Christmas in the islands

Twas the week before Christmas that our adventure began as we stood in line to board a red and white cargo ship, the Olovaha. It seemed as though the vessel had been overbooked from the number of people on deck, sticking their heads out of portholes, and those still frantically trying to get on. We were literally afraid of being crushed before even leaving Tongatapu, the main island in Tonga! Boxes, food, and even babies were thrown to passengers on board across the water!

We took with us clothes, games, food, bedding, and our bicycles (seven of them). Our possessions were loaded inside the front of the boat, along with horses, pigs, goats, various containers, and food. Safely aboard, we took our seasick pills and settled down in a comfortable little cabin with two bunk beds, table and chairs, and a bathroom conveniently across the hall.

A bellowing blast of farewell and we soon found ourselves miles away from our home of three years. Seven heads peered out of one porthole. When we looked straight up, we could see legs dangling from the people on the deck. An occasional bottle or banana peel barely missed our curious faces. Approaching deeper ocean, the waves grew higher until the spray came into our cabin and we had to close the porthole.

Later on, we ventured up on the deck and grew to appreciate what “first class” meant on the Olovaha. People laid all over the surface of the boat, some sick, others struggling to keep dry, warm and calm despite the nauseating rock and roll of the boat. The wind was strong and the night black. The boat eventually rocked us all to sleep.

About 2 AM, the engines stopped, and we awoke to an ocean as smooth and reflective as a mirror. Tiny ripples appeared as a dozen or so little fishing boats with lamps approached to gather relatives to take to a tiny island called Ha’afeva, which was located about 40 miles south of our destination.

Picture taken by author

Again, the engines roared, and a blast of the horn announced our arrival at Pangai, Ha’apai, where my husband spent most of his adolescent years. Another wild struggle to get off the boat with all of our paraphernalia. Finally, all our gear was together, and we walked the 100 yards to our temporary home. We were delighted to find our accommodations clean and safe. We enjoyed the warm welcome of friendly neighbors.

Map image from mappery.com

The weather was warm and breezy. We could see the active volcanic islands of Tofua and Kao from our front yard. Kao is the highest island elevation in Tonga climbing to 3,380 feet. Many other small islands were also visible in the distance.

The first day we visited “town” which consisted of not more than eight tiny stores. Since it was the holiday rush, the shops were full. Santa had not yet discovered Ha’apai on his map, so most of the shoppers had their children choose a treat or inexpensive toy to take home with them. I had a sting of homesickness as Christmas tapes played in the shops echoing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.”

Our diet consisted mainly of hard biscuits with butter and jam, Milo (like cocoa), eggs, coconut and Tongan food supplied by generous neighbors. The electricity for the island came on at 6:00 am to 11:00 am and then again from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m. No ice cream was available since the freezers couldn’t stay on consistently.

We boiled all of our water, which had to be pumped from a rainwater tank. Our children had a good workout trying to keep us in water for our daily needs. We got our exercise doing our laundry by hand. Kind neighbors offered pans, dishes, clothespins and such.

Our children became attached to a boy who lived nearby named “Stoney.” He ended up going with us on most of our outings, and he was always around to lend a helping hand. He had many pets including goats, dogs, cats, and pigs. The children never grew tired of feeding and playing with them.

Our spare time was spent biking around the island, swimming at the beautiful sandy beaches, collecting shells and snoozing. My husband met many old friends and distant relatives, or people who had known his parents and grandparents.

Our Christmas tree was made from an olive tree and decorated with balloons, tinsel, flowers, and shells. On Christmas night, after a fun day at the beach, we ate at a guest house. My husband, Isi asked a friend of his to bring his hoosi and saliote (horse and cart) for us to ride to the liku (cliff) side of the island.

The last day of our holiday, we hired a truck to take all of us along with our bicycles to the end of the adjacent island. The two islands are joined by a man-made stone bridge. The beautiful scenery was untouched by concrete buildings, swarming tourists and fortune seekers. We had the best time swimming there since three islands are very close together. The waves created by the currents made for perfect body surfing and shell hunting. We had a long ride back across the island of Foa and halfway across Pangai to our home. Many of the villagers along the way starred at the parade of wet, exhausted foreigners, and shouted their greetings, or an occasional “Palangi” (white person).

At the end of our visit, we made one last rush to save our lives as we again boarded the Olovaha and bid farewell to an experience we’ll not soon forget. It had been a great Christmas adventure we had time to reflect on what is important to us, which was our family.

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