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.