A boy climbing a coconut tree at dusk on Samoa. It takes years of climbing to properly develop the callouses that will protect hands and feet from the rough trunk.
Tonga & Samoa – Long Read

Dream of paradise in the South Pacific

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Tonga & Samoa – Long Read Dream of paradise in the South Pacific

Tonga and Samoa are among the most remote nations on earth. It takes a long time to get there, and time passes slowly once you do. It is a dream of paradise.

Daphne Huineman
Daphne Huineman Travel Writer

It is all about time. Everything takes a lot of it in Tonga, not to mention the 24 hours sitting on a plane to get there. It requires half the day just for me to rent a car. I spend two hours looking for a road map. And not finding one.

Even the tourist office in the capital of Nuku’alofa does not have a map. ”We ran out,” says the woman behind the desk after a long silence. “Can you make a copy of that one on the wall?” “We don’t have a copy machine.” “Can I find them anywhere else?” “No.” “Why not?” “You don’t need one.” “Is there only one road on the island?” “No.” “So, I need a map.” “You’ll manage.” “Where do I find the famous three-headed coconut tree?” “You’ll find it.” “How?” Big sigh. “Just ask the people, they will help you.” “Can you show me the right road?”

She flaps her hand in what later proves to be right direction. I am sure the sluggish pace has nothing to do with the size of the locals – 100kg is medium sized here, even though the late king tried to set a good example by losing almost 40kg. That is twice the weight of my suitcase which I can barely lift. It cannot help either that the local equivalent of a suit is a reed mat, worn tied around the body. No one is rushing anywhere dressed like that.

“Big is beautiful,” says a billboard. A women dressed in a woven mat stands under it. I ask her if I can take her picture. “You agree with the billboard?” I ask. “Sure, why not?” “Do big women in Tonga get a lot of men?” “You have to ask them,” she says. She may weigh at least 90kg but obviously does not consider herself big. And she is right. In Tonga. ”I have 15 brothers and sisters and we all have diabetes,” she says. “I don’t know why. My aunt and my mother have it too.”

Once in the car, I am soon stuck in traffic. When I ask what is going on I am invited to join in. There is a street party to celebrate the first birthday of a local prince. Hundreds of families in the neighborhood have slaughtered and roasted their fattest pigs, animals that rummage among almost all the gardens in the Pacific. The local diet is low in vegetables and high in processed food such as corned beef and condensed milk. The cost of power from diesel generators makes freezers expensive to run, while the climate means keeping food fresh otherwise is impossible.

"Do big women in Tonga get a lot of men?"

If food is the national obsession, fresh meat is even more so: particularly pork but also dogs and even cats. As the party goes on, people start fighting for a delicacy: the pig’s ears. The birthday boy chews on an ear, too, but that of a cuddly toy. Like any one-year-old, he is not really getting what the fuss is about. I am offered the local form of sashimi: ota, raw tuna fish in coconut milk. My car is parked up – what is the rush? The royal choir starts up – with a pop song. So much for escaping western culture. Getting away from it all is harder than it looks.

I work on my getaway technique by heading off to explore the island. Although I still have no road maps, and there are no road signs, it is not much effort to find the highlights: the blowholes that stretch along the rugged southern coast where the water sprays meters-high; Ha’amonga’a Maui, a kind of Stonehenge from the 13th century built by a paranoid king in the form of a stone wall so his subjects could not stab him in the back; the overgrown grave pyramids of still other kings. All are superb, more so as there are no other visitors. If tourism is the third biggest source of revenue on Tonga, I hope the other two are healthy. Even the beaches are empty, perhaps due to a local law banning any Tongan, including men, from going topless, even when swimming – a legacy of the missionaries.

Along the way, my head fills with random sights and impressions: a coconut tree split into three heads; the timidity of the men that runs at odds with their impressive appearance; forest bats that scream in the trees, their babies under the armpits. The insane cemeteries: simple sand hills decorated with beer bottles, colored canopies, teddy bears and plastic flowers. In a country full of blooms, the florist shops sell artificial ones.

I see countless churches – one for every 50 people someone tells me, saying that everyone goes to church three times on Sunday, twice in the morning and again in the afternoon. In contrast are the dogs, personifying the concept of “beaten dog”. They trudge around with their tails between their legs, many limping. I ask why. ”People run into them on purpose with their cars and try to catch them to eat them. But some run away,” I am told. Later, I see the car behind me hit one. In the rear-view mirror, I watch it being loaded into the trunk for tomorrow’s barbecue.

I stop to chat with a happy fisherman putting out his catch to dry, while his many children swing on a rope above the water nearby. “Our ways are still the best,” says his niece, who just returned from America. Many Pacific Islanders spend time abroad working for various lengths of time. ”There is hardly any work and I have eight children,” says the fisherman. “But at least I can do things our way.” The Tongan way means at a snail’s pace and keeping it in the family. The extended family is everyone’s social insurance system. Hunger, loneliness and overload may not exist, but neither do individual wealth or privacy.

It is not much effort to find the highlights

Everything is shared – one reason most shops seem to be run by Asians, as Tongan store-owners would soon have to give their stock away. The language has no different words for brother and sister, nephew and niece. Aunts and uncles are called parents. The King of Tonga, Tupou VI, – despite some recent changes in the parliamentary system – remains in charge, helped by a few noble families. It is not surprising that foreigners are the main driving force behind the diving and surfing schools, restaurants and beach resorts, bringing western ideas of service and efficiency.

Mass tourism is still very far away and the much abused term “paradise” still applies. The scenery is beautiful and untouched. After a day of shark watching and snorkeling, I eat a delicious meal from the umu, the underground oven that each Polynesian family has in their garden. The taste of the meat is lovely but indefinable. I hope it is not a dog. That night, the pigs under my hut start screaming. The sounds of hard sex send me to sleep dreaming of all those stories of languid eroticism in the South Seas. Paradise indeed.

What does paradise look like in my dreams? A green hilly landscape with tall palm trees where wild horses graze. A waterfall that turns into a lovely pond. And the company of beautiful people. A few days later my dream comes to life at Olemoe Falls, Samoa.

Everything on this exotic island state is like a dream come to life. Most women still wear an orchid-like flower in their hair, and the lava-lava – the sarong-style loincloth for men and for women – has not been superseded by sloppy shorts. Everyone waves as I drive past in my hired jeep. Each beach is like a TV advert idea of the perfect vista, while the rainforest has no snakes or leeches.

I am starting to adapt to the island pace, the first few days of exploration draining the unrest from my body. I have given myself over to passionate laziness, drinking fresh coconut in my hammock and eating oka of raw tuna with vegetables, spices and coconut milk.

This is the miracle food that cheered the writer Robert Louis Stephenson as he lay dying. The Scottish writer of Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde came to Samoa in the late 19th century and never left. He is still very present in his much-visited grave. “So long as we love, we serve; so long as we are loved by others, I should say that we are almost indispensable,” he said.

I have given myself over to passionate laziness

The modern age may have reached Samoa, with my comfortable beach huts and the good asphalt roads, but the traditional way of life he was enchanted by has by no means disappeared. Enormous families of supersized people live side by side in open wooden houses with carefully raked gardens. “We all live in one house, with our parents and grandparents,” says a woman. “My aunts and uncles live nearby. I love it, I can not imagine being away from my family for a day! Three of my ten brothers and sisters live in New Zealand and I miss them so much.

“They also live together in one house. Off course they do. You cannot be Samoan and be a private person. It’s just not possible.” With 15 children quite the norm, it is common for a sister to park a few more while she leaves to work abroad for a while. Deceased family members lie prominently buried in the front garden, kept close even after death. ”My grandmother is buried in our garden, so are our great grandparents,” she says. “You in your country could never do this, but we live in the same house for generations and generations.”

In many countries, you have to go out of your way to find something you think is authentic; in Samoa it is always close. Walking through a village, I stumble on a tattoo session: a boy of 16 is getting his pe’a, the authentic tattoo from waist to knee. Tapping away at a block of needles while his assistants wipe away blood, the artist stretches the skin of his victim with his dirty toes.

Seeing my disapproving gaze, he waves cheerfully at a bottle of alcohol and extremely filthy rag. Getting such a large tattoo takes weeks and is extremely painful, while the large risk of infection is sometimes fatal. But it is also joyful, marking the transition from boy to man. It also strengthens the identity of young people torn between their love of the western life of Nikes and Big Macs and the strict mores of extended families and their matai (chiefs). They want nothing more than to show that they deserve respect.

Others may have no real choice in the matter, like Joanna who works at our beach resort. “One day I was working in the kitchen and my grandfather called me and said that it was my time,” she says. “I lay groaning in pain for six hours while the tattoo artist worked on my legs. Every 16 or 17-year-old girl in our family gets them.

Prominent in the nightlife scene are the fa'afafine

They are typical for women, the men get totally different designs.” Women only have their upper legs done and hers are adorned with plants, flowers and shells. Is she happy with them? She shrugs her shoulders. “I have no choice but to like them. But it amazes me that more and more tourists come to Samoa for a pe’a. All the designs have a specific meaning for Samoans.”

Barely recovered from the bloody tattoo scenes, I am invited for the kava ceremony by a group of chiefs. Kava is the local intoxicant, not addictive and completely legal. It not only tastes nasty – like old soapy water might after you have washed the windows – but also has an insidious effect. I expected a slight high, like a glass or two of wine or beer, but it hit me like a truck.

Not only was I worried about remaining upright and dignified but, to make matters worse, it also hit my gut like crazy. Where can I find a big palm tree to go behind, on a pitch black field while all eyes are watching me? I stumble away and when I return the party has really started. Men are dancing seductively in the sand, a young boy does a dangerous fire dance. Fortunately, the excellent local beer is now the preferred drink as the evening turns into a long, restless night.

At a nightclub in Salelologa, a few nights later, the place is in full swing by 9pm. “Hey man, can I dance with her?” asks a Samoan of an unknown Australian next to me, who he takes for my husband. The Aussie could not care less. The Samoan chastely dances a meter away from me. The sexual revolution has not hit here yet. At least, not officially. Prominent in the nightlife scene are the fa’afafine – men who dress as women, a common phenomenon throughout the entire Pacific.

In almost every car rental agency or internet cafe you come upon them, brawny employees in high heels. Fa’afafines usually see themselves not as gay or transvestite, but as straight women in the wrong body and attracted to straight men. Some dress as men, some as women, and some just do whatever – making it hard to follow from time to time. ”Am I a woman? “ says one. “No. A man. Yes, and no. I am a fa’afafine. I make love to men. Heterosexual men, yes. In Samoa this is normal, though nobody talks about it.”

Many Samoan men have one-night stands with fa’afafines, because girls are very difficult to get in this puritan society. But any official relationship between two men is tapu. This can lead to tension and frustration amongst the fa’afafines. Like tonight. Two sisters fly at each other. I help the one who got the worst of it. “I dance like Cinderella and get all the attention. She just can’t stand it,” s/he sobs. Even so, a bit later there s/he is wandering arm-in-arm with the aggressor. “We are best friends from the same village. Every week we go to the bingo together. And my little sister is looking after her old mother tonight. How can I tell them that we had a fight?” And so it goes here. Community rules.

I drive back to my beach hut to seek cool refuge in the sea. I throw off my clothes and float belly-up in the tepid ocean water. Above me the stars shine in completely different constellations than at home in Europe. The thought of packing my suitcase has no appeal. Perhaps I have found paradise, after all. Why not do like Stevenson did? On his grave is inscribed: “Under the wide and starry sky / Dig the grave and let me lie.”

See the Pacific and then die? There is something to be said for that.


An aerial view of Falefa Bay and village on Upolu, Samoa. Samoa moved from east to west of the International Date Line in 2011, skipping a day, so that its working week matched that of its main trading partners in New Zealand, Australia and China. Photo by Atmotu Images / Alamy

Atmotu Images

Atmotu Images


An aerial view of Falefa Bay and village on Upolu, Samoa. Samoa moved from east to west of the International Date Line in 2011, skipping a day, so that its working week matched that of its main trading partners in New Zealand, Australia and China.

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