Peace Corps Videos

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving Tonga Style

I am thankful that I live in a wonderful place surrounded by people I really like and I'm doing something that I enjoy. On Thanksgiving day, I joined 20 fellow Americans in celebrating Thanksgiving Day Tonga style.

Sarah looking oh so fabulous. We been planning the day for more than a month. In Vava'u, it's not easy to get all the ingredients you need to prepare a traditional Thanksgiving meal. But thanks to our party organizer and my fellow volunteer Sarah, we had a great meal with turkey and all the trimming.

Sarah has able to get a local restaurant to give us their kitchen and their dining room for the day at no charge. They closed and we took over. It's summertime and the off season here and they probably would not have had a lot of customers anyway. In fact, they may have made more off of our bar tab then they would have with paying customers.Our Group of Americans getting ready to have Thanksgiving dinner in Vava'u.

The Mana'ia Restaurant is located right at the edge of the water. It's one of the nicest restaurant settings in all of Vava'u and we were all thrilled to be back here for the second year in a row.

Hanging out on the dock!

A special treat for me this year was the addition of Cinnamon Pie to the dessert menu. Cinnamon Pie is a Hunsicker family recipe that goes back generations. My mom sent me the recipe and a couple of the volunteers made it. While not quite as good as the original, it was still good and a great way to remember my family back in the USA.

After dinner, it was time to enjoy the great atmosphere at Mana'ia as we took off our shoes and enjoyed the company and awesome views.

Our group included the eight volunteers who live here in Vava'u, six Peace Corps Trainees who are attached to us and some American friends who live here full-time.

Dancing the night away

After cleaning up and closing up Mana'ia our next stop was Kaila Bar. The Kalia Bar is a Tongan owned bar and restaurant right in downtown Neiafu. When we entered the only other people in the bar were the bartender and the disc-jockey. From the main street you can see right inside the bar and it didn't take long for us to draw a crowd. Before long we had a large group of Tongans all watching the crazy Americans dancing the night away.

Saskia, Shawn and Amy dancing at Kalia Bar

We eventually drew such a large crowd that the bar started charging a five dollar cover. Since the bar happens to be one of my clients, I have thrilled to see them doing this. Smart Business especially for a Thursday night in the off season.

Mt. Talau

The area where I live in Vava'u is called Mt. Talau. The main town of Neiafu sits at the base of the hill. I live about 1/5 of the way up the hill. But until the week, I never had climbed to the top. I've talked about it several times and have made it to where the National Park begins near the top, but never all the way to the top. That changed on Monday.

Stan also now lives on Mt. Talau. We both have had Peace Corps Trainees attached to us this week. Shawn, who is from Minnesota is staying with me and Scott, from New Hampshire is staying with Stan.


The views were great. Scott, who is on the left will be living on one of the outer islands here in Vava'u while Shawn is heading for the main island of Tongatapu.

Water Woes

It's been a lot of fun having Shawn stay with me this week but unfortunately, I have been without water every day for about the past 10 days. It will come on and work occasionally but probably on average for just four hours a day or so. But you never know when it will work and when it won't.

Today, even though I knew it was a futile endeavor, I went to the water board to find out what was happening. The woman behind the desk told me in English "Maybe the machine is broken". OK, Maybe? I didn't push it, but instead I asked when it might be fixed. Her reply was "Maybe this weekend". I then left. It's possible she had no idea or it's possible she was giving me the full story. Until it is fixed, I'll be filling buckets from the rainwater tank outside my house and taking bucket baths.

Special Thanks

Being a Peace Corps volunteer takes a lot of support from family and friends. It would be very difficult for me to be here if I didn't have a very supportive family and an awesome group of friends back in the USA. Thank you so much to all of you for the way you have helped me out when I needed something and for the e-mails and occasional phone calls. It's really great to hear from you and I thank you for it.

And finally, there are a bunch of new photos in the online gallery from our trip up Mt. Talau and our Thanksgiving celebration. Hope you enjoy them.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Yes, we do work in Peace Corps!

I got an e-mail from a friend of mine in West Palm  Beach last week who is a regular reader of my updates.   He said  he sometimes wonders if I'm on vacation here in Tonga.    Then after I posted some photos on Facebook of our sailing trip last week with the new Peace Corps trainees, one of the trainees friends commented  that Peace Corps looked like a big fraternity party.

I can fully understand why both of these people might have a bit of a distorted view of what I (and my fellow volunteers) am doing in Tonga.   I tend to write about the fun things more than the work things because they are   

But just like working in the USA, we all have jobs where we go every day.  In my case, I spend my days at the Tonga Development Bank either doing client visits or working at the bank office.  Most of what I do is to help businesses here in Vava'u improve.  Most of the time I work with them on record keeping and sometimes on business plans.    The details of my work often involves confidential client information which I don't share online..  Right now we are working with a Tongan business owner on a major expansion project.  It will more than triple the size of his business.   Once it is done, I'll certainly write about it because it is an exciting project but not until it is done.

I've also been building a web site for a local motel.  Because I want them to be able to update it easily after I'm gone, I'm using Blogger to build the site.  That way, they can log in and easily edit the pages.    You can see the site, which is still under construction at

The main reason the site is not finished is because we have been without Internet service at the bank for almost a month.  Our router died and we shipped it back to our head office in Nuku'alofa.  I won't bore you with the details of why it takes a month to get a router because truthfully I don't really understand it either.   We get a different story every few days.    Even in a developing country like Tonga, there is frustration with the IT department.

My fellow volunteers also work at their jobs every day.  James teaches at the Vava'u Side School, which is an all English speaking primary school.  The kids start speaking English at the first grade level.

Stan just got a new job.  He's been working at the Vava'u Youth Congress, but that organization is basically broke and has some real organizational issues.  He is still helping them, but now is working with a local college that is owned by the Church of Tonga.    Amy, Shannon and Jessica all teach in Government Primary Schools and Sarah works with a computer lab in her village while Janis works with the Ministry of Education.

Those are the eight volunteers currently working here in Vava'u but Sarah and Jessica will leave next month.   We are getting six new volunteers in Vava'u in December.   Four will be teachers and the other two will be business volunteers.  One will be  will be working with the Wesleyan Church School to develop a catering business while the other will be on an outer island where they want to start a clam farming business.  By January, we will have 12 American volunteers working here in Vava'u.

When you join Peace Corps, you are repeatedly told that you are considered a volunteer 24 hours a day.   We represent the USA every time we interact with the people of Tonga and the impressions they have of our country are shaped by what we do.  Even a simple walk through town can make an impression.   

Our escape from all of this is to get away where no one can see us.   We call it Palangi time..   Palangi is the Tongan word for foreigner.   When we take our Palangi time excursions, it is a time when we can let our guard down a bit and not have to worry about the way we are conducting ourselves.   For just a few hours every so often, we get to act  like Americans.

As volunteers we are given a living allowance of about $US350.00 a month.   My friend who sent the e-mail also wondered how we could all afford these sailing, snorkeling and camping trips that i often write about.      The answer is that we usually go with friends who own the boat and just chip in to help pay the gas or other expenses.   We couldn't even begin to afford to pay the actual price to charter a sailboat.     Other times, like this past weekend with the trainees, we get a special deal because we are in the off season and the boats are not being used.    We had 38 people on that boat which brought the cost way down.  (It holds 40).

Camping and Snorkeling are free.  We just find a spot and go or we take a local boat to the island where we plan to camp.    The local boats are basically water taxis and generally serve a particular island or area.   But just like a taxi, you can also ask them to drop you just about anywhere.   

I've never outspent my monthly living allowance even though I also have to pay for a portion of my utilities out of my allowance, something many of my fellow volunteers do not have to pay.  Yes, you do have to budget yourself, but If you don't have enough money, you just do without .  It's something I've learned from the Tongans. 

Group 74 Training Update

The next group of Peace Corps volunteers here in Tonga have wrapped up the Vava'u portion of their training.  Beginning Monday, the trainees will be attached to a current volunteer for a week.  I'll be hosting a guy named Shawn who will be working in Nuku'alofa after he completes training.  After that, all the trainees will re-convene on the main island for a couple more weeks before they officially become volunteers. 

They are now 22 trainees left. out of the original 24 who came here in mid-October.  Two of their group have already gone home.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hanging with Group 74

I got to spend Saturday hanging out on a boat with the Peace Corps trainees who are scheduled to become volunteers next month.   They have been training here in Vava'u for the past month.

It was a big day for them.  Just before the boat trip, they got their site assignments, meaning they now know where they will live for the next two years.   We've all been wondering who will end up in Vava'u and we got our answer on Saturday as well.

Future Vava'u Peace Corps Volunteers

Here are the newest members of Team Vava'u along with some of the current volunteers.  these are the people with whom I'll be spending the next year of my service.

Steve, Sarah, Saskia, Scott, Stan, Group 74 Trainees coming to Vava'u with current volunteers.  Bronzie, James, Jenny, Katie, Paea,Regina, Chad

The new trainees who will be in Vava'u are Saskia, Scott, Bronzie, Jenny, Katie, Regina and Chad.

We started our day with a visit to Mariners Cave, this is the cave whose entrance is below sea level.  You have to dive down to get inside.   It's the third time I've been inside, but this was the first time I've done it at high tide.   Several of the trainees came inside as well.

After that, we went to Swallow's Cave.  Swallow's is a big cave, large enough for our boat to get inside.  (We were on a 40 person whale watching boat).

Steve and Sarah in Swallows Cave

For Sarah, this will be her last visit to the cave.  She will complete her service in a few weeks.  However, she decided to take a big leap for her last visit.  Climbing up and then jumping into the water below.  While it might look like she's hanging in mid-air, she was on her way down when I snapped the photo.

Sarah jumps in Swallows Cave

The water is plenty deep, probably at least 50 feet so even though she jumped a long way, there was plenty of water to cushion her jump.   It's also a spectacular site because there is a second entrance to the cave at the bottom which illuminates the ocean floor below.

More Election Day Reaction

You may remember my story about how we spent our election day here in Vava'u.   I just found this blog posting from some people who were also there.  I don't know them, but thought their post was interesting.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Watch What We Do in Tonga!

Another busy week here in Vava'u.   I've actually had to start keeping a calendar to remember all of my appointments.   Many have to do with the training of the new Peace Corps volunteers, but I have also been pretty busy at work at the Tonga Development Bank.

Peace Corps Tonga Video

Earlier this year, my friend Scot and I put together a video about life in Peace Corps Tonga.   The Country Director asked us to do it to help explain Tonga to the incoming trainees and also to send to Peace Corps headquarters in Washington.

Despite many issues with cameras, editing, audio, etc, we finally got it done.  Scot was able to get it uploaded.   It's just over 30 minutes long and you can watch it below.

If the player doesn't work, you can download the video directly.

Root Canal

I went to bed Monday night feeling fine.  About an hour after I crawled in, I started having this pounding pain in my jam and mouth.  I could not sleep it hurt so bad.   Tuesday morning, I called my friend Takako, who is a dentist and Japensese volunteer.  After an exam and an x-ray, she told me I needed a root canal.   

I am so thankful that we have Takako here.  I can't imagine what would have happened if I had to rely to the Tongan Health system.   Thankfully, my mouth is much better.  I go back to see her again on Friday to have the canal sealed.

The good news is that the part of the hospital where the dental clinic is located has been cleaned and painted since my last visit when I thought it was a pretty scary place.

Lots of Company

I mentioned in my last post that I've had lots of company in the past few weeks including my friends Trent and Lara, who just wrote about their visit.

James, my next door neighbor has also had lots of visitors.  James joked after everyone left that we were now "Empty Nesters" once again.

However, it won't last long.   In just over a week, we will each be hosting one of the new trainees. They will be attached to us for five days to see what it is like to live as a volunteer.   

Tonga Development Bank Workshop

One of the things I regularly do here in Tonga is help put together workshops to help business owners and potential owners either start or improve their businesses.    Wednesday, we conducted the last workshop of the year here in Vava'u.   We had 36 people show up, our largest crowd to date.  (In addition, we also had 10 Peace Corps trainees watching)

I will be traveling to the Ha'apai group of islands in early December to conduct three additional workshops on outer islands.   

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Election Day in Tonga

For the first time since I was 16 years old, I was not working on Election night. Instead, I spent the afternoon at a local bar and restaurant called Mango watching the results on CNN International with about 40 other Americans.

Mango sits directly over the water and you can see the water beneath through the cracks in the floorboards. It's also one of the very few places here with Satellite television.

We started gathering around 11am on Wednesday morning, which was 5pm Tuesday night on the East Coast of the USA. By the time the first polls closed at 6pm ET, we had a crowd of Peace Corps volunteers, Peace Corps trainees and an assortment of Americans who either live in Vava'u or are here visiting.

It was a pretty partisan crowd. With the exception of a couple of McCain supporters, almost everyone in the bar was supporting Obama.

When the election got called, there were huge cheers and even some tears as the Americans here united behind their new President. Later when John McCain took to the air to give his concession speech there was complete silence. No one moved or said a word as he spoke. Everyone taking in every word he said. It was a much different story when Obama began his speech. Lots of cheering and more tears of joy.

After his speech, probably half the people left at Mangos decided to go for a swim in the Pacific, jumping off the deck and into the crystal blue water. Most of the Tongans looked at us like we were crazy.

Since the election, I've had several questions about the election of Obama from Tongans. I would have to say the people here in Tonga are impressed that the USA has elected a black President.  They don't all understand it exactly…but they know that someone with dark skin has been selected.   Many have the perception that all Americans are white and rich.    Even in our group, we have a couple of African American volunteers and some Tongans think they are from Africa and not America.  

A Mini-Reunion

There have been lots of Tonga Peace Corps volunteers visiting Vava'u in the past few weeks, volunteers who we don't see very often. Two volunteers (Scot and Mikala) were sent here for work, several more (Casa, Lara, Phil) are here to assist with Peace Corps training and a few more (Grant, Trent, Heather) are here for the VAC or Volunteer Advisory Committee meeting. It's been great to catch up with all of them.

Camping at Lotuma

We had planned to camp on Friday night on the island of Lotuma, which was the site of our Peace Corps July 4th celebration. However with the weather forecast predicting a 100% chance of rain, many decided not to go. I still went, along with six others, and we had a great time until the rain started. Unfortunately as I got into my tent, I found out it was leaking and ended up spending the night sleeping in a big puddle of water. We called early Saturday morning for a boat to come get us to take us back to Neiafu. The rain didn't stop until Sunday morning.

Many of us went sailing together last weekend and had planned to take the Peace Corps trainees out on the water this weekend, but that didn't happen because of the weather. Hopefully we will be able to reschedule that trip.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sailing, Snorkeling and Scary Stuff

It's been a busy few days in Tonga but also a lot of fun especially the last weekend.

Halloween in Tonga

The weekend began on Friday night with Halloween.  Halloween is not celebrated in Tonga, at least not in the way we do in the USA.  But that didn't stop the Americans here in Vava'u from dressing up.    

Of course there are no places to buy costumes in Vava'u and so we all had to improvise.  I decided to be "John McCain" while my friends Jason and Jessica dressed up as "Joe the Plumber" and "Sarah Palin".

I put a lot of white powder in my hair and wore a t-shirt with the word "Maverick" on it.

Our costumes weren't all that scary, but it was a lot of fun.  You can see more photos by clicking on the current photo link at the top of the page.   

Sailing and Snorkeling

Saturday we set off for a day of Sailing and Snorkeling aboard Manuoku, a really great sailboat that we have used before.   In addition to the Vava'u volunteers, we were joined by Trent, Lara and Mikala, who are visiting from Tongatapu.   We also had five Japanese volunteers with us.

There wasn't a lot of wind when we started so we had to motor out of the Port of Refugee but eventually, Captain Steve has enough wind to raise the sails.   We headed to Port Maurelle for some snorkeling and sunbathing.


That's me in the photo above diving down to check out some fish.   We're now in summer here and this is really a great time to get on the water in Vava'u.   Most of the tourists are gone and the water is warm.  

Lots of new photos in the online gallery from the sailing trip as well.