Peace Corps Videos

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

One Year in Tonga

It was one year ago today that I walked out of my home in West Palm Beach, said good-bye to my friends and family and began the adventure of a lifetime.

Since that day everyone with whom I associate and interact with on a daily basis are all people I have known for just one year or less. It amazes me to think that I have seen NO ONE that I knew prior to September 30th, 2007 in the past year. However, I'm also amazed by the awesome friends I've made. While I may have only known my fellow volunteers for just a year, I've spent more time with many of them than with some of my long time friends back home.

When I first met the people in my training group a year ago, it seemed the only thing we had in common was that we were all going to Tonga. For the most part, we were all strangers even though some of us had been in contact with each other on Blogs, Facebook and My Space. We had 10 married people, something which was pretty unusual for Peace Corps at the time, 12 single women and 11 single men. Thirty Three people and we would get to know each other very quickly. Today one year later, we have 29 people from my group still here in Tonga. It's easy to understand why so many of us have stuck it out because even with all the problems, this is a pretty awesome place.

After spending two weeks in Australia, I found myself missing Tonga and my friends here. I think it took being away to realize how attached I have gotten. I got a great welcome back from the people at the bank where I work and they even sent a car to pick me up at the airport. It was a great surprise to walk out of the Vava'u airport and immediately see a friendly face. Friday I drove around to see several of my clients, people who I have worked with in the past year. They also gave me a very warm welcome back. One woman told me she was afraid I wouldn't come back, which fits with the attitude of many Tongans who can't understand why a palangi (white person) would choose to live in Tonga when they could live in Australia, New Zealand or the USA.

Saturday afternoon I joined most of my fellow volunteers and about 15 other Americans to watch the Presidential Debate which was shown at one of the bars here. After the debate, I was talking with a couple of tourists from California who had watched the debate with us. As they were getting up to leave, they turned to us and thanked us for doing our part to serve our country and to help improve America's reputation abroad. That really touched me. I often hear thanks from Tongans for doing something, but here were some fellow Americans doing the same thing.

I doubt they will ever know how much I appreciated their words, but it was a great way to close out my first year in Tonga and begin the second.

Malo aupito pae 'ofa atu (Thank you very much and love to you) for the support my family and friends have given me in the past year. I couldn't have done it without you.

Steve

****Note****
A special thank you to those of you have visited this blog in the past year. Since I arrived in Tonga, my blog has received 16,817 Page Views and 8,768 visits. Those visits have come from 94 foreign countries and territories and include visits from all 50 States and the District of Columbia. Not included in the statistics are those of you who get the latest updates e-mailed to you each time I post. If you want to subscribe, just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page and press the subscribe button.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

So Long Australia!

Hello from New Zealand. I'm on my way back to Tonga after just over two weeks in Brisbane, Australia. It's been quite a change from Tonga but I'm ready to get back and resume my duties in the Peace Corps.


It's hard to explain the culture shock you experience going from a developing country like Tonga to a fully developed country like Australia. After almost a full year in Tonga it is easy to forget what the rest of the world is like. When you spend every minute of your life surrounded by pigs running wild and roosters crowing at all hours, it's amazing how 'silent' the sounds of a big city become. My first trip to the grocery store in Brisbane was like being in another world, and I guess I was. The produce section was so colorful with so many fruits and vegetables, many that I had forgotten even existed.

Once I got past the initial culture issues, I found myself loving Brisbane. It's a great city, very clean and very enviromentally friendly. I'll eloborate more on that in a minute, but first, I'll preface my comments by saying I haven't been in the USA for a year so my frame of reference is a bit schewed. It's possible many of the same initiatives I saw in Australia are now underway back home as well.


Here's a small sampling of some of the cool things I saw related to the enviroment.


  • The country just hosted a national "walk to work" day. Still to come is a "Leave your car at home day" when everyone will be encouraged to use mass transit. Both are efforts to get people out of their cars for both exercise and fuel efficiency.

  • Many of the building have rainwater tanks attached to their gutters to collect rainwater. This is very common in Tonga and is what I drink, but even in the downtown areas of Brisbane, you see the effort made to capture and conserve water. Every toliet is dual-flush and most of the urinals are either no-flush or waterless. In parks, you see signs that they are watering plants with reclaimed water and they also have tanks to gather the rainwater. (I've already mentioned the effort to get people to stop drinking bottled water.)
  • The transit system is fast and well connected. It's easy to get a train to most locations and all stations are connected by buses and ferry service with free transfers. Even in off-peak times you never have to wait more than 30 minutes for a train. Compare this to South Florida where Tri-Rail trains only run every two hours on the weekend. (As of when I left for Peace Corps).

  • Most of the cars are small. Not tiny, but sedan size and smaller. No huge SUV's. (Yep, I drove an SUV for probably 10 years).

  • The TV News stations do Green Updates during prime-time talking about other efforts underway to be more eco-friendly.

There is a lot more to Australia than just the eco-friendly things I've mentioned. However, these are the things that really jumped out at me.

I spent my last night in Brisbane eating a GREAT meal. I had some of the best lamb I've ever eaten and walked away from the restaurant stuffed like I haven't been in a long time.

My plane should start boarding soon. It's three hours late. Yes, clearly some things haven't changed during my year away. I'll be in Tonga for three more months before I venure out again. That's when I'm heading to Virginia and Florida for the Christmas holidays.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Beautiful Brisbane

Before I left Tonga to come to Brisbane, I read the book, "In a Sunburnt Country" by Bill Bryson. The book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, starts with the premise that most Americans don't know very much about Australia. It didn't take me long to realize that I was one of those Americans who didn't know much about this amazing country.
Brisbane is a beautiful vibrant city, clean, modern with many outdoor activities. It's the capital of Queensland and at least so far, the state has lived up to its nickname as "The Sunshine State". The city is built along the river and it has many parks and outdoor cafes. It's a great town for walking.

The train system here is very efficient. You can get just about anywhere on a short train ride. Each day I've tried to explore a different part of the city. The South Bank area, which is where the photo of the skyline above was taken, has been my favorite area so far. In addition to the man-made beach, there is a walk through a tropical rain forest and a good collection of museums and restaurants.

Today I'm downtown. I just went to Starbucks. My first visit in more than a year. The first day I was here I went shopping at K-Mart. K-Mart has never been my favorite store, but I felt like a kid in a candy store with so much stuff I wanted to buy. Things you just can't get in Tonga. I had a similar experience at the grocery store. I've also made it to Target but so far have avoided all of the typical American fast-food establishments like KFC, Subway and McDonalds.

One of the big attractions in downtown Brisbane is the Treasury Casino, pictured below. It is in one of the oldest buildings in Brisbane and has been well preserved. The slots are mostly one and two cent machines, so you won't lose a lot without really trying.

My hotel room has a TV which is also a treat. I've been without TV for the past year and I've enjoyed watching not just the news, but also the entertainment shows. Here in Australia, we have 6o Minutes, The Today Show, GMA, Meet the Press, Idol, Smarter than a 5th grader, Supermodel and Deal or No Deal. The difference is that all of these shows are Australian versions of the ones we have in the USA. There are also a few shows from the US like NCIS and Beverly Hills 90210 but most shows are pretty much targeted to the Australian audience.

Of course there are differences. I had to take a picture of this sign.

I saw it and had to wonder, what is a theatre nurse? Is that a nurse who acts? As it turns out, theatre is where a surgeon "performs" surgery. They don't call it an operating room or OR, it's called theatre. Hopefully the surgeons all deliver outstanding performances in the hospital theatre.

I remarked to a friend of mine that I could live in Brisbane. I like it that much. However, I also have to remember that this is the first "real" city I've seen in a year. After living in a developing country for the past year, I wonder if I would have the same impression of Brisbane if I was fresh out of the USA. I think I would.

I've been particularly impressed with how eco-friendly this area is and how aware the residents are of the importance of preserving the enviroment. There is a campaign going on here now to urge residents to stop drinking bottled water and to drink the tap water instead. In taste tests, more Australians can't tell the difference between the tap water and bottled water. (I've also been drinking the tap water, and it tastes fine.) According to the campaign, if you buy just one bottle of water, you could re-fill it every day for a year from the tap and you would still come out ahead and you help preserve the enviroment.

I'm only visiting Brisbane this trip but I'm anxious to see more of Australia. Hopefully next year I'll be able to make it back and see more of this country. While it is nice to be "down under" for a while, I'm also looking forward to getting back to Tonga.



Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Case for a more Effective Peace Corps

I have been closely following some of the debate over the future of Peace Corps and whether it is still an effective and necessary organization. The Washington Post recently reported on the cutbacks affecting Peace Corps and several months ago a former Peace Corps Country Director questioned the effectiveness of the organization in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. Both Presidential Candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, have called for an expansion of the Peace Corps and the National Peace Corps Association has just launched a campaign to double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011.

While I’m far removed from the politics of Washington, I do think it makes sense to increase the role of Peace Corps, but there are some important lessons that can be found right here in Tonga.
Tonga is a beautiful place; it has the most fertile soil in the world, an educated population with a literacy rate higher than the United States and a rich culture. These are attributes that could make significant improvements to the Tongan economy if properly utilized.

One look around Tonga and especially Vava’u and you would think that such a wonderful place could attract a lot of tourists. There are islands where world class resorts could be built and certainly eco-tourism could flourish in a place like Tonga. There are not many places left in the World and certainly not in the South Pacific where the culture is as preserved as in Tonga.

Tonga would be a great spot for some multi-national company to locate a call center. The population speaks English, is naturally friendly and wages are very low. When it is 11pm on the West Coast of the United States, it is 7pm in the evening here (the next day).

Farming should be a no-brainer. The rich soil and abundant undeveloped land make the possibility of harvesting crops for export a real possibility. Tongans will tell you that “anything” will grow here and for the most part that is true.

So then, why with all these possibilities, is Tonga a developing country whose top source of income is from foreign aid? It’s not an easy answer.

Let’s start with the amount of foreign aid that Tonga receives. It comes not just from foreign governments like the US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and China, but from individuals. In fact, there are more Tongans living abroad than there are in Tonga. Most of the overseas Tongans send money back to Tonga to support their families. Remittances from overseas are what make the Tonga economy go.

This is not a new phenomenon, Tongans have been living on hand-outs for years and they see nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, the free money can have an adverse effect on a Tongans desire to work. Why work to develop a business when you know you will have every thing you need to survive given to you for free?

However, that is just part of the dilemma. By law, all land is controlled by the King and the Nobles and only Tongans can own land. In exchange for being allowed to own the land, they have to share part of what they grow. A foreigner can not own land nor can a foreign company.

There are ways around this law. If you marry a Tongan, the land can be passed down to your kids. Land can also be leased to outsiders. Generally a Tongan who owns land that he paid nothing for can make money by leasing it out if it is in the right location. It’s another source of free cash. However, the Government restricts the types of businesses that a non-Tongan can own. For example it is illegal for an outsider to run a bakery, a grocery store or to be an electrician or plumber. The government allows exceptions for businesses that it deems Tongans do not have the skills to run. This includes most tourism related businesses such as bars and restaurants. However, if you are an outsider and want to run one of these businesses, you will only be given a visa to operate it for two years. At the end of the two years, you have to re-apply and hope you are given another two years.

And depending on your business, your prices may be fixed by the government so you can’t go any higher (or lower) than the set price. In other cases, you may only be allowed to mark up the price of the goods 15% above what you paid for them.

Ok, so if you can get past all of these hurdles and actually want to start a resort, a farm or a call center, you’ll soon find yourself running into a brick wall.

Most of the “enabling” industries in Tonga are controlled by either the Government or run by Tongans who have little incentive to invest and grow their business. The call center seems like a great idea until you realize that there is no fiber optic cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world. What about using Satellite? That exists, but the Royal Family sold most of the Orbital slots to the Chinese government a few years ago. So if you want to use Satellite you have to use slots from another country.

What about building a resort for tourists? The only practical way to get people to Tonga is via airplane. That might be fine if you want to bring people to Tongatapu which has regular International flights. However the best destinations are on the outer islands and the domestic airlines don’t measure up. Airlines Tonga one of two airlines serving Tonga just shut down for an “indefinite” period stranding many passengers. Another problem for tourism businesses is that the airports along with everything else in Tonga shuts down on Sunday. So if a tourist wants to come for a week, he or she has to either leave on Saturday, cutting their vacation short by a day or stay over until Monday, just to get a flight. (Tourism businesses that offer lodging are allowed to be open on Sunday.)

That leaves the farm. There is plenty of land and ample rainfall. However Tonga currently grows few crops that have any export value. The root crops which are the staple of the Tongan diet do not have a lot of demand outside of the South Pacific and are easily grown in other places. The exceptions are vanilla and perhaps pineapple. However, it takes a long time to grow vanilla and so far few Tongan farmers have embraced the crop. The price has also not been stable recently. Pineapple is widely grown but there are issues with exporting. Vava’u, where much of best pineapple is grown, has a ship just once a month to take crops outside of Tonga. And because Tonga has no fumigation equipment, many countries won’t accept Tongan crops (and other products) for fear of bringing small insects into their country. Even if these obstacles would be overcome the pineapple is seasonal.

The challenge is that many Tongans and Tongan businesses don’t have any experience in marketing their businesses and their country to the rest of the World. And not everyone thinks that making the changes necessary to attract foreign investors are worth it. If a foreign person were allowed to own land, would they gobble up all the prime oceanfront land? Would they be responsible citizens or would the impact they have on Tonga change the culture and life forever? Will advances in farming (and other industries) end up putting Tongans out of work as technology replaces manual labor?

There are no easy answers but I do think one way to start is by making some changes to the way Peace Corps works in Tonga and perhaps other parts of the World. Peace Corps is a grassroots organization, designed to work one on one with individuals in the host country to stimulate development and build capacity.

Why can’t this same approach be taken to businesses and to the upper levels of government? Right now, Peace Corps is actively recruiting people who are over age 50 to serve worldwide. (I’m not quite in that group yet) Imagine someone with real work experience who could sit down and work one on one with the leaders of business and government. Think of it as an “Executive” Peace Corps taking former business executives and former government leaders and putting them with a similar counterpart in Tonga.

Of course, that won’t be easy either. First, you have to convince the business and government leaders of Tonga to not only accept an “Executive Peace Corps Volunteer”, but also you have to recruit the experienced people to serve as volunteers. And Peace Corps will have to change too. Part of getting qualified volunteers into the key business and government jobs is having the Peace Corps In-Country staff be able to know well in advance the types of people who are coming to serve so they can effectively find the proper positions for that person. It makes no sense to convince the Prime Minister to take on a Peace Corps volunteer in his office if there is no volunteer qualified for that job in the pipeline. It also will take strong Peace Corps staff members with a background in business in each country. That person will have to convince the Tongan leaders the benefits of having an experienced volunteer.

Right now, at least in Tonga, Peace Corps doesn’t put volunteers in private businesses. To have an impact, that policy would have to change. Or perhaps you have a volunteer who is assigned to three or four non-competitive businesses and another volunteer assigned to the three or four competitors of these businesses.

I believe there will always be a place for the 20-something college graduates who make up the majority of Peace Corps volunteers. There are 24 new volunteers coming to Tonga next month. All but 3 are between the ages of 22 and 30. The other three, two men and a woman are in their 60's. One is an education volunteer, one is a business volunteer and the other is in NGO development. (There are also two married couples in the next group). It's good to see some older volunteers in the next group. However, if Peace Corps is successful in bringing in more volunteers aged 50+, hopefully there will also be new opportunities for their life and work experiences.

There are a lot of hurdles that would have to be overcome. Not just in Tonga, but Worldwide. Peace Corps has done a great job of teaching English and working with youth, but now I think it is time to take it to the next level. It won’t be easy but if done properly, it could change the way Americans are viewed in other countries and provide much needed assistance to those countries we serve.