Corps volunteers Erin and Mark, who are based on the main island
of Tongatapu, took the long boat ride to remote Nomuka to visit
Justin and Rebecca. Here is their report:
Thanksgiving is just around
the corner. "Pumpkins" are plentiful here in Tonga - they're
a cash crop, exported to Japan. Yep, sounds crazy to us too, but
there you go. Tongans keep those not fit for export, but hey, they're
free. We found one lying in the middle of the road, not yet
squashed - must have fallen off the back of a truck headed to the
wharf - but it will make a great pie. Actually, the Tongans don't
really like the squash and only grow it for export. But a bunch
of the crazy Westerners buy some and cook them up.
And that's as fast-paced
as our life here gets. All right, it was a bit faster paced the
other night as we walked to a friend's house in the pouring rain.
She was having a housewarming and we were bringing homemade
play-doh (in seven vibrant colors) as a gift. That's our version
of a rockin' night in the big city.
Amazingly, life on the main
island moves at a rapid-fire pace compared to the snail's pace of
the remote outer islands. We spent 10 days on the island of Nomuka
visiting with Justin and Rebecca, a married couple from
our Peace Corps group. You can only get to the island by way of
an 8-12 hour cargo-boat ride (depending on the seas) with 20 sea
sick Tongans (but it's a bargain at US$12.50). The distance is less
than 30 miles, so
you can literally walk faster than the boat moves.
When we arrived, the island
was in the mood for celebrating because they were testing the diesel
generator that would bring electricity to the island for the first
time ever. Each house was apportioned 3 light fixtures which they
could place anywhere at the house - the Tongans thought Justin and
Rebecca were crazy for putting their lights INSIDE the
house! But it does make sense. Tongans do most everything outside
- cook, work, play, talk - so they wanted lights outside in order
to lengthen the daytime activities. The inside is for sleeping and
As an aside, before Peace
Corps, Justin and Rebecca lived in LA and NYC. Now they live on
a very remote island with only 400 people, raise chickens and have
a substantial garden, have no running water and until now, no electricity.
And they really love it. Now that is the real Peace Corps experience.
The other interesting thing
to keep in mind regarding new electricity on the island is that
the official reason Peace Corps sent us to Nomuka was to provide
computer training to the primary and secondary school teachers.
Think about that - no constant source of electricity and yet they
had three computers and wanted training. Technology is moving fast
in the world.
But people don't come more
hospitable than outer island folk. As soon as word spread that we
had arrived, they sent the kids to help carry our stuff to our friends'
house. The kids asked what we liked to eat and after we answered
"seafood" (a food that is plentiful as most of the men
go fishing), we had 8 fish and an octopus brought to us in 48 hours!
When we asked for root crop, we got bags of it. They invited us
to their feasts, and with the exception of a little food poisoning,
it was wonderful. Truthfully, it would have been hard to leave if
we hadn't gotten so sick on the last day and come to truly appreciate
our cushy indoor plumbing on the main island, instead of walking
50 yards with a flashlight to the outhouse.
The Nomuka beaches were amazing
- white sand, crashing waves, beautiful reefs. While walking to
the beaches, you inevitably pass a dozen or more neighbors who want
to pass the time of day with you. Some of the kids follow along,
and catch fish for you to eat raw (real sushi), and to make sure
you don't get lost. We kayaked out to a nearby, uninhabited island
one afternoon, and had lovely walks on the beach, and when we returned,
there were kids there to help us carry the kayaks back.
Here's a riddle: How many
Tongans does it take to rescue 3 lost white people in the bush?
Answer: 2 kids, 2 teenagers, a horse and a dog! How embarrassing.
The whole island (all 400 people) knew that we'd been lost by the
end of the day. Of course, not so embarrassing for us as for Rebecca
who lives there! This is on an island that is less than four miles
in circumference with a large fresh water lake in the middle.
Another way to appreciate
the differences between main island and outer island life is by
the entertainment choices and options. On Nomuka, we helped Justin
and Rebecca organize a movie night at the Methodist secondary school
where Justin teaches. This was largely made possible by (1) the
electricity tests and (2) our bringing a projector and laptop w/
We tried to bring "family
friendly" sort of movies with us, knowing this was a conservative
setting. But they really wanted to see a "karate" movie.
At the request of the principal, we had to scan each movie to make
sure there was no kissing. In fact, they will censor even a single
kiss - and had apparently done so for "The Princess Bride".
It's a whole different world out there where decapitations are fine
(even applauded), but kissing is bad bad bad. We were able to allow
X-Men where there is one kiss, but it happens when one of the young
mutants kisses her boyfriend and he almost dies. Tongan Public Service
Announcement: If you kiss before marriage, you might die.
Here on Tongatapu (the main
island), our students organized a "prom/talent show" so
they could wear "slutty" Western semi-formal wear and
listen/dance/sing along to Western music (mostly rap and hip-hop).
Here, "slutty" means long, formal evening gowns with spaghetti
This was really going out on a moral limb for our Methodist school,
which prohibits "Western style dancing" and sends the
girls home if their school uniform skirts come above the knee. However,
we were asked to demonstrate swing dancing during the festivities
and were just waiting to be fired. In the end, though, the event
was successful and fun.
But things are changing.
As few as two years ago, our school would not have considered the
social night that the kids organized. The church authorities (who
were present) seemed to think it wouldn't be a bad idea to allow
some of the secondary schools to hold similar functions. It's like
"Footloose" in real life. Can bikinis be far behind?
Otherwise, life is largely
business as usual. Our PC co-worker, Sandeep, got the 1st 2 seasons
of "24" on DVD, so now we are hooked and downloading each
season 3 episode and making a dinner gathering around "24".
It's pathetic that we didn't have TV for 8 years in America and
we come halfway around the world to start watching television again.
We continue to cook and bake
for our own entertainment, and our neighbors seem to appreciate
the efforts. Mark's been making scones lately (pumpkin, banana,
chocolate chip, among others) - with Starbucks coffee that Grandma
sent, it's almost like being back in Seattle. Erin's been
making pies - peach, boysenberry, pumpkin and the like.
And we've both been reading
a lot - Reefer Madness, Blindness, Song of Solomon, Lullaby, Gone
with the Wind, Life of Pi, Tales from Margaritaville, and Abraham
are top of mind. Fortunately, we also have a lengthy "waiting
list" thanks to other volunteers and friends at home who are
so generous. I think PC could use a new slogan like "Behind
in your reading? Join Peace Corps."
We have finished teaching
classes for the year. Over the next two weeks, our students take
their final exams, so just a few more days to go until our summer
break begins. We'll spend Thanksgiving at the PC Director's house
with the other volunteers on the main island (PC sends turkeys for
us!) and we hope that Mark's mom will be here for Christmas in Tonga.
We also have a few days of PC training in December up in Vava'u;
we're looking forward to getting together with everyone in our group
It's been over one year in
country now. That fact hit home when Group 66 arrived just a few
weeks ago all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They will finish with
their training in mid-January.
Our plane tickets to New
Zealand have just arrived - we leave here on 12/26, return on 1/18.
We should have intermittent access to email while we're gone, and
all our regular mail will be held at the PC office here, so keep
those cards and letters coming!
--Mark & Erin