Words, photos, video, and interview by Todd Henry.
While enduring a harsh Pennsylvanian winter several years back I Google searched “skateboarding + Tonga” out of curiosity to see what might come up. I wasn’t expecting anything to come up, but to my surprise, at the top of the list of results was a blog called The Adventures of Tongaman. This blog revealed that there was a family of Americans who were living in Tonga for no other reason other than to help empower the local people through the use of skateboarding and other educational initiatives. I immediately emailed this Tongaman to let him know that I thought what he was doing looked very interesting. I am usually not cynical, but I still had questions: Why would a man move his wife and three children from the relative safety of New Hampshire to an obscure island nation in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean? Were they running away from something in the US? Did they have ulterior motives for their involvement in Tongan society?
In July of 2013 a friend and I travelled from New Zealand to Tonga for a week. One afternoon I was going to get some bottled water from the local shop, and I saw a dreadlocked palangi (person of European descent) pedalling a custom-modified tricycle down the rough and dusty road with a couple of kids happily riding in the wooden box on the back. It was Chris Paquette, the Tongaman himself, making his way to the central market in Tonga’s capital city of Nuku’alofa. He remembered me from the email correspondence, and after a short chat we decided that we would get together one evening. A couple of days later I visited Chris and his family at their home in the village of Puke, and we conversed well into the steamy Tongan night over a large wooden bowl of Chris’ signature beverage, coconut kava (kava mixed with water from a fresh coconut). Following this meeting, I could tell that the Paquette’s had come to Tonga for reasons that are nothing other than admirable.
Against the direct advice of many of their concerned family and friends in the US, Chris and Ashley made the decision to leave behind the luxuries of home in favour of jumping headfirst into the unknown with their three young children. It wasn’t easy. At this point in time the Paquette’s have succeeded in building a house entirely out of local materials, they have made many personal connections with the local Tongan people, they have learned a great deal about the complex social systems that govern all aspects of life in Tonga. They have also probably set a world record for overall distance covered on their tricycles!
I have kept in close contact with Chris and Ashley since our initial meeting in July 2013. I visited Tonga again in January 2014, this time with some used skateboarding gear that was donated by several skateboarders in New Zealand to help support Chris’s fledgling skateboarding programme in Tonga.
On the last day of my trip I sat down with the Paquette’s to conduct an interview that would hopefully reveal some of the more interesting aspects of their experience as a family of Americans living in the Kingdom of Tonga.
Todd: Ok, let’s start off with some background information. Where are you from and how old are you?
Ashley: From New Hampshire, USA and I’m 29. How old are you Alei?
Alei: I’m 5
Indy: I’m 8
Chris: I’m 32
A lot of Americans especially like to fantasize about just packing up and moving to a tropical island, but not many actually do. How did you end up making this a reality by relocating to Tonga?
Chris: Well I actually never had even heard of Tonga before, but God spoke to me one day and he just said “go to Tonga”. So we looked it up and made every effort and now we have been here for a year and a half.
Did you consider going to any countries other than Tonga?
Chris: Tonga was the only country from the beginning.
Ashley: We never considered somewhere else.
What about when you were younger in the US, did you used to think of living in faraway places?
Chris: I always dreamt of living on an island so it kind of worked out to our benefit in that way.
Ashley: I wanted to live somewhere else too, but not necessarily an island (laughs).
What do you enjoy the most about living in Tonga?
Chris: Skateboarding? That’s good, that’s good… I just enjoy the island life. I enjoy climbing coconut trees. I enjoy running around with a machete. Just being able to work in the garden and provide for my family in that sense.
Ariel: I like swimming a lot. I like swimming in the ocean.
Ashley: I like that it’s peaceful and quiet. People aren’t as busy, like in the US.
What is challenging about living in Tonga?
Chris: I think just the differences in our cultures. How we raise our children, how we discipline our children, and what’s expected of us. Tongan people live very different lives than we do, so there is a lot of difficulty there. And getting around Tonga on our bicycles is very difficult.
Ashley: I guess not having a lot of the modern conveniences that we are used to, like a washing machine. In the heat there is no air conditioner. And like Chris said, there are the cultural differences. You can be speaking the same language, and still not understanding each other.
What do you miss about living back in the US?
Indy: My skateboard ramps.
Ariel: All of my cousins.
Alei: Getting candy from Papa.
Ashley: Family. Just having a group of people like friends and family around, and supermarkets full of a variety of things!
Chris: For me it would be just being able to communicate with people easily, to be able to talk to people and just laugh. A joke in Tonga is not is as funny to me as an American joke. Just laughing and hanging out with people, that would be it for me. Tools too, lots of tools.
What is the future plan for your life in Tonga?
Chris: Well, we started a non-profit called One Love. It’s going to involve skateboarding and pretty much a lot of other extreme sports, but also teaching life skills and showing people how to build things out of what Tonga has to offer. You know, not using outside-sourced materials. That’s kind of our goal, just getting One Love up and running and really pushing it in Tonga and throughout the South Pacific.
How long do you think you will stay in Tonga?
Ashley: We’re not sure yet.
Chris: We are just going with the flow. It could be 5 years, or it could be 10. I don’t know. We don’t back down from a challenge, that’s for sure.
What advice would you give to a family or a person who wants to move somewhere like Tonga?
Chris: You will need patience, a lot of patience. If you were going to move to an island, everything moves at extremely slow paces. Take a vacation once a year. We haven’t done that, we haven’t done anything actually as far as getting out of the country to take a break. Even if it’s just going to a hotel for a weekend and having fun. Just anything like that is probably really important, and I think that’s one thing we really miss out on and wish we could do. Just to temporarily get away from everything that we are surrounded by, and take a break to enjoy one another. Maybe even be catered to, like someone bringing you your food, or other simple things. Every day is such a challenge here, to do anything is such a challenge. We are surviving so it’s not always that much fun. To take a break would be key, you know. So if you’re going to move to an island make sure you have somewhere to go once in a while.
Ashley: I think it would help to come out and visit before moving, but don’t just surround yourself with the high end. See what the average person there is doing and what life is like to give you a better idea what the island is like. If you are living here just like you are in the US, you’re not going to experience the culture. Just take a few weeks to experience how the average islander lives just to get an idea of what it’s like.
So you visited Tonga before moving here?
Chris: Only I did, I came twice.
Not many kids from New England will get to experience what it is like to grow up in a place like Tonga. What do you guys like the most about living here?
Indy: I like climbing coconut trees.
Ariel: I like the island a lot, there are a lot of shells and sea creatures.
Alei: I like swimming.
How much of the Tongan language have you learned to speak?
Ariel: I’ve learned a lot. Fefe hake?
Indy: Sai pe, Malo
Ariel/Indy: Taha, ua, tolu, fa, nima, ono, fitu, valu, hiva, hongofulu (counting from one to ten).
Good pronunciation! Are there any other American kids here that you are friends with?
Indy: Just Tongan friends.
Ariel: I met one American, but they are gone now.
Alei: Yeah, we met one.
Ashley: Mostly all of their friends are Tongan.
What is your best memory since you have been living in Tonga?
Indy: Getting my cat! When the cat was born in my room.
Ariel: It was amazing the first time we went to Makaha’a.
Alei: I like camping on the island (Makaha’a).
Chris: Makaha’a is a small island that we were going to, and there was nobody else there so you really feel like a castaway or something. For me the best time was going to Makaha’a because ever since I was a kid I always dreamt of being stranded on an island with no people on it. Man, when I get out there I’m really in my element and it’s awesome. I love it more than anything, and once you’re there you’re free and there’s no noise or anybody staring at you. In Tonga everybody stares at you, so when you get out there you can just be yourself. It’s good. What about you Ashley? Would be it be going out to eat? Biking from one side of the island to the other?
Ashley: I don’t know if I have that many good memories. There are hard memories, and interesting memories too. Actually, when we went out to see the whales! We were out on the backside of the island and you just see these things shoot up out of the water. I was like “that’s a whale!” and everyone else was like “no”. We kept seeing them as they got closer and closer, and they were still shooting up out of the water and slamming back down. Then we could see it coming, a huge humpback whale and its baby. That was really cool, I definitely enjoy seeing humpback whales in nature.
That’s all I have for today, thanks for chatting with me about the experiences of an American family living in Tonga. How do you say bye in Tongan kids?
Ariel/Indy/Alei: ‘Alu a!