Friday, January 6, 2012

Welcome back!

After an eventful trip involving being stuck in LA and sick on the airplanes, I couldn't have been more relieved to land in Tonga. My month-long leave in America was fantastic but I was definitely restless by the end. I was ready to trade in the cold for the heat and the turkey sandwiches for the 'ota ika (raw fish).

I just want to share a few moments that reminded me how unique my current home is. First, while I was waiting for my ride to pick me up, I ran into a teacher I used to work with. After a "Happy New Year" wish, she launched right into tell me how many family members she had to feed during the holidays. The only part of my trip she seemed interested in was what I ate in America and if I brought back candy. ("Yes of course I brought some, here is some chocolate!")

Welcome back...!

Second, I was picked up in a small black car with windows rolled down. This felt quite ominous as the clouds were blackening above us. The rain started slowly, eventually leading into a downpour with thunder and lightning. I look to roll up the window but the only thing in the door are a few wires sticking out. The driver smiles, pulls over, leans across me, and begins playing with the wires until they connect with some wire at my feet. The next thing I know, the window is slowly inching upwards. We spend the rest of the drive in the stifling, humid heat, of the air-conditionless car, with only one semi-working windshield wiper.

Welcome back...!

Finally, I arrive home. I lug my suitcase through the muddy puddles, soaking my shoes and pants in the process. (Clearly, I did not arrive in appropriate Tonga attire!) I take a cold shower, put on better clothes for humidity, and fall onto my bed. You may think I'm exasperated by this whole process, but I couldn't stop smiling.

It's good to be back, seriously.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Flower and Poem

This awesome flower is growing outside my house. It made me think of my favorite poem by a Tongan writer. I have this poem taped on my front door. It reminds me that the people I work with here may see the world differently than I do.

you say that you think
therefore you are
but thinking belongs
in the depths of the earth
we simply borrow
what we need to know

these islands the sky
the surrounding sea
the trees the birds
and all that are free
the misty rain
the surging river
pools by the blowholes
a hidden flower
have their own thinking

they are different frames
of mind that cannot fit
in a small selfish world

-Konai Helu Thaman

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Tongan Remix

When I picture the South Pacific Islands, I see beaches and palm trees, hammocks and PiƱa Coladas. In the background, I hear the strumming of ukuleles and singing in an unknown language.

Why I still carry this illusion is a mystery. I would expect someone like me to know better, as I have been living in this “island paradise” for two years. Let me start again, this time with a more accurate picture of “hanging out in paradise.”

For me, a Saturday is rarely spent at the beach. This morning I did the same thing I would do on a Saturday in America; I went shopping. The sun, the dusty roads, and the inevitable sweat however, provided enough variation to exasperate even the most “adjusted foreigner.”

After I survived the walk home, I sought that illusion of the island paradise. Grabbing a book and a cold coke, I sat down in my hammock and prepared to relax. I turned on the radio hoping for some local music to complete the scene. “What’s wrong with this picture?” you may ask, “It sounds like paradise to me!”

And you’re right, it is picturesque. But the illusion is broken (as it always is,) by some piece of reality. That is, Tonga is not simply the island paradise that we foreigners want. In fact, some Tongans are searching for something in the other direction, reaching for the culture they find exotic. How do I know? On this particular Saturday, it’s the song on the radio.

Picture this: I am lying in a hammock, hot, sweaty, and dusty, drinking a coke and listening, not to ukuleles, but to a remix of the Macarena with a variety of pop Christmas carols.

I laugh to myself, realizing that once again, the illusion designed to beguile the tourist is broken. The people here do not lie on the beach in hammocks, listening to island music as the palm trees sway in the breeze. They go about their lives, playing mismatched songs from overseas, creating their own illusion of exotic pop culture.

I have come to like the remixes. They are a reminder that life here is a jumble of “exotic” cultures that in the end, make it unique; and I will always choose its surprising remixes over the illusion of paradise.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What you should know before running in Tonga…

  1. When running in a rural village, plan on being accompanied by anywhere from 2-10 children, (or more!)
  2. Enjoy the company of the children, they help keep the ‘Tevolo’ (devil) away as you run through the bush!
  3. For a country where exercising is much less valued than in America, the track in town can get very crowded!
  4. When running at the crowded track, be prepared to dodge children, rugby balls, women and men walking, and women doing ZOOMBA! (dance/aerobics program)
  5. At the track, you are likely to feel very good about yourself, as you will be one of the few people running.
  6. This confidence may not last if you join a weekend running/swimming race with all the athletic Tongans and foreigners, in fact, you may be one of the last to finish!
  7. No matter where you run, you will be stared at…
  8. Especially if you run when it’s hot and your face turns beet red! “Who is that white girl running in the hot sun?” (Fair question!)
  9. Wearing headphones makes it more difficult to hear the remarks from the boys you pass or the boys practicing rugby at the track. (This however, does not always work!)
  10. It’s hot.

This blog post inspired by my desire to keep running, but being forced to take time off by the pains in my leg. (oh and number 11. It’s just as easy to overrun your muscles here, just because it’s hot doesn’t mean your muscles warm up faster…. Oops J)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

'Ako Hiva

Yes I’m starting up my blog again. No excuses/reasons why I haven’t done it… I’m just starting again. ;)

After being in Tonga for over a year, many things have begun to feel more natural. That is, until something new happens and I am reminded that there are many things I don’t understand. And then I feel right back to square one.

Recently I started feeling like I needed something else to do. The school year is coming to a close and things have felt pretty slow. (Granted this is Tonga and everything is slower….) I decided it was time for a new undertaking, something that would help me be more social with my village in a more regular manner. And again, this is Tonga, so the only social events in my village are church related. Therefore, I am now in a church choir. (Don’t laugh, I sing well enough for this!)
So tonight was my first choir practice, or in Tongan, ‘ako hiva. Now I’ve been in music quite a bit and have a good ear so I figured I could just read the words (printed in a hymnal without any written music,) like I do every Sunday in church and listen to the tune and catch on eventually. Not so much. Apparently before even learning the words to the song, they learn the melodies. And that is NOT done by reading music that looks like ours. It looks something like this:

3:- 3: 3: 3: etc …………………….
5:-5: 5: 5: etc …………………….
8:- 8: 8: 849: etc …………………….

When I arrived at the practice, I was given a paper that looks like this and everyone just starting singing. A good friend of mine, despite the fact that she can speak English well, was not entirely helpful. I asked her to explain and she simply responded by singing it to me. Needless to say, it didn’t help much.

The small amount I deduced from this practice tonight is that they sing the first syllable or the number that is written, (in Tongan.) The numbers seemed to correspond to a scale but not in sequential order as I expected. The lines following the number notate how long the note is held and the closer the numbers are together, the faster they seemed to be sung. But that doesn’t help much when there are pages of this stuff. J

When practice ended, people were thanking me for coming and asking if I had fun. I told them yes, but I have no idea how to read their music, it’s so different! From this I had hoped someone would say “Hey, I’ll teach you!” But again, not so much. The response was laughter and “Come again Thursday!”

I guess this will be another “learn as I go” experience, one of many here in Tonga!

Sunday, February 7, 2010


For some bizarre reason, up until last week, I had thought I had experienced enough life to know not to be too surprised when things don’t turn out how you expect. However when these past two weeks happened, I was surprised at how shocked I was at the speed of the changes. As I wrote about in my last entry, I’ve had to move sites. This entry is about the grand adventure I went on to make this happen.

The first step of this adventure was to take a plane from Pangai down to Tongatapu. The flight’s not long and I arrived early enough to grab lunch before a meeting at the main Peace Corps office with the other volunteers who were being moved and PC staff. At this meeting we were given details about the rest of the plan. The PCVs were to ride a chartered boat up to our islands (we were all in the same district,) that evening and ride through the night. We would have 24 hours to pack our things and have them ready to be taken out to the boat. (This is done via small boats from the island; the big boats can’t actually come all the way in.) The other new PCV, Sarah, and I were to then travel with the same boat back to Pangai where she would stay and I would wait another day to get on an airplane again and fly back to Tongatapu. The other volunteers who have been there a year have two weeks to stay and wrap up projects and say goodbye.

I was quite apprehensive about this plan to start with but I accepted that it was the only way I was going to be able to pack my things and say goodbye to my community. My apprehension wasn’t helped when a Tongan friend told me the sea was rough and wanted to make sure I was riding a good boat. While I completed trusted the judgment of the PC staff on deciding whether the conditions were safe, I could tell this was shaping up to be quite an uncomfortable ride.

Uncomfortable turned out to be an understatement. I won’t go into details about the boat ride since much of it is a blur to me, but I will tell you that there were two real options for places to ride. One was outside in the rain/ocean spray (which was terrible,) or inside where I my seasickness was drastically increased. I however created a third option; I ended up riding for about 7-8 hours of the 15 hour trip in the bathroom where I could quickly be sick every few minutes. Throughout this journey, I kept saying to myself, “I signed up for this?!?!”

Thankfully, the PC staff member who was with us, made the wonderfully wise decision of giving us an extra day when we arrived at our islands. For me, this meant I had an afternoon to recover from the trip before going to the evening meeting with the community and the PC staff to explain why I would no longer be working with them. This meeting was pretty tough for me and I’ll even admit that I cried during it.

Somehow everything got packed, I recovered from the boat, and said goodbye to my community. I even managed to go to the school and explain to the students in broken tongan why I couldn’t be their teacher anymore. They didn’t seem to upset about it when I passed out all the notebooks and pens that I had. Throughout all of this, I had many people cry for me, tell me they love me, and tell me they were going to hide me on the island so the boat wouldn’t take me away. When the time came to actually leave, the entire school came to my house and helped me carry my things to the beach. (Only 18 kids though, don’t be too impressed. J) Most of the village came to the “road” or down to the beach to say goodbye. The town officer, who is a large and old man, even carried his chair down to the beach so he could wave as I left. We all waved until I could no longer see them anymore.

The rest of the story is slightly less eventful. Luckily, the boat ride into Pangai wasn’t nearly as bad and I arrived with a feeling of relief. While I still had a plane ride the next day, I felt as if the madness of the journey was over. I spent the evening with some Tongan friends and was able to just relax. The final day of the trip, I spent the morning helping Sarah move into her new house and then just preparing to leave. The flight I took that evening was of course delayed by over an hour, but by this point in the journey I barely noticed. When I finally arrived back in Nuku’alofa, I turned down the offer to go out with some friends and went straight to sleep!

To wrap up though, much good will come out of this move even though it wasn’t my first choice early on. When I was on the island again those two days I realized just how isolated I would have been for two years and how potentially lonely could have been. Now I’m placed close enough to other PCVs so I can see them if I need to but far enough that I can have a good Tongan experience. I have a couple Tongan friends in this area that I’m really happy to be near as well. Exercising will include running in one direction longer than 5 minutes before needing to turn around and I’ll have access to vegetables! So hopefully I’ll be able to stay healthy. And……

It makes visiting me that much easier!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

‘Ofa aupito!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fakakata pe

Fakakata pe or Just Kidding......

So this blog post has been empty for a while as I'm trying to put into words what I need to update you all on....

I know some of you have heard, but I'm being moved from my site to a new one due to transportation issues. The one boat that used to run out to the district I was living in has been deemed "unseaworthy" and therefore cannot run any longer. This came as a huge surprise because I was in the capital of the Ha'apai district for a meeting when it happened. I was told completely unexpectedly that I would not be returning home. :(

Initially I was very upset about it. As you know I was very excited about the prospect of living on an island with no electricity and running water. I had also began to feel part of my new community and had come up with some ideas for projects to start. The people of my island had also gone to a lot of trouble to get me there and now I have to tell them I'm leaving.

Clearly however, I cannot argue with the lack of transportation. So as my Tongan friends have been reminding me, since there is nothing I can do about it, I should just relax and go with the flow. That's proving tricky though since I'm not always the most patient person in the world. ;) (Tonga is being very good at making me practice though....)

My new site is a smaller village on the outskirts of the main island of Tongatapu. I'll still be working at a primary school and I have been assured this community is very excited to have me come. I'll be near some close Peace Corps friends and I've been told there are beautiful beaches in the area. I'll have running water and electricy and get this..... access to vegetables! I'm living the high life now! So in other words, I'm starting to accept the idea and am looking forward to meeting my new community.

The current dilemma is how to return to my island to get my things and then transport it all to Tongatapu. That should be happening sometime next week. I'm sure I'll be able to keep you all posted easier now that internet is more accessible. (Still none in my village but I can get to a city now.) Oh and my address won't change... still go through the Peace Corps office.

I'll post again soon once things start to fall into place. Prayers, thoughts or whatever are greatly appreciated during this transition!

Much love!