Peace Corps Videos

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Princess and The Feast

For many Tongans, life revolves around the Church. And when the biggest Church in Tonga has its annual conference, it’s a BIG event. For the past two weeks, the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga has been meeting in the Capital City of Nuku’alofa. The Church is a sister of the the United Methodist Church and its conference is International due to the large number of Tongans who live in New Zealand, Australia and the United States (Mostly in California.).

However, this annual conference is NOTHING like the annual conferences I used to attend as a child when my father was an active Methodist Minister. This Church conference is really a huge feast. Not just one feast, but four feasts a day for two weeks. The first feast starts early in the morning, followed by a mid-day feast, a late afternoon feast and a supper feast at night. There are thousands of people at each feast and there is no way anyone will leave hungry. In fact, most people take food home with them. This is just one of probably 50 tables this size covered in food. The food is stacked in layers on the table and it is some of the best food you can get. Depending on the day, you will find Lobster, Crab, Octopus (my new favorite Tongan food) and always full pigs spread out snout to tail.
Once the first group of guests finishes, more Tongans will sit down to eat the leftovers.

Wednesday, Tonga Princess Pilolevu attended the conference, sitting at the head table being fanned by two young girls to keep her cool.
I took this photo from a respectful distance. While there were no security guards or fences to keep people away from the Princess, Tonga is a very respectful society and no one would approach the head table unless invited.

After the feast, I walked around with my friends Craig and Sione, taking photos and playing with the kids.

I was in Nuku’alofa on Wednesday to meet with someone from the US Embassy in Fiji who was visiting Tonga. I had to sign some papers to get my Peace Corps passport replaced. It was stolen from the (Not So) Friendly Islander Hotel the last time I was in Nuku’alofa along with many other personal articles. The passport is the last item I need to get replaced. I have now received the replacements for my other stolen items and a check is on the way from my insurance company to reimburse me.

Special thanks to my parents who shipped me all the replacement items and also to the staff at Peace Corps Tonga who helped navigate the package through Tongan Customs and then get it to me in Vava'u.

New Photos Online

I've added a bunch of new photos to the online gallery. If you haven't looked recently, be sure to check them out.

Monday, June 23, 2008

It was Legendary!!

There is an old Tongan Legend about a King who found out his wife was cheating on him. The legend says an enemy of the King seduced the woman, than tattooed her to show the King what he had done. When the King saw the tattoo, he took his wife to the island of 'Euakafa where she was beaten and buried.

Today, as you walk along the beach on this beautiful tropical island, you can still see where the grave stone was cut out of the rocks and you can hike to the top of the island and see the remains of the grave.

It may sound like a creepy place to visit, but the island is beautiful. And today, the reef located just off shore is a real living legend. It's the best snorkeling spot I've found in Vava'u.

Sunday I joined many of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and several Japanese Volunteers on a trek to the island of 'Euakafa. As we approached and dropped anchor, there was little indication of the beauty below. As I dove into the water, I found myself immersed in hundreds of small blue fish swimming all around me, making a beautiful contrast against the multi-colored coral spread out all around me.

The current around the reef and the island is quite strong. I swam into some pretty shallow water and immediately realized my mistake as a wave slammed down on top of me, causing me to crash into some of the coral. I cut my knee but it was a minor cut. The more severe damage came to the coral that I accidentally broke. It takes years for this coral to grow and while it was only a small fracture, I knew I would not be leaving these waters the way I had entered them. Next time, I will not get into water that shallow.

I was swimming with my friend Justin. We both had cameras and had fun taking photos of each other underwater.

From the reef, Justin and I swam to the shore meeting up with others from our group who had come ashore in a dinghy. We walked along the sandy shore to the other side of the island from where he had been diving to the place where the ancient Tongans had somehow sliced a gravestone from the rock at the water's edge. From there, we proceeded barefoot to climb 62 meters (203 feet) above sea level to see the remains of the grave and a spectacular view of the ocean below.

Hiking back down, I was glad I was in bare feet as I needed the traction in the mud to keep from slipping.

A return visit to Mariner's and Swallows Cave

On the boat trip back we stopped at Mariner's Cave. This was my second trip to this cave that you can only enter by diving underwater and swimming to get inside. Unlike the first time I went, I had no qualms about going inside and easily made it.
The only way you tell there is a cave here from outside is by the small yellow "X" that someone has painted just above the cave entrance. (It's near the middle of the photo.)

We also stopped at Swallows Cave, but only to look as it was getting late and we needed to get back to Neiafu before it got dark.
I previously visited Swallows Cave last November.

How I Met your Mother

f you have ever watched the CBS Television show "How I met your Mother" you may have recognized the title of this post. I never watched the show in the US, even though it aired on the TV station where I worked. One of the volunteers has the show and it has quickly made the rounds of the Peace Corps volunteers here in Vava'u. The "It was Legendary" quote is used often by Barney, the main character. There is one episode where Barney flashes back to his plans to join the Peace Corps. In another episode, he tries to impress a girl by telling her he is shipping out to the join the Peace Corps the next day. It's a funny show and without the commercials, it only takes about 20 minutes to watch each episode.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Seven Days in Ha'apai, Tonga

I've often thought that visiting the Kingdom of Tonga is like taking a step back in time. If that's true, than visiting the Ha'apai Island chain is like taking a LEAP back in time. The Ha'apai group of islands is located between the main island group of Tongatapu and the Vava'u Island group where I live. A visit to Ha'apai provides a glimpse as to what life in Tonga was probably like before Tongatapu became an Urban area and Vava'u a tourist destination.

Landing at the airport is your first clue that you are about to have a different experience. The runway stretches the entire width of the island and from the air; you can't help but wonder if the runway is really long enough to land the plane or if you will end up in the ocean. As we touched down, I noticed that the main road crosses the runway. Cars, and there are not a lot of them on Ha'apai, just sit at the edge of the runway until the plane has landed and then drive across to get to the other side. There is a gate to keep someone from driving across when a plane is on its final approach, but closing it means someone has to walk there to close it. It was closed when we landed but I'm guessing it is sometimes left open and is up to the alert pilots to make sure there are no cars on the runway before they commit the aircraft to land.

The main village on Ha'apai is called "Pangai". Notice I didn't say city. It's not big enough to really even be considered a town. There are two banks, the Tonga Development Bank where I work and Westpac Bank of Tonga, along with a few stores, a police station and one restaurant called Mariner's Café.

I came to Ha'apai on Bank business. I never really expected that I would be taking business trips in the Peace Corps, at least not via a plane, but that is what I did. My job for the week was to help conduct some workshops for small business owners and also to do some staff training for the employees of the branch.

The bank is without question the most modern building in Ha'apai. It looks like any Western bank with a big lobby and teller stations. In the back is a large conference room and two bedrooms. I opted not to stay at the bank, giving up the comfortable looking double beds to stay with my friends Scot and Karen.

I pretty much worked all week, seeing Scot and Karen in the morning and then again in the evening after work. Friday after work, Scot, Karen and I headed over to Sami's house to celebrate her birthday. Sami is getting ready to finish her Peace Corps service and it's the first chance I've had to spend time with her.

We were joined by Phil, a volunteer from my group and several Japanese volunteers. We made Tacos and finished the last of the tomatoes I've brought from Vava'u. Fresh veggies just don't exist in Ha'apai.

Biking in Ha'apai

Saturday we headed out for a short bike ride to the southern end of the main island of Ha'apai. It's a nice spot where on a clear day you can see many of the other islands. Unfortunately, it wasn't clear and we could only see three other islands from the point. Still we had a nice time hanging out on the beach.

The weather wasn't great and the bike I was riding was too small for my 6'3" frame so we headed back to Phil's house and spent the rest of the afternoon sipping wine and talking. Sunday everything shuts down in Tonga and Ha'apai is no exception. It was a nice lazy day.

Air Tonga Confusion

Getting out of Ha'apai on Monday was a true Tonga experience. The kind of thing that makes no sense but you just accept it for what it is. I was at the Peace Corps office in Ha'apai around Noon when my phone rang and a Tongan woman from Airlines Tonga starts the conversation by asking "Is this Steve?" I say "Io", which is yes. She then asks me if I'm still going to Vava'u today. I tell her yes, and she tells me that my 3pm flight has been cancelled and I now have to be at the airport by 12:30pm to fly to Tongatapu, which is in the opposite direction of Vava'u. After landing there, we'll be taken to Vava'u. I say ok and immediately call the bank to see about getting a ride. I walk back to Scot and Karen's house, jump into the waiting bank car and head off to the airport and arrive by 12:20pm or so. I then sit at the airport for about 45 minutes before anyone comes to check in the flight.

While I'm waiting, I'm joined by David, who manages all of the Peace Corps business volunteers in Tonga, including me. He tells me he was bumped off an earlier Airlines Tonga flight at 8:30am when it cancelled. We then wait until just before 2pm to take off for Tongatapu. We land and there are four people on the plane going to Vava'u. We remain in our seats and the flight boards. We soon realize there are more people getting on the small 15 seat plane than there are seats. The last four people have no place to sit. A Tongan comes on board and says the Vava'u passengers who came from Ha'apai have to get off the plane and take the next flight, which is at 5pm, about 2 ½ hours away.

After we get off the plane, they unload all of the baggage they have just put on the plane and ask us to pick out our bags, then they reload the bags and everyone except for the four people who were bumped fly away to Vava'u. David, who speaks fluent Tongan asks the guy why we got bumped instead of someone else and is told that Ha'apai never called and told them that four passengers were going to Vava'u. You would think that since we had already been bumped and sent to a different city, we would have priority. It just doesn't work that way in Tonga.

The airport is very small and I don't really want to sit around, so I jump in a cab and head to Fua'amotu, which is the village near where the airport is located. I lived there when I first came to Tonga and decide to surprise my home stay family. I get out of the cab after seeing the door to their house is open and see the Grandmother of the family. She is the only one home, but I soon see a neighbor I know and chat with her for a while. It's a much better way to pass the time.

The grandmother becomes very concerned that I'm going to walk back to the airport and starts trying to find me a ride. This 80 plus year old woman is walking door to door to try to find someone with a car. I finally convince her in my broken Tongan that I'm going to walk. As I'm walking, up drives Tau and his son Tevita, my home stay family. He is surprised to see me since he thinks I'm in Vava'u, but I jump in the truck and we visit on the way back to the airport. I wait a while longer and finally the plane comes back from Vava'u and we are on our way.
I'll be returning to Ha'apai in October, again on bank business. However, my friends Scot and Karen won't be there. Peace Corps is transferring them to new jobs in Tongatapu. That's pretty unusual, but Scot's host organization never delivered on what it had promised Peace Corps. Scot and Karen are both actually very excited about the move because they both are now going to be in jobs that better suit their past experience.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tongan Cooperation

Earlier this year I was contacted by a woman who runs a web site called AVO AVO. Her site is all about markets around the world. She asked me if I would write a story about markets in Tonga. I did and she now has it posted on her web site. I also gave her a few photographs which can be found under Tonga on the main AVO AVO Page.

Here is the text of what I wrote for her.

The economy in Tonga is often described as a barter economy, but the word barter doesn’t really explain the way things work in the Island Kingdom of Tonga. It might be better described as a cooperative economy, meaning that Tongans cooperate to get what they need. Usually this cooperation is within family groups but it extends to the very large extended Tongan families, to neighbors and to friends. Most Tongans are given a piece of land on which to farm, often referred to as “the bush”. The land is farmed by the family, but depending on where it is located, it may be owned (or controlled) by the nobles of a village or a member of the Royal family. In exchange for the land, the Tongan family is expected to share the crops with the noble or royal family member who controls the land. Again, depending on who has control, the family may share on a regular basis or almost never.

The “cooperative” economy extends into all levels of Tongan society. Several members of the family may work in the bush, while others, usually women may weave or make decorative cloth called tapa to sell at local markets. Another family member may work at what most Westerners would consider “a real job” and a grandmother, aunt or sister may help take care of the children. There is no typical arrangement except that the family unit is strong and both the men and women cooperate to support their families.

And the roles are not always “full-time”. Some Tongan families will take their crops or their handicrafts to the market only when they need something. Others make their living by selling items every day. This culture can make a trip to the market exciting, but perhaps also a little frustrating. On any given day, at any market in Tonga, you will find the regulars but also the part-timers, those with an extra need that day. This can turn a trip to the market into a treasure hunt. But if you see something you like, grab it, because it may not be there the next day. It’s also not uncommon to see a vegetable stand along the road or in front of someone’s house. I once saw a man selling pineapple in what most people would consider the “middle of nowhere” on Vava’u. (The Vava’u pineapples are delicious and if you visit during pineapple season, make sure you try them.)

If you want to try the usually delicious fruits and vegetables grown in Tonga, you will have to buy them either at a market or a roadside stand. The grocery stores don’t sell fresh produce except for the stuff that is imported for sale like garlic and potatoes. This is because most Tongans either grow their own or get it from others.

On the main island of Tongatapu there is one large market in downtown Nuku’alofa where you can buy everything from fresh vegetable to Tongan handicrafts to used clothes. There is also a flea market located outside of town near the Tongan Cultural Center which is open every Saturday. In the village of Fanga, which is on the road from the airport to Nuku’alofa, you will almost always find many roadside vendors selling fruits and vegetables. On Vava’u, there is a market in downtown Neiafu and about two blocks away is a flea market, also open just on Saturday. For both the flea market on Tongatapu and the one on Vava’u you have to get there very early. Tongans are early risers and both are packed well before eight am. If the vendor has made enough money for that day, he or she will just pack up and go home.

Tongans are very eager to please especially to Palangis (Foreigners). Instead of a straight answer, they will often give you the answer they think you want to hear. In a craft store in Neiafu, one of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers asked the clerk if she could ship items to the United States. She said “yes” because she assumed that was the answer he wanted. However, it turns out the store doesn’t ship and has never shipped. When it comes to price, Tongans will usually not negotiate on small items. However, sometimes they will throw in something extra. If you buy a pile of tomatoes and ask for a couple of chili peppers, you may get them free, or you may not. On larger items, price is negotiated but usually only because the Tongan has some expenses to cover. Perhaps school fees are due and he or she doesn’t have enough money to pay them. In that case, you can get a big discount. Other times, the vendor will hold firm on the price because they don’t have anything they need at the moment. The concept of saving is not common in Tongan.

It also may help to put things in perspective. It can take a Tongan woman three weeks to a month to weave a mat. The profit from the mat is probably the only source of money she will have until the next mat is done. The ten dollars you are trying to save will mean a lot more to the Tongan woman and her family than it will to you.

There is one caveat about buying Tongan handicrafts in a market or at a craft store. There are no fumigation chambers in Tonga to kill small insects that may be in the mats or carvings. Because of this, customs officials will sometimes not allow Tongan made handicrafts into another country. This seems especially true for Australia and New Zealand. If you do decide to take something home with you, you might want to spray it thoroughly with bug spray so you can say that it was fumigated before leaving Tonga.

When Captain Cook first arrived in the Tongan Islands in 1773, he dubbed them “The Friendly Islands”. The name is as relevant today as it was in Captain Cook’s day. The Tongans are friendly people who love to laugh and tell jokes. Whether you meet them in a market or while walking through a village, take some time to get to know the Tongans. You will almost always get a friendly response and you might even get invited to their home for dinner. Sharing food with anyone is just another way that Tongans cooperate with each other and perfect strangers.

New Boat for Tonga

This is big news for those of us who live on Vava'u. Of course, I'm guessing it will be a while before we see the new boat. The Olavaha is one of two ships that bring all of our food and supplies to Vava'u from the Capital City of Nuku'alofa each Wednesday.

Posted at 17:50 on 08 June, 2008 UTC

The Japanese Government is giving Tonga an aid grant for a new Olovaha inter-island ferry.

An agreement has been signed for a Japanese aid grant of 16 million US dollars for the construction of a new inter-island vessel for Tonga, replacing the 26 -year-old passengers ferry, MV Olovaha.

The Japanese Government says the new vessel will be capable of carrying 400 passengers and 400 tonnes of cargo, at 53m long and 13.5m wide.

It will be equipped with two six tonne cranes, a modern navigation system, radio apparatus and cargo-handling equipments such as eight reefer containers, 54 dry containers, and two forklifts.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Island of Kenutu, Vava'u

The Island Kingdom of Tonga is more than 100 islands, many of which are uninhabited. Some are very small, often just a giant rock with a free trees on it. Others are visible only at low tide. However, there are also some large islands where no one lives. The Island of Kenutu in Vava’u is one such island. It’s located about a 45 minute boat ride from the main island.

Last weekend, I joined 11 other Americans for a camping trip on Kenutu. We packed onto the small boat with probably more luggage than we needed and set off for a weekend adventure. The boat stopped in the water, not far from shore. There are no docks or other places to park a boat, so we walked in the water to get ashore. We made a human chain, passing each item of luggage from one person to the next until it made it to dry land. Then the boat left, leaving us as the only people on the island with no way to get off until the boat came back to retrieve us the next afternoon.

There is something refreshing about being all alone knowing that you can’t go anywhere. It was my first trip to this island, but it is a favorite of the Peace Corps volunteers and they knew exactly where to go. We climbed up from the beach to a beautiful camping spot on the opposite side of the island. The camping site, covered in pine needles, sits on top of a tree covered cliff with majestic views to the water below.

We made camp and gathered firewood and then headed back to the beach. I donned my mask and snorkel and headed into the grassy waters where we had arrived. The snorkeling here was not spectacular, but I did see a few fish hiding in the grass as I swam by.

After watching a beautiful Tongan sunset, we made our way back to the camp site and started the fire. Dinner was hot dogs and pork and beans but it tasted great. We ate as the light from the fire slowly overtook the light from the sky creating a magical glow around our island for the night as we listened to the waves crashing into the cliffs below.

After dinner several of us went out to the bluff and looked at the stars. The stars here are magnificent with no light pollution and no moon. We sat there star-gazing before heading back to our tents to call it a night.

Sometime during the night, it started to rain. Pour would be a better adjective. Usually on our camping trips we are all up in time to see the sun rise. This time, we all pretty much stayed in our tents until the rain stopped. Breakfast was oatmeal and cookies until Sarah brought out the eggs which we hard-boiled over the fire in Pacific Ocean water. A nice treat before the rain started again and we went back to our tents.

Finally around 3pm, the rain stopped and we broke camp, heading back to the beach to meet our ride. While waiting we told this photo of the survivors of a magnificent 30 hours on Kenutu.

The boat ride back was an adventure over the rough seas, but we made it, slightly wet but with great memories of camping on an uninhabited island.