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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.

***Notes***

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.

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