Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cyclone Rene: 2010

For a few days before it hit Tonga, we heard warnings about cyclone Rene. On Saturday, in preparation for the storm, I helped pull the boats onto shore in my village. About 30 minutes later, the PCV security coordinator for Ha’apai called me.

“Hey Blair. What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing. I just helped get all the boats out of the water for the cyclone.”

“Yeah, we’re gonna need you to get on a boat and come into Pangai. Peace Corps is having us consolidate.”

Since the boats in Ha’ano were just put ashore, I found a boat in another village, and I came into the main town.

Peace Corps Tonga’s default consolidation point for any emergency is the local Mormon church. They’re built to Western standards and thus more likely to be structurally sound. Fortunately, our Ha’apai security coordinator changed our location to his house a few weeks ago. That way, we would have access to a shower, beds, and a kitchen. That’s very lucky, since we spent the next 62 hours there.

Ten of us – 9 PCVs and a JICA volunteer – fit into a house about the size of a double portable building. We got together on Saturday afternoon under blue skies, but the wind started to pick up that evening.

Since there’s not television, internet is sporadic on the sunniest days much less during natural disasters, and the Sunday’s radio programming is limited to church services, we severely lacked news on the cyclone. Peace Corps Headquarters called with a regular update. Most updates were: The cyclone will hit in 2 hours. (An hour later…) The cyclone will hit 6 hours from now. (Two hours later…) The cyclone will hit tomorrow. (Etc.)

The wind and rain really began on Sunday and continued on through Monday when the cyclone actually hit. We made preparations on the house as best as possible. We put a tarp up on the inside of the windows and stockpiled water.

There was one weaker spot on the house though, the door. It was made of two thin pieces of plywood separated by corrugated cardboard strips. We should have known this could prove problematic. At one point one side of the lower half of the door came off, but we screwed it back onto the doorframe. With the humidity, the door didn’t close properly, so we tied it shut (with a small crack left) with a rope that was known to break holding up laundry.

As the storm hit us from the front of the house, the rain blew in through the louvered windows (a genius idea for a hurricane-prone country). We originally put the tarp on the inside of the windows, catching the water and funneling it into buckets. The porous tarp proved a poor blocker of the rain, and the house soon started taking in water.

We used towels to soak up the water, but it was a losing battle.

Not long after, the bottom half of the door ripped off. The first piece blew across the yard, and the PCV whose house it was noted, “Oh, there goes part of my door.” Soon, the whole bottom half was gone, leaving us with a horribly inappropriate, though eternally trendy, saloon-style door. We propped a table up as we scrambled for a sufficient door. What would be better: the headboard or the shed door? After reason set in, we took the kitchen door off and screwed it onto the hinges. Easier said than done in 145-mph winds, but our burly boys worked against the storm to chisel and screw the door into the frame. As half the crew worked on the door and the other half frantically fought the flood in the house, a Tongan eating a stick of sugar cane meandered over to check out the situation. He casually observed the palangi handiwork as the trees behind him blew horizontally. Eventually the door went up, we went home, and the Tongan sauntered home. Or for a stroll through town.

At one point, we needed to go outside, but as we tried to open the newly-fitted door, we realized it was backwards. Instead of locking people out, we were locked in.

We eventually unlocked the door from the outside, and we began sweeping out water. In a stroke of genius, the tarp was put on the outside of the windows, though it was done during the brunt of the storm. We finally had some control. The eye of the storm came by, and we re-analyzed our defenses. We were ready to move tarps around, and we nailed plastic mats on the windows, though we never got to see how well they would have fared. The second side of the storm was much lighter – “gale force winds,” the Peace Corps called them.

We lasted three full nights in the house together. We lost electricity and water on Sunday, but they both came on in various parts of town today. This morning, Tuesday, the Peace Corps gave us the all-clear to leave. As we headed home, we saw huge trees uprooted, sunken boats, and collapsed houses. I’m still in Pangai, since the seas are too rough to travel by boat. I’m waiting for the all-clear from the Peace Corps…

More Fun, Fascinating Facts

As I was looking through the mounds of papers in the school, I came across a student’s birth certificate. (Among piles of discarded papers – that’s exactly where I keep mine, too.) There are maybe ten boxes to be filled in: Name, Place of Birth, Date of Birth, Father’s Name, Mother’s Name, etc. And there’s one box you don’t see too often: Birth: Legitimate or Illegitimate.

There is a news program that comes on the in English at various times throughout the day, and I’ll listen when I can. One of the stories today was a Tongan judge’s resurrection of an obscure law that allows whipping when the judge deems it appropriate punishment. These two prisoners received lashings for breaking out of prison and, during their time on the run, thieving. Don’t worry about me; women are not allowed to be whipped under this law.

Peace Corps Volunteers in Tonga are spread over 4 island groups, either on the main island or an outer island. I, being a boatride away from a carride to the big town, am on an outer island. There were five other PCVs on outer islands in my island group of Ha’apai, but they were much farther out. They had to take the ferry, the Pulupaki, anytime they wanted to go to a main island. The Pulupaki schedule was always in flux: the boat would stay in Vava’u for an extra day, an extra week in Tongatapu. The Peace Corps requires all sites are accessible by regular transportation, and, since the other ferry, the Princess Ashika, sank last summer, the Pulupaki, though not great, sufficed. The Pulupaki was recently docked in Tongatapu for an extended period of time for inspections. It was deemed not sea-worthy, so it wasn’t allowed to sail. Supposedly. After a while in Tongatapu, the Pulupaki left for Fiji for reasons that are unclear to me. That means that the only mode of transportation to people on the outer-outer islands in Ha’apai no longer have regular transportation, and the Peace Corps had no choice but to relocate the Volunteers. That also makes it impossible for Tongans to travel, as that was by far the mode of transportation for Tongans. That also affects goods we can get in Ha’apai, since most stores won’t pay to ship things on the airplane.

Tastes of Tonga

It’s 7:00pm, the electricity just switched on for the evening, and I pulled out my laptop to type up a blog post. I boiled some water with the electric kettle (really taking advantage of electricity when there is some) to make tea and a snack for a light dinner.

After a bit, a friend comes over bringing food from the neighbor’s house: Fish soup, cassava, and a smoothie-ish traditional Tongan drink. Of course, I accepted the food, throwing my idea of a “light dinner” out the window.

Since coming to Ha’ano, the PTA families have organized people to feed me on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. They’ll bring me copious amounts of food or I’ll go to their homes, eat copious amounts of food, and bring more of it home with me. (“Take the chicken, fish, taro, yam, pork – a snack for later.”)

I really appreciate the gesture, and, of course, the food too. And often my neighbors will call me to eat or bring food over. Since they’ve moved in, I’ve seen how much work goes into preparing food here:

After actually growing the root crops and catching the fish, both are prepared for, let’s say, boiling. Fish is scaled and gutted (a skill which I have had the chance to practice a few times), and the root crops are peeled. Most people cook over an open fire, so they stoke coconut husks and wood under the “grill,” two pieces of rebar propped up on cinder blocks.

Coconut milk is used in the broth for cooking, so that has to be prepared. I can’t describe exactly how impressive this action is, but I’ll try. A piece of rebar with a point on the end that is pointing up from the ground/something it’s mounted on is used to take the outer husk of the old coconut off. The coconut is slammed onto the rebar and twisted to rip a small section of the fibery husk from the inner shell. The process is repeated until the coconut-husker can pull the whole outer husk on his own, leaving the smaller, round coconut we all imagine drinking fruity cocktails out of. The coconut is broken in half with a machete or rock or anything else hard, and the milk is saved in a basin. Then, the insides are scraped out. Using a piece of metal with grating teeth on the end that is nailed to a wooden bench, the husker scrapes out the coconut meat. (It’s not as easy as it looks.) With the meat ready, the coconut milk and maybe some water is poured over the flakes. A thicker cream is made when the husker takes the fibers, pulled from the inside of the outer coconut casing, and uses them as a strainer, wringing the juices from the meat and throwing the meat away.

I don’t think that was a good representation of how impressive it is – and how easy Tongans make it look. Maybe I’ll get a video up.

After putting the cream into the pot with everything else, the food can actually cook. Without refrigeration here, though, nothing can be saved for a longer time, so this goes on for a sizable part of the day.

Tongan Schools

Not surprisingly, the Tongan school system is different than America’s. Almost all students attend a public elementary school, and at the end of sixth grade, they take a huge test on all their subjects: Tongan, English, Math, Science, Social Studies. Based on their scores from the test, the Secondary School Entrance Exam (SEE), they are admitted to high school (these years are called “forms;” thus, Forms 1-7).

The best students (according to this one test) are admitted to the public high schools – usually one per island group (there are 5 island groups). The lower-scoring students are admitted to religious schools – Catholic, Wesleyan, Free Church of Tongan – but they’re not required to be of the school’s religion. Families pay a modest amount for the tuition. The lowest-scoring students aren’t admitted to any high school; they can repeat sixth grade and hopefully do better on the next test, or just end their schooling. If they end their schooling, they’ll probably live at home with their parents, helping with chores, and weave, fish, or work in the bush. Sometimes, parents choose not to send students to high school, even if the student is admitted.

Since I’m an English teacher, one of my jobs is to prepare these students for the English section of this test. I rummaged through the piles of papers (including the original proposal for building the current school building from 2004-ish and workbooks from 1976) in the school to find past tests and any other resources that might be helpful for the SEE. I decided to use that test as the overall guide for my lesson planning since, ha – of course, the school doesn’t have a syllabus for teaching English. (“Does the government give you any requirements about teaching?” “Um, ‘ikai.” No.)

Fortunately, I found about 18 years worth of tests. They’re pretty comprehensive, and I’m having difficulty figuring out how to set up the upcoming year. I’m trying to brainstorm a lesson plan for these four sixth graders, while covering all these different areas, but keeping in mind that there are also fourth and fifth graders in the class. How to teach students who don’t know more than “My name is Palu” while teaching other students “You have finished fixing the boat, haven’t you?”

Other interesting things on the test include a reading comprehension section. Question: Based on the passage, why might we think Lesieli is a Christian? Correct answer: Because she runs every day of the week except Sundays.

Any Given Sunday

Many Peace Corps Volunteers find that Sundays in Tonga take some getting used to. The standard line Tongans say is lotu, kai, mohe pe – just church, eat, sleep. Sure enough, that is the schedule any given Sunday. Almost anything else is prohibited, either by law (rumor has it, in the capital city, you could get fined for riding your bike too strenuously) or custom (another PCV was scolded by neighbors for trying to do repairs in his own home).

During our time in Fangale’ounga, I went to another PCV’s house to watch the “Sound of Music” one Sunday. I invited a Tongan neighbor to come.

“Is it a religious movie?” she asked, fearful of breaking Tongan tradition of doing non-church things on Sunday.

“Uh, yeah, it’s about a nun.”

Upon finding that, although it’s about a nun, it’s not a religious movie, she left. But she seemed to enjoy “My Favorite Things.”

My Sundays in Ha’ano are much the same. Church bells first ring at 4:30am for the 5am service. I sleep on.

The main church service is around 10am. There are 4 churches in Ha’ano from which I can choose, so I pick one, take a 5 minute walk, and join the 30 or so other churchgoers inside. Church lasts an hour, and after that I go to someone’s house to kai 'umu.

An ‘umu is a traditional Tongan underground oven. Lu, the traditional Sunday dish of coconut cream with sheep/chicken/fish/beef/etc wrapped in spinach-like leaves, is cooked in the ‘umu along with a root crop. Since coming to Ha’ano, I’ve been invited to kai ‘umu with some family every Sunday.

After that, it’s taimi malolo, rest time. Usually after eating with Tongans, I’m in a food coma, so I’m more than willing to rest. Some days some Ha’ano girls around my age will come over to sit around and chat.

Around 4pm, I go to church again, mostly for something to do. It’s also a good chance to see some older members of the community – pretty much the only people who go to church in the afternoon.

After that 45-minute church session, it’s usually time to wander around the town or sit around again. People go to the porch by the dock where there’s a nice breeze.

There’s a lot of down-time on Sundays, obviously. Since I wasn’t working my first month in Ha’ano, Sundays were much like any other day, except I couldn’t swim, do laundry, go for a run, and so on.

Fortunately, I finally started work!