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!