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:

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


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 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: