Peace Corps Videos

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Future of Tonga

When I first arrived in Vava’u in October, 2007, I met an American tourist who had also just arrived.  He was surprised to find out that there are Peace Corps volunteers serving in Tonga.  As he put it, “This place is pretty first world”.

At the time, I didn’t think much about it, but over the past two years, I’ve thought a lot about his comment and also about whether Peace Corps should still be in Tonga after more than 40 years.

At first glance, Tonga has many of the qualities you would expect to find in a first world country.   Most of the country has electricity, running water, cell phones, television and Internet.  There is no hunger or homelessness in Tonga and the literacy rate is almost 100%, much higher than the USA and other developed countries.   Many Tongans are bi-lingual speaking Tongan and English and on average, Tongan men have a life expectancy of 73 years old and woman can expect to live until they are 69 years old.

Those statistics don’t seem like a place where you would expect to find the Peace Corps which only works in developing countries.   But as is often the case, there is a different story once you look a little closer.

The economy here is completely supported by foreign aid and by remittances from Tongans living abroad.  Almost everything is imported except for the crops that are grown to provide food for the families here.   There are very few exports and those items that are exported, like kava and Tongan handicrafts are often sold to other Tongans living overseas.

I believe there are products which could be sold overseas and which could help Tonga reduce its reliance on handouts.   However, two very big things have to happen before that can happen. 

First, Tongans have to decide that they want that financial independence.   The people here are so used to being able to ask for things and have it given to them that there is little incentive for them to have to work really hard.   Currently the flow of remittances from overseas has slowed due to the economic problems in the USA and to a lesser extent, Australia and New Zealand.  This means that some Tongans are not getting the support from overseas to which they have become accustomed.   If that trend were to continue, would that be enough to convince Tongans to try and live more independently?

The second major thing that has to happen before Tongans can export products is a major improvement in the country’s infrastructure.   During the pineapple season this year, many farmers who wanted to sell their crops outside of Vava’u, were unable to do so because the two boats that run weekly between the islands were not operating.  For more than a month, there was no boat limiting the ability of anyone to send anything out of here and also causing many items to disappear from store shelves.    There are planes, but that is expensive and the shipping costs can increase the price to a level where it is no longer competitive.

And there are issues with planes.   In March, Air New Zealand cancelled several flights to Tonga causing a back-up of fish that was scheduled for export.  Finally the airline got its flights back late on a Saturday, but because everything in Tonga is closed on Sunday, they couldn’t land at the airport until Monday.   The fish was no longer fresh by then.  And the prices for Inter-island flights are very high.  It is cheaper to fly from Tongatapu to New Zealand than it is to fly from Tongatapu to Vava’u.

It’s not just the transportation infrastructure that has challenges.  At different time in the past week, I have been without water, without electricity, without cell phone service and without Internet service.   I don’t know the reason for any of the outages except that they happen pretty often.

I believe that until Tonga can come up with a way to fix its infrastructure and especially the transportation infrastructure, it will be very difficult for it to reduce its reliance on outside money.

There are certainly other challenges besides infrastructure here.   Right now, there is no foreign investment in the country because of strict laws concerning land ownership and ownership of businesses.   I am not sure those laws are bad.  They keep foreigners from taking advantage of the Tongans and those laws are probably why the wonderful Tongan culture is so well preserved after so many years.   

Unfortunately, I think you will see that change.   If foreign investors were allowed to come to Tonga today, even in a limited capacity, I believe the good-natured Tongans will lose out.  It has become such a part of the Tongan culture to accept “free money” that I fear the Tongans would take the “quick cash” instead of thinking about the long term consequences of giving up their land and their businesses.

This is why I think it is important for Peace Corps to stay in Tonga.   With the right volunteers, we can help educate the Tongans about business and try to teach them to think longer term.   Hopefully we can convince Tongan entrepreneurs to cultivate crops and products that can be exported and encourage them to lobby the government to provide a reliable infrastructure to insure their success.

However, the change won’t happen quickly.  Peace Corps has decided to focus its efforts on educating the next generation of Tongans about business instead of working with the current business owners.   Beginning this fall, Peace Corps is eliminating the business advising program where I work and replacing it with a business education program for students at the secondary and tertiary levels.  There is no curriculum yet for this new program and it will be up to the volunteers who arrive here later this year to help develop it.   Let’s hope that the process of developing and implementing this curriculum doesn’t take too long because I do think there are some significant changes coming to Tonga soon.  

Probably the most significant will be allowing Tongans to have more say in their laws.   The current King, George Tupou V has signed away some of his powers and beginning next year, there should be more representation of average Tongans in Parliament.   (You can read more about this on the Prime Minister’s website).

While there are still many questions to be answered about how much influence Tongans will have into their government, there is little doubt that there will be changes.  And hopefully part of those changes will be programs to focus on business and make Tonga more independent of foreign money.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

This All Happened in One Amazing Day!

The Winter Season has arrived in Vava’u.   This is the time of year when tourists start to visit, the harbor fills up with yachts and all the businesses that were closed during the off-season are reopened.

For those of us who are volunteers, it gives us a chance to enjoy some of the things that the tourists do when they come for a visit.   That was certainly the case on Friday when I got to spend a pretty amazing day.

The timing couldn’t have been better.  I had a long but busy week at work and Friday turned out to be the perfect ending to the week.

The Shark Encounter

For the first time since getting my dive certification, I headed out to a couple of the really cool dive spots in Vava’u.    The conditions were perfect…even at more than sixty feet below the surface, the water was crystal clear.

We dived at two places…one called Split Rock and the other called Fingers.   Split Rock is exactly what it sounds like…a huge rock that fell to the ocean floor and split allowing you to dive around and through it.    The rock sits on a beautiful colorful coral reef with many species of fish swimming around.

Diving between Split Rock

There is also a cave near here…it’s actually more of a large cavern but it is pitch black inside unless you use a light.

Inside we had hoped to see a couple of reef sharks which are known to hang out in the cave and that is exactly what we saw.

White Tip Sharks

It was my first encounter with sharks in the water and it was really amazing to see these Whitetip reef sharks swimming just a few feet in front of us.  Since I’m not that experienced at diving I would never have entered the cave on my own, but my friend Lori was with us for the dive.  She works for PADI, the organization that does scuba certification and she is an instructor of PADI instructors..  That’s the highest level of diving certification that you can achieve.  Having her along was great and really made me relax.  I figured if I got into any trouble there couldn’t be a better person to have with me.  

We dove to almost 70 feet below the surface.   We took this photo at about 45 feet down.   From left to right are me, Emma, Amanda, Lori, Jason and James.   Al, who owns Dolphin Pacific Diving took the photo for us.

 

Posing on the Ocean FloorThe second dive spot, Fingers, is named because of the five small tunnels or crevices that you swim though to get around, similar to human fingers.    As you are diving through, you realize that you can’t go straight up and surface even if you wanted to do that.  Some of the openings are pretty tight and you have to remember that you are a lot wider than normal because of the air tank on your back.

Without a doubt it was the best day I’ve had diving and I can’t wait to get back out again.  Be sure to check out all the diving photos in the online gallery.  (And if you are coming to Vava’u, be sure to look up Al and the staff at Dolphin Pacific Diving).

Watching the NBA and a Yacht Race (Kind of)

Every Friday during the winter season, there is a yacht race when both local boat owners and those who are visiting race their boats around the harbor.   This past Friday was the second race of the season.   After getting back from diving, I joined my friends Chad and Katie at Mango Cafe, which is right on the water.  It’s one of the few places with Satellite TV and we planned to watch the end of the NBA Finals Game 4 and also the yacht race.

While we got to do both, the real entertainment came from the staff at Mango.   They were all rehearing some traditional dances that they will be performing for the tourists later this season.  We were the only people in the place so it was like having our own private dance show.

Dancers at Mango Cafe We did try to pay attention to the race and the game but ended up paying the most attention to the dancers.

Volunteer Night

There are 14 volunteers in Vava’u from three different countries…10 Peace Corps volunteers, 3 Japanese Volunteers and 1 Australian Volunteer.  We all know each other and hang out when we can but it’s rare when we all get together.   Friday night, the Aquarium Cafe invited all of us to  a special “Volunteer Night”.  

IMG_2578 The Aquarium Cafe has expanded and is under new ownership.  The new owners invited us to help train their new staff.   We got a big discount on food and drinks and the Tongans got some experience which hopefully will help them do a better job during the season..

Chad, Tomoko and Saskia

We stayed until they closed.    As volunteers we have to watch our expenses pretty closely so it was great to have a night where we could all get together at a restaurant and not have to worry as much about the bill at the end of the night.

Rica, Janis and Reyu It was a pretty amazing day!   And just in case you are wondering…I also did a lot of work last week including a workshop for 26 Tongan business owners.

Correction

I made a mistake in my last post on the number of volunteers from my group who have left Peace Corps since we arrived in October 2007.   We have had 12 volunteers leave not the 11 that I mentioned.  Eight married people have left and four single people.   Sorry for the mistake.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Six Months Remaining in Tonga

Exactly six months from today I will officially finish my Peace Corps service in Tonga. For my group,Tonga Group 73, it means the end of our time together as volunteers. We became volunteers on December 12, 2007 after completing 2 1/2 months of training. Our official end date is December 12, 2009. However, many of us may actually start leaving in November. According to the Peace Corps rules, any volunteer can leave 30 days early with the permission of the Country Director. That permission is almost always given and especially in the case of our group since we close out our service so close to the holidays.

My group started with 33 people. As of today, we have lost exactly 1/3 of the volunteers who started with me through either early terminations (ET in Peace Corps speak) or medical separations. This week two more of my friends, a married couple decided to leave. They were one of five married couples in my group and they are the 4th to leave early. In raw numbers, 8 married people and 3 single people have left early for a total of 11 departures.

Three months from now, in mid September, the remaining volunteers in my group will get together for the last time at what is called our “COS” or Close of Service Conference. While we will certainly still see the people who live in our island groups, it will be the last time we see some of our fellow volunteers. It will be held on the main island of Tongatapu.

I’m looking forward to my last six months here. The time has really gone by quickly and I’m happy that I am still happy being here. It’s been a great experience and I expect the last six months will be as well..

The 3rd Annual Lu Cook-off

One of the most traditional foods in Tonga is called Lu. The leaves of taro plants are filled with meat, coconut cream and onions then roasted in an outdoor oven. I eat Lu almost every Sunday and the types of meat range from canned beef to chicken to sipi, which is also known as mutton chops.

For the past three years, the volunteers in Vava’u have hosted a Lu Cook-off to see who can make the best and most creative Lu. This year the event was held at my house and I won….but not without a bit of controversy.

The rules for the cook-off state that you must use either coconut cream or onions or both in your Lu. I decided to make a dish called “Apple Lu-icious” as in delicious. I planned to take apples, cinnamon, sugar, butter and coconut cream and wrap them in taro leaves. The key word here is planned. I asked my landlord if he would husk a coconut for me and make the coconut cream. He said he would.

Friday afternoon as we were getting ready for our feast, I saw my landlord get in his car and leave never to return that night. He forgot to make the coconut cream so instead of following the rules, I left it out. The judge (a local restaurant owner) decided I still had the best tasting Lu and I got the trophy.

It was a pretty fun night. We drank wine and pigged out on each other’s creations. We had Thai Lu, Stuffed Pepper Lu, Lu Dolmades and Lemon Custard Lu.

They were all delicious and here are a few photos of us hanging out at my house while the Lu was cooking.

Emma waits for the verdict Steve and Chad drinking wine Katie, Shannon, Amy, Saskia and Emma hanging out Chad shows Katie the trophy they want to win Saskia is all smiles after being told her Lu smells great Shannon wants to appeal the decision

In case you are wondering why there are no pictures of the Lu…no one took any. We were all too hungry and forgot about it until it was all gone.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Lots of Work to Do!

A big part of my job at the Tonga Development Bank has been assisting with workshops for Tongans who either want to start or expand their business.   We average about 25 people per workshop and we conduct the workshops in all parts of Tonga.   To date, I’ve been at 14 workshops.

This year, I  designed a completely new curriculum for the workshops including new PowerPoint presentations and training exercises.   I did the work in English and then a bank employee at our head office in Nuku'alofa translated  everything into Tongan.

We conducted our first workshop using all the new materials in the village of Tefisi.   Oholei talks to workshop participants We got a wonderful response.  Of the 23 people who attended, 22 of them requested that we come back for a follow up visit at their business.  That will take a lot of time for me to accomplish but it is the best response we've ever gotten at a workshop.

I've also proposed putting together a video that can be shown at workshops after I complete my service.  I am waiting on approval from the head office before I start on that project.

I am very happy to have so many new people to go visit.  My work load at the bank has been very slow since I returned from New Zealand so it is great to be busy again.  We have another workshop next Wednesday.

Radio Days

I made a brief return to US radio last weekend.  My former station, WVAQ had a “Class Reunion Weekend” bringing back on-air staffers from previous years.   I was able to listen to part of the weekend as it was streamed live online.   I was interviewed on the morning show about what I’ve been doing since i left the station in 1984 and they had a lot of questions about Peace Corps and my experiences in Tonga.  My first full time job was doing news for WVAQ and its sister station WAJR.  I had lost touch with everyone I worked with in those days but thanks to Facebook and the reunion weekend I've gotten to reconnect with many of my former colleagues.

Tongan Scholarships

I accompanied my boss Fuka last week to the local Wesleyan (Methodist) school where he presented scholarships from the Tonga Development Bank to three Tongan boys.

Fuka addresses the students

The money will be used to pay for their school frees.   The bank gives out scholarships every year all over Tonga as part of its effort to help the country.  

If you look closely at the photo above, you will notice that the students are all sitting on the floor and you will only see girls in the photo.  That’s because the girls sit on one side of the hall and the boys sit on the other.   (And if you look at the first photo in this post, the one from the workshop, you will notice that even as adults the Tongan men and women don’t sit together).

Chad isn’t so “Rad” after all!

I have no real reason to post this next photo, other than to make fun of my friend Chad who is wearing a Mickey Mouse  fanny pack.

Chad wearing a fanny pack

In the interest of full disclosure….the fanny pack actually belongs to me. A few weeks ago, Chad made some comment about he wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one…so when he tried it on at my house one day, I couldn’t help but take a photo.  Sorry Chad!!