About Tonga

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Yes, I'm alive, and still in Tonga!

***NOTE: Since writing this blog entry I have changed sites, and assignments. I no longer live in Ha'apai, or teach at a primary school. But, I did for 5 months, and put a lot of love into this entry. So, read on if you're interested :)

How do I wrap up the past 4 1/2 months in one blog entry? This is going to take some tact. After losing night after sleepless night pondering this question, I have finally reached a solution. The only practical way to approach this is to give you all a glowing tour of the Kingdom of Tonga through heartwarming anecdotes of my own experiences on the white sand beaches of the Pacific. You will laugh, you will cry, but surely you won’t be disappointed.

A table of contents for your viewing convenience:

Thank you for flying Air New Zealand, please relinquish all valuables before boarding the aircraft: A tale of stolen laptops and the journey to becoming reconnected.
A Geography Lesson: Don’t worry, be Ha’apai!
Black listed: A guide to what NOT to do when trying to stay alive in Tonga.
Thank God Tonga imports baby powder: There ain’t no shopping malls in Tonga
The ear is the best part: All you could possibly want to know about food in Tonga
My heart will go on…and onnn: Fashion and popular culture
Beautiful like a swimming pool: The Tongan Way
Moa fakapaku or moa fakatonga?: Dating 101

“Thank you for flying Air New Zealand, please relinquish all valuables before boarding the aircraft:” A tale of stolen laptops and the journey to becoming reconnected.

So, for those of you who don’t already know, my stinkin’ laptop was stolen somewhere between LA and Tonga. It was inside my backpack, which I’ll admit was huge and packed to the brim. I got through security fine, and I thought I was in the clear. As usual the flight attendants were standing at the front of the plane when we boarded. I walked in, greeted the lady, and kept walking, but then I felt a strong tug on my backpack. The tug actually yanked my body backwards, so that was strike number 1. Strike number 2 you ask? The woman asked to feel the weight of the pack and I took it off and she rudely glared at me and said in a very nasty tone “if this fell from the overhead it could kill somebody” which I highly doubt, let’s not be dramatic lady. So, she made me check the bag and put it under the plane. Strike number 3? Yep, you guessed it. The laptop is no longer in my pack when I arrive in Tonga. Bitch! Oops, excuse my language.

Thus begins the journey to replacing my laptop and reconnecting myself to the outside world. Thanks to some very crafty handling from Dad, we were reimbursed from Air New Zealand for a big chunk of the price of the laptop. I make it sound easy, but it wasn’t and took over a month to finally complete the claim. My loving, kind, very giving Daddy used the money to buy me a new laptop and sent it via FedEX to Tonga. He planned this out so perfectly, covering all the bases. You see, I live in Ha’apai, but there is only a FedEX office in Tongatapu and I had to be present to sign for the package. I was planning to be in Tongatapu for one week in December. My dad confirmed with FedEX that package was guaranteed to get here in two weeks, so he sent it a little before two weeks before I was set to be in Tongatapu. So, that time frame comes and goes and still no laptop. Apparently, all the packages got held up in New Zealand due to high traffic of travelers flying from New Zealand to Tonga, and no room to put packages on the plane, or something. So, my laptop didn’t arrive until the week after I left from Tongatapu, but guess what, that was the week before Christmas and the FedEx office wouldn’t let anyone pick up the package without my permission, and not only that, they say I have to deal with customs before they can release the package. I have to continuously play phone tag with the Peace Corps office and the FedEx office in Tongatapu to straighten all this out, and mind you, it is not the simplest task to make phone calls in Tonga because you always need credit and there’s never any service and that’s all a story for another day, but on this particular day the Peace Corps Office will close at 12pm because of the holiday and not reopen for a week afterward. Lovely! But at least by this point they have managed to go to FedEx and pick up my customs papers and take them to a customs broker who will then wave my customs fees and release my package. So, finally a week later the Peace Corps has my laptop in hand, but I have to pay for the custom broker fees which totaled 81 Pa’anga. Whomp whomp. But, there’s a happy ending to this story. I have a sweet new laptop and can update my poor, neglected little blog!

A Geography Lesson: Don’t worry be Ha’apai?

The Kingdom of Tonga consists of four main island groups. They are: Tongatapu, Ha’apai, E’ua, and Vava’u. Tongatapu is the metropolis, if you can call it that. It’s the biggest island, with the capital city, Nuku’alofa. There are actually some very quaint little cafes and bars in Nuku’alofa, and decent shopping (and by decent I mean there are some sweet second hand clothing sold at the marketi and it’s like a treasure hunt to find something that fits you) which makes it appealing. Vava’u is the northern most Island of Tonga. It is known for its surfing, and attracts a lot of tourists. I’ve never been there so I can’t say much more about it except that everyone says is very beautiful. E’ua is the southern most Island, below Tongatapu. I’ve not been here either, but I hear it’s great for hiking and caving. I live in the Ha’apai Island Group, on the island of Foa in a little school compound between the villages of Fotua and Lotofoa. Foa is connected to Lifuka by a landbridge and together they make up the main islands of Ha’apai. On Lifuka is the village of Pangai, where there are two banks, a market, 5 Chinese-owned shops and 2 Tongan owned shops (all of which sell the same things), a wharf, a bookshop, the post office, and not much else, but that’s our bustling town!

I work at Government Primary School Fotua. The school operates with about 110 students and 4 teachers. There are 6 classes (or grades as we call it in the States), but some students have to be combined and taught with other classes because there are so few teachers. I am the only white person (or palangi) who lives in any of the three villages whose kids attend my school. But there is one other Peace Corps Volunteer in the village next to mine, three other volunteers in Pangai on Lifuka, and one on an outer island totaling 5 Peace Corps volunteers in Ha’apai currently. It’s about a 20 minute drive or less from my house to Pangai, or I can ride my bike, but I recently discovered what a hassle that is and how completely unfit I am for that much exercise hahaa. Best option is what Tongans call “suto pe” or good old-fashioned hitchhiking. I just walk along the road and when I hear a car coming I turn around and stare it down until it stops and the driver kindly asks “alu ki fe?” (where are you going?) “Alu ki Pangai,” I respond, happy to show off my mad language skills, at which point the driver makes a head motion loosely translating to “hop on in” and off we go, easy as pie.

At the end of Foa is the most beautiful, tranquil beach I’ve ever seen in my life. You can go snorkeling and see the most gorgeous reefs. The plants are the clearest blues and greens and the fish’s tropical stripes pop against the background of the clear ocean water. The best part is, I can go there anytime I want, in June or in December. Don’t be jealous, jealousy doesn’t look good on anyone.

Black listed: A guide to what NOT to do when trying to stay alive in Tonga.

My life in Tonga is always exciting, as it is always filled with some sort of ailment, injury, or near death experience. Since arriving in Tonga I have been to the hospital twice, contracted two different infections, and two “laveas” or cuts. I have stomach aches constantly, horrible digestive system malfunctions and heat rash has taken up a permanent resident on very uncomfortable places on my body. Worst of all, I have recently discovered some sort of mite living in my hair. I know it’s disgusting, but it’s the reality of my life.

In the first week after arriving in Tonga, our group attended a water safety class at the Tonga Navy Base. The purpose was to teach us how to jump in and get out of the water, how to survive if a boat we were on ever sank, and how to use emergency floatation devices. All of which is fine and dandy, but leave it to me to jump into the water and cut my foot on a rock leaving two gashes in the top of my foot and me unable to walk for nearly a week. Worst of all, in all this pain and agony, one of the navy men who helped me out of the water thought it fit to make a joke about how I was too heavy, and sank too low, thus the reason I cut my foot on a rock. HA HA mister navy man, HA HA. The truth of the matter is that I should have been wearing my water shoes. So, imagine my surprise when I go swimming in Ha’apai at the wharf in my village without my water shoes and get another very sweet gash on my other foot. This time it was on the bottom of my foot and took FOREVER to heal, eventually got infected turning my leg purple and expanding it to the size of a watermelon, giving me a horrible fever and thus sending me to the hospital. It was shortly after this incident that a fellow volunteer told me I’d been “black listed” by Peace Corps as someone to watch out for. Yikes!

As far as stomach aches and heat rashes go, they have just become a part of my life here in Tonga. I’m sitting here trying to think of a way to describe the ailments without making you all want to run to your own toilets! Naturally adjusting to a new environment will cause some digestive discomfort but my God I was not prepared for it. You feel like crap, but worse than that you are sitting on a nasty toilet, with bugs flying all around you and your lucky if the toilet will flush when you’re finished. Oh, and, there’s really no hiding the fact that your sick to your stomach when you live with 6 Tongans and that is beyond what words can describe as embarrassing.

Yes, I have mites in my hair. Apparently all, or at least most Tongans have mites or lice. It is completely normal to see girls picking at each others’ heads looking for bugs, and then they eat them or squish them against their tongues to kill them. I have a special shampoo to get rid of them, but I’ve been too lazy to use it. I did, however, stop showering in my shower and started taking a bucket bath with water from the Sima Vai (rainwater tank) because I think the sea water is dirty and makes me itchy.

I have stocked up on antibiotics and vitamins, and I don’t swim without my water shoes anymore. But, I’m sure the universe will find another way to make me miserable again soon. Stay tuned!

Thank God Tonga imports baby powder: There ain’t no shopping malls in Tonga

If there was one product I’d want Tonga to sell it would definitely be baby powder. So, thank goodness. But, other convenient toiletries and frivolities don’t really exist in Tonga. My island offers slightly less than you might find on Tongatapu, but even in Tongatapu your choices are pretty limited.
In Ha’apai along the main road in the villages are little tiny shops run by Tongans. We call them “falekoloas.” Here you can buy things suck as laundry detergent, noodles, canned foods, candy, soda, cookies, matches, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, etc. They are a smaller version of the Chinese owned shops in Pangai. There are 5 of them and they all basically sell the exact same things.
You can get all your basic needs in Ha’apai, you just don’t have much choice in what brand. There are two brands of toothpaste to choose from: Close-up, and Colgate. There is one type of toothbrush. You can get either VO5 or Suave shampoo. There is only one type of deodorant for sale and it’s the liquid roll on type which I hate, blah! Mom, send me some Dove deodorant please ! There a ton of different type of perfumes (perfume is huge in Tonga, and they use a ton of it) most of which are knock offs of expensive perfumes you’d find in America. There are some very random assortments of hair things, jewelry and shoes and underwear. There’s even a President Obama shirt I’ve had my eye on. You can buy penadol for headaches, Vicks vapor rub, some antiseptic, and that’s about it. Any major purchases like appliances are made in Tongatapu generally, then put on the boat and shipped home to Ha’apai.
The Market in Nuku’alofa is great for finding clothes and accessories. I saw a pair of sandals for sale there that I actually own back in America, which I bought from Target. Amazing! Unfortunately, there is none of that in Ha’apai, and the bulk of my money goes to credit for cell-phone and supreme noodles, which I eat raw. This is the reason I LOVE getting packages with candy and snacks, toiletries, underwear and clothes!!!!!!!

The ear is the best part: All you could possibly want to know about food in Tonga

The ear of the roasted pig, nom nom nom! Ifo aupito! I kid you not. I actually like to eat roasted pig. It just took getting past seeing the horror on it’s still attached head to enjoy the delicious crunchy goodness. Food is a major part of Tongan culture. You can’t get a day without being asked “Na’a ke kai lelei? Ko e ha na’a ke kai?” or “did you eat well? What did you eat?”

I’ll admit when I first got to Tonga I refused to eat pretty much everything that was served to me. But, eventually I got hungry enough to start eating and it turns out that I actually can deal with, or not enjoy, most of the food. There are three major foods that I still refuse to eat: raw fish, octopus, and lu. Lu is a Tongan meal made with a choice of meat, coconut milk and lu leaves. It’s unfortunate tho, that I don’t like it, because lu leaves are the most accessible vegetable on Ha’apai. Vegetables are a rare commodity here. There is a market but it doesn’t always have vegetables. I buy frozen vegetables, it’s better than nothing. If ever I get a chance to travel to Tongatapu then I can bring vegetables with me, but in general my diet lacks the nutrients of vegetables. In all honesty my diet is complete shit.

A typical day in the life of my diet is like this: Wake up and eat cereal, if I have milk, or bread, if I have it, and if not, then I’ll eat raw noodles, if I have them. Or, breakfast crackers with peanut butter and a cup of tea. Raw noodles for lunch. Raw noodles at some other point during the day for a snack. Some candy if I have it. And for dinner, usually fried chicken and fried breadfruit, or cooked noodles with corned beef and some kumala or breadfruit. I eat a crap ton of fried foods. In my opinion that’s the only way to make food taste delicious here. But I know the inside of my body is coated with oil, blah.
My saving grace, though, is the plethora of fruit. Oranges, watermelon, bananas, mangos, pineapples, coconuts and other fruits I can’t even pronounce. And, I can buy fruit cocktail at the shop which I store in my fridge and it makes for a delicious snack or side item. Despite my poor eating habits though, I’m still dropping weight like it’s my job. The thing is, there’s really no delicious potatoes chips or cookies to indulge in. And, I don’t enjoy the food enough to over eat. I just eat enough to make myself not hungry anymore, and then I stop. I only drink water because the soda tastes weird to me and water is free. But, I’d still give my first born child for some taco bell right now. Luckily, there is a little café in Pangai called Mariner’s café, where I can indulge in a 17 pa’anga pizza, that isn’t quite like home, but enough so to keep me mentally and emotionally stable for a little while!

Feasts or “Kai Polas” are huge in Tonga, and occur at just about every occasion. I enjoy them. I’d enjoy them more if there weren’t speeches involved, but they are a small sacrifice. Feasts are organized like this: There are long tables reaching from one end of the room to the other. Food is cooked in heaping proportions and then portioned out in Styrofoam bowls and places all over the tables. There are always a number of roasted pigs spaced evenly down the table, bowls of watermelon and sometimes lollipop trees. The foods generally include the roasted pig of course, chop suey, fish, fried chicken, bbq chicken, hot dogs, potato salad, crab meat with pineapple (always the dish I go for first), lu, cake, and whole bunch of other stuff. The best part is it’s like a game, you much use technique because there’s not always enough of one dish for everyone or enough drinks/cups for each person, so you have to try to get what you want before any one else. My technique is to open the soda and take a sip therefore declaring my ownership over the drink, then I usually for the crab meat, a popular choice among the Tongans. Next, I eat the chop suey, and then settle in for the chicken and hot dog which Tongans don’t really care about since there is so much other more delicious food on the table. And, only the best feasts serve ice cream at the end! (I bet now you’re wondering just how it is I’ve not grown five pant sizes since coming to Tonga muaha!!

My heart will go on…and onnn: Fashion and popular culture

Don’t ask me to explain it, but for some reason, Celine Dion is a more popular in Tonga than Brangelina are in America. Justin Bieber is another Tonga favorite. I am constantly amazed by how much and what kind of American music and movies filter into Tonga. I’ve seen tons of familiar movies floating among the houses in my village. For example, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Valentines Day, The Gladiator, The Patriot, Braveheart, Die Hard, Scary Movie, Dance Flick and so much more. The Chinese shops sell DVDs which hold around 5 bootlegged movies each and the Tongans love them. Unfortunately the Tongans are not good with taking care of their things, so every DVD I come across either skips or just plain doesn’t work.
Tongans are way more fashionable than I was prepared for. I came here with some baggy tee-shirts and some flip-flops but the Tongans have high heels, cute skirts and really nice tops. Where are they getting these things from you ask? Family in New Zealand, Australia and America. I’m pretty much envious every single day of their sweet clothes and slouch in embarrassment at my awful, baggy, raggedy old clothes.
Tongans dress very fine for church and work. The traditional Tongan dress for church is called a Puletaha. Women also wear kiekies to any formal event. Kiekies are skirt-like things that you wear around your waist and over your actual skirt. I find them to be a huge pain, but what can ya do? Men wear ta’ovalas, which are like weaved mats that they wrap around their wastes and tie with a leta or rope. I find them very attractive additions to the male wardrobe!
Dance is always a favorite activity for Tongans. They do traditional Tongan dances at “konisetis” to fundraise money for church. They get all dressed up in the most interesting outfits made of tapa and cover their bodies in oil so when they dance people come and stick money to their bodies. It’s awesome. They also have “hulohulas” which is basically like a middle school dance. The boys bow to the girls and they go to the dance floor together and move back and forth never coming near to each other. But, the music is good and it’s fun to see all the people dressed up.
In Tongatapu there are bars and clubs, but of course there is no such thing in Ha’apai so we make our fun in other ways. Such as going to the wharf for a swim, “eva pe” or wander around in a veeni (the bed of a big truck), or if worst comes to worst, sleep!

Beautiful like a swimming pool: The Tongan Way

“Anga-fakatonga” is the Tongan word that means “the Tongan way.” Everything and anything you do in Tonga is done the Tongan way. It’s how the Tongans differentiate between their culture and others. There are many different things that encompass “the Tongan Way” For example, you share everything. And, I mean literally everything including clothes, cars, bikes, food, errrythang. Tongans are very giving, and they always want to feed you. They will go out of their way to try to help you if you ask for help, and would give you the shoes on their feet if you needed them. But, material things don’t mean much to Tongans, so nothing in Tonga is well preserved as in the case of the DVDs. You can’t lend out something that you will want to get back, because if you even get it back, it’s most likely going to be broken.
It’s also the Tongan way to go to church, a lot. Tongans sing a hymn and pray before and after any meeting be it school, a feast, or a dance practice. A national holiday in Tonga is “Uike Lotu” or “Church Week” and it is meant literally for nothing but going to church everyday morning and night for a week. It’s celebrated on the first week of the year, and I was witness to it this year. I went to church at 5AM and 5PM everyday for a week. Oy!
Tongans hate the sun, go figure. They walk around with umbrellas to shield them, and they wouldn’t dare go swimming mid-day. Actually, they prefer to swim in the rain. Tongans think white skin is beautiful and they go distances to prevent their skin from being affected by the sun. It’s completely normal for me to see a girl walking down the road in jeans and a sweatshirt with the hood on while I’m wading in a puddle of my own sweat! There also isn’t a swimming pool to be found in Tonga. It took me by surprise the first time I heard it, but a popular phrase in Tonga is “beautiful like a swimming pool.” I don’t know what’s so beautiful about a swimming pool, especially not compared to the beach right down the road from my house. But, that’s “anga-fakatonga,” so I go with it!
Finally, a very big part of Tongan culture is “fakakata pe” or joking. The Tongans love, love, love to laugh and they will laugh at you all the time and joke you constantly. But, it’s important as a palangi to never get offended because it’s never meant to offend. Tongans think that bigger women are more beautiful than small ones, so it’s normal for Tongans to joke about weight. If a tire goes flat, they will tell me it’s because I’m too fat. Or, if I’m complaining about being hot, it’s because I’m too fat. I guess I should lay off the root crops.

Moa fakapaku or moa fakatonga?: Dating 101

I certainly couldn’t end this blog entry without talking about the dating scene in Tonga. It’s quite different than anything you’ve experienced in America. Tongans are fascinated by joking and asking me about my moa. “Moa” is the Tongan word for “friend” meaning boyfriend. Moa also happens to be the Tongan word for chicken. So when asked “ko hai ho’o moa?” or “ko fe ho’o moa” my response was always fried chicken is my moa, and he is in my stomach because I ate him!
The tongan way for dating is to have many Moas. It is not strange for a person to have five moas. Of course they don’t know about each other and when they do they break-up for ka ka, or cheating, but everyone is cheating anyways. Such a conundrum. The traditional way for Tongans to date is for the boy to come to the girls house and sit with the family and talk. Then, he can ask her to tou’a, or serve kava, so he can sit next to her and that is the form of a date. For the most part I think this practice is outdated and things are done more closely resembling western culture nowadays. But, the Tongan culture is very conservative. You will never see a couple holding hands, or kissing in public. Married couples don’t even sit together at church. It took me weeks to figure out whom was married to whom in my village because they’re never together! It’s craziness! That’s the reason it’s is all about the texting in Tonga. You text and call your moa, or sneak out in the middle of the night to see him. But it’s always a secret. Shhhh.

Well I think that basically concludes your Tour of Tonga. I hope you enjoyed it. I will do my best to update my blog for now on. I have to go to town to get internet, which involves a lot of irritation, so I don’t do it often. But, there’s so much to share about my life here, I hope you’ll stay tuned to read more about my adventures in the Kingdom of Tonga!