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.
- 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.
- 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.