The Beginning: Peace Corp Volunteer in Tonga

 Tonga Travel 11-7-07

Most of LA was a blur. We had staging which was a basic intro to PC and a little about Tonga and teamwork and such. I met a lot of great people and we hung out and got to know each other. Then we all packed our bags in the bus and went to the airport. We are on our way!

Triple goddess tatoo with women's arms over their heads holding the moon
Before leaving, Alice, her sisters and mom got tattoos, the three sisters.

The first flight was 10 hours, 9 of which I didn’t mind. The last one was cramped though. Oh well we made it to Samoa! We had a 2-hour layover there so we just hung out in the airport, the small airport. We did our first community yoga session and learned the real difficulty of doing yoga in the required dress, shirt with sleeves and long skirts. Next our flight to Tonga!!! We left Samoa at 6:30am Wednesday October 3, and arrived in Nuku’alofa Tonga after a 1 ½ hour flight at 8am Thursday October 4. Basically the only change was the dateline. 

Tonga is the first country to great each new day. The dateline actually curves around Tonga so it is all in the same time zone.

Once in Nuku’alofa we proceeded through immigration and customs which was the fastest I have ever experienced. No surprise as it is a really small airport. We were greeted by a lot of Peace Corps staff who gave us leis and took our picture. Is that really necessary after so many hours of travel? It was great to have that welcome though. Then we went to a guest house. I was ready for a nap and a shower, it was nice to have time for this. 

Then in the evening we went to a welcome kava ceremony. It was all Peace Corps staff, volunteers and trainees and none of us trainees knew what to expect. I was thrilled just to watch and observe how it all worked. But of course I had to participate. Villiame the community education director lead the ceremony. He said a prayer (everything in Tonga begins with a prayer) and then sang a phrase in Tongan, plus a name. Then someone at the other end of the circle answered back and a woman would bring a bowl of kava to whoever was named. This continued until everyone was served. I thought it tasted a little like earth or wood, which makes sense. It is a root dried and ground into powder, then mixed with water and strained. It is not like alcohol because it doesn’t affect your brain, just your body. I felt my mouth go a little numb but that is it. Oh well it doesn’t much matter as kava is only for men anyway. I won’t be drinking much, but I might get to serve it.

One of the first few things I noticed about Tonga is the clouds. There are a lot of clouds. Often there are more than two layers of clouds. The lowest layer usually moves very fast. I like having regular cloud cover because it is still beautiful, but not as quick to burn your skin. The rain is interesting too. It has mostly only sprinkled, with a few heavier patches, but rain seems to come and go fast. Sometimes you can see a rain cloud off the coast and as it moves in it may not only miss you, but it could miss the whole island! Also Tongan people have the largest body mass in the world, and this seems to be true. I am seen as unhealthy because I am so skinny and I don’t eat much. The Tongan weight chart is very different than any I have seen in America. I looked under 5’7” and didn’t find my weight. I was off the charts in the emaciated section. I did find my weight in the normal section for someone who is 4’11”. This is a huge change for me as about 6 months ago I was in Thailand where I was a big person both in height and girth. Now I am mousy and wasting away. I guess I should just continue being happy with my body as is.

Diet so far seems to be meat and potatoes. Luckily for me fish is acceptable and available and people will only think you a little weird if you just eat fish. However something is obviously wrong with a person who doesn’t eat puaka (pig). For meat the favorites are pork, chicken, fish (including ‘ota ika or raw fish), beef, corned beef and a variety of sea creatures like octopus and muscles. Potatoes is not the right word, root crops is better. There is Taro, yams, tapioca, sweet potato and at least 5 other varieties I haven’t figured out the difference yet. There is Lu or taro leaves. Cooked up it is like any other greens, but usually it is wrapped around beef or mutton and cooked in coconut milk. Oh well. At least there is a steady supply of fruit. Mango season is coming up!

On our last day in Fua’amotu we were invited to a feast. I think it was someone’s birthday, but I can never be sure. We walked in and found about 50 people sitting at various tables and making room for the pisicoa (Peace Corps). The head table had a huge array of food. Then as I sat down I saw that all the other tables were piled with food. Really piled. There were plastic containers of all sorts of foods like fried fish and chicken, coleslaw, muscles, octopus, imitation crab salad, tongan dumplings, taro (various kinds), watermelon, fruit baskets with apples, oranges, kiwi, pears, potato chips, suckers, a whole small roast pig right in front of me (there were 5 on that table and probably 15+ at the feast) skewers of prawns and probably a dozen other things I didn’t see or try. After a few minutes of looking at the food in amazement I realized that under the pile of precariously balanced food there were place settings. We had to work together to free the trapped plates from the feast, but we did it. After about 15 minutes of prayer from at least 7 different people and several songs we dug in. I ate until I was full then tried 2 more things. Then I was stuffed. Then they came around with fruit salad and ice cream. Too much food! I wasn’t hungry for about 24 hours after that feast. Wow!

The beach is beautiful, but I wouldn’t call it a great place to swim. It is basically a reef with some sandy spots. There is sand for the beach, but in the water it is advisable to wear shoes. Well you don’t have to but I have already run out of Band-Aids because I take my first aid kit to the beach. Good thing Peace Corps has more. Fua’amotu, the first home stay village has a great walk to the beach and some fun spots to hang out, do yoga, fish, climb and of course play rock the rock. Yea it gets a little boring so whenever they can the guys have been throwing things at other things ie rock the rock. Depending what is around they sometimes play rock the shell or maybe melon rind the water tower ;-)

As far as the Peace Corps training goes, Tonga is intense. Each day is 8:30 to 5:00 then again from 7:00 to 8:00. At 5 no one can think anymore and just when you have recovered there is class again. We have been learning about the goals of a PCV, safety and security, culture, language, health and about the project itself. My project is Community Education which involves teaching English in a primary school and secondary projects dealing with Health and Environmental education to be determined by the community and the volunteer.

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