First Day’s On Ha”apai Tonga

The weather was warm and breezy. We could see the active volcani islands of Tofua and Kao from our front yard. Kao is the highest island elevation in Tonga climbing to 3,380 feet. Many other small islands were also visible in the distance.

Tofua-and-Kao-Volcanoes,-TongaThe first day we visited “town” which consisted of not more than eight tiny stores. Since it was the holiday rush, the shops were full. Because Santa hasn’t yet discovered Ha’apai on his map, most of the shoppers had their children choose a treat or inexpensive toy to take home with them. I had a sting of homesickness as Christmas tapes played in the shops echoed “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.”

We bought a few food items and supplies. Our diet consisted mainly of hard biscuits with butter and jam, Milo, eggs, coconut and Tongan food supplied by generous neighbors. The electricity for the island came on at 6:00 am to 11:00 am and then again from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m. No ice cream was available since the freezers couldn’t stay on consistently.

We boiled all of our water, which had to be pumped from a rainwater tank. Our children had a good workout trying to keep us in water for our daily needs. Our adopted daughter, Titaku, my daughter and I got our exercise doing our laundry by hand. We were impressed by the kindness of neighbors who offered pans, dishes, clothespins and such.

Our children became attached to a boy who lived nearby named “Stoney.” He ended up going with us on most of our outings, and he was always around to lend a helping hand. He had many pets including goats, dogs, cats and pigs. The children never grew tired of feeding and playing with them.

Our spare time was spent biking around the island, swimming at the beautiful sandy beaches, collecting shells and snoozing. My husband met many old friends and distant relatives, or people who had known his parents and grandparents.

Our first Sunday, we attended a very small ward, and were surprised to find we would be the entire program for Sacrament meeting. One day we visited a graveyard close to our place, which had a statue of John Baker. He had dedicated his life to helping the Ha’apai people. In this particular graveyard there were many tombstones, which is rare of Tonga. Most of the graves were those of people from Europe. I was very surprised to find a marble headstone of a missionar, Althen J. Rasmussen, who was born in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, the same place as myself. He had died in 1923 at the age of 22. There was one more marble tombstone like it, but it was face down, and we couldn’t lift it. Isi said it was of another missionary who had died about the same time as the other.

On Christmas night, after a fund day at the beach, we ate at a guest house We met an interesting man from Sweden named Joe. Our Christmas tree was made from an olive tree and decorated with balloons, tinsel, flowers and shells.

Isi asked a friend to his to bring his hoosi and saliote (horse and cart) for us to ride to the liku (cliff) side of the island. We had a great time, and got a feel of what life msut be like for the Ha’apai people. Most of them earn their money collecting old coconuts in these carts and selling them for copra. They are otherwise self sufficient, raising their own crops and animals.

The last dady of our holideay, we hired a truck to take all of us along with our bicycles to the end of the adjacent island. The two islands are joined by a man-made bridge. The beautiful scenery was untouched by concrete buildings, swarming tourists and fortune seekers. We had the best time swimming there since three islands are very close together. The waves created by the currents made for perfect body surfing and shell hunting. We had a long ride back across the island of Foa and halfway across Pangai to our home. Many of the villagers along the way stared at the parade of wet, exhausted foreigners, and shouted their greetings, or an occasional “Palangi” (white person).

Ten days of Ha’apai was just enough, since we had become so accustomed to our modern conveniences of the civilized island of Tongatapu. We missed our wringer washer, treated running water, 24-hour electricity, and our car. So, one last rush to save our lives as we again boarded the Olovaha and bid farewell to an experience we’ll not soon forget.

We wish you could have shared this experience with us, but perhaps you caught the vision of our Christmas holiday in the fascinating islands of Ha’apai, Tonga.


Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been living in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She enjoys trying to capture the beauty of the islands through her photography, painting and writing. She has a blog which shares some of her art and favorite subjects at:




Escape to a Tranquil Tropical Island in Ha’apai Tonga

Sunny beach on the island of Tongatapu, Tonga, South PacificTwas the week before Christmas that our adventure began as we stood in line to board a red and white boat named the Olovaha. Our first-class tickets obviously didn’t promise an easy time, at least not until we were aboard the vessel. It seemed as though the trip had been overbooked from the number of people on deck, people sticking their heads out of portholes, and those still frantically trying to get on. We were literally afraid of being crushed before even leaving Tongatapu! Boxes, food, and even babies were thrown to passengers on board across the water!

We took with us some clothes, games, food, bedding, and our bicycles (seven of them). Our bikes and one big suitcase were loaded inside the front of the boat, along with horses, pigs, goats, various baggages, and food. Safely aboard, we took our seasick pills and settled down in a comfortable little cabin with two bunk beds, table and chairs, and a bathroom conveniently across the hall. Also, we had bought tickets for the business area which had several benches, tables and a video.

A bellowing blast of farewell and we soon found ourselves miles away from our home and three years. Seven heads peered out of one porthole. When we looked straight up, we could see legs dangling from the people on the deck. An occasional bottle or banana peel barely missed our curious faces. When we came to the deeper ocean, the waves grew higher until the spray came in our cabin and we decided to take a nap. Later on, we ventured up on the deck, and grew to appreciate what first class meant on the Olovaha. People laid all over the surface of the boa, some sick, others struggling to keep dry, warm and calm despite the nauseating rock and roll of the boat. The wind was strong and the night black. A restless night for many….We felt very fortunate because for us the ocean seemed mild, and the ride was pleasant. Luckily, noone became ill as we played games, roamed about a bit and reclined as the boat rocked us to sleep.

About 2 o’clock am, the engines stopped, and we awoke to an ocean as smooth and felfective as a mirror. Tiny ripples appeared as a dozen or so little fishing boats with lamps approached to gather relatives to take to a tiny island called Ha’afeva, which is located about 40 miles south of our destination. Some of our LDS missionaries left at this point to dedicate two years to preaching the Gospel on these isolated islands in the group of Lulunga.

Again, the engines roared, and we at last arose with a blast of the horn announcing our arrival at Pangai, Ha’apai, where my husband spent most of his adolescent years. Another wild struggle to get off the boat with all of our paraphernalia. A narrow wharf attached to an island 10 miles long, led right up to the mission home where we were to stay. Frustration at not being able to find the luggage we had put inside the boat, and trying to locate all of our bicycles caused us to have doubts that this venture had been a good idea. Finally, all our gear was together, and we walked the 100 yards to our temporary home. We were delighted to find our accommodations clean and safe. We enjoyed the warm welcome of the friendly neighbors.


Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been traveling in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She tries to capture the beauty of the islands through her photography, painting and writing. She has a blog which shares some of her art and favorite subjects at:



A Journey To American Samoa

American Samoa is a territory of the United States. When we first traveled to Tonga (where my husband is from), we had to go through American Samoa. The flight we traveled on was overbooked so we got “bumped off.” The airline put us up in a hotel until they could get us on a flight. They also reimbursed us for our ticket due to our inconvenience. Little did we know that we would return to live there for a couple of years.

My husband and I had some good friends that lived in American Samoa. They were three Samoan brothers married to three ladies from the mainland USA. We enjoyed our two-day stay in American Samoa visiting with our friends.

Coastline of American SamoaA few years later, my husband was offered a job in American Samoa working for the Department of Education. Since he was tired of the snowy winters in the mainland, he was more than happy to take the job. At the time we had three children, and were soon expecting our fourth.

The island of Tutuila, where we lived, is the largest and main island of American Samoa where most of the population live. Pago Pago is the capital and it has a beautiful harbor. The main road on the island winds around the coast.  The island is quite small (21 miles long) and narrow (3 miles across). The north coast has steep cliffs while the southern part is relatively flat. There are some pretty beaches along the coastline.

American Samoa is usually very humid and hot. It rains often, sometimes in buckets. I had a bit of adjusting to do because of the climate. The home we lived in had a high ceiling and louvers so the air could circulate. It had screens from floor to ceiling, and what were called “sails”, that could be lowered or raised, depending on the weather. They were similar to blinds.

We lived at Tafuna, which was quite close to the airport. We stayed in government housing on Lua Street. My husband taught school at Leoni High School, which was at the end of the island. We had shipped over our green mustang from the mainland, and our racy car made quite a hit with the islanders.

We enjoyed learning more about our new home. Our older two children started to school, and wore uniforms. I enjoyed staying home with our youngest child. We attended church in Nuuuli. To get to the village where our chapel was, we traveled on a narrow road which passed through the heart of the village.

Many of the homes in Samoa were open – meaning they had no walls, only large poles holding up the roof. You could see into the homes, with all the beds, furniture, appliances and people. For privacy, the families rolled down woven coconut fronds. This was all new to me. The thing I thought was very interesting was that most homes had large televisions, and you could see the people watching and eating, and sleeping, etc.

Samoa Home with open Walls, American SamoaIn Samoa, they have what is called the “Sa”. This is a period of prayer each evening that is enforced by the village chiefs (matai). An assigned person rings a bell, blows a conch shell or beats on a drum to announce the time of the sa. It is rude to eat or drink during this time (which could last up to 30 minutes) and everyone is expected to stop and pray. Youth in the villages have a curfew and the village chiefs have a lot of power including disciplining those who break the rules.

The status of a village chief is traditional. The villagers respect him because he is in charge of the communal resources. He is also responsible for making sure every one in the village has what they need to live.

We found out that we needed to be careful when we wanted to go to the beach. If we had to pass through someone’s yard to get to the beach, we first ask them if it is okay.  Also, if we wanted to take photos of an individual, we asked for their permission.

When entering a home, we took off our shoes or slippers. Often, the people did not have furniture, so we would sit on their mat. It was considered rude to point our feet towards them.

We had a very interesting and enjoyable time living in American Samoa.


Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been traveling in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She tries to capture the beauty of the islands through her photography, painting and writing. She has a blog which shares some of her art and favorite subjects at:



An Unforgettable Visit to the King of Tonga

I was raised on the mainland of United States enjoying the freedoms and rights afforded by the constitution. It states that we Americans are all created equal. I never fully appreciated my rights as an American until I married and followed my husband to his island kingdom of Tonga.

Tonga has a Constitutional hereditary monarchy, which means that it is ruled by a king with authority being passed down through The Royal Family. So, there are the royals and the commoners, with a distinct difference between the two.

In 1989, my husband was called to preside over the LDS Mission in Tonga, which included all of the islands. The kingdom has 171 islands, with only 48 of them being inhabited.

King Taufa, TongaTaufa’ahau Tupou IV was the reigning king in 1989. He was a Christian as were all of his royal ancestors back to King Siaosi Taufa’ahau I. As part of our mission, we were to meet with the king and his family once a month. I was very excited, but also quite intimidated by this assignment. We contacted the spokesperson for the King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, and arranged for an audience with His Majesty for us and a few of our full-time missionaries.

The date was set, and our meeting would occur at the Royal Summer Cottage. We were informed by the spokesperson that in order for us to gain the approval of His Majesty, we were to prepare food for him and his family. Because I was from America, he suggested that we bake ham, turkey, potato salad and trifle (an English dessert).

On the assigned day, we gathered to prepare ourselves by dressing in the appropriate attire, and we did our best to make the food attractive and tasty fit for The King. We had planned a program that included singing hymns, reading scriptures and saying prayers.

KING TAUFA  AHAU TUPOU IV Exercising, TongaTwenty of our missionaries joined with us as we traveled to the lovely Royal Cottage in Fua’amotu. My husband had informed me that I was expected to crawl up to the King on my hands and knees and kiss his hand. At first I let out a guffaw, and said “yeah, right”!  So much for being created equal – then I remembered I was not in America anymore!  This was going to be an interesting (and humbling) experience for sure!

As we crossed the threshold to the inner sanctum, I observed the enormous throne on which His Majesty sat, flanked by two spokesmen.  Trying hard to be a good little wife, I obeyed my husband’s commands. Wearing a long dress and nylon stockings, I clumsily crawled across a large woven floor mat. I somehow managed to make it all the way across the floor to find myself at the King’s feet. Being well over 300 pounds, the impressively massive King extended his hand towards me. His finger was adorned with a large shiny ring.

Shaking, I kissed the back of His hand, after which he lifted me up and peered into my face. I was informed that it was taboo for me to look directly into his eyes, so I lowered my gaze. In his deep raspy voice, The King asked me a question. He wanted to know if the gentleman following me was my husband.  I replied that he was. He then invited me to sit on the floor beside him whilst he greeted my husband (who just so happens to be his not-too-distant cousin).

I observed as each person in our group showed their respect while being greeted by the King of Tonga. No one stood or attempted to talk unless they were on the program. When walking out, it is forbidden to show your backside to the King, so we all backed out of the room.

Our program went quite well, and it was an exciting and fascinating time that I will never forget. I realize what a rare opportunity it was for me. We made many similar visits to the King and his family, some in the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa.

Tonga is a very culturally rich and traditional country. Only lately has a pro-democracy movement been active. I felt as though I had traveled in a time machine to another era.


Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been traveling in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She tries to capture the beauty of the islands through her photography, painting and writing. She has a blog which shares some of her art and favorite subjects at:



Relaxing in Vava’u, Tonga

One destination that I think should be on every person’s list is Vava’u in the Friendly Islands of Tonga. It is located in the South Pacific and consists of a chain of forty small islands and one large island. It is truly one of my favorite places in the world. I cannot forget the pristine water and the breathtaking views.

Native polynesian canoe on a remote beach on a small island in Vava'u, TongaUnlike the rest of Tonga which is basically flat, Vava’u rises to 700 feet above sea level. There are lush rolling hills and a scenic harbor called the Port of Refuge, known as one of the best harbors in the world. Yachts from all over the world float in the idyllic conditions found in the harbor.

Life is simple in Vava’u, and I don’t believe I have ever relaxed as much as I did while I was there. Our family enjoyed swimming and snorkeling at the sandy beaches. There is excellent deep sea diving and several underwater caves to explore.

Neiafu Harbor, Vava'u, TongaOne day our family took a small motor boat to Swallow’s Cave. I was amazed by the splendor of the cave. Our vessel slid through a small opening in the rocks. Once inside the cave, we could look up and see the sky visible through a hole at the top where the light shines in.

Whales frequently visit the waters surrounding Vava’u, and we were able to see a few of them. There are also plenty of fish of all varieties to watch. Besides the root crops which make up the main food in Tonga, many of the locals in Vava’u grow crops including vanilla beans, passionfruit, mangos, guava, breadfruit, and pineapple.  Giant clams are also raised and stunning pearls are grown and cultured just off the shores and in the lagoons.

The capital of Vava’u is Neiafu. There was no wild nightlife or high rise buildings, but there were quaint little shops, restaurants and bars. It was the perfect place to contemplate, read a good book, relax and be artistically inspired.

The island people were very friendly and respectful. They went out of their way to make us feel comfortable.

We stayed at The Paradise International Hotel in Neiafu. It overlooked the mesmerizing Port of Refuge Harbor. We loved watching the sunset each evening after exploring and soaking in the beauty of the island. They have a restaurant at the hotel that was excellent which offered a large variety of cuisines to cater to people from around the globe. There is also a well-kept swimming pool.

We enjoyed shopping for fine handicrafts made by the Tongan people. They are very skilled in pounding and painting tapa cloth which is made from the paper mulberry tree. They use it for clothes, beds,  and home decorations. They also weave lovely baskets, purses, hats, and fans.  Another thing that they are very skilled at is wood carving.

Vava’u is not on the main mass tourism routes, so it still maintains many of the original Tongan cultures, language and traditions.

I will always remember the glorious relaxing time we spent in Vava’u, Tonga, and I hope to be able to return again soon.


Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been traveling in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She tries to capture the beauty of the islands through her photography, painting and writing. She has a blog which shares some of her art and favorite subjects at:


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