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.