Peace Corps Videos

Monday, October 29, 2007

How I did something REALLY inappropriate!

During Breakfast Saturday, my host sister told me that we were planning to go to another village called Taoa which she described as a long way. We made a very short trip into Neiafu, the main city here in Vava’u and came home to pick up my host mom for the trip. As we were getting ready to leave, Diana, my host sister, tells me that I need a tupena for Lotu, which is Church. I said for tomorrow? She said, no, for Taoa. That was my first indication that we were going to church. The drive to Taoa was beautiful and was my first chance to see any of the island. During part of the way, I could look out over the Pacific as we were driving. I was most impressed by how this country has remained unspoiled. We get to Taoa about 10:30am and the first thing I hear is do you want to eat. This is just two hours since I ate a really big breakfast. I declined and then was told I needed to eat. I was led into a town hall next to the Church and there were about eight ministers and other leaders sitting around a table filled with all kinds of food like whole pigs, fish, chicken, sausage. The table was not just covered in food, but food was piled on top of food. My host mom and sister disappeared and I was put directly across from the minister. After I sat down, the meal begin. The minister shared his lobster with me, making it the second time for me to have lobster here. (I now understand why the Peace Corps didn’t want to send me here if I had a lobster allergy.) I tried to eat small portions and we didn’t even come close to eating all the food in front of us.

After this meal, the church leaders got into a Kava circle and they invited me to join them. So far, my Kava drinking has always been at night. It was only about 11am. Here is where I did probably the single most inappropriate thing I have done since I’ve been here. The minister, in English, asked me how long I was going to be in Tonga. I replied F—K You. Of course I didn’t say that, but I held up two fingers, palm inward to indicate that I would be here for two years. However, that is a very obscene yesterday and is the same as giving someone the middle finger in the United States. I immediately realized what I had done, jerked down my hand and answered in my best Tonglish (Tonga-English) two years. No one sitting at the Kava circle gave any indication that they were offended but needless to say, I felt horrible. Our training has stressed how important it is to be culturally sensitive to our host country residents and I not only did something really insensitive, but I did it to a minister.

At 11:30, we moved to the church. I was expecting a regular church service, but I soon figured out it was either a wedding or funeral. It soon became apparent to me that it was a funeral as people were crying, an old lady was taken to the front of the church and people started presenting here with gifts. Soon, I felt like I was at a telethon. People started taking money up to a small table and then they started taking more money. The fund-raising went on for almost two hours. My host mom took a beautiful mat with tapa to the front of church along with what appeared to be thousands of dollars. She was crying as she did it.

Finally, they took all the gifts and the total amount raised to the old woman who said a few words. I assumed she was the widow. I had read that it is customary for people to give gifts when someone dies and that the gifts are eventually distributed back to the families friends. As soon as the service was over, this extremely festive music began playing from the hall where I had eaten earlier. There were women dancing in the streets and people singing. I entered the hall and could not believe the amount of food that was prepared there were mats lining the floor overflowing with food and drinks. My host mother motioned for me to sit on the mat. As I was sitting down, one of the church leaders led me up to the head table and motioned for me to sit. Now imagine this. There are probably 150 people sitting on the floor and I’m at the head table with 10-12 people. What I thought was a lot of food before doesn’t even compare to the spread now. I have an entire whole pig just for me not to mention all kinds of other food. People start making speeches, some crying, some joking and then music with women dancing. The man I was sitting next to did not speak English but was kind enough to speak very slowly so I could understand what he was saying. Finally, it was over and everyone got up, but there was enough food left to easily feed 300 people.

It was quite a cultural experience, but as I soon learned things are not always what they seem. I was telling my language teacher about the “funeral” later and she told me it wasn’t a funeral but the annual church fundraiser. If someone has died in the past year, the families all collect money to give to the church at this time of the year. The people who were carrying up the gifts were all people who had lost a relative. She told me my host mom’s mother had died in the past year and that is why she was there. When I told her they had put me at the head table, she told me that was a very high honor. I told her that I had understood that. However, what I had not understood is that the “appropriate” thing for me to have done was to get up and make a speech and thank everyone for allowing me to sit at the head table and providing the food. That thought never entered my mind. She said it would have been fine for me to have said thank you in English, but that I should have publicly thanked everyone for the high honor they had afforded me. So that was my second inappropriate thing for the day. However, she assured me that it was fine since I didn’t understand.

I’ll close this story by adding that when we got home, my family was ready to eat again. I had bread and some rice. There was no way I could have eaten again after all that I consumed.

Now on to life in Vava'u

Jimmy Buffett sings a song called “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes”. Its title couldn’t be more fitting. We’re living in a new latitude and there is certainly a new attitude among our group. Gone are the care-free days of living in Fu’amoto where everyone spoke English, everyone had modern plumbing and the Internet was just a short walk away. Reality has set in that the next two years are not going to be like that. I’m lucky in that I’m living in a really nice house with running water and terrific host parents. Not everyone is as lucky. One of the married couples only has water a few hours at night when it gets turned on. Another trainee is living in a house with no fan and it is very hot here. English may be understood but is not widely spoken and we have all given up the comfort of having another volunteer living with us. If we want to talk, it is pretty much going to be in Tongan. We are also not together. The 33 of us are living in three different villages so we don’t see each other as often either. Not having regular access to the internet also makes us feel a bit more isolated from our homes and families. The Internet is available in the main town but we have to either hitch a ride or take a bus to get there. (And for those of you who have sent me e-mail, I will get it eventually, but you won’t get the same quick response you got from me in Fu’amoto.)

And speaking of buses, on Friday, all 33 of us got together for the first time since arriving in Vava’u. We had school in a neighboring village. At the end of the day, we took a bus, but less than a mile from the school, the bus had a flat. The driver had no spare and no cell phone, so we all just walked home. It was nice to get the exercise, but of course, it was raining.

It’s easy to see that this is all an important part of our indoctrination to our culture. I’m impressed with the way the Peace Corps has eased us into this. I think if we had come here on day one we would have had a lot of people drop out. So far, all 33 of us are still here and I’m really hopeful we all stay together. I do feel like I’m communicating a bit better in Tongan now. Learning the language is pretty much my top priority now and the isolation gives me a lot more chances to study and to practice.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Vava’u—We made it!

The lush green landscape, rolling hills of tropical foliage and pouring rain all signs that we were no longer on Tongatapu. After a shorter than expected ferry ride we made it to the northern island group of Vava’u. The ferry ride was an experience to be enjoyed once, but probably not again. As we were waiting to board, I was happy the Peace Corps requires each of us to take Life Jackets. The boat looked as if it had seen better days and once onboard our first impressions were found to be true. We had secured an inside room for our group of 33, plus three of the Peace Corps staff. However, the room was not nearly big enough for all of us to sit, much less sleep. Several people ventured upstairs to the open deck, a decision that some would later regret. I opted to stay inside and while the occasional ocean spray would come through the open windows, it was a dry trip. I did not take any photos of our cramped quarters but imagine one person with the head looking at another person’s toes. That person looking at the head of the person next to them and on down the line. There was not enough room to stretch out shoulder to shoulder. Somehow in all of this, I was able to sleep, but not without occasionally kicking or rolling into the persons next to me. Of course, I also got bumped plenty of times throughout the night.

We had all been prepped for a 22 hour boat ride. The Peace Corps Medical officer (PCMO) issued motion tablets with instructions to take two one hour before we leave, two more once we left, another two when we left our first stop and the final two, four hours after that. The last two were not necessary because we got in about four hours early and we were all ready to get off the boat, even though it was pouring rain.

We got a great Peace Corps welcome from the current volunteers serving in this region and the Peace Corps staff who had arrived ahead of us. The volunteers had made cookies for us which I thoroughly enjoyed. Because of the rain, there was a lot of confusion about the luggage. Originally our bags were to be taken to our villages in open trucks. But that plans was scraped for those going with me to my village. We all crammed into a bus with all of our bags. We made it fit, but it was a tight squeeze.

We are now in three different groups in three different villages. I’m with 10 other trainees in the village of Ta’anea. (If you have Google Earth, zoom into Ta’anea, find the town hall with a large church next to it. Directly across the street from the town hall is where I am living. Next door to me is another church).

My new host family consists of a father, mother and 29 year old daughter. It’s a very nice house and they have been very hospitable. When I first got here, after the initial introductions, my first words were “kaukau” which is bathe or shower. I was feeling pretty gross after the long boat ride, the sea spray and then the pouring rain. The bathroom and the shower are located in separate rooms that are connected to the main house, but you must go outside to get to them. The shower was awesome. The water did not feel as cold as it did in Fu’amoto, but that could also be because it is quite a bit warmer here. After a delicious lunch featuring two of my favorite foods: fresh pineapple and ‘ota ‘ika, (raw fish), I took a very long nap.

After my nap, I visited a bit with my host family and then went for a walk with the daughter, some neighbors and a couple of other trainees. We also stopped and visited another trainee at his house and then visited our language teachers at their house. When I got back, it was time for dinner. Here’s where I got a quick education into how Tongans are so eager to please everyone. I ate alone while the others watched. I’ve learned this is a sign of respect and while it takes a little to get used to, that is just the way it is done here. I reached for a slice of bread and my host Mom moves the butter toward me. I asked in English, “Do you have Jam?”. It was not on the table and at my previous host family, they always had jam or jelly. She gets very flustered, said Ikai, which is no, starts yelling for her daughter, grabs some money and sends her daughter to the store to buy me some jam. I tried to stop her saying it was not a big deal, but she kept pushing her out the door. After a few minutes when she didn’t come right back, she went to the front door and called for her daughter. By now, I’ve finished my dinner but not wanting to offend my brand new host parents, I sat there, with a slice of bread on my plate, patiently waiting for the jam to come. It finally got there and I enjoyed my bread and jam, but learned a valuable lesson about asking for something you don’t see on the table.

This village is much smaller and a lot quieter than Fu’amoto, our last village. The quiet is because there are fewer dogs, pigs and chickens. Since arriving in Tonga, I’ve been sleeping with ear plugs to deafen the outside noise. Here I was able to sleep without using the earplugs. I still awoke to the sound of roosters but not as many as before.

My room has a fan, a double bed covered with a lace mosquito net and a table with chair. It’s quite comfy and I’m looking forward to enjoying it. I would be easy to spend all my time in my room in front of the fan as it is definitely warmer here and during the day, there is not a noticeable breeze.

My new language teacher is 71 years old and seems quite patient. I was sad not to keep the teacher I had, but look forward to learning more of the language. Here is a sample of what Tongan looks like. You’ll get an A if you can translate this!!

Ko Steve au. Oku ou ha’u mei Florida pea oku ou saiia ‘ota ‘ika mo faina. Ko hoku twofefine ko Becky mo Maria. Oku ou ngaue e Peace Corps pea oku ou noto “i Ta’anea.

Figure it out? There are a few hints above, but if I did this correctly, it says “I am Steve, I come from Florida and I like raw fish and pineapple. My sisters are Becky and Maria. I work for Peace Corps and I stay in Ta’anea”.

I was able to write most of that from memory except to check the spelling of a couple of words. However, I’ve got a LOOOONG way to go. Being able to say it and being able to hear it and translate it are two very different things.

I was very sad to leave my previous host family. I got attached to them in a very short time. If I end up working on Tongatapu, I’m sure I will see them regularly. Monday night, our last night at home, we sat around and played cards at the kitchen table. I had brought a deck from home but didn’t give it to them until a few nights before we left. We played all kinds of games and sometimes just made up the rules as we went along. They also taught us a Tongan card game called “High Card” and a card trick. As it started to get late, I began to wonder why we had not eaten. Finally, Sia told us our dinner was coming from town. I told her that we could just get something here and she said no, this was something special. And special it was. They had ordered us two huge lobsters from the International Dateline Hotel complete with French Fries and vegetables. There was no way I could have ever eaten one by myself so we all shared. It was probably only the second time I’ve ever eaten Lobster. For those of you who are long-time readers of this blog, you know that I almost didn’t get sent to the South Pacific because I thought I might have had an allergy to Shrimp and Lobster. I’ve avoided both almost my entire life and even after passing an allergy test, I still don’t eat much shrimp or lobster. The good news is that it was delicious and I had no side effects. On Tuesday morning as we were leaving, the family presented us with flower lei’s for the trip and gave us each a Ta’avala.

Our Peace Corps Volunteer leader, Soraya has posted the legend of the Ta’ovala on her blog. As discussed previously, these are the mats we wear on formal occasions over our skirts (tupenas). It’s a good story and thought you would enjoy reading it.

I’ve also updated the list of links to blogs being written by other people in our group. While we have all had many of the same experiences, the blogs will start to be different now that we are living is three villages.

There are also some new photos for you to enjoy.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Family, Food and School

The concept of family in Tonga takes some explaining. Yes, the families are very large but the relationship between family members is quite different than what you would find in most American households. There is no such thing as a cousin in Tonga. What we would consider cousins in the U.S. are called sisters and brothers in Tonga. That means that the children of every Aunt and every Uncle are your brothers and sisters. Perhaps you have five children in your household, your father’s brother has five and your mom’s sister has five. That means you have 14 brothers and sisters. Tongan children also call their parents by their first name and the parents are not always the birth parents. Confused? In the household where I am living, there is a three year who is being raised by our hosts. However, he is the son of our host’s brother who lives nearby. Adoption is pretty common here and it is not always by immediate family. If you are adopted you count your biological siblings and your adopted siblings as your brothers and sisters. Now imagine this scenario over multiple generations and you begin to get the idea of the size of most Tongan families. I’ve met many of the relatives and the children and it is hard to keep everyone straight. Often a new face shows up in the house and it’s just another relative we get to meet.

If you want to be confused even further, in the Tongan language, brothers call their brothers one word and sisters call their brothers another word. The great part of all this is that you can seemingly go anywhere in Tonga and meet family. My housemate Justin and I have certainly been warmly welcomed into our family here and are starting to feel at home. Unfortunately we have to say good-bye on Tuesday but I am confident we’ll remain in contact with our hosts during our service in Tonga, regardless of where we both end up working.

Food is a HUGE part of life in Tonga. Tongans eat all the time and they eat a lot. I doubt I will ever go hungry here. On Wednesday, Justin and I took a walk down to the beach after dinner. On the way back, we walked by a house where we didn’t know anyone. They called out to us “Come Eat” as they were eating their evening meal. We’ve heard this is pretty common. If you see someone, even if you don’t know them, you are invited to come share a meal and they will be happy if you join them. We did not join them but I have no doubt we would have had a great time. In the morning, we usually have toast and tea or instant coffee. Occasionally we will have eggs. The toast is hand-cut from a loaf of bread and piled on a plate. I doubt we could even come close to eating all the toast that is put in front of us. We often have fresh fruit like bananas as well. At school, we have a morning tea, lunch and an afternoon tea. The lunches are big meals and always include root crops like sweet potatoes, yams, and taro. We also get breadfruit almost daily. In addition, we’ll get fish, chicken of li, which is taro leaves with canned beef cooked in coconut milk. My favorite lunch has been curry chicken which was delicious. We get watermelon with almost every meal and often with our morning and afternoon teas. When we come home, our hosts make another big meal. My favorite food so far has been raw fish marinated in coconut milk with onions and tomatoes. The teriyaki chicken is also delicious. We get root crops with every meal and occasionally rice. I’ve liked everything so far and can’t believe I’ve eaten as much as I have. I’m learning to limit my portions so I don’t end up gaining lots of weight. Other than walking everywhere, I’ve had little chance to exercise due to the busy schedule.

School takes up most of our days. We start at 8:30am with a community meeting which is conducted by several of the trainees and it can be on any topic. That’s followed by class until 5pm. We take a two hour break and go back for one hour at 7pm. We have about two hours of language training every day plus the one hour at night. The language is my favorite part of the day even though I don’t feel I’m progressing as well as I should. Of course when I remember we’ve only been here for two weeks and I can carry on conversations at about the level of a four year old, I guess that is not bad. We are being encouraged to talk in complete sentences now instead of just learning new words and giving single word answers. There are more than 100 pronouns in the Tongan language and remembering all the rules can be difficult. Here are two confusing differences. In Tongan, there are pronouns for single, dual inclusive, dual exclusive, and plural. If you are talking about two people you use one set if you are one of the two people, a different set if you are not one of the two people and there is a different set if you are talking about three or more people. Also, there is one pronoun for he/she/it instead of the three we have in English.

The rest of the school day includes sessions on health, safety, culture and business. Because our group includes both education and business volunteers, we split up for these sessions and go to a different building. The business information is fascinating. It’s clear that profit is NOT the motivating factor for many Tongan business owners. On Monday we are getting to visit a small business and see how it runs which should be exciting. The Peace Corps staff is also starting to give us some information about the types of jobs we may be doing. While we haven’t gotten anything specific they are asking us to rank our preferences based on some job descriptions. We are supposed to find out November 13th where we will be assigned. That gives us a month to prepare before we are sworn in as volunteers and start working.

We leave for Vava’u, another island north of here on Tuesday. We are going by ferry and it takes 22 hours to get there. Today (Saturday) we all had to jump in the water. We probably were in the water for close to two hours, treading water, towing each other and swimming 100 meters in two minutes. We also learned how to survive in open water as a group. All of this was done without life jackets but we had guys from the Tonga Navy close in case any of us got into trouble. I think we were all surprised that is was much more strenuous than we had expected.

Finally, a few miscellaneous things worth noting.
· Many in our group walked in a in a Breast Cancer walk this morning through the main city.
· A special “shout-out” to the families of Stan, James and Justin who I hear are now reading this. James and Justin both got care packages on Wednesday which made the rest of us jealous. (HINT..HINT)
· A friend e-mailed and asked me about the mats I was wearing in one of the pictures. The mats are worn over the tupenas (skirts) that we wear every day. Think of the mats like you would a tie. You might wear one to work depending on where you work and you would always wear one to a formal occasion. I don’t own one, but have borrowed a mat from our host family when I have needed it, like to go to church.
· The US Ambassador for Fiji and Tonga, who is based in Fiji met with us Wednesday as did Deputy Secretary of State Christopher Hill. Both were in Tonga attending the Pacific Forum meetings happening in Nuka’alofa this week. Hill is a returned Peace Corps volunteer.
· Several of the trainees have gotten sick and a few are dealing with infections from cuts. So far, I’ve only gotten mosquito bites and haven’t had any illnesses or infections. We have a very competent medical officer who is looking out for our needs.
· Friday we had cooking classes and I’ve uploaded several photos from that. I learned how to make the raw fish mentioned above. Also a couple of other photographs are there now too.
· is from National Geographic on Tonga.
· I don’t know when I’ll be able to update again or answer e-mails as I don’t know what the Internet situation will be on Vava’u. If you don’t hear anything for a few weeks, don’t worry.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

This is Normal

In our village of Fu’amoto, there is an Internet café. Except there is no coffee, no drinks and no food at the café. It’s actually not a café at all but a house that has Internet service. Inside are about eight computers and space to hook-up one laptop computer. The Internet House, as I’ve started calling it, is located just behind the building where our classes are conducted each day. The arrival of 33 Peace Corps trainees has done a lot for its business.

But that’s not the point of this story. Friday, after class I stopped by to download my e-mail onto my laptop. I’ve found it is much more efficient to write off-line and then upload and download mail than it is to try to do it online, which can be painfully slow. After I was done on Friday, I asked the woman at the door how long they would be open tomorrow. She told me until 12. Since many Tongan businesses are open only for a part of the day on Saturday and many not open at all, I figured I would get there early in case they decided to go home early. In Tongan, time is always relative and you never really know if someone is going to be somewhere at a certain time or if a place will be open. Saturday morning, I finished breakfast with my host family and walked to the Internet House. When I was about two blocks away, a kid yelled at me in English from inside the yard, “Hey Steve, where are you going?” How this kid knew my name, I don’t know. Several kids have asked me my name but I didn’t remember him. I told him I was going to the Internet. He said “It’s closed”. Now how he knew this, I didn’t know either. I thanked him, told him I was going to take a walk and continued on to the Internet House. Guess what, it was closed. There was a man outside who said they would be open later. When I asked what time, he said when he got back from town. I said, ”so around Noon”? He said, after lunch. That was his answer. I walked back home a different way, not wanting to offend the kid who gave me the correct information.

Fast forward to about 3pm. My host family is preparing to go to the beach for a picnic. I tell them I’ll be right back that I want to go to the Internet. This time, I get all the way there and it is still closed but I see a woman across the street. She says they’ll be open this evening.
After a truly memorable trip to beach, I decide to walk home with a couple of others and walk by the Internet Café and it is now open. Of course it’s now dark outside and probably close to 8pm.

This simple story has several messages. One, why would I walk to this place instead of calling? Because that’s the way to do it. I’ve noticed that when my host family wants something, they don’t pick up the phone and call, they go there. Want to talk with someone? Just stop by. Second, the people in this village know a lot about what is going on, from my name to the status of the Internet. We used to talk about the “coconut wireless” when I lived in Hawaii, but Tonga operates this method of communication to perfection. And finally, don’t bank that things will happen on any kind of schedule. It’s all normal here, just different to us.

In fact, there are many things that are starting to seem perfectly normal after just a few weeks in Tonga.

· Wearing a skirt or tupena. All the men wear one to work, school and other more formal occasions like church. I have borrowed a few from my host family and I now own two of my own. Who would have ever guessed that I would ever go shopping for a skirt for me? While it feels normal to wear one, I haven’t quite mastered the art of sitting in one, especially on the floor. The first day I “flashed” several people in my group making me realize that until I get used to wearing one it is best to wear shorts underneath instead of just underwear.
· Seeing pigs everywhere. On the road as you walk around the village, driving to town, sitting at the kitchen table and looking out the door or while in class. They are everywhere and while at first it seems kind of strange, it now seems much more normal.
· Saying hello to every single person you see in the village. And often they want to talk, ask me my name or where I am going. Fortunately I can now answer these questions in broken Tongan instead of English and even when they ask me in English, I try to remember to respond in Tongan.
· Going to sleep to the sounds of people singing. Whether it is men sitting around a kava circle or a church choir, it is not uncommon to be serenaded as you go to bed and even as you wake up in the morning. The village has lots of noise from roosters to dogs. And of course there are the people too.
· Drums signal the start of town meetings and other events. You can distinguish them from the constant sound of tapa being tapped by the women of the village. Tapa is the bark of the Mulberry tree which is pounded into a cloth and decorated.
· Church Bells ringing all the time to remind people to get ready for church and that church is starting. Most bells ring an hour before the service and there are services all week long. On Sunday, the first services start at 5am.
· Food is everywhere and served all the time. Most is grown right here in the village and you only buy what you don’t raise or are given from family members.
· Being called “Sitiveni”, which is the Tongan word for Stephen. I haven’t quite gotten used to calling myself that, but am working on it.
· Cold showers. They are not as bad as they sound.
While learning about the village, its people and the customs are all very important parts of what we are learning every day.

I will close by saying how impressed I’ve been with the other people in our group. It is very refreshing to be around so many inspired and intelligent people. It’s also great how we continue to support each other as we all adjust to our new surroundings.

I've also uploaded a couple of new photos including a really cool one from the Blowhole here on Tongatapu.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

First Impressions of Tonga

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here for such a short time. Each day, even every hour, seems to bring a new experience as we continue our introduction to the Tonga culture. So far, the experience has exceeded any expectations I may have had about what to expect. From the beautiful harmony of men singing while sitting around a kava circle to the friendly hellos you get everywhere you go, Tonga has certainly extended its welcome mat to our group of 33 people.

During our training, we’ve heard several times that it is important not to compare what we see in Tonga to our own culture. The idea is that it is important to learn and accept the culture for the way it is without putting our own cultural views on everything. I agree with the philosophy, but for the purposes of my family and friends in the United States, I’m going to break that important rule to help you understand better what I’m experiencing.

We are staying in a small village on the main island of Tongatapu. I’m living with a host family and a fellow Peace Corps Trainee. Everywhere we go, we run into other members of our host family or family connections. And family has a very broad meaning in Tonga. It goes back generations and includes every aunt, uncle, cousin, you can imagine. Adoption also seems to be very common. One of our hosts was adopted into her family of nine children. In some cases the biological family even becomes part of the family of the adopted son or daughter. I’ve yet to meet a Tongan who lives alone and most houses have many generations of family under the same roof or living very close. One Tongan woman, who now lives in the United States, explained to me that reunions are critical in Tonga because if you don’t know who you are related to, you might end up dating them. She said two people living in New Zealand might not know they are related if they don’t show up for the reunion.

There is a hierarchical rank in every family, but it is very difficult to figure out. A rank can even be passed down from one generation to another. Where you sit during a meal or how decisions are made have a lot to do with the rank within each family. As guests, we have been put at the head of the table and have been even been asked to move once we are already seated. This has been explained to us as a sign of respect.

Our host family is truly wonderful. I like them all very much and they have welcomed us much as you would welcome your own family members. While there are just four family members living in the house, there are often many other relatives and friends here, making it hard to keep track of everyone sometimes.

I had read before arriving about how strongly gender roles are defined in Tonga. And while I have seen quite a bit of that, it would be unfair to think that the typical “A woman’s place is in the home” stereotype is always accurate in Tonga. There are women who are the only breadwinners in their families, women who are in high positions in government and who own their own local businesses. My experience has been very limited so far, but it appears that a Tongan woman has more opportunities than what I might have expected.

Having said that, there are places where women are just not welcome. One is Kava or a Kava circle. This is strictly a man’s affair and the only women allowed are those who serve the kava to the men. Saturday night, our host took us to a Kava Circle across from our home. There were about 40 or 50 men being served Kava by two single women. The women who serve Kava are always single and they are not allowed to drink it, only serve it to the men. In our circle of about 15 men, one was playing the Ukulele, another the guitar and two others were singing along with them. Their voices were beautiful and while I couldn’t understand the words, it was great to listen and watch them, as they stopped only to take another cup of Kava. Each person who wants more Kava passes his cup to the woman serving who pours the Kava and hands it back. As Palangi (Foreigners) we were given smaller servings, which I was later told was a sign of respect. In addition to the music, the men sit around and talk, tell jokes and generally enjoy each other’s company. This particular Kava circle collects 5 P’aanga which is equal to about US $2.50 from each participant every Saturday night. One of the participants told me they use the money to provide scholarships to the University with the money they collect. A fact that was later confirmed to me by someone else.

The one place where they did not collect money where I had expected it was at Church on Sunday. I attended the Free Wesleyan Church, which is the Methodist Church in the United States. I was there with about 20 fellow Peace Corps trainees. The first thing that struck me was the music. Unlike churches in the United States, the Tongans sing with an unbelievable passion. Here’s where I’ll make a comparison. Think of the finale of a Broadway Musical and you will begin to get an idea of the sound of the congregation. There is no choir at the front of the church but there is a music director who directs the congregation in each song. There are times it is so loud, you almost want to lower the volume a bit. There were no pianos or organs, just a keyboard player who played softly in the background. In fact, there were many times I thought the congregation was singing a’capello as you could not even hear the keyboard.
Each song was started by the town officer, who was sitting on a pew near the rear of the church. It is not because of this job as town officer that he does that, but something he has apparently been doing for years. As is tradition in the Methodist Church, the first Sunday of the month is communion. In Tonga, they simply extend the service on the first Sunday instead of cutting something out like happens in the United States. The only thing missing on Communion Sunday is the offering, which they do not collect since they are offering Communion. Communion is offered by age with the oldest people in the church going first down to the youngest. The congregation sings songs from memory the entire time the congregation is taking Communion. And in true Tonga tradition, everyone goes in bare feet to the front of the church. (Everyone wears Sandals or flip-flops everywhere, including Church so it’s not difficult to take them off to take Communion.)

While I did not understand most of the service, we were greeted in English by three separate people during the service who thanked us for coming to help their country. Another part of the service is the announcements. Instead of just church announcements, the announcements included community news as the church is the centerpiece of the Tongan community. These included calling up to the front of the church anyone who was celebrating a birthday this week and the entire congregation sang Happy Birthday to them.

Food is everywhere and very plentiful. Almost everything is grown in the village where we are staying. There are pigs, chickens and dogs running everywhere and there are no fences. (No they don’t eat the dogs but one of our group did get bitten by a dog. He’s okay). The big meal of the week is the after church feast on Sunday. We ate outdoors at a table covered in banana leaves and our food was prepared in an emu or underground oven. Our hosts had two types of liu, which is meat, onion and coconut milk wrapped in taro leaves and then wrapped in banana leaves to cook in the oven. We had canned meat in one liu and mutton (lamb) in the other. It was really delicious. It reminded me a lot of the Kailua pig I used to eat in Hawaii. Also on the table, we ate sweet potatoes, breadfruit and cassava with our fingers. As a drink, we had fresh watermelon mixed with coconut milk which was really delicious as well. Coconuts are plentiful and used daily in cooking. I’ve become addicted to the local bananas. They have two types and both are really sweet and delicious, picked right off the tree in the back-yard or served to us at our group events. They make a great snack and I get I’m eating five or six a day.

I’ve been most impressed with the Peace Corps training process so far and the staff here is terrific. You know they want you to succeed and they are all working to help us not only learn the language but to better understand the culture and the country. The days are long. We are in class from 8:30am until 5pm. We take a two hour break for dinner with our host families and then are back again at 7pm. However, they keep it moving. The toughest part at least for me is trying to retain all the information they provide. I feel like I’m struggling a bit with the language but every day I learn more and it is great to be able to come home and understand simple phrases. We are taught in groups of five or six people so we get a lot of attention. My instructor is great. We’ll soon be put in new groups based on our abilities which I think will help by having people of similar abilities together.

I’ve uploaded some photographs I’ve taken. I’ve reduced the size of the images since the Internet connections here are a bit slow. For those of you reading this via e-mail or RSS you will need to go to the web page to see the link to the images.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Male e Lei Lei

Hello from the Kingdom of Tonga. I'm finally here and have been so impressed with this island Kingdom so far. We got in Thursday Morning and were greeted at the airport by cheering Peace Corps workers and volunteers. As we cleared customs, we were each presented with a flower lei and given a great welcome.

After flying all night, I thought I would be exhausted, but found that after a cold shower (that's the only kind here) I was ready to set out and explore some of the island. I didn't get to see much but was amazed at how friendly the people were to us as my room-mate and I walked the streets. Almost everyone said hello to us and school children waved as we walked by. It is fascinating to see a place where culture is still so important and that is most obvious by observing the dress of the native people. Very much in line with what the Peace Corps had predicted.

This afternoon we had a welcoming Kava ceremony from our Country Director, who is the head person in charge of the Peace Corps in Tonga. Kava is a drink made the root of the kava plant, ground and mixed with water. Before we had our first taste of Tongan Kava, we were treated to the story of how Kava came to be such a tradition in the local culture. (I'm afraid I won't get the details right if I try to relate the story here).

I've seen Kava described many ways, ranging from Gross to Tasty. I would have to say that I found it to taste about what you would expect a root ground up in water to taste like. I only had a small cup and did not feel any of the effects. (A feeling described as relaxed motor skills in our training). As a welcome gift, the Country Director presented us with our own Kava cup to use during our tenure here in Tonga.

As the CD (Country Director) was welcoming us in his opening presentation, I felt a tap on my shoulder. One of the Peace Corps staff asked if I could step away and give an interview to Tongan Television. I didn't really want to stand-up and walk away but she said they were getting ready to leave and needed to interview someone. The Interview was pretty simple. The reporter, who was also the photographer, asked me to say something about Tonga. I wasn't really sure what to say and was really expecting a question. I started talking and then he told me he hadn't turned on the camera. I quickly gave an answer about how impressed I had been with Tonga so far and how I was really looking forward to seeing more of the Island and meet more of the people. His second and final question was "Do you have anything else to say?". I responded that I was glad to be a part of the Peace Corps and was looking forward to working in Tonga, or something similar. That was it. He thanked me and I went back to the welcome ceremony. He also interviewed a woman from our group. I have no idea if anything I said will actually end up on TV, but one of the current volunteers here told me that I shouldn't be surprised if someone comes up to me and tells me they saw me on TV.

Several of my fellow trainees got a laugh out of the fact that I was selected to be interviewed since they all know from training that I spent my career in TV News. Of course most of it was on the "other" side of the camera.

Our flight to get here stopped in Samoa and I wrote the following while we were waiting to get back on the plane to continue our voyage to Tonga.

Wednesday October 2, 2007

It's 5:30am and our group of Peace Corps volunteers is sitting in a transit area in Apia, Samoa.

It's been an intense couple of days since arriving in Los Angeles for our staging. Our group is pretty diverse. There are 33 of us. In that group are 5 married couples, 12 single women and 11 single men. There are three volunteers who are older than me. Most are in their 20's and 30's. I was pretty impressed about everything the people in our group have already done. Many have been active in volunteer work for work and quite a few have lived in another country before. We have two groups, Business and Education volunteers.

I keep thinking about the opening line to MTV's Real World: "What happens when you put 33 strangers together?" Actually quite a bit. Overall I was pretty impressed with the staging process. No surprises but it gave us a good overview of what we could expect once we arrive in Tonga. The training was more specific to overall Peace Corps practices.

While I've known this group for probably just 48 hours, I know all their names and am pretty sure I know where they are from.

Once we finished our staging, we are sent to the airport and on to Tonga without an escort from the Peace Corps. We appointed four group leaders, one for the hotel, one for the bus, one for the sky-caps at the airport and one for the airport and travel. That's the job I got. It didn't seem like a big deal to hand out the passports and tickets to everyone at the airport, but we got a bit of hassle at the airline counter. They would not allow us to board the plane since we did not have a return ticket from Tonga. Even after I showed the letter provided by the Peace Corps from the Kingdom of Tonga with our names, they still told us we had to have Visas or a return ticket before they would check us in. I finally got a supervisor who copied our travel documents and handed them out to all of the other gate agents and told them to check us in. But that wasn't the end of the problems. One of the gate agents didn't get the message and held up two of the people in our group and I had to come back with the paperwork so he could make another copy of it, just for him. As it turns out the paperwork was sitting on the counter in front of him the entire time.

Now on the TSA. One of the baggage screening machines at LAX was broken, so the 33 of us with LOTS of luggage had to wait in a line that wrapped out to the street just to check our bags. (Oh and I did not have to pay a luggage surcharge even though I was over the limit when I checked in.) It probably took an hour for us to get everyone checked in, if not longer. Those of us at the front of the line spent the time hanging out in from of LAX.

Once we got past the issue with the gate staff we had a pretty pleasant flight.

NOTE: It is Friday at almost 1pm as I'm posting this. This is the first time I've been able to get online since getting here. I have 53 e-mails and don't know if I'll have time to answer them before I get back to class. I don't expect to have Internet access at all for the next 18 days as we are going to a remote village this afternoon.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Heading to LA

After more than a year of paperwork, medical tests and interviews, I’m finally on my way to Los Angeles for staging. Right now, I’m flying somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, after saying a final good-bye to my parents. Saying good-bye has been a lot harder than I thought it would be. Not just to my parents but my sisters, other members of my family and my friends. I’ve certainly been away for long periods of time in the past, but never for two years with little chance that I will see most of the important people in my life during the time away. For the last week, we started calling things “My last trip to Miami”, “ my last trip to my favorite restaurant”, “My last swim in the pool”, etc. Of course they probably aren’t really my last ever trip to those places but it does seem like a long time before I will be back. All the good-byes have been great, but I’ve put on a few pounds from all the big going-away meals and drinks.

As I was checking in at the airport counter, they weighted my bags and I was over a bit more than I thought. After a bit or rearranging, I got my big bag to weigh in at 70lbs, the maximum Continental allows. I had to pay a $25 surcharge for being overweight. The Peace Corps will not reimburse me for this but I am not sure what else I could have left out at this point. Apparently I will have to pay $35 more dollars for the extra weight on our overseas flight. The good news is I’ve packed so that I shouldn’t have to open the bag until I get to Tonga. Once there, I can store the things I won’t need during training.

A couple of days ago, I got an e-mail from the Peace Corps with more details about what I’ll be doing for the remainder of this year. I will begin training almost immediately after arriving in Tonga on Thursday. (Which is Wednesday in the USA). I’ll have two home-stays during my training. That means I will be living in the home of two Tonga families. The first home stay will be with another volunteer on the main island of Tonga and will last 18 days. After that, I get to take a 22 hour boat trip to Vavua, which is north of the main island. I’ve heard from other volunteers that the 22 hour boat trip is not very pleasant and that we will be on-deck for the trip. Once I get there, is looks like the second home stay lasts about six weeks. The Peace Corps e-mail also said I should have access to the Internet and perhaps even to phones during my training. It will be great if I can keep in touch with everyone back home.

My biggest concern about joining the Peace Corps has been learning the language. I’ve never learned a language so I don’t have a frame of reference on how I will do. I bought the Tongan language CD’s and book to start studying but learning from a CD is difficult as you don’t get any feed-back on how you are progressing. I was very happy to read that “instructors teach formal language classes five days a week to small groups of four to five people”. I think being in a small group should make it much easier for me to learn.
Assuming that I pass the language test and other training successfully, I will be sworn in as a volunteer on December 13th. Shortly before that time, I should find out my permanent job assignment and where I will be living.

I opted to come to Los Angeles a day early. That way I avoided having to get up at 5am to get to the airport and get a same-day flight to LA. I figured I could use one more night of sleep before diving into the Peace Corps very full training schedule. My uncle, who lives in Palm Desert, is driving to Los Angeles to see me as well. I will do my best to post an update after my staging and before getting on the plane to Tonga.