From The Hood : Ars Tonga, Vita Brevis

What I did on my holidays
by Lyndon Hood

Tonga really does seem a very friendly place.

And the warm welcome seems all the more sincere when you realise that, as a nation, Tonga doesn’t seem especially desperate to cater for tourists.

For instance, I went on a tour of the main island Tongatapu that took in some remarkable sights – but don’t recall seeing any of them signposted. Tongatapu is small enough that it would be hard to get properly lost, but it’s big enough that you could have trouble finding things.

Later on, someone explained there was in fact a sign for the final turnoff to the blowholes – a rather dramatic bit of coast where waves squeezing through gaps in the coral rock jet upwards, the plumes rising in noisy bursts up and down the length of a whole bay. However that sign was facing away from the main road, so it would be most often seen by people who have followed the correct (unsignposted) side road until they’ve clearly come too far, then turned around and started to come back.

There’s at least one outfit in Tonga roasting local coffee beans. Nuku’alofa has a brewer whose lager is at least as good as the Tonga-only beer that Lion exports from New Zealand. But I reckon there’s a gap in the signpost market.

Perhaps it’s a kind of modesty. The woman beside us on the plane seemed to be politely suppressing bewilderment about what we would do on Tongatapu for eight days. Admittedly, the commentary we later got from our tour guide included pointing the local schools as we went past. And admittedly, we did very little for several of those eight days expect hang out somewhere warm and pleasant in the middle of Winter.

(Further to the plane trip: I’d never quite absorbed how close the islands are. Flight time was about two and a half hours – perhaps long enough to watch the version of The Hobbit they have on the inflight entertainment system, but only if you started as soon as you sat down.)

Personally I suspect it would be agreed that signposts are a fine and worthwhile thing, but Tonga has its own stuff to do. For example they do run what seems to be a perfectly good public health system, which can be accessed by foreigners at very reasonable cost (I’m feeling much better now, thanks), so I believe hammering out a modern constitutional monarchy and an open society could fit somewhere on the agenda. And maybe – this is just a suggestion – getting vehicles off the road once they start leaking exhaust fumes into the back seats.

Tonga – as you will likely hear if you visit – was the only Pacific country to maintain self-government through the entire colonial period. Tonga has its pride.

Coming from a country that basically tried to rename itself and get everyone dressed up in pointy ears to milk a few more tourist dollars from the aformentioned hobbit movie, I appreciate that.

The hole in the table was made by a falling coconut.
Kids, don’t hang out under coconut trees.

What I’m getting at is, I’m not going to, for example, tell any resort how to run its cultural performances. The dancing may strike viewers as more traditional than the music but jaunty countryesque rhythms with a drum machine beat is still Pacific culture for my money. Appreciative audience members sticking bank notes to the oiled skin of female performers is interesting in a country that has actual laws about modest public dress, but I’m going to let Tonga sort that one out.

I do feel qualified to make some suggestions about one segment.

Part of a sort of fire-danced based tour of the Pacific, New Zealand was represented by a display of fire poi. Now this was quite spectacular and nicely executed but to my mind not maximally New Zealandish. I obviously won’t suggest they appropriate some actual bit of Maori culture, but as a performer myself I have a few ideas that I think would express the essence of my own home country.

• A traditional New Zealand political dance, combining flowing movements of the hands, which represents Waves, with a particular facial action, which represents Smiles (although some scholars assert it represents a crocodile). This isn’t actually a very good dance, but if it only beats whatever the guy waiting in the wings looks to be offering and we’ll apparently watch it all night.

• Just after everyone’s collected their food from the buffet, explain it’s got botulism or something. Which is apparently the only kind of culture we can export without a law change and a tax break.

• Or for an equivalent effect, serve the “NZ River Surprise”: a beverage composed of mostly water.

• Spy on a member of the audience. Be shocked and horrified at your behaviour when you get caught. Spy on the whole audience.

• Oh, and before that, drink a cup of tea. Get all indignant when the audience watches.

• There will often be a few Australians present. Try and “catch up” with them. I think this one might involve some sort of conga line but I’m not sure, it doesn’t seem to be fashionable any more.

• Come to think of it, spy on me, personally. I tend to put ‘journalist’ as the occupation on my travel documentation (partly the unvarnished truth and partly a depressing joke about the future of news) so it’s my own fault really. Because it seems these powers the state so desperately needs to prevent terrorist attacks against, are the same kind of thing that so far have mostly been used against journalists, government support partners and comical German file sharers. Don’t worry, if you have nothing to hide then you are probably dead already and no legislative changes can harm you now.

• Though apparently we didn’t think to spy on such “threats to New Zealand’s economic wellbeing” as dairy companies.

• Do the Urgency dance. People probably won’t like it, but by the time they complain it’ll be over.

• Sell something nobody wants to sell and that makes money: use the cash to by stuff not everyone wants and that doesn’t make money. Or, instead of building something yourself, get someone else to do it for no money down so you’ve go the additional risk they might give up at some point and it costs more either way. What do you mean, ‘stupid’? I don’t make fun of your culture!

• Get spied on. Complain so vehemently about being spied on that you nice hair gets a bit mussed up. Spy on everyone.

• I guess this counts as a World Stage so what I gather you should really do is find a Weight and Punch Above it.

• Or, to keep up the ‘fire’ theme: Observe that a bit of fire on the end of a string isn’t really sustainable and we could produce a much more spectacular fire without any ongoing kerosene costs by exploiting currently dormant infrastructure. Adopt a policy of setting fire to the building. Ignore anyone questioning the advisibility of setting fire to the building or, if the person doing the questioning is an expert, resort to personal attacks. Explain that the opposition just hates warmth. Set fire to the building. I call this one ‘The Brighter Future’.