Beach Houses

My old photos of the Pacific don’t end with Fiji. At the end of June 1993 my father and I flew Air Pacific from Nadi to the island of Tongatapu: I was continuing my PhD fieldwork on tradition and politics in Fiji and Tonga, while Dad came along to see a country he’d never visited. We arrived just before the King of Tonga’s 75th birthday celebrations, which also commemorated his silver jubilee. I immediately made contact with a senior member of the Prime Minister’s office, and through them scored tickets to some of the key events of the week: a day of performances by school children, and a royal feast held on the grounds next to the Royal Palace. Surrounded by Tongans wearing their finest mats, Dad and I feasted on roast suckling pig and watermelon, and then watched a succession of dances from a perfect vantage point, sitting on the ground at the front of the audience a few metres away from the King himself.

In the late 1990s I turned my slides from that week into the first photo gallery on this site, after my father-in-law scanned them for me at work. The colour balance wasn’t great, so I re-did the gallery a few years later, dropping some of the weaker slides while I was at it. Nearly two decades on, my Photoshop skills are better, and I’ve finally re-scanned them at higher resolution, so I’ve gone back and revised and re-expanded the gallery to bring it up to the standard of my others.

The Silver Jubilee of Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV

Apart from one or two I’d omitted first time round, these images were all very familiar. But they represented only my first week in Tonga; the slides from the remaining six weeks had gone unseen since the year I took them.

Looking at them again, and at my diaries to identify their subjects, brought all the memories back. Some I wrote about in 2001, when sharing recipes for toasted sandwiches from the place that Dad and I stayed in, and for the breakfast from the Beach House, where I stayed after Dad returned to Fiji. Others are glimpses that have stayed with me, like the coughing in the background that distracted me while I was interviewing a local politician at his home, which turned out to be a dog outside the window; or the one-legged chicken I rode past on a quiet country road; or the ants that ate holes in my laundry at the Beach House; or the discovery that I hadn’t wound on a roll of film properly and had lost three weeks’ worth of photos. I rode my bike all around the island one weekend to re-take the photos I’d lost (fortunately I’d been keeping track of them on a notepad), but this time went even further, out to ‘Emeline Beach facing the island of ‘Eua. It turned out to be a lucky mistake, because having ‘Emeline all to myself is one of my favourite beach memories; I’ve always dreamt of going back.

After the celebrations ended, life in Tonga’s capital of Nuku‘alofa slowed right down, making “Fiji time” seem positively frenetic. In between conducting interviews I remember many quiet hours at the Beach House, listening to the BBC World Service on a portable longwave radio, or reading weeks-old copies of Time I’d bought at the Sincere Variety Store. I went out snorkelling one day, all the way around Pangaimotu, a small island near Nuku‘alofa; and went to a couple of movies, which turned out to be screenings of VHS tapes. Week after week I wondered if I had time to fly up to Tonga’s northern island of Vava‘u, which the tourists passing through the Beach House said was spectacular; but an interview would always come up that kept me in the capital on exactly the wrong days to make the flights work, and I never made it there.

At the end of these posts about my old travels I always seem to finish by saying that I hope to go back there some day, and Tonga has always been at the top of the list of places I’d love to revisit. But now I suspect I just want to revisit that time: a time when all the work I could possibly do took up half the week, leaving the rest of it to read and write and think and look around; a time among its friendly people, enjoying their tropical home; a time of being in my mid-twenties, with the prospect of endless adventures ahead. In the absence of a time machine, this gallery is as good a way of revisiting it as any.

The Kingdom of Tonga

4 December 2020 · Memory