Peace Corps Videos

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Tongan Christmas

Imagine sitting on a beautiful beach in the South Pacific, palm trees waving freely in the wind, freshly caught fish simmering over an open fire, waves gently caressing the white sand beaches and drinking wine as the sun sets over the sparkling blue water. That pretty much summarizes how I spent most of my Christmas Day in Tonga. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect for my first Christmas here in the Kingdom but knew it would be different than any Christmas I’ve celebrated in the past.

My first clue that we were in for something different happened as Justin and I were riding to the village of Fuu’amoto with our home stay family. As we entered the village, Tau did not take the turn to the house and instead took the road to the beach. At no point had he mentioned we were going to the beach. As we started the drive down to the shore, he told us they had camped at the beach last night (Christmas Eve) and that everyone was already there. We drove to the grave of his father, which is next to the ocean and found a home away from home. Two tents, a grill, gas stove, and most of the extended family. The kids were in the water swimming and everyone else was just kind of hanging out.

There didn’t seem to be anything unusual to me about camping next to the grave of Tau’s father and his mother was there with us. Justin and I took a nice walk through the tropical blue ocean out to the reef, something you can only do at low tide. We drank juice made from freshly picked pineapple and coconut milk and eagerly watched as Tau’s brother turned a spit holding a freshly killed pig over an open fire. Dinner time came and we "pigged" out. I had not eaten much, an orange for breakfast and a couple of bananas for lunch so I was very hungry. In addition to the freshly roasted pig, we had BBQ chicken, first snapper that Tau had caught earlier in the day, crab and raw fish. Quite a feast and what a beautiful place to relax on Christmas.

After dinner, we watched the sunset and started drinking wine. I was actually surprised by the presence of the wine. It was the first time I had seen any of the people there take a drink. It was also time to turn on the generator. Yes, an electric generator. They had decorated the grave of their father in Christmas lights and brought a generator to power the lights.

As the sky grew darker, out came the fireworks. The kids were running around, holding Roman Candles and bottle rockets in their hands, setting off firecrackers and generally having a great time. Now imagine this…the oldest kid who was there was 11. Everyone else was younger and at first I couldn’t believe that they were allowed to handle the fireworks with no adult supervision. However, they didn’t do anything stupid and no one got hurt.

After a couple hours of fireworks, it was time for Santa Claus. Santa “Sia” gathered all the kids on a mat on the ground and handed each a gift. Nothing fancy or elaborate, but everyone got something. Tevita, the three year old, got a bag of Cheetos, which he quickly devoured.

A few more fireworks and then Sia asked us if we were ready to go back to the house. Justin and I said we would be happy to stay with the family and camp at the beach instead of going back to the empty house. There was a gentle ocean breeze keeping everything cool and we were really enjoying ourselves. However, we didn’t really rough it. Sia made up our “rooms” in the tent with a mattress covered in a sheet, a pillow and a top sheet. I don’t know what time we went to bed, but we got up very early the next morning with Sia calling our names before 7am.

It was really a very memorable Christmas and as I was riding back to my house, it occurred to me how completely comfortable I had felt. The Tupou family has really made us feel like part of their family. I know enough Tongan to be able to pick up on what is being said and they also know English pretty well. I knew the names of all the kids, just like I might at my own family gathering and it was great fun to play with them and to see the joy in their eyes as they received their Christmas gifts. Christmas in Tonga is a day to spend with family and friends and that’s exactly what we did.

***Other News***
I finally figured out how to upload video to the blog. Here’s a short video from Saturday of Craig playing Santa Claus and not getting the best reaction from a Tongan boy.

There are new photos of our Christmas celebration in the online album.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve in Tonga

Living in Tonga it is hard to believe that it is almost Christmas. It has little to do with the warm, make that hot, tropical weather but the complete lack of Christmas commercialization here. There are no advertisements promoting last minute Christmas sales and no obvious indication in the shops that Christmas is just about here. But make no mistake, this is a very Christian country and Christmas will be celebrated in a big way. We've heard it has been impossible to get a seat on an airplane to Tonga because so many of the Tongans that live overseas are coming home for the holidays. There are Christmas trees (all fake trees) and some homes have outside Christmas lights. For most, Christmas will be a day to spend with family and friends at their homes.

Friday night was the Christmas party for the bank where I work. I went with Craig, who is a Peace Corps volunteer who has been working at the bank for more than a year. We were told it was a dress up occasion so Craig and I both wore long pants, a dress shirt and a tie. Craig also wore a jacket. (I didn’t bring one with me.) We walked in and saw people in t-shirts, jeans and very casual attire. We were the most over-dressed people there. But it didn’t really matter and we had a great time. They even introduced me so that everyone would know me. Of course, since I was one of just two guys in the place with a tie, I wasn’t hard to spot.

On Saturday, Craig played Santa at a fair in Nuku’alofa. They told him they wanted him to do it because Santa is “white”. I thought that was kind of interesting because who says Santa couldn’t be Tongan.

The Christmas holiday is officially a two day holiday in Tonga with the holiday on the 25h and Boxing Day on the 26th. However, for schools, many government agencies and businesses the celebration of Christmas can last for more than a week before the holiday and stretch into the New Year. Tonga is the first place in the world to welcome every day since we sit just west of the International Dateline. That means we are the first to celebrate Christmas and will be the first place to welcome 2008 on New Year’s Eve.

***Other News***
As you might expect things were pretty slow for me my first week at work. While the bank is open, many of the bank employees were not there last week. Once I complete my work here, I’ll be moving to the Vava’u branch around the first of March. Current Volunteer Craig has designed a lot of the programs the bank uses to advise small businesses here in Tonga. Since it is a development bank, the bank’s roles is not just to provide the loans, but to make sure the businesses are successful. A lot of this is done in workshops conducted for anyone who wants to attend and in one-on-one consultation with the business owners. Interestingly, one a business becomes successful; it will often leave the development bank and move to one of the three commercial banks since they offer a full range of banking services not offered by the Development Bank. I’m looking forward to getting out and working with the businesses and prospective businesses once the holidays are over.

There are a few new photos including one of a Tongan kid sitting in Santa "Craig's" lap wearing a Florida State Seminoles shirt. Of course, true Seminole fans will notice there is a slight problem with the shirt. It happens to be in Blue and White. See even here in Tonga you find FSU fans.

Friday, December 14, 2007

I’m a Volunteer

It's official. I'm now a PCV or Peace Corps volunteer. My entire group of 33 trainees made it to the swearing in ceremony on Wednesday night. The highlight of the night for me was that my host family from Fu'amoto showed up for the ceremony and presented flower leis to both Justin, who I lived with, and myself. We also got to have dinner with them. It was great to see them again and they told us that we aren't going to get an invitation to come visit them, because their home is our home and you don't need an invitation to visit your own home. What a nice gesture and we will both be taking them up on it soon.

You might notice that Justin and I look a little different in this photo. While the swearing in ceremony is a pretty formal affair, some of my fellow trainees decided to have some fun. For the past several months, many of the male trainees have been growing facial hair. We saw a photo of a volunteer group from the late 1970's posted in the Peace Corps office. We decided we wanted to look just like them with their mustaches. We all wanted to show up for our official photograph looking like we walked out of the 1970's. A bunch of the guys really got into it and you can see some pretty hilarious photos in the online album. I started to participate and grew hair for about a week before I got tired of it and shaved it. (It was also pretty hot). Then this past weekend, I decided not to shave and with the help of a eyebrow pencil, showed up with a mustache. (It came off Thursday morning.)

The women also got into the act, feathering their hair and dressing like women did in the 70's. It was pretty funny for me because many of them were dressed like women from when I was in college.

After swearing in, we all went out for one last night together. We won't see each other again until April. Thursday we started saying good-bye as people started leaving for their house. It's pretty hard because we have all seen each other almost every day for the past 10 weeks and many friendships (and a few romances) have formed.

I'm staying here in Nuku'alofa for a few months and said good-bye to my fellow Vava'u volunteers. They flew to Vava'u Thursday morning and I moved into a house where I will be staying during my time here. I'm living in a small house on a college campus in the main city of Nuku'alofa. However it's a very small campus, about the size of a small elementary school in the U.S. and classes are out until mid-February. I have a small house with indoor plumbing and AMAZINGLY Internet access. I'm pretty happy with my situation. It is a short walk to the Tonga Development Bank where I will be working for the next two months and the bank provided me with both a refrigerator and a stove. I'm scheduled to move to Vava'u at the end of February, which is where I will live for 18 months.
I don't know if you can see the house on Google Earth, but if you want to check out the neighborhood the coordinates are:

W175 11.809 S21 08.244

I woke up in my own house Friday morning and had REAL Tongan coffee from my French Press which has been in storage and bananas from the tree in my yard. It was a great way to start the day.

***Other News***

I got a really great letter from Justin's father. He sent me a card thanking me for keeping my blog updated and letting me know how much he enjoys reading it. He mailed it on Thanksgiving. Thanks very much for your kind words and it was great to get some mail!

While I have Internet in my house, the connection is not great. I'm not complaining but the only thing that seems to work reliably is Google Talk. Getting web pages to load can be tedious but they eventually load. This means that even though I do have the Internet, you still might not get an immediate answer on an e-mail. Right now, I also can't download mail into Outlook, but am hoping the IT guy here at the school can help me with that. If not, I'm not far from an Internet cafe.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Natural Disasters

In the past 24 hours, we have been threatened with a Cyclone and we had an earthquake..the first quake I’ve ever felt. I was laying in bed reading when I felt a vibration. It kept going and I asked my room-mate Justin, "do you feel that?" He said yes and I said “Is this an earthquake?”. Turns out that even though he is from the West Coast (Oregon), he had never felt one either. We both just stayed there and I asked “Should we just stay here?”, which we did. Finally it was over and we went out and asked if it was an earthquake and of course it was. Interesting, several of our group were walking back from town at the time and they didn’t even feel it.

Here are links to stories about both events:

Kermadec earthquake felt in Nuku'alofaNuku'alofa, Tonga: A magnitude 7.6 to 7.9 earthquake deep in the seabed north of the Kermadec Islands was felt in Nuku'alofa at around 8:30 pm Tonga time.09 Dec 2007, 21:30

Cyclone alert cancelled as Daman weakens Nuku'alofa, Tonga: A Tropical Cyclone Alert has been cancelled for central and southern Tonga as Tropical Cyclone Daman has weakened overnight and is expected to curve southwest away from Tonga today.09 Dec 2007, 07:03

***Other News***
We swear in as volunteers on Wednesday. We had our last class today (Monday) but I have FIVE final interviews to complete later this afternoon. After that, I’m done until we have our ceremony. I spoke to my first home stay family this weekend and they are planning to come to the ceremony.

I got my second hair cut here in Tonga. The first time, my home stay dad trimmed it for me. This time I had my friend Scott shave my head. It is the shortest I think I have EVER had my hair, or at least the shortest I can ever remember. You can't see it in the photo but there was an audience watching as my hair went away. I'm still getting used to having no hair, but I've had several positive comments about my new look from my fellow trainees.
I don't have a place to live yet either here or once I get to Vava'u. We are supposed to move out of the guest house where we are staying on Thursday. I hope to have more information on what is going on during one of my interviews today.

Monday, December 03, 2007

So Long Vava’u (for Now)

Tongans are known for giving speeches at just about every event. It’s very common for people to stand up and say what is on their mind at many different kinds of functions. Friday was fellow trainee Janice’s birthday. Her host parents invited the 11 of us who are living in Ta’anea to dinner. As we were eating, her host parents gave several very emotional speeches about how much they are going to miss all of us. Our language teacher also got up. This started the long process of saying good-bye to the people with whom we have lived for the past six weeks. For Janice, Shannon (another Ta’anea trainee) and me, we will be back and will certainly see our families again. But for the others, they may not be back as they will be living on other islands for the remainder of their Peace Corps service.

On Saturday, the minister of the Wesleyan (Methodist) Church, asked several of us to participate in our final church service on Sunday. I was asked to lead the congregation in a Tongan hymn. Now for those of you who don’t know, singing is not exactly one of my strong points. And speaking Tongan, especially poetic Tongan is not a strong point either. However, unlike in the United States, when you lead a hymn here, you simply read the verse and the congregation sings it back to you. We sang three of the four verses of the song and it had some pretty big words. The sentence that I had the most difficult time with was “Kau ‘ofa ki he me’a kotoa Tukuingata ke ‘aonga neongo pe ho hai.” In Tongan, ng is considered one letter and I always seem to struggle with the pronunciation of words with ng. This sentence has three words that use ng so it was pretty tough. I know I butchered it when I read it aloud but I just kept going. As far as I know I didn’t say anything inappropriate instead. The sentence means something like try to be helpful in everything you do, but that is not an exact translation.

I put on a tie for the first time in Tonga. The last time I wore one was just after leaving my job when I attended a Peace Corps ceremony hosted by former President Jimmy Carter. Of course, I didn’t wear a skirt and go barefoot then, like I did on Sunday. (GRIN)

Sunday night, the good-byes continued with the village throwing us a two-hour going away ceremony. The youth did a number of dances for us. The men from the Kava circle sang and at the end everyone sang (in English) “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” It was a very nice send-off and I don’t any of us were really expecting it. We didn’t even find out about it until Sunday morning when they told us to be there at 7pm. We all arrived and found out that each of us was expected to give a speech. I really wanted to thank everyone but I had trouble remembering all the words I wanted to say in Tongan, so I quickly said hello in Tongan, switched to English and then wrapped up at the end in Tongan. Probably only spoke for about a minute but it seemed much longer trying to remember all the Tongan words. A couple of the trainees had found out that they were going to have to give a speech and had written it out in advance. I didn’t know, so I just winged it.

Monday, my host family prepared an awesome good-bye dinner with some of my favorites, especially the fish curry and the chicken curry. They topped it off with Cookies and Cream Ice Cream. It was a nice evening and it also gave me a chance to thank them one last time for all they have done for me. This time, I wrote it down in Tongan so I could get it right and they seemed to understand me. I look forward to seeing them again when I return to Vava’u in a few months.

Tuesday morning we left early and my host Mom and Sister wanted to drive me to the airport to personally see me off. They waited with us until the plane finally arrived. They both cried as I was leaving and I gave them both really long hugs. That’s not exactly culturally appropriate here, but I wanted to do it and it seemed to be fine.

The flight was on a very small plane. To get on the plane, we each had to stand on a scale with our carry on bags. We were then assigned seats based on weight so the plane would be weight balanced and to make sure we would not be over the planes maximum weight allowance. We were ach allowed a maximum of 22 pounds of carryon and checked luggage. The rest of the bags are being put on a boat and will arrive in a few days. When it came time to board, we talked directly to the plane. No security check-point, no airline official who announced the flight and no rules about walking onto the runway. We got on board and there were no flight attendants and the entire flight we flew with the cabin door open and because I was in the second row, I could clearly see the gauges in the cockpit.

The flight was actually pretty amazing. We got to see Vava’u for the first time and flew over our home village of Ta’anea. It was incredible to see all of the islands in the chain and to finally see all of the island that has been our home for the past six weeks. It was a beautiful day and we flew at a fairly low altitude so it was pretty easy to see. After about 30 minutes, we flew over the Ha’apia Island group and got to see one of the active Volcano’s on the west side of the plane. I tried to take a picture, but there were clouds in front of it and it didn’t turn out. We finally landed in Tongatapu, right on schedule at 9am. We will complete our training here and will become official Peace Corps Volunteers on December 12th.

Wednesday morning, seven of the guys played in a basketball tournament, losing one game and winning one game. I surprised myself, scoring the very first time I touched the ball. Unfortunately it was the only score I made after that. We lost 10 to 8 to a group of Tongans. (Baskets count as one point and what we would consider a three pointer, is a two pointer here.) Our fellow trainees did a great job cheering us on. The second game we won against a Chinese team but they were really tough to keep up with and moved a lot faster than the Tongans.

After the game (and a shower), I got to go to the main office of the Tonga Development Bank, where I’ll be working for the next two months. I met with some of the bank executives and the Peace Corps volunteer who currently works at the main branch. They put together a great overview of the bank for me and gave me a tour. As I was watching the PowerPoint presentation they did for me, I realized that I will soon be stepping back into the corporate world that I left May 11th. It’s going to be a completely different experience of course but it brought back and it was great fun to sit in there and learn about their business strategy, financial condition, market share, etc. My first day will December 17th and I’ll have three weekdays off at Christmas and three weekdays off at New Years.

***Other News***
In Tongan, there are many words that have the same meaning and you just have to figure out the context. When we introduce ourselves, we are encouraged to give some of our background. I generally say in Tongan that I managed a TV News department. The word for manage is fakalele. However the same word also means diarrhea. That means I say “I managed a TV News Department or “I diarrhea a TV News Department”. I can already hear my former co-workers laughing and saying that managing and diarrhea have a lot in common.

I have maintained the same weight as when I arrived, which was a tad heavy. Some guys in our group have lost as much as 30 pounds.