I was very fortunate to be able to take a work trip earlier this year to Tonga – specifically Tongatapu, the largest island in the group.
Each morning I drove the length of the island to the work-site. And the length of the island in the evening. Literally… I could not have driven much further. My sleeping quarters at the resort were within a few paces of the western shore, while the only background noise at my remote work-site (besides the occasional thud of a coconut falling), was the waves crashing on the coral reefs.
So anyhow, I had plenty of experience driving in Tonga. Something like 600 km on an island that at its widest point is only 30km. First note to self. Avoid driving after dark. There are no reflective road markings – that I recall anyhow. There are few street lights in many villages. But more importantly, the roads belong to everyone…cars, bicycles, pedestrians, oldies in wheelchairs, soccer-playing children, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens. Literally, the road belongs to everyone…equally.
I was driving along one afternoon, enjoying the music and the warm breeze, and had to jam on my brakes to avoid a dog napping on the centreline. He looked at me with an irritated glance, got up, shook himself, and sauntered off.
Tonga has marked pedestrian cross-walks, just like in New Zealand, but of the hundreds of people I saw cross the road as I drove, I only recall one person who crossed at a cross-walk. And it could very well have just been coincidence that he crossed at that cross-walk rather than some other point on the road.
I did suffer my fair share of bouts of spoiled Westerner frustration with the random hazards and the slow driving pace (the 40 kmh speed limit was sometimes clearly too high, especially after dark!). But eventually I came to realise – this situation with the roads perfectly reflects what I saw throughout this culture – that above all else, it is about the people. It’s not about getting places fast. It’s not about who has what “rights” at what place on the roadway, and at what time. It’s about the people you are with, and how good of a time you are having with them along the way. It’s about honouring them, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, whoever they are. I realised: I can respect that.
The below photo was taken along the waterfront walkway of Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital city, just a stone’s throw from the fence of the king’s palace. (Yes, those are chickens in the background.)