Friday, April 22, 2011


PHOTO: USS CLEVELAND outside of the Port of Refuge in Vava'u

The US Navy Pacific Partnership stopped by in the past week to do some humanitarian work throughout Vava'u. Overall, it was success implementing medical work to thousands of Tongans throughout Vava'u and repairing schools and a town hall. The USS Cleveland arrived in Vava'u last Wednesday? The ship had about six hundred people primarily from the US with representatives from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Singapore, and a couple of NGOs helping with the various projects throughout Vava'u.
PHOTOS: The scores of people waiting to see the medical staff at Prince Ngu Hospital, a puppet show at the Neiafu public library, and Captain Jess Wilson addressing the Neiafu crowd at the FIEFIA DAY at the market harbour.

All the festivities started with an official opening ceremony in Vava'u High School on Thursday, April 14. The Governor of Vava'u as well well as representatives from the respective countries were present for the official opening. VHS students performed traditional Tongan dances and US Navy helicopters made an appearance. We Peace Corps Volunteers in Vava'u were pretty lucky to have been invited to tour the ship and ride the helicopters. The tour of the ship really made me miss home with all the delicious food and satellite flat screen TVs inside! It was the first time I have ever ridden a helicopter and it was awesome!
PHOTOS: Some highlights from the helicopter ride and a group photo on the flight deck of the USS Cleveland.

The Pacific Partnership primarily focused on a lot health initiatives throughout Vava'u. The last time they were in Tonga, they were in the Ha'apai island group in 2009. The Prince Ngu Hospitals were filled with doctors and nurses from the ship. Health Clinic "satellite" offices were set up in Falevai, Hunga, and Tu'anikivale to reach out to those far away from Neiafu. The group gave out prescription glasses, performed oral surgery, veterinary work, and more. Furthermore, the group repaired the roofs of some government primary school like GPS Makave and the town hall in Talihau.
PHOTOS: The feast at the closing ceremony, the official closing photo with Dr. Ana the Minister of Education, Women Affairs, and Culture, and the US Navy band at the Neiafu wharf for a Saturday morning concert.

It was quite a sight in Neiafu with all of the palangis in town. There were so many people everywhere! It definitely helped out all the local businesses with all of the money coming in. It also addressed issue of tourism vs. culture. The closing ceremony was held on Thursday since Good Friday is a national holiday (which was the last day of the mission). A lot of the businesses were shut down Friday leaving the sailors a limited amount of options for their long deserved "free day" in Vava'u. Regardless, it definitely is something to think about as Tonga hopes to become more active in the tourism sector in the future. In the end, their presence was much appreciated, but things are starting to go back to normal as the ship sailed off to Vanuatu this morning. Bon voyage!

PHOTO: Group photo at the Neiafu International Airport after the helicopter ride.

Friday, April 8, 2011

I'm scuba certified!

PHOTO: Me finished with one dive in Vava'u.

I'm officially scuba certified! I recently wrapped up a four day SDI diving course with a local diving operator Dive Vava'u. It truly was an amazing experience and it showed a whole different side of Vava'u. Everything just comes to life as you head down underwater! PCVs from Tongatapu came up to take the course with Kalo and I. We were all very pumped for the entire experience and it was well worth the money.
PHOTO: PCV Sela waving to the camera after our first time in the water.

Dive Vava'u is run by Karen and Paul. They have been in the diving business for years and have worked all around the world. Dive Vava'u also does whale tours. I highly recommend Dive Vava'u, because of their environmentally conscious operation. Example: they will not chase whales if they don't want to swim you like other operators in Vava'u. Futhermore, Paul and Karen are marine biologist and are the ONLY dive operator with whale watching experience outside of Vava'u. Must I say more? As a result, check them out if you are interested in diving or whale watching in Vava'u. They book up pretty fast, so contact them asap.
PHOTOS: Me and some PCVs getting ready to dive!

Regardless, diving was an awesome experience. We were able to swim with sharks on our last dive. YES, you read correctly SHARKS! Two of them to be exact. It was a complete surprise and a perfect way to end the course. I couldn't believe how gentle they looked, yet at the same time very intimidating. I couldn't believe they were just swimming around so close to us. AWESOME AWESOME AWESOME! The only thing I had issues with diving was taking off my mask underwater and putting it back on. When your sixty feet underwater, you don't really have an option, but to do it right otherwise you can't see crap. Ahh, it truly was a breathtaking experience and definitely started up a whole new hobby. Thanks Dive Vava'u!

'Ofu Backpackers

PHOTO: 'Ofu Backpackers

I finally had the opportunity to explore the Eastern Islands of Vava'u during the one week break in Tonga. Some PCVs and I stayed at 'Ofu Backpackers, guessed it, 'Ofu island. Okay, your probably thinking that all I do is stay at resorts and eva--explore all the time, but the truth is YES you do have some down time in the Peace Corps. They actually encourage you explore your surroundings. Futhermore, some places like 'Ofu, Treasure Island, and Toka honestly is worthy of its own blog entry.
'Ofu Backpackers/island is a quick ten minute boat ride from the old harbour of Neiafu. It was actually really hard to book this place, since its a true hole in the wall. You literally have to ask around to see who knows the owner, since it's not available in the directory of Tonga (or at least we couldn't find it). Regardless, the number is 751-2461 and ask for Selu. I believe she is the sister of who actually owns the back packers and will arrange the boat transfer for you.

The backpackers runs $65 TOP a night for two people in a private room and I believe $35 per person for a single bed. There is a full kitchen for guests to use. I suggest you buy all the food you want in town before heading to 'Ofu. Although there is a small falekoloa--shop, it is very limited especially to palangis--foreigners. Moreover, kayaks are available for free and you can kayak to the surrounding islands nearby. I suggest visiting Kenutu and islands nearby it (absolutely breathtaking, but quite a workout).
Bring a torch or flashlight. Although, they provide some solar lighting and lanterns, it may be more convenient to have your own. With that said, the back packers runs on solar. You may be able to charge cellphones, but don't plan on watching movies all night with a laptop. In the end, 'Ofu is a really nice place to just relax. It is very different than the Southern islands of Vava'u as it far more "green" and "calm"--more sea grass and less corals unlike the Southern islands. Regardless, still worth to explore the different sides of Vava'u.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

It's that time of year again? What is that you may ask? SPORTS DAY!

PHOTO: Matamaka GPS wins!

Matamaka GPS hosted the 3rd annual Nuapapu Outer-Island Sports Day Invitational this year at Nuapapu. It was a fun filled event of competition ranging from spoon races to running relays. Students from Lape GPS, Matamaka GPS, and Nuapapu GPS all participated in this year's event. Ovaka GPS was invited, but couldn't make it (maybe next year).

PHOTOS: Let the games begin!

My staff and I had set up the event schedule since it was our turn to host the event. As a result, the Matamaka PTA prepared all the food for all the "important" people--aka the men at the kava circle and for all the teaching staff of all the schools. I would have to say this year's sports day ran a lot more smoothly than last year with a definite event schedule. We spent a lot of time last year waiting for the next event, because no one knew what was next. In contrast, this year was more of a "bam, bam, bam."

PHOTOS: Other fun pics from the event.

We have been preparing the kids with sports day practice for three weeks prior to the actual event. It mostly comprised of running around after school and building up endurance with the kids. I, too participated and got a really good workout out of it. In the end, Matamaka won the entire invitational! The kids worked really hard and couldn't face another defeat like the year before. I am definitely going to miss Sports Day when I leave Tonga the end of this year. It truly is a fun event and it's awesome to see the kids want to win something so badly. Until next time! Enjoy all the Sports Day photo highlights.

Unveiling of the World Map Vava'u

PHOTO: The official unveiling of the World Map Vava'u.

The Neiafu Public Library proudly celebrated the unveiling of the first Peace Corps World Map Project in Vava'u this past March. The children, PCVs, and other members of the library community came together one Saturday morning to dedicate the map to the people of Vava'u. We have all been waiting a long time for the map to go up. It is located on the front wall of the Neiafu Public library for everyone to see.

PHOTOS: Randomness from the event.

PCV Carolyn Winik spearheaded the entire project since its beginning last July, but finally the library finally obtained the protective covering for the map earlier this past month. Children from the Saturday reading program, PCVs, and other members of the community got together last July to paint the world map. The entire project was funded by the library committee. The World Map Vava'u is the second World Map project in the Kingdom of Tonga with the first being in the island of 'Eua. I unfortunately could not attend the event due to high winds that restricted all travel between the island. I was fortunate to have my Tongan counterpart attend the event to capture these photos.

PHOTO: PCV Sephora being proud of her roots in Eritrea.

The Neiafu Public Library is the oldest NGO in the Kingdom of Tonga. It is supported by an active library committee that is comprised numerous members of the Vava'u community. The group has been supported by NZAID, Canada fund, and other international donors in the past to help it become the way it is today. An annual fun day carnival and dinner are the two main fundraiser events the library committee hosts to help cover the expenses of the organization and to afford a full time librarian during the academic year.
PHOTO: Some of the current PCVs in Vava'u.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Toka Toka Toka

PHOTO: Sunset at Toka!

What happens when you build a resort on a beautful island and later find out that the land you started building your resort is also being leased to another person at the same time, which results to the government seizing the construction of your resort that you had heavily invested on? The answer would be Toka! It truly is a faka'oka--sad story, yet very true. Long story short, two investors got caught up in a leasing scandal that resulted to whole lot of money being wasted by investing in Tonga.

PHOTO: The boat ride to Toka and preparing dinner with help from a fellow PCV.

Toka is located on the complete opposite end of Nuapapu island from the Matamaka village. An unforntunate invester started to build an upscale resort over there, but has yet to finish. What is left? Numerous abandoned, semi-completed guest houses. Regardless, some friends came over to visit me and we had a brilliant time camping at the would be resort. I can only describe the resort as a scene from Jurassic Park the movie after the buildings were abandoned for a couple of years with nature quickly reclaiming the land. All the very nicely built buildings were overtaken with vegetation.
PHOTO: The coral gardens at Toka.

After getting settled in with a make shift table for all of our weekend provisions, we started a camp fire with space for a barbecue. It was also a full moon! As a result, flashlights were not necessary as we had our dance party out on the beach until all the batteries ran out in all of the speakers that we had brought. I even brought glow sticks!--thanks to my sister :D. Furthermore, we made delicious food throughout the weekend (bacon, eggs, hot dogs etc.)and had the opportunity to swim at the coral gardens off of Toka. It was no big surprise why they wanted to build a resort out there, because the corals were breathtaking! See for your self. ***As a disclaimer, one can't simply camp out at Toka resort. It's imperative you have written or verbal permission from the local town officer of Nuapapu. It is up to his discreation to allow people visit that side of the island and essentially his responsibility to look after the disputed area of the resort.
PHOTO: Breakfast at the beach.

What is the main lesson with this blog entry? Probably to get all your paper work and research straight before investing in ANY country and to have a back up for the back up speakers, so that you can rock out all night long. You just never know how you can get screwed over so easily these days. Regardless, the entire land dispute resulted for some of us having another awesome weekend in Tonga.


Treasure Island Getaway

PHOTO: The white sand beach at 'Euaiki.

TI- Treasure Island. No, I'm not talking abou the casino in Vegas, but the REAL Treasure Island Resort in Vava'u. Located on the island of 'Euaiki in the South-Eastern section of Vava'u nestles the white sand beaches of the private island eco-resort of Treasure Island. It truly is a magnificent place and could clearly be a candidate for heaven on Earth, but don't forget the hefty price tag for paradise. You didn't you could just walk up and stay for free could you? Ha, well we fortunately did!
PHOTO: The dock at Treasure Island with chairs calling out your name.

Thanks to some very friendly caretakers of the island during low season, the Peace Corps volunteers in Vava'u were invited for an unforgetable weekend retreat at the resort. It is sure to make any other PCVs envy at some of the benefits with working in Vava'u. The weekend included an intense volleyball game followed by some delicious food conjured up by one of our hosts. BEST fish tacos and curry I have ever tasted! The weekend also gave me an opportunity to try out a variety of water sports that I have never tried before. The resort has various kayaks and boards at your disposal.
PHOTO: Randomness from TI.

We all shared various Tongan fales--huts around the resort. They come fully equipped with a working bathroom with a shower and flushing toilets!--I don't have either at Matamaka FYI. Moreover, the buidings are all powered by solar panels, hence becoming an "eco-resort." Caves in the other side of the island are a great incentive to leave the beach for a couple of hours and explore. In the end, the best part was just to have everyone there and enjoy each other's company. It is very rare that we all get together for some weekend fun.

To check out room rates and availability of Treasure Island Eco-Resort, please refer to the Tonga Visitors Bureau website:

PHOTO: One of the caves around the island.

Matamaka Women's Empowerment Project

PHOTO: Authentic Tongan Handicraft Sales

I have been very involved with assisting the women's group in Matamaka for the past few months. The group has been newly revived after years of neglect. As a result, the new group is called Finemata'anga 2. The group's central goal is to empower the women of Matamaka to take a more active role on financial development in the outer-islands. The groups has successfully established a successful handicraft business from Matamaka. Members of the group have been busy taking workshops on handicraft designs during the low tourist season provided by a local NGO called MORDI.

The women travel to the main harbour in Neiafu to sell their goods to tourists visiting Vava'u from the numerous cruise ships that visit the area. Handicrafts include various necklaces, braclets, bookmarks, tapa cloth, beach wear, and more. One of my primary duties has been to prepare the women with their English skills to help them sell their goods more effectively. There has been a significant increase of sales that correlates to the number of English lessons with each of the women. Prior to the English classes, the women sold an average of $5 TOP per cruise ship. After some English lessons, revenues increased to an average of $70 TOP per woman per ship. That is an extraordinary increase in revenue!

PHOTO: Some of the crafts.

Currently, the group has been focused on completing a grant to help construct an official boat for the group. The boat will be used for the transportation of the women to Neiafu as well as offer private island tours to tourists. It will essentially provide additional financial support to the people of Matamaka if approved. A lot of other groups in Tonga also applied for the grant, so we will see if their grant proposal is worthy to become a reality.

PHOTO: Some of the group members with their crafts.

My only concern for the women's group is the concept of savings. Stereotypically, to most Tongans living IN Tonga have a difficult time grasping the idea of putting money away for future use or in AN ACTUAL SAVING ACCOUNT. I believe that is the nicest and politically correct way I can state the problem. Some Tongans literally eat their money. After making their first sales, some people have the need to quickly spend the money--most likely on food. I have seen it first hand and couldn't believe how quickly the money disappeared. (SIGH) You have to pick your battles right? I would say it is a win with helping the group with some business principles and English lessons, but a loss on the concept of savings. This will be the next issue I plan to tackle on if not advise my predecessor to suggest to focus on. In the end, I am still impressed with the amount of progress the group made in just the last few months.