Thursday, June 7, 2012

Camp GLOW 2012

 Dear Blog Readers Near and Far,

Mālō e lelei!  That’s a friendly hello from the Kingdom of Tonga.  As most all of you know, I’m currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer here on a small island called Vava’u.  My primary assignment is teaching English at a local school, but I also participate in various secondary activities.  One of these activities is something called Camp GLOW, a delightful acronym that stands for Girls Leading Our World. 
 Camp GLOW is held in Peace Corps countries all over the world and strives to encourage young women to become active citizens by building their confidence, increasing their self-awareness, and developing their skills in goal setting and career planning.  High School girls who exhibit academic excellence and leadership potential are invited to this weeklong camp free of charge.  They get to interact with speakers who are successful Tongan women in business, health, and a variety of other fields. The girls participate in activities focused on goal setting, critical thinking and decision making, computer literacy, public speaking, conflict resolution, the rights of women and children, sexual harassment and domestic abuse, nutrition, first aid, and environmental responsibility. Every day presents a chance for play and self-expression in a safe and encouraging environment.

I had the pleasure of being a part of Camp GLOW Vava’u last year so I can tell you from experience that this is an absolutely worthwhile cause.  At first glance, the activities that I mentioned above might not sound all that life changing.  Growing up in America, youth are almost bombarded with opportunities to hone their critical thinking skills and learn about decision making.  The context of our American culture (and hopefully also loving families and great role models) instills in young people the belief that they have power over their own destinies.  Tongan girls don’t have that same experience; many have trouble imagining their future following a path that diverges from the experiences of their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts (many of whom didn’t even receive a high school education). ..but times are changing! 
This year, I am part of a very small group of Peace Corps Volunteers planning and facilitating the camp.  We are in the midst of planning and fundraising locally and internationally for 2012. It’s a huge task but, the camps for the past two years have proven to be well worth the blood, sweat, and (happy) tears that go into planning and implementing them. This is where I need your help.
The local community has contributed 50% of the cost of the camp for 2012 and Peace Corps Volunteers are responsible for funding the other half. We are doing this online through the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP). The PCPP allows friends, family, and organizations abroad donate to Peace Corps projects across the world [and all donations are 100% tax deductible!].
Working with these young girls and providing for them an opportunity to become informed, active, independent, and responsible citizens- an otherwise unreachable goal in Tonga-is something that means the world to me, and it would mean even more if you could show your support. 
If you think you’d be able to make a donation to this exceptional project, please follow this link: Camp GLOW 2012  

Thank you so much for your time.  Please feel free to email me if you have any questions or would just like to say Hi!

All the Best,
Nora Graves
PCV, Kingdom of Tonga

The Difficulties of Exercising in Tonga

During my first year of Peace Corps, I was a pretty devoted exerciser!  When I first arrived at my site, I had a lot of free time and a tiny house….so; I got out into the fresh [although usually stiflingly humid] air and ran.  I like running….and Peace Corps can be tough sometimes, so I needed the endorphins, too. 
I had a pretty good rhythm going my entire first year.  The school year was winding down in November and I was taking relaxing morning runs almost every day.  Then Christmas arrived and I was lucky enough to head back to the states for some “clean life” time.  Flash forward to January.  I am ready to commence Peace Corps: Year 2 and I just can’t get my feet into running shoes!  Now here we are at the beginning of May and I’m getting back on the horse.  I took a run yesterday and it felt great.  However, it also reminded me why exercising in Tonga can be a bit of a challenge.  I’ll just lay out my timeline for you.

4:00 pm -    The sun has now reached only 80% scorching level, so I’m going to attempt to go outside.  I  
                        stretch a little, throw my shoes on, and head outside.

4:05 pm -    I leave home briefly chatting with a few neighbors along the way.

4:10 pm-     I’ve walked nearly to the edge of my village and am about to start running when some ladies              in an approaching truck flag me down.

4:15 pm-     We’ve exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes when they finally say  “Fakamolemole Nola,             Can you help us fix our video camera??”  It’s the Tongan way to always apologize [the     fakamolemole] before you ask someone for help.  I respond, “Of course, I can try. When                should I come look at it?”  Their answer…“ Well, now?  Here is our camera, the screen is     broken!”

4:20 pm-      A random cloudburst has arrived and it’s pouring rain!  I hop in the back of said truck & off   we go back into the village.  They’re headed to decorate for tomorrow’s church service and                it looks like I am, too.

5:00 pm-     After unsuccessfully fiddling with the camera and reading 80 pages of the user manual…. I    give up.  Technology wonk I am not.  Although people often confuse me with a member of   the Geek Squad and ask for help with any variety of electronics.  I sit and talk with the girls    for a few minutes  about food, the weather, and reasons I should marry a Tongan.

5:05 pm-      Alright, attempt number two; I’m heading out into the bush [a.k.a the farmland outside of my town] for some much needed peace and quiet.

5:20 pm-      Awesome timing! I don’t encounter any cars….only a few friendly looking horses and cows.                Now I’ve arrived at a little house out in the bush where a lovely older couple lives.  They’re            the only people who live outside of the villages, so they always seem happy to have a visitor.

5:30pm-       Back on the road!  I carry on until I reach my spot [an opening in the trees where I have a     phenomenal view of the water and Mt. Talau, Tonga’s tallest and only mountain!]

5:45pm-       I am running back past the lone little house in the forest when the woman runs outside to flag me down.  She gives me a few dollars and asks me to go ‘top up’ her phone so she can                 make a call.  Yep, that’s how it works around here. 

6:00pm-       I roll into my village and stop at the first falekoloa [little shop] because there is a crew of my               students loafing around and I spy a cute baby. I mean to hold the baby for a minute, but as            soon as I pick him up the brother who had been minding him disappears!  Hence, I become a        babysitter.

6:15pm-       I manage to convince one of the kids to take over baby duty as my arms are getting tired     [Tongan babies are big babies!]! Then I head on to a neighbor’s house who sells phone        credit!

6:30pm-       After catching up on the news about said neighbor’s TEN children and buying phone credit, I              am finally home!

Big picture; a run that should have taken me about 30 minutes actually took 2 ½ hours.  However, the real moral of this probably far too long and in-depth blog is that The Difficulties of Exercising in Tonga are the little tidbits that make living here an unforgettable experience.  I can already picture myself back in ‘clean life,’ taking a jog with no disruptions, and wistfully reminiscing about my eventful exercising in Tonga.

p.s. I apologize for the terrible formatting of this blog, but the website was just being very disagreeable today! 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Plainfield North Rocks!

Here's an ode to Plainfield North High School and their delightful highlighter yellow t-shirt!  Thanks to Mrs. Graves' class for being great pen pals and supporters. :)  

Garden Fairies: Take 2

Last year around this time, I received a delightful surprise in the form of neighborhood ladies attempting to spruce up my little yard.  By spruce up, I mean cut the knee high grass, chase out some pigs, and pull a profuse amount of weeds!

This year, instead of waiting for the neighborhood ladies to take pity on the poor Peace Corps’ yard, I put my students’ excess energy to good use.  All 23 of my Class 6 hooligans paraded down the street to my house after school.  We cranked up some tunes and began hacking away at the VERY tall grass in my yard.  Every time I tried to cut some grass or even pick up a broom, one of the kids would come steal it away and demand that I sit down and ‘supervise’ the music selection.  [They recently learned about ‘demands’ and ‘requests’ in class and definitely enjoy the ‘demands’ a bit more than the ‘requests’!]

As you can see, I decided this was a good time to bring out the camera.  Unfortunately, the productivity of my little workers decreases significantly anytime a camera appears.  I had to start telling them I would only take pictures of kids who were actually working.  I can never get a good candid, they enjoy posing for the pictures way too much!

A good time was had by all, and the rat situation has abated a bit thanks to brush reduction.  What a successful day!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

2012: the year of surprises!

In my last post I mentioned just how much I enjoy the day-to-day surprises that make Peace Corps the unique experience that it surely is.  I am happy to report that [re: surprises] 2012 is most certainly not going to disappoint!

Surprises thus far:

ü  Darkness: I arrived back at my little fale [house] in January to find that my electricity had been disconnected. Oiaue! [Yikes!] No sweat.  This just meant a week of lots of ‘community integration’ and reading by candle light.  Fyi: showering by candle light is tricky. 

ü  Mice: I was also received at my humble abode by the colony of mice that have taken up residence.  …alright, that might be a bit melodramatic, but there are definitely some kumā [mice] that are frequenting my house.  I feel a bit like the neighborhood wacko jumping around with my broom chasing them away.  There are multiple plans in the works to drive them away…so far they’ve outsmarted me.  I’ll keep you updated.

ü  Cyclones!: What was supposed to be day 1 of school turned out to be our first cyclone of the season.  Luckily, it was pretty small as cyclones go.  Lots of banana trees were blown over, but most houses didn’t sustain much damage.  We did, however, lose power for three days.  I have pretty much depleted my candle supply at this point.

Bugs:  Despite hiding all my food within supposedly airtight ziploc bags, creatures managed to creep on in to my oatmeal supply.  On a recent morning, I was gazing sleepily into my bowl of oats only to be greeted by little black creepy crawlies enjoying their own breakfast.  Oiaue!  [I'm used to eating an occasional ant, but these unidentified intruders are not part of my diet plan.  Right now, it is summertime here and the weather seems to be encouraging ridiculous bug populations.  I think I share my house with about 50 unique species of ants and a constant parade of cockroaches!!!  

That’s it for surprises thus far…. I am fairly certain there will be more to come!

Over and out.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cheers to a New Year!

After a glorious month of reunions with family & friends [and of course, lots of delicious food and hot showers] in America, I’m now back in Tonga and starting my 2nd year as a Peace Corps volunteer.  I’ve got to tell you…It’s a pretty surreal feeling.  Being back in the States for Christmas felt so natural, I kept forgetting that I’d just made a 5,000 mile trek home.  Thankfully, it also felt pretty natural to hop on the plane and come right back.

Every blog entry, I feel as though I’m waxing philosophical about how I can’t believe how fast time is flying, how long I’ve been here [15 months OH my!], etc., etc.  My Peace Corps experience thus far has been a beautiful and ridiculous trip.  There have been experiences that encompass just what I expected Peace Corps service to entail [i.e. making a fool of myself through various cultural faux pas and eating exotic new foods].  But the bits I’ve really loved have been the surprises.  Who knew I’d come to this itty bitty country, separated from everywhere else by vast Pacific waters, and meet Tongans who speak Spanish, who’ve met the Pope, and who really love Celine Dion?  Those were certainly not predictions I could’ve made about my Peace Corps journey, but the unexpected tidbits are what make this experience pretty phenomenal.

Since it has been QUITE a while since my last entry, I better make this one pretty beefy.  In lieu of a verbal recap of my first year I thought I’d post a few iconic pictures of the journey.

October 2010: Mom & I taking a typical airport picture before I headed into the unknown!  You can’t see it, but there should be a little thought bubble above my head thinking, ‘Holy moly, what have I gotten myself into?!’

October & November: Now… with my new Tongan family during 2 months of Pre-Service Training.  I was incredibly lucky to stay with the Vakalahi family.  They treated me as one of their own/a princess.  I was the best fed Peace Corps in town!   

October & November: This is my host Papa, 'Ofa [which means love in Tongan].  He is an expert diver and fisherman.  He'd sometimes head out to sea for days at a time in a little fishing boat and return with LOTS of delicious fish and lobsters!  

November 2010: No Barbie cars here….but old lawn mowers are a suitable substitute in Ha'apai.

November 2010: Great thing about Tonga? Totally acceptable to ride in the back of trucks! During training, a kind soul tried to pick up about 9 of us walking along the road to town.  Promptly after we piled into his truck.... his two back tires went flat.  woops!

December 2010: Training has come to an end and off goes the Vava’u Crew [minus a few who didn’t want to stop for our corny picture] to our next adventures.

December 2010: Welcome to Vava’u [my island]!  Unreal views and lovely neighbors galore.

January 2011: It’s finally time for some real work to occur…meet the kiddies of GPS Tefisi!

June 2011:  During a 2 week school break, I ventured to New Zealand with some Peace Corps friends.  I have never been more thankful for cool weather & grocery stores!

Every day: My neighbor, Mele Lose, graces my front steps and tells me about life.  Her specialties include predicting the weather, telling me when the next full moon will be, and giving massages [yep, massages].

September 2011: Need a reason to parade and dance in  the streets?  We have one….RUGBY!  The Tonga Ikale Tahi [Sea Eagles] competed in the Rugby World Cup and invoked some serious national pride in Tongans all over the world. 

September 2011: PCVs and Tongan counselors facilitated Camp GLOW, a pretty fantastic Leadership and Youth Development camp for young women! PCVs all over the world participate in Camp GLOW.

October 2011: My class 6 munchkins pose here after taking their High School Entrance Exam.  Bless them all for being the guinea pigs during Nola’s first year teaching.

November 2011: School has unofficially ended, so I spent a lot of my time malolo-ing [relaxing] and making flower rings with the neighborhood kids.

December 2011: 'Osi mo ta'u e taha! [Finished with year one!]  Ended the year with a phenomenal trip home to the states.  THANKS Mom & Dad! :)

*sorry mom, I think you're behind the camera.

So, that about covers the first half of my Peace Corps journey.  I count myself among some of the luckiest PCVs.  I serve in a safe country with extremely kind and generous people, plenty of delicious food, and [of course] some unreal scenery.  I have no idea what the next year will entail, but I'm pretty excited to find out. So, with that..... Cheers to a New Year!!!!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Taimi SIVI [ Test Time]

What an interesting week this has been!  October in Tonga is ‘taimi sivi’ [a.k.a. test time!]!  This time of year every class 6 student takes the SEE [Secondary Entrance Exam], colloquially referred to as the ‘sivi’ [test].  There are 4 separate sections testing the kids on English, Tongan Language, Science, and Math. The kids’ ‘sivi’ score can determine a lot about their future.  It certainly carries a lot more weight than any test I took at age 11. 

There are 6 High Schools [one government and 5 religious] here in Vava’u and the kids’ scores determine where he or she can attend school.  It’s quite the regimented process.  Each child’s family comes into school and ranks their top three high school choices.  Months later, after the ‘sivi’ has been graded, I am told that a big announcement is made on the radio and the kids all find out what school they’ll be attending. 
SIVI week blasted off to a bit of a slow start.  I meandered into school Monday morning to find our students split into a variety of factions.  There were card sharks on the verandah, future athletes kicking the rugby ball around, some ‘bookworms’ fanning themselves with my recently arranged library books, and the truly hardcore few having ‘chicken fights’ in the schoolyard [if you are unaware, chicken fights consist of two pairs of kids. one kid is the legs of the operation while the other sits on his/her shoulders.  the two shoulder sitters duke it out until one team topples over.  now…. I like a chicken fight as much as the next gal, but I did my chicken fighting in a POOL!  These kids are arm wrestling and slapping each other around before plummeting 4 feet down to some pretty solid ground.  Needless to say, the band-aid box is a popular destination.] Sorry, wandered off on a tangent there.  However, my point was that not much happened the day before our big test began.  While the kids played, the teachers went to work preparing the testing rooms.  Preparing the testing rooms, you say?  How long can that take?  Grab a few pencils and make sure there are enough chairs, right? Wrong.  We had to pin up white sheets all over the classroom and make sure there were absolutely no distractions for the kids. Quite the process!

Finally, bright and early Tuesday morning, the kids arrived with shiny sharp pencils in hand ready to tackle the SIVI.  For 4 hours each day, the kids toiled away taking tests. Meanwhile, I lounged around [like a hippie Peace Corps should] talking to grandmothers and smelling flowers.  After testing, however, the kids were justly rewarded with a giant feast….4 days in a row!  Every afternoon, the whole village seemed to appear out of nowhere with pigs, tables, coconuts, and fish galore! I have never been so absolutely stuffed!  Some local ministers blessed the food and then various townsfolk gave fakamālō's [which are mini thank you speeches] praising God for puaka [pork], kau faiako [teachers], and everything in between!   Mālō e sivi!!