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.