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!! 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Kau Laka! [Let's Parade!]

Would you like to see a country with some impressive national pride?  Come to Tonga. NOW!  There are people wearing red….everywhere!  I have been almost publicly shunned for wearing a red skirt/white shirt combo rather than an entirely red ensemble.  There are also occasional ‘lakas’ [parades] consisting of lots of Tongans driving around the island and shouting!!  

What is causing all this ruckus, you ask? Why, it’s rugby!  For the past few weeks, Tonga has been participating in the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.  Even more exciting, there is a player on the national team who hails from my village [giving my village, and our whole island, a reason to celebrate!]

On a recent Friday, my principal asked me if I’d like to ‘laka’ instead of school as usual.  Naturally, I said ‘of course!’  I assumed we’d decorate his truck a bit and then go into town and drive down the main road…short and sweet.  Do you think that is what happened? ‘Ikai.’[Definitely not.]

We did decorate his truck!  The teachers literally chopped down two little trees and fastened them onto each side of his truck. We made posters, a banner, and even a giant eagle to represent our team, the ‘Ikale Tahi’ [Sea Eagles].  Then, far too many people climbed into the back of my principal’s truck and began the trek into town.  On the way in, I began  to suspect this ‘laka’ was going to be bigger then I’d anticipated.  More and more trucks draped in red began appearing behind us…and then the honking began. Oiaue! 

When we finally arrived in town, we proceeded to drive around and around for at least 3 hours!  The trucks honked and honked, blared loud music, and occasionally made a pit stop to have an impromptu dance party.  After these shenanigans, I assumed we might be finished. Nope.  We left the big city of Neiafu and headed for the villages singing and shouting ‘Go Ikale Gooooooooo!’  In one particularly boisterous village, a man was ready for us with a giant pail of water.  Right as we drove by, he tossed it at us successfully drenching me, and pretty much only me.  However, it was a much needed cool down. Typical Nola style, I hadn’t prepared properly for what turned out to be an all day trek.  I had no food, water, or sunscreen.  Luckily Tongans are very generous.  I ate plenty of snacks and drank enough water, but my poor nose was bright bright red after our day in the sun.

Our team may have only won 1 game thus far, but the Tongan team spirit has not diminished in the least.  Long after the Rugby World Cup has finished, devoted fans here will be wearing red and looking ahead to 2015.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tānaki Tu’unga

As usual with school events thus far, I never really know what’s going on.  I tend to need a little time to digest and ask a few questions.  Today proved to be another somewhat confusing, but certainly entertaining cultural experience.

Oh boy! The class 6 girls are anxiously waiting to find out
their class rank!
This morning, we were scheduled to have the annual Tānaki Tu’unga at school.  It is an event that marks the end of our 2nd Term of school, essentially the middle of the school year here in Tonga.  Translated literally, tānaki tu’unga means ‘to gather the ladder.’  In reality, it is the announcement of class rank.  I like the symbolism, though.  I envision all the kids in their cute little red uniforms arranging themselves on a giant ladder [with plenty of pushing and shoving, of course].  [note: I’m being a stellar PC volunteer and writing blog posts while sitting around with my teachers.  I just giggled aloud while writing that bit about the ladder.  One of my counterparts asked me what I was laughing about, but I couldn’t tell her for fear that at the next tānaki tu’unga someone might actually bring a giant ladder. People take me way too seriously here…or I am just not so ‘poto’ [smart/good] at making jokes Tongan style.]

Now, on with the story!  I arrived at school just in time for the 8:30 bell [read: bell = old propane tank] to find 3 kids milling around and no teachers to be seen.  My teachers told me that the program would start at 10.  My ‘palangi’ [foreigner] brain assumed that we’d continue school as usual, but everyone else understood that they were to sleep in on this momentous day.  ‘Sai pē ia’ [It’s ok].  I am pretty much incapable of sleeping in here anyway.  There are far too many roosters and barking dogs to make for a late morning.

Hence, I wandered around school for a while until families began to arrive.  Eventually, the parents and kids began filling every shady space available at school.  It certainly pays to arrive early…no one wants to be stuck sitting in the sun!  I thought that this might turn out to be my first Tongan event that did not involve food in any way. I was wrong, of course.  As the Class One kids sidled out in front of the crowd to perform, I noticed that along with makeshift instruments, they [well their moms, to be more precise] were carrying all sorts of produce.  There were giant bunches of bananas and every variety of Tongan root crop.  The class then commenced singing ‘Come and Buy,’ and tried to entice the crowd [again, their moms :) ] to come purchase food to benefit the PTA. 

These future class one musicians are starting small with
corned beef can instruments!
The class’s makeshift instruments were quite impressive.  A few budding musicians played guitars made of giant ‘kapa pulu’ [corned beef] cans.  Another popular choice was a giant rum bottle [‘osi inu a.k.a. already imbibed] filled with rocks! I am not entirely sure what musical instrument this was meant to be, the cucaracha perhaps? Regardless, the kids performed wonderfully…for the most part.  A few shy youngsters were simultaneously ‘tā kītā’ [playing the guitar] and crying.  Sidenote: Tongans REALLY love to laugh.  While these few little kids were singing and crying, the crowd was ‘kata lahi’ [laughing a LOT].  At first I wanted to cry for the kids.  I felt so bad that they were frightened and uncomfortable and that all their mothers were laughing at them rather than comforting them.  However, that’s just life here.  Kids definitely grow up with tough love…..and in Tonga, we laugh at pretty much everything!  Eventually, the little boys came around and started giggling too.  It’s certainly infectious.

Here class 3 ladies perform a traditional Ta'olunga dance!
The performances continued with every class singing a song and then lining up in rank order in front of all of their parents.  At first, I will admit I was slightly mortified at just how public and straightforward the whole process was.  My heart breaks a little for the kids at the end of the line.  But, there are no secrets in Tonga and it’s not shameful to be the kid at the end of the line.  Conversely, kids seem to be teased a bit when they are really intelligent or work very hard at school.  It’s almost taboo [which ironically, is maybe the one word Tongan contributed to the English language] to be ‘fiepoto’ [essentially to want to be smart].  That is certainly something that is changing in Tonga, though.  Education is becoming more and more important to many families.  The current generation of Tongan kids is beginning to have access to the internet; and they certainly ‘sio vitio’ [aka watch movies].  Through technology they are seeing the opportunities available to them through education, and soon the scramble to the top of the ‘tānaki tu’unga’ ladder will be quite the energetic race! 

Friday, August 5, 2011

NEW ZEALAND: Mokomoko lelei!


'Mokomoko lelei' is a lovely term used in Tonga to describe the rare day when we have some cool, breezy weather!  Recently, a few friends and I traveled to New Zealand for two whole weeks of 'mokomoko lelei' days!  We started our journey in Tonga by taking a 20 hour ferry trip to the main island... quite a delight!  In New Zealand, we rented the 'El Cheapo' minivan and cruised around the North Island visiting Auckland, Whangarei, Rotorua, Napier, Wellington, and Taupo.

The trip was a much appreciated re-entry into 'clean life!'  There was a hot shower to be had every day, my feet weren't covered in mud on a daily basis, the mass of fluff on top of my head actually laid down and looked like normal hair, and most importantly there were enormous grocery stores with aisles and aisles of delicious food ripe for the taking!!!

The only downfall of this dear, sweet trip?  A nice customs official confiscated the THREE jars of delectable peanut butter I was attempting to bring back to Tonga.  Note for the future: Peanut Butter is considered a liquid.  Don't say you haven't been

Click here to peruse some NZ pictures:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Over the Hill

This year Peace Corps has reached its 50th Anniversary and that certainly seems as good a reason as any for some celebration.  Fifty years is a very long time for any organization to thrive.  If you aren’t particularly familiar with Peace Corps, here are some interesting tidbits about its past.  Peace Corps began as the result of a challenge by U.S. university students to then Senator John F. Kennedy.  The students wanted to serve their country by living and working in developing countries.  Kennedy kept his campaign promise and Peace Corps sent its first volunteers to Ghana and Tanzania in 1961.  Since its inception, over 200,000 Americans have served in over 139 countries throughout the world.

We are serious about picking up trash. We even climb into ditches!

In order to celebrate this big birthday, Peace Corps Vava’u decided to get down and dirty with a wharf clean-up.  Environmental challenges [especially littering] are a huge issue for our country.  Environmental issues are another blog for another day so I won’t get into those now.  Just know that we have a beautiful wharf area where boats from the outer islands of Vava’u glide in and park.  There is a huge food & craft market and some food stalls where I frequently purchase an egg sandwich or some fish curry!  The wharf is definitely the hub of Saturday morning activity in Vava’u.  However, this also makes it a magnet for lots of trash …hence, our project!

Here we are attempting to separate all the trash
and recycle it! [somewhat of a new concept in Vava'u]

Everyone arrived before the Tongan sun heated up to full capacity.  We donned plastic gloves and spent a few hours picking up trash.  We recruited quite a few helpers throughout the morning and accomplished a lot.  We were also able to donate two big rubbish bins (apparently only Americans say trash can!) to the market area, so hopefully people will put them to use!  We talked a bit with passers-by about Peace Corps’ big birthday and generally just had a nice, albeit dirty and stinky, morning! 
Happy Birthday Peace Corps!   

Friday, June 10, 2011

Uike Kaka [Cheating Week!]

Alright, I am going to cheat a bit this week and not write a real blog.  However, I posted some new pictures which will have to suffice.  Peace Corps & friends recently went on an island camping trip complete with hot dogs, birthday cake, and a big bonfire!  We snorkeled, relaxed, and listened to Tongan legends around the campfire [and only got rained on once!].  Definitely a successful journey.  Enjoy the pictures.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Camp GLOW --- Girls Leading Our World

Campers at Camp GLOW Vava'u 2010 pose at the end of a great week!

Every day here in Tonga, I seem to stumble upon additions to my mental list of ‘things I’ve taken for granted’ about my life and upbringing in the States.  I really need to start keeping post-it notes handy in order to create a comprehensive list.  Of course there are the luxurious conveniences of hot showers and microwaves back in the good ‘ol USA.  There is also the ultimate luxury of air conditioning!  However, I’m realizing that these palpable amenities I thought I’d be lost without…are pretty inconsequential.  ok.  Maybe they aren’t inconsequential, but I have been impressed by the human mind and body’s incredible ability to adapt.  That being said, I’ve definitely come to appreciate the more 
intangible privileges I was blessed with as
 an American kid.

Growing up, a few essential beliefs were drilled into my mind by my wonderful parents, teachers, family, and simply by growing up in in the context of American culture.  I’ve always known that my future was my own.  I believe that with integrity, hard work, and goals; the world just might be my oyster.  I know that I am a person who, just like all others, deserves to be treated with respect.  And maybe most importantly, I’ve been encouraged to dream for myself and for others.

Campers discuss issues surrounding sexual harassment. 
These thoughts are so fundamentally woven into my belief system that it has taken me a while to realize just how different Tongan culture is from my own.  This is especially evident for young women, which brings me [finally] to the reason I’m writing this post.  Despite the many wonderful things about Tonga and its culture, the values I just mentioned are rarely instilled in Tongan youth [especially girls].  Camp GLOW is a Peace Corps initiative that aims to change that!  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, assertiveness and career and life planning. 

It's not Camp GLOW without a human pyramid!
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, reproductive health, the rights of women and children, sexual harassment and domestic abuse, nutrition, first aid, and environmental responsibility. I know this all sounds like very serious business, but there is lots fun involved as well.  This is summer camp, after all! We will be singing, playing, and enjoying great company for a whole week!

As I’m sure you guessed in the first line of this post, its ending was bound to include a catch!  Unfortunately, summer camps cost quite a lot of money!  We have a lot of community support here in Vava’u [and we’ve been fundraising locally], but outside assistance is needed to really make the camp a success.  That’s where you come in…  any monetary assistance you could
provide would be greatly appreciated!              

I am including a link to the National Peace Corps website where you can read more and donate to Camp GLOW Vava’u.  No worries.  It is totally secure and 100% of your donation will directly support Camp GLOW!  [A semi-government project with transparency and no bureaucracy?  How can you resist that?]

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Put your party pants on...

It’s Church Conference time!!!  [What?  Is that not what you expected?] The past few weeks here have been filled with murmurings around town on the subject of this alleged ‘conference.’  I was a bit confused as to what all the fuss was about.  I pictured some church ‘paipa piko’ [that’s essentially bigwigs in Tongan :)] would fly in, make a few speeches, and head back to the big island.  As usual I turned out to be quite wrong.

Last week, guests began arriving in droves to our small island.  The big island ferry even rearranged its schedule and added an extra trip to Vava’u to accommodate the big crowd!  [The ferry is a delightful 18 hour trip I have yet to experience.  I’ll be sure to blog about that adventure once I work up the courage to hop on the ferry.]  Representatives from congregations all over Tonga traveled to Vava’u, as well as church members who live abroad in Australia or New Zealand. 

I myself did not have the pleasure of attending any church conference activities, but I do have some sources on the inside that filled me in on the schedule.  It appears that the days consist of a breakfast ‘fakaafe’ [feast!], malolo time [essentially, naptime], a lunch ‘fakaafe,’ malolo time, and finally a dinner ‘fakaafe.’  Now, I realize that this description is probably not actually accurate.  I’m sure there are plenty of legitimate church activities squeezed in between feasting.  In fact, during my nosy questioning of some Tongan folks I discovered that the church systems here in Tonga supposedly operate almost as democracies.  I learned that some of the many gatherings during church conference week are the meetings where the church’s big decisions are made for the year.

My previous description is based on pretty random and possibly poorly translated conversations, so we might never really know what goes down at church conferences.  I did, however, witness my own community’s involvement.  For weeks leading up the conference, I’d hear a church bell ring nearly every night.  After the tolling of said bell, people began to wander down the street towards the church hall for ‘ako hiva’ [choir practice].  For an hour or so I got to relax in the recently cool breezes of our Tongan Winter while listening to some beautiful singing! [I think 2 blocks away is the prime distance for listening to Tongan hymns… inside the church the volume is pretty much glass-shattering.]  These practices were in preparation for a big ‘pohiva’ [which literally means night sing].  Congregations from many villages dressed in snazzy all white outfits, rode into town on their village buses, and sang their hearts out.  I really wish I could have witnessed the sheer decibel power of that gathering.

Each village was also responsible for preparing food for one of the ‘fakaafe’ Conference feasts.  My village was responsible for a preparing a breakfast feast.  In my silly ‘palangi’ [foreigner] naiveté, I assumed breakfast meant a lighter fare.  Maybe we’d be preparing bread, cakes, eggs, tea, and fruit juices?  Ohhhhhhh no!  Apparently a Tongan breakfast feast is in no way ‘light.’  I got a taste of the leftovers and they included fish, octopus, beef, sausage, horse, chicken, and a variety of other really intense breakfast foods!  Oiaue!  So this was no simple meal.  It consumed families’ lives for a few days.  Kids missed school, there were special trips to town to buy supplies, and families made significant monetary sacrifices in order to provide for the fantastic feast.

Part of me watches all the events here that involve expensive feasts and the use of miles [literally] of plastic wrap with a bit of cynicism/sadness/something.  These events sometimes seem to me like a waste of families’ meager monetary resources.  Another day, another feast!  It is also slightly frustrating that money for things like my school’s electricity is often hard to come by, but thousands of pa’anga are spent on feast food.  That being said, I had a good talk with my principal about all the feasting and he told me about the Tongan value of fatongia.  Fatongia essentially means duty; duty first to God [and thus the church] and then to family.  It is a value that is central to the Tongan way of life and is taken pretty seriously.  An event like this church conference, a funeral, or even a family reunion will be undertaken with zest and unfortunately, often stretch many families beyond their means.  While I don’t know that I’ll ever fully understand fatongia and the Tongan tendency for ridiculous feasting, I absolutely respect the zeal and dedication with which the people of my community approach everything they do.  Tea and cakes for the breakfast feast?  Of course not!  Someone start roasting the pigs!!!!              

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Malo e ngaue malohi! [Thanks for your hard work!]

Is there such a thing as Teacher Appreciation Day?  I’m assuming that as we devote a whole day to celebrating trees (Happy Arbor Day!), teachers definitely deserve a day as well.  That being said, I am declaring today my own Teacher Appreciation Day!  So, if you’re a teacher in any way, shape, or form; give yourself a pat on the back today.  You have an extremely challenging and important job.

Thoughts about teachers have popped into my brain lately, possibly because two remarkable teachers from my childhood are retiring this year.  They have both been teachers for longer than I’ve been alive, and that is certainly something to celebrate.  They possess the kindness, creativity, and almost superhuman patience required of any good teacher.  I think it’s pretty amazing that these two women devoted their professional lives to teaching and they absolutely deserve a long and relaxing retirement beginning very soon!

I’ve always respected the work of teachers, but my work with Peace Corps has taken that respect to a whole new level!  I'm a pretend teacher who is, at maximum, in the classroom a few hours per day and this is still the hardest job I’ve ever had!  Although, it should be noted that my previous jobs have included McDonald’s employee, gas station attendant, concession stand worker, lifeguard, office assistant, camp counselor, and nanny.  I will be the first to admit, my previous jobs have essentially been a walk in the park [with the exception of McDonald’s, that was actually pretty challenging. ;)].  My employment history aside, the point is that I’ve realized teachers deserve a LOT of respect and admiration for their hard work.

From young teachers just beginning their years in the classroom to veteran teachers winding down after years of service… THANKS!   

Friday, May 13, 2011

Calling all POSTCARDS!

Unfortunately I have no funny anecdotes to share this week.  Instead, I have a kole si’i [little request!]!  Recently, I received a few postcards and a book of American landscape pictures from a very generous blog reader.  I assumed the kids would enjoy taking a peak at some pictures of the good ‘ol U.S.A., but it seems that I underestimated their curiosity.  The kids were literally thrilled to look at few post cards and then gaze at the world map pointing out familiar places.  When I asked them to point out the United States, more than a few pointed to China.  I think a Geography/English lesson is in our near future. ;)

Despite the kids’ limited exposure to maps/geography/travel, they are SO very interested in learning about the world outside of Tonga.  The 10 minutes we spent gazing at pictures and postcards and searching for countries on our world map is the most excited and engaged I’ve seen my students.  I can’t imagine why verb conjugation doesn’t similarly excite them?!  But, in all seriousness, it was inspiring for me to see their interest so piqued.  [Hence, my request to you today…] 

For kids who are accustomed to school lessons consisting of copying notes from the chalkboard, a picture is really worth a million words!  So, wherever you might be in this big, beautiful world….please, send us a postcard!  

Nora Graves, PCV
Peace Corps
PO Box 136
Kingdom of Tonga
         South Pacific        

Friday, May 6, 2011

Lake 'Ano

My Saturday routine usually consists of shopping for weekly essentials and hitting the market in Neiafu before hitching a ride back home to do lots of laundry and malolo [relaxing]!  However, variety is the spice of life, right? With that lovely sentiment in mind, myself and a few Peace Corps friends decided to have a little adventure on a recent Tokonaki [Saturday].

On this aforementioned Tokonaki, we all trekked to see Brandon [who is my closest Peace Corps neighbor…He lives in the village next door, which is about a 20 minute bike ride away.].  Brandon’s village is home to the only Lake in Vava’u!  The name of the lake is Lake ‘Ano.  Interestingly, ‘ano actually means lake in Tongan.  I suppose since it’s the only lake, no one felt it necessary to make up a more descriptive name. ‘Lake Lake’ it is!  We decided we’d very much like to see this ‘Lake Lake’ and swim in some fresh, non-salty water!

We all slathered on the sunscreen, filled up water bottles, and set off for the lake.  We hiked for about 30 minutes dodging quicksand-like mud puddles and hopping over enormous pig droppings.  Finally, we reached ‘Lake Lake’ and it was quite a sight to behold.  I definitely think the lake is deserving of a much more meaningful name.  The lake was much bigger than I’d expected and surrounded entirely by lush vegetation and big cliffs.  There just so happened to be a genuine ‘Tom Sawyer’ raft waiting for us at water’s edge.  We all hopped on and kicked around the lake, all the while watching for the elusive and slightly frightening eel we’d been told inhabits the lake.  No eel sightings!  However, we did see a few Tongan men out fishing in outrigger canoes. 

There we sat floating on a bunch of tied-together logs, watching men fishing in hollowed out tree trunks.  There are no buildings, cell phone towers, or other signs of modern human life.  This should spur deep thoughts on the beauty and simplicity of nature.  However, as we’ve already been tainted by pop culture, we all just keep feeling like we’re in some new episode of ‘Lost!’
After we’d thoroughly exhausted ourselves, it was time to head back to Brandon’s house and make an ‘ifo [delicious] dinner.  Lucky for us, Brandon had just received a care package with barbeque sauce [YAY!] and he was feeling generous.  We had a fantastic meal consisting of hamburgers [some mystery meat somewhat akin to ground beef had appeared in the store the day before] and barbeque chicken.  I know…how gluttonous!

Shortly after dinner, I decided it was time to hop on my bike and head home.  I was slowly tooling through Brandon’s village and saying ‘Malo e lelei [Hi!]’ to his neighbors.  I was in what I like to call the ‘Peace Corps Daze’ thinking all sorts of hippie Peace Corps thoughts.  ‘Man,  Tonga is beautiful…’ ‘I can’t believe I live here…’ ‘Is this real…?’ and so on.  Naturally, while my head is off in the clouds, one of Brandon’s charming neighbors shouts a ‘hello!’ to me and wants to give me some of the fruit she’s just picked.  Delighted, I slow to a stop and am attempting to chat with her in Tongan.  I fail to remember that my feet don’t quite touch the ground.  I wobble, attempting fruitlessly to regain my balance before I topple in slow motion into some bushes next to the road.  I, naturally, am laughing hysterically at myself while this woman is sort of quizzically staring at me.  [Sorry, no pictures captured of this moment.]

Delightful day complete with a bicycle tumble to keep me ‘grounded?’ Done and done!


Friday, April 29, 2011

Oh dear sweet electronic commerce...

Oh dear sweet electronic commerce…How I miss you!  I imagine some of you out there occasionally curse your credit cards (or perhaps just the credit card bill), but today I ask you to pay a just a little homage to that plastic marvel.  I don’t know about you, but I think I sometimes forget just how amazingly convenient electronic commerce made my life in America.  You don’t want to walk 10 feet into the gas station?  No problem… Just insert your card into the magic slot!  Don’t want to change out of your jammies and leave the house? No problem… you can buy everything on the internet!  Literally, you can even have your groceries delivered to your door! 

Why all this blabber about commerce, you ask?  Well. It all started last Saturday afternoon.  I arrived back at my village after a nice trip to ‘town.’  I began my ritual Saturday cleaning.  I swept around the house, attempted to search out and destroy an army of ants and the occasional enormous spider.  After cleaning I relaxed with a large glass of ice cold water.  Delightful!  Naturally, not soon after my beverage, I needed to take a trip to the little girls’ room. 

This is when I discovered my dilemma.  The roll of toilet paper in my bathroom was precariously small.  Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem at all.  I live right across the street from a very well stocked ‘falekoloa’ [what we call little concession stand type stores scattered around most villages].  However, I opened my wallet only to discover a $50 pa’anga note.  I know, I know… how can a Peace Corps Volunteer have big bucks like that?!  ;) The $50 P note is all the bank gives out, so we all have to discreetly go to one of the few stores that can make change for a fifty and get some small bills!

The ‘falekoloa’ by Nola’s house does not have change for a $50 and it most certainly does not take credit cards!  Thus began my week of fasting.  Juuuuuuust kidding.  I don’t have that kind of self-control.  However, I did have to utilize some tricks from my dear mom’s childhood.  The limit is apparently two toilet paper squares per child when you have a houseful of hooligans. So…I adhered to that policy and thankfully just barely made it until the end of the week.  Crisis averted! 

Moral of this story. Nola: keep an emergency fund under your pillow for toilet paper and the occasional piece of candy!  The rest of you: Be at least a little thankful for that magic plastic card!

[sidenote: I’m relatively sure my friendly ‘falekoloa’ owner, Peni, would have just given me some toilet paper if I’d asked him.  So…. maybe a crisis was not actually imminent, but it sure makes for a better story.]

Friday, April 22, 2011

Palangi Invasion!!! [The foreigners are here!]

This week, my dear home of Vava’u was quite a sight to behold.  Wednesday morning brought a giant cruise ship, the USS Cleveland, and multiple helicopters into our usually sleepy harbor.  The U.S. Navy is here in Vava’u as the first stop of their Pacific Partnership.  The Navy will visit various Pacific countries, contributing to all sorts of humanitarian projects at each stop.  Here in Tonga, they are building schools, town halls, doing water catchment projects, and providing all sorts of medical services. Verrrry nice!

School essentially screeched to a halt as the kids were enthralled by helicopters noisily buzzing around our usually quiet island.  Feasts were prepared in many villages to feed the soldiers volunteering at makeshift medical clinics and building schools in the always toasty Tongan sun.  The soldiers passed out all sorts of great ‘me’a ‘ofa’ [gifts] to Tongans.  Women received all sorts of helpful household items.  They were, surprisingly, very excited about receiving blankets. [I suppose there will be one or two chilly nights when a blanket will come in handy here!]  The Navy even bought Peace Corps volunteers a little goody package with exotic necessities like razors, shaving cream, and lotion [which were all very much appreciated!].  

It is Saturday here in Tonga, and the USS Cleveland is ‘shipping out’ on its way to another Pacific Partnership in Vanuatu.  We were ecstatic to see the Cleveland chugging into our Port of Refuge last week. This week, we’re happy to see the crew head to their next destination and for our little island to morph back into its calm and slightly sleepy state of normalcy. 

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about Pacific Partnership, here is a State Department Blog with great pictures from the mission.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Back in action! almost....

I have officially returned from my little 2 week training session in Nuku’alofa.  It was faaaaaantastic to relax and catch up with Peace Corps friends who I haven’t seen since December.  We always stay at Sela’s Guesthouse in Nuku’alofa.  It is essentially our 2nd home here in Tonga.  It’s a rambling house with a big common area where we sit for hours talking, fakakata pe [joking around], and swatting mosquitoes.   Occasionally, we worked up the energy to venture out into the city in search of some delectable palangi [which just means foreigner!] food!  I won’t bore you with the menu of each delicious meal I savored, but it was amazing to have some great restaurant food.  I think my body was thankful for the influx of vegetables considering my usual diet consists mostly of hot dogs, crackers, and far too much peanut butter.

Did I mention this was a ‘work trip?’  I know it sounds as though I was just gallivanting around for two weeks, however there were plenty of Peace Corps meetings throughout our stay!  The first week consisted of lots of TEFL activities.  We shared successful lesson plans, talked a lot about the challenges we’ve encountered thus far, and picked up new teaching resources to bring back to our sites.  The second week continued the stream of lahi ‘e ngaahi fakataha [lots of meetings!].  We had meetings on the VRF, the EAP, the TGSP, and a plethora of other acronyms.  I actually have a little Peace Corps dictionary explaining what all the acronyms mean.  Ridiculous!  We also had a lot of language training, which was great!  My Tongan is slowly, but surely improving and it was really nice to have some actual instruction again. […although I am actually learning a lot just by teaching my kids English!]    

All in all, IST [in service training…and yet another acronym] was a great experience.  It was nice to take a break from my usual routine and, of course, exciting to catch up with friends.  I am headed back to site rejuvenated, ready to dive in to a few new projects, and generally just happy with life.

1.       I know the videos below don’t work. My computing skills apparently are not that impressive.  You can see the videos if you visit my web albums, though!
2.       That was really the only sidenote I had.  Toki Sio! 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Livin' Large in the City

Hello All!

Be forewarned that this is a cop-out blog post.  I am essentially just writing to say I am on hiatus/vacation for 2 weeks in Nuku'alofa.  Nuku'alofa is the capital of Tonga and the biggest city.  I live in Vava'u the island group that is farthest away from Tongatapu (the island that Nuku'alofa is located on).  It took us about an hour plane flight to travel here.  This time we had the pleasure of flying on a 20 seater airplane with shag carpeting on the seats...quite retro!

We are here for 2 weeks of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Training and IST (In Service Training).  But really, it's just a great time to reunite with all of the great Peace Corps kids I've been missing, gorge myself on delicious restaurant food, and take (semi) hot showers!  Paradise!

I'll be back with real blogs in a few weeks. Toki Sio friends!


Saturday, March 26, 2011

'Aho Sipooti! [Sports Day!]

Picture your average track and field meet.  From my vast experience (a.k.a. a one year track career in high school), I thought I knew essentially what to expect when my school participated in our first track meet.  There would be a few races, parents watching from the stands, and well…that’s about it.  As it turns out, I got more than I bargained for.

Our journey to the track meet began with cramming 15 kids + Nola into the back of a small truck.  During our ride, the kids sang victory songs, taunting all the towns we passed along the way. When we arrived, all the moms staked out a nice viewing spot and laid down their ‘fala’ (woven mats that a good Tongan mom doesn’t leave home without!).  No event in Tonga can begin without a prayer, so next a ‘faifekau’ [minister] stood up and delivered a quite thorough prayer/sermon blessing our brave runners!  Next, to kick off the day’s events, kids from each school lined up with big banners and proceeded to march around the track like miniature soldiers. 

As the races began, most families rested under giant tents set up for each team.  You do NOT sit under the hot Tongan sun all day; a tent is quite the necessity!  As I glanced around, I realized there was a very disproportionate female to male ratio under said tents.  I was a little confused, because I assumed dads would love to come cheer the kids on.  Alas, my confusion subsided when I spotted the rolling Kava-mobile!  [I think I’ve talked about it before, but Kava is a traditional drink made from the kava plant’s root.  Men frequently have kava circles where they sit, imbibe, and talk about life while enjoying the relaxing effects of Kava]  One of the local guys decided to brew up a big batch of Kava and turn the back of his truck into a flatbed Kava circle in honor of Sports Day.

I thought I was all set to be a great spectator during Sports Day.  However, I somehow ended up as the official 2nd Place name recorder.  After each race, our 2nd place runner would scamper over to my table and I’d attempt to record his or her name.  HOLY MOLY!  I was not adequately prepared for this task.  I strained to hear the kids’ names as ‘Mambo Number 5’ blared next to me.  I may also have been distracted by the group of moms [and a few dads as well] groovin’ right out there in lane number one.  Between races, they’d head out to the field and dance as I’ve never witnessed moms dancing before! [more on that in future posts…]  During all of this hoopla, I am still attempting to decipher Tongan names.  Unfortunately, there are no Jane Smith’s here.   After I asked the kid to repeat himself about 7 times, I finally had a name like ‘Epalahame Vea Vaimo’unga written down.  I am assuming most of my name interpretations were pretty incorrect, but oh well! I tried.

In classic Tongan fashion, we also had some ‘taimi malolo’ [break time!].  The whistling and cheering abruptly came to a halt.  In fact, almost all chatter ceased.  Why, you ask?  Because it is ‘taimi kai’ [time to eat] of course!  Moms unloaded giant baskets filled with enough roasted pork, hot dogs, chicken, and yams to feed an army.  As usual, multiple moms set food in front of Nola laughing and insisting that I needed to ‘kai ke mate!’ [which essentially means eat until you die.  It’s quite a popular phrase here :) ]

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my first Tongan track meet.  It was extremely well organized and included a DJ, dancing moms, a full Tongan lunch feast, and even the rolling Kava-mobile.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch a track meet the same way again…

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Garden Fairies

One constantly enduring aspect of my Peace Corps service is its unpredictability.  It’s true that I have a generally structured schedule working at school each day.  However, there is always the unknown ‘X’ factor.  Every day I think I have life here a bit more figured out, but each day I experience at least one little surprise that reminds me I’m not in Missouri anymore [that might be funny if I were from Kansas].

Yesterday’s surprise came in the form of garden fairies!  First, you must understand that the yard surrounding my little house has always been a bit of a mess.  When I first moved in, there was not much grass to be seen.  The yard consisted of lots of tall weeds, rocks everywhere, and a mountain of old coconut shells. [People here feed pigs coconuts and accumulate quite a lot of shells.  My yard was apparently the neighborhood graveyard for coconut shells!] 

Slowly but surely the yard has been improving.  When the grass/weeds get out of control, a kind PTA soul comes over with a weedwacker [the most popular yard maintenance machine here, followed closely by big machetes…] and tames my yard.  My contribution to the yard work has been moving rocks around.  There are a few parts of my fence where my neighbors’ pigs are attempting to burrow underneath the fence in order to come leave pig poo gifts.  To battle them, I wander around my yard picking up rocks and then masterfully shoving them under the fence to create a pig proof rock barrier. 

Essentially, even after a weedwacking/rock moving session my yard was still a sad sight.  My dear neighbor, Mele Lose [who is 78 and loves to hobble over to my house to chat], always sits on my front steps and peering into my yard mumbles things like ‘faka ‘ofa’ and ‘palaku.’  She is saying that the yard is pitiful and ugly and a variety of other chatterings that I don’t understand.  : ( 

The moms did a wonderful job directing the very helpful kids.
  'Plant that one a little to the left, eh?'
They may be sitting now, but a minute ago the lovely ladies were
toiling away in the garden!
Here is where the Garden Fairies come in!  Yesterday, 4 ladies and an assortment of kids appeared at my front gate with brooms, shovels, and plants!  Everyone went to work sweeping grass, burning huge piles of grass, picking up the never ending supply of rocks, and finally creating a little garden for Nola.  I sat with some of the kids reading Dr. Seuss books while my pitiful weed collection turned into a respectably maintained yard.  Now… you can confirm with my ‘Master Gardener’ mother that I’ve never been one to pine after plants.  But, my new little garden made me pretty much ecstatic.  I suppose my delight stems not actually from the garden, but from the kindness shown to me by these lovely ladies.  It is not as if they were at home reading Vogue Tonga and needed further entertainment.  More likely, these women left piles of laundry and unfinished cooking and cleaning in order to come help me. 

I am continually impressed and humbled by the generosity of my Tongan community.  I only hope I can keep my new plants alive, so that my Garden Fairies’ work has not been in vain.      

Friday, March 11, 2011

TIT: Transportation in Tonga

Transportation in Tonga should really be a spectator sport or maybe a math problem.  The truck rolls to a stop; 4 people, a dog, and three chickens hop off and 3 people and a pig hop on.  How many people are in the truck now? Who knows?!?  But mo’oni [really!], transportation in Tonga has been quite the adventure thus far.  My trips to the big city [which I think may only consist of about 1,000 people] begin and end with an always interesting transportation adventure.

On my way into town, I usually hitch a ride with my town’s school bus.  There is no high school in my village so the kids are bussed into Neiafu each day.  This transportation adventure commences around 6:45 when I hear the ‘warning whistle.’  I am still not exactly sure of the schematics, but it seems as though each week some lucky kid has the task of being everyone’s alarm clock.  Aforementioned lucky kid, runs around town with a big whistle alerting everyone that it’s almost ‘taimi alu!’ [time to go!].  About 15 minutes later, the bus starts honking its horn and it is really time to go!  I hurriedly finish my oatmeal and scurry out the door. 

Sometimes I get the honor of sitting up front with the driver.  The kids all pile into the back of the bus, which is actually not a bus at all.  It is a giant flatbed truck with benches and a big tarp protecting the kids from the ‘vela la’a mo ‘uha’ [hot sun and rain]!  We begin our journey out of town honking along the way.  It is quite humorous to watch as the ‘tomui’ [late] kids come running out of their houses as we drive by.  If the driver is feeling extra kind, he’ll stop the bus.  If not, it’s time for a little ‘fakamalohisino’ [exercise]!  The kids get a little extra track practice by performing a run, leap, and land to get on the bus! 

This picture was taken a few months ago during Pre-Service Training.
It was one of our first suto 'hitchhiking' experiences in Tonga!
The real fun begins when I attempt to ‘foki mei kolo’ [return from town]!  There is a big market in Neiafu that is the hub for Saturday morning shopping and gossip.  It is also the unofficial suto pe [hitchhiking] headquarters.  I usually make my way to the market around 11 am hoping to catch lots of people returning home.  Some days, I arrive and am immediately plucked up by some kind soul and plopped in the back of their pick-up truck.  Whenever this happens, I feel as though there has been some divine intervention on my behalf.  Glorious!!!!

Most days though, it goes a bit more like this. Today, Nola arrived at the market around 11.  I chit-chatted with some ladies from my village who work at the market.  They listed off a few people who had just recently departed.  Naturally, I arrived after a parade of cars had just headed back home.  After this discovery, I hung out playing with the kids, watching for people from my town, and then attempting to remember their names.  Finally, the market began winding down and a very kind lady said ‘Nola, ha’u!’[Come with us!].  I hop in the car, happy to be heading home.  A bit of laundry, lunch, and ‘malolo’ [relaxing!]  were now only 20 minutes away.  Or so I thought.  Two hours later, I finally reached my front door.  We had stopped at about 5 different stores, stopped to chat with friends, stopped to do a little passenger ‘musical chairs,’ stopped to help a stalled truck get moving, and [naturally] stopped to let some cows cross the road. 

Transportation it seems, like every other part of life in Tonga, moves along to the beat of a unique drum [and the tempo is just a bit slower than I’m accustomed to].  So, I have realized that there is no such thing as a direct drive from point A to B.  However, there is usually certain to be at least a little adventure between A and home.  …and if no adventure, an invitation to the family’s Sunday meal makes any sweaty 2 hour trek well worth it!

side note 1: new pictures are up!

side note 2: We are all safe and sound in Tonga.  We had a Tsunami warning, but Vava'u is
one of the safest harbors on earth!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Heeeellllllllooooo Vava'u!

This week I had the pleasure of accompanying my good friend and fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Stereo Sephora, to her radio show.  Miss Sephora loves gracing the airwaves and quickly got involved with radio when we arrived in Tonga.  Yesterday, on my weekly field trip to the big city, I joined her and tried my hand at the radio biz.  Vava’u has a grand total of two radio stations that play quite the variety of music.
I’ve mentioned before the strange variety of music popular here [remember? a plethora of Bieber Fever, Mariah Carey, and any song  Bob Marley-fied!].  There are DJs here that create some bizarre and fantastic mixes.  Have you ever wished to hear a Queen song with just a few Lil’ John ‘Oh Yeahs’ mixed in?  Well.  If so, come on over to Tonga and your wish shall be granted. 

Luckily, during my foray into radio with Stereo Sephora, we played the classics.  DJ Nautical Nora sent some Styx and Steve Miller Band out into the airwaves.  Sephora has some amazing taste in music and plays lots of tunes from the 40s and 50s.  I have much to learn, but I’d say my first radio experience was a great time.  Highlights included a request from a listener who calls himself the 'midnight falcon.'  I spent two hours sitting in an old shipping container [pretty fancy station location, eh?], shooting the breeze with a good friend and some good music.  Just another Friday afternoon in Tonga, eh?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Day in the Life of Nola

                It is pretty hard to describe my life and experiences here through blogs, emails, and pictures.  I am even able to communicate with folks back home via telephone, which is amazing! [In some Peace Corps locales, I wouldn’t be so lucky.]  However, it feels like trying to explain a movie that you’re never going to see.  I can tell you about the characters, the plot, and some exciting scenes.  Alas, even if I was a stellar storyteller there would be so much left unsaid.  

I suppose that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.  …and who am I kidding?  All you really want/need to know are the highlights.  Even if you could watch my imaginary Peace Corps ‘movie’ in its totality, I don’t think you’d want to.  The reality is that my life here is, in many ways, just like yours and just like mine was back home [possibly more akin to C-SPAN than a thrilling blockbuster].  So, for future blogging ventures you’ll be getting just the highlights.  However, as a one-time only treat today I present ‘A Day in the Life of Nola…’

4:30 am            Reach semi-conscious state because bells for early morning church have begun ringing. [Luckily, that’s only Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.]

5:00 am            Sometimes…. sleeping!  Sometimes… I am listening to the very enthusiastic singing voices of the churches down the street from my house.

6:00 am            Definitely awake now.  I don’t even need an alarm!  There are always roosters and pigs making a ruckus and sometimes people like to crank up the tunes before breakfast [this can include anything from Justin Bieber to Celine Dion to various rap artists to LOTS of Taylor Swift to Josh Groban to old school Mariah Carey Christmas songs].  This doesn’t happen all the time and I really don’t mind. How could I be mad when Josh Groban + squealing pigs are serenading me on a lovely Tongan morning?

7:00 am            I’ve just finished doing a few sit ups [let’s be serious, this doesn’t happen every day] and taking a shower.  Some days, I boil a pot of water and use it to take a warm shower!  [By warm shower, I mean I take a cold shower and then pour warm water over my head before hopping out.  It feels better than it sounds!]
7:30 am            Now I eat breakfast, the best meal of the day!  If I have bread, I love a good piece of toast.  Often, I eat oatmeal and a banana which is great too. [note: appreciate your pre-sliced bread America! Without the help of slicing machines, I am forced to eat texas-toast sized slices and use way too much peanut butter!] 

8:00 am            I clean up around the house and begin my trek to school.  Sometimes this includes turning around, because I tend to forget my ‘kie kie.’  [The ‘kie kie’ is my traditional Tongan woven belt/waist garnish that is worn in formal settings. aka…every day at school!]  Luckily, it’s a very short walk!

8:30 am            The bell [which is actually an old propane tank] rings.  All the kids line up, sing the national anthem, pray, and then head to their respective classrooms.

9:00 am            After opening ceremonies ;) I usually wander over to our school ‘office/library.’  I spend a bit of time sorting and cleaning books with intermittent visits from my friend, Pita.  He’s 4.  He comes and chats with me [I apparently do not yet have the equivalent of a 4 year old’s vocabulary because he confuses me sometimes!] and sometimes I attempt to read to him in English.  Naturally, he just wants to look at the pictures.

10:30 am          Taimi Malolo!  Recess!  During recess, I usually find at least 15 kids who want to have story-time! 

12:30 pm          Kai Ho’ata! Lunch time!  Snack time/laundry/last minute preparations for class!

1:30 pm            English Class!  I have about an hour long lesson with the 20 Class 6 kids.  This week we’re learning about ‘Shopping’ words!

4:00 pm            Now, I’m off to our Community Library.  I am hoping that soon, this will be a time for high school kids to come read, work on homework, etc.  During our first two days, it has been a literal circus with running, screaming kids, lots of mud, and giant bugs. We’ll see what next week brings.

6:00 pm            Home, sweet home.  It’s time to feed the dog.  Did I mention I have a dog?  This did not occur by choice.  She adopted me.  I make some dinner [which is occasionally a bowl of cereal :) ], have a cup of tea, and read a bit.

9:30 pm            Mohe! [Sleep!]  I don’t go to bed this early every night, but I will admit it is beginning happen quite often.  Sometimes if I’ve had too much tea I manage to stay awake until 10:30 or 11:00.  This is a wild life I lead.

This Week’s Update:

§  I am officially the Class 6 English teacher and very happy about it.  This is going to be quite an adventure, as I have pretty much no teaching experience!  I am enjoying it already, but if anyone has any tidbits of teaching advice I would gladly accept it!

§  We have had 6 straight days of non-stop rain this week. Oiaue!! [that’s an ‘Oh my!’ if I haven’t told you already.]  I got my first opportunity to use a blanket last night.  It was delightful!

§  Osi! [That’s it!]  I hope I haven’t bored you with this far too detailed account of my daily activities. ; )

Have a wonderful week in the states!