You’re Just Not As Fat

Back in the 90’s I lived and taught maths and science at a school in the South Pacific and so I thought that I’d go back and have a look to see if it’s changed.

I got picked up by an ex-student and friend, Sekolatika:

She’s a mother of seven, her oldest being 20. I had to keep on reminding myself that 20+plus years is a whole generation, of course people are going to be married with kids. The biggest surprise was that Sekolatika was driving – only the nuns and men drove when I was last in Tonga.

I got to visit the school that I taught at:

This was the lab that I used to teach in:

This was Malia, the school’s science teacher. She’s just started teaching.

It’s good that the science teachers are Tongan rather than being from overseas. I had an amazing time in this country but I did struggle with the whole education system; it was all in English and the students usually failed their exams because they failed their English. It did feel really unfair and it was a reminder of the impact that the British have had on the rest of the world.

I got taken out to a buffet, traditional Tongan show and then to the nightclubs in Nuku’alofa by Dallau and her husband Laumanu. Nightclubs have changed, I used to have to have a chaperone when I went to the local nightclub, which was a bit of a shock as I was used to going out a lot before I went to Tonga and then spending two years there and only being able to go out once in a while was a bit of a disappointment for someone in their 20’s.

In the photo above I love the fact that Laumanu has a flower behind his ear, he put that there and it’s not an uncommon thing for men to have flowers behind their ears.

I got to meet up with a few ex-students who were teaching at the school. The photo below is Luseano who was in one of the lower forms when I was teaching.

I also got to meet Kalo, she was principal during my first year at school. She still teaches a bit at the school.

My first week in Tonga was spent catching up with old friends and getting a social schedule drawn up for the following week. I was inviting myself round to people’s houses. I got to catch up with Puilisi, who taught at the school at the same time that I was there:

There was a group of women who were using the schools grounds to dry out their tapa. One of them was an ex-student who remembered me, I managed to get a dinner invite from her. She remembered that when I first arrived in Tonga I was really slim but by the time I left I was really fat. The most common comment that I got was that I look the same as I did all of those years ago – I’m just not as fat.

Kai (eat,food) is a word that is used a lot in Tonga and so whilst I was in Tonga teaching I was fed all the time, all the time I was told to come eat and the portion sizes were big, everyone would always pile my plate up with food. I did not know until my second year in Tonga that you could say no and that no-one would be offended. So my first year in Tonga was spent eating a lot and come my second year I continued to eat a lot because I was used to it 🤣.

The little kid above asked me three questions when he first met me:

What is your name?

How old are you?

Where is your husband?

I had so much fun with the second question as I got asked it a lot and made everyone aware that it’s quite a rude question to ask in our culture – everybody apologised and felt quite bad for asking it. The third question- I need to start making up different stories as once I get to Asia I’ll be asked it a lot.

Myself and the little boy above are standing on tapa, it’s made from the inner back of a tree and is very important in Tongan culture. The women who were making it were making it to sell to Tongans overseas.

My first weekend was spent with my friend Soana and her family, they dressed me up for church.

I was originally only meant to spend the weekend with Soana and her family. I was meant to spend the following week with her Mum and Dad as they lived in the village that I used to live in whereas Soana and her family lived quite a few villages away but I ended up spending most of my time with them because Tonga got hit by Cyclone Gita on the Monday after the weekend.

Cyclone Gita was the most intense cyclone to hit Tonga since reliable records began. The cyclone was meant to be at its most intense at midnight. All day the wind got stronger and stronger and stronger. Soakai- Soana’s husband spent the day securing the roof to the house.

The photo above is Beneli on the roof pretending to help his dad.

By 10pm the wind was really really really strong and we were sat in the house just waiting. At this point I was thinking surely this was strong enough and it needs to start winding down- but of course it got stronger. As I was a visitor I had my own room whilst the rest of the family slept in the living room. My bed was right next to a window and all that I could think was that a breadfruit would fly off a tree and come flying through the window and I’d be covered in glass. So after about an hour of not being able to sleep I moved into the living room and spent the night in and out of sleep.

We were really lucky Soana’s and Soakai’s house was not damaged, just a bit wet inside:

Whereas so many buildings and trees were blown down. The house that I was meant to stay in during the week got badly damaged, they had to evacuate in the middle of the night, which was really difficult because the wind was so strong it was hard to drive.

Trees were blown down

Buildings were badly damaged

My school, suffered too:

So my next week was spent with Soana’s family. Which was really good. I got see things and eat things that I never got to try the last time that I was in Tonga. I knew how the Tongan brooms were made, but I never watched anyone make one.

Most people in the village thoughts that I was Soana’s Fijian housekeeper. Which explains why the kids in the village would shout ‘Bula’ at me and I would walk straight past them not registering that they were trying to say hello.

I had fun with the kids, health and safety is totally different in the U.K.

Tonga has loads of dogs, pigs and cockerels. So night time is filled with the sounds of dogs barking all night, pigs grunting and cockerels crowing.

The family had three dogs, but this lovely one didn’t have a name. So I named her by the time I left they were all calling her Simaima (Jemima). I had never petted a pig or taken a selfie with a pig before. I just couldn’t touch her ears.

I borrowed a bike very very briefly. I nearly fell off it as soon as I got on it. Also the kids kept on lying to me and telling me that there were dogs everywhere that would chase me.

The cyclone also meant that there was as a glut of food around as fruit had been blown off the trees or vegetables needed harvesting because the leaves had been blown off the plants. So I was inundated with drinking coconuts all day everyday.

So unfortunately my social plans had been affected by the cyclone. A week after the cyclone I managed to start making new plans to see people but then I managed to get sick for the second time whilst I was in Tonga. I was actually staying with some nuns at the time and so one of them spent all evening making me eat and trying to get my temperature down. It was a bit of a concern as the nuns thought that it may have been dengue fever. Luckily I didn’t have dengue fever and it took me a good two weeks to get better but I was really lucky as I was staying with friends, so they cooked for me as I managed to lose my appetite.

One of the sisters who looked after me whilst I was sick.

On my last Sunday in Tonga. Soana and Soakai, killed one of their pigs and we had a feast.

The photo below is Soana, Kaloline, Tilila and Soakai dropping me off at the airport.

My last few days in Tonga were spent being mosquito fodder. Unfortunately the cyclone will bring disease, there’s more stagnant water in the country and therefore more mosquitoes which in turn will mean more dengue fever over the coming months. The glut of food after the cyclone will also mean that in a month or two there will be a shortage of food. The price of food had gone up whilst I was there and no doubt it will go up over the coming months. Most of the shops in Tonga are owned by the Chinese community, and I think that they will have a hard time over the coming months as they will have to put the price of things up over the coming weeks and months and sadly there’s a lot of racism directed at the Chinese community in Tonga.

I was a bit apprehensive about going to Tonga as sometimes its better not to go back to something. I had been told before going to Tonga that it hadn’t changed a lot since I left, but of course it had. 23 years is a long time. Even though I managed to get sick twice and there was a hurricane I’m glad that I went back and I had a good time and a lot of ‘oh yeah’ moments.

By Susan Doram

I am passionate about cycling and enjoy encouraging others to ride their bicycles. I am a cycle coach and founder member and chair for Leicester Women's Velo and Founder member and club secretary for Ride on Sistas. I love to encourage others to get active. I am an award wining personal trainer and one of Cycling UK's 100 Women in Cycling 2019. I've been on numerous cycle tours and have encouraged others to join me. Part of my cycle touring experience has included cycling around the world for just over 2 1/2 years.


  1. Wow what a fascinating account of your return to Tonga Susan. Amazing pictures of the damage to the country form the hurricane. Glad you are feeling better too!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Susan,
    I really enjoyed reading about your memories and adventures in Tonga.
    I’m very glad you’re on the mend and have been looked after when you needed it.
    Take good care of yourself and keep these coming.
    Indi 🌻🚴🏻‍♀️🌻

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t make it to our house. I thought that I would have been able to walk across the field to get to it but it’s all blocked off. I understand that teachers do live in the house, but it’s not the same as when we were there.


  3. Loving reading all about Tonga. How difficult for a small community to rebuild after all the hurricane damage. Really interesting reading and we LOVE the photos. (ESP the pig). Here in Chile there are stray dogs everywhere. They are gorgeous mutts, but sleep all day and bark and howl all night! Take care on your adventures xxx Allie&Rog

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Omg Susan I’ve only just caught up with your blog! I hope you’ve recovered? It’s quite scary to see the hurricane damage and I’m glad you were safe.
    I’ve really enjoyed reading and seeing your pictures. It’s wonderful that you’ve had the opportunity to visit there again. They must’ve been over the moon to see you. In Punjabi we say ‘ka’ when telling people to eat. The children seem cheekily funny – did they make you laugh a lot, or was it the other way round?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The kids were really funny and very sweet, they had been told that they had to look after me so they were constantly asking me if I was alright, did I want some food, where are you going? Yes I’m fully recovered now thanks, I’m staying with friends from Tonga at the moment and so I’m being fed well. Tongan hospitality is amazing. I’m glad that I went back, I want to go back again. I had a fantastic time.


  5. Hey Susan, what a fab account, we’ve loved watching all your travels.. it must have been amazing catching up with people after all this time and seeing how much had changed …

    Keep them coming x

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m going to cycle length of NZ South Island in Feb 2019. This post is the first small step! I can’t back out now. Hope to enjoy benefits of NZ’s mega investment in car free paths. May tailwinds propel you…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t know yet! My Niece had a landmark Birthday on Thurs and we had a big family Skype. She has just moved to a remote area living a very rural existence (even by NZ standards!) so blurting out my half baked plan on the call is about as far as I’ve got! It will be on a folder with minimal luggage and camping stuff. One of our LWFA members is fund raising through a ride from Canterbury to Rome. He is on a very basic folder with just three gears! I will have six gears. That’s as far as I’ve got!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Wow! Cool. So on a folder. A folder gives you flexibility. The Kenner brothers have a few books that have info about cycling the North and South Islands. Some of the off road routes are easy trails, some are more suited to mountain bikes. Excellent. I look forward to hearing more as your plans develop.


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