Monday, October 19, 2009

First Weekend in Ha'api

I went to church with my host family for the first time yesterday. I wasn’t really sure which denomination they were, but I was hoping they belonged to the Free Church of Tonga because I had heard they have the shortest services. I had also heard from one of the current volunteers that this denomination has the “yell-singing.” After attending yesterday’s service, I think that is an accurate description! There were only about 20 people in the church including the children, but they all sang at the top of their lungs. I’m not sure if it was to make up for the small number of people or if there is some kind of competition among the 6 churches in the village to have the loudest singing. The church itself was down the road in the next village, Fotua.

I was surprised to discover that my host father, Sio’ata, led the service. I had no idea what was being said, but he seemed very serious about it, and it was strange to contrast that with his normally goofy personality. There were little kids fidgeting, playing, and just walking around the building the whole time- at one point this little boy actually went up and started swinging on the railing in front of the altar. Nobody seemed to be phased by any of it- I kept expecting someone to run up and pull him down, but I guess they just ignore it. I was happy to discover that, as promised, the service only lasted about 45 minutes, and then we were on our way.

After church we ate, my host mom made a dish call lu, which is corned beef, onions, and coconut cream wrapped in leaves and baked in an umu. I’m not crazy about corned beef, especially after learning that it contains “75% meat and 25% beef hearts,” but Tongans seem to use it in a lot of dishes, so I tend to sort of eat a little and then say I’m full and that seems to work. It’s funny, because there is all this delicious fresh fish and shellfish here, but instead they use canned meat! I think I’m going to try to mention how much I like the fish and hopefully that will do the trick.

Our Tongan class is going well, I’m learning a lot. It’s funny, because there are lots of works that start with “faka,” which means “like,” and I always sort of feel like I’m cussing, especially when I say the Tongan word for “pitiful”- “Faka’ofa.” It’s nice to be able to sort of understand what people are saying to me, although I certainly still have a long way to go!

We learned at our training on Friday that we have to learn and perform a Tongan dance for “Culture Day” in November, and we also have to teach someone in our host family something American. I think we’re going to get all of the neighborhood kids together for our performance, but we still haven’t decided what to teach them- we were thinking maybe the Macarena or some kind of line dancing (or something else hilarious). Our host families are really excited about teaching us a dance too- me and Pele (Blair) are going to perform one together and there has already been talk of costumes by our host moms, so I’m sure our performance will be interesting to say the least.

Anyway, sorry about the lack of new pictures- the connection at the internet cafĂ© here is incredibly slow and the last internet mission on Saturday was a failure picture-wise. I’ll try again next time but I might have to wait until the end of training when we go back to the capital. We are going to find out what our sites will be next week, so that’s exciting. We have meetings today (Monday) to discuss our preferences for placement. I’m pretty sure I’ll be working in a Secondary school, so I that means I won’t get sent to any of the really remote islands (which I’m glad). I’ll try to let everyone know as soon as I find out! Have a nice week!


Friday, October 16, 2009

My First Post!

Hey everyone! So I’ve decided to try out the blog thing. I figure this is a good way to keep everyone updated on what I’ve been up to in Tonga. Feel free to comment! 

So we arrived in Tonga after a 10 hour flight (which really wasn’t too bad) and a stopover in Samoa, where we left the 15 or so Peace Corps trainees who are serving in Samoa and continued on to Tonga. We crossed the International Dateline and lost an entire day...we pretty much went straight from October 6th to October 8th, so that was a bit confusing at first. We were met at the airport by a big welcoming party of Peace Corps staff and some of the current volunteers, which was really nice albeit a bit of a sensory overload for us, being sleep-deprived and jet-lagged.

From the airport, we were taken to Sela’s guesthouse in Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga and located on the main island of Tongatapu. Despite being the largest city in Tonga, it’s still pretty small and there aren’t too many people out and about. We stayed at Sela’s for 4 nights, during which time we did daily training sessions at the Peace Corps office. We soon figured out that the word for white person here is “palangi,” because everywhere we went we would attract a crowd of kids yelling “palangi!” and chanting “hi!, bye!” over and over. Adults have been a little more subtle, but you can still hear the word several times in the conversations people are having near you. 

On that first Sunday we went to church, since Tonga is a very Christian nation and almost everyone goes to church on Sunday (if not more often). It’s actually against the law in Tonga to work on Sundays and all businesses are closed except a few, such as one bakery and a Chinese food restaurant. Our Tongan trainers told us that these are open so the palangi tourists can find something to eat, but I noticed that when I walked by the bakery there was a line of Tongan’s out the door, with no palangis in sight!!

Another interesting thing about Tonga is that people dress very modestly. Us girls have to wear skirts that come at least to our knees, preferably longer, and always have our shoulders covered and a modest neckline. The men have to wear long pants or the “tupenu” or men’s skirt. Most of the guys in our group have bought one, and it’s been pretty funny watching them get used to wearing skirts, especially when it comes to sitting and crossing legs! Anyway, back to the church…we were given three options: the Catholic church, the Anglican church, or the Wesleyan church. I went with the Wesleyan, mostly because I’d never been to one and I hoped it would be less boring than my other church experiences. I have to say it was still pretty boring, especially since the service was all in Tongan, but they did have some beautiful singing. Apparently Tongans are known for their singing, especially in church. In our church, they sang these beautiful harmonies accompanied by a tuba (from what I could hear). Also, we got to see the King of Tonga, because he goes to that church. He sat in his own special section by himself. The Prime Minister of the Cook Islands was also at the church that day, so apparently it’s where all the V.I.P.s go!

After church we had a feast at the country director’s house. The country director, Kelly, has a house near the ocean with a big lawn, where we had our feast. They roasted a pig and made an “umu,” which is an underground oven. In this they cooked Taro leaves filled with a corned beef concoction (I didn’t try it). We also had boiled yams, salad, fruit, and this dish made with raw fish, tomatoes, and peppers that is kind of like ceviche. After the feast they fed us ice cream cones, which were awesome.

On Monday we flew to the island group of Ha’apai, which is north of Tongatapu. We were picked up at the airport by our host families, who we’re going to be staying with for the next couple of months of our training. In the village I’m living in, there are only four of us trainees- Farfum, John, Blair, and I. Most people have been given Tongan names- Farfum is “Feleti,” John is “Sione” and Blair is “Pele”, but apparently Melissa is a Tongan name too so mine didn’t need to be changed- I just have to make sure and pronounce it “Mey-Lee-Sah” so people know what I’m saying.

My host family is really nice. The dad’s name is Sio’ata, and I guess he’s a fisherman, because the first night he said he was going to go spearfishing. The mom’s name is Petelina and she has been cooking food for me and doing my laundry too, which is awesome! She’s always trying to stuff me with food at every turn, and I think her favorite phrase is “kai lahi!” which means “eat more!” They fed me lobster for lunch on Tuesday, which was pretty cool. They have one daughter named Sa’ane who I think is about fourteen. She has also been very nice and helpful, and she braided my hair for me on Tuesday. No one in the family speaks much English, so it has been interesting trying to communicate. I think my most-used phrase is “sorry, I don’t understand” (“fakamolemole, ‘ikai mahino”) and sometimes Sa’ane says it for me before I have a chance.

I’ve started my Tongan language classes though, and I’ve made rapid improvements in the last few days. It’s nice because our class is really small-just the four of us who live in the village, which is called Fangale’ounga. We meet each morning at the house our language trainer, Poli, is staying in. Poli is very nice and friendly and is a great teacher.

My host family has been really good about helping me study with my flash cards too. The first day I stayed there my host mom gave me a “kie kie,” which is like a belt with strips hanging from it that Tongan women wear. It’s made of coconut leaves in a sort of flower pattern and from what I could gather, my host mom made it for me, which is really cool. I’ll try to get a picture of it. I gave the family the gift I had bought for them as well- beef jerky and a calendar with California scenery. I’m not so sure about the calendar, but the beef jerky seemed to go over really well- I think they had finished the pack by the next day.

Anyway, the scenery here is really beautiful. The plants are really green and lush, and the water is a turquoise-blue. The beach is just down a path from my house and it’s really gorgeous, with white sand and shells and coral all over. The island that the airport is on also has the main town- Pa’angai. The runway of the airport actually bisects the town’s main road, so they have this railroad-crossing –like thing that they put down every time a plane is landing or taking off. My village is actually on another island that is very close and is connected to the main island by a causeway, so people can drive straight across it. My village just has one main road, with a bunch of houses, one store, and a couple of churches.

The house I’m staying in is really nice- it’s pretty big and they have a garden in the back where they grow bananas, taro, and manioc. They also have a mango tree, but I think the season for those might be over, sadly. Most people have a tank or two in their yards where they collect rainwater, which is used for drinking, washing, and bathing. I’m lucky because my host family has a flush toilet and a shower, although the water is cold. It does feel good on a warm day though.

On Tuesday we did water safety training at the harbor in Pa’angi. After hearing about all of the dangerous creatures that live in the ocean, we had to jump in the harbor and do some swimming. It was pretty funny to have all 23 of us and the staff in the water together. We attracted a crowd of Tongan kid spectators, who I’m sure were very entertained by all the crazy palangis flopping around in their life vests.

On Thursday, all of us participated in a beach clean-up put together by a group of New Zealanders. Apparently, there’s no trash collection or disposal system on Ha’api, so most people either burn their trash or dump it in the ocean, consequently, there’s quite a bit of it along the roads and beaches. We walked the beach between our village and the causeway and picked up trash (or “rubbish,” as the New Zealanders would say). I actually picked up very little trash, as I was distracted by the tide pools and all the things living in them-I saw a few sea cucumbers, some starfish, and a sea slug thing squirting ink. I got a nice sunburn out of it too! So, that’s pretty much what’s been going on lately…I’ll try and give another update soon. I miss you all, everyone feel free to give me a call!