Saturday, January 4, 2014

How We Spent Our Christmas - or High Adventures on the Open Sea: A "Real Tonga" Experience

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip,
That started from this tropic port,
Aboard this tiny ship.

What started out as a four-day trip to Niuatoputapu, in the far northern reaches of the Kingdom of Tonga, turned into an 11-day ADVENTURE, with the last three days spent on the MV 'Otuanga'ofa, Tonga's inter-island ferry. This is no ordinary “people” ferry. It is part cargo boat, part passenger boat, with a great big crane on top of it, and containers stacked along the upper back deck.

President and Sister Tupou, Garth and I ended up on the 'Otuanga'ofa because our Real Tonga return flight from Niuatoputapu to Tongatapu never materialized. With Christmas on the horizon, and no planes coming to get us any time soon, we made the decision to brave “the boat.”

We boarded at the harbor in Falehau, braved the opening through the reef, and headed northwest, out into the open sea. I know, I know. Tongatapu's south of Niuatoputapu. So, why were we headed northwest? Because Niuafo'ou, which is northwest of Niuatoputapu, had bad weather when the ship was actually scheduled to arrive there, and the captain decided to come to Niuatoputapu first, THEN head to Niuafo'ou. So, we headed northwest. 

Everything was all fun and games for about the first hour. The ride was a little bumpy, but we were having an adventure! A real Tongan adventure!! Then Garth and I decided to get something out of our berth.

So....let me describe our berth. I was kind of expecting a small room, kind of like on the ferries we have in

Alaska. Nope. The steward (or at least one of the crew) took us down two decks. Yes, two. All the way down to deck one, all the way forward, into the bowels of the ship. He opened a door, and there were 10 sets of curtains, five on each side of a narrow hallway, which led to a door on the opposite side of the hall. At first it looked as if we were going to have to share a four-bunk room, but after some talking, Pres. Tupou convinced the crew member that we had paid for our own rooms, not shared rooms. So, we actually had a four-bunk room to ourselves – at least we had the appearance of being by ourselves when the curtain was drawn. Sounds still entered uninvited, however. The cabin two “doors” down from us liked to play music 24/7. And what a variety – everything from raggae to rap to Christian rock to country. And, of course, we could hear people's conversations if they weren't kept to a whisper. And there was the ever present sound of very sea sick people trying without luck to keep down their food.

Going down to our berth was not a good idea. It was a lot bumpier down there, and I learned another lesson – one of several I learned this trip. That romantic notion of standing on deck of a ship, the coolness of ocean breeze in your face, the roll of the sea beneath your feet, the wide open sea the only thing on the sadly not for me. As soon as we got to our “room” I started feeling sick. We went back upstairs and outside to see if the coolness of the breeze would did not. Up came dinner. Every half hour or so my insides tried to come outside. Garth, a much better sailor than I am, did what all good companions do, and stayed by my side through the night, letting me rest on his shoulder between bouts of dry heaves. Finally, after about 17 hours, we reached Niuafo'ou, and I was able to make it to my berth, where I stayed, venturing forth ONLY when at port.

After waiting for daylight to come so the boat could load and unload, and catching a few hours of sleep, I made my way to the deck to see what Niuafo'ou looked like. I was met by a most amazing site.
The crew was just lowering a flat-bottomed boat into the choppy waters to start ferrying people and all their paraphernalia to the dock.

But the dock wasn't actually a dock. The dock was a huge, sloped, mostly flat black rock jutting out into the water. And there were people on the end of it. And the waves were crashing up over it. I watched in amazement as the small boat, tied to the ferry at the bow and the stern, would be brought in close to the ferry, but not touching. And then people would jump down and across into the waiting boat, while it was moving in and out, up and down. Moms would hand off their babies and small children to the waiting crew members, who would hold tightly to them until the moms could get on board and find a place to sit. Then luggage was thrown on board, all the while people still trying to board. It was barely controlled chaos. As soon as the boat was a full as could be, it would head for the “dock” where the reverse would happen. Between waves crashing up against the “dock” people would disembark, their goods thrown up to waiting hands, and they'd make their way up to shore. At least five dozen eggs and four tires made it to shore in Niuafo'ou.

As soon as passengers for Niuafo'ou were ashore, and departing passengers on board the ferry, we took off...and I made my way quickly to my room...where I stayed until we reached Vava'u about 24 hours later. I gained a new appreciation of how Jonah must have felt in the belly of the whale. It was easy to believe the boat was some great beast, with us deep in its belly, as it groaned, growled, gurgled, and shuddered as we made our way south during the dark night ours.

A real live dock at last!!! We were able to disembark and walk around a little while in Vava'u. The market was in full swing as people bought last minute gifts and produce for Christmas dinner the next day.
The market on Vava'u

A Tongan water "taxi"

Then it was a “short” 7-hour ride to Ha'apai where we arrived after dark, and more people got off and even more got on. 
Sunset just before reaching Ha'apai
In the middle of the night we stopped at Ha'afeva and Nomuka before FINALLY arriving in Tongatapu at 10:00 Christmas Day morning. During our three-day boat ride I ate ½ peanut butter sandwich Tuesday afternoon, and drank one small bottle of water. I am sad that my stomach is such a wimp, and I will not be the sailor I always secretly wished to be.

 But, we are home once again – showered and clean, and soon to enjoy a Christmas dinner with the other senior missionaries on Tongatapu.

Merry Christmas!!!

The Other Side of Heaven

In the very, VERY early morning hours of December 14, Garth and I woke up, got dressed in our missionary clothes, and headed to the airport. We boarded a small plane and headed north. Two hours later we landed in Niuatoputapu.....or as Elder Kolipoki (that's Tonganese for Groberg) called it, the Other Side of Heaven.

Looking down at the Lagoon on Tongatapu as we head north

The runway in Niuatoputapu
Our airplane
Niuatoputapu "International" Airport
While in Niuatoputapu we made some dear friends, met some amazing people, saw some beautiful, breathtaking sites, some heartbreaking sites, and learned some important lessons.
The Lino family: Suli Lefai (family friend), 'Onesi Lino, Sister Mikaila Lino, Pres. Tevita Lino (district president), Salesi Lino, and Pres. Hefa (branch president of Hihifo branch)

Sister Lino and the meal she prepared after our arrival
The first thing we learned......don't go to the Niua's in December. Or maybe not any time between July and February. It is HOT. And humid. I learned even my knees can sweat. Who knew? Also, you shouldn't wear mascara - it just melts. Seriously! We thought we were hot on Tongatapu. We didn't really know what hot was until coming here. One of the elders here (there are four – Elders King, Kulu, Drake and Lotima) told us when he first got here he would take a cold shower before going to bed in an effort to cool off. An hour later he'd wake up and take another cold shower because he was so hot and sweaty again. He'd get about another hour of sleep before he would be awakened once again from the heat and humidity. He said he finally gave up because he realized he would never not (sorry about the double negative) be hot and sweaty ever again. That's how it is here for much of the year. time I'll come during the winter!!

Elder Drake, Elder Lotima, Sister Hamblin, Elder Kulu, and Elder King
Another lesson learned....the people here are amazing. They have to be very self sufficient. The ferry comes to Niuatoputapu once a month, and the plane once a week......if they're lucky. There are three small villages....Hihifo, Vaipoa and Falehau....which are all located on the northern side of the island. The people have to rely on their own ingenuity and survival skills, because sometimes the boats or planes don't make it.
Falehau on the left, looking towards the only hill on Niuatoputapu

The villages of Hihifo, Vaipoa, and Falehau (in order from bottom of picture to the top) are on the left side of the island. Tafahi is the volcanic island in the background.
The tsunami that did so much destruction in Malaysia in 2009 also hit the Niua's. The coast is flat, and then starts a slight incline from the beach inward, with a large hill in the middle of the island. Sister Lino, the wife of the district president, told us how just about day break they saw people running past up the hill because the ocean was moving inland. She and her children, along with others on the island, ran towards 'uta (the bush) and up to the top of the hill. As I looked at the impenetrable wall of foliage they had to run through, I asked if there were trails they followed. She said, no, there are no trails. They just ran, many of them barefoot, through the jungle until they reached the top of the hill. They stayed on the hill, camped in the open, with only the clothes on their back, for one week before they could come down. Nine people were killed, including two children. The tsunami destroyed almost everything within about ½ mile of the beach. All vegetation was gone. All but three buildings within the path of the tsunami were, churches, businesses. The three buildings which remained standing were built by Elder Tukuafu, the former mission president who was just released this July, and currently an area authority seventy. He is also a builder responsible for building most of the chapels in Tonga. He built two homes which were undamaged, and a hall for the high school, which was undamaged and used by government officials who came to the island in the aftermath of the tsunami. No one is quite sure why only these buildings were not destroyed, but they are still in use today.

The water came around the Lino's house, but not in the house. And it came up to the fence of the church property in Hihifo. The Lino's live on the same street as the church, about ¼ mile east.

The church in Hihifo was turned into a hospital since the hospital was destroyed by the tsunami. Two sister missionaries and Sister Lino worked as nurses, the two nurses hired by the government having fled. When the government officials finally got to the island, they assumed that these LDS women were the nurses. The two sister missionaries were told by Salt Lake that they must return to the US, but the government asked for an exception as one of them had some nursing experience, and these three women were the only “nurses” working in the hospital. So, they stayed. A few months after the tsunami the hospital was moved to a building of the primary school in Falehau, where it is still in operation. The government of Tonga promised they would build a new hospital. Four years later the people of Niuatoputapu are still waiting.
The former hospital stands empty and unusable since the tsunami.
The primary school in Falehau - the building on the right was turned into the hospital, and still operates as such today.

Church leaders told the members of the church if they would be obedient and continue to follow what the prophet told them, the land would be blessed and would grow things not ever grown on the island before, and the people would be able to grow the food they needed to feed themselves and their families. Today bananas in several varieties grow, pele (a shrub-like plant grown for its leaves, which are similar in texture to chard or collard greens) grows wild, tomatoes grow wild, papayas grow year round. Fish, lobster, crab, and other sea life are abundant.

On the first anniversary after the tsunami the island held a commemoration. The religious leaders of all the churches on the island were invited to speak. Pres. Lilo, the LDS district president, spoke first. He said that tsunami had been a blessing to the island. The people who had lost homes had brand new homes built for them up higher on the island. Food was plentiful. Where once the land had been barren, trees in all varieties grew forming a thick wall of green, once again blocking the sea from view up island. He told the people they should be thankful to Heavenly Father for providing for them so well.
The next religious speakers spoke of how the destruction was caused because of the wickedness of the people, God was angry with them, and they needed to repent.

The last speaker was a representative sent by the Pope. When he spoke, he said that they all should have gone home after the first speaker – Pres. Lino, because what he spoke was true.

This island can be a difficult place to live – there are few people, they are far from the rest of their country (about 400 nautical miles from Tongatapu), they are isolated and have to be able to take care of themselves. But it is also a beautiful island. The people are strong and resourceful. Those who were obedient and followed the prophet have been blessed....they have been able grow produce they never had been able to grow before, they have been able to raise pigs, chickens and goats and provide for their families. I am certainly going to have to go on a diet when I get back to Tongatapu! We have had papaya, oranges, vi (a fruit similar in looks and taste to a green apple), fish, lobster, pineapple pie, keke vai (Tongan unleavened pancakes), 'ota (raw fish, tomatoes, onions in coconut milk and lime juice – YUM!!), chocolate cake, Simione's pancakes (just like pancakes from home), Niua chocolate (citrus leaves – orange or lime or lemon – steeped in hot water and sweetened – delicious!), fresh limade, all provided by Pres and Sister Lino, and the two branch presidents and their families. Sister Lino teases me that I'm going to have to add three or four strips to my kiekie when I get back, and I'm sure she's not far from the truth.

Our itinerary had as scheduled to leave Niuatoputapu the afternoon of December 18. Today is December 21....and we are still on Niuatoputapu. Our original flight back home was canceled because Real Tonga ran out of fuel. So, all flights for December 18 were canceled. So, we were told maybe December 19. Then the 20th. Well, maybe 21st. Every day we hear the airplane is coming for us. We run to the airport....and wait. Only to find the flight has been canceled.....again. There were mechanical problems. They thought the problems were fixed, so were going to do a trial flight to Ha'apai. If all went well they'd pick us up the next morning. Or, the weather did not look good. Yes, the flight is on...for sure....tomorrow at 6:00 a.m. So sorry, it's been delayed until 1:00 p.m. Sorry, it's been canceled. Maybe tomorrow. The interesting thing is, the king is vacationing in Ha'apai, and all of the problems with the plane seem to be happening in Ha'apai. Coincidence?

So, the ferry gets in tomorrow morning (Sunday), and we have reservations on it. It isn't even as big as our smallest ferries in Alaska, and depending on weather, best case scenerio is we'll be to Tongatapu in two days. The boat is scheduled to come here first, then to Niuafo'ou (weather permitting), then onto Vava'u, Ha'apai, and arrive in Nuku'alofa Christmas morning at 10:00 a.m. It was supposed to be here yesterday (the 20th), and we hear there is bad weather in Niuafo'ou (it's been raining HARD here this afternoon), so I'm sure the boat will be an adventure all by itself. Updates to follow :)

Another lesson learned.....our plans are not always Heavenly Father's plans. His ways ARE mysterious.

One of the first things we did when we got to the islands was to visit the hospital. Things we in the US take for granted while staying in the hospital, are not found in hospitals here in Tonga. Families of patients furnish bedding, meals, and take care of the patient until they are released. But many of the families here in Niuatoputapu cannot even furnish basic items such as bedding or towels. Their power source is a solar panel which is only powerful enough to furnish lighting for part of the night. Their generator does not work at all, so their only power source at this time is the solar panel. There is no phone service at the hospital. In order to receive phone calls they run a cell phone up a pole, and when it rings they pull it down and run to the wharf, the only sure place where cell service is available. They sterilize their instruments by boiling them in a pot of water. They have to wrap their sterile instruments in drapes made of old, torn up sheets. We told the “doctor” who is a medical assistant, that if there was any way we could help, we'd like to do so.

While sitting frustrated at our inability to get back home, we had another opportunity to visit the hospital once again. Lyall, the medical assistant, was able to give us a list of things they needed. To show their gratitude for our help, the hospital staff presented Garth and I, and President and Sister Tupou, with kahoua's (Tongan leis) made from fao (the leaves of a plant which have been dried, then soaked in sea water, then cut into narrow (1/8-inch wide) strips, then woven together) and pueki shells (only found on Niuatoputapu). They gave Sister Tupou and I earrings made from pueki shells, and a shell pendant necklace. They told us that not even the government officials had visited the hospital since the tsunami. Their listed items will be easy for us to obtain and will cost relatively little for the help they will bring to this small hospital.
Back row: Sister Lino, Pres Lino, Sam Tanaki, Lilo Kohinoa, Lelu Tupou, 'Ana Hakaumotu. Front row: Sister Tupou, Pres. Tupou, Lyall Ika (medical assistant)
Friday morning as we were getting ready to leave for the airport we heard that Thursday night a young 15-year-old boy had been accidentally killed by another 15-year-old boy in a fist fight. The boy who had been killed had taken something that belonged to the other boy and had damaged it, which instigated the fight. The boy who was killed was hit in the chest over the heart, perhaps causing a vessel to rupture, and he bled out. I asked what would happen to the boy who had killed the other, and was told that his father was disciplining his son – using corporal punishment. Apparently it was so bad that the police officer had to step in and pull the father off. We were saddened to think that our trip to this beautiful island was ending with such a terrible loss.

And then our flight was canceled.

That evening while Sister Tupou and I were walking to the store to get some soda (we used up all the bottled water on the island during our stay), the police officer saw us and stopped, asking us to get into his pickup because he needed help with the boy in the front seat. I did not know anything about the police officer, other than he liked to come play tennis on the church's tennis courts. So, I wasn't about to get in the truck. I told him that I did not know the boy, and asked how we could help him. He pulled over and told us that this was the boy who had accidentally killed another boy the night before. I told him that he should bring the boy to the church where Pres. Tupou, who spoke Tongan, was, and that we would be glad to help however we could.

Later that evening they showed up at the church. The police officer (the only one on the island – and not a member of the church) told us that he was worried about the boy because he was so depressed, and feared he might take his own life. He did not know what to do, and the thought came to him that he should bring him to the missionaries – us. But, if he did so he knew the news would spread over the whole island that he had brought this boy to the Mormons. So, he did not come. Then late that afternoon he saw Sister Tupou and I, and decided right then that he needed to bring the boy to see us.

When the police officer and the boy showed up at the church we hugged the boy and Pres. Tupou and Garth taught him in simple terms of the atonement, repentance, of the Lord's love for him. Garth told him that there would be dark nights, there would people who would be unkind to him, that times would be hard. But, he had a choice...either he could look up and move forward, or look down to darkness. The choice was his. Pres. Tupou taught him of the steps of repentance, and challenged him to ask forgiveness of the family of the boy who died, and of his own family. They both taught him about Christ's sacrifice in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, so that we could live again and be forgiven of our sins – even this sin. They told him that the boy who died was alive! That if he could communicate with us, he would tell this boy of his love for him, that he forgave him.

This poor boy was so depressed that he spoke very little, looked down most of the time. You could see the weight of the world on his shoulders. We found that there is no jail on the island and that this boy was staying with the police office and his family.

This morning (after learning that our early morning flight was again postponed) the police officer stopped by again with the boy, to report back on the assignment given to the boy to seek forgiveness from his family and from the other boy's family. This morning he was smiling, his posture was more erect, his eyes were brighter. He had gone to both families and told them he realized he had a responsibility and was willing to do whatever he needed to make things right. Both families responded favorably. The mother of the boy who died had no desire to press charges. She'd had an experience with her son the day of his death that had convinced her that it was his time to die. She related that he was an unhappy boy most of his life. But, the day he died he woke up, was happy and singing, told his mother he needed clean clothes because he was going to take a little trip. She said it was the first time she could remember that he was happy.

So, although we wish we were in our own homes and not “camping out” in the church, we realize that the Lord was able to use us as instruments to help bring comfort and help to some of his children. What an amazing, humbling feeling to know that the Lord has enough confidence in us to use us to help those he loves. I feel like like the Book of Mormon prophet, Ammon, who after having success teaching among the Lamonites, expressed to his brothers,

“My brothers and my brethren, behold I say unto you, how great reason have we to rejoice; for could we have supposed when we started from the land of Zarahemla that God would have granted unto us such great blessings?”

“And now, I ask, what great blessings has he bestowed upon us? Can ye tell?”

Behold, I answer for you; for our brethren, the Lamanites, were in darkness, yea, even in the darkest abyss, but behold, how many of them are brought to behold the marvelous light of God! And this is the blessing which hath been bestowed upon us, that we have been made instruments in the hands of God to bring about this great work.”

The little discomfort we have experienced is but a moment. The help, comfort and knowledge that we were able to give is what it's all's why we're here in Tonga. I'm thankful I was here to help in some very, very small way. My life will be forever blessed because of these experiences.

There were so many other things we did and saw on this trip. And because a picture says more than words, here are a few pictures from the Other Side of Heaven.

The chapel at Hihifo - set up for our visit
Suli and Sister Lino working hard in the kitchen at the church. Always taking care of us :)
The chapel in Hihifo (on the left). Missionary MQ (on the right) was the original chapel.
Sione's Guest House - where Garth and I stayed five nights

Our bed - yes we used the mosquito netting - at Sione's Guest House
Our bedroom at Sione's Guest House
The chapel at Vaipoa - dedicated by Pres. Groberg when he was mission president in Tonga

Fao - drying. Used to make kiekie's and ta'ovalas

The fao plant

Patele Siou - "Padre Joe" - and his pigs (below) He owns the most pigs in Niutatoputapu

A Tongan "taxi"

For my dad - horses on  Niutatoputapu

'Elili - sea snails - Delicious

Coconut crab

The "baptismal font" on Niuatoputapu

A Vi (pronounced vee) tree - similar to a green apple - a little tart, a little sweet. Makes delicious otai!!

Women lalanga - preparing fao

A day on Kolipoki island - Elder Groberg's island
Kolipoki Island

The missionaries, The Lino family, Pres. Hefa, the Tupou's, and us had a delightful morning on Kolipoki Island

Lui Lino up a coconut tree

And here come the coconuts!!

Garth drinking the juice from a green coconut - "Tongan 7-up"

Sister Lino

Our shadows as we rode in the back, the front, and on top of our little boat that took us to Kolipoki Island.

The villagers of Vaipoa were having a reunion, and they all - yes, ALL - every man, woman and child, came to to the church at Hihifo and danced for us. Here are some of the faces I loved most.

  An afternoon of fishing - and eating fish.
tuli 'aua - cathing 'aua (the name of the fish) by running. Two people run with the net - away from each other - forming a circle, while others run toward the net opening chasing the fish into the net

Picking the net of the 'aua 


Preparing the 'aua to eat
Scale, remove the head, guts, and fins, squeeze with lime juice - and....

Eat the 'aua - YUM!!

Missionaries heading home