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Sunday, August 12, 2012


Seems a man from Texas came to Tonga some years back, curious to compare farming techniques.  After spending a day on a Tongan “plantation”, the word for farm here, the Texan wanted to impress the Tongan with the difference in scale.  “This has been a wonderful experience,” said the Texan.  “But I want you to understand, it takes me an entire day to drive the perimeter of my ranch.”   The Tongan raised his eyebrows twice in acknowledgement.  “Oh yes,” said the Tongan, “I had a car like that once.”  (No offense intended, my Texan friends!)

Tonga is tiny, but it has its share of wonders.  And some of them are absolutely jaw-dropping. This tiny island nation, spread out over miles and miles of ocean, has many delights for the eyes, ears, noses, taste buds and fingers for those who will take the time to notice.

Let me remind you that if you added up all land of the 177 islands and islets that make up Tonga, you’d add up to a little more than four Districts of Columbia.  I live on the “big” island of Tongatapu, all 100 square miles of it – the size of DC and Arlington, Virginia put together. I have not seen all that this island has to offer, by any means.  But I have been awed by what I have seen.

To the east of Tonga, under the water, lies the Tonga trench, the second deepest point in the Pacific.  The sea floor here is the northeast juncture of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, and the Pacific plate is being driven beneath the Australian plate in a process called subduction.  Because of this process, there is frequent seismic activity in the area – we just had a 5.9 earthquake last week.  There are even underwater volcanoes being swallowed in this process.  I have been fascinated with the research going on that is documenting this dramatic event.  Here's a link to a news report from last November:

And we can visit the blowholes just minutes from our apartment and office, and be treated to a marvelous display each morning and evening.  From July to October, humpback whales frequent these waters, calving, nursing and tending their young.  We can see the whale spouts and flukes as these magnificent creatures surface, and now and then we are treated to a breach, when the whales jump out of the water, seemingly for the simple joy of doing it.  Mothers spend between 3 and 4 months here helping their babies grow, before they return to the Antarctic waters rich in krill, their main food supply.  The baby whales nurse and grow tremendously during these few months, but the mothers do not even feed.  Wow.  My biggest frustration is that the whales are always a few seconds ahead of my camera!

Closeup of a blossom cluster

My favorite perfume on the islands is the frangipani tree.  Even when this tree drops its leaves for the dormant season (I can hardly call it winter here), it keeps blooming, and the  palm-sized blossoms, either pink or yellow with white, have a gentle aroma that just makes me smile.
This tree is about 10 feet high, and loaded with pink blossoms.

This island of Tongatapu is proof to me that God has a sense of humor.  Even though this island is only 30 miles end to end, there are five different kinds of potato that grow here.  And one of them grows on a tree!  From “millimeter potatoes” that I grew up calling new potatoes to purple sweet potatoes to breadfruit (youth basketball-sized globes that indeed grow on trees) to the two-foot long “ufi” (OOO-fee), like in the picture.  Tongans can always get their starch, to go with their “lu”, corned beef wrapped in a thick, spinach-like leaf – a favorite at most family gatherings. Garden vegetables here are quite pricey, but you can always feed your family a kind of potato, and fill those empty stomachs. 

This is a screen capture of a Google Earth image.  
The Pigeon’s Doorway, or Hufangalupe in Tongan, is what happens when water, wind and erosion combine on the face of a cliff.  What looks like a sinkhole from the air is actually a chasm carved by the waves, with a natural bridge of rock and soil over a huge opening where the ocean rushes in.  

Low tide under the natural bridge formed by
 the rocks that  the waves can't reach.
The limestone cliffs are over 100 feet tall at the ocean’s edge, and even on the calmest day the waves crash with a humbling energy against the rocks. The volume is impressive; you have to walk away from the cliffs’ edge a good ways before you can talk to each other. 

Free-range pigs - a common sight here!
And everywhere, everywhere, are the birds, the fruit bats called flying foxes, the crickets that chirp every night year round, the varieties of floating jewels called dragonflies, the timid dogs and cats that scavenge for food, the free-roaming sows and piglets filing across the street – Tonga is a wondrous experience for me.  Can you blame me for wanting to stay forever?


  1. Oh, it looks like SUCH a beautiful place! And potatoes that grow on a tree? How bizarre! And awesome! And I always wanted a pet flying fox...I'm so jealous! haha!

  2. Okay, Bea, I can't say that I blame you for wanting to stay forever. Not with all those terrific potatoes...hey, that's so neat! I wondered about breadfruit--Le Petit Prince made mention of them. Didn't know what they were--neither did my teacher! And the animals! Wow, it is so marvelous, okay, should we just all show up?