Several airlines have attempted to serve the far-flung islands of Tonga. The latest is Chatham Pacific - a largely Kiwi bunch picking up the pieces of the last corporate victims of "Tonga Time." They are our only option for leaving the Kingdom, unless we stay another month and sail the boat down to New Zealand to wait out the typhoon season.
Our western values of time, and even our god of money, are having trouble taking root in a culture that has never had much need for them. Time of day seems to alter to fit the weather - hot days start sooner, pause longer at high sun, and last longer into the night. So breakfast could be an hour or so different day to day. Only the church bells are right on time - but just on Sundays. The rest of the week is on Tonga Time.
Our flight from Vava'u is scheduled to land back at the capital of Nukualofa in time for us to catch a taxi to the "international airport," which is in fact only a building on the other side of the same runway. From there, it's back into the 21st century on Air New Zealand to Auckland, for bit of "while we're there" travel.
But none of the Tongan airline's 3 planes are in evidence as our departure time comes and goes. No one seems much concerned, and the ladies in grass skirts chat on, and the groups of barefoot men waiting to greet those arriving just lean on the fence in typical Tongan relaxed poises.
Jean is not relaxed. She has gone against all of our rules of travel and scheduled an itinerary for us after leaving Tonga - including prepaying for a quaint (read "expensive") B&B just outside of Auckland. After a while, it becomes obvious that the deposit money is gone - and even leaving this island in is doubt - as the phones are not getting thru and no one knows where the plane is exactly.
But on Tonga Time it does arrive - after having made an unscheduled stop at another island. It is shiny Convair 540, built when Ike was president. They also have a DC3, built when he was a colonel. As we finally depart on Tonga Time for the capital, I note my watch shows our Air New Zealand flight is long gone. Next flight out is in a couple of days.
We hunt down the airline's office in town, an unsigned shack near the market square. It is locked but my insistent knocking rouses a very solicitous employee who is quick to point out that they are not responsible for providing us a place to stay or paying the costs incurred by our missing the connecting flight - much less the un-used B&B beds in New Zealand.
But the phones are working and a call to a lady driving the van to the airport, who is also in charge of customer relations, brings an offer of a refund for the inter-island flight. It will be paid when they get a credit card system up and working. That is to be in a "few weeks time." I forgot to ask if that was my time, or Tonga Time.
- un-Scheduled Stew