Friday, October 23, 2009

Highs and Lows

Ready to go!

There's a pool table in 'Eua!

Back by popular demand- It's Tonga Moments:

- I was riding in a van with my neighbor, Tevita and his sister. It was dark. We could see something ahead on the road, but couldn't quite make out what it was, we thought maybe it was a loose cow or something. We were all kinda joking about it, but as we got closer, it became clear. It was two very large pigs trying to make baby pigs. The female pig's eyes were about to pop out of her head. I laughed, but quickly realized I was the only one laughing. In Tonga there is this brother/sister stigma and anything remotely sexual in the presence of siblings is EXTREMELY uncomfortable and inappropriate. Once boys reach puberty they may no longer sleep under the same roof as their sisters. If a boy is at a dance club or party and his sister comes in he has to leave. If a guy starts dating the sister of one of his buddies, they can no longer be buddies, and the brother will avoid his sister's boyfriend at all costs and will even give him dirty looks. Anyway, it's something that is deeply rooted in the culture, and there's more to it than even I understand. But the rest of that car ride was spent in really awkward silence.

- So as you may have read in my last blog, all my students were convinced I was going to die when I went out scuba diving. The last day of my certification course we were doing two open water dives. It was the Saturday before the class 6 exam, so class 5/6 had school. As I was heading out that morning, they were all waiting around for class to begin when I left. They ran out of the classroom and asked me where I was going (typical Tongan greeting). I told them I was going diving, and once again they tried to convince me not to go. When I made it clear again that I WAS going, we said our goodbye's:
Pita: Bye Jennifer!
'Ana H: See you manana!
Hingano: See you later!
'Ana L: See you in Heaven!
Lopeti: Bye Jennifer!

Me: Bye guys...Hey! 'Ana, the closest I will be to heaven this weekend will be in church tomorrow, I will see you there.

'Ana L: (looking skeptical)

Scuba diving was amazing, and I can't wait to do more. It's something I have always wanted to do, but the amount of equipment and planning involved was kind of a turn off. It's not something you can go out and do on a whim, but I've concluded that it's worth the preparation. Also I think the diving here is probably among the best in the world, the water is relatively warm , crystal clear, the fish are is a world apart under there. And one of the coolest things is that here it's relatively untouched. Scuba diving in 'Eua began just a few months ago except on special dive trips out to the island, so it's not a place that gets a lot of human traffic. OH! One of the coolest parts? We could hear the humpback whales singing. They were quite far away, but it was neat to hear them. I finished the dive course and made it back safely to go to church on Sunday, much to the surprise of my students.

Two weeks later I get a call from Arisa, the dive instructor on the island, saying hey if you want to go out and swim with whales this week we can go Monday or Tuesday. Um...yes, please. There are only three places in the world where it's still legal to swim with Humpback whales, and Tonga is one of them. This fact did make me stop and think for a bit about WHY there's only three places in the world left where it's legal to swim with these whales...but it was an opportunity I wasn't going to pass up. We went out Tuesday afternoon- it was a beautiful day and the water was exceptionally calm. Within twenty minutes we had spotted whales breaching in the distance. We caught up to them and realized there were at least seven or eight all swimming together, which is unusual. They were spy-hopping, breaching, and really it looked like they were just playing and having a little whale party. We slipped in the water. At first I was a little apprehensive- they're just so big!- but as soon as I got in the water and saw them underwater I immediately felt at ease. Any trepidation I had was gone; there is just something supremely calming about being in the water with these giants. From the underwater viewpoint we counted at least nine of them. They were moving through at a leisurely pace, and at times it seemed almost as if they were showing off for us. At one point I was pretty close to this whale and I dove down and was swimming eye-to-eye with him for as long as I could hold my breath (we were snorkeling). It sounds cheesy, but looking into the eyes of a humpback whale, you get the feeling they hold all the answers to the world. It was a profoundly moving experience, and probably the coolest thing I've ever done. I know we hit a really good day, because Arisa was super excited about it and she does this every day. I had in fact been putting off writing this blog because I knew how difficult it would be to do this experience justice with words, and I knew I wasn't nearly talented enough. But there it is.

So those have been the highs, now for a few lows...
I currently have tonsillitis for the third time since being at site, and am now in Tongatapu being treated. But getting here was not easy. Yesterday I woke up and my tonsils were a little swollen and painful and I maybe had a little fever, but I went to my teachers meeting, and after that I went hiking with another PCV (Ashley), my neighbor Tevita, a couchsurfer, and Arisa, the dive instructor. I almost didn't go, but it was a beautiful day, I hadn't been on this hike in a while, and I love showing new people around the island. Ashley and I were the only ones who had been on this hike before, and it's about an eight-mile loop that would take us to two caves, two lookout points over the rain forest, and a giant banyan tree. It was a great day, a great hike in great company even though I wasn't feeling one-hundred percent. When we finished, we were on the opposite side of the island from my house, and I had planned on staying at Ashley's house last night so I didn't have to walk the additional two and a half miles home. Ashley was tou'a-ing (serving kava) that night in another village, so she just left me with her house keys. I took a nice bucket bath and started watching a movie on Ashley's computer. Almost immediately I started feeling crummy. I called the PC medical officer who told me to come in to Tongatapu today to see a doctor. Okay, that was good. But I started feeling worse and worse, I was feverish, I couldn't eat and could barely drink because my throat was so swollen. I decided I needed to go home, especially so I could get my house ready to leave today and get packed up. So I called my neighbor, Lupe, and she sent Tevita to come get me in her van. Ashley was still gone. Her door to her house is funny in that you cannot open or close it without a key from the inside or the outside. She had left me with the spare key, but when I went to open the door to get out, it didn't work. I slid the key under the door for Tevita to try it from the outside. Didn't work. Dang. By this time I was feeling REALLY crummy AND tired. After trying the key for ten minutes we concluded that it really just didn't work. At which point I pulled out my leatherman from my backpack and dismantled the doorknob. It worked. I was finally free from the house. Tevita and I reassembled the doorknob...and then were face with the problem of how to close the door. It won't close without a key. And I wasn't going to leave it unlocked. I had been trying to get a hold of Ashley, but predictably was unable to reach her (it's bad form to have your cell on while tou'a-ing) and you usually tou'a until one or two in the morning. I just wanted to get home. I was in tears by this point, which I mostly blame on the fever. I ended up calling another PCV on the island who has another spare key to her house, running to his house to get it, then coming back and locking up Ashley's house. I felt a wave of relief as I climbed back into the van to head home. Tevita turned the key. It wouldn't start. The engine was barely turning over. Cue more tears. Tevita gathered five Tongan boys to push the van until it was going fast enough that somehow it started. Okay, finally on my way home, we passed the wharf I realized, with much despair, that all the flights off the island had been cancelled for today. I would have to take the boat, which leaves around five in the morning. I would have to be at the wharf around 4am. And the last seven boat rides I've taken between 'Eua and Tongatapu have found me hanging over the railing retching. Cue more tears. I wasn't even sure how I was going to be able to throw up considering my throat was nearly swollen shut. Does it get backed up? Would my head explode? No doubt it would be painful. By the time I made it home it was nearly midnight, I would have to be on the boat in four hours. I wasn't packed. My house was a disaster. I collapsed in my bed, thinking I would wake up early to pack and get my house ready, when I heard a knock at my door. It was my neighbor Lupe. She came in, sat on my bed, and rubbed baby oil on my throat for an hour and a half. Her sixteen-year-old son, Viliami got out of bed and came and washed my dishes and cleaned up my table. Tevita stayed up and fixed Lupe's van so that I could get to the wharf in the morning and catch the boat. I tried to tell Viliami that he didn't have to wash my dishes, but it was no use. Finally I just relaxed and closed my eyes and let Lupe rub my throat. It felt really really nice.

I woke up this morning not feeling any better and not having slept much or well. Luckily, the boat ride in was as smooth as it's ever been when I've been on it, and I was actually able to sleep a little. I did not throw up. The PC medical officer saw me, got me some medicine and went and got me some soup (on her day off). She is also putting in the paperwork to DC (again) to get my tonsils removed. I'm crossing my fingers they approve this time, because being sick here really stinks.
Once again I have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and support from the Tongans surrounding me. They don't have much in terms of material things, but whatever they have they share. Even more than that, however, is how giving they are of themselves and their time. They're never too busy, too tired, or too self-involved to help someone, and that doesn't just go for me, it goes for anyone who needs help with anything, ever.

On a different note, class 5/6 took their exams two weeks ago, which means no more night school (And early morning school and Saturday school)! It also means from here on out school winds down pretty quickly. After their exams every day the village had a feast for the kids, and I gave my first impromptu fakamalo (thank-you speech) in front of the whole village. Everyone kinda smiled and nodded, and I thought it went pretty well, then the lady that went after me stood up and explained to everyone what I had been TRYING to say. Haha, oh well, they seemed to appreciate that I tried.

The weather's warming up finally, and the village and island seem to be coming to life again; the youth are more active, people are out of their houses more, and there's just more going on. I decided that I wanted to build a fale-Tonga (Tongan hut) and so the past two weeks I have been working on that with the help of my neighbors. It is nearly finished, the only thing left to do is weave all the coconut fronds for the roof and sides. When the new group of trainees goes through attachment, I will have three of them come stay at my house, which is too small for four people, so I will sleep in the fale. Also when my family comes I will sleep in the fale because (like I mentioned above) culturally it's not appropriate for me to sleep under the same roof as my brother. Also, now that it's warming up, it'll be a nice place to hang out and read a book as it will be cooler than my house.

Speaking of books, I've read a couple really good ones recently: Ishmael and Papillion. Ishmael I think should be required reading for human beings; it makes you look at things from an entirely different perspective. It's a little abstract, and I had to read it slowly to process it, but it was well worth it. Papillion, on the other hand, is a terrific story terrifically told. It's a true story of a guy who unjustly got sentenced to life in prison and how he finally escaped after many failed attempts. I highly recommend both books if anyone is looking for something to read next.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tsunamis, swim lessons, and scuba certifications (how's that for some alliteration?)

Tevita juggling
Class 5/6 one night after poako
I was cleaning my house and found a molokau, which Tevita captured, then proceeded to de-fang and play with (must be a guy thing?)
I was cleaning my house and got distracted and decided to practice juggling...

I've received a lot of e-mails, facebook posts, and even a few phone calls inquiring as to my safety after the earthquake and ensuing tsunami. I want to let everyone know that I am all right, my island was basically unaffected by the tsunami. Also I live on the highest coral island in the South Pacific, so I feel pretty safe here in terms of tsunamis.

I spent the last week in Tongatapu (a main island) for a week of training on how the incoming group of Peace Corps Trainees should be trained. A few days before I got there I was contacted with an opportunity to teach swim lessons while there to women who don't know how to swim. Many Tongans, despite their inevitable proximity to the ocean, have never learned to swim. This was an issue that was thrust into national attention after the Princess Ashika boat tragedy in which every woman aboard perished. Last I heard it was illegal to talk about in public- so enough of that, eh? Okay, one more thing, it has been interesting to note the different approaches that the governement has taken in dealing with the Princess Ashika tragedy and the recent tsunami which killed 9 people in Niua Toputapu. They seem a lot more sympathetic and proactive towards the tsunami situation, whereas with the boat sinking they seemed to spend more time and effort denying any responsibility or even trying to avoid the subject all together. Okay, that's it, really.

When I got into Tongatapu on Friday, I met with a representative from the Red Cross to solidify the plans for lessons the next week. As it turns out, not many plans had been made. We didn't have a place to do the lessons, and when I asked what her goals for the lessons were, she explained to me that she wanted to teach the women life-saving techniques, and how they can help other people who are in trouble in the water. "Huh. It was my understanding that these women don't know how to swim...?" I asked. "Oh, no, they don't." She replied, matter-of-factly. " you think that might be our first step...?" I suggested. She thought about it, then agreed that we probably ought to teach these women to swim before we teach them to save others in the water. With that cleared up we set about figuring out where we were going to hold these swim lessons. There is one swimming pool in Tonga that we had contacted, but they wanted to charge us $50 a day to use it. We decided on trying the Navy base, even though it is a deep wharf, but it is protected and close by. Well, come Monday morning we still hadn't confirmed that we would be able to swim at the navy base, but at about 10:30 it came through that they would allow us use of the wharf area. That was a relief, but I still wasn't sure anyone was going to show up.

As it turns out, we had plenty of people show up- they were all fifteen minutes late (which was difficult because I was trying to fit the lessons in during the lunch break of our training sessions), but we had 14 women show up. I introduced myself, and talked a little about what we wanted to accomplish that week. The women all seemed on board...until it was time to get in the water. Apparantly they hadn't been expecting to have to get in the water, and that was a deal-breaker for some. As it turns out, the lady from the Red Cross had made all the Red Cross workers come, and most really didn't want to be there. As it was, we got nine in the water that first day, and we actually ahd a really good first lesson. I was optimistic about the week. Tuesday rolls around and at the lunch break I rush to the Navy base...and no one showed up. Not one person! We called the Red Cross, and they said since it had rained at 9am that morning they couldn't make it. Another lady had a stomachache. Wednesday I had three: Lavinia (a Peace Corps program manager) a doctor from an outer island and her daughter. Lavinia and the doctor didn't know how to swim at all, they started out in their life jackets, while the daughter (she was about my age) was already a pretty proficient swimmer. By the end of Wednesday, the doctor had a breakthrough and swam across the entire wharf without her life jacket. She was pretty athletic and once she had the confidence she took off. By Friday, Lavinia was also swimming without her life jacket and able to float and tread water. So it turned out t be successful, at least for those two, and we had a good time with it. I think it's a really important skill to have, especially in Tonga, and hopefully I can do it again and plan a little better next time.

A scuba dive business just came out to 'Eua, and they run scuba dive certification course, so a few of the other PCV's and I decided that this would be a great opportunity to get scuba certified. Our certification course starts on Saturday, and we're all pretty excited about it. We received our books last week and were instructed to read them and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. One night I was sitting on my steps reading my manual when my class 5/6 kids came for night school. They saw a new book in my hands and their eyes lit up. I let them look at it and explained that I would be diving on Saturday. When they heard this a few of them started frowning, then one boy blurted out, "But you're going to die!" The rest quickly agreed, that yes, I would defnitely die if I tried to do that. One boy suggested I would be eaten by a whale. (I've been seeing whales on a daily basis the past month) They went as far as to tell me not to go. I assured them that I was NOT going to die, and that I had already paid for the course and was definitely going. They looked at each other, then one boy turned to me and said, "Well, can I have Tahi (my dog)?" They proceeded to argue amongst themselves about who would get what when I died as I sat there staring, mouth agape. Finally I said, "I AM NOT GOING TO DIE! Time to start class, let's go."

After night school that night my neighbor Elizabeth came over to get help with her homework and saw my dive manual sitting on the table. As she flipped through it I told her I was going to do that this weekend. She looked at me, then back at the book, then up at me and said, "But you're going to die!" "I AM NOT GOING TO DIE!!!" I replied, as calmly as possible, which was not very. She was quiet for a while, then said, "Well, when your family comes in December I'll make sure to take them to the place where you died so they can see where you died." I assured her again that I really, really wasn't going to die. She remained unconvinced. So, if I DO die this weekend while scuba diving all these kids are going to look pretty prophetic, eh?

I have a little problem that I don't know if anyone can help me with. It's about my dog. The neighbor's dog had puppies, and several times now I have seen Tahi drinking this other dog's milk. Is that normal? Should I try to stop this, or just let nature run it's course? In my defense, I am feeding Tahi plenty, he's probably the fattest dog on the island (not saying much).

As far as day-to-day things, school is almost finished, the class six exam is next week. School doesn't ACTUALLY let out until December, but after the class 6 exam, things wind down pretty quickly. By that I mean, the kids come to school and play cards all day. After the class 6 exam there will be no more poako (night school), so I'm kinda looking forward to that. It's warming up here, which I'm really excited about, but that also means probably a return of the rats in force. There've only been one or two a night lately :) The new training group arrives in less than a week, and I will be heading to Ha'apai to help with their technical training. I'm pretty excited about that, Ha'apai is pretty much a perfect opposite of 'Eua. Whereas 'Eua is covered by rainforest and perfect for hiking and exploring, Ha'apai is the place to go for pristine beaches and snorkeling. I'm hoping to get out scuba diving while I'm there (If I don't die first). So a few things to look forward to :)