Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pacific Partnership - US navy led humanitarian mission

Well it’s been a crazy couple of weeks for us here in Ha’apai with the Pacific Partnership mission here led by the US Navy with help from the airforce, army and public health units, world veterinarians, dentists in training, engineers, and forces from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Singapore. It was a big mixture of people here all working together and with the local navy and people here. It’s going to feel very empty here when they all leave, it’s been great having so many people around! Some of the highlights for us have been the opening ceremony with dancing and speeches, being able to help out with some workshops and seeing the great changes at Brett’s school building and the navy program there for the kids, touring the navy ship, a small formal dinner party with the Prime Minister of Tonga for a farewell dinner, and the big closing ceremony and feast with 500+ people. While the navy was here they did construction on four primary schools, had doctors, dentists and optometrists at the hospital, veterinarians, held workshops on HIV/Aids, first aid and CPR, food sanitation and nutriton, and much more.

While the navy was here I mostly helped out at MAFF where I work, the navy conducted food sanitation and nutrition classes there, and an animal/veterinarian workshop. Everyday we had women’s groups come in from different villages. Unfortunately, two of the five days there were funerals so attendance was low those days. But I could tell the classes were making a difference and helping, the women learned new ways of sanitizing and cleaning and more about nutrition (they were told to eat half a plate of vegetables at every meal and a lot less meat and root crops). But at least we had some women come to the classes, I think between 30 and 40, and they’ll pass on the information to more people in their village.The food sanitation/nutrition team also left behind materials for us so we can hopefully continue these classes when we do cooking classes. When the veterinarians were here we got Lucky and Simba (our neighbor’s dog) fixed so they can’t have puppies. The veterinarians were also surprised that no one gives any of the animals water to drink here, there were pigs penned up the entire time the vets were here and each day they’d give the pigs some of their bottled water. They also traveled around to a lot of farms on both islands here seeing the bigger animals – cows, pigs, horses, goats. The team at MAFF brought us lots of great food and drinks from their MRE’s (meals ready to eat in bags), and from the ship they brought chips, cookies, salsa, and cereal, it was really nice of them! If any of you are reading this, thanks so much again!

Brett’s school is now almost finished as well, it looks amazing!! It’s basically a new building for classes 4 – 6, the other building for the younger classes is the same but with new paint. On the building the navy fixed they put on a new roof, new walls, new windows, electricity, a new rain water tank, and new paint on all the buildings – white with red trim. There were over 30 people working there everyday, and on Friday the school had a feast for the engineers and navy that worked on the building and gave them some gifts. The soldiers then went around and gave the kids dog tags and played with them.

On Friday night this week there was a farewell dinner at the high school, with just a few select guests invited. The guest of honor was the Prime Minister of Tonga, and there were a hand full of parliament members, secretary of foreign affairs and secretary of education all up from the capital city of Nuku’alofa. Brett and I got a last minute official invitation, along with the other peace corps volunteers Phil and Alicia. It was a nicely printed letter, and the dress was “lounge dress”, we wore our traditional tongan-wear. There were only about 60 guests total! The hall was all decked out in balloons and lots of tapa mats, the navy band was playing, we all got flower leis as we entered, and there was an open bar! They seated us and Phil at the table with the secretary of foreign affairs and some other navy from Australia and the US. I sat next to the captain of one of the Australian ships. They had a program with speeches from the Prime Minister and the Commodore of the US navy, then we had a buffet dinner with really great food – real garlic bread, lobster, seasoned fish, salads, roasted pig, octopus and more. During dinner they had school kids dancing for entertainment. It was really cool to be invited to such an important event, with so few people in attendance and no media – just a personal farewell dinner party put on by the Prime Minister that felt more casual.
(us with the Prime Minister)

After dinner everyone got up and socialized, someone from our table that works with the Prime Minister asked us to come and meet him! Right away when he introduced Brett and I the Prime Minister said “I remember you, we’ve met before!”, he remembered us from our swearing in ceremony in December! Then he asked if we wanted our picture taken, so of course we got our picture taken with him. It was really incredible that the Prime Minister of Tonga knows who we are!! Then we spent some time talking with other Tongans from the government, and taking photos with a lot of the navy that we’ve gotten to know and Tongan government officials. It was pretty fun! We also had a conversation with Captain Cully, the Commodore of the Pacific Partnership mission, the person in charge of it all. He gave speeches at all the big events and was always the guest of honor seated up front. He said he was grateful for all of our help, and liked that we were so involved and friendly with them all. We told him of course we wanted to help out as much as we could and we were just so excited to have so many other Americans and foreigners here working with us. So many of them were interested in what Peace Corps is and asked lots of questions. This is the last country on their tour they’ll have Peace Corps volunteers. After the open bar ran out at the farewell dinner we all moved over to Mariner’s Café for awhile, then a few of us stopped at a new dance club by the wharf. My counterpart at the computer center also just set up a dance club in an old abandoned building right on the ocean by the wharf. We’ll see how long it lasts, it’s good to have something like this for the youth in town. So it ended up being a fantastic night!
On Saturday, there was a closing ceremony at Brett’s School for the Pacific Partnership mission here in Ha’apai. They had speeches again and prayers, gift-giving from both the US navy and the Tongans, a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new school building, and then there was a huge feast. By huge, I mean the entire islands of Lifuka and Foa were probably there along with most of the navy ship. We guessed over 500 people. They had two huge tents set up with long tables overflowing with food – the normal piles of wrapped food plates on top of each other and whole roasted pigs every few feet, whole huge lobsters, octopus, chicken, fish, and more. We were seated, then noticed tons of Tongans standing all around the edges and filling up all the cars parked all around the event. This is the first time in Ha’apai I felt like if I wanted to find someone here at the feast I might not be able to in the crowd! They had lots of dancing again from the school kids during the feast, and the navy band and the Weslyn school band played music. This was by far the biggest feast I’ve seen in Tonga, bigger than the church conferences. We went to Mariner’s last night, the last time it will be this busy. It will feel really empty now after the ship leaves today.
In animal news, our neighbor’s dog, Kimone, just had her puppies last night! I think there are about 6 of them, it’s hard to tell – they’re all huddled up under our back stairs. And the piglet our neighbors gave us, Ifo (delicious), was stolen along with another piglet. We’re guessing Ifo ended up on the feast tables today, hundreds of piglets were killed and roasted for this feast.
Some other big news, we leave for Brisbane, Australia next week on Thursday! We go to Nuku’alofa for a few days, leaving on Tuesday then on to Australia. We’re going for medical, Brett needs to get his leg looked at, it shouldn’t be anything serious but they don’t have an MRI here in Tonga so they have to send him out of country. And I’m going along as well paying my own way. So we’ll have a little bit of a vacation there for around two weeks – we’ll see how long we’re there after the test results. I’m really excited to get back there – I studied abroad for a semester just north of Brisbane on the Sunshine Coast. Hopefully we’ll have time to get up there and down to the Gold Coast. It feels weird leaving again so soon after our New Zealand trip last month. It felt pretty sad coming back here after our New Zealand trip with my family, and now it feels a little sad leaving Ha’apai since so many things are just getting started - my Internet café, I’m missing the first women’s group meeting with MAFF and just started working with my counterpart there, I won’t be able to start computer classes until we get back, and Brett’s school was just re-done and his library. But I am really looking forward to the restaurants and hot showers again! And we’ll just pick up where we left off here, hopefully they’ll be able to keep the Internet café open while I’m gone.

There are more new photos in the link to the left. Our next post might be from Australia!
*Here are a few related links, the first is our local news coverage from Matangi news, the next is a blog from Pacific Partnership following their continuing travels on to the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands, and the last link is to the navy's site about the Pacific Partnership.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

US city afloat - a tour of the navy ship

Today all of us Peace Corps volunteers here had the opportunity to tour the US navy ship that's floating about 3 miles off our coast here in Ha'apai, it's here on the pacific partnership tour giving aid to different countries in the south pacific. It's considered US territory once you're on the ship, so for just a little while today we were back home! It's basically a floating city, I think about 3 square miles, with lots of different decks, 6 or 8 I think. And 2 helicopters on board, lots of eating areas, dorm type rooms, and a store where we stocked up on tons of really good american food - cheddar and feta cheese, ranch dressing, corn chips and salsa, beef jerky, little debbie cakes and more. It's funny we actually had some American cash here, just in case an American store happened to float up to our little island! We also got to tour the main control room and engine room which was really cool to see, it was a huge ship!! They even had drinking fountains on board, which we took advantage of, we haven't seen that in a long time here. They also had American beer, stored in their special weapons room since it wasn't being used on this tour. It was a great day, we're really happy the navy let us take a tour of the ship.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The ants come marching one by one... US Navy has arrived!!

It's been a busy couple of days here in Ha'apai, the US Navy has arrived for their humanitarian Pacific aid mission. There are about 200 of them, US, Australian and New Zealand navy, and some civilians they recruited as doctors or different specialists. They are doing construction on some of the government schools in Ha'apai, doing medical, dental, and optometry clinics and giving away hundreds of eyeglasses and toothebrushes, doing clinics on first aid, CPR, nutrition, food sanitation, and they also have a team of veterinarians. So it's crazy with all these things going on here, and they're here for two whole weeks in Ha'apai! They also have smaller teams going out to three of the outer islands.They came on Monday, it was storming and rainy out and they just unloaded equipment. Then yesterday we had the big opening ceremony at the high school, with the commadore of the US Navy as the special guest along with one other navy official, and a few Tongans on stage in chairs covered in tapa cloths. It was reallly well decorated with lots of mats and tapa cloths covering the stage and floor, and chairs set up on the sides, the middle was covered in mats for the school kids to sit on. They had some opening speeches, the commadore spoke about their pacific aid mission, and two schools did ta'alunga dances with Sara and Alicia, peace corps volunteers. At the end they had the navy band playing and all the kids were dancing around with them.

For these next couple of weeks the navy is here I'm going to mostly be helping out at MAFFF (ministry of agriculture, forestry, food and fisheries) where I work. The navy is holding clinics there for the veterinarians and for food sanitation and nutrition with the local farmers and women's groups in different villages. I'll help with any cultural information and a little translation if needed. I had to explain some things to the navy this morning - they had all our Tongan staff together and asked for their input and what they wanted to learn right away. And of course, in group settings and with foreigners Tongans are shy to speak up on their opinions and defer to the eldest or person of the highest level. So they were all quiet and deffered to the officer in charge of MAFFF. We'll also get our dog Lucky fixed so she won't have puppies, she followed me there this morning to the informational meeting and the US navy people loved her and were playing with her and Simba (neighbor's dog).

After my meeting at MAFFF today I went to Brett's school, the navy was doing their first visit to his school today so they had a whole program planned to welcome them and thank them for doing construction on the school - a new roof and walls, basically a new building! They had flower leis for all the navy people who were there, and tents set up in the rugby field, and a dj/music system. There were some speeches - including Brett giving a thank you speech, tongan music and dancing, and the US Navy band. When the band played all the kids got up and started dancing, then were joined by a lot of the navy so it turned into a big dance party! Then the navy had a helicopter land on the rugby field, and the kids all got to take turns getting into the helicopter and looking around in it! They loved it.

The other huge news is that we've opened the Internet cafe at the Ha'apai Training Center I've been working at!! It's amazing that we got this accomplished, and the Internet's running fast. Today was the first day we put up a big painted sign and opened, we've had about ten customers already and a lot of the navy wants to use it. We also have wireless so people can bring in laptops, which is what I'm doing.

So it has been a busy couple of days, and will be busy until the end of next week!! But it's really exciting seeing all the work being done and being able to be a part of it all helping out where we can. It's really crazy seeing so many palangis - foreign people in our little town of Pangai. Our local restaurant/bar was packed last night with uniformed navy men and a few women.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Day with the Women

I usually don't spend all day at my job at MAFFF (ministry of agriculture, forestry, fisheries and food), but since there usually isn't much going on that they need my help with I decided to stay longer this time and help with whatever they were doing. And it's almost always just the women in the office, the men are usually out in the bush or fixing machinery or vehicles. So when Elaise, the women-in-development manager, went out front and started weeding and gardening I offered to help. But of course, since I'm a palangi (white person) and Tongans don't think palangis do any type of labor work or don't think they can, they told me to sit and have a rest. I knew I'd have to fight this, I knew that if I tried to do more of this type of work or whatever they were doing they'd respect me more and it might break some of the stereotypes they have about foreign women. It gets old hearing them telling us to always just have a rest or offering us chairs to sit on when everyone else is sitting on the floor. I don't want to be held up above others. So when the other two women in the office went out with Elaise to do weeding as well, I just followed them, watched for a few seconds, and mimicked what they were doing. And of course the women laughed at me, made jokes, and asked if I'd ever weeded before, all in good fun. And so our long, hot morning began weeding and gardening, and talking and laughing. Tongans laugh a lot and like to share stories or gossip, and they often make fun of each other joking around. So I felt like I was getting closer to these women. A lot of the conversation was in Tongan so I was pretty lost, but once in awhile I'd catch some words or phrases and figure out what the conversation was about, and contribute what I could. Other times one of the women would translate to me what they'd just talked about and we'd then talk about it in English. Then for lunch one of them went and got chicken, another person had brought over some huge cooked yams, we had coconuts cut open for drinks, and I went and got the banana bread I'd made earlier. While we were waiting for the food to be done they were saying how much they like Americans because they always try the Tongan food, and don't make fun of the Tongan people - they said people from some other countries won't try the food and make fun of the island people here. Then before I had a chance, they'd already piled tons of food on my plate, more than I could ever eat. I protested saying I'd never eat it all, but they told me to bring some back to Brett for lunch. One of the women, Lola, said she was trying to loose some weight, and that's why she wasn't eating the chicken skin or fat. Another woman then grabbed all the chicken fat and skin off Lola's plate and soaked up all the fatty juice while she ate it all - for many Tongans the fat is the best part. And all the eating as always was done with our hands, leaving them all greasy. I left that day with dirt-filled fingernails and greasy hands, but a feeling of accomplishment.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Day

We celebrated the 4th of July here with a bonfire, roasting hot dogs on our beach, with people from five different countries including a few of the US Navy. I'd gotten some of those pop-me's in Nuku'alofa, where you pull the string and it shoots out confetti . (I was just there for a few days for a PC volunteer meeting). So that was our fireworks. The neighbor kids loved them, and we had them draw some flags for decorations, combinations of Tongan and US flags. When we explained it was our American Independence Day they kept thinking we were talking about the movie - Independence Day. I also spent part of the day floating out on the ocean from our beach on the new air mattresses my parents brought over when they visited, it's very relaxing!