Peace Corps Videos

Monday, August 24, 2009

Food Glorious Food

One of the first things you learn as a Peace Corps Volunteer is that no matter how hard you try, your eating habits are going to be very different. Some volunteers who have been vegetarians for years soon find themselves eating meat. Others, who may have been picky eaters in the USA now find themselves eating things they never imagined while others try to come up with creative ways to add some variety to the diet.

A typical Tongan Sunday mealThere are really two problems with food in Vava’u. The first is that Tongans pretty much eat the same foods every day without a lot of variety. There are a number of root crops that are grown here and those are part of the Tongan diet daily combined with some kind of very fatty meat.

On Sundays and for special occasions, Tongans eat the same root crops but instead the fatty meat is wrapped in Taro leaves and cooked in an outdoor oven in a dish called lu. (The photo is a typical Sunday dinner.)

The second problem is that you live on an island and if it doesn’t grow here, it has to be imported. If there are no tomatoes at the market, you are not going to get a tomato even at the best restaurants. “If it ain’t here, it ain’t here”.

For the first year or so of my Peace Corps service I either shared meals with other volunteers who knew how to cook or I ate stuff that I was comfortable cooking. In the past year, I’ve gotten a little more ambitious, trying to actually learn to cook with what is available.

The good news is that in Peace Corps you have lots of free time so you have the time to cook.

I thought I would tell you about two things that I’ve made recently. I would never have attempted either of these meals in the USA. It was too easy to go Publix or Polo Tropical and pick up chicken . Want a pizza? I would have ordered from one of the many places that deliver to your door and if I was desperate, I might have even popped a frozen pizza into my oven.

So when I show you this picture, you have to understand this is a big accomplishment for me.

IMG_2769This is pepper chicken…meaning, it is cooked with pepper and a few other spices. The key to the chicken in Tonga is to remove all the fat and skin before you cook it. Often you end up cutting away about almost half of what is in the package.

The biscuits were made completely from scratch. (I was really proud of myself when I discovered I could make biscuits). The stuff that looks like mashed potatoes is actually mashed ufi, which is a Tonga root crop. I boiled the ufi, which was given to me, mashed it up and added milk, hot peppers and salt.

Pizza from Scratch

My love for pizza hasn’t diminished since I began my service but it has taken me a while to learn how to make it. The place that has the best pizza in Vava’u has been closed since December even though they are scheduled to re-open soon.

IMG_2671 This pizza was also made from scratch. It’s all veggies with green peppers, canned tomatoes, canned tomato sauce, onions and garlic. There is also some fresh basil which my neighbor James planted right outside my door. I decided to make this pizza after I discovered two cans of black olives in one of the stores. A rare find and I bought both of them and came home and made the pizza. The cheese is the most expensive part. It all comes here frozen but you can usually get it without a problem.

Vava’u Shopping Tip

A shopping habit you quickly learn in Vava’u is that when you see something you want in a store, you buy it…because you may never seen it again. We once has fresh broccoli. It lasted about a week and I haven’t seen it again. That was more than a year ago. Another time a stalk of celery showed up…yes there was just one when I went into the store. I didn’t buy it as it was expensive and didn’t look very good. It’s not just fresh food that’s random, we occasionally will run out of staples like rice, flour and boxed milk. (There is no fresh milk in the stores).

This creates even bigger challenges when you are in the mood for something because it might not be there.

I now wonder if I’ll still take the time to cook when I return to the USA or if you’ll be bumping into me at the deli counter of Publix.

Changes in Peace Corps Tonga

The Peace Corps Tonga Country Director is leaving. The Country Director is the top position in each country and in the case of Tonga, he is also the top-ranking American here since there is no Embassy.

Jeff Cornish is moving to a new Country Director Post in The Gambia, West Africa. In his e-mail announcement to the volunteers he said:

It has been my honor to serve with you here in the Kingdom. Together we have done much to improve Post operations, programming and Volunteer support. I am proud of the role each of you has played in supporting each other, as well as those you serve in your respective communities. I am also proud of the fact that you have remained committed to your service and to the fulfillment of both Peace Corps and local community goals for development.

No word on a replacement. He begins his new job on October 25th.

Best of luck Jeff!!

The Wreck of the Clan McWilliams

More than 80 years ago, a steam powered tanker came into the harbor at Neiafu, Vava’u. The 300 foot long boat was on fire and sank before the captain could run it aground. The wreck now sits in about 100 feet of water at the bottom of the harbor. Clan McWilliams Wreck in TongaLast week, I had a chance to dive on the wreck. Because of its depth, I was limited to just 20 minutes on it, but it was amazing to see how intact this boat is after all these years.

You can still see the portholes and where the doors used to be. The ladders are still there as are the railing along the side of the ship. We only explored the first half of the ship, as the remainder is in even deeper water. I did not take my camera with me, but I found this photo online of the wreck.

I plan to dive on the wreck again next week.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The “Facts” about the Tonga Ferry Sinking

By definition, a fact is something that is proven and true.  Ideally it would be nice to think that the information Tongans receive about the sinking of Ashika Ferry last week would all be factual.   But in a place like Tonga, where the media is controlled by the government, getting the “facts” can be difficult. 

While there are some independent media voices, you still need a “newspaper publishing license” from the government.  If you upset the wrong person, your license to publish will be terminated.   For the most part, the government can decide what it will release to the public and what it will keep secret.   Neither the public nor the media have any formal right to gain access to official documents and reports in Tonga.

The “coconut wireless” or word of mouth is still very much alive in Tonga, but that system has its faults because you often hear so many conflicting stories, it is hard to know what is true and what is speculation. 

But times are changing. Tonga may be a remote island country but it is no longer an island of information.   Media from other parts of the world are covering the ferry sinking and unlike the Tongan based news organizations who may be fearful of criticizing the government and the King, these foreign news organizations can ask the tough questions and what they write is available in Tonga via the Internet.

I wrote a post last week called “Grief turns to Anger in Tonga” in which I talked about the anger that some Tongans have directed toward the Tongan King, who left on a four month holiday the day after the Ashika Ferry went down.   After that post, I exchanged emails with another volunteer who lives in Tongatapu, who says he hasn’t heard any criticism of the King , instead saying people are mad at the Prime Minister..   And one of the independent Tongan newspapers, Matangi Online has not made a big deal out of the King’s departure.  The editor of that paper was quoted in the New Zealand Herald last week.

Matangi Tonga newspaper editor Pesi Fonua yesterday said that Tongans living at home appeared untroubled by King George's rapid departure for Edinburgh.

"There's no uproar by the people who lost loved ones. There doesn't seem to be any feeling about that."

In Scotland, where the King is beginning his four month vacation, a news organization has a very different story.

Playboy king's Scottish holiday sparks anger

Heilala Delasau, a Tongan human rights activist, said: "The king is partly to blame and should be held liable. He should have stayed to help. He is a leader and should be helping his people at this time."

Sitiveni Lilo, a retired Tongan journalist living in Wellington, New Zealand, said: "Tonga is not a full democracy and people are afraid to speak out.  "People are concentrating on their loss, but there is also deep anger that the king left instead of staying to command the rescue operation and attend memorial services."

Protesters say they are exasperated by the wealthy playboy king, who earned the nickname "Oddball" because of his habit of riding around his Pacific island nation in a London taxi.

With his penchant for elaborate uniforms and remote-controlled boats and toys, (King) Tupou has a reputation as an eccentric out of touch with reality.

Closer to Tonga, the New Zealand Herald has the following in their Sunday edition this morning.

Tongan king's critics hit out

Mateni Tapueluelu, editor of the independent Taimi o Tonga newspaper, said yesterday he was infuriated by the reports from Scotland and expected the Tongan public to feel the same way.

"It's just going to make people angry, they're going to see the monarchy as useless and an expensive irrelevance. At best he's a waste of money," said Tapueluelu.

"When the going gets tough, he gets going: Leaving his people to swim or sink."Tapueluelu said there was growing dissatisfaction with the Tongan, royal-dominated Government as well over its handling of the Ashika tragedy.

"I'm beginning to hear talk that we should have an interim government," he said, adding that he hoped a "peaceful transition of power is ensured".

The Latest “Facts”nz_navy_sonar-image

Now to the “facts”, or what I think are the latest “facts”.

Officially there are still 93 people missing and presumed dead.   The ship was located last week in 330 feet of water, making it too deep for divers to recover the bodies of those who perished.  One report says it would cost $25 million New Zealand dollars (About US$17 million) to do a full recovery of the ship, money that Tonga does not have.   Right now, Tongans have accepted that their loved ones are not going to be coming back, but they are still waiting until they learn if they will get the bodies back before they do any funerals.  The Tongan Transportation Minister has resigned from his job and Tongans are doing their best to support each other in this time of tragedy and yes, the King is on vacation in Europe.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Help on the way for Tonga Ferry Victims

There is often a strained relationship between Tongan business owners and the Chinese business owners who operate here.   The Tongans like the cheap prices and the regular hours of the Chinese stores but there is resentment because they have put many Tongan shops out of business.

By law, only Tongans can operate grocery stores in the Kingdom.  But a few years ago, the former King sold Tongan passports which effectively allowed many Chinese to become Tongan residents and business owners.  Even though the practice of selling passports was quickly stopped, the Chinese continue to take market share away from the Tongans.

Today, the owners of all the Chinese stores in Tonga announced they were going to donate TOP$50,000 to help pay for the funerals of the 93 people who are still missing and presumed dead after the sinking of the Ashika ferry last week.   In addition, a local money transfer company is kicking in an additional TOP$10,000 and a local Tongan Kava group has raised TOP$300.00 to assist.  (TOP$2.00 is about  US$1.00)

Here in Vava’u, a fund has been created by many of the local tourism related business owners.  So far, thanks to contributions from tourists who are here and from those businesses, that fund has about TOP$800 in it.

There is also talk that the Tongan government may help with some of the funeral expenses and the boat was insured by Lloyds of London, which could provide additional funds.

A funeral is very expensive in Tonga.   A family will easily spend TOP$3000 to TOP$5000 to bury a loved one and sometimes even more.    It is expected that the government will declare the missing “officially dead” later today or tomorrow.   The funerals will start all over Tonga immediately afterwards with a photo of the deceased substituting for their final remains.

The Washington Post has a comprehensive story about the Tonga Ferry disaster today.   And all around Vava’u, many people, myself included, continue to wear black in memory of those lost.

For additional information about the ferry sinking, I’ve updated my post from yesterday with new information.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Grief turns to Anger in Tonga -- UPDATED

For the most part, Tongans are a happy people who love to laugh and they take most things in stride. “Sai pe” may be the most uttered phrase in the Kingdom and it simply means “It’s Okay”. But things are not “sai pe” in Tonga today. The grief that first hit the country when the MV Princess Ashika ferry sank last week is now turning to anger.

All over Vava’u, the destination point for the Ashika, people are asking how could this happen and why did our Government take this boat and put it into service when it was so old? The Ashika was older than the boat it replaced. Another story being reported here says the Government was urged NOT to put this boat into service because it did not pass safety checks.

There is also a lot of anger directed toward the King. In Tonga, it is illegal to criticize the King in public or to print anything negative about him. A few years ago, the owner of one of the Independent newspapers was jailed for making negative comments about the Government.

But that’s not stopping Tongans now. The anger today is because just after the ferry sank, the King left the country for a vacation in Scotland. It seems abhorrent to the Tongans that their King would abandon them like this in a time of crisis.

When the survivors of the ferry disaster arrived back to the main island of Tongatapu, they were not consoled by the King but instead met by his sister, the Princess. The King has not issued any statements about the disaster and has done nothing to show support for the victims and their families.

Complicating things ever more, the Prime Minister of Tonga was out of the country at a meeting in Australia when the boat sank, but instead of returning to Tonga immediately, he stayed at the Pacific Forum meeting saying he had important agreements to work out that would benefit Tonga in the future.

Even in peaceful Vava’u, some Tongans are talking about protests and an Australian news organization reported that an angry crowd gathered in Nuku’alofa outside the offices of the shipping company that operated the ferry. That should make people nervous as Nuku’alofa is just now being re-built following riots in 2006 by people unhappy with the King and his government.

As is typical in Tonga, a lot of the information is passed through word of mouth, in what is often called the “coconut wireless”. That means you hear many different stories about what is actually happening. The official word from the Tongan police is that there are 93 people still missing, most of them women and infants. All but six of the missing are Tongans. (UPDATE: 95 people are presumed dead out of 141 who were on board the ship.)

In villages around Vava’u, the impact is particularly hard. In one village of just over 100 people, six people are presumed dead…meaning the ferry disaster has wiped out 6% of the entire village’s population. There are similar stories every where in Vava'u. Just about everyone either knows or is related to someone who was on that boat.

So far just two bodies have been recoved. The boat sits in water that ranges from 36 to 110 meters deep, much of it too deep for divers.

There is also worry about how a small place like Vava’u is going to handle so many funerals. There is talk of having one large funeral for everyone instead of many smaller services. And Tongans want to know who is going to pay for the services. Funerals are very expensive and Tongan families are expected to feed everyone who shows up and to give gifts to those who attend. This could be a major financial hit in an already struggling economy.

While it is extremely unlikely that there are any survivors, some families are hoping that perhaps their relatives never got on the ferry.

In addition to being the primary way that Tongans travel between the islands, the ferry is also the way that most food and freight get to the outer islands. On board the ferry when it sank was an ambulance and medical supplies donated by a US organization to provide emergency transportation for the hospital here in Vava’u.

Some speculate the ferry disaster will serve as a “wake-up” call for Tonga and could help the pro-democracy movement gain momentum, especially if it is determined the King’s government allowed this ship to sail knowing it was unsafe. If that’s the case, it certainly was not “sai pe”.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Very Sad Day in Tonga (Updated)

Early this morning, one of the ferries that operates between the Tongan Islands sank with 79 people on board, almost all of them Tongans. The boat left the main city of Nuku’alofa yesterday in route to Vava’u.

Fifty three people have been rescued and the remaining 26 are believed to have drown. It appears that no women or children survived, just men. (UPDATE: 95 people are presumed dead out of 141 who were on board the ship.)

The boat, the MV Princess Ashika was put in service just a few months ago to temporarily replace another boat that was determined to be unsafe. The Ashika, which was actually older than the boat it replaced, was to remain in service until late next year when a new boat, paid for by the Japanese government is to begin connecting the islands.

It may seem odd that only the men survived, but as is normal in Tongan culture, it is very likely that the men were in a different part of the boat or outside. Men and Women do not normally socialize together in public or even sit together. The woman and children normally sit inside the boat and the men will stay outside and drink kava and smoke.

All over Vava’u today, the accident was all everyone was talking about. At the market, one of the women selling vegetables was in tears after just learning that her son may be one of the victims. There are similar stories all over the area as it is likely that the majority of the people on board were either from Vava’u or are related to someone who lives here.

One of the missing men is a JICA volunteer. JICA is the Japanese version of Peace Corps.

The area where the boat went down is not far from Nomuka, which is part of the Ha’apai Island group, but is actually closer to the main island of Tongatapu.

The survivors have been picked up by the other ferry that serves Tonga and taken to the main island in Ha’apai.

No word on what caused the boat to sink but one rumor claims that the boat was having troubles even before it left Nuku'alofa and that the crew was told not to make the trip.