Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF)

Well, I now officially have less than a month left here, and I have been busy tying up loose ends here and preparing for the next chapter. Which is what? Good question.

I leave the beautiful islands of Tonga, my home for the past two years, November 18th on a plane headed for a slightly bigger, more "advanced" island nation: New Zealand. I fly in on a morning flight, then I will find my way into the main city of Auckland, find a backpackers hostel to put my stuff down in, then find a place to get my haircut (it's been nearly a year since I've had a real haircut). That's about as far as I have gotten in terms of specific planning for the next five months. In general, I will be traveling around New Zealand (maybe with short trips to Samoa and Australia of cheap tickets come up?) WWOOF-ing. WWOOF stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms and basically you stay at a house/ farm/ eco-lodge for a week (or sometimes much longer) at a time, providing an extra set of hands for labor and learning about sustainable living, organic growing principles. Depending on where you are staying, you could find youself involved in any of the following:

- stone carving
- beekeeping/honey
- freeform earth house construction
- olive, apple, citrus, almond, avocado, persimmion, feijoa growing
- alpaca farming
- winemaking, cheesemaking, preserving
- seafood gathering
- Weeding and more weeding (chemical sprays are not used)

I first heard about WWOOF-ing from travelers coming through Tonga that had just been in New Zealand and done it. Everyone I talked to who had done it had the best things to say about the experience; they met great people, got a real feel for New Zealand culture by living with families, and found it was a cheap way to travel and do something different outside of the "tourist traps" (think Lord of the Rings bus tours). Generally, depending on what you work out with your host, you work 4-5 hours a day, then have the afternoon free to explore, go on a bushwalk, kayak, climb a mountain...again it depends on where you are and what you have worked out with the host. You are usually provided three meals a day and a warm, dry place to sleep. Here are some examples of host sites:

"Mulching, mowing, weeding and planting, woodwork, making a pizza oven, making music, boating, eating! We're developing a small vegetable garden and orchard to feed ourselves. Ben's building a shed and the house is constantly being improved so there's always something to do for tool-handy folk, whether it's mosaic-ing, woodworking, or simply renovation. And when we're done with ALL that, there's kayaks, the ocean and maybe a sail...Ben plays a variety of windy instruments in various styles! We also have a piano" "Our mixed fruit orchard is on the ourskirts of the small town of Renwick, situated in the heart of Marlborough wine country. In the summer work is primarily harvesting blueberries and plums that we sell at the Farmer's Market on the weekend. Other orchard work includes weeding, thinning, and mowing. Accommodation is a self-contained cottage within walking distance of the PO, pubs and shops. There are bicycles for you to use with 20 wineries and the river nearby. We have been biogrow certified organic growers for 22 yrs."


"Planting trees, organic veg garden and orchard, bush tracks. Earth buildings. Small holding farming- Cattle, chickens and goats. We are a family of 4 with two boys 10 and 12 yrs, working towards self sufficiency and guardianship of this wonderful land. We enjoy snorkeling, kayaks, swimming, fishing, bush walks and great food. The guest accommodation is very comfortable with lots of space and own bathroom. It is best if you email or call in advance to book in. This helps us organise materials and projects with woofers."

And another:

"Following organic principles since '91...wood fired bakery (trad. swiss and italian style bread) and pizzeria in log building. Grow various trees, firewood, fruit tress, berries, and lots of topsoil. Creek provides power for the dwelling and solar panels heat the water. Accommodation in a separate hut or teepee. Within biking distance of a forest park, mountains, close to clear swimming holes in the river as well as horse riding."

And then there's this place:

"Developing fruit crops, herbs for health...firewood this is a clothes optional venue, woofers are invited to work 'au natural'..."


I am hoping to see a lot of New Zealand, meet a lot of interesting people, get my hands a bit dirty, and learn a ton. Oh, and take hot showers. Lots and lots of hot showers, many probably solar heated.

So...that's the plan, and I am excited.

I was cruising facebook last week (time well spent...not) and saw one of my friends had posted something about his new Mac Book Pro 15, which got me to thinking that I will be in the market for a new computer when I return, which brought me to the Apple website. Big mistake. Huge. Fifteen minutes later I got up from the computer entirely overwhelmed and confused, my head spinning with the words "FaceTime," "Retina display," "Video Calls," and the phrase, "Multitasking- done the right way." And all that was just about the iPod! I didn't even bother trying to figure out what the hell the iPad was. Somebody, please, enlighten me- I can't tell if the iPhone and the iPod do significantly different things. So, apparently now you can talk with your friends through the iPod, eliminating the need for a phone, and listen to all your music on your iPhone, eliminating the need for an iPod. Am I missing something here? As far as I can tell people are now watching TV, recording video, playing games with people in China, and avoiding legitimate human interactions on both. I resolved to redouble my efforts to learn morse code. Just kidding, but I did decide my first generation Nokia phone is getting unlocked and coming back with me, just in case these space gadgets prove to be impossible to navigate.

I read two really interesting books lately. Actually both took me months to read, but for different reasons.

The first is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book took me many months to read because you have to be in a very particular mood and setting to get through it. It's not a book you can read while sitting in front of the telly and text messaging at the same time. In fact I found it's best read on a secluded white sand beach, with only the sound of whales singing in the background. In lieu of that, a quiet, naturally lit room and comfortable chair will suffice. And you won't track as much sand across the floor that way. Now, a week or so removed from finishing this book, to be honest, I'm still not sure if I liked it. I didn't really get into the book until about halfway through, it is a book that requires a lot of the reader and in some parts I had to force myself to drudge through, but in the end it was worth it. And, as a bit of a spoiler alert, it's not really about motorcycle maintenance, it's about...well, that's hard to answer; I have a feeling I could read this book many different times and come up with a different answer each time. Bottom line: It is tedious, but worth it if you're looking for something a little different to read, it will expand your mind at least a little.

Second book: The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World's Most Astonishing Number. I will admit that I'm a bit of a nerd, but this book is for everyone. This book took me months to read because I was saving it. Every time I was in a bad mood I would read a few pages and soon find myself laughing out loud in wonder. It can be pretty math-heavy, but it's very accessible (I haven't taken a real math class in 9 years), comprehensive, and most of all it's fun. It can be a very quick read, but I enjoyed dragging it out and reading a few pages at a time. Oh, and it's about the irrational Phi, or 1.6180339887....the history of the number, popular myths, and most interestingly- how, and why, it pops up in unexpected places...

Anyway, I don't normally do book reviews here, but those two were the most interesting books I've read in a while, so let me know what you think if you get a chance to read them!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

That time of year again

This morning I escorted my class six students to their exams, taken in the main village on the island. They couldn't have come too soon. For the past year these kids (class six) have been preparing for these exams, almost exclusively, and not just during the regular school day. They have been coming backk to school every evening, all year for night school to study for the exams. During school holidays they have been coming to school, they came every morning before school started because "morning class" was being held. The past month has been especially busy for them, taking only a short break in the afternoon to shower and eat. By the way, these kids are ten and eleven years old. The last few weeks I was sure they were going to lose their minds. (last year the exams got pushed back a week at the last minute because of a tsunami, the kids went a little crazy) But we made it to the exams, they are finished today (which also means, for all educational purposes, school is finished today) and we will celebrate their return this afternoon with a village feast.

Why, you might ask, is so much importance placed on these tests? Well, I generally don't advocate "teaching to a test," however these tests carry a lot of weight. They determine not only where, but if a student will attend secondary school next year. In many ways, how well the kids do on this test determines their future. If they do well enough, they have the opportunity to go to school on the main island on a scholarship (and from there potentially university overseas), if they do poorly enough they do not qualify for any secondary school, and that most likely ends their formal education. At eleven years old. (They are reportedly getting rid of the class six exam, or at least making it less high-stakes, but that change-over was supposed to take place my first year here, then this word yet. Tonga time.) So we have been working hard to prepare the kids for these exams, splitting the night classes between the two teachers and I and working over the school holidays. But the kids have been there for every extra session (they are not seen as optional). As I walked them to the test site today their nervous energy was palpable, manifesting itself in outbursts of crazy singing and laughing among the girls and playful aggression among the boys. The kids dressed up in their best, cleanest school uniforms, and brought new pens and whole, unbroken rulers. They looked sharp. I left them with the old, Bob the Builder "Can we do it?" To which they pumped their fists in the air and yelled, "Yes we can!" And they were off. As I walked away, I couldn't help but look back and feel so proud of them for all their hard work; I knew they were as prepared as they would ever be.

Walking back into the village I passed one of the high school girls walking into town and asked her why she wasn't in school. She told me she was making food for the feast later, which evidently takes priority over school.

A few weeks ago the kids all showed up to school on a Thursday not in their school uniforms. I asked my first class of the day, class 3 why, but they couldn't explain it very well, they just kept telling me because there was an earthquake in New Zealand. Finally I met with class six, and they explained that they were doing a fundraiser to help New Zealand after the big earthquake there last month. The kids are required to wear their school uniform to school every day, except for Wednesday when their mothers wash their uniforms. If they don't wear their uniforms on a day they're supposed to, they have to pay the principal (and they usually get a bit of a lashing as well). Well, for the fundraiser they were told to wear whatever clothes they wanted and to pay the fine, which then got donated to New Zealand (no lashings this day). I thought that was not only a pretty cool idea, but also pretty proactive and generous by the village and students, considering not many families are in a position to give away money. The school ended up raising $46 pa'anga for the cause, which I thought that was really special.

Garden Update:

Well, about half of the garden sprouted, I think some of the seeds I was using were old, but what did come up is growing really well. So what came up? Well, that's the strange part. I have three or four huge, beautiful red radishes from the mystery seeds, which I have no idea what to do with. I also have a couple really great sprouts of leafy lettuce. More inexplicably, I have two papaya trees growing that I didn't plant, and three watermelon vines (also which I did not plant) coming up where I planted tomatoes. But, I'm in no position to complain (just be baffled), at this point I'll be happy with whatever grows. Oh, and I also have two vegetables growing that I have no idea what they are because I think the actual vegetable must be growing underground. But the tops of them are beautiful, thick green leaves. So more surprises to come!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dear Group 76, What to Expect When You're Expecting (to come to Tonga)

HA! Expectations are for people who eat dates to stay regular. Just kidding. But really, don't bother trying to imagine what the next two years of your life will be like- you won't get close. I'll tell you a bit about what the last two years of my life has been like, but your experience will be very different, you can count on it.

First of all, congratulations on recieving your invitations and completing the fakahela (tiresome) application process! When group 75 came last year, I learned many of them had studied up on Tonga and found their way to my blog. So I thought I'd give you guys a quick welcome.

Right about now, if you're anything like I was, you probably are up at night with visions of white sand beaches and palm trees sashaying through your head. As you can tell from my pictures and those of other volunteers, those things are not in short supply.

As you know you'll be coming in as part of the TECEP (Tonga Expanded Community Education Project) program, which means, in some form or another, you will be an educator. Before you panic, realize that that can take many different forms. We have volunteers here teaching computer skills and assessing technological needs, running libraries, working with businesses, and teaching in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. Ideally you will be placed in a site that utilizes your skills and training. That said, be prepared for that NOT to be the case, as it does not always happen.

Every volunteer does something different, and there is no "standard" job description. Your primary assignment and schedule will be something you and your counterpart work out together, usually the week before school begins. Some volunteers are overloaded with classes, this was not the case for me. I found myself having to create work to keep me busy which included developing a library, a remedial reading program and teaching night school classes to high school students. It's been said before, but I'll say it again, this experience will be what you make of it. For many volunteers sitting in yous house watching movies all day IS an option (albeit not a very fulfilling one).

Here's a brief overview of what I did yesterday:

I was awakened at 7 by the students on their way to school (which officially starts at 8:30, but class six is preparing for big exams next month). My house, and many volunteer houses, is located on the schoolyard. I teach four classes from 8:30-12:30 every day, but my schedule had to be scrapped because the island nurse came by to give the kids H1N1 shots. We improvised, being flexible and improvising is very important to staying sane here, when school schedules are constantly changed and interrupted by teacher absences, tsunami warnings, inexplicable half days, and holidays you weren't aware existed.

After school, I revised my lessons for the week due to the vaccination interruption, cooked lunch (you WILL cook), checked to see if my neighbors' house was open so I could use the internet (it wasn't) and spent the afternoon reading. It was a cold rainy day, so no chance to get out for a swim or to the beach.

After school let out I opened the library for the kids to come in and play cards, read, color, do homework, and generally hang out. Normally I would have had night school with class six in the evening, followed by night school with the high school girls, but there was a special youth program in the main village on the island which I headed to with the rest of the village youth. Each village performed some traditional (and a few not so traditional) dances, songs, and skits. The day before I had asked a boy in the village what time I should go to 'Ohonua to watch the performances. He told me to go when I finished school at 12:30. Luckily, I've been here long enough to know better. I waited for the message that the event was actually beginning then headed out. It was 5:30. The program was terrific, a lot of fun, and most of the island showed up to watch.

After the program finished I walked home with the youth from my village and called it a night.

When I started my service two years ago, my school was fully staffed with three teachers and myself. At the beginning of this school year we were down to two, having lost the class 3/4 teacher to marriage. Tight, but manageable. A few months into the school year the principal, who doubled as the class 1/2 teacher, fell sick and left school. There is not such thing as substitute teachers here, so that left the class 5/6 teacher and I to cover the school. Unfortunately the only thing I could effectively teach was English as all the other subjects need to be taught in Tongan and my language was not yet god enough to teach science, math, and Tongan history in Tonga. After a mere week we knew that we couldn't go on like that, and pleaded the ministry to send backup, which thankfully, they did. We had someone from the ministry helping out for a few months before finally receiving a trained, permanent replacement teacher. This is not uncommon, many volunteers face similar difficulties in their primary assignments. The importance of being flexible and maintaining a sense of humor cannot be overemphasized.

I don't want to get too much into what you should and shouldn't pack, other volunteers seem to have covered that pretty thoroughly. But I disagree with some of them when they say, "PACK AS MUCH AS YOU CAN!!!!!!!!!!!" Look, you're not coming to a deserted island (most likely, haha), people live here, and you will be living among those people and, in theory, in a similar manner to which they live. You can find everything you need here. I was well under the packing weight limit, and guess what? I made it work. You will too, and I think you'll find it's not so bad.

Okay, just one more note- computers. Just about every volunteer has one. I came here and spent my first year without one, then when my Mom came to visit she brought me my laptop. Computers are a great way to pass the time, you can watch a movie, obsess over you spider solitaire win percentage (48% on medium difficulty, longest win streak=7. Challengers welcome) and maybe if the island you're on has a guesthouse, connect to wireless internet. That said, I'm really glad I didn't have my computer for the first year. The lack of mind-numbing distractions forced me to go out and socialize more, and also gave me the opportunity to spend time on more productive things- I learned guitar, read like a fiend, and figured out how to entertain myself without gadgets. I also have to say that now that I have my computer, I'm really glad to have it. I think it's important to have an escape sometimes, a distraction, get away from your thoughts for a couple of hours and remember how different out culture is (as so accurately protrayed by Hollywood). Recently I gave my computer to my neighbors. They had internet set up, but they sent their computer to a different island, so we set up my computer in their house and now it's the village computer, which is fine with me. Once again, I'm finding my time better spent not having a computer at my disposal. On a side note, computers don't often last two years here due to humidity and bugs eating them (yup), so if you are bringing your computer consider a dry bag and one of those bead-y moisture-sucker things.

Well, this certainly turned into a long welcome note. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact me, here is my e-mail:

I look forward to meeting you guys, enjoy your last month of..well, everything


P.S. Don't let the crab video scare you too much- I'm a big baby when it comes to those kind of things. And I don't know any other volunteer who has found crabs in their house.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Turtle soup, anyone?

First off, let me say, I have tried, several times, to upload the subsequent mid-night crab escapade videos with no success. I have resolved to try once more, but not today. I haven't the time nor the patience today.

But I figured I should give everyone a little update anyway, let you all know what I've been up to these last few weeks.

First of all, I've been spending a lot of time at the beach. My school schedule gives me midday off, and since it's warming up I've been getting out a lot. I'm also getting restless/claustrophobic and have been wandering the island a lot. I'm becoming more and more aware of how little time I have left on this beautiful little untouched, playground-of-an-island, and I'm trying to enjoy the good parts while I can. The beach I usually go to is about 40 minutes away, and on the way I stop to pick oranges or guava to enjoy on the sand. I see whales every single time I go there. Normally I pretty much have the beach to myself, but the most recent outing I found myself sharing the beach with a group of 12 or 15 palangis (tourists, westerners). Annoying. They strolled by, barely managing to say hi to me, the stripped down to their bathing suits and sprawled out with their magazines and what looked to be the latest Candace Bushnell novel. Not ten minutes after they had settled in a huge whale jumped, nearly clearing the water, right outside the rocks. Not one of them noticed. For a half hour this whale breached, jumped, spy-hopped, spouted, and swam on it's side with one fin in the air. He was clearly begging for attention, and not getting any from these tourists. I sat and shared the experience with a young Tongan schoolboy and together we marveled at the sight. I briefly entertained the idea of walking over and alerting them to the beautiful scene in front of them, but it just didn't seem right to interrupt them. I can only hope that they go home and tell their friends, "Eh, the beaches were okay- nothing special."

Walking back from the beach I came across a group of Tongans sitting in the middle of the road drinking green coconuts. They invited me to join them, which I did happily, having left my water bottle at home. Coming back into the schoolyard the kids raced to greet me. It's pretty gratifying that after being here nearly two years they still run to greet me. Gosh, I hadn't seen them in nearly three hours. They wanted to show me the work they had done in the garden. I've assigned volunteer students to "garden duty" every day (except Sunday, of course) so that the garden doesn't completely go to shit when I leave. As it turns out, they are much better gardeners than I am, which really, at this point, should come as no surprise. Anyway, the boys on garden duty took it upon themselves to spruce up the garden a bit by making a limestone rock path around the edges. It was beautiful. They told me that next week they're going to do the outside of the garden. I'm always amazed at the lengths that these kids will go to to please me, I'm not sure what I did to deserve it, but I certainly appreciate it.

Another afternoon I got to the beach and took a climb out on the rocks to assess the swimmability of the ocean that day. I observed in the short distance a guy on a dugout, outrigger canoe and two more guys in the water spearfishing. The man waved at me and I waved back and watched him bobbing up and down in the waves for a bit. The next time I looked up he was waving something rather large in the air, trying to get my attention. I couldn't tell quite what it was, but he was clearly excited about his catch and I threw my arms in the air to share in his triumph. An hour or so later he and his buddies paddled in and I got to see their prize close up: a leathery sea turtle, maybe two feet in length. As it turns out, I knew these guys, or rather they knew me, and we got to talking about how they were going to prepare the turtle. Soup, naturally. The fisherman met his three-year old son on the beach, who, of course, wanted to carry the turtle. They walked off down the beach together, side-by-side, with the young boy struggling to keep up with a turtle nearly as big and he was in his arms.

My Close of Service conference is next week, and I suppose that's when the fact that this is all coming to an end will really start to sink in. So far my emotions are put it mildly. I'm thinking about the fact that I haven't locked my door in nine months, and a few weeks ago I slept over at another volunteers house and came home to find my door wide open...and nothing touched inside (My door doesn't latch very well, has a tendency to swing open). When I'm hungry I can walk into the bush behind the school, and depending on the season, eat my fill of guava, papaya, oranges, mangoes or bananas. Teaching here is, I think, about as fun and rewarding as it gets. In fact, I'm pretty certain I'll never be able to enjoy teaching anywhere else again. Hopefully I'll never have to find out. I think every post I lament about how incredible the kids here are, but just in case it's not clear to everyone, I'll say it again...these kids are phenomenal. Two weeks ago I was called out of my house by one of my neighbors returning from the bush. He wanted to give me a giant bushel of bananas.

On the other hand, it's time for me to move on. If I don't leave soon, my neighbors dog might kill me. For some reason this dog and I have never had a problem with each other until now. But all of the sudden we have major beef. I can't walk into their yard without getting attacked, and I've narrowly escaped getting bitten several times by pretending I have rocks in my hands that I am about to launch at this dog. Recently I've taken to carrying a log through the yard to protect myself, which the dogs' owners insist is the reason the dog is attacking me. My attempts to explain that the dog attacked me before I started carrying the log, and that the log was a result of the attacks are futile. But there's no way I will walk through that yard unprotected, and their yard is unaviodable. I think it's because the dog just realized I'm white. Seriously, he hasn't taken issue with anyone else in the village.

My clothes are all moldy and shapeless, I'm tired of sleeping in a hammock, and this island is starting to feel smaller by the day. I'm over being the focus of village gossip, finding weird stuff on my bathroom floor, and stumbling through living within a culture that holds central values and beliefs that I don't necessarily share. It's my time. I will be replaced my a fresh, new, ideally petless volunteer in my village.

I will leave you with a hint about the thrilling conclusion to the crab chonicles:

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Whale season!

compost bin

Helping me turn soil to plant a garden
Reading :)
Reading The Cat in the Hat for the first time!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Clever boys- retrieving darts

Well, I'm coming into my final four months here and last week I decided to plant a vegetable garden with my students, and I have to say I'm really kicking myself for not doing this my first four months here. I also built a compost box and taught my students a lesson on composting, and they're really into that which is fun. My rat tally (# of rats killed in my house) has, in the last few months, ballooned to 30, which is gross, but also kind of exciting, I've developed quite the killer's instinct. In other news, I have decided to spend the rest of my time here sleeping in my hammock after being stung in the face by a centipede as I was falling asleep last week. That marks the third time I've been stung by a centipede, every time in my bed. So I'm done with that. And I feel justified for not sleeping in my bed the first ten months here.

Building my compost box was interesting- I set out to do it on my own after I finished my classes one day, knowing by now that as soon as someone spotted me with a hammer in my hand one or more of the village boys would come running to save me from myself. I found some scrap wood at the school and was allowed to use it and I scrounged up a hammer and saw. I salvaged nails from my decrepit fence and got to work. I tried to be conspicuous about my activity, but nevertheless, within five minutes my neighbor showed up to take over and do it for me. When I refused to hand over the hammer he asked why. I told him I could do it myself, and he said, "Yeah...but it'll be so much faster if I just do it." It was very clear that he thought I was crazy and inevitably going to injure myself, but he let me do it (looking away most of the time), helping me here and there to hold boards together as I nailed them. I ended up making a nice box too, I'm quite proud of it.

After school the kids came to see what I was up to and to help. I asked them to clear the dry palm leaves out of the walls of the faleTonga to put the garden in there. This happened to be a job I wasn't looking forward to because I was afraid of the bugs and creatures that may be lurking in and under the leaves. The boys came up with a genius solution, five of them stood in a line shoulder to shoulder and kicked all the leaves out in one fell swoop. Once again they impressed me with their problem solving and teamwork, which is really just a way of life here. Then the boys set about fixing some of the posts of the fale, and once again, I was amazed at their proficiency with building and using whatever they can find to work with. Every one of those boys can swing a hammer and work a machete. And of course, as always, I am impressed with their eagerness to help with anything. Together we took about an hour and cleaned out the fale and turned all the soil inside.

A few days later I had found seeds and a few of the kids and I planted squash, tomatoes, two kinds of peppers, lettuce, eggplant, peas, and some mystery seeds that were unlabeled- so we're all excited to see what'll come of those. By Friday the seeds were sprouting! They should be ready to harvest right about the time I leave, but I figure it will be great for the next volunteer at my site to come in and have fresh vegetables right in their yard.

The library is so great, last weekend a few of my girls and I recycled some plastic soda bottles and tin cans and filled them with sand and painted them to make bookends. We got a huge shipment of books in two weeks ago which the kids were so excited about. I want to say thanks to the following people for making that happen and being involved or making donations:

-Fairbanks Literacy Council
-Terri Lovell
-Jessica and Aaron Danielson
-Gary Tyndall
-Jan Menaker and the Lathrop H.S. staff
- Greg and Carol Clark
-Grandma and Grandpa Clark
-Jay and Bridget Clark
-Lynn and Frank Faulkner
-Gulliver's Bookstore
-Dave and Jeanette Bauer
-Tammy Burrow

We finally received a new teacher at the school which is a huge relief, now we are only one short (out of three). He is really young and energetic and seems like a great teacher, so that should make these last few months a bit less stressful!

A few weeks ago another volunteer and I organized the second annual 'Eua beach cleanup, and in keeping with tradition, we planned it two days in advance. We partnered with a local guesthouse, Hideaway Resort, and gather youth from across the island to spend the day picking up the road and beach. After the cleanup we had a barbecue in my schoolyard. It was a success, a lot of fun was had by all.

Maybe the most exciting news from Tonga lately has been the reappearance of the whales! I saw my first of the season about a month ago from the ferry boat, and have seen quite a few since walking along the road by the water. This month is when whale traffic is supposed to get especially heavy, so I'm looking forward to doing a bit of whale watching and maybe even swimming with the whales again this year!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The forgotten island

The island I live on is not-so-affectionately known in Tonga as "the forgotten island" because, well, it tends to get left out a lot when people are talking about the islands. Guidebooks routinely leave it out, even the Tongan government seems to occasionally "forget" about 'Eua. It doesn't seem to bother 'Euanis (?) however, for the most part they seem to like being left alone. Tonga is pretty off the beaten South Pacific track, and 'Eua is off the beaten track, even for Tonga. We don't get a ton of tourists out here, but the ones that do come are always stunned by the untouched natural beauty of the place. Recently there was an article about Tonga in the Air New Zealand in-flight magazine, and the guy that wrote the article made it out to 'Eua and ended up writing nearly the entire article just about 'Eua which we all thought was pretty cool.

Flying into 'Eua you can see one road running nearly the length of the island, flanked by scattered villages and cultivated bush plots, and the rest is

We're on winter break here, and I got to spend the last two days showing a volunteer from a different island group and a few of her buddies around the island a bit. The first day we went on a trek to the North end of the island. We started out in a towering pine forest, then got spit out on a bluff that drops 200 feet to a secluded beach cove. We walked along the cliff for twenty minutes then found the "whale tail" tree trunk that indicated it was time to scale over the edge of the cliff and get down to the beach. There was a small opening between two huge chunks of limestone which we passed through, then began our descent. On the way down there were sections in which we had to scale down rock faces holding onto a rope, climb through caves, and scramble over tree trunks. It was a blast. Right as we got to the bottom we passed through a huge cave with stalagmites, stalactites, and other cave-y stuff. The beach was another treasure altogether; we were the only ones there and enjoyed hopping along the rocks, exploring the tide pools, and, well, just being on a deserted beach in the middle of the South Pacific.

The next day we set off on another trek, this one taking us along the East coast of the island. Our first stop was a giant banyan tree, which was pretty impressive from ground level, but then we climbed down into a cave below the tree which was stunning. To get out we climbed the roots of the tree back to ground level. Really fun stuff. We then set off uphill for about a half an hour, climbing to the ridge that runs all along the East coast of 'Eua. Once up on the ridge we walked along the trail, which had gotten pretty torn up during the previous hurricane season. We climbed over, under, and sometimes even through fallen trees. I was pretty impressed with the group, they had a great attitude and loved the adventure of it. We came to a hole in the ground. We went in. the hole was a small cave that led to another hole that we dropped down into and found ourselves in a cave on the face of a cliff, overlooking the protected rainforest and ocean. All we could do was laugh, incredulous at the beauty, and say, "Man, life is good." We pulled ourselves out and got back on the trail where, before too long we came across a wooden platform that again looked over the East coast of the island, the rainforest, and the Pacific. Again, just an incredible view. We watched the acrobatic birds playing in the drafts above the canopy far below us. Our last stop of the day was another lookout, not too different from the first lookout, equally as breathtaking. The trek back we again had to wade through thick underbrush and many, many fallen trees, but nothing could dampen our spirits and we tightrope walking on the fallen tree trunks and navigating the especially tricky obstacles.

Both of these hikes were ones I had been on many, many times before, but taking new visitors out to see them for the first time always reminds me of how very special they are. I literally get giddy when I get to show new people these places, and I'm not exactly a giddy person. And it's always rewarding when they enjoy the adventure and appreciate how special this island is. It really is like a giant, natural, outdoor playground.

Speaking of special islands: Lost. They are in Tonga, they have to be. They were traveling from Australia to LA, turned around to land in Fiji, got off course and ended up west of Fiji: Tonga. I haven't seen much of the show, but from what I have seen, the scenery looks very similar to 'Eua. So I'm just expecting that one of these days, on one of these hikes I will run into a polar bear.

After lamenting (again) about how wonderful this island is, I should say that I have made the decision not to extend for a third year here. There were a lot of factors that went into the decision, but what it came down to is that, come December, it will be time for me to move on. But I still have five months until then!