Monday, December 28, 2009

Palangi style holidays in Ha'apai

Well we're going on round two of holidays here in Tonga, we've had two Halloweens, Thanksgivings and now Christmases here. Only now we're the old volunteers - having been here longer in Tonga, but also in age compared to the new group. During one of our conversations over Christmas Brett and I mentioned Zubas (the popular zebra-striped baggy pants from the 80s), and the new volunteers all had blank stares and no idea what we were talking about. I guess most of them were born in the late 80s, we are getting old! I remember last Christmas was hard, the first big holiday away from home and having just moved into our site. Grant, the volunteer who had been here for a year, planned a Christmas get-away to his island which was really nice. So this year we planned a get-away to Uoleva island, to the nicest resort with all the new volunteers. It was great - snorkeling, laying on the beach, hanging out in hammocks, and we cooked some good meals - pasta and for Christmas a turkey dinner with stuffing and mashed potatoes. Brett and another volunteer, Todd, went spear fishing the first day and after they'd speared a couple of fish Brett saw his first shark! He said he just saw the white tip carving through the water, then saw the rest of the shark and said it was pretty big, maybe 5 or 6 feet. It was a white-tip reef shark, usually not dangerous, but then again Brett had a bag of fish with him! He watched the shark until it disapeared around the reef out of sight, then made a beeline for the shore with Todd. Lucky, our dog, came with us too to the resort and stuck by our side the whole time, she did better than I thought she would on her first boat ride. And all the other dogs survived while we were gone, none of them became dinner.
Overall I think this Christmas was easier than the last, because now we're settled into our home and community here. It didn't really even feel like a holiday until we skyped with our families back home. One of my uncles, cousin, and Brett all play guitar and usually play together over the holidays, so this year they all played guitar together over skype. Technology is amazing, it would be a very different experience here without the Internet. And there have been big changes now in the new group from when we first arrived - many of them now have Internet in their homes, some even wireless. And the connection has gotten better, we weren't able to use skype until about half-way through this year.

For New Years we're planning some kind of bonfire beach party, and will go to the east side of the island to be the first to watch the sunrise of the new year like we did last year. We still have time off from work, so we've just been hanging out. More new photos are posted in our picassa album. Thanks for the comments on our last few blog posts, we like hearing from people!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from Tonga! We'll be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas on Uoleva, the uninhabited island south of us, at Serenity Beaches resort. So most of our time there will be spent sun tanning on the beach, snorkeling or spear fishing, and just hanging out in the hammocks and little fales at the resort. We're going with the 5 new volunteers here and our japanese volunteer neighbor. We'll miss not having a white Christmas for the second year now, but are not missing the cold weather. It doesn't really feel as much like Christmas here - no commercialization of it at least with no big department stores here to decorate and to have Christmas sales, etc. But we have heard Christmas music on the radio, mixed with rap songs. And the Tongan barbeque restaurant has Christmas lights outside. And for some reason, all the kids are running around with fake toy guns now for Christmas, the chinese stores are selling them. For our trip to Uoleva I also did make a few Christmas cookies, with ingredients from a package from home.

A few random updates from this week - last night we had a real Japanese dinner at our neighbor Koichi's house who is a volunteer from Japan. He's going to teach us how to make a few dishes, and real teriyaki sauce. Over the weekend we had a bonfire on our beach with the new volunteers who just moved to Ha'apai last week, and friends in town. Lately we've just been hanging out, enjoying time off now for the holidays. Brett brought one of the new volunteers spear fishing today. More fruit is coming into season now with the hot weather - pineapples, passion fruit, and hopefully soon we'll have mangos, guava and avocado. We always have bananas, I don't think I'll ever be able to eat bananas again after being overloaded with them here. That's about all the updates for now, hope everyone has a Merry Christmas back home!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tourism Festival in Tonga

Today was the tourism festival here in Ha'apai, and since I now work for the tourism bureau I took lots of photos for them and for the new website. I also got roped into being a judge for the English speech competition on the importance of tourism here in Ha'apai. It was supposed to be a tourism week, but was cut down to only one day-long event of a float parade, arts and crafts display, speech competition, and lots of dances and singing competitions. It is a little odd that they have the tourism festival in December, when there are absolutely no tourists around in the off-season, but they do have more overseas Tongans back in Tonga for the holidays. Some of the highlights - one of the floats had actual running power tools on it (pretty sure that wouldn't be allowed in the US for safety reasons!), another had a live fire pit going that they were feeding with leaves from the bush, it was the float for the local restaurant and they were pretending to cook! I was really impressed with how decked out all the trucks and cars were for the parade, and how many there were for our small town - about 25! In attendence we had the Ambassador of China as guest of honor, Miss Tonga and Miss Tonga Tourism. Another highlight - judging the English speeches by high school kids, I realized one of the speeches I had actually helped edit and write - the Governor's office had asked for my help for a speech I'd assumed one of them was giving, but actually it was for this high school kids' speech competition! It was pretty obvious that other adults had written many of these speeches when the kids couldn't pronounce many of the words. And there were still many mispellings, my favorite was "scooper diving" instead of scuba diving. It seemed like a few of the kids had written their own speeches, so I tried to judge those with higher scores. I'm not sure who ended up winning, we left before the prize-giving since we'd already been there over 5 hours and just couldn't sit through anymore singing and dancing.
We also heard today that there's a cyclone category 2 in Fiji, heading our way maybe on Wednesday or so. We'll see what happens, the waves have been pretty big so we'll probably get some kind of storm here. I think we're pretty used to the natural disasters now so we're not too worried about this one.
*Update on Cyclone Mick, it's heading farther south now so will probably miss Tonga and we'll just get strong winds and rain here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Weekend Update

Here are a few updates from this last week - Thursday was the last day of school for Brett's students. So they had a program with dancing, lots of long speeches, and class presentations. For each class, they called the students' names and had them stand in front of the whole school and all the parents that were watching. But they called the names in a certain order - starting with the worst student to the smartest student. So everyone could see the order and knew how each kid did in school. I can't imagine that happening in the US, those poor kids that didn't do so well! The class 6 students got their scores back from their big exam which determines what high school they will attend. Those scores are announced later this month on the radio for everyone to hear. Over half of Brett's class made it into the local government high school which is really good, the rest are able to attend church-run high schools. Below is a video of some of the dancing the kids did. The kid in the corner of the video was playing drums on a peice of tin roof. The guy laughing at the end is Brett's class 6 teacher. The second video shows some kids singing at the year-end celebration.

On Friday through the weekend we had a married couple, Kathy and Rob, from the new group stay with us for what Peace Corps calls attachment. The trainees all go and stay with current volunteers to see what real Peace Corps life is like. I think they were all pretty happy to be done with homestay and to have more freedom. On Friday we all went out to Mariner's for karoake, it was fun to have a new big group of people there and to get some new songs in instead of the same old songs that are usually done. Then on Saturday we all went to Uoleva island for a day trip. We went snorkeling and Brett speared a nice sized parrot fish. Brian also caught quite a few fish in deeper waters - the entire time he said a shark was following him. So I think the new volunteers saw a good part of life here in Ha'apai.

Now Brett's done with his job at the school - the school year here runs Feb - early Dec., but I'm still working. He's just been hanging around the house enjoying time off, and doing some paddle boarding with the foam surf board Phil left. At MAFF on Monday I helped with planting some flowers, they had a workshop on Tuesday with people from the main island so they were trying to get the place looking really nice before the meeting. I heard that they're expecting months without rain, a really dry rainy season this year. They've even been trying to conserve some of the city water by turning it off at night. But of course just as we were hanging our clothes out to dry after doing laundry today it did rain a little. We don't have much planned for the rest of this week. Next week on Monday is the Tourism Festival (it's not really for foreign tourists since it's the off-season, but for overseas Tongans that are returning for the holidays).

Sunday, November 29, 2009


This last week has been very busy for us. On Thursday we celebrated Thanksgiving with all the new trainees, our group of volunteers here in Ha'apai, and the Peace Corps staff that's been here for training. In all I think there were around 50 of us. With so many people, we did a potluck meal, and had 4 turkeys and a roasted pig. Brett and I made apple crisp (there just happened to be apples in Pangai a week ago so we bought lots), and banana bread. Others did stuffing, potatoes and sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, salad, green bean casserole, biscuits, and more. Here's a photo of the new group of volunteers (plus Phil) that we took at our Thanksgiving meal. They leave their homestays this coming Friday, then stay with current volunteers for attachment over the weekend to see what volunteer life is like. We'll have a married couple staying with us. Then the new group of volunteers will swear in and move in to their sites, before Christmas.
We've also had a lot of gatherings lately for Phil and Aki, who are both finishing up their 2-year service here in Ha'apai. After our big Thanksgiving feast we had a feast the next day at Brett's school for both of them, along with the kids perfoming some dances. Then a party at Mariner's cafe, with some great food, drinks, and of course karoake since it was a Friday night.
And tonight we're having a dinner at our place for Phil before he leaves tomorrow morning. Since not all of our friends in town were with us for Thanksgiving this is also kind of a post-Thanksgiving feast - with stuffing, potatoes, etc. again. And we decided instead of turkey to have a Tongan chicken, they taste pretty good- a leaner kind of meat. At first Brett was going to chase and kill a chicken on his own with a sling shot, but then decided to just get it from one of his teachers at school. So today we went to the catholic church service, it was a special service for the kids and had really pretty singing, and even some readings in English. Then after the service his teacher brought us a box with a chicken in it, he wasn't sure if it was dead yet so had a string tied to it's legs in case it tried to fly away. We biked back with the box, and realized in fact it was not dead yet. We weren't sure how we felt about killing it or how to kill it, so had our friend Brian kill it (he just ripped the head right off). Then our neighbors helped us pluck all the feathers, and gut the chicken.

It's sad to see our friends leave, who we've spent this past year with. It won't be the same without them here, but we're also looking forward to the new group of volunteers that will be living here with us. Some things I'll miss from Aki and Phil - learning japanese words from Aki and how it's the rabbit in the moon and not the man in the moon in Japan, and hearing about Phil being chased by dogs and throwing his umbrella in fury, and sharing the fish he's speared for meals. It's funny how many different types of people we've met on our small island here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Familiar Sounds

The noises of Tonga here in Ha'apai have become familiar to us. We sleep in later, not being awoken anymore by the ever-crowing roosters, grunting pigs, and many loud dog fights. Around 6:00am or so the neighbor kids spill out of their house, yelling, crying, singing songs, banging on any piece of metal they find. We used to yell "quiet!" at them through the louvre windows, but now just roll over and fall back asleep. We also hear our sima vai gushing out water in the early morning hours just outside the bedroom window, everyone on our housing compound uses our sima vai tank for drinking water because it's the cleanest. On Sunday mornings we hear church bells quietly in the distance, and the rythmic deep resonating sound of the Church of Tonga wooden drums, all calling people to the morning church services. Soon afterwards, we can hear the church choirs and congregations singing, all accapella. Some of the tunes are familiar from English church songs, but all the words are sung in Tongan. At church, the ministers shout out their sermons to the congregations. Every other morning instead of church music we hear the neighbor's radio blaring out traditional Tongan songs, old American songs, Christmas music sometimes mixed with odd songs like rap or the Macarena, or news mostly in Tongan (with about 10 minutes a day of English news). And so our day begins.

Walking through town during the day we often hear kids yelling "Nio, Nio!" (Brett's Tongan name), many of the local kids know him from school. Once in awhile someone will yell out my name, usually we don't know who all the people are that are calling out to us, they know us because we're the foreigners in town. Sometimes we'll still get Tongans yelling out "palangi!" (white person), and Brett will respond back "Tongan, Tongan"! Kids will also yell "Bye!" as we walk by - not understanding that it's not correct in English to just say bye as people pass by. We'll usually respond with something in Tongan if they do this. As we walk down the middle of the roads, we can hear cars approaching from far off and move to one side of the road. We also usually notice the sound of the plane coming in once or twice a day. If the DVD store is open near our house, they always blare really loud music to make sure people know that they are open. In fact, at any local events the music is always at the loudest possible level.

During the afternoons and evenings the sounds in our house are Brett playing his guitar, he's learned many new songs since being here. The oldest neighbor boy is trying to learn guitar now too. We'll often have lots of kids and dogs running through our house in the afternoons, so lots of noise again. Sometimes we'll shut the door to keep them all out, and play music or movies on the computer. Even then there are still little noises inside the house - the little mokos (geckos) that live inside on the ceiling and walls make little chirping noises, almost like a bird. One of my favorite sounds here are the waves breaking on the beach onto all the loose shells and coral peices, kind of a swishing noise as the waves pull the shells back and forth. From our beach we also hear the Pulapaki twice a week, the only ferry boat now that brings all the supplies to us here in Ha'apai. We can hear the engines of the boat coming into the wharf from our house. Later in the evenings we hear a steady, low voice calling out "", calling the pigs to come and eat. Every Tongan calls his pigs this way, every pig knows it's owner's voice and comes to that sound to eat the coconuts that are being cut open.

At night things quiet down. We hear the waves crashing louder now on the beach. And anytime anyone tries to approach the property we hear all the dogs going crazy, barking outside. The barking goes in a line, passed from dog to dog up and down the street. Some nights we hear the men at the kava club singing, just in front of our house a few hundred yards. Once in awhile they have a couple of guitars as well. Other nights we can hear one of the church choirs practicing, singing in unison perfectly, almost fooling me into thinking it's the radio. I can never pick out what they're singing, but it's always pretty. Tomorrow night one of the church schools is having a candle light singing procession of Christmas carols. And now as I finish this post, I can hear a church choir practicing somewhere off in the distance, and echoes of dogs barking up and down the street.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Typical School Day

It's 8:30am and the bell rings, the children line up at the flag pole in lines by class. The girls are wearing red dresses and white shirts. They have their hair in braids with red ribbons holding them together. The boys wear khakis shorts and white shirts. They sing their national anthem as the flag rises. Once they are finished the principal addresses them about the day and what jobs are to be done before the school day begins. Once dismissed they march off to the classroom where it will be swept and set up by the students before the day starts. The children who are late to school must wait by the gate before they are allowed onto the school grounds. Some days the principle will hit them and tell them not to be late again, some days they will get off easier. Once the classroom is swept and set up the students line up outside and wait for permission from their teacher to enter the classroom. Usually they are let in right away but if the teacher is lazy or in deep conversation with the other teachers the children can sometimes wait awhile before entering the classroom. The classroom consists of old country school desks and benches. Each student has a cubby where they keep their notebooks and pens, no textbooks are given out because no textbooks exist in the schools. Students perform a lot of copying from the blackboard to get information and also do a lot of writing activities to practice. If they misbehave or get questions to answers wrong they get hit. Usually they are struck on the hand by a wooden stick no wider than 2-3 fingers. Most students are unfazed by this, but some cry at times. Tongan students are constantly hitting each other, and when a teacher does it it's no different. I do not hit the students in my classes. I use many classroom management techniques to help control the pace and environment of the classroom. I have tried to teach these techniques to my counterparts, but they are still in favor of hitting.

When the students enter the classroom school is started. They begin with English for an hour, this is where I step in. I usually start off introducing the daily lesson and then make my way into a fun activity to get their attention. I am usually in the classroom for 60-90 minutes. At around 10:30 the bell rings for recess and the students race outside. Locals arrive early to sell the students cake and ice pops. The students play and eat treats for 30 minutes before class begins again. The children also are allowed to come to the library during recess time to check out books or to just find a book and read quitly in the reading area. I supervise the library as class 6 students reshelf books and offer assistance to students with new books. Once recess is over students return to their classrooms and start on their Tongan, Math, and Writing. Some days they listen to a radio program that is broadcasted across the country that covers lessons in all subjects. There are activities that are done to go with the radio broadcast and at times teachers will make up lessons to go along with the radio lesson. I tend to bounce around the school during this time helping teachers with lessons and activities they are doing. At 12:30 the bell rings and the students make their way home for lunch. Some students will stay and play at school during lunch break, but most will go home.

At 1:30 they all return and class begins. Science and Health are covered from 1:30 - 3:20, and sometimes I am allowed to bring students outside for gym. We play rugby, soccer or netball. Most of the kids like soccer so that is the sport of choice most of the time. At about 3:00 students from classes 4, 5, and 6 are called out of class to pick up rubbish around the school yard and then burn it in the burn pile behind the bathrooms. Other students are assigned to cleaning the bathrooms and washing the windows around the school. Every student gets a turn at this and there is no one who gets away with not doing these chores. There is no funding for janitors and the teachers refuse to do any cleaning so it falls on the students to pick up the slack. Once they are done they return to the classrooms where school is dismissed at 3:20 and the students stream out of the classrooms and to all places around town.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Videos - Tongan dance

This is a ta'alunga dance, done by young unmarried girls. It's mostly hand movements, and the whole time their knees are bent. All the motions translate the words of the songs. During the dances people come up and put money on the dancers, the girls are covered in coconut oil. It's a type of fundraiser, this one was for Brett's school. Many times people will also be dancing behind the dancers, showing support for them.

This is an example of some of the dances the boys/men do here in Tonga. These dances are much faster paced than the ta'alunga dance the girls do. They often have drums in the music, and wear these grass leaf skirts. There are also some sitting dances the guys do. The dance in this video was from a performance when the US Navy was here on their humanitarian mission.

Dances (koniseti) are big fundraisers here at events or feasts. But then they play more modern music between the traditional dances, so it's funny to watch a dressed up ta'alunga dancer switch to "la bamba" after her dance is done.

Sorry the clips are so short, but it takes a long time to upload large video files here.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ha'apai Halloween

Happy Halloween! We celebrated this year with a costume party bonfire on the beach by the graveyard, right near our house. It was actually a pretty busy day - early in the morning all the Peace Corps volunteers here participated in the breast cancer awareness walk. Then we joined the new group of volunteers on a day trip to Ha'ano island where Grant lives. We got to spend a little more time talking with some of them, and getting to know the new volunteers that will be coming here to Pangai, it seems like a good group. And later in the evening we had our Halloween party, with the current volunteers and our friends in town here. Good times.

More new photos are posted in our Picassa photo album to the right.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Cradle of Polynesia

I haven't written about this yet so thought I should write some of the history I've learned since being here. We are living in the cradle of Polynesia here in Ha'apai, there's evidence suggesting that our little island of Lifuka was the beginning of it all. They think life on this island dates back to 3000 years and has been inhabited since then. There is lapita pottery dated back to then, but sadly it's sitting on old shelves in a corner getting dusty in the run-down museum here, hopefully that will change soon. Lifuka and Ha'apai have a lot of other historical significances within Tonga as well.

The first outsiders to come to Tonga were Dutch explorers in the 1600's, then it was Captain Cook who named Tonga the Friendly Islands based on an experience he had right here in Ha'apai (although in reality the people he met were planning on eating him!). On our island of Lifuka, right near the airport, is where the Port au Prince massacre happened. It was a European ship that stopped here for supplies, but the native Tongans attacked them having not seen white people or guns before. William Mariner was on that ship and survived, and was adopted by a local chief, later he wrote about these experiences. The Mutiny on the Bounty also occured right here, between Lifuka and the volcanic island of Tofua. There have also been numerous shipwrecks here in the shallow reef systems, some of them Spanish/European ships full of gold and treasure. In fact there was one excavated this century, all the divers and people involved had to sign a form to secrecy. And, most importantly in Tongan history, the royal line of the current King of Tonga comes from Ha'apai. The island groups were divided, and a local chief of Ha'apai (Tauafa'hau, who later became King George Tupou I) united and conquered all the island groups of Tonga.

(Above - one of the historical sites, an old quarry)
There are a lot of historical sites here, but mostly they're forgotten and off the beaten path. There are ancient royal tombs, an old fortress that was the location of the first victory for King Tupou I, sites of massacres, pigeon mounds (part of an old royal sport), and more. There are also people still living here who are descendents of Europeans from these ships, or from missionaries and locals who first converted the King and Tonga to Christianity (one of whom I have worked with here). It's also interesting to hear some of the many ancient legends from the locals here, I think I've written some of them already on the blog here.
Being in such an isolated corner of the earth many missionaries are still sent here. Most Tongans are Christian, so the missionaries that come here now are Morman, Scientologists and other types of such religions. What makes me mad is that when the Scientologists come here they are very sneaky and not up-front about themselves. They tell the locals that they want to do workshops or seminars on learning and higher education, which of course the Tongans would want. But then the seminars are all about the Scientologists' religion. And they've gone into many schools and other places doing this, taking advantage of the fact that many Tongans don't know yet what Scientology is and even that it's a religion. Many of the religions that come here try to bribe Tongans into joining - such as offering their kids scholarships and chances to move overseas, or free medical care overseas if someone in their family is sick. I could write a lot more about religion but I won't here.

Well I'll be learning more about the history and sites to see here as I continue to work on the new website for tourism in Ha'apai. Brett has been teaching sports this week at school to get ready for sports day again - this time netball, rugby, and co-ed soccer. We have plans for Halloween on Saturday - a bonfire on the beach by the graveyard and costume party.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Beach bums

Just another reason why it's great here in Ha'apai, the beaches and crystal clear waters. The new group of volunteers had site announcements over the weekend, and our Peace Corps population is going to be much bigger here in Pangai pretty soon - 4 new volunteers and one of the older volunteers is extending and will be here in Pangai as well. So it will be very different from this year.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Job change - Ha'apai Tourism Bureau

From the beginning of being here there have been problems with one of my jobs - the Ha'apai Training Center/computer lab. I won't get into too much detail here, but there were problems with corruption/embezzlement/laziness, etc. and I've been the third volunteer placed there, the other two left early. I tried my hardest and put a lot of work into the computer center, and I don't feel it was a waste but that I did accomplish some things. I finished some basic computer/typing classes with adults in the community, basic computer classes with school kids, started an Internet Cafe, fixed some of the computers, and trained the counterpart somewhat. It was incredible watching the kids using a computer for the first time ever, and watching the adults get really excited when they could open and save files or use the mouse on the computer. And I will actually continue the computer class with class 6 school kids until the beginning of Dec. when the school session is over. I had a meeting today with a few Peace Corps staff and the manager of the computer center, and it went better than I thought it would. He said he was very happy with the work I've accomplished there. We told him that Peace Corps has developed the computer center and it's operational now, they just need a Tongan to run it. I'm happy to be done there, it feels like a weight is lifted and now I can focus on a new project.

Now I will start working at the Ha'apai Tourism Bureau which I'm very excited about! I'll be building a website for tourism in Ha'apai. Right now there is just a Tonga tourism website, which lists only a little information on Ha'apai and a lot of it is outdated. So this will be the first website focusing on just Ha'apai tourism. The guy I'll be working with at the tourism bureau is very excited and happy about this project, it's something they've been wanting for a long time but didn't have the skills or know how to do it. They thought websites were very expensive (which they can be if they're professionally built), but I told him you can have a website for free if you wanted! I know how to do professional sites in Dreamweaver, but for this project I think I'll keep it very simple so I can train my counterpart on how to build websites online with blogger. We'll probably just pay for our own unique URL, the rest will be free which he was amazed at. It will be great to get more information about Ha'apai online, and once I train my counterpart we'll be able to help other local businesses start websites. In some ways it's very difficult working with such little resources in developing countries - in classrooms not having textbooks, etc; but in other ways it just simplifies everything. Like with this website you don't have as many decisions to make, because you just don't have as much available. And you can just create things the simplest way possible, you don't have to go through lots of levels of approvals or things to get a project done. So I'll be starting this website project later this week, and will hopefully get some things posted soon. There's a tourism week here in Ha'apai in the middle of December, so they want to get info posted online about this event as soon as possible.

So now my work will be split between the Ha'apai Tourism Bureau and MAFFF (ministry of agriculture, forestery, foods and fisheries). Brett will be finishing up the school year at the beginning of Dec. then will have time off until the end of January. The class 6 primary school kids just took their big exams last week which determines what high school they will attend. So now that the exams are done the school year is winding down, they'll focus more on sports and cultural dances and other things. We also had a lot of feasts last week - for the school exams and at the catholic church for their missionale (once a year everyone in the church gives a lot of money publicly and they have celebrations). We'll just be working this week, and on Saturday the new group of volunteers has site announcements so we'll know who will be living with us here in Ha'apai.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Water Safety Training - Ha'apai Style

When the new volunteers arrived in Ha'apai on Monday we were informed by Peace Corps that they had not performed their water safety training. Usually this task gets done at the Navy base in Nuku'alofa by one of the Navy staff, but since the tsunami hit Niua, all the Navy have been there assisting in the rebuiliding and clean-up and were unavailable to do the training. So, Peace Corps called on the current volunteers (thats us) to help with the training. We started with an introduction to the island, safe places to go and unsafe places to go. We then introduced them to dangerous marine life, things that could potentially harm them or possibly kill them. We might have over intensified the death factor but it was just to get their attention. Many things in the ocean can hurt or maybe cause death but the likely factor of this happening is minimal to none. We just wanted to make sure the volunteers were educated on these things so they would know what to look for and stay away from. After the discussion we preped them for the water activities that we would be doing. Once we were finished we moved out to the wharf to start the training.We brought the volunteers to the wharf outside the Peace Corps office to perform the safety training. We had them all jump into the water off the wharf and assist each other in putting on their lifejackets. We also had them put on their lifejackets themselves. We performed this exercise because if you ever had to abandon a boat mid sea it is possible that you would have to put on you lifejacket in the water or assist someone with a lifejacket. After lifejacket safety we moved onto floating in groups of 3 and in a large group. This is something that is useful if stranded at sea. Creating a group in the water not only saves energy but it allows planes to spot you easier. After floating for a while we moved onto body dragging. Each volunteer had to swim a distance of 30 meters while dragging their partner behind them. We then moved onto the front crawl swim and back stroke, and also had the volunteers tread water for 2 minutes. All of these exercises were performed with lifejackets on and then with lifejackets off. Lastly we had Phil, one of our senior volunteers, paddle out 50 yards from the wharf. The volunteers had to swim to him and then back to the wharf. All in all we had a great time in the water. Phil was in the water the majority of the time assisting volunteers with the exercises and also paddling around on his surfboard offering assistance to anyone who was tired. Kate and I were on the top of the wharf offering instructions to the volunteers and watching for any signs of exhaustion or distress. The volunteers seemed to have a great time and it was fun to interact and talk with them. They are a great group of people and we look forward to helping out with the rest of their training.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Group 75 Peace Corps volunteers arrive

The new group of Peace Corps volunteers arrived today in Ha'apai to begin their homestays and language, cultural, medical, safety, and technical training for the next 10 weeks. Their group number is 75, we're group 74 - each new group from the beginning has a new number.
We'll be helping out some with the training, we just found out that they want our help tomorrow afternoon for water safety training at the wharf here in Pangai, so Brett and I and Phil will be there and possibly our friend Brian from the dive shop to talk about marine life safety.

Here are some photos of the trainees arriving here at the airport and our Ha'apai volunteers welcoming them.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Meetings in Tonga

Change of plans, we're staying here and not going on the outer island trip. There was just a lot happening here this week and it will be busy again next week with work and the new volunteers and Peace Corps staff arriving in Ha'apai, so we'll find a better time to get out to Ha'afeva and the outer islands. There are a lot of times when there's not much going on, so we might as well go then. Plus the boat was still being worked on that we were supposed to take, the trip got delayed another day so they left early this morning. We'll have more chances to get out to Ha'afeva and the outer islands again, maybe next month.

There was another tsunami warning on Thursday after a major earthquake in Vanuatu to the northwest of us. This time it didn't generate any tsunami waves, but school and workplaces were still closed down for the afternoon. The new group of Peace Corps volunteers just arrived in Tonga on Thursday morning, so that must have been an interesting first day for them with the tsunami warning, welcome to Tonga. At least this one wasn't as exciting.

I attended a meeting yesterday that paints a typical picture of some Tongan meetings. It was pretty pointless for me to be at since it was all in Tongan and about a topic I am not very involved in with work. But I couldn't get up and leave, especially since a lot of very important people were there - the district officer, town officers from each village, the news reporter, etc. Throughout the meeting cell phones rang, and people didn't hesitate to answer them, or get up and leave for awhile. At one point the meeting leader answered a phone call and the meeting stopped for a few minutes. I saw others nodding off to sleep. A lady next to me was reading sex education training materials (it was for her job). And they kept talking about the same subjects over and over, dragging on the topic. Of course it started and ended with a prayer. And at the very end the district officer who had been leading the meeting askes me in English "Katie, do you have anything you need to say?" He had to put the spotlight on me and ask me to say something being the only palangi in the room. Then they filed out after signing their names and receiving some money for attending the meeting which is common for some of these types of meetings - money or free food. And of course this meeting had been postponed from earlier that week, and postponed from the previous couple of months. I've gotten very used to things not starting on time here, we usually show up late now for scheduled events and are not surprised when events are postponed. The commitee meeting had been about rating the cleanest villages on the island and how to spend and divide money from a grant they'd received. As usual I ended up being confused, I thought it was going to be a meeting with the womens' groups from different villages, as I'd been told by my counterpart. Another language/cultural/palangi misunderstanding. Wouldn't it be surprising in America if one of your meetings was delayed 5 times over the course of 4 months, you can't understand much of what's being discussed, and it turns out the meeting is about a completely different topic than what you'd prepared for? This is one of the reasons why it's so hard to get things done in Tonga in any timely fashion.
Today for the first time since winter here we went snorkeling again, it was great to get back in the water. We've waded and floated around on our air mattresses in the water but hadn't been swimming/snorkeling in a long time. Brett ended up spearing two really pretty parrot fish which we ate for lunch. And we saw a lot of other pretty colorful fish and coral, right on the reef outside our house, in our backyard.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

One year

Exactly one year ago today we arrived in the Kingdom of Tonga, fresh Peace Corps trainees. The air felt so thick and heavy in the heat, the smells were all foreign - animals, dust, burning garbage, heavy perfume; the language was unintelligible, we had no idea what we were getting into. We were surprised at seeing pigs and chickens in the streets, and Nuku'alofa seemed like a shanty-town. The outfits seemed hilarious - men in skirts and woven mats and strings tied around womens' waists. We were scared of eating the local food, thinking we'd get sick, and we were scared to hold the children or get close to any animals for fear of lice/parasites.

(one year ago at the Tongatapu international airport)

Now Tonga is our second home. We've acclimated to the heat (although it is still very hot in the summer!). We contribute to the smell of burning garbage and speak/understand some of the language, Brett better than I. We often chase pigs away from our house, just part of our normal routines. And now Nuku'alofa is the big city- the place where you can get haircuts, eat at italian, chinese, and korean restaurants, and shop at a grocery store with real food. The traffic there seems fast-paced and busy to us. And now we were these silly Tongan clothes - ta'ovala and kiekie. We eat almost anything brought to us by our neighbors, and most of the time end up just fine with no sickness. We've learned how to cook a lot of things from scratch and can husk open coconuts. Now we move along with the slow island pace here.

It's interesting to look back at how we first were compared to how we are now in our community in Ha'apai. When we first moved to our island in Ha'apai we kept space to ourselves and enjoyed our own independence and not interdependence in the community. We had our own space in our house, wanted peace and quiet in our yard, had our own food, etc. We would keep the neighbor kids at a distance outside our door, we didn't understand why everyone shared our sima vie (water tank), we debated about sharing tools, food, etc. with the neighbors. It was just stressful to fight the Tongan culture at work and at home, not having privacy and sharing everything. But now it's become a part of us. Now the neighbor kids run in and out of our house freely, swinging in our hammock (as long as they have pants on, that's our one rule) and playing with whatever's on our bookshelf. Ana and Sailosi, our neighbors stop in whenever to use the Internet, talk or sometimes just to have a nap on our floor. The dogs also nap inside now, we're not so worried about fleas or things anymore. If the neighbors ask to borrow anything we give without hesitation. Because we know they do the same for us. There is still a lot of Tongan culture that we don't understand or agree with, but we've found a good blend of incorporating some Tongan ways into our own culture here. And of course it helps that we have great neighbors and friends here.

A few updates, it was recently Tonga's Teacher appreciation day. The kids all gave presents to the teachers, and Brett got a little black purse, a bottle of perfume, and 3 bars of soap! It's the class 6 exam next Tues. and Wed., this determines what high school the kids will attend so it's a huge deal. I just started computer classes with the class 6 students from the Wesleyn church school. It went a lot better than I would have guessed, the students were all great and fast learners. We did some computer basics and some English games. And the Tongan teacher was really helpful too. I'm going to expand these classes to more primary schools once the exam is finished. Animal news - the pigs once again got into our water, this time our city water pipes. They completely bit through it so we have no water in the house until it gets fixed, hopefully soon. Ha'apai is also out of propane gas now for cooking, thankfully we still have some in our tank. Since the Princess Ashika tragedy, they're stricter on boat regulations and won't allow propane gas to be shipped along with passengers on the boat. We're not sure how we'll get gas here now, but heard rumors that they'll start bringing another ferry for cargo only.

Brett and I are heading out on an island trip tomorrow to Ha'afeva for a week. The ministry of education is taking a boat around to all the islands to transfer teachers to different schools on all the inhabitated islands in Ha'apai, they don't want the teachers giving their kids the exam so they all have to move around. So we decided to go on this trip and visit some of the Peace Corps volunteers that live out there. Unfortunately we'll miss the arrival of the new group of Peace Corps volunteers, they're getting here to Ha'apai on Monday to start their homestays and training but will be here until the beginning of December so we'll have plenty of time to see them. New trainees - training is the hardest part of Peace Corps just remember that during your homestays. We'll be back in a week with stories from the outer islands!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Tonga/Samoa Tsunami update

Here's a quick update on the tsunami damage here in Tonga in Niuatoputapu, which is very far north of us here, closer to Samoa than it is to the island group of Vava'u. There are about 1,000 people living on that island, and 2 of the 3 villages were severely damaged, demolishing about 90% of homes, and damaging the hospital, the airport runway, schools, banks, etc. They were hit by 3 tsunami waves, on the news it says up to 6 meters high, and the death toll is up to 9 in Nuiatoputapu and 150 total including Tonga, Samoa, and American Samoa. Niuatoputapu just recieved the first wave of aid yesterday, the Tongan National Defense sent up a boat with supplies. This island is usually very isolated - a boat only goes about once a month, and planes began landing just recently once a week. Because of the isolation no Peace Corps volunteers are stationed there. After this disaster all phone communications were cut off, and planes weren't able to land on the damaged runway. Our neighbor Ana's mom is living on this island in the most damaged village. She hasn't been able to get a hold of her, but found out yesterday that her name wasn't on the hospital list so she should be ok. A lot of news is available online on the Samoa tsunami damage so I won't list that here.

Here in Ha'apai things are pretty much back to normal - we just had damaged boats in the harbour, it was really a baby tsunami here luckily. The boat we were supposed to take today to Ha'afeva on a week-long island trip has a hole in it from the tsunami. The ministry of education shifts all the teachers around during the class 6 school exams, so we were going to this island with Brett's teacher. So they've delayed the exam for a week, we might go next week.

Here is a photo of some of the damage in Niuatoputapu.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Well we've experienced every type of natural disaster now here in Tonga - earthquakes, volcanic explosions, cyclone, and now a tsunami. Most of them haven't been as scary as they sound, but the tsunami today was a little scary.

We got a call from Peace Corps around 8:00am this morning telling us there was a massive 8.3 earthquake in Samoa, just north of Tonga. And because of this they said we could get a tsunami, so they said we should move away from our house and inland for a couple of hours. We get warnings once in awhile from Peace Corps and usually nothing happens, so we slowly got ready and Brett sat down on the back steps to eat a papaya. Looking out at the ocean he noticed the water looked funny and called me to come look at it. It looked normal at first with small waves coming in over the reef edge, but then all of a sudden it got really still and the water swirled around eerily. We both went out to look more and then very quickly the water started draining out to sea, we could see rocks and seaweed clumps, then almost the whole bottom. It was pretty scary, it was obvious that the water was being sucked out by a big wave! So I abandoned my coffee, we grabbed a few things and ran out, telling the neighbors on our way and our japanese neighbor came with us. When we got past the fisheries buildings we saw that the ocean was already coming up fast now, above the shoreline. Brett grabbed the satellite phone from the office, and on the main road in town we got a ride from a Tongan we knew (the local news reporter) who said he'd bring us to Brett's school. But then he headed to the wharf back to the ocean, exactly what we were running away from! It was crazy, the harbour had almost drained out, lots of rock formations were showing that we'd never seen before and the water just kept draining down. Boats were being tossed around by the churning water, and the big oil boat was no longer floating but sitting at an angle on the ocean floor. Then next to the wharf a huge wave came into the harbour, maybe 15 feet high. That's when Brett yelled "go, go, get out of here!!" at the driver, and we sped off along with everyone else at the harbour who had been gawking at the scene. It was surreal to see the ocean drain like that and then the big waves coming in.

(photo above - fleeing from the harbour as the water comes up)

At Brett's school we jumped out with our neighbor Kyoichi and our dog Lucky who had followed us. It was chaos there, people were running up from the ocean, and yelling at everyone to run that there was a tsunami. It was like something you see on the news in far away places, something that would never happen to you. All the school kids came running out towards the bush, we ran with them inland and met up with our neighbors Sailosi and Ana in their car. They said to follow them to a high point on the island, so we ran behind the car. We've never run like this before from a natural disaster, it was scary not knowing what would happen. We got to a little hill and sat and waited for a couple of hours, calling the peace corps office, other volunteers in our island group, and some of the kids' parents that were with us from Brett's school. We were the ones to tell our main peace corps office that we had actually been hit by a small tsunami, they didn't know and the other islands hadn't been hit at all like we had. Phil, another peace corps volunteer, met us at this hill too (Brett described it as the grassy area where eggplants grow and on such a small island Phil knew exactly where we were).

All the other peace corps volunteers are accounted for and safe. In Ha'apai Sarah is on the highest point in her village, Alicia is right in the middle of the island, Grant is fine, Monica on a little island in the middle of nowhere didn't get any wave action at all and Eric and Melanie are on the main island for training. Our dive shop friends actually ran all the way to the other side of the island to the east. And the owners of the bar took their yacht out to sea. We heard accounts of maybe 3 or 4 tsunami waves here, none of them very big though. We got back to our house a few hours ago, and there's no damage but we did accidentaly lock the other dog Simba inside our house! The ocean came up maybe 6 or 8 feet higher than normal. But the waves that hit were very strong, they flattened many low beach bushes and trees, and carried up some large rocks about 20 feet. And many of the boats in the harbour were damaged and moved around by the waves, a few were pushed very far down the shoreline. We've heard that the damage in Samoa is much worse from the earthquake and a tsunami. So some of us are meeting up at our local bar tonight to commiserate and recount todays adventure. Brett and I are supposed to be going on an island trip to Ha'afeva on Friday - his teacher will be administering the exams to class 6 there and asked Brett to go with him. But we'll see if this still happens after today's damage.

I also just want to add, this is NOT common here in Tonga to have tsunamis, it doesn't happen often so don't worry! The last tsunami to hit Ha'apai was sometime in the 1980's. Also all of our experiences between volunteers here have been very different today during the tsunami, us and Phil probably experienced the most action. Alicia didn't see anything happen in her village which is less than a mile from us, and Vava'u volunteers experienced earthquakes but no tsunami action, and I don't think much happened on the main island of Tongatapu. We did just hear that there are 7 to 10 deaths on one of the Niua islands in Tonga - very close to Samoa.

Here's a few links to news stories on the earthquake/tsunami:,2933,557282,00.html

Brett did a phone interview with a local station back home, here's a link to the video, it's the second story:

Friday, September 25, 2009

Life comes and goes

Yesterday we had some very sad news, Teisa who I work with at the Youth Congress, her husband just died the night before. He had a heart attack while he was working in the garden/bush, he was very young only 33. They had two little kids, around 2 and 4 years old. I was actually supposed to meet with Teisa to help set up some computers at the Youth Congress yesterday, but heard the news from our neighbors in the morning. And I had just met with Teisa on Wed. and she invited Brett and I to a barbeque picnic with her and Inoke, her husband, and some other people from Tonga Family Health on Monday. I'd met Inoke a few times and he was always smiling and very nice. It's just so sad that Teisa is now a widow at such a young age (also 33), with two really young kids, they would have been married for 5 years this year.
We also had heard that the embalming machine here in Ha'apai is broken right now, so they had to have the putu (funeral) right away very fast, and had to bury the body within 24 hours. It's too bad, because usually a lot of work goes into a putu here, they spend time making tons of food, having lots of people over to the house for the putu, and sit around singing and mourning. But this all had to be rushed. A lot of people didn't even hear about the putu until it was too late and was already over. We missed out on the putu since we heard too late, but made it to the burial in the afternoon. All day we wore all black and our neighbors gave Brett a putu ta'ovala to wear (mat around his waist). Then we joined in the funeral procession on the main street going to the cemetary right by our house. Inoke, Teisa's husband, had worked as an agriculture/science teacher at the Morman high school, so all the students were there with plastic flowers for the grave. Teisa was wearing a huge woven mat, that went up above her head in the back. And her two kids were all dressed up in mats. We watched as they lowered the body into the grave, then mounded up the sand/dirt pile above it and covered it with plastic flowers. I think Teisa was glad to see us there, I gave her a hug before we left and gave her the real flowers we had brought. She just looked so sad and alone, she sat right next to the grave and everyone else sat farther back. Next week I think we'll cook some food and bring it over to her house like we do in America after someone dies. It's always hard on the families here of people who die, they have to provide lots of food for people during the funeral and for awhile after for anyone visiting, it takes a lot of money. It was a weird feeling to go to a funeral here of someone we knew, back home both Brett and I haven't been to many funerals. But I guess on such a small island death is a part of everyday life.

But with deaths there is also new life and we have two new babies here that I know of. Our neighbors had a baby girl in July, the first girl out of now 6 kids! They named her Mele after a grandma, (Tongan for Mary) but the middle name is Katamaria after my name Kate Marie! So I have a little namesake baby next door, a lot of the time Tongans will even be called by their middle name. She is another clone of the dad and smiles a lot, this is a photo of her below.
My old counterpart at the computer training center also had a baby girl in July, much to my surprise! She hid her pregnancy very well the entire time with baggy clothes, since she wasn't married it was a huge shame to her and the family. Especially since the family is very well known and has a high position in the community. Some of the family living in the same house didn't even know until after she had the baby. So now I know why she was sick so much when I worked with her. The sad thing is that since they're trying hard to keep it a secret, they convinced her to move to New Zealand without the baby! So now she's gone, and her parents will raise the baby for now. This happens more often than I would have thought here in Tonga. Babies and kids also get passed around between family members often. An aunt of our neighbor boys, the oldest daughter so the head of the family, likes the youngest boy so much she tried to keep him and our neighbors had to take a boat to that island to get him back. Often kids will get passed around when a family gets too big to support, or if another family needs a boy or girl to help out with the mens or womens chores.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Chef Kate

I taught my first cooking class ever to the ladies I work with at MAFF. It's a little scary to know that I'm in a country where my cooking skills are superior to most of the locals... I'm not a good cook! When I showed up to work on Monday I thought they would've forgotten completely that I was going to do a cooking class, but they were all prepared - they'd bought all the ingredients I asked for and even had the boys go out to the bush plot to get lots of veggies. Although they'd bought ketchup instead of tomato sauce - I was teaching how to make homemade pizza. I did the demonstration for one pizza, and we cut up green peppers and tomatoes for toppings. Then they brought out a big can of corned beef and asked if we could put that on the pizza as well, so I spooned on little chunks of the meat onto my veggie pizza. And of course they made fun of how little meat I put on the pizza.

I thought we'd just do the one demonstration and then I'd give them copies of the recipe, but they started mixing up more pizza dough. On the second pizza they scooped on almost the whole can of corned beef, Tongans really like their meat! Then before I knew it we were on our 6th pizza, each of the ladies taking turns making their own pizzas and each of them takes 1/2 hour to bake! I guess because we had so much supplies to cook with, and they were hungry they just kept making more and more pizzas to share with the rest of the staff and to take home. I don't think I've seen this kind of baking marathon besides my mom baking Christmas cookies! This is how Tongans cook though - they make A LOT of food, it would be shameful to them to not have enough food for everyone. At least it showed they were interested in my class and liked the recipe.

While we they were cooking I typed up the recipe for pizza and had my women-in-development counterpart, Ilaise, translate the recipe to Tongan. My boss at MAFF also brought up a point I hadn't thought about - many of the local women can't afford a lot of the ingredients like milk, tomato sauce, and cheese because they're expensive. So he said for any recipes I should think of substitutes that could be used. So in my pizza recipe the substitute for milk is water or coconut milk, substitute real mashed tomatoes for tomato sauce, and as an alternative you could make pizza with no cheese, just the toppings. So I'll have to keep this in mind for future classes and try to stick to simpler recipes. I'm hoping to start more cooking classes now with womens' groups in the villages, with healthy recipes. The diet here is so bad, such a large percentage of people end up with diabetes. All they eat are root crops and meat, rarely any vegetables. And their cooking is pretty monotonous, very much the same it's been for hundreds of years. They like trying new things but just don't know how to cook them and don't have much for seasoning here. In fact most of them don't know what spices and herbs are, if I try to explain basil or oregeno they don't really understand. In Tongan you can say "faka-ifo" which means to make the food taste good. Last week one of the neighbor boys was hanging out in our house, I had some spices out on the counter so I showed them to him and had him smell them. He then proceeded to smell every single one of our spices/herbs, amazed by them. Of course he liked cinnamon the best since it smelled like candy.

So hopefully I'll start more cooking classes/nutrition now with MAFF, and I'll work with my counterpart to translate more recipes and ingredient substitutions to Tongan. I never would have thought I'd be teaching cooking classes!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Uoleva camping

This last week was another school break so since Brett, Alicia and Sarah all had more time off we decided to escape our little island and go camping on a deserted island - Uoleva, just south of us (where we also spent new years and easter). It's probably my favorite place here in Ha'apai, it has some of the best beaches and reefs for snorkeling, and we can wear our swimsuits and be foreigners/tourists there. It's nice to just get away from here every once in awhile, you almost need to.

For this trip we decided to travel the Tongan way - by hitching a ride with a local boat going to Uiha, the inhabitated island just south of Uoleva. Our neighbor is from Uiha, so we set up a ride with his sister. And of course, Wed. morning the day we were leaving it was raining, but then cleared up. It got to be nice and sunny, we were all packed sitting at our house waiting to leave, they'd told us we'd leave by mid-morning and they kept coming to and from the neighbor's house going to church functions. At one point they said "hurrying", but then disapeared for a couple of hours late in the afternoon by this time. Then they rushed back, and Anna our neighbor yelled loudly "Katie NOW!!!", and we all ran out and were driven to the old wharf where the boats were waiting. By this time it was about 5:30, just enough time to make it before dark. That's the downside to traveling the Tongan way - it's on their timetable which is always very slow.

At the old wharf there were about fourty Tongans scurrying around between three boats, we passed in all our camping gear and bags and took seats along the outside of the small boat. All the boats were sagging so low in the water with all the weight that the ocean was almost coming up over the rim on each side. And the ocean was pretty rough, it looked like a painting with all the pointed waves swaying up and down slowly in the glossy last hours of daylight. The Tongan boat skippers are really experts at what they do, manuevering among huge rolling waves without a drip of water coming into the boat. Once we got to the island we had to pass up all our supplies and throw them onto the beach, then jump out into the ocean and swim ashore.

The first night we had enough time to set up camp and gather firewood before dark, and we roasted hot dogs, veggie skewers for the vegetarians, fish, and potatoes and corn cooked in foil. We brought a lot of cooking supplies to cook over the fire. And we had marshmellows and s'mores that had been sent from home, they were good!! The resort we stayed at, Tiana's, was completely booked - all four fales and a rented tent, the fales rent for $35 and camping is $20/tent. This is the same resort we stayed at over New Years, and it was amazing to see how much it's changed in less than a year - there were two big storms that shifted the beach, it's much steeper now, and they had to rebuild all the fales and move them farther up from the beach. They look really nice now, and are set up very well.
The next day was gloomy and rainy, we spent time reading and just hanging out. There were friends of friends that were visiting here in ha'apai that we hung out with, and an australian volunteer from the main island, and tourists from many other countries - france, spain, and more. It's always a big mix of tourists on Uoleva in tourist season (which should end soon, by Oct.) We were able to get a fire going for breakfast - pre-mixed pancakes and coffee/tea. And another fire in the evening for marshmellows again. We weren't able to get out snorkeling at all, but we'll have plenty more times down there to do that.

The day we left, Friday, it was really windy and rainy, we packed up all our stuff under a hut on the beach and huddled waiting for a passing local boat to flag down. But with the bad weather many boats decided to wait until Saturday. So we jumped on a boat that had been arranged from town to pick up two tourists at our resort, it was just a little more expensive. After we were a ways off shore the skipper of the boat started messing around with a tied up bag on the floor. As soon as he got it untied he dumped the contents into the ocean and kept moving on. We looked and saw immediately that a cat had been inside the bag, and was now struggling in the ocean trying to swim towards shore!! We asked why he did that, and he said he was trying to kill the cat, it had gotten into some food or something. It's crazy that he'd do something like that, it was sad to watch, I hope the cat made it ashore.

Yesterday our friends at Fins 'n Flukes had organized a harbour clean-up so we went to help pick up trash along the wharf and roads near there. It's amazing how much garbage was cleaned up, some of it had been there for a very long time, the locals never really clean up these areas - only their own houses and the churches. And they litter a lot - mostly plastic bags or packaging, but lots of random stuff too. Then last night we had a birthday dinner for Kyoichi, our japanese volunteer neighbor. There was a birthday dinner last Saturday too for Brian. So we've been pretty busy. This week we'll be working more again, I'm actually doing a little cooking class tomorrow with the ladies I work with at MAFF so that will be interesting (those of you who know me back home know how I don't cook!) And our country director is visiting our island this week as part of his round of goodbyes.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Play time

Tongan kids are incredibly creative when it comes to games and playing. They don't have playstations, barbie dolls, toy cars, etc. They have sticks, rocks, sand, leaves, string, pieces of garbage, anything they find around their houses outside which can be quite random at times. I've seen our youngest 2-year old neighbor Pa'aane playing with an old iron, dragging it around the yard by the cord. They love anything they can drag around, often times tieing strings to random objects and just running around the yard with it. Or old tea kettles, they fill them up with sand. Or an old suitcase, Pa'aane curled up inside that one day and took a nap.

One annoying habit they have is digging through our garbage if we don't burn it right away. They must be amazed at what we throw away - old containers that could be used for playing in the sand, curious wrappers with a little food still left in it that they'll try to eat. I guess it's true one man's garbage is another man's treasure. At our first homestay during training we threw away a pepcid ac mini-container, and later that day found the youngest homestay sister using it as a little coin purse. And if there's styrofom or anything like that watch out, they'll break it into a million little pieces for you to later pick up. And of course the much-loved by Tongan children video tape. If they get a hold of an old VHS tape they'll take out the long lengths of tape and string it throughout the yard in the trees, along laundry lines, along the fences, everywhere. It's like their version of TP-ing someone, but they do it to their own yards. Whenever I see one of our neighbor kids with a length of video tape I run out there like a mad-woman, take it away from the child and hurl it into the garbage pile behind a fence where they can't get to it. I've already had to dis-entangle too many video tapes in our backyard, non of the Tongans seem to mind as if it's a kind of decoration.

Tongan kids come up with some pretty funny games. Like yesterday, we looked out the window and saw three of the neighbor boys rolling a bicycle wheel back and forth. Whoever the wheel went to had to hit it with a large hunk of metal as hard as he could. And that was the object of the game, beating the wheel with chunks of old metal. And often when they're playing games they'll be shouting out "weee-naaa, weee'naaa" - winner. The youngest, Pa'aane, likes to play a game of finding old chip or cookie bags/containers, filling them with sand from the beach, and then piling as much sand as he can on our back stairs.

They're also very inventive with creating toys and things from their surroundings. The neighbor boys make little leaf whistles, leaf spinning wheels, spinning tops out of pop bottle tops, kites out of paper, and the most unique I think are the noise makers made out of a bike wheel spoke, string, a nail and a match. The nail and match are inside the tip of the bike wheel spoke tied on with string, and get pounded on pavement making a really loud noise like a gun shot. It does get annoying after they've been making the noises on our back stairs for half an hour.

And of course, like kids everywhere, Tongan kids love climbing trees. But not like in the US. They don't have little tree forts or ladders going up. They climb barefoot up the huge trees to the very tip top, or out on the branches until they're at the very end, then they dangle down and drop 10 feet below to the sand. Things that would make US mothers have heart attacks. And all Tongan boys know how to climb coconut trees, they wrap around the trunks and shimmy up and down like little monkeys. At the top they grab on with their feet and grab the coconuts with their hands throwing them down.

A little update from this week - Brett is helping out with night school now with class 6 getting them ready for the big exam next month that determines what high school they'll go to. I'm still amazed at how little the ladies at MAFF work, most Mondays when I go in there to work they're all just sitting around talking and eating. I really don't know what work my counterpart actually does. We're supposed to have meetings with all the women's groups once a month, and that's been cancelled the last two months so we'll see if it happens this month. But the good news - MAFF started harvesting their bush plot and we're getting some veggies from them. And at the internet cafe/computer center I'm still struggling to get things in order - basic things like that it's essential to keep records and to make bank deposits, sometimes I'm not sure where the money is going and supplies in the computer lab keep disappearing. And it's hard since it's a private family-owned business I can't tell them what to do, but just advise on what's best to do. But at least we have the internet cafe going, and some computer classes.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Swimming with the Whales

Yesterday our friends at Fins 'n Flukes took us all out whale watching for the day - us, other peace corps volunteers Alicia, Sarah and Phil, and the new japanese volunteer kyoichi who's also our new next-door neighbor. The humpback whales have been here since about May or June, I've seen just a couple from our beach off on the horizon. But they're a lot easier to see out on the water. They're here in the warm south pacific waters until around early October, then they migrate back to the antartic waters with their new babies.

After only about ten minutes of leaving the harbour we spotted some humpback whales, between our island of Lifuka and Uoleva island just south of here. There were 3 or 4 whales swimming together, we could see their blowholes spouting water and their humpbacks and dorsel fins just above the water. There was a mom and baby calf in this group of whales swimming together. The backs of the whales above water were huge! Once we got up close to the whales we peeled up our wetsuits, threw on our flippers and masks and slowly slipped into the water - if you make too much splashing noises it would scare the whales away. It was us four girls in the water, and once we were in I realized the whales were a lot farther away than they had looked, and they were traveling so we couldn't catch up to them. The waves were big and rolling in the ocean so it was tiring to swim, and I was trying not to think of what else lurked below in the deep waters. But it was cool to see the spouts and humpbacks in the ocean not too far from us. We got back in the boat and moved along with the whales. This time a Tongan boat passed by the whales, a little too close for comfort I think. They acted differently, showing their backs a lot more to make sure the boat saw them maybe. We tried again slipping into the water, but they were still moving away from us.
After observing them for awhile and seeing that they were staying at the surface in one place, we got the boat really close and slipped into the water, this time holding onto a rope on the boat and not moving too quickly towards them. Then Sabine (fins 'n flukes) stuck her mask in the water and motioned all of us to do the same, and I saw the huge tail of one of the whales! Brett jumped in, and the five of us snorkeled up closer and all of a sudden out of the deep murky blue appeared an entire whale, head to tail, and then another! It was amazing to see such huge creatures just suspended there in the water, right next to us! We got up close, I'd guess around 20 feet or so (the closest you're supposed to get is 15 feet). That close I got a little freaked out since you don't know which way the whale will move. But they're really conscious of everything in the water and any slight changes, and where their own body is in relation to us. And all of a sudden they were gone, moving farther away from us. It was only a minute or less that we saw the whales underwater, but it was incredible to be so close to such huge whales and see them in their natural surroundings. Tonga is one of the only places in the world where you can still swim with the whales, it's against the law everywhere else. So this really was the chance of a lifetime.
After swimming with the whales we had a coffee/tea break on the boat, and Brian and Sabine have an underwater microphone on a long cord that they put in, and we were able to hear the whales underwater! It was cool to listen to, they were making all sorts of noises and sounded really close to the boat, but with this microphone you can hear them up to 20 kilometers or so away. We then boated around some more, and the Japanese volunteer caught a fish, a huge grouper. He filleted the fish and we had fresh sashimi right out of the sea, and some pasta for lunch where we anchored in a really pretty aqua lagoon area. It was an incredible day overall! More photos are posted in the link to the left.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Weather dependent

Today looked nice and sunny outside with a little breeze, so I thought it would finally be a perfect day for laundry (we have to hang-dry all our clothes). But it never fails that as soon as I'm hanging the last few pieces of laundry it starts to look overcast all of a sudden, then a few drizzles start to fall and it's raining. Then comes the question of waiting it out to see if it's just a small drizzle, or drag everything inside and cover the living room and dining area with wet clothes that will take days to dry inside and hopefully won't start growing mold. Today I decided to wait it out, so far it just continues to look overcast with a strong breeze, hopefully the rain won't start again.

So as you can see our lives are very weather-dependent here, the above was just a small example. Things as basic as what we eat depends on the weather - if it's too windy and rainy for a few days the fishermen won't go out and there won't be fish anywhere in town. I can't imagine in the US not being able to get a certain food because of rain. Or if there are storms and the ocean is too rough the big ferry boat from the main island won't come for a week and we'll run short on supplies and food such as eggs (they only come from the main island), butter, chicken, and more. Rain also effects work and school here. If it's a rainy day many kids and even teachers just won't show up for school, or if it starts raining after school has started they'll have a long-run day and go straight through lunch then end early so the kids don't have to walk back and forth in the rain. At professional jobs people might not show up if it's raining hard outside. One nice thing about rainy weather is that it's a lot quieter in the mornings on rainy days - the neighbor kids aren't all outside yelling at the top of their lungs and even the roasters, dogs and pigs are quieter. On the other hand if it doesn't rain enough in the dry season our sima vie (rain water tank) that we get all our drinking water from outside could run dry and we'd have no drinking water. And during the summer here when it's unbearably hot and humid it effects what you do. You really think twice about walking across town or even a few blocks in the blistering sun. Back home you really don't think much about weather effecting your daily lives such as laundry/chores, food, transportation, or work. And the time of day also effects things here unlike back home. Local boats can only go out during the daylight hours, since most of them don't have lights and there are no reef markers lit up at night, it would be impossible to navigate. The time of year also has a bigger effect here on food supplies. Back home you can go to a big grocery store and get fruit, veggies and other seasonal foods anytime of year. Here if it's not in season, it's not available. During winter right now we have lots of vegetables available - lettuce, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, and green peppers, and bananas, papaya and root crops are available all the time. In the summer we'll get into the fruit season - pinneapple, mango, passion fruit, guava, and avocados. The summer is also the rainy season, hence more mosquitos, so we have to lather up with mosquito spray to avoid dengue fever. So the time of year, time of day, and weather has a bigger effect on our lives here.

This last week we've just been doing our normal work routines, I've started teaching a few computer classes again and we're battling computer viruses at the computer center I work at. Brett has started helping out with night classes once a week for the class 6 students who have their big exam in October. And every Friday now is karoake night at our local restaurant/bar so that's been fun. The Tongans always choose the cheesy love songs, and when it's just our group of friends there at the end we're all singing along. And now we're down to only four puppies out of the original 8, I think they've been stolen. The neighbor kids are doing good, we came home yesterday though to the little 2-year old boy peeing on our front steps! Peeing in the yard is "normal" here, but this was the first time he'd done it at our house. Back home right now the MN State Fair is going on, everyone back there enjoy it for us and all the good food we're missing!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Yes" is the answer to everything

In Tonga the common answer to everything is "io", which sounds sometimes like "yo" or sometimes like "ee-yo", depending on the emphasis and the situation. "Io" means "yes". So walking down the street when people greet each other, the answer to the greeter is usually a short "io" (sounding like "yo"). When people are talking or telling stories the listeners usually interrupt or end with "io, io" (sounding like ee-yo, ee-yo). Or in church when the congregation agrees with what the pastor is saying, or during long prayers, you'll hear men saying "io", sounding like a long, loud, low-toned "yooooo". I always wanted to try this one out, since it's always tongan men who do this, I wonder what they'd think of a white girl doing it. And when you ask Tongans anything in a yes or no form, they'll almost always answer yes. Yes it's okay to eat that, yes it's safe to swim there, yes there are no sharks (but there are), yes you can wear whatever you want in town, yes I'll come to work tomorrow (and then never show up), yes, yes, yes. So we have to think about how we word questions here, to make sure we get an answer and not just a yes. Or if not a verbal yes, we'll get a non-verbal yes to those types of questions. Here raising your eyebrows means "yes". So you can have a whole conversation with someone who just answers by raising their eyebrows, which can be frustrating after awhile when you're the only one talking. So please forgive Brett and I if we come back and start raising our eyebrows at you during conversations, we're not crazy, just acting a little Tongan. Hopefully this trait won't come up in job interviews. You could look at a deeper side of saying yes to everything - as in it will open up more experiences, etc. or that Tongans are just lazy and take the easiest way out everytime. They'd rather just raise an eyebrow than have to say a short "io". But another side to that is that they also just want to please everyone, especially on such small islands you can't really have big disagreements.

Some other news in Peace Corps Tonga, our country director is leaving this fall, he's taking the country director job in Gambia. We wish him the best, and will miss him, now there will be all new American staff here. We also had a friend in our group decide to leave early, we wish him the best back home and know he's enjoying the food and hot showers there! Now our group has 19 volunteers left, and so does the group before us.

We've been enjoying some of the best sunsets this week, the weather has been clear so we've been able to see Kao and Tofua volcanoes very clearly, and the sun is setting right behind Kao. And I've spotted some humpback whales, right in our backyard!! I saw one breach right in front of Kao, and some more playing in the water, I could see it all from our living room! Here are a few photos of the sunsets, and the eight little puppies here. There are also more new photos on the link to the left.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Packing List for Tonga Group 75 volunteers

It's getting closer to the time the new group of volunteers will arrive here Oct. 8th, so they should all be getting their invites within the next week or so. So we thought we'd post our recommended packing list we put together:

- Bring one backpack for everyday use, or for girls a shoulder bag
- Consider bringing a good travel backpack, something you would use it backpack across Europe in, it makes travel a lot easier.
- For secondary bags we suggest rolling duffel bags, they tend to hold up well
- Use up to the allocated weight for plane travel if possible, don’t try to pack too light

- mix of t-shirts and button down short-sleeved shirts (around 7 - 10). Make sure they all have sleeves that cover your armpits, and lightweight material. Have at least one black shirt.
- Tank tops - some white basic tanks, and some thicker strapped tanks for wearing at home, or tourist areas
- 5 - 6 Skirts that are below the knees, you’ll be able to buy the wrap-around skirts here
- Capris and pants - 1-2 capris that are below the knees. And one or two pairs of jeans or khakis for winter.
- Swimsuit - 2, you can wear them in tourist areas, or when swimming in local areas underneath shorts and shirt.
- Swimming - bring 1 shirt to swim in, and board shorts at or below the knees
- 1 rain jacket
- Sweater/sweatshirt, bring two for winter, and one or two long-sleeved shirts
- Underwear - enough for 1 ½ weeks or so, and comfortable bras that you can wear in hot weather
- Shoes - three pairs of sandals that are very comfortable and sturdy. Bring at least one pair of flip-flops, and one pair of strap-on sandals. Tennis shoes if you run.
- Jewelry - necklaces, earrings, etc, it’s something you can wear to feel more like yourself
- make-up - many girls don’t wear make-up here, I brought mine and am glad I did, another thing to make you feel more like yourself if you wear make-up back home.
- hairdryer - if you have one that converts to 240 voltage it’s worth bringing it and it’s nice to have when the weather gets cold
- tampons - they don’t sell them here! Bring enough for at least through training and then have more mailed
- razors, bring a few, you can buy cheap ones here as well

- mix of t-shirts 5-6 (dark colors are good)
- 3-4 short sleeve button-up shirts, light weight if possible
- 1-2 long sleeve shirts for the colder weather
- 1 pair of jeans for cold nights or for vacation
- 1 pair of Khakis for cold nights or rainy days
- 3 pairs of shorts, light weight if possible
- 1-2 belts, try to find cloth belts, they work the best, leather does not hold up
- 1-2 pairs of board shorts or swimming trunks
- 1-2 quick dry shirts for swimming or casual wear (Target has cheap nice shirts)
- 1 rain jacket
- 1-2 sweatshirts or fleeces for cold weather or overseas travel
- 8-10 pairs of boxers or underwear
- 3-4 pairs of socks
- 1 pair of running shoes ( good for exercising and for vacation in NZ or Australia)
- 1 pair of good flip flops
- 1 pair of strap on sandals for walking on reefs or walking in the bush
- electric shaver/trimmer, no hot water to shave with unless you boil, electric shavers work good
(guys, remember not to bring any baggy cloths, you will most likely loose 1-2 inches in your waist.
-don’t worry about bringing jackets, if its really cold you can wear a sweatshirt and wear your rain coat over that, it works good.
-good set of knifes and good filet knife
- one good frying pan, the ones they sell here are cheap
- measuring cups and measuring spoons
- can opener
- coffee perculater or French press if you’re a coffee drinker, and your favorite coffee.
- water bottles - sigg or nalgene type water bottles, you’ll be using them a lot!
- some food that you’ll miss - candy, granola bars, pasta mixes that you can make once you get to site, spices/seasonings or get them sent later in the mail.
- Hanging basket 3 tier for food

Bathroom: (bring enough with you for three month to last through training)
- supply of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash/soap. You can buy some stuff here that you get in the states like suave, but if you prefer certain brands bring that along.
- toothpaste - You can get expired crest here and some asian brands, we get most of ours sent in the mail.
- toothbrushes, bring a few extra, and bring toothbrush covers, you can also buy covers here.
- contacts - if you wear them, bring as much contact solution as you can, we brought six bottles and have had more sent in the mail, you can not buy it here.
- towels - you can buy them here, but bring one to start with

- Alarm clock
- wrist watch, timex makes nice rubber ones (Target)
- 2 pairs of sunglasses, things break easy
- knife or leatherman, good for fixing things
- duct-tape
- games - bring whatever games you can, that are good with a few people or with many, and easy to learn
- computer - yes, bring one! It’s great for watching DVD’s, typing up emails before getting to internet, storing photos, etc. Most people will end up somewhere with electricity. Chances are your computer will break here, bring a dry sack for your computer to be stored in when not using, this will increase its life here.
- hard drive - many volunteers bring hard drives to exchange movies and photos
- digital camera, underwater bag is also a good idea for your camera
- books - bring a few to start, but the peace corps libraries in each island group also have a lot of books
- hammock!!! - very glad we brought one, it’s the only furniture in our living room! Also good for camping.
- tent - good idea if you’re planning on camping at all.
- sleeping bag - lightweight, cheap sleeping bag, we got fleece ones at target
- 1 set of bed sheets - not as easy to find here
- good flashlights, hand-held and a headlamp is a very good idea, easy to use when biking
- I-pod, we brought ours along with a circle speaker
- Photos from back home - we brought an album with photos of family and friends, it’s fun to show the Tongans, and for decorating once you get to site.
- Presents - for homestay families. Some good ideas - women like perfume, give gifts that have to do with your hometown or state - postcards, calendars, food, etc. Bring stuff for little kids - toys, coloring books, etc. you’ll probably have kids at your homestay. Don’t waste too much space though on these gifts.
- adaptors - bring a couple of adaptors - Tonga is the same as Australia. You probably won’t need converters - most computers will convert the voltage, and you can get surge protectors here.
- Snorkeling - bring decent quality masks and snorkel, and flippers if you have room, if not you can usually find flippers here.
- Rechargeable batteries, if you have things that use AA or AAA consider bringing rechargeables
- Good pens, maybe one notebook for writing home or journaling
- Small sewing kit, clothes will get worn, buttons will fall off, etc.
- A couple months supply of multivitamins (the health office also has some available, not sure what kind)
- pop-up laundry bin or laundry bag, or stuff sack
- Things you’ll have supplied by peace corps- any kind of medical needs, sunscreen, bug spray, bike helmet, kerosene lantern, FM/AM radio, mosquito net for your bed, and a peace corps tonga cookbook

If you can’t fit all this into your bags, don’t be alarmed, you’ll be able to find some of these things here in Tonga, just bring what you think you need and it will all work out, don’t stress over packing! You can also have things shipped over anytime when you realize what you need. Volunteers are more than willing to help you find the things you need once you get here, just ask.

Also a good discount is offered on Chaco's website for sandals, 50% off for Peace Corps volunteers.

If you have any questions, feel free to email us.