Monday, April 12, 2010

Things I Wouldn’t Have Learned If I Hadn’t Lived in Tonga

(This post by Kathy)
If It Itches…I missed a question on a Ninth Grade Biology Exam that went something like this; “Your skin performs a variety of functions, among them waterproofing.” True/False. Being a critical thinker, I reasoned that I put lotion on my skin and it soaked in so, therefore, skin does not perform a waterproofing function. I got the question wrong. This, in itself, is significant; most of the time I didn’t get anything wrong. But, this one missed question remains with me still and continues to inform my life. Case in point:

You may remember that I had a brush with a rather insistent staph infection early in my tenure in Tonga. The staph was able to gain entrance into my body organism because I had broken the skin, impairing the ability of my waterproofing to perform its primary function. Most likely, I had scratched one of the hundreds of mosquito bites I received while with my homestay family in Ha’apai.

I have since learned that it is entirely possible to have an itch that you do not scratch. I get mosquito bites every day, despite insect repellent and mosquito coils and mosquito screens on the windows. Mosquitoes find me very attractive. And the bites itch. I can choose to scratch them and play Russian Roulette with a recurrence of staph, or I can simply experience the itch until it passes. It does pass…eventually. The momentary gratification of scratching an itch is surpassed by the desire to live rather than succumb to flesh-eating bacteria (okay, this might be over-stating the severity of the situation just a bit).

Think about the ramifications of this lesson. No matter what the itch, no matter how much you want to scratch it, you don’t have to. You always have the choice to scratch or not scratch. So, if it’s your boss who is providing the itch, or perhaps your mate or significant other, or your child, or even if it’s the U.S. government, you can choose NOT TO SCRATCH the itch. What power.

The Ants Go Marching…Ants are very industrious creatures (think of the movie, “Antz”). In Tonga, they are particularly so. With the onset of taimi afa (cyclone season, also the rainy/hot season), the ants have decided to move indoors. I don’t blame them; the heat can be rather oppressive. This has necessitated increased vigilance in the area of food preparation and clean up for Rob and me. Any speck of food that is left on any surface immediately draws a swarm of ant activity. One might ask, “Where do they come from?” But, that thought is too frightening to consider and is not really the purpose of this missive.
When we first arrived at our site in mid-December, I remember a Group 74 PCV (the group that arrived in 2008) stating that she didn’t even worry about ants in her food anymore, she just gobbled them up taking advantage of the extra protein. I was appalled and certain that I would never get to that point.

We are very intentional about food storage. We seal all packages and sometimes place them inside Zip-lock bags. And, sometimes we even double bag particularly tasty treats (sugar) and then put them inside a Rubbermaid type of locking container. Still, the ants successfully track down any and all available unsecured food items. Rob thought that he could leave his jam on the shelf instead of refrigerating it; covered with ants inside and out. He forgot to place his cereal in the double bag/locking container system one morning and the next morning found it crawling with ants. Last night I made a couple of loaves of banana bread from the bananas harvested from our yard. I loosely covered the loaves to let them cool. When I went back to secure the foil covering, I found an ant swarm.

You’re wondering if we threw out the items mentioned above? We did not. We transferred each item to the freezer and froze those suckers out. So, while we’re still not willing to eat live ants (as far as we know, anyway), we’re not going to throw out good food just because of an ant invasion.

I guess it is possible for me to co-exist with ants, as well as the many other insects that thrive in a tropical climate. I never would have learned this about myself if I hadn’t spent these past few months in Tonga.

Also, just in case you’re wondering: ants really do go marching down to the ground to get out of the rain. I know this because we had to evacuate our home during Cyclone Rene. Pre-cyclone, ants were very active in every room in our house. Post-cyclone, two days later Rob and I returned and found nary an ant. The obvious conclusion: they went down…to the ground…to get out of the rain—which was prodigious. So now you know.

Getting Ant-sy. I believe that ants are quite interested in our evolution as humans and, therefore, provide us with many opportunities to learn and grow. Ants have helped me develop exceptionally strong skills in the area of maintenance and caretaking.

Did you know that ants will eat silicone? (no, not the kind that breast implants are made out of, although I wouldn't know about that!) In Tonga, we have a variety of species of ants. The ants that seem to be most pervasive are those that are about the size of a grain of sand. They are EVERYWHERE! They are especially keen (this is a word that I have begun to use while in Tonga, the Kiwis and Aussies have influenced me, I guess) on computers. Rob and I were just smashing them with our fingers whenever we’d see them on our computers until we found out that they are actually after the silicone chips. They gain entry into your laptop and devour the silicone. And, before you know it, your laptop is kaput.

So, we are now placing our laptops in over-sized Zip-lock bags whenever they are not in use. We must remain very vigilant in this practice for a single slip-up could mean the loss of our laptops; not a happy thought. This, in addition to using dessicant to eliminate moisture and placing our laptops in our bedroom, double-locking the doors every time we are away from home (security). It reminds me of a line from The Little Prince: “You must be vigilant in the toilette of your planet.” Planet Tonga requires a great deal of vigilance.

Wine Whine. While living in Pendleton, I was relatively certain that I couldn’t make it through a single day without a glass of wine. Partly, because I felt that I deserved it: I had been pretty much a tee-totaler for the first four decades of my life and felt that it was high time I enjoyed the fruit of the vine. And, partly because we had access to wines from the Walla Walla Valley appellation which is producing some of the finest red wines in the world. But, mostly just because I loved the idea—and the taste--of ending each day with a lovely glass of wine; it seemed so sophisticated.

Well, I can make it through a day without a glass of wine. Actually, I can make it through day after day, week after week, and even month after month. Wine is very expensive in Tonga. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are not paid. We do receive a monthly living allowance roughly equal to the average Tongan’s monthly salary. It is not possible to drink wine and stay within our budget. Additionally, I have discovered a direct correlation between the red wines available in Tonga (mostly from Australia) and migraine headaches. I have indulged in about three glasses of wine while in Tonga and have had immediate migraines in response. It’s just not worth it.

So, I’m pleased to find that I can make it through my days without the assistance of alcohol…or chocolate…or ice cream. It’s good to know.

Bipedal Life. In my real life, back in Pendleton, I would sometimes give thought to shunning motorized transport in favor of bipedal transport. Think of the benefits: cut down on your carbon footprint, lengthen the life of the ozone layer, contribute to breathable air for you and your neighbors, gain additional aerobic exercise, to name a few. My commitment to bipedal living generally lasted until the next crisis—like running out of wine. Then, I’d hop in my car and make a run downtown. When it comes to a decision between saving the ozone layer and having a glass of wine with dinner, wine will win out every time.
The Peace Corps does not allow Volunteers to drive vehicles. So, Rob and I purchased bicycles from two former PCVs and make our way around the capital city on bikes or on our feet. Finally, without the option of motorized transport, I am able to live a more principled and altruistic life. Isn’t it lovely when the Universe provides you with the support you need to make the choices that you really should make for yourself? And, now that we have been living bipedally for almost six months, I’m pleased to know that it is entirely possible and there aren’t really any crises that demand the use of carbon belching vehicles—not even an impending cyclone. I’m certain that I would not have come to this conclusion had I not spent the past six months living in Tonga.

I wonder what lessons Tonga will teach me over the next six months. Stay tuned….

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