On A Pacific Island

Atata School

Seeing ‘South Pacific’ last week, and then hearing the tail end of a piece on the radio this morning about healthcare in Tonga brought to mind the two weeks I spent on Atata, one of the Tongan Islands in 1997.

I was towards the end of a five month trip through South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and after weeks of being on the move nearly every day I decided I wanted to relax on a beach, somewhere I could fully unpack my bags for the first time in months.  I chose Tonga because someone I had met on route recommended it, and it was easily accessible as the stopover on flights from Auckland to Hawaii.

I didn’t pick the best time of year for sunshine, so it turned into a much more active and  interesting experience than I had expected.

I’d anticipated a sun drenched brightly coloured paradisal island, perhaps the result of absorbing the Gauguin’s palette, but my arrival on a rainy, dark night put me on notice that the reality might be different.  I was due to travel to Atata, one of the smaller islands, the following morning, so I went to a hotel in the main town.

The people were charming, but everything in the hotel was brown.  In my room the walls were light brown, the furniture was chocolate brown, as was the counterpane on the bed and the carpet, and then, when I pulled the covers back, the sheets were caramel brown; clean and fresh smelling, but unmistakably brown.

I sat on the bed in the dim light from a low wattage bulb under a brown shade and fervently hoped that things would be brighter in the morning.

I saw the sun through a hazy sky the following morning on the boat trip to Atata.  One end of the tiny island was home to a village of a couple of hundred people, the other, sandy end, was the site of a small resort, my destination.

Together with a few of the other visitors, one day we were invited to take a tour of the village, including a visit to the school.  I thought we would simply be walking by, but the formidable teacher (in the red shirt on the right in the photo) saw a valuable learning opportunity, for both his charges and us.

We were invited into the classroom and pointed to seats at the front.  All of the children are taught English, so each one was given the chance to introduce themselves.  ‘My name is Atamai, I am 8 years old and I live in Atata.’

If we thought all we would be required to do was sit and smile like the Queen Mother, we were disabused of this, when the teacher, in his best teacher voice that none of us would have dared to disobey, instructed us that it was now our turn, pointing to the young Danish woman at the end of the row of tourists.  So transfixed had she been by the little speeches made by each of the children, she started by saying  ‘My name is Anna, I am 27 years old and I live in Copenhagen.’

I can’t remember what I said, although I’m fairly sure I didn’t tell them my age, but I did manage something along the lines of ‘I work in an office’, a particularly poor effort even to my ears.

When I asked if I might take a photo, all I’d really meant was a quit snap inside the classroom, but the teacher had everyone up, outside and arranged before I could argue.

There may be more Tongan tales to come…..

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