Peace Corps Videos

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Underwater Recovery

Last November I went snorkeling in Shallow’s Cave with a group of volunteers who were still in training here in Vava’u.  While we were in the cave, I let a friend borrow my mask and snorkel.    Unfortunately, the snorkel came loose and ended up at the bottom of the cave, some 60-80 feet below.   That was the last I saw of the snorkel but my mask survived.

Since the loss of my snorkel, I’m been using one that was left my a former Peace Corps volunteer.  I don’t like it as much as the one I had, but it works.

Several weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Riki, who owns Riki Tiki Tours, a dive shop here in Vava’u.  I briefly mentioned to him that I had lost my snorkel in Swallow’s Cave.   Monday, I was sitting at Aquarium Cafe when Riki comes walking up with my snorkel in hand.   He had taken some people diving in the cave and found it on the bottom.  

I was amazed…not just that Riki had remembered that I had lost my snorkel, but that he found it four months after I lost it and that it was still there.  It’s in great shape and I look forward to using it again.  Thank you Riki!

A Great Week in ‘Eua

I just got back from spending a great week on the island of ‘Eua.   The bank sent me there to assist with a workshop and to train the staff at the branch.  I also met with some clients during my visit.  But the real fun started Thursday night when my friends Shawn and Peter arrived from Tongatapu.   We started our long weekend together by meeting up with the ‘Eua Peace Corps volunteers at the only place in ‘Eua that sells beer…the Hideaway Resort.

Jason, Bria and Heather at the Hideaway on 'Eua

On Friday, Shawn and I, along with my bank counterpart, Folau,  got to see a lot of the island thanks to a guy from the bank who offered to show us around.  

Steve and Folau at the Natural Land Bridge in 'Eua

One of our first stops was at the edge of a giant cliff.  We drove right up to the edge of the cliff…too close for comfort, before we stopped.


But the real scare came when it was time to leave.   The driver popped the clutch and we lurched forward slightly before going into reverse.  Shawn and I just looked at each other briefly, both with a look of panic when the car went forward.  Thankfully, we had a good driver and we didn’t end up at the bottom of the cliff.

Next stop was the natural land bridge.   It’s a giant bridge carved out by the ocean.

Shawn at the Natural Land Bridge in Eua

We saw a lot of other great sites before we met up with Peter and Jason, who lives on ‘Eua.  From there we headed to the north end of the island for a beautiful hike.

Steve, Jason, Shawn and Peter on their hike around 'Eua

Saturday, the four guys were joined by Ashley, Heather and Jenny for a hike to a place called Smoker’s Cave, which is a giant waterfall.  You can not see the bottom.

Peter, Ashley and Steve admire Smokers Cave Waterfall on 'Eua

We also made it to the two lookouts on the east side of the island.

Hanging out on the overlook on 'Eua

From there we went to a place called Rat’s cave.   This was my second visit to Rat’s cave.  I came a year ago with my friend Craig, who has now completed his service. 

Steve offers to help Shawn enter Rat's Cave

To get inside the cave, you crawl on your belly through a cave to a small opening.  You then have to drop down inside the chamber below.  But because you are at the edge of a cliff, it looks like if you slip, you will go down the side of the cliff.  It can be a bit intimidating, but once you have done it once, it is pretty easy the second time.

Jason oitside Rat's Cave with Steve in the shadows

The guys all camped Saturday night while the women went back to town.   Peter and Jason put hammocks up on the lookout and slept under the stars while Shawn and I stayed in a tent nearby.

Jason strings up a hammock at the overlook on 'Eua

It was a great trip and I highly recommend 'Eua for anyone who really wants to get away.  There are only two places to stay and both are pretty modest, but the scenery and seclusion are well worth it.    From the time we started our hike on Saturday until we returned to the main road on Sunday, we did not see another person.

There are numerous caves, some which have never been explored.  It is the only Tongan island to have parrots and it has species of plants found no where else in Tonga.

I have uploaded lots of photos from our trip and they are worth checking out.  ‘Eua is a beautiful place and I think you will enjoy the photographs.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Changes in Peace Corps Tonga

It has been a sad week in Tonga as four volunteers, all who live on the main island of Tongatapu have ended their service.  Alexis, Cassie, Trent and Lara are all now gone.  With the departure of Enrique last week, this is five volunteers from the mTrentain iLarasland to leave in less than two weeks.

Each has their own reason for leaving, but I am particularly saddened by the loss of Trent and Lara,  a married couple from Hawaii.  I've been good friends with the two of them almost since my first day in Tonga.   I've stayed with them during my visits to Nuku'alofa and they have been here to Vava'u and stayed with me.  Trent and Lara were model volunteers, taking time to not only respect the Tongan culture but to make strong ties with the local people.  Both were dedicated to their jobs and Lara, who worked with GIS, was doing some really great things.

The really sad part is that neither wanted to leave Tonga or the Peace Corps, but circumstances at home required them to return.   I completely agree with and understand their decision, but will miss them a lot.  I was fortunate to be able to briefly say good-bye to them in person on Monday when I was passing through Nuku'alofa, the capital city on the main island where they lived.

More Changes Coming Soon

Right now in Tonga, Peace Corps has two programs for volunteers.  One is education and the other is business.   For the most part, the education volunteers teach English to Tongan children while the business volunteers do a wide range of projects dealing not just with business, but also government agencies and NGO’s. (Non Government Organizations).

As a business volunteer, I might be a bit biased, but I really think there is tremendous potential for volunteers in the business program to have a big impact on Tonga.    There are not a lot of Tongans with business experience. I have yet to walk into a Tongan business, and I've been in a lot of them, where they didn't need help with basic business principals.

In an ideal world, Tonga would continue to have both programs but if given a choice of only having one program, I would pick the business program.

Unfortunately, Peace Corps has decided to eliminate the business program in Tonga.  The current business volunteers will be the last to serve in  a separate business. program  Beginning this fall, Peace Corps will only be sending education volunteers to Tonga. 

The current plan, though not final yet, will have all volunteers working under the Tongan Ministry of Education.   The good part of the plan, is that instead of just teaching English, they will be looking for volunteers to teach Science, Math and Industrial Arts as well.  There will also be five volunteers in each group who will be classified as business, but will work in the schools teaching computer skills or teaching business skills.   They are no plans to attach any volunteers to other ministries or organizations except the Ministry of Education.

The change is happening because of a survey that Peace Corps did to review its current programs.   It will also give Peace Corps one point of contact, the Ministry of Education, to deal with volunteer site selections.

I get that this change will be easier for Peace Corps, but am disappointed to see the business program go away.

Last September, I wrote about the many opportunities that could exist here for business volunteers.   Those opportunities are still here.

The change won’t impact any of the current volunteers as we will be allowed to finish our projects.  

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Swimming with Jellyfish!

I've often thought that the unexpected experiences are often life's best.  The things you never anticipate but which turn into unforgettable adventures.   I never anticipated I would swim with jellyfish this past weekend and even if I had, I probably would have imagined a painful experience involving getting stung by this misunderstood sea creature.

Friday afternoon, we set sail aboard Manuoku, one of our favorite sailboats in Vava'u.  Less than an hour after leaving the harbor, we spotted thousands of jellyfish swimming beside the boat, more than I've ever seen anywhere.  The jellyfish, in all shapes and sizes seemed oblivious to our presence as we passed.  Steve, our captain tell us that these jellyfish don't sting and that some Tongans eat them.

As we near our camping spot, we see another school of jellyfish.   These look a bit different, but Steve assures us that we won't get stung if we jump in the water and swim with them.

That's exactly what we did.   I can't even begin to describe the feeling of plunging off the side off the boat wearing my mask and snorkel and descending in the crystal clear Pacific surrounded in all directions by these translucent creatures.    It almost felt like a science fiction movie.

Not long after being in the water, my hand brushed against one of the jellyfish.  I immediately recoiled, my mind still remembering my last encounter with a jellyfish in the Florida Keys.   That time I got stung, but not this time.   Then another brushed against my leg and this time I still flinched a bit,, but was growing more accustomed to the touch of the "jelly" on my skin.

Before long, I was holding the jellyfish in my hands and playing with them as if I belonged in their underwater realm. 

I took a lot of video while in the water, but none of it comes close to capturing this experience.  Everywhere I looked, I was surrounded.   It's an adventure I won't soon forget.

Camping (kind of) on an uninhabited island

I have a friend whose idea of camping is to pull up in his RV, plug in and camp.   There weren't any RV's on the island we visited this weekend, but the style of camping was a lot closer to that of my friend in the RV than to the style of primitive camping I usually enjoy here in Tonga.

We were NOT roughing it.

The 11 Peace Corps volunteers who live here in Vava'u, two of the Japanese volunteers, an Australian volunteer and a few other folks were all the guests of our friends Ben, Lisa and Jason. 

They own the island and while it is uninhabited, it had more luxuries than some of my fellow volunteers have in their Peace Corps houses.    Our amenities included a gas grill, chairs, tarps and even a generator to power lights at night.   Even when the rain started falling, we stayed dry, under the tarps and didn't need to retreat to our tents.

Our camp site for the night

Their island is really amazing.  It's a beautiful spot not far from the old harbor of Neiafu.  (We left from the new harbor, which is about a three hour boat trip since you have to sail around the main island to get to the other side).

Sailing the South Pacific

After a night of camping, it was time for a day of sailing.   Some of the volunteers decided to stay on the island a while longer, but most of us climbed back aboard Manuoku and spent the rest of the day sailing and snorkeling.   

Saskia, Steve, Shannon and Katie on board Manuoku

While we did see a few jellyfish during our sail, it was nothing like the experience of the day before.  

Random Notes

Fire Follow-up

The area of Neiafu that was destroyed by fire in December is finally being cleaned up.  Last week, a group of Mormons removed most of the debris from the fire area.

Downtown Neiafu after the fire

There is now also a fence along the sidewalk so that someone doesn't accidentally fall off the edge.

Good-bye Enrique

Another member of my training group left the Peace Corps last week.   Enrique is now back in the USA.   Enrique is the first person from our group to leave since last April.  Out of our original group of 33, there are now 28 of us left.   There are 21 volunteers from the group that swore in as volunteers in December and we have three volunteers who extended from earlier groups.  That gives us a volunteer population of 52 throughout the Kingdom.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Did I Dengue or Did I Not?

It’s the rainy summer season in Tonga and that means not only lots of heat and rain, but also lots of mosquitoes.   Recently the Peace Corps advised all of the volunteers to be especially careful because of an increase in the number of cases of Dengue Fever in Tonga.

In case you don’t know, Dengue is a tropical illness that causes a high fever and a rash.  It is transmitted by mosquitoes and is nicknamed “Bone Break Fever” because when you have it, you feel like every bone in your body is breaking.  (See Wikipedia for more information)

I also heard that if you think you have Dengue, you probably don’t.  If you think you are going to die, then you probably have Dengue.  There is no treatment for Dengue, other than to treat the symptoms.  It will usually run its course in a week to 10 days.

A week ago today, I started to feel sick.  At first, I thought I might just be tired from staying out too late on Monday night saying good-bye to Jessica.   I left work early on Tuesday and slept from 1pm until 7am the next morning.  I had no energy and ate only a few things.   By Wednesday, I knew something was wrong.   I had a fever, my joints were killing me and I had no appetite.  I also was constantly thirsty and was drinking lots of water.    I contacted our Peace Corps Medical staff on the main island who advised that I had the early symptoms of Dengue Fever.

By Thursday, my fever was at 100.2 degrees and my joint aches only got worse.   In addition to the fever, I was having chills.  I did not eat at all on Thursday.   Thursday night I spent alternating between taking cold showers to cool down to dressing up in a warm-up suit and burying myself under layers of blankets to stay warm.   On Friday, with the exception of having really sore eye sockets, I felt better and Friday afternoon, I actually got out of bed and sat on the sofa to watch a movie.   I was feeling better and thought the worst was over.   Apparently this is one of the “tricks” of Dengue.  It makes you think you are better, then it kicks you down again.  That’s exactly what happened.

I went to bed Friday night and was shaking so badly that I felt like I was having convulsions.  I was barely able to stand and debated whether I should go to the hospital or not.  However, knowing Tongan medical care, I decided that all they would do is give me some Panadol (Tylenol) and send me home, so I opted not to go.    Probably less than an hour later, I was sweating so badly, I had to go take another cold shower.

By Saturday afternoon, my fever broke and I started to feel better.    On Sunday I started eating again and Sunday afternoon, I walked out the door of my house for the first time in more than four days feeling like my old self.

So did I have Dengue?  I actually don’t think so.   I never got a rash, which is a classic sign of Dengue and the duration of my sickness was a lot shorter than most people experience.   If I did have Dengue, there is a positive sign…it means I can’t get it again, or at least not the same strain. 

I think it is more likely that I caught some other kind of tropical fever.   There is a blood test you can take to see if you have been exposed to dengue, but that seems like a moot point.

And a special thanks to James, who stayed with me and took care of me while I was sick.  It’s great to have good friends like him and my other volunteers who called to check on me.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Wardrobe Malfunction

It should came as no surprise that Tonga is a conservative country.  For the most part, men hang out with men and women with women.   Even in church, you will rarely see a married couple sitting together.  

Friday night, all 11 volunteers here in Vava’u gathered for a meeting.  After the meeting in true Tonga fashion, the “boys” went to Mermaid, a local bar, while the “girls” stayed at the office.   Eventually the women joined us at Mermaid.

On any Friday night, Mermaid is really “the” place to go in Vava’u.   (Even more so now that two of the bars burned down in December.) The place was packed mostly with Tongans.   It’s a good place to people watch and even Tongans who don’t drink will show up and just hang out.

As the night progressed, the dance floor started to get crowded and in typical Tonga tradition, the floor was primarily filled with women dancing with other women.   I was sitting with my back to the dance floor looking out into the harbor when one of my fellow volunteers said “Did you see that?”   I said what and didn’t get an answer.  The next thing I heard was another volunteer saying “I never thought I would see that in Tonga”.   That was enough for me to turn around but all I saw were the people on the dance floor.

Then I heard that while dancing, one of the Tongans, a thin woman around 30, had suffered a wardrobe malfunction in Janet Jackson style.   And like with Janet, there was a question as to whether it was intentional or accidental. 

Now, you are probably wondering why I’m telling this story right?   Well that wasn’t the last we saw of this women.  Not long after the wardrobe malfunction, I was sitting in my chair when this same woman comes over and grabs me and plants a kiss right on my lips.  To say I was shocked was an understatement.  I mean, this is Tonga.  I’ve never seen a Tongan kiss a member of the opposite sex in public and here I was getting kissed by some strange woman I’ve never seen before.  I wish someone had taken a picture, because I would love to have seen the look on my face.

As you might imagine, my fellow volunteers were laughing like crazy.   Well apparently the woman noticed the laughter and my shock, so a few minutes later, she came back and kissed me again.

That was the last I saw of her.   But it just goes to show that even in a place as conservative as Tonga, the unexpected can happen when you least expect it.

Good-bye Jessica

My friend Jessica is on her way to the United States as I write this.  Jessica is the last member of group 72 to leave Vava’u.   She is certainly going to be missed.  Jessica always had such positive energy and was always a pleasure to be around.

We gathered at my house last night to say our good-byes and took our “mandatory” group photo which we take at just about every gathering. (And yes, that is my dog’s butt in the front of the photo).

Jessica's  Going Away Party at Steve's House It was a Mexican themed dinner.   We made tortilla’s and added some meat, rice and fresh guacamole for a great meal.   The avocados are in season now and are delicious. 


Vava’u Fire Update

I mentioned the fire above and thought I would give you a quick update.   Nothing has been cleaned up.  The remains of all the buildings that were destroyed are still there.  The bookstore and the general store have both re-opened in new locations and one of the bars has set up a tent on the waterfront and is selling beer from there.  

The fire was started by three young boys, around age eight.  They are being charged.   They were apparently trying to burn out some wasps and the fire spread.

(If you haven’t seen the photos of the fire, you can see them here).