Peace Corps Videos

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The View from beneath the Pacific

An Underwater Adventure in Tonga

One of my favorite movies as a kid was "20,000 Leagues under the Sea". As an adult, "The Abyss", especially the Director's cut, became one of my favorites. Both are about living underwater. While I'm not sure I would ever want to live underwater, I thoroughly enjoy snorkeling and have for many years. One of my other passions is photography. Until now, I haven't been able to combine the two. But after our last sailing trip I decided to buy an underwater housing for my camera. (Stan has one for his camera and I enjoyed playing with it last time.) Getting the underwater housing for my camera to Vava'u was not easy or quick. I ordered it online and had it shipped to my parents. They re-shipped it to me and last week it arrived. That seemed as good a reason as any to go sailing this past weekend.

I joined nine of my fellow volunteers onboard the Orion, a catamaran. We sailed off into the Pacific past islands in a section of the Vava'u island group where I had not been before. Once we anchored, I spent a good amount of time just playing with the camera. Most of the first pictures I took were over-exposed. I also had to deal with some condensation build-up inside the housing. I didn't get any pictures that I really liked at the first stop.

From there, we sailed another 45 minutes or so to an area with lots of coral and fish. It was a much better place to snorkel than our first stop.

The fish here were really spectacular and while you can get an idea from the photo, I think the video shows it much better.

James took a couple of photos using my camera as well, including this one of my diving down from the surface.

It is really different taking photos underwater. It is much more difficult to compose the shots and for the video, it's hard to hold the camera steady in the ocean currents. I'm sure I will improve with time. Unfortunately, it may be tougher for us to go sailing for the next several months. During the off-season, we can negotiate really good deals because the boats are sitting there not being used. But as more tourists start arriving, the boats are more in demand and the prices increase beyond what we can afford as Peace Corps volunteers. Already, you can tell there are a lot more people here when you walk through town and most of the businesses that have been closed during the off season are either open now, or will be open by the end of the month.

Vava'u Runs out of Milk

Saturday, Vava'u ran out of milk. The only milk that is ever sold here is the boxed kind that can be stored without refrigeration. Occasionally I've been able to buy boxed skim milk, but this is the first time that there has been no milk of any kind anywhere since I've been here. I went to four stores Saturday in search of milk and all were sold out. Because there are no boats until next Wednesday, that means no milk for five days. It's part of living on a remote island. Several weeks ago, the island ran out of gas for several days.

While I'm very happy living in Vava'u, I do miss the selection and the prices we had when I lived in Nuku'alofa. Every single item I buy here except for fresh eggs is more expensive than the same items in Nuku'alofa. And we do not have anywhere near the selection in the stores or the market that you can get in the Capital city. I'm going back for a Peace Corps meeting at the end of the month and I'm looking forward to stocking up on the stuff we can't get here and saving money on the other stuff. It's funny how your perspective changes. When I was in Nuku'alofa, I missed the selection we had in the United States.

Scott is getting married

We said good-bye to Scott this week. Scott is a former Peace Corps volunteer who completed his two years of service earlier this year. He was the last of his group to leave but Scott stuck around because he's engaged to a Tongan woman and he had to fight through the bureaucracy to get her a visit so they could return to the United States and get married. For Scott and his fiancé, they spent $1000 dollars to fly round-trip to Fiji so they would apply for a Visa. It was granted; they came home and left Vava'u on Saturday.

This is a group picture from inside my house on Thursday night. Scott is the guy sitting behind my right shoulder. This was the second tour of duty in the Peace Corps that Scott has completed. He previously served as a volunteer in Mongolia.

New Photos Online

I've uploaded 13 new photos from our sailing trip to the online photo album. Four are from above water and the other nine from below the water. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Survival of the Weakest

Living on an island is different. Being surrounded by water with no way to get things except for the once weekly boats causes all kinds of social and economic issues. But this is not a story about island fever or even the more obvious advantages or disadvantages of living on an island. It’s actually about livestock? What? That’s right livestock. I recently had the chance to chat with the man who heads up the local office of the Tonga Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries or MAFF for short. We got into a fascinating discussion about pigs and chickens.

In a nutshell, almost all livestock here in Vava’u and throughout Tonga are the results of inbreeding and something I’m calling Survival of the Weakest. Because we are on an island, there are not a lot of choices for livestock breeding. A pig has baby pigs and as those pigs get older, they breed with their brother and sister pigs or their cousin pigs. The bottom line is that most pigs here are from the same gene pool and as we know, all that inbreeding makes for weaker off-spring.

But that is just half of the story. As the man from MAFF pointed out, when a chicken or pig actually out performs its own gene pool, it gets slaughtered. Tongans will take the biggest piglet or the fattest chicken and butcher it to eat, leaving the weaker and smaller animals to breed the next generation. Multiply this by generations and generations of animals and you will start to understand why Tongan chickens and pigs are often a lot smaller than their species in other places.

It’s both an education problem and a breeding problem. MAFF is trying, for the most part unsuccessfully, to convince Tongans to let the big healthy animals live so they can breed, and to slaughter the smaller weak animals. However, MAFF is also trying to introduce some new animals to the gene pool. Right now, they have just imported 20 sheep from New Zealand. Ten are here in Vava’u and ten are on Tongatapu. Once the females are pregnant, MAFF is going to swap the males from each island. That way, they end up with sheep pregnant from different fathers. If successful, they will keep bringing in new sheep to further expand the gene pool.
Right now there are not a lot of sheep raised here. The hope is that if these sheep can grow and develop, sheep production will increase. And there is certainly a market for it. The single biggest Tongan delicacy is something called sipi. Sipi is nothing more than mutton chops made from sheep. It’s very fatty and very bony and terrible for you, but each Sunday, you’ll find the majority of Tongans eating it. The sipi they eat is all imported, primarily from New Zealand. If the sheep project is successful, Tongans might one day be able to make their own sipi.

And even though there are chickens seemingly everywhere here, almost all of the chicken that is eaten is brought in from New Zealand. The Tongan chicken is very small and the meat is tough to eat. (And I’m sure the New Zealand chicken is probably pumped up with all kinds of hormones as well.) Most of the chickens here either are used for eggs or simply to eat garbage. At a recent workshop sponsored by the bank where I work, a group of woman showed up who want to start a chicken farm here. They came looking for information on what they need to start a business and to get financing.

After the workshop, we provided lunch to all of the 27 participants who attended. No sipi on the menu, but we served a huge plate of fresh local fish and chicken imported from New Zealand. Who knows, if the women are successful, in future years, it might be locally grown Tongan chicken on the menu instead.

***Other News***
The house where I live is on a piece of land with two other houses. One house is occupied by James, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer. The other house is our landlord, Kepu. Kepu is a former rugby star who rents out both houses. He is also raising his grandson, Peta, or Peter in English. Peter is in second grade and goes to the Vava’u Side School where James is a teacher. At that school, all lessons are conducted in English. Peter is a great kid and I caught him playing with his dog, Ripple in this photo.

Ripple just had four puppies, three of which survived. They were born under my house. James and I each plan to take one of the puppies as soon as they are old enough and we’ll leave the sole female for Kepu. I’ve already picked out the runt and am probably going to call him “Matataha” which actually means “One Eye” in Tongan. He has two eyes, but has a spot over one of his eyes making him look like a “one-eyed pirate”.

As a Peace Corps volunteer serving overseas, I have until June 15th to pay my taxes. I thought that was great until just a few days ago, when I found out that even though I don't have to file until June 15th, the IRS assesses interest on any amount I owe beginning April 15th. Not such a great deal after all. I quickly filed my taxes online and got them in on time. I had hoped that this year I would be able to avoid the dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT. No such luck. Even in Tonga there is no escaping it. By the way, my total Peace Corps income for the three months I was here in 2007 was US$450.00. That's right, I lived for three months on four hundred fifty dollars.

Tomorrow, April 18th is my mother's birthday. Happy Birthday Mom!!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Scary Place

I went to the hospital on Friday. No, I wasn't sick; I went get my teeth cleaned. In Tongan, the dentist is at the hospital as is the morgue.

It was my first trip to a Tongan Hospital and one I won't soon forget. The Price Ngu hospital is just a couple of blocks from my house, but stepping inside is like stepping back in time. The two tone color walls greet you as you enter the open air lobby. The walls are emerald green at the bottom and what once was white above it. Behind the peeling green paint, you can see the blue that was probably the color the last time the halls were painted. And bigger cracks in the wall show that before it was green and before it was blue, this hospital had mauve colored walls.

As I walked down the turquoise floor, I could look back and see my footprints along with those who had been there before me, in the dust that covered the floor. Against the wall sit dirty white plastic lawn chairs more gray than white with specs of missing plastic.

A Nurse wearing a long pink dress with a white nurse's hat on her head points us down the hall toward the dental room. We (I'm with my friend Justin) pass empty exam rooms looking more like something from the movie "One Flew over the Coo coo's Nest" than a hospital. We walk past a rusting table with wheels that probably is used as a stretcher but should probably be in a medical museum instead. There is a giant water hose reel hanging on the wall next to the electrical box whose cover is slightly ajar. That has to be a safety hazard.

But perhaps not, looking above, there are wires hanging where there once were lights. Finally we enter the dental room where a ceiling fan circles overhead keeping a slight breeze in the room and drawing in a bit of air from the open windows. The dental equipment is modern, as in 1980's modern. The rolling tables are covered with clean linen. Probably not just for sanitary reason, but to also disguise the rust that shows on the bottom steel.

We both know the dentist we are going to see. She is a volunteer with Japan's version of the Peace Corps. We are very happy to have a Japanese dentist to clean our teeth. There is a sterilizer in the room for the dental tools and the dentist wears a mask and gloves as she cleans. As she leans me back in the chair, she tells me that the suction isn't working so that I'll have to sit up and spit when needed. I lay back and look at the ceiling. There are black specs on it. I wonder if it is mold or just some dark spots. I don't know and won't know.

The cleaning was a bit different than in the US. She has me rinse with a stain which will show the plague and tartar in my month. I remember doing this many years ago when I was very young, but not since. She proclaims that I have a clean month even though it has been six months since my last cleaning. Out comes the polishers and before long I'm on my way, back down the scary hall to the safety of the outdoors.

***Other News***

Saturday I joined five other people on a camping trip on the Northern side of Vava’u. We went to a place called Utula'aina Point which is near the village of Holonga. Holonga is one of the three villages that hosted my group during our training last year. It was only the second time I had been to the village and the first time to go out to the Point. We didn’t decide to go until late in the afternoon and got there just as it was starting to get dark.

Amazingly, our taxi was able to drive us right to the spot where we camped. Because of the easy access, I assumed we would see lots of signs that people had been here before, but we did not. We decided to make our fire up on the point and to camp just below. There is not enough room for one tent, much less three tents up on the point and it would be a scary place to camp, because it is a cliff straight down to the water.

We started gathering wood as darkness started to set in and then put up the tents. There was no moon and the stars were amazing. We cooked dinner then carefully make our way down to the tents to call it a night. The next morning, we were all up at sunrise.

While we had seen a little of the view at night, it was spectacular to watch the sun come up and illuminate the cliffs and the beach below. After a breakfast of oatmeal and marshmallows, we broke camp making sure to leave no traces, other than the ashed from our fire, of our visit. We then hiked down to the beach for a morning swim before heading back to our homes.

I've rearranged my online photos since the single gallery was getting quite large. To see the latest photos, includng new ones of the camping trip, you just click on the photos on the menu, just like always. Below that are links to two new galleries: Training and Volunteer Time in Nuku'alofa. Those are the older photos. The link to see the photos that I've posted on my blog is still there as well.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Six Months in Tonga

Today, April 4th marks six months since we first arrived in Tonga. It many ways, it seems like such a long time ago, but then I also am amazed the time has gone by so quickly. A little later this month, I will have completed ¼ of my 26.5 month commitment to the Peace Corps. The 33 members of my group, Group 73, arrived in Los Angeles complete strangers. Now, we know each other better than many of us could have ever predicted. There are 29 of us left as we hit the six month mark. At the end of this month, we will all get together for the first time since we completed our training and were officially sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers last December. It will be great to see everyone and we'll certainly miss the four who are no longer here. (Three of the four were medically separated and the 4th was married to someone who was medically separated.)

After six months, you certainly start to accept some things that may have been difficult to accept when we first arrived. This weekend, a big storm hit Vava'u, beginning on Friday and it rained really hard all day Saturday and into the night. We were without power for about 18 hours, before it was restored on Sunday. On Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings I woke up to no water. That meant a trip outside to the Sima Vai, which literally translates to Cement Water. It's the tank where the rainwater accumulates and it is what we drink. For the days with no water, it was also what I used to flush the toilet, clean dishes and take sponge baths.

I was actually surprised that the power was restored on a Sunday. Everything here closes on Sunday and I assumed that no one would work to correct the problem until Monday. However, crews were out on Sunday and we got our power back. I live about two blocks from the only hospital in Vava'u and I wonder if that might be the reason I got power back on Sunday.

After six months, my diet has changed considerably. When I lived with my host families during training, I almost always had traditional Tongan food. Since becoming a volunteer, I can better control my diet, but I'm still at the mercy of what is available. I haven't seen tomatoes in weeks and lettuce is very rare, but you can still get it at the market occasionally. I've been buying green peppers, avocadoes and of course, bananas, which are always plentiful. When I eat meat, it is almost always chicken which is imported from New Zealand. And it is always the dark meat. I haven't eaten or seen a chicken breast since I arrived.

On Sundays, my landlord brings me a plate of Tongan food that he has cooked in his outdoor oven, called an imu. It usually consists of Liu Pulu, which is very fatty canned beef, soaked in coconut milk and wrapped in pele leaves. Pele is a lot like spinach. Also on the plate are some sort of root crops, usually ufi, which is like a potato, but much drier and occasionally he brings kumala, which is my favorite Tongan food. Kumala is a green sweet potato and is really good.

I still struggle with the Tongan language, but there are times when I start to feel like I am getting it. Last Friday night, my friend and next door neighbor James and I were walking through town and a Tongan started walking with us. He told us he was going to drink Kava, but had stopped by the store to get some food so he doesn't get sick. We told him we were going to Mermaids, a local restaurant and bar. He commented on how nice the weather was, because it was breezy and I replied it was better than the very hot weather last week. The conversation was nothing special, but it was entirely in Tongan. No English spoken and I understood all of it and he seemed to as well. We also used phrases that James and I both knew, like "Where are you going" and "The breeze is nice".

At work, the Tongan is more of a challenge because it is involves complex thoughts and sentences. I'm taking language classes three days a week, but I doubt I will ever get to the point where I can fluently carry on a conversation.

Being a volunteer is certainly not all work and I've had some great times during my first six months. The weekend I spend in 'Eua, the sailing trip and dive into Mariner's Cave and celebrating Christmas with my first home stay family are certainly highlights.

However, I think the best thing about my first six months has been getting to know the other volunteers, both those who are in my group and those who were in the earlier group. There are some really dedicated and amazing people here. I'm proud to be associated with them.

***Other News***

I will be doing my first workshop here in Vava'u next Wednesday. I've spent most of the past week getting stuff ready for it. We are inviting 30 people to attend and will be teaching business concepts.


My online photo album is getting quite large so I'm going to move some of the older photos into new albums. Not sure how long this process will take with the slow Internet connections we have here. I hope to move all the photos from my training into one album and then move all the photos from my time as a volunteer in Nuku'alofa into another folder. That will leave just the photos I've taken since arriving in Vava'u in the current folder. However, I will put up links on the main page to all three.