A Tale of Two Kingdoms

Almost every night I get to tell the same story: the story of my trip. Most people I meet on my travels are just visiting somewhere for a weekend. Sometimes I’ll pull out my laptop and show them the Google Earth map and walk them through the places I’ve been and the places I’m going.

People who are traveling for extended periods are usually just stopping in the Pacific on their way to somewhere else, usually the US or Australia/New Zealand. Few people visit more than one Pacific country. (Although I’ve met several Aussies and Kiwis who have been to several countries over the course of their lives)

I was asked by a woman last week, “Aren’t all the islands pretty much the same? Once you’ve seen one haven’t you seen them all?”

It’s a fair question I guess. Without having been there, I suppose most islands would seem the same. Certainly, in Polynesia at least, many things are similar. The languages are similar, the foods, what few they have, are similar, and the music and dancing are similar.

But they are different, sometimes dramatically so. The best example of this is a difference between Tonga and Samoa.

Tonga and Samoa have histories that are intertwined. Tonga was originally settled by Polynesians from Samoa. (In fact, all Polynesians can trace their roots back to Samoa). Prior to the arrival of Europeans Samoa was ruled by Tonga. Samoa and Tonga are both regional powers in Rugby. Both have populations similar in size. Both have large expatriate populations. And of course, they are close together.

Yet, Tonga and Samoa are very different.

For starters, Tonga was never colonized and Samoa was colonized by the Germans, New Zealand, and in part by the United States.

In Samoa they drive on the right and in Tonga they drive on the left.

Last September, the King of Tonga died and in May, the King of Samoa died. The King of Tonga was buried in the royal graveyard in the middle of the capital. No one can get within about 200 yards of the grave. The King of Samoa is buried off the road just north out from town near the parliament building, and the grave is accessible by everyone. Many people have left flowers at the site, but it isn’t a giant edifice like the Tonga royal graveyard is.

While in Tonga, I saw soldiers all over the place. Soldiers around the royal palace. Soldiers near the new king’s palace. Soldiers in the downtown. Solders out to keep peace during a high school rugby match. On the tour of the island, I was struck at how often our guide would mention stories or customs in villages that surrounded warriors. I also saw lots of police on the island. That is a lot of uniforms for a country of about 100,000.

In Samoa, they have no military. None. I saw a few police directing traffic. That’s it. The Samoans seemed like a much more peaceful people than the Tongans. The recent riots don’t take away from that perception. Nor does the historical fact that Samoa was conquered by the Tongans before the arrival of the Europeans.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Samoan village life is very structured around the village. Tongan villages seem more like small towns and not as highly centralized as Samoan villages.

I suppose if you just went to these islands to sit on the beach you wouldn’t catch a lot of this stuff. This is why I’m traveling.