Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Kingdom of Tonga-Part 1

I have really hesitated starting this post, mainly because I don't know where to start when talking about the Kingdom of Tonga.

First things first, why haven't I known about Tonga sooner?  It is such a beautiful country.  Gorgeous, mushroom-shaped islands lined with beautiful, lush green palm trees with large coral reefs that are sprinkled with all the hues of blue, green, purple and yellow that one can imagine.
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Then there is the matter of the people.  The country of Tonga has been described as "the Friendly Island," and I have to say that it isn't exaggerating its claim.  I feel as if the people fall all over themselves in trying to help us during our stay here.  Lily is treated like royalty and has a following wherever she goes. Tongans have only the simplest and most needful things to get them by but they are also prosperous and blessed with family and community.  Family is of most importance, and it is clearly evident that it has been this way for centuries.
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This is Mary.  
Mary is the mother to 14 children and grandmother to 23.  Every time we go to the market, Mary sits and plays with Lily.  She is so tenderhearted with our dear little girl.  We just love her.
Then there is the matter of the whales… Before we arrived in Tonga, Sue and David would keep reminding me about the whales in Tonga.  "Wait until you see the whales," Sue would remind me.  Of course, it's always hard for me to get excited about anything until I am there seeing it for myselfso I kept myself from getting overly excited about anything.  Once we did arrived in the Kingdom of Tonga, I kept saying jokingly to Sue, "Okay, so where are these whales that you keep talking about?"  Little did I know what we were about to experience.

The next day Martin and I were signed up with a tour guide to take us to swim with the whales.  I can only say now, after experiencing it firsthand, that it was probably the most amazing thing that we have ever experienced together in the wild.  These massive mammals that have come to Tonga to either calve their babies or mate were just swimming right past our boat.
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There is nothing that I can say to convey the feeling that I felt when I spotted a whale while in the water for the first time.  I was swimming to where our guide told us to go and just then he points down below us.  I look down and a few feet down from me was a mother and her escort.  Usually a mother and a calf have an escort during the first year of the calf's life.  It isn't confirmed if it is the father or just another whale, but their purpose is to keep the mother and calf safe and stress-free from predators.  Looking down and seeing what was in front of me, I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up because not only was it exhilarating, it was a bit unnerving.  THERE WERE WHALES RIGHT BELOW ME!  Just when I thought I had never seen anything quite like what I was looking at, a little calf comes up from under it's mother and swims straight towards me, swimming right past Martin and me to the surface for some air.

Other than giving birth to Lily, it was probably the most memorable moment that I have ever personally witnessed.  I thought I was blown away with the manta rays, but this far surpassed any of my expectations.  Throughout the remainder of the day, Martin and I jumped in and out of the boat as we swam closer and closer to these big magnificent creatures of the sea.  Martin and I were so amazed by the experience that we signed up for another two days.

Now, where to start with the photos…

Well, let's start with the most famous one in my collection of whale photos that I shared in an earlier post.
The story behind it is this...  While whale watching with our tour group the first day, we were only allowed to swim out to the whales in a group of four.  Martin had gone with a group out into the water because one gentleman wasn't keen just yet to get in the water with the whales.  So Martin took his spot.  As they started to swim out toward the whales, I noticed that another person had decided not to go as well.  I asked one of the guides if I could go in his place and was told that I could.  So I jumped in the water and began to swim out toward Martin and his group.
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I was about ten feet from the boat and about 25 feet from Martin's group when the guide looks at me and starts pointing down saying, "Look underneath you!"  I knew before ever looking down that the whales were probably right underneath me.  I also knew that we had a calf on our hands that was a bit playful and was starting to breach around the swimmers.  All I could do at that moment was say a quick prayer and hope for the best.  Seconds later, the calf came shooting up out of the water, literally within five feet of me.  I felt completely safe and although I was startled, I was more amazed that I came so close to the calf (and lived to tell the tale).  I couldn't believe it!  Right about that moment, Martin realized that the "swimmer" that everyone was clapping for was me and he started shouting about what a cool experience I had just had—All by myself!  Only later, did we learn that someone on the boat had captured the moment on camera.  I still can't believe that we have this photo.  Martin wants to blow it up to poster size and hang it in his office.  I have to admit, that he and I stared at it for at least an hour while retelling the story over and over to one another.
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Waiting to catch a glimpse of the whales.
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While Martin and I played with the whales, Lily went to the market with David and Sue.  It looks like someone might have been a hit at the market.  Not surprising.

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While in Tonga, we also went to church.  Since Mormon churches are about as common in Tonga as Mormon churches are in Utah, we had plenty of chapels to choose from.  The first Sunday in Tonga we went to a chapel that was just off the water and looked so beautiful from our boat.  Martin and I had decided early on that it was the one that we wanted to visit.
The only problem was that it didn't have a direct road that lead to it.  So, we found the nearest dock and tied our tender to it and started to walk down a dirt path towards the chapel.
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What was so special is that the Sabbath day is taken very seriously by the Tongan nation.  No one breaks the Sabbath and a large majority of Tongans attend church meetings where they sing hymns like nothing I have ever heard.

While we walked the dirt path toward the church, we could hear the members singing loudly (and in beautiful harmony) the familiar hymns that we sing back home, but in Tongan.  Both Martin and I were so moved by the music that we were overcome by emotion hearing these wonderful people sing with the most amazing voices that I have ever listened to.  I hope that when I die, and if I am lucky enough, I'll hear choirs of angels.  I hope the majority of them are Tongan, because their harmonizing voices are indescribable.  Then I'll know I am in the right place (wink).
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A quick story…  When going to church the first Sunday we were here, I knew that we would probably be walking in a bit of dirt before we got to church.  So, I wore an old pair of flip-flops that I knew could get dirty.  I stuck my "good" shoes in the bottom of Lily's stroller to put on once we arrived at church.  When we got to church and before entering the chapel, I excused myself and slipped off my dirty flip-flops and put on my nice shoes and then found a seat next to Martin in a pew.

During the course of the meeting, I glimpsed at the woman sitting next to me and noticed she wasn't wearing any shoes. Then I looked over at the woman that had grabbed Lily from us when we entered the chapel and was holding her in the back of the chapel, and I noticed that she also wasn't wearing any shoes.  That's about the moment I started to take inventory and realized that probably 95% of the congregation wasn't wearing any shoes at all.  I had to sit back and just laugh to myself because clearly the joke was on me.  The Lord doesn't care if I was wearing dirty flip-flops, fancy shoes, or no shoes at all.  It is a lesson that I will remember for years to come, and will also remember to not take myself OR my shoes too seriously.

We should leave Monday or Tuesday for Fiji.  A piece of my heart will stay here in Tonga when we leave, as it has been a home away from home of sorts, partly because of its beauty but mostly because of its people.
But wait… I'm not done with Tonga just yet.  Part two of the Kingdom of Tonga coming soon!