Wednesday, December 30, 2009

MATAMAKA! Yes, my village and school NOT the beer

I have officially moved in to my site! My village looks like a set from one of the Survivor series, but it is absolutely so much more beautiful. There are two villages on the island of Nuapapu—Nuapapu and Matamaka. The island is shaped like an “L” and Matamaka is on the tip of one of the corner. There are about 125 people who reside in this small fishing village. My school sits on a hill that overlooks the small wharf and beach. The village of Matamaka reminds me of a medieval fortress city due to the fact that the entire city is protected on three sides by seaside cliffs with only the wharf area the only way in and out of the city. The “road” or I would call the “path” to the other village is a very narrow cliff that is impossible for any motor vehicles to pass through (oh wait…there are NO motor vehicles on the islands let alone any roads). I realize that I have not taken any pictures of Matamaka yet! I will try my best to upload some pictures as soon as I get back to the island and then back to Neiafu.

My house (aka my Farfum’s island bungalow) is pretty sweet. Thanks to Lepeti, I have light at night and I can see! He was kind enough to successfully hook up the solar panels with wires and batteries for me to have enough electricity to power one light bulb! My life for the next two years has dramatically taken a 3600 turn. If you ever read this, THANK YOU SO MUCH! Before arriving to Matamaka, I biked around Nuko’alofa trying to get a hold of as many candles as I could find. I was anticipating for the worst case scenario of not having any modern conveniences at the island. Therefore, my outdoor pit-toilet and falekaukau (outdoor shower) does not seem so bad. My homestay experience in Ha’apai really helped me mentally prepare for my living situation on my outer island. As a matter of fact, my house is like a Hilton compared to my house in Fangale’ounga. I have a fully functional stove/oven, a comfortable double mattress, mosquito screens in all of the windows, a full sema vai (water tank—my main water source), a huge fenced yard with banana trees, and a nice constant breeze from the sea (aka air-conditioning from the hot/humid weather). Since I did not have to buy a fridge or any electronics, I invested some money on items such as: various tapas (paintings) from the Nuko’alofa market, curtain beads, maps, and throw pillows for my “lounging” area. Once I get everything set-up and put away I will take some pictures and post it up. Overall, I am very content and lucky to have my little loft-style bungalow in Tonga.

Anyway, I will be working at GPS Matamaka with my principal and co-teacher. We have about….get ready for it…about 25 students! It is a very small school, but the school is amazingly beautiful. The school actually was completely rebuilt thanks to the people of the European Union. As a result, GPS Matamaka is one of the first donated school from the EU in the South Pacific. It literally is a model for the EU if it is viable to construct/renovate more schools in Tonga and its neighboring countries. In addition, a generous palangi (foreigner) has promised to donate solar panels and computers to the school. At the moment, we are working on installing the solar panels so that GPS Matamaka will soon have its first operational computer lab WITH INTERNET! This is a big deal, as it will literally open up the entire world to the students (most of whom have never left Vava’u). Consequently, it will be a great teaching tool for the teachers of GPS Matamaka. Furthermore, the school has a fairly decent size school yard with mango and breadfruit trees around the peripheries of the school compound. A massive tree is in the back of the school that faces the ocean and the roots have made the area around the tree a natural classroom setting. I anticipate doing a lot of story time and outdoor lessons out there! Did I mention this school even has flushable toilets? That is how nice it is (just sayin’). I am very excited for the school year to start!

With that all said, I cannot wait until the three months travel restriction is lifted and other volunteers can finally come up to Vava’u and see this magnificent place (and my awesome island). I believe my friends and family will enjoy the fun activities that Vava’u and Matamaka has to offer. The picturesque sunsets is the best free show that still dazzles me every day. It never gets old!

Toki sio,


By the way, HAPPY NEW YEAR! I will be greeting the new year with my co-teacher's family in Talau and later with other PCVs in Neiafu. I hope everyone stays safe tonight wherever you are in the world! Ofa lahi atu!

Vava'u...the Jellyfish looking island group of Tonga

Simply the best…

Yes, that is probably the best way to describe Vava’u and her islands that surrounds this region of Tonga. The city of Neiafu is the home of the Port of Refuge, the safest natural harbor in the South Pacific. The entire harbor is often full of various yachts and boats from around the world. As a result, the city offers multiple amenities and establishments for travelers and locals alike to enjoy throughout the year. It is a lot different than Ha’apai! Only in Neiafu may someone have an espresso for breakfast, a delicious curry dish for lunch, fancy tapas dinner with your closest friends for dinner followed by an option of dancing the night away by the waterfront bar/nightclub or experiencing a fakaleiti (a Tongan drag) show! In addition, this place is also blessed by natural beauty. Mount Talau overlooks the city and bay area with its lush forests and hiking paths waiting for you to explore. During the months of June through late September, the annual migrations of the humpback whales make Vava’u their ideal location to malolo (rest) and give birth to the next generation of whales. Humpback whales are often seen gallivanting around hidden coves and secluded beaches waiting for you to swim with them!

Even though this place is paradise, I hate to burst the happy bubble, but there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of development in Tonga. I often remind myself that there is a reason why Peace Corps is still here in Tonga after being here since 1967. From my short time that I have been here so far, I have noticed that there is a huge rift between modernization and Tongan culture. In many aspects, the Tongan culture hinders business development throughout the Kingdom. This can be seen when Tongan business owners operate under “Tongan” time or closes randomly for any reason from church functions to putu (funerals). It is no big surprise that foreign competitors, especially from the Chinese, are doing so well in the business sector throughout Tonga. These “China shops” are often fully stocked with a wide range of imported and local goods with set and consistent business hours. As a result, there are some feelings of resentment towards these foreign shops as they became prominent players in the Tongan economy. Today, Tongan businesses have an arduous task of competition for survival.

The environment and social problems in Tonga are two blogs that can be dedicated on their own. I was talking with one of the locals from Neiafu the other day and he told me that he did not realize and appreciate the natural beauty of Vava’u until he left and came back. There is no such thing as a perfect world and Tonga is anything so, but with hard work and commitment by the local people, the Kingdom of Tonga can take slowly move towards a brighter future. Regardless, this place is truly magical and simply the best in Kingdom.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Don't Worry Be HA'APAI!

Malo e lelei! A warm greeting from the Kingdom of Tonga. A lot of people have been wondering what I have been up to since I left Iowa almost three months ago for the Peace Corps. I am sorry it has taken me so long to write this. The intense Peace Corps training has literally taken up all my time and the internet in Ha’apai was impossible and was on another island far away from my little village. With that said I will do my best to get everyone up to date with my whereabouts.

Peace Corps Group 75 arrived in Nuko’alofa on October 8. We stayed in the capitol city for four days where we were introduced to the biggest and most “cosmopolitan” city in the country. In truth, the city lacks any character or significant attractions. Lonely Planet describes Nuko’alofa as the “ugliest capitol city in the South Pacific.” The book may have been a little too rough, but over 80% of the capitol was burnt down after civil unrest erupted in early 2006 after Tongans went to the streets to protest against the prime minister (not the monarchy). The aftermath led the destruction of the only movie theater in Tonga, almost all local businesses, and pretty much anything beautiful. It is important to remember that the Kingdom of Tonga is the only South Pacific country to retain its monarchy from European colonization. As a result, the King or tu’i is still very influential with social and political life in Tonga. I can keep writing about Tonga and its history, but anyone can Wikipedia all of this information (and I do not want to bore you).

Our pre-service training was located in the middle of the country in the Ha’apai island group. All the trainees were spread out throughout the small island of Foa. My group was located in the small village of Fangale’ounga and there were three other trainees with our language trainer Poli. My host family was super nice and accommodating to their palangi (foreigner) from America. My Tongan name is Feleti, which is a direct translation of Fred since the letter “r” does not exist in the Tongan alphabet so “Farfum” would be impossible for Tongans to pronounce. Anyway, I lived in a traditional Tongan home with a typical Tongan family. Nasipa and Feleti (senior) were my host parents. They have eight children and with me it made it nine. My Tongan home was almost always in an utter chaos with all the kids running around. Although it was sometimes stressful, I enjoyed interacting with everyone in my host family. The little ones were especially naughty and enjoyed rummaging through my things to see if I have anymore “lolis” (candy). I love M&Ms so if anyone wants to send me anything I have been rationing my secret stash of chocolates in my suitcase, but I will soon run out (hint hint lol).

My typical day in Tonga started around 7:00 AM when everyone was either crying or getting ready for school. I usually tafitafi (half bath) before I ate some breakfast. My breakfast had improved dramatically since my host mom returned from Australia. I typically ate crackers with jam, but later I indulged on eggs or the famous Tongan spaghetti sandwiches. These sandwiches were literally canned spaghetti in grilled cheese type sandwiches. They were not that bad actually, but definitely not common back in the states. Tongan dishes were very limited to what were sold in the falekoloas (little shops) and what they grew in the bush. Most items were imported and were very random. Tongans love to eat canned corned beef from New Zealand or Australia and it is prepared in a million ways! My personal favorite so far has been the corned beef with Ramen and vegetables. It is a lot better than the local delicacy of dog that they offered me one night. It was luckily one of the trainees birthday from the next town therefore I “saved” my appetite for her dinner party. Anyway, language classes began around 8:30 and lasted until 12:30. Overall, my language class could only be described as “intense.” We could not get enough Tongan lessons! As a result, Team Poli was one of the top language classes during PST and after the final language test.

After class, I typically made the long voyage back to my house and attempted to dodge the busy streets of Fangale’ounga. It was important to look out for all the pigs and dogs that crossed the street; otherwise, you might have gotten run over (JK). Lunch usually consisted of one of the plentiful root crops available around here such as kape, talo, or manioke. They all tasted the same to me and they got old very fast. I usually enjoyed this time of day because most of the kids were in school and I could actually hear myself at the house. It was also the hottest time of the day, so Tongans do what they do best…sleep. If I was not sleeping myself, I was making my way down to the Pangai’i to hope that the internet would work. The four people in my group generally hitched for a ride or suto in Tongan. It took about twenty minutes with a car or over an hour and half if we attempted to walk the whole way.

Dinner usually was served around five or six. Guess what was for dinner? Root crops! After dinner, we had our “optional” evening language class, but you were expected to come. By the time that was over it was almost 8:30 and everyone was already sleeping in my house. The kids generally all slept in the family room while I got one of the bedrooms. The random uncle who was here for a holiday was in the room next to me while my host parents slept in the other room with two of the kids. Basically there were clearly too many people in the little house. However, everyone was still happy and it was the “Tongan way.” Lastly, I had trouble sleeping at night because the youngest baby cried 24/7! Seriously, I never want to have more than two or three children.

After training, we all went off to attachment with current volunteers in Tonga. I was lucky enough to go back to Nuko’alofa. It was so nice to go back to civilization! Believe it or not, Nuko’alofa has more than one restaurant! We took advantage of all the cheap Chinese restaurants where you can buy a huge plate of noodles with vegetables or fried rice for only six pa’anga! It was very affordable with my Peace Corps budget. Anyway, I definitely took advantage of all the things that Nuko’alofa had to offer. We did a beach day at the nearby island of Pangai’imotu where I ate a delicious bacon cheeseburger and fries and spent the entire day snorkeling around a shipwreck. It was a long deserve break from the stressful life of a Peace Corps Trainee.

After one more week of training, we officially swore in as Peace Corps Volunteer on the 16th of December. We were fairly lucky we even swore in, due to the fact that a cyclone decided to swing by Tonga that same week. We were supposed to have this massive feast at a beautiful beach resort; instead we had semi-delicious half-sandwiches at Queen Salote College in Nuko’alofa. Weird, all of the guests of honors were late and we sat around for a couple of hours waiting for this “exciting” event to happen. With all of the adjustments made and the “flexibility” from everyone involved, it happened and we got sworn in. I expected it to be a great and festive event, but for me it was more of a photo opportunity for Peace Corps Tonga to have so they could send it up to DC. We left for Vava’u the following day via airplane after the ludicrous idea of taking the boat up (did a ship just not sink recently because it was not seaworthy?--I don’t know Peace Corps). As far as I am concerned, it does not comfort me when some Tongans are even hesitant on taking the boat. Well, this concludes PST and swearing-in as a volunteer. I am now officially a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga. GET EXCITED!!! :D

-XOXO Tonga Boy (Dominica is making me, I swear)