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Heilala, the Coronation, and the USS John McCain Warship!

We haven’t been able to blog lately, because the past few weeks have been incredibly busy with ongoing festivities!!!  I am almost unsure where to start…  Last week marked the annual “Heilala celebration.”  This joyous annual event celebrates the birthday of the King.  However, this year the celebration coincided with the coronation of the new King.  The two events exploded into two weeks of non-stop parades, parties, performances, etc!  Honestly, we were quite lucky to be in Tonga during such an exciting time.

My favorite Heilala event was probably the “Block Party.”  The theme was “One World- One Tonga,” and people came out in the thousands.  I often think of Tonga as having a very homogeneous population, but the block party reminded me of the diversity on this small island.  The Chinese, Japanese, and Philipino communities all set up “villages,” which showcased their traditional cultures and cuisine.  There were plenty of Autralians, New Zealanders, Americans, and of course Tongans representing their cultures as well!

A massive stage with a booming sound system hosted hours of performances.  I loved watching Tongan women in traditional Tongan costume, performing traditional dances to the thumping beat of electronic techno music!  It was totally wild…  Actually, the past couple of weeks have been full of traditional dance performances.  Children from all of the primary and secondary schools performed Tongan dance for the King in the massive rugby arena!  I promise, photos will soon follow this blog post…

Yesterday was the actual coronation.  Although we were watching from outside, it was still a totally surreal experience.  A fellow PCV likened it to being in “Alice in Wonderland.”  Yet dignitaries and royalty from around the world attended, including the crowned Prince of Japan, the Maori King and Queen, and Princesses from Bhutan and Thailand.  We stood outside with thousands of energetic spectators, as Scot filmed the event and I snapped away dozens of pictures. The mood was festive, and marching bands from Australia, New Zealand, and the USA all performed for the event.

The day culminated in a bizarre surprise.  The US Navy ship the “USS John McCain” (named after the grandfather of the current Pres. candidate) had a diplomatic presence in Tonga for the coronation.  They graciously invited all Peace Corps volunteers and staff to attend a “flight deck social.”  We had no idea what to expect, because (surprise, surprise), I’ve never attended a military party.  I have to say, it was SUCH a blast!  We stepped on to the ship, and the helicopter landing deck was transformed into quite the stylish social gathering.  Under the tents, we listened to jazz music while mood lighting illuminated an ice sculpture of an Eagle, two open bars, and an unbelievable buffet of food!  About forty PCV’s attended the event, and we inhaled the shrimp, roast beef, spring rolls, and (my personal favorite) bacon-wrapped scallops, while chatting with the officers and military crew aboard the ship.

If I sound overly excited about the food, it is because most of the PCVs here in Tonga have eaten NOTHING that even resembles such delectable treats during the months and/or years of our time here.  Honestly, it made me feel quite patriotic to realize that my government and culture appreciates and values the joys of red wine, Frank Sinatra, and turkey slow roasted in a white wine and garlic sauce!

I must say, the entire experience was incredibly surreal.  We toured the ship, and learned that hundreds of missiles were on board (of course).  As I snacked on homemade chocolate-chip cookies (so American!) a guide described the military capabilities of the ship.  Whoa.  I never imagined in a million years that I would attend a cocktail party on the USS John McCain battleship, while stationed in the South Pacific.  I could not resist asking our guide, “When was the last time this ship deployed missiles?”  He informed me that the ship was an integral component of the 2003 “Shock and Awe” campaign in the Persian Gulf.

I was (and still am) without words.

In talking with the servicemen and women on the ship, I was really taken by the extent of their services and sacrifices for the military.  Most of them were stationed continents away from their families, and had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  I was eager to learn about their backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences, and I thanked them profusely for their commitment.  We got to meet the captain of the ship, and learned that the Commander of the Pacific Fleet was also on board!

As I left the vessel, the song “Waiting for the World to Change” by John Mayer echoed through the air.  Once again, all I can say is that the experience was entirely surreal and festive- yet thought-provoking.  Photos will follow:)

I hope to write a blog post specifically on the political trajectory of Tonga– following the coronation of this new king.  He seems to be enthusiastic about the Democracy movement here in Tonga…  Yet the hierchachy of the royals and nobility is so entrenched into the mindset of the people here.  For now, I will simply honor his majesty by saying.. Long Live King Tupou V!

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1 Comment»

  John V wrote @

I’ve been wondering what life in Tonga has been like the last few weeks, and your post was the perfect answer to that. The USS John McCain experience must have been an unexpected highlight, especially given all the food and opportunity to dialogue with fellow Americans after being in Tonga for so long.


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