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!