Thursday, September 28, 2017

Neiafu, Kingdom of Tonga

[Kyle]We had heard on the radio that the customs dock at Neiafu was really crowded and we would need to raft up for the next day's clearing in. I was hoping we wouldn't have to tie up to either of the boats ahead or be squished by the big sailing yacht behind. We came around the corner and found it empty. We thought we might be looking at the wrong spot and called someone already in the harbor to make sure we had the right place. We did. Despite the rule being very clear about 'Do Not Pass Go, Proceed directly to the Customs dock', we were the only one that tied up there. Hmm...

Even though they were closed, a nice man from Customs came by as he was going home and gave us the paperwork to fill out for the morning, including some hints for filling it out. Tongan paperwork is daunting. One sheet asks for a description of all items on board. ALL items? Yeesh! Another asked for a description of goods to be temporarily imported. He told me in that one to just put 'One Sailboat”. Whew!

In the morning, we had everything all ready to go as soon as they opened. As I was taking my second sip of coffee, someone called out to me. I thought it might be the Customs man, but it turned out to be someone else. It was a local man, about whom we had been pre-warned. He introduced himself and immediately started trying to sell me things and services and asking for stuff. We had heard his MO was to get to new arrivals on the Customs dock and start selling stuff for three times the normal price before people have had a chance to shop around. I wasn't having any of it, but of course, he is skilled in the guilt-inducing hard-sell, so he wasn't about to leave until I bought something. {Maryanne: Normally we'd be really happy to be chatting with a friendly local, but we'd been specifically warned about this guy so we were trying to be polite but evasive}

I was saved temporarily by the need to help tie up a couple of other boats and to go to the Customs office. We then had a big kerfuffle when we went to the ATM to get local currency to pay the fees, but our card was blocked because we were in a weird country. Groan. We tell our bank about this every time. It seems a computer algorithm does it automatically and we have to call a person to get them to override it. That's not easy when you are not even legally in the country yet and you have no local currency to pay for internet. Luckily the guy at the place favored by cruisers understood our predicament and let a half-hour of wifi fall off of the truck.

When we came back, the old man was gone, but he soon returned carrying a loaf of bread. He tossed it over to me and when I caught it, immediately took the position that he had given me something, now I owed him something. Of course, he wouldn't take it back, so he started asking for stuff in return. I stayed firm, although the pressure was killing me, and we got away with a promise to check to see if we may need our laundry done some time in the future. Not likely.

Officially cleared into Tonga - we hoist the courtesy flag, and Kyle finds a parrot

The next day, he found where we had moored and rowed over. He wanted to take our laundry. Nope. We looked at it and were good laundry-wise. Then he started outright asking for stuff again. The whole situation seemed carefully crafted. He was a nice old man who had just rowed all of this way in a barely held-together boat powered by the flimsiest oars. Couldn't I spare something?

No, actually. We don't have a lot of spare stuff. Mostly, we have the stuff we are using, plus a spare if it breaks, but we don't have room for a big pile of extra stuff to just give away. We managed to buy him off with a bottle of water and some biscuits. At that point, he seemed to have decided we were not in fact a money tree and moved on. The next day, we heard several people on the morning radio net complain that he took their money and laundry and they never got either back.

We decided to make our first day one of admin. Maryanne headed to the shops. I was about to take a cab ride with one of our gas cylinders to get it filled. At the dinghy dock, one of the cruisers we met in Suwarrow said I could save the cab fare and just take the dinghy. It was only a five-minute ride. I gestured at his engine and then at our oars, but he insisted it was basically five minutes either way and pointed in the general vicinity of 'that way'.

“You can't miss it”, he said.

Five minutes, my ass! I rowed to each promising dock only to find that it wasn't the place. I didn't want to turn back only to have to do it all again tomorrow, so I kept going. It turned out to be the last thing in the harbor, a mile and a half from Begonia. It took me forty minutes to row there. Once there, I climbed the path up the hill to the big butane tank on the hill, which was surrounded by a tall fence. No one seemed to be in evidence. I was not about to row back empty-handed, so I called out for a while until I roused the attendant. I thought he would let me through a padlocked gate, but instead led me to a low spot in the fence where a gap was stretched in the barbed wire that was large enough to pass the tank through. The guy seemed pretty annoyed at having to walk all of the way back and forth, but he filled the tank anyway, so I was happy.

Typical Tonga - Sunny harbour, market, the cathedral, and ladies dressed for church

At the market, Maryanne found lots of great produce that we had been missing for ages. We stocked up on lots of salad stuff and I even got a watermelon. Woo, hoo! We rewarded ourselves with tapas at a Spanish restaurant where the staff , the food, the music and the view were all brilliant.

On my first sip of coffee the following day, a different man than the guy at the Customs dock spotted me in the cockpit and rowed up in a different rickety boat. Aw, c'mon!

He introduced himself and asked for a cup of coffee. Since I was holding one myself, I could hardly say we had no coffee, so I went inside to pour him one. I was not happy about this. I had been in bed just five minutes earlier and hadn't yet actually swallowed any of my own coffee. As I poured, he climbed aboard and sat at the cockpit table. I knew where this was going. Now we wouldn't be able to get rid of him until he finished his coffee, which I'm sure he was going to take his time doing. I made a point of making small talk generously sprinkled with uncomfortable silences until he finally took it upon himself to open his backpack.

Most of his offerings were jewelry. He had a few string necklaces with carved pendants of bone or stone. He also had a few strings of pearls. Most were pretty nice and in a different setting, I might have even bought one, but I was in no mood for his tactics, so I didn't. To his credit, he showed up with small things instead of a boat full of paintings and big tiki carvings that we would have been able to reject on the grounds that we had no space.

He had plenty of coffee left so he kept suggesting others we may want to buy for. Perhaps our friends would like them, or our family. How about our friends' families? Work acquaintances? Other friendly old Tongan men?

I stonewalled him, but I was worried he wouldn't leave until we bought him off. At one of the silences following yet another 'Nope', he admired the shell we had sitting on our table. He asked me how much I wanted for it and I gifted it to him. In exchange, he insisted on giving me a necklace in return. Okay, now we're even. Off you go. He still didn't budge. He started asking for other stuff. Maryanne saved the day by also gifting him a travel mug 'so that he could bring coffee from home and keep it warm'. She then poured the rest of his coffee into it and practically shooed him back into his boat in a manner that had him thanking her for it.

My coffee was cold.

It's a difficult situation. In Polynesian culture, it's considered rude to not engage with someone who introduces themselves or to reciprocate when given something, even if it's something you don't need or want. In my culture, it's rude to let yourself into a stranger's home first thing in the morning, start asking for stuff and then to not leave until you get something.

He passed by several other boats. Some people talked to him, but I never saw him leave his rowboat. The trick seemed to be to stand at the edge of the transom where he was physically blocked from boarding. (“That's right, this is 'Merica back here. You stay over there in Tonga.”) I'm sure the coffee bit was meant to circumvent that. When I went inside, he climbed aboard. He didn't ask. I'm still not sure how to deal with that delicately, but I don't want to have to hide out in the cabin every morning on my own boat. I really want to have respect for the culture and not be impolite, but these guys seem practiced in the art of making people feel uncomfortable enough to spend. That makes me feel like I'm being played for a sucker and I really don't like that.

Anyway, after the day of chores, we planned a day of fun. Fun is relative, of course. What we actually did was take a too-long walk in the blazing sun to a nearby cave we had seen a sign for. Once we were there, we found it covered in graffiti and litter. How disheartening.

Exploring out of town, and then back for a drink at the harbour

On the walk back, a cab driver stopped and gave us a free ride into town to save us walking in the heat. As we went along, she picked up more and more of us until the van was full. She was warm and friendly and explained that she was on her way back from the airport anyway, so why not pick us up? Whether she intended it or not, her act of kindness was good business sense. We were leaving the next day, but the others all asked for her card and I have no doubt she will be the first call they make if any of them want a cab.

Just about everybody here, even the annoying old rowboat guys, are really, really nice. (That's why it was so hard to shoo them off.) I also really liked Neiafu. While technically it's not a one-street town, the one's that aren't the main road are all just houses, so it's easy to find everything we need. After our somewhat disappointing start, we managed to salvage our 'fun' day with a stop at the Tropicana Cafe, the local cruisers' hangout. We bought a couple of Otai, which is a marvelous local treat made from coconut cream and watermelon, and lingered over them while conversing with both boat and non-boat tourists. We had drinks at happy hour at the restaurant by the dinghy dock with the million-dollar view, and then topped it off with a really good pizza (Finally!) at a different place. We were worried when we arrived that we hadn't budgeted enough time for Neiafu, but we seemed to have hit the highlights pretty well in only two days.

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