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."

Another:

"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 harvesting...as this is a clothes optional venue, woofers are invited to work 'au natural'..."

Haha.

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 year...no 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:

tanielasoni@gmail.com

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

-Senifa

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 mixed...to 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 just...green.

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!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

80 minutes of live world cup soccer!

"But why only 80 minutes?" You might ask. Well, let me tell you. We were watching illegally in the first place- it started at 7:30 am Sunday morning here, and Sunday sabbath is strictly adhered to in Tonga* Across the street from my village there is an agricultural college which has a handful of students from Vanuatu. Apparently soccer is very popular in Vanuatu, and these guys scrounged up a little television and hooked up digital cable for a month just to watch the World Cup (awesome, right?). The one downside is that the games are shown at 12:30, 3:30, and 7:30...AM! But the World Cup only comes around once every four years...So a few other volunteers and I were up early Sunday morning to catch the USA-ENG game thinking it would finish just in time to get ready and get to church on time. The guy in charge of the TV was a little reluctant to let us watch in the first place, given that it was Sunday, and once the first church bells started ringing at 9, he told us it was time to turn it off. Church didn't actually start for another 55 minutes, there was 10 minutes left in the game and the score was tied 1-1. It was pretty painful, but we pulled the plug on the TV and went to get ready for church.

I woke up this morning with about 12 cockroaches in my sink, so, not knowing what else to do, I just turned the water on full-blast. Then I thought, "Hey! It's like I'm water boarding them! How very American of me! Maybe I'll fit in when I go home after all!" So that was really comforting for about two minutes until I actually thought about it.

I walked across the island to my favourite beach yesterday, and every single person I passed along the way knew my name. Pretty cool, except when they all know you skipped afternoon church to walk to the beach and you went to painstaking lengths to get out of your village without being spotted.

I'm listening to Tongan radio right now and this song just came on that goes:

"LA International Airport!
LA International Airport!" Over and over.

Never heard that one before, but I liked it.


*Just a few examples of illegal activities I've participated in on Sunday:

- Picking fruit from a tree to eat
- Swimming
- Reading a book (and not THE book)
- Playing my ukulele

I'm such a rebel I can hardly stand it

Here are the things you CAN do on Sunday:

-Go to church
-Eat
-Sleep


Here's a quick sampling of a Tongan song. I know it's sideways, I couldn't figure out how to turn it upright. Turning your head to the side works well though.


Friday, June 4, 2010

My kids' opinion of me is WAY too high

I was teaching night school the other evening- a lesson on reading comprehension when we came across a sentence they didn't understand, something along the lines of, "The magic trick was astonishing." There isn't a great Tongan translation of the word "astonish," so I showed them a simple slieght-of-hand magic trick and told them they would be astonished. Unfortunately it kind of backfired on me.

At the beginning of the trick I tolf them I would memorize the order of all the cards in the deck, then when they told me to stop at a certain point as I shuffled through the deck I would be able to tell the the exact card I stopped at without looking because I had "memorized" the entire deck (in about 15 seconds)- astonishing, right?

I performed the trick. They didn't seem very impressed. I showed them again. Certainly not astonished.

I thought about how they could possibly not be impressed with this trick. I thought and thought about it, then...was it possible? Could it be? I asked them if they thought I really memorized the entire deck (in order, in 15 seconds).

"Yes," they replied matter-of-factly, of course I did. And it didn't even surprise them that I could do that. I wasn't sure quite where to go from there.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

I don't smell very good right now...

chalk dust
night school with class 6

victory!after-school hangout
decorating :)



It's been brought to my attention recently that I haven't been including "It's Tonga" moments very regularly in my blog these days; a friend mentioned to me that I'm probably just becoming so used to these things happening every day that they don't shock me anymore, which I suppose makes sense. I decided that for all my "It's Tonga" Moments my neighbors and villagers probably have ten "It's Senifa" Moments, where I did something that was utterly incomprehensible to them. Here are a few that I know leave my neighbors dumbfounded, written from their point-of-view, in a round table discussion format:

-"She lives alone...and she seems to like it! We even offered to let our kids sleep in her house and she declined. Furthermore, she goes to bed and wakes up at the same time every day! And she seems to get annoyed when we wake her up in the middle of the night to borrow salt or oil to cook...I just don't get her!"

-"Well, have you seen her walking about in the sun all the time? Can you just imagine? If she keeps on like that her skin will get dark! But she doesn't like to walk in the rain, oh no, as soon as it starts to rain she runs for cover. Doesn't she know that by walking in the rain you not only get to where you are going, you also get a shower and washed clothes?!"

-"What's more- she refuses to hit our kids! I don't know how many times I've told her she should hit my kid, even if he's not misbehaving, but she just smiles and shakes her head! I'll tell you what I did. I even told her how to pinch the kids to maximize pain and minimize a visible bruise, and still! Her classroom must be downright chaotic!"

-"Get this- one day I saw her talking to one of the boys in the village, then the next day I saw her talking to a DIFFERENT one! Then again, she is an American...." (knowing nods all around)

-"Well here's the kicker then. I walked past her house one Sunday and she was playing music inside...and it wasn't about JESUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" (At this I imagine all the women letting out a collective gasp, then shaking their heads in pity)

So with that I will close out the "It's Tonga" Moments section of this blog. It's been a good run, but I realized last week, when a chicken walked through my library and it didn't phase me, that maybe, finally, I'm becoming impervious to the unique eccentricities that Tonga presents me with on a daily basis.

Now for some updates:

While I still hold the reservations about the library that I expressed in my last post, I have to say, having the library running and seeing the kids using it and benefiting from it has been amazing. The kids are not only reading like fiends, they are now checking out books and taking them home to read with their siblings and parents. (Although one boy came to my house at six-thirty this morning because he wanted to return a book and check a different one out- I told him to go home and go back to sleep)

The library has become a popular after school hang out where the kids come to do their homework, play cards, read, or do puzzles. I just want to say that, and I know this is on a purely selfish level, watching them be excited about being in the library and reading and learning has been incredibly fun for me. Last week some of the high school girls completed a complex, spherical puzzle and a few other kids have taken a keen interest in origami. I've also been holding my night study classes in there, which has been nice to get the class six kids out of the classroom a few nights a week. With some (mostly) friendly reminders, the kids have been taking great care of the library and the books. When we first started getting in books and they started reading on their own I had to sit them all down and teach a mini-lesson on how to turn the pages without bending them!

Last week one of Peace Corps' program leaders came out to 'Eua to lead a workshop for school principals interested in receiving a volunteer next year. I was invited to be a part of that meeting and speak about the role of a volunteer in a school and community. It was a great opportunity to let future counterparts know what Peace Corps is about and what they should, and should not, expect from a volunteer. As it turns out, the program manager did a wonderful job explaining the goals of Peace Corps and what we are in Tonga for. She ended the presentation with this quote:

"The only form of assistance which is unending is that which we can provide for ourselves. We in Tonga, must not forget that the progress of this country, be it fast, be it slow, or be it non-existent, depends on us...Any major step in the advancements of the Kingdom...is in the hands of the men and women of our country and it is with them that the ultimate progress depends."

-King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV
June 8, 1967

Golden. Sitting in on this meeting went a long way towards alleviating the worries I have been having about the expectations of volunteers and counterparts not being well-aligned. I think everyone left that meeting with a good idea of what Peace Corps Volunteers are here for and how they should be utilized. It was made clear that we come in with a set of skills, that usually don't include grant-writing, and that we are meant to be capacity-builders and not "thing-getters" (not a word, I know, but the best I could come up with right now).

In other news, I will shortly be saying farewell to my infamous faleTonga (palm-leaf hut). It will be uprooted from its current residency by my house, carried across the school yard, and re-rooted in place of my neighbors' old faleTonga, which got devastated this past cyclone season. (I'm pretty sure he's been sleeping in my classroom since) I hadn't been sleeping in the faleTonga much anyway since it started getting pretty chilly and windy at night. In fact I've been mostly sleeping in my bed, which I'm becoming more comfortable with despite a few frightening spider, rat and molokau incidents.

I guess the biggest thing going on here is that I'm considering extending my service here in Tonga for a third year. I'm confident there's enough work in the library to keep me busy for another year, and I really want to see this project through and not leave it halfway done. As I mentioned earlier in the post, I am (finally) becoming really comfortable here and feeling like I'm integrated into the community and understand the culture well enough to do valuable work. I'm part of something I believe in (Peace Corps) and part of a group of people I feel privileged to be considered a part of. My work here is fulfilling and fun, and yes, challenging at times, but isn't everything that's meaningful sometimes challenging? Teaching here is awesome, the kids are enthusiastic, bright, resourceful, respectful and happy. Oh, and have you seen my pictures? The scenery here's not bad either :) After church Sunday I walked to my favorite beach on the island and spent the afternoon reading a book in the shade of a tree. It was hard for me to justify leaving in that moment.

On the other hand, I know I cannot, nor do I want to, stay here forever. As you can certainly tell from the "It's Senifa" Moments, I have not, nor will I ever, become Tongan. I've learned a lot about myself here, my perceptions about a lot of things have changed, and I've fulfilled my commitment. Maybe it's time to move on. I hear the job market in America is terrific right now (joke!). And I'm certainly not getting any younger (I'm only half-joking about that). My house flooded again last week, worse than it ever has before, so that was a bit frustrating and something I won't miss.

It's a difficult decision, and one that I will have to make soon to meet the application deadline if I want to apply to stay another year! 'Oiaue! (A Tongan expression of grief, excitement, or concern- in this case all three!)

If you're thinking...hey, I'm quickly coming to the end of this post and that title has nothing to do with anything!?! Well, I sat here for ten minutes trying to come up with a good title, and in that time realized that, really, I do stink. Good writers try to appeal to all the senses, right? It was between that and "May." Smell ya later.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hecticity, n. (heck-tis-sit-ee)- The state of being in which life has become so busy you begin to create new words to explain it

painting....or playing?
fakamae church service
Mark reading with Lopeti and Siale






Hello friends! I know it's been too long, but my life has been filled with hecticity the last few months, which I'm well aware is not actually a word, but maybe if you start using it it will catch on.

The library opened last month with a huge feast in the schoolyard. There was plenty of music, dancing, and roasted pig! Unfortunately for me it was a day of mixed emotions, I sat down afterwards to write an article for the Peace Corps newsletter about it and this is what came out:

I would like to share my thoughts about a community library project I was involved in that was recently completed at my site. This project began when my counterparts started talking to me about writing grants and getting "stuff" for the school (which incidentally came up at our very first teachers' meeting). This put me in a bit of an uncomfortable spot; besides the fact that that's not what I'm here for, I really didn't want to perpetuate an already heavy dependence on foreign aid, an already widespread misperception about what Peace Corps Volunteers do, and I didn't want to create expectations for future volunteers at my site to "get stuff" as well. On the other hand it was what my counterparts and community expected of me and seemingly the only thing I could do to make them happy (aside from marrying someone from the village and bringing them to America).

I have had conversations with other volunteers about this problem and know I am not the first to have faced it.


After many circular conversations with my counterparts on the subject we concluded that if they need something we will look at all the options to finance the project, then if we need to write a grant I would help them. "Help"being the operative term in that agreement.


A few months later the idea for a library came up. Our school is very new and doesn't yet have many resources and no place to put a library. I worked with my counterparts and we came up with a plan that if they want a library I would help write the grant and they would be in charge of the building and I could probably find books for it. At first I wasn't sure how serious they were about it, but when I told my counterpart we would need to turn in building plans and a cost estimate with our grant application he went out and got them within the week. When I told him we needed to sit down and write the grant together he came early and with ideas of what we should write. At the next PTA meeting the idea was brought up, and the PTA offered to contribute all the labor for the construction of the library as their community contribution. I made it a point to say from the beginning that this was their project, not mine, and they would be responsible for and involved in each step of the process so that in the future they could do a project on their own. It became clear very early in the project that the village was supportive and willing to put in the work necessary to complete the library.

We completed the grant application and a few months later someone from the grant agency came out to the school to do an interview and decide whether to fund the project. I was in Australia when they came out, so I wasn't involved in that process at all, but my counterpart said it went really well.

A few weeks later we received notice that out application had been approved. That week the PTA met and worked out a schedule for the labor and a family to cook food for the workers every day. They appointed a head builder who did a great job of organizing and executing the construction, and about a month after receiving the fund the library was beautifully completed.


After the construction was completed I, with lots of help from other PCV's, the youth and even a few women from the village, painted the world map mural on one wall. I consider this my contribution to the library.


The week leading up to the grand opening was a bustle of activity and the entire village helped prepare for the celebration. The women planted flowers and bushes around the library and made a cement path from the school to the library and the kids weeded and cleaned up the entire yard.
Everyone helped.

Unfortunately, I realized at the grand opening, that I am being given way more credit than I deserve for this project. The opening was attended by many of the school officials and principals from around the island, as well as the Peace Corps Country director. Every speech that was given credited the project to me and talked about the work that Peace Corps does here. In hindsight I realized that this may be due to the fact that The Country Director for Peace Corps was there and considered the guest of honor, but the other school principals and Ministry of Education officers heard that this was my project.

Since the library's completion the other volunteers on the island and I have been inundated with requests to write grants for everything from a lawn mower to a bathroom at the church to a new town hall.


This project has raised a slew of questions for me, among them: Where does need end and want begin (In Tonga there is no distinction between the two words, both are fiema'u)? Are we here to "get stuff" for our communities? If not, what are we here for? I came here as a trained teacher and am proud of the work I have done and the progress my students have made; that has gone all but unrecognized. What do we do when our expectation don't meet up with those of our community or counterparts? Or even when Peace Corps' goals and purpose do not meet up with the expectations of an entire host country? Are we working our way out of here and towards a self-sufficient Tonga or creating more dependence on the massive amount of foreign aid that already comes into this country? Or are we just here to refute the "Ugly American" stigma?


In the end I consider this a successful project that my village and counterparts completed. The whole village came together and worked really hard to build this library that will be a great resource to all the students of the village and anyone interested in improving their English literacy. Unfortunately, they consider it a really great and successful project I completed.

This misplaced credit will make life for future volunteers placed in 'Eua infinitely more frustrating. They will not be considered successful by their counterpart or village unless they "get stuff" no matter how well they do their actual assignment, and two years is a long time to disappoint everyone around you.


Despite all that, now that the library has been open for a month it has been awesome to see it in use. The kids are so enthusiastic about reading new books (some seem to be more enthusiastic about smelling the new books, but I can't blame them for that- who doesn't love the smell of new books?!) The High School kids are coming in and using the library as well which is cool to see. Also it's created a ton of work for me to keep busy with after I finish teaching for the day. At the time of the library opening we didn't have very many books, but donations have been coming in from many different sources and the library is slowly starting to fill up! I've been busy sorting, organizing and cataloging the books, setting up a program to have each class in the library once a week, setting up a remedial reading program with some students from classes 4,5, and 6, opening the library after school for the kids, and figuring out a system for letting the kids borrow the books. I've been pretty much living in the library, but fortunately it's a nice place to live because it smells like books. Receiving books has been a treat for the kids, and also for me as well. I've come across many books that I remember loving when I was a kid and haven't seen for fifteen years. Looking through some of these books I was stunned at how beautiful children's books can be- Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal and Peter Spier's People and Rain for example (Thanks Gary!), I just want to frame the pages and hang them on my walls!

The other reason I've been so busy lately is that my counterpart, the principal at my school suddenly and unexpectedly retired. Ideally the school should have three full-time Tongan teachers; we started the year with two, and now we're down to one teacher and myself. The Ministry is supposed to be sending out a new teacher, but they also said it could take months. The first week the class 4,5,6 teacher and I did our best to make it work, then last week the ministry sent out someone to help until they find a new teacher.

Being this busy has actually been a nice change of pace, and I'm really excited about the things I've been busy with, so I'm not minding falling into bed exhausted each night one bit; I wake up every morning excited and with a purpose for the day.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Pictures from the last few months

Nearly finished
Starting to paint



Drawing








Making the grid




Nearly finished library!





Frame going up on the library









Starting to build the library


















Lie helping me make some cookies for the guys building the library










Aftermath of Cyclone Rene










Consolidation into a tiny room during cyclone Rene














Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Best village in Tonga, maybe the world!



















"It's Tonga" Moment:

- I had gone over to my neighbors house one evening and on the way back I had to walk through a cow pasture to get to my house. It was dark and at night the cows and bulls rest on the walking path, but most move when I get close. One wouldn't. I asked him politely to move, "MOOOOOOve!" (I took my cue from Dory in Finding Nemo and spoke "cow-ese") with no success. Finally I braved whatever was lurking in the tall grass and walked around him, giving him a wide berth. When I got back on the path behind him he started following me. He would walk when I walked, and when I stopped and turned around he would stop and look all innocent. As if I wouldn't notice an eighteen-hundred-pound behemoth following me. Finally I stopped and turned on him. I wasn't sure how you're supposed to deal with a bull, are you supposed to play dead as you would with a bear? Or perhaps not make eye-contact as that could be interpreted as a sign of aggression? I tried to resolve the situation diplomatically by talking to him, trying to explain that I just wanted to go home (I AM in Peace, Corps, what do you expect?). When that didn't work I had to resort to more extreme measures. I looked around for something to throw at him, and hark, there at my feet was a large coconut. I picked it up and gave him one last chance to back down. He didn't take it. I channeled my inner Brett Farve (Vikings' Brett Farve, NOT Jets' Brett Farve) then let it go. Direct hit. He let out a "moooo" and ambled off into the pasture, and almost immediately I felt a bit bad. Maybe he just wanted to be friends? I got over it pretty quickly as I sat in my house that night and thought about how much time and money I had spent earning my education, and here I was fending off stalker bulls by throwing coconuts at them. Sigh.

In other news, my rat traps have been working overtime lately. It's the wet season here and I think the rats try to find their way indoors to get out of the rain, and as a result I have caught 8 rats in my traps in the last few weeks. Yahtzee! I also stumbled across a new oddity on my bathroom floor. A hermit crab. Those of you who have been reading since I've been here know that last year I had a recurring visitor to my kitchen, a crab, but I ended up deciding that it wasn't THAT unusual because it was possibly a coconut crab that lives in the bush and could concievably make it to my house. THIS crab, however, is definitly a beach-dwelling crab. I have no idea what it's doing in my house, which isn't that close to the beach. Being in Tonga a year and a half has taught me that some things don't have explanations (or explanations that make sense to me) and there are some things that I don't need or want to know the explanation to. I just shook my head and went about my business. I should start a new segment in my blog: "Wierd Things I Find on my Bathroom Floor"
I was in my house one Saturday afternoon when I heard some of the boys right outside my window. It sounded like there were at least five or six of them, and they were obviously inside my fence, which they usually don't come inside without permission (If an older boy sees them, they'll get hit, even though I've said I don't mind). I put on my lavalava (sarong) and a tee-shirt and went outside to see what is going on. As I walk outside I see the boys bent over in my yard, pulling weeds and cutting the long grass with machetes. They look up, surprised to see me, they had thought I wasn't home. I asked them why they were cleaning up my yard, and they simply replied, "Because it was ugly." No one had asked them to; they had come over to play and seen that my yard was, in fact, quite ugly and took it upon themselves to fix it for me. They are all 8 or 9 years old, and they spent an hour sprucing up my yard.
After they entirely cleaned my yard they asked for the soccer ball and football to play with, which I gave them. They then spent the next three hours in the schoolyard, running around, playing, wrestling, having relay races. At one point they collpased exhausted on their backs in my (freshly cleaned!) yard, but within thirty seconds one boy sat up, which spurred a full-contact sit-up and push-up competition. A sight to behold, if you've never seen one.

It was really fun to watch them just playing, no adult supervision, no organized drills or practices, no fancy equiptment. I gave them a few balls, but when they don't have balls to play with I've seen them make toys out of sticks, coconut husks, tin cans rescued from fire pits, rocks, and bicycle spokes (From the bicycle spokes they make these little internal combustion chambers with a nail, the scraped-off heads of a few matches, and a piece of wire- pretty genius). They never get bored, they never complain, and they very rarely argue amongst themselves.

This past week construction began on the library, and I have been so impressed with the work and support the village is putting into the project. Before they stated the construction the PTA met and worked out a schedule of who was going to take food to the workers every day and the work plan. The men in the village are building the library entirely, which initially made me a bit nervous not knowing if any of them had any formal construction experience, but it seems to be coming together really well and they've all grown up swinging hammers and working. Every day last week men in the village showed up to help, and plenty of food was brought to them by a different family each day. I was hoping that I would get to help build the library a bit after school, but there are enough people showing up to help out that there are usually people sitting in the shade waiting for something to do. As a girl, they would be reluctant to let me help out anyway, much less when there are plenty of capable men around to do the work :) So I kind of accepted my role in the community, made them cookies and watched as the library has taken form. It's coming along really quickly with all the help, and everyone is very excited about it.

Once the library is finished some of the youth from the village have agreed to help me paint a world map mural on one wall. We got some leftover paint donated from the hardware store on the main island, and we're ready to paint!

One thing our library is lacking is enough books to fill it! I've recieved some donations through friends and family and through book aid agencies, but if you have any extra children's books lying around and would like to help my students and community, please send them to:

Jennifer Danielson, PCV

P.O. Box 24

'Ohonua, 'Eua

Kingdom of Tonga

South Pacific

If you are interested in doing that, just know that shipping can be quite expensive, so your best bet is probably a flat rate box which can be found at the post office.
Another option is donating towards the shipping cost of a box of books through a book aid program I'm working with, International Book Project. Here is the information for that:

The International Book Project is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit which collects new and used books and sends them to schools, libraries, and other nonprofit organizations in developing countries. You can learn more about our organization at our website http://www.internationalbookproject.org/. The cost for shipping an m-bag (approximately 32 lbs) of books is $200. You may donate by sending a check to:

International Book Project

1440 Delaware Avenue

Lexington, KY 40505.

You may also donate online via credit card at http://www.intlbookproject.org/donate.php. Please indicate in the memo of the check or the notes section of the online giving screen that the donation is for Jenny Danielson. All donations are tax deductible.





Sunday, February 21, 2010

Australia, family in Tonga, MST, oh my!

"It's Tonga" Moment of the last three months:

I had just walked into my bathroom to have a shower when I saw two dark blobs on the floor. There is no light in my bathroom, so I grabbed my flashlight, and upon further inspection the turned out to be two tiny baby rats. I looked around, unsure of where they came from and if they were alone. No reasonable explanation presented itself; they didn't seem to be walking yet. Huh. I couldn't tell if they were even alive, so I decided to have my shower while I thought about what to do. I considered smacking them with my sandal, but that seemed messy. I was keeping an eye on them while in the shower, and about midway through, one of them became mobile. he started walking around the bathroom, and in a panic I ran and grabbed the first ting that came to mind. My machete, of course. Two minutes later I had a different problem on my hands. Four baby rat halves. It was a bit messy, but I scooped them onto a piece of cardboard, threw them out the door and re-showered. The next day two more appeared on my bathroom floor. Still no idea how they got there. I figured since I was already a killer, I might as well.....chop, chop.

Okay, so...it's been a while, and a lot has happened since my last update. I was sent to Australia to get my tonsils out and had to stay there for three weeks. I got back the day before my family got to Tonga, then a week after they left I was traveling again to my Mid-Service Conference on the main island of Tongatapu. I'm back in my village now; school has started and things are finally starting to settle down a bit again, but here's what I've been up to the last three months:

Australia was...interesting. It was my first time out of Tonga since arriving, and at first it was a bit overwhelming. I left 'Eua on a tiny, 10-seater "island-hopper" airplane, where I got to sit co-pilot in front of all the controls. I flew Air New Zealand to Australia, and let me tell you, it was a different experience. I sat down in my seat, which was all padded and comfortable, and get this: every person had a personal entertainment center in the back of the seat in front of them. You could watch the latest movies (I assume they were the latest; I had never heard of them), play video games, listen to the latest music (assumption again), watch TV shows, or listen to the radio. I was impressed. Before we took off, a movie came on everyone's screen; it was the pre-flight preparation telling you how to fasten your seatbelt and all that. I was watching, and I could tell that there was something just not quite right about it, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. The lady in the seat next to me asked if I knew what was "off" about it, and then told me to take a close look at their uniforms. THEY WERE ALL NAKED!!! Their uniforms had been painted on, and you couldn't even tell unless you were looking for it. They all just were walking around with these strategically placed seat belts and life jackets and these sly little grins on their faces. I was shocked. Pleasantly. As if that wasn't enough, they gave us food, and it was good. I mean, my frame of reference may be a little skewed after living in Tonga for a year, but I ate salmon with a 7-bean salad on the side. The whole experience was so pleasant,I didn't want to land.

The day I got into Brisbane I decided to walk into town and have a look around. I passed a small grocery store and decided to do a little shopping since I had access to a full kitchen the place I was staying and thought I would save a little money by doing some cooking. I was not successful. I walked through the store for an hour and a half, picking things up for one meal, then putting them back and picking up a few ingredients for something different. I ended up having to leave quickly with a really upset stomach and checked out with the following:yogurt, seaweed, craisens, chick peas, seed mix, and muesli. Chalked that up as a failure.

Like I said, I had to stay in Australia three weeks for a fifteen-minute surgery, so I had a bit of free time on my hands. Luckily, there were a few towns withing walking distance, one huge street promenade, and a shopping mall. Also I learned how to use the public transportation after about a week, so that helped. The first week I kinda just did a lot of people-watching. I was fascinated at all the languages being spoken and the diversity of the people there. Needless to say, Tonga is not a very diverse country. I ended up getting pretty bored, not for lack of things to do, but I didn't know anyone there and so the only people I talked to were people in shops who were trying to sell me stuff. Having zero anonymity in Tonga can be extremely frustrating, but I missed walking down the road and people calling out to me by name. I tried to make friends, but people just weren't as friendly as they are in Tonga. Here's an excerpt from my journal:

"Clinical social retardation. Self-diagnosed. Prognosis: lifetime of awkwardness in social settings. 60% probability of owning four or more cats by age 30."

I ended up buying an ukulele and playing that because I was bored. I did actually end up making a few friends there, and they took me out and showed me a good time and showed me around a bit, but they also told me, "You can tell you've been living on a little island the last year. " Haha, ouch.

Here are some things I really appreciated about Australia:

-Hot showers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
-Good sushi
-Good hospital :)
-Good public transportation
-Good nightlife
- I remember waking up in the middle of the night one night and being pleasantly surprised that I couldn't feel a single bug crawling on me. How novel.

The day after I got back from Australia I met my family in Tongatapu and we all headed out to 'Eua to spend Christmas. My Mom wrote the previous blog about their trip, so I won't go into too much detail about it. I'm really thankful that they got to come out to 'Eua and see my house, village, neighbors, my Tongan family, and just my life here. It was also great to see family, people who have known me and I've known longer than a year. I think they had a good time too, although the spiders take a bit longer to get used to than they had. I'm not sure how long, I'm not quite there yet myself.

The week after my family left, I was back in Tongatapu for our Mid-Service Training conference. It was really cool to see how far everyone had come in a year, and what we all had been up to at our sites. One thing that shocked me was how small our group had become. There were a few people out of the country at the time, but our group was down to I think 15 from 24! we haven't seen each other in ten months, but we kinda all picked up where we left off and I feel like we have a really tight-knit group. One of my favorite memories from the conference was of most of the group, gathered in the lounge pouring over some recent celebrity gossip magazines someone had received in the mail. Some people on the main island groups were more informed than others, and the following is an approximation of the conversation that ensued:

"Dang, I don't know half the people in this magazine!"
"Yeah, really! Who is this Jon Gosserlin that's all over?!"
"Isn't he the guy that knocked up the octomom?"
"OCTO-mom?!"
"Yeah, that's right"
"Holy shit, who are all these kids with Brad and Angelina?!"
"They have like six kids now, and they're from like seven different countries"
"Is that legal?"
"What the heck is Twitter?"
"Oh, my friend explained this to me, they're like facebook, but just status updates. They're called twits."
"Well, now let's not get rude, I'm sure they're perfectly nice."
"Who is this Adam Lambert? He's wearing more makeup in this picture than I've worn in the past year."
"Oh! I know, he won America's Got Talent, he beat out that homely-looking Susan lady with the great voice."
"Huh. Never heard of her, and that doesn't explain all the eye-shadow."

We then fell into a thoughtful silence.


School has begun, and our grant to build a library at the school has been approved! We lost a teacher from last year, she moved to Tongatapu and wasn't replaced, so we're down to three teachers this year (including me), which means two things: I get more responsibility and I get my own classroom! Both good things. I've found having my own classroom allows me to do more preparation work because I can write on the board before class and I don't have to lug all my supplies back and forth between school and my house. Also I see the kids more each day which I'm excited about. The class 4/5/6 teacher has been reluctant to hand over any responsibility or class time to me, but I'm working on him. The kids who took the class 6 exam last year did really great, and their English scores improved a lot from the previous years.

The kids here never cease to amaze me with their attitudes, energy, and excitement to learn. They come over after school to play soccer and rugby and just run around until they collapse, and they always want to help me clean my yard, fetch water, or organize the classroom. The high school girls come in the evenings to get help with their homework, and they're usually a lot of fun too. Between that and working on getting the library grant finalized, I've been keeping pretty busy!

Just got an e-mail, looks like a cyclone is heading our way right now, so wish my fale Tonga luck!!!*

*UPDATE:
I wrote this blog about a week and a half ago, but was unable to publish it at the time because of internet connection problems. A few days afterward we were hit by a category 4 cyclone, Rene. The PCV's here "consolidated" to the most well-built structure on the island, so we were pretty safe, but ended up having to stay there in a tiny room much longer than any of us expected. Walking back into my village after the cyclone passed I was able to observe the damage. One house had completely blown down (six of my kids lived there) and a few other outdoor kitchens and bathrooms had blown down, as well as lots of trees and power lines. No one was hurt, and the village has gathered around the family whose house feel down and they are being well-taken care of. We lost power for a week. My house fared pretty well, it flooded, but I expected that and had prepared for it. Things are finally starting to dry out now. And the faleTonga did great, I had to reattach some palm fronds, and it got pretty wet, but it held up really well. I found it a bit strange that my neighbors' house collapsed, and my faleTonga had barely any damage, but I think my real house protected the faleTonga from a lot of the wind/ flying debris. Hopefully that'll be the last cyclone we see this season!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

To Tonga with Love - Mom, Larry & Jeff











Jenny asked if we wanted to be “guest bloggers” after our visit to Tonga over Christmas. I don’t know if I can be as entertaining as Jenny usually is, but we had an amazing visit and I’ll share our experiences as visitors to the islands.

We arrived in Tonga on December 22nd where it was sunny and probably in the 80’s. After leaving Alaska and 20 below about 30 hours earlier we were ready for the sun! We spent a few hours in Tongatapu before catching the ferry over to ‘Eua. Despite Jenny’s stories about horrific ferry trips, the trip was uneventful except for meeting our first fakalaiti and getting sunburned from riding on the roof of the Ferry. We docked in ‘Eua and although it was a short way to her house, we had so many pieces of luggage and boxes that we needed to find a ride – and soon climbed in the back of a flatbed pickup and were dropped off at Jenny’s front door safe and sound.

The first night in’Eua we were a little concerned about the rodent and spider population, and set the Rat Zapper before we went to bed. We turned out the lights and even though we hadn’t slept in 36 hours, we laid awake expecting rats, spiders or other creepy crawlies to pounce. It wasn’t long before the Rat Zapper started buzzing. What do we do? Jenny’s outside in the faletonga and I certainly don’t want to see a rat! Jeff wanted to see a rat even less and Larry was trapped next to the wall with me in front. The Rat Zapper just kept right on buzzing and buzzing, so finally I get up with my flashlight to see what’s in there – terrified to look. When I do, I’m relieved to see it’s only a cockroach! It’s still alive, but I’m just happy it’s not a rat, and that we never saw a rat, or even spider, in Jenny’s Fale in ‘Eua. We did lay awake at night imagining them though!

Memories from ‘Eua, Tonga:
  • The people were amazingly friendly and generous. Everyone brought us food – we had more mangos and bananas than we could eat. Christmas morning breakfast was wonderful – someone just came to the door and dropped off a tray with eggs, fruit and chocolate cake – Yum!
  • Hiking on ‘Eua – Jenny brought us on marathon hikes our first two days in ‘Eua. We were so grateful for the mango juice the neighbors brought over right after we got home! The island was rugged and beautiful – even though we weren’t as excited about climbing down cliffs and into caves as Jenny is. We climbed into Rat’s Cave and down cliffs to Fangatave Beach – she gave us a workout but the experience was definitely worth it.
  • Speaking of neighbors – I think the village was watching us closely. As soon as we would get home someone would arrive with food or drinks within minutes!
  • Church – the singing was such a wonderful surprise. The only comparison that I can think of is that they sing in church at the same intensity and volume that we would yell at a football game. That’s pretty incredible when you think about it that they praise God like Americans praise football players! Hmmm…
  • I really like ‘Eua and am happy Jenny’s there. I feel a lot better about her being out on a more isolated island now that I have seen it. The pace is slow but purposeful, they spend the time with people rather than accomplishing “things” and when you slow down and take the time for that you realize the value in spending time with people and in reflection. It was a great experience.
  • Larry was most struck by the Tongan kids and the beautiful quality they had. They were so friendly and just wanted to play. They didn’t whine or argue or complain about anything and just showed up in Jenny’s yard and waited until someone invited them to play something. The kids were awesome.
  • Jeffrey got a taste was what’s it’s like to live in a male-dominated society. He, as the oldest male child, was presented with a gift on Christmas Day of a large Tapa Cloth. Larry was asked to do a blessing and a speech. The girls were shy but Jeff was asked over and over again if he had a girlfriend, or wanted one!
  • I was pretty much expected to sit quietly or at least cry at the speeches, which the neighbor Lupe did. I had faux paus one night when I put on my pajamas and proceeded to sweep out the house. Men aren’t supposed to see women’s shoulders so I was pretty surprised to open the front door to sweep out the dirt and saw Tevita standing there and I was in my camisole top and pj pants. I shut the door as quick as I could. Jenny and Jeff had been at a youth meeting and met Tevita on the way home and he told Jenny I had slammed the door in his face! It seems noone knocks in Tonga – they just stand outside and wait for someone to look outside.
  • We were able to learn a lot about their culture, but we also shared ours. Larry and Jeff wore skirts to church and we all wore Tu’avolas, Larry gave a couple speeches, and we shared some gifts from America and were given gifts as well. In Tonga, the men and women don’t sit together in church, and Jenny wasn’t sure it was okay for men and women, and brothers and sisters to sit next to each other. But we decided to share our culture and sit together as a family.

Ha’apai --After 4 days in ‘Eua we flew to Ha’apai and took a little boat to Serenity Beaches Resort. There were 2 other couples there when we got there on Saturday, but by Wednesday we were the only ones there. It was incredible to be on a beautiful white sandy beach with this amazing turquoise colored water and to be there entirely by ourselves. It felt like you owned your own private tropical island. Wow – I just can’t think of a better vacation. The weather was fabulous every single day, and although the food probably wasn’t the best we’ve ever had, it was a great destination.

  • SPIDERS! Toward the end of our stay on Serenity Beaches spiders became an issue. There were webs along the path to our Fale’ and we had to have a spider search every night before we tucked our mosquito netting in around the bed and went to sleep. Larry was our hero and chief spider slayer. The spiders are not poisonous, but OMG they are big and ugly. Jeff woke up one morning with a huge one on the outside of his mosquito net and was captive until Larry got the spider out of the Fale’.
  • Aside from the spiders, the resort was amazing. It had no electricity in the Fale and had a “Garden Shower” which was cold water unless you laid your solar water bag on the beach all day to heat the water. You find out what you DON’T NEED and adapt to a different lifestyle.













  • What we did: read in the Cabana, sat on the beach, looked for seashells on the beach (they were all over!), kayaked and rode the waves in the kayaks, snorkeled, Jenny and Larry were scuba diving twice, swam in the “swimming pool” which was a sand covered area of the beach and ocean, had a bonfire on the beach, played lots of cards and board games, Jen played her Ukelele, and we enjoyed each other’s company.
  • I will try to load a video of highlights from the trip – a feast with the neighbors, Jenny giving a speech, Christmas Eve play with Jenny in it, slaying spiders, Serenity Beaches, and Jen and Jeff’s spoof on MTV’s Cribs video.

    It was the most incredible trip! If anyone’s thinking of visiting Jenny don’t hesitate – BOOK YOUR FLIGHT TODAY. You can’t pass up such a great opportunity to experience the Tongan culture and the beauty of the islands. We will never forget Tonga. Thank you Jenny for being so adventurous to set out on this journey and share it with us. We love you and thank you for sharing your adventures with us! Toki Sio and much love to you and all the people on the island.


Mom, Larry and Jeff