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Mark & Erin visit Rebecca & Justin on Nomuka
NOVEMBER 2003, via email

Peace 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 shelter.

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.

Rebecca-Justin-Finnerty at home


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/ DVDs.

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 straps.
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 again.

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

Rebecca on Nomuka