We were some of the first people on earth to see the sun set on Saturday night. After about 36 hours of travel from the Maldives, we landed on a dot of earth that is the Kingdom of Tonga, greeted by a brilliant Pacific sunset.
Tonga is in the second-most-eastern time zone – the second to start, and end, each calendar day. But Tongans don’t seem too aware of its significance, and have a relaxed attitude towards the concept of time in general. “Time doesn’t play a major role here,” said one of our guides.
“Island time” is a bit of a cliché, but it’s true that the Tongan pace is mellow. I didn’t see a single stop light in this country – just a few roundabouts at the “busier” intersections, and a crossing gate in Lifuka, where the main road intersects the airport runway. The prevailing speed limit is about 25 miles an hour and sometimes there are more pigs roaming free in the street than there are cars.
Political change has been slow to arrive here, too. Tonga is one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world — though not for much longer. The recently-crowned King George Tupou V has promised to start handing power over to the people next year, transitioning the government from one dominated by nobles and political appointees to one run by the prime minister.
But adopting a more modern form of government surely won’t mean that Tonga will lose the many rich traditions that thrive here. Most Tongans still wear the traditional waist mats – the ta’ovala for men, and the kiekie for women. It’s a sign of respect – like a neck tie, as it was explained to us – and is required in most schools, government buildings and church. The Tongan currency is called the pa’anga, but large, hand-made tapestries called tapa are sometimes still used as a form of currency and wealth.
That’s not to say that Tongans need – or have – much money. This continues to be, by and large, a culture of subsistence living, highly dependent on the abundant nature here. Food is gathered daily from the sea and lush land, and the strong family unit supplies other basic needs. The material items and frivolities that most Westerners spend their disposable income on just don’t exist. On the island of Lifuka, I asked our guide what he did in his spare time.
“I go and cut crops on my land,” he replied.
But how about for fun?
“I take a walk.”
Tongans are intimately connected to nature, and most we spoke to have noticed that the weather seems less predictable and the sea level seems to be rising. But many weren’t familiar with the concept of climate change.
That will probably change soon as well. For just like the sunrise and sunset, climate change will arrive first in Tonga and other small island states. And unlike the leisurely rhythms by which most business is done here, this issue must be tackled with urgency and haste.
The government recently formed the new Ministry for Environment and Climate Change and has started a campaign to spread awareness. They are also gearing up to attend the climate change talks in Copenhagen in December. There, they will join other small island nations to demand that the international community pick up the pace to save this Pacific island paradise and its people before it’s too late.