Tonga and Samoa: Unexpected Beauty

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The beautiful waters of the island of Tonga and Samoa

The Emotional Rollercoaster of Travel

I am completely overcome with emotion. You would think that by this point in my journey, there wouldn’t be much left for me to learn. But every day, every person I encounter, every meal I have, I learn something new. I was prepared for the long flights, the poor WiFi, the time changes, the unideal hotel rooms. I was prepared for all things that come with travel, but I was not in any way prepared for the extreme ups and downs that the past six months have held. I suppose it makes sense, remembering how stable and steady my prior life was. But this is intense, and the emotions continue to come and go, always surprising me with an unexpected entrance, good and bad.

A New Perspective on Freedom

I can’t remember which flight from which airport it happened, but I had a suddenly new perspective of freedom. It was probably the 10th time in the last month that I was promised to have my wheelchair delivered to the gate and when I arrived, it wasn’t there. I sat in the overly large airport wheelchair as an escort started very slowly pushing me through the various lines – immigration, then up an elevator, then down an elevator, always going backwards when there was the slightest of an incline or a tiny little bump. Because, let’s be honest, when I’m by myself I live my life in reverse, right? It’s the most absurd thing. When was the last time you saw a wheelchair user going down a ramp backwards by themselves? No one else has to live their life in reverse; I shouldn’t either. But I digress…

I was not being friendly to her. I know it wasn’t her fault but I was and am so tired of having my freedom stripped away from me and being held at the mercy of someone who has never used a wheelchair, not for a day in their life. I’m starting to wonder if they will complain to their boss who might complain to their boss if I continue to be pushy and rude. My current approach of attacking social media and filing the proper complaint forms online has been totally ineffective, so I’m mixing it up, trying a new approach. I apologize in advance to anyone who has to cross paths with me when these situations arise. I know I am unpleasant.

But as I was sitting in this large chair, being treated like a dying dog, barking at someone who couldn’t understand my barks, I started to wonder why I always had such a strong response. I hate that I get so incredibly emotional, and I never feel good about myself afterwards, but I can’t control it. I really can’t – I’ve tried! So I had a good 40 minutes or so to sit and think as I was degradingly pushed through the airport.

I started to think of ‘freedom’ and what that means. I obviously felt as though my freedom was being ripped away from me, not even giving me a fighting chance to propel myself through the airport. And then I started to think of the world, of all the places I’ve seen, even my home country, and the overly strong responses that people have for their country, for their rights, for what they need to have…ultimately, for their freedom. For the first time, I started to understand why there is so much war, so much hate, so much violence. I started to understand the emotional response that we think every society, every culture, every human being should be able to control but simply can’t when the most valued thing – their freedom – is stripped away with no explanation.

So, as I continue to piece together some semblance of how this world operates, searching for my own truth, I learned something. I learned something from an utterly horrible and demeaning situation. A missing piece of my puzzle to understanding the world was dropped right there in front of me. Freedom…so simple and so important.

The Missing Wheelchair and the Missing Driver

I arrived into Tonga to yet another missing driver. I found a taxi after about 30 minutes of waiting (I’ve become very good at waiting…) and made my way to the hotel. Now, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tonga. If you didn’t read it in the news earlier in the year, there was a historical underwater volcano explosion in the Tongan islands.

The US Department of State Travel Advisory is Level 4 – Do Not Travel, all because of this volcano. It was last updated in April, so clearly someone needs to do some updating, because Tonga is not anything like what is portrayed!

Exploring the Kingdom of Tonga

It’s green, it’s modern (for an island), and there’s some infrastructure. For all intents and purposes, I would have had no idea that it was completely covered in ash and without electricity just months ago. We pulled up to my hotel – The Little Italy Hotel – right along the water. This was one of the upscale hotels in Tonga, and if you remember from my previous post, my original hotel cancelled on me last minute, so I didn’t have much of an option. I had read that the rooms were all up a level and there was no lift. I was prepared for this and really didn’t think much of it. I had planned to climb the one flight of stairs on my hands and knees if I had to.

After all, I was looking forward to having a decent place to stay for a few nights. I had been staying in some pretty rough places – rats in the walls, hostels where I had to crawl on questionable floors to get to the toilet because the doorway was too narrow for a wheelchair, windows that were completely ineffective to the chicken and dog sounds, geckos running up and down the walls. You get the point – I needed this upscale place!

As soon as we pulled up, a young woman – Nesi – met me at the door. She immediately helped me with my bags and pushed me up the small ramp into the reception area. I had no idea then, but Nesi would change my life in the days to come. The owner of the hotel saw my wheelchair and immediately commented that there wasn’t a lift. I smiled and told her it was no problem and I knew that when I booked the room. She smiled back and we continued the check-in process.

I asked if I could have dinner before going upstairs (there was a lovely restaurant on the ground floor), so I had some food before heading up. Nesi was immediately by my side, taking my incredibly heavy bag and my wheelchair up the stairs, offering to help me all the while. We figured out how to get up pretty quickly, and it became a nice, seamless process in the days to come. No questions asked, no one telling me no, just Nesi and the housekeepers telling me I was a strong woman, ‘like the Tongan woman,’ and smiling as though I was one of them.

Nesi called my room that night just before bed, to be sure I had everything I needed. And I did; the room was lovely, the WiFi was great, and I knew I was going to get a much-needed rest. The next morning, Nesi called promptly at 9 am, “Hi Renee! Do you want to come to breakfast?” And she was up to get me just a few minutes later.

Meeting the Locals and Learning Their Culture

I had noticed a sidewalk along the water in Tonga and I wanted to explore this on my own. I have been pretty confined on these islands, at the mercy of drivers and pushers to help me explore. They simply aren’t accessible, so I don’t have much of a choice, but this island looked like a place I could be alone. And I also needed that…some space to be with just me.

I walked along the coastline on a cement sidewalk and knew Tonga had moved a few notches up on my list of islands. It’s unfortunate for the islands that don’t have the infrastructure for a wheelchair; I just don’t enjoy them as much. I guess it all goes back to freedom. What an important concept. It was so nice to just explore. I found myself in the small little town a few miles away, waving at locals and exploring markets and shops. It was safe, comfortable, and liberating.

A few hours later I found myself back at the hotel. I sat down in the restaurant overlooking the water. It had begun to rain, so an afternoon indoors it would be. Nesi immediately asked if she could get me a coffee. “It will be free,” she whispered. I ordered a long black coffee and she sat with me, drinking a cappuccino, for a few hours, as we got to know each other. We talked about the King of Tonga. They are on their sixth king. When I asked about the volcano, she told me that the people believe it was a sign from God that something is going to happen.

You see, Tonga is an extremely religious country – Christian – and their current King fought for their independence and ultimately their religion. Everything – literally everything ­– is closed on Sundays. The rituals are intense and real. The people of Tonga are also very educated. They all learn English in school and most go on to university. This was evident as I met and interacted with the locals.

It got to be time for Nesi to return to work so we said our good-byes (for the time being). We had exchanged contact info at this point, and when I returned to my room later that night, she messaged that she would like to take me on a tour the next day, to see more of the island. I couldn’t turn that down, but did insist on paying the driver despite her offer to host me and pay. We agreed upon a time and once more before bed, she called ‘just to be sure I had everything I needed.’

Just as promised, Nesi was ready to show me around right after breakfast the next day. We saw the three-headed coconut tree (the only one in the world), blow holes along the coastline, several historical monuments, and so on. But if you know anything about me by now, you know that it’s the people I love experiencing more than anything.

When I was checking out of the hotel, the entire staff wanted to get pictures of me, telling me, “We’ve never had someone with so much determination and strength come to our hotel, so we want to remember you.” They gifted me to two wooden circles with symbolic Tongan script and art on them, something I will cherish for years to come.

I parted ways, my heart so incredibly full. I sent Nesi a message thanking her once again, and she said, “Renee, you have taught me so much.” And I wonder what I taught her, because I was thinking the same thing about her. How could a 20-year-old Tongan woman have left me feeling so full, so grateful, so refreshed? Nesi is exactly what I needed to see out of humanity. She reminded me what freedom is, and that in a strange sort of ironic way, we can give that to each other.

The Unexpected Beauty of Samoa

I had a short 18-hour overnight layover in Fiji on my way to Samoa. I had done the same layover on my way to Tonga, so I knew the ropes. I was staying in a room that cost $28 a night, just a short drive from the airport. The average hotel room in Fiji is around $250, so you can understand that this was certainly not luxury. Fortunately, there was a Ramada right next door, and I got to know the entire wait staff at their restaurant, unbeknownst (or maybe with full knowledge) that I was simply there to use the WiFi, which my $28-a-night room did not have.

The staff, however, at my $28-a-night hotel was fantastic! I would ask them to sign by Guinness Witness Statements, knowing it would bring great joy to their day. And it did, just as I expected, both women gleaming with joy that they got to be a part of the process. As I waited for my taxi to the airport, I sat with Mary, who had signed my form, and she explained to me that disabled people in Fiji rarely leave their homes. When I asked why, she told me that they ‘felt ashamed’ and that if I were to talk with one of them, they wouldn’t even believe that it was possible to live such a full life. She expressed all of this with great sorrow for the people, knowing that they had so much more to offer but that culturally they just weren’t there yet.

I arrived into Samoa, expecting another island experience. But honestly, each of these Pacific Islands has been so special and unique – aesthetically, culturally, even the weather has been different. So when my driver and I pulled away from the airport and turned down the main road to my hotel, I was totally taken aback by the green-ness of this country. Now, I have been to some pretty green places. All of these islands, Costa Rica, the Amazon Rainforest, but nothing compared to this. The sky was crystal clear and the green just echoed off of it. I could feel my lungs filling with healthy air.

We drove along passing by open-air homes, with large front porches (or at least that’s what they looked like). The Samoan people gather in communities and villages, and the open-air construction allows for large gatherings. My driver explained that they often sleep in this part of their house, right on the floor, letting the breeze from the sea cool them.

Also of note were the massive number of very small cemeteries. When I asked my driver about this, he explained that in Samoa, a family owns their own land and can do whatever they want with it. And as such, they have culturally evolved to bury their loved ones right there in the front yard. To my knowledge, this is the only place in the world where families have their own private cemeteries in their yard, but as he explained, and I can understand, “It allows us to keep our loved ones close by, even when they are gone.” So, it turns out that there aren’t a lot of cemeteries in Samoa, there are just memorials and graves at each home, keeping families close together, in person and in spirit.

The Challenges and Rewards of Solo Travel

I spent the evening at one of the most beautiful resorts I’ve ever stayed at. It was small, quaint, and more of a guesthouse than a resort, but nestled right by the water and surrounded by palm trees. There were only three other guests at this property and it allowed me some time to get to know the staff, which of course I leaned into and took in every minute with them that I could. We talked about life on the island, the interaction of other islands, world politics. We talked about the future of humanity and all sorts of philosophical and worldly topics. I was in my element and didn’t hold back any questions, admitting my ignorance when I knew it was there, but taking the time to listen, really listen, to what these people had to teach me.

On my way back to Fiji (they are the hub for all other Pacific Islands), several of the airport staff saw me and said, “Oh hi, it’s you again!” I’ve become quite a celebrity with the Pacific Island airlines, and I’m pretty convinced every staff member in every plane and airport has met me. It’s a strange thing to be totally immersed in these islands and feel like a part of the community, and that’s where I’m at right now. Totally immersed. Totally welcomed. Totally at peace.

As I was wheeling myself down the jetway – the staff has learned to let me do this alone by now – a young mother in front of me asked where I got my wheelchair from. She was with her son who was using a very poorly built and limiting wheelchair. I had to be honest and just said, “I got this in America.” She smiled, and said, “I hope they have one in Fiji for him. Yours looks so nice.” And she was right, mine is nice. But I’d be willing to bet a pretty big bet that she won’t find anything even close in Fiji, and that breaks my heart. I know how hard my mother searched to get me the right medical care, and I could see the same passion in this mother’s eyes. She would search forever to find her son the wheelchair he needed.

I continue down my path of piecing together this strange, complicated, emotional world. It’s an overwhelmingly beautiful journey, full of ups and downs. I can’t believe I am still learning so much, piecing together so many pieces I didn’t even know where missing. I can’t imagine what the next piece will be, when this puzzle will be complete, what it will look like, but right now, I am embracing the freedoms I have, grabbing onto every nugget of information I can, and holding all of these puzzles pieces tight in my memory.

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