Sunday, December 28, 2008

'Eua! Senifa: Slayer of rats, molokau, and all other creepy crawlies that dare invade my little Tongan fale!

Well, I'm finally all sworn-in and at my site here in 'Eua...and it is better than I ever could have expected! It is a nine minute plane ride from Tongatapu to 'Eua, and as I was walking out to the plane I realized it was going to be the smallest plane I had ever been on by far, a twelve-passenger I think. The upside is that it's only about six miles between Tongatapu and 'Eua, so if I had to I could definitely swim it! (In fact I was thinking about swimming it at some point because I WANTED to, but Peace Corps staff nixed that idea due to shark-infested and sometimes very rough waters.) Then came the clincher...the pilot invited me up to sit in the co-pilot's seat! So that was a pretty scenic nine-minute plane ride; I got my first view of 'Eua sitting shotgun in a tiny airplane!

I was greeted at the airport by my counterpart, the principal at the school I will be teaching at. I had met her a few days earlier when she had come to Tongatapu for a counterpart conference, and had asked her if I should stock up on fresh fruit and veggies since I heard they can be hard to get a hold of at certain times on 'Eua. She told me not to worry about it, my house is right across the road from the agricultural college, so I'll have easy access to fresh fruit, veggies, eggs, and milk. During our conversation I had mentioned that my favorite fruit here in Tonga was lesi (papaya), and I don't think it's a coincidence that just about every day I've been here a neighbor has shown up at my door in the morning with a fresh lesi.

My house is absolutely beautiful. It's brand new since I'm the first peace corps volunteer at this site, and by peace corps living standards, it's pretty big. It is on the primary school campus, and it sits on a hill overlooking the school and the ocean. The inside walls and celing are covered in tapa cloth, which is a type of bark they pound out then stain and paint designs on. It is very beautiful, but unfortunitly, it also attracts rats, and it didn't take long for them to make themselves at home. They come out at night and chew through the tapa cloth, which is pretty loud. Even worse, they were chewing the cloth right above my bed, so for a few nights I was laying there in fear of them chewing right through the cloth and falling on my face. As a result, I have been up at around three or four am every night throwing my shoes at the walls and celings trying to hit these rats. It probably looked funny, and really was not that effective, I haven't hit them yet and they didn't go away. After a few nights of this I set up my hammock in the living room and started sleeping in that. (Also because I'm pretty sure I had bed bugs- I woke up the first few mornings with bites all over) That also did not solve my rat problem, as I realized the first night spent in the living area that they were chewing through the tapa cloth above my hammock in there as well. You may be thinking, why not just get a rat trap? Excellent question, and the first thing I thought of as well. The reason that plan wasn't put into effect right away is because they don't sell rat traps here. Which seems like it could be a pretty lucrative business, but who am I to say? Finally word got around that I was having rat problems and one of the neighbors dug out their rat trap and set it up for me, and I'm proud to say that last night, a rat was trapped in it. Now as happy as I was about this, it created a whole new set of problems. First, the trap didn't kill the rat, and if you didn't know before, rats can scream, and this one was a screamer. And a jumper (he got some pretty good vertical for having his neck caught in a huge trap). It was 1am, and I had no idea what to do, I would have swept him outside, but I was afraid that a dog would come and get the rat and take what was seemingly the only rat trap on the island with him. At one point, I felt bad for the rat and even thought about taking him outside and letting him go, but then I remembered that the morning before I had walked into my room to get dressed and seen my leopard-print puletaha (poo-lay-ta-ha: a puletaha is traditional Tongan formal wear, usually consisting of a wrap skirt and top made out of the same material; this one was made for me by my host mom in Vava'u and was the one I wore to our swearing-in ceremony) halfway hanging out of a hole in the tapa cloth celing. Now I would understand if I had left food out and he had gotten into that, but seriously, leave my leopard-print puletaha alone. So letting him go was not an option, and even if I had felt enough mercy to let him go, there was no way I was going to touch him. So I read. The entire rest of the night. And he screamed and jumped around in my kitchen the rest of the night. It was a long night. In the morning I asked my twelve-year-old neighbor Elizabeth if her Dad would come help me get rid of it (still not dead!) and instead she marched right in and grabbed him, then took him to the yard and proceeded to beat him with a wood plank. Problem solved. (Okay, so I wasn't exactly the brave slayer of the rats, but I was there, and attendance should count for something)

I wish I could say that rats were the creepiest thing I've found in my house, but one morning I awoke to find a molokau in my sink. Molokau are centipedes that grow up to a foot in length, are extremely quick, and sting (apparantly far worse than a wasp sting). They tend to be found between sheets and in folded clothes, but this one was in my sink. My first instinct was to go get Elizabeth, but I was afraid that by the time I got back he would be gone, lurking in one of my folded skirts. I knew I was on my own for this one. I grabbed a fork from the clean dishes and jabbed, with the idea of pinning him down, but as soon as he started writhing I dropped the fork and ran. Miraculously, he stayed in the sink, so I crept back a grabbed another fork. Long story short, 35 minutes and about 12 utensils later I carried him out pinned between a spatula and yet another fork, still not dead, and threw him over my fence. (Okay, so I didn't exactly slay him either, but I would say I came out on top of that battle)

On the upside, I went on two really great hikes my first few days here. The first was to the southern part of the island ('Eua is only nine miles long, 3.5 miles wide). The hike took us past a giant banyon tree, to a huge hole in the earth that seemed bottomless, and to a high lookout point where you could see over the entire rainforest. The next day we headed up to the northern part of the island where I live. We hiked along this ridge that runs the length of the island, north to south. From the ridge you can see over the rainforest and over the western coast of 'Eua. At the right time of year, you can sit up on the ridge and look down over the water and watch the whales playing. We then climbed down the face of the ridge through some caves, and picnic-ed on the beach. Both hikes were beautiful, and I'm looking forward to exploring more of the island coming up here soon. School is on vacation here, and doesn't start again until February, so my primary tasks now are getting settled into my house and community, preparing for school, and ridding my house of creepy-crawlies.

My first Christmas here was really nice, I went to church in the morning with my neighbors, then we all packed up and headed to the beach. I did a little swimming, and of course there was a roasted pig. The neighbors made me my favorite Tongan dish, 'ota ika, which is raw fish in coconut milk with chopped onions and tomatoes. It's an acquired taste, but I really like it for a few distinct reasons. It's not canned, it's not fried, and it's not a root. Those three qualifications comprise %95 of the Tongan diet. They actually have made me 'ota ika three or four times since I've been here (9 days). Everyone in my village has gone out of their way to make me feel really welcome and comfortable here, and I feel very lucky to have been placed here. I participated in my first ta'olunga last week, about four days after I got here. Elizabeth (neighbor) was supposed to teach me the dance, but every time she came over to teach me, we'd go through the dance once, then we'd end up playing cards. As a result, she got pretty good at cards and I did not get very good at ta'olunga-ing. But I donned the traditional attire, complete with being drenched in coconut oil and got out there and did my best with the girls from my village, and it was pretty fun. On Christmas eve I went caroling with the church, which was also really nice and fun. I know I've mentioned it before, but Tongans are amazing singers, and I take any opportunity I get to be around when they are singing. Really they sing all the time, whether they're doing laundry, riding on a bus, or hanging out in a kava circle (probably why they're such great singers). That has rubbed off, and I've found that it's hard to be in a bad mood when you're singing! (Try it!)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Goodbye Ha'alaufuli; Thanksgiving; Weaving school dropout

How I spent Thanksgiving (top)
Girls performing ta'olunga (bottom)

Me and my language teacher 'Ofa and Tulu
At culture day. I think I get a lei just about every day from someone or another
Boys watching the girls at Culture Day

Culture day
Bays goofing off at one of the schools

Two weeks ago we left our homestay villages and spent a week in "attachment" where we follow around a current volunteer for a week. I, along with three other trainees, was attached to a volunteer named Phil. He is an older guy (50 maybe?) from Santa Barbara and he is really into surfing and paddle surfing. He is an education volunteer, but the school year is winding down here and he wasn't doing much, so we basically had a pretty free week. I went out paddlesurfing with Phil a few times, which is harder than it looks.
Most of the week we went to the schools on Phil's island group (Ha'apai) in the morning morning and played with the kids. It's hard not to be in a good mood playing with these kids because they are so enthusiastic and happy all the time. They don't have much in terms of toys; at one school Keiti (another trainee) and I spent the morning playing Moa with the girls. All you need is five small rocks, picked up off the street. You go through a series of "plays" where you toss them up and try to catch them on the back of your hand, then try to toss one in the air while you pick up a certain other rock then catch the rock that you tossed in the air. It's pretty tough, and Keiti and I weren't too good at it, but these girls were awesome. Also it was a lot of fun. It's amazing how resourceful these kids are.

At another school a little boy ran off and climbed up a coconut tree and we lost him in the palm fronds, but next thing we knew coconuts were falling. He climbed down and the boys husked the cocnuts for us and opened them and we feasted on coconut milk and meat. It takes some getting used to, but once you do it tastes pretty good.

At another school the girls tried to teach us a traditional ta'olunga, and I was really bad at that. It consists of so many really subtle hand and head movements...the Tongan girls who grew up learning it can do it really beautifully (they have a lot of natural grace, something I lack) but most of us weren't too good at it.

The last school we went to on Friday was having its Culture Day, which was pretty neat to watch. They dressed up in these really intricate handmade costumes, some looked like they had to take months to make, and they performed traditional dances (ta'olunga) and the boys did some war dances. I will try to put up pictures of that because it was really great.

We spent Thanksgiving in Ha'apai with Phil, and ended up having a very multi-cultural Tahnksgiving. Besides us volunteers from American, we invited the JICA volunteers from Japan, Viliami (the head of our education program) from Tonga, a couple one from Germany one from Ireland, Jacinta (one of our medical staff) who is from Fiji, and the owner of the resort Dave who was from New Zeland. I think in all there were seven nationalities represented at our Thanksgiving, which was great fun. We went to a resort on the island and they let us use their kitchen to cook out turkey (provided by the Peace Corps!) then made some of the turkey into turkey pizza which was absolutely divine. We spent the rest of the day snorkeling and playing cards.

Also that week we had a little time so Keiti and I headed to this little place where you could learn to weave thinking we'd make a little something to send home as a Christmas gift. We went in and asked about it and the lady said we could make something quickly in an hour. So we got to work. I began thinking I was going to make a large potholder. Four hours later I was on my second attempt and had regressed from wanting to make a large potholder to a small potholder to being completely satisfied if I just ended up with a coaster. It wasn't pretty. Keiti was making a purse and was doing a little better than I was. We both kinda ended up giving up, we were hungary and the lady said she would finish them and we could just come and pick them up the next day, so we jumped at that opportunity. Haha, I don't really think weaving is going to be my thing here in Tonga. When we returned the next day we hardly even recognized out projects, mine had turned into a small basket and Keiti's into a real purse. It was kinda like magic. (Merry Christmas Dad!)

I've found that as my Tongan language is progessing my English is getting worse and worse. Keiti and I spent probably a good fifteen minuted trying to think of the word "coaster" while we were in weaving school. (So forgive me for spelling/grammatical errors!) But, I'm loving learning to speak another language and I am now able to hold conversations pretty well in Tongan, which is good because my new homestay family does not speak much English at all. I am now satying with another homestay family in Nuku'alofa (Tongatapu) for two weeks before I get to head off to 'Eua. There are two five-year-old girls at this homestay, and they threw a spider on me my first night there. I miss Sepi!

I will be swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer December 17th, and usually I don't much care for ceremonies (graduations, etc.) but I feel like this one is pretty important and I'm quite excited about it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Tonga is like a perpetual screensaver" -Regina

Sepi and I on our way to schoolMe getting ready to take the plunge...
Our boat
Getting ready to head out on the boat

I officially found out Saturday that I will be spending the next two years on a small island South of Tongatapu called 'Eua in a village of 162 people. I will be teaching English to Classes 3,4,5, and 6, which for all I know may be one big class put together. I don't know much about 'Eua, except that the temperature tends to be a little cooler because it's further South and it is supposed to be the most beautiful island in Tonga! I hear that there are not many beaches (although I think my village is right on a few) but it is covered in rainforest and has amazing hiking all over the island. It is also supposed to be pretty conducive to camping and other various outdoor adventure, which sounds up my alley. I'm pretty thrilled about it. I think I will have electricity, although running water is still up in the air. I will swear in with the Peace Corps December 17th and head to 'Eua shortly after that.

Saturday turned out to be quite the eventful day; after finding out our site placements, we loaded in a boat and headed out for a day trip which had been canceled the week before due to strong winds. Spirits were high after finding out our site placements and everyone was excited to hang out together after being separated into our villages for five weeks. The first stop we made was at this cave where you had to swim through an underwater tunnel to reach it. Of course I had to be the first one to try it (along with a guy named Scott) , and I didn't realize, but I timed it pretty poorly and went while water was coming out of the tunnel. I was swimming against the current for what seemed like forever, and when you're down there its so dark that you can't tell when you're actually in the cave so you don't know if when you come up you're going to hit air or if the water is still to the top of the tunnel. Oh, and the other factor? It was close to high tide. Needless to say, it was a little scary, and also needless to say, I made it. Only a few of us actually went in the cave, but once you made it inside it was incredible. It was the size of maybe a movie theater, and water would come in and crash against the back wall and the entire cave would get so misty you couldn't see your hand in front of you. Then, seconds later it would clear up and you could see clear across the cave no problem. It felt like the cave was breathing and we were in its stomach, it was a highlight of the trip.

After that we went to another cave that was much more accessible. In fact, the boat drove right into the mouth of this cave. It was also pretty neat, we were able to climb the walls and jump off these stalagmites (or are they stalactites? The ones that grow up.) So that was neat. We spent some time there then moved on to this beach with a small resort on it. We spent the rest of the day playing frisbee on the beach, snorkeling, and drinking a cold beer at the resort. I know, I know, this Peace Corps stuff sounds really tough, right? Haha. It was a pretty amazing day.

Last Friday I had a day that I feel really epitomizes my experience here in Tonga so far. We had just topped off the busiest, most stressful week ever with a language test that I was sure I had bombed (I actually found out today that I didn't do too bad at all) and so a few of us from my village decided to try to walk into town. (About an hour and a half walk) Less than five minutes out of our village, a flatbed truck pulled over and the driver leaned out the window and asked "Alu ki fe?" (Where are you going?) We told him in our broken Tongan the we were heading into town, and he told us to hop in the back. As we climbed in the back we realized there was a hole in the bed of the truck absolutely big enough to fall through. But it was behind the back axel, so if we fell through we wouldn't be run over also. We steered clear of the hole and found a place to sit among the people already in the back of the truck and made it safely to town.

Once there we all decided we definitely needed some ice cream, so we went down to the one place we know sells ice cream. She was standing outside of her falekaloa (shop) locking it up, but when she saw us coming she asked what we wanted. We must have sounded pretty desperate, because she opened everything up and got us all neopolitan ice cream cones. Ice cream has never tasted so good. Then I had to run by the bank to pick up my debit card that was waiting there for me. As we were walking up to the bank, we saw that they too were locking up for the evening (it was 4:10 pm) I started running because the next day was our boat trip and I needed my debit card to pull some money out for that. The bank lady saw me running, and she had to think about it for a second, but she opened up for me and let me get my debit card and some money. I just thought of how many times I have gone somewhere in California ten minutes BEFORE its supposed to close and caught someone locking up and refusing to consider even the smallest request.

We spent a few more hours in town, and by the time we all got back together and ready to go it was getting late and we were quickly losing daylight. As we started walking the first vehicle that passed us pulled over and asked us where we were headed. We told the couple the name of our village, and they said they weren't heading there, but they could take us to where the road parted and they were heading the opposite direction. We happily accepted; that would take us about halfway home. We piled into a minivan this time, the wife got out and opened the sliding door by sticking her hand through the window and banging on the door while jerking on the outside handle. We piled into a minivan that had one bench seat leaning up against one side of the van. I ended up sitting on the metal wheel well, leaning my hand against the back hatch door. Soon after we started moving I realized that the back hatch door didn't latch and leaning against it was a little treacherous. As we were driving we started talking to the couple and told them we were new Peace Corps volunteers (in Tonga the word for volunteer is either Pisi Koa for peace corps or ngaue ofa, meaning work of love.) Pretty soon the wife was slicing up a watermelon in the front seat and passes us back a huge chunk of juicy watermelon with a butcher knife sticking out of it. We drove along the pot-hole filled Tongan road cutting off hunks of watermelon that were delectable. As we got to the pace where the road parts, the couple called back that they wanted to take us all the way to our village, it was their way of ngaue ofa. They took us all the way back to our bus stop, where the wife got out, banged the door open and thanked us for riding with them and wished us God Bless.

This afternoon was so typical of our experience with Tongan people, we all kind of looked at each other and said, "Well, it doesn't get much more Tongan than that." Peace Corps has been in Tonga for forty years, and it is easy to tell how well-represented we've been by previous Peace Corps Volunteers. Everyone here has had some experience with a Peace Corps Volunteer, whether they were taught by one or had one as a homestay brother or sister or just had one in their village, and their experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. This means we get treated exceptionally well, but also that we are responsible for carrying on that tradition. I can't wait.

Well, I'd love to hear updates from everyone, I hope all is well. If anyone wants to write me or send me anything, that would be so awesome and so appreciated. My address here is:

Jennifer Danielson
PO Box 147
Kingdom of Tonga
South Pacific

Ideas of what to send include, but are not limited to: letters and updates! pictures! Crystal Light single serving drink packets, Quaker oatmeal On the Go bars, magazines, stickers (I found out that Tongan student will do just about anything for a sticker), or anything else you can think of. Thank you!!!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A quick update

Well, We just finished watching the presidential elections from a yacht-ee establishment in town. I, along with about 90% of my fellow PCV's, am thrilled.

It has come to my attention that I may not have been completely clear in my last blog; I do get to go to the dances at the Mormon church because my homestay family attends the Mormon church and since being here I have gone with them. Religion is a huge part of the Tongan culture, and Sundays are reserved for going to church and resting. Sepi and I were hungry last Sunday, so we walked to my language teachers house and asked if we could pick some mangoes. Unfortunately, we were informed that you are not allowed to pick mangoes on Sunday. So she went inside and got us mangoes that she had picked the day before to stock up for Sunday. My Sunday's are spent reading a lot, walking with the other PCV's (we're not really supposed to, but we can't stand laying around all day), and studying. They tend to be pretty dull days. Once we are given our placements, we won't have to go to church every Sunday, but most volunteers do and I probably will because that is such a huge part of the culture and the entire village comes every week, so it is a good time to meet people and make connections.

As for the kalapu, it was overall successful, with a few minor incidents on my part. Within the first ten minutes, in true fashion, I dropped the serving spoon into the bucket of kava and had to fish it out. We can pretty much only stand up once during the ceremony (4-hour!), and when I did I proceeded to kick over a can that the men were putting their cigarette butts and ashes in, as well as extra kava. I made a mess. To top off the night, we were praying and I opened my eyes and saw my baby sister try to sit in a chair on the ground, which almost tipped over, and I started laughing. Haha, after the prayer the guy next to me asked why I was laughing during prayer, and I tried to explain, but he didn't find it as funny as I did. But, I did get asked to come back and tou-a for another kalapu this coming up weekend. Also, we raised 335 pa'anga for the elementary school in our village.

On Friday this week we have an ocean survival course, so that's something I'm really looking forward to. In addition, on Saturday some of the current volunteers planned a boat trip for us on a local whale-watching boat. We will spend the day on the boat, stopping to do some snorkeling and hang out on a beach. All of the current volunteers we have met are so nice and caring; they are willing to answer all of our questions (and there are a lot!) and most importantly, they really seem to love Tonga, which is encouraging. Yesterday we all had class together and the current volunteers cams and handed out "care packages" because they know how good it feels to get a care package. They had sudoku, the funnies from a New York newspaper, candy, and personal notes. It was super nice.

I'm still working on being able to put some pictures up, the internet is very slow here in Tonga, and I always end up being in a big rush to catch a bus! Hopefully soon though. Hope all is well with everyone! OH and a special good luck to Jeffrey and the rest of the Lathrop swim team at State this weekend!

Friday, October 31, 2008

And the beat goes on...

Okay, the dance. Nothing like any dance I've ever been to in America. The dances are held at the Mormon church on the basketball court around back. People who are not a member of the Mormon church aren't allowed to come into the dance, but they sit outside the fence and watch; the whole village turns out for a dance, whether they're allowed to come in or not. The basketball court is enclosed by a few rows of folding chairs, and between each song everyone clears the dance floor and finds a chair to sit in. Now to the good stuff. When a guy asks you to dance, he'll walk over to where you're sitting, stand in front of you and nod his head. Then he'll turn and walk out onto the dance floor. When you dance with him, you stand a good two feet apart, and he won't look at you. There is no eye contact, and it's way too loud to try to talk. When you dance, you just kind of rock back and forth, there is never any hip action going on at all. As soon as the song ends he thanks you and you both go back to your seats, where inevitably another guy will come and nod his head to dance with you. OH! The best part? Most of the music played is American hip-hop. Completely vulgar stuff, some of it. I'm not sure they quite understand the meaning behind some of the music they play... It was a lot of fun though, and I'm sure I'll be going to quite a few more dances while I'm here.

My homestay sister Sepi has acquired a taste for some of the music on my iPod as well. Her favorites? Shakira, Gloria Estefan, and My Chemical Romance. Very ecclectic, I love it. I am not allowed to walk alone here, so whenever I walk anywhere, she usually goes with me. This has turned out to be really great for me, because whenever anyone calls out to me or stops to talk to me on the street in Tongan, she stands next to me and feeds me all my lines in a whisper. Haha, I usually have no idea what she's telling me to say, but I'm beginning to figure out that she's very protective and doesn't like boys talking to me, so I'm not sure I've always been too friendly with the boys around here. But I always smile, and they usually laugh. Tongans love to laugh, and they are always joking, so if you laugh with them you're pretty much okay in their book.

It's funny for me to think about how much I've changed already in the past three weeks. Not fundamentally, just my perceptions and habits. One of my great pleasures here in Tonga is a cold shower in the middle of the afternoon. Back in the states, I probably wouldn't even consider taking a cold shower; if we didn't have hot water, I'd wait until we did to take a shower. I haven't taken a hot shower since I got here. I get really happy when I hear a lizard chirp in my room at night, because that means I don't have to worry about the other bugs that night. When I come to town, I usually stop at the store and buy an Otter Pop for 15 cents, and that pretty much makes me really happy for the entire day. Yesterday I used a little more conditioner than usual, and I thought to myself, "Whoa, I'm splurging!...Wait, did I really just think that? Yeah, I did." Also, something I would never do in America: I often have to pick bugs out of my food before I eat it. It's pretty unavoidable. On that note, I was really sick for the first time since being here last week. It was a stomach thing, and it only lasted 24 hours, but it was not pleasant.

I entertained the idea of outlining a typical day in Tonga for me, but as I thought about it, I realized that there really isn't a typical day, each one has been pretty unique. We usually start each day with language class, where we all meet (there are five of us in my language group) in a little open-air shelter down by the water. This lasts until about noon. Usually at ten or ten thirty, we take a tea break where we drink tea and eat mangos that we pick from the mango tree in the yard. The afternoon is filled with some type of training, either culture, safety, health, or technical. Sometimes we travel to another village for this training, usually taking a vehicle or bus that operates on a little cultural phenomena they have here called Taime Tonga, or Tonga Time. All that really means is that if it is supposed to come at 1:15, you can usually expect it between 1:00 and 2:15.

Yesterday afternoon we had a special training session called "coconut survival." We all headed out to the bush and learned how to husk coconuts to drink their milk and eat the meat, start a fire without matches, and weave baskets from coconut leaves. Some of the guys attempted to climb the coconut trees, without much luck. Then a little Tongan boy (he was seven years old) scrambled up the tree like it was nothing, holding a machete in his mouth. Pretty soon he was hacking away at the tree and coconuts were falling out of the sky. Hopefully I will be able to post some pictures soon, it was a pretty neat day.

Tonight should be another exciting and new night. My village is having a kalapu, which is a kava fundraiser that we are putting on to benefit the local elementary school. I will be tou'a-ing, which means I will be serving the kava to the men. (Traditionally women aren't a part of kava drinking except to serve the kava) As a tou'a, I will be responisble for making sure everyone's cup is full, as well as fending off unwanted attention from guys on a mild narcotic in a language I don't understand. One of our language teachers will be performing a traditional Tongan dance, which entails dressing up in traditional dance attire (one of the few times it is appropriate to show your shoulders in this culture; although still not your knees) and drenching your legs and shoulders in coconut oil. As you dance, people will come up and slap money onto you, which sticks because of all the cocnut oil. Tradition goes that if the money sticks to your legs, you are a virgin. Draw your own conclusions...Anyway, it should be a very interesting night, and I will hopefully be able to post some pictures of it next time I come to town!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The adventure continues...

I have officially been in Tonga two weeks now! It does feel like much longer, still. Our days are filled with training, and our nights with our homestay families and talking to everyone in the village. I feel like we are famous here; as we walk down the street, I hear "Senifa!" (my Tongan name; they don't have "j's" or "r's" in the Tongan alphabet) and "Palangi" (white person) constantly. Everyone says hello, and I think I've met the entire villiage after being here only a week. We were even invited to a dance tonight! It's at the mormon church, and I hear not much like a dance you might attend in the states. I'll let you know how it goes.

I went to the beach with a few other PCV"s (Peace Corps Volunteers) last weekend for the first time and it was incredible. The water was perfect, and it was about waist-deep for 150 yards out from shore, which provided for some excellent snorkeling. Within the first ten minutes I probably saw more fish than I ever saw diving in California for two years. The colors of the fish were incredible, and the setting couldn't be beat. We stayed out for hours and kept discovering new things. It was hard to leave, but it is only a 20-minute walk from our villiage, so we plan on going back this weekend also. The Tongan people don't go to the beach for fun or just to hang out, and most cannot swim. It blows my mind...

As part of our training we had our first school site visit yesterday. I went to school with my sister, Sepi, which was only a ten-minute walk. As school started, we realized that her teacher hadn't shown up to school that day. (Apparantly this is very common in Tongan schools, and also accepted.) Usually when that happens, the next-door teacher just hops back and forth and teaches both classes for the day. Well, we were there that day, so some of us took over the class. It was Class 4, they were all eight and nine years old, so not too far off what I was teaching last year (in age, I mean). I ended up teaching them English parts of speech. It went well, but it is very different from schools in America. At one point after recess, a few boys were goofing off, so I asked one to move across the room. I don't think he exactly understood me, because he went across the room and took out a stick and handed it to me, apparantly for me to hit him with. I didn't. Corporal punishment is a common practice in Tongan schools, but you may only use one ruler or three coconut sticks at a time. Sort of a rule of thumb if you will. Resources in Tongan school are also very limited, there are no textbooks, handouts, art supplies, and the books in the classroom library are mostly photocopied. This was my first visit to a school, so I'll keep everyone updated on the situation as I visit more schools and when I get placed in the school I will be teaching at for the next two years.

The fruit here is hands-down the best fruit I've ever had. I eat fresh pineapple and bananas every day, as well as papaya, mango, and watermelon. I was never a big fan of bananas back in the states, but here they are small and delicious. The pineapple is so sweet, it's undescribable. Beyond the fruit though, I've had kind of a hard time finding thigs I like to eat. There's a lot of canned fish (mackeral) and canned beef...I tend to stick to eggs and toast for a lot of meals.

Well, I should be getting to a computer once every week or so, so hopefully more updates soon. I hope everyone will let me know what they are up to also, I would love to hear updates from America!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Departure, arrival, first week in Tonga

Okay, I know it took a little time, I meant to set this up before I got to Tonga, but life got a little hectic in the days and week before I left, so I apologize to all of you who have been wondering whatever happened to me...I made it to Tonga!

Before I left I was lucky enough to travel around Alaska a bunch, blueberry picking in Denali National Park, kayaking the Kenai River, going 4-wheeling with my brother (who, I'm pretty sure, tried to kill us both) and rockclimbing in a little piece of heaven called Cooper Landing. I also got to help coach the Lathrop High School swim team, so if any of you are reading this, tell everyone hi, and good luck at regionals and state!

I have been in Tonga a little over a week, but we have been so busy and learned so much that it seems as though I have been here a month! The culture is very unique and the people are amazing. I have never met more genuine, kind people in my life. They are extremely family and community oriented, and not at all interesting in accumulating THINGS which to me makes this culture so refreshingly different from America. They find joy not in possessions, but rather in each other, in the personal relationships and bonds they form, and in helping each other.

We spent almost a week in the capital of Tonga, Nuku'alofa, where we were greeted out first day with a pig roast and a traditional kava ceremony. Kava is a traditional tongan drink made from the root of the kava plant. It tastes like dirty water, not bad, but not particularly strong one way or the other. You don't get drunk off of it, but it is a mild narcotic. It numbs your mouth a little and makes you relaxed...we didn't have enough of it to notice anything. We spent the week training pretty intensively in safety, health, culture and the language. On the third day we had our water safety training, which involved jumping off a navy ship and swimming around in a small bay. It was awesome; the water felt great, and I felt in my element for the first time since being here. On Monday we were supposed to take a 25-30 hour boat ride to Vava'u, but the boats were both broken down, so we got very lucky and hopped on a 45-minute plane ride instead. This is where we will be spending the next six weeks, living with host families and getting intensive language training. The language is completely phonetic, so once you understand the sounds all the letters make, it is pretty easy to learn. My favorite word so far is Oiaue! (Oy-ya-way: an expression of grief, excitement, or concern) It's pretty fun to say, and you can say it for just about any situation.

My host family consists of my "mom" Kaloni, my sisters Sepi (9 yrs old) and Nani (1.5 yrs old) and my brother Tevita (30?). The are kind and open, and have been wonderful about including me in their family and helping me with the Tongan language. I especially enjoy hanging out with Sepi. The first day I was there, she taught me how to juggle, (or at least she tried to teach me, we're still working on it. She's really good!) I brought out a deck of cards, and she proceeded to beat me handily in everything we played, especially memory! She is a very bright girl. I taught her how to play speed, and I'm sure she will be beating me at that soon as well. I was thinking it was going to be six weeks full of juggling and playing cards when, after dinner that night, Sepi busted out a gamecube! We played Need for Speed Underground (she beat me at that), then she came out with NFL Blitz. I was thinking that this was a game I finally might win since I love football and they don't even have football in Tonga. Well, she beat me at that too. It wasn't even close. Oiaue. Alas, a good time was had by all.

So far things have been going great, I love the new culture and people and am excited to continue to learn the language! I hope this finds everyone well back home!