Saturday, March 27, 2010


28 'O Maasi (This post by Kathy)
You might think that life on a South Seas Island would be a serene experience. If that South Seas Island were Tongatapu, however, you would be mistaken.

Our days typically begin well before the break of day with the opening notes of the Rooster Symphony. One rooster, located somewhere on our island, provides the downbeat. Not to be outdone, roosters from one end of the island to the other chime in, each adding his unique instrument to the symphony. The music lasts long after daybreak and, sometimes, it breaks out throughout the day if the weather should be overcast and, therefore, the roosters confused.

Competing with the Rooster Symphony on most mornings are the bells from the various churches. The church in our neighborhood calls parishioners to Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning Prayer Services beginning at 5:00 a.m. The first set of bells rings at 4:00 a.m., the second set at 4:30 a.m. and the final set at 5:00 a.m. (the “you’d better get your butt in the pew" set), when the service actually begins. There are three church services on Sundays, each of which are announced by three sets of bells. Choir rehearsal takes place on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings; again, these rehearsals are chimed into existence with three sets of bells. There are also additional services all of which, yes, you’re right, demand three sets of bells.

In addition, Tonga is filled with a variety of animals that simply roam about the neighborhoods. The noisiest of these animals/fanga manu are the dogs and the pigs. The dogs run in packs that take up barking and howling and growling at the most inopportune times, usually around 2:00 a.m. The pigs evidently do not sleep during the night time hours because they quite often join the dogs, adding their snorts and squeals to the cacophony.

Adding to the music of the night are the local kava circles. You will remember that Tonga’s national drink is kava, made from the pepper plant. It is non-alcoholic but does have a sedative effect. Kava circles take place in a variety of venues but ALWAYS take place in association with the local churches. The kava circle that takes place regularly (2 to 5 nights each week) in the church next door to our house has a number of members who are fond of singing. Once they begin singing, they may sing for hours. One night, they sang us to sleep around 10:00 p.m.; they were still singing at midnight, 2:00 a.m., and 4:00 a.m. Too much of a good thing is still too much.

So, as you can see, life on our island is filled with some uniquely Tongan sounds. Due to the fact that I have very acute hearing, I get to enjoy all of these sounds to their fullest.

Sounds are only one aspect of the sensory-laden experience that is life in Tonga. There are also a variety of aromas that waft through the air.
You will remember that Tongan houses are not really “intact” structures. Whatever is taking place outside your home is also taking place inside your home. The windows are made of louvered glass panes approximately 6 inches by 18 inches which are typically tilted wide open to provide access to the breezes . So, the aromas that drift through the neighborhood also drift through your house.

Some of those aromas are pleasant. Recently some of the bushes in the neighbor’s yard were in full bloom and the fragrance was delightful. Typically, however, the smells are not all that pleasant. The most unpleasant comes from the Tongan practice of burning rubbish. Yes, there actually is a waste management company that picks up trash from all houses on the island, and, yes, there is actually a law against burning rubbish. And, yes, trash burning continues.

Each Saturday, Tokonaki (which means preparation…for church, of course) a neighborhood wide clean-up takes place. Of highest importance is clean up of the church grounds. The grounds are swept (they are covered with lawn but the grass is first cut with a string trimmer and then swept), then all the detritus is gathered into a heap and burned. Since everything is swept up together, the burn pile contains leaves and other green materials, paper trash, metal trash, and most notoriously, plastic trash (which is a HUGE problem in Tonga). Depending on what has taken place during the week, the resultant fire can be quite a conflagration. We happen to be downwind from the church’s burn pit. So, at least once a week, usually more often, we are suffocated by smoke filled with PCBs. This is especially helpful for Rob’s asthma.

This practice is doubly interesting in that Tongan’s get their drinking water from water catchment systems that include their roofs. Okay, let’s connect the dots: we burn rubbish releasing PCBs and other toxins which then land on our roofs, then we gather the water that falls on our roofs, picking up the toxins enroute, into cisterns which provide us with our drinking water. Truly, a brilliant plan. Rob and I drink water from the sima vai/cistern in our backyard.

One curious phenomenon that is quite widespread in Tonga is the brass band. We happen to have two large brass bands in our neighborhood: one at the police academy and the other at the Anglican high school, St. Andrews. The police cadets are especially fond of practicing late into the night and then again early in the morning. Most days they wait for 7:00 a.m. to start the drum beat but there are times when their enthusiasm gets the best of them and they have to begin earlier. I actually really like the brass bands, especially the one at the King’s Church (just imagine it—a brass band in a church), but not before 7:00 a.m. (Check out the Police band here:

So, between the brass bands and the burning rubbish and the roosters/pigs/dogs, it is sometimes difficult to find peace in Tonga. Rob suggests that peace is not something that you find but, rather, something that you create within yourself. On my better days, I agree with him.

I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Peace Is Every Step, which suggests that the path of mindfulness in everyday life will help you create peace in every step you take. In the section entitled, “Walking Meditation” Hanh suggests:
“Walking meditation can be very enjoyable….The purpose is to be in the present moment and, aware of our breathing and our walking, to enjoy each step. Therefore we have to shake off all worries and anxieties, not thinking of the future, not thinking of the past.” He says that, while we walk all the time, our anxiety-filled walking “imprints anxiety and sorrow on the Earth. We have to walk in a way that we only imprint peace and serenity on the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”

So, on my daily walk to school (about a mile), I attempt to walk in peace, being present in the moment, and kissing the Earth with each step I take, imprinting peace and serenity on the Earth. Most mornings this works very nicely and I am able to create a peaceful space within myself. Other mornings, when I’m caught in a deluge, when I forget something at home, when a driver almost runs me over—or all three—I am less successful.

I haven’t given any thought to attempting to imprint peace and serenity on the Earth on my walk home from school; it’s simply beyond my capacity to do anything but simply take the next step at the end of the day. Perhaps, by the end of 2011 when I return home, my experience in Tonga will have taught me to find peace in every step, even the steps that bring me home at the end of the day.

May you kiss the Earth with every step you take and dwell in peaceful coexistence with the cacophony that is daily life.

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