Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Coffee and vanilla in Vava'u

Hospitality comes in all shapes and forms. Sometimes you encounter it in the most unlikely of places. With a name that means "the friendly islands", we discovered hospitality first hand in the Kingdom of Tonga during a tiki tour of Vava‘u.

The port at Vava‘u is small and pretty. The tiny town is less than a stone's throw away and visitors can easily wander through markets to a few mall street blocks. There is a more tropical feel to this island than Tongatapu and the humidity is more obvious.
The wharf at Vava‘u
There are churches almost everywhere in Tonga. We passed so many on the main island of Tongatapu but didn't actually go inside any. St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral sits atop a small incline in Vava‘u. It stands out as an imposing whitewashed figure on the edge of the town and is worth walking up to see.
St Joseph's Cathedral
Inside St Joseph's Cathedral
Back in the township, it seemed that hiring a taxi for an hour was the best way to look around the island. I use the term 'taxi' loosely. Taxis don't have to be registered or even have doors that shut and we had many offers called out from within private vehicles in dubious states of disrepair. We found an 'actual' taxi back at the wharf, negotiated an hourly rate of T$80 (around $NZ53 - slightly above the going rate some others paid but there were few options available) and headed off for a tour.

Our driver didn't speak a lot of English but seemed to know where tourists might want to visit. We were treated to "Tongan air conditioning"; the sliding back door of the van didn't close and it was very hot so our driver just pushed it the whole way open and left it there. (No seat belts either, so we just held on tight.)

We drove up and down a hill and stopped next to a bridge to look at this lagoon. I didn't quite catch the story or significance of the lagoon but the events of the next few minutes will ensure I won't forget visiting it. After jumping back into the van (with the Tongan air conditioning wide open), we needed to back off the bridge, which the driver did by reversing a hundred or so metres. He then answered a mobile phone call but didn't let it interrupt him. Tonga must be the only place in the world where we could legally sit inside a van with the door wide open while the driver did a one-handed u-turn on a bridge and talked on the phone.
Lagoon near the bridge
Back towards town, our driver stopped to pick someone up. Another passenger? Perhaps. He didn't look Tongan and seemed to know the driver. "Hello," he said. "I hope you don't mind being flexible, but we do things a little differently in Tonga. I just need to pick up my groceries from the shop. It won't take long. Is that ok?" Who were we to argue?

It turns out our passenger was a Swiss national who had been living in Vava‘u since visiting many years ago. He married a local Tongan woman and they had returned to Vava‘u after living in Europe for a few years. His English was excellent and he pointed out various landmarks along the way. He also made an unbelievable offer.

"So, you ladies are on the cruise ship? What's the coffee like on board?" he asked.
"Pretty bad," was our honest answer.
"I have the best coffee at my place. Do you drink coffee?"
Do we ever?!
"I have the beans sent from Italy and make coffee using rain water. Come and have coffee with me - free of charge, of course."

At this stage we thought he may have been involved with a cafe in town that looked quite upmarket but didn't really take him seriously. "Sure, that would be good," we replied noncommittally as we drove up a hill towards his home, dropping him off along with his groceries. So much for the coffee.

Our next stop was at Veimumuni cave and fresh water pool. Used as the bathing place of local villagers as recently as 30 years ago, the source of the water is unknown. Even though the mouth of the cave directly faces the ocean, the water does not originate from there. Our driver insisted that 20 women could fit in the cave at once, but we weren't prepared to see for ourselves.
Veimumuni cave
Our hour long tour was marching on. Once back in the van, our driver headed back towards the house where we'd dropped off his Swiss passenger. "Coffee," he announced before ushering us onto the property.

Within moments, our host had emerged from the house carrying some indoor furniture. He set up a table and four chairs underneath a giant mango tree in the front yard while his dogs checked us out as visitors. His wife joined us ("I was in the shower when I was told to make coffee because we're having guests!" she said) and we chatted for a few minutes before the coffee arrived in beautiful espresso cups - and it was the most delicious coffee I'd tasted since leaving Wellington. We sweetened it with icing sugar as there is no sugar in Vava‘u, despite Tonga producing so much sugar cane. Sipping coffee in the shade of a mango tree in a stranger's front yard is an experience I'll never forget.
The best coffee in Tonga
Just as we were thanking our hosts for their coffee and hospitality, we heard mention of a vanilla plantation "just up the road". We looked expectantly at our driver who reluctantly agreed to take us there. "Why do you want to go to a vanilla farm?" he asked. "Because we're bakers!" was our reply. We were thrilled to visit the home of Queen baking products and be welcomed by the strong aroma of delicious vanilla. It turns out we'd just missed seeing all the vanilla pods laid out to dry in the sun on huge drying racks. They'd were collected up in large bags, ready for processing and packaging for Queen products in Australia. We bought some specialty Vava‘u vanilla pods and coconut moisturiser from the factory shop across the road.
Vanilla pods ready for drying
Vanilla pods are spread on racks and left to dry in the sun
Mālō, Tonga. I'll never forget the warm hospitality of Vava‘u.

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