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!