Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Day in Fangale'ounga

I've been here about three weeks, so I've somewhat figured out the routine for training. I'm sure you're all anxious to find out all the details of my days, so here you are:

5:30 am - There's a church about a stone's throw from my backyard (and another one down the street, and another one around the corner), and they hold services at 6:00 am Monday/Wednesday/Friday. I haven't gone (my family's Mormon, so we go to church for 3 hours on Sunday), but they ring their bells at 5:30, waking me up. I'd like to go back to sleep, but soon after that, the traditional scream-singing of the churchgoers commences. I wait in bed until a more acceptable hour.

7:00 am - I'm awake by now. Since we go to bed at about 9:30 pm with nothing to do, I've definitely gotten a full night's sleep. I'll get water from the rainwater collection tank, tote it to the bathroom to wash my face, then pour that dirty water into the back of the toilet to get it to flush. My host mom, Ana, has breakfast ready for me. It's most often hot chocolate, crackers with butter, cookies, and a hard boiled egg, but yesterday I bought bread in town. That means that every meal will be bread-oriented until the bread runs out. So, the last time that happened, I got a bunch of fried bread and bread-butter-tomato sandwiches for breakfast. Today, I got sandwiches of spaghetti and corned beef. Ana made about a dozen. I ate two. And I still had my hot chocolate.

8:30-12:30 pm - Language class. I'm in a group of 4 PCTs and one Tongan Tongan-language instructor. Even though we've only been here a few weeks, I can communicate, sometimes at painfully slow speeds, what I have done/am doing/will be doing. Ana speaks English, but we try to speak in Tongan more at home so that I can practice.

1:00 pm - Lunch at home. Really, it could be anything. I feel like meals here are like my meals in college: I eat what there is. Once lunch I had watermelon and potatoes. Another day I had raw fish salad. Another day I had an ear of corn.

Since Ana is a weaver, she and her weaver group of two other women come to the house to work on a mat almost every day. They have business meetings every Friday, and sometimes they organize selling mats to Tongans as far away as America. Usually, however, they'll sell their mats to someone in the market in Nuku'alofa, the capital city. Ana says that there are a number of these weaver groups in every town. So after lunch, I usually hear them talking, but I don't understand anything but a word here and there. Even so, I know they're often talking about the palangis in town. I suppose in a town of only a couple hundred people, the details of four palangis would be interesting.

3:00 pm - We usually don't have organized activities in the afternoon during the week, so we can go to town (like I did today), go for a run (a shocking concept to some Tongans), study language (necessary, but sometimes overwhelming), or sit around (a favorite Tongan pasttime). My town of 4 palangis usually has an extra language class for an hour in the evening, so that sometimes is the entertainment.

All the PCTs are participating in a culture day in about two weeks. We have to: 1) learn a Tongan dance, 2) do a skit in Tongan, 3) teach at least one Tongan something of American culture. Trying to do these things has also become the thing to do in Fangale'ounga. Melissa, the other girl PCT in my town, and I are learning a graceful dance, but we're not nearly as graceful as the Tongans. The two guy PCTs in town are learning a war dance, but it doesn't look nearly as masculine when they do it. We're trying to teach some kids a dance to a medley of American songs. If we can pull it off, it should be good, but that's a big if.

7:00 pm - Dinner. Again, anything. I've had ramen noodles with canned beef but also an enormous lobster. (Seriously, it was the length of my fingertips to elbow.) I think my family likes having me as their guest because, since I can't eat all they put in front of me, they'll just eat all my leftovers, which is usually a lot.

9:30 pm - With nothing much to do in town, and host parents not wanting us girls wandering out alone after dark, we're usually all at home by 9:30. I'll probably sit around on the big porch with Ana and my host sister, Valu, or I'll study. All that sitting around can really tire me out, though, so I go to bed soon after.

And soon enough, the church bells are ringing again.

Future Site: Ha'ano, Ha'apai

After several attempts to travel to town to get internet (making it once, but, alas, the internet was down), I've succeeded.

Last weekend, all 26 PCT (Peace Corps Trainees) learned where we'd be living and working for the next two years. I'll be in Ha'ano, a town on an island north of Foa (the island that I'm living on now). It's about a 45-minute boat ride (when the boat is running, of course) to the northernmost town on Foa, and then a 40-minute drive (when a ride is available, of course) into Pangai, the "big" town. Though I'll be the only palangi (foreigner) on the island of about 350 people, there are a number of other PCV (Peace Corps Volunteers) in Pangai, so I'd be able to hang out with them on a long weekend perhaps.

One of the PCVs that's helping with our training was working in Ha'ano for the past two years, in my future house and all, so I've been able to learn more than most other PCTs about my site. The house is on the primary school compound (where I'll be working), and it's about 50 m from the ocean. Though many houses in Tonga have problems with molokaus (giant hard-shelled centipedes that are aggressive and have a horrible bite), supposedly the biggest animal problem for my house is hermit crabs wandering up from the water. Since I won't have running water, I'll use the rainwater collected in a large tank, which is what I do at my home now. I'll have electricity from 7pm-2am daily, but it sometimes doesn't come on at all. The PCV there now says that, since it's difficult to preserve food without a fridge, he ate a lot of his meals at people's homes in the community. Not only did he get fed, but his Tongan also improved a lot.

This upcoming Saturday, there will be a PCT scavenger hunt in Ha'ano, so I'll get to see my house and the school. A couple of people who will be in Pangai have also seen their sites, so we'll be more prepared about what we should buy to stock our houses before moving in. That'll be especially useful for me, because, since I'm on an outer island, I won't be able to just go down to the store for anything.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Letter to classes in America

The Peace Corps has a program where Peace Corps Trainees (which I am now and throughout training) and Volunteers can be matched up with classes in America to share experiences about their country of service and hopefully relate that to the classwork that's going on in America. I'm teaming up with Cindy Arnold's AP Human Geography class, so I'll be sending them a letter or email about once a month about things that are going on here. Since her Human Geography class sounds like it covers just about everything, I think/hope it'll be a great way for kids to get some second-hand (but very personal!) experiences that relate to their studies. Here's the first email I sent them:

Hi everyone and malo e lelei from Tonga! I've been in Tonga for almost two weeks now. I came with 26 other Americans in the Peace Corps, and we're living for the next 8 weeks in one of the island groups called Ha'apai. For these 8 weeks, we're learning about the Tongan language, Tongan culture, and how we will work in our communities. We each have our own host family. My family consists of: Ana (28, a mat-weaver), Kale ([Kah-lay] 38, fisherman), and Valu (2). I'm learning a lot by living with them and experiencing the Tongan way of life everyday.

In our classes, we talk about culture, among other things, and why Tongans are the way they are. In general, Tonga is a very traditional country. For instance, hierarchy in society is very important. Understanding the Tongan hierarchy is essential to understanding Tonga.

Tonga has three classes: Royals, nobles, and commoners. Almost everything in Tonga is determined by where you rank, either between these classes, or within these classes. Many mechanisms are in place to demonstrate the difference in rank. For instance, the king has his own language, and people can only talk to the king in this language. For another thing, people can never walk in front of the king, other royalty, or other nobility. In Tonga, there are men called talking chiefs, people who speak for the king, royalty, or nobility. At a ceremony, for instance, the honored nobleman doesn't speak, but rather the talking chief receives gifts and thanks guests. This is to show that the person of a higher rank is too important to speak with lower people.

Even among commoners, rank is very important. People are stratified by age, gender, and family. This can affect all areas of life. For instance, at a meeting, lower ranked people will start the discussion, but once the highest ranked person in the room has said his opinion, the discussion is over. Even if his opinion is not logically "right" (by American standards), in Tonga, it is more important to respect the hierarchy than challenge it.

Our first weekend in Tonga, we went to a church service in the capital city, since religion is a very important part of Tongan culture. Some of the Peace Corps people went to a Free Wesleyan church, and who, of all people, was there too? The king of Tonga. At the church, he sat in an area by himself, slightly elevated than the rest of the congregation. Even in church, the king is separated from the rest of the people because he is a higher rank.

Rank is very important even within a class. My first dinner (and every meal since) with my host family, I was the honored person. Guests are very respected in a Tongan home, and my family showed me this respect in ways that surprised me. They sat their two-year-old daughter on the floor to eat, to show that she was below me. When I (in my sad Tongan) tried to suggest we all eat together, they sat at the far end of the table to give me space. Some meals I eat by myself, since that is another way to show respect. Just as the king is separated from the crowd at church, I am separated from the family at meals.

Through the next weeks of classes and training, I'm sure I'll learn more about the hierarchy within Tonga, especially how to work within it. To get any work done, it's important to go to the right people for their opinions, even as a courtesy call. I've heard of a Peace Corps Volunteer who didn't ask the governor for permission to do something (though she would certainly have been granted it), and the governor went out of his way to block her steps to achieve her goal. Obviously, it's very important to understand who ranks where in a society where everything functions around the hierarchy.

I'm enjoying my time here so far. I'm in Fangale'onga, Foa, Ha'apai island group, if you'd like to look it up. Or visit. My mom found some information about the area which sounds very true, except for the horses thing. No horses for transportation. And there's also a one-way road that connects the two islands; whichever direction the car on the road is going is the direction of traffic and everyone else has to wait until that car is off the bridge. Furthermore, the airport we landed in takes up the whole width of the island. It cuts the main road on the island in half, so when a plane is landing or taking off, perhaps twice a day, gates come down to block traffic, much like railroad crossings.

Like I've said, we've got language and training classes for the next 8 weeks. The way the Tongan language is, you can never have two consonants together, and the letters B and R don't exist. Alas, the name "Blair" is quite difficult for Tongans. So, we've changed my name to a Tongan-appropriate one: Pele. Pele is a Tongan name; it means "beloved one" and also "playing cards." Go figure.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tau o! Let's go!

I won't be showing my armpits in public for a while. Tongans frown on such risque behavior for women, so I'm appeasing Tongans everywhere and covering them up for the next 27 months. To all the fans of my armpits, I'm sorry. The same goes for fans of my knees, midriff, and shoulders.

Fans of my wrists, elbows, feet, and face may rejoice, however, since they will be able to see these appendages as I volunteer with the Peace Corps in Tonga for the next 27 months.

On Monday, October 5, I leave for Los Angeles for a day of training, mostly paperwork I'd guess. Tuesday night we're off to Apia, Samoa, then we head to the island of Tongatapu, Tonga. We'll have about 8 weeks of Pre-Service Training on the island of Ha'apai, when we'll learn about the culture, technical training for our jobs (for me, teaching English), and other safety and health issues. We'll also have an intense Tongan-language program. We'll be living with a host family for that time, so it will be an opportunity to put into action everything we learned from the Pre-Service Training.

We'll officially be sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers on December 16, then we head off to different parts of the country to work for the next two years.

But for now, it's goodbye to my sultry armpits, hello to my calf-length skirts, and tau o to Tonga!