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Saturday, February 11, 2012


 Shopping in Tonga is an adventure.  This is still a third-world country and small shops are the way of life, but the culture is strangely cooperative when it comes to retail – two shops next to each other will carry similar products, but different brands, so both can prosper.  But since there are mostly small shops, it takes a significant effort and at least two hours to do a simple grocery run.

We do our shopping on Wednesday mornings, while the other missionary couple covers the office for us.  Then they shop Friday mornings while we cover.  If we have to wait and do a Saturday run, we want to be out of the house early – by 10 am the crowds are tremendous.  Most people here in Tonga do their major shopping on Saturdays.  We were in a store a couple of weeks ago the Saturday before school began, and there were about 50 people waiting in line for two registers.  At least people are social here – you just stand and talk with just about anyone while you wait in line.  Hey, wait a minute – that’s exactly what used to happen to me in the Alamosa, Colorado Walmart!

Anyway.  First stop is the “maketi” (mah-keh-tee) – the “Tonganized” word for market.  This is where all fresh produce is sold, other than at family-owned roadside stands.  We are regular customers of a Chinese family here who raise bok choy, bib lettuce, English cucumbers, and eggplant.  The women who sell here always give us an extra piece of pumpkin or some mangoes, as a gift, to keep us coming back.  And we do

Other vendors have tomatoes, carrots, bananas, pineapples, green peppers and (when it’s not too hot) zucchini.  Things are not weighed here – you can get five or six green peppers for three pa’anga (pah-ahng-ah – that’s about $2) when they are plentiful, or you can pay six pa’anga for one small pineapple when the season is ending.  Eggs are cheap right now – about $6 for 30 of them.  That’s the Tongan version of a back-to-school special!  Usually they’re more like $10-14 for 30 small ones (the only size).

This old gentleman speaks no English, and I speak about 5 words
of Tongan, but we smile and greet each other every week.

And at every doorway to the maketi, the old men abound.  Most of the women are here to work, and most of the men are here to play.  They sit and smoke cigarettes, or they play cards or board games, or they just sit and talk.  Or they stand around outside wearing only one flip-flop – I still haven’t figured that one out.  In any case, they seem to find their entertainment here, and they are always glad when we say hello to them.

Compared to other shops, the market is huge – a two-story building the size of a grocery store.  There are probably 70-80 different vendors, some with only 6 feet of table space, others with 30 feet of display.  There are gutters built into the floor, so you have to be very careful when you walk around – it’s easy to step wrong, and I’ve had enough turned ankles for a while!  The upstairs is mostly fabric and hand-made jewelry, the first floor is produce, flower leis, and crafts.    Once again, the prices vary wildly, even from month to month.  I can get a pair of coconut-shell earrings for  $2, and a hand-made basket might be $8, but then a lei might be $30.  Just depends.  

This woman's son is serving a Mormon mission in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Nice to trade places.  Those are handmade fans above her head.
This man may not look like he's working, but he's a traditional artist.  That's not a quilt beside him, that's a traditonal bark painting called a tapa.  I couldn't afford one of the big ones (they can reach half-a-block long and street wide), but I got a little 11X17 one.

So now we’re finished at the market.  Some weeks we make a stop at the U.S. Mini-Mart across the street.  Imagine a small 7-11, with only two aisles, supplied by the owner who flies back the States every three or four months, and makes the purchases himself at CostCo and other places, packs his own container, and has the contents shipped to Tonga, which takes 4-8 weeks.  Fortunately, he’s willing to take orders – some of us senior missionaries are going to split a case of cornmeal, and I’ve ordered a case of hair spray.  This is a culture of grow-your-hair-long and tie it back – I can do that, but I need some glue!  

Then it’s on to Molisi’s, (Moh-lee-sees), where we can get chicken, pasta, rice, flour, sugar, and so on.  Oh, and Granny Smith apples from New Zealand.  That’s a sack lunch staple (we usually eat lunch at the office).  This is also the place I can get composition books for about 75 cents each, and sticky notes are cheap too.  But paper plates are $20 for 25 plates – gotta watch what we buy. Oh yes, we could buy a crock pot there, too, if we wanted to pay $200 for one.  Never mind, we’ll slow roast in the oven at home.  (Scratch cooking is a must here – canned corned beef, ramen noodles and three or four choices of cold cereal are about all the choices for processed foods.)

Other shops include Lord’s – electronics, some clothing and fabrics, and eye shadow, if you want 24 color choices – everything comes in a palette here!  Then there’s the store the missionaries call Home Depot – we went there because we were told they sold curtain rods.  Turns out you buy dowels and brackets – and the day we were there they didn’t have dowels and brackets in the same size.  Oh well – our café curtains will continue to hang from shoelaces wrapped around nails!  There’s another shop the missionaries call Towers, since it’s located on the ground floor of one of the few 4-story buildings on the island (and one more is right next door).  

Now if you are really into impulse shopping, you wait until Saturday and go to the open-air market, which for some reason is called the Fair.    Families with relatives in New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. receive shipments from their relatives – used clothing, shoes, durable groceries (peanut butter is a big seller, and so is Crest toothpaste) and toys, for family members to re-sell here.  There are also some produce vendors, but their prices are higher than in the maketi.  And there are some vendors selling skewered meats and veggies – smells great, but the meat still has bits of bone in it, whether it’s chicken, pork, or beef.  So you chew carefully.  I’d rather go to the far end of the parking lot and buy some freshly caught tuna and swordfish.  Yum.
Red and white are the colors of the Tongan flag, so the family
celebrates by decorating the roadside stand!

On the way home, we usually stop at this roadside stand, where a family sells the produce they grow on their farm “in the bush” – back in the central part of the island.  I love the way they wrap the front poles of their stand with palm leaves, and decorate their stand so nicely.  This family grows the best watermelons on the island.  

And right across the street from our home is “Pink’s” -  one of the stores the Tongans call  Chinese Stores, because there are a lot of Chinese who operate these stores. Ours is operated by a Tongan.  She sells convenience foods like candy and soda, but she also sells bread and rolls, milk, and even yeast – all at the same prices as the big stores half an hour away in town.  Imagine a shipping container  with one side cut open to form a window with heavy wire grating across it, and as much food packed onto the shelves as one person can reach, and you’ve got Pink’s.

So, to market to market, then home again, home again, jiggety jig.  Well, not exactly.  Elapsed time: three hours eleven minutes.  We can do a minor run in about an hour and a half, if we hurry.  But everything moves slowly on this island – even the wasps – so we’re learning it’s okay not to hurry.  Now all that’s left is to put away the food, rinse the produce in bleach water, and stick everything in the refrigerator to keep it away from the ever-present ants.  Like I said, everything here is an adventure!


  1. Bea, this post gives me the urge to go to the flea market! If you ever get to the bottom of the flip flop mystery, please let us know! Maybe everyone shares? A trend, like Michael Jackson's glove? You are such an inspiration, I wonder how many people have decided that a senior mission is for them since your posts! Rock on, my friend! Love you!

    1. Thank you, Angi. Senior missions can be a whole different "can of worms" and this one is no exception. I don't know if even the native Tongans understand the one flip flop thing - but I've seen it more than once. May just be that they don't have the $2 for another pair, so they" protect one foot anyway! Some mysteries are not going to be solved quickly!