Peace Corps Videos

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Fakaleti's of Vava'u

As the winter season starts to arrive in Vava'u, there are more and more events to entertain the tourists and the people who live here. Last week, one of the local bars began their weekly "Fakaleti" show. A "Fakaleti" literally translates to "Like a Lady" but make no mistake, these are not ladies, but men in drag. The bar was packed for the premiere of this year's show featuing three local fakaleti's. The highlight of the show, at least for the Peace Corps volunteers in attendance was when "Brian" one of the entertainers came down off stage and gave Justin a big peck on the check.
The photo pretty much says it all. It was also Jessie's birthday and she got called up on stage by the owner and we all sang Happy Birthday to her in English.

Farewell Amanda

Friday night, we all gathered to wish Amanda, our APCD farewell. Amanda is boss of all the volunteers and most of the staff at the Peace Corps office. She answers directly to the Country Director who is the top person in Peace Corps Tonga. Amanda is leaving Tonga to accept a job at the Training Manager for Peace Corps in Costa Rica.

Amanda is the person on the right in the photo, next to Sarah.

James and I played host for the event, the perfect spot for a gathering since we have two houses, two kitchens and two bathrooms between us. The theme was Mexican and Rose, Alex and Justin all spent the afternoon cooking tacos and making salsa. (Thursday was the first time we have had fresh tomatoes in months, so we were thrilled to have fresh tomatoes for the salsa.)

At one point, I counted 18 people inside my house, including 13 of the 14 volunteers who live here in Vava'u.

A Surprise Visit

I had just finished eating dinner one night last week when I heard someone at my door calling my name. In Tonga, people don't knock, they just stand outside and call your name until you come out to greet them. I saw a man I had never seen before who introduced himself. I recognized his name and knew he was the local manager for TCC, the Tonga Communications Company that supplies telephone service, cell phone service and Internet. TCC is probably the largest company in Tonga.

He had heard that I had I could help him learn about inventory management and some basic accounting skills. So he came in and I spent about 45 minutes with him.
Another part of Tongan culture is that people just stop by when they want something, even the man who runs the telephone company. It wouldn't occur to most Tongans to call ahead. I was happy to help him and told him I would be glad to help him again in the future.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Tonga Style

There's no Memorial Day holiday for Peace Corps volunteers in Tonga, but the weekend was truly memorable. It started with a celebration of fellow volunteer Sarah's birthday and wrapped up with an all day sail around Vava'u.

We started with an impromptu birthday party at my house with several of my fellow volunteers and other friends.

James made a cake for Sarah's birthday, but it wasn't just any cake, it was a Jello Shot Cake? What's that? It's Jello spiked with Rum. It didn't look like much of a cake, but Sarah seemed to enjoy it.

We wrapped the weekend up with an all day sail aboard the charter boat Manuoku. We realized within minutes of pushing back from the dock that our trip aboard the Manuoku might be different from past sails. Mainly because there was no wind. At the helm was boat owner Steve who graciously agreed to take us out. Steve has been sailing for years but has just opened his own charter business.

As a pretty inexperienced sail boat passenger, I wondered if we would spend the whole trip using the small outboard motor because of the lack of wind power. I have never felt a day so calm in Vava'u and even the small pieces of ribbon on the boat were not moving as we pulled out of the Port of Refuge bound for the island of Mala.

As we sailed, well actually motored out of the harbor, we noticed lots of logs, leaves and other debris just floating on the still water. Steve says with no wind to make waves, the debris just sits there. We took turns watching for debris in the water as we slowly moved away from the main island.

Our first stop was Mala, an island resort. We didn't go ashore, but Steve did a great job of navigating through the coral heads. His tri-hull boat needs a depth of just 3 ½ feet. Mala is under renovation. From the looks of it, it will be a really neat place once the work is finished. You can see small Fale's (houses) scattered around the island with enough distance between them to provide some privacy. The beach looked amazing as did the diving.

The new managers have invited us to come out and I hope to go back soon.

After leaving Mala, the wind picked up and went the sails. We cruised by Euakafa and then anchored off a very small island called Nuku. There was a reef here and some cool spots to snorkel.

Unfortunately, we are now getting into the yachting season in Vava'u and we had to share the spot with four or five other boats. This was a first for me. On my past sails, we never saw any other boats. I'm sure as the season gets going, we'll see many more.

Thankfully, the people on the other boats seemed more interested in the beach than diving. That left us to enjoy the beautiful fish and coral formations. We even saw a Stingray.

Thanks for Stan for lending me his camera and underwater housing. I would have been really bummed if I hadn't been able to take some photos. I had my camera stolen from the Friendly Islander Hotel four weeks ago.

Friendly Islander Review Online

Speaking of the Friendly Islander Hotel, one of the volunteers on Tongatapu decided to write a review of our stay there and posted it on Trip Advisor .

Heading to Ha'apai

Just found out that I am going to Ha'apai in two weeks on bank business. This means the only island group I will not have visited in Tonga are the Niu's, which are North of Vava'u. I'm really looking forward to my visit and I plan to stay over the weekend so that I have time to visit with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers who live there.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

An Unexpected Result

I've been working this week with the owner of a Falekoloa (small shop) who, like most Tongans, doesn't keep any records.   I got involved after he ran up a substantial overdraft at one of the commercial banks..  

During my first visit, I discussed with him the importance of record-keeping and showed him some simple ways to better track his sales and his cash.   He immediately seemed to grasp what I was telling him.

Another problem that is very common in Tonga is that storeowners take whatever stock they need for their personal use and they don't account for it in anyway.  I explained to this particular business owner, that while it was ok to take stock for his own use, he needed to keep track of what he was taking and also what he was giving away to family members.  I could tell he immediately understood why that was important.

On my next visit, I was thrilled to see that he had been recording every sale that he made, had documented all of the "mo'ua" or credit that he had extended to people and had started counting all of his cash.  He told me that because he knew that I was coming back to check on him, it inspired him to keep good records.  I told him I would keep checking on him.

Then something unexpected happened.  He told me that he had been writing down everything that he was taking for his own use and for his family.  He then said "Once I realized how many cigarettes I was smoking every day, it has made me cut back.  I'm not smoking as much now".  It never occurred to me that better record keeping would help someone cut back on smoking but it was a pleasant if unexpected result.

A Morning Feast

I had just finished eating Breakfast at my house Wednesday morning and was sipping some coffee when I heard a woman in my yard calling my name.  (In Tonga, people don't knock on your door; they just stand outside your house and call your name until you come out.)    Outside, I see a woman I work with at the bank and she says "Steve, I've come to take you to a feast".  A feast I ask.  What time does it start?   She says 8am.  It's now 7:55am and I haven't showered or shaved and I have an appointment with a client in one hour.   Of course, I really wanted to go and wish that she had told me the day before so I could have been ready and could have rescheduled my client visit.  But like everything in Tonga, there is little planning and she probably didn't even think about inviting me until she decided to drive by my house.  I tell her I can't go and she promises to bring me food later.

I visit with my client, get back to the bank and here she comes with enough food to feed not only me, but every bank employee with food to spare.  There is fresh beef, which is a rarity in Tonga, the usual pork, fish, chicken, etc.   We go downstairs and I'm handed a plate and fork, but every one else just digs in with their hands.   The beef is delicious, like roast beef in the states.  

Only in Tonga would there be a feast at 8am in the morning.  I later learn that the feast is from a church conference that is going on all week.

Winter arrives in Vava'u Tonga

There has been a noticeable change in the weather here in Vava'u.   It's still hot, but I haven't felt any sweltering heat since I returned from Nuku'alofa early last week.  At night it is very breezy and there is even a slight chill in the air.  It's very pleasant and is starting to remind me of the beautiful weather we have in South Florida every winter.   I've started sleeping with the windows closed and I've only run the fan in my bedroom once in the past week. 

Another indication that winter is approaching is the preparation for the season.   In Vava'u the season means whale watching and the arrival of the "yachties".  Most of the businesses that were closed during the summer have now reopened and a few new businesses have opened as well.   The season will officially kick off in early June when 40 yachts from around the world are expected to sail into the harbor as part of an around the world yachting trip. 

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Business Changes in Tonga

Foreign Competition and Great Marketing

There is very little foreign investment in Tonga and almost all businesses are small and locally owned.  That changed in a big way last Thursday when cell phone giant Digicel entered the local market.   From a business perspective, the way they did it was masterful.  


There have been two cell phone companies in Tonga.  The largest, called UCall is owned by TCC, the Tongan telephone company.  TCC is probably the largest business in the Kingdom.  The other company called Tonfon, was owned by the King and other investors.   Last year, Tonfon sold out to Digicel.  Since taking over they have been quietly adding cell towers and improving their infrastructure.  This process has taken months and until last week, they operated Tonfon as it had always been run.   I don't know the exact market share for each company, but I would have to guess that until last week, TCC controlled the market and Tonfon was a distant second.


Early last week, while I was staying in Nuku'alofa, Digicel started promoting a free concert with Reggae star Shaggy.  At times, there were four commercials an hour on the radio for the concert with just a mention that it was being brought to you by Digicel.  There was no explanation as to who Digicel was or why they were having the concert, only that it was free and everyone was invited.   That started the buzz.  Concerts are VERY rare in Tonga especially from performers who are known outside of Tonga.  One person told me it's been several years since the last concert was held here.


There were no signs all week that indicated the Digicel was about to launch in a very big way.  I went to bed Wednesday night without seeing a single Digicel sign or advertisement.  When I got up on Thursday, the day of the concert, it was as if Nuku'alofa had been painted Digicel red overnight.   There were bright colorful billboards everywhere, something else that is not common in Tonga.  There were new offices with bright red Neon signs on them saying "Digicel" that were not there the night before.  There were Digicel vehicles and a huge red bus with Digicel painted on it driving all over town.  And there were people in the streets handing out flyers, promoting Digicel and the free concert that night.   Almost every store, big and small now had a red Digicel sign on it saying that you could buy your Digicel calling cards there.  Even the bus terminal was painted with a bright shade of red.   This all happened literally overnight.   Tongans went to bed with Tonfon and woke up to Digicel.   For most Americans, this might sound like simple marketing, but it is brand new in Tonga.  I spent 23 years in Television News and I've never seen a company do such a masterful job of marketing and launching than Digicel did here in Tonga last week.


Thursday night, it was pouring rain and I decided to skip the concert, but an estimated 10 thousand Tongans showed up in the rain for the show.  To put that in perspective, 10 thousand people represents about 10% of the entire population of the Kingdom of Tonga and 15% of the population of Tongatapu, the island where the concert was held.   Digicel handed out free backpacks, umbrellas, shirts, pens, etc.  The next day, their new offices were packed, literally lines out of the door with people anxious to buy a new phone and sign up for their service.


When I flew back to Vava'u on Monday, I found a brand new Digicel office in downtown Neiafu and rode pass a party sponsored by Digicel in a village where they had just installed a new tower.


On Tuesday, Digicel employees were going door to door in villages offering a brand new Nokia cell phone, a backpack, a SIM card and three dollars of credit for TOP$40.00.  That's just over US$20.00.  Three Digicel employees came into the bank where I work and sold about five phones to employees here, including me.   It was a great deal.   Until the Digicel launch I have never seen a new phone in Tonga for less than TOP$100.00. 


So you might ask, since TCC has known for months that Digicel was coming to Tonga, what did they do?  As far as I could tell - NOTHING.   They sat back and let it happen.   As much as I respect the way Digicel came into the market, as a business volunteer who wants to help Tongan businesses, I wish I had been working with TCC to help them.  From my perspective, there is a lot they could have done to minimize the impact of Digicel, but now it's too late.  They are in a catch-up position.  One of my fellow volunteers told me that TCC has discounted one of its phones to TOP$80.00, which is twice the price of the Digicel phone.  There is some hope for TCC.   Since cell phones are interchangeable between systems here, new customers could buy a cheap Digicel phone and then use it on the TCC network.  Too bad TCC didn't think to offer to switch any Digicel phone back to TCC for free.  Instead they are doing it by selling new SIM cards for TOP$20.00.  Not exactly a reason to switch back.


Completely Cut off

The timing of the Digicel launch was perfect for me since my phone and many other items were stolen from the Friendly Islander Hotel.  That included my passport, drivers license, a credit card and ATM cards for both my local bank account and the one I have in Florida.  For two weeks now, I have had no ID and am not sure when I will get replacements.  I am able to access my local bank account by going into the bank and asking to withdraw money.  (They rarely ask for ID).   However, I can also only get money when the bank is open.


Since I've been in Tonga, I've been able to live on my small Peace Corps stipend without using money from home.  However, psychologically, it does bother me a bit to be completely cut off right now from my money at home and to have no access to a credit card.  While I haven't used either the home ATM card or credit card, there is a feeling of security knowing that if I need money in an emergency, I can get it.


Without a passport, if I wanted to leave the country, I wouldn't be able to leave.  I also have no visa which shows that I am in Tonga legally.   And even if I got out of the country, I wouldn't be able to drive anywhere since I don't have a license.  (Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to drive in their country of service).  Thankfully I have a lot of confidence that in an emergency, Peace Corps would bail me out, at least temporarily.  Hopefully the replacement IDs and cards will arrive soon.


Volunteer Changes

The make-up of our volunteers is changing again.  The good news is that Jason, who was medically separated earlier this year, has been cleared to return to Tonga.  Jason is a great volunteer and we were all sorry to see him go.  It's terrific that he is coming back.


However, John, another volunteer decided that Peace Corps was not for him and he ET'ed, which is Peace Corps speak for Early Termination.   Since moving to Vava'u, I haven't seen much of John, but I hope he finds much happiness in his future endeavors. 


With Jason's return and John's departure, we are holding at 29 volunteers out of my training group of 33 who are still here after 7 ½ months in Tonga.


New Phone Number

I now have a new phone number.  It is 886-1680.  From the US, dial 011-676-886-1680.  All incoming calls are free to me, but it can be expensive to call from the US unless you use a calling card or a service like Skype or Vonage. 

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Getting Robbed in Tonga

I had my laptop, camera, passport and other valuables stolen on Thursday while staying at the Friendly Islander Hotel in Nuku’alofa. I didn’t know it at the time I checked in, but I quickly learned this is not a safe place to stay. In fact, Peace Corps removed all 29 of us from the Hotel because of safety concerns and moved us to another hotel. Unfortunately for me, I was one of the victims.

We checked into the Friendly Island Hotel on Thursday for what Peace Corps calls HILT or High Intensive Language Training. The Hotel is located in an industrial area across the road from the Ocean. It’s a collection of small Tongan fale’s (Huts) and at first appearance looks like a neat place. However, it’s a bit far from town, which is why Peace Corps chose that location, so we could concentrate on our language and not get distracted.

I checked into the hotel early and dropped my backpack in the room. I came back later with the rest of the volunteers in my group and noticed that all of our luggage was sitting on the curb, not inside the lobby. I grabbed my bag and went back to the fale where I would be staying. Because they all looked alike, I wasn’t sure which one was mine, so I went to what I thought was my fale, inserted the key and the door opened. It was NOT my fale. It belonged to a group of single women volunteers. I then made my way back out, found my fale, inserted the key and the door opened. On the bed, where I had left it, was my backpack containing my laptop, camera and lots of other things. I plugged my cellphone in and hung out for a while with the three other guys with whom I was staying: James, Stan and Bobby.

We decided to go to dinner, so we all showered and changed, leaving our belongings locked in the room. I double checked the door personally to make sure it was locked.
After dinner, Stan and I decided to pick up a couple of beers while James went back to the motel. When we got back, I found James coming towards us saying “I think we have been robbed. I need you to come check your stuff”. At first, I thought he was joking, but clearly he was not. I walked in and my clothes were everywhere. Both my backpack and James’ backpack were gone along with my cell phone. We left the room and I went to talk to the manager while another volunteer called Peace Corps security.

My conversation with the owner/manager went something like this.
ME: “Hi, someone broke into our room and stole our stuff”
HER: “Was your door locked?”
ME: “Yes, I personally locked it before I went to dinner I think someone used a key to get in”.
HER: “None of my employees did this.”

Of course as soon as she said none of her employees did this, it immediately made me suspicious. She then told me “We’ve never had a problem with Peace Corps before”. I went outside and waited for Peace Corps security.

As soon as he arrived, he called the police. When the police arrived, the officer told me he had been to the same fale where I was staying, three other times for break-ins. Perhaps none happened when Peace Corps was staying there, but clearly they have had problems. Later, when I told the owner what the cop said, she said, “Oh that was a long time ago”.

Most of the volunteers were awake and hanging around. We start talking about the keys and we soon discovered that one key will open almost every fale at the hotel. This freaks out a few of the female volunteers who fear for their safety.

At the suggestion of Peace Corps, James, Stan, Bobby and I were moved to another fale identical to the one where we were robbed except it was closer to the main building.

After we had moved and the police had left, Stan and I opened our beers and the four of us sat down in the room to decompress. The door to our fale was open and in comes the owner. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t knock, just comes in and walks into the bedroom where James and I are staying. We can’t see what she is doing, but then she walks out with a handful of clean towels, stopping to collect the clean towels from Bobby and Stan. I ask her why she is taking the towels and she says we can use the old ones from the other fale. She then leaves.

I hadn’t gotten upset about anything that had happened yet. But this really pissed me off. I mean, we just had all of our stuff stolen and she is worried about clean towels.

We drink our beers and go to bed. The next morning, James and I get up and head to breakfast. As we walk in, one of the other volunteers tells me that he was robbed at knife point last night while he was sleeping in his bed. The thief took his bag along with some clothes from a couple of other volunteers. He said he didn’t wake us because he figured there was nothing we could do. The Peace Corps staff including our acting Country Director (The Country Director is out of town) are there and they tell us they have made arrangements to get us out of there. They also say that barring some major security updates, they won’t be putting volunteers at the Friendly Islander Motel in the future.

The Peace Corps takes James and I away to start dealing with the logistics of the incident and they cancel classes that morning for everyone. While getting all of my stuff stolen sucks, the amount of support I got from my fellow volunteers and from the Peace Corps staff was amazing.

By Monday, I had filed the police reports, filed an insurance claim and had ordered most of the replacement items. It's been stressful but I remind myself that it is "Only Stuff". Everything can be replaced.

And by the way, the owner of the Friendly Islander Hotel is NOT typical of most Tongans. At work and at the guest house where we ended up staying, the Tongans were very sorry about what happened and offered to do what ever they could to help.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Downloads from Tonga

I'm in Nuku'alofa this week attending Peace Corps Training. I'll write about that when I return, if not sooner, but while I'm away I thought I would share some downloads and links that may be of interest to you.

Maps of Vava'u

I now have a high resolution map of Vava'u if you want to download it. It is in PDF format and it allows you to zoom in to see details on not only the main island, but also all of the islands that are part of the Vava'u Island group. If you find Neiafu and look west, you will see Talau, which is a mountain. That is the neighborhood I live in, even though I am not near the top. If you find the intersection of line 35 and line 18, that is very near my house. These lines actually cross in the water, but if you go north on line 18, the first full block is the block where I live. You should be able to download the map at this link: Vava'u Sheet 1 February 2008 dem (NOTE: I have not used this location to host content previously so please let me know if you have any problems downloading from here. I usually use Google Documents, but they do not support pdf files)

My Favorite Tonga Photos

Part of my job at the Tonga Development Bank is to help prepare workshops for current and prospective small business owners. At the first workshop, I put together a slide show that we played on the screen while people were arriving. It is a collection of my favorite photos from Tonga. The photos from Tongatapu, 'Eua and Vava'u were all taken by me. The three photos from Ha'apai are from my friend Scot. (I haven't been to Ha'apai yet) You can download the presentation in pdf format at Photos from Tonga (NOTE: This file is in the same location as the one above and hopefully you can download it okay. The PowerPoint file I used was larger than Google Documents accepts.)

Tips for a Great Website

At the conference I'm attending in Nuku'alofa I'm facilitating two sessions. The first is on tips to keep your web site in great shape. I've called the session: "So you've got a web site: Now What?" It has been tailored to Tonga but has some useful information for people anywhere with web sites. You can view and download the PowerPoint Presentation and use it or edit it as you see fit.

Search Engine Optimization Tips

One of the very last projects I was involved with before leaving Television was working with a company that we had hired to help make our TV station's web site show up better in search engines. I learned a lot about optimizing web sites to make them friendlier to the search engines. I never thought that information would be useful to me in Peace Corps, but I ended up putting together a two hour presentation on SEO or Search Engine Optimization strategies for Tonga. You can watch and download the PowerPoint Presentation and use it or edit it as you see fit.

Useful Tonga Links

Many years ago, I interviewed "Miss Lillian", Lillian Carter, the mother of former President Jimmy Carter. Then just a few days after leaving my job in TV News, I had the chance to attend a reception with the former President where he honored Peace Corps Volunteers like his mother. Now President Carter has written a book about his mother and it is reviewed in USA Today (Where my sister Maria works).

Several months ago, a former Peace Corps Country Director wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. Now the same guy has another negative article about the Peace Corps on a web site called that mentions Tonga.

I previously posted an article about sailing in Tonga written by my faithful blog reader Larry who has sailed in Tonga. He now has his own web site and has the article posted there if you want to visit it.

There is an article in the Christian Science Monitor about the Peace Corps as well that my friend Kirk send me.