Another one to the Long Way Home series and close to wrapping up. Since 21 days quarantine is a bit of a long time, I've decided to do add one more piece to the series. 🙇🙇 Part V will cover the experience of arriving at Fua'amotu airport to settling into the Tanoa Quarantine Facility and the final Part VI will cover the general Tonga quarantine experience. It was an extremely long day when we arrived back in Tonga, and I hope this piece will be helpful for future returnees to Tonga on what they should expect. So here goes.
Arrival at Fua'amotu Airport
Our flight from Auckland landed around 2:30 pm on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon at Fua'amotu Airport. There were 247 passengers on that flight.
As we disembarked from the aircraft, we were required to line up and have our names and temperature checked by Health staff before going through the usual immigration & customs.
What surprised me: How long and slow the queue was!
The reality hit about being back in Tonga is that people here don't know how to form a single-file and orderly queue. 😂😂 I think this is one of the reasons why the queue was so slow because people just stood where they wanted to stand and pushed each other around to get to the front. To be fair, it also started raining, and the pushing got worse as there wasn't enough space to form an orderly line without getting caught in the rain outside.
The Health staff who were checking the names had a hard-copy list of all the 247 passengers. They had to rustle through the papers and double-check the names of the passengers. I wish they were given a tablet or laptop or some electronic device to make their work easier and faster. They're already working so hard, so can't we make life easier for them? Maan, malo enau sii ngaue.
What you should know:
Once your name and temperature are checked by the Health staff, you will be given a Welcome booklet, with the code of which quarantine facility you are assigned to( i.e. T10 in the picture).
They offer both Tongan and English version of the booklet but do make sure you read it.
You are not allowed to take pictures at all at the airport, and staff from His Majesty's Armed Forces (HMAF) will politely yell at you to stop (i.e. Formal words, harsh tones 😂)
Transportation from Airport to Hotel
After getting your bags sorted, staff from HMAF will direct you to get on one of the buses. You need to show them the booklet with your code number then you get on the bus (so don't lose your welcome booklet). They will load your luggage onto the bus for you.
You are not allowed to take photos of the bus, on the bus, or when the bus leaves. You will get politely yelled at.
What surprised me: How long we had to wait on the bus!
So there were five buses at the airport to pick up the passengers. We had to wait until allllllll the buses were full (like, jam-packed full. No social distancing on the bus) before we could depart from the airport.
The flight arrived at 2:30 pm. But we were still at the airport around 4:00 pm, waiting for the buses to be filled.
What was different to the NZ MIQ experience is that only 10-15 passengers were allowed onto a bus to maintain social distancing. Once it met the required number of passengers, the bus would immediately go to the Quarantine hotel.
In Tonga though, we had to wait until all the 247 passengers were seated on the buses before we took off. That was a very long wait. There were some elderly people and small children on the same bus I was on, and the long wait wasn't easy for them.
Maybe they could improve this by putting families with young children and elderly people in a different/priority queue when doing the checks and fast track them to be seated onto the buses, then send those buses to the quarantine facility first.
I mean, other passengers don't really want to hear a bunch of 2-year-olds cry and ask their mum for the 3175765th time when will the bus leave (imagine how tiring it is for the parents as well). I also felt bad for the elderly people on our bus, in particular, an elderly man, who mentioned how sitting for so long is hurting his back and legs (3 hours on the plane and another couple hours on the bus). Some people can manage to sit and wait on a bus for 2+ hours, but I think that's tough for young kids and elderly people. I reckon they should relook at the Quarantine transport process and make it easier/faster for passengers. Hei'ilo.
Arriving at Tanoa Hotel
As mentioned above, our flight landed at 2:30 pm. We left the airport around 4:30 ish pm and arrived in town at almost 5:30 pm.
All the luggage was taken off the bus first, so we had to wait another couple of hours. At 6:30 pm, they were still offloading the passenger's luggage and we were still not allowed to get off the bus.
Another difference with NZ MIQ is that while the luggage was being offloaded from the bus, a staff would greet the passengers, start the debrief on the bus, run through the quarantine rules and answer any questions passengers may have. In Tonga though, we had to wait in awkward silence on the bus for hours while they offloaded the bags.
Only when all the luggage from all the buses were lined up in front of the hotel entrance can the passengers start to get off the bus. Passengers from Bus 1 would get off first, one by one. They would identify their bags at the entrance and the staff would deliver them up to their rooms later.
It was finally my turn to get off the bus around 7:00 pm (I was on Bus 3).
We were greeted at the front entrance by the Quarantine facility staff which consist of nurses and doctors, staff from HMAF as well as the Tonga Fire & Emergency Services staff. To check-in, the staff double-checked our name on their papers before they gave us our room key.
What surprised me:
Finding out at check-in that I had to share a room with a stranger for 21 days! Yes, you read that right. Share a room. In Quarantine. With a stranger. To be fair, it's mentioned in small print in the welcome booklet that you might have to share a room with a stranger in quarantine in Tonga for the next 21 days (I did read it in the booklet while I was on the bus, but I thought the chance of room sharing would be slim since Tanoa is big 🤣). Anyway, I thought it defeats the purpose of social distancing and I wasn't too happy at having to share a room for 21 days with someone I don't know (#IntrovertProblems) but ohhh well...welcome back to Tonga 🤣🤣🤣
Luckily, my roommate was a really nice person. She was a Returning Mormon Missionary who had served her mission in Fukuoka, Japan. While it had taken me 8 months and 4 cancelled/delayed flights to get back, it had taken her one whole damn year and ten cancelled/delayed tickets to get back to Tonga! So yes, we bonded really quickly over our similar travel trauma stories and our mutual appreciation of Japanese food and culture✈️🤣 ✌️✌️.
The room & amenities
The room we were assigned to had:
2 single beds
Broom and mop
A plastic container full of plastic forks and knives
Mini fridge with 1 box of milk
Small box of black tea, instant coffee, sugar, salt and pepper packets
Box of soap
Box of bottled water
What surprised me:
How fast the internet was! I really didn't expect I'd be able to watch anime smoothly back in Tonga. 😂 (No one asked but my current favourite animes are Tokyo Revengers, Godzilla Singular Point and Moriarty the Patriot)
The amount of single-use plastic cutlery in the room! Isn't there a #NoPelesitiki Campaign going on in Tonga to discourage single-use plastic? 🤔In NZ MIQ, we were given a set of normal metal cutlery as well as a small bottle of dishwashing liquid for the 14-day duration. Minimize single-use plastics waste. Maybe this is something Tonga Quarantine could consider too. 🤷
Dinner was delivered to our rooms around 9:00 pm. Around 10:00 pm, staff came round to remind us of Covid testing in the morning, as well as give a brief explanation of quarantine rules. We were reminded that we must always wear a mask when opening the door and when leaving the room for our Covid test.
Quarantine Briefing & Covid test
The following morning, we were called in a group of 25-30 people to attend a meeting brief of which we were reminded of the quarantine facility house rules.
Our group were seated at the reception area of the hotel, where we were briefed by Health staff and HMAF staff. After the brief, we were required to move to the conference room space to wait for our Covid test.
What was repeatedly emphasised is that photography is absolutely not allowed at the quarantine facility (it's ok in your room though).
What surprised me:
At the meeting debrief, we were strongly discouraged from leaving our room at all. The welcome booklet mentions that we will be given a schedule of when we can leave our rooms for exercise, but we weren't given such a schedule and we were asked not to leave our rooms at all 🤷 🤷 In NZ MIQ, we could request to leave our room for fresh air and outdoor exercise, but that option is not available in Tonga quarantine.
Smokers were registered and they were the only ones who are allowed to leave their rooms to smoke outside. I had never envied a smoker until now. 😅😅
And there you go. That's the first 2 days of arriving and settling into Tonga quarantine.
While there were some things I wasn't impressed with (such as the long waiting times at the airport, on the bus and arrival at the hotel), I had to remind myself this is Tonga. Maybe I'm picking up on rather minor things and judging rather harshly because I'm comparing this Tonga quarantine to my NZ MIQ experience 😅. Obviously, it would not be the same.
Nonetheless, I understand the incredible amount of work that the front-line staff at the quarantine facility have to carry out, and I am appreciative of their efforts. Fakamalo lahi atu kihe ngaue 'oku mou fakahoko.
The final (hopefully 😅) piece, Part VI, will be about living in quarantine and the general quarantine experience. Until then, thank you for reading and tu'a 'ofa atu.