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Tonga on my mind

Since sailing there, on a homemade, cement boat, 30 years ago, I’ve been in love with The Kingdom of Tonga.  

I was living in Sydney, Australia, in 1989, working for a company that built sets and exhibitions, for Home Shows, Air Shows, etc..  One of my co-workers, a sparky Tasmanian, named Mick Purcell, had built his own sailboat, and was planning on taking it to New Zealand, with his wife and young daughter.  It sounded great, so I invited myself along.

At the time, I shared a small apartment (flat), with other travellers.  Mick’s boat was moored near our place.  I had an old, crappy car, and was happy to drive him to and from work.  He was a character, like no one I’d met.  

Mick had grown up in a Hobart orphanage and the priests had taught him to sail and weld; useful skills.  When he was old enough, to leave the orphanage, Mick took a job as a welder, bought a house, and spent 12 years making a sailboat, in his Hobart backyard.  Mick welded the frame and made the shell out of ferrocement.  

After a dozen years of work, his boat was ready, for water.  While showing me the newspaper clippings, Mick explained how the city of Hobart lent him a crane and, with great fanfare, lifted the craft from his backyard and dropped it into the bay.  

It didn’t sink.  

“Everybody stopped laughing,” he said.

Mick named his sailboat The Illusion.  Standing on the deck of his improbable, homemade, cement boat, he said, “It’s just an illusion, mate.”

For two more years, Mick was only able to motor around Tasmania, because he couldn’t, yet, afford masts and sails.  Eventually, The Illusion was fully outfitted and ready for the ocean.  Mick, his wife, Teresa, and daughter, Nakita, sailed north from Hobart to Sydney through “the roaring forties.”

Mick docked The Illusion in Sydney and got a job, at the company, where I was working.  He was saving money and preparing for a trip to New Zealand.  While we carpooled, Mick told me his of plan to sail across the Bering Strait, with his family.  My Australian visa was expiring, and I was flying to New Zealand, anyway, so I inquired about sailing, instead.  

The Illusion was a primitive craft, without satellite navigation or autopilot, and it required someone at the helm, at all times.  Mick was happy to have help.  I told my flatmates of my impending seaventure. Some were interested and asked if they could join.

When we set off for New Zealand, there were nine aboard, from six different countries.  

Preparing to leave Sydney

We cleared customs in Sydney, with the agents coming on board to stamp passports, etc.  As The Illusion sailed under the bridge, past the opera house, out of Sydney, and into the open ocean, I tingled.  

It took us 13 days to hit New Zealand.  En route we saw birds, fish, whales, dolphins, a shark, and fishing boats.  We dove in, a few times.  

John from Ireland, Mick and Murph from New Zealand
A flying fish wanted to join the fun, but we tossed it back.

Mick was teaching himself how to navigate, on the passage.  For much of the trip, we were “dead reckoning,” our location.  To our great relief and excitement, we hit the north west coast of NZ, exactly, where Mick had predicted.  

We sailed around the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island and into The Bay of Islands, where we cleared customs.

New Zealand sent its finest dolphins to welcome us

Travellers, generally, like to read and drink.  For good reasons, Mick had forbidden us from bringing alcohol, on his boat, so, after a stretch of sobriety, it was nice to hit the local, and celebrate.  We had sea legs on our way to the pub and lubricated sea legs on the way back.  

Woah.  

The Illusion in New Zealand

Originally, the plan was to split up, in New Zealand, with Mick and his family sailing back to Australia.  I was going to tour NZ, before flying to Hawaii.  However, Mick’s navigation was spot on, and the trip was so great, Mick, his family, and me decided to keep going.  

We looked at a map and saw The Kingdom of Tonga, a tiny collection of islands, in the south pacific ocean, was about 1000 miles north of New Zealand; roughly the same distance we’d travelled across the Bering Strait.  

Eureka.

In an instant, it was settled, we were going to Tonga.  I’d never heard of The Kingdom of Tonga, before, but I was in love.  

From The Bay of Islands, we sailed south to Auckland; New Zealand’s biggest city, where Mick moored The Illusion.  We split up for 3 months.  He went looking for work and I went looking for shenanigans, kiwi style.

I hitchhiked around NZ and stayed, on a sheep farm, before returning to Auckland, and moving back onto The Illusion.  We put notices up at a hostel, indicating we were looking for adventurous travellers to join us, on a trip to Tonga.  

Fortunately, we got great, young people from England, USA, and Sweden to come aboard. Eager, anxious, and excited, with a crew of eight, we set sail for The Kingdom of Tonga, on Mick’s homemade, cement boat.    

The Kermadec Islands, tiny dots, in The Pacific ocean, are halfway to Tonga.  The largest, Raoul, is the only inhabited island of the Kermadecs.  Decades ago, the New Zealand government established a weather center and research facility on Raoul, and a small number of Kiwis (New Zealanders) spend a year there, working; rotating in and out, annually.

The workers are dropped off, on Raoul, with everything needed, for a year.  The only time they are visited is for emergencies, or when boats stop by, which we did.  

The year we visited, there were 8 New Zealanders, living on Raoul.  We were their first guests.  The Kiwis made beer, on the island, and they were happy to have several young travellers stop, visit, and sample their wares.  Our night on Raoul Island was great fun.

Hosts and guests on Raoul Island

The next morning, we set sail, for Tonga.  About week later, we arrived in the kingdom.  Tonga consists of 169 islands; 37 of which are inhabited.  We sailed to the largest, most populated island, Tongatapu, and cleared customs and immigration, in Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital.

Tonga was just how I’d imagimed; beautiful, simple, and fascinating.  I tried to learn a few words, everywhere I went.  “Hello” in Tongan is “Malo e lelei” (ma-low le lay).  I thought it was long, so abbreviated it to “malo,” which, I discovered, means “thank you.”  

A foolish tourist, indeed, I spent my first hours in Tonga, (a.k.a.“The Friendly Islands,”) saying, “Thank you, thank you,” to locals saying hi.

When we were there, the population was about 90 000 people, with about 60 000 on Tongatapu.  The country is a supreme monarch and the King owns everything.  Royal Beer was a favourite regal enterprise.

There were many, other, great things about Tonga.  Pigs, chickens, and other animals roamed freely.  Criminals were put on islands of isolation.  The cars in Tonga kept the license plates of their previous home.  There were vehicles from Australia, New Zealand, and America, with left and right hand drives, zooming all over.  

An unexpected hazard was falling coconuts.  I was told by a local, getting hit by the dropping fruit was the number one reason for hospital visits, in Tonga.  

Watching a Tongan scale a coconut tree, machete in mouth, was a spectacle to behold.  Using hands and barefeet, Tongans run up trees, with ease, and hack down food.  

My man, Abraham, getting snacks

Every place I’ve visited has an inebriant.  In Tonga, they enjoyed kava.  The root of the kava plant is dried and crushed into a powder, mixed with water, and drank.  

We were invited to a kava party.  We sat in a circle and a cloth sack was filled with powdered kava.  The sack was immersed in water, in an inverted tortoise shell, and squeezed.  A kava drink has sedative and euphoric properties.  

The master of ceremonies filled two coconut shells, with the kava drink, and they were passed, from person to person, using two hands, around the circle to the furthest two people.  They drank the kava and the cups were passed back to the MC.  Again, everyone handled the drinking vessels. The MC refilled the coconut cups and they were passed along, to the next furthest people.  This process continued until everybody had had a coconut cup of kava.

A Kava party

The ritual was repeated for the entire, great evening.  

The Illusion was anchored near an American couple, who had also sailed to the Kingdom.  He was a doctor, and, while in Tonga, served the king.  One day, sitting on his boat, he pointed to an airplane circling overhead.  The doctor explained the king was trying to lose weight and was riding his bike on the country’s only runway, while bodyguards ran beside him.

The king’s weight loss is legendary.  

Tongans are big, strong, and tough.  The rough and tumble way Tongan children played was shocking, at first, but affirming, soon, thereafter.  I loved it.  “That’s how kids should play,” I thought.

(I’ve often wondered, if bubble wrapped children and helicopter parents have inflicted on the kingdom.)  

God, I hope not.

Like all Polynesian cultures, Tongans love rugby.  We went to a game.  Rugby has 30 players, on the pitch; 15 per side.  In Tonga, I estimated, 10 players had cleats, 10 wore running shoes, and 10 played in bare feet.  The ferocity of the match was remarkable.  

Tongans hit hard, bro.

We left Tongatapu and were sailing through uninhabited islands.  As night fell, we saw a few lights, on a small island.  We decided to drop anchor and check it out, the next day.

We didn’t know it, but we were on the shores Nomuka https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomuka

April 28, 1989, two hundred years, to the day, of the mutiny on The Bounty, the most famous mutiny, ever.  Unbeknownst to us, the historic event occurred, roughly, where we had dropped anchor.

Early morning, three of us got in the small skiff and were paddling to shore.  Suddenly, the beach filled with Tongans.  Only 600 people lived on Nomuka, and many of them were on the beach, staring and chattering, with a tangible excitement.  

“What is going on?” we wondered.

When we hit the shore, an American emerged, from the crowd, and introduced himself: Brian from The Peace Corps.  “Are you from The Bounty,” he asked.  

We had no idea what he was talking about.  Brian had been the only non-Tongan, on Nomuka, for several months.  He spoke the language and knew Tonga, well.  He explained the significance of the date and our location.  “The Bounty is supposed to come here, today,” he explained.

“The Bounty” he was talking about was a direct replica of the original vessel, which had been built for the movie, “The Mutiny on The Bounty,” with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins.  On cue, the magnificent ship came around the corner and into view.  

The Bounty stopped within 100 meters of The Illusion and dropped anchor.  

The Bounty in Nomuka

On board were descendents of Fletcher Christian, the head mutineer, and Captain Bligh.  We went aboard The Bounty and got a tour of the ship and a lesson in history.  Some of Fletcher Christian’s descendants, whom we met, lived on Norfolk Island.  

The stories of Bligh, Christian, The Bounty, the crew, and Tahitians, before, during, and since the mutiny, are, entirely, fascinating; well worth two centuries of retelling.

Before we knew it, our time in Tonga was up.  I went to Fuji, which I found busy, compared to Tonga.  Then, flew to Hawaii, which was a rat race.  

I thought that was the end of me and Tonga, but Tonga was wasn’t finished with me.  

After two years of travelling, I had long hair, tattered clothes, and a beat up backpack.  The American customs agent, in Honolulu, took an instant dislike to me.  He asked me where I had been and how I afforded to be gone from Canada for so long.  I told him, I had working holiday visas for England and Australia, to no avail.

“I think you want to work here,” he said, (accurately.)  I had long dreamed of visiting Hawaii and, indeed, planned to find work, so I could stay, a while.  The grumpy customs agent sent me to a special room, for the unsavory, where I waited and entertained worst case scenarios.

Eventually, a young Polynesian man came in.  “He’s Tongan,” I said to myself, excitedly, but kept quiet.  He was pleasant, but cool, as he rifled through my backpack.  He asked for my wallet and started going through it.  He pulled out a picture of my niece, Jessica, who was about three. “Who’s this,” he asked and I explained.

Then, divine Tongan intervention struck, again.  The agent pulled out a business card and studied it, intensely.  He held it to me, “Do you know this guy?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I was just in Tonga and bought jewellery from him.”  The card belonged to Mickey Guttenbeil, who sold beautiful, handcrafted Tongan jewelry.  I had purchased several pieces and he had given me his card.

The immigration officer said, “Holy s#@, man, he’s my cousin.”

I’ve been carrying Mickey’s card, something of a St. Christopher medallion, for so long I had to laminate it.  The bottom said, (some numbers,) Nuku’alofa, Tonga Island, South Pacific.  Greatest address, ever?

Bang.  Everything changed.  “I thought you were Tongan,” I said, “but didn’t want to kiss your ass.”  It turns out, his family had emigrated to the US when he was 14 and he hadn’t been back to Tonga, since.  “You should go,” I said.  “It’s amazing. I loved it.”

Suddenly, we no longer a dodgy traveller and a scrutinising customs agent.  We were two people, talking, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company.  He repacked my backpack, apologized, stamped my passport, shook my hand, and said, “Welcome to America.”  The land of the free.

I said, “Malo.”

“’Oku talitali lelei koe,” he said.

I found work in Hawaii, on a small fishing boat, the owner of which was Alaskan.  After a month, he asked me and another traveller if we wanted to help him motor his craft to Alaska, and look for work cleaning up the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Sail a small boat, across miles of open ocean, to a mysterious destination, where untold adventures await?  

“I’d love to,” I said, with Tonga on my mind.

Why your next vacation should include a cycling tour

Can you imagine yourself biking along a field of wildflowers, herds of cows, or even up brisk mountains or along the coast of the ocean? The wind is rushing through your hair and the smell of the salty breeze hitting your cheek. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?

When most people decide to travel as part of a tour, the first thing they search for is the form of transportation — will I be riding on a bus with 40 other people, will I use a cruise ship to get from one destination to another, or will the group be transported by train to each city? What most travellers overlook is the sustainable option of cycling.

I know exactly what you are thinking: that seems like a lot of work for a vacation. I considered a cycling tour a few years ago when I was looking to travel through Europe. I had just started to bike over the summer and thought it would be a great way to see the countryside of Italy — however, the more I read about it, the more the thought of riding 70 to  80 kilometres a day terrified me. I didn’t want to be that person who had to call a cab in the middle of nowhere and spend a mini-fortune getting back to the hotel.

But, there are a variety of cycling tours available for people of different fitness capabilities. After doing more research, I found quite a few tours that range between 30 and 60 kilometres per day, and that as long as you understand the hill gradients involved in the routes, it’s not as physically exhausting as it may seem.

The advantage of going on a cycling tour is the ability to move at your own pace. Most are self-guided, so while you travel with a group of people, what you do and see is entirely up to you. Feel free to stop at a small village for a glass of wine, wonder a few shops, hike through some ruins, or sit by a stream and relax those muscles. It’s a much more natural way of seeing a country. Instead of spending your time lining up for tourist attractions that are more than often overrated, you will actually get the opportunity to experience the culture of a place. A cycling tour is the perfect option for an explorer, someone who has an intense passion to learn and see more than what is often printed in a list of “top must-see places”.

And then there is the fitness aspect. Eat cake, drink wine, and enjoy delicacies from around the world, because you will most likely burn off all those calories when you hop back on that bike! Your bags are typically sent along to each hotel in a support vehicle, which means you don’t have to worry about travelling with all your luggage.

The final benefit is that cycling tours are often well-priced, as the costs only include accommodations (which are usually quite luxurious), and a few meals. The transportation is all up to you!

Here are a four tours to explore:

Cycle through Tuscany: This guided tour is incredibly intimate, which means you are bound to meet some great friends while enjoying the sights of Italy. The daily bike ride is relatively short, with the longest route being 55 kilometres; however, Tuscany is naturally hilly. This tour offers a few meals and complimentary wine after your bike ride. Travellers will be staying at a mix of hotels and apartments.

Cycle through Spain: For those looking to bike a daily 30 to 60 kilometres a day, this tour through Spain is for you. Travellers will spend two days in each city exploring the various cycling routes and getting to know each village. Discover seaside resorts, dormant volcanoes, and fishing villages. All breakfasts and one dinner are included.

Cycle through Peru: This tour is recommended for active travellers who enjoy hiking, cycling, and kayaking. Instead of biking to each destination, this tour is comprised of shorter local bike tours, which means beginners may be more drawn to it. A number of cultural destinations are included, along with guides to explain the history. The accommodations are a mix of hotels and campgrounds, so this tour is for those who truly love the outdoors and aren’t afraid to rough it.

Cycle through Croatia: Vineyards, forests, and the Adriatic Sea — what else would you need for a cycling tour? Explore the coast while cycling through local villages and tasting homemade wines and fresh fruits. Similarly to the tour through Tuscany, the longest ride is about 50 kilometres, but there are a few steep climbs. Most of the villages have deep historical significance, so history buffs rejoice!

When choosing a cycling tour, make sure to note which ones include rented bikes and helmets. Some tours may require you to bring your own bicycles while others will provide them for you.

Happy trailin’!

‘It’s what ladies do’, New Zealand PM mic-drop

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced Friday she was pregnant!

She made the announcement on live television while being grilled by reporters about her intention to remain in her position. One reporter even asked how she managed to set up a government while experiencing morning sickness. Ardern’s response? “It’s what ladies do.”

Insert mic-drop here.

Ardern’s husband will be acting as a stay at home dad after the birth of her first child. She went on to tell the press that women get pregnant while they are working all the time, and this is no different. Her off-the-shoulder behaviour towards this news is refreshing. The questions from the reporters — not so much?

A woman’s capability to do her job has nothing to do with whether or not she is pregnant, or a mother.  To ask the question makes that correlation. In a Facebook post, Ardern makes it clear she knows more questions about her pregnancy will be coming.

Instead of asking how she is going to run a government or country, why not simply just offer your congratulations!

 

Time to shut down the pregnancy questions

There are certain things, as proper etiquette, you may not ask a woman: her chest size, her weight, and her pregnancy plans. It seems like common sense, but I guess sometimes men need reminding.

Jacinda Ardern is a newly elected 37-year-old politician in New Zealand and she is the youngest ever leader for the New Zealand Labour Party. Of all the questions that Ardern has faced, this one seemed the most absurd. While appearing on radio talk show, The AM Show, Ardern was asked by male host Mark Richardson of her pregnancy plans. Ardern was asked live on air if she plans on becoming a mother during her time in parliament. Richardson based his questioning stating he thinks it’s a legitimate question to ask on behalf of New Zealand because she could potentially become their Prime Minister.

In what world is it okay to ask this type of question to a woman, regardless of the position she may hold? Ardern, however, quickly shut down the radio host, calling the question out of line.

That is unacceptable in 2017,” Ardern said. “It is a woman’s decision about when she chooses to have children and should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have got opportunities.”

Ardern is familiar with Richardson’s stance on women and pregnancy in the workplace, as the host previously said that employers should know this information from their female employees. Richardson’s bold question asking if it is ok for the Prime Minister to take maternity leave left many upset.

Ardern has already publicly spoken out about her plans to to start a family and she doesn’t mind discussing it, however the comparison to women in the workplace is what caused the upset. Ardern insists that women should not have to be worried about maternity leave and consider this a struggle in the workplace.

Ardern even went on to ask Richardson if he would ask a man this question, to which Richardson responded with an unenthusiastic “yes”. Instead of focusing on the accomplishments of this young woman, many seem to be stirring up drama and provoking emotions from the public about her personal decisions. This is not the first time that Ardern was asked this question. During an appearance on a New Zealand TV show called The Project, she was asked by male co host, Jesse Mulligan, if she planned on having children. In this case, Ardern responded politely and said her situation is no different from any other working woman looking to balance priorities and responsibility.

In New Zealand, many activists are debating this form of sexism. The Human Rights Act of 1993 prohibits any employer to discriminate on the grounds or pregnancy or plans to start a family.

Ardern’s case is no different.