Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A little Tongan Flavor

One thing I enjoyed about traveling by myself was the complete freedom to just go with the flow without having to think twice about anything.
The day of my snorkeling trip was a good example of that.
I was offered a ride to town that morning by the owners of my hotel. The plan was for them to pick me up right before 9.  At about 7:30, I hear someone calling for me down the hallway. The plan had changed.
Me: Sorry, I'm not ready. I thought we were going to town at 9.
Him: Yea, I need to go pollinate some vanilla and thought you might want to come along and I can drop you in town after. If we leave in 10 minutes, we should have plenty of time to get it finished before your boat leaves.
Me: Sounds great!

And that's how I got to learn all about Vanilla, and how to pollinate it.
So a little before 8, we arrived at one of MANY vanilla fields on the island (it's a booming industry, spear-headed by my hotel owner) and  the vanilla plantations are set amidst the jungly bits on the island. 

Not exactly what we typically think of as a 'field', but that's it!  Vanilla plantation!

And did you know that Vanilla is actually a type of orchid???  I didn't. Very interesting.  so it is a vine that you grow on a host plant that it can drape itself all over.

This is the flower. We had to pollinate them using a twig. You have to get in there inside the flower, sneak under a little flap, then use the twig to gently flip a flap up, then squeeze down and press two specific parts together...  It took some practice, but I had it down by the end. The tricky thing is that you only have about a 24 hour window to get the flowers pollinated, which has to be done by hand (except in Mexico, where a species of bee has been able to pollinate it).  So this is a very labor-intensive process, which is why vanilla beans are so expensive. And the plants are slow-growing if I recall correctly.  

So after my tutorial, we wandered through this field, looking for flowers to pollinate. You could tell the ones that had already been done because you basically crush the flower to pollinate it. I felt a little bad just going around looking for flowers, then smashing them... but it was the task at hand.

About 30 minutes in, I was warned to 'not get bit by a mosquito' because I could get Chikungunya Fever, which is allegedly VERY uncomfortable.   Luckily, I escaped the Chikungunya.

More beautiful vanilla orchids ripe for the slaughter.

So after we had pollinated about 150 flowers, it was time to head back into town so I could catch my snorkeling tour, which I've already written about - saw a shark, dove in caves, was always slightly terrified, but survived).

Then after the tour, I was invited to the Coconut oil factory for a tour. The 'factory' is also owned by my hotel owner, and it is right across the street from my hotel, and they live right there as well. They are quite the entrepreneurs, and have done well for themselves down in Tonga (originally Aussies), and they have set up a completely waste-free facility on their property.  Each project has led to waste product, which they then have turned into another project, and the chain has continued until they have been able to close the loop entirely.  It was a fascinating tour, and kind of an inspiration to just keep dabbling in things. Their operation was really cool. I'll try my best to recount the details.

We'll start with the coconuts:  They come from EVERYWHERE on the island, and lots of local 'growers' sell their coconuts to this factory:

So they all have to be shelled.  That guy could peel a coconut in about 20 seconds. I can peel one in about 5 minutes if I stretch, get a practice run, and have someone 'loosen' it for me.

Coconuts everywhere.  Once peeled, they go inside where someone processes them a little more, then they go into a big grinder and the bits are kind of sent through a huge juicer and the coconut milk comes out a spout and the flakes come out in this pan:

Or maybe the one above is just a shredder, and then the wet flakes are pressed and the juice comes out down here and the dry flakes go in this pan:
So then the juice goes into large vats, where chemical reactions or temperature changes or something happens, and you get Coconut oil!  Voila!  I should have taken notes.

So now to discuss some of the 'no waste' aspects. What do they do with all those coconut shells?  fire kindling..   Coconut flakes?  Feed it to their pigs.
Pig manure? Dump it in a crab mud flat they are building
Crab shells? feet it to the pigs and chickens

Their goal is to provide lots of local food items under the Taste of Tonga name, and provide as many Tongan local organic foods as possible while remaining waste-free.

They also run the vanilla business, so a lot of the coconut shells go around the bases of the host trees to the vanilla vines in the plantations, which provide mulch and structure to the soil in the fields. 

They are also working on several other projects, but you'll just have to go visit because the details were so intricate that I"ve forgotten how it all fits together. But it was impressive.

Back to the vanilla, real quick.
They walked me through the processing of the vanilla beans...
Beans are graded based on their size, color, and imperfections.
Once you get ripe beans, you collect them, and start the drying process, which is elaborate. Here's where they work on processing all of it:

The Beans go on racks to dry.  At some point, you have to bundle them up while a little moist (?) so they ferment themselves, but don't rot... so you have to inspect the bundles often to make sure they aren't molding.  Then they dry again, then 'sweat' again.  and the process continues...

These beans are probably half-way through the process.

There were racks and racks of them
It turns out, vanilla beans take a few years to produce from start to finish (plant to mature processed bean), which is why they are expensive.  An operation like this can be quite lucrative, which is how it became such an industry in Tonga. There was a big storm in Madagascar a while back that destroyed a bunch of vanilla plantations, so there was a gap in the market, so lots of other places pounced at the chance to break into the market with hopes of competing for a slice of the pie by the time Madagascar recovered from the storm. (remember it takes years)

So this storage crate holds what will probably sell for a few  hundred thousand dollars' worth of vanilla beans...

so after the tour, I thought I was going to just go to town and eat by myself and go to bed early.... Turns out, the hotel owners showed up at the restaurant I was eating at, and invited me to join them and their friend. We had a nice dinner, then they said I HAD to go to the Fakaleiti show that night. They'd drop me off. It was a MUST.

Turns out, Fakaleiti's are boys that are raised as girls. There are a lot of Polynesian cultures that do this. Many families will have enough boys, but will need more help with the indoor 'female' tasks, so they decide that a boy will be raised as a girl. I don't know why they don't just treat them like a boy and have them set the table or something, but it's their culture. So it is pretty common to see a fakaleiti anywhere in town, which is just a man dressed like a woman. Often, they are more overtly feminine than the average woman. They are sometimes considered a third gender in some countries. Some just consider them women. (they are called different things in the different polynesian cultures that have this).  and by the way, Fakaleiti is generally pronounced 'Fuckalady', which is almost too much to believe.
... So back to the Fakaleiti show. Apparently every Monday at a local bar is the Fakaleiti show, and it's a huge deal. I saw more people there than any other single spot in Vava'u.  It was a major event, and apparently every Monday is the same. They basically just put on a drag show, and the people love it. It was pretty entertaining, I have to admit. The crowd participation was impressive. One of the most involved crowd members ended up being my whale swimming guide the next morning!  We talked a lot about it the next morning. He was Australian as well, and said that it is accepted/expected to be very participatory and supportive of the fakaleiti's of Tonga. He said they are generally very well-treated and there's no stigma of dressing in drag for them, whereas I feel like there is still quite a bit of stigma associated with that type of thing in the States. But as I said, it is a commonly accepted third gender and the families choose to have one of their boys raised this way, so they would obviously be pretty content with the idea. It was very interesting. I talked to a girl at the 'ticket table' at this place before the show, and she told me all about it. I don't think it is quite as common as it used to be as gender roles all over the world have blurred slightly, but many families will still have a male child raised as a fakaleiti. 

So that was my day of just going with the flow. You  NEVER know where the day might take you. One minute you're in bed, then you can be pollinating vanilla orchids in the jungle, then snorkeling the reefs, seeing the inner workings of a coconut oil factory, and then BANG: fakaleiti drag show...  All in a day in Tonga.

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