Peace Corps Videos

Friday, January 25, 2008

Privacy Tongan Style

I remember at a very young age learning that there are just some things you don't discuss in the USA. Things like age, income and religion. If you are an American who avoids those topics, then you will be in for a big surprise in Tonga.

There really is no such things as privacy here. Tongans will talk about almost anything and most of what they do is readily visible to everyone else. Here are some examples which may surprise you.
  • Each year, the churches in Tonga have a fundraiser. This is the primary way that the church supports itself. During the fundraiser, the church announces to the entire congregation how much money each family has donated down to the penny. A family will often hit up relatives overseas to help them come up with big donations so they are not embarrassed at the Church fundraiser.
  • Each year, Tonga National Radio broadcasts senior exam results of students who pass. If you fail the test, your name is not read. Everyone in the country knows if you are a good student or not.
  • Age is not considered private. Tongans will ask your age and marital status all the time. In fact, during our training, we were taught that we should introduce ourselves by telling everyone how old we are and whether or not we are married. This is especially true when addressing a group. It is not rude to ask someone how old they are.
  • At the bank where I work, I am sitting at the desk of someone who is on leave. Posted on the wall for anyone to see are the amounts that each of the Bank Directors and Managers receive for Utilities, Housing and Entertainment.
  • Each day the bank mails out a mass e-mail to everyone in the bank that says who is sick, who is on vacation, who is attending workshops and lists anyone who was late to work that day and whether they called in or did not call in to say they would be late. It also lists the names of people who are returning to duty after being sick and in some cases what sickness they had.
  • Medical Information is freely discussed. If you are "puke" or "sick", expect to explain in detail exactly what was wrong and be prepared to hear details of anyone who is sick no matter the issue may be.
  • A co-worker at the bank interviewed this week for another job. Everyone from the head of the department to his immediate supervisor knew about the interview including how much money he would make if he got the new job.
  • And finally, this one might fall into the "Too Much Information" category, but in many bars and restaurants, they do not have urinals in the men's room. It is usually just a troth. If you are using the bathroom, Tongans will walk right up, stand directly next to you and then start carrying on a conversation often looking right at you as they talk.
***Other News***
We said our good-byes to Jason Schneider this week, who was medically separated because of an injury to his shoulder. He is the first person from my training group to leave. Jason is probably freezing back in Michigan by now. We went out last week to a local ice cream shop and ordered the special, which is one scoop of every flavor they offer. His fellow volunteers from 'Eua took the boat to Tongatapu and joined us in eating every bite.

Then on Jason's last night, almost all of the Tongatapu volunteers showed up for a farewell dinner to see him off. Best of luck Jason. We miss you and hope you get better soon and can come rejoin us.
I have heard from several volunteers now that it is really possible to call here for just 10 cents a minute using the phone card at this link:

I was a bit concerned it might be a scam, but apparently it does work even though I have no personal experience with it. It only works from the USA but this is a lot cheaper than what we have to pay to call the USA and what anyone in the USA pays to call us. Every volunteer in my group now has a cell phone and there is no charge for incoming calls, so if you get a minute, I'm sure any of us would love to hear from you. (And if you try this and have a problem, please let me know so I can pass it along as well.)

Monday, January 21, 2008

US Immigration and Tonga

Even though I'm a long way away from the United States, I'm very aware that the issue of immigration is a hot issue right now. The purpose of this post is not to weigh in on what should be done or even to offer any personal opinions on immigration, but instead to provide a Tongan perspective on US policies.

If a Tongan wants to visit the United States, he or she needs a visa. Pretty obvious right? Actually, it is a lot more complicated than it might appear. Because there is no embassy in Tonga, anyone who wants to visit the United States has to fly to Fiji, which is the closest embassy and apply in person. That's an expensive trip for most people but it is the only way they can legally visit friends and family in the US or just vacation. Prior to September 11th, the embassy used to make ocassional visits to Tonga to process visa requests. However the process now involves being fingerprinted and the machine they use for fingerprinting can not leave the embassy in Fiji for security reasons. (At least that is how the US Ambassador to Fiji explained it to us during our training.)

Once a Tongan gets to Fiji, they may get a visa or they may not. Many visas are issued for a year, but you can get a two year visa and ocassionally a ten year visa. The biggest reason that people get turned down is because the US believes that person might stay. If you have a good job, a house and a family in Tonga, you will probably get the visa. But if you are a young person, just out of school with no strong ties, you'll probably get turned down. Contrast this with New Zealand which has an open visa policy for Tongans and it is easy to see why someone might opt to visit there instead of the United States. Of course, it is also a lot closer. Getting a visa to visit is difficult but it's even harder if someone wants to immigrate to the US. That involves entering a lottery conducted by the State Department.

But this is only one side to the issue of immigration in Tonga. If a Tongan is arrested in the United States, they are deported back to Tonga. It might be after serving a jail sentence or just a way to avoid jail. From the US perspective, this probably makes a lot of sense. From the Tongan perspective, these deportees are often the proverbial "Fish out of water".

Many of the Tongan deportees have grown up in the United States, some only speak English and coming back to Tonga is a very tough adjustment. During our training, we met a deportee on Vava'u who runs an organization called the Ironman Ministries. That group tries to help the deportees adjust to life in Tonga, which is very different than the United States. I've met deportees here who are actively involved in their communities and have completely turned around their lives. Others have jobs while some resort back to their previous lives of crimes.

I recently heard a story about a deportee who was spending his first Christmas outside of jail in 20 years. The week of the holidays he got arrested by the police here.

I was introduced to a Tongan, not knowing he was a deportee. I greeted him in Tongan and he had no idea what I was saying, not because my Tongan was so bad, but because he was just back from the United States and didn't know how to speak the local language.

It is no wonder that many of the deportees find themselves comfortable around Peace Corps volunteers. We all speak English and for many they consider themselves more American than Tongan.

***Other News***
I previously mentioned the Op/Ed piece in the New York Times about Peace Corps. Here are some responses to that letter.

Senator Dodd letter to NY Times:

Other letters:

The following article is from Matangi Tonga. I thought you might find it interesting.

Tonga's Nukuleka, the birth place of Polynesia

NUKULEKA, a small fishing village on the northern shores of eastern Tongatapu, at the entrance to the Fanga'uta Lagoon, has been identified by a Canadian archaeologist, Professor David V. Burley, as the cradle of Polynesia.David drew his conclusion from his final excavation at Nukuleka in August 2007 where, with his team of three archaeological students from the Simon Fraser University, Canada and a scholar from France, they found pieces of Lapita pottery that confirmed his belief.

David Burley

Lapita pottery

"The big pieces of pottery are about 2,900 years old and with the others there may be 50 years difference," he said."Tonga was the first group of islands in Polynesia to be settled by the Lapita people about 3,000 years ago, and Nukuleka was their first settlement in Tonga," said David.

Lapita people

The Lapita people, the cultural ancestors of modern Polynesians, were the makers of Lapita pottery and David's research is showing that they moved out of island Melanesia and into the South Pacific islands making the initial human colonization of the region.David is an authority on pottery in Tonga and in Polynesia who has done extensive archaeological excavation throughout the Tonga Islands since 1989. He has been to 'Ata, 'Eua, Ha'apai, Vava'u, Niuafo'ou and Niuatoputapu, but most of his findings were on Tongatapu.

David said that within 100 years of the arrival of the Lapita People, the whole of the Tonga islands were settled. "Then a thousand years later they moved eastwards to eastern Polynesia.

Plentiful shell fish

"There are 19 Lapita sites that we have found around the Fanga'uta lagoon," said David. "They came here first about 3,000 years ago when the lagoon sea level was higher than today. There were no mangroves, so the lagoon shore was a big beach, and the lagoon was full of shellfish, and everything that we have dug up was packed with layers of shellfish. When we excavated at Havelu, there was no dirt, just solid shells. "The waterfront around Nukuleka is still rich with shells, imagine 3,000 years ago. At the bottom of the Nukuleka site we found that they were also eating a lot of turtles and birds. We have documented 26 species of birds, including big pigeons and the shells were mainly Kaloa'a."

David's excavation at Nukuleka in August 2007 was rewarded with some of his best findings."This site was first excavated by Poulsen in 1964-65 and they found sherds, very different from other findings in Tonga, but very similar to what we found to the west, to western Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and so on, so obviously these people come from the west, based on linguist and other evidence."The designs in the pottery are very distinctive and similar to the tapa designs of today, they tell us how related they are to designs in other areas in Tonga and other places," David said. "The designs are also very similar to tattoo designs."

David returned to Nukuleka with his team in August to gather enough evidence to substantiate his claim that this is the earliest site in Tonga, and to collect samples for carbon dating."What we are trying to prove that this is the first site in Tonga, and every thing that we have found verifies that," he said."The Lapita pottery in Tonga shows they were here for 100 years before they started decorating the pot, then 100 to 125 years later they stopped completely decorating the pots," said David, who is working on a book about the site."I wanted to come back here. I want to give something back to the villages of what I have found. I lived in these villages for months, took the stuff away and they never heard from me, but now I want to give them something back."I want to do a better exhibition when the museum is on a better footing," he said.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Case Closed

"I was poisoned". That's the official verdict from the Peace Corps Medical office in Washington, DC about the problems I've had with my arm over the past week. This means I am no longer have to take a trip to Brisbane, Australia and I have no need for any further medical attention. After reviewing the symptoms I believe this is probably a proper diagnosis. I was probably suffering from Ciguatera Fish poisoning, Paralytic Shellfish poisoning or Scombroid Fish Poisoning.

A week ago today I had lunch at the Catholic Basilica and ate fried tuna. Within two hours I started to feel bad. I left work early and did not work on Friday. I did not eat again until Saturday morning, which is when I woke up unable to use my arm. I had numbness in the fingers on both hands and also had numbness on my tongue. What's strange about the illness is that I never threw up which is the first thing I always associate with food poisoning.

It's scary to me to think how much poison I must have ingested for it to still be impacting me a week later. Last week was not the first time I had eaten at the restaurant at the Catholic Basilica. And it probably was not anyone's fault that I got sick there. All three of the poisons mentioned above are impossible to detect and the fish comes out of the water that way.

***Other News***

The New York Times has an op/ed piece about the Peace Corps which is worth a read. Here's the Permalink to the article.

Many thanks to everyone for all the e-mails you sent to me this week offering your support. They have meant a lot to me.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Oh Happy Day!!

It’s Wednesday morning and I am so thankful, relieved and happy today. I woke up this morning and the full range of motion in my left arm has returned and while my strength is not 100%, it is close. After visiting with the Peace Corps medical officer this morning, she cleared me to return to work on Friday with no restrictions. I still have to go to Brisbane and have tests done, but that will probably not happen until February now. She says because we don’t know what caused my arm to fail, it’s important to have it examined in case it should ever happen again.

When I posted my update about my arm yesterday, it was still difficult for me to type, so I didn’t explain what happened to me at the doctor’s office Monday morning. The doctor was an Australian Doctor, probably in her late 50’s. After examining me, she suggested acupuncture to see if that would help my arm. I agreed to give it a try. I figured it certainly wouldn’t do any harm.

At the clinic, there is only one exam room, so she moved me into the clinic pharmacy which opens onto the waiting room and has a big open window between the rooms. She stuck six needles in me, one in my head, the rest in my hand, arm and shoulder. I asked for a glass of water and was left alone in the pharmacy. After about five minutes, I started to feel faint. I screamed for help and a stampede of people came rushing in, including other patients who were waiting to see the doctor. They grabbed me before I fell and put me on the floor. I spent the next 20 minutes lying on the floor of the pharmacy with these needles sticking out of me. I can only imagine what would have happened if I had fallen on top of one and jammed it into my body. Afterwards the doctor told me that about 1 out of every 50 people get faint when they get acupuncture. It’s hard for me to imagine that those little needles could cause that. Of course, I also don’t know if it was the acupuncture that made me get better or if it would have happened anyway. Doesn’t matter. I’m just happy to be almost back to normal and thrilled that I’m not going to have to end my Peace Corps service.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Serious Problem

I woke up early Saturday morning, reached for my water bottle and discovered I did not have the strength to pick it up. This was my first indication that something had happened to my left arm. On Monday, a doctor diagnosed that I had just 1/5 of my normal strength in my arm. Peace Corps is now sending me to Brisbane, Australia for a complete exam. If the problem does not improve or can’t be quickly corrected, this will be the end of my Peace Corps service.

The good news is that my arm is much improved today (Tuesday) and I’m a lot more optimistic that whatever happened is going to be correctable. I was able to lift my arm over my head this morning and while it is a struggle, am able to use my fingers to type these few words.

I do not want to leave, but getting use of my arm back is clearly a lot more important in the big scheme of things. I am hoping that it will continue to improve each day and I’ll be back in Tonga soon.

Jason, a member of my training group, was just medically separated this weekend. He is the first from our group of 33 to leave and we are all going to miss him.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Tongan Punishment

In many ways, it is sometimes easy to forget that I live in a developing country. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that different. However, there are times when it really hits you in the face that things are different here.

During my interview for the Peace Corps, I remember my recruiter Tricia asking me how I would handle myself if I saw something that I thought was inappropriate but was culturally acceptable. I hadn’t thought much about it until my last week on Vava’u when the issue smacked me right in the face.

We were sitting in language class on Saturday morning on the porch of our trainer’s house. All of a sudden we heard children shrieking at the top of their lungs. We looked over into the next yard and watched a woman beat her daughter, who was perhaps two years old, with a switch. She kept hitting her and hitting her. Then she picked up a large stick and went after her son, who was probably four years old, and hit him repeatedly. The children were in tears and we all just sat there and watched. My emotions quickly ran from astonishment to anger to helplessness. In Tongan, it’s perfectly acceptable for a parent to hit their children. I had previously seen some children who had their ears flicked or who got a light spank but nothing like this. And clearly in my opinion, kids that age could not have done anything that warranted the beating they received.

One of my classmates remarked that children who misbehave in school also get hit and that one teacher where she had visited keeps a stick in the room to keep order.

After the beating was over, we all just sat there for a minute in stunned silence. Finally, our teacher, a 71 year old Tongan woman said “Some parents are not very educated”. Her remark made me feel a bit better that what we had witnessed might not have been the norm, but I’ve had a hard time putting the sight of those two little children being beaten out of my mind.

In the United States, we would have called 9-1-1 on that woman and her children probably would have been taken away. Now, I know why Tricia asked me that question.

***Other News***
I now officially have a place to live on Vava’u. The bank told me this week that they have rented the house for me that I mentioned in my last post. In Tonga, housing is provided by the host company, so the bank will pay my rent for the house while I’m working there. I am flying to Vava'u on February 29th and will start working at the Vava'u Branch of the Tonga Development Bank on Monday, March 3rd. I'll continue to work out of the main branch here in Nuku'alofa until then.

My friend Peter Levy, who is the only person I know who had actually been to Tonga before I left the United States just sent me some really neat pictures of Swallows Cave. I’ve updated my earlier post called “Secluded Beaches and an awesome cave” with his new photos. He took them on his last trip here.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

An Island Get-A-Way

The Kingdom of Tonga is not really an "island" nation, but a nation of "islands". There are four main island groups: Tongatapu (which includes Eua), Vava'u, Ha'apai and the Niua's. Within each of these island groups are many small, mostly uninhabited islands. As you stand on the shore of the major islands, you can often see the small islands that dot the ocean landscape. In Tonga, you really can have an island all to yourself, at least for a day. All you need is a boat to get there.

And if you live on an island, where do you go to get away? Why a smaller island of course. Friday, I made my first trip to a smaller island to celebrate my birthday. I went to the island resort of Pangamotu. Don't get confused by the term resort. It is not what most Americans would classify as a resort. They are beach fales (huts) where you can spend the night, but they have no electricity and the water comes from a cistern. The only electricity here is from a generator they use to keep the freezer and fridge running in the restaurant. Most people come for the day as it is the closest beach to Nuku'alofa. (While the capital city of Nuku'alofa is on the water, it is a port and not a beach.)

To get to the island, you get on a small boat. However, there wasn't room at the dock for the boat to dock, so we walked across another boat, to get into the launch to the island. As Peace Corps volunteers we are required to carry our own life jackets anytime we get on a boat. We followed the rules and certainly stood out as we were the only people with life jackets on the boat.

After the short one mile ride to the island, we pull up at a dock that looks as if it has seen better days. It is high tide and the dock slants toward the water. One slip and you will get wet. We walk the remainder of the way to shore, paying TOP$15 to get off the dock. That's the fee for using the island for the day. First stop, the bar, where two glasses of red wine from a box cost us TOP$17.00 or about US$8.0o a glass. Not cheap and probably the reason you are not allowed to bring your own food and drink to the island. Lunch was more affordable but features basic bar food like hamburgers and fish and chips.

The bar is in a place called Big Mama's Yacht club. It's very quaint and looks like something you would expect to find in the South Pacific. Off the deck in the water is a ship wreck. Kids take turns climbing up and diving from the top of the vessel. There are rope swings and plenty of beautiful sand beaches.

My friend Craig, who has been to Pangamotu many times before, and I decide to explore the island, finally stopping at an isolated stretch of beach where we can safely break out our contraband bottle of wine that we have smuggled onto the island. We don't get caught.

Swimming in the ocean is a pretty amazing experience here. The beaches are littered with sea shells and the ocean floor has lot of life. I pick up star fish and numerous shells with the creatures still alive inside. I even find a perfect sand dollar, still alive. We toss it all back of course, but each sweep of the hand brings a new treasure.

We headed back and then treated ourselves to pizza at one of the few pizza places in Tonga. The pizza was surprisingly good, and while we certainly overspent our Peace Corps budget for the day, it was a great way to spend my birthday.

The next night, I got a nice surprise from some of my fellow volunteers. One of the current volunteers birthday is on the 30th. They surprised the two of us by baking brownies and putting candles on it and signing Happy Birthday to both of us. The brownies were great. The mix had been shipped to Tonga in a care package from the US.

***Other News***
I may have a place to live on Vava'u once I move there at the end of February. My friend James sent me a link to some pictures he took of the house where I might live. It's not official yet but the bank manager and the Peace Corps staff have been talking about it with the landlord. The house next door is James.

Our group of 33 is still intact as we now celebrate 3 full months in Tonga. However, two people are actually out of the country for medical reasons. One was sent to the US and the other to Australia. Medical care is downright scary in Tonga and if you need anything, even a simple MRI, you are going to be sent elsewhere to have it done.

Best wishes for a Happy New Year. Thank you for reading my updates and sending me comments and e-mails !!


I've added a new search to the blog menu. In addition to searching my blog, it searches the blogs of all of my fellow group 73 volunteers. The results display at the top of the page. Give it a try.