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Justin & Rebecca’s journal of life on Nomuka
MAY-JUNE 2003, via email

The Peace Corps commissioned Rebecca to create videos for use in training future Peace Corps volunteers in Tonga. Justin accompanied her to the capital in June, where they emailed this and were stranded due to plane problems. They returned to Nomuka in July and will resume the video project in September.

From Rebecca:

It's been all about the little things... Justin and I have been doing really well in Nomuka. That is before being unwillingly cast into our very own Reality Show (see story at right). We have been taking extreme joy in our little rituals. For instance, at eight o'clock every night we go outside with our little lantern and our short wave radio and listen to the BBC World News while lying in our hammocks under the big Ovava tree. It really is amazing how much we treasure our short-wave radio. It keeps us connected with the world. The hammocks too have been a great addition to our island life. We spend a lot of time reading and hanging out in them in the backyard with neighbors and friends.

Finally our schedules feel familiar. School too is getting easier as time goes on. I began teaching twice a week in the afternoons at the Akoteu (the small primary school attached to Justin's kolisi). I am beginning to see improvement in the English speaking, reading and writing of my kids and that feels really good. The library I began is also becoming more and more of a valuable resource for the kids. We started a Friday book check out where each class comes in on Fridays and I help the children pick out books that are suitable for their personal reading level. Then on Mondays the books are returned and throughout the week every child comes in for about 15 minutes and we read the book together and try to do some reading comprehension and vocabulary building exercises on it. The kids like the individual attention and hopefully I will start to see some improvement in the comprehension, which is really one of the biggest problems in the Tongan educational system. There is too much emphasis on memorization and very little time devoted to comprehension.


Justin and I (with a lot of help from "the boys") dug an underground oven in our backyard and hosted our first 'umu party. It was so much fun! To prepare for Sunday, Justin went out to fangota on Saturday with Penisoni and Sonitane. They walked the reef and caught two octopi, a bunch of clams, fish and other random sea creatures to be backed in the 'umu for the traditional Sunday feast. There were 'elili (snails) and vasuva (clams). Sunday morning before church service, some of the boys and Sekope, a good friend and fellow teacher of Justin's, came to help us prepare the food.

The boys had dug a hole Saturday and on Sunday we started by lighting a fire in the hole and covering the fire with rock. While this burns and the rocks heat, we made the lu. This is meat wrapped in taro leaves with coconut milk and onions. We made lu with octopus, snails, fish, and tin beef (for the boys) and also cooked a chicken that Penisoni caught. We also cooked some root crops -- kumala, 'ufi, and manioke in the 'umu. We put all the food inside and covered it with banana leaves, metal sheets and dirt and went to church.

After church we came home and set up some mats in the living room. We laid out the food and ate like kings. More boys showed up after round one and finished it up. After the food, the boys stayed around long enough to drive us crazy. It was nice, though, and we can't wait to do it again.

The Sea Kayaks

Yachting season has begun and we have definitely been reaping the benefits. One day we kayaked out to a yacht and a young New Zealand couple invited us onto their boat for some cold beers. It had been our first cold drink, let alone beer, in a very long time and we had a blast sitting and talking English on the deck of this beautiful boat. We have realized that when we first get to the city (or meet some palangi yachter's off Nomuka) we just talk and talk. It is rare we speak English to anyone but each other so when the opportunity arises, it is hard to shut us up.

We have been using the kayaks a lot. We have finally gotten Finnerty to climb aboard so now when we go to Nomuka Iki to camp or just spend the day the two of us we have the puppy there too. There have been a few scary times on the kayaks as well. One Friday we packed up all of our camping gear got on our boats and headed off to a much-needed night alone on the island. Unfortunately, once we got half way to the island the weather drastically changed. The skies clouded over and it began to storm. The swells rose and the current picked up and next thing we knew we were being pushed hard out to the open seas. I have to admit, I got really scared. Finnerty and I both were crying and from the distance we could hear Justin yelling, "Stop crying and paddle," which of course I was paddling with all of my might but the ocean is a lot stronger than I. I finally regained my composure and was able to get close enough to the reef to let the water help push me to Nomuka Iki.

We rested for about 20 minutes and then realized we had to get back to Nomuka because there was no sign of the weather getting any better. On our way back home, about halfway between the islands, we saw a yacht flying an American flag. The older couple on the boat was calling to us to come aboard and rest. We were able to tie our kayaks up to their yacht and climb aboard. They were so excited to see the dog and when they asked us his name and I told them that the dog is named after one of our favorite NYC bars, the man replied, "My son lives on 13th and 3rd" (practically above Finnerty's). They made us tea and we talked about NYC and finally felt ready to finish our trek home.



From Justin:

The Best Day

We awoke one Friday morning expecting our visitors (actually dreading our visitors) and found that they did not come. We did get some amazing letters and packages from the states (thanks Becca and KT), though, and it put us in a great mood to start the day. School went well, and Rebecca returned home with some beef. Beef! Her fellow teacher 'Ateliana had gotten some sent up on the boat from Tonga and was nice enough to share with us (the Tongan way). We cooked it right up for lunch and it was delicious with BBQ sauce. We had never had beef on Nomuka -- usually it is nothing or fish, and occasionally pork or horse or goat. Mmmm. Goat.

We had been a little meat-starved as of late and we felt very strong after eating so we decided to go for a kayak. Finnerty followed us down to the water and even started after us towards the island (1.5 miles). Rebek pulled him aboard to see if he could make it across with us. We were skeptical and I was sure we'd have to turn around after a while, but he made it across. He did switch boats a few times, and we did have to squeeze him between our knees, but he made it. Once on Nomuka Iki we played with the dog a bit and walked over to the backside to look around.

As we had before, we saw a bunch of reef sharks right in the shallow part of the reef, maybe 10 feet away. I ran back to the boats and got our fishing stuff. There were no snails or crabs so I ran back to the front side and snorkeled until I speared a small yellow fish. Using that fish, which I hooked and threw out into the shallow reef, I caught one. It was maybe 2 feet long. We took it back to shore and Laukoloa, our neighbor, came over and helped us clean, cook and eat it. We made it curry style with rice and coconut milk. Later that night, we hung out with her and her husband, Fatui, and then drank some wine and went to bad.

The Real World

How did it go? Ten strangers, picked to live in a loft. Find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real. Or something like that. That was a great idea, long ago before the current reality TV craze. It is interesting to watch people in uncomfortable situations. Forced uncomfortable situations. Luckily most shows offer some sort of compensation -- at the very least 15 minutes of fame. How about this for a show idea: Two couples, picked to live in a house on a tropical island. Starting to sound like Temptation Island now, but we'll add more. One couple is in their 60's and Tongan, yet have lived in Phoenix for 27 years. The other couple is younger and come from American and is living in Tonga for two years. Sound interesting? That is where we are now in our Tongan experience. After my Form 5 school trip and our All Volunteer conference in April, we returned from Tongatapu in May. We had an amazing month in Nomuka; lots of kayaking and fishing, a lot of island assimilation, and the beginning of yacht season.

And then, everything changed. The owners of our house, Posese and Vaake, have returned to go to a wedding and to fix up the house (building and new fence and a toilet and shower!). They are a very nice Tongan couple and we are excited for the home improvements. Sharing a house, however, has been extremely stressful. We have been left wondering how is it that we know more about Tongan culture in our eight months than they know about American culture after 27 years? Is this the melting pot we love so much? While Nomuka is a lot different than the states, I would think that someone having lived there would know that the landlord does not, on any occasion, come live with the tenants. Nor do they have a family of five come over all day every day to look after them. They are a very nice couple. They often offer us food, and we bake them cakes. We talk sometimes over vai mafana (hot water, usually with coffee, tea or sugar and milk).

Regardless, we feel completely out of sorts, trapped and angry. This forced cohabitation has affected every aspect of our lives and the two and a half weeks we spent together in our house have been the worst in Tonga. Why is that? What is the difference between our cultures that make this so wrong? While I hate to make such blanket statements, I will offer this without fear of offending. Westerners need privacy. We need time to ourselves. We don't like people to look through our stuff or read our mail. We don't like people to always need to know what we are doing. We like to read. We like to shut the outhouse door when using said outhouse (if we are so unfortunate to have to use an outhouse). We sometimes like quiet. We like to shut our door ccasionally to the outside world. We like to make a quiet meal.

Tongan culture is the opposite. While a constantly full house makes me agitated, Tongans, if left alone, feel scared and often cry. They hate to be alone. The more the merrier, always. They always like to know where you are going, what you are doing. Alu ki fe? Where are you going? It is the most common greeting. Where are you going? Even if you are about to enter your own front door they will ask you. Alu ki fe? If you have a letter or postcard sitting on the table they read it. If you have drawers, boxes, or bags around, they will look right through them and ask you for whatever they want. If they are eating, they scream to everyone walking by in the street ha'u kai! Come eat! It is the way it is, and we live here and we love it. But we also love our house and have certain rules that our visitors understand (or at least respect). And we love our doors. But we have lost our sanctuary and HATE IT! It is also frustrating to have to wait until they go to sleep to sneak a drink in our room like we were in high school or something.

There are other difficult factors too. While we have noticed as of late (maybe due to our improved Tongan comprehension) the amount of Jewish references in our church services, we don't think that any of the people in our community know a thing about Jews. We know how impressionable our community is to the words of the minister and that worries us a bit, but we figure if there are misconceptions about these heathen Jews at least they can say, "Justin and Rebecca aren't that bad." A couple living in Phoenix for 27 years, however, should know a thing or two. One night the woman, Vaake, asked our religion in the states and I said that we are Jewish. Her jaw dropped and there was silence for a few minutes. Do you know any Jewish people? I asked. No. Surely there must be some Jews in Arizona? I asked. Maybe your accountant or dentist, I was thinking. She told me that there are two. Her daughter told her. Her daughter, who works at America West, must know two Jews and from the sound of things doesn't like them very much. After this awkward evening, they waited until we woke up the next morning and made a big show of having a bible reading.

Vaake and Posese also told us that they don't like their neighbor in Phoenix -- he is rude. When the family (30 or 40 Tongans) come over and sit around in the front yard (I can only imagine how loud this is, and how strange in a suburban Mesa neighborhood), he complains. It is completely normal here, and kind of nice if you understand. Vaake speaks English very well, although chooses not to while home in Nomuka. I certainly don't blame her. She can tell when we don't understand her Tongan and helps (if it is for us to hear). Posese speaks not a word of English as far as we can tell. They tell us that they can get all of their favorite foods in Phoenix. They also watch Tongan religious TV on cable and go to a Tongan church. We discussed Mexican food, which they have eaten. Vaake shared some of our Twizzlers and also likes to eat them at movies. For the most part, though, they live a very Tongan life and it is obvious that they are very happy to be home for a visit.

But anyway, I can't really explain why this has been so painful to us and I feel so guilty being angry. Am I selfish? Am I closed off? So what that they used our best cooking knife to open a can of Crisco and it broke? So what if one of our chickens mysteriously got out and was killed when there were a bunch of strangers and 7 strange dogs in our yard the other day (and we cooked it and gave half to them and half to our boys and didn't even get to eat it)? Should we mind kids running through our living room screaming "good morning" all day and night? Is the effect on our outhouse that noticeable? (Yes. It is.) So what if our water tank is quickly drying up? It is also hard to not be able to complain to anyone in the town about all this because in everyone's eyes, the more the merrier. And it is their house. I feel like a jerk. They are building a toilet and shower and closing off the road through our yard with a locking gate and here we are bitching.

[Bothered by the heat and lack of electricity, the house owners left Nomuka to return to the States sooner than expected. They did not build the toilet as promised, but did leave the materials. R&J are delighted to have their privacy back!]