Peace Corps Videos

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Peace Corps Experience is 1/2 Over

It’s hard for me to imagine that I have less than 11 months remaining as a Peace Corps volunteer. When I first got here on October 1, 2007, I didn’t expect the time would go by so quickly. Now 15 months later, I've completed three months of training and just over one year of service.

My group just completed its Mid-Service Training or MST and the next time we all get together will be for our Close of Service conference or COS.

I hadn’t thought a lot about reaching this point until I got an e-mail from a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel who was working on a story about the number of Floridians who were joining the Peace Corps. He asked me if I would share my thoughts about being in Peace Corps and explain why I joined. Here is how I replied to him:

I’ve been here for 15 months now and joining the Peace Corps has been an amazing experience. As to why I joined, the easy answer is that is was something that I had always wanted to do, but kept putting off. But there is actually a bit more to it than that. It’s not easy to walk away from a well-paying 23 year career. I loved TV News for most of my career but I found that I was enjoying it less and less. What I always enjoyed the most was being involved in the stories that really impacted people's lives and really helped them. When all of the thank you notes started showing up in the WPEC newsroom after Hurricane Frances hit South Florida that was really rewarding because I knew we had done something that actually meant something and was appreciated.

I think joining Peace Corps was a personal quest to find something that would help people in a positive way.

It was not a quick decision. It took seven months from the time I first filled out my application to the Peace Corps until I finally got the invitation to serve in Tonga.

I have no regrets at all about joining Peace Corps. Are there frustrating days? Of course, but the good days far outweigh the bad ones. I spend my time working with small business owners either helping them start or improve their business. I have one client who had run up a TOP$20,000 (About $10,000 US) overdraft at a local bank and was on the verge of having to close his business. He has now paid that down, his business is doing much better and he is now expanding by adding a taxi cab service. Not all of the people I work with have that much success but even seeing someone taking a small baby step forward is rewarding.

The Tongans are a wonderful people and very friendly. Getting to know them and their culture has been an amazing experience. It has been a bit of a struggle for me to learn the Tongan language, but most people here speak English so I’m able to communicate easily. I also wear a skirt and short sleeve shirt to work every day. That’s the traditional Tongan business attire. Never did I think I would wear a skirt, much less enjoy it. However it is quite comfortable in the heat. And it’s quite different from the coat and tie I used to wear to work at WPEC every day.

The climate here is similar to South Florida, except our seasons are rBread Fruit on a treeeversed. We are in the middle of summer right now and there is a tropical depression over the Kingdom of Tonga right now. Last night I nailed all of my windows shut while my neighbor climbed the breadfruit tree next to my house so the winds didn’t send breadfruit through my windows. (Breadfruit is about the size of a coconut)

It looks like my comments didn’t make his story headlined “Peace Corps says more Floridians joined in 2008”. However, it gave me a good chance to reflect on the past 15 months (and made it easy to write this blog post.).

The tropical depression I mentioned above was basically a lot of rain and wind. It passed over us Tuesday night and by Wednesday morning was on its way south to the main island of Tongatapu.

Friday, January 23, 2009

This is Tonga

There is a new volunteer here in Tonga named Peter.  He's a retired airline pilot and lives on the main island of Tongatapu.   When something happens that defies logic or that seems strange compared to the USA,  Peter simply explains it by saying "This is Tonga". 

So in honor of Peter, I thought I would share a couple of "This is Tonga" moments that have happened to me during the past week.

My first "This is Tonga" tale is set at a local Indian restaurant.  It's a new place and small.   I went there for dinner with about 12 other volunteers.  We were the only customers.  I think we all ordered curry, most of us asked for fish curry, but there were a few orders of vegetable curry and an order of chicken curry.  

After about 20 minutes, the first two plates came out.   20 minutes later, another plate came out and then about 15 minutes later two more plates came out.  We realized that we were getting our dinners in the order that they were placed.   And it was pretty obvious that each plate was being cooked one at a time.  Now, since there were probably 7 or 8 orders just for fish curry you would think they would cook all of those together, but that didn't happen.   Just under three hours after we entered the restaurant, the last two volunteers go their food.    And we were still the only customers.  Why did each plate of food gets cooked individually instead of together?   "This is Tonga".

The second "This is Tonga" story is from the same night.   The restaurant doesn't serve beer and after several  of us had finished our dinners and everyone else was still waiting, we went out to a corner store to buy a few beers.   It was raining really hard and the store is about a block away from the restaurant.   As we were walking back, we stopped under a small roof that was outside another restaurant and we started drinking our beers.   Yes, we were standing on the street with open containers in the middle of town drinking beer.   Not only that, we were loitering outside another restaurant that we weren't patronizing.  In the USA, several things would have happened.  The cops might have been called or the restaurant owners might have chased us away.   Neither of those things happened.  Instead, the women in the restaurant, grabbed chairs from inside and brought them outside to us so we had a place to sit.   "This is Tonga".

Peace Corps requires that each volunteer have a physical at the mid-point of their service.  I arrived at the clinic and waited about 90 minutes before the nurse called me.   As I'm waiting in the exam room, I hear the doctor saying he wants to re-test the last two patients who had their blood sugar checked because he thinks the machine is bad and giving inaccurate readings.   Not long after that, the nurse comes into the room where I am waiting and takes my blood pressure using what looks like a home blood pressure machine.   The machine says my blood pressure is extremely high.   I've never had high blood pressure in my life so I asked the nurse if she could either re-check it again using a different machine or do it manually.   She takes it manually and guess what, she proclaims that my blood pressure is finel.  So clearly this clinic was using machines that need to either be repaired or replaced.   A couple of days later, some other volunteers went  to to the same clinic and also had  blood pressure tests.   The clinic was still using the same machine that had given me the bad reading.  Yes, "this is Tonga".

Biking to the Beach

Even though I lived on the main island of Tongatapu for several months, I never got a chance to explore it by bicycle.   On Sunday, I joined my friends, Peter, Shawn and Alicia on a ride to a remote beach located not far from the house where the King lives. (He doesn't live in the Palace).

Alicia and Shawn with a Tongan girlIt was a really easy ride because unlike Vava'u, where I live, Tongatapu is very flat.   Once we got off the main road, we made our way through bush land, under some beautiful canopy trees, past horses and cows and down a dirt road to the ocean.

I had expected to find an empty beach since technically swimming (and probably bicycling ) are illegal on Sunday.  Instead there were about 40 Tongans of all ages hanging out on the beach and in the water enjoying the big waves.   Some were Tongans from New Zealand but others were locals who live here all the time.    The four of us were the only palangi (white people) at the beach   There are additional photos of our beach trip in the online photo gallery.

Do you know these people?

When I arrived back in Tonga from the USA last week, I opened my checked bags and inside I found a digital camera that DID NOT belong to me.  I assume that in either West Palm Beach or in Los Angeles my bags were searched and the camera came from someone else's bag that was also being searched.   Of course, I looked at all of the photos and there was nothing that would identify who the people are or where they are from.  So I thought I would post two of the pictures here.  If you know these people, let me know and I'll try to figure out a way to get their pictures to them.

IMG_0298

IMG_0342

Getting someone else's camera in my locked luggage?.  Perhaps I should say "This is America".

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Tale of Two Flights

Just over 15 months ago, I was sitting in the Los Angeles Airport waiting to board my first flight to the Kingdom of Tonga.  Today, I'm in the same terminal getting ready to get on the same Air New Zealand flight after spending almost a month in the USA.

Sitting here brings back lots of memories of that first trip and the excitement that I and my fellow volunteers all felt as we started our Tonga Peace Corps adventures.   That night, as we sat and waited to board our flight we all wondered what Tonga would be like, what would we learn, where would we be living and how long would it be before we talked again with our families and friends.

Tonight I know the answers to those questions but I'm still excited.   I'm looking forward to seeing my friends and getting back to Vava'u.   I've missed being there.

That doesn't mean I haven't enjoyed my trip to the USA.   In fact, it's been a great trip and it was a lot of fun to catch up with my families and friends.   I didn't experience the huge culture shock I was expecting.  I think part of that is because I went to Australia in September so it hadn't been that long since I was out of Tonga.    A couple of things did hit me.  

I first flew to Virginia and when I arrived it was below freezing.  That's the coldest weather I've felt in two years.   At my sister's house, I walked into her kitchen and saw an open bag of chips on the counter.  My first thought was that I should close that immediately so the ants don't get in the bag.  Then I remembered, I was in Virginia, in the middle of winter and I didn't have to worry about the ants.  In Vava'u, you never leave food out because the ants will be all over it.

Arriving at my home in West Palm Beach was also a bit strange.  I was vacationing in my own home.   The house was just as I left it ,but it still seemed a bit foreign after being gone for 15 months and much different than my house in Vava'u.   One night I met some friends at  the Gansevoort, a South Florida club.  I went to the bar and ordered two drinks...just two regular vodka drinks.  The price was $30.00!   Talk about culture shock.  $15 dollars per drink and that didn't count the tip!    I can live in Vava'u for a week on what those drinks cost.   Today on the plane, there was a write up about the Gansevort in the in-flight magazine.  It failed to mention the price of the drinks.

My stay in Florida ended up being a week longer than expected.   I had to have a root canal done and after consulting with the Peace Corps Medical office, they agreed I should stay and have it done in the USA.   I was happy with that and got to enjoy an extra week of "sick leave" in South Florida during the best time of the year to be there.

As you might expect, I got a lot of questions from my family and friends about my Peace Corps experience.   The most common questions were "What are you going to do when you get done with Peace Corps?" and "Are you going to extend your stay in Tonga?" Others wanted to know details of the Tongan culture and more about my work and personal life in Tonga.   It was great to answer the questions and more than a few people told me that given the economy in the USA, I picked a great time to be in Peace Corps.

I couldn't agree more and as I get ready to get on my flight I know I'm ready to go back.   And unlike that first flight, I now know what to expect, I know where I'm living and I know I'm going to have an awesome second year.

My second year will begin, like my first year with training on the main island.  Because my group is at the mid-point of our service, we will all be gathering in the main city of Nuku'alofa for our MST or mid service training conference.   That means I'll be staying in Nuku'alofa until the end of next week before I finally get to fly "Home to Vava'u!".