Friday, December 17, 2010

Photos of Ha'ano Before America Trip

Around town before heading home for Christmas

What I'm Looking Forward to in America

Last week, Misa, a Tongan friend, was over at my house. We were talking about when I first got to Ha’ano, just about a year ago. He was in Tongatapu, but when he got back to Ha’ano in January, he told me he had heard about me, the new Peace Corp.

Pele: What did you hear about me?

Misa: Oh, that you just say yes to everything.

Pele: Haha, that’s true. I just say yes because I either don’t understand their Tongan or don’t have anything else to say.

Misa: Yeah, but you would say yes to things you shouldn’t say yes to. I was on the road with some boys one day, and you passed, and one boy said, ‘Hey, Pele, we’re going to go over there and eat, and then we’ll come over and sleep at your house. Ok?’ And you just said, ‘’Io’ [yes].

The funniest part of this, to me, is that it still happens. A year later. People will still make jokes too quickly for me to understand or to have any comeback. Of course, the joke isn’t whatever I say, it’s whatever the other person says, so my response doesn’t much matter, but I at least wish I could participate a little more.

So in going to America, in just a couple of day, I’m looking forward to understanding pretty much everything that’s going on around me. More than that, being able to respond to it all.

Here are a few other things that I’m looking forward to, just for good measure: no chickens/pigs/church bells waking me up, bagels with cream cheese, understanding how the system works. Oh, and my family. (I didn’t forget you, Mom!)

And in the month I’ll be gone, I know I’ll miss these things: Papi, the people in my community, the freshest fish I’ll ever eat, the Ha’apai PCVs, swimming at sunset, mangoes.

Well, Rats.

One PCV woke up during her homestay with a cockroach on her face. Another PCV has been bitten 6 times by 6 different molokaus – the highly aggressive centipedes that have a (supposedly) horrendously painful bite. Yet another PCV regularly finds scorpions in his shoes.

Knock on wood, I haven’t had any issues with those pests. For the most part, my house has absurdly large but harmless spiders. Some cockroaches. A bunch of mosquitoes. And the occasional hermit crab. (I found one climbing up my curtain. How on earth did he get there?)

About a month ago, I had a new infestation, rats. I saw them in the evening, crawling on my kitchen shelf and countertop. They would scamper in through the doors and run around, not doing much more than pooping on everything.

A friend who often visits me at night would point them out. “Pele, kuma.” Once, Sila decided to go after them. He pulled out my shelf from the wall and planned to scare them my way so that I could get them. Unfortunately, I didn’t have rat-killing weapons. All I had were hard plastic flippers. It didn’t much matter though, because when he scared out the rats and they ran at me, I threw up my hands, screamed, and jumped around.

For a few weeks they came in and seemed to enjoy hanging out in my kitchen, eating whatever I didn’t happen to wrap up. But then they started getting bold. Late at night, they would bang around in the oven, they would gnaw and scratch through a thick plastic flour container, and they would come into my bedroom and chew holes in any low-hanging clothing. I was getting fed up. From Ha’ano, however, there wasn’t much I could do about it. There aren’t rat traps, rat poison, or sticky traps in the store. So I just got more frustrated and less sleep as they noisily took over my kitchen.

Juleigh brought me rat traps from Pangai. Sila set them up. We set a little peanut butter on them, but the next morning, the traps were unsnapped and peanut butter was gone. For the next few nights, Sila set the traps with different assortments of food – bread, cheese, tomatoes – but every morning the food was gone with no rat body. We were just offering the rats a midnight snack.

One night I woke up to the sound of relentless scratching. It was about 2:30 am, so the electricity was out, and I had to explore with a lantern. All I could do was scare away the rats and go back to bed with ear plugs, but they were so loud that I got up again with more resolve to do something. I tried to move the trap to where the rats were running with the hopes that they would accidentally step on it. Instead, I accidentally snapped my thumb in the trap.

That was a low point. Here I was, on a remote island, alone with the rats. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about them. I couldn’t just go to the store to buy anything to kill the rats. I didn’t get a neighbor’s cat to catch them for fear that a cat trapped in a strange house overnight would do just as much damage as the rats. I had to wait for someone to help me.

For over a week I put up with the incessant scratch-scratching at night a surprise in the morning to see what the rats had destroyed, and then Todd brought leftover rat poison from his own most recent infestation.

Within two days, all was well with the world. The days were sunny again, and, even better, the nights were quiet. I’ve left out the poison since that first infestation. I’ll sometimes see evidence that they visited in the night, and one morning I found a moribund mouse on my kitchen floor. And now, for any future rodent infestations, I’m ready, and I have more in my artillery than snorkel flippers.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Democracy in Action: Tongan Elections 2010

Though Tonga is the last remaining Polynesian monarchy, the king is relinquishing his control in many areas of the government. Most notably, the parliamentarians, who used to be chosen by the king and his advisers, now are elected by the people.

Here's some more information about the election.

And here are pictures from the day's voting:

Tongan Elections

A Tongan Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Dinner 2010

A Fellow Outer-Islander Visits Ha'ano

Farfum, a PCV in Matamaka, Vava'u, was in Ha'ano last week. Here are some pictures from his visit, along with mask-making with the kids.

Farfum's Visit and Paper Mache

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pigs and Party Favors: A Tongan Funeral

A few weeks ago, a woman who lived in Tongatapu died. Since, somewhere along her family line, someone lived in Ha’ano, she was to be buried in Ha’ano. And so began the story of my first Tongan funeral.

Had the woman, Sela, died in Ha’ano, she would have been buried within 48 hours. Without constant refrigeration, there is no way to preserve the body, so in Ha’ano, they hurry up and get people in the ground. Yet Sela was from Tongatapu, the “mainland,” so the family froze the body, and waited until a good time for the funeral. The secondary school entrance exam was that week, and there wasn’t enough time for proper mourning, so they postponed the funeral until the desired date: October 13.

(A short detour on the refrigeration of the body: A fellow PCV led a lesson on good food preservation practices for her elementary school class. She asked the class, “What do we put in the refrigerator?” She got common answers like fish, butter, ice cream, and then one girl raised her hand. “Grandma,” she suggested.)

Sela’s family and friends escorted the body from Tongatapu to Ha’apai on the Pulupaki, one of the two inter-island ferries in Tonga. The Pulupaki can hold probably 150 passengers and cargo, and it makes its stops in the main town of each island groups.

Except for the morning of October 13. At about 8:30 am, I stood out on my porch looking at the sea. “My, the Pulupaki looks like it’s getting close. That’s weird,” I thought. Turns out, they were bringing Sela’s body and entourage straight to Ha’ano.

Four boats from Ha’ano headed out to meet the Pulupaki just past the reef. The door opened from the Pulupaki, and people jumped from the big boat to the small boat. Eventually they transferred the body too. (I couldn’t see the jumping, but this is standard Pulupaki disembarking practice in the Ha’afeva Group in Ha’apai.)

The boats brought back perhaps 75 mourners and quite a lot of their stuff. The dock was an anthill. Half the people seemed to be preparing the bed of the pickup truck to carry the body from the dock, and the other half of the people seemed to be undoing whatever the first half had done. Eventually the truck was decorated with woven mats, fake flowers, lace, and a large picture of the deceased.

Slowly, the mourners made their way from the dock to the home of the family of the deceased. For the next few hours, I was in school, but I could hear their singing from my house.

School ended at lunchtime for the funeral, and I prepared to go myself. I don’t own a ta’ovala, the woven mats worn for special occasions such as funeral, and there weren’t any spares at my neighbor’s house, so I just wore all black, and headed over to the funeral. There were people everywhere: on the porch at the family’s house, under a tent outside the house, under the mango tree, under the fekika tree, under the food tent, and scattered along the road. I sat with some youth girls, waiting to see what would happen next.

The group of people under the tent at the house was singing songs the whole time. Apparently, sometimes, the funeral lasts all night, and this group keeps a vigil for over 12 hours.

There was a group packed around tables under another tent. This was the eating tent. In a Tongan funeral, the hosts are expected to feed everyone who attends. At this funeral, there were perhaps 150 adults and another 50+ kids, and about 50 of those people were crammed under that eating tent. They looked ravenous, and when the family started bringing out the food, they gobbled it up as if they’ve never eaten before.

The first wave of people ate, then they vacated their seats and a new group swooped in. I was crushed between the town officer and a friend, and the hosts passed out plastic baggies with manioke (cassava), hot dogs, chicken, and a hard-boiled egg. Soon they came around with a sugary-water drink. And after about 10 minutes, we all left, and the seats filled again.

It was time to process to the church. The body was carried out from the house and reloaded into the back of the truck. A long woven mat stretched from the truck out the back, and mourners followed, carrying the mat.

The church was fuller than I’ve ever seen. The bench I was sitting on actually broke from the number of people, but it didn’t break so much that we couldn’t still sit there. There was the usual singing, standing, sitting, praying, weeping as regular church, but this time there was a body in front of us.

After the service, the truck and followers processed to the cemetery. The Tongan cemetery is a small clearing with body-sized lumps of rocks often decorated with fake flowers and blankets. There were tapa cloths and woven mats decorating today’s gravesite. After more crying, singing, and praying, the pallbearers prepared to lower the body into the ground. They took off all the mats and lace from the box, and at this unveiling of the casket, I heard one woman say, “Oh, look, they have a coffin!” A friend told me that often they just put the body in the ground. Then, the pallbearers lowered the body into a shallow hole, all the men picked up shovels or wood, and they covered the box.

The group left the cemetery, climbing over the brambles and rocks to get back to the road. Then they all turned back to the area where we had eaten, sat down, and waited. Pauline said we were waiting to see what they were going to give. Give? To whom? The church? Oh, well, just go with the flow, Pele, and sit there with the Tongans.

After waiting about an hour, men started dragging out large coconut fronds and arranging them in a large circle on the grassy area. Soon, three men carried out an enormous pig on one of these coconut fronds. (These fronds are pretty impressive; the men were holding up a 150+ lbs pig with just the plant!) They arranged it neatly in the center of the circle.

Then they brought out the kumete – the kava bowl. All the most important men in the community – ministers, the town and district officers, and the noble – arranged themselves in the circle. The tou’a and her two assistants sat down opposite the noble. The husband of the deceased called out the actions. First, he called out thanks to people who gave the pig, and those seated around the circle responded. He called the son of the deceased (who is his own son), and the youth came and touched the pig and kava root sitting at the center of the circle.

Then the son sat down in the middle of the circle, and two men joined him. The two new men proceeded to butcher the pig to pass it out to those at the kava circle. With the first swift slice of the pig, I heard several people in the audience say, “My, that’s a sharp machete!” The continued hacking it up, then the son distributed the pieces. First, the huge torso piece to the noble. Then, the head to the husband. Then smaller chunks for everyone else. After everyone in the circle had received their pig bit, there were some more thank yous, and a member of the families came to remove the pieces of pork before drinking kava.

Since this is far more formal kava than I usually go to (I’ve only seen this kava once before, but it was a mock ceremony; the Peace Corps put it on for us the first day we arrived in Tonga), most of this was new to me. The tou’a used pieces of what looks like raffia to “strain” the kava into a coconut-shell cup. Then, one of her assistants carried the cup to the noble who drank, and the assistant carried the cup back to the tou’a to be refilled and continued around the circle.

After the kava ceremony, the time came for what all the guests were waiting for. They clustered around the back of the truck that was carrying gifts for all the attendees: a bag of frozen chicken and $10 pa’anga. It was the first funeral I’ve been to with party favors.

I asked a couple of Tongan friends why the family passed out cash. Apparently it’s a new practice done by families that feel like they didn’t give enough during the funeral. Maybe this family thought they needed to give more to the guests since they didn’t kill a horse or cow.

Here was yet another example of Tongans keeping up with the Joneses to the point of debt: there were about 200 people at the ceremony. Each got $10 pa’anga and a bag of chicken worth about $4. For those guests, the non-ministers, the family spent about $2800 pa’anga just on the gifts. For the 20 ministers, they each got $20 pa’anga, so that’s another $400 pa’anga. And that’s not considering how much the family spent on the food, transportation from Tonga, casket, and so on. And next Misinale, the church donating event, the family of a deceased is expected to donate several thousand extra pa’anga.

The funeral finally finished after the bedlam of distributing gifts. It was about 6:00 pm. The funeral lasted about 8 hours, soon after the arrival of the body on the boat. Some funerals last all through the night, with singers singing at the house in shifts. For me, the 6 hours I spent in mourning were quite sufficient. I had things to do that day besides wait around for the next phase of mourning. These funerals seem to take up so much of everyone’s time. With all this work that goes into dying, how does anyone have time to live?

Finding My Way Home

Leaving my island is easy. Coming back is the hard part.

Boats leave almost every weekday to go into town, and usually I can just hop on one of those, ride the boat for about an hour to get to a village where someone has coordinated a truck to pick us up, and arrive in town.

The way back is less straightforward. Recently I had a typical adventure in finding a ride back to Ha’ano.

Monday morning, I woke up at the PCV’s house where I stay in Pangai. By that afternoon, I hoped to be in my own home.

7:30 am: I call a friend in Ha’ano and find that, indeed, a boat has left Ha’ano. I even get the names of people to look for. Mission: Find 2 ministers from Ha’ano or the boat driver.

8:50 am: While riding a bike around town looking for these people who don’t have cell phones, I see the boat driver. He tells me to go to the Church of Tonga’s building so I can ask the ministers what time we’ll leave. His directions and my lacking Tongan leave me clueless as to where the building is, so, after riding around a while looking for it…

9:05 am: I ask for directions. With a semi-clear idea of where the ministers might be, I go to the church. Empty. I go to the nearby building. Empty. I eventually find someone who tells me they are in that nearby building I had just searched.

9:15 am: I find someone who is better informed, and he tells me they are in the church building around the corner.

9:30 am: As I sit outside the church waiting for the meeting to end, a different minister than those I am looking for asks me who I need, and he goes inside to tell the Ha’ano minister to come talk to me.

9:45 am: One of the Ha’ano ministers tells me we’ll be leaving when their meeting ends, maybe 10:00 am. He tells me to take my things to the place where everyone waits for the truck to go to Ha’ano. I hurry back to get everything in order, lest I get left as has happened before.

10:05 am: As I heave my bags down the road, I run into a third minister from Ha’ano carrying a handful of tobacco leaves. We go to a different place than I was told to go to catch the ride. (Had I not seen him, I would have been up a creek, waiting at the wrong place.)

10:10 am: I realize that no one is coordinated and we aren’t nearly about to leave, so I go buy a gas canister.

10:45 am: Now with my gas canister, carried by the boat driver, I return to the group. And we continue to wait.

11:15 am: Eventually a vehicle is arranged to take us the 30 minute ride to the dock.

11:45 am: We leave the dock.

12:40 am: We arrive in Ha’ano.

An English Quiz

Here’s a quick quiz, with questions from real tests, to see where you can go to high school in Tonga.

1. Which is the opposite of drama?
a. Play
b. Game
c. Song
d. Trick

2. The woman bought ______ flour from the store.
a. many
b. a
c. much
d. one

3. The dog _________ under the table.
a. lied down
b. lay down
c. laid down
d. layed down

Even if you can figure an answer from those questions (and others like it), remember that these Tongan students are taking what is basically a fluency test after only three years of English. Though, obviously, the fluency is fluency according to the Tongans who wrote the test.

Sometimes You Want to Go Where Nobody Knows Your Name

Here on my island of 350 Tongans, there isn’t much anonymity for a palangi like me. Correction: there isn’t any anonymity. Back in December, after being on the island only two weeks, fellow-PCV John was in Ha’ano and we took a walk down to the end of the island. Kids who lived on the other end of my island, where I hadn’t been yet, called out to me, “Hi, Pele!” I turned to John and said, “I’m surprised they don’t already know your name too.” Pause. Pause. Then we heard, “Hi, John!”

I don’t think word of my every move travels as fast as back then when I was still a novelty, but people still know far more than I tell them. “You went to the Wesleyan church today?” “What were you doing at Mehi’s house?”

A few weeks ago I went to the little shop in my village. I had used up all my oil, and I wanted to have another bottle on hand, in case I got the urge to do something that required oil. I returned home, oil in hand. About an hour later, a neighbor came over. “Did you buy oil? Can we use some to fry some fish that we (all of us) will eat?” As quickly as it had come, the oil was gone.

In a country the size of Tonga, with only about 110,000 people, there’s hardly anyplace that doesn’t know what everyone else is doing. And they’re especially interested in what the foreigners are doing. A PCV friend who lives in Vava’u on an outer island similar to mine told me how, for about a week, every time he cooked, his neighbors knew. They would smell the food and quickly come over with hopes of being offered some exciting and different palangi food.

My activities are not only well-known on my own island, but also on the main islands in Ha’apai, Lifuka and Foa. People there know less about my day-to-day habits, but they all still know who I am and where I live. The people who work at the bank, the principals and teachers at the high schools, many kids, and people I swear I’d never seen before in my life will ask me how am I, how’s Ha’ano, and am I eating a lot of fish?

The Peace Corps says that one thing that PCVs deal with when they return to America is not being the center of attention all the time. Back in America, who knows if you bought toilet paper today? Who wants to talk about what you ate for all your meals last week? Maybe it will be difficult adjusting to that when the time comes, but sometimes, right now, I’d kind of like to go where nobody knows my name.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Packing List (Continued)

A few months ago, I wrote a packing list for new PCVs coming to Tonga.

Now, after spending several nights in the main town of Pangai, I have new additions to the list: ear plugs and eye shades.

Though I have my fair share of ridiculous noises throughout the night (horses, dogs, people yelling at each other), it all pales in comparison to the big "city." In Pangai, there are dogs galore, but also cars, incessant church bells, firetrucks (and they were in action this past week), stereos, not to mention the constant hum of the generator a few blocks away. This all makes getting rest difficult and, after sunrise, just about impossible.

When the churches began their singing at 5:30am, when the baby across the street was screaming at 4:00am, or when the people on my back porch didn't go to bed until 2:00am, I really wish I had those ear plugs. And for the practically daily nap with the sun streaming into my bedroom, I really wish I had those shades too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Through a Parent's Eyes

In July, my parents came to visit me in Tonga for about 10 days. After their return to America, I asked my mom to be a guest blogger to share her point of view on all things Tonga. Here it is:

In early July, Blair’s dad and I spent a week with her on her outer island in the Ha’apai group in the central part of Tonga . She asked me to give my perspective about our visit for her blog. In case you don’t read the whole entry, the final word from here is that is we are so glad we went, not only to see Blair for the first time in nine months, but also to better understand her living circumstances and the culture, to get to know some of the people on her island, and to meet her best Peace Corps friends. At the end of the trip, we both said that despite the remoteness and lack of some comforts to which we’re accustomed, we’d go back in a flash for another visit. If your son or daughter is in the PC there, I’d highly recommend the trip.

Background Information

Missing Blair over the past many months had led me to try to learn as much as possible about what she might be experiencing. During her first six months in Tonga, she experienced two earthquakes, tsunami warnings, and a level five cyclone which caused her to have to evacuate her island. By the end of cyclone season, I felt I deserved at least a certificate in Tongan meteorology.

Over several months of phone calls, we heard her mention Juleigh, John, and Todd often enough that I knew they were special and started following their blogs too. Here’s a link that shows all the Tonga PCVs’ blogs:,tn

Since Blair doesn’t have internet connectivity on her remote island, she only uploads her blogs when she’s on the island of Lifuka in the town of Pangai . By following her friends’ blogs, I had much more up-to-date info than if I had followed only her blogs. I also felt like I knew her friends before I met them in person (no doubt a little disconcerting for them!).

Setting the Stage

Ken and I spent three and one-half days in NZ before heading to Tonga. While we were in NZ, Blair called us to say that she was in Pangai and had been trying unsuccessfully for a couple of days to return to her island. She was unsuccessful because no boat had fuel, because the captain of the boat that takes fuel from the capital city to the other islands had died in an accident from the fumes of the boat. (At this point in the call, as we were driving through NZ countryside, I was searching for paper and pencil to take notes on what sounded like the final verse of “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”.) Apparently, since the captain was the only one who is allowed to transport fuel, no fuel was available to operate the boats which run from Lifuka to Blair’s island of Kauvai .

Blair told us that she would continue trying to get home so she could return to work. However, if she found a boat with fuel and if she got home, she might not be able to get back to Pangai to meet us, and we might not be able to get to her island on our own because of the lack of fuel. Having traveled 9,000 miles to see her, I was certain that even if it required paddling a kayak, building a raft, or swimming with sharks... we would get to her!

As it turned out, another captain came to work, and the islands had fuel by the time we arrived. But the possibility that something as essential as fuel might not be available foreshadowed similar occurrences during our visit.

Visiting Pangai

We arrived via an old Convair 440 (a prop airplane kind of like a DC-6), and had to make a fly-by of the airport because, as the pilot reported, “there were pigs on the runway” (really!). Blair, John, and Juleigh met us at the airport wearing full Tongan dress. Blair and Juleigh gave us gorgeous, fragrant leis which they had made! We hitched a ride back into town on the back of a flatbed truck, a great way to see that part of the island.

We stayed at Evaloni’s Guest House. As Blair had told us in advance, “Don’t expect this to be like any guest house you’ve ever seen." She chose it because it’s where the Tongan central office PC staff stays when visiting Ha’apai. If you stay there, ask for one of the two upstairs rooms. We stayed in both upstairs rooms and preferred the one closer to the front of the house. Both rooms have bathrooms with cold water showers. Bring your own soap and towels (wish we’d known that before the first night!). When we arrived at the guest house, we couldn’t find anyone who worked there. Blair wrote a note in Tongan to the owner explaining that we wanted a “suite” for one night. We left our bags under a desk and headed on foot to John’s house.

There, we met Todd, the fourth member of Blair’s close-knit group, and were impressed with the culinary talents he provided in the dinner preparation. John, who has become quite adept at spear fishing, had caught 3-4 good sized fish earlier in the day which he, Juleigh, Blair, and Todd turned into a delicious curried stew. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought these four PCVs had been best friends forever. Being foreigners, dropped on two small dots of land, in the middle of the largest ocean on earth, has a way of quickly creating strong bonds. They clearly recognize how fortunate they are to have such a supportive foursome that genuinely enjoys each other’s company. We also thoroughly enjoyed our time with all of them.

Visiting Kauvai

The next day, riding on the bow of a small wooden boat, we traveled 45 minutes to Blair’s island. The seas were calm and just like the ride in the back of the flatbed, it allowed for uninterrupted viewing.

Although Blair will roll her eyes when she reads this because her dad repeated it so often, she really does “have a good set-up” on her island. Her house is quite spacious. She has a kitchen sink with running water and a back porch overlooking the ocean. Looking out on the Pacific, it could have been million dollar ocean front property, but looking inland, the poverty was obvious. Since her house is located on the school grounds, it takes less than a minute to walk to her class. The school grounds are surrounded by a rock wall with a gate near her front door which keeps the pigs out of her area most of the time. Because she’s so close to the ocean, she often gets breezes when others on the island do not. Being on a remote island, there’s no light pollution to interfere with the incredible view of the southern hemisphere’s stars.

The Tongans we met were warm and giving. They genuinely seem to care for Blair (locally known as Pele since the letters B and R do not exist in the Tongan alphabet) and to have accepted her as part of their extended community family. Her students appeared eager to learn, and they hung on her every word. It was easy to understand why Tonga is referred to as “the friendly islands”.

But it’s not paradise. Blair has electricity only between 7pm and 2am. The electricity also went off momentarily every night at 8:30pm, which can be unnerving while showering at night in an outbuilding when the water pipe also breaks and begins flooding the toilet next to your shower. No electricity means no refrigeration, which limits the life of leftovers. The running water is not drinkable. Drinking water is carried by jug or bottle from a cistern located next to the school. We boiled water in an electric pot each night while the electricity was on. For coffee and tea the next morning, some water went directly into a thermos.

As she had told us repeatedly before we arrived, very few things are available for purchase on her island. We didn’t fully appreciate that fact until we started to prepare food, repair her gutters, fix her leaking toilet, fix latches on her outhouse doors, and build some shelves (so Blair could get her clothes/books/papers off the floor). We would have been much more successful with a Safeway and Home Depot down the street. Fortunately, she had a supply of duct tape, which played an important role in all the projects. Her house came with a table, which she uses as a desk, and one useable chair. We sat on the floor on mats or floor pillows we had sent her. She has a kitchen stove fueled by a propane tank which must be refilled on another island and transported by hand in a boat to her island. Her toilet is behind her next door neighbor’s house (her principal lives next door). There were often people sitting right in front of the outhouse doors (which led to the repair work to latch the doors when occupied!).

On our first night at her house, she turned on the fuel to light the stove to cook pasta, but quickly decided that there must be a problem with the connection hose because the smell of gas was too strong. After trying to make some adjustments, the pasta idea was abandoned. She seemed unfazed by the prospect of no dinner (and every other difficulty we encountered). Now we better understand why.

Soon her Tongan friends began arriving. One brought us dinner, while another brought a kiekie (a woven belt with woven strips hanging down from the belt) which her friend had made for me. During our stay, friends and neighbors supplied us with prepared food delicacies as well as fresh fish and coconuts. Three of our meals were eaten with different families, and each time we experienced the warmest welcomes imaginable. The food was good and abundant, whether served in their homes or delivered to Blair’s house. Many also gave us gifts.

We had taken gifts for Blair’s Tongan friends, but we received so much from so many, we felt we should have taken more gifts for them. In reality, there’s no way we could have given as much to them as they gave to us, and as Blair said, they didn’t expect anything from us in return. Gladly sharing whatever they had with others, even if it meant they had nothing left after sharing, was one of the most touching parts of the trip. It’s something on which we’ve reflected many times since returning home. It’s more than taking soup to a sick friend or having a grieving neighbor over for dinner. Although I can’t see giving the last of my food or my possessions to someone else, our brief encounter with a society which actually shares everything as a way of life was quite inspiring.

Our brief Tongan encounter also has made me even more aware of how much of what we send to the land fill would be considered valuable in poor countries. Shortly after returning home, I saw in our neighborhood that people had placed pieces of lumber and shelving out on the curb for the rubbish truck. I kept thinking, “If we had found that much wood on Blair’s island, we could have built so much more furniture.”

Ken and I always knew that Blair was a pretty amazing daughter. But seeing how she has accepted the constraints of the culture and living circumstances, has been accepted by the people, learned the language, learned how to gut and clean a fish, used her creativity and resourcefulness to overcome obstacles, and not the least significantly, learned how to deal with creepy-crawly things that would have sent her into orbit back at home (you have no idea...). We were (and are) so very proud of her.

If you’re a parent of a PCV in Tonga , I hope you get to visit your son or daughter while they are there. If you do, I hope you enjoy it as much as we did. Those who say the young adults of the millennium generation require too much “care and feeding” have not seen the PCVs in Tonga . They are awesome!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Misinale 2010

Misinale 2010

Every year, the churches have a big money-donating festival called Misinale. Members of the church sing while each family is called up to the front to make their donations. Here are pictures (and some videos at the end!) of the Misinale in the Free Church of Tonga.

Going to Nukunamu

Charissa's Visit

Juleigh's friend from home, Charissa, came to Tonga, and last week they came all the way up to Ha'ano. Then John and his neighbors, Lina and Meaka, came too, and we all went to Nukunamu for the day. The pictures of enormous fish were taken the week before.

Vignettes of Life

A group of PCVs came up to Ha’ano for the weekend, and we went to a beach on the other side of the island for a picnic. As this was a Tongan picnic, the girls brought the root crops to boil, and the guys went spear fishing for some fish to grill. After a delicious, fresh meal, we started back to the village.

We were with a Tongan friend too, and he, like many other Tongans, doesn’t always wear shoes. The tides forced us to walk especially sharp volcanic rocks, and our friend Sila delicately made his way over the stones. At one point, I look over at him, and he’s putting on a shoe he found on the beach.

Did the sandal fit? No. Was it even a whole, working shoe? No. But he was so glad to have that one.

The past couple of weeks have been great whale watching in Tonga. Most tourists go to Vava’u, but I think they should have come to my house a couple of weeks ago. For about a week, I saw at least one whale every day from my porch. Sometimes they were close enough to hear their breathing through the blowholes, and other times they were just sleeping in the sun it seemed. There might be a couple of boats filled with tourists chasing the whales to get a good look, but it was mostly the whales, Tongans, and me.

One day, I went into town with the rugby team to watch their game. Just as we arrived to Pangai, it started to pour. Fortunately, I had my raincoat, so I and the other PCVs just watched from under our hoods. Most Tongans just stood out in the rain, unfazed. One guy, it seems, was a little more concerned. Instead of standing out in the rain like a sucker, he covered up… with a bucket lid. He walked up and down the sidelines following the game with a bucket lid on his head. I can’t say that did much to stop the torrential downpour.

Short Dialogues from My Daily Life (Part II)

Masi, a guy in Ha’ano, and good rugby player

Rugby field as the team is practicing

Saia: Pele, did you see the game yesterday? What did you think?
Pele: Oh, it was good.
S: Yeah. What do you think of Masi’s playing? He’s good, isn’t he?
P: Yes, he is.
S: And he is really strong too. Look! (Goes to Masi. Tries to get him to flex. Masi refuses.)
S: Masi’s really fast, isn’t he? In the game, he ran so fast, then he hit that other guy.
P: Yes, he did.
S: It’s because he’s so fast. And strong.
P: Yep.
S: So, do you wanna date Masi?

Short Dialogues from My Daily Life (Part I)

Pele, me
Saia, a good guy in my village and the dad of several of my students (married)
Sila, friend in Ha’ano, general good guy, and moas with Suli (A moa is a chicken. Or a boyfriend/girlfriend. Here it is a boyfriend/girlfriend. But the dual meaning can lead to some great jokes.)
Suli, aka, Juleigh, PCV in Pangai whom all the guys in Ha’ano love
‘Aisea, a guy in Ha’ano (married)

On a boat from Ha’ano to Pangai.

Pele, Sila, and Suli had tried to go to Luahoko during the week-long school break, but the seas were too rough so the plan was changed and they ended up going to a different island. Sila must have shared this information with others on the island, that the palangis, Pele and Suli, were disappointed that they couldn’t go to Luahoko. The other Tongan guys then jokingly offer a boat to take them to Luahoko another day.

Saia: So, Pele, are you, Suli, and I going to go to Luahoko next week?
Pele: Yeah, let’s go on Friday.
Saia: Will Sila come too?
Pele: No, Sila can stay at home and sweep.
Saia: Good, so we’ll all go and have a picnic. You and me, and Suli and ‘Aisea.
‘Aisea: Yeah, Suli and me. I’m better than Sila, right? Suli likes me more than she likes Sila?
Pele: Of course.
(‘Aisea’s phone rings and it’s his wife.)
Sila: So I don’t get to go?
Pele: No, you can’t come.
Saia: Sila’s a bad guy. He’s a minister, but you know those big coats they wear? He keeps a knife in his pocket.
Pele: I know! He’s always trying to cheat people.
Saia: Did he cheat Suli? I bet he cheated her.
Pele: No, I’m protecting Suli. But Sila’s a bad dude, so he’s going to stay in Ha’ano while we go to Luahoko.
Sila: Pele, don’t say that, or I’m going to cook your dog.

During this exchange, Suli is talking to another guy in the front of the boat. They had a pretty extensive conversation, and later Suli was recounting the events to Pele.

Suli: Tevita said he went to Tonga High School. Is that true?
Pele: Who’s Tevita?
S: That guy I was talking to on the boat.
P: Tevita? That dude’s name is Mohenoa.
S: So, he lied. Ok, so probably not true about Tonga High then, either.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tongan Churches: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As I’ve surely said before, Tongan churches and their ministers wield great power in Tongan society. There are parts of this religious power structure that I think are alright, on the other hand, there are parts that make me roll my eyes and wonder how much Jesus would appreciate this.

One of the best things about religion on my island, and presumably for other parts of Tonga as well, is that it gives people something to do. The churches – Wesleyan, Free Church of Tonga, Church of Tonga, and Mormon – all organize activities for the members. The Mormon church is especially active with their quarterly women’s group preparing a program about a month before the event, putting on dances for all members of the community, and encouraging youth to study and prepare for their mission. Other churches prepare activities like choir concerts, too, not to mention the daily church services to attend.

Sometimes the church is supportive of kids’ education, paying school fees or buying uniforms. Though almost all the main churches (Wesleyan, Free Church of Tonga, and Mormon) have their own church-sponsored high schools, the Mormon church, backed by their coffers in Utah, have an incredible, opportunity-filled high school. The students stay on campus in dorms (absolutely unheard of to not live with your family!) and have access to computers and internet. Many of the classes are taught by native English speakers, so usually students who complete the course of study (through Form 5, or 11th grade) have great working English. Then, a number of students get scholarships to go to BYU-Hawaii.

Despite some great things the churches in Tonga do for their members and their communities, there are other times that I wonder if society might be better off without them. After just attending Misinale, the annual money-donating event, I feel especially averse to the way churches handle money. The amounts that members donate is announced to the whole church, which inevitably created a “keeping up with the Joneses” situation. Sure enough, families were donating hundreds, if not thousands of pa’anga. Families who had a member who died in the past year are expected to be especially generous. As if the passing of a loved one weren’t traumatic enough, they were then supposed to give $3000 pa’anga to the church!

I remember the story of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Pangai:

A Tongan asked for $200 pa’anga because he was broke, and, I think with the expectation of being paid back, the PCV gave him the money. A week later the same Tongan asked the PCV for another $2 pa’anga to buy bread. When the PCV asked what happened to the $200 pa’anga, the Tongan replied that he had to give it to the church.

I was sitting in church a few months ago with a fellow PCV when a mini-Misinale happened. Families gave money, and the church announced how much each one gave. My PCV friend who was in my village for the weekend quickly flipped to the appropriate Bible passage:

Matthew 6:3-4
“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

It’s impossible to truly “live by the Bible,” though Tongans have told me they do, but the way the churches function often seems blatantly contradictory to the Good Book.

I’ve tried to rationalize why Tongan churches do things the way they do, especially Misinale. Maybe many years ago, they were worried about corruption, so they wanted everyone to know how much people gave to be sure the treasurer wasn’t keeping any of it. Or perhaps it’s simpler than that, and Tongans just like to know everyone’s business. Thus telling everyone how much everyone else gave just saved people the trouble of talking about it.

I understand the value of religion in a place where there isn’t usually a lot of hope. In a place where life is static and people are inured with this lack of progress, their religion is the place where they can anticipate something better. Though sometimes the hope of reaching a paradise in the afterlife can seem like a way to evade work now, if the Tongans can say they are satisfied with their churches and God, what can I do? So I’ll go to church. And I’ll sing those hymns like nobody’s business.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back in the Big Pineapple (Part II)

I also got to meet up with a Tongan friend who recently moved from Ha’ano to Nuku’alofa. I went over to Mele’s house after gorging myself at the Wesleyan feast.

She soon offered me more food, which I declined, and then she suggested we go rest. (That’s typical Tongan: have a guest and then encourage them to sleep.) I ended up falling asleep, and I awoke to Mele screaming into her cell phone.

A friend who is still in Ha’ano just called to tell Mele that another friend, Suli, had up and gotten married to a guy in Ha’ano. Suli and Sesi didn’t tell anyone beforehand; they just went to Pangai and got hitched. I’m not sure how many people knew the two were dating at all.

Mele was beside herself with this news and told everyone in her house. Most people responded with, “Suli who? And Sesi who?”

Suli was Wesleyan. Moreover, she was one of the women who was “ordained” to give the sermon herself. That qualification meant, however, that she wasn’t able to dance. Ever.

Sesi is Mormon. Mormons can’t do a lot of things: drink alcohol, drink caffeine, smoke, etc. And they have to go to church for three hours on Sunday.

Traditionally, after marrying, the woman changes to the man’s church. Thinking about this, I thought, “Oh, poor Suli! Now she’s Mormon and can’t do a lot of stuff!”

On the other hand, a Tongan who heard Mele telling the news said, “Oh, good for Suli. She can finally dance.”

Back in the Big Pineapple (Part I)

While John and I were in Nuku’alofa waiting for our flight to leave to New Zealand, we took advantage of being in the big city to get some work done for projects we have planned in our communities. John talked with the hospital about an outer-island health education program and I worked to get supplies to paint a map of Tonga in my school.

But I also got to have some fun in the city. It was the start of the Wesleyan Church’s annual conference, and the minister in Ha’ano invited me to come to the feast and eat with his family – and about a thousand other people.

I walked to the location of the feast by myself, and, as I was swamped by people on the streets surrounding the feast, I wondered how I would ever find anyone I knew here. Then, amid the throngs of bodies, I see Kimami, the minister. We duck around the masses and enter the tented eating-grounds.

This was more food than I’d ever seen in my life. There were dozens of tables lined up and then piled high with food prepared by the family seated at the table. This isn’t like an American Thanksgiving feast. This is literally plates on top of each other, teetering between the roasted pig and my lap. I cringed as I thought of how much saran wrap, foil, and styrofoam would be burned after this lunch.

I must have been late to the festivities because most people at my table were replete and in a food-coma daze, moving piles of food to find a place to rest their arms. As soon as I sat down, a teen girl jumped up, found a clean dish, and began piling it with foods I might like. She passed me the plate and a coconut, and then she proceeded to offer me food that was individually wrapped in to-go boxes: sweet and sour chicken, sapsui, crab salad, canned vegetable mix.

After eating more than my fill, the table asked me to take some food with me.

Me: Oh, I couldn’t, I’m so full!
The Table of Wesleyans: No, please. Want pork? How about some chicken?
Me: Ok, I’ll take this and this. Thank you for finding helpful things. (That sentence sounds better in Tongan.) I am so full! I’m going to go sleep because I’m so full!
Table: Good! So, do you want to come to the feast this evening?

New Zealand… just like "Lord of the Rings!"

Late June marked the halfway point of my first school year in Tonga. All schools took a two-week break after the first two terms, and John and I took that chance to go to New Zealand. This was our first trip out of the country since arriving last October, and I was very much looking forward to it.

My spirit isn’t crushed by Tonga. I don’t feel overly stifled by the conservative society, nor do I constantly pine for western comforts of restaurants and hot showers. Even so, the little things I took for granted in America were the things I looked forward to in New Zealand: stores with things I actually wanted to buy, a bar where I could get a mojito, a place where I could show my knees and not offend anyone. (Though it was winter in NZ, I wore my shorts with tights, but that was close enough for me!)

We started in Wellington where we saw the Beehive, toured the Te Papa museum, and ferried around the harbor. But more exciting to me was the sensation of being in a city. The first day there I stopped in almost every store I saw. (I’m sure John loved that.) That night we went to a grocery store to find dinner. I wandered up and down every aisle, savoring the near-endless choices and fantasizing about how I could make a DIY yogurt machine work in my Ha’ano home. (Alas, I couldn’t think of a way, so the yogurt maker stayed in NZ.)

In Ha’apai, my island group, there are a handful of stores that are big enough to walk into. The rest of the stores are only storefronts, and we ask and point for the goods behind the counter. Everything in these stores is almost always the same. It’s big news among the Peace Corps Volunteers when something new comes in. “Blair, there’s a new chip that isn’t chicken flavored. It’s great!” Those treats never make it up to my island though, so I can only dream of the plainly flavored potato chips as I eat neon-colored, chicken-flavored chips called Bongos.

We drove from Wellington to Napier, on the east coast of the North Island. I was the first to drive the rental. I wasn’t nervous about (1) driving at all after 9 months or (2) driving on the opposite side of the road than I used to drive on or (3) managing roundabouts for the second time ever. I wasn’t nervous, but I was awfully concentrated on that road.

We made it to Napier, the Art Deco Capital of… New Zealand? The world? We took a wine tour to 4 vineyards, enjoying a sampling of 6-8 wines in each place. John made out well on that excursion, since I don’t really like wine and wouldn’t usually finish my tasting. The pictures from that day progress from our normal selves to those with droopy eyes and purple-stained teeth.

We went on to Lake Taupo in the central thermal region of New Zealand. We walked around the thermal hotspots, checking out gurgling mud and steamy lands. A few months ago, while lying on my bedroom floor in Ha’ano, I told John I was thinking about doing something crazy in NZ, like skydiving or bungee jumping. We kept that in our minds around Taupo, but upon seeing the height of the bungee bridge, I quickly withdrew my plans to “do something crazy.” Instead, we went mountain biking, which, I discovered, is not my forte. I more enjoyed the massage and thermal mineral pools at our hotel.

On the way from Taupo to Auckland, we took at detour to visit the Waitomo Caves, home to thousands of glowworms. Sure enough, when we got into the caves, there were thousands of glowworms.

In Auckland, we again enjoyed all the trappings of a city. In Wellington, we had gone bowling – something that was on John’s list to do. In Auckland, we did karaoke – my list, of course. We did other things that wouldn’t be on any list of mine in America: getting McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s not that I really wanted either of those things. But they were both drastically different than anything in Tonga, and thus they were both delicious.

At one point, John said something like, “The best McDonald’s in the world is in New Zealand. The best Indian food, Thai food, Mexican food – they’re all in New Zealand. The best massage is in New Zealand. The best television is in New Zealand. Know why? I’ve been in Tonga for 9 months.”

I can only imagine how exciting America will be.

More on Tongan Giving

Tongans readily give each other whatever they have. Just last Saturday, I was on the beach watching a fisherman pull his catch from his net, when another fisherman who had gone spearfishing came ashore.

The spearfisherman had about eight or so medium-sized fish and a sea urchin. A friends and I went up to him to see what he had. The fisherman, who has his own family to feed, tells us to take this fish, that fish, and the prized sea urchin. After all that work, he’s just going to give a lot of it to us.

My friend had told me earlier how hungry she was today. “No good food today,” she had told me. Now, with a fish in hand, she promptly ripped off the head and took a nice bite. I delicately gnawed at my fish, not wanting to end up with half a tooth or the Tongan gold cap. My friend tells me to wait and cut it up at home, and, oh, just take this fish too.

Tongan Requests (and Getting More than They Bargained For)

Any time a Tongan asks for something from a palangi, it always begins with a long spiel. “Pele, I’m so sorry for my request!” “Oh, I apologize for coming to ask this!” And only after apologizing profusely do I find out what they’re actually here for.

A few nights ago, a guy who’s often at my neighbor’s house came over. He began by apologizing for a while, then asked if I had any tea. I always have tea in the morning, so I definitely had tea to share with them. I took the box from the shelf and opened it in offering to him.

He gently pulled out two tea bags, shaking them out a little. I said he should take three; the bags are so small. He declined, thanked me again, and left.

I thought tea sounded nice, so I opened the box again to get myself a bag. I looked in the box and, to my horror, saw a cockroach right there with the tea. Maybe it was dead? Nope. It crawled around.

I saw Finau the next day, and, laughing, I asked him if he saw I had a cockroach in my tea! He said no... and smirked. That didn’t stop him from coming back though. He came over again the next night for cockroach tea.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Balanced Meal with the Mormon Women

A few months ago, I went to Pangai with people from my village to perform a square dance organized by the Mormon women’s group. These women, the Fine ‘Ofa, have quarterly activities – the square dance being one. Last Friday was the next quarterly activity: a discussion on health, enjoying a balanced meal, and then exercising.

Though this activity, the Balanced Meal they called it, was for only the Mormon women in my village, I was still invited to participate. (Any time there’s food, I’m always invited. And this one involved a balanced meal! How could I refuse?)

I went to the Mormon church that night and listen to a very brief lesson on healthy foods and why healthy foods are important, then it was time to eat.

I had doubted the healthfulness of the food I would see. At Tongan eating events, there are usually root crops the size of my leg and pigs glistening with fat. What would Tongans do to a healthy meal?

The eating was on the basketball court. Each family would sit together around a little piece of fabric and eat whatever food they brought themselves. As I walked to my friend to eat with her, I saw plastic to-go boxes of, honestly, quite healthy foods. I saw bananas, apples, papayas, chicken, and modest size chunks of root crops. Though I’m sure it was prepared by one family for themselves, someone still gave me a box.

It was delicious! The chicken was cooked flavorfully with peppers; the traditional Tongan foods were lacking their usually dehydrating amounts of salt; and everything was in moderation.

As I enjoyed one the box of food, other people from other families brought me some of their food too. I got baked papaya, whole baked coconut, octopus, shellfish, and all kinds of other things. They were all pretty healthy it seemed to me, though now I felt obligated to eat a lot of each one of them, which threw portion control out the window.

I should have known that, even if the food would be healthy, it wouldn’t be in modest amounts: I saw one family bringing their food in by wheelbarrow.

I was sitting with a friend who had cooked her own food too, though. Of course, she shared this with me. But, I don’t think my friend really appreciated the healthy aspects of the meal, since she brought basically all the regular food I see in Tonga: fatty pork, fried chicken, sapsui, and those limb-sized root crops.

After eating enough to make even a healthy meal unhealthy, it was time for exercise. All the women (all 10 of us) stood in a circle ready to begin. The group leader then said, “Ok, Pele, go in the middle and lead exercises.” I had a look of horror on my face, I’m sure, but I got in the middle and did a couple of things before gradually slipping back to the outside of the circle.

Another woman took charge and led the women in toe-touches, jumping jacks, and a kind of body-twist that I’ve never seen Jane Fonda do. The music was blasting, and I noticed that our entire workout lasted less than a song. That was probably about all the women could take; they were huffing, puffing, and “oiaue”-ing within 3 minutes. (Oiaue is a Tongan exclamation for just about anything: excitement, surprise, sadness, and, as was the case here, general exhaustion.)

I got sent home with my to-go box and other bits of food I’d acquired throughout the dinner. After that it was time to lie down. That was the healthiest Tongan-prepared meal I’ve probably ever had in Tonga, but I still felt like I had just eaten Thanksgiving dinner.

Baby Oil, Money, and Disco: My Ta'olunga

I’d performed a ta’olunga, the traditional Tongan standing dance, during my homestay last October, but that was with another Peace Corps Trainee on the stage with me, and a bunch of Peace Corps friends in the audience. Then I performed the traditional sitting dance, the ma’ulu’ulu, for our Swearing-In Ceremony, but again, that was on a stage with other palangis and in a room filled with a sympathetic audience.

Though I knew the audience at my school’s concert wouldn’t be critical, it was the first time I was on the stage by myself with dozens of people watching just me. Moreover, they were all great at this kind of dance, whereas I was far from decent.

My principal and neighbor, Pauline, taught me the dance over a course of two weeks. I practiced all the time – by myself during the day and with the music when there was electricity. I’d borrowed the dancing costume from the only girl in town who is about my size. I’d bought the baby oil that ta’olunga dancers slather on their bodies so money sticks to them. I was as prepared as I could be.

The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry. I began my dance. All was going acceptably well through about two and a half verses of the song. Then, following Tongan tradition, people started coming up to stick money on my baby-oiled body.

It all fell apart from there. I got so distracted by the people who donate money by crowding around me and slapping bills on my oily skin that I forgot the moves. I must have had a look of “oh no! What comes next?” since there was a little chuckle through the audience.

Pauline, the principal-neighbor-dance instructor, was on stage too, so I look to her for help. Her reply: “Oh, just disikou.” Yep, that’s a cognate for disco, and, to Tongans, that means just dance however you want. No way! I had practiced this dance and I’d worked hard at this dance, and I wanted to be able to perform it.

Pauline eventually got me back on track. I finished the dance. I was somewhat embarrassed that I forgot half of the moves, but no one in the village seemed to care. The rest of the night and the next day, everyone who saw me told me how wonderful my ta’olunga was. Surely they were lying, but having a palangi try to do a Tongan dance must have been pretty amusing.

I always hear stories about the Peace Corps Volunteer who was here before me. “Kalani once did this.” “Kalani once did that.” Maybe in a few years they’ll be saying, “Pele once did a ta’olunga for the school koniseti.” And then maybe they’ll laugh and say, “And she forgot half of it.”

June - School Koniseti

Raising Money in Tonga

A koniseti, or concert, is a traditional way to raise money in Tonga. Schools have concerts every semester or so, and my school’s concert was last week. This was the first Tongan concert I’ve been to, and even more, I was going to be dancing in it! (More about my personal ta’olunga adventures in a separate post.)

A good general glimpse of a koniseti is: loud music blaring, a kid standing on the stage swaying somewhat to the music, and people from the audience come to tuck bills (usually 1 or 2 pa’anga, but maybe a parent donates 10 pa’anga or more) into the kid’s clothes. And then it’s repeated with the next kid.

There are 22 kids in my school. This is what happened for each one of them. My principal had a different idea a few years ago, and while it was the same basic “come give money to the kid moving to the music,” she enhanced it a bit. The kid on stage would call to someone in the audience to come and “buy” his necklace to ticket to a dance. Then the person would come up and tuck a few pa’anga in the kid’s shirt and maybe take the necklace or ticket. Then the rest of the audience would come up and give a few pa’anga too.

Most kids called to their parents, but some kids would call to someone else, and the more creative, unexpected calls (to the shopkeeper, the crazy old lady, the whole Ha’ano youth group) usually got laughs.

After each kid, the PTA money collectors announce how much money was raised from that kid.

The classes 4-6 also did a ballroom dancing-like dance. There are 8 kids in that combined class, and they’re all boys. That meant that half of them had to be girls for the dance. As I’ve said before, Tongan’s love to cross-dress. There were wigs, panty hose, and make-up. The pictures I put up don’t do them justice.

After several hours, the koniseti was over. The PTA announced that we had raised almost 2,000 pa’anga. Not bad for an evening’s work.

How to Teach a Computer Class with One Computer and Minimal Electricity

After many setbacks in projects I’ve tried to get started in my village (a school garden, a map of the world, a regular library class), I’ve finally begun a computer class. I had planned on giving the class to Class 6 (grade 6), but the principal suggested those students focus only on the Secondary School Entrance Exam which happens in October.

Unwilling to let all my preparation for this class go to waste, I suggested starting the class with Class 5. I got the green light, so the principal announced the start of the class at the latest PTA meeting. The parents seemed to like the idea, and one of them even asked if I’d do the class with adults too. I said sure, of course.

The first class would begin at 10am on Saturday. There’s only electricity at night and on Saturday, but every school night, the kids have class to prepare for the Secondary School Entrance Exam, so I decided Saturday was the best bet.

My class of two arrived at my house at 8:15am, ready to start. I reminded them that class started at 10, and they said they knew. They hung out at my house, every 15 minutes saying something like, “It’s still not 10 yet!” Finally, 10 o’clock arrived like Christmas morning for these boys, and we started class.

They were more enthusiastic than I’ve ever seen them in anything else. We did simple things, like talked about the rules for the computer, naming the parts of the computer, and turning the computer on, but they got excited for every part of it.

After class, when I walked around town, a couple of adults asked me if they could join too, and could I teach them how to use the internet and set up a Bebo account. I said I’d do my best, but without internet, it might be difficult to explain how a social networking site works.

So now, how does one set up a computer class without, you know, computers, plural?

I found a sample keyboard online and printed copies for anyone who came to class. Since my class will be mostly focused on typing, we’ll use the paper sheets to practice from a book I made.

The school has one computer, printer, photocopier, an extra keyboard, and an extra mouse. If there are only the two kids in my class, they can both use real keyboards, but if there are more people, we’ll use those sheets.

All the parents thought it was hilarious when they heard that I’d found the paper keyboards to use; they all said they want to use the real thing if they came to the class. They’re worse than the kids!

A Tale of Two Bicycles

Many Peace Corps Volunteers in Tonga have bicycles. They seem like a ton of fun. One basket, one Peace Corps-mandated helmet, two wheels, and a whole lot of freedom.

I decided not to get a bike, though. My island is perhaps two miles long, and there are few instances when I need to go to a village that might merit a bike ride.

A month or so ago, one such instance arose. The store in my village ran out of phone credit, and the only other place to buy credit is about a 20 minute walk away. My school principal also wanted to buy credit, so she suggested we get bikes and ride over.

We walked around our village. Pauline pointed to a bike she saw in someone’s yard and said, “Hey, ask him if you can borrow that bike.” This is the way to get things in Tonga, it seems. You see something someone else has, and if they’re not using it (and even if they are using it, but you really want it), you just ask for it. So Tomasi gave me his bike. “The seat is broken, though,” he warned.

Sure enough, that seat was broken. All the cushioning that is so essential for protecting one’s backside on a bike was gone. Tomasi’s solution was to stuff coconut husks between the pole and the seat cover. I can’t say it worked well, but I surely didn’t want to try the bike just on the pole. We rode on that rocky road to the next village and back, and my rear end felt sore for the next few days.

A few weekends ago, the second instance arose. I was sitting in my yard, enjoying the view and reading my book, when a couple of high school girls who came back for the weekend stopped by. As we were chatting, they asked me whose bike that was, propped up over by the fence. I said I didn’t know, but I joked that I was going to steal it and go ride around. We laughed, but after the girls left, I thought that might be a fun thing to do on a lazy Saturday – go on a bike ride. I’d have the wind in my hair and my dog chasing as I blew down the island. The fact that I didn’t know the owner of the bike didn’t seem so important.

I asked my neighbor if he knew who the bike owner was. Did my neighbor think the owner would mind if I took his bike? I got the same answer I get every time I ask for something here in Tonga: Sure, no problem.

Just as I was heaving the bike over the stone wall and onto the road, a guy passed by on a bike. He suggested I take the bike he’s on. “It’s much better than that bike,” he said. I said the bike I had was fine, but thank you and I mounted my bike for my freedom ride.

Tour de France it was not. I felt like I was on the first bicycle ever built in the history of bicycles. The gears were so stripped they hardly gripped the chain, but when they did grip the chain, they would lock up. It was impossible to get any speed, but that’s probably a good thing, since the brakes didn’t work either.

I laughed to myself (and perhaps a little aloud too) as I clunked down the road. A brisk speed walker could have probably passed me, but I was enjoying the ridiculousness of the situation too much to not continue on my adventure.

As I rode through the bush, I passed a handful of people. Two people from different groups made fun of the state of my bike. I told them it was brand new and cru-cru-crunged on my way. I’d never felt more Tongan.

I returned that bike too, of course. I never saw the owner, so hopefully he wasn’t worried about the theft of his precious antique. Of course he wasn’t worried. It’s never really stealing in Tonga; it’s just borrowing for a shorter or longer period of time. And my borrowing took all of about an hour, but it was still my little hour of freedom.

The Day That Everyone Dressed in Drag

One Friday this month, the primary schools celebrated some kind of multicultural day. The school radio program had told everyone in school to dress up in the traditional clothes of some culture. Rather than dressing in the obvious Tongan traditional attire, many, if not most, students came dressed as girls. Of the 22 students in the school, 17 of them are boys, so there was a lot of wig/lipstick/dress-wearing.

As for the girls, they wore other ridiculously matched clothes. And there’s Tongan multiculturalism.

Here are pictures from that day. My principal and one of two other teachers, Pauline, asked me to take a couple of pictures of her too.

At the end of the album are a couple of pictures of what the kids do during the hour-long radio broadcast for teacher every Friday: nothing. The younger kids sit in their desks while the older kids keep them quiet. It's a productive hour, as you can see.

May Ha'ano

Thursday, May 27, 2010

It's a Zoo Around Here

I'm used to having all kind of animals making noises around me. Most common are dogs barking and fighting and the geckos chirping. Next most common would be pigs snorting and digging holes in their search for food. Less frequent, but still almost daily, I'll hear chickens, cats, and cows.

Then, last night, I was sitting in my house, reading my book, enjoying the silence of the night, when I heard a goat. It's not a goat off in the distance; it's a goat in my backyard.

My village doesn't have goats. There are goats in the village on the other end of the island, but not here in Ha'ano, and certainly not in the school compound.

Even so, there most certainly was a goat in my backyard. Who knows how it got there, or why.

It continued screaming for several hours. The goat didn't bleat. It screamed. It's voice was cracking from straining so hard. I think at one point it even said my name.

Then suddenly, it stopped. And the next morning, there was no sign of a goat.

So it goes.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Photos from Ha'ano

Here are pictures of the students, food, and Fakame - a Sunday in May for the children to present Bible passages in the church, and then eat a feast.

Ha'ano May 2010">

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Completely Foreign Concepts

On the Tongan radio, of which I am so fond, there is a new program – the morning traffic watch. Listeners are asked to call in and tell what they see on the road. The radio announcer encourages people to say anything about the “traffic” on the road, most of which turns out to be a chicken, a group of pigs, or nothing. Many mornings I think of what I would say for the Ha’ano traffic watch.

“None of the three trucks on the island is on the road, so dog and horse-and-cart traffic are flowing freely.”

“No need to take a detour, folks; the child walking on the road has gotten off the road.”

A few weeks ago, Radio Tonga One did a “New Zealand-style” traffic watch about the traffic on Tongatapu, the main island. It was similar to my Ha’ano traffic watch.
Even before the traffic watch program began on the radio, I’d thought of how I would explain, in Tongan, my brother’s job. Could Tongan’s grasp the idea that, in some places, there are so many cars on the road, that people go up in airplanes to look at how backed up everything is and find a solution?

Another non-Tongan, but highly-American, concept I’ve explained is babysitting. In a country where 2-year-olds wander around with minimal to no supervision and 5-year-olds bring machetes to school to sharpen their pencils, how do you explain that, in America, if the parents are busy, they’ll pay someone to watch their kids?

Tongan Exercise: Fakamalohisino Faka-Tonga

When I decide it’s not too hot to go running, I usually run through the bush to a village about a mile away called Pukotala. A few hours after school one day, I was sitting on my porch tying my laces when I heard a new phrase I just taught my class:

“Hi, Pele, what’s up?”

It was three of my students on their daily wanderings.

“Nothing much.” (the response I taught them) “Te u ‘alu ‘o fakamalohisino.” I’m going exercising.

“Oh, tau ‘alu ‘o fakamalohisino?” Oh, we’re going exercising?

I rolled my eyes at the thought of these kids – barefoot and in jean shorts – running down the semi-paved road with me. Though they were quite capable on Sports Day, I doubted they could run for a couple of miles. Even so, I said sure. “Tau ‘alu.” Let’s go.

Not 2 minutes outside the village gate they stopped.

“Kuava!” They pointed to a guava tree on the side of the road, and stopped to grab a snack. We had handfuls of guavas to eat as we carried on at a jog.

Less than 5 minutes later: “Tava!” I looked all around us, but I couldn’t find the tree they were talking about. They pointed. “Look!” I didn’t see. “Look!” They pointed more forcefully. After squinting in the direction they indicated, sure enough, I saw a tree bearing the little, lime-sized tava fruits. At first (and second) glance it was only a tree. How did these kids see the tava right away – while eating guavas and running, nonetheless?

We continued on to the Pukotala gate then turned around to get those tavas. The boys jumped into the brush and headed towards the tree. One boy climbed the tree as if it were a simple staircase.

A boy pointed to the road. “Pele, go there.”

As soon as I was out from under the tree, the boy in the tree shook a limb. Down poured tavas, not unlike the Skittles: Taste the Rainbow commercials. They scooped tavas into their shirts, and I pushed them into my pockets. When we had enough, we started ambling down the road, eating as we went.

“Pele, ko e ha e lea-faka-Palangi ki ‘vao’?” Pele, what’s the English word for “forest?”

“Ki ‘kuava’?” For guava?

“Ki e? Ki eni?” For that? For this?

These kids were enthusiastic about learning English! Though they didn’t seem to always pay attention or be interested in class, they were excited to learn out here!

They weren’t the only ones. I asked them everything: who that person was on the road, how to tell if a guava is ripe, what the Tongan word is for “pocket.” And they were more than happy to tell me all those answers – even mixing some English words in with their Tongan.

I might be shy with groups of Tongan youth or adults – too embarrassed at the possibility of making mistakes in Tongan – but with these kids, it was easy to talk and joke. Though I didn’t get my heartrate up during that run, it was one of my favorite workouts in a long time.

PCVs Visit Ha'ano

A few weeks ago, John and Juleigh, PCVs in Pangai, came up to Ha’ano for the three-day weekend. (It was ANZAC day, but if you ask any Tongan what “ANZAC” stands for – much less what the holiday is about – you’d get an answer along the lines of, “Australia/New Zealand Something Something.”)

I love PCVs coming to visit me. Of course, I’d love any chance to see them, but they also bring good food to give me a break from my root crop existence. When these two came, they brought real palangi food. We ate very well. (That’s a typical “hey, howya doin’” type question in Tonga: Did you eat well?)

Over the course of their trip, we had:

- Tacos compete with ground beef, homemade tortillas, real cheese, and salsa
- Chocolate chip cookies (I finally made them, Mom!)
- Macaroni and cheese with sausage
- Garlic pasta
- Fish curry
- Pancakes, sausage, and scrambled eggs
- Breakfast burritos
- Popcorn
- Thin Mint-like cookies
- Cookies we have lovingly dubbed “crack cookies” because they’re so addictive (Lil’ Dutch Maid is imported from Abilene, Texas, for anyone venturing to try them.)
- Watermelon
- One “large” green pepper brought all the way from Tongatapu by Juleigh. Most peppers in Ha’apai are smaller than a baby’s fist, so to see one that would maybe make it to an American grocery store (only to be passed over because it’s a weird shape) is impressive.

But one thing that really got me excited that isn’t exciting to many others: bread. We had sandwiches! We made grilled cheese! The possibilities were endless… until it molded.

It rained most of the weekend. My yard is more flooded than I’ve ever seen it; there are parts where the water was up to my ankles. We spent most of the time just hanging around, reading, and sleeping. (Minus the reading part, we sound like Tongans.) There were some activity highlights though:

- A number of fellows around town had been asking me about Juleigh. Since her last visit, she had attracted some of the youths’ attentions. One of them asked if she would tou’a at kava while she was here, and Juleigh said ok, so long as I went too. Though that’s not generally ok to have more than one tou’a, they made an exception. So, on Friday night, the palangis invaded the kava kalapu. Here’s more on that kava experience. There were two kava circles that night – something I hadn’t seen before. I was planning on joining one circle with Juleigh at the other, but, lo and behold, there was a Tongan tou’a already there! I’d never before seen a Tongan tou’a! I thought everyone on the island was related to each other and thus not allowed to tou’a, but this girl from Fakakakai (a town down the island) apparently fit the bill for an acceptable tou’a – and she even wanted to!

Not only was this girl interesting, but the men at the circles were interesting. Juleigh pointed out one gent to me. He was sitting on the other side of the room, drinking from a milk box and wearing a woman’s lace jacket-like thing. Upon his standing up, we realized this was not just a jacket-like thing, but rather a floor-length negligee. No Tongan at the circle gave him a second glance. Ah, this country.

- We also went swimming. Tongans don’t go swimming when it’s hot. They say that it’s too hot to go swimming; they prefer to swim when it’s cool. So, following the Tongans’ lead, we went swimming during the downpour on Monday.

John brought his puppy, Banjo, and Banjo and Papi play like maniacs the whole weekend. They would run and crash into walls and buildings. Papi was exhausted after his new friend left.

Last time John, Juleigh, and Todd were in Ha’ano, there was a tsunami warning brought on by the earthquake in Chile. Though there were no tsunamis we know of, there were a couple of earthquakes one night. Juleigh, the earthquake expert – being from California, brought the first one to my attention. I thought it was just a strong wind rattling things in the house.

John and Juleigh were supposed to stay until Monday, and then go back that afternoon with the schoolkids who had come back to Ha’ano for the long weekend. Instead, they were told on Monday afternoon that the boat would leave on Tuesday in the early morning. We, of course, didn’t know what time that meant, so we woke up at 5:30am, packed in the dark (since there’s no electricity and the sun hadn’t come up), and went to the porch by the dock to wait.

Eventually they sailed off, and it was back to the routine on my little island.

The Hatchings

Most evenings, after the sun has set, the only sound I hear is the waves crashing against the shore. But about a month ago, the general silence was broken by an incessant tinging sound – the sound of bugs throwing themselves on my fluorescent light bulb. I looked at the ceiling. It was covered with little bugs. It was covered like an anthill just before it gets kicked by some kid. Even the gecko-like lizards didn’t go to eat them – there were too many, and it was, well, gross.

I grabbed my bug spray. I sprayed all over the ceiling with little consideration for the things on the ground that the moribund bugs would soon be writhing on top of. For the next hour there was a consistent pit-pit-pit sound of bugs falling to the floor. They continued falling, though with less gusto, until the morning. I then swept out the thousands of little carcasses from my house.

Another PCV later suggested that it was a hatching; he had had similar issues with another kind of bug in his house.

More recently, there has been another hatching. There’s a new moth that just appeared. Its body is the size of my pinky finger, and its wings beat so fast that there’s a low hum whenever it’s near.

I first encountered this moth when I was lying in bed. There was some excessive thudding on the other side of the room, and I thought it must be a big cockroach slowly dying. I shined a light over to see, and, of course, it was this monstrous moth.

I’ve since been “attacked” in the shower. One flew into the shower building, attracted to the light, and it kept dive-bombing my partition of the building. I eventually sprayed it with my trusted bug spray, only to have a second evil hummingbird-like insect enter. I was so disgusted, I nearly ran out of the shower, though good thing I didn’t because it opens onto my neighbors backyard.

Readers may be scoffing that I am grossed out by large moths, but, dear readers, remember that it has taken me almost 7 months to get to the point where I don’t run screaming out of the bathroom when I see a cockroach in there. (Didn’t you note how blasé I was about the possibility there was a large roach in my room?)

My island of Kauvai is unique in many ways but in one great way in particular: no molokaus. Molokaus are centipedes that are aggressive and difficult to kill. They creep and lurk in the worst places, and their bite is apparently more painful than a beesting. One PCV moved a pillow on his bed only to find he was about to lie down on a molokau. Another found one crawling out of her sink. And so on with molokau horror stories. But there aren’t any on my island, so, phew.

The Toketaa’s In: Tongan/Palangi MedicineThe Toketaa’s In: Tongan/Palangi Medicine

One of the first things Peace Corps medical staff tells Peace Corps Trainess is, “Don’t use Tongan medicine.”

- Got a stomach ache? Here’s a bitter fruit-thing from a tree.

- Got a boil? Wrap this old, torn shirt that says “Ruck Fules” around your arm, foot, head, etc.

- Got a sore back/sprained ankle? I’m going to twist and punch the affected area.

- Got a cut? Let’s boil some leaves together and mush it around in the wound.

All these have been personally witnessed. The PC staff doesn’t mean that those methods don’t work, but antibiotics and pills might be better.

I’ve been having some problems with my eye – it gets red and watery a lot – and some people ask me if I want some Tongan medicine for it. My principal jumps in, “No, the Peace Corps doesn’t allow them to use Tongan medicine.” Phew. Who knows where that might have ended up.

As another PCV has said, one great thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga is it automatically makes you qualified to do many things you would never be qualified to do in the States. Teach English, for one. But also, lead exercise classes, fix computers (or at least they assume you are whiz at fixing computers), and be a doctor.

A couple of years ago, the PCV at my site before me, Grant, had a kid come to his house for Grant to bandage him up. That’s not uncommon. I’ve doctored up some pretty bad cuts on these kids, at least by my standards. But Grant’s experience pales mine: the kid was whacked in the leg with a machete by accident. Not important enough to rush to the hospital right away, but surely the Pisikoa would be able to fix the boy, right?

My experiences have been mostly washing cuts, giving out bandaids, and giving simple hygiene instructions. I’m, of course, happy to help anyone who comes to me, and I hope after hearing it enough times, they’ll realize how to doctor themselves. (My newest first-aid tip that I’m pushing: If you have a cut on your foot, you must wear shoes. One kid’s foot had a huge gash on the sole, and he had walked the kilometer to school barefooted anyway.)

Note: All the medical supplies (Harry Potter glow-in-the-dark bandaids, ointments, gauze, etc.) all came from the US Navy. (Despite all the things they gave us, they didn’t include tape, so I’m getting creative in doctoring up these wounds.) A year or two ago, a US naval ship came to Ha’apai on a humanitarian mission to a number of different islands and countries in the Pacific. They checked out medical conditions that doctors might not have been able to help with Tongan resources. The vet saw animals all over the country, and PCVs often got their pets spayed or neutered. (Can’t you guys come back and neuter Papi?)

Note Two: For such a religious country, Tonga also has a strong history of old spirituality – namely a genuine fear of the devil. Someone could curse you or the devil could catch you in the dark, and you’d then be puke tevolo, you’d have the devil sickness. A girl in the community was possessed a few years back. She writhed and screamed all night but eventually was exorcised. What a relief.

The Tongan All-Blacks: Funerals and Mourning

When I was packing to come to Tonga, I clung to the Peace Corps suggested packing list. Among other things that made me raise my eyebrows was “several black outfits.” In case the king died, the Peace Corps wanted to be sure that we could immediately mourn like Tongans in a culturally appropriate way – by wearing all black for a year. I scoffed, thinking about the slim chance that we step out of the airport and the king keels over. (Upon looking at pictures from earlier Peace Corp groups’ arrivals, it seems one group was told to wear all black off the airplane, since the king had died within the year prior. Maybe Peace Corps was right.) Still, I dutifully brought a black shirt, skirt, and sweater, just in case tragedy struck the Kingdom. (It didn’t.)

I’m now learning more about the Tongan traditions about death, since a community member passed away a few weeks ago.

After I returned from Nuku’alofa, a friend came over. I was surprised when I saw her; hair was cut short – just below the ears. This was very unusual, since most Tongan women let their hair grow long and always wear it in braids or a ponytail. She was also wearing all black and an enormous ta’ovala – the traditional Tongan mat worn around the waist for formal occasions.

I knew her adoptive father (her real grandfather) was sick. He had gone to the hospital, but there was nothing the doctors could do, so he returned to Ha’ano. After seeing Mele – what she was wearing and her hair, I knew her father had died.

Americans traditionally wear black to the funeral, but here in Tonga the length of time “in mourning” (and thus marked by all-black attire) is dictated by the importance of the person who died. Since this is Mele’s father (by adoption and thus she sees him as her father), she will wear black all year. She will also wear the large, presumably uncomfortable, mat. (Imagine wearing a mat that is as thick as the sports section and reaches from your calves to your armpits and is bound with a rope.) For parents, the women in the family pull their hair into a ponytail and cut it off. (Furthermore, Mele and her family aren’t able to work, besides cooking, for a month.)

I’ve never been to a Tongan funeral, but I’ve heard from many other PCVs who have. There are many parts that differ from American funerals, but one particularly stands out. It’s tradition that everyone kiss the deceased on the cheek. Tongan “kisses” are more like slight sniffs on the cheek, so many PCVs cringed as they were urged to go sniff a corpse. (Or, as another PCV put it, “It was the first time I kissed a girl in 5 months.”)

Death in Tonga isn’t approached the same way as in the US. Tongans, though saddened by the loss of a loved one, don’t treat it like in America. I tried to be sensitive to my friend about the death of her father, but she seemed relatively unphased by his passing. I’ve heard from other palangis that this might be for a couple of reasons:

1. Tongans believe God takes everyone when it’s his or her time. Though this is also often the mentality in America, in Tonga, there’s absolutely no questioning God. Overall, to me, Tongans are far more submissive to a higher power. Why be sad when this is what the Almighty says?

2. For someone with an illness, there’s a limit to medicine in Tonga. Sometimes, after a certain point, doctors and traditional Tongan medicine can’t help, so Tongans might preempt the expectation that a patient will recover by assuming the worst, and, when that happens, they aren’t surprised. Tongan hospitals aren’t equipped to deal with many serious illnesses, like cancers, and, as Tongans can’t afford treatment in New Zealand or Fiji, many are left to let the illness take over at home.

Though I hope everyone in my community remains healthy, over the next two years, I expect to attend at least one funeral. Or, since it’s often an honor to have a palangi at an important event, I may be invited to one at another community. Either way, I imagine I’ll learn more about the traditional funeral and grieving in Tonga.

PC Tonga Packing List

As I prepared to come to Tonga, I scoured Volunteers’ blogs for packing lists. I found a couple, packed, and came over. Of course, everyone’s opinion is different, but there are some things I wish I knew about packing. Here are my suggestions for incoming PCVs to Tonga, with notes.

- Though the Peace Corps documents you get may say they’ll only cover 80 lbs or weight or something, you can actually take more than that if the airline has a higher baggage allowance. It’s probably 100 lbs. And you should probably take advantage of all that weight. Don’t pack light.

- Even if you utilize all your baggage allowances, there are sure to be things you realize you wish you had once you get here. PCTs/PCVs have around 6 months without customs fees for packages, so if you have ever-so-wonderful family like I do, see if they can send you things.

- When I planned my Tongan wardrobe, I figured I’d take minimal clothes with me and buy clothes in Tonga. There were several flaws with my reasoning. One, there’s very little time to do shopping in any place that has worthwhile shopping. Where Group 76 will probably have their training is pretty remote, and clothing options are few and far between. Two, what options do exist (in both the remote areas and the capital) are mostly for larger-sized people. Based on the size of the PCVs here, the average clothing size wouldn’t fit anyone. The same goes for shoes. It’s not impossible to find clothes in my size, indeed I just went on a shopping spree, but I relied primarily on a handful of shirts and skirts for the first 6 months.

- Tongans get more dressed up than I expected. The women and girls my age wear makeup, high heels, and relatively trendy clothes.

- You can find (almost) anything at a price in Nuku’alofa. After training, you’ll have time to shop for it, but be prepared to go to PST with one suitcase of things from America.

- For work, I wear a jersey skirt and probably a button-up short-sleeved shirt and flip flops. I think my school’s dress code is pretty relaxed, since I’m in an outer-island primary school. Other PCVs wear more formal clothes, for instance a nicer skirt. A new staple I’ve added to my wardrobe is a tupenu: a piece of somewhat-shiny black material (enough to start at one hip, go all the way around and come back to my other hip) with ties. Women’s tupenus are usually homemade. Guys wear the traditional Tongan tupenu (theirs have pockets!) and a button-up shirt.

- Forget about bringing anything leather. It will mold. Everything you bring will probably mold a little bit, but you can probably wash those things. (Even my passport has begun to mold, fyi.)

- If you’re considering bringing electrical items, know that almost every PCV has daily access to electricity. Chances are very good that you’ll be able to use your items. Also, I didn’t expect Tongans to have some ubiquitous electronics. Everyone here has a cell phone. A couple of people have iPhones (or a knock-off). A few people have things that act like iPod shuffles. A couple of people have laptops (but mostly use it to watch movies and upload pictures).

- Tonga has a conservative culture, so women don’t show their knees or shoulders. I’ve seen some women wear long shorts to exercise, and I wear basketball shorts that hit just above my knees when I run. The exception to this is the younger generations in Nuku’alofa, the capital, but even so, Peace Corps Volunteers there like to show respect for the older generations by wearing the conservative clothes too.

- Despite the conservative attire outside the house, PCVs wear whatever they want in their own place. I often wear shorts and sometimes a tank top, but I’m always ready with a wrap to cover up in case someone comes over.


- Shirts. T-shirts and dressier shirts. They wear out fast from hand-washing and bleaching the sun. And from getting caught in barbed wire, torn climbing a coconut tree, etc.

- Skirts. Calf-length and ankle length, but be sure you can sit on the floor comfortably and sit down and get up without being “scandalous.”

- Shoes. I live in my flip flops and wish I had brought a better pair with me. I also would have brought dressier sandals. I also brought my running shoes, and I brought another close-toed pair that I haven’t used since arriving. The best shoes are ones that don’t take much to take off every time you go in someone’s house.

- Capris. I wear them all the time at my house or going to the store.

- Pants. Jeans are a whole lot of fun to wear when we go to Nuku’alofa and go to the one bar in the country. Many girls my age wear jeans too, but I don’t, since I want to be respectful of the traditional attire.

- Sweaters/sweatshirts/vest. During the summer I’ve been cool enough to wear a sweater or long-sleeved shirt at night. Or, if you plan on traveling outside the country (New Zealand round trip tickets were just purchased for about $350 USD – in peak season), consider that.

- Exercise stuff. I wear a t-shirt and basketball shorts.

- Sarong. Called a lavalava here, everyone wears them when lounging about the house or covering up when guests arrive. You can definitely find one here, but if you have one you’re partial to, bring it.

- Hat/visor. Save yourself from wearing the ladies church hats like Tongans (men too!) wear.

- Sunglasses. I haven’t found good-quality ones here, and 2/3 that I brought broke already.

- Swimsuit. Tongans swim fully-clothed, but those times you’re on a palangi beach, it’s nice to dress however you want.

Personal Items

- Glasses/Contacts. I wear contacts because I believe I am able to get my hands/cases clean enough with things that I brought/Tongan water. I brought antibacterial handsoap and a large supply of contact solution. Here, turns out, the solution costs and arm and a leg.

- Tampons. If you use them, bring them.

- Medicine. The Peace Corps Medical Office has medical products for whatever ails you, but they’re usually generic. (I took the PC vitamins for a few months, but since I really don’t have access to a variety of foods, I asked my parents to send more complete multi-vitamins.)

- Soaps/Shampoos/Etc. Tonga has all these things. It’s important for Tongans to smell good, so these are all available in a variety of brands.

- Perfume/Cologne. Along the smelling-good line, Tongans love perfume, though it all seems to have the same smell. I don’t have any with me, but for important events, a neighbor is sure to spritz me.

- Jewelry. Don’t bring expensive stuff, but Tongans wear jewelry for church, dances, and other important events.


- Computer. Every PCV from my group brought one, and, I think, for the most part, everyone is glad he/she did. For slow days or frustrating days, it’s fun to get a bit of Americana in a tv show or movie. Tongans also love movies, so it’s a good way to get to know people as you invite them to see a movie. (They also love Filipino or Mexican soap operas, in case you have a stash). It’s great for me on an outer island to prepare blogs (such as this) from afar and pass it off on a zip drive to a PCV who visits to post. If you don’t bring one, that’s no problem from a PC perspective, but they can give you a lot of files for projects and things, so a computer can be nice for that too.

- External hard drive. Awesome for sharing among PCVs.

- iPod. Love it. Glad I brought it. It’s another great integration tool. In my village, since there’s no electricity during the day, Tongans only listen to the radio. But they love my iPod, and they love to DJ. Akon and Rihanna are big hits.

- Speakers for computer/iPod.

- Hair products. Don’t scoff. After living without running water for 3 months, I wanted to fix my hair just once. While in Nuku’alofa I bought a hairdryer for $7.50 USD. I used it, and although my hair bounced back to wavy after 30 minutes in the humidity, I relished those 30 minutes. Moral of the story, it’s probably sufficient to buy what you want here, especially since you wouldn’t want to blow your Chi up because of the voltage switch.

- Intensive Course in Tonga, Eric Shumway. Though I didn’t use it much before arriving, it has since become essential in my Tongan learning. PC didn’t buy it for us, so, unless they’re changing that policy, if you actually want to learn Tongan, I recommend bringing it. (On that note, don’t fret if you didn’t study before arriving. Some people were using flashcards on the airplane, but don’t feel like you need to. If you commit to learning Tongan, the Peace Corps language instructors will help you far more than a handful of flashcards on a 14-hour flight.)

- Hammock. Mine broke after about a month, so I wish I had brought a better quality. Maybe it was the quality, or maybe it was the 22 schoolkids who loved to swing on it. All at once.

- Tent.

- Sleeping bag. Great as an extra cushion in case you get a foam mattress pad instead of a spring mattress. Or if you plan on camping. A number of people brought Therma-Rests, too.

- Mask and snorkel. I brought mine from the States, but, as it was purchased for $10, it’s not the best quality. Even so, it’s better than the one another PCV bought in Tonga that made her see double for an hour after using it.

- Duct tape. It’s like the Force: light on one side, dark on the other, and it holds the universe together.

- Jump rope/exercise band. I brought both, and I’ve used them both to secretly exercise in my house on Sundays. Or just to change up my routine which is usually running on the one road on the island.

- Hobby. Bring what you love to do. Got a travel-sized instrument (or not, depending on your devotion to playing) you love? Tongans love music, and it would be a great way to get involved and share with them. (I brought a harmonica with the greatest intentions of learning to play it while here. Bob Dylan I am not.) Or knitting. There’s a kind of weaving/crocheting thing the women do here, too. If you want to keep practicing another language/pick up another one, bring a book, the Rosetta Stone, whatever. You’ll certainly have time to pursue all of your interests.

- Books. The Peace Corps office libraries in every island group are pretty well-stocked, but of course feel free to bring new books, read them, then contribute and let us enjoy them too!


-I love the non-stick saucepan/lid that I brought with me. I’ve since acquired from others/purchased non-non-stick pans and things in Nuku’alofa.

- Lots of spices and seasonings are available in Nuku’alofa, but anything you can’t live without you might want to bring. (If you know where to look, there’s taco seasoning and good Indian seasoning.)

- Recipes. If there are things you love to make in the States (baking especially), and the ingredients are relatively simple (or you bring the complicated stuff), it would be a great way to share American culture with people in your community. Or just for yourself.

- Coffee/Tea. I brought some tea with me, but Tonga does have Twinnings in Nuku’alofa. (And Bell elsewhere.) I had a French-press coffee maker sent to me, and, though I get mine sent to me, coffee grounds are sold here.

- Yeast packets. There is yeast here, but I’ve had mixed success with it. Also, on an outer island, I can’t refrigerate unused yeast, and the Tongan bags are about the size of a bundle of flour.

Best item I brought: A coffee mug I smuggled out of a previous house. It’s a good thing I did; all the mugs here are too small or too big. This one’s just right. And my laptop/iPod.

Item I should have left at home: The second pair of close-toed shoes. I use my running shoes all the time, but outside of them, I wear flip flops all the time.