Sunday, January 10, 2010


Kava is the national drink of Tonga; it’s a plant, a relative of pepper, ground up and then mixed with water. It looks like muddy water and tasted only a little better. It’s supposed to have a numbing effect, but that depends on the mix, I suppose.

Our first day in Tonga, the Peace Corps held a formal kava ceremony where everyone got to try to drink. Usually, however, kava is only for men. The only time a woman is allowed to drink kava is on her wedding day, once, before the feast begins. (After my one experience, once is sufficient.) The only time a woman is allowed to go to kava, is to toua (doe {like the deer} -ah). That means she gets to sit there and fill up the kava cups for the men while chatting and deflecting their flirtations. Only unmarried women can toua, and, from what I had heard from the PCVs (and most Tongan women too) who have done it, it’s not a fun experience.
They say they sit around a lot, not understanding what’s going on, while these gross dudes hit on them. And as they drink more and more kava, sometimes it gets more obnoxious. Of course, there’s also the whole “how sexist that they would only let a woman go if she would serve the men” thing, too.

Despite others’ objections, I decided to try it out anyway. Kava is, after all, a traditional part of Tongan society, and I came here to be a part of that society, so I should at least know how kava goes. Besides, Sione and I were invited to kava on Sunday, not the “crazier” kava on Friday or Saturday night (or pretty much any night). I had a fellow palangi there with me, so I was more comfortable as I went into my first toua experience. (When there’s no woman to toua, the youngest man has to do it. Sione has been that person when he went to kava another time, so I got some tips from him before going in.)

So how was it? Boring? Sexist? Nope, I had a great time!

There were about 12 men sitting around the circle with the faifekau, or minister, at one end of the circle, and me across from him. I recognized only a few of the guys, so it was a great opportunity to get to know more of the men in the community. There were a handful of men in their 20s, and (since men are seated according to rank and age) they were seated near me. There’s only ever one toua at a kava circle, and the younger, unmarried men are allowed to sit by her, you know, for the wooing. So there were the standard questions I get asked by Tongans when I first meet them, in order of appearance:

1. Are your parents already dead?
2. Do you have a moa, a chicken or boyfriend/girlfriend, in America?
3. Are you looking for a Tongan spouse?

I don’t think Tongans ever listen or care about the answers to questions 2 and 3, since they always seem to want to show off their own/a friend’s greatest marriage-worthy qualities. (The one I heard at kava that day was, “This guy knows how to cook cake really well!” I’m not sure if that was a euphemism for something I don’t understand, but his cake-cooking abilities were brought up numerous times that day.) Even so, it was fun to joke (as best I could in horribly broken Tongan) with the group.

Afternoon church started after an hour or so at the kava circle, so Sione and I left. Though I was having a good time, it was good to leave on a high note. So here are my reflections on kava:

1. Like the PCV in Ha’ano before me said, it’s a great way to practice your Tongan. Since I’m eager to say what I want to say and not be limited by what I can say, I think that’s almost reason enough to get over objections.

2. It was a great way to meet people I’d probably otherwise not have much contact with in the community. I spend a lot of time with the women, but this was probably my first quality contact with the men.

3. It was a great way to show people in the community I’m multi-dimensional. Most of the conversations are around safe subjects: my family in America, how I like Ha’ano, what my favorite Tongan food is. But at kava, we joked about moas and getting drunk off kava (and promply passing out. “Tongan family planning,” one guy told Sione.).

4. I didn’t mind ladling kava into men’s coconut cups. I was in charge of how much everyone drank, as touas always are. For the older, more respected men, I gave them an appropriate amount. For the one guy who was heckling me (I can only assume he was heckling me – he spoke too fast for me to understand anything, which was probably his point), I gave him a completely full drink. (The men drink the kava all at once so the next person can use their cup too, so imagine gulping down a glass of dirt-water fast.)

5. The worst part was how often my feet fell asleep. We’re all sitting on the floor, but the men are cross-legged. Women are supposed to sit with their legs to one side, so I did that, but I kept switching the side to regain bloodflow to my legs. After I shifted a couple of times, the men all welcomed me to sit like them. That was a relief.

Moral of the story: I can see myself toua-ing a number of times in the future. I think I’ll get a lot out of it in terms of Tongan-language and finding that Tongan husband they keep talking about. I’ve really enjoyed the community-oriented activities with a fixed start-finish time: kava, church, kaipolas. It’s nice to be able to let the community know I want to be a part of it all, but also go back home and rest when I’m saturated with Tongan for the day. So kava seems like another way to do that.

New Year's in Ha'ano and Sione's Visit

Only a few days after getting back from Pangai, Sione, a fellow PCV in Pangai, came to Ha’ano for New Year’s festivities. New Year’s Eve “festivities” would elicit a certain image to most Americans. Let’s not be too hasty.

Sione arrived in the afternoon, and after cooking dinner, we went to church. At 10pm. Until 12:30am. Tongans rang in the new year with a preacher shouting about something I couldn’t understand. (I heard words like “important,” “year,” and “we.” I hope Tongans understood more.)

Since my bedtime here in Tonga is generally 10pm, I was quite exhausted after the two-and-a-half hour church service. People in town, however, collected on the one road under the one streetlamp, to be talk, shout, and generally be loud. (That’s how it seemed to me, trying to go to sleep.)

At about 5:30am, Sione and I left to head to the NE-facing side of the island to be some of the first people in the world to see the sunrise in 2010. We sat on a rocky cliff ledge, had breakfast, and, despite a cloudy morning, saw a pretty cool sunrise.
Sione had expected to go home the day after, so the next morning, we got up early to check for boats.

“No problem!” I said. “There will definitely be boats!” I claimed.

I was so wrong. Just as I looked towards the dock from my porch at 6:30am-ish, I saw what turned out to be the lone boat that left that day for town. Before we realized he was stuck all that day (and since the next day was Sunday, and boats don’t run on Sunday, he was actually stuck until Monday), Sione asked some fishermen nearby what the deal was. The result was that one of them gave him an enormous fish. (I’ve lived here for several weeks, and I’ve never gotten a fish from the fishermen; he’s been here 2 days, and he gets a fish?) We spent the few extra days reading (a lot), cooking (with the minimal foodstuffs in Ha’ano – and that fish!), sitting around, kayaking, watching netball, and, on Sunday, going to church and kava.

(Continued in the next post …)

Christmas in Uoleva

The 8 of us went to Uoleva for Christmas Eve and Christmas. It’s about an hour boat ride south of Pangai, and we stayed at Serenity Beaches, a resort with amazing individual huts and a larger common-area hut and kitchen. The PCVs and JICA (Japanese version of the Peace Corps) cooked for ourselves while we were there. Spaghetti and garlic bread for Christmas Eve; pancakes and bacon for Christmas morning; turkey and mashed potatoes for Christmas dinner. Nothing too over the top, but a fun diversion from the general Tongan diet of fried everything and root crops. There isn’t general electricity on the island, but there was electricity in the kitchen and common area, so we could keep food for a couple of days. We spent the time sitting around at the beach, kayaking, swimming – all things I’ve done several times since being in Tonga, but this time I could do it in a swimsuit and not be scandalous.

We came back to Pangai after 2 nights, and I headed back to Ha’ano after 2 more nights in Pangai. That’s just how often the boats to my island would go – every once in a while it seems.

Tongan Name Games

Besides the traditional Tongan names – Tupou or Salote (traditional royal family names) – there are more... unique... names also. Here’s a list of names I’ve encountered. Guess which names are male and female.

1. Hina (Bottle/Spider)
2. Vai (Water)
3. Lua (Vomit)
4. Puke (Sick/To Hold)
5. Mahina (Month/Moon)
6. ‘Aho Lelei (Good Day)
7. Po’uli (Night)
8. Uike Lotu (Holy Week)
9. Eva (Wandering)
10. Tasi (Chalkboard Eraser)
11. Ika (Fish)

Female: odds

Male: evens

Except 11, which is both.

In case you forgot, my Tongan name, Pele, means not only “Darling,” but also “Playing Cards” and a kind of leaf here.

There are also a number of Western names, Tongan-ified. Here are some of them:

Julie – Suli
Rebecca – Lepeka
Sarah – Sela
Marie – Malia/Mele

William – Viliami
George – Siaosi
John – Sione
Fred – Feleti