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!

1 comment:

  1. Oh I loved this!!! What good parents to go all that way. I hope I get to see the Gilbert family when I'm in Dallas for Christmas!