Peace Corps Videos

Thursday, April 30, 2009

This and That

Here are some brief things that have happened  in Vava’u recently I thought were worth sharing

Murder in Vava’u

Tonga may be the “Friendly Isles” and guns may be illegal, but that doesn’t mean violent crimes don’t happen.  While I was in New Zealand, a 47 year old man was killed here in Vava’u.  According to the local scuttlebutt, a 22 year old man started harassing the victim at a local bar asking him to pay for beers.  A fight started and the 22 year old hit the victim in the head with a car jack.  He is now in jail.  A similar murder happened last year in Vava’u

While it is uncommon to have a murder in Vava’u, it is extremely rare to have a murder on the small outer islands.  Earlier this month, a 22 year old woman was killed on the small island of Uiha, in the Ha’apai island group.  “Uiha, which I visited last December, has about 750 residents.  The suspect, a 30 year old man is now in jail.  

There have been two other murders in the Kingdom this year.  Both of those took place on the main island of Tongatapu, where the majority of the Tongan population lives.

Sailing, Camping and Snorkeling

I joined a group of Australians, Japanese and Americans this weekend for a sailing and camping trip aboard Manuoku.    Our first stop was Swallow’s Cave where we climbed the walls and jumped into the very deep water below.

-Katie prepares to jump in Swallows Cave -

Katie Jumps in Swallows Cave

IMG_2355  IMG_2347

(Clockwise from upper left: Katie prepares to jump, Katie Jumps, Chad gets ready to jump, Saskia gets ready to jump)

After leaving Swallow’s Cave we sailed around before setting up camp at a place called Port Maurelle, which is pronounced MORE-el.   One of the Aussies had a guitar and as we were sitting around the campfire we tried to write a song.  We only got four lines done before we gave up.  

Here we are at Post Maurelle

Watching the Sea Swell

Sipping on our tasty drinks

Sharing our cross cultural links

It’s not exactly a great song, but it was great to get together with people from different cultures and realize how much you have in common. 

Cruise Ship Visitors

A large number of the tourists who come to Tonga each year arrive on cruise ships.   They generally arrive in the morning and depart in the late afternoon.   Both the main island of Tongatapu and the Vava’u islands were I live are regular cruise stops.  On Friday, a ship with 1900 passengers stopped in  Vava’u.   To say that the visitors change the town is an understatement.  Instead of Tongans, everywhere you looked you saw white people carrying cameras.  While I realize the ships help the local economy, I had to wonder how many of these people, if any, would leave here with even a small understanding that Tonga is such a wonderful place.

During the middle of the tourist invasion, II was walking down the street with my friends Chad and Katie when two of the tourists spotted the West Virginia  University shirt I was wearing and wanted to know if we were Americans.  They were surprised to learn that there were Peace Corps volunteers in Tonga and then mentioned that their daughter has served in the Peace Corps and now works for the Peace Corps in Atlanta.

They asked if they could take our picture and repeatedly thanked us for our service. 

Facts About Tonga

I found a web page with some updated information about Tonga.  If you are interested in learning some quick information about where I live, check out this web site.

Here are a few quick facts I picked from the site:

  • Location: 170 islands in the south-western Pacific Ocean
  • Population: 101,991 (189th)
  • Density: 352.9 people per square mile
  • Capital city: Nuku'alofa (population 23,438)
  • Foreign tourist visitors per year: 39,451
  • Adult literacy rate: 99.2% (m 99.1%/f 99.3%)
  • Average number of children per mother: 3.8
  • Average life expectancy (m/f): 73/69 *The number of foreign visitors shown above includes those that arrive on cruise ships.

The Missing Link

For those of you subscribe to this blog via e-mail, the link to the video of me skydiving in New Zealand was omitted from the post about my trip to New Zealand.   You can watch the video by clicking on this link:

A Final Note

I grew up in Lexington, Virginia where our local newspaper was The News Gazette.  Each week, the paper carried a column called “This and That”.  I have no idea if the column still exists, but the column would run stories like “The parents of Joe Smith of Lexington are visiting this week from North Carolina”. or “Mike Jones and his family just returned from a vacation in Virginia Beach.”

As I was writing this post, I somehow remembered that column and decided to do a “This and That” style post this week and hope it is at least a little more interesting that the column I used to read in the paper. 

One other note about the News Gazette, I used to sell that newspaper when I was around 13 or 14.  I would buy the papers for 10 cents and sell them for 15 cents.  My profit was the nickel I made on each paper.   Most people would give me a quarter for the paper, so I actually made 15 cents on most papers.   I sold about 50 papers a week. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Steve and Stan’s New Zealand Adventure

One of the perks of being in Peace Corps is being able to travel to other places near your area of service.   For those of us in Tonga, it is often other South Pacific Islands or Australia and New Zealand.

I’ve just completed an almost three week stay in Kiwi Country with my friend and fellow volunteer Stan.  Early in the trip I remarked to Stan that I never figured I would go on vacation with someone half my age.  He answered by saying he never thought he would go on vacation with someone twice his age.  Touché’ Stan!  He turned out to be a great travel companion.

The trip was a first for both of us.  While I had spent a few hours at the Auckland Airport on my way back from Australia last year, this was the first time I got to see this remarkable country.

North Island New Zealand

Downtown AucklandWe had decided before we left that we would spend most of our time in New Zealand on the South Island.  We spent a night in Auckland, a night in Rotorua and two nights in Wellington before taking a three hour ferry ride to the South Island.

We both thoroughly enjoyed Wellington which is a vibrant city reminiscent of a Greek Island with houses built into the hills along the coast.   The city is active and has a very positive energy.  Waiotapu Geothermal Site

Before arriving in Wellington, we visited Waiotapu, which is a geothermal site on the North Island.

It was fascinating to see boiling hot water bubble from the ground and to see the steam rising from mud pools as we hiked around the area.    There is also a small geyser that is “started” every morning when they dump soap into it.  

The best meal I had during my entire vacation was on the North Fresh Mussels in a cream sauceIsland and happened quite by chance.   We had decided to take the back roads from Auckland to see more of the countryside.   Not far outside of Auckland we stopped at a small market to get some sandwiches.   The market did not make sandwiches but she suggested we try a place just down a small side road called Margaret’s Garden.   I ordered Mussels in a cream sauce with pasta and a nice glass of wine.My food was simply spectacular while Stan judged his good.


South Island New Zealand

Fall colors on the South IslandIt is fall in New Zealand and the further south we traveled, the more brilliant the colors.    Our first stop was Nelson, which is near many of the regions wineries.  We visited on a Monday through Wednesday and there was not much going on in the town. Boat near Abel Tasman Park We did meet up with our Peace Corps friends Scot and Karen who were visiting from Tonga as well. The highlight of our stay there was a hike along the Coast Track at  the Abel Tasman National Park.  The water levels between high tide and low tide are dramatic and a boat that floats at high tide will be completely aground at low tide.

Crayfish outside Kaikoura

Venturing further south, we stopped in Kaikoura where we ate some fresh crayfish from a roadside stand and where we were unable to see any seals at the seal colony south of town.    It snowed in the mountains while we were sleeping and we awoke the next morning to snow capped mountains all around us.


High above ChristchurchWe spend four nights in Christchurch with our friend and former Peace Corps volunteer Justin.  He moved to New Zealand after completing his service and now works there.  We caught a movie there and did some rock climbing.   We also had a fun night on the town with him showing us many of the hot spots.    We went to a place called Boogie Nights, which was an 80’s themed disco complete with lighted dance floor.   I may have been the only person in the place who actually remembered going to places like this in the 80’s.

At Mt. Cook, the views were spectacular on the day we arrived but we left early because the next day it rained…really the only day that the weather didn’t cooperate with us during the trip.

Mt Cook

Steve leaping from 15,000 feetQueenstown is great.  One of the best places we visited on the trip and also where we decided to jump out of a perfectly good airplane from 15,000 feet above the ground below.   It was a spectacular adventure which included a 60 second free fall.


The night before the jump we met probably the most “colorful” character of the trip.   We went into a small place called The Minibar .  Inside were just the bartender and one customer.  The customer looked like a homeless person and was mumbling his words together.   As we proceeded to talk with him, he went to a corner of the bar to get his chainsaw and fishing pole!  What?  That’s right, this guy was in a bar in Queenstown with a chainsaw and a fishing pole.   We later saw him walking down the street carrying his chainsaw and his fishing pole.   We don’t remember his name, but for the rest of the trip we laughed about our Queenstown encounter with “Chainsaw Man” and wondered why we didn’t take a photo.

There are a number of fiords on the South Island, the best known ofDoubtful Sound which is probably Milford Sound.  We skipped Milford and opted to go further south to a lesser know place called Doubtful Sound.    They only get sunshine here one out of every three days and getting to the sound is an adventure all by itself.  We first took a one hour boat ride across a lake.  From there, we took a 45 minute bus ride to the sound and then a three hour boat tour of the fiord.  While we didn’t see much rain, it was still overcast.   We did get to see some seals where the Sound empties into the Tasman sea.

Doubtful Sound got its name from James Cook, the famous explorer who was the first European to visit both New Zealand and Tonga.   While mapping the area he wrote on his charts that the area was a “Doubtful Harbor” and the name stuck.

One of the best places we stayed during our trip was at a small backpackers accommodation in Manapouri which is where you catch the first boat to get to Doubtful Sound.  The place is called Freestone Backpackers.  We shard a cabin with some German tourists.  We all had our own bedrooms but the common area has nice leather couches, a pot belly stove with plenty of firewood and a very nice shared kitchen.  You could look out and see the Lake from the front of our cabin.  

Probably the highlight of the entire trip was our last Saturday in New Zealand.  We debated whether we wanted to stay in Queenstown for a 4th night, go back to Mt. Cook and hope the weather would be better or go visit the glaciers.  The glaciers were a long drive but we eventually decided to head that way.

Franz Josef Glacier is on the West Coast of New Zealand and a long way from anywhere.  As we were driving north toward the glacier, we saw a sign that said “Last Gas for 120KM” and promptly filled up, not wanting to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere.   Stan and Steve at Franz Josepf Glacier

To get close to the glacier, you have to wade across “glacier cold” water but the chill on your feet is worth it.   We walked as far as we could past several great waterfalls until we reached a rope that said only experienced and guided tours should proceed.  We decided to go forward and what an adventure it was.  We used ropes to pull us up steep slopes and we waded through creek beds just to get to the glacier.     But that was nothing compared to the hike back.   We accidently stumbled upon the end of an adventure trail and took it back.  Here we pulled ourselves up on rocks using chains that we anchored into the rocks.  We found ladders for the really steep climbs and lots of scary terrain.   However, it was all worth it.  We got some great views of the glaciers and had a hike that normally you would have to pay to enjoy.    

Recommendations if you are coming to New Zealand

  • Until my trip to New Zealand, I had never stayed at a hostel or backpackers kind of accommodation.   I was surprised to find that you could get a pretty nice private room at these places.  In addition to the Freestone Backpackers mentioned above, another of our favorite places was at the YHA Wellington, where our twin room even had a French press with free ground coffee.   We would also highly recommend Freeman’s Bed and Breakfast in Auckland.  We spent out last night there and left for the airport at 5am so we didn’t get to sample the Breakfast.
  • There are a lot of New Zealand beers.  We tried many different kinds often sampling different beers every night.   My favorites were the Mac’s Brewjolais and the Montiefs Celtic.
  • We had several good meals and would recommend Margaret’s Garden, mentioned above plus Harborside Seafood in Auckland.  There is an Indian Restaurant in Queenstown at the top of the street across from the McCafe that was quite good and also the Mexican Restaurant on the second floor in an alleyway was good.  (I don’t remember the names of either of these.)  
  • We had a good experience with our rental car company, EZi Rentals and would use them again.   We made several changes during our trip and they were very accommodating and all of the staff we met were friendly.  Our first car was a Nissan March and it didn’t have a lot of power on the mountains.  But our other two cars were both Hyundai Getz and we liked both of them.
  • We used the Lonely Planet guidebook for New Zealand extensively.  It was published in September and most of the information was up to date.   We found it much better than the Fodor’s guide which we also had.  

    Places to Avoid in New Zealand

  • Two places to avoid staying if you are heading to New Zealand.  The first is Cactus Jack’s in Rotorua, which is a Western themed hostel.  The room was clean, but very small and the atmosphere was very weird.  We were also disappointed with our stay at the YHA Hostel in Franz Josef   The facility was not very clean and there was no water pressure in the  showers and the hot water ran out quickly.  
  • Our worst meal of the trip was in Queenstown at The Fishbone Grill.  This place is a top pick in the Lonely Planet Guidebook, but we thought it was really bad.  We decided to  give it a try because there was a sign out front that said “Bluff Oysters”.  We had eaten raw Bluff Oysters earlier in the trip so we decided to go there.   When we sat down, the waitress told us they were out of Bluff Oysters.  We suggested they take down the sign out front.  A while later we heard a table near us also asking for the Bluff Oysters.  The sign was still outside.    Stan’s food was tasteless…he has a fish special.  I tried the local Salmon.  It was extremely greasy…so much so that I couldn’t eat it.  We never saw our waitress again after she took our order…some other people delivered the food.  We finally got tired of waiting and went up to the front counter to get our bill.  I would not go back here.

Other Notes from the Trip

  • We both were impressed with New Zealand’s commitment to self sufficiency.  They use geothermal, solar and hydroelectric to generate most of their power.   Everywhere we stayed there were signs asking us to turn off the lights when we left to save power and the heaters were generally on a timer.  
  • Prices were pretty good as the dollar is strong right now.  We never paid more than US$60 dollars a night for a room and we paid just $US13 each to stay at the Freestone Backpackers mentioned above.  The price of a beer in a bar ranged from about $US2.00 to $US4.00.
  • We would often travel for many kilometers with no radio especially in the mountains.  When a station clicked in, no matter the format, we would listen to it.  We didn’t have a FM Modulator for an I-Pod and no CD’s.   While memorable, the worst song we heard, and thankfully we only heard it once,  was a song that sang the same sentences over and over again.  It went :

    We're just ordinary people
    We don't know which way to go
    Because we're ordinary people
    Maybe we should take it slow

  • You can see more photos from the trip, including photos of skydiving at my New Zealand Photo Gallery.  You can also click on any photo on this page to see an enlarged view.

Moon rising in Christchurch

Monday, April 13, 2009

Peace Corps Surprises

When I signed up for the Peace Corps I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I could expect from my experience.   I did lots of research, asked lots of questions and got a lot of good information reading the blogs of current and past volunteers.

But no matter how prepared you think you may be, it is unlikely that your Peace Corps service will be anything like you expect.   For some volunteers, that is a bad thing and they end up going home early, others do the best they can with the unexpected and others find that their experience is very different, but perhaps better than they ever expected.

As I wrap up 18 months in Tonga, I find that I’m in that latter category.   I came here with very few expectations and have found joining Peace Corps to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

When I signed up I was prepared to live on a small island, perhaps with no electricity and certainly didn’t expect to have access to the Internet daily.  I imagined I would be working with just one or probably just a couple of businesses helping them in my role as a business advisor.   When I thought about the friends I would make, I always thought in terms of the host country nationals in the country where I would be serving and never really thought much about getting to know my fellow volunteers.   I figured I would be living in a small village and would know everyone by name and they would probably know me.  I also thought I would be alone most of the time and that I would probably read more books than I ever imagined.   I thought I might read those books by candlelight or a small kerosene lantern. 

My friends had a different idea of what my Peace Corps experience would be like.  One told me of his experience living in a Peace Corps house with armed guards and another friend wanted to know if I would be digging ditches, which is kind of the Peace Corps cliché.   Others joked that I would be living like Tom Hanks in the movie “Castaway” and another thought my work would be like that of a missionary.

In reality, none of my expectations nor the predictions of my friends turned out to be reality.

My “surprises” have for the most part been positive.  I’ve made many friends but it hasn’t just been with the Tongans.  It has been with my fellow volunteers and also with many of the people who live here…the so called “ex-pats”  from the US, New Zealand and Australia that run many of the tourism related businesses.

Instead of working with just one or two businesses, I’ve worked with many businesses through my job at the Tonga Development Bank.   The bank’s goal for me has been to help any business that needs help and that includes businesses that don’t do business with the bank. 

I live in a pretty nice house by Peace Corps standards and I have electricity and running water almost all the time.  Tonga is still a developing country so those services are not always reliable. I have slow, but daily access to the Internet and through that have been able to keep in contact with my friends and family.  Clearly my standard of living is no where close to what I was accustomed to in the USA but I’m doing just fine.

I live in a town.  It’s not large, but it’s certainly not a village.   I know a lot of people and certainly a lot more people know me.   I’m still surprised with strangers come up to me and call me “Steve”.   The nice thing about the town is that it’s big enough that I still meet new people on a regular basis.

I never imagined I would be taking “business trips” in Tonga, but I’ve been to most of the outer islands in Vava’u and have been to the Ha’apai Island group and some of its islands as well.  I’ve made three trips to ‘Eua and am scheduled to do a lot more traveling this year before the end of my service.

But to be fair, not all of the surprises have been pleasant.

I’ve been really sick just once and had a bizarre case of fish poisoning that caused me to temporarily lose 80% use of my left arm and hand.   I have learned which Tongan foods will “give me the runs” and which ones won’t.  I’ve also eaten many things I never thought I would eat and I’ve had cravings for “Real” American food more times than I can count.

I was robbed while staying at the Friendly Islander Motel and I have had to say goodbye to friends who have either completed their service or who left early.

When I look back at the past 18 months I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed.  My good days have far outweighed the bad days and as I write this, there has never been a day when I felt like quitting.

Very soon a new group of Americans will begin getting invitations to come serve their country in Tonga.  These will be the people who will replace my group once we come home in December.  Tonga is not for everyone.   There are times when you will wonder why you are here and even why Peace Corps is here.   Some volunteers have had really unfortunate things happen during their service…things a lot worse than anything that has happened to me.   And some people come here with very unrealistic expectations either about Peace Corps or about what they think they can accomplish.  However, I can’t imagine that for me, I would have been as happy serving anywhere other than Tonga.

I look forward to my remaining months of service but I also look forward to coming home.  I know that while my real home is in the USA,  I know that Tonga will always be a part of me.

Monday, April 06, 2009

A Bad Year for Banking in Tonga

It’s been said that when America sneezes, the rest of the world gets a cold.   That may not be as true today as it was 25 years ago, but the current economic crisis in the United States is having an impact in places as far away as the Kingdom of Tonga.

Logos of Tonga's 3 Commercial Banks There are three commercial banks in Tonga plus one development bank.   Last year, Westpac Bank of Tonga lost six million pa’anga or about 3 million US dollars.    ANZ, another  commercial bank lost about one million US dollars.   The third commercial bank, which is Malaysian based MBF has not reported its year end numbers as of the end of March.  Tonga Development Bank Logo

The Tonga Development Bank, where I work is owned 100% by the government.   It was able to make a small profit of about 450 thousand US dollars last year, but that was down from previous years. (The Tonga Development Bank is one of just three enterprises owned by the Tongan government that turns a profit.   The majority of government owned enterprises in Tonga are in the red.)

Some of the reasons for the bad turn in the Tongan banking industry are the same as in the USA, especially bad loans.  But another problem that is just starting to show up is a reduction in the amount of remittances that Tongans receive from families overseas.

The number one source of income for Tonga is overseas remittances followed by foreign aid.   As Tongans in the US, Australia and New Zealand suffer financial hardships, it is having a trickle down effect on the Tongans here.   That means that many Tongans who were paying back loans with remittances from families overseas are now unable to fulfill their obligations.

The Development Bank recently asked me to help it put on a workshop to address the problems being faced by the banks in Tonga and to help come up with new ways doing business.   For three days, we huddled in a room on the third floor of the bank with all of the banks employees participating.  The goal was to be able to “Manage at a Higher Level”.

The people I work with at the Tonga Development Bank in Vava'uWe even worked on a Saturday.  In the photo above are all of the people I work with on a daily basis except for ‘Ofa and Hangale, who were absent because ‘Ofa’s mother just died.

The bank organized similar workshops at each branch and in each department at the head office in Nuku’alofa.   I give the bank a lot of credit for having the foresight to realize that it can’t continue to operate the way it always has.   And unlike American banks, the Tonga banks have many additional culture barriers to overcome as well.

The workshop was not always easy and it was tough on many of the Tongan staff to learn that more is going to be expected of them in the coming year.

At the end of the workshop, everyone got a Snickers bar.   (OK I know that doesn’t sound very Tongan and actually the Snickers bars were my idea.).  It’s very rare for us to have American chocolate here and I thought it would be a nice treat.  

Fuka presenting me with a Snickers Bar for helping with the workshop

The bank employees were also given a little over US$7.00 for working on a Saturday.    Hopefully some of what we did over the three day workshop will help the bank have a better year next year.