Was this the first time you have visited Tonga? Was it what you expected it to be like?
This was my first time visiting Tonga, and I probably did have some ideas of travel and tourism that are particularly Western. When you think of the Pacific, you can’t help but think of a place like Hawaii. But in Tonga I didn’t see resort after resort, and so forth. It’s a truly isolated place.
What were the best, worst, and quirkiest experiences during your trip?
I had one experience that combined the best, worst and quirkiest moments of my journey all into a span of a few hours.
I was visiting the Ha‘apai Island group, which is perhaps the most untouched and pristine of the three Tongan island groups. There are more horses than cars there. On Lifuka, the main island in the group, I met a farmer named Roni. Like many of the people on Lifuka, Roni lived on the main island but kept his livestock on one of the outlying islands. Every day at low tide, Roni would ride his horse across this stretch of water that separates the two islands to tend to his pigs, and he agreed to take me along one day.
These horses were half wild, and to mount them the locals would just run up to the horse and sort of nimbly jump right on. All very graceful and beautiful to watch. Then my turn came, and I’ve never ridden a horse before, so I stood on a stump and ended up doing this bizarre, awkward dance that probably had the horse wondering, ‘What the heck is this guy doing?’ Once I was on the horse we rode into the water to make the crossing.
It was just stunning, to be on these bareback horses with rope bridles, sloshing through the waves at low tide, over the coral. The water heading out to the island was up to the withers of the horses, flowing over their backs and up over our legs.
Roni knew I lived in Philadelphia, and he had been very quiet during the ride, but at one point he said in a very slow and serious way, “I like Rocky.” We both laughed about it: Even at the ends of the earth, you can’t escape the reach of Rocky Balboa. And it was touching because Roni was really telling me, ‘I know something about the town where you’re from.’
After feeding his pigs and spending some time on the beach, we made the crossing back to the main island. As we came up on shore I felt pretty great about my skills as a new horseman: Bareback, rope bridle, all day. I thought, ‘Clearly I have an innate talent.’ As we came to a hard-packed road, the horse must have sensed he was almost home because suddenly he just bolted. I lasted maybe three strides before flying off. I hit the ground so hard it was almost cartoonish; little stars may have circled my head. It was all I could do to roll into the long grass alongside the road to avoid getting trampled.
Roni rode up, leapt off his horse’s back and found me in the bush. I was in pain and embarrassed. I’d gotten over-confident, screwed up and lost his horse, and I expected him to be angry. But he just leaned over me and said, “I am sorry.” I was amazed, even as I lay there: What a graceful person.
Something in my back didn’t feel right, though, and to my horror, I realized that there was only one way to a hospital: on a prop-driven, Second World War-era Douglas DC-3 airplane. During the flight it bumped and thumped along, and I thought, if I survive this flight, I’ll at least have a good story to tell. But it did cost me something: I left a little piece of me on the island of Lifuka.
Can you talk a little more about your audience with the king?
The king was exceedingly polite, cordial, and formal. Royal, in other words. One thing I found interesting is that there’s actually a whole Tongan language that is specific to the king. There are a very few people who speak this royal language, which is different than the commoners’ Tongan language. I found that fascinating.