble the feast was ready in an hour with the meat very tender and the yams and cassava thoroughly cooked and delicious. We’ve never had a dinner cooked this way and it was a rare and fun experience for all of us. Mana and Irene (and their children) do this every Sunday, similar to Americans and their BBQs. Maybe when we get home we’ll have throw away the BBQ and just dig a hole in the ground instead!

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