Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Last Tango in Tonga

 To begin: My service in Tonga has ended as of June 27 and I have returned to the U.S. where I am adjusting to a new life as a “retired” person. 

The first semester of 2011 has shown that 'Atenisi University in its current incarnation is not sustainable. Low enrollment, alienated alumni, and debt together mean that reinvention and outside investment will be necessary if Futa Helu's brave creation is to have a future, and it became clear that there was nothing further I could contribute. This is not a good time for liberal arts education anywhere; in Tonga the bad economy has dried up virtually all outside funding support and the government is more interested in supporting more practical tertiary education enterprises. And the loss of Futa Helu over the last decade has been catastrophic; his energy, vision, and charisma carried 'Atenisi for many years, but without him the school has struggled for effective leadership.
So with the first semester complete, my wonderful students said goodby with a lunch of cookies and fruit. I am very proud of the work they did this year in our Critical Thinking class and I am going to miss being with them as they continue their studies.   

So in grand Peace Corps tradition I distributed all the household stuff we had accumulated to my fellow volunteers, said my goodbyes to the staff, enjoyed a farewell dinner with colleagues at the Emerald Chinese restaurant, and then headed home. Four flights and 30 hours later (with no serious “travel adventures”) Kathy was there to welcome me home.  A few days later we celebrated the 4th of July with good friends and fireworks.

Here are a few of my favorite visual memories of my 21 months and Kathy's 15 months in the South Pacific. I have posted these and more in a Picasa web album (see link to the left). 
Kathy educating

Marching bands and parades
'Atenisi Graduation
Kathy's Library was a huge success
Tonga's traditional culture lives on.


So faithful readers, this closes out Tonga Tangos. It has been a memorable, challenging, frustrating, and rewarding experience. A "game changer" for sure, but exactly how remains to be seen.  Perhaps another blog will emerge from that experience, who knows?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Last Friday Tonga celebrated the Queen's 85th birthday. The public highlight was a gathering of most of the school children on Tongatapu at the big stadium here for a morning of singing and dancing.  

Her Majesty Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho is the mother of King George Tupou V, Tonga's current King since 2006. He succeeded his father, the Queen's husband, King George Tupou IV who had been king for almost 40 years. She is well loved by her people as demonstrated by the tremendous outpouring of love we witnessed that morning. 

Everybody sang happy birthday as six bands played.  

For a great description of the day and other events of the weekend, please visit Elena and Mark's blog here: MK Squared

Video clips of the dancing are here:   

Herewith some background on the dances. (Thank you to the Tonga Visitors Bureau website for the descriptions of the dances.)

The Ma’ulu’ulu was performed by the Tonga Teacher's Institute and was led by Princess Frederika, the King's niece.

“The ma’ulu’ulu is a traditional Tongan dance, performed by a group of seated men and women; the dance form is a direct successor of the ancient Tongan ‘otuhaka. Performers sit down in a row on the ground with the right leg crossed over the left. If possible men and women alternate. On informal occasions the dance master may walk around, clapping his hands to keep up the rhythm and to encourage the performers. “
“For large performances of several hundred participants, dancers are placed in staggered rows. The most talented dancers and those of high social status are placed in the front row on the ground. Other rows are organised behind on benches of various height until the final standing row at the back.”
“Like the ‘otuhaka, the ma’ulu’ulu consists usually of alternating singing and instrumental sections. The dance starts with the beating of the nafa, a huge drum covered with a leather skin which is a remarkable spectacle in itself.”
“The second part conveys the poetry in song and movement.  Like all other Tongan dances, the gestures have a strong relationship with the words.  The lyrics of the song are usually written for the occasion. A ma’ulu’ulu takes around 15 minutes to complete but it may have taken the performers several months to learn the sequence.”

The Tau’olunga was performed by Queen Salote College, an all-girls Wesleyan high school.
“The tau’olunga is a solo dance although it is occasionally performed by groups of up to six dancers.  This is the greatest hour for the performer, body glistening with coconut oil, hair flowing free and dressed in elaborate costume.  Only the prettiest and most skilled girls perform this dance.  The tau’olunga is always performed according to the words of the song, thus if one observes closely, one can see when the dancer is depicting a sunrise, flowers worn in the ear or a lover departing.”
“While the dance is being performed, a young man can act as a contrast to the soloist by mimicking her movements in an exaggerated and clownish way. The caricature is supposed to draw attention to the beauty and skills of the performer.”
“A tau’olunga girl is usually clothed in a wrap dress. The dress can be made from tapa with traditional designs or a mat of handwoven pandanus leaves. Some girls wear a piece of cloth covered with green leaves, fragrant flowers, shells or sometimes a grass skirt. The dress is strapless and reaches to the knees, leaving the dancer’s arms and legs bare. As long skirts are the traditional apparel for Tongan girls, this is an occasion for performers to show off their shapely legs. Around her waist the dancer wears a belt (sisi) usually made from leaves and flowers. Bracelets and anklets may be worn, ranging from simple bands of cloth or tapa to beautifully elaborate. Performers wear a black ribbon with a white cowrie shell around the neck and no girl dances without her shell. A little crown (tekiteki) of feathers or grass is worn to enhance head movements during the dance. Costumes made entirely of natural materials are the most valued but unfortunately synthetic and plastic are making inroads in modern costume design.”

The Kailao was performed by Tonga College, an all-boys high school. Several of my clips were taken toward the end of the dance, and you'll notice the elaborate costumes are beginning to disintegrate, a result of the very high level of movement required.

“Kailao is a dance of foreign origin from ‘Uvea – Wallis Island and is a standing dance usually performed by men only.”
“The dancers, of which there can be any number, wear fanciful costumes and decorated hats.  The men, bearing stylized clubs (pate kailao), dance in a fierce manner that emulates fighting. Unlike most Tongan dances, the kailao is performed without singing. Instead, the performance is set to the accompaniment of a slit drum or a tin box which sets the tempo. This dance allows Tongan men to display discipline, obedience and skill with their weapons.”

(Go here for more information about the Kingdom of Tonga: http://www.tongaholiday.com/)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Fall is Here: Random Thoughts

It's finally cooling down some here in the Kingdom, and that's a good thing. It's been hot this year!

Fulfill that Fantasy: At the Saturday market a vendor had official “2010 NCAA Champion: Butler” T-shirts, brand new, never been worn. So if you are mourning Butler's losses in the last two championship games, you can alter your personal reality by just letting me know and I'll get you one of these shirts. And now you now what happens to those pre-printed shirts made up for the losers: they somehow wind up in places like Tonga where nobody cares.

Critical Thinking: My favorite class to teach this year at my little university is our new Critical Thinking course, required for all new students and all who wish to graduate. Therefore it is the class with the largest enrollment, and even though it's the first class of the day (starting at 9 am.) I regularly have 9 or 10 students attending. On Wednesday a major assignment was due, their first cut at doing a critical analysis of an important problem in their life. However, at 9 am., no students. At about 9:30 one student arrived, but needed to access a printer to print out his assignment. By 10:30 (when the class usually ends) I had seen another 3 or 4 students, all of whom were seeking a computer and/or printer to complete their work (one of the requirements of this assignment was for the the assignment to be written using a computer word processor so that it can be more easily revised, and most students do not regularly use a computer for their school work, although most seem to be fairly adept with Facebook and Bebo). I shouldn't have been surprised; this is completely normal behavior for our students; planning ahead is not a mastered skill, and seems to defy any instructor’s attempts to teach it.

Bicycle Adventures: Recently my beautiful little Schwinn mountain bike was stolen from the front porch in the middle of the night while I slept. (That same night another volunteer home in my neighborhood was invaded and computers stolen, also while they slept.) Home invasion burglaries are rampant in the Kingdom, and palangi volunteers seem to be particularly susceptible. Anyway, I became acutely aware of how dependent I had become on bicycle transportation, and no matter how I kept repeating the idea that walking is the ideal exercise, I felt severely hampered in my ability to get around. Nuku'alofa isn't that big, but it's still a city of 35,000 and spread out.

But a few weeks later I was talking to a volunteer from Australia about my mobility problems, and she promptly offered to loan me her bicycle, which she brought with her but has barely ridden. Deterred by the cavernous potholes, the bike chasing dogs, and the roaming pigs, and because unlike Peace Corps volunteers Aussies can drive cars, she had lost all interest in riding. So my mobility has returned, and while I remain hopeful my bicycle will come back to me (this is a small island after all) I now have a pretty good ride and will be forever grateful to my Aussie angel! (And the bike is now part of the d├ęcor in my front room whenever I'm home.)

Diving in Vava'u: I spent the school break week last month in Vava'u, the Northern group of Tongan islands that is a favorite haunt of yachties from all over the world, thanks to its protected deep-water harbor. These island are much hillier than Tongatapu (where I live) and Ha'apai (where we trained) and are the best tourist destination in Tonga from the perspective of scenic beauty. I had a good time scuba diving with some Peace Corps buddies and generally just hanging out.

The big news in Vava'u was that the next season of “Survivor” was going to be set here, but last minute demands from the major hotel owner nixed that deal, so Survivor will be going back to Fiji instead. It's a big blow to the tourist industry in Vava'u and Tonga, as the kind of exposure from being a Survivor locale is priceless (had you ever heard of Vanuatu before Survivor went there?). The irony, of course, is that the operation that will be hardest hit will be the hotel owner's who scotched the deal; his big hotel was completely empty the week I was there (which is normal this time of year) and Survivor would have booked his entire facility for several months. Needless to say no one is very happy with him these days.

I'll leave you with the typical daily sunset over Vava'u's Port of Refuge. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Closing Out Summer: Stonefish and Orchids

As the first day of Fall comes and goes, we're getting some relief from the heat with a few days of very stormy weather.  Periods of intense wind and rain with spells of relative calm, and then another downpour. 
Here at Tonga Tangos we've been continuing to adjust to our new situation, life without Kathy.  Here's how Lilo feels about her being gone: 
She's a very sensitive cat. 
And I miss her too, and while I'm not exactly hiding in the mat like Lilo I am having to work at getting out and finding ways to socialize. Kathy and I are able to spend some time every day doing some text "chatting" to keep up with each other's doings, and we keep hoping that Skype will actually allow us to talk, but that hasn't happened for a while.  Anyway, faithful readers not from our home in the Pacific Northwest please be advised that she is integrating nicely back into what she likes to call her "real life" and seems to be doing fine.

As for me, I continue to wonder at the ability of a Tongan institution that is basically broke and in debt to continue to function.  At my little university we are holding classes as usual; our students are attending in their usual fashion, and life goes on more or less as normal.  But now when the one copier we have runs out of toner and there is no replacement cartridge on hand (not an unusual situation), we now have the added problem of not enough cash on hand to go buy more. So it may be a few days before some student makes a fee payment and provides the cash needed to make the purchase, and in the meantime we are unable to supply the written materials for our instruction.  Staff and other faculty have only been able to take small draws against the salaries they are owed.  Yet they continue to come every day and teach. 

This pattern is not unusual in Tonga.  As an example I was discussing this situation with one of my PC colleagues the other day, and she was relating how a non-profit group she socializes with hasn't paid their bills for a few months now, yet they go on without any apparent worry.  That situation amazes her as much as much as mine amazes me.

There are many stories like this around Tonga.  People here have a different relationship to money, one that is very difficult for us Westerners to get our heads around. (Someday I might try to write about the sai pe--things are just fine, no worries-- attitude that suffuses much of life here.)

On the instructional front, I'm teaching a new course on Critical Thinking which is now required for all our students seeking a degree.  With guidance from my friend Cindy back home at Blue Mountain Community College and materials from The Foundation for Critical Thinking I am plowing ahead to convert these students with a lifetime of experience as rote learners trained to always supply the "right" answer into active inquirers who seek to question, evaluate, pursue evidence, and form reasoned judgments based on rational analysis.  It is a struggle, but there are glimmers of hope.

Here's Lilo again, telling me to stop "kai po"ing (hogging) the taro chips that I like to have with my daily beer; she has a way of letting her wants be known.

I've taken to going on long Sunday bike rides, usually with friend who is here for a few years working as a nurse.  She is a true Kiwi, quite the outdoorswoman, and Sundays are great days to ride because there is so little traffic on the roads.  So besides a really good dose of exercise, I'm getting to places on the island I haven't been to before, like Tsunami Rock, a big chunk of coral reef sitting a couple hundred meters inland that could only have arrived there courtesy of a tsunami wave.  One day we rode to the Abel Tasman landing site on the Northwesternmost tip of the island.  Here's a couple photos from that day:

I know this is hard to make out, just as it is in real life; it is a deadly Stonefish, that looks pretty much like the rocks and coral surrounding it as it lies perfectly still.  Stepping on one of these critters can result in serious injury, as there are deadly toxins in the base of its fins. We were lucky to spot it before it caused us any trouble.

Apparently someone decided they should make it easier for tourists to be able to get down into the water from the viewing platform, so this is the ladder they built.  Yes, it is every bit as steep and precarious as it looks.  But after riding the 20 kms. or so to get there in the summer heat, not getting into the water to cool off was not an option.  One of the benefits of cycling on a tropical island. 

I'll close this post with another benefit of living here: the gorgeous color that surrounds us; this orchid grows by my front porch.

Next post:  How I spent my school break exploring Vava'u.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES, Turn and face the strange

I “retired” on September 30, 2009. Less than a week later I was a Peace Corps Trainee in Los Angeles receiving my orientation. Within two weeks Kathy and I were settling in with our host family in Ha'apai, Tonga, trying to figure out how to hang a mosquito net, where to brush our teeth, and how we were ever going to get clean in the rudimentary “shower.”

We did learn how to do all those things and much more (with a few health and culture challenges) and began our service in Nuku'alofa in late December. By the time our respective schools started (Kathy's in late January, mine in mid-February) we were fairly well acclimated and settled into our tiny little house and neighborhood. We attended the neighborhood church and some socials and settled into a respectful relationship with our neighbors.

As the year progressed we learned how incredibly difficult it is to be an “educator” in Tonga. There are teachers galore, and most are perfectly content to continue teaching in the manner in which they were taught. Once employed, few are interested in further professional development. Kathy was never able to gain the cooperation of her principal and the staff at her school to conduct the weekly workshops that were the basis of her assignment. But she continued to develop an engaging library program and to demonstrate many effective teaching strategies in the class 4, 5, and 6 classrooms. She insisted that the regular teacher be present during her sessions and to participate in the lesson, but few actively engaged.

After a frustrating first semester attempting to teach Economics as I had done for ten years at a community college, I completely changed my approach. Tongan students at all levels are used to teacher directed learning. They are excellent note takers. Those interested in a good grade will work to memorize the concepts so they can recall them back on worksheets or tests. But to have a discussion about the pros and cons of a position or to apply a concept to a new situation for most students was most difficult, if not impossible. I found that my second year Econ students could recall and apply little from the first year course they had taken the year before.

Despite all this, by the end of the school year Kathy and I each felt that we had had some success. Kathy in particular created some great learning experiences for her children, who seemed to appreciate the opportunity to express their creativity and develop their imaginations. But what weighed heaviest on Kathy was the lack of opportunity to do what she does best, and what she was recruited for by the Peace Corps; train teachers. She came to realize that this was not going to be possible.

So with that realization, and facing yet another medical evacuation to Australia to take care of an important but relatively easy-to-fix problem, she has ended her Peace Corps service and returned to the United States, where she is enjoying winter weather and figuring out what is next for her.

So here at Tonga Tangos, we'll be reluctantly losing Kathy's involvement in our blog. In case you are wondering our relationship is fine, we're not separating, and I have to say we miss each other quite a bit. But we are able to text chat most every day using Skype of Facebook, staying connected with each other's daily activities.

I'm continuing to work at my little university to see what kind of transformation may be possible in the wake of the founder's death last year. His children have inherited the university and not much else; the management model – autocracy – that has been the norm for the school's first 35 years is ill-suited to its current needs, and many of the potential supporters – former students and alumnae – have not been courted and some have been alienated. Time will tell; this is our week to register students and prepare for classes to begin next week, so we'll have a good idea of what 2011 holds in store very shortly. 

"Strange fascination fascinating me, Ah, changes are taking the pace I'm going through.
Time may change me, but I can't trace time."  (with apologies to David Bowie)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How We Spent Our Summer Vacation

 From December 21 (our thirteenth wedding anniversary) through January 8 we car-toured on the South Island of New Zealand. (A Picasa photo album has many more photos; click the link on the left.) An 18 day odyssey that encompassed not only our anniversary, but Christmas, New Year's and Rob's 64th birthday. 

We were blessed with a good look at the lunar eclipse from the balcony of our room at the YMCA, and after a day of shopping and sightseeing headed South to Lake Tekapo.

 Lake Tekapo has the Church of the Good Shepherd, tastefully decorated for Christmas with paper peace doves and pine cones.  The view of the lake over the altar is spectacular.

On to Mt. Cook for Christmas.  We joined an avid group of carolers in the lobby of the Hermitage on Christmas Eve, and were treated to a spectacular look at Aoraki from our hotel room window on Christmas Day.

We worked our way South over the next few days to Te Anau, where we connected with our overnight cruise to the magnificent Doubtful Sound.  We were lucky to have a little bit of all the weather Fiordland is famous for; rain, wind, mist, and even some sun.

After an overnight to Stewart Island for New Year's Eve (see my last blog post) and hiking on Ulva Island and Horseshoe Point, we worked our way up the Catlins coast to Dunedin.  Lighthouses, waterfalls, and more, including the Southernmost point on the South Island.

A few nights in Dunedin, with a full day of sightseeing, including a long stroll through the Botanical garden, where summer flowers were in full bloom.

Our last days included stops in Oamaru to visit the wonderfly kitschy galleries in the Victorian Precinct, and then a night in Timaru to check out the Caroline Bay Festival, a two week celebration of Christmas and summer complete with carnival and entertainment.  Our evening there was rainy, however, so there wasn't much festival to see.

Our journey ended where it began in Christchurch, with a stay at my old favorite, the Windsor, still pretty much the same as when I first stayed there in 1992.  Scaffolding on several walls attest to earthquake damage, mostly from several chimneys that toppled and damaged parapets.

A stage production of "Cabaret" at the Arts Center was the highlight of our final days, an energetic, sexy, and disturbing romp through the decadent side of Berlin in the 1930s.  The cast, in character as performers at the notorious Kit Kat Club, mingled with the audience as we arrived and made us into their accomplices.  A thoroughly entertaining evening.

As we said goodbye to New Zealand we visited our old friend the blind pilgrim to reflect on our return to Tonga.  What are we in for next?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

How to Party on New Year's Eve, Kiwi Style

We've been traveling in New Zealand for the holidays, and we came across this prescription for a great New Year's Eve party.

1. Find a nice little community, preferably on the water on a pretty island, one like Oban on Stewart Island.

2. Have at hand a big pub/restaurant with ample food and drink.

3. Mix in a local band that can play a little bit of everything and put them up on the balcony overlooking the beach.

4. Let this brew simmer; no need to add any extra ingredients.

5. Build a great big bonfire on the beach and light it off after sunset.

6. At midnight, finish it off with everyone singing "Auld Lang Syne" at the top of their lungs.

7.  Enjoy the afterglow!

 Oh yes: don't forget to bribe Mother Nature to provide pleasant weather, especially when it has rained most of the day.

Happy New Year, everyone.
Rob & Kathy