Sequel story to: Doctor’s father makes second epic journey in daughter’s memory after snapping wrong penguin on 8,000-mile trip (The Telegraph), and Trip of a Lifetime – My Antarctic Trip on Chandler’s Ford today.
Lisa loved to travel and her extreme joy of being abroad was expressed in several of her diaries. She wrote about the places she visited, whom she met and how she felt on the journey. People and places were often recorded in her photo album.
After Lisa passed, diaries and photos were left with us providing a delightful account of her travels. While she was still with us she told us she had had a good (but sadly shortened) life and her diaries certainly seemed to substantiate this.
We were particularly interested to read of her time as a Junior Doctor on the Tongan Island of Vava’u, and the Northlands of New Zealand. These were places where she really enjoyed some different experiences but also had a chance to appreciate the beauty of her surroundings. On occasion she expressed in her diary the hope that her parents might share some of the sights or places that had given her so much pleasure.
Lisa had delivered her first baby in Tonga
The idea emerged that we would trace Lisa’s footsteps in these two countries using her diaries as our guide. More importantly we would add a specific mission. Lisa had delivered her first baby in Tonga and according to her diary, and in a letter, the baby was to be named Lisa in her honour. Thus we formulated an objective to meet the Mother and the baby (who would now be 21).
To assist in our search we took a couple of photos from Lisa’s album taken at the hospital just after delivery, showing the Mother, the baby, and of course the proud and glowing Junior doctor.
It took nearly a year of planning. From our previous trips in Lisa’s memory we had become very interested in photographing penguins so we decided that if we were going to travel to the Southern Hemisphere we should take the opportunity to add-in a wildlife Expedition.
Some time previously I had been reading a book about exploration around the sub-Antarctic islands off Tasmania and learnt of a penguin called the Royal Penguin. Colonies existed only on one island – Macquarie Island – remotely situated in the Southern Ocean near to the Antarctic Circle. I had photographed Emperor and Kings so why not add the Royal species to my portfolio?
To find the young lady called Lisa on the Tongan Island of Vava’u
The final plan we put together was a) to join an Expedition to Macquarie, b) to trace Lisa’s footsteps in the New Zealand Northlands and c) to find the young lady called Lisa on the Tongan Island of Vava’u. The trip was to take a month and would cover a distance of 30,000 miles.
My wife Lyn and I left home Dec 15th 2018 and didn’t arrive back to Chandler’s Ford until Jan 17th 2019.
The storyline below is an account of the third stage of our trip to the Tongan island of Vava’u to locate and hopefully meet the Mother and the baby shown in the photograph.
It had been known within our family for sometime that Lisa had delivered her first baby when she was a student doctor in the Tongan Island of Vava’u.
She wrote in her diary:
I went to the hospital and after a lot of waiting around I delivered my first baby and it weighed 9lb 12oz. It was all a bit nerve wracking but I loved it. It was her 8th baby – she was now 40 – and it was a little girl this time. The lady was very proud though and even named her after me. After all that experience I was feeling good and walked home in the sunset.
Lisa cherished this special moment in her life and at the time she also mentioned it in her letter home.
The idea that we should go and make contact with this baby called Lisa had been worming its way through my thoughts and finally it surfaced as an action-plan a year ago. It fitted well with the request from Lisa that she didn’t ever want to be forgotten. It would also enable us to visit the places she talked about in her memorable stay in Tonga.
Raising a spark in the life of the special 21 years old Tongan girl
I thought as the spark in our lives had been extinguished maybe we could raise a spark in the life of this 21 years old Tongan girl, by telling her she was special to both Lisa, when she was alive, and now to us.
We were in possession of a good photograph of the Mother and we knew the name of the baby so weeks before leaving we tried to find the identity of the young lady. I tried genealogy routes, and I tried contacting the hospital, the Vava’u Ministry of Information office, the Tongan Registrar Office et al but drew a blank each time.
A part of me didn’t really want to discover too much as there would be an element of excitement in going to the island and researching on the spot. However with 3 weeks to go I relented and contacted the Tonga High Commission in London with an email request for assistance.
The First Secretary responded in a short time and said he was sympathetic to the cause and if I provided more detail and the old photo from Lisa’s album he thought he would be able the locate the Mother and daughter.
It all happened very fast and a note came back with both a name for the Mother and the young lady. They happened to live in the village of Ta’anea, in Vava’u, in a village next to where the First Secretary had been raised.
We arrived in steamy Tonga after the completion of our tour of the Northlands in New Zealand. It took an hours flight from the Tongan mainland to get to the Island of Vava’u where we were picked up by a hotel taxi.
To start with we stayed at Flying Annie Moa close to the capital town of Neiafu, population 6000. We initially had a little hassle about the kind of room we were expecting (not a pokey room without a bathroom door). We were finally upgraded to an air-conditioned room.
The next day we went to the Ministry of Information office, armed with our photo from 21 years ago and the name of the Mother and the village where we knew she lived. We related our story to the lovely smiling lady behind the desk. She thought she knew the lady and was very empathetic. A stranger came into the office and heard our story and claimed he knew of something related to our search that had appeared on Facebook.
In a short time we were armed with a rough map and the name of a friendly contact who would rent us a reliable car. That day we weren’t prepared to visit the village as we needed a little more acclimatisation time given the summer heat and humidity. Instead we visited the hotel mentioned below where we would have liked to have dinner had it been open.
Had a great swim at the Tongan Beach Resort. It’s a really nice place with golden beaches and huts. Good swimming and snorkelling. Might be a nice place for Mum and Dad to stay.
Visiting the Neiafu hospital where Lisa had worked
The next day we were ready though and decided our first port of call would be to visit the Neiafu hospital where Lisa had worked.
The hospital exterior looked a little run down compared with the photo Lisa had taken all those years ago but as we wandered inside it was not hard to imagine what it had been like when Lisa had worked there.
The hospital had fields around it and there were pigs and chickens wandering around the corridors.
On a positive note we could see an extension to the hospital that had been built with funds from China Aid in recent years. We walked inside and were struck by the drabness of the interior walls, the small wards, and an obvious lack of medical equipment. We didn’t see pigs wandering around the corridors as Lisa had mentioned but we could certainly imagine it as there was a real openness to the hospital to enhance the air flow.
The staff were few but well presented and very charming. We spent sometime talking to two ladies in a side office into which we had been ushered. They were fascinated by some of the photos we showed from Lisa’s time in Vava’u. “Oh yes that man is now the Minister of Health and that one there may now be the Minister of Tourism.”
The delivery section where the baby, that might have been named Lisa, had been born had now been relocated within the hospital so we didn’t pursue a visit to the actual room.
We left the hospital and took on, once again, the enormous potholes but this time for our journey to the rural Ta’anea village. Not the best time of the day given the heat but the car comfortably pushed out ample air conditioning.
We found the village quite easily and it was spread out either side of a paved road. From a sign promoting Japan Aid at the entrance to the village we could see their water system had been upgraded in 2012. We stopped in a small store and asked at the checkout whether they recognised the person shown in the photo of the Mother. No they didn’t so we asked the driver of a car outside and again a negative result.
Finally someone recognised the people in the photo
In the end we found a man at a nearby church and it was instant recognition – even though the photo had been taken 21 years ago. The instructions were simple – follow the track beside the church, take first right and on the second corner you will find an unfinished building and that is where the family live.
Their house was set-back so we parked at the edge of their grass frontage and exited the car holding the two photographs that showed the Mother, Lisa and the baby that might have been called Lisa.
The family emerged from the building with some hesitation. We, or they, didn’t quite know how this initial introduction was going to turn out. We later learned that they had an expectation of a visit or communication as the photograph we were going to show them had actually been posted on Facebook.
From our perspective we weren’t sure how we would be received – for example did they share our sense of feeling of celebration or was it just a special occasion for us alone?
Meeting the extended family (several generations!)
It started awkwardly as we were met by the first, second and third generation family. It was hard to work out who was who as initially the Mother had stayed back. There was only one, a visiting family member, who could speak excellent English and fortunately she quickly came to our rescue as an interpreter.
Slowly we sorted some of the family out and with introductions made the situation became a lot more relaxed. The Mother was friendly and gestured us inside their home to meet her husband. Sadly he had an illness and was resting on his stomach on a wooden bench. The number of children seemed to grow during this time – a mixture of curious cousins and neighbours.
The family member doing the interpretation was an 18 year old young lady called Oso. She was the visiting daughter from the Tongan mainland and her Mother was one of the 8 children. Her skill in speaking English was our salvation. So we asked her where the 21 year old was that may have been called Lisa.
She responded that Meleane was in town and coming straight back to meet us.
From Lisa to Meleane
This might have been a shock for us to learn that the baby hadn’t actually been called Lisa but in fact we were prepared for this news as the Secretary had notified us of this fact just two weeks before we left.
The baby had ultimately been named Meleane. Not a major setback as Lisa never knew any different and after all Meleane was still the baby from Lisa’s first delivery – the special one we had often had had in our minds.
It was a significant moment meeting Meleane and her mother Hainite. After all this was a commitment I had made to myself and confirmed with others sometime back. How the Mother Hainite felt I just couldn’t tell. She did confirm she remembered our daughter ‘the palagi (foreigner) nurse’ but didn’t recall a conversation about naming her baby Lisa.
We concluded it was a mis-understanding as a consequence of the language barrier between them. We hoped Hainite wasn’t upset about our earlier expectations of a daughter called Lisa.
After some more small talk with the family, through Oso, we decided take our leave but not before leaving a present of a silver necklace each with Hainite, and her daughter Meleane. They didn’t open the present there and then.
Meleane did want to see us again so we suggested we drop by later and take her and Oso for a drink and meal in town.
Hainite’s special gift to us
Then as we were heading back to our car Hainite came out struggling with what looked like a huge and awkward bundle of canvas decorated with traditional and patterned symbols. Oso explained it was Hainite’s gift to us.
We laid it out and it was really an enormous size (4m x 4m) and although externally we showed gratitude we inwardly were puzzled as to how they could afford to gift it to us when they had so little, what would we use it for back home and how could take it back on our 13,500 mile trip back home when we were already over the baggage limits.
The kindness and meaning behind the gesture was so appreciated and a token that they sensed the importance of the occasion to us.
We met the two girls later. Meleane was wearing her Tree of Life silver necklace and she told us her Mother wept (hopefully with joy) when she had opened up her necklace – a Jane Eyre replica cross.
What’s a Ngatu?
They asked how we like our present – of course we expounded our sincere joy at receiving such an unexpected and unusual gift and asked a little about its significance. Oso explained it was called a Ngatu – the Tongan name given to a tapa or decorated bark cloth.
It is made from the inner bark of Hiapo the paper mulberry tree. The pieces of bark are beaten with a mallet, widened and joined together to make larger pieces of cloth. Groups of women work together to decorate the cloth with natural dyes and pigments.
Ngatu are often decorated with motifs and patterns taken from the natural environment or associated with important people and events. We just couldn’t believe the amount of time and effort that gone into creating this work of art. We were very humbled to be the new owners.
Attending a Kava session
After demolishing a few pizzas with Meleane and Oso on our evening out we went on to visit a Kava session held by the firemen and the police. Lisa had mentioned this Kava drink in one of her journals:
…we then walked to the Church Hall. Kava is served in wooden bowls that have been in the family for years.
The Kava Club we visited was outside the fire station. A group of men sat on picnic benches sipping from their polished wooden bowls originally made from coconut shells. The only lady there was seated and serving the drink to the men from a large bowl.
I sat next to the Police Commissioner and he asked me if I would like to drink some of the intoxicating potion. I wryly replied I was driving but would take a sip. It tasted woody neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
It became quiet for a time and as you could feel the atmosphere building up as the mild hallucinogenic substance hit home and we knew it would culminate in the melody we had come to hear. Sure enough the impromptu singing began as a guitar was slowly strummed and then we had to agree with Lisa’s diary entry:
… their voices break my heart every time they sing. They have the voice of angels. As they drank more Kava they got sleepier and more melodic. It was funny to watch.
In our case it was a more serious affair as they specifically sang woeful hymns in memory of a fireman they had buried in the week.
Next day we were in town and Ana, Meleane’s sister, hailed us from the far side of the road. She also asked how we liked the present of the Ngatu. We said we were overwhelmed knowing a little more about the construction and asked a little more.
It turned out it had been made by Ana herself after growing the plants and it had been presented to her parents. Seemingly it turned out that after we had given out our presents Hainite had asked Ana if she could present the Ngatu to us as a gift from the family.
Generosity was in their very nature
Gift giving didn’t stop there as next time we visited I was given a necklace with a shark’s tooth while Lyn was give a similar necklace and a traditional fan made out of coconut fibre. Generosity was in their very nature.
The time came on a Monday to say our goodbyes. The family were dressed up for Church and they were very happy for us to photograph them in their fineries and their traditional lavalavas. The sadly ill Dad couldn’t get up and so we said our goodbyes in the house. He was tearful and we were so sorry to leave him while the others went to Church.
With our limited time it was all over so quick with little time for reflection. We hoped it would not be just a single encounter but we knew communicating to this family in their rural setting would not be simple. We couldn’t discount, from the suggestions we heard, that one day there will be a baby called Lisa born into this family.
The Paradise Hotel
On our way back to our lodgings and as a last port of call we decided to stop at the Paradise Hotel. This was where Lisa stayed for her short time in Vava’u and she loved it with the views over the Bay and the outdoor swimming pool to keep cool –
it was heaven.
Since that time however the hotel had largely fallen into disrepair. There was a fire in the kitchen and the property was sold on. We knew Lisa had stayed in room 115 with her friend Sarah, another junior doctor from London.
To get to the room we traipsed through some mud created after a recent cyclone. The room obviously had not been occupied for many years. The double bed was on its edge and the rest of the furniture was in disarray.
The bathroom was in pieces and the bath was home to large insect. Maybe a relative of the large spider Lisa had reported on her first night’s stay in Vava’u – “it was the biggest spider I have ever seen!” We stood in awe at this dishevelled mess and then ventured on to the balcony for the view that Lisa must have surely enjoyed.
A deep and stirring sense of personal closure
We returned to the room and savoured the peace of the room feeling Lisa’s presence more than in any other place on our travels.
Finally, as we slowly shut the door to room 115, a deep and stirring sense of personal closure hit us. We had followed Lisa’s footsteps though her diaries, we had seen what she wanted us to see, we had touched on her foreign experiences.
We had read through her diaries each evening. More than anything though we felt we had re-connected with our daughter as if we were in a time warp. However it was time now to say goodbye to our young daughter, leave the Paradise Hotel, and travel home with our special new memories.
By – Roger Clark
22nd January 2019