St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Date: June 1, 1997
Author: GIG GWIN
Photo by Gig Gwin


I STOOD before the king of Tonga wearing a striped shirt and a polka-dot tie, hoping his royal highness wouldn't judge me by my clumsy taste in clothes.

The king's security people had told me I couldn't see him unless I wore a tie, and I had come all the way from St. Louis without one. I had to wear the one they furnished and let the colors fall where they may.

As a travel agent visiting Tonga in the South Pacific, I had asked the tourist office for an audience with King Taufa`ahau Tupou IV as part of a travel article I hoped to do about the islands.

Initially, all my requests were denied. Then they changed their minds.

The king is 80 years old and has been ruling Tonga for 30 years. A number of years ago he was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's heaviest head of state - at 461 pounds. He since has trimmed to about 250 pounds, but he still cut an imposing figure as we met in a gymnasium where he works out every day.

Even more imposing were the 10 young Tongans in khaki attire who brandished AK-47s as I was led toward the king. The senior member of this group - I presumed he was a colonel - asked if I was going to ask any questions of a political nature.

I said, "No, sir, I'm here to talk about travel and tourism." He said that was fine, and I was allowed to enter. But first I had a question. I said I'd never met a king before. I told the colonel I'd try to remember "malo e lelei," which is Tonga's version of aloha.

Very seriously, the colonel told me, "No. `Good morning, your majesty.' "

So I walked in and said, "Good morning, your majesty." He said good morning, and we shook hands and sat down.

I said I was a travel agent and was also doing an article on Tonga, and I'm from St. Louis, Missouri, in the United States. He paused and said, "St. Louis. That is the city where people gather to go west." I said, "Yes, your majesty, that's exactly right."

The king stunned me by saying, "Years ago, I went by train to St. Louis and a town called Belleville."

All I could say was, "That's wonderful!" I was too taken aback to find out the purpose of his visit, other than that it was many years ago and he arrived in Belleville by train.

Mostly, we talked about a March 1968 edition of National Geographic that I had brought that included a story on his coronation on July 4, 1967. Tonga established a constitutional monarchy in 1875, and it is the only monarchy remaining in Polynesia.

The king is intent on preserving Tonga's culture as part of ancient Polynesia. Neither he nor the Tongan people want the islands to become another Hawaii. Only 24,000 tourists visited Tonga last year. Of that total, roughly 30 percent were from New Zealand, 20 percent from the United States, 20 percent from Australia and the remainder from the rest of the world.

Tonga is a collection of 170 small islands, only 45 of which are inhabited. It sits 1,500 miles northeast of New Zealand.

It was near the Tongan island of Tofua that on April 28, 1789, Fletcher Christian and 24 mutineers took possession of the Bounty, setting Capt. William Bligh and 18 crew members adrift.

Tonga remains the only Pacific island nation that has never submitted to foreign rule. It is less developed and less Westernized than other islands in the Pacific. What it lacks in deluxe resorts, nightlife and shopping, it makes up for in offering an authentic Polynesian experience.

Because Tonga sits just west of the international dateline, the millennium will be an especially important event there. Technically, the first second of the new millennium will pass on the volcanic island of Tahifi, one of Tonga's northern islands. Tonga is gearing up for an influx of tourists who will want to celebrate the occasion.

Some two-thirds of Tonga's 100,000 people live on the - biggest island, Tongatapu, which includes the capital city, Nuku`alofa.

Tongans are an unsophisticated but kind and gentle people - and quite large, not unlike the Samoans. Most men are the size of middle linebackers. According to a brochure from the Tongan Tourist Board, the ideal island woman is chunky and round, not skinny. Rubanesque figures are preferred.

I was especially taken with Tonga's native dances. Tongans perform the dances a lot, not just when tourists - are around. The native costumes and dances are very conservative, but Tongans think nothing of showing their appreciation for a performance by pulling open the top of a female dancer's dress or a male dancer's pants and depositing some money.

A ukulele accompanies the dances, but Tongan music is different from Hawaiian. The dances are calm, peaceful and swaying, and the men sing in a beautiful falsetto.

Most Tongans are Wesleyans (or Methodist), and by royal decree, all Tongans must observe the Sabbath, so the islands virtually close down on Sundays.

One of their most interesting customs is the mourning of a death. A tent is erected for the occasion, and friends and family members mourn all day and stay up all night, - eating, singing and telling stories about the deceased. The body is buried the following day. Close family members wear black for a full year afterwards.

Anyone who chooses to visit Tonga should not forget to look toward the heavens for an awe-inspiring view. So many stars are visible at night that the sky is almost white in places.

Like much of Tonga, it's unlike anything you'll see in the United States. The beaches are lovely, the people gentle and the traditions