Trade a Pumpkin for a Toyota

Walking around the garden at Fenton House with friends earlier in the week, admiring the fruit and vegetables in the garden, provoked a conversation about the source of much of the fresh produce in our supermarkets.

You hardly ever see British apples in the supermarkets; they all seem to come from New Zealand, or somewhere else miles away.  The same can be true of asparagus, green beans and all manner of fruit; we import things from all over the world.

Sourcing of produce can be a controversial subject; there are campaigns to encourage us to buy only local, or to reduce so-called ‘food miles’.  I find it quite a difficult debate.  While it does seem crazy to buy peas grown in Thailand, or soft fruit from America, I do wonder what would happen to the people working on the farms in Africa if we stopped importing their beans.

I witnessed a microcosm of the global food trade when I visited Tonga  for a couple of weeks in October 1997.

Touring the main island in the first week, I saw a Toyota dealership with a yard filled with shiny new cars.  I expressed surprise at the number of vehicles bearing in mind that the island is really not very big.  How could there possibly be such a large demand for cars?

‘They’re ready for when the pumpkin money comes in,’ my guide told me.

‘Pumpkin money?’

A few years before, they had found that Tonga was a good place to grow a particular kind of small green pumpkin much favoured in Japan in a season when they would grow nowhere else.  By producing them, the Tongan farmers were filling a gap in a very lucrative market.

The pumpkin money had brought a prosperity, if prosperity can be measured in cars, that the farmers once dependant entirely upon palm oil and subsidence production, had never previously had.

The wisdom of car buying when there are few roads and possibly even fewer people who know how to drive might be questioned, especially when so many cars were already languishing head first in ditches, but the chance to grow and sell a crop to a wealthy customer base had changed the prospects of many struggling farmers on the island.

As I was waiting for the boat to leave the island at the end of my stay I sat beside a large stack of wooden crates filled with pumpkins and watched a crane load them one by one onto the deck of a ship.

I can only presume that the Tongan Fairy Godmother waved her magic wand and released the Toyota glass carriages to the waiting farmers not long after the ship had sailed.

A Puzzle on The Island

This is a photo of the jigsaw puzzle I completed when I was staying for a few days on Atata in Tonga in 1997.

I did the puzzle sitting in the bar of the resort, when it was raining outside but there was still sufficient light to see what I was doing.  There was quite a bit of rain while I was there, but, as part of the game was that the puzzle didn’t correspond exactly to the picture on the box, it took me four afternoons or so to complete it.

For much of the time I had a small crowd around me watching; first it was mainly people who worked in the hotel who paused briefly to watch me sort through the pieces, later, children from the village came to observe and smile behind their hands.   As I approached completion, it felt as if adults from the village had come for an afternoon outing to check it out. It seemed that no-one had ever made such a serious attempt to complete the picture before.

Despite my efforts to get people to help rather than simply watch, they always smiled and shook their heads.

When I had only a dozen or so pieces left I was thwarted by darkness and had to leave it unfinished.  When I came back the following morning I found the resort manager leaning over the table picking out pieces that had been forced into the wrong places.  It seemed that finally one person had given into their fascination and had wanted a go,  without quite understanding the point of it.

There were two pieces missing, so there was a little disappointment in not having a pristine end product, but I will always remember it as my only experience of jigsaw puzzling as a spectator sport.

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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