Vava’u is a mixed bag of two places I’ve been before. Physically, it has the close interisland sailing and anchorages of the Virgin Islands. The area also has large bays, unimposing green hills, sudden reefs that pop out of nowhere reminiscent of the Bocas del Toro area of Panama (minus the cattle herd of Americans thinking it’s the new Costa Rica and buying up all the property). It is third world with an “up and coming” feeling. There’s restaurants and bars, small villas, and “psuedo resorts” but no big, brand name hotels. The Kings owns all and land is leased from him. Local Tongans work cheap. $3/4 US dollars an hour is a good wage. They are friendly people but they are shy and won’t approach you first. The younger Tongans seem to be moving away from their Christian heritage. Rap music bellows out of cars and cell phones. Few teens sport traditional dress and on Saturdays the pants ride low and hats turn backwards.
Neiafu and Vava’u as a whole is deserving of its own blog post if not for the plethora of beautiful, somewhat simple anchorages, then for the interesting social dynamics that allow a place like this to exist. Palangi. What is a palangi you ask? A palangi in its simplest definition is a foreigner and Vava’u is full of them. We, as visiting cruisers, were palangis but it’s the other palangis; the retirees, expatriots, and business owners who moved to Tonga that I’ll write about here. They are the ones who’ve adopted Tonga as their new home and are trying their hardest to bring this third world country into the 21st century but not always in the best manner or with the best intentions. The relationships between the “settled Palangis” and the locals is tenuous at best. There is obvious tension and the palangis face an uphill battle against royalty, nobles, and the everyday Tongan in their quest for policy change and modernization.
Most all of the restaurants and bars in Neiafu are owned by foreigners. Seeing as how Marge and I enjoy eating out and consider it just as much a part of the cruising experience as snorkeling the reef, we met and spent time with most all of them. Some became friends while those we didn’t know personally always offered a wave or hello in passing on the street. True to restaurant form, there is drama and plenty of it. In the grand scheme, Neiafu is quite small and competition is fierce. When the cruising fleet of any given year rounds that corner into the harbor, the gloves come out. The natives of the island either can’t afford to dine out or spend their time trying to make a living off of the cruisers so the last thing they want to do it spend more time around them. Therefore, the business owners rely on these few short months for the vast majority of their income for the year. Different nights of the week offer different themes at different places. There is Movie Night, Kava Night, Tongan Band Night, Faka Lady Night, Rugby Game Night, Buffet Night, Tongan Feast Night, and several cruiser birthday parties, all held at any of the given restaurants which for the most part are within about a half mile of each other. The biggest question posed in opening and operating a business is whether it’s better to be profitable or popular? The ones making the most money are quick to cater to cruiser needs while many of the others sit on the side and talk trash about them. In our experience, there was only one restauarnt owner who, while he was probably thinking it, did not vocalize a single negative thought about any of his peers. Mike, owner and operator of the Aquarium Cafe, was professional, helpful, and quiet in his “domination” of the competition. Food on the island in pretty much every restauarnt was great and there were dishes we absolutely loved and raved about to other crusiers. The worst thing a business owner anywhere could assume is that cruisers don’t talk to one another. A fleet in a harbor is as bad as a middle school girl’s locker room. Personally, we hate to see great people with great product with bad attitudes; ruining the dining experience because the entire meal was filled by rants about what other businesses in the area were doing to hurt them. Best advice we could give to any future business owners in Neiafu…stay out of the drama. Let your product speak for itself. Neiafu has a good thing going and we’d love to see the same people still there, doing well, when we return in years to come.