Peace Corps Videos

Friday, August 08, 2008

Na'a' ku Femauakena

"Na'a' ku Femauakena" is Tongan for "I was busy" That's the best way I know to describe the incredible activities of the past week. The past seven days have probably been the busiest of my Peace Corps service, but also perhaps the most fun I've had so far.

On Friday, Tonga officially crowned King George V. I was in Nuku'alofa staying with my friends Lara and Trent who live just steps from the Palace, I woke up Friday to the sounds of a marching band, walked a few steps and joined hundreds of young girls from Queen Salote School who were sitting along the tapa covered road waiting for the King to make the short trip from the Palace to the church where the coronation would be held.
It was a regal affair and even though there were dignitaries from all over the world, there was a refreshing lack of security. No guards with guns, no metal detectors and no security fences. I was less than three feet from the King when he passed by in his car with the windows open.

I was surprised at the lack of Tongans who attended the official ceremony. There were a bunch of media representatives and visitors hanging around outside the church, but very few Tongans. Inside were just invited guests. I snuck inside the church after the service to take a few photos of the throne and the church.

A big surprise to many was that just days before the service, the King signed away many of his absolute powers clearing the way for more rule by the people.

Probably the highlight of the day though was John McCain. No, not the Arizona Senator who is running for President, but the U.S.S. John McCain, which is a navy boat named after the Senator's Grandfather. The boat was in Tonga to represent the US during the coronation. Friday evening, the U.S. Navy invited all the Peace Corps volunteers to come on board for food and cocktails.
Quite simply, it was the best food, I've had in 10 months. I ate shrimp, Scallops wrapped in Bacon, Roast Beef, Fried Cheese and Chocolate Chip Cookies. There was an open bar with American Beer and Wine and real American Soft drinks. It was as close to being back in the US as you could ever hope to come in Tonga. It was great to act, eat, drink and talk like Americans again. I had to catch myself at the bar the first time I went to get a glass of wine because I start to say "Thank You" in Tongan instead of English when I was handed my drink. I'm so used to saying "Malo" now it almost seemed un-natural to say it in English.

The Navy also opened its ship to us. My friends Craig, Jessie and I wandered around the ship and eventually ran into a sailor named Eric Miller who offered to show us around. We got a great tour doing everything from sitting in the Commanding Officers chair on the bridge to seeing the very cramped quarters where the men (There are only five women on this boat) sleep at night.

We probably spent close to two hours walking around the boat before rejoining the cocktail party on the helipad. It was a great treat.

Saturday, the village of Fua'amotu, where I lived when I first arrived in Tonga, danced for the newly crowned King along with the King's sister, the Princess. My homestay father, Tau, is the talking chief for Fua'amotu, so he lead the entire village onto the Palace Grounds and my homestay Mom, Sia, who also danced. helped the Princess get dressed for the event. After the performance, Tau came out and bowed to the King.

Sunday was a traditional day of rest across the Kingdom.

On Monday, I started working on a video project for Peace Corps with my friend Scot. The video is being sent to Peace Corps Washington and also to the incoming volunteers of Group 74, who will arrive in October. It was like stepping back into Television again after more than a year of absence. We shot interviews and some footage around Nuku'alofa then headed out to talk with fellow volunteers Patrick and Bobby, who both live in smaller villages.

Monday night, we went to the home of the Country Director where he was was hosting six former Tonga volunteers who had come back for the coronation. We got a chance to talk with them and learn about what life was like in the early years of Peace Corps. For a woman named Tina, this was her first visit to Tonga since she completed her service 37 years ago.
In 1976, a Peace Corps volunteer named Deb Garner was murdered in Tonga by another volunteer who never went to jail for the crime. Deb's boyfriend Emil was one of the former volunteers at the party and I got a chance to talk with him about his involvement in the book "American Taboo" which was written about the murder.

Tuesday we did more shooting including a trip to the head office of the Tonga Development Bank where I worked before moving to the Vava'u branch in February. I was also able to have lunch with Sina, my homestay sister from Fua'amotu, at what may now be the nicest restaurant in Tonga, a place called "Little Italy". It just moved to a new location with a beautiful view of the water.

Wednesday I flew to the island of 'Eua to interview Jason, Heather, Bria and Krystal, four volunteers from my group who live there. It was great to get back to 'Eua, even for just 24 hours and to see the homes and workplaces of the volunteers there. That afternoon I joined the four 'Eua volunteers and three JICA (Japanese) volunteers for coffee and fresh fruit at Bria's house. For dinner, Jason cooked fresh Octopus, one of my favorite Tongan foods.
That evening, Jason and I drank Kava with the men in his village.

Thursday, I got up at 6:30am and walked to the airport. When I got there, I was assigned the co-pilot seat on the plane. Yes, I was sitting in the empty seat next to the pilot. There is no co-pilot on the short 10 minute flight back to Tongatapu. The plane only seats 10 people and it wasn't even full, which is another reason I was surprised to be sitting up front. When we went to take off, I had to sit sideways to keep my legs from bumping into the yoke as the pilot took us up.

After that, the rest of the day pretty much sucked. I landed at the airport around 9am and my flight was not scheduled to leave until 2pm. However, when I went to the Chatham Airlines counter they told me there was room on a flight at 11am and they would put me on it if it was okayed by their head office. They called and got approval (There are no computers in the domestic terminal) and issued me a boarding pass. I even scored an exit row seat. I passed the time reading some Newsweek magazines. At exactly 11am, the flight started boarding and I got in line. The woman from the counter came over and said "Mr. Hunsicker you can't take this flight...the pilot said it is too heavy." She said they had enough seats, but the plane was overweight and since I was the last one to get a seat, I got bumped. Shortly later, I watched the plane take off.

I then sat until 1:45pm when we board my original flight. This time I got on, but then they announced they were going to stop in Ha'apai on the way there. Normally, the flight goes to Vava'u first then stops in Ha'apai on the way back. So we took off, landed in Ha'apai and then waited there about 30 minutes to fly the rest of the way to Vava'u. I finally got home and other than the usual frustrations of flying here, it was a great week.

Another item worth noting. I found out when I was in Nuku'alofa that the number of volunteers who will be coming in the next group has been cut due to budgetary reasons. Instead of 35 new trainees, we will be getting 24. Of those, 10 will be business and 14 education volunteers. We were also told that almost all of them will be on outer islands and not on the main island of Tongatapu, which houses the most volunteers right now.

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