Sunday, August 31, 2008


I see that it's been about 4 months since I've written on here so I should probably write a long update post... Instead I'm just going to share a moment on my walk home this evening.

I was heading home after an evening mass. I was walking along a road on the ocean shore. It was windy and overcast and just beginning to become dark. Good weather for feeling down, which I've discovered is an easy emotion to have here in Tonga if you let yourself. I had missed the English mass and had to attend the Tongan one, which I didn't understand of course. There was a co-worker who sat next to me who I was hoping would offer me a ride so I didn't have to do the 30+ minute walk, but no such luck. He simply asked if I lived in the area and had no response when I told him where I actually lived.

So I begin my walk along the ocean road listening to the MP3 player to make it slightly more enjoyable. Then I walk by the tree. It's all "bark". The trunk, the branches. No leaves. No green. Like a tree in the winter in the States. Except it's not. Because this naked tree has yellow flowers at its tips. This ugly tree with no green has beautiful little flowers brightening its entire appearance. A little further down there's another one with just a few leaves and pink flowers. Now, I've been living here 11 months and should know the name of the tree and the flowers. Shameful for the daughter of a produce farmer. But that's not really the point. I've surely walked by these plants numerous times as I'm often on this road and just never stopped and noticed or have seen them but not fully appreciated.

After experiencing these trees, I noticed the ocean's waves actually looked pretty cool at dusk . And, really, most of what was meeting my eyes was quite pretty. So green. This country is so green and...alive.

The US might have my family, my friends, delicious restaurants, supermarkets, and movie theaters, but my US is never this green year-round and when our trees have lost all their leaves, there are no flowers.

Life here can be extremely frustrating and at times feel quite unfulfilling. It's easy to dwell on these aspects of the experience and rely on complaints to make it through. Sometimes I need to be reminded that beauty and purpose can be found everywhere. Shouldn't be so hard to remember on a tropical island.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Crazy Weekend at Camp with 600 Tongan Youth

I may have mentioned on here that I attend an English-speaking Catholic Church here in Tonga. When I found out that World Youth Day (a huge gathering of young Catholic adults that occurs every few years) would be in Sydney, Australia this year, I planned on going since I'm already in that part of the world. Later I learned that a group of about 7 from my church would be going (a mix of Tongans, palangis, and Filipinos. They are going as part of the larger Tongan Catholic community. I decided it would be a good experience to join them. Now there are 760 youth from Tonga headed to Sydney in July and I'm one of them!

Anyway, this past weekend was a national retreat in preparation of the trip. There were 600 youth there and at least 3 of the 5 island groups in Tonga were represented. We stayed at a technical college. The girls got to sleep on the floor in big open rooms and the guys had to sleep outside in tents. There were 3 showers for about 300 girls and not too many more toilets! I was really the only "white person" there, so I stood out quite a bit. It didn't help that when I called participants up in front of the whole group for activities, I was often one of their choices. The nice thing about that was that they all learned my name. I got so tired of walking around hearing, "Blah blah blah Palangi" or "Palangi blah blah blah" said in Tongan while the speakers looked at me. Call me by my name or don't talk about me when I'm right there! Just because I don't fully understand your language doesn't mean I don't get it!"

Other than that, I enjoyed the weekend for the most part. In some ways it really reminded me of retreats I had been to back in the US. There were sessions with a presenter, group work, and then reporting of group findings. Also, in true Catholic spirit, there was Reconciliation night and Perpetual Adoration of the Eucharist. (Sorry for those cryptic sounding terms, non-Catholics). Lots of masses and singing as well. However, for me I think it was more of a cultural experience than a religious on. Surrounded by 600 Tongans, I definitely learned a lot and had some good experiences to use my Tongan language skills (as weak as they may be). While some of the sessions were in English and Tongan (all Tongan secondary schools are supposed to be taught in English so Tongans should know the language), much of it was just in Tongan. Should be good practice for next weeks' 3 days of language training and oral test with Peace Corps.

The Tongans at the camp were very friendly, sometimes too much so. Of course many of the men gave special attention. There was always the "Emily, sit here" and "Do you have a boyfriend?" coming from numerous directions. Truly interested or out for a US visa? Who knows... Luckily I'm not on the market and don't need to be concerned with those questions. Tongan men are quite attractive with their well-built physiques and close connection to "tall, dark and handsome" descriptions. Could be dangerous!

The women tended to be very friendly as well. I had a conversation yesterday with another volunteer about how strange it is that the women don't seem to care that their male peers give us so much attention. Perhaps that's because they treat male palangis the same way. Who knows. One girl had a soccer scarf on and I complimented her on it early on in the weekend. She told me it was from her boyfriend in New Zealand. The last night she tried to give it to me saying that since I said I liked it, I should have it. Her boyfriend's scarf! Watch out when you compliment belongings in some cultures; you might just end up taking it home! Luckily I got her to keep the scarf by convincing her of how horrible I would feel if I took it. Such a kind gesture though!

The weekend included quite a few showcases of Tongan talents. The first night each church group prepared an aerobics routine to music to introduce themselves. The next night was the big cultural showcase night when the groups did traditional Tongan dances and families were invited. The last night involved "action dances" (think interpretive group dance...kinda) and each group singing their own version of the official World Youth Day song. Those were all really cool to watch. My little church group didn't know these things were being prepared so we didn't get to participate, but it was fun to watch! Tongans from a young age in school (and in church) spend a great deal of time working on dances and singing, usually traditional-style stuff. They have special costumes for the dance and everything (girls are wrapped in just a decorated 'mat' and oiled up in coconut oil- see picture of my girl Sarah in the costume dancing in Vava'u). Lots of talent.

During the sessions I learned the "Tongan way" of saying things in public. If they must say something in front of a crowd, it must be funny. They have to add humor. To me, that makes it seem like Tongans really aren't taking the subject they are discussing very seriously but maybe that's the only way they can discuss serious topics. Also, Tongans will laugh, loudly, at anything remotely funny. When the jokes were in Tongan and the crowd was cracking up all the time, I felt really bad like I was missing some quite funny jokes. However, when they were in English and I understood them and found many to be amusing at best, the Tongans were still cracking up! I guess that's a really good trait to have though. Better to see the world through laughter than cynicism.

Not a lot of sleep this weekend either. The first night the girls camp didn't quite down until about 12 with cell phones still going off after that and then girls started getting up at 3am! Many girls were up by 3:30; pretty much everyone was up by 4; and I finally gave in at 4:30. The next night I needed some sleep (and a warm shower as it had been uncharacteristically rainy and cold all day), so I stayed at the home of one of the participants from my church. I slept at the site again the last night and luckily the other girls were exhausted by that point, so I got a good night's sleep! Overall, a really interesting weekend!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Statistics on Tonga

If you want to know more about the country I'm living in for the next 2 years, you can find some info on the website of Tonga's Statistics Department.

Monday, April 7, 2008

No more new friend...

So the dog followed me to work for the first time on Friday...and then disappeared. He'd never followed me anywhere before so I was surprised when he started following me down the road. At first I tried to get him to turn around but it didn't work. Then I just got curious how far he would follow me. He followed me all the way to the house of my language instructor (about a mile from my house). She thought he looked like a very nice guy and acted like a palangi dog so she let him on her porch (even though I didn't want him there as I wanted him to be a well-behaved dog who knows boundaries) and he hung out at my feet during the language lesson. Then he followed me to work. There were a few close calls with other dogs on the way but he made it there and hung out there all day, making friends with one of the guards and enemies with one of the neighbor dogs.

At the end of the day I had to leave in a vehicle to drop off some employment forms. We tried to get him into the van but he wasn't having it. So we left and I got dropped off at the PC office for a meeting.

I figured he'd find his way home (dogs do that, right?). Well, I guess he never did. Wasn't there later that night, nor the next day nor the next... I figure that he is likely dead. He was either: 1. run over by some crazy Tongan driver; 2. Attacked by a pack of dogs; or 3. Eaten by a Tongan (yes, they sometimes eat dog here...prepared kind of like a pig). Or a combination of the 3...

There is a chance he could be alive. Fellow volunteers have suggested that maybe he found a female lover dog or another person to feed him. I suppose that's possible but it seems odd to me that the same day that he took such a liking to me to follow me to work (and I haven't fed him as much lately), he would desert me for another. Oh well, now I just tell myself that he was never really my dog so I won't be too sad. I did only know him a few weeks...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A New Friend

I kind of have a dog now. I think it's a full-grown boy but he's still kind of young looking. I noticed him around my house sometimes usually in the trash pile looking for food and he was a little skittish around me but he looked nice and I wanted some extra security at my place so I decided to feed him. Now he's hooked. Also, the first time I went to pet him, he completely let me. So now he's usually around my house and gets all excited whenever I arrive home or leave the house. I'm having to teach him not to jump on me since he gets me all dirty. He also likes to run between my legs under my skirt, which I'm not fond of. He's black on top and brown on bottom. All the dogs in Tonga are mutts and there aren't really small dogs here but there are lots and lots of puppies (no one really vaccinates the dogs). Anyway, when I met this guy (who I guess I need to name), he looked pretty healthy so someone else must be feeding him. I just give him little snacks as I like to have him around but I don't want to become his sole source of food. Kulei (my kitten) isn't much of a fan. When she first saw him, she was ok. But then I think she noticed him all over me and she got jealous or protective or something. Now when I let her out she hisses at him and chases him off. He's triple her size or more (she's still not a full-grown cat), but she always wins and he never growls at her or tries to defend himself. I think he respects her territory. I've never seen him act violent or bark or anything at all. That's good for me but might not make him the best guard dog...
Yep, the most interesting things in my life involve animals.... (Huge spider in my room last night too and a big molekau (huge centipedes whose sting really hurts) was there last week).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Weight Loss!

Wooo Whoo!!! I've bucked the "girls gain weight and boys lose weight" trend that seems to be the case here (and in many other PC countries it seems). In the last few months I've lost about 7 pounds. That's good considering that my diet here isn't always what I'd consider healthy. However, despite some snacks of fried dough, meals of fried fish, and too many soft drinks, I appear to be losing weight. That's probably because I tend to eat smaller portions here and the heat has probably affected my appetite. Additionally, I've started running and I've been sick the past week. Lent probably also had an effect. I gave up meat (except for fish), sweets, and alcohol. Now that's over and I will probably add a few more ice cream cones, hot dogs, and glasses of wine each month to the diet. However, I plan to start working out more so hopefully the weight loss will continue!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Life as "usual"

I realize that I haven't written on here in quite awhile (more than a month). I think one reason behind that concerns I started up the blog in the first place. I wanted to share with friends and family back home the interesting or weird things that I was encountering or doing here in Tonga. However, now that I've been here more than 5 months and have been living in my house and working at my job for almost 3 months, everyday life here has come to seem "normal." I've accepted occurrences that may have previously seemed odd and now find that much of what I'm exposed to everyday really isn't that "strange" or "different at all." However, I guess there are a few occurrances in my everyday life that differ greatly from my life in the US.

One change that I've noticed recently, which is actually a rather positive change, is that I eat a lot more vegetables. Or, at least, I use more fresh vegetables in the preparation of my meals. Fresh vegetables tend to be cheaper here than the canned or frozen alternatives (though that's quickly changing as the prices at the market have risen 50% or more and the content and quality for that price have fallen). Also, since some of my eating habits here are less healthy due to finances, I find that I need to balance that with the veggies. For example, at least a few times a week my meal may be crackers and peanut butter and jelly or crackers and cheese. Also, fried food tends to be cheaper here, so I often end up eating more of that than I should. I've often found that my behavior when abroad is, "eat what's put in front of you." Thus, when living with host families I got used to eating things like cucumbers , peppers, and onions (just happy to be served some vegetables) that I might avoid if I were preparing my own food or eating in a restaurant. Now, I throw cucumbers and peppers into the majority of meals I make for myself (still not giving in on the onions). I've also found myself experimenting with veggies such as eggplant, breadfruit (kind of like potato), chinese cabbage and pele (like spinach). I'm happy to say that I will return to the US a better cook (or at least a somewhat healthier one!).

Another "different" way of life that I've come to accept is the conservative way of dressing that is recommended here.

In training we were taught that shoulders and knees are not to be bared. In fact, at work, skirts should almost come to the ankles. However, after living in the city for a while, I've come to notice that Tongans who are urban dwellers often don't follow those rules. I've seen many a bare shoulder, exposed knee and even some thighs(!). Some females wear short dresses or skirts with those tight leggings underneath. I see some of this and think, "scandalous!" I also wouldn't dream of leaving the house in shorts that didn't come past my knees. However, on some Saturdays (the one day you can dress more casual) I've taken to wearing a tank top (with thick straps- like a wife-beater) and a skirt that ends right at the knees or capris. I also tried out a work-out tank-top of similar style last night on a run. Going down the street dressed like that feels kind of naughty! But the breeze is so lovely, it's worth it! Before I left the US the thought of dressing like the Tongans in the humid heat (and having to wear t-shirts and pants while swimming) seemed difficult. However, now the idea of dressing like the more liberal city-dwelling Tongans is daunting! However, rest assured that my midriff has still not seen the light of day and a t-shirt and capris are still the outfit of necessity when going for a swim!