Friday, February 22, 2013

Escape

Generalisations can be dangerous. We made our first visit to Tongatapu at the beginning of 2010, and enjoyed a week of temperatures in the low twenties, thanks to cooling breezes that came off Nuku'alofa harbour. Our subsequent visits to Tonga all occurred during the winter, when conditions were similar, and I rashly concluded that temperatures here did not very vary significantly through the year. The summer of 2013 would be, I thought, no sweat.

As soon as we stepped onto the melting tarmac of Fua'amotu airport last Saturday I realised that my confidence had been misplaced. The heat and humidity were so bad that by the time I reached the little airport terminal fifty or so metres away I felt like ducking into the toilets and exchanging one of my recently purchased Hawaiian T shirts for another.

Tongatapu has been suffering through a hot and sticky summer, so that even locals are going about under umbrellas, and dabbing their faces with bright sweat rags. I've been helping my bosses at the 'Atenisi Institute meet the demands of the recently established Tongan qualifications authority, which has an unrelenting appetite for policy documents and other pieces of paperwork, and when I sit typing on our Financial Controller Mele's laptop I feel myself melting like a candle. As I typed an amendment to one particularly long document the other night I began to fear that all the liquid I was producing would shortcircuit my boss's computer.

Because it can only be ensured by air conditioning units, and air conditioning costs serious pa'anga, coolness if a prized commodity in Nuku'alofa. The smartest shops are also the coolest. Digicel, the Carribean-based phone company that has billboards up all over Tonga, keeps its central Nuku'alofa shop so cool that some staff are forced to go about in long sleeved shirts and pants. Molisi, a new apparently Tongan-owned supermarket chain, offers its customers the delights of a walk-in fridge. Yesterday I found myself milling in the fridge with half a dozen other punters; all of us were pretending to agonise over the half-dozen varieties of watery lager available for purchase.

The most glamorous eating places, like the aptly named Escape Cafe, offer chilled air as well as sodas and sandwiches at ambitious prices. I retreated to Escape Cafe yesterday, and discovered cliques of palangi businessmen in suits and ties lunching with Tongan civil servants in dark heavy shirts and thick ta'ovala. Observing their faces, which were miraculously free of the rivulets of sweat which ran down my forehead and chin, I wondered whether the Escape had a special room where distinguished guests could change from shorts and T shirts into suitably formal attire before they began negotiations over trade tariffs and aid packages. Surely no one could survive the humidity outside in a pinstripe suit?

I sat sipping my Diet Coke and tried to eavesdrop on the wheelers and dealers sitting all around me, but I was frustrated by the cafe's sleek air conditioning units, which purred as loudly and smoothly as the engines of a cruising jumbo jet.

I'd better sign off for now, before I shortcircuit Sisi'uno Helu's laptop, but I'll give another weather report soon.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

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