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Archive for February, 2008

Many thanks and a funny week…

I thought that I would share just a little glimpse into my week.  Not much stands out as noteworthy, but here are a few tidbits.  They are just little snippets of life in Tonga.  As I may have mentioned in earlier postings, Tongans are notoriously large people.  In fact, the World Health Organization has declared that Tongans have the largest body mass in the world.  Big is truly beautiful in the Tonga.  In the ultimate contrast from the United States, skinny is hardly considered attractive.  Yet I cannot deny that I am a product of my American upbringing, and have to admit that my self esteem and confidence are at its highest when I am physically fit.  So I can’t say that I much enjoyed a conversation with one of my colleagues this week.  It went something like this, “Oh Keleni (my Tongan name), don’t worry.  After two years here, you will be fat.  Just like me.  I used to be skinny like you, but in no time you will be fat.  Sikoti (Scot’s Tongan name) will be happy because you are fat.”  She spoke confidentially and assuredly, and was completely oblivious to the fact that the entire conversation had me teetering on the verge of an anxiety attack:)  Lets just say that the lack of fresh vegetables and the monsoon rains make a healthy diet and exercise a little difficult to obtain on a regular basis here.


But I did almost eat a fly this week.  My school has teachers’ tea time everyday at 10:30 am, which I think is just fabulous.  I took my tea to the library to sort some books, and felt something hard on my tongue as I took a swig.  I then spit out a dead fly into the cup.  Just lovely.  But all is well in the islands.. It is the rainy season right now, and we are doing our best to stay dry:)  This weekend was fantastic because we received phone calls from my mom, Scot’s parents, my sister, and Stefanie (who happens to be a returned PCV from Bolivia and one of my best friends.)  Waiting for us at the Pangai post office were packages from Virginia Friedman and Elaine Taylor.  Honestly, the support we receive from friends and family keeps us going through the tough times.  We can’t thank you enough!

the bike, the beach, and all of the travelers…

I decided that I had to share the latest drama here in Ha’apai.  If you are wondering as to the location of our internet access here, we are able to tap into the world wide web courtesy of the Peace Corps office.  The space is about the size of a walk-in closet, but there is a computer and stacks of books and movies for our enjoyment.  As you can imagine, I spend a fair amount of time at the office.  Usually I just park my bike in the grass a few feet away, and occupy my time catching up on emails, contacting literary agents, and blithely searching myspace, perezhilton, and msnbc.  You can imagine my utter shock last week when I stepped out of the office to find out that my bike had vanished.  At first, I thought that there surely must have been a mistake.  Yet my dismay was shortly replaced with anger when I accepted the fact that someone had stolen my bike.  By the time I returned home, I was fuming.  Scot and I promptly stormed over to the police station, where I filled a report.  Let me tell you, Ha’apai’s finest were on the job in no time.  Lets just say that there isn’t a whole lot of excitement on our sleepy little island.  The case of the stolen bike was big news, and roused the officers into full-on police mode.  Within moments, they had hit the streets to find the missing bike.  A late night stake out mission was planned for the wharf that evening, because a boat just so happened to be scheduled to leave Ha’apai that night.  We left the police station still dejected, but somewhat encouraged that maybe justice would be served.

We wandered down main street Pangai, and about two minutes later, a girl who appeared about thirteen years old rode by us.  She sat on a bike that looked identical to mine, with her braids blowing in the wind.  Scot and I looked at one another with astonishment, and I quickly yelled out, “Tuku ta’ahine,” or “Stop, girl!”  Yet she did not stop, and seemed to peddle off into the distance even faster.  I then broke out into a furious sprint, in an effort to stop her.  The chase continued for about five minutes, but I was no match to the girl with the wheels.  We decided to walk over to our friend Phil’s house (in the next village over) to share my woes.  As expected, Phil was both angry and sympathetic about the situation.  I tried to forget about the mysterious girl on the bike, and convinced myself that perhaps it didn’t look all that much like mine.  Yet as we walked home, we spotted the girl again.  This time, she was stopped by a group of police officers.  They even had out the fire truck, to scout the streets for the bike.  We joined the commotion, and saw that it was definitely, 100% my bike.  Although in the hour or so that it had been missing, it had already been disfigured.  In an attempt to camouflague it, the red basket on the front had been torn off, as well as the handle bar cushions.  Several tire spokes were broken out, possibly caused from putting her foot on the wheel to pull off the basket. 

First off, I could not believe that a thirteen year old girl with braids was the thief.  Secondly, the fact that she managed to trash the bike absolutely stunned me.  I expected the girl to humbly apologize, but no.  She looked me straight in the eyes, and made up an elaborate lie about how she had borrowed the bike for five minutes, and was on her way to return it.  The story infuriated me.  It is true that Tonga has a very different perception of “personal property.”  Many items are simply considered communal.  Yet the fact was I had already chased the girl down the street yelling “stop,” and she sped off into the distance.  And if she truly intended to return it– why dismantle it?!  The motive of it all baffled me as well.  I could understand it if I happened to have the one bike in all of Ha’apai, and she couldn’t control her envy.  But bikes are everywhere here.  They are a central mode of transportation.  It was all just too much to fathom, and right there in the street– I burst in to tears.  Which now I realize was a very “faka Tonga” (or Tongan like) reaction.  Tongans are notorious criers.  As the tears spilled out, I told the girl that I was so sad that she stole the bike, and lied, and that I had come to Tonga to help children, and I was very, very sad.  She just listened and nodded, while looking down at her feet.

The police made her parents pay to have the bike fixed, and I got it back today.  I really appreciated their help with the matter, and honestly hope that the girl learned her lesson.  The whole ordeal left me a little drained, and longing for the beach.  So we spent the weekend relaxing in the sun, swimming, and snorkeling.  It was heavenly.  Our friend Phil caught three fish spear-fishing, and we ate the freshest sushi on earth. 

Despite being such an “off the beaten path” travel destination, Ha’apai has had a fair share of travelers passing through our island.  This week, we hung out with travelers from Australia, Germany, Canada, and France.  Politics is the main item of discussion, and we always spend the first few minutes of the conversation reviewing the fact that Scot and I are Americans— but we didn’t vote for Bush and we are against the war.  Once that is established, only then can the conversation flow!  It’s nice to have some perspective on global opinions of our government and the upcoming election.  Even here in Tonga, all eyes are on the Presidential Primaries!

Night classes, Tongan jump ropes, and teaching to speak “Palangi”

In Tonga, class six students are expected to pass rigorous exams in order to go on to high school.  The test in English is quite crucial for future academic success… To help my students prepare, I have volunteered to teach night classes.  When I volunteered, I expected maybe five or six students to attend.  After a long day of school, I certainly didn’t think night school would be all the rage for 11 and 12 year olds!  You can imagine my surprise when I walked into the classroom and saw approximately 35 kids!!  Some of them were even from a different school in a neighboring village.  Perhaps their parents forced them to attend… I’m not sure.  Regardless, there certainly is a high respect for education.  I can’t say that all of my students are motivated to learn, but a majority of them take their lessons incredibly seriously!

It is so interesting, because rarely are my classes called “English classes.”  It is much more common to hear that I am teaching the students to “speak like a palangi.”  The word “palangi” is something we hear all of the time.  Children and adults alike yell the term (not maliciously, but rather as an observation) anytime Scot or I walk or ride our bikes past a Tongan.  The term basically means foreigner, but according to “Making Sense of Tonga: A Visitor’s Guide to the Kingdom’s Rich Polynesian Culture” the literal definition means “people from the sky.”  The book notes, “When Captain Cook sailed into Tonga, the locals thought the tall masts of the ship went into the sky so they called the people papalangi.  And since only white people came off the boat, palangi evolved to mean “white people.”  It is so bizarre to think that I am teaching students how to speak “like a white person or foreigner.”  Especially when you consider that English is not only language spoken by foreigners!

At the end of the day, the school lessons are often on how to make a Tongan craft.  Yesterday I watched students husk coconuts and braid the inner part of the dried frounds to make jump ropes!   The ability to use every part of the tree and its fruit was incredibly inspiring.  I am going to have to get a photo to honor their creativity and resourcefulness!

Tongan Funerals

I thought I would write a little about the cultural experience of going to a Tongan funeral.  Wednesday was a half day for all of the Government Primary Schools (GPS) on Ha’apai.  The reason being was because the sister of a woman who works at the Ministry of Education died.  It was a half day so that all of the teachers could attend the funeral (in Tongan, it is called a putu.)  That decision really indicated to me the high level of importance for community obligations.  It wasn’t that someone at the Ministry of Educ. died, but rather that the sister of an employee died.  I went to the funeral with all of the GPS teachers.  For a putu, it is customary for Tongans to wear all black, with very large mats wrapped around their bodies.  Traditional gifts are tapa cloth, mats woven from coconut fronds, and blankets.  There must have been hundreds of people at the funeral.  A tent was set up across the street, where people ate, drank tea, and waited in shifts to go inside the house to pay their respects to the family.  Going inside of the house was quite overwhelming.  As in Tongan tradition, the body of the deceased was laying on a bed in the room.  It is customary to acknowledge the deceased by kissing the body, but I just could not do it.  The family surrounded the body, all crying and wailing hysterically.  We all sat on the floor, while listening to songs and prayer.  It was very intimate and emotional, even though I had never met the woman who died.  After sitting on my legs for over an hour, I realized that my leg was totally numb and had completely fallen asleep.  When it was time to go, I tried to put weight on it and literally fell down in the middle of the room!  The Tongan women all helped me up and massaged my leg until it was better.

The next day one of our neighbors died.  Almost immediately, the family started building the umu (an underground oven to cook all the food) and began setting up the tents.  They worked through the night, and the singing started before the sun rose.  Today, we went to the second putu this week.  Scot and I didn’t go with any Tongans though, and were quite confused over the proper protocol.  We ate under the tent’s awning (fried chicken, horse meat, and tea), sat with the people as they sang, and paid our respects to the family.

Government Primary School, Ha’apai

Hi everyone! I figured that it was probably time to write a little bit about my position as a teacher at the Government Primary School, here in Ha’apai. It really has felt great to get back in the mode of working. I am primarily teaching Classes 4-6, which has students approximately ages 9-12. Quite frankly, I have never seen such a large scope of student ability. Some of the students are well above their grade levels, and are able to read, write, and converse in English with amazing proficiency and agility. Yet other students (in the same grade level) cannot read or write at all– in Tongan or English. The large level of differentiation will undoubtedly be a challenge. It does feel gratifying to work in the area of educational advancement for Tongan youth. Hopefully the increase in linguistic skills will provide further opportunities throughout their lives. I have spent a lot of time setting up and organizing a library. Most of the books were donated by the Australian and New Zealand governments, so I am fortunate enough to have some fantastic resources. Please let me know if you would like to help support the school and its students!

I have been reading a lot and attempting to exercise. I’m still trying to find a literary agent for the Haiti travelogue I wrote last summer. It is a cumbersome process and is unfortunately quite discouraging. I cleaned and gutted my first fish, which I can’t say was an experience that I enjoyed. karens fish

Below are some pictures from my school and of a ridiculously huge spider on our wall. It was absolutely terrifying! Thanks again to all of our friends and family, for all of your continual love and support.

Kids at school:

kids at school



Foa looking North:

Foa north

Our Kitchen Spider:

kitchen spider

A many thanks… everyone!!!

Well it’s just absolutely amazing how much people here in Tonga and our friends and family back home back have done for us! I’m not even sure where to start!

Yesterday we received about 2 months worth of mail, which equated to about 9 packages from here in Tonga and back home. It took anywhere from 6 weeks to 2 weeks for the packages to get to us. It seems like the packages actually get to Tonga fairly quickly from the US, but get tied up in Tongatapu with the mail system or they wait to send a full bin of mail to Ha’apai. In our case this past time the mail came here, but they didn’t unload it they took it to the Niu’as (which happens to be about a 25-35 hour boat ride from here) and then they brought it back this week. So anyway we would have had mail about a week and a half ago, but….

So you will be receiving proper thanks personally from Karen and I, but we wanted to give you mad props on our blog too. So here’s the list in no particular order.

Mary, Bill and Kris, Elizabeth, Stef, Mom and Dad, Elaine, Trenton and Lara, Kiki, and Katie and Andrew (we miss you), Doug and Cheryl Fitzgerald, and Adam Hecktman! Thanks you guys, it was great to get all the goodies!!