Monday, January 25, 2010

A stranger in a strange land

It's a strange feeling to come home after living overseas for almost a year and a half. We watched out the plane window as our little green palm-dotted islands disapeared, and coming into our first landing back in America we watched row after row of cement, buildings, and houses come into view in LA, with hardly anything green. After living abroad you come back with a different perspective, it definately changes you. Have you ever thought about how weird some things are in our own country, or what some foreigners must think? For example, coming from a tiny Pacific island to a main-land and flying for 4 hours over nothing but land was a different feeling. Hot showers are amazing. The first shower after Tonga the feeling of the water was like air it felt so much lighter than the water we had. And food, you never realize how many different flavors there are, and it's like tasting it for the first time after going so long without certain foods. But I have to say, the pineapple is disapointing here, we're spoiled now after the fresh, sweet pineapple we had in Tonga. And water, we don't have to wake up every morning and haul our drinking water in from a water tank outside, and we don't have to boil water and wait for it to cool. In LA we had a layover for a night, and in the hotel Brett walked down the hall and came back with bottled water, forgetting that we could drink the tap water again. The most amazing feeling right after leaving Tonga was just having clean feet and clean fingernails. The whole time over there your feet are just black. We'd clean our feet often, but no matter what they just turn black with dirt and sand and whatever. Wearing flip-flops the whole time your feet just get dirty. And we'd clean the floors in our house often, but they'd just get dirty so fast from living on the beach and having dogs. And I don't know what happens at night, but you go to sleep clean and wake up with dirt under your fingernails. I don't know. So it's nice to see that our feet are actually pink again (but we do still have calouses on our ankles from sitting on the floor mats so often). And after sleeping under a mosquito net for so long, we felt exposed at first sleeping without one here. But it's nice going to sleep now in sheets that aren't damp from humidity. And driving again is weird - to be on the right side of the road and not the left. And on our island we really were rarely in cars and when we were it was very slow going over the roads we had, and short distances so I noticed now I get a little car sick here.
So those were some of the basic differences we noticed right away coming back. But we also had some reverse culture-shock. Some people say the culture-shock is worse coming back to your own country after living abroad. I think it's better though when you expect it, we didn't expect to come back and things to just be normal again, we knew there'd be an adjustment. One of the first things we noticed was how connected people are now to the Internet, everyone has fancy phones they're constantly typing on, it's a little annoying. It was nice to be somewhat detached from that overseas. People here are becoming more detached from real conversations and interactions when they're just using facebook or things online to communicate. And it's very easy here to go days without having real interactions with people- you can sit at home online or shop around malls or places and not really talk to anyone, and the neighborhoods are more isolated - you can't walk down the street and be in town. In Tonga if you left your house you were greeted by every person you saw in town just blocks away, and even if you didn't leave the house the neighbors would come over to chat. You just had no option of isolating yourself. And commercialization, what can I say. In Tonga, you wore whatever clothes you had, no matter if they didn't match or were stained. You couldn't even buy clothes on our island, unless they had them at the market on Saturdays and then they were used old clothes that probably wouldn't fit. People didn't buy decorative vases, pictures, pillows, etc. for their houses. They just had the basics that were needed, sometimes not even that. Most of the time you sat on the floor and that was perfectly fine. We didn't have many options for shopping on our island because it was so hard to get stuff to our island. We already know what the stores are like here, but still knew it would be a little bit of a shock. At first we avoided going shopping. Then we went to the mall with Brett's family, I started converting prices to Tongan and things are so expensive here! We went to the Mac store, and I was overwhelmed by all the things they had, knowing that on our island computers are so old and constantly breaking down. Later Brett and I went to Target, and that was the biggest culture-shock I had coming back - just seeing row after row of all these products and things that we couldn't get on our island, but here they had a whole row of selection. For example body wash, which we couldn't get in Ha'apai, but here there was a whole row and it all looked the same - moisturizing, deep moisturizing, hydrating, sensitive skin, exfoliating, etc. I had to stop and breathe, and just grab one after looking at them all for 5 minutes or so. Walking around I glanced over at the food section, saw a huge row of different spices, and had to look away again. Brett said he had the same overwhelming feeling when we were shopping at a department store. I kept handing him dress shirts I was finding, and it was all so much and he said he was just thinking he didn't want any of them - he just wanted to wear scrubby t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops like in Tonga where fashion didn't matter. Here we have to dress up again.

So that's a little description of how we've been dealing with coming home to America. Thanks again to all our friends and family, it's been great seeing people again and sharing stories about life in Tonga. And we are missing the hot weather now, as we sit in about 4 degrees fahrenheit weather here, and we miss all our friends back there. We also turned our cell phones back on (our old cell phones look ancient compared to the new technology now), and we bought a cheap vehical to get around in. I have had a few job interviews scheduled already, so we'll see how things go.

A little update we just heard from Tonga - they suspended travel for volunteers on the only ferry because it's under investigation for safety issues. It actually left port and headed to the outer islands when it wasn't supposed to just recently. So it might be hard to get supplies now in Ha'apai if the ferry has to stop. And they might be moving volunteers off the outer islands in Ha'apai, since the ferry is the only mode of transportation to get to those islands. Good luck to everyone that's still there, hopefully they will get a new ferry soon.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Nothing Gold Can Stay

We are leaving the Kingdom of Tonga and our little island of Ha'apai. Brett will be medically seperated for his leg, and I will get interrupted service status. We knew this might be coming and had thought about it for awhile, but still are very sad to be leaving early.

We will miss all our great friends here in Ha'apai, our neighbors, and our work counterparts. We will miss our beach, and the sound of crashing waves every night as we fall asleep. We will miss the sunsets on our beach, we've seen a sunset almost every night for the last 16 months. We will miss the amazing coral reefs, fish, and whales (not the sharks). We will miss seeing volcanoes out our back door. We will miss trying to converse in Tongan (although we'll try skyping with our neighbors back in Tonga in Tongan). We will miss the fresh fish, tropical fruit, and lobster (not the lack of vegetables). We will probably miss the incredibly hot weather once we're back in the freezing cold Midwest winter. We will miss the easy-going island pace to life. These things and many more we will miss. We went to help the locals in another country with our skills and English language, but learned so much in return. Not every country needs to be "westernized", and I hope Ha'apai doesn't change too much in the coming years.

We have been able to do some amazing things during Peace Corps here, including swimming with humpback whales, teaching adults how to use computers who have never touched a computer before, teaching kids English and how to play soccer, creating a website for tourism on our island and teaching locals how to use it, helping the US Navy with a humanitarian mission with our local connections and being adapted into the culture, establishing an Internet cafe, and more. It's funny that on this little remote island we almost feel more connected to the community than we did back home in a big city. The important people in town know us and sometimes come to us for help - the judge, the assistant governor, town officers, the police, local business owners, etc. We never walk down a street without someone yelling out a greeting. And we now know how to survive every natural disaster possible that could hit our island. We have had many ups and downs here, but looking back we wouldn't change a thing.

We are very excited to see our family and friends back home. Thank you for all the love and support while we've been here in Tonga. We are actually surprising everyone back home, so this will be posted later once we are already home. Then we will post some more about our last week in Ha'apai, going away parties and such. We are looking forward to whatever comes next for us - either looking for new jobs again or spending some time traveling. We will keep up the blog for a little while longer going through our culture shock back home and first few months or so. Then if we start a new blog we'll post a link. Below is our "wall of love" of cards and things we've gotten in the mail while in Tonga. Thanks again everyone for following our blog, and also let us know if you have any job leads for either of us.
And good luck to the rest of our group of volunteers with the coming year, and new volunteers just starting their service on our island, here are a few blogs you can watch for updates from our area:,,,, or just check out to see blogs listed by country.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ha'apai Tourism

My big project recently has been the website I created for the Tourism Bureau here in Ha'apai. They have never had their own website before, there is no place to go online that lists all the accommodations and activities in one place. So this is a big step. There is a main website for tourism in Tonga, but it mostly focuses on the main island of Tongatapu, and the tourist destination of the Vava'u islands north of us. I would have created the website in Dreamweaver with a better design, but my main goal has been to make sure it's sustainable and that my counterpart can edit and update current information. So we used google blogger and set up a navigation bar at the top, and I've taught him how to use it. It's been amazing so far, he's been updating and publishing information on his own now about activities, history, culture, and more (we still need to work on editing some of the English though). It's a good feeling to be in a place where you can make this kind of an impact with the Internet and technology. And the tourism office was very surprised that you can make websites for free now. Tourism here is a difficult thing sometimes, but a huge boost on the economy. I think it's the biggest in Tonga after remittances from overseas. On such a small island here with so few operators and guest houses there are small town politics. And Tonga is known as the Friendly Islands, but they aren't good with customer service and hospitality. The people are amazing if you come as their guest, but it's a different story if you're a tourist. Ha'apai really does have a lot to offer tourists though - pristine coral reefs with lots of fish, swimming with whales, important historical sites, long sandy beaches, etc. You just can't expect five-star hotels, air conditioning, or gourmet meals.

So check out our Ha'apai tourism website!

Brett and I head to Nuku'alofa on the main island tomorrow for some mid-service training with Peace Corps. We haven't left Ha'apai now since the beginning of August. We have done a lot of smaller trips though around our islands here, just this last weekend a bunch of us camped out on the liku "wild" side of our island by some cool rock formations.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bring your own TP

When you visit a Tongan hospital, there's a list of things you'd better bring including toilet paper, mosquito coils and matches, food and water, hand sanitizer, and sometimes your own bed sheets. We made a visit to the hospital overnight on Saturday for me, I'm not sure why I was so sick, it was mostly my stomache so probably something I ate. After talking to our Peace Corps nurse a few times she suggested the hospital to make sure I was staying hydrated. So in our whole time here in Tonga we made our second visit to the hospital (the first was during training for Brett in Vava'u).

This was our first visit to the hospital here in Ha'apai, we'd heard some stories that made us pretty nervous. In fact the Tongan word for hospital, falemahaki, translates literally to house of sick. But the US Navy helped out at the hospital in July and inspected it, and just recently a medical person from Peace Corps headquarters in DC had inspected it as well, so I felt a little better.

We walked into the hospital and found the "check-in" table towards the back, out in the open hallway. They pulled up a few chairs for us, and I had to go through my symptoms as the nurse wrote them down in a notebook and everyone wandering around the hallways and hanging around could hear everything. Not like in America! Some people that knew us even tried to come up and have a conversation during this. The nurse then called the doctor, and they decided to give me an IV to hydrate me and keep us overnight. I think we were treated a little better since we're Peace Corps, we were given a private room (the others all had 4 beds), and bedsheets.

After being here for over a year, we just expect things to be the way they are here. But if you're coming from the States you wouldn't expect open window slats with no mosquito screens in a hospital, so there were mosquitos that could possibly give you dengue fever flying around. And it's not exactly sanitary to have stuff flying in the windows. There's no AC or fans, so then there's the dilemma of having the windows open for a breeze and having the mosquitos, or having the windows closed and sweating the heat. And in the bathroom, there was actually a sink, but of course no soap... in a hospital. And no toilet paper. We actually forgot to bring our own TP, so the nurses were nice enough to lend us some until Brett was able to go back and get some more things from our house. Overall it wasn't a horrible experience, the nurses were all very nice, the needles were new and they used alcohol swabs, and they even gave us breakfast in the morning. So don't be too worried if you ever have to visit a Tongan hospital, just be ready for some of these realities. I did feel a little better the next day. It was really funny when we got back to our house the next morning our neighbors came outside and were clapping when they saw we were back and I was okay.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The first sunrise of 2010

We celebrated New Years with a bonfire on our beach with friends in town, and roasted marshmellows. All the churches here have services from 10 to midnight on New Years, hoping to keep people from drinking or getting into trouble. We counted down midnight, and saw some local fireworks go off in town. Then some of us got up really early to be the first in the world to see the first sunrise of 2010, we biked to the east side of the island. As I write this, celebrations haven't even started yet for New Years Eve in the States, we're so far ahead on time here. Brett and I have now completed a full calendar year here in Tonga.