Peace Corps Videos

Friday, March 28, 2008

Debt Collection

I think I would hate being a debt collector in the USA. Knocking on doors, trying to get deadbeats to pay you money you have borrowed. I'm sure you would get doors slammed in your face, physically threatened and probably cussed at a lot. It would even get worse if you were threatening to foreclose on someone's home and force them out into the streets.


Imagine my apprehension when the manager of the bank asked me to accompany him to visit ARD Clients. ARD stands for Asset Recovery Division and if your loan is in ARD, it means the bank is going after the assets you put up to borrow money. This is the final step and usually only happens after months and sometimes a year of nonpayment.


We head out first thing in the morning and our first stop turns out to be a person who lives just a block away from me. I'm thinking this is not a good thing. I don't want someone who lives that close to me being pissed off. I stay in the car and it turns out there is no one home.


We make a couple of other stops and the same thing: No one at home. It is around 10am, which is actually late in the day for Tongans, who often wake up at 4:30 or 5:00am. We then head to the very edge of Vava'u. It's as far from the main city of Neiafu as you can get in a car. This time, there is someone home. It turns out to be the son of the people who owe money. He volunteers that his parents are now living in another village and tells us the name of the village. He is polite but he is not the guy who owes the money. I'm wondering if he really told us the truth.


We make another stop, in another village. The neighbor tells us the man we are seeking is doing some work across the street from the Church. We turn around and go to the Church. There he is. He comes over to the car, greets us like old friends and carries on a conversation with the branch manager in Tongan. The manager hands him a letter to sign, which is from the banks attorney saying his assets are about to be seized. He signs it without reading it and as we are leaving says "Malo", which means thank you. No confrontation, no shouting and no threats. Of course he knows he owes the money, but then again so do people who are behind on their bills in the US. I'm wondering if this is really the "Friendly Island" as Tonga is nick-named, even when the bill collectors are after you.


We make a couple of more stops, not finding anyone home. Finally we head to the village where the son had earlier told us his parents are now living. We pull up to a random house where we see people standing outside and ask if they know the couple. Of course they do. They give us directions to their house. We get there and it appears someone is home as all the doors and windows are wide open. We call out their names because in Tonga, you don't knock; you just stand outside and call out a name. No answer. I'm thinking, yes, here is someone who is clearly avoiding us. A neighbor comes out of her house and says the man is not home but the woman is down the street. Neighbors always know everything. She offers to go get her for us. Much to my surprise, a few minutes later the woman comes walking up to the car. She is very pleasant and again signs the letter without reading it. She says her husband will be back that evening and they will call the bank's lawyer the next day. As we are leaving, she says "Malo".


This same scenario gets repeated several more times as we find a few more clients. None are irate and all are pleasant. Perhaps being a debt collector, at least in Tonga, isn't that bad after all.

***Other News***


If you have Google Earth or some other similar program, you can check out my house and the neighborhood where I live. Here are the coordinates


West 173 degrees, 59.193 minutes
South 18 degrees, 39.007 minutes


I have not actually done this myself (due to very slow Internet connections) and my home is only about two years old, so it is possible it is not there yet. The building and big field across from my house are the soldier's barracks.

Forbes Magazine has a short story about the Peace Corps in its latest issue.

***Notes***
There are some new photos of our trip to the cliffs two weeks ago and our sailing trip three weeks ago in the online gallery. These photos are courtesy of Sarah and Scott. They are grouped by date with the ones I had previously uploaded.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Tonga Hygiene

By now frequent readers have probably noticed that food plays a big part in the Tongan culture. Almost every event from church, to meetings, to schools either involves or revolves around food. The food is always plentiful and no one will ever go hungry here. However, there is another side to all this food that may make you cringe. It's the way the food is prepared. There is no hot water here, so everything is prepared and cleaned in cold water. You will often find a bathroom with either no running water or running water and no soap. Yes, you go to the bathroom, you can't wash your hands and then you sit down and eat with your hands. For most Americans, that would be completely unacceptable and it is why you'll see many of the Peace Corps folks with bottles of hand sanitizer or something like the "Wash and Dries" my mom stuck into my suitcase before I left the United States

However, that's just the beginning. Not every house has a refrigerator and even those who do, don't use them like we would in the U.S. Here are a couple of examples. I previously told the story of how my host mother during training sent out to get me jam when I first got here. Here's part two of that story, the jam sat on the counter for my entire home stay and yes, I still ate it. If you don't eat something for lunch, especially on Sunday, expect to find it still sitting on the table for dinner. If someone leaves something on their plate, it could find its way back to the serving dish for the next meal. Eggs are left on the counter until cooked and food waste is thrown into the yard for the dogs, pigs and chickens to eat. One of the volunteers who has been here for a while helped clean out pig intestines for a funeral feast. When everyone was done, they all sat down and eat. There was no hand-washing!!

During my stay at the head office of the bank where I work, they provide bottled water for everyone to drink. However, there was just one communal cup on top of the water bottle. Everyone drinks from the same cup.

As you can imagine, this lack of hygiene has been a topic of discussion. Based on everything we have learned in the United States, the Tongans should all be dead from botulism, suffering from food poisoning all the time or getting diseases from fecal matter. While that probably happens occasionally it's not prevalent. And there is really no way to know for sure because they don't keep statistics on those types of things and Tongans don't go to doctors or hospitals they way we do in America. Our first theory is that the Tongans have built up immunity to many of the germs and/or Americans have lost their immunity from using soap and anti-bacterial products. A more likely theory is that we are simply trying to put Western standards to a country which isn't "Westernized".

Most Tongan homes are open but also very clean. I have never smelled a Tongan with body odor and many Tongans shower multiple times a day. Clothes are washed often and ironed before being worn. Tongans generally look nice when in public and especially in more formal settings like school, business and church.

Because the houses are open, there are bugs and ants inside but families go to great lengths to make sure the bugs stay away from the food and any food left on the table is always covered. Dogs, chickens and pigs are never allowed inside a home and when they try, they are immediately shooed away. Even flies are shooed away during meals. (However, when roaches and lizards are in other parts of the house, they are pretty much ignored.) Even here at my house in Vava'u it is a struggle to keep away the ants. I cleaned out used tin cans, filled them with water and put the legs of my kitchen table into them. It's not the best looking thing in the world, but it keeps the ants from crawling up the legs of table.

I don't think all Tongans understand that some food will spoil if left out. One day during training, I picked up a plate of chicken with something on it wrapped in tin foil. The chicken was nice and hot, but when I open the foil, I found very warm raw fish inside the tin foil. Needless to say, I didn't eat it. The idea that you should keep something like raw fish cold didn't seem to matter to the people who prepared the lunch. I told the story to the head of our training program and suggested that we have buffet style lunches instead of pre-prepared plates. The next day, they brought us a nice buffet and we all served ourselves family style. It was great. However, that was the only day we got the buffet, for the rest of training, we were back to the plates already prepared.


***Other News*** \

Vva'u ran out of gas and diesel fuel this week. That's right, no fuel except for what was already in people's cars. The gas was the first to run out then the diesel. At the bank, we have one diesel car and one gas car. We used the diesel car once the gas was gone. The fuel all comes in on a boat and right now there is only one boat that comes once a week. The second boat apparently lost its license and won't be back in service until next month. Tongans took it in stride. Like everything else here, if you don't have something, you just do without.

We got a new Peace Corps office in Vava'u this week. We previously had shared an office with the Vava'u Youth Congress, but we now have our own building which is closer to town. My friend Justin and I spent Thursday afternoon setting up the computers in the new office and moving in. The big moment was the hanging of the sign outside our new building. Here are two photos, the first of Justin putting in the nails and the second of me nailing the sign in place.


I joked with Justin that I was going to write on my blog that the two of us were selected from all the volunteers for the great honor of hanging the sign, but the truth is, we were the only two volunteers there and we did it on our own.

***Notes***

I hosted a Saturday Easter Brunch at my house. We opted to have it on Saturday instead of Sunday since we thought Tongans might think it was a party. We have a four day weekend for Easter so I don't go back to work until Tuesday.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Weekend Work (And Fun!!)

Garbage and litter are big issues in Vava’u. There is no garbage collection. Most people burn their personal garbage while commercial businesses take their garbage to the landfill. It sounds fairly simple, but it gets complicated because there are no public trash cans anywhere on the island and most Tongans just throw their litter on the ground or out the car window. Apparently there was an attempt to put out some garbage cans in public areas a while back, but the plan failed, not because the cans didn’t get used, but because Tongans started bringing their personal garbage and dumping it into the public cans. This overwhelmed the cans and they eventually got removed.

There is recycling of aluminum in Vava’u but there are not that many recycling bins and they don’t get used a lot. The bottom line is that there is a lot of litter here and there is not an easy solution on how to deal with it. Early Saturday morning, I joined 9 of my fellow volunteers and a Tongan women’s group to pick up litter in downtown Neiafu.

I filled an entire bag with aluminum cans in less than an hour and that was just in a three block area and the truck you see behind us in the photo above was quickly filled with all kinds of rubbish.

As I was collecting litter, several of the women called me by name. I couldn’t figure out why they all knew my name even though by now I should have gotten used to that. As it turns out, the women were all from a group where the bank manager and I had done a presentation on Friday night on the importance of personal budgeting.

After our early morning liter collection, the Peace Corps “boys” and the Peace Corps “girls” all went their separate ways. The women were cooking a women’s only dinner at the house of one of the volunteers and the guys went to the eastern tip of Vava’u to hang out and see the cliffs.

We caught a ride as far as we could and then hiked through the woods to get to the top of the cliffs. There is a nice meadow at the top of the cliffs with a great view out to the ocean below. As we stood on the top, we pointed about 45 degrees to our left and said “America is that way”. We then headed down to the water. The climb is not as treacherous as it might look from the photo, but you certainly would not want to slip. At the bottom there are small pools where you can immerse yourself into the cool waters of the Pacific. You can only do this at low tide and as the tide started to come back in, we quickly realized we needed to get out of there and start climbing back.

A little work and a little fun. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday in Tonga.

***Other News***

When President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, it was designed with three goals, goals that the agency still lives by today. Most people are most familiar with the first goal, which is to provide help where requested. The second goal is to teach people of other cultures about Americans and the final goal is to provide Americans with information about other cultures. Basically this goal says to bring the world home to Americans. By keeping this blog, I hope that I’m helping to fulfill the third goal, not just for US Citizens, but for people everywhere who happen to stumble across these pages.

One person who has become a regular reader is a Canadian by the name of Larry MacDonald. Larry is actually a friend of a friend even though we’ve never met. Larry and I both share an interest in Tonga and we’ve exchanged e-mails. We also share an interest in writing about Tonga. While I write about what it is like to serve in the Peace Corps in Tonga, Larry has written about what it is like to come here as a tourist. Larry gave me permission to share a story he wrote that I hope provides you with a different perspective on Tonga. Sharing his story seems like a great way to further the third goal of Peace Corps.

TIMELESS TONGA

CHARTER SAILING IN A POLYNESIAN PARADISE

By Larry MacDonald

When one thinks of Tonga in the South Pacific, the mind conjures up images of a Polynesian paradise – lush tropical islands with white sand beaches, sprinkled like emeralds on a turquoise sea. Supplement that image with quiet anchorages, warm breezes and crystal-clear waters and it’s understandable why Tonga is considered one of the world’s premiere sailing destinations.

Tonga’s remoteness, about 1300 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand, may be partly responsible for the islands retaining their unspoiled beauty and timeless character. However, for Canadian charter sailors, it’s a long way off; 17 hours flying time from Vancouver on three different airlines … we know, we’ve been there; and would return in a heartbeat. It’s amazing how quickly travel fatigue is dissipated by the excitement and anticipation of visiting a new culture.

Sandy and I with our friends Barry and Joan scheduled a bareboat sailing charter with The Moorings for two weeks in March. We booked our flights from Vancouver, via Los Angeles, to the main island of Tongatapu. However, we wisely decided to use Pacific Travel Marketing (a Tongan travel agency) to book our inter-island flight to Vava’u, the primary sailing area. When our flight from LA was delayed, our agent Ruby rescheduled the inter-island flight, booked us into a comfortable B&B on Tongatapu, met us at the airport and toured us around the island. This fortuitous adventure gave us an opportunity to experience the bustling capital city of Nuku’alofa, a world away from life back home. Our one-hour flight on Airlines Tonga to the Vava’u island group would take us even further back in time.

After a restful night’s sleep at the Paradise International Hotel and their sumptuous breakfast, we proceed to The Moorings base. Sirocco, our 41’ Beneteau gleaming in the sunshine, is awaiting our arrival. We stow our gear and receive a thorough boat and chart orientation; then take a short cab ride into downtown Neiafu to purchase provisions. The experience is enlightening, and most likely amusing to the locals. Following a visit to the ATM, we fill the trunk with items from several small grocery stores, a bakery, meat supplier, wine store and an outdoor market. The sun is hot; the pace slow; considerably slower than our frenetic efforts to finish the shopping so we can go sailing. We enjoy practicing the language and learning the currency, which initially involves holding out a handful of cash and allowing vendors to pick the correct amount!

Vava’u is a cluster of 50 islands scattered across 15 miles of ocean, protected from swells by outlying reefs. The Moorings’ navigational chart of this area identifies 42 designated anchorages, half of which are approved for overnight in prevailing southeast winds. The area is small enough that one can sail from one end to the other in just a few hours. Yet, in two weeks it is impossible to see it all. However, we do manage to visit a few villages and more than a few deserted islands for beachcombing, snorkeling and replenishing our souls.

THE FRIENDLY ISLANDS

Waves lap softly against our hull; a rooster crows; church bells ring. I peek through one eye at my watch. It’s 0500. What? Who goes to church at five o’clock on a Sunday morning? In the village of Matamaka, everyone does – all 350 islanders young and old attend church at 5 am; again at 10 am; and then again at 4 pm. Religion, we’re about to discover, is a very important part of Tongan culture.

Late yesterday, we anchored just off a crescent beach bordering the village. This morning, after tying our dinghy to a coconut tree, we amble ashore to explore. Almost immediately, we receive a warm welcome from Fa’aki and her husband Ben, who live in a small house with their five young children. All are dressed in their Sunday’s finest, clean and colorful. We ask if we can visit their village. In very good English, they graciously offer to show us around. Six churches, a school, playground, Kava House and an array of small houses line the dirt path that meanders through the village. Only the churches and the Kava House have electricity; which means there are no refrigerators, stoves, washers or any other electrical conveniences that we Canadians take for granted. Domestic pigs, dogs and chickens wander about. Columns of smoke rise from outdoor cooking pits. Everyone we meet smiles shyly and says hello (“Malo e lelei”). Captain Cook, in 1777 called Tonga “The Friendly Isles” and we can certainly see why. We feel like we have been transported back a couple of centuries, when people lived off the land and sea, bonding together to ensure survival.

Since it is nearly 10 o’clock Fa’aki invites us to join her family at their church service. We accompany them up a hillside to a small building made of coconut tree 2x4’s with open doors and windows. While we sit on woven floor mats with a dozen faithful villagers, the young minister plays guitar and everyone sings along. Their voices are incredibly clear and inspirational. After a passionate sermon in Tongan by the minister’s wife, punctuated by “Hallelujahs,” the minister thanks us for joining them and wishes us a safe journey. The young girls pick wild flowers and present them to Joan and Sandy. A young boy offers his hand to help Sandy down a slippery bank, a spontaneous gesture so characteristic of Tongan kindness.

As we pass the Kava House, Barry asks: “What goes on in there?” Ben invites us into the small building occupied by a half-dozen men sitting in a circle on the matted floor. Kava is a brown, watery drink made from the dried roots of a pepper plant. It is widely used as a ceremonial drink throughout most of Polynesia. The Kava House serves as a meeting place, mostly for men it seems. After introductions, we are offered half coconut shells as cups and invited to try it. We describe our first taste as bitter with a slight tingling of the lips and tongue. The men smile approvingly with stifled laughter. Apparently, after a few drinks, the effect is a feeling of calmness, which to Tongans represents renewal. After our drink, some conversation, laughter, and an awareness of the importance of this tradition in the daily lives of Tongans, we bid farewell and continue back to the boat.

On the way Ben and Fa’aki invite us for lunch and we agree, but only if they join us on board. They arrive in their small fishing boat with fresh mussels cooked in coconut milk, boiled tapioca root, and a mango-coconut cordial. We are extremely honoured by their generosity, sharing their meager food supplies with relative strangers. In return we offer them a roll of aluminum foil, dry pasta, canned goods, a Canuk’s hat, and some lollipops and gifts for their children. After they leave, Joan and Sandy conspire to “adopt” this lovely family and immediately start planning a care package to be sent to them at Christmas.

On the most western island of Hunga in front of Ika Lahi Lodge, we tie to a mooring buoy for $10 Tongan, about $6 Canadian (a small price to pay for sound sleep!). In anticipation of a visit to the village school the next morning, we gather together some school supplies and various children’s toys. Our visit is delightful. David, the principal, holds an impromptu recess and invites us inside. Although the children are initially reserved, Sandy and Joan soon have them gathered around, intent to learn some Canadian English, eh? And to sing along “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands….” Later in the village we meet an elderly woman who proudly shows us her beautiful flowers and then offers us a few mangos. She reluctantly accepts our handful of change.

SIMPLY BREATHTAKING

The Moorings arrange a Tongan Feast on a centrally located beach for their charterers, a score of sailors from various countries. Guitars and drums accompany graceful young dancers, followed by an authentic meal of local foods. Conversation mostly involves things to see and do in the islands. Everyone has his or her favourite snorkeling reef or secluded sandy beach.

One of our favourites is Maninita, a small island furthest south, designated as a bird sanctuary. Under sunny skies and brisk easterlies, we beam reach for a couple of hours with two other charter boats. Along the way, a school of Spinner dolphins play in our bow wave. A serpentine turquoise path through a matrix of coral leads to a sheltered lagoon. Boobys, petrels, terns and various other sea birds circle the forest canopy as we respectfully explore this special place blessed by Nature. The shallow reefs are teaming with colourful fish; the beaches look and feel like granular sugar. Designated as a “day anchorage,” we reluctantly weigh anchor and retrace our route to yet another picturesque island.

Another breathtaking experience, literally, is Mariner’s Cave. The entrance to this submerged cave is three metres down (at high tide) and four metres horizontally beneath an overhanging rock. The assent is another three meters before surfacing inside a cavernous limestone grotto. Some local knowledge and commitment are required for this dive. Jim and Simon, fellow charterers who had dove it last year, supply the local knowledge. Since there are no signs indicating the entrance, they dive first and don’t return; which means either that I am in the right spot or they’re never coming back! I take a deep breath and commit … popping up inside like a walrus gasping for air! Standing on a ledge, our ears plug each time the misty air is compressed by the incoming one-metre swell. Going out is less intimidating as we can see sunshine through the opening. Incidentally, one can practice for this feat by diving underneath the boat keel from one side to the other, or better yet bow to stern. Nearby Swallow’s Cave is another popular natural feature. This large cavern at the waterline can be entered and explored by dinghy, which suits my non-committal crew just fine!

Each morning on VHF Ch 06, sailors are provided with tide and weather information, including a forecast. Most days we get a mixture of sun and cloud with 10 to 20-knot breezes providing comfortable sailing. On our last day 30-knot “breezes” prompt a reefed jib and main sail. Charging back to The Moorings base, we’re totally pumped and at the same time saddened by our adventures coming to an end. After lifting off the runway and gaining altitude, we peer out the window at our now familiar playground with the hope that this pristine paradise will always remain timeless and welcoming to future sailors.

Sidebar:

TROUBLE IN PARADISE?

The Tongan government is one of the few absolute monarchies in the world. For the past 40 years a beloved and benevolent king ruled the island country. His death in 2006 and the succession of his son to the Throne set off previously unheard of civil disobedience in the capital city of Nuku’alofa. Angry rioters, expressing dissatisfaction with the lack of democratic reforms, damaged a significant number of buildings. During our visit four months later, the town was rebuilding and islanders were more inclined to “give the new king a chance.”

On Taunga Island in the Vava’u group, a groundbreaking ceremony took place just prior to our visit. A group of foreign investors are building a large five-star hotel on the same island that is also home to a tidy little village; the same village in which Joel proudly showed us around, in which Alice gave us a bag of mangos, and in which Betty sold us her handmade woven baskets and bracelets from a Panga (small boat).

One can only hope that future directions will not compromise traditions or values of these beautiful people.

FOR INFORMATION:

The Moorings: www.moorings.com

Pacific Travel Marketing: www.pacifictravelmarketing-tonga.com

Airlines Tonga: www.airlinestonga.com

Paradise International Hotel: www.tongahost.com

UPDATE FROM STEVE

During Larry’s visit a year ago, he met Sarah Kate, one of the Peace Corps volunteers with whom I now serve. Sarah Kate remembers meeting Larry and especially meeting his wife. She says Sandy was a great teacher and taught the kids to point out where Canada was located on a world map. She says it’s amazing that now, a year later those kids still remember where Canada is located, but they can’t find their own country on Tonga on the same map.

Larry also mentions the ground-breaking for a new five star resort. As of early March, that project was on hold due to disputes over land rights with some of the people on Taunga. Warwick Hotels, which has resorts and hotels around the world, is the company who wants to open what would become the first real resort in Tonga if the disputes can be settled.

My experience at Mariner’s Cave was a lot like Larry’s and I have also been to Swallow’s Cave.

***Notes***

The Peace Corps Times, which is the magazine distributed to all current Peace Corps volunteers worldwide, quoted from my blog in its latest issue. It reprinted an entry from last November about how the current volunteers surprised us with mail during our training.

The blog also got mentioned in the local newsletter that is disturbed to the volunteers and staff here in Tonga.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sailing the South Pacific

I get it! If I didn't "get" it before, I now completely "get" why sailing enthusiasts from all over the world come to the Vava'u Islands here in the Kingdom of Tonga. I spent my Saturday sailing abroad a huge catamaran and got a chance to see more of the magnificent beauty of these islands. I don't even know the appropriate adjectives to describe everything we saw. If you can imagine what a perfect South Pacific island might look like on a perfect day, then you will begin to understand.
We sailed about 25 miles away from the main city of Neiafu and anchored near a small resort called "The Blue Lagoon". This island gets its electricity from four windmills we could see in the distance. There is a beautiful reef just off shore with steep underwater cliffs of coral and many species of multicolored fish. The snorkeling was a lot of fun and I couldn't help but notice the constant temperature changes in the water. One minute you are in very warm South Pacific Water and the next you feel a river of much cooler rushing by you. The coral here is largely untouched and unbroken making for some magnificent formations.

We spent a good part of the day anchored off shore. Finally the boat captain told us it was time to leave so we all climbed back on board and started sailing again.

Our next stop, a place called Mariner's Cave. Mariner's Cave has been at the top of the list of things I have wanted to do since arriving in Tonga more than five months ago. I had previously visited Swallows Cave during our Peace Corps training and was really excited that I was now getting to go to the most famous of caves in the Vava'u area.

The only way to get into Mariners Cave is to swim down and enter an underwater passage, swimming hard before coming up inside the cave. As excited as I was about getting there I started to get a little intimidated as I swam up to the point where you have to dive down. Once you commit, there is really no going back and obviously you can't come up for air until you actually get in the cave since you are swimming through a submerged passageway. The first time I started to dive down, I started swimming just as a wave started pushing me back. I didn't want to swim against the current and quickly aborted before starting the dive down. You only dive down about 6 or 8 feet to swim through the tunnel but since I wanted all the advantages I could get, I waited and started timing the waves so that I could get a little extra push to get through the passageway. The second time I went for it. As you swim into the cave, it's pretty dark and you can't really tell when it is time to come up. I slowly started swimming up, not wanting to bang my head on the ceiling of the passageway. Once I came up, I realized I had swum a lot further into the cave than I needed. But there really is no way to tell. Better to be safe than sorry.

Inside the cave was amazing. The most unexpected thing was the change in pressure. As the waves would come in, my ears would pop from the pressure changes and the cave would fill with mist. I swam over to a ledge and just sat there for a few minutes taking it all in. I was very glad I came in and I would certainly recommend it. I was wearing a mask, but no flippers.

Getting out was a lot easier. You can see the bright blue water illuminated by the sun as you swim out and it's easy to tell where to surface. I don't have an underwater camera so I don't have any photos to share from inside the cave and from the outside you can't even tell the cave is there.

Saturday's sailing trip and the swim into Mariners Cave are certainly highlights of my Peace Corps experience so far. My weekend in 'Eua would be another. I think one of the great things about Peace Corps is not just the work we do or the people we get to meet, but the chance to explore a new place in a foreign land. I think it is pretty unlikely I would have ever visited Tonga if I had not volunteered for Peace Corps service.

***Other News***

I've wrapped up my first week at the Vava'u Branch of the Tonga Development Bank. It was a really great week and it is amazing to me how many people I've met and what I've been able to do in such a short time. My biggest project this week was programming a cash register for a local bar. Since I've never done this before, I spent a good deal of time reading the manual and then asking the owner about her business. I learned a lot about retail from that. Next week, I'll be going back and teaching the staff how to use it. I've tried to keep the feature set to a minimum and turned off a lot of features that I don't think they will need. This includes things like passwords, age verification and even receipt printing. It is now set up to do inventory management and of course record sales. Hopefully it will be an improvement over the paper system they are currently using.

Next week, I'll be conducting my first staff training for the bank's employees. The topic is Understanding Cash Flow Reports. I spent part of the week putting together the PowerPoint presentation which I'll be using. If you are interested in seeing what I'll be teaching, you can view the presentation online. By the way, I can't claim full credit for all the content. Some of it came from a presentation I found sitting on the hard drive of a computer at the main bank office in Nuku'alofa. It was probably put together by a previous volunteer.

I mentioned in my last post that I have an amazing view from my office at the bank. Without question it's the best view I've ever had in any office in my life. Here's a photo that gives you the view from my desk.

My stuff arrived on the boat on Wednesday and I saw the boat pulling in from my office and knew it was time to head to the wharf to pick it up. Everything made it in good shape except for a jar of mustard.

***Notes***

There are a few new photos in the online gallery.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Different (but better) Peace Corps Experience

While I have been in Vava'u for a short time, arriving only last Friday, I can already tell that my Peace Corps experience here is going to be much different that the 2 ½ months I spent on the main island of Tongatapu. Not only are there fewer volunteers here, but there is a strong sense of teamwork and commitment from those who are serving here. My first official function as a volunteer was a meeting of all the volunteers on the island and all but one were there. It's a diverse group of people with a couple of volunteers who are older than me and many who are still in their 20's. There are 14 of us and I'm one of just four male volunteers. What struck me as we were talking was how much everyone was involved in their communities, several talking about new projects they were starting and asking for help to make something happen. It really inspired me to want to get started with my own projects and perhaps to work with some of the projects that are already underway. As we went around the room, each person not only talked about what they were doing but also HOW they were doing. It was pretty easy to see that it is a very supportive environment.


I couldn't have asked for a better welcome on Friday. In addition to being my first day in Vava'u, it was also the birthday of Justin, one of the volunteers who happens to be a leap year baby. Friday was just the 6th time he's celebrated his birthday. (This is not the same Justin who I lived with during home stay.) My friend Shannon, who was in my training group, baked a cake for both Justin and me which was a great treat.


Things are off to a good start at work as well and I'm actually busy. On my first day I quickly learned how much Tongan vocabulary I have forgotten. Unlike the head office where I have been working, the people here do most of their talking in Tongan. The people I'll be working with greeted me warmly and they seemed happy to have me with them. It has been a long time (more than 10 years I think) since there was a volunteer working at the Vava'u Branch. Tuesday I met with the managers of the three commercial banks here in Vava'u and offered my services to them as well. I also paid a visit to the only TV station in Vava'u which just signed on the air in December. I will be going there again later tonight to teach them non-linear editing. Right now, they air everything the way it is shot in the camera. And I even have my first business project. I'm going to be teaching the bartenders at a local bar how to use a cash register. While that might sound simple, they have only tracked sales on paper and are nervous about making the change (Pun intended).


I'm pretty happy with my office at the bank. I have a beautiful view of the harbor with the mountains in the background. (I will try to remember to take a picture of my view and post it soon). And thankfully there is air conditioning and a ceiling fan, something I was not expecting. The branch manager told me that most of the year they just open the windows except for when it is really hot, like it is right now. In fact, it is miserably hot. Thankfully the days should start to get cooler soon as we wind up the summer season.


My new house is pretty awesome. The other volunteers tell me it is probably the second nicest house for a Peace Corps volunteer in Vava'u. Stan just got a new house and while I haven't seen it, it sounds pretty nice. Some of the things that excite me about my new house are going to seem pretty basic to most people, but I'm thrilled to have a sofa (actually I have two) and an arm chair. In the place where I was staying in Nuku'alofa, I had neither, so anytime I wanted to read or sit, I either had to sit on my bed, which was actually a mattress on the floor, or sit at the kitchen table. If I watched a movie, I usually laid on the floor.


I also now have two bedrooms, each with double beds. The best new addition is a washing machine. The washing machine is not like the kind you would find in the United States, but it is wonderful to have it. I spent a good part of Saturday with James, who is the volunteer who lives next door to me doing laundry. The machine is stored in the house but you take it outside to use it. You use a hose to fill the tub, add soap and clothes, plug it in and it agitates for 15 minutes. You then drain the tub into the grass, fill it back up with a hose and do the same things again to rinse the soap out of your clothes. Then you drain it, take two or three items at a time put them in the spinner, which is separate from the washer. Then you hang the clothes on the line to dry. It takes a lot longer to do your clothes than washing by hand, but they come out much cleaner. In fact, I was amazed at how dirty the water got just from each load of clothes. James doesn't have a washer, so after I got done, he did his.


I haven't really moved in yet as my stuff doesn't arrive until tomorrow. I have had just clothes and toiletries to last me until the boat arrives. I picked up a few things in town on Saturday and immediately noticed not only the higher prices on everything I bought compared to Tongatapu, but also the lack of a selection. At the market, there were no tomatoes, cucumbers or avocados, all things that I was able to purchase last week in Nuku'alofa. In fact, the only thing I bought at the market was bananas. That was a first for me as I did have a banana tree at my last house. Things like milk, pasta and canned goods are all more expensive here.


On Sunday, my landlord, who lives right by me, surprised me with a big plate of Tongan food. It was enough for both lunch and dinner on Sunday, lunch on Monday and I split the remaining root crops with two other volunteers for dinner on Monday night. Portions here are always huge and I've learned to not even try to eat it all. And if you are eating with Tongans and clean your plate, you'll just be expected to eat more.


***Other News***


I had a nice final week in Tongatapu and got a chance to say good-bye to many of my friends there. At the bank, my supervisor got pizza for our department on Tuesday. On Thursday, there was a going away tea for my counterpart at the bank, who is leaving after 17 years to take another job. While the tea was mainly for him, they also wished me well in Vava'u and I made a short speech (in English) thanking everyone. Giving speeches is pretty much a part of Tongan culture and if you are the honored guest it is pretty much expected that you will say something.


Last Wednesday, the bank sponsored a business development workshop in the village of Kolovai. These workshops are a big part of what I will be doing in Vava'u and was my first chance to attend one. There was no English spoken but fortunately all I had to do was introduce myself which I did in Tongan. I even got a round of applause afterwards so hopefully they understood what I was saying.



I hope to start language lessons again soon so hopefully will be able to do more next time.

***Notes***
I no longer have Internet at home or at work. That means that if you send me an e-mail, it may take a while to get a reply. I don't know yet how often I will actually get online, but my goal is to answer e-mails and update my blog at least once a week.