Thursday, December 24, 2009


23 ‘o Tisema: Christmas Eve Eve

Here we are in the tropics at Christmastime. The Tongan Christmas is unlike any Christmas I’ve ever experienced. The overwrought commercialism is largely absent; while there is some gift giving it appears to be mostly small stuff. Concerts are popular; there was a big local concert last night featuring some local musicians, including the brass brand from Tupou College, our neighborhood school. Our PC neighbor went and said it was great, but we stayed home because Kathy’s been laid low by a staph infection.

It started with a boil on her leg a few weeks ago, then last week another boil appeared on her left shoulder. While she was diligent in following the prescribed treatment, it became clear by Monday evening the infection was spreading to her neck and left ear. Our medical officer took her to a real palangi doctor on Tuesday; he prescribed intensive antibiotics and put an IV port in her left forearm. (Readers who know Kathy will be cringing at this point knowing her opinion of needles, especially big ones.) So for the last two days she has been receiving injections at 8 a.m., 4 p.m., and midnight; as I write this at 11:45 p.m. we are waiting for the nurse to arrive. Tomorrow she goes back to the doctor and hopefully we can move to oral administration. The injections are painful, but they appear to be having an impact.

The other big news is that our landlord and his plumber replaced our broken instant hot water heater with a new one yesterday, and so now we are living in luxury with hot water to our shower and sinks. Kathy’s convinced (and I’m not arguing the point) that the lack of hot water for the last two months is largely responsible for her current medical issue.

When we moved in last Thursday, our next door neighbors were in the 5th day of the putu for the family patriarch who had died of renal failure sometime over the weekend. He was only in his mid-50s. Lots of people around, lots of comings and goings and feasting; several big tents had been erected on the grounds, and various activities, including prayer services and vigils going on all night. For some reason the Tongan people feel it is important to stay up all night when honoring the dead. They then sleep throughout the daylight hours, and when the sun goes down the putu festivities kick into high gear. This goes on for 10 days. All this is over now, but several relatives from abroad will be staying through the holidays, so there is still some music making going on in the late evening, and most of it is pretty good.

24 ‘o Tisema: Christmas Eve
It’s Christmas Eve and we are experiencing a Christmas Eve like none we have experienced before. For some reason the Tongans like to celebrate Christmas with fireworks, a curious choice for a Christian kingdom. So there is random fireworks being shot off around our neighborhood all evening. This might have something to do with the fact that most of the falekoloas (small shops) are owned by Chinese, and you’ll remember who invented fireworks. Also, I have never seen as much traffic and related activity as we saw today; it appears the Tongans like to wait until the very last minute to do their Christmas preparations; not a bad tradition, in my view. Which leads me to our TOP EIGHT LIST OF REASONS TO SPEND CHRISTMAS IN TONGA:

8. You don’t have to listen to the same Christmas carols being played over and over in the shopping malls; there are no shopping malls.

7. You don’t have to watch all the ads for after Christmas sales; Tongans have not commercialized Christmas and most of their holiday gift giving is inexpensive candy, clothes, etc.

6. You don’t have to worry about competing with anyone in your neighborhood with lighting displays; we have seen one house decorated with a few Christmas lights.

5. You don’t have to worry about being snowed in or inconvenienced by winter weather. Today it was sunny and 82, and right now it’s about 70 and breezy. Tomorrow promises to be the same. And the day after, and the day after that….

4. You don’t have to worry about your tree drying out and catching on fire. We have yet to see a Christmas tree anywhere.

3. You don’t have to eat figgy pudding, fruitcake or anything else that you typically find on the Christmas dinner table. It’s just not here. We’re having tuna pasta salad and banana bread made from bananas from our yard. (This item is a good thing only if you don’t like traditional Christmas goodies; I’m missing all the Christmas cookies, fudge, peanut brittle, peppermint bark, ginger bread men, and Geena’s party mix big time!)

2. You don’t have to buy any obligatory presents; the shipping costs are simply too prohibitive. On the other hand we are missing the joy of gifting our loved ones.

1. You don’t have to read anything about Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” book tour, balloon boy, or Tiger Woods’ affairs in the papers or on the news; we have yet to find a newspaper and we don’t have a TV. (Many Tongans do have TVs, but they use them only to watch pirated DVDs).

On the health front: Kathy’s much better; the IV port in her arm is gone and she’s on oral antibiotics and generally feeling more like herself. I, on the other hand, came back from running around town and promptly felt feverish, had a sore throat and headache, so I took some ibuprofen and fell into bed. Because of this we had to cancel out of the Christmas Eve party with all our PC friends. Dang.

We are missing family and friends and pray that all of you are having a wondrous and joy filled holiday season, and that you are not cursing Jose Feliciano after hearing Feliz Navidad for the 500th time!

Friday, December 18, 2009


. . . is a very very very fine house. Check us out by clicking on the "Picasa" link and viewing the "Tongatapu" folder.


15 ‘O TISEMA (Tusite)
Our first day in Tonga featured a tsunami warning which threatened to delay our formal welcoming ceremony. Our Swearing In Ceremony, the celebration of the conclusion of our training and the conversion from “Peace Corps Trainee” to “Peace Corps Volunteer,” is now threatened by Cyclone Mick.

Mick crossed the main island of Fiji last night as a Category 2 hurricane and is now headed straight for us. The last report had Mick downgraded to a “tropical depression” so the likely result will be strong winds and buckets of rain. We’ve been having the rain for the last 24 hours; my guess is it’s rained 3 or 4 inches, and we’ll probably get at least that much more over the next 36 hours. Peace Corps staff has already changed the venue for our ceremony from a resort on the Northwest tip of the island and a nice catered lunch to a hall here in Nuku’alofa with simple refreshments. While we all appreciate the caution it is a bit of a letdown.

The other impact is a delay in moving to our sites. Kathy and I (and all the other volunteers on Tongatapu) were scheduled to move into our house tomorrow afternoon after the ceremony; that’s now been moved to Thursday. Those going to other islands will be delayed until the ferry is running again, which will likely not be until Friday. All their stuff is going on the ferry, and while they will be flying that can’t really go until they know their stuff will be arriving. So it’s all up in the air.

Today was our last official training day. We all received the results of our language exam, and nine of us (including Kathy) scored “Intermediate High” which is the best result of any training group. I was happy to score “Intermediate Low” and as a result will look forward to continuing language study with a tutor.

16 ‘O TISEMA (Wednesday morning)
After a very stormy night we have awakened to a calmer morning. It’s breezy, strong winds are in the forecast, but it appears the worst of the rain is over. Tongatapu is basically flat, it has no rivers and therefore no flooding, but there is a great deal of standing water everywhere. We had a power outage last evening for about an hour, but thankfully the power came back on and has stayed on.

Everyone is getting ready for swearing-in; we all need to look good. I’m giving the “thank you” speech as part of the ceremony and it’s ready to go. Hopefully I won’t stumble over the little bit of Tongan I’m including at the beginning and end. Here is the main (English) part of what I’m going to say:

“Today you are honoring 26 Americans by accepting us as Peace Corps Volunteers. I say “honor” because we believe that Peace Corps service is a privilege, a privilege that few Americans have the opportunity to pursue. We come from all over America, from the East Coast to the Great Lakes, from the Deep South to the Great Northwest, from the Heartland to the sun-drenched beaches of California. Most of us have lived, worked, and studied in other countries, so we bring a very wide range of life experiences with us. Our motivations to join the Peace Corps are as varied as our backgrounds, but we all come with the desire to serve. We signed up without any idea of where we would be working, but we are absolutely delighted that we were chosen to serve the Kingdom of Tonga.

For the last 10 weeks you have worked very hard to prepare us for the challenges facing us. You have taught us the basics of the Tongan language and the ulangaanga faka-fonua ‘o Tonga, and showed us how to dress and behave in a culturally appropriate manner. We’ve even had the opportunity to sing and dance faka-Tonga. Along the way these efforts have given all of us the opportunity to have some good laughs. But more importantly it has helped us begin to appreciate the Tongan Way of living. For this work and these experiences we are profoundly grateful.

We have also had the opportunity to do some teaching of Tongan children in Tongan schools, and to a more limited extent to work with Tongan teachers. This experience has helped us appreciate some of the challenges we will experience during our service; it has also showed us that Tongan children are as eager to learn as children anywhere. As the first group of volunteers to serve the Tonga Expanded Community Education Project we look forward to working with our Tongan partners and the Ministry of Education to further the goals of TECEP, especially to move toward the vision for the Tongan teacher: “Faiako ma’a Tonga,” “Teach for Tonga.”

President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps almost 50 years ago. He said that the Peace Corps “is designed to permit our people to exercise more fully their responsibilities in the great common cause of world development.” This group of 26 fortunate and grateful Americans is ready to accept that responsibility. So on behalf of the group, malo ‘aupito.” (The speech concludes with some thank yous in Tongan.)

17 ‘O TISEMA: Tuapulelulu EVENING
What a day! I’m writing from our house; we’re all moved in and have spent the day cleaning, cleaning, organizing, cleaning and a little bit of shopping. But we’re in; we celebrated with a pasta dinner cooked in our own kitchen, the first time we’ve done that since the end of September.

Swearing-in went great, although Kathy was pissed because nobody bothered to tell us some dress expectations. Most of the women wore a puletaha (a traditional two piece outfit worn on special occasions), and she didn’t have one. Most received one as a gift from their homestay family. There’s more, but it’s too complicated to explain here. I got through my speech just fine, some of our colleagues did a ma’ulu’ulu (seated dance) and Kathy and I sang with the singers. This was the same dance we did at culture day a few months ago. The Tongan Minister of Education was the guest of honor, the Japanese ambassador and the New Zealand Deputy Chief of Mission attended, and we all took the basic Federal oath to obey the constitution and defend the U.S. from all enemies domestic and foreign. (So watch out, Osama Bin Laden!)

Afterwards we did some more shopping for household stuff, and then we all went out to a celebration dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant. We had a great time; I kept looking up and down the table and realized that we’ll never be together like this again.

It has been an incredible journey these past two months; every single one of us that came in October was sworn in; that is very, very unusual. Usually a few decide this isn’t for them, often someone has a medical issue arise that prevents them from going on, and sometimes Peace Corps terminates a trainee for not following the rules. (usually too much partying). One of the rules is to not drink at all in our homestay village; during the two months we were there I had a grand total of 3 beers and 2 glasses of wine, usually on one of our forays into Pangai. We heard that the Samoa group we staged in L.A. with lost at least three during training, which is more typical). But we all made it, no one seems the worse for wear, although there are varying degrees of weight loss (mostly men; I lost 10 pounds) and gain (mostly the women, but not Kathy, who has lost weight much to her delight). We will always be Tonga Group 75 and that is now part of our identity. As I said in an earlier post, we begin a new chapter in Peace Corps Tonga’s history with new leadership (interviews for the next Country Director are taking place in D.C. as I write), a new project and focus, and, of course, a fresh batch of volunteers. This will be interesting; stay tuned.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Almost . . .

Dear Reader, please note I have added a few photo albums for your viewing pleasure. Click on the "Picasa" link to the left and enjoy!

11 ‘o Tisema:
It’s Friday evening and we are celebrating the end of training. 11 ‘o Tisema (December 11) is the date on all our calendars we’ve been anxious to get past, because it’s the day of the dreaded OPI: the Oral Proficiency Exam, the conclusion of our pre-service language training. The test involved an interview in Tongan with one of the language trainers. We were required to answer a variety of questions and to engage in a shopping dialogue; the interview took about 20 minutes and was tape recorded. It will be scored by a committee of language trainers. While we have all been assured that this is not a pass or fail test (nobody will be going home for performing poorly), how we perform will determine how much additional language tutoring we will be required to do over the next three months. But more importantly, while we do have more classes next week on Peace Corps policies, some medical training, and more on community integration strategies, pre-service training is OVER!

Our “swearing-in” ceremony is Wednesday mid-day, then we move into our house later that afternoon. We toured our house today and met our landlord; it’s small, has one bedroom, a big bath (with sink!), and a square living room/kitchen. The really good news is that it features ceramic tile floors throughout, a rarity in Tonga, and looks to be in good shape. We have a big covered front porch which will likely be a favorite hangout spot. And it comes with a few pieces of decent furniture. The bad news is it comes with no appliances (typical for Tonga).

So, of course, our next task was to start shopping. The first items were cleaning supplies (Kathy is determined to keep the cockroaches, rats, and other assorted pests at bay). The next items were appliances, including sitou (stove), ‘aisi (refrigerator), i (fan), tipoti (electric teapot for heating water for drinking), and a toaster oven. We also signed up for internet service, which is being offered now until December 15 with no hook-up charge, normally about $150. So we’ll be pretty much set with the necessary basics when we move in. We’ll hit the local Saturday flea markets tomorrow and see what we find for kitchenware, etc. Basically a good excuse to check out our bicycles (purchased from a couple who have finished their service) and start getting to know our new home town.

This evening we enjoyed a collaborative dinner with several of our Peace Corps colleagues. Using fresh ingredients from the local markets we created a variety of tasty dishes, including a Filipino dish called pinak-bet, sunomono ( a marinated cucumber salad), a Japanese appetizer made with spinach and sesame seeds, and a lovely fresh fruit salad made with the glorious Tongan faina (pineapple). By candlelight, we shared stories of our individual world travels—from Russia (with love?) to the Amazon to Africa to Cambodia to Japan to Greece to Jordan, we covered the world, well, except for Antarctica. No doubt, one of our number will trek to the frozen continent (koniteniti) before long.

Most of the young trainees are dressing up and heading out for a night at the “Billfish,” a local club. Me, I’m having a beer then heading to bed. I plan to sleep very well.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


6 'O Tisema
Our training is nearing its end. On Friday morning we said our goodbye to our host family and moved down the road to Pangai, the biggest town in Ha’apai, to spend the weekend with Kate and Brett, volunteers finishing up their first year. This phase of training is called attachment, our opportunity to experience volunteer life and to have the opportunity to learn from their experience. We are enjoying the break from the intensity of the training. We also appreciate the time with Kate and Brett to learn some useful stuff about how to set up a house, how to make things work, manage the creepie crawlies, and do some creative cooking. They post regularly to their blog ( and have helped me learn more about how to manage photos, links, etc. And we’ve done some playing; more on that later.

Our last week in Faleloa with our host family had its moments. Our host father had traveled to Nuku’alofa the week before to gather materials to improve the church facilities for Christmas, and the project began in earnest bright and early Monday morning. The church was emptied of furniture, the gaping hole in the ceiling was quickly sheet rocked, and the entire interior painted by an energetic crew of male parishioners, mostly the young men.

At the same time, the women of the family began a thorough organization and cleaning project of our house. This house of chaos was transformed over the course of two days into one of order and relative cleanliness. Even the shower room, which now features a neat little table for the soap and shampoo, received a thorough clean-up and scrubbing.

I’ve noted previously that most of the homes we and our fellow trainees are experiencing have rudimentary sanitation facilities. While we do have an indoor toilet, it rarely gets cleaned (Kathy has taken it upon herself to correct this problem). There is no sink for washing hands and brushing teeth, etc. For drinking water we must boil water from the sima vai (rain water cistern) so we don’t get puke (sick). We’ve had to develop some elaborate routines for accomplishing the most basic tasks, like tooth brushing and hand washing. It has been very troubling to us that these cleanliness issues seem lost on our family, despite our attempts to help educate them. (In October, the Peace Corps had an international hand-washing day, and volunteers around the world, including here in Tonga, provided education of school children and others on the importance of hand washing and how to do it.
There has been no visible impact of that message here. And the biggest cause of death of young children in third world countries like Tonga is diarrhea/dehydration and respiratory infection, both of which can be significantly controlled through improved hand washing and related sanitary practices.)

So we were literally flabbergasted to see our house transformed. Even the kitchen floor was thoroughly swept, washed, and the torn carpeti (a kind of flimsy vinyl laid loosely on floors) replaced. Why all this effort? It turns out the head minister of the Uesiliani churches and group of other minister’s wives were going to be touring all the homes of the island’s faifekaus starting Wednesday, so it was clear that everything possible was going to be done to give a good impression . The church paint crew moved to the house on Tuesday and painted the filthy kitchen walls (without any surface prep) and the hallways a nice sky blue, then turned their attention to painting the exterior.

The crowning touch to all this effort occurred Wednesday morning. As we often do, Kathy and I walked the mile or so to Sandy Beach starting about 6 a.m. On the way out we were passed by the minister and one of his sons in a borrowed flatbed on their way to the ngoue’anga (their garden plot in the bush). When we returned an hour later, we were amazed to see two big banana trees flanking the entrance to our yard. Another trip to the bush produced several more trees which were planted to create a pretty tree lined entrance for the house.

Later that morning after language class we returned to the house and the inspection group was being entertained in the kitchen with big plates of food. After they left, the newly planted trees were chopped down. In Tonga, this kind of effort to create a good impression is greatly appreciated; while the entire effort seems to these Western sensibilities to by hugely hypocritical, it’s apparently absolutely normal behavior here.

The other major event of the day was the papakiu (barbeque) the church organized as a farewell to the group of Peace Corps trainees the community has hosted the last two months. Food prepared by the church families started arriving around 7 p.m. and was placed on a long row of tables that had been set up in the church meeting hall. The food was arrayed on paper plates and wrapped in plastic wrap. The typical plate was mostly bread of various kinds, maybe a hunk of some root crop or another, a few plates had a piece of chicken and a hot dog or two and maybe a hard boiled egg. Lots of food, but very little protein and not a vegetable in sight. There were pitchers of sweet punch and some pots of some kind of really good sweet tea. The village elders created a space in the corner for their kava circle and prepared some kava while everyone waited until the last of the food arrived from the families. Our fa’e (host family mother) led the children in some songs, and Kathy helped with a couple songs she taught the kids during her practice teaching (which was at the school in our village). By 7:30 the food was ready, the faifekau (minister, our host father) did the obligatory prayer and everyone dug in.

Tongans have what is to us a curious way of eating. There is no silverware or napkins of any kind on the table. People unwrap a plate close to them, eat what they want from it, pass it on to a neighbor or wrap it back up and then sample from another plate. As guests of honor, various plates are passed to us. I had a couple pieces of chicken, a couple hardboiled eggs, and a little puteni (sweet bread).

Soon after the eating began, the speeches started. One of the first to speak was our host family mother, who spoke in English some of the time (her English is better than average) and gave a heartfelt and tearful appreciation for our visit. Our fellow trainee Siua (Joshua) gave the obligatory fakemalo (thank you speech) on behalf of all of us; earlier that day he had help from us and especially our language teacher on just what he should say, and he did admirably.

The speech making was over when the makaui (talking chief for the noble who owns the village) ended his speech. The retired faifekau gave a closing prayer, then (to my great surprise) asked me to end the feast with a prayer. I was grateful for the opportunity. I basically said that while we PC come from a country rich in material possessions, we have a lot to learn about the true richness of the Tongan culture that values ceremony, family, church, and respect above all else, and how grateful we are to have the opportunity to live and work among them.

After the feast I joined the kava circle with several other male trainees, and two of our female colleagues acted as toua (young unmarried woman who mix and serve the kava). I sat next to my host father, and had a good time for a few hours. Although I left around 10 p.m. the fiekava went on until about 3 a.m., and my host father, as usual, stayed the entire time.

On Thursday Kathy tried to organize a picnic with our host family at Sandy Beach. Several of the other trainees’ families were doing the same thing. We were only successful in getting our 3 youngest “sisters” to join us, and we ended up having a marvelous time. We literally opened their eyes to the undersea world in their backyard by teaching them how to snorkel, and they absolutely loved it. There are numerous coral heads just off the beach that are easily accessible that feature a nice variety of coral and reef fish, and the girls were amazed by the beauty of it all.

The day was marred somewhat by two near drownings. Tongan families tend to be very lackadaisical in the supervision of their children and the majority of parents do not know how to swim. The kids, however, love to play in the water, but because of the lack of supervision they know little about how to play safely. Several of our colleagues helped rescue children who had been held under the water by rambunctious playmates or had gotten out over their heads. The disturbing fact is that the parents, once they were aware of what had happened, only laughed.

Our day concluded with a family dinner quasi-American style. Kathy set the table with plates and silverware along with a vase of flowers for a centerpiece. We waited to start eating until everyone was present, and since the family never eats together this was no small matter. Plates of food were passed for people to serve from rather than eat directly from, and this was a bit strange as well. But each person said a little thank you speech to us, each one concluding with a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Both parents said their thank you as well, which included apologies for the behavior of the children and the poor quality of the food (other trainees reported their thank yous also had the same kind of apologies.) Kathy and I then both said our thank yous for the love and hospitality they had shown us, as well as some specific comments for each member of the family.

On Friday we left our homestay with promises to stay in touch, which we fully intend to do.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Our First Tongan Thanksgiving

29 ‘o Novema:
It’s Sunday evening and Thanksgiving weekend is almost over. In my former life this was usually a time to kick back, spend some good time with friends and/or family, maybe travel and take Friday off and have a four day weekend. It always marked the true beginning of holiday time. I remember vividly last Thanksgiving. I took Wednesday off and we traveled to Seattle for our first interview for the Peace Corps. Then on to a few days with Kathy’s sister and family on Whidbey Island, then to a visit with cousin Norma and Dale Hanberg in Edmonds. As it turns out this was our last time with Dale, who died a few months later at the age of 80. Dale and Norma were my family away from home during my college years, always welcoming, willing to lend me a car for a big date or be the place for Thanksgiving dinner if I couldn’t make it home or to watch a big football game. Dale was the very model of the guy we all wanted to live near because if anything needed fixing in our house he would be the one to hear about it and then show up on your doorstep with the tools to fix it. Everybody loved him, especially his numerous grandchildren, now mostly in their 20’s, all who were enriched because of his generous and caring nature. His favorite excuse for a road trip was to go help a grandkid with some project or another, or just to go take them out to dinner.
Well this year was totally different. I had to teach on Thanksgiving Day, which turned out to be my last day of practice teaching. As I mentioned in my last post, we had a big Thanksgiving dinner, and it was wonderful. Kathy’s pumpkin pies turned out great, we had turkey and mashed potatoes and dressing and green bean casserole and a bunch of other stuff. We ate the turkeys Tongan style, which means they weren’t carved, but rather we all served ourselves by literally tearing off chunks of what we wanted. As my mother is fond of saying, it was interesting. We all had a very nice time.
But Thanksgiving means nothing to Tongans. We tried to explain what the holiday meant; one of the trainees is from Plymouth and she told the story of the first Thanksgiving. But in a country where the culture expects a big feast for any old good reason the meaning as we know it is difficult to grasp.
We’ve been in our homestay for almost two months now, and next Friday we’ll be leaving. It’s been a decidedly mixed experience. We are most anxious now to finish up with our training and finally settle into our own place. Living in a 1200 sq. ft. house (+ outdoor facilities) with a family of 9 has been a challenge.
The family and the church are the twin hubs around which life revolves here. And because we are with a minister’s family we probably feel the church aspect more than many. However, this small village of maybe 500 people has 7, yes 7, churches (1 Siasi Uesiliana/Wesleyan, 4 varieties of the Siasi Tonga/ Church of Tonga, Mamonga/Mormon, and Aho Fitu/7th Day Adventist), all of which have multiple services on Sunday and early morning prayer services throughout the week. All of these services are preceded by bell ringing and drum beating (the Church of Tonga beats a “drum” made from a hollow tree trunk), beginning some mornings at 4:30 a.m. Why the bell ringing and drum beating you might ask? It’s absolutely necessary in a village where most homes do not have a clock. At our church on Sunday, the first set of bells rings at 5:00 a.m. for the prayer service. For the main service, the bells start at 9:00 a.m., reminding you that you have an hour to prepare for church. Then, again at 9:30 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. The final bells ring at 9:55 a.m., essentially proclaiming that you’d better get yourself to church!
“Our” church is the biggest in Tonga, Wesleyan Methodist. The curious amalgam of Tongan culture and fundamental Methodism is rooted in the theology of salvation, with constant attention to living a life of service and piety. But as is the case everywhere, humans will be humans, and we see significant problem behavior in our home stay families stemming from a parenting style emphasizing compliance and adherence to prescribed roles.
We have attended church every Sunday since we’ve been here, always the main 10 a.m. Sunday service. While we can understand little, we are usually able to have a hymnal and can sometimes sing along, although most of the songs are unfamiliar. We have been involved in a few services; Kathy has done the English Bible reading, and I have read a Tongan hymn or two. Tongans have someone read each verse, then it is sung by the congregation, then the next verse is read. This has been fun for me and has helped with my Tongan pronunciation, and I haven’t heard anybody actually laugh during my readings.

Kathy had been promoting the idea that we should sing a song in church with the girls (all four) of our host family. While all involved thought this was a great idea, getting them organized to actually do something was impossible. She finally told them that if this was going to happen it would have to be today, as this was our last Sunday here. We all decided to do “Silent Night” in English, with me providing guitar accompaniment. (I should note here that in Tongan churches there is usually no instrumental music of any kind; all singing is a capella.) We had our first “rehearsal” Friday night with three of the girls, but the oldest daughter was in a foul mood and everyone was distracted by the video game the boys were playing on a computer borrowed from a friend, so little progress was made. A subsequent rehearsal Saturday evening went a little better; we made sure there were no distractions, and we were having some success teaching the concept that some singing could be done at something less than full volume and with attention to creating a blend (not the usual Ha’apai singing style). Then our host father, the minister, decided that the boys (twin 17 year olds) had to sing, too, so at the last minute they joined our group, not very willingly (although it should be noted that they have the best voices in the family, by far). The youngest girl, Sofaia, has a sweet soprano voice, but is generally bullied around by her sisters, but Kathy wanted her to sing the first verse solo, then have everyone join in for verses 2 and 3. Having the oldest daughter keep her hands to herself instead of pulling her kid sister’s hair or otherwise punching her proved impossible. Nevertheless, we persevered. Kathy insisted on a uniform appearance for our ensemble which sent the household into a bit of a frenzy trying to find clean white shirts and black skirts for everyone. However, I must say we ended up looking pretty good, and our performance was just about as good as we could expect. Not a bad way to end our Faleloa church going experience.

Monday, November 23, 2009


This is Thanksgiving week, and we are planning a big Thanksgiving Dinner with all the trainees, our training staff, and the current PCVs here on Ha’apai, a group of about 50. Peace Corps Tonga is supplying the turkeys, and the volunteers and trainees are providing everything else. Kathy was intent on having pumpkin pie, and by golly it looks like she’s going to be able to do it.

There are green Japanese pumpkins available on Tongatapu, and our host mother arranged for one of her relatives to buy some and ship them to us here. We had one for Hallowe’en (see our previous post) and knew that they would work, as they have the same orange flesh and flavor as our USA varieties. The primary problem turns out to be having the right kind of milk and spices, since they don’t have any regular evaporated milk in Tonga, only the sweetened condensed stuff that’s great for making butterscotch but not much else. So on Saturday Kathy bought some regular milk, borrowed some precious cinnamon from the PCV working here in Faleloa, and experimented with a recipe. We had to cook it at the house where some of the training staff our staying, one of the few working ovens in this village, and it actually turned out pretty good. So Kathy will bake a couple more on Wednesday and we’ll be good to go.

This is our second week of practice teaching. I had a great time with my little class (10 students, nine girls, one boy) today, and I’m looking forward to the next few days as well. We created a “market” in class and they really got into it. We’re learning that if you can get these kids up and doing it seems to work. Their typical class involves copying lessons down from the blackboard and then memorizing various concepts and definitions, but with little involvement in learning what this all means in daily life. So most of us trainees are working to create more student centered activities.

Today there was an actual morning assembly at my school. This is the usual procedure at a Tongan high school. The students assemble in the big assembly hall, sing a song or two, have a scripture reading and daily prayer (even at the government schools), and announcements from the principal. There were no such assemblies last week, as the only students that were coming to class were the ones in the classes we Pisikoas were teaching. But today most of the Form 5 & 6 (essentially Juniors and Seniors) returned to begin practicing for the end of term festivities and graduation ceremonies next week. We were led in by the Deputy Principal and then introduced to the students as part of the Principal’s announcements. After the announcements we and the few other teachers who actually showed up today then filed out before the students were dismissed. The students were then dismissed and our classes could begin.

This training program has been intense. Now as we near the end all of us are quite ready to move on, to move on from the home stay experience (as illuminating as this has been to the daily life and culture of Tonga), first to our “attachment” sites (living with a current volunteer for 4 or 5 days to gain some firsthand experience with the day-to-day life of a PCV), and then back to Nuku’alofa to complete training. This culminates in our swearing in ceremony on December 16, and presumably we will then be moving in to the home that will be “ours.” If everything goes as planned Kathy and I will be living in the SW part of Nuku’alofa, quite close to my school, and about a 20 minute walk to Kathy’s.

I spend a fair amount of time every day walking around, getting to and from various places or just doing some eva pe (wandering around). I particularly like to walk the 300 yards or so from my house to the Faleloa wharf and watch the sunset. Lately my thoughts on these walks have been about what a tremendous privilege it is to be here, to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, and how lucky I am to have the health and the heart to be doing this. I am thankful for my fellow trainees, a great bunch of people, some of whom are truly talented teachers. Some have never taught before or had any education classes, but they are working hard and most seem to be getting the hang of it. I am thankful that they all look like they are going to make it through training and be committed volunteers. And I am thankful for the staff we’ve been working with here, a very supportive group. Peace Corps Tonga is in transition; a new country director will be hired before too long and there are new people in some key posts. And we are the first batch of volunteers hired under the new Tonga Expanded Community Education Program, so it is going to be an interesting year. I am very much looking forward to it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


18 ‘o Novema
I’m tired. It’s Wednesday evening, 8:30 p.m. of our first week of practice teaching, and I’ve just returned from my second Tongan language class of the day. Since 7 a.m. I have been either teaching, preparing a lesson plan for tomorrow, traveling to or from Pangai without necessarily having a clear idea of how I’m getting to or from there (an 8 mile trip each way), or studying the language.

And it’s starting to get hot. The rains we had a few weeks ago have not continued, and I’m starting to understand why Tongans try hard to stay out of the sun. In the sun it feels 20 degrees warmer than in the shade. Thank goodness we live on a relatively small island and we enjoy fairly consistent ocean breezes.

My practice teaching is at Pangai High School, the government school that is the best funded of the various high schools (there are three other church run high schools in Pangai) and that is able to attract the best students, i.e. those that get the best scores on the class 6 exam. It is fairly new, less than ten years old, and is in relatively good shape. Nevertheless, in the boys bathroom only one of the six urinals had a working water connection, and I wasn’t brave enough to look in a stall at any of the toilets. And the floor was filthy; there was no evidence that any cleaning had taken place in there in recent times. However, there is one drinking fountain that provides purified water which I was thankful to find since I forgot my usually ever present water bottle today. And a working computer lab that we can use after we finish teaching.

One great big hitch in our training schedule is that in the Tongan schools the end of the school year is just a week or two away. All of the classes have had their final exams, so there is little expectation for children (or teachers for that matter) to actually come to school this week. Those that are coming to school are practicing singing for the final school assembly or working on the schools bush plots. So we essentially have no good reason to be teaching anything. Our challenge, therefore, has been to create lesson plans that are basically review lessons. We are trying to use games as much as possible. I am working with a Form 4(essentially high school sophomore) Economics class and we are creating a Jeopardy! Game. I have challenged the students to help write the questions for the game, and tomorrow we are going to see how well they do. My class of anywhere from 6 to 9 students (6 or 8 girls plus one boy who showed up for the first time today) is going to challenge one of my Pisikoa colleagues Accounting class tomorrow.

Our other challenge this week has been getting to and from Pangai. Usually there is a “bus” that runs from our village of Faleloa (the end of the line) to Pangai every morning. It usually takes a bus load at 7 a.m. and then returns to take another bus load at 8 a.m. Now this is not a school bus, but most of its passengers are school kids as the schools do not transport. The fare is 50 seniti (about 30 cents) each way. So on Monday the four of us Faleloa Pisikoa who are teaching in Pangai planned to take the 8 a.m. bus, which would get us there in plenty of time for our 9 a.m. classes. But, because so few kids are actually going to school, the bus driver decided he did not need to make the return trip at 8. So here we were, suddenly reliant on the primary mode of transport here, hitchhiking. This usually involves walking along the road until we can flag down a minivan or one of the fairly common 1-ton flatbed trucks and then climb on or in with whoever else may be in the same boat as we are. Thankfully, this is a highly accepted mode of transportation and most everybody (with the noted exception of the Chinese delivery vans supplying all the little village shops) willingly stop to give rides. The main problem is there is just not very much traffic at all. On that day we luckily arrived at our destination just as classes were getting ready to start. Yesterday, after being assured by the bus driver that he would be returning for a second trip, the same thing happened again, and again we had to cope with hitching and a just-in-time arrival.

So today we got up early and rode the 7 a.m. bus, arriving 1 ½ hours early for our class. That gave us plenty of time to get ready and actually do a little language study before the few students who have been directed to attend our classes arrived.
I should interject here that despite these hassles I’m enjoying this week very much. After class today I was able to use the high school’s computer lab to catch up some internet business, then walk over to Mariner’s Café to enjoy some French press coffee and chat with my Pisikoa colleagues. Then a few of us decided to begin the journey back. After walking for maybe a half mile we got a short ride as far as the airport (about a third of the way home). Today we had to wait a few minutes for a plane to take off before continuing our walk on the road. The road crosses the airport’s only runway and has to be closed every time a plane lands or takes off, which probably only happens four or five times a day. We walked another mile or so, really feeling the heat as there is no shade at midday in the tropics, to the causeway connecting Lifuka and Foa islands and the welcome ocean breeze. During this stretch not one vehicle passed us going in our direction.

I should note here that when we left the bus driver this morning he told us he would not be making a return trip to Faleloa until later this afternoon. Well, at 11:45, as we were walking across the causeway that connects our island with Lifuka, guess what came up behind us? The bus was fairly full of mostly school kids; by fairly full I mean there were no empty seats and maybe only a dozen or so people standing in the aisle. Not a problem for us at all. In any event, I absolutely have given up trying to divine any kind of schedule for the bus, and have finally learned that even the bus driver has no clear idea when he will decide to make a run. We will be on the only known run, the 7 a.m. from Faleloa, once again tomorrow.

Friday, November 13, 2009


We knew that joining the Peace Corps and moving some 4000 miles across the Pacific from home was isolating us from important events back home. After our cross-culture day (see previous post) concluded early Saturday afternoon we hitched a ride into Pangai to try to catch up on our internet correspondence, our only real link to news from home. There I learned my good friend Jack Dugan had died. While I knew this news would be coming it was difficult to process given the separation of both distance and circumstance. Jack went from being the picture of good health to a cancer death sentence over a matter of just a few months, and the irony was that this happened as he was finally preparing to retire from a successful college teaching career to move full-time to his other passion of building and flying airplanes.
So it was prophetic, I suppose, that an elderly woman in the village died Sunday morning, and we had our first opportunity to experience a Tongan funeral. It was amazing to watch how over the course of the day, a day on which nothing is supposed to happen in Tonga, all the elements of a proper Tongan funeral were assembled and constructed. By mid-afternoon a huge cooking fire and food preparation area was assembled in a vacant lot across the street from the family’s home, with stacks of firewood and lots of root crops. In the vacant lot next door to their house portable awnings were put up, tables and chairs arrived, and another food preparation area was created. Relatives and friends began arriving, and everyone was busy doing something, it all seemed somehow to be guided by an unseen hand. By evening hundreds of loaves of bread, dozens of cut-up chickens, and various other foods had arrived and were being prepared for cooking as the cooking fires were ignited. Meanwhile at the family’s home the body was prepared for viewing; she was dressed in her finest clothes and placed on a tall stack of tapa mats in a room that was decorated floor to ceiling with more mats and curtains.
Sometime after dark the family was ready for the ‘apo, the wake, to begin. We waited outside the home in the dark for it all to begin. The first groups to be admitted were from their church, the Church of Tonga; they left after a half hour or so and a large group from “our” church (the Wesleyan Methodist) was admitted next. Congregation members brought with them more mats, blankets, quilts, etc. from their homes to present to the bereaved family. As we entered the room with the deceased at the center we sat down and our faifekau (minister, also our host family father) led a prayer service that included several hymns that lasted a good half hour. At the conclusion a spokesman from the family thanked us for our prayers. As we left various people knelt by the body and did a fe’iloaki, the Tongan greeting kiss, done right cheek to right cheek. As we left we were led to the rows of tables where we were invited to partake in a light meal.
The procession of “mourners” through the home continued for some time; many people kept vigil, children were allowed to stay up, the cooking continued, and there was singing through the night. We went home to bed. In the morning we noticed at least a half dozen large pigs had arrived for roasting at the cooking fires. The deceased was buried at the adjacent cemetery sometime around mid-day, but because we were in class we were not able to witness this part of the funeral. Funeral activities have continued through the week, although most normal activities have resumed. Our host father has been doing faikava with the village elders the last three days as part of the funeral vigil process.
Since Sunday (I write on Wednesday) the family has been dressed in black and wearing very large ta’ovala (the woven mats Tongans wear around their waist). Everyone else in the community wore black as well (including all of us Pisikoa) until the body was buried. Much of the community and all of the family was still wearing black today and will continue to do so for a week or so.
The funeral process is a good example of how Christian practices and Tongan traditions and culture create something entirely unique to Tonga. Tonga must be the most overtly Christian nation on earth, yet so many of their practices bear little resemblance to how similar practices are carried out in the Western world. All the ceremony and process surrounding the Tongan death is so foreign to this Westerner. Yet Tongans value family and community above all else, and so death must be honored.
Once he knew that there was no treatment to cure him my friend Jack faced his fate with grace, and I am glad I had the opportunity to spend some time with him and say good bye before we left for Tonga. He will be remembered at a “celebration of his life” on Saturday. His friends and few remaining family members will gather to share their grief and remember him and to be together in his spirit. I will miss being there.


Kathy and I participated in the Peace Corps-orchestrated Culture Day (Aho Ulangaanga Faka-fonua ‘o Tonga) celebration today (Saturday). Since our Peace Corps cohort is placed in four different villages, just about the entire island of Foa was invited to the party. Each Peace Corps group was responsible for providing three cross-cultural activities: a traditional Tongan dance, a skit (sikiti) in Tongan, and an American song or dance (which we had taught to kids from our village). There are a variety of traditional Tongan dances: the ta’olunga which is reserved for the virgins in the village (we didn’t want to burst the Tongans’ bubble by suggesting that any of the unmarried PC trainees might not be virgins), the kailau which is the men’s war dance, and the ma’ulu’ulu, the ‘sitting’ dance which can be danced by one and all. As a married woman Kathy was not allowed to dance the ta’olunga (for obvious reasons), a severe disappointment, so we both participated in the ma’ulu’ulu.

The women in our host family, the fa’e (mother) and kui fefine (her mother) spent considerable time creating the appropriate accoutrements for Kathy and me. The kui fefine spent two full days crafting our sisi and kahoa out of flowers and greenery. Dressing for the event began 45 minutes before it was actually supposed to begin. We were brought into the living room (lotofale or heart of the house) and inspected. We passed the initial inspection; then they began swathing us in the floral delicacies. We each had sisis (sort of grass skirts but made entirely of flowers/greenery) placed around our waists (remember that bigger is ALWAYS better in Tonga), kahoas (leis) placed around our necks, and greenery bracelets placed around our wrists and ankles. Then we were lathered up with coconut oil to make the greenery and the flowers shiny, along with any of our skin that was showing. We smelled a bit like a salad that had already been dressed.

All of the other PC trainees in our group were similarly attired and oiled. We may not have had the most well-rehearsed dance presentation but we certainly did look and smell good—and that counts in Tonga. As we danced and acted and sang, the Tongans laughed and joined in--clapping along and shouting “Vela! Vela! Vela!” (which curiously means “hot” in Tongan).

Other groups followed with their dances, including the ta’olunga and an enthusiastic kailau by two of the men. We all loved it, Tongans and palangis alike. The skits were hilarious and the musical performances of American songs we taught to our village kids were also very well received. I don’t think the island of Foa will see anything like this for a very long time!

After all the dances and skits from the various groups were completed (about two hours of program), we ate (no celebration in Tonga is complete without feasting) and we celebrated our success. I heard several of my trainee colleagues state that “days like today are why I joined the Peace Corps.” Well said.

Friday, November 6, 2009


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Trick or Treat

November 4, 2009
As recently as Sunday I was wondering when the rainy season was going to begin. Well, it started Monday, and it’s been raining most of the time since then. I would guess our total rainfall over the last three days is four or five inches. The rain water cisterns and barrels are overflowing, it’s cool, there are puddles everywhere, and we can’t walk anywhere without getting our feet wet. Going sockless does have its advantages!

This week (week 4) is our last full week of language training, and we end this phase of training with a practice language exam on Friday morning. On December 11 we have to take a language exam at the conclusion of training, and they want to make sure we have at least a rudimentary grasp, enough to get around and have our basic needs met. We’re told that no one actually flunks this test, that if you do poorly it means a prescription for more ongoing language training. Those that do well on the test may be required to only continue studying on their own; those that do poorly will be required to take two or three ongoing classes a week with a language tutor. I believe that I will definitely be in the latter group, which is just fine by me. Both Kathy and I are at the point where sorting everything out, especially the grammar, is very trying. Probably the hardest part for me is actually processing what a Tongan speaker is saying since the language is still unfamiliar.

This afternoon we had a session with our Country Director (CD), Kelly, on Safety & Security. She is our “acting” CD, and her regular job is head of safety and security for the Peace Corps, so she really knows what she is talking about. All things considered Tonga appears to be a relatively safe country to work in; the primary issues confronting volunteers here are burglaries, with a low rate of person crimes. Two PCVs have died while here; one back in the 70s was murdered by a fellow volunteer, some kind of love triangle that apparently has been the subject of a “48 hours” story and a book. Three years ago another volunteer died as a result of a shark attack, a very unusual occurrence in Tonga. She also gave us an overview of the Emergency Action Plan, which looks to be a very well crafted set of procedures to deal with various emergencies. We mostly worry about natural events, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., but there is also civil strife to be concerned about. As there was rioting in the streets of Nuku’alofa in 2006 which resulted in much of the main downtown being burned, this is a real issue. A year from now the country will have elections to expand the role of Parliament and increase the number of representatives elected by the people. Since this continuing transfer of authority from the King to the people is not a universally accepted idea there could be trouble. So you can expect to hear more from me on this subject later on.

A few weeks ago we talked with our family about our Hallowe’en traditions with the idea of having a bit of a Hallowe’en party. Since this conflicted with all the hoopla around the Misinale (see previous post) this turned out to be impossible. However, Makalase somehow acquired a small green pumpkin shaped squash. On Sunday we carved our little pumpkin with input from our little “sisters,” put a candle inside and after dark Kathy took each member of the family outside to show them how to “trick or treat.” This resulted in a great deal of laughter and a wonder filled evening. We left the jack-o-lantern outside overnight with its candle burning (we actually forgot about it), and the next morning as parishioners made their way to the 5 a.m. prayer service, they were greeted by this strange smiling visage. Our “mom” had quite a bit of explaining to do, and considering her level of understanding about what this was all about it left people laughing about the strange ways of these crazy palangis living in their midst.

The Misinale

October 29
We’re finishing up our third week of training; one more week of primarily language training, then we move to four weeks of program training. We’re all struggling mightily with the language and worried about not having ongoing language training. Hopefully we’ll set up some study sessions during our free time.

So much for my comment last week about being well. My asthma was much worse over the weekend, and Kathy ate some bad ice cream Saturday in Pangai and spent Sunday and most of Monday in bed dealing with the usual results. She’s better now and my asthma is also settling down. So hopefully we’ll stay this way.

We had our second practice session for our ma’ulu’ulu (seated dance including both men and women) this afternoon, and it’s starting to look like something. We couldn’t practice with the music because the village is in official mourning for a native son who died Monday on some other island. No music or dancing for three days (although there has been plenty of music going on in homes.

These next few days are the concluding days of the church’s Misinale, which apparently is the primary fund raising activity for the church, kind of like the annual campaign conducted by charities back home. Each family is expected to contribute what they can, and the amount each family contributes will be announced by the mother at a public meeting/celebration on Saturday. So naturally there is some competition involved. The church youth have been doing their part, and they are going to perform a concert tonight to conclude their fund raising efforts. It sounds like they are finally ready to go; it was advertised to begin at 7 and it’s now 8:15.

October 30, 2009
So the dance was fun. When I went over to the hall last night (which is about 50 feet from our room) there was a group of men gathered in one corner around the kava bowl, and one of our female trainees was acting as the tou’a, who has the duty of ladling out the kava into bowls which are then passed around to those in the circle. In the opposite corner a group of children were gathered, and along one wall were the mats on which the various other spectators and participants were gathering to sit on. I sat with the kava group and enjoyed my first real bowl of kava since arriving in Tonga. Several of the young men were gathered around the stereo system; it appears the delay was because they actually had to go get it in Pangai and for some reason no one been able to get it until it was actually needed (this was most likely a transportation issue; somehow when a trip actually must be made transportation becomes available, but otherwise can be very hard to arrange).
So once the sound system was figured out, the town officer announced the beginning of the event, the faifekau said the obligatory prayer, and the festivities began. As best as I could figure out each dance involved a family, and as family members danced spectators would approach and stick money on them, either by sticking it on their oiled skin or tucking it in their shirt. This is called fakepale, I believe, a common practice in traditional dance that has bled over into this definitely less traditional form. When the Me’afo’ou family’s turn came Kathy and I were obligated to join in, and I collected $11 pa’anga in fakapale!

After each family danced, they collected all the fakapale and turned it in to the money counter, and the result was announced.

There were actually a few performances of the more traditional variety including 5 young men doing some kind of more traditional dance while dressed casually, but very few dancers dressed in traditional dance garb; this was a youth organized fund raiser and not a more formal event.

Tonight the various family groups (there are five) of the church gathered to finalize their contribution for the Misinale. The group our family is part of will be able to contribute almost $5000 pa’anga (about US$2700), most of which is being provided by relatives living abroad. Our modest contribution was the only one made by check; in these Tongan villages there is not a lot of money and very little need for checking accounts or credit cards. There are no ATMs on the island, and the only bank is in Pangai is eight miles (that might as well be 80) miles away and not open on Saturdays, the only day we have time to go there, so we were not able to get cash.

The big day is tomorrow, where everyone will reveal publicly at a church service the amount of their family’s contribution.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Happy on Ha'apai?

Update,October 24
We did get our site assignments as expected, but there were some last minute changes to some of the other trainees' assignments. However everyone seems pleased, and quite a few of us are in Pangai today (Saturday)celebrating and catching up with internet business.

October 23, 2009
It’s about 6 p.m., the end of a long training day, and we have dance practice tonight to (finally) begin learning the ma’ulu’ulu for our culture day dance. So far today the location for the practice has changed twice, so we’ll see where (and if) the practice actually happens. Since this activity has been placed in the hands or our fa’e (host mothers) we have no control over how this will proceed.

We all had interviews this week with the placement staff and program managers to discuss our placement. While many of us have a fairly clear idea of what they will be doing, some do not, so the announcement tomorrow of our site assignments will be welcome by everyone. Kathy learned that her assignment will be different than what we first thought; she appears slated to be assigned to one of the larger primary schools in Nuku’alofa as a mentor teacher. My assignment as an Economics Instructor at the ‘Atenisi Institute still looks like a go. By the time I post this (hopefully tomorrow) we’ll have confirmation and I’ll post a link.

The really good news this week is that most everyone is basically healthy. My asthma has kicked up thanks to all the mold and smoke from cooking and rubbish fires, and I’m now using an inhaler to control the bronchial spasms that come with that. Other than that we’re doing fine.

We had a contest today—“Last Trainee Standing”-- to see which trainee had been the most successful at some of the activities and skills we are learning as part of our acculturation process. We all started standing up and as the activities were read we were required to sit down if we could not say we had done it. I had to sit when I could not say that I had not “flashed,” that no one had seen my shorts that I wear under my tupenu (mid-calf length skirt) when sitting on the floor. This a very difficult task for most of the guys to master. Other skills were consistently dressing in our Tongan garb (tupenu, ta’ovala, kiekie), helping a child in our home with their lessons, helping with household tasks, eating with the family (which is very difficult, as they want to make sure we are well fed before they have any food). Kathy ended up being the last woman standing, and her prize was a cell phone! (Now we just have to figure out how to use it!)

We also spent time learning various other things, like how to kill the molokau the dreaded stinging centipede we will sometimes encounter in our home, how to dress a coral wound, how to wash clothes by hand, and other useful tasks. We wished we had learned earlier that we should not give our underpants to our host fa’e when she asks for our laundry, that it is considered very bad form to have underpants hanging from the clothesline outdoors. Now we know why there are all those underpants hanging up in the bath!

Trainingb, Week 2

October 20, 6:30 p.m.
Day 2 of Week 2 of our training in Faleloa. The weather is great, warm, mostly sunny, not too humid. Today in language training we started learning some basic grammar, so it doesn’t feel like we’re just memorizing words and phrases and starting to learn how to put our thoughts into sentences. Hard work, but with some organization the language is starting to make more sense.

Tomorrow begins our introduction to the schools, and I will be going to Ha’apai High School to observe some classes tomorrow morning. More on that in my next post.
Yesterday we took the afternoon for our “trainee directed activity” session and walked out to Sandy Beach, where I did a little snorkeling for the first time on the reef. Absolutely gorgeous, many typical reef fish, lots of coral. I’m definitely looking forward to doing more of this when we have free time. Mostly we sat in the shade and prepared for our cross cultural session today and started planning our activities for culture day. More on that, too, in a later post, although later this evening I’m told we have our first dance practice, led by the fa’e, our host mothers. It’s a sitting dance involving both men and women.
Various of us PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) have had bouts of sickness. Themost serious was one of our Faleloa women who apparently suffered a bout of heat exhaustion and had to go to the hospital early this morning to get some treatment including intravenous fluids. We are keeping our Peace Corps Medical Officer very busy, and she is not getting much sleep.

8:45 p.m. Another frustration related to Tongan planning. After discovering that our planned dance practice could not be held at the town hall due to a previously scheduled youth meeting, we heard several different ideas about where it would be held, and ended up being directed to go to the makelui’s house. We arrived and were greeted pleasantly by the makelui, his wife, and the fellow PCT residing there, all of whom knew nothing about a dance practice. So we headed back home; soon after we arrived a young boy arrived to tell us to go the makelui’s house for dance practice. I’ve retired to my room to regain some perspective and finish this entry.

Have I described Faleloa yet? This is the northernmost village on Foa, which is connected to the main Ha’apai island of Lifuki by a causeway. I would guess there are maybe 500 or 600 people here, three or four small stores operated basically out of homes, 5 churches (Wesleyan, 3 Churches of Tonga of various identities, and a big Mormon Church), a small wharf which supports the local fishing and a taxi service to the island of Ha’ano, and a primary school. About a mile north on the Northern end of Foa are two small resorts and the lovely beach I’ve described earlier. Aside from the Mormon Church grounds and maybe two or three fairly nice homes roughly comparable to ‘50s ranchers most homes appear to be quite rundown and poorly maintained. The lack of supplies, parts, and any kind of reliable outside support makes maintenance and upkeep difficult. For example, since the ferry Princess Ashika sank in August there has been no one willing to transport propane to the island, so any home (which is most of them) that relies on propane to power their stoves and ranges has not been able to use them. All the cooking in our house occurs on an open fire outside or in an electric skillet.

Weekend in Faleloa

Our first weekend in Faleloa included a Saturday with a few frustrations and a typical Tongan Sunday made a bit interesting since our host family is the Wesleyan Church’s Faifekau (Minister). We wanted our Saturday to be a leisurely morning/early afternoon in Pangai, the only town in Ha’apai with an internet café and ice cream, so that we could check e-mail and post to the blog. We had attempted to find out if the local “bus” that runs from Faleloa to Pangai every day, primarily – but not exclusively – to transport kids to the secondary schools in Pangai, would be running on Saturday; however, no one seemed to have a clear idea about that. So our host father said he would take us in, but when we told him all nine of us PCTs were going he wasn’t sure what to do. We assured him that we would just start walking (it’s about 8 miles) and that we were sure someone we knew would come along and give us a ride. However that certainly did not settle the issue as far as he was concerned.
So our group started out around 8 a.m. walking, and about a mile down the road we were offered a ride with some Faleloa fisherman which we gladly accepted. We arrived safely, gave the driver a few pa’anga for gas, and got to work at the internet café. We soon learned that our host father had borrowed a 4-Runner from someone in the congregation and followed us to make sure we would arrive safe and to give us a ride home. So much for our leisurely Saturday! Because he was anxious we cut our planned four hour or so visit in Pangai down to two hours and headed back to Faleloa.
The rest of Saturday was spent working on our homework assignments (charting our host family’s family tree and created a map of Faleloa) and getting ready for a tutoring session we thought we had set up with our host family daughter and several of her friends who have an important exam coming up which will determine whether or not they can go on to university studies. But we learned that there was an important church service involving the youth that she needed to attend and there was no mention whatsoever of the class we thought we had set up.
A Tongan trait that is very difficult for us palangi to deal with is that a Tongan feels it is impolite to not answer a question, even if they do not know the answer. So they will give you an answer even if they know it is wrong. I suspect our host family “sister” was willing to say yes to our suggestion to have the class on Saturday afternoon, because that was what we proposed and it would have been impolite to not agree. We have been taught to ask open-ended questions; we should have asked her when she and her friends would like to have the class and then worked from there. Lesson learned.
So we just had to hike the mile or so up the road to the North end of our island (Foa) and spend some time at one of the prettiest beaches you would ever want to see. Oh well.
Sunday: Sunday begins with a service at 5:30 am; we did not attend. After that service the family begins the cooking in the umu (earth oven) for the mid-day meal and then gets ready for the main service that begins at 10. Kathy’s dress was deemed totally unacceptable (she had been asked to do the English Bible reading, and the family wanted her to be totally appropriate) so a brightly colored dress was produced for her to wear. She was also provided her first ta’ovala (decorated woven mat worn around the waist) to wear with it. And I was also provided a special ta’ovala to wear as well. It was clear the family wanted us to represent them very well.
Host father fiefekau Mekulio also consulted with us about his sermon for the day. He was using a passage from Mark 10 in which James and John were asking Jesus to promise them they could sit with him in heaven; Jesus tells them he can promise no such thing, “You don’t know what you are asking for. Can you drink the cup of suffering I must drink?” Mekulio is struggling to find a good English phrase to use as the theme for his talk, which he wants to be about making choices to not use drugs or alcohol or engage in adultery, and he is trying to say something like “you ask for enough?” After reading the passage, these noted biblical scholars (forgive us Bob Webb) suggest he try the phrase “Be careful what you ask for” and the palangis in the audience would get his drift.
The service went very well, and since it was 99% in Tongan we had little involvement in the prayers and messages (except the occasional “Be careful what you ask for” in the sermon with Mekulio’s booming voice). Host mother Makalesi did provide us with a hymnal, so were able to join in the singing; that was fun. The singing in these churches on Ha’apai is full voice, shape note style singing, so it is more boisterous than beautiful. And everyone sings in harmony, more or less.
After church we took some photos of everyone in their finery before the big meal, which featured three different kinds of lu, a dish of meat and a few vegetables wrapped in banana leaves; octopus and eel (Kathy’s first experience with either) which were quite tasty.
The three things Tongans do on Sunday are go to church, eat, and sleep. After the mid-day meal most everyone had a pretty good sleep. Not a bad way to spend the day.
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Friday, October 16, 2009

Picking up the trash

Yesterday (Thursday) we spent the day involved in a massive Ha’apai island project organized by a Kiwi (New Zealand) group named Sustainable Coastlines. The overall objective of the project is to raise awareness of the need for Tonga to create a waste management program that will eliminate—or at least reduce the amount—of waste that is burned in backyard fire pits or just thrown in the ocean.
The project involved organizing island residents to spend the day picking up trash in their communities and then transporting it to Pangai for later transport to Tongatapu in containers. Our Peace Corps group was actively involved in the day’s work, and one of the PCVs working here has been peripherally involved with the Kiwis as much of the preparation for the clean-up involved educating school children on the island of the importance of waste management in protecting the environment and some of the environmental issues associated with the current practices. Kathy and I spent the morning picking up trash around our neighborhood in Faleloa, and it appeared that most of the community was involved in some way or another. There had been a lot of publicity for the day; trucks had been organized for transporting the collected trash, the school children all participated, and the various teams were led by local youth group members. The Town Officer (roughly equivalent to the Mayor) was heard early this morning announcing the project by shouting from his front yard. Of course, this being Tonga, there were problems with trucks breaking down, a shortage of gasoline on the island, not enough trash bags in communities where participation turned out to be much bigger than anticipated, and other logistical issues complicated by the lack or readily available resources to deal with any unplanned for exigencies. However, it is estimated that 3200 people participating, exceeding the organizers' expectations.

Today as part of our training program we heard from the two primary organizers of Sustainable Coastlines. Sam and Emilie told of the history of their organization and how they came to Ha’apai (see their website at They were extremely articulate and passionate about their work, and they have worked very hard to learn how to set up a successful project in Tonga through meeting with and gaining the cooperation of a host of government officials, nobles who control the villages, other affected NGOs, Tonga education officials and local schools, youth organizations, and sponsors. It was very impressive how well they have tried to make sure that the project has all the buy-in they could possibly create. One of the perspectives they share is how prevalent plastics have become in the waste stream, whereas 30 years ago there was virtually no plastic in Tonga, especially in the form of plastic bags, bottles, wrappers. The burning of these materials in backyard pits is very unhealthy to people and the environment, and yet there is little knowledge of these consequences. And there is no ready resource for recycling plastics, which makes the problem that much more difficult to manage. All in all a strong beginning to a very difficult long-term effort, and the good news they shared today was that the country’s prime minister pledged to initiate an effort to create a country-wide waste management program, so all their good work may have lit the necessary fire toward beginning the process to achieve the primary goal.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

First week Reflections

We arrived in Tonga one week ago this morning and this will be just our fourth night in our home stay, but it feels like we’ve been here much longer. This has much to do with the adjustments we’ve had to make to our daily routines. Here are some reflections on what big shifts we’ve had to make.
1. Some comforts of home don’t feel so important as we acclimate to Tongan life. Cold showers are not a big deal in a tropical climate. Refrigeration is not that important when most food is consumed the day it is prepared. And what goes on in a home, the quality of the relationships and the interactions, is so much more important than the quality of the building.
2. Some comforts of home are sorely missed. Our home has no sink for washing hands and brushing teeth, and having one does not seem important to most of the families we are staying with. Hot – or at least warm – water is good for washing hair when you are a girl.
3. Regular meal times are not a part of this village’s culture. It does seem like the big meal of the day is often dinner, but sometimes it’s closer to mid-day or mid-afternoon, but it could as easily be at 9 p.m. The feast yesterday was at 3 p.m., but since most of the food was passed on to others their meals occurred somewhat later. And our family had another meal later in the evening; Kathy and I were not interested at all.
4. It’s amazing what can be prepared in an earth oven. Our host mother will be baking cakes in one tomorrow morning for the church’s youth group to sell as a fund raiser.
5. It’s great to live in a culture where your shoes are just not important at all. Life in sandals and flip-flops is just fine by me.

Tongans do not place great importance on money. They share most everything. They look out for each other and take care of someone else’s children if that is what is needed. Our host family moved here from a nearby island just two months ago; he is a Wesleyan minister and apparently the practice is to move every three years or so to a new church. As we are getting to know them we have learned that they did not bring their refrigerator with them because someone there needed one. They left their chickens with their former church, and other items were left for various other reasons, so they are living without. That’s the Tongan way.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Faleloa Feast

More language training this morning, our second day of formal study. Boy is it getting confusing! With all the preparation we did with the materials sent out by the Peace Corps, the informal studying we did with our peers while at Sela’s, the attempting to talk with our host family members and learn new words and phrases, and now formal instruction. I really need to start learning some basic grammar to try to make sense of some of these phrases and how to construct some basic sentences. I’m sure that will come. In the meantime, we will be doing other things the next few days, so no more formal classes until Monday. Hopefully this weekend we can continue to practice what we have learned and dial some of it in.
This afternoon we attended a feast organized to honor the Class 6 students who completed their exit exams this week. These exams are a very big deal; success has something to do with what they will be able to do next year. The seven families involved spent all day preparing a variety of food; our family roasted four young pigs over an open fire, prepared both raw and cooked fish and a variety of other dishes. The food was transported up to the school and laid out on a long row of tables set up on the school grounds under a series of canopies. When all was ready we were invited to sit with our host family’s table, and after a long, long prayer (length of prayer is a sign of respect) from the Town Officer we were able to start eating. The table was piled high with food, including the pigs (straight off the spit, uncarved), cooked potatoes, squash, and other root vegetables wrapped in foil), various plates of food on plates or in bowls wrapped in plastic, and wedges of watermelon. One was expected to select a dish or two, eat what you wanted from it, share some with your neighbor, then rewrap the remainder and return it to the table.

Meanwhile speeches were being made, and both our host parents spoke, as well as Luseane, who is one of the students being honored, and we noticed some tears from some while she apparently gave heartfelt thanks to the families for supporting them through this time. (Luseane later told us that she knew none of her classmates would have the nerve to speak, and she thought someone from the class should.) This went on for a while, until the Town Officer made a final speech, and the feast was over. Guests were encouraged to take some food home, and the families then started giving much of what was left (feasters had eaten only a small portion of the food available) to others who were not guests at the feast. Our host family packed up the remaining food on our table and brought it back to our house. Here Mekulio oversaw the organizing of this food into about eight baskets, which were then given to the neighbors who had helped with its preparation, and several other families from his church. Much more food was distributed, including the four pigs, than was eaten at the feast. It is likely that most of that food has been consumed by now (three or four hours later). A graphic illustration of the Tonga way of sharing, and also of the Tongan propensity to live for today.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Yesterday (Monday, October 12) we flew via Chathams Pacific Convair 380 to Ha’apai for our 8 week home stay and intensive language and culture training. Just for the record, it was yet another flight with no empty seats. We were bused from the airport to Foa, an island connected to the main Ha’apai island (Lifuka) by a causeway, and then to our village of Faleloa. We met our host mother, Malekasi, her daughters Luseani (age 11) and Sofaia (9), and husband Mekulio, who is the local Wesleyan Methodist minister. They showed us around our new home and then invited us to the kitchen where the table was laid out with a variety of food prepared just for us. As is the custom in Tonga they invited us to eat first; guests are entitled to the best food before the family is allowed to eat. However, after we ate a little we encouraged the family to eat as well, and some of them did. Later we met one of their twin sons, Uluakiola (17); his brother is at college (high school) and will be home in a day or two.
These home stays serve as our initial entry into Tongan life, and there is plenty of adjustment to make. At Sela’s guest house, our home for our first four nights in Tongatapu, we had hot water and plenty of companionship with our fellow PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees); Kathy likened the experience to a living in a college dorm. Here we are on our own, in a home that wouldn’t come close to meeting any kind of building and housing code in the USA, with no hot water and the most rudimentary of bathing facilities. The village Kava circle takes place in the church meeting hall about 50 feet outside our bedroom, and a family of goats, including one baby that is being denied by its mother and therefore wants to bleat frequently through the night, is also just outside our window. Pigs and dogs everywhere. However, the family could not be kinder and is genuinely interested in getting to know us and helping us learn Tongan.
After eating we took a stroll around the village with Mekulio and on the way encountered several other PCTs doing the same. At several homes Mekulio stopped and handed out some money to the man of the house, and at one point a man in a pickup stopped to talk to him, and it seemed there was an expectation that he would be given money, so I gather this is a regular practice. I’ve been reluctant so far to inquire about this. Mekulio did share that they moved here only two months ago from another Ha’apai island North of here, and that ministers are transferred every few years.
Anyway, today, Tuesday, we had our first language lesson with our Faleloa group (8 PCTs) and we had the opportunity to share our first night’s experience in our new homes. Some involved creepy crawlies, unregulated children, and eating adventures. One thing stands out: Tongans live quite the ad hoc life style; no set bed or meal times and children are largely undisciplined (although that does not seem to be the case in our home). Many family members have no set place to sleep, and that does not appear to be much of an issue.
The most touching time for us was last evening when Mekulio invited us to a family prayer meeting in our living room. He formally welcomed us and said how pleased he was for his family to have the experience of learning from us and thanked God for bringing us to them. He became tearful while saying this as he was speaking from his heart. A scripture reading, a prayer, the family singing “Nearer My God to Thee” in full voice in Tongan, and the 23rd Psalm, also in Tongan, completed the service. It was all very touching and it was good to feel included in the family rituals.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Tongatapu, October 8

So here we are. After a completely uneventful 13 hour flight, we arrive safe and sound to a beautiful morning in Tongatapu, Tonga. We did stop in Apia, Samoa on the way and dropped off our Samoa colleagues and witnessed a beautiful, breezy tropical island dawn as we reboarded the plane for the last leg. After touching down in Tonga and working our way through the customs and baggage claim process (also uneventful and relatively fast) we received an enthusiastic greeting from the Tonga Peace Corps staff, complete with leis (kahoe), a truck for our bags, and a school bus to take us to Sela’s Guest House, our home for the next few days while we receive our basic orientation to Peace Corps Tonga. The warmth continued after we found our rooms and gathered around for more welcome, included a song from three of the staff in three part harmony. Our first witnessing of the Tongan singing we have read so much about.

And then: we’re told everything is on hold and we must stay put here at Sela’s because a tsunami warning has been issued as a result of some big earthquakes in Vanuatu and the Cook Islands. After all the drama associated with the big Tsunami that hit Samoa just last week, with all the questions we received about whether our service would be affected, and all the uncertainty of associated with serving in dynamic seismic area, this news was a tad bit sobering. But everyone took it in stride, some games came out, and we passed the time until the warning was lifted.
So off to the Peace Corps office for our formal welcome. Such ceremonies in Tonga invariably involve a Kava ceremony. One of the Tongan Program Managers, Viliami Mafi, told us the fable associated with the Kava ceremony, and then described the process of preparing the kava. Then the kava is served to us one by one, and is the custom this task was performed by young women or girls, in this case current PCVs. After kava, some traditional dancing performed by two PCVs (three if you count Poki’s comic performance behind them), then a feast prepared by the staff where we all ate outside on the lawn amongst the palms.

I ate with Carol, currently the oldest Volunteer at age 67, who teaches computer classes at a village middle school in a village on Tongatapu about 10 miles from here. Since I thought for sure that I would be the oldest volunteer in Tonga this was great news. She’s enthusiastic and open and seems unfazed about living in a smallish village by herself. Kathy made her initial connection with Sune, a volunteer finishing her third year who has been working to develop early childhood education teacher training.

Nuku’alofa reminds us a lot of the Mexican villages we visited last December, only somewhat cleaner. Most residential streets are dirt and potholed, but the main streets have pavement in reasonably good repair. We wandered along a portion of the waterfront and through the main part of downtown, and there is only a block or two that any kind of urban feel to it. A major wharf area is undergoing massive reconstruction, there’s a park area along the waterfront, and a nice internet café/coffee bar/restaurant (“Friends”) that will undoubtedly become a favorite place if this is where we end up being placed.

All in all, a pretty good day.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On our way!

We write from LAX as we wait for the flight that will take us away from most of what is familiar in our lives. We are, however, in the company of 21 other very fine mostly young people; our group is twice as many women as men, and seems representative of what I understand the typical Peace Corps group to be. A day of "staging" and getting to know each other, Peace Corps policies, discussions of anxieties and goals. Later, getting to the airport with all that entails, a little food, some last minute phone calls to loved ones before turning off the cell phone forever.

As I begin to experience these people, for the first time I can start thinking more concretely about just what life will be like with this brand new community of people, who I will be wanting to work with, and how we will be supporting each other. Until now we have been an abstract creation, just some images and cryptic postings on Facebook from some as we disentangled our old lives and prepared for the new.

Now it's all about looking forward.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tonga calls to couple in their 50s

Tonga calls to couple in their 50s

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Reversing the aging process

Today we are featured in an article in the East Oregonian with a nice picture we took in July on the summit of Strawberry Mountain, 9.038' high point of the gorgeous Strawberry Wilderness near John Day. Thanks to a careless headline writer I lost a few years (see link), so I'm hearing about that from some astute readers!

On another note, we have received our schedule for the first few months. We'll be mostly in Ha'apai, a smaller island that's a 35 minute plane trip North from the main island of Tongatapu, learning the language, the culture, and the program, living with a host family. Looks pretty intense.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Getting ready to be wired

O.K., so the new laptop is cool, but there is so much crap on these things now that we have to wade through; anyone who wonders about current marketing strategies should be encouraged to buy a new, pre-configured computer. You'd think that in the 21st century technology would be easier, and in many ways it very much is, but so many people with something to sell!

So today I hear from a current Tonga PCV that the folks that seem to have the most problems with their computer are the ones (like me) that bring the brand spanking new state-of-the art laptop, while guys like him that bring the old machine they really don't care much about don't have any problems at all. Go figure.


Monday, September 14, 2009

At last . .

So it's really going to happen; in 21 days we'll be on a plane to the Kingdom of Tonga for 27 months. So much to do, but it's gradually getting taken care of. We will get it done, but it will be a relief to step on the plane and begin the transformation from settled, wired-in American Baby Boomers to whatever a Peace Corps Volunteer turns out to be in Tonga.

So this is really just to set this thing up, so that's it for now. One more thing to check off the list!