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Tongan times #1 – First impressions

January 18, 2013

Arriving at Nuku’alofa International Airport is a pleasantly unexceptional experience. Its runway is a grey score through sheets of chartreuse lawns mottled with tiny tufts of dark green, like balled cotton clinging to a jumper. The terminal building lies idly among a mesh of irregular palm trees, seemingly in a state of exhaustion.

As I stepped from the sterile chill of the aeroplane, the wall of thick air was dizzying to walk through and the heavy heat hung off me as a garment. It was early morning but already the sun had begun to cook the day. I trudged across the tarmac removing needless layers of clothes. The door marked ‘arrivals’ shimmered behind the haze rising in front of it and the ground appeared to swell below me. Everything here had a pulse.

Once inside, the relief of the shelter is complemented by the fact that you’re reminded by very little that speaks of an international airport. It was a relaxed and unaffected arrangement that proved a welcomed spin on the tedious chaos of most airport terminals. The general listlessness of the employees, the hand painted welcome sign above the immigration desks – which were two ragged book stands draped with grass skirts – and the official customs forms evidently designed on pic art were all indications of the casual island sentiment that permeates the attitudes of even the tautest of tourists.

The hostel which I was booked into, along with my travel buddy, Owain, was a basic affair but it offered an airport pick-up and a shuttle into town throughout the day. We were shown to our quarters at the end of a potholed dirt track behind the more agreeable looking accommodation at the front. As cement shells go, we couldn’t have much complained, but the mattresses could have doubled as doors and a hole in an overhead septic tank would have made a marked improvement on the shower.

As we took a few moments to make these considered appraisals a dark carpet of cloud rolled itself out across the heavens, too quick for either of us to notice before it emptied a torrent of rain that kept us confined to the common room until late afternoon.

Eventually the weather cleared and Owain and I wasted no time in venturing away from the hostel. With backpacks and water bottles we skipped down mud alleys, over coffee coloured puddles and through verges of messy St. Augustine grass; passed topless children chasing scrawny chickens; ducked under overhanging hibiscus flowers; and cleared onto the open main street. We turned and headed west towards the coast.

It wasn’t long before we approached the local market around the first bend. As we rounded the corner there seemed to descend a small second of peaceful silence; a quiet feeling of empty calm, like the moment right before you walk into a glass door. Except in this instance it wasn’t a pane of glass but a pack of five rabid dogs crowding the shop entrance. Each of them lifted their heads, turned and glared at us. We both froze, our breath stuck in our throats.

Only a few feet away from us was the biggest and most aggressive-looking: tufts of fur missing from its bloodied coat, shoulders like a shot putter and anvils for paws. It peeled back its top lip and let out a snarl that nearly made me collapse on the ground. Neither Owain nor I took our eyes off the dogs’ movements as they pawed at the dirt.

Owain – breath still trapped – took a tentative half-step backwards that sent the beasts into a wild fury. The biggest leapt forward into a torrent of guttural barks and ferocious fangs, strings of saliva tumbled from its mouth and its jet-black eyes protruded out its skull like bullets. Both of us were now back pedalling in to the street, considerably more concerned about avoiding a bite from this animal than getting T-boned by a bus. It forced us clean across the road.

We edged along the opposite side and watched the pack descend; they lunged and barked at each other as they were overwhelmed by their rage. An old and heavily dented people carrier tottered by us at a canter. Its engine coughing and spluttering mocked the scene, but distracted the dogs long enough for us to mark an ample retreat. Steadying our breath we doubled our pace, taking regular glances over our shoulders as we high-tailed it into the distance.

We had set off in search of a beach, wanting golden stretches of palm enclosed bliss scattered with satin skinned nymphs. But it seemed this rude introduction to Tonga proved a bit of a contradiction to that fantasy – at least for now.


From → Tonga

  1. My heart dropped to my stomach reading about the dogs. I could have been there. Brilliant!

  2. Lloyd Smith permalink

    Utterly entertaining! Keep it up. Best thing I’ve read in a while.

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