A Distant Match on a Remote Island

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This story about our visit to the remote atoll of Palmerston in the Cook Islands — and the unexpected volleyball match we joined — appeared in Islands Magazine.  As one of the most beautiful and unique anchorages during our sailing voyage across the South Pacific, Palmerston is definitely high on our “let’s go back someday” list.

Click here to read the story.

Click here to read our past blog post on Palmerston.

rob roberts - volleyball magazine - on the horizon line travel blog

 

rob roberts - volleyball magazine - on the horizon line travel blog

Playing Volleyball in Paradise

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Something you might not know about our trip: I played volleyball in small villages across the South Pacific.  As a lifelong player, I never expected to find games in the middle of the ocean.  Turns out that volleyball is a popular sport in Polynesia.  This month, Volleyball Magazine published this article I wrote about playing in paradise.  

Click here to see the full article with pictures, or read on below.

as patoa shirt niue

After 33 days sailing across the ocean, few things sound better than an ice-cold drink, a cheeseburger, and a fresh, juicy mango for dessert. As our sailboat neared Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, the verdant peaks emerged on the horizon like a shimmering green beacon of tropical hope. To my wife and me, land signaled an end to suffering through rice and canned goods, as well as a fresh beginning for shaky legs that had atrophied during 4,000 miles at sea.

Our journey started on the Panama Canal, included a stop in the Marquesas, and eventually took us through 25 islands in the South Pacific. But this is not a story about white sand, blue water, and sailing off into the sunset. What started as a quest for adventure turned into a lesson about friendship, communication, and a redefinition of volleyball, which I have been playing for more than 20 years.

Polynesia is used loosely to describe a huge swath of territory, starting in Hawaii and stretching west for thousands of miles through the tropical latitudes of the South Pacific. My introduction to Polynesian culture came as my wife and I were digesting that first glorious meal back on land and stretching our legs on the back roads of Nuku Hiva. We left town on what we jokingly referred to as a “mission for mangoes.” In broken French, I asked a bulky man standing under a shady grove of fruit trees if he had any mangoes that we could buy. Before we even understood what was happening, our new friend, Noelle, was loading plastic bags with mangoes, grapefruits, guavas, and any other fruit he could find.

Noelle didn’t want any money. He said that he simply wanted to share and to make us feel welcome in his country. We met his family and took a group photo. Before we left, I asked about a few dusty trophies sitting on a shelf.

“Le volley,” he said and asked me if I played.

“I love volleyball,” I said, “but I thought people only played rugby here.”

His eyes brightened, and soon he was telling me about the trophies, his glory days, and the fierce competition between high schools on the islands. Then he disappeared into his family’s small, concrete bungalow and emerged with a red and white sleeveless uniform with the team name “As Patoa” on the back. The garment was faded but obviously well cared for.

“Please take this,” he said. “It is my championship jersey, but it doesn’t fit me anymore.” Honored, I wanted to put it on immediately, but he stopped me. “No, don’t put it on until you are sailing away, so that you can remember me and remember this island.”

It would be a few weeks—and several passages on the open ocean—before I had the chance to put that volleyball uniform to good use. Arriving at a tiny speck of land called Palmerston Atoll, we dropped our sails and anchored several hundred yards offshore. A man in a small motor skiff came by, pulled alongside us, and yelled, “Has anyone been out to see you yet?” I shook my head no, and he raced away.

“What was that about?” I asked my wife.

Palmerston Atoll is part of the Cook Islands, a country comprised of 15 far-flung islands scattered in the middle of the South Pacific. There are no roads and you can walk around the island in about 20 minutes. By tradition, a local family “adopts” every visitor for the duration of his or her stay. And there are only three families on the island. By briefly talking to the man on the skiff, we had inadvertently chosen our family, and they would be our chaperones and home away from home for the next several days.

The man in the skiff returned to our sailboat with a customs official, and soon we were on a tour of the government office, a one-room building with a tin roof. Later I found the family patriarch, Simon, sitting in the sand, mending a long fishing net by hand. I asked him about the island and his life there. When I inquired about recreation, he said that the youth played volleyball on the beach every day around four o’clock. So after a lunch of stewed parrotfish and rice with our new family, I went back to the boat, put on my cherished volleyball uniform, and made my way to the beach to find a game.

rob roberts - volleyball magazine - on the horizon line travel blog

I saw four or five young boys throwing a ball back and forth over the net. The court didn’t have any lines and the net was about seven feet high and full of holes. I shrugged my shoulders and joined the game. As the minutes passed and the sun dipped in the sky, I noticed more people emerging from the coconut groves. Soon a group of teenagers and adults stepped onto the court, shooed the little ones away, and picked sides.

There are only 62 people on Palmerston Atoll. There is no airstrip. All of their supplies come by ferry, which only shows up three to four times a year. But despite this isolation, these islanders had learned to play fairly sophisticated volleyball. They passed and ran plays in a way that indicated previous coaching. They argued about legal sets and had someone on the sidelines keeping score. Between games I asked one of the players where they had learned to play, and he said that last year they had gone to play in the South Pacific Games to represent their country, Cook Islands.

I found this theme throughout my travels – courts were uneven, lines non-existent. The nets were tied to coconut trees and telephone poles. But the players were talented, smart, and agile. And they played as a team. I began to see volleyball as a perfect fit for Polynesian culture, which emphasizes the importance of family, community, and the greater good. Volleyball, by its very structure, is more about the collective than the individual. In most effective plays, three people touch the ball. And there are no one-on-one moves like in basketball. No pitchers who start every play like in baseball. The game depends on the collective.

Our last stop in the South Pacific was the Kingdom of Tonga. A small chain of islands north of New Zealand, Tonga has never been colonized. Some people consider it to be “true” Polynesia, a place where people still wear tapas —woven straw mats like skirts for special occasions—and where the deference to family and community dominates everyday life.

We were anchored off Ofu, a small fishing village, when I first met Iloa. He was working construction, carrying 50-pound concrete sacks, two at a time, up to a building site at a nearby eco-resort. Most Tongans speak at least a little English, so I asked him if they played any sports on the island.

“We play volleyball,” he said. “Each day in the evening.” After a pause, he added, “You come tonight?”

With the tropical sun starting to dip in the sky, I hopped in our motorized dinghy and made my way to Ofu. Strolling down Ofu’s small, sandy road, I found Iloa sitting with his extended family in the shade of an awning. Grandparents, parents, and babies were gathered around large bowls of sweet potatoes, cassava, and fried fish. Iloa jumped up without a word and walked inside the house. He emerged with a flat volleyball. He walked into another house and emerged with a net and a pump, both in good condition.

 

I helped Iloa string up the net on two poles – 10-foot logs that had been anchored into the ground. He carefully wrapped each end of the net around the pole several times and tied the line around a large boulder that was used to keep the pole from moving. The net was just beyond my reach, about eight and a half feet high. “Maybe it’s good,” he said.

Tongans are large people. The youth are big-shouldered, more like linebackers than volleyball players. Their play is straightforward: play fast, hit hard. Repeat. For them, volleyball games seem to be a chance to have fun and mock the players on the losing side. After every point, I heard jeers from the crowd, terse exchanges mixed with a giggle that I had come to think of as typically Tongan – a high-pitched squeal that seemed incongruous for people of their size.

Unfortunately for me, Tongans are also very communal people, which means that they took no pity on a lanky white guy with sea legs and a sunburn. When I heard Iloa yell the word palangi—“foreigner” in Tongan—I knew what was coming next. They were going to set me the ball, and everyone on the opposing team was gong to try to block me. There was definitely some laughing at my expense, but I didn’t mind. Playing volleyball on Ofu gave me a unique insight into Tongan life and an opportunity to learn about their culture as a teammate, not a tourist.

I never intended to play volleyball on our sailing voyage. But my volleyball interactions with Iloa, Noelle, and my adopted family on Palmerston Atoll defined my trip through the South Pacific as clearly as the vibrant coral reefs and the stunning sandy beaches. Volleyball became a universal language. It created a common ground by summoning emotive concepts that all people understand: competition, teamwork, and glory. That first day in paradise, my simple search for a mango had snowballed into a new way of communicating, many new friends, and a new appreciation for my lifelong sport.

Originally published in Volleyball Magazine in June 2014.

Bri with Shan family in Myanmar village - Brianna and Rob - On the Horizon Line Travel Blog

Tea and Babies – Myanmar Trekking Part One

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We couldn’t speak the language.  We didn’t understand the social structure in the ethnic Shan villages.  We slept on the floor of a teak cabin in the home of complete strangers in the mountains of Myanmar.  But even in a completely foreign setting, tea and babies allowed us to bridge the gap between our culture and theirs.

Rob and I spent three days trekking through northeastern Myanmar with a hired guide named Romeo (his chosen English name, since the Burmese pronunciation stumped most foreigners).  Romeo was 25.  He brought along his “intern,” One, who was 15, energetic, fluent in the local language of Shan, and trying desperately to learn English.  Trekking is actually not a very apt descriptor for how we spent three day.  It sounds too hard-core.  Instead, we walked at a leisurely pace for about six hours each day between tiny villages, chatting with Romeo, listening to One sing, checking out birds and tea plantations scattered among the jungle.

Rob with 2 Shan guides - Trekking in Myanmar village - Brianna and Rob - On the Horizon Line Travel Blog

As evening fell, we’d stop at one of the villages and follow Romeo into an unknown wooden house.  Shan language is closer to Thai than Burmese.  Rob and I quickly learned the basic ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘so long,’ but basically had zero clue what was happening around us most of the time.  We compensated by playing with the ever-present babies crawling and toddling across the teak floors, and by drinking endless cups of tea with their parents, aunts, grandparents and neighbors – many of whom seemed to live in the house.  And we did a lot of miming, which is always entertaining.

The family fed us and gave us blankets and bamboo mats to sleep on the floor.  These houses had little to no furniture, other than a couple of small, round tables about one-foot high.  We sat on old rice sacks.  Water for washing and drinking came from a small tank (which we purified with our UV SteriPen), and the ‘toilet’ consisted of a four-foot-high bamboo box with a hole in the floor.  Most of the village homes have electricity now, thanks to the recent installation of mini-hydro projects or solar panels, but usually only enough juice to fuel a couple of light bulbs.

Firewood for drying tea - Trekking in Myanmar village - Brianna and Rob - On the Horizon Line Travel Blog

Dinner and breakfast were the same: rice, eggs, fried potatoes, and random leaves harvested near the house.  All food is prepared over an open fire that burns constantly in the middle of the main room on a concrete slab set into the hardwood floor (the babies are adept at avoiding the flames).  The Shan villagers rarely eat meat, since it’s expensive, and they usually don’t grow more than a banana tree.  They still gather local roots, bitter fruits and leaves, buying all of their rice and cooking oil for the year in one lump sum after they receive their once-yearly payment for the tea they grow and dry in the mountains.  We learned that one kilo of dried tea earns them $4,000 kyat, and an average family harvests 1-2,000 kilos.  That works out to about $8,000 USD per year for a family of four.

Scooter over construction on Burma roads - Trekking in Myanmar village - Brianna and Rob - On the Horizon Line Travel Blog

After dinner, we gathered around the indoor fire to ask questions of our hosts through Romeo: do they only grow tea or other crops, too?  How often do they go to Kyaukme, the nearest town?  Had they met many foreigners?  What’s the latest with the Shan rebels fighting nearby?  I whipped out our ultrasound picture to further the universal baby bond, which took 30 minutes of translating to explain to the wonder-struck villagers.  Our hosts peppered us with questions, too, including how much it costs to live in America, what our house looked like, why we traveled to their village, how we make money.

Then we curled up under our blankets in the chilly mountain air, sleeping four abreast next to Romeo and One in the main room as our myriad hosts disappeared into the back room to do the same.  The tinkle of bells on the necks of nearby livestock lulled us to sleep.  The early morning chants of Buddhist monks collecting alms woke us up, ready for another day of walking through the mountains of Myanmar.

Stay tuned for Part Two in our trekking tale, which includes Burmese soldiers and a minor scooter accident.

bri and Rob with young Buddhist Monk - Trekking in Myanmar village - Brianna and Rob - On the Horizon Line Travel Blog

 

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

The Wilderness of Mandalay

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The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, a.k.a. Burma. Our 11th country this year, and by far the least developed. This country is truly a melting pot of hundreds of ethnic groups and religions, it’s borders hugging Bangladesh, India, Laos, Thailand, and China. Burma was a colony of Great Britain until 1948, lumped together with India for the majority of English rule. It just opened to tourists after Myanmar’s brutal 50-year dictatorship formally ended in 2011. Many parts of the country are still “off limits” to visitors, and all foreigners must get a visa from a Myanmar embassy before arriving.

We flew from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Mandalay, Myanmar’s northern urban center. Rob and I wanted to see Asia’s second largest country in Asia before tourism whitewashed its culture. And we were searching for a less trendy, more gritty destination than Thailand, which is overrun by foreigners looking for elephant rides, tiger-petting, and/or easy access to sex, drugs and alcohol.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

Our arrival in Mandalay’s deserted airport was heralded by enthusiastic taxi drivers in longyi, the traditional cloth wrap that men and women wear around their hips. We serenaded a half-dozen of these taxi drivers with a Johnny Cash song on our trusty Panamanian guitar in the parking lot. The men’s remaining teeth were stained blood red with beetlenut juice when they smiled, clapping along to the song.

In Thailand, we were constantly trying to escape the smoke of the summer burn season. We rode our rented motorcycle into the mountains near Chiang Mai, hoping to find moist forest and blue skies – to no avail. But when we drove into Mandalay at dusk, Thailand suddenly seemed like an environmental paradise. The dusky light of sunset revealed a scene more like India than Asia: a free-for-all of swerving traffic, people bathing in canals along the highway, food vendors selling from trays balanced on their heads, men pulling wooden carts loaded high and heavy. A cloud of choking dust from the dirt roads hung suspended in the air, mixing with wood-fire smoke and black exhaust.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

After chucking our bags into a government-approved tourist hotel room (ET Hotel), we set off to find dinner. Walking amidst the traffic and dust was an adventure, with no sidewalks and no streetlights to help navigate potholes, trash piles and the ubiquitous motorbikes. Breathing was a challenge, too, and our eyes stung as we watched the street scene over our fried rice and veggie platters.

Amidst the traffic and poor air quality, we made the potentially ridiculous choice to rent bikes to pedal through Mandalay the next day. They were hilarious bikes, old single-speed cruisers made for the barely-five-foot-tall tiny people that populate Myanmar. I felt like I was riding a unicycle, since the seat and pedals were so close together. Rob looked like two giant knees.

Turns out that it’s actually easier to bike than to walk in Mandalay. You feel a part of the impenetrable flow of traffic rather than at war with it. Setting off early, we headed to the ancient walled city to see the palace of King Mindon. We went slowly, taking in the sights: tiny stools where locals sat and spat beetlenut, tea houses, oily chapatis, orange juice stands, millions of scooters, a parade of Burmese girls with painted faces sitting in flatbed trucks, a game of hacky-sack volleyball. Everyone smiled and waved as we passed, still enamored by the novelty of white tourists in their midst.

We joined the endless streams of bikes and cars and tractors that edged out in clumps from intersections, using critical mass to cross main streets in lieu of a traffic light. A teak monastery was the highlight of our tour, intricately carved with thousands of buddhas and gargoyles and who knows what. After a lunch of delicious Shan noodles (khao suey), we beat a hasty retreat to the hotel before the 100-degree heat set in.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

That evening, we resumed the bike tour and headed west from downtown to find the Ayerwaddy River, the largest in the country. Rudyard Kipling called the river the “road to Mandalay” in his famous 1890 poem about Burma. And a road it is – a network of irrigation canals and transportation routes that link the north and south. This watery road was full of boats, people bathing, pipes collecting water and dumping waste, thatch huts lining the sandy shores. A busy and overwhelming place, far removed from my Montana-girl’s mental and emotional definition of “river.”

I realized as we biked home, coughing, in the growing darkness that Rob and I keep searching for the Southeast Asian version of “wilderness,” just as we searched out the South Pacific’s underwater version of “wilderness.” We seek out untouched nature to explore. But the pristine places we associate with our definition of wilderness – the back woods, remote rivers, uninhabited peaks of Montana – don’t exist here. People have been using every scrap of land and water for millennia to simply survive.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

The real wilderness in Asia lies within its seething cities. This is where the raw, primal, impenetrable and vast exist – in the region’s humming mass of people who are, after all, very much a part of nature. The wilderness of Mandalay or Bangkok or Yangon is just as challenging to navigate as the wilderness of Montana. We need a different set of survival skills, but many of our tools are the same: a water purifier, a headlamp, a med kit, a map, a sense of humor, patience.

This realization was both humbling and helpful. It let me ease into the city just a bit, rather than hold it at bay. But it still didn’t make me want to stay in Mandalay. As we returned the bikes for the day and paid our $2 each, I was undeniably relieved to be getting on a train to Kyaukme in the morning to begin a trek through tea-growing villages in the mountains of Myanmar. Even if they are a hard-working landscape rather than a wilderness, mountains will always feel more like home than a city.

bright lights and big city - protests in bangkok thailand

One Minute in Bangkok

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River ferries, food stalls, woks, kids, temples, bright lights, fast motorcycles, foreign alphabets.  Bangkok has been a blur of activity and culture after the past year of our slow-paced South Pacific Ocean explorations.  I tried to catch the vibe of Bangkok in this 60 second video.  Check it out.

After a week in Thailand’s largest city, we’re heading north on the overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai.  Looking forward to seeing the mountains again, and a few adventures out of the big city.  To see more photos from Bangkok, click this link to see our recent Thailand photo album.

[framed_video column=”full-width”]www.youtube.com/watch?v=dO3UX-rdIOs&feature=youtu.be[/framed_video]

Top 10 Photos of the South Pacific

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As we leave the Pacific for Southeast Asia, it seems like a good time to reflect upon what we’ve seen this past year.  Here are a few of our favorite photos, which give a taste of sailing, swimming and living across the South Pacific islands.  Note: This Top 10 album is also available on our Facebook page.

[anything_slider title=”Top 10 Photos of the South Pacific” column=”full-width” autoslide=”2″ slider_id=”3667″/]

 

on the horizon line travel blog tonga island language beaches

Parent For One Week

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parent for one week in tonga - bri and rob sailing adventure

So, what do you really need to be a parent for a week? Turns out you need a lot less when you’re in Tonga, a tropical island-nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hell, kids don’t even need shoes in Tonga. I discovered this within the first hour of a week-long babysitting gig my husband and I set up here.

As the days wore on, I realized shoes were just the beginning of the long list of things the boys didn’t need … things that were on my list of “what I will probably need to raise a kid” after three decades of living in the United States.  We had none of the things on my list.  Read more about our week of pseudo-parenting here!

on the horizon line travel blog tonga island language beaches

Tong-span-lish and Other English-to-English Translations

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on the horizon line travel blog tonga island language beaches

“Aqui esta bien, Maria,” I say to the Spanish woman driving the disintegrating 1970-something Ford along the rutted road along the old harbor in Neiafu.

Magenta climbs through the window as we exit. “Let me get my togs out of the boot first,” she tells Maria in her Kiwi accent.

Viliami, our Tongan friend, gets out to help dismantle the bungee cords that keep the trunk closed. “Sai pe, Magenta?”

“Io. Malo aupito. See ya, Viliami,” Magenta says.

“Toke sio. Nos vemos, Maria.” I wave as they drive away.

And such is the crazy Tongspanlish mix that my brain is getting used to translating. Sometimes it’s Tongfrenlish, if a French yachtie is in the mix. No matter what, conversations here in Vava’u are a melting pot of words and phrases. It’s a great brain workout.

on the horizon line travel blog tonga island language beaches

To get a basic handle on the local language, I’ve taken a few Tongan lessons from a local woman named Ema. She set up a chalkboard and desk in her modest living room, and charges $10 TOP (~$6 USD) for a full hour of one-on-one instruction. I leave with my brain aching from the foreign words, and more so from the foreign sentence structure. I find that I replace words I don’t know in Tongan with Spanish ones, since the languages are similarly laden with flowing vowels. That’s where the similarities stop, though — Tongan has no verb conjugation, and about 150 pronouns. I’ve learned maybe 10.

Even the English words used here require translation, as they’re a mesh of New Zealand/Aussie/British/Canadian slang words. We’ve started adopting some of these words, partly because it makes it easier to communicate with our new friends, and partly because we’re surrounded by people who “reckon” and wear “togs” instead of bathing suits. I’ve started an English-to-English Dictionary below, which I’ll update as we compile more words.

Meanwhile, I’ll probably keep saying “io” to the Spanish couple who live here, and “si” to my Tongan tutor as I merge further into the Tongspanlish melting pot.

English to English Dictionary

aubergine = eggplant
biscuit = cookie
bogan = white trash

boff = put
bonnet = hood
bo’o = bottle
boot = trunk
bush = forest/backcountry
capsicum = pepper
chilly bin = cooler
coriander = cilantro
crumble = fruit cobbler
fanny = vagina
heaps = lots/tons
jandals = flip-flops
jumper = sweater
knickers = panties (ladies underwear)
lovely = cool/wonderful/beautiful/awesome/good/great/friend
pants = men’s underwear
petrol = gas
pie = meat-filled savory tart
plaits = braids
push bike = mountain bike
reckon = guess/think/suppose/believe/bet/and many other verbs that come after “I”
singlet = tank-top
spring onion = green onion
togs = bathing suit
torch = flashlight
track = trail
tyre = tire
zed = z

 

brianna and rob on the horizon line travel blog tonga vavau

Let’s talk about the future.

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brianna and rob on the horizon line travel blog tonga vavau

A lot of people have asked us recently about our short- and long-term plans. Where are we going next? What will we be doing in Tonga? What are our goals for the future? (Besides making an album, since we have this awesome album cover photo all ready to go.)

To be honest, we’ve thought a lot less about these answers here in Vava’u than any other time since we left Missoula. Part of the reason we haven’t thought much about plans and goals the last couple of months is because we simply have less time to think. Passages across the Pacific give plenty of time to ponder what the hell you’re doing with your life (maybe too much time?). Partying in Tonga sucks that pondering right back into the sea, sweeping out plans with the tides.

It’s been busy in Vava’u. We’ve been playing a lot of music, and heading up weekly open mic nights at a local bar. We’ve been doing yoga almost every morning. We’ve been helping set up and plan a 4-day regatta and associated festival events so hundreds of people can have fun. We’ve been cooking and eating a lot. We’ve been designing and wearing a variety of interesting costumes. We’ve been sitting around with the tight-knit group of palangis and yachties who live in Vava’u, discussing particle physics, papayas, rainbows, religion, and government theory. We’ve been petting dogs, and avoiding pigs crossing the street.

pub crawl in neiafu tonga regatta vavau party brianna and rob on the horizon line

You see? We barely have time to swim anymore, much less figure out the future.

Rob and I have been living for free here in Tonga in exchange for helping out new friends. We spend a week or two at cooking and fixing things at Mandala Resort on Fetoko Island, and then a week or so in Neiafu watching 3 lovely boys while they’re parents are both working. We plan to keep helping people out, since they keep helping us out in return: so far, we’ve long-term-borrowed 2 mountain bikes, a few spear guns, lots of clothes, a kayak, and a sailboat.

neiafu harbor from mount talau

Our short-term plans are to fix up that sailboat so we can move aboard late November. In December, my sister comes to visit for the whole month! When I’m not hopping around in gleeful excitment about seeing Cassidy in 5 weeks, I’m mapping out the best beaches and snorkeling spots to anchor at while she’s here. Come the new year … well, I expect we’ll be doing more of the same: volunteering to work on interesting projects for friends, sailing around the dozens of islands in Vava’u between summer storms, playing music and eating fruit.

After cyclone season ends in March, we plan to hitch a ride to American Samoa and Samoa, and then on to Fiji for a few months. Rob and I are planning to head back to Montana for a summer visit in July. And that’s about as long-term as we can plan right here and right now. We talk a lot about lofty goals for the future, which include miraculous millions that allow us to jet each year between our home in Missoula and our second home on a tropical island.  Maybe the millions will roll in once we start selling our band’s albums … though I somehow doubt Johnny Cash cover songs will net enough for a second home.

pub crawl in neiafu tonga regatta vavau party on the horizon line travel blog

But it’s all just talk. We’re happy, healthy, and very much in the “now” here in Tonga. Come visit us and you, too, will see how these islands suck plans straight out into the deep Tongan Trench.

brianna randall rob roberts travel private island travel tonga beach

Magical Mandala on Fetoko Island

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brianna randall rob roberts travel private island travel tonga beach

Fetoko Island is not on any maps. You can’t find it on navigation charts, and many people here in Tonga would scratch their heads if you ask for directions. Maybe this is part of the reason that Fetoko is such a magical place.

Fetoko Island is 2.4 acres, and has a permanent population of 5: Ben and Lisa, along with their two dogs, Higgs and Boson, and their cat Penzini. The seasonal population can climb as high as 20 from July through October, when they host a constant stream of visitors and friends. And their legendary beach dance parties bring hundreds of locals to Fetoko.

brianna rob travel tonga private island beach resort mandala travel

First, a bit about Ben and Lisa, since they are the core of Fetoko and the main ingredients for making it magical. This couple set sail from the Bay Area in California in 2001 on Waking Dream, their 42-foot Cooper. Three years later, they arrived in Tonga … and never left. Ben and Lisa lived on Waking Dream for 5 years here in Vava’u before moving to Fetoko Island. They started Regatta Vava’u to bring more yachties to Tonga, built and ran what is now the most popular waterfront restaurant, opened up a cart safari business, and also started up a powered kayak tour business. Ben built dozens of cyclone-safe yacht moorings in the harbors, along with several docks, roads, and trails in Vava’u.

brianna rob travel tonga private island beach resort mandala travel

Then they were given an island. Pretty cool, huh? That’s what happens if you share a lot of yourself with the community around you. Of course, it’s technically owned by the royal family, like all land in Tonga — Ben and Lisa have a 99-year lease from the government to live on Fetoko. This year, they finished building their one-of-a-kind restaurant, as well as the first part of their eco-resort. Mandala Resort is a place to come chill. To listen to the wind in the trees. To watch the sunset from the strip of beach. To have dance parties til dawn. To eat good food and listen to good stories. It’s got this energy to it, this hum of giving and learning and loving. It draws awesome people who want to give and learn and love.brianna rob travel tonga private island beach resort mandala travel

Rob and I have settled into our “glamping” lifestyle on Fetoko seamlessly: our giant tent and queen-sized inflatable mattress are bigger than the interior of most of the sailboats we’ve lived aboard. The dogs feel like our own. Rob and Ben bustle around fixing things, and making plans to build the next set of fales — the unique accommodations that Mandala Resort rents to tourists. (Check out this tree house.) Lisa and I hang out in the open-air kitchen making papaya cake and curries for ourselves and any guests. We take the boat into town a few times a week to get produce, say hi the locals in Neiafu, and get a new perspective.

private island resort mandala brianna randall rob roberts travel tonga beach

Once the tourism and yachting season dies down next month, Rob and I will help them fix up Waking Dream. We plan to move aboard for a few months, to have a floating base as we help out Ben and Lisa, as well as the other locals who have become our friends these past 2 months. But no matter where we roam here in Vava’u during the upcoming summer, we know that we will always return to Fetoko, the place — and people — that feel like home.

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