“Why did we stay in Pago so long?” Goggle-eyed, we’d echo this rhetorical question at each other for the first few days after our arrival in Tonga, as we wandered from the picturesque harbor to the top of the mountain, to actual restaurants with fresh food. We were being suffocated under the malodorous glare of the canneries for 7 months in Pago Pago harbor when we could have been frolicking on clean, sunny beaches here. What is wrong with us? Do the people in AmSam know about this place? Why doesn’t everyone live here? Where can I get my next $2 beer?
Part of our dazed incredulity was definitely from the juxtaposition of the ease and beauty of our arrival in Tonga with the previous 3+ days of uncomfortable windward sailing in wet and squally conditions, with 7-9 ft. close swells the whole way. After our last sheepish taste of “civilization” in the form of McDonald’s burger-like products, we left Pago Pago harbor inauspiciously, motoring directly into a massive wall of rain. Wishing I had windshield wipers for my eyeballs, I successfully steered us past the hulking fishing ships looming from the gray at the harbor entrance while Dane did some last minute stowage down below. The rain let up a bit and we let it sink (bad choice of words?) in that we were out at sea for the first time in 2 years for me, a year for Dane. With anticipation and maybe a little trepidation, we watched the lights of American Samoa disappear behind us.
What followed was a 4-day blur of rain, gray skies, squalls, huge pounding waves, nausea, boredom, and bedsores. It was usually too rainy or too rough for us to be outside, so we huddled down below in our bunks reading or playing games or sleeping. Mostly sleeping for me. Of course, we’d have to get up every now and then to look and see if we were going to hit anything (we didn’t see anything the whole time except sea birds, just open ocean for 3 days), or try and balance ourselves over the sloshing toilet, with the occasional venture for food. Standing up was a constant battle against the sea trying to take everything away from you, including your dignity. So we mostly just lay down and ate granola bars and apples. The sea always wins.
On Sunday in the Pacific about 12 hours away from Tonga, we passed the International Date Line into my birthday, as Tonga is the first populated place in the world to see the new day. That means I got two birthdays; the 6th in Tonga and the 6th in America! I needed that second birthday, because the one at sea was a little rough. It was at the end of the passage when inactivity and the motion of the boat were really getting to us. And I vomited in a pot of leftover mac n’ cheese. Dane did cheer me up a bunch with his kick-ass birthday gifts (see above). The man knows what I like. I was still wearing that shirt when we checked into Neiafu the next morning, which was just so apt.
We sighted Vava’u (pronounced va-VA-ooh), the island group in Tonga that held our destination port of Neiafu, late that night. We’d been sailing on one tack for the last 3 or so days, but as dawn broke on the lush cliffs of the pass entrance, we started tacking for the first time this trip. We were exhausted since we hadn’t really slept much that night on the approach, but so excited to see the islands, seabirds and lovely blue water. Sailing conditions were great and we ended up sailing almost all the way in, about an hour, only turning on the motor to make the slim fluky-winded entrance to the harbor in Neiafu. The islands were like nothing I’d ever seen before, flat-topped jungle-encrusted cliffs rising straight from the water, composed of limestone karst-topography, meaning plenty of cool caves all over. And so many islands! It looks like a great sailing destination with deserted beaches and snorkeling or diving spots just an hour or so sail away from the main harbor. Faster if you happen to have a dinghy with a good outboard. More on these trips later, but we’re so spoiled for choice, it’s hard to pick just one!
So we roll in, bleary-eyed and dazed about 8:30am on a Tuesday. We’d alerted our South African friend we met in Pago who left a month earlier that we were coming and he met us on the dock with two fresh loaves of banana bread. St. Gert, as he will henceforth be known. That bread was super helpful when the Customs, Immigration, Quarantine and Health officials came aboard to do the check-in procedure. We fed them coffee and banana bread while Dane filled out all their paperwork and they joked and laughed with us about coming for my birthday party. It was the best check-in ever. After that, we went out to the harbor and picked up a mooring and tried to gather ourselves. Jeebus, we were happy to be there in a sunny, clean harbor.
Everything we saw henceforth was a revelation. Sailboats were actually active in the harbor. The dinghy dock is right below a real café with free wifi and a happy hour with beers for $4 TOP (TOP is the currency in Tonga, called pa’anga. It’s roughly $2 TOP to $1 US, so for those of us terrible at math, that means that the beers are only $2 US. And they’re good beers). The buildings are charmingly decayed colonial-style, except for the massive Catholic church decorated with red cement crosses. There is a very active ex-pat/yachtie community, complete with Trivia Nights at the bar, Movie Nights, and a daily “cruiser net” on the radio that lets you know the goings-on in town. The farmer’s market has so much fresh local food, from the standard bananas and taro to fresh cilantro, local carrots, and even lettuce. The food in the many restaurants is fresh and there are even non-fried options. There is a signless bakery where they make the best coconut bread you’ve ever tasted for only $3 TOP. We say hello to every Tongan we meet and sometimes get picked up for impromptu island tours from folks with toothy, gold-capped smiles. Pigs, dogs, chickens and cows are roaming everywhere, and they don’t try and bite you. Everything is so different from Pago Pago, much less commercial, and with more of a tourist emphasis, which after 7 months of only McDonald’s for entertainment, was really exciting. We were charmed from the get-go, and it hasn’t gone away yet.
That first night, as we lay on the foredeck of Cadence, cozy in long-sleeved shirts (did I mention it’s cooler AND dryer here?) and under a blanket watching a movie whenever we could tear our eyes away from the Milky Way, we couldn’t stop our rhetorical refrain. What took us so long? We marveled at the silence. No power plant providing a constant background to the barking dogs and slow ambulances of Pago? The only smell here was the salt air instead of tuna cannery stank and diesel slicks on the water. And it was SO dark. I never realized how oppressive the light from the canneries was and how it blocked out so many of those stars we can now see. The second day here, I thought a star was actually a UFO it was so bright. We felt like prisoners seeing daylight after 7 months of solitary. Hyperbole much? Probably, but maybe the sheen will wear off when I start craving fresh pears instead of fresh mangoes (Right? Who cares?), or when my liver finally throws in the towel, but in the meantime, we’re happy to finally enjoy our Tongan honeymoon.