Peace Corps Videos

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

An Amazing Weekend in 'Eua

The island of ‘Eua is located about a 2 ½ hour boat ride south of the main Tongan island of Tongatapu. While Tongatapu is flat, ‘Eua is a South Pacific Paradise with tall majestic mountain ranges, sharp cliffs and lush tropical rain forests. 'Eua boasts the most varieties of plants in all of Tonga. It also has the only river in Tonga and has one of two bridges in the entire Kingdom. What makes ‘Eua so attractive though is its almost total lack of tourists. Most tourists to Tonga either come to the main island or to the Kingdom’s top tourism destination: Vava’u. Very few venture to ‘Eua.
My friend Craig and I spent the weekend on ‘Eua and our tour-guide for the weekend was Taha, the ‘Eua Branch Manager of the Tonga Development Bank, where we both work. We leave Nuku’alofa on Friday afternoon, arriving before the ‘Eua branch closes for the day. We get to meet many of the staff who work there before venturing out to the island’s one resort called “The Hideaway”. The Hideaway would not fit most people’s description of a resort, but they do serve food and have six rooms and two small fales (houses) right on the water. It’s very rustic but the owner Taki is personable and speaks great English. We dine on fresh fish. A funny thing happened to us when we first got to the Hideaway. A Tongan man approaches us and says “Are you the two palangi (Foreigners) from the bank? Clearly the coconut wireless was in full operation as we had never seen this guy before.

Saturday, it is sightseeing time and Taha picks us up, taking us first to a small waterfall. From there he puts his truck into four-wheel drive and we head into areas that look like no one has been there in years. After winding through more roads and mud than I can imagine, we get out and hike down to one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen. (And remember, I used to live in Hawaii).

What makes this waterfall even more attractive is that it is completely unspoiled. Except for a rope that you can hold on to keep from falling into the pit that drops hundreds of feet below, there is no sign that man has ever been here before. This waterfall is far away from civilization and there are no signs indicating that it is there.

Back to more winding roads and another hike, this time up to a lookout where we can see the cliffs on the South East side of the island. It’s truly a spectacular site. We are so high up that we can look down and see birds flying below us. The forest below is green and lush, the sounds of the waves crashing into the white sand beaches travel upwards to where we watch. The ocean is as blue as any I’ve seen.

Next stop is the state park at the tip of the island. From here, you can look across the Pacific Ocean and see Fua’amotu, where I had my first home stay in Peace Corps. It’s on another island, but it doesn’t look that far away.
In the state park, we head up another trail. Taha doesn’t tell us where we are going and we hike behind him. There are no signs. We finally end up at another overlook, but this time we are looking at a natural land bridge with a view through it to the ocean blue. Another spectacular site.

From here we go back down into the park, into a natural rock garden and we stand along more cliffs. There are not as high at the ones we saw previously, but we are a lot closer to the water and it’s a bit scary to think what would happen if you slipped.

Our final stop with Taha was a trip to the beach. We went down a road that could only be accessible by four wheel drive and spent time just relaxing and wading in the water out to the reef.

There are four Peace Corps volunteers permanently assigned to “Eua and we had dinner Saturday night with three of them. (The 4th is on Tongatapu because she has contracted Dengue Fever.)

We eat outside Bria’s house and get a chance to catch up. Both Bria and Krystal were in my training group and I don’t get a chance to see them very often.

On Sunday, we eat a couple of sandwiches at the Hideaway and then meet back up with Taha who takes us to a drop off point where we can climb the mountain to see the largest Banyan tree in Tonga and also visit Rat’s Cave.

The first stop is the Banyan tree which actually has a cave at the bottom. Craig climbs the tree while I explore the cave. It’s pretty amazing to see something this size.

From there we begin the long hike up the mountain to Rat’s cave. We both have seen a picture of this in a Lonely Planet guidebook. It was a good climb and while we did take the wrong road once, we finally made it to the cave. When we first arrived, we were disappointed. It was a narrow cave with a hole at the end that looked out to a fabulous view. We actually thought we were in the wrong place at first. Then we realized, you have to drop yourself through the hole into the cave below. And remember, we are on the edge of a cliff, so one false move and “it’s over”. Getting into the cave was a challenge for me. I was just a bit too tall, but finally made it. It was well worth the trouble.

We spent a good amount of time enjoying the cave and just taking in the breath-taking views. Finally, we realized it was starting to get dark and we had better head back. We finally got to the main road just as it got completely dark. From the main road we walked all the way back to town. Along the way, two young Tongans approached us and we chatted with them for part of the walk. They were very curious as to what we were doing and where we were going.

The only bad part of the trip was Monday Morning. In order to get back to work, we got up at 3:45am to catch the 5am ferry back to Tongatapu. When we got to the boat, around 4:30am, we got the last two seats. The ferry was a little late leaving and it was a pretty rough ride, but we made it.
And get this, during our Sunday hike, we were gone for seven hours and during that time we did not see another person. It was really getting away and was another amazing weekend in Tonga.

***Other News***
Tonga has very few hazards. There are no snakes, except the sea snake and its fangs are so far down it’s throat that it is almost impossible for one to bite a human. There are no alligators or other dangerous animals in the forest. In fact the worst hazard is probably a large centipede called a molakau. Until last week, I had only seen very small ones. Thursday night a large one made it into my home.
The molakau are tough to kill so in addition to spraying it with insect spray, I got a knife and chopped it into pieces. I’ve heard that the bug spray will sometimes not kill them so I wasn’t taking any chances. Even after cutting it up, it kept moving, so it got another does of spray which seemed to finally do it in.

As mentioned above, another volunteer has contracted Dengue Fever. She is the third person in my training group to get it this year.

This is probably my last update from Tongatapu unless something major happens. I move to Vava’u on Friday. My stuff was picked up today, but the boat that was supposed to transport it is not sailing this week, so it now will not arrive in Vava'u until next Wednesday.

There are LOTS of new photos from 'Eua in the online gallery. Be sure to check them out.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Money Matters

There are many things in Tonga that make no sense. That's a topic for another day. But there are also many things which make perfect sense, some so much so that you wonder why we don't do the same in the United States. And believe it or not, many of the things that make sense have to do with money.

Tongan currency is pretty much issued in the same denominations as US currency: 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 dollar notes. However, the big difference here is the use of the $2.00 dollar bill. I probably use the $2.00 dollar bill more than any other denomination and it makes great sense. If you buy something that costs $6.00, you can give the clerk three $2.00 bills or a ten and get back two $2.00 bills. I don't understand why the $2.00 bill has not caught on in the United States. When we see a US $2.00 bill we tend to save it because it is special. In Tonga, it's an important part of currency.

Another issue about currency that makes sense is that each bill is color coded. The ones are green, the two's pink, etc. It makes it very easy to tell what kind of bill you are using without having to look for the number on the bill.

Coins are also designed logically. The bigger the coin, the more it is worth. Coins are issued in 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cent amounts. The 50 cent piece is the largest and like the 2 dollar bill, widely used. By contrast, you almost never see a 1 cent coin. At stores, the amount is always rounded to the nearest 5 cents. If your bill is 22.02, you will pay 22.00. At 22.03, your total becomes 22.05. The one exception is if you pay with an ATM card which is usually only accepted at the larger stores. In that case, you pay the actual amount. (Almost no one accepts credit cards)

Another money matter that makes a lot of sense to me is the way items are priced. The total price includes the sales (consumption) tax. If an item costs $2.10 in a store or at a restaurant, you will pay exactly $2.10 for it. No additional tax is added at the end. At the larger stores, the receipt shows how much tax was actually paid, but the amount out of your pocket is the amount posted.

Another thing that makes a lot of sense, at least from a consumer perspective, is the way that Tongans pay for cell phones. You buy a phone, any kind you want, as long as it has a SIM card. Then you go to either of the two phone providers and buy a SIM Card, which costs about $5.00. That gives you your phone number. Then you purchase calling cards in values ranging from $5 to $20 to put credit on your phone. If you only make $5.00 worth of calls one month and $40.00 the next, you only pay for what you use. You have a year to use the balance on your phone and each time you recharge it, it extends your credit for another year. There is no fee for having a phone. You just pay for the minutes.

Of course, you only have voice and text messages here, nothing fancy like Internet or E-mail, but a system where you pay for what you use seems to be a lot fairer than signing a contract, paying for minutes you don't use and getting a phone for "free" but then having to pay for it in higher per minute charges.

***Other News***
Next week, The Tonga Development Bank (where I work) will be hosting a workshop for business owners and prospective business owners. The goal is to help them be successful and for their business to grow. I put together some of the PowerPoint slides that will be used at the session and thought I would share them here online. It will give you an idea of the very basic business concepts we are trying to teach. Most businesses here do not keep very good records and some don't keep any records. (I didn't put together the record-keeping presentation so it is not included) I did the PowerPoint in English, but it will be converted to Tongan for the workshop. You will see the word Fakamo'ua in the slides. That is basically the same as the word credit. You'll also see a Biblical quotation. You would almost never use that in a business presentation in the United States, but is perfectly acceptable here. In fact, I "lifted" that quote from a past presentation because it seemed to fit.

Here's another interesting insight into Tonga culture. We will be inviting people the day before the workshop. I was told by my counterpart at the bank that if we invite them too early, no one will show up so it is best not to give them a lot of notice. Now, just imagine doing that in the United States?

My friend Karen had her bike stolen last week. She has written about the incident on her blog and it is worth reading.

If you live in a city with a 3-D IMAX theatre, be on the lookout for a new movie called "Dolphins and Whales 3D". Part of it saw filmed in Tonga and there are several photos of Tonga on the movie web site.

In addition there is a News Release about the movie here:

Jean-Michel Cousteau's DOLPHINS AND WHALES 3D: Tribes of the Ocean Narrated by Daryl Hannah To Make a Big Splash at the Cinemark IMAX Theatre in Dallas on February 29

Next week is a big week for me. That means saying good-bye to many of my friends here in Tongatapu. (I'm scheduled to come back in late April for a in-service training session) My stuff gets shipped to Vava'u on Monday and we have the workshop on Wednesday. Next Friday, I fly to Vava'u and will get there just in time for a Vava'u volunteer meeting. That means I'll get to see almost everyone shortly after I arrive. Can't wait!!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Eating the Queen’s Food

In Tonga, all land is owned by the King and is either controlled by the Royal Family or a Noble. In exchange for being allowed free use of the land, the Tongans agree to provide some of the crops they grow to the people who control the land. In Fua'amotu, where I stayed when I first arrived in Tonga, the land is controlled by the Royal family. There is also a palace in Fua'amotu, just above the beach. And while the current King apparently doesn't visit this palace, it is still often used by his mother, the Queen.

When the Queen is in residence, the people of Fua'amotu provide her with food and several of the women will spend the night at the Palace in case she needs anything during her visit. I spent this weekend in Fua'amotu as did the 82 year old Queen. She stayed at the palace and I stayed with my home-stay family. We never met, but that didn't stop me from eating her food.

My home-stay father, Tau, is the spokesman for the King in Fua'amotu. This is also called being a talking chief in Tongan society. When there is an issue involving the Royal Family, Tau is the guy who communicates the wishes of the family to the people of the village. His wife Sia helps out by cooking and occasionally sleeping at the Palace when the Queen is there. That was the case this weekend. Tau and his brother caught a lot of fish and one of the biggest and best was cooked for the Queen along with some pig and other Tongan food. Like every meal in Tonga, there is always more food than anyone can eat. So after the Queen had her meal, the fish came home with Sia and Tau. It happened to get there about the same time that Justin, my room-mate during home stay and I arrived in Fua'amotu. The fish was certainly "fit for a queen" and delicious. Never did I think I would eat "Royal Leftovers" in Tonga but that's exactly what I did. Actually we had a lot more than just leftovers. I think all we did was eat all weekend. We did get to the beach and Tau, Justin and I spent some time lying on a mat outside the house just talking. (We were outside under a tree because it was a lot cooler than being inside) Quite a nice way to spend the weekend and I will certainly miss my Fua'amotu family once I move to Vava'u at the end of next week.

***Other News***

I got my third haircut in Tonga, but this time I went to a barber. My first hair-cut was done by my Vava'u home-stay father, the second, by my friend and fellow volunteer Scott. This time, I stopped during lunch at a small shack that houses a barber. He never asked me how I wanted it cut and after I sat down, he just went to work. He cleaned the shears with a toilet brush before he started. Of course, I'm just hoping that the brush has never seen the inside of a toilet bowl. Then he trims me up with scissors and finally gets out a knife and uses it to shave any loose hairs. This blade looks like something you would see in a slasher movie, but fortunately, he never drew blood. When I got done, I asked him in Tongan how much it cost and he replied five dollars. I looked at my money and found I had four ones and a twenty so I handed him the 20. He couldn't make change. So he took the four dollars. When I got back to work, I borrowed another dollar and took it back to him. I sure he had no doubt that I would actually return and pay him the rest of the money. As I've mentioned many times before, Tongans are very honest and credit is freely extended if someone doesn't have enough money.
But as you can see in this photo, that wasn't the end of my hair-styling. This weekend in Fua'amotu, Tevita (That's David in Tongan) decided I needed some additional help.

There was a major increase in the cost of electricity here this week and Vava'u, where I will be living is the most expensive place for power in Tonga. Rates there increased 20.7%. Tongatapu has a lower rate, but got a bigger increase, with bills on the main island going up 21.4% per kilowatt hour. Many of the volunteers have to pay for their own power so this is a big hit. We live on less than $10 US Dollars a day. We've heard rumors that we might get an adjustment because of the higher bills, but nothing official yet.

Tina, a woman who lives next door to my home-stay family gave birth to a baby boy on Saturday. She was home from the hospital on Sunday proudly showing off her one day old baby to all the neighbors and family. We got to know her during our stay in Fua'amotu.

There are a bunch of new pictures in the photo album. Don't miss the one of Justin as Spiderman!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Record-Breaking Rain

"The greatest rainfall ever recorded." That is how Friday's rain storm in Tonga is being described by government officials. And it was quite the storm. It started about 2pm Friday and lasted until 7pm and it never stopped. Imagine the intensity of a typical Florida summer storm, except lasting for five straight hours.

At one point, I started to get worried that the water was going to flood inside my home. Another inch or so and it would have been in my house. Luckily that didn't happen. However, one of our volunteers, Patrick, wasn't as lucky. He got flooded but he says all is okay now. He is the only Peace Corps person I know that had a flooding problem, but I haven't heard from everyone.

I shot this short video out my front door. The "lake" that you see is actually a field behind the school.

Here is how Matangi Online describes the rain:

THE Tonga Defence Force's quick reaction team responded last night to several calls for help as low-lying areas around Nuku'alofa were submerged during the greatest rainfall ever recorded in the kingdom.

At 10 am today (Saturday) the Fua'amotu weather station measured a total of 289.2mm (11.3 inches) of rain in the 24 hrs from 10 am on Friday February 8 to 10am on February 9. The Nuku'alofa weather station recorded 250.5mm in the same period."This is the greatest rainfall we have ever had in the kingdom," said the duty forecaster 'Ofa Taumoepeau this morning. It is more than the very heavy rainfall experienced in Tonga in 2006. Another climatologist working for the Tonga Meteorological Office said it was without doubt "an extreme event."This daily fall compares to mean rainfall for the whole month of February of 221mm for Fua'amotu and 210mm for Nuku'alofa.

Read the rest of the story on Matangi Online

By Saturday, a lot of the water had subsided, but there is still a lot of water everywhere. John, another volunteer here, told me he actually saw fish swimming on the road near his house.

***Other News***
Saturday I met up with a bunch of my fellow volunteers at a local restaurant. As we were eating, the U.S. Ambassador for Fiji Larry Dinger came walking in with a few other folks. His embassy is also responsible for Tonga, Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu. He came over and chatted with us for a while before going back to his table. His visit coincides with the visit of the U.S. Navy Ship Reuben James. The ship is here on a Goodwill Mission and the sailors aboard are doing everything from picking up litter to playing Rugby with Tongan youths. Some of the projects were suggested by Peace Corps volunteers.

The Naval ship was not the only boat in Nuku'alofa on Friday. The 1800 passenger cruise ship Aurora was docked here. This is the third one to arrive so far this year. Before the rain started on Friday, there were tourists and navy sailors everywhere.

By the way, the next cruise ship scheduled to arrive is the QE2 (Queen Elizabeth II) on February 18th.

The Peace Corps web site is featuring a story written by a former volunteer in Tonga .

Friday, February 08, 2008

Are you Married?

One of the Peace Corps volunteers serving here in Tonga lives near a vegetable stand. He often stops there to pick up a pile of tomatoes or a stack of cucumbers. As would be expected, he has gotten to know the people who work at this stand and considers them friends. Occasionally, he'll stop by just to chat or even have a drink with them.

That was the case Monday night, a friendly visit, some Tongans and an American, just hanging out. Or at least that is how it seemed. As he was talking to them, he sees a big flatbed truck pull up and in the back a young woman, all "dolled" up, dressed to the '9's". He has seen her before, but never spoken with her. The truck pulls up in front the of the vegetable stand, the young woman, who was probably somewhere between 18 and 20 gets out and comes over.

The following conversation took place in Tongan, but went something like this:

"Are you married?"
"Not Yet"
"Will you marry me?"

Yes, you read that right: "Will you marry me". The woman asked him to get married. And yes, she was serious. We were warned during our training about this, but it's the first time I've actually heard about it happening. I've often been asked if I am going to marry a Tongan woman as have most of the guys in our group. In fact, asking someone if they are married is a pretty common question. My language teacher told me that when I am introducing myself at a meeting or workshop, I should tell a little joke and she suggested that when I say "I am not married", that I add, "but perhaps I'll marry a Tongan."

There are many reasons that a young woman may want to marry an American. Even though we live on next to nothing and live at the level of most Tongan people, it is hard to overcome the reputation of being a "rich American". For many, America still is the land of opportunity and getting married to a American is a quick way to get there and have a better life. And sometimes it is just that the person is more attracted to Americans than Tongans.

In this case, we'll probably never know the motivation. Because in case you were wondering, they won't be getting married.

***Other News***
On Thursday I got to visit three of the bank's clients at their businesses. All three were having problems with record-keeping and we went to show them how they could improve their record keeping. None of the three were actually tracking their profit, only how much money they had at the end of the day. The businesses were very diverse; a liquor store, an electrician and a tyre (That is the correct spelling here) shop.

I really enjoyed getting out and meeting with these Tongan business owners. Getting to help these folks is one of the reasons I joined Peace Corps. Hopefully I will get to do a lot more of this when I get to my permanent job in Vava'u. (I move three weeks from today).

I mentioned in my last post about how remittances are the top source of income to Tonga. Here's a article from Matangi Tonga online about the issue.

Tonga struggles to find a balance in global economy

04 Feb 2008, 12:02 Nuku'alofa, Tonga:
By Pesi Fonua
TONGA needs more remittances and more foreign aid flowing into the country, if it is to maintain a balance of trade with Australia and New Zealand, its main trading partners, Hon. Afu'alo Matoto, the Minister of Information said last week.

Tonga is in a difficult situation because while it is importing more than it exports to these countries the value of the pa'anga is fluctuating lower to the value of the New Zealand, Australian, and the Fijian dollars. Although the pa'anga is currently holding its value against the US dollar, at the same time the value of the US dollar is dropping against the Australian and the New Zealand dollars.Afu'alo, commenting on the economy, said that remittances and foreign aid are the two main sources of foreign currency earnings for Tonga at the moment.

His view Tonga's immediate prospects for the future, "is a perpetuation of the current situation."Afu said that Tonga had chosen to be a part of the global economy and to abide by the rules and regulations of the global economy, which "has made things very expensive for us."

He gave as an example of the new Building Code, "which we all agree is good but inadvertently has pushed up the cost of building a house, and of course the premium on insurance."Afu said that it is the same with our trading with Australia and New Zealand. There is no concession in the prices of goods that they export to the islands. "They are charging us the same price that they ask from other countries."With regards to PACER, the Free Trade agreement between Forum Island countries and New Zealand and Australia he said that these two countries are now demanding to have the same trade arrangement as the Pacific Islands were currently negotiating with the European Union, EPA agreement. "

Our EPA agreement negotiation with the European Union is on hold until next December."The Europeans are negotiating for a total free trade between Europe and the islands, but the islands are a bit weary because they have very little to trade with the Europeans.Afu said that Tonga and other islands are hoping to negotiate to enable Pacific islanders to find jobs on European ships and sports people to play in Europe, "but those are just trivial opportunities, comparing with allowing European products and services free access into Tonga."

This is the kind of free access that is demanded by New Zealand and Australia, and Tonga's only hope of balancing the trade imbalance is the New Zealand scheme of allowing Tongan seasonal workers to work temporarily in New Zealand. There is also talk for a similar scheme in Australia.Afu expressed his concern over the preoccupation by Tongans for a political restructuring of our political system. The question is would it make any different?"Any political change now I think will only set us further back. "Tongans have to look hard to find an opportunity within the system where they can make a living. With regards to small shops, the Chinese have got a strong foothold on it. One Chinese starts with one Falekoloa in town, then expands and has one or two Falekoloa's out in the villages. I think we have to look at other opportunities," he said referring to services such as plumbing, house painting and other skills which are in high demand but are not readily available.

Before he was appointed as a Cabinet Minister Afu'alo was formerly the General Manager of the Tonga Development Bank, an executive with the Bank of Tonga, the Secretary for Finance, Tongan's Accountant General for a number of years. He was recently Tonga's acting Minister of Finance.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Friday Night in Tonga

On the first Friday of every month, the Australian High Commission in Nuku'alofa hosts a reception called "Sundowners" for the volunteers who serve in Tonga. This includes the US Peace Corps volunteers, the Japanese volunteers and of course the Australian volunteers along with some Australian and New Zealand residents who work here in Tonga or who may be here on a visit. It's a great chance for us to all get to know each other and for those of us who are in the Peace Corps to see each other. We had a good crowd this Friday and the Aussies even extended the reception an extra hour because everyone was having such a great time. It's a cash bar with beer and wine selling for TOP$3.00 and liquor for TOP$5.00. That's about US$1.50 and US$2.50 so it's a great deal since most of the volunteers have tight budgets. They also have a BBQ.

It is interesting to talk with the volunteers from the different countries and to hear about how their organizations are structured and about their training. Without a doubt, Peace Corps provides the most cultural and language training and the longest training schedule. The Japanese get language training but they attend intensive daylong classes for a much shorter period of time. The Aussies actually get paid a salary and they rent their own homes whereas the Peace Corps volunteers here are provided housing by the organization for which they work. Both Japan and Australia provide grant money for projects in addition to the volunteer labor. New Zealand provides just grant money but that money can be used to hire people as needed depending on the project. The United States doesn't hand out grant money here but instead makes it focus more grassroots through Peace Corps. Our mission is to help the Tongans develop skills on their own.

However, here is where it gets interesting. As a United States Peace Corps volunteer, I can apply, or help an organization apply, for grants from Australia or New Zealand. And those grants often get approved. It helps to remember that the number one sources of income in Tonga are grants and remittances from overseas. These come not just from countries and aid organizations, but from Tongans who live abroad who send money back to help their families.

I don't know the history of the "Sundowners" reception but it's a great idea and this is the second one I attended. However, it will also probably be my last. I am moving to Vava'u at the end of the month to start my permanent job there. I'm actually excited about the move and am eager to get settled in my new home. It will also be great to see my fellow Vava'u volunteers again.

***Other News***

Friday was the second anniversary of the death of Tessa Horan, a Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga who was killed in a shark attack in Vava'u. Here in Tongatapu, we all observed a moment of silence for her. Most of the volunteers who trained and served with Tessa have concluded their service now but a tribute to her remains prominently posted in the Peace Corps office.

One of the married couples from my training group is now on medical leave and both are out of the country. We hope they will be back. We are now down to 29 members of our original training group of 33 in country. One is still on medical leave and the other was medically separated.

The San Francisco Chronicle has a story on how fat people should visit Tonga. It describes Tonga as "one of the fattest places on planet Earth, where 90.8 percent of the people are overweight."


If you are shipping anything to me, letters or packages, you should start using my new address immediately because if you send something today, it probably won't arrive until after I move to Vava'u. Here's my new address:

Steve Hunsicker, PCV
U.S. Peace Corps
P.O. Box 136
Neiafu, Vava'u
Kingdom of Tonga
South Pacific

My phone number will remain the same.