Peace Corps Videos

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 well...fun.   

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 http://www.twinview.to.

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.

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