Monday, November 21, 2011

Pele's Favo(u)rite Things

When it comes to getting rid of two years of accumulated belongings, there are several PCV examples to follow. Some PCVs decide to give everything to just one local friend and let them redistribute as desired (or not distribute anything and keep it all). Some leave everything inside the house for the next PCV to take over. Some slowly acquire other PCVs’ belongings to sell to new incoming Volunteers. One in Africa, that I learned of from my dad, invited community members to come to her house at X time to claim what they’d like. (I think it turned out to be a madhouse. She said they even took the coffee cup that she was using; I could have seen that coming.)

I will take the “try to divvy things up among families” approach. There are certainly some families who have helped me more than others throughout the two years. I’m closer to some people than others – that’s just inevitable. So as I looked at my belongings and the three Big Ticket Items – the stove/oven combo, the dorm-sized fridge, and the washing machine – I tried to think of how I can thank those who have helped me by giving them one of these more expensive items if they don’t already have them.

There were really four households that I was particularly close with, but two of them already had a stove/oven, fridge (or better, a deep freezer), and washing machine. One house is only an unmarried man now that his sister, her adopted kids, and his mom moved to the main island. Living alone he hardly keeps house and doesn’t need any of these things – or at least he would never use them.

That left one family. It’s a couple whose kids have married and moved away, and they’re perhaps the nicest people in my village. Since they don’t have any of these things, I thought how great that I could show them my appreciation by giving them a couple of things. Sione, the man, fishes, so I asked if he would like the little fridge to keep the fish cold. And for Loutoa, I thought she could use the washing machine instead of scrubbing by hand.

Great, they were so happy to hear that I wanted to give them those things, and, true to Tongan form, they’re giving me a gift to thank me for giving them this gift.

That left the stove. There were very few families that didn’t have a stove. One is the family that spends half their time here in Ha’ano and half the time in another island group. Or the family where people in town say the husband and wife are splitting up, and the wife is moving away, so where would the stove go? Or the family that I don’t really know as well that lives in the village (read: little community of 5 houses) nearby.

Considering the family in the other village, I thought about how, the day I was loading my belongings off the inter-island ferry, the wife was there asking what I’ll do with my things when I leave. Oh, brother.

Perhaps I could have looked around more, but I was sick of everyone asking what I was doing with every belonging, I just wanted to know who was getting what. Enough of this casual stroll over to my house to peek in and see if this article was claimed by anyone yet. Enough of the people talking, when I’m right in the room, about who is getting what of mine.

I decided to give the stove to Tanita’s family, the one in the other village.

I thought of how they have five kids and that’s a lot of cooking on an open fire. And I thought of how nice they were when I first got here. When I got locked out of my house on day 1, Tanita came with a hammer to help me break in the house. (And, we’ll remember, she also gave me a raw fish to eat. I felt like Gollum.) And the dad always helps when the electricity is out in my house, and I love the kids, and so on and so on. So I just said, “I’ll give it to them, and that’s that. No more village talk.”

If living in a Tongan town for two years has taught me anything, it’s that you can never stem the gossip; you can only change the focus. After giving Tanita claims to the stove for after I left, I heard new talk around town.

No longer were they rumoring about who I would give what to, I heard through the “coconut wireless” (we don’t have “grapevines” in Tonga) that at least one person was saying I was being biased about who was getting what. Let’s get some things straight, Ha’ano people who will never read this blog:

1. Of course I’m biased! There are definitely some people who helped me more than others through my service, so I’d want to support them and their families, just like they helped me.
2. I’m specifically trying to share my things around town to give many families something to help them rather than just giving it all to a couple of people.
3. It’s my stuff, so I can do what I want with it. So meh.

To be fair, that was through at least a second-hand source, and gossip can get distorted beyond recognition here. Also, the woman who mentioned that tidbit defended me saying, “If you give anything to anyone, they should just say ‘thank you’ and that’s it.”

By the time I post this, I’ll have already given away everything down to the extra batteries and deodorants and left Ha’ano. Perhaps some people will be disappointed with the bundle their family received, but I already gave you two years of work, and that wasn’t enough?

Update: Gave things away. I gave bundles of things to about a dozen families around town. The things I was happiest to give away were the toys, puzzles, and dress up the kids played with every day at my house. The kids having something fun to do makes me not care about the gossip. Sorry, parents, if you didn’t get that floor mat you were eyeing – but your kids got toy cars and a shapes game!

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Nearing the end of my Peace Corps service is full of emotions: excitement, sadness, apprehension, and so on. It can be difficult to keep working when the end is so near. I think to myself, what will happen to the projects after I leave? Will anyone keep up the work I've been doing for two years? To be sure I keep enjoying the work I’m doing while I’m here and to stay motivated, I try to think about daily successes. Here are a few from a week or so ago:

- The women’s group I’m working with in Ha’ano finally started the tourism program and welcomed a group of visitors to the island. Then, three days later, they welcomed a second group. (That one gets extra success points!)
- I found the dead thing that was giving off that smell in my bedroom. (It was a little lizard.)
- From my porch I watched whales jumping.
- I baked the equivalent of 12 cakes with a friend’s family to serve at a Tongan-sized tea.
- Papi and I ran with him on a leash.
- The kids and I made origami whales to wrap up a week talking about whales.
- I finished my last biannual Peace Corps report detailing my work in Tonga.
- Kids who come over after school are making cute bracelets from the beads I was sent.
- A friend and I have done an abs workout and stuck with it for a whole… week.
- I finished knitting two scarves that will be gifts to friends here.
- Almost everyone in town turned out at the kava hall to watch a Rugby World Cup Tonga vs. Anyone game.

Small successes, but there’ll surely be more as my countdown to America approaches 50 days…

Peace Corps Playlist

While still in Pre-Service Training, some Peace Corps Tonga Volunteers gave us all a CD of Tongan music, videos of Tonga, and playlists for the major events of our Peace Corps service. One playlist would be for Pre-Service Training, another for Early Termination, Close of Service, and so on. Songs correspond to the mood you're in for the event, such as the Early Termination (for people who quit and go home) playlist's “Take This Job and Shove It” or “We're Not Gonna Take It.”

Perusing my iPod, I've got my own playlist for Peace Corps Tonga. Sometimes it's just the title that says it, but other times it's in the song itself. Here's the list:

“All By Myself” - Celine Dion
“Cheeseburger in Paradise” - Jimmy Buffet (minus the lettuce, tomato, Heinz 57 and French fried potatoes)
“Earthquakes and Sharks” - Brandston
“I'm Going Slightly Mad” - Queen
“Island in the Sun” - Weezer
“Mayberry” - Rascal Flats
“Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” - The Beatles
“Ocean Front Property” - George Strait
“Satan Gave Me a Taco” - Beck
“Shark in the Water” - VV Brown
“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” - Otis Redding
“Small Town Saturday Night” - Hal Ketchum
“Southern Cross” - Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
“That Kind of Day” - Sarah Buxton
“Thousand Miles from Nowhere” - Dwight Yoakam
“Waiting on the World to Change” - John Mayer
“We Sleep in the Ocean” - The Cloud Room
“Wide Open Spaces” - Dixie Chicks
“You Can't Always Get What You Want” - Rolling Stones

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Rugby Games

The Rugby World Cup will be starting soon, kicking off with the New Zealand All-Blacks playing the Tongan 'Ikale Tahi. The most famous rugby team in the world will be playing the Tongan Sea Eagles. For the opening game. Though I think we could all place safe bets on that game, Tongans are gearing up to see their kin start the tournament off. With local rugby leagues starting this time of year too, it's a favorite way to liken good players from villages to those who resemble oceanic birds of prey.

The perfect opportunity for that happened today: the opening games of Ha'apai Rugby League 2011. I, as a PCV, joined with the Tonga Red Cross to ensure the players' safety. I had seen rugby games last year. I was asked my Ha'ano's team to be the team doctor - I was the only one on the island with bandaids. The games were brutal. I would hear crunching bones upon collision, channel my mother, and whisper to myself, "That is so dangerous." So when Teisa, a woman from Tonga Red Cross, asked for my help with first aid, I thought it would be a worthwhile endeavor.

Armed with gauze, medical tape, bags of ice, and nothing more, we went to the rugby field to watch the four games of the day. Soon after the first game started, there was a hit, and a player was on the ground. I was on the edge of my seat. "Do we run in now, Teisa?" She told me to wait. Sure enough a few moments later he was up and back to playing. The same thing happened again. And again. I quickly took this lingering on the ground as if near death to be a ploy to rest.

About 15 minutes into the first half, whenever anyone stayed down for a minute, the rest of the team collapsed on the ground too, calling for water from the sidelines. Young eager boys would dash onto the field to revive the enervated players, who would then struggle to their feet. Yet, rather than tag out for one of the substitutes waiting on the sidelines, they would stay in the game. What sacrifice they make! These youth can hardly stand on their own feet they are so exhausted, but they stay in the game for their team!

The couple of times I did run onto the field for players who took longer than the standard rest period, it was for players who were lying, disoriented after a hit. All my past medical training tells me to not move someone who has been smacked by 3 or so rugby players and can't sit up on his own, yet, when I tell his teammates to stop jiggling his legs in an effort to awaken him, I'm ignored. So what is the point of the Red Cross being there?

Perhaps it's to give the audience something to talk about: a palangi or "foreigner". "Ooh, look at the palangi go onto the field!" "Hey, stay down, and the palangi will come help!"

Or maybe it's to give some honor to the league. "Professional First Aid from the U.S. Peace Corps."

To be sure, had something really gone wrong, it's probably better to have Red Cross there than just anyone. (Though the one island group's doctor was a coach of a team, so he was there too...)

I don't know what my real role was there. But, like so many Tongan events I don't understand, I got a costume and some food: a neon Tonga Red Cross vest and a plate of cookies. Gosh, I hope that's how they run the World Cup.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Camp GLOW Kalapu

In preparation for our girls leadership camp, Camp GLOW, the whole Ha’apai planning team has worked to get local donations to supplement the international funding we’ve received from our generous family and friends. One of the traditional Tongan fundraisers is a kalapu, a kava-drinking event where all the money is contributed to a cause. Though the “causes” are usually school scholarships or electricity for the town hall, the cause at a kalapu a few weeks ago was Ha’apai’s upcoming Camp GLOW.

Kava drinking is a strictly male affair. Unmarried girls and women can participate, but their role is to serve the kava and banter with the menfolk. The men reply with flirting and often more obscene remarks to the tou’a. This was the primary context for courting in the Tongan days of yore, but now there are few Tongan youth girls who enjoy tou’aing. No surprise there; it’s easy for the kava circle to be a sexist event.

That’s why it’s ironic that, in preparation for a girls leadership camp, we organized a huge kalapu, complete with tou’as.

To advertise our kalapu, we placed an ad to be read over the local radio station. The ad described the camp and what the money was for, but the part that got people interested in supporting us was the line that said, “Camp GLOW’s kalapu will have international tou’as coming!” International tou’as – from America and Japan (a Japanese volunteer friend). The phone number given in the commercial was ringing off the hook with interested kava drinkers. “International tou’as? Really? Will one be at my kava circle?”

As the kalapu was held in the main town, I went in after school on Friday to help Juleigh prepare. The Tongan camp counselors and our Japanese friend came to Juleigh’s for dinner, and then we headed to the kava hall together.

By 8:15, when we arrived, there were already 5 kava circles, each from a different village, and each with its own kava bowl. Each tou’a went to a different circle; mine was from a town right next to Pangai. There were about 20 men, and, by the looks of them, most of them were over 40. But kava drinkers don’t age well. The drink makes the skin wrinkly, scaly, and dry. And as they drink and smoke in the kalapu, men’s faces seem to slow; they can’t move as fast, open their eyes as wide, or speak as coherently. Perhaps these men were only 30, but from years of drinking, they looked like no spring chickens.

Especially one man. He could have had other reasons for his dishevelment, but I like to pretend it was the curse of the kava. When I first saw him, falling out a van, already drunk at 9pm, he resembled a hairy bushman. Swaddled in a huge fur coat. I think he had some kind of a staff. Lucky me, he was from the village I was tou’aing for. He sat behind me, but he would poke me to get my attention, and then shake my hand or make some unintelligible comment. At one point he gave me an orange. Then he disappeared, and I didn’t miss him.

After hours of this – trying to carry on conversation with increasingly poor conversationalists, shifting my legs to keep them from falling asleep, and of course ladling out the muddy drink – the money was collected from each group and counted. We had raised over $600 USD in one night.

Just after 1am, the tou’as retired. We were going to Juleigh’s house to sleep, but there wasn’t enough room in the car. Because nothing would have happened if we didn’t make a decision and act, Juleigh and I decided to walk the 15 minute walk back to her house. The only problem was, she was carrying some of the money we’d raised. “Ok,” we thought, “we’ll take the lit roads, walk quickly, and not talk to anyone. Besides, we know everyone in town. How could they rob us?”

We walked only 100 paces outside the hall, when a man stopped us. When the light hit him, we realized it was Maka (“Rock”), the guy who, months ago, had borrowed Juleigh’s speakers and lost part of them, thus rendering the speakers unusable. He drunkenly attempted to apologize for the speaker incident with one of the few phrases he knows in English, “Sorry for the misunderstanding.” (Yes, that was quite a misunderstanding. Juleigh thought he would return working speakers, whereas he thought she wanted nonworking speakers.)

We continued on. Close to Juleigh’s house there is a section of road without good lighting. As we approached this area, we saw another large, slow-moving man in the shadows. I whispered to Juleigh, “Ok, let’s not talk so maybe he won’t realize we’re foreigners.” As we passed him, he jumped in front of us and shouted, “Hey, I know these girls!” Sure enough, it was a lewd, oafy minister I didn’t particularly care for from my island. We hurried on to Juleigh’s house.

We all spent the night, using Juleigh’s sparse furnishings and emergency relief blankets borrowed from the Ha’apai Red Cross, the coordinator for which is helping with Camp GLOW. In the morning everyone faded away to their homes, and Juleigh and I reexamined the budget in light of our fundraising.

That was about 3 weeks ago. Now, Camp GLOW is happening! Tomorrow! The work is never over (but I took the time to post this blog anyway…), but we’re in the final phases of preparation!

Ready, set, GLOW!

Friday, May 27, 2011

What's Ha'appening in Ha'ano

With my end date in December looming, I’ve been trying to makes sure I take advantage of the rest of my time here. I made a list of things I’ve wanted to accomplish and projects I want to try (or keep trying!). Here are a few things of that list, and how they worked out:

- Start an after school program with the kids. Status: Score! At one of our PTA meetings, I asked the parents if they would like their kids to participate in an after school program twice a week to do art, music, and PE – classes that easily get overlooked as the teachers focus on the core subjects. We’ve played with Play-Doh, created mosaics, learned “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” (it’s a Christian country…), played volleyball and soccer, and had a great time!

- Organize a program to bring money into the town from tourists. Status: So far so good. I may be jinxing it by getting excited about it, but it could be a good, long-lasting program. This is a two-fold project: first, to get a day-trip organized for tourists from the main island in the island group to see the “traditional Tonga” – see the sights of Ha’ano, learn about the culture, have a traditional meal. One of the resorts on the next island over has even expressed interest in offering the “Ha’ano experience” to customers. Second, to promote selling vegetables and fresh fish to sailboat travelers who often anchor near the island. Last year, during sailing season, several tourists asked about buying vegetables of the island. Though there aren’t many vegetables on the island that Americans would recognize, there are several leafy vegetables that already grow in Tongans’ backyards, and they could easily be sold for a few pa’anga. I’ve talked to the two women’s groups in the community, and both sound interested in doing these things, but they’re busy doing a community clean up this month. Hopefully they’ll still be interested in a few weeks…

- Grow a garden. Status: Fail, but I haven’t given up. Yet. Everything just eats the seeds. First it was the pigs. Then we got a lock for the gate so they can’t come in. But the chickens still come and eat everything I put in the ground. I’ve tried starting things inside, planting in a window box, using different kinds of seeds, and so on and so on. I need to try to get some kind of netting to cover the area, but of course, there’s nothing like that on my island. When I go into town next time…

- Go with the women at low tide to collect shellfish. Status: Not yet. Though I’ve asked the women to tell me when they’re going, they never seem to. Hopefully I’ll be able to go before I finish here – maybe I could pick up my very own sea urchin! Delicious!

- Make/Use a solar oven. Status: Half-way there. The solar oven is built according to instructions I found online (using a cardboard box, foil, black construction paper), but it rains off and on so much that I haven’t been free for 4 hours (it’s supposedly very slow cooking) to set up and watch the oven, lest it suddenly rain and ruin the oven.

- Knit something that takes some skill. Status: I’m getting there! With all this time on my hands, I’ve decided to re-take up knitting. Though I’ve tried several times in the past, I’ve usually been confined to squares completed in the same stitch. Now, after receiving a how-to book called “Ready, Set, Knit,” I’ve been able to make a couple of scarves that have patterns. Of course, I should have been taking diligent notes when I tried to learn knitting from my grandmother and aunt, but I guess this book will have to do in Tonga! I haven’t made anything that exciting, but I gave one scarf to a friend here, and she says she loves it. Next up, hats.

- Make my own pasta. Status: Haven’t yet tried. I’ve still got time.

- Work with the island’s clinic to do a community health project. Status: Fail, and I’ve got other things to do anyway. Since the clinic is a 40-minute walk away and I don’t ever just “run into” the nurse, I haven’t been able to find her. I mean, she is working, right?

- Prepare applications for law school. Status: A work in progress. While home for Christmas, I was able to do some research for law schools, find applications, read guides about writing personal statements, and look up financial aid forms. Since I’ll be applying in August/September, from Ha’ano, I’m trying to get everything in order as best I can. I’ve finished the LSAT, letters of recommendations, and a few other things, so I’m on my way, but it certainly won’t be easy to complete!

Those are only a few of the things on my to-do list. I try to keep them in mind especially on those days that seem to just drag on. Those days and weeks when nothing changes but my school lesson, I try to work on something different. I haven’t been successful in projects every time, obviously, but for every frustration I have, I just remind myself to keep on trying here, since in just over 6 months, it’ll all be memories. Phew.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Camp GLOW Ha'apai

Campers at last year's Camp GLOW Ha'apai

My friend Juleigh and I are planning Camp GLOW in our island group, Ha’apai. Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a week-long sleep-away camp for girls and young women that empowers its participants by:

- advocating a healthy lifestyle,
- providing vital information on sensitive topics,
- teaching leadership and team-building skills,
- encouraging critical thinking and logical decision-making,
- building a network of motivated girls and women,
- and fostering self-confidence and creative expression in a fun, safe, judgment-free environment.

Last year’s Ha’apai camp was a success with 15 campers, and this year we’re expanding to 25 campers. Campers will participate in sessions and classes about everything from money management, goal-setting, and sexual health to tie-dying, healthy cooking, and aerobics.

In Tonga, Camp GLOW is a unique experience. Especially in Ha’apai, there is nothing else like Camp GLOW for girls to participate in. Rarely, if ever, are girls from different schools and churches joined in a fun, community-building environment that encourages and motivates girls specifically. With all-Tongan camp counselors and Tongan-led sessions, the girls get a new perspective and way of decision-making in the Tongan culture.

Juleigh and I are currently working with a Tongan counterpart at the Ha’apai Youth Congress to arrange speakers, camp counselors, catering, and venues. We’re lucky to have these dedicated counterparts to help make this year’s camp a success, and also, hopefully, carry on Camp GLOW after we leave.

And now that you know how great Camp GLOW is, I’ll ask for money.

Though the Tongan community is supporting Camp GLOW through free lodging and community fundraisers, we still need help from our family, friends, and Camp GLOW supporters. To donate to Camp GLOW, please...

Paste the following URL in your browser and click “Donate”


1. Go to
2. Click "Donate to Volunteer Projects" on the left side of the page
3. Type "Burke" into the search field and click "Search"

Note: J. Burke is my co-director for Camp GLOW Ha’apai. There are several camps in Tonga, so please be sure to find ours!

Malo 'aupito for supporting Camp GLOW and all the girls of Tonga!

A Little Fiji...

Despite a rough start in our trip to Fiji, Juleigh and I had a great trip. We arrived on Monday and left on Friday, but we had a wonderful time even in just a few days. Highlights include:

- Air conditioning. Our hotel was decked out with wildly extravagant conveniences such as air conditioning, television, and heated showers. Juleigh and I also enjoyed the pool (and ordering poolside snacks like bruchetta) and the fitness room.

- Amazing food. We had Japanese food, Indian food, doner kebab, and McDonald’s, among others. We also bought foods you can’t find in Tonga, like popcorn, maple syrup, and chocolates. Whenever we PCVs go anywhere, people in the community ask for treats, ie chocolate and sweets, so I also bought kilos of candy and Peeps (just in time for Easter!), mostly for the school children.

- Juleigh getting a class set of reading and grammar books for her students. Finally, they have something to follow that progresses in an orderly and understandable manner! I also bought a few books with reading and activities for my students.

- Seeing a movie in a theater. We ended up at the theater at 6pm, and we picked out our movie by seeing what started at that time. It was a movie we’d never heard of (“Lincoln Lawyer”), but for picking it by the time it started, it was pretty good. And, we had movie popcorn.

- Meeting Fiji PCVs. We were lucky enough to meet some PCVs in the Peace Corps Office in Suva, and we ended up having happy hour and Mexican dinner with them.

- Wandering into stores. In Ha’ano, there is literally no store to walk into. In Pangai, we could walk into stores and choose from their goods: buckets of lard, baggies of mutton, chicken flavored potato chips, piles of flip flops. In Suva, we went into clothing stores, trying on all kinds of things that would be inappropriate to wear in Tonga (because they show shoulders or knees). We also went into a department store, Costco-like store, bookstore, and so on and so on!

- Getting henna done. We found a woman who did henna, so we got our hands done. I knew I would get comments from people around town, since girls with tattoos are so scandalous. My students loved it though, and for the after school program one day, we decorated paper hands with drawn-on henna designs.

Now that I’m back from Fiji, I think I’m in Tonga for the long-haul. December 2011 countdown beginning...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

At the Last Minute. (Or Three.)

Back in January, Juleigh and I decided to plan a trip to Fiji. We anticipated needing a break from school, the feeling of living in a fishbowl, and giant yams, and so we organized a trip that would happen during our one week school break in April. (Well, technically, it’s only my one week school break. Juleigh’s school, 10 days before break, decided to delay it by two weeks, but, as she had already made travel arrangements, she passed off her lesson plans to a teacher and left anyway.)

We booked tickets on the first flight of the morning from Ha’apai to Tongatapu, knowing that, in Tonga, there is a high probability of things going wrong, and this would give us some room to work with before our afternoon flight to Fiji.

Saturday night, we were printing off our tickets, when we realized the inter-island airline didn’t issue a ticket or confirmation to me. Juleigh had one, but I didn’t. Oh, no.

Juleigh had purchased both tickets in separate transactions, with separate credit cards, back in March, and she emailed one confirmation to herself and one to my email. Since I don’t check my email more than once every few weeks, we didn’t realize that I hadn’t received a confirmation email until 48 hours before the flight. Even better, this was a weekend, when no one is working. “Well,” we thought, “we’ll just take my bank statement to prove I got charged for the ticket, and that’s all we can do.”

We woke up before the sun on Monday and went to the airport, where the only workers were baggage handlers lying on tables listening to island remixes of Akon. So we waited.

When finally the woman who wheels and deals in the airport arrived, we explained the situation, but she said we would have to wait until the Tongatapu office opened at 8:30 for them to approve our situation. Unfortunately, the plane was leaving at 7:50, and it turned out that there wasn’t another plane that arrived to Tongatapu before our Fiji flight left. We needed to get on this 7:50 plane.

The flight was booked – all 8 seats, and only one seat for the two of us. We decided our only chance was to convince someone to take the later flight. The people traveling that morning were: 5 Mormon missionaries just going to the capital for a day for a meeting, a palangi making a connecting flight, and one of us. But there was another passenger. Where was he?

Eventually we realized he was outside. The airport woman approached him, explained the situation, while Juleigh and I looked pitiful. I attempted to build camaraderie by speaking to him in Tongan, to which he replied in a perfect New Zealand accent, “Yeah, maybe I can just call in sick today.” We gave him 50 pa’anga ($30 USD) in thanks and took his boarding pass.

Three minutes before the flight was supposed to leave, we both had our tickets we had booked weeks in advance.

Upon arriving at the airport in Tongatapu, we worked to see what happened in the first place and also confirm our tickets back to Ha’apai. Though we can’t know for sure, this is what we suspect happened:

Juleigh bought her ticket on her dad’s credit card, but the bank saw the transaction and thought it might be fraud, so they didn’t approve it right away. The bank called Juleigh’s dad within minutes and got the transaction approved.

Five minutes after booking her own, Juleigh booked my ticket with my credit card. My credit card did approve the transaction (but I also got an email saying the bank suspects fraud…), but with some fowl-up with the airline’s computer system, my booking confirmation (that always begins with the passenger’s last name) was given to Juleigh, and none was issued for me.

We’re at the airport in Tongatapu now, waiting for the flight to Fiji. With things like the problem this morning happening all the time, we keep telling each other we won’t get excited until we’re taking off for Fiji, lest we get our hopes up only to have some freak cyclone come by. Or the airport workers strike. Or there’s no more fuel in Tonga. Or there’s a funeral on the tarmac. Or a wing falls off the airplane.

They say, in Tonga, things get done, but only at the last minute. Thankfully, it did work out, but why, this morning, did we have to wait until the last three minutes?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Story of My Life

It was test-time. The end of the term. Through the two other teachers at my school weren’t preparing tests for their students (that I know of), I wanted to test my kids.

I gave the kids warning. On Monday, I said we’d practice this week for the big test on Friday. Each day we did an exercise like that that would be on the test. There would be no “Pele, I don’t know what this is” –ing, no “Pele, what?” –ing. No excuses like I heard last year. We were ready.

More than that, the incentive program I have with the kids was coming down to the wire. I told them that if, as a class, they got 90 stickers in a term, we would have cake or something else I baked. To get a sticker, they had to pass the weekly spelling test, do their homework, or do well on this big test. Well, as of Thursday, they had 84 stickers. And they needed a 70% to get a sticker for the test. They were geared up.

Six more stickers on Friday, and we’d eat cake on Monday. Then, it’s Sports Day on Tuesday, and we break for a week.

Friday morning, I was so excited. I was ready for these kids to give it their all. They were ready too. Before school, I heard them quizzing each other on spelling words. They were going to get those last stickers, and then we were going to celebrate.

But that’s not how things go in Tonga. Twenty minutes after school started on Friday, I got a phone call from another PCV. “There’s a cyclone heading to New Zealand, and we’re not going to get hit, but we’ll get strong winds and rain. So, school everywhere is canceled.” I couldn’t believe it. I waited to hear it on the radio, hoping it wasn’t true. Soon, it was on the radio. The kids ran home before the storm started.

We ended up having the test on Monday, and we made it work. We always make it work. But can’t something just work out the way I plan? Just one thing?

“The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and My Day with the Little Kiddos

I don’t teach much in the lower classroom, grades 1-3. English isn’t in their curriculum, but every once in a while, I get to do a little English class with them.

One day, a few weeks ago, though, their teacher went to town for a meeting, so I took their class for a few hours. I didn’t know I would be taking that class, so I didn’t have much time to plan anything. I looked around my house for something to do. The Peace Corps gave us a few picture books to use in class, one of which was “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” Jackpot. Who doesn’t love that book?

I forgot that the kids just learned about the life cycle of caterpillars until we started, and I realized what luck that I picked that book. We did some pre-reading activities, which went really well since this was all fresh in their minds about caterpillars. One of the things we did was talk about what foods we eat when we’re very hungry. I asked the kids to tell me what they like to eat, and, this being Tonga, I got great answers. “Breadfruit!” “Sea snails!” “Fish!” “Dog!” “Horse!”

Then we read the book together. Since the kids don’t speak English, I translated, or had the kids translate by looking at what happened in the picture. There is a popular song in Tongan and English about butterflies, so we sang and acted it out.

Then came the best part. Someone, back in the day, had donated Play-Doh to the school. It had never been used before, so I took it out, lay down some Play-Doh rules, and let the kids go. We played around with it for a while, then we started making our creatures. We made little caterpillars, pupa, and butterflies.

The kids loved Play-Doh! We had to end eventually, but they all begged to play again tomorrow. I said we’d play again, but I didn’t know when.

At the latest PTA meeting, the parents approved my request to start an after school program. Hopefully when I actually start it next term, the parents will remember how enthusiastic they were at the meeting. Then, maybe the kids and I can do all sorts of things they never get to do in school, Play-Doh included!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Did I ever tell you about the time...

...I joined the Mormons in a waltz and it made me famous?

Every year, the Mormon women groups in Tonga organize a dance show. Each church prepares its own dance, and then they all come together to perform. Last year, we square danced. This year, we waltzed.

The Mormon women in Ha’ano worked to pair up people who wanted to join. Pairing up partners was an event in itself. Tongan culture forbids people who are blood-related, even very, very distantly, from dancing together (and watching movies together, and sleeping in the same house, and so on), so there was a lot of shuffling around to find appropriate partners. We ended up with 8 pairs of people – 12 Mormons and 4 others who wanted to join (like me) or were obligated to join because they needed more guys.

A woman in the village did the choreography, and a couple of youths learned the dance to teach the rest of us. We practiced almost every night for two weeks. It wasn’t a waltz like those in the days of yore, but rather a kind of shuffle with some twirls, some Tongan moves, and lots of curtseying/bowing.

Our outfits were exceptional. The men were to wear black suits with ties and shoes. Most men don’t own any part of a suit besides a white shirt, so, after borrowing around, they were appropriately dressed, but with shoes that didn’t fit and ties emblazoned with the seal of another church.

The women were to wear yellow satin, floor-length gowns. I don’t know how Tonga ended up with so much yellow satin (some factory in China probably just sent all the leftovers to Tonga, and that was the only fabric in the Tongan stores for 6 months), but a handful of women in the village whipped out the eight dresses in a couple of days.

The show was on Thursday night, so we went to town after my morning classes. We took two boats, filled with bedding, food, and clothes for one night in town. It was very sunny, and since Tongans do everything possible to avoid the sun, I saw Tongans with baby clothes, leaves, and cardboard boxes on their heads.

There’s a house in town for people who come from Ha’ano and need a place to sleep. It’s a simple house: one room, tin walls and roof, no electricity. That’s where the women slept. But since related people can’t sleep in the same place, the men had to sleep in the kitchen, a separate house.

We ate a feast right before we got ready for the show. Roasted pig, fried chicken, chop suey, sweet potatoes, yam, breadfruit, lu, corned beef, custard pie. Exactly what I want to eat before dancing.

At the show, there were probably about 400 people from 10 different Mormon churches all around Ha’apai. There were different kinds of Tongan dances, a “Hawaiian” dance (did you know Hawaiians dance with pom-poms?), and our waltz.

As we walked out onto the tennis court stage to perform, people cheered for friends, but I heard a lot of “Malie Pele!” or “Go Pele!” I didn’t know many of these people who were in the audience, but word spreads fast when a palangi is doing something with Tongans.

Soon, pretty much everyone there knew who the white girl was. After the dance, everyone was calling me by name, asking me if I am dating my dance partner and when we are going to get married.

The next few days in town, everyone I saw would tell me how great my dancing was and if I had a boyfriend. If someone didn’t know my name, my job, my village, someone near us would jump in the conversation to tell my story.

It was a fun, and funny, experience. And, as pictures are worth a thousand words, I’m trying to get them uploaded.

My Second Tsunami Story

I’d never encountered any serious natural disasters in my life before Tonga. I’d been in storms, but, as far as I remember, that’s pretty much it. Since being in Tonga, I’ve experienced about 8 earthquakes, 2 cyclones, seen a water spout, and now I’ve been on alert for 2 tsunamis.

As I walked home one night from the Mormon church where we were practicing a dance for a program in town, a girl stopped me. “Pele, did you hear? There’s been an earthquake in Japan, and there will be a tsunami coming to Tonga at about 5 am. If you want, we can go stay at the Mormon church tonight.” I thanked her and said that I’d see what the Peace Corps had to say.

As I walked to my house, my neighbor met me in the yard. “Pele, did you hear?”

As I talked with other PCVs in Pangai to see what the situation was, I got a call from another friend in town. “Pele, did you hear?”

As I made a bag to go to the Mormon church for the night, just in case I would spend the night there, another friend came by. “Pele , did you hear?”

Not long after that, a friend said she and her family were going to stay at the Mormon church for the night. It’s on higher ground and about a quarter mile inland – about as far inland as possible on my island.

About 20 people slept at the church. I took all kinds of things, expecting the worst in a tsunami. We had heard the wave would be 6-8 meters high. I took all my identification, money, my satellite phone, radio, clothes, water, food, my few valuables, and bedding. It looked like Tongans only brought bedding. Not surprising.

We set up some folding chairs for beds, I pulled out my mat and pillow, and I fell asleep pretty quickly. I was up off and on for the night, checking in with other PCVs and listening to the radio. Five o’clock came and went, and then daylight came.

The radio repeated and repeated not to leave safe ground, lest an aftershock sent out another wave and caught people unaware. Fortunately nothing happened. The wharf in Tonga reported a 3-foot wave. The tsunami warning was called off in the morning, and everyone went home.

A couple of days later, I heard people in Tonga were mad at the radio broadcasters. They said the broadcasters scared people too much about the tsunami and nothing ended up happening. Using fear tactics to make things happen. Now where have I heard of that before?

Anyway, that’s my second tsunami story.

Giving 'Till It Hurts

One of the best and worst things about Tongan culture is the endless giving. Do I need any cassava? How about a breadfruit?

I’ve tried to reciprocate with little things like cakes or cookies. Tongans love both since they rarely bake anything themselves.

A friend came over last weekend to bake a couple of cakes. We were going to eat one ourselves, and she was going to take one back to her dad. We had one cake finished and the other in the oven when three women (aged 45-55) came over. These women had never been to my house before, not in 14 months. “My, that’s strange,” I thought to myself.

I asked them how they were and what they were up to. “Nothing, just walking around. Ohh, Pele, are you baking a cake?” As if they had no idea. One of the women was my cooking partner’s mom. “Pele, can we just have a taste?” Grown women.

My friend and I went into the kitchen while the women waited in the living room. I offered my friend a knife to cut the cake so the women could have a taste. My friend rolled her eyes and carried out entire thing.

Soon the women had tasted the whole cake. They tell me it was good.

After the women left, my Tongan friend commented on how she didn’t like that the women came to eat our whole cake. I didn’t like it either, but I also wouldn’t have given them the whole cake to eat. I guess that’s just Tonga. Being generous even when you really don’t want to be.

I Know Why... Tonga is a Sandal Graveyard

A few months ago, I wrote a blog in which a Tongan friend, Sila, randomly put on a sandal he found on the beach. I thought that was hilarious for so many reasons: it was only one shoe that he put on, why had someone left one shoe on the beach, and so on. (Just today, Sila came over before rugby practice wearing only one cleat. He explained that he only kicks with one foot.) There are many things to be found as discarded and forgotten junk all around the village, but I keep seeing single shoes and sandals.

I know why. Sure, the wear and tear of wearing flip flops to go farming will cause them to fall apart quickly, but, at least for me, there’s another reason. The dogs.

My dog, Papi, used to love to carry off my sandals that I leave by the door. He wouldn’t go far, just into the grass, so he could gnaw on them. Lately though, Papi’s been hanging out with another dog: Gold-Colored Dog. Though this other dog is cute, he seems to be a bad seed. In the past couple of months, I’ve had single shoes go missing. Three shoes from all different pairs. I used to think it was Papi, but one night, I found Gold-Colored Dog happily chewing through the straps of my Chacos.

If a sandal goes missing, I’ll ask my students to search for it. Sometimes, a few weeks later, they’ll find a sandal on the beach, obviously taken by a dog and eventually abandoned. Recently Papi’s collar disappeared, and, sure enough, a week later, a kid returned it to me saying they found it in the sand.

Losing footwear to the sea – yet another thing I won’t worry about when I get back to America.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Over the past few weeks...

I haven’t been able to upload any blogs recently, since I either haven’t been to town or the internet was down. Here is a summary of things that are going on around Ha’ano/Ha’apai/Tonga, mostly related to me.

In January, there was a serious cyclone that hit Ha’apai. Peace Corps had me go to town to ride it out. Though it was much shorter (and fortunately so was the time we were consolidated), it was more destructive than last year’s Cyclone Rene. Walking around Pangai, we saw roofs that had been ripped offs, old buildings that had collapsed, and trees that had been uprooted. (PCV houses were all fine.) The long-term impact is that much off the breadfruit fell off the trees, plantain trees were overturned, and the stems and leaves of root crops were broken. In a few months there’ll be a shortage of staple foods in Ha’apai. The Ministry of Agriculture is trying to import potato seeds to grow quickly to make up for the gap.

Tongan friends have been hanging out at my house quite a lot. The biggest draw is my iPod and speakers for them to listen to music during the day (too bad it’s always the same mix of Akon, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, and Eminem) and, once the electricity comes on at night, I’ve got “Glee” on my harddrive. I like having people over, but it makes it difficult to relax or read a book when everyone’s jamming to some Pitbull song or skipping around episodes to find the songs.

A few days before school started, I still didn’t know who would be teaching at my school. As of last year, both of my teachers were transferred and only one new teacher was coming to Ha’ano. But, this is Tonga, and nothing is certain until it actually happens, so a week before school started, I was told that the one guy who was supposed to come to Ha’ano wouldn’t be coming. Up to a few days before school started, I still didn’t have any Tongan teachers at my school. Eventually, 24 hours before school started, one of my teachers from last year, Paula, and his new wife, Veiongo, were dropped off by the Ministry of Education. So far, school’s been going really well. I’m still teaching English, and with the new syllabus for primary schools, my hours teaching have been cut from 13 hrs/week to 6.5 hrs/week. I’ve offered to teach PE and Art classes when those come up in the schedule, but those classes always take a backseat to the core subjects, so I haven’t taught any yet.

Overheard in Ha'ano

People here talk. About everything. And nothing. Here are some things I’ve overheard Tongans saying about me. They aren’t taken out of context. There is no context.

“Hey, look, Pele has a wooden spoon!”
“Where? Oh! Look at that spoon!”
“Yeah! It’s wooden!”
- Two of my students, standing outside my kitchen watching me cook

“Pele’s taking a shower at night.”
“Really? At night?”
“Yeah, she’s showering right now.”
- My neighbor and her mom, at their house which is next to my shower

“Lile asked Pele to come over so Lile could ask her something, and Pele was like, ‘Oh, I have to go over there!’”
- A woman in my village, telling other passengers in the bed of the truck what I’d said an hour earlier

If the most mundane details of my life are comment-worthy, imagine if I did something interesting.

Universal Experiences

Volunteering in the Peace Corps, I hear that we PCVs all share certain experiences. Year of service, country of service, job title – despite differences in all these areas, PCVs often have the same feelings just by working in a developing country.

I recently read “Away from Home” by Lillian Carter, taken from the Ha’apai Peace Corps Office’s library. Though she served as a health volunteer in India 1966-1968, her collection of letters to her daughter could very well be something that we PCVs in Tonga say today.

“One thing I yearn for on my vacation – PRIVACY! I doubt that I’ll have that, because wherever I go, a crowd gathers.”

“How I wish you could see India through your own eyes. I know the sameness of my days must get boring, but I do have some experiences here that almost defy words.”

“I’m feeling so damned low and useless! I have been here exactly six months now, and I needed a MORALE booster, so I went out and bought four cans of pineapple juice!”

“We have to go to Bombay for another Peace Corps meeting on whether or not to continue the family planning program. Frankly, I couldn’t care less, and know we will just hear the same old B.S., but maybe they will serve dinner.”

“I’ve been barefoot all day – anyone can go barefoot any time here, outside or inside.”

“Gosh, how the time is flying! The closer the time comes, the more upset I get about coming home. Why? I don’t know but I am. ... How can I stand it, when I bawl at the very thought of leaving them – these wonderful people, for whom I’ve done so little, but who have done so much for me!”