Peace Corps Videos

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Spending the Night at the Police Station

I woke up last Tuesday morning in a Tonga Police station.   In fact, I ended up spending 15 hours with the Police at the Police Station and it was NOT my decision to be there.   There were no handcuffs, no Miranda rights (those don’t exist here) and no free phone call to an attorney or even the Peace Corps.

It all worked out fine but the story of how I got there and why will take a little explaining.

Last Monday, I began a visit to many of the outer island villages here in Vava’u.  I was joined on the trip by two Tongans, a loan officer and a boat driver.   These two make the trip every month to see clients on the outer islands, but I came along because we were planning a workshop on Hunga, which is one of the outer islands.

We left the old harbor of Neiafu and soon arrived at Olo’ua..   This village is pretty close to the main island but is a world apart.   As we made our way from the dock up to the village, there were no sounds, no people, not even the chirps of any birds.

The dock at Olo'ua We found our client and then headed back to the boat and on to Taunga.  This was my second trip to this village and it is a really pretty spot with a beautiful sandy beach and friendly villagers.

Our next stop was Ovaka.   This island is one of the furthest from the main island and it is also home to my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Scott.  We found him helping the woman of the village.

Scott and Oholei with the woman of Ovaka In Ovaka, we started inviting people to the workshop we had planned for two days later.   Since this was my first visit to Ovaka, I went to check out Scott’s house.

Scott's house in Ovaka By outer island standards, Scott has a pretty big house.  It’s two bedrooms and a large open living area.  There is no electricity or running water and the only furniture is a single twin bed.  Not even any chairs.   I didn’t know it at the time, but a comment I made here was the first step in my eventual stay with the Tongan Police.

From Ovaka, we got back in the boat and went to Hunga.  There is a huge Lagoon in the middle of Hunga that connects to the outer ocean in just two places.  The entrance closest to Ovaka can only be used at high tide.  It was low tide, so we ventured out into open ocean and around to the other side.

The first thing you notice when you arrive in Hunga is the new road.  New Zealand Aid has paid for a road to be built from the water up the hill to the village. 

The new road in Hunga

This might seem like a pretty good deal until you discover that there is just one tractor and one truck in all of Hunga.   That’s it!  Two motorized vehicles.

While making our client visits and handing out more invitations to our workshop, I saw something I’ve not seen before. 

Octupus drying in Hunga That is an octopus hanging on a pole to dry.   They do this to preserve it.  

By the time we were finished in Hunga, it was late in the afternoon and we had completed our work for the day.  At this point, Oholei, the loan officer with whom I traveling suggested we make a stop at the near-by Blue Lagoon Resort.

A number of years ago, the bank helped the owner build this resort and he seemed glad to see us, buying us both a beer and telling me to look around.  It’s a nice place. It’s powered by windmills and solar power and looks like a perfect place to spend a relaxing vacation or even a honeymoon.

So what does all this have to do with my overnight stay with Tongan Police?

When we first left the main island, both the driver and Oholei had asked me if I was planning to spend the night in the islands.  I said sure and told them I was prepared with a sleeping bag and other gear.  I told them I could sleep anywhere.  

Since I’ve been in Tonga I’ve slept on floors, in a kava hall, on sofas and I’ve camped plenty of times.   I assured both of them I could stay wherever they were staying. 

Now remember I mentioned the comment I made at Scott’s house?  I pointed out he only had one bed.   Oholei apparently took this to mean that it was not acceptable for me to stay with Scott.   There is only one other Peace Corps in the islands, and that is Amy and because she is a single woman, it would not be culturally appropriate for me to stay with her.  They were worried that I might not have an acceptable place to stay.

Finally, the two Tongans tell me that we are going to stay in Falevai.  Falevai is the only outer island village with both a medical center and a police station.  

Falevai Police Station We get there as the sun is setting and they go inside and quickly arrange for me to spend the night at the police station.  When I ask why I’m staying at the police station I’m told that it’s the only place they knew of that had a bed.   I told them again that I would be fine sleeping anywhere, but there was no arguing with them and so for the first time in my life, I spent the night at a police station with the one police officer who works in the outer islands.

My room was a small room with a single bed but it was not behind bars.  I was just a few steps away from the jail so I can say I slept AT the jail, but I did not spend the night IN jail.  There is a big difference.

Falevai Jail 

A Cool Camping Spot

The Friday before my night AT the jail, I went camping for the first time in almost two months. I joined five of my fellow volunteers for an overnight camping trip and beach bonfire.

One of the great things about Vava’u is that you can find a beautiful beach and have it all to yourself.   

Hanging out on the beach near Holonga, Vava'uThis beach is a bit of a hike, but well worth it.  It’s below the village of Holonga and its rare to see anyone there.   I camped last year at Utula'aina point which is just above this beach, but this was the first time I had camped on this beach.

Peace Corps Tonga Group 75

The Peace Corps office in Tonga is expecting 27 future volunteers to in a few months.  That’s a slight increase over the 24 who started with Group 74 and down from the 33 who started with my group, Group 73.   Of the 27 new trainees who are coming in October, the staff is expecting 1 teacher trainer volunteer, 6 primary school volunteers, 10 secondary and tertiary institute volunteers and 1 Community Development volunteer. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Whale of a Day

This morning, I was calling on bank clients in the small outer island village of Matamaka.   I was with Oholei, one of the loan officers at the Tonga Development Bank where I work.  We had arrived by boat and he and I were making our way through the village while the boat’s driver, Ha’ukau stayed with the boat.

We had been in the village for less than 15 minutes when I see Ha’ukau walking quickly toward us.   This is pretty unusual as he always stays with the boat when we are visiting clients.

As he gets closer, he yells:

“Ha’u Steve!  ha’u vave”.  That means “Steve come here quickly”.   He motioned me to follow him to the beach and when we got there he said in English just one word:  “Whales”

I kept looking but couldn’t see them but we headed back toward the boat while Oholei finished up with our client.   We waited at the dock my eyes peeled for any sign of a whale.  Finally, way off in the distance, I saw a little black hump appear.  If I hadn’t been looking, I would have missed it.

That was the last we saw of the whales until Oholei made his way back to the boat.   We got in the boat and started heading to our next stop when we saw not one, not two, but three whales dead ahead.

Whale in Vava'u, Tonga We moved closer than turned off the boat’s motor and waited.   A few minutes later we see a giant whale swim directly under our boat.  If it had surfaced it would have capsized the boat, but clearly the whale was just as curious about us as we were about it.

Whale in Vava'u, Tonga We didn’t want to disturb the whales so Ha’ukau started the engine and put the boat in reserve.  Almost immediately, a large whale breeched directly in front of the boat.  All you could see ahead was black…no water, no shoreline, just the side of whale. It was THAT big.   If the boat had been going forward, we would have hit it, it was that close.

Whale in Vava'u, Tonga We stayed in the area for a while longer and the whales continued to play.  We think it may have been a mother, father and baby as two of the whales were very large and the third looked smaller.

IMG_2885 I’ve seen whales before but never this close.  There are about a dozen companies in Vava’u that offer whale-watching trips or swimming with the whales experience, but we were the only ones around to share this experience and we didn’t pay for it.

Whale in Vava'u, Tonga The whales soon swam away and we continued on to another village and more visits with clients but it was our visit with the whales that the three of us will remember most.



I did take some video as well, but it didn’t really come out that great.   I was standing on a boat that was rocking and kept trying to find the waves in the water.  But here is a short clip anyway.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Great Vava’u Clean-up

When you walk around Vava’u today, the island is immaculate.  It hasn’t been this clean since the King’s Coronation last August.  There is no litter in site, all the yards are mowed, junk has been taken out of the yards and the sidewalks in the main town of Neiafu are spotless.

My landlord and his family have been spending hours every day working in the yard, planting flowers and scrubs, weeding and even putting Tongan flags on ribbons across the front of my home.

Steve's Peace Corps HouseAs this photo of my house shows, both the house and the yard look great and I had nothing to do with it. 

Last week was National Environmental Awareness Week and all across Tonga, students were encouraged to learn about the environment, pollution and renewable energy.  Here in Vava’u, the Tonga Development Bank, where I work, awarded a TOP $250.00 prize to the winner of a contest among all the high schools .   Each team had to answer questions and the team that got the most correct answers got the check.

Enviroment Awareness Week Vava’u High School won the competition and walked away with the money.

So it might be a natural conclusion to assume that the reason the island looks so great is because of National Environment Awareness Week.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.

The Tongan Princess, the sister of the King, is visiting Vava’u this week and the reason that everything  is spotless has everything to do with her visit and little to do with Environment Week..   She is visiting both outer villages and the main city.  In the case of my neighborhood, I live just a block from the Vava’u Royal Palace so my Tongan neighbors want to make sure everything is clean as she comes and goes during her stay.

It would be nice if the island could stay this clean and I’m sure the focus on the environment in the schools last week will help, but unfortunately there are no easy solutions.   In my opinion, the biggest problem is that nothing that is imported to Vava’u ever leaves here.  All of the cans, bottles, cars, oil, tires, etc that are brought here in the name of progress stay here forever.  All this stuff is either burned or put in junk piles.   Until there is a viable recycling program and until there is island-wide garbage collection and garbage bins, the problem will remain.

Leave me a Voice Mail

I’ve been playing around with a new service called Google Voice.   With this service it is now possible for me to send and receive free text messages to and from the USA.   I can also receive voice mail in Tonga that you leave for me on my Florida phone number.

If you want to send me a voice greeting, and it’s always great to hear a friendly voice, just click on the icon below and  enter your phone number.   Your phone will ring and you’ll be connected to my voice mail which I will get in Tonga.  There is no charge for you to do this as long as you live in the USA.

Unfortunately, it still costs money to place a live International phone call to Tonga but it’s nice for me to be able to able to listen to any messages you want to leave.

And my Vava’u mobile phone number is also changing.  All the phones are being converted from five digit numbers to seven digit numbers.   That means my number is now 676-75-12566.  You can still dial it without the 75 but am not sure when that will stop.

Peter’s Photo

Here’s a photo of my landlord’s grandson Peter.   He is a great kid and has really warmed up to me.  When I first moved here, I think he was a little intimidated by me.  Now, he comes over and jokes around.

Pita TupouWhen I took the photo of the house that is pictured above, Peter spotted me and immediately ran over and posed for this photo.   It’s also interesting to see how much he has grown in the past 15 months since I last posted a photo of him.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

They Call This Cheating in the USA!

Monday night, just after 10pm, I’m laying in bed. The doors are closed and the lights are out. I’ve just finished watching a movie and I am going to sleep. The phone rings. I look at the caller-ID and I don’t recognize the number. However, I quickly think it might be a friend who just got a new phone number, so I answer it.

“Hi Steve, I’m a teacher at the side school and I need your help” (The side school is the all-English speaking school where my neighbor James works)

“What kind of help?”

“I have to write an essay and I want you to help me. I’m outside your house right now”

I quickly have several thoughts before I answer. Why is this woman outside my house at 10pm, why is she calling me instead of James, how did she get my number and why does a teacher need help to write an essay? I tell her that I’ve gone to bed and ask if we can meet in the morning. I suggest she come to the bank at 9:30am and I’ll try to help. She says okay and we hang up. I then hear the sound of a car engine starting, I see headlights come on and hear a car drive away. Yep, she really was outside my house.

Now, before I go further with this story, let me explain that when a Tongan wants something, they usually just show up at your door. That’s more common than a phone call. Someone showing up, even complete strangers, has happened often and if my doors are open, I’m usually glad to help but not after I’m in bed unless it’s an emergency. This was not!

The next morning, just after walking out the door of my house at 8:30am , a car pulls up with a woman inside. She tells me she is the woman who called last night. In the USA, I might feel like I’m being stalked, but in Tonga I actually don’t think much about it. The woman, who doesn’t tell me her name, gives me a little more details about the essay she has to write. She says her cousin is a student at Vava’u High School and he has an assignment to write an essay about the over-population of Tonga. He wants her to write the essay and now she wants me to write it.

I politely tell her that I can’t do someone’s homework for them, but that I’ll be glad to help him write it. I suggest he come by the bank or by my house this evening and I’ll work with him to get it done.

“Oh no” she says. “I told him I would write it and I need you to help me”.

I then tell her that I’m not going to write the essay for her, but that I will help her write it. I don’t see any point in me writing a high school assignment for someone when they are not going to learn from it.

“OK but how about if I give you the information and you can just write down the important points and then I’ll write it from that”.

She hands me a notebook.

Clearly she is not going to give up so I take the notebook and tell her I’ll make some notes for her and that she can pick it up later at the bank.

I walk to work and then open the notebook. It’s filled with questionnaires that have been filled out by other Tongans concerning over-population. Clearly this is not just a simple essay, it is an exercise in analyzing data and writing about it. (By the way, one of the people who answered the survey said the solution to over-population was sterilization for everyone.)

So what did I do? I did as I said I would do and wrote some notes. But the notes are about how to analyze the data and compare people’s opinions to the facts. She will still have work to do to complete the assignment. I doubt her cousin, the student, will learn anything from this assignment. I also assume she will take the notes I’ve written and give them to someone else to write the essay.

As it turns out, that is exactly what happened. I left my notes and her notebook at the bank for her to pick up. When I got home, I went over to James' house and guess what? The notebook and my notes had now been given to James.

That's just the way things tend to happen in Tonga.

A Big Bank Robbery in Tonga

On Friday someone left the door to the vault open at the head office of the Tonga Development Bank in Nuku’alofa. That by itself isn’t actually that unusual. I worked there for two months when I first became a Peace Corps volunteer and I remember noticing the door was often open. However, on Friday someone walked in and helped themselves to a half million Tonga Pa’anga, which is about US$250,000. That’s pretty much everything that was inside the vault. On Monday the staff here at the bank branch in Vava’u were all buzzing about this and most believe it was probably someone at the bank who took the money.

From TV to Tonga

I was surprised and humbled this weekend by a story called “From TV to Tonga” on the website of WCPO-TV in Cincinnati. It was written by Larry Handley who is a meteorologist at the station. As he mentions in the story, which I’ve pasted below, he and I used to work together. I didn’t even know Larry was reading this blog which made it even more of a surprise.

Larry HandleyThursday, July 2, 2009
From TV To Tonga...

It was a beautiful March day in 1989 when I arrived at TV20 in Gainesville, Florida (at my own expense) to interview for a weather anchor position that I heard was open at that station. Steve Hunsicker, the station's News Director, greeted me warmly and proceeded to politely listen to me blather on about why someone with no credentials or real weather experience should be given a chance. For reasons I still can't explain he hired me and the rest, as they say, is history. Despite his apparent lack of sound judgment some 20 years ago his recent decisions are much more impressive.

About a year and a half ago Steve resigned his position as a big-time television group executive to join the Peace Corps. He left his nice home in South Florida, his powerful and high-paying job and all the comforts of America to help businesses in the Kingdom of Tonga succeed. His blog is a favorite bookmark on my computer and I always look forward to his newest entry. I must admit that I'm living vicariously through his adventures on the other side of the world. He tells tales of beautiful geography, people and traditions. He shares adventures that could only be experienced in that setting. He had to learn a new language in just a few months and he lives on nearly nothing. He chose to do all of this in his upper 40s and he seems genuinely happy and content.

His two year commitment to the Peace Corps ends later this year and he has no idea what he will do when it's over. However, he seems totally unconcerned and relaxed. I believe that's the way it works. The more you give of yourself - freely and honestly - the less you worry. Maybe helping to solve other people's problems and making their lives better increases your own faith that things will work out. Thanks to Steve things worked out for me 20 years ago when I was desperate for a job like they are working out now for the people of Tonga. And there's no doubt in my mind that things will work out for Steve as he transitions back to life in America.
Follow the last several months of Steve's Peace Corps adventure at

Thanks Larry for such kind words.

Independence Day in Tonga

On Saturday July 4th I celebrated the USA’s independence by eating hotdogs, hamburgers and drinking beer while sitting on the ocean. While it was a lot different than the way I spent last July 4th, it probably wasn’t that different than the way many Americans spent the day. But there were a couple of differences…I was eating hot dogs from China, beef from New Zealand and drinking beer from Germany. I wasn’t in the USA, I was in Tonga. And the ocean? It was the beautiful blue South Pacific.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Looking Forward

It’s been more than two years since I received my invitation to become a Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga.  That invitation had the date I would begin.   Another big date was the day I announced  I was leaving my company after 15 years, Having specific dates made those decisions seem final..

Now, with less than  five months left to go,  I have another date.  That’s the date when I’ll be leaving Tonga and wrapping up my volunteer service in the Peace Corps.   That will happen on Thursday, November 26, 2009,.  It now seems very final.

Officially, my group wraps up our service on December 12, 2009, exactly two years after our swearing in ceremony.  This means I am leaving 16 days early.  However under Peace Corps rules, volunteers can leave anytime during our last 30 days with the permission of the Country Director.  I have now received that permission.  Others in my group will start leaving November 13th

In my case, leaving a little early will allow me to meet a friend in South Africa.   I’ll be flying out the morning of November 26th to Sydney and then on to Hoedspruit, South Africa and the Kruger National Park.  From South Africa, I’ll head home to West Palm Beach.   When I get back, I will have flown all the way around the globe.

At various times during my Peace Corps experience I’ve thought about extending my service or even signing up for another stint in a different country.  However, as much as I’ve enjoyed my experience here I’ve realized that the best thing for me right now is to get some “USA Time”.  I would like to continue with Peace Corps in some capacity and will be exploring that option as the time for my COS or “close of service” get nearer.

So while I’ve got a final date, I’ve also got a lot of things left to do.   I just started work this week on a video project for the Tonga Development Bank.   The bank plans to air the video on local TV and also use it to promote the bank at workshops in the future.

I’ve also got several new clients with whom I’m working and it happens to be tax time in Tonga, which means I’ll be helping a bunch of people with their taxes.  I never would have guessed I would be giving tax advice in Tonga.

I’ve still got some vacation time left and am hoping to make one more big trip before I leave even though I haven’t decided yet where to go.   And in September, I’ll be flying to the main island of Tongatapu for my COS conference, which will be the last time that the members of my training group will all be together.  (There will soon just be 19 of us remaining out of  the 33 who started. Two more volunteers from Tongatapu are leaving on Tuesday).

So the adventure isn’t over, but the end is near.   I’m very thankful  for the experiences I’ve had and  while I didn’t plan it this way, it seems appropriate that  my last day in Tonga, Thursday November 26th, is Thanksgiving Day.