Friday, September 12, 2008


We rented a mooring while we were in Neiafu Harbor, which is what most yachts do, as the water is very deep and the bottom full of obstructions. We were near the steep shore, where some building half-hidden in the trees was the sight of relentless band practice. In the mornings and late into the evenings we were regaled with the full kit of tubas, trumpets, trombones and various reeds playing vaguely martial music at broken cadences and slightly off-key. We assumed that we were hearing preparations for the coronation celebrations. But the practicing continued unabated after the king left. The band music became a part of our Neiafu soundtrack, along with the calls of the Polynesian starlings in the trees and the roosters crowing through night and day and the afternoon chatter of boys swimming at the water’s edge.

Neiafu is a rural town. The business district is a humble couple of streets that quickly give way to rambling neighborhoods of breadfruit trees and chickens and houses with corrugated roofs. Pigs run free everywhere.

One of the first things you notice in Neiafu if it is your first visit to Tonga is the way people dress. Both sexes where skirts, men to the knee, women to the ankle. And both sexes wear taovala, woven mats wrapped around the waist like a second skirt. It’s a very traditional look, and the sight of so many people dressed that way made me feel like we’d discovered a really out of the way corner of the world. Clothing is somber, trending towards the black. Color is provided by school uniforms – boys and girls in green and blue skirts.

For our purposes, what was interesting about Neiafu was the vibrant expat scene based upon the influx of yachties and the bars and restaurants that serve them. Our two big jumps from Raiatea to Suwarrow and then to Vava’u put us out of synch with the group of boats that we have been seeing in port after port ever since Mexico, and it was a bit of a relief to see new yachts and new faces. After the ludicrous expense of French Polynesia, Neiafu seemed nearly cheap, and we celebrated our arrival with the first cook’s night out since Mexico. Elias behaved superbly at the restaurant, even accepting our explanation for the fact that the lobster we had promised he would share was not on the menu. For days afterwards, he could be heard saying “lobsters got away!”. We were seated at an outdoor table overlooking the harborfront and the crowded mooring field, and Elias calmly sat in his chair and waited even though a twenty-person party of Japanese tourists had gotten their orders in before us. He did so well that we decided to brave the Wednesday night fakaleiti contest at Tonga Bob’s (traditional Polynesian crossdressers vamping up a western-style drag queen show). We were disappointed to find it canceled. “Pageant in Nukualofa,” the bartender explained. “They’re all there.”

We left Neiafu to check out a jam session at a very funky restaurant run by two Spanish expats on a little island near nothing in particular. Then we came back to town for the coronation events, and left again to visit a few anchorages with Macy. Everything is very close in the Vava’u group, and there are many good anchorages. The only down side is the number of cruising yachts and charter boats. Being “alone” in Vava’u means finding a spot where the nearest other boats are two hundred meters away. There is also this very tacky phenomenon whereby everyone refers to the different anchorages by their number in the local charter operator’s cruising guide: “Hey, we were at number 27 yesterday, you gotta check it out, great beach!”

The number of boats and the booming expat scene in Neiafu make Vava’u feel a bit like a theme park. There were some great places to see there, and great people to meet, but when we came back to Neiafu from our sojourn with Macy we were suddenly very ready to be gone. There was a new crop of yachts in town that for some reason didn’t seem as much fun as the ones that were there when we first arrived. We had burned up almost two weeks of our 31 day visas, and we hadn’t even been to the Ha’apai group yet, which is south of Vava’u and has the reputation of being more Tonga and less theme park. And so, after running the standard few days of errands that have kept us lingering in towns from Port Townsend to La Paz to Uturoa, we left.

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