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Cousin Nora pays a visit

Rebecca's first cousin, Nora Bachman, spent six months working in and touring Australia and New Zealand. Before returning to the States in March 2003, she visited Rebecca and Justin on Nomuka for a week. Here is her report:

After my three weeks in New Zealand, I flew into Tonga's capital Nuku'Alofa, which although a short 3 hour flight, gets in at around 1 in the morning. Just before that I'd arranged to stay at the only hostel I could find and get in touch with. I emailed the owner and asked if she had any space and when she emailed back that she did, she also asked me to do her a favor. She asked if I could buy her two bottles of rum and two packages of cigarettes duty-free, as they cost a lot in the "city." She said that in exchange, her adopted Tongan son, a 190 cm, 130 kilo "boy" would pick me up at the airport for free. I, of course, said yes. It sounded almost like a threat. :) So I made my way to this hostel, which turned out to be quite nice, and I got to sleep. The next morning I woke up to go into town and find the Peace Corps office. The owner made me breakfast and we chatted a bit and she gave me some directions to find the office. At this point, I had heard from my mom, through John & Lynne from Rebecca, that her friend Corey happened to be in Nuku' Alofa at the same time as me and was going to be traveling back by boat and would be able to help me.

When I finally found the office, the security guard at the front told me the office was closed as it was some American holiday, not that I knew anything of it after being away for so long, but it was Martin Luther King day. I began to panic just a bit because I had no idea what I was going to do, until the guard asked me if I was Rebecca's cousin. When I said yes and he yelled to someone, this crazed girl comes running over to me, hugging me, apparently very happy to see me alive. I felt a bit bad for not knowing who she was until I realized I didn't know her. She turned out to be Corey and she'd spent the entire morning calling all the hostels she knew of trying to find me and had Rebecca worried about my whereabouts-that's right, Rebecca was worried. Due to our four-line communication, there had been some confusion about where I'd be staying when I got there and when I would go to the office, etc. but in the end it all worked out.

Because of the undependability of the boats, the boat that I thought I'd be taking, the Siupeli, did not go that night as scheduled because there would have only been two passengers, so I moved to Sela's Guest House and stayed with Corey. I ate at one of two Italian restaurants in the capital and also found a nice American cafe with pretty good food before we departed the following night.

The boat ride was not quite as bad as Rebecca and Justin described in one of their first emails after having visited Nomuka. That's not to say it was all wine and roses either. We were on the boat for about 12 hours with no toilet except for the first 30 minutes, because it had no flushing system so after such a long ride, it overflows so we got our business out of the way early on. We had a thin mattress that Corey had brought to put on the bench so that we could lie down on the hard wood. Unfortunately, the mattress did not cover the entire bench so from my waist down I was a bit bruised when the boat finally made it to Nomuka. We had gotten there about an hour early in order to assure ourselves a bench each but the boat was so full that we ended up sharing one, so we were quite scrunched up. We'd taken some "Sea-Legs" (sort of like Dramamine but not as strong) in order to help us last the ride.

I witnessed Tonga firsthand during one of my first experiences in the country, when a huge group of people brought a dying woman hooked up to an IV onto the boat. This throng of people was crying and surrounding her, trying to make her comfortable and set her up and many of them were saying good-bye before they left the boat. Corey informed me that many Tongans will go to their birthplace or childhood home when they are dying and that those people were her children and other relatives and that this was the last time they would see her. I felt a bit out of a place but I had nowhere else to look-it was very depressing and also brought me back down to reality.

Another strictly Tonga experience was when we had to move over so another woman could lay down on our bench. Tongans don't give a whole lot of personal space the way New Yorkers like it, and this woman just plopped her head right on my butt and laid down. She was nice enough to let me lay down and stretch out a bit and later ended up moving off the bench because I was too fidgety. She also offered me some of some strange purple object which I declined but later learned to love (kumala-a type of sweet potato).

The ride was fairly hellish, sliding along the bench as the boat rocked from side to side and my bladder was close to splitting when we finally arrived. I didn't sleep too much but went in and out of consciousness. I also was feeling a little guilty about laying down while others were standing or sitting on the floor but as Corey pointed out, we got there early, and there were many other Tongans laying down though many gave us Pelongis (white people) a hard time. But as Rebecca and Justin told us later, once they listened to them and got up and then of course, other people just laid down in their spots, so we tried to enjoy the space that we had.

Because Nomuka is so small and the boat we took, the Fangafa, was a rather large cargo boat, we could not dock so small boats would ride up to the Fangafa and we would sort of ever so carefully make our way from the large boat to the tiny boat with all of our bags. I was sort of in a state of misty-eyed drowsiness and cheer at seeing other Pelongis in the distance and knowing that they were sitting on land. (Prior to that boat ride, I'd been dreading my 13 hour plane ride after leaving Tonga, but during my time on the Fangafa, I couldn't wait to be on that plane with ALL that space.)

Needless to say, the first thing I did upon seeing their house was find the bathroom, also known as a pit toilet. They have small bike locks on their bathroom and shower because they live right in front of Justin's school and people are always walking through their yard, so just as a precaution to keep their washrooms as hygienic and private as possible, they have these small locks. They'd set up a bed for me in the front room right by the door so I could catch some breeze and it had a mosquito net covering it fully.

It's hard to imagine such incredibly hot weather and no breeze when it's so cold here and I returned to snow but it got quite warm after the first few days. When I returned from my trip to the pit toilet, which really isn't that bad, I walked into the kitchen and heard Dave Arlington on the radio--what a surprise! We had coffee and they had cinnamon buns waiting for us off the boat-those might have been the best cinnamon buns even though they were half burnt and a day old because they thought we were coming in the day before, so they'd had to keep them in the oven.

I took a nap while Justin went to school for a little bit and Rebecca fought with herself over whether she'd go in to work or not. I woke up sweating like crazy and ready to see Nomuka. I'd bought a "lava-lava" while I was in Nuku' Alofa with Corey, which is like a wrap or a sarong that can be worn sort of like a sari, and that came in handy as I had to cover my legs while I was walking around Nomuka. Nuku' Alofa is much more accepting nowadays, though I wore a long dress during my first day there, but Nomuka is still very traditional. We could wear shorts and tank tops in the house and walked from the shower to the house in our towels, but outside of the fence we tried to cover ourselves as the Tongans do.

I went in with Rebecca to school most days (I was there for a total of 9 days) and even helped teach the kids a little bit. I also acted as a teacher's aide, helping her prepare her lessons and workbooks. She has a workbook for each child and has to rewrite whatever she has planned for them for each child. Rebecca is so comfortable teaching the children and does a wonderful job of making them use their English and thinking of creative ideas to get them interested and help them understand. By the time these children leave her school, their classes in Justin's school are supposed to be taught entirely in English so Rebecca has a big job to try and help them.

The kids were so excited to see a new person, a Pelongi, and an unmarried girl, that they would call out "Nola! Nola!" just to have me turn and look at them. Throughout my nine days on Nomuka, I was really given the royal treatment.

One of the highlights of my trip to Nomuka was having the honor of serving as a "to'a." I sat in a circle of men who were drinking "kava," a drink made from the root of a tree that makes the drinker a bit high or drunk. Only an unmarried girl who is not related to the other members of the circle can be asked to perform this honor, and as you may know, most people on such a small island are related to one another, so an unmarried girl who is not related to anyone was very exciting to the Nomukans. Pretty much the first thing that every one of the men asked me when they say me was, "to'a? to'a?" I was a bit reluctant at first, but when we worked out a way for Jonathan and Justin to go with me, I was willing to accept. The men would not let me sit next to either of my fellow Palangis, so I sat next to one of Justin's coworkers, a teacher names Sikope (sp?), and another to'a's brother. The men used half of a coconut shell as a cup and would hold it up to me. I served the kava from a kava bowl with a ladle and the men would suck the shell dry in one gulp and then throw the shell to the floor. I got to taste a little bit but did not really like the flavor, it made my lips a little numb, and one sip was enough for me. There were four circles in the room, and throughout the evening they would play music and sing. There was one very rowdy kava circle next to me and played guitar and sang, and competed with my own circle (I did not take part in the music). Every time that I applauded following a song, they would get very excited and yell, "The Palangi is clapping! The Palangi is clapping!" It was very entertaining. At one point, a guy who needed to be cut off stood up and danced for me--I think we left shortly after that. It was strange to walk home in total darkness. I, obviously, had no idea where we were or in what direction we needed to go, what would be in my way, or anything and it was almost absolute darkness. It's amazing how much we depend on light.

We went on many walks down to the beach and went swimming a few times--occasionally we'd get to a more isolated beach where I could swim in just my bathing suit but a couple times we showed up and there were already some Nomukans there, so we had to keep our t-shirts and shorts on. One of those times, Rebecca and Justin's neighbors were getting a fire ready for a cookout. The father of the family came out of the ocean with his spear gun and more than a dozen rather impressive-looking fish. They were all probably almost two-feet long and the coolest part was when he turned one fish over, and a smaller one came out of its mouth. Meanwhile, the man's parents had been preparing a fire on the beach and roasting some bread fruit. They are so resourceful--they used giant leaves as plates, potholders, and kindling. They placed the fish on the fire and after a few minutes, put the fish in front of us and bade us to eat while they waited for their! food. I am not a huge seafood fan, but I was loving this fish. You just dig in with your fingers, no seasoning at all, you just eat in plain and it is so tasty. The Tongans think we're crazy because we don't like the fish head-they see the fish head as a delicacy and the best part, so we gave Finn the fish head at home, but not in front of Rebecca and Justin's neighbors, lest they thought we were insulting them. It was a truly Tongan experience.

Above: Rebecca teaching primary school. Below: on the beach.
Above: In their new kitchen, Justin and Rebecca chat with Jonathan and Corey Gephart, the Peace Corps couple they are replacing. Below: Corey and Rebecca in the living room.
Above: Rebecca with neighboring children. Below: Nora is given the honor of serving kava.

While I was there, we cooked many interesting meals-when we went to Jonathan and Corey's house, we ate a lot of their prepackaged American foods that their relatives sent-for example, cake mix from a box for Jonathan's birthday, they had lots of chips, twinkies, tons of seasonings and spices, even velveeta and cheez whiz. It's funny how much you appreciate things like that when the alternative is more breadfruit.

Did I mention how I went to church three times while I was there? Two occasions we went to support some Nomukans who were performing their first service as a minister, I think. I'm sorry, I guess I wasn't all that clear on the title but they were preaching for the first time. They scream and cry a lot and it is a very emotional service-the first time we went I thought the guy was mourning the loss of a loved one, but found out afterwards, that that is just the way they do it. So after two of those services, they celebrated with great feasts. As palangis, we sat at the place of honor-at the front, right in front of the pig. You are supposed to sit Indian style, with your legs crossed while you sit and listen to people make speeches, thanking God, and everyone, preaching more, and this takes several hours. I, of course, was moving all around, unable to sit still, but they made exceptions for the Palangi.

While we sat there, people started eating, and let me tell you--there's a reason the king of Tonga is 400 pounds or whatever, those people can eat. Everyone from the village brings food, and tons of it, little plates of all kinds of food, and it all gets passed around. You eat with your fingers and there are no napkins to clean your hands, and some of that food is greasy, especially the pig. I was excited to have chicken because I had not eaten meat in a while, and they brought the chicken mostly for the Palangis. While people make their speeches, other people sit and say "malo," sort of the way you might see in a Southern Baptist church, the congregation responding to the preacher, saying, "Praise Jesus" or something like that. After everyone has said everything, we get up to leave and all the people who have been sitting outside waiting to get in, come in and eat all the leftovers. Don't worry--there is more than enough food for everyone. I only fell asleep once and it was absolutely impossible to stay awake.

One day, near the end of my visit, Don (the volunteer from another island who almost died from some sickness), just showed up. He'd come over with some Mormons who were passing through and hung out for the day. We went for a walk around the island, and that's where a lot of my greener pictures are from-we saw horses, and on the way back passed back the fishery where we were excited to learn they had gotten some ice, so we would have some cold drinks that night. Not that we could put the ice cubes in the drink, but we could place them around the drinks.

A few other regular chores in Nomukan life, we had to boil all our water, so if we ran out of cooled-down water, we'd have to wait to drink until it wasn't hot anymore, and believe me--it wasn't cold even when it got as cool as it was going to get. Random cats would come in the house, eat our bread, wake me up in the front room in the middle of the night. Dogs would start barking and never stop, somebody came to the neighbor's house (which is also one of the fali koa's--don't remember the word exactly, but a small shop) and called out the neighbor's house for 45 minutes straight until the woman came out of her house. That's what they do-call someone's name over and over and over again until they wake up and come outside. We made lots of interesting meals--fish pizza, fish burritos, fish curry, had instant coffee and listened to VOA every morning--spent time outside in the shade, and in the evenings, hung out with Corey and Jonathan, drank a little wine, and talked.

The boat ride back was a bit complicated because the boats don't always come at the same time and I did not want to miss the boat back to Tonga Tapu, as my flight left just a few days later and there were no other direct flights for at least three weeks, and I, of course had my brother's wedding to get back to. So we asked everybody we saw if they had heard about the boats, we tried listening to the radio (it was in Tongan), and most importantly, we talked to the guy t the phone-I think his name was Henni (sp?). We found out that the best boat to take was probably the Otutonga and it would come sometime late Thursday night or Friday morning--we thought. So, I tried to get packed and get some sleep and then some time around 4 a.m. someone came to our house to tell us the boat was coming. The boat arriving is such a big deal that people will go out and wait at the beach until the boat comes--they will wait all night long. So I quickly got my things together and we went out to wait at the beach for the boat. We had to take a small boat out to meet the Otutonga because it was too big of a boat to dock on Nomuka. Rebecca went on the Otutonga with me to make sure I got settled and Sikope (one of Justin's fellow teachers who apparently was a bit smitten with Nola) also came with us to help. They found me a mattress and a spot on the floor, the mat that R & J lent to me to put over the mattress and an old sheet that I had with me, so that I could sleep a little bit. I also took some Dramamine to get me through the ride. Before he left to go back to the little boat, Sikope gave me a kiss on the cheek which is a BIG deal for Nomukans, as they are such a Christian society, but we'll keep that between us so he doesn't get in trouble. The boat ride to Nuku' Alofa was much much much better than the ride from Nuku' Alofa--although I was leaving my wonderful cousins and new friends and fans behind, it was only about 6 hours long and I got to see a beautiful sunrise.

When I got to Nuku' Alofa, there was a woman onboard whom Rebecca had asked to take care of me, and she helped me get a taxi to the Peace Corps office. For my last few days, I stayed with a very nice couple from R & J's group in their house on the grounds of one of the schools. I hung out in the Peace Corps office watching movies, writing in my journal, meeting people, emailing when I could, and went out for meals and even for a few beers one night.

The Sunday before I left, I went to a small island about 20-30 minutes from Nuku' Alofa with Erin and Mark, the couple I was staying with, and Tom and Judy, another amazing couple from R & J's group. This island, I think it was Atata, is sort of a haven for Palangis--you pay about 12 pa'anga for the boat ride from Nuku' Alofa to hang out on the beach and you are allowed to just wear your bathing suit, you can buy lunch and then the boat takes you back. I met some really amazing people, and this was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, certainly of my trip, and I would love to go back. My return trip home from Nuku' Alofa to Columbia, Maryland took about 40 hours and it was one of the longest, hungriest days of my life--when I got home with 2 pa'anga in my pocket and about 7 pa'anga in my savings account. But it was all worth it because I had the most memorable, incredible, cultural experiences I may ever have. So, thanks Nomuka and especially Rebecca and Justin. And thanks to Lorraine and David for keeping this website up, for putting up my rambling stories, and for keeping us updated on two of our favorite List-Freedmans. Lepeka-Susitini-e!