Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Kingdom of Tonga—Part 2

Well, we had planned to leave Tonga on Monday, but it's Wednesday and we are still here.  The forecast is showing that we probably can't leave until Saturday due to winds and rain.  So while here, we are making the most of it and we are still enjoying ourselves in Tonga (in spite of the rain that is pouring down on AMARA as I type).
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Taking the dinghy into Swallow's Cave on our outdoor adventure.
Last Thursday, we took a trip out to Mariner's Cave where you swim out to the side of a rock and then dive down a few feet, cross underwater another few feet, and then end up in a cave on the other side.  I was a little apprehensive at first because I wasn't sure about the deep dive.  David assured me that he would go first and then I could dive down and see his fins on the other side.  Martin stayed outside with me for moral support.
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Diving down into Mariner's Cave
I ducked down under the water just to take a peek but somehow, at that moment, I got the courage to keep diving and took off down under the arch leading to the underwater cave.  I could hear Martin giving me instruction, so I just kept diving down.  Pretty soon I saw Dave's fins on the other side and knew I was almost there.  Once I popped up on the other side, inside the cave, I had to laugh because I knew Martin thought it would take me at least three tries to work up the courage to do the dive (which is usually correct).  A few seconds after me, Martin popped up and we started laughing because I had taken off like a rocket, instead of making up excuses as to why I didn't want to dive so deep.  It was a proud moment for my husband as I am getting bolder and bolder and putting my fears aside.  Sailing can do that to you if you aren't paying attention.
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Martin and David making their way through the cave.
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We really are so lucky to have David and Sue because it's like having our own personal tour guides as we head into each new location.  David and Sue spent 6 weeks in Tonga last year, so they are experts on all the local diving locales as well as little surprises like Mariner's Cave.  In fact, they took us to a beautiful coral garden that was a little tricky to get out to, but Sue had reminded me before I left that I was to, keep swimming because once I got to the garden, "It will be worth the swim."

What we had to do, was swim out to a reef and then swim directly into the waves.   The waves kept crashing down wanting to push us back to where we were trying to get into the water.  So, we started counting waves and timing the intervals between each wave.  Once I saw a window, I put my head down, put my snorkel in place and just started swimming as fast as I could.  I could hear Martin and David yelling, "Go! Go! Go!"  So I kept swimming hoping that I was swimming deep enough that I wouldn't catch a wave that would carry me back to where I had started.   After what seemed like a long hard swim, I got to the other side and Sue's words came back to me… It was worth it.  Beautiful coral with all different shades and colors.  I just swam and swam looking at the beauty of it all.
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Pretty soon, Martin and David joined me while Sue stayed on the beach and watched Lily for us.

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While out in what seemed like the middle of the ocean, Martin and I came upon a local Tongan diver who was fishing that area for octopi and eels.  Of course, Martin was in heaven watching the diver swim down to what looked like a rock to me and launch his two spears in between the rocks, reach into the hole and pull out an octopus.

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Being a fisherman in Tonga is one of the most common occupations here.  Each week, the fisherman gather at the market and sell their catches to other locals.  By the time we had met up with the diver out on the reef, he had already caught eight octopi and one eel.
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The octopi & eels tied up on the line, while Noa continues to fish.
Pretty soon, Martin got in on the action and the fisherman/diver was all too nice to let Martin give it a go.
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We were so mesmerized from watching the fisherman that Sue said she watched a mother whale and her calf swim right past us.  We were so busy with the fisherman, that we never even saw them!  I was more than disappointed when I found this out, but still we had such a fun time "helping" the fisherman.
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Here is where the story gets interesting.  In between coming up for breaths and in the course of our conversations with the fisherman (Talanoa-"Noa"), we figured out that he was a member of our church (Mormon).  He was a leader in his local congregation on the island of Mata Maka.  He told us that the following Sunday would be stake conference (where all the congregations from the outer Tongan Islands gather together once every six months), and we were welcome to join him and his family.  In fact, he gave us his phone number and said for us to call him to arrange a ride to the chapel.  Which we did.
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We really loved the kindness of the Feaomoata family.  They went out of their way to make sure we were welcomed at the conference.  In fact, Noa's son, Seniti (who had served a mission in Australia) met us at the local bank with a car and picked us up and took us to the chapel.  There Noa was there waiting with ear phones for us to wear that would transmit the translator that he had set up for us to enjoy the meeting.  Once at the conference, imagine listening to hundreds of people sing hymns in unison with voices in perfect harmony.  It was such a sweet experience for our family.  I have to admit, I get a little teary-eyed every time I think of the kindness of the Feaomoata family.  How lucky were we?
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*  *  *
That same Friday that we met "Noa," we went to the island where he lived (Mata Maka) and visited the local school there.  The island is small and we had heard that the school welcomed outside visitors and any school material that we might have to offer to the children.   Martin and I had purchased a small arsenal of school supplies in St. Maarten, knowing that we wanted to visit schools along the way.  

With our school supplies in hand, we went to the school where we were greeted by the school principal/teacher and the children of Mata Maku.
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There, the children sang to us in english and even sang, "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" to Lily.  Then each child stood up and said in their best english, their name, what their parents did for a living and what they wanted to be when they grew up.  Then each of us shared a little bit about where we were from as well as asked them questions about their life in Tonga.  Likewise, they asked us questions about America and Australia.  

It was a special experience, and Lily especially enjoyed the interaction with all the children.
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Saturday night, we went to a local feast on the local island of Laipai.  The only problem is that it was pouring rain, so getting to the feast made us dress in our finest slickers to avoid getting too wet.
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There we were greeted by the town (pop. 26) and were treated to a feast of local cuisine which always starts off with a roasted suckling pig.
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Lily was more than tuckered by the long day and it was "lights out" for her regardless of there being a feast.
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Lastly, while here, Sue and David have a good friend here in Tonga who does "crew shirts" for the "yachties" and they sent in our information before arriving to have her make up some T-shirts for us.  We love our new shirts.  Lily especially loves hers.  On the front is a little logo that I had made up for us and on the back is a picture of AMARA.
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The crew in their crew shirts holding up the ceiling... literally.
We love Tonga, and have loved our stay while here.  Here's hoping that the weather lightens up and we can start heading to Fiji by the weekend.  I'm a little excited to get to Fiji because there is consistent wi-fi, shops and restaurants in abundance.  Let's hope we can leave on Saturday!

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!