Peace Corps Videos

Friday, November 30, 2007

Business in Tonga

I've wanted to write about business in Tonga for some time, but it has been hard for me to get a handle on exactly how business is done here. So far, my exposure to businesses has been limited to very small Tongan businesses and those run by Palangi (Foreigners). My exposure has also been somewhat controlled by the Peace Corps in that my exposure to the Tongan businesses has primarily been those who have or want to have some kind of relationship with the Peace Corps.

Once I begin my permanent job working with the Tonga Development Bank and later when I get started with the Vava'u Chamber of Commerce, I'm sure my perceptions will change as will my understanding of how business gets done here.

I won't spend a lot of time talking about the Palangi owned businesses because for the most part, they seem to operate like any business in the United States or elsewhere, EXCEPT they have to be licensed by the Government and those businesses must be on a list of businesses that are allowed to be owned by non-Tongans. I've met the owners of two businesses who are living here on two year visas and they have both invested significantly in their business. If someone in the government decides not to renew their visas or their business license, they are out of business. It seems to be understood that you don't want to "piss off" the wrong person if you are an outsider as you may find yourself out of business.

The Tongan owned businesses are fascinating. For the most part, profit is not a motivating factor. I've spent the past two weeks working with some small businesses and almost none of them were tracking their profits. Some tracked their sales, but none could tell you how much money they were making or even if they were making money. Business is pretty much all-cash. If you run a store, you pay for the goods when they are delivered out of your cash on hand. We found one business with about TOP$300 dollars in cash stored in candy jars under the counter. And if you figure that the employees at this store make just TOP$50 dollars a week (six days) that's a lot of money to have sitting around. The reason is because they did not have a way to get to the bank to deposit it. (In case you are wondering, TOP$50.00 is about $25.00 US, which is what they get for a full week of work.) They don't worry much about theft here and yes, they leave the money inside the store in the candy jars when the store is closed.

Even the bank operates on a principal of trust. I have been to the bank twice and withdrawn money without ever showing an ID. All I had to do was give them my name and they handed me the cash. I finally got an ATM card this week and when I went into the bank to pick it up, I was given both the card and the PIN without having to show ID. Now, to put it in perspective, they do know most of their customers and I doubt they have many Americans who come in and want to withdraw money, as most wouldn't even have an account at the bank.

There is little regulation of business here and almost no tax structure. Price fixing is apparently perfectly legal. For example, we were told that there are four bakeries here on Vava'u and they all sell bread for the same price. Apparently they are all happy with how much business they are getting, so they got together and agreed to all sell the bread for the same price. The guy who told us this said "In Tonga, it's a free market; you can set your own prices". We found that funny since in the US we would call it collusion, it would probably violate anti-trust laws and it would certainly not be considered a free market.

Not only can you fix prices, but on some goods, the amount of profit you can make is fixed by the government. I don't know exactly what goods this rule applies to, but your profit on the regulated goods is limited to no more than a 15% mark-up. That means if it costs you $1.00, the most you can charge is $1.15.

When it comes to tax loopholes, Tonga has one so big it is amazing it exists. There is a 15% VAT charged on all goods in Tonga, but you have to sell TOP$100,000.00 annually for this to apply to you. Want to avoid paying this? Just open a second business. If one business is doing better than the other, just start funneling money from the good business to the bad to keep under the limit. If you are grossing TOP$250,000, just have three businesses and make sure none make more than TOP$100,000 each and you don't pay the 15% tax. You can even use the same bank account and co-mingle the funds. And get this? You keep the books and you report how much you earn to the Government. Then they tell you how much tax to pay. As one business owner told me, "You just have to know how to keep the books".

In addition to the business tax, there is an income tax here, but it only applies to people who make more than TOP$617 per month which excludes many people. The bottom line is that many businesses and residents pay no taxes and from what I've seen, no real structure to enforce the laws that do exist.

So you might ask, if this is the case, why don't a lot of businesses locate here? Mainly because foreigners can't own land, they can only lease it. That's one of the primary reasons I believe there are no International companies located in Tonga. And as mentioned above, only certain businesses are allowed to be owned by non-Tongans. This policy meant that for many years that Tongan owned companies could pretty much do as these please. Stores often kept irregular hours and if something were out of stock Tongans just did without it. Customer Service as we know it in America didn't really exist.

Now here is where it gets really interesting. A few years ago, the former King sold passports to some Chinese citizens. Once they paid for the passports, they were Tongan residents and were allowed to own any kind of business. While the passport selling quickly stopped after a huge International outrage, the Chinese who bought the passports are still here and they operate thriving businesses. They keep regular hours; they buy their goods in bulk and have cheaper prices. In just about any town in the Kingdom, the best stocked store is likely to be owned by Chinese. This has caused many Tongan owned businesses to suffer and now those that survive often find they are buying their goods from the Chinese just so they can stay in business and compete. As you might imagine, this has led to some resentment towards the Chinese.

Here's where the Peace Corps comes in. I see the role of the business volunteers as helping the Tongan businesses compete and grow, not just against the Chinese but everywhere. In one store we visited, we showed the managers of the store how to keep better books. The next day, we went back and they had re-done their records for the past day, not only doing it the way we had suggested, but actually taking our suggestion and making it better. Just one store and just one day, but if they keep it up, I believe it will help them better manage their business in the future. I doubt everyone will be as receptive but the women at this store were very smart and seemed to immediately grasp the importance of better record keeping.

***Other News***

This is my last post from Vava'u, at least for a while. On Tuesday I will be saying good-bye to my wonderful host family as we are returning to the main island of Tongatapu to complete our training. We'll be staying at a guest house in Nuku'alofa until we are sworn in as volunteers on December 12th. After that, we all will go to our assigned posts, except for me. I will be staying on the main island for approximately three months before coming to my permanent job here in Vava'u. Right now, I don't have a place to live. I might be staying with another volunteer during my three months or I may get my own place. It is not finalized yet. (My housing here in Vava'u is not finalized either.) I did get more information about what I will be doing during my first three months. The Tonga Development Bank is looking for assistance on launching a new web-site and they also want some help with developing Radio and TV advertisements. Both sound pretty interesting to me. I'll also be learning skills to bring back to the Vava'u branch.

It's now been two months since I left my Florida home and in some ways, it seems like such a long time ago, but I think that is because we have had so much information thrown at us in those two months. I couldn't even begin to count the number of new people I've met, I've learned to speak very basically in a new language and I've had a lot of fun along the way too. The time in training has gone by quickly (except for two really bad sessions) and the Peace Corps staff here is truly amazing. I really feel like all the staff really works hard to make sure that each of us will be successful volunteers. There is a very supportive atmosphere here and I think it will really pay off for all of us. After spending almost a year going through the very long and tedious Peace Corps application process, it was refreshing to come here and find so many committed people. Having said that, I'm tired of training and ready to begin my work as a volunteer.


This has nothing to do with Tonga or the Peace Corps, but my college alma mater, West Virginia University may play for the National Championship for only the second time in school history. Hopefully they will beat Pittsburgh this weekend and make it to the big game. Go Mountaineers!!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Secluded Beaches and an Awesome Cave

Even though we have been in Vava’u for more than a month, I have not had a chance to see much of the island except for my village and the main town. Saturday I got to find out why Vava’u is the vacation capital of Tonga. Most of the trainees and a couple of the current volunteers all hired a boat for the afternoon. We got to get out on the water and see many of the islands that make up this beautiful island group. Our first stop was a secluded beach where we were the only people. It was overcast so not a lot of sunbathing, but plenty of time to do some incredible snorkeling. The wide variety and colors of the coral combined with the colorful variety of fish made for a great adventure. I even saw my first colorful bird here in Tonga. Even though you might expect there to be many tropical birds here, there really are very few or they stay out of sight.

After the beach we headed to Swallows cave. This is a huge cave, big enough for small boats to get inside. However, our boat would not fit, so we jumped in the water and swam inside. The swim to get inside the cave was much more of a struggle than I had anticipated and I found myself winded once I got inside--partly because I was holding and not wearing my mask and snorkel in one hand. The swim was worth it. You could lie on your back and look up and see hundreds of swallows flying around. I went to the far side of the cave and climbed up the wall with several of my fellow trainees. After a short climb up the edge of the cave, you could see into another cave ahead. On the way back down, I went back the way I came, but a couple of others went down on the other side and saw a sea snake in one of the small ponds. We’ve been told that the sea snakes are very afraid of humans and that their fangs are so far back in the mouth that they can’t actually bite a person. However, the guys took no chances and quickly scaled down the wall into the pond below.

Before slipping back into the water, I put on my mask and snorkel and was treated to an amazing site as I put my head into the water. The cave was at least 75 to 100 feet deep below me but the water was so clear you could see the bottom. There was another entrance to the cave and it helped light the ocean floor. It was truly a spectacular site. I don’t have an underwater camera so I don’t have any pictures to share. However, even if I did, I doubt the pictures could do it justice.
Getting out of the cave and back to the boat was an easy swim, but getting back in the boat was more of a challenge. No rope ladder, so we literally had to be pulled up onto the boat.

We had planned to make another stop at a place called Mariner’s cave but the weather was not cooperating and it was determined it was too rough for us to make it to that cave. To get into Mariner’s cave you have to swim underwater and then come up inside the cave. The good news for me is that I’ll be in Vava’u and will have other opportunities to go back. For some of the trainees, this may be their last time here since we leave in just over a week to go back to main island of Tongatapu. That also means we have just over two weeks of training remaining before we officially become Peace Corps volunteers.

UPDATE: My friend Peter, who is the only person I know who had actually visited Tonga before I came here sent me some photos he took at Swallows Cave:

Here are his photos. Just click to see them full-size.

***Other News***
On Wednesday and Thursday, the business trainees did a workshop for several small business owners here in Tonga. It was my first chance to really do what I came here to do—work with business people. I helped out with a session on record-keeping and then did some private sessions on both record-keeping and on Excel. Even though we were working on Thanksgiving, it was great to see that we could impact some people, hopefully in a positive way.

We had a great Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday. The current volunteers here on Vava’u made arrangements with the owner of a waterfront restaurant to let us use his facilities. We each chipped in TOP$15 which is about $7.50 US and the Peace Corps country director and assistant country director paid for the turkeys. The volunteers took over the restaurant kitchen, cooking all the food including mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. Might sound like a typical American Thanksgiving, but you don’t find those items here in the South Pacific. We even had cranberry sauce. A local band, which included a Peace Corps employee, donated their time to play for us and we all chipped in to buy them drinks from the bar. It really was a great evening and a nice break from training. Now here’s the twist. After dinner, we took our own plates back to the kitchen and washed our own dishes. It didn’t seem strange to do this because the great dinner was well worth doing dishes. (Full Disclosure: I didn’t actually do my dishes as one of my language teachers took my plate for me).

My address will be staying the same for a while. Eventually I will have a Vava’u address and once I get it, will update my contact information page on the blog and include it in a post.

In addition to the photos included in this post, I’ve uploaded a few others. Also, if you are getting my posts via e-mail and are not seeing photos, you may want to check your mail settings so you can see them, or you can simply click on the title and look at the site online.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Aho Fakatonga (“Like a Tonga Day)

While much of our training to become Peace Corps volunteers has focused on the language, a good part of our education has also focused on culture. We are constantly reminded how important it is to not only be able to speak to the people here in their native tongue but also understand the Tongan culture. For the past few weeks we have been preparing for what the Peace Corps calls “Fakatonga Days” or “Aho Fakatonga”. It’s a chance for us to thank our host families and villages and to also show off some of what we have learned.

There are three villages with 11 trainees each here in Vava’u. Each village had to do a skit, learn a Tonga Dance and prepare handicrafts and food the Tongan way. The handicrafts from our village included mats, brooms, kava cups made from coconuts, baskets, hats, etc. We also had a wide assortment of food. I made Ota Ika, which is raw fish, but my homestay mother did most of the work. About all I did was stir in the peppers.

Rugby is very big in Tonga and when we first arrived here there were signs everywhere supporting the Tongan National Rugby team who had a great season this past year. We decided to do a rugby skit. There is a cheer that the players say before each game and we customized it to our village.

The men all dressed up in rugby clothes and ran into the room with the women cheering. However, we made a big culture blunder when we entered the room. On the stage was the principal of a local school and the head of the Peace Corps business program. All of our families were in the rear of the room behind us. We turned to do the cheer to our homestay families and friends, turning our back on the two people on the stage. Our language teacher came running out, made us turn around and perform the cheer with our backs to the audience and facing the two men on the stage. They were the “ranking” people in the room and it was considered rude to turn our backs to them. The other groups learned from our mistakes, lining up in a straight line so both could see, however, everyone played to the men on the stage.
We all knew that this was part of Tongan culture before we entered the room as we have heard about the importance of rank many times. I’m sure it won’t be the last mistake we make either.
For our dance we did a very special dance that was written for a women here in Ta’anea when she was a little girl. The woman also happens to be the sister of my homestay father. She spent many hours teaching the women how to do the dance and the women of the village went all out preparing the women’s costumes.
The song and the dance are really very beautiful. We are supposed to get a video of the performance. When we get it, I’ll see if I can figure out how to upload a portion of it.

Our village went for the more traditional dance and skit but we were certainly upstaged by another village of trainees who dressed up as fakaleitis. A fakaleitis is a man who is raised as a women and who dresses in women’s clothes. It is not uncommon to see fakaleitis working in restaurants or walking around town. Historically, when a family did not have any girls in the family, they selected one of the boys to do women’s work. The tradition continues today. However, none of the fakaleitis I’ve seen here in Tonga look anything like the men from our training group who tried to imitate them.

They got lots of laughs from the crowd and a lot of good-natured ribbing from the other trainees.

After all the performances, we went to another hall for a traditional Tongan feast. There were hundreds of people there and I bet less than 25% of the food on the tables was consumed. The tables were so full of food, we had to put our plates in our laps to eat. However, I don’t want to give the impression that no food was consumed because massive amounts were eaten, but there were a lot of leftovers as is traditional in Tonga. No one ever goes hungry here.

***Other News***

Friday I had a few free minutes and went to the Tonga Development Bank to meet the branch manager, who will be my supervisor for the next two years. We had a nice chat and exchanged phone numbers.
I’ll be training for about three months in Tongatapu and then moving here full-time probably around mid to late March. I do not know where I will be living yet either here or on Tongatapu during my training
I had my first language exam on Friday. I scored Novice High. I spoke with the woman who gave me the test afterwards and she told me that I was ALMOST Intermediate low, but that I didn’t use enough conjunctions in my sentences and I had messed up making things negative. I’m still hopeful that I’ll make it to Intermediate Middle before December 12th when we are sworn in as volunteers. It will be a challenge though as we have only one hour of language daily at 7pm for the next two weeks. The education volunteers are in model school and those of us in business are doing a workshop for business owners here in Vava’u. I’m trying to force myself to use as much Tongan as I can, but will miss the daily language classes. I did have a great experience Friday. It will sound simple but it was a great accomplishment. I needed a tube of toothpaste and went into a store and saw a tube behind the counter. I was able to tell the woman what I wanted, ask how much and pay her without ever uttering a single word of English and she never said any English either.

Finally my host family gave me an awesome surprise Friday night. I came how to find a REAL Pizza with Lobster and Fish on it and REAL cheese. It’s the first time I’ve had Pizza since leaving the United States. It was great.


I’ve added a book list to my blog showing the books I’ve read. I’ve only been able to complete two so far but hope to do some more reading once we finish training. (They have a nice little library here and there is a coffee shop with a book exchange as well.) If you haven’t read Absolution by Miriam Herin, pick up a copy. It’s a great story.

I finally got Mail on Friday. Thanks Mom and Dad for the care package and the awesome Chocolate chip cookies. They arrived in great shape. Also, I got two cards which were much appreciated.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My New Job

I will be spending the next two years in Vava’u working with both the Tonga Development Bank and the Vava’u Chamber of Commerce. I am very happy with the assignment but also a bit surprised. We had heard that just one business volunteer would be stationed here, which turned out not to be true. Vava’u is a really neat place and getting to work with small business owners in both positions should be both exciting and challenging. My primary job will be at the Development Bank, which I know a little bit about because we had a presentation on it during our initial training on Tongatapu. They provide development loans to small businesses to either start or grow their business. There is currently a volunteer who is working with the Development Bank at the main office in Nuku’alofa and I will actually work there initially for training before moving to Vava’u permanently. (Thankfully, I get to fly; I don’t have to take a boat) The Vava’u Chamber of Commerce is a new organization started earlier this year and that position is ad hoc at this point. There are about 30 member businesses but no office or full-time staff. I’m going to get to know a lot of business owners in the job and that will be exciting for me.

My hope was that I would end up in a business advising role and that is exactly what I got. I really feel like the position is the kind of thing I wanted to do in the Peace Corps. There are several other people from my training group who are also going to be here. Interestingly, James and Stan, who were the first people I met online before we went to staging will also be here along with Janice, Shannon, Katie and Andrew. Amy will be on an outer island in the Vava’u group.

Our program managers each put a folder in front of us with instructions not to open it until they said it was okay. Once we opened it, we all immediately saw where we were going. As you can imagine there were a lot of emotions with some people clearly ecstatic about their locations and others who were not. While I was happy with my assignment, it was sad to hear that many of friends from training would be on other islands and that I wouldn’t get to hang out with them as much.

Getting our site assignments is really the last “planned” surprise in a long series that begins with your original application to join the Peace Corps. First you receive a nomination to a program and region, in my case, a business program in the South Pacific. The next surprise is the invitation, which tells you the country and the specifics of your program. Once you arrive in country, you find out where you will be staying during training and who will be your host family. In Tonga, you have two home stays. Finally, you get your site assignment and find out where you will be living. While I would never suggest there will be no surprises for the next two years, this is really the big one and the one for which you have been preparing since filling out the application.

As you might expect, there have been a lot of rumors for the past two weeks about where everyone is going to go. My favorite was that the Peace Corps only had 28 jobs and there are 33 of us. The logic was that they had expected five of us to quit by now and none have left. Another was that all married couples were going to Tongatapu and that only the most liberal volunteers are sent to the outer islands. None of these were true. A couple of trainees even had a sheet with every trainee’s name on it, trying to guess where each would end up. I don’t know yet how accurate they were with the predictions.

***Other News***

Last week we got a really nice surprise from the current Volunteers in Tonga. They came to our training session to deliver “mail” to us. They said that during training, they missed getting mail like we do. They had written each of us a letter and we each got an envelope of mail containing things like a postcard from a volunteer on an outer island, a page of Sunday comics from the US, some crossword puzzles to do, a discount on a cup of REAL coffee from a coffee shop and some candy. My favorite item was a bookmark with the following quote: “Some people see the glass half empty, some people see the glass half full, a Peace Corps Volunteer sees the glass and says “Hey, I could take a bath in that!” The care package was great and was the first mail I’ve gotten since being here even though I know I have some on the way. It was a nice way to show us that our Peace Corps family is not just the people with whom we are training, but also the other volunteers.

The weather has improved tremendously. Saturday, my host mom and sister took me to the ocean for a swim. I got to try out my snorkel and mask for the first time and saw some really beautiful fish, all very colorful. I even saw a bright blue star fish, or at least I think that is what it was. The water here is incredibly clear. Standing chin deep in the water, I could clearly see my toes and everything around them. The snorkeling was really fantastic in such clear conditions. We finished swimming just as the sun was setting and I got to see my first Tongan sunset before heading home.

We have our first language exam on Friday. I’m hoping to score Intermediate Low, but will be happy if I make it to Novice High. I have to reach Intermediate Middle before I swear in as a volunteer.


If you’ve been reading my posts for a long time, you know that I spent a good bit of time speculating about where I was going. I found out there were just three countries where the Peace Corps has business programs in the South Pacific: Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu. Turns out I was wrong. There is a 4th country with a business program: Fiji. If you get a nomination to a business program in the South Pacific, you will end up going to one of those four places. Of course programs change regularly and there is no guaranteeing that there will continue to just be four countries with business programs. The program here in Tonga has changed since I got my invitation. To be relevant, the Peace Corps has to adapt not only to changing business climates, but also the qualifications of the applicants. The example we were given early in our training was that a country may have a huge need for plumbers and electricians, but very few plumbers and electricians apply to be volunteers so it is not practical to have a plumbing program in a country and the Peace Corps probably couldn’t support it with volunteers.

I’ve uploaded some new pictures, including one of the sunset mentioned above.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Tonga Prices

It’s not uncommon to discover that residents in many resort destinations get a better price than what the tourists pay. When I lived in Hawaii, KamaI’na prices (local prices) were published just about everywhere. You could stay at a huge resort for a lot less than a tourist, rent a car for less and even fly for less. In Florida, the practice is not as widespread, but you can still get a lower price to the amusement parks and certain other places. In both Hawaii and Florida, the key word is “published prices”. The difference here in Vava’u is that the local prices are widely available but you won’t see them posted anywhere. Friday I went to an Internet cafĂ© on the water. This place obviously caters to the “yatchies” who dock their boats just outside in the inlet. There is a sign posted that says Internet Access is TOP$ 7.00 per hour. (That’s just less than four US Dollars) I spent an hour online and when I was finished, I told the woman, in Tongan, that I was finished. After her obvious surprise at hearing me speak in Tongan, she charged me $4.00 for the hour.

I then joined several of my fellow trainees for dinner at a local restaurant. The owner assured us that she considered us locals and she would always give us the local prices. What are those prices? You have to ask because they are not posted. Other trainees have found T-shirt shops that offer local prices. It’s actually pretty smart business because the locals would never be able to afford to eat or shop in these places and the concept certainly fits with the Tongan culture of helping out each other. Even for me, the dinner and beer were big splurges. The Peace Corps expects us to live at the same level as the locals and tapping into our money at home is strongly discouraged. To put it in perspective, as a Peace Corps trainee, I’m given an allowance of TOP$8.00 a day. One beer cost me 7.50. In other words, I spent almost an entire days wage just to drink a beer. Of course if you convert it to US Dollars and think what a beer costs in a waterfront restaurant in South Florida, it’s a deal. And here’s another funny twist to the story. When I walked in, the owner said “Hi Steve”. I’ve stopped wondering how she or anyone else knows my name. It’s very friendly, but also a reminder that you are always being watched and if you do something inappropriate, it will get talked about.

The culture toward palangis (Foreigners or White People) is different here than it was in Fu’amoto, our last village. Fu’amoto never gets tourists unless they get lost. While it is close to the International Airport, you wouldn’t drive through town and there are no businesses that cater to tourists. The people here in Vava’u see tourists all the time. Unfortunately it is not always in a good way. Twice, we’ve had tourists riding All-Terrain Vehicles through the middle of town at high rates of speed. The ATV’s are loud and the tourists riding them don’t seem to care about all the kids and people who are in the street. Vava’u also attracts people with higher incomes. Many are here to either rent yachts or to sail their own yachts. They have lots of money and I think that many palangis including those in the Peace Corps are grouped in with these tourists. It would not be hard for someone to spend more money on a week’s vacation than an entire Tongan family would make in a year.

The other side of this is that unlike Fu’amoto, you can escape here and live like an American for a night. A big group got together Friday night to celebrate the birthdays of two of our fellow trainees. Saturday, we quickly learned how fast the coconut wireless can work. And we also learned it’s not always accurate. There was a rumor going around that one of our female trainees had gotten drunk in town. The only problem is that the woman mentioned never went to town and was in the village all night. In the Tongan culture, woman are not supposed to get drunk or be seen hanging out with men. For the most part, women do things together and men do things together. Even married couples go their separate ways in public. At church here in Vava’u, the men and the women do not sit together. Knowing that, you can understand why this woman was upset about her reputation in the village. Our language teacher told her not to worry about it as there wouldn’t be a way to fix it anyway.

I spent most of the past weekend studying for our first language test which is on October 16th. It will let the Peace Corps know how we are doing and where we need help before we take our final test prior to being sworn in as a volunteer. There are three levels, novice, intermediate and advanced. My teacher tells me that she believes I’m past the novice level, but she is not the person who will be giving me the test. To become a volunteer, I need to be at intermediate middle level. As far as I can tell, the differences between the two have to do with the complexity of the answers. At novice you can say “I’m going to town”. At Intermediate, you can say you are going to town, what you will do there, what time you are going, how you are getting there, who you are going with and when you will be back. I can almost do that, but I do it very slowly. I feel pretty good about sentence structure but still need to learn a lot more nouns and verbs. I have a lot more confidence in my ability to speak Tongan now and believe I will make it to the required level.

I want to show off my host family here in the village of Ta’anea. That’s me in the bare feet.

I’m living with a retired minister named Siaosi, his wife, Tilisa and their daughter Diana. They have two other children who live in New Zealand and Australia.

I’ve also uploaded some photos of our night on the town where several of my fellow trainees decided to try out the Karaoke.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Here comes the rain (again)!

Remember the movie Forrest Gump? There is a scene where Forrest is in Vietnam and he says “One day it started raining, and it rained and it kept raining”. That pretty much describes the past week in Vava’u. Not only has it rained but it has poured. It’s hard to believe this little island in the middle of the Pacific gets so much rain, but that’s probably why Tonga has the most fertile soil in the world. Interestingly, I have yet to hear a Tongan complain about the rain. They like it because it keeps it cool. It also is the primary source of water for the island.

The water here in Ta’anea is a pretty interesting story. There is a water tank at the top of the hill and the pumps are controlled by the guy who lives near the tank. When he turns the pump on, everyone has water. If he turns it off, most houses do not have water. (I have water full-time thanks to a cistern that supplements the town water.) Everyone in the village pays the same amount for water. If you have 10 people in your house or just three, you pay the same. If there is a leaking faucet or toilet, there is no incentive to fix it because your water bill won’t change.

As an assignment, we had to interview people in our village about their opinions on the town’s most important needs. While the survey was certainly not scientific, fixing the water was a top priority listed by the older people in the town. However, no one really had a great solution. We might think that installing meters on each home and charging for the water makes sense, but who is going to pay for the meters and what happens if someone’s bill goes up because of it. For now, the people here just deal with it and it probably isn’t really that big of a deal. I’m learning that when something is broken or doesn’t work, Tongans just do without or accept it.

In my house, the kitchen light burned out on Saturday. There was no spare, so we ate by candlelight until Monday when a new bulb was purchased. The light still didn’t work, so then another light was moved into the kitchen. It’s the same with food. If your garden has bananas in it, you eat bananas. If it doesn’t you eat something else. The concept of being able to buy tomatoes, bananas or any other perishable item at any time is foreign to Tongans.

The priorities are also different here. We have one trainee in another village that has full-time Internet access at his house, but doesn’t have full-time water. He was able to update me on the World Series since we hear nothing from home and the rest of us have very limited access to Internet. (Glad Boston won!)

We’ve now been here for one month. In many ways, it seems like a lot longer because we have done so much since arriving, but it also seems like we have so much more for us to learn. Many of us were very disappointed to find out that the Peace Corps cut 25 hours of language training out of our schedule. That means we have 25 fewer hours to pass our language test than previous volunteers here in Tonga. Instead they are giving one extra full week for model school for the Education volunteers. The business volunteers will be doing business-related stuff during those two weeks but we haven’t heard the specifics yet. The good news is that each day I start to feel more confident with the language.

I’m really looking forward to next week. We get to spend two full days shadowing a current volunteer. There are only three business volunteers on Vava’u right now, so there will be four volunteers with each one but hopefully we’ll get a lot of insight into what to expect after we become volunteers.

This weekend we are going to be working on our projects for “Faka Tonga Day”. (Like a Tonga) Each village has to prepare a skit in Tongan and learn a Tongan dance. We also have to individually make one Tongan dish and make one Tongan handicraft. I’m going to learn to make Ota Ika, which is raw fish served in coconut milks. It is by far my favorite Tongan dish. For my handicraft, I’m planning to make a broom with some help from my host father.

No new photos to share. Because of the rain, I haven’t taken any.