Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Gone native

Ok, first things first: Obama. We did it! I can finally say I'm proud to be an American again. Alright, this is somewhat of an exaggeration. Tons of the goods here are labeled "All-American Fresh New Brand" or something of those lines, which makes them sell here, somewhat like "all-natural" or "no trans fat" does back home, so that gives you some indicator of how highly America is viewed in Tonga. So I am proud to be an American here, but I think you know what I mean.

I waited out the election results in a dockside restaurant that has satellite TV in Vava'u's capital, Neiafu, with the other Vava'u PCVs and the new PC trainees. It was good to be with so many Americans and felt even better to share tears of joy and amazement with them. After the happy event, many directly catapulted into the sea to celebrate. I'm getting over ear infections in both ears so I declined, but got to do my second favorite activity, when soon after all the restaurant staff pushed aside the tables turned on the tunes and joined us in a glorious only-could-happen-in-Tonga staff party as the sun set over the harbor. What a day!

I've been in town for much more than my usual few hours this week, running sessions for the Community Education trainees. Yes, training is currently going on for the new group of soon-to-be PCVs, which means that I've been in Tonga for over a year! That was me last year! As of October 4th, I've been a resident of the great but tiny, wacky but proud Kingdom of Tonga for a full year. Seeing the trainees with their eagerness and their naivete, their confusion and their stress, helps me realize just how much I have learned in a year. I know Tongans now. I know their culture and why they act they way they do. I understand their language and their customs. I know their legends and beliefs. I fish their waters and run on their beaches. I walk in their bush and wear their flowers behind my ears. I cry with them, belly laugh with them and I am their family. I could add mostly to all of the above sentences but I still am an 'Otea girl even if I'll never get all of their jokes.

This 'Otea girl is coming to the end of the school year, which means summer and holiday break! Class 6 (the highest grade in the primary school) took their secondary school entrance exams at the beginning of October, which was a big milestone for all of us. In December, it'll be announced on the radio who passed the exams and can go on to high school. And so the anticipation remains, if not all the hard work and pressure. The teachers don't get any benefits or get paid extra for it, but every day in September and most of August we had extra lessons with Class 6 for an hour and a half before school started and another segment of equal length when it was over in the afternoon. We had quite a few repeaters this year, meaning that they've taken the exams in previous years and failed, so here's hoping they're all able to go on next year.

This coming week all of the grades will be taken final exams in all subjects and then the focus will switch to performances. In fact, we've already started. We're gearing up for the very last day of the school year when the students are given their final grades for the year. On that day, they'll perform several Tongan traditional dances and hopefully several skits and songs in English as well.

I made my own pillow this month! There's a tree here that produces pods containing what looks like compacted cotton. I forget the English work for the tree, but in Tongan it's vavae. My neighbors helped me pick a bunch of the pods. Once I'd husked them and put the fluffy insides into a bucket, Fipe fashioned two sticks into an upside-down Y, which I twisted back and forth between my hands amidst the cotton to make its seeds drop down to the bottom. It took several days but seen I had enough separated, seedless, fluffy vavae to fill a whole pillowcase. And it smells like a mellow cinnamon. Lovely dreams.

Launoa, whom I got as a puppy in January, now has her own puppies! Five of them! I am now the proud owner of eight animals. Luckily, Fipe and Isi have long ago assumed the role of feeding all of them. Animals are so important to my well-being, especially here. My best friend is my male dog Papi (Tongan for puppy) who adopted me more than vice versa. He used to belong to some yachties but they abandoned him on an outer island and the old principal at my school adopted him. He loves palangis (non-Pacific foreigners) and therefore has attached himself to me. He sleeps outside my door every night, barks at everyone who's not me (keeps the kids down to a manageable visitation level) and loves me harder than any human ever could.

Well, I'm back to my little island. I've had enough of town with its bright streetlamps, heck the paved streets even, the noisy cars and the people who are surprised I can speak their language. It's time to go home. Papi, here I come!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The jewels in my crown

I just got to be part of one of the best celebrations I think I've ever witnessed. Tongans definitely know how to have a good time. And it was a good reason to celebrate too - the King's Coronation. I know next to nothing about what's going on with the American presidential elections right now, but I do know that when the new leader is picked, nothing that comes afterwards will even come close to the joy I saw today.

It's school break! The end of the second of three terms and two free weeks all to myself. After a couple of days recouping in my village, I hightailed it to Neiafu (my island group's capital) to celebrate the new King's Coronation! He became the King last year when his father died, but scheduled the official ceremonies for this month, which is his birthday?

First up was a very special kava (important traditional beverage) ceremony that essentially acknowledged the new king's status and presented him to all of the people. All of Vava'u's nobles sat in a huge square around the king's tent and dozens of enormous roasted pigs and woven baskets of every meat you can get here were presented, slapped, yelled about and counted. The preparation of the kava (pounded from the plant's roots) was elaborately presented and then served to the king and each noble in turn. Pretty regal ceremony. That afternoon different villages came and went from the palace presenting traditional songs and dances. You should have seen the other PCV's and I running around town trying to figure out what was happening where. There was an official schedule of sorts that was loosely followed but literally the best way to find out what was happening was just to walk around until you ran into it, asking everyone along the way to see if they knew anymore than you did. My favorite was watching one of the PCVs perform a lakalaka (one type of dance) with her village. I knew it had taken hours to prepare and they were wonderful, all fruffed out in pure white but adorned with all the Tongan ornaments, feathers sticking out of the hair, woven mats around the waist, shells around the wrists and ankles, etc. The more the better!

(P.S. Do you know what I'm doing right now? Eating a bag of ripe tomatoes like they're apples. That's how much I miss them. Can only get them here in town)

That evening was an absolutely beautiful sight - the Tutupaukanava. Like the kava ceremony, this tradition goes back hundreds of years, when Tonga was still in the throes of unifying. The night the new king is crowned all of the surrounding villages light torches at the shoreline to show their support and acceptance of him. This signals to the king that all of his subjects are still loyal and willing. Absolutely a tremendous sight to see from the Neiafu harbor while listening to the military band play on a boat docked just off the wharf.

The next day was a military parade highly remniscient of the 40's or 50's due to the style of uniforms and the cars driven around. The best was watching the king being driven in between the ranks in a little drab green jeep with the bed converted into a pedestal he could wave to everyone from, complete with red carpet. Then all the high school kids lined up on the road to fanfare the king to a large field where the real party would be held! Luscious feasts were prepared for by the villages, mine included. What do I eat in Tonga? So many of you have asked. Well, here's a sampling of the best of the best (I'm biased, I ate at my village's table):

whole roasted pig
whole roasted wild chicken
smoked fresh lobster
ota 'ika (raw fresh fish in coconut cream, lime juice, hot peppers and bell peppers)
fried chicken
hot dogs
canned corned beef
orange soda

With the exception of the three meats I listed last, all the food is from my island. Amazing. Ota 'ika and faikekai are my two favorite Tongan dished. Faikekai is boiled firm flour dumplings (can also be root crops, mixed with fruit, etc.) smothered in a sticky sauce of coconut cream and sugar. Delic!

So yeah we ate well (Tongans' fav conversation topic) but the best part came afterwards - more traditional dance and song performances followed by a sometimes grand, sometimes ridiculous but always energetic military band performance, complete with skits, concentric running circles and the Macarena. Awesome! I haven't laughed so hard in one day in a long time. The following night was an island wide block party in the center of town where I got my dance on (you know me - I can't get enough) until a drunk Tongan woman turned our dance showdown sour by yanking fistfuls of my hair. Good thing there were 6 DJs to choose from.

Really the best part of the whole thing - everyone was so happy! Yes, it's true, Tongans are happy people in general, but it was a blast to see my whole island group out on the town and celebrating. The enthusiasm pervaded everything.

I saw my first whales yesterday! It's been whale season (mostly humpbacks) for awhile but everyone's been saying there are a lot fewer this year and they're staying outside the outer islands and not coming in the channels as much. I was coming home after my run yesterday and some of the men working on their boat spotted them. They started out pretty far away, two adults and a calf but soon a tourist boat came along and they headed straight for 'Otea. It was incredible to watch them coming closer and closer, right at us. Soon they were only 20 yards off the beach! Thus cornered, they headed out to toward the open sea and I followed as best I could scrambling along the rocks. I was rewarded with a perfectly upright fluke view before they headed out. YES! Just the friendly neighbors dropping by for a visit.

So I'd seen whales before in the States, but I'd never been treated to their harmonious voices until this past week. I got back to 'Otea just in time to tag along with my neighbors as they went shellfishing. We walked along the exposed reef, scraping off chitons, spearing crabs and slurping tubeworms. As all the women headed back I got to hop in the water with 'Isi to go spearfishing. My silly pup tried to follow but I pushed her back up. This is the third time I've gone with him, but the first time we'd stayed so close to the reef wall that drops immediately down from the cliff walls of our island. The coral gardens were without a doubt the most lush I have ever seen. I was so distracted by the beauty that I almost didn't hear them. At first I thought 'Isi was trying to get my attention but the longer I stayed down the more mesmerized I was my melodious relatives. It was the whales. Who knows how far away they were but they were serenading us all the same. So gifted. And then there was even a second prize - a Crown of Thorns! Do you know this irregular echinoderm? I know you've seen bright glossy photographs of it in books, it's thick thorny bits pointing in all directions as its multiple arms sprawl over the equally colorful coral it gorges on. There was no mistaking it for anything than what it was - a fiercely alive, ferocious predator of coral sprawling over the formations. It's body was blue and purple, its spines green at the base and fading to orange. Magnificent. Bold enough to keep me a few feet away and once my mesmerized mind cleared I remembered that it's poisonous (don't worry Mom, I didn't touch it). Jewel number three? I kept close to 'Isi as we left the coral and swam over the open water to the next spearing spot. We were kicking fast, dragging out catch behind us when the biggest sea turtle I've ever seen zoomed across our few from left to right. My first (live) Tongan turtle! Have I mentioned that 'Isi really has stopped killing turtles after all the the times we've talked about it? So it was a dive to remember and I am quickly becoming better at identifying all the different kinds of seafood Tongans eat and how to harvest them. Fangota (shellfishing) is one of my favorite things to do here.

Last night I had my first go at reading Tongan music. We had ako hiva (learning new songs) to prepare for Women's Day in September. The notes are written as numbers horizontally across the page just like our notes. Since we were just learning we sang the numbers as numbers (think do, re, mi) and will add the words later. Tongans are wonderfully natural musicians. Haven't met one yet who can't sight read and harmonize.

Capped off the night with some lavelave (hanging and chatting) at my neighbors. Turns out the Town Officer had been by that day to get a haircut (my neighbor 'Isi is the resident barber). He knows how close I am with my neighbors and was checking up on me (ah the Tongan way, have an excuse for showing up then ask sideways questions to get at the info you want) as he's very busy and doesn't actually see me that much. He'd heard I'd gone diving with 'Isi, told him he'd be worried if I'd gone with anyone else, but because I'm (essentially) part of their family it's totally fine with him. He knows how much I want to learn and how much I like to just LOOK. Hurray! This is huge! I've explained before how frustrated it makes me that my activities here are so limited by my gender, but I'm learning to be patient and culturally appropriate. These words from my Town Officer were a huge affirmation of all the hard work I'm putting in to integrate with my community while also taking care of myself and my happiness. This acceptance was the equivalent to me of a good end-of-year report and raise from my employer. This sort of thing happens so rarely hear and it filled with happiness as well as ensured my ability to continue to my relationship with the Tongan sea and its people's connection to it. AH :)

And one more last ruby: the Wesleyan minister has asked me to hold English workshops for the high schools students Friday and Saturday night when they're back in 'Otea from going to school in town. And he's approved the use of the church hall and its generator (for electricity) and announced it to the people. All this mean it's actually going to happen, it's not just talk. And I'll have a chance to really affect the older students, which is something I really wanted to do here that I've been missing. And another vote of confidence by the village in me!

The all-important annual entrance exams are coming up first week in October so this next month will be very busy as we all gear up for them. I also won't be able to overnight in Neiafu as I'll be running the night school on my weekends, so who knows when the next blog post will be? But thanks for reading, thanks for writing and God bless the King!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

New endeavors

This'll be a quickie, just to let you know that I'm back in 'Otea (though not at this exact moment)and very glad to be so. Was just talking with one of the other PCVs about how when he gets on a plane to come back to Tonga now after a vacation he thinks of himself as coming home. I've definitely felt this way for awhile. As frustrating and challenging as it can be, 'Otea is my community.

This first week back was something of a disappointment. No teaching happened for an entire week. The students came to school everyday, so did the teachers and so did I, but the students just played while the teachers caught up on paperwork and records. And me, well, I tried not to get too frustrated. Some officials are coming from the Ministry of Education next week to assess our school, so the teachers are totally focused on that. Also, at the end of the week we handed out the report cards from the first term and had a PTA meeting, our second of the year. I wrote a little speech beforehand and had my counterpart (the principal) correct it (it was in Tongan) and then delivered it! I formally asked all the parents to allow their kids their to stay after school one day a week for an hour to attend the library program I wanted to start. Of course they agreed.

So this past week has been pretty busy and different as my routine has totally changed to accommodate the daily library program. So far so good! I spent most of the time this week teaching the kids the rules, making them wash their hands before they come in, practicing taking books off the shelves and turning the pages. We have so few book though they are of good quality and I want to make sure the kids know how to take care of them. Class 3 and 4 had library time together because school closed early Wednesday due to crazy stormy weather. Class 6 is supposed to be on Fridays, but there's no actual instruction on Fridays and many families go into town. It's just a pretty disorganized day so library time didn't happen today for them. The principal and decided Class 1 and 6 (so Kindergarten and 5th grade) would have library time together. This is a tricky move. I'm hoping the older students will set an example for the younger ones and that I'll be able to train the older students into reading to the younger ones but both of those things are a long way off. I hope we've made the right decision. I'm glad our school is so small. Eleven students (Class 1 and 6 combined) can only get so out of hand . . . right?

Also new and big this week - I'm teaching dance class! This is surely one of the best uses of my skills here. Cross-cultural connections to the max. I spent the whole month of March learning and performing religious "action songs" with 'Otea's Wesleyan church. And now this week my neighbor Fipe (see earlier post) asked me if I could teach a dance to the Mormon fine'ofa (read: women's group). They want something new to perform at the annual Mormon conference, which is being held in 'Otea this year. Originally I thought they wanted a religious worship-type dance, like what they'd taught me, so that's what I brought to the first "class" on Tuesday. The frowns I got after my long hours of choreographing and fretting about appropriateness sent me into tears I let out later while walking on the beach. It took lots of flurried Tongan from all sides for me to figure out that they really wanted something jazzier. They wanted a "disco" piece, the way palangis really dance they told me! Oh dear. This required an even more careful treading of the cross-cultural line. Nightclub dancing, I asked? No. So on Wednesday I ended up teaching them the Cupid Shuffle. Or at least the chorus of it. They don't know the song of course and there was lots of teasing poking fun, but they liked it! On Thursday Fipe's mother-in-law even came, who's in her 60's and joined it. Even better, she turned out to be the best one! She picked it up quicker than anyone else.

Whether or not we have a working CD player is iffy, they still only know the chorus but I'm holding dance class at the Mormon church Tuesday-Thursday! Yet another thing to add to the list of things I never thought I'd be doing in Tonga that are now part of my daily life. So far we've only learned two sets of steps. I wanted to see how well they did with the style and how easy it was for them to pick up before I choreographed more. But it's true, I'm successfully introducing the Cupid Shuffle to my little outer island in Tonga. Buy your plane tickets now and you too can see it in action - the conference is the middle of June.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Congratulating and Rejuvenating

Wow - the first trimester of school is over! I have been teaching English for 3 months, living in 'Otea for 4 and in Tonga for 7. Incredible. I'm currently in Nuku'alofa, the country's capital, attending Inter-Service Training (IST), a combo of technical and language training. It's also a great chance to take a break from the confines of my little island and catch up with the other 28 Peace Corps Volunteers in my group. It's a time for refreshment, rejuvenation and relaxation.

One of the best things is the sense of perspective IST has given me. I am so so privileged to be living on an outer island. Many of the PCVs are living in Tonga's bigger towns and they just don't have the community I do. Everyday I get to see Tongan culture at its most traditional and I'm so thankful for that. Also, so many Tongans speak English, especially on Tongatapu (where the capital is) that many of the PCVs who work in the city just have a much harder time practicing their Tongan language skills. Me, I don't have much of a choice. And as exhausting as that is some days, it's made an enormous difference.

That's one of my biggest accomplishments from my first four months at site. I can actually speak and understand this language. I am bilingual! I think I hadn't really admitted this to myself before IST because language can seem like such a struggle some days in my village where everyone else is of course fluent. But here I am in the capital city chatting away with shopkeepers, passersby and the Peace Corps trainers who got me started with the language at the very beginning. It's an absolutely amazing feeling to discover how far I've come. I feel absolutely empowered and so proud. I can speak Tongan! I'm far from fluent, but I can understand most of what's said to me and I can get what I want to say across. I can see so many changes in my communication level:
I can engage in Tongan all day without needing to collapse on my bed for a nap.
The processing time for what's been said to me is much shorter.
My pronunciation is much better.
I can reply much faster, both in putting sentences together and linking the sounds.
I'm not self-conscious about it anymore so I feel free to take risks and make mistakes.
I love seeing the look on a new friend's face when I start chatting with them in Tongan. It really makes a big difference in my interactions with them. Language is definitely one of my biggest accomplishments so far.

For the first three days of training we had a seminar on team teaching, a practice that PC Tonga only recently made one of its goals in Tongan classrooms. Each of us got to invite our counterparts, so I invited my principal, who teaches Classes 1-3 in 'Otea's school. It was a great chance for us to build our relationship, personally and professionally. Team teaching is a pretty rare concept here so it was great for my counterpart to get such indepth exposure to it. Traditionally in Tonga when a new PCV starts teaching at a school the teachers think it's their cue to take a smoke break, a nap, or not show up at all. The team teaching goal was developed a way to counteract this and my biggest goal for my first term at 'Otea's primary school was to ensure this did not happen to me. I was determined not to teach alone, but to work alongside the teachers at all times, giving the students the benefit of having two teachers and developing the teachers' skills. Happy to say this goal was achieved although the way the teachers and I work together still has lots of room for improvement. My counterpart and I left the seminar full of new ideas and goals. The ones we are the most focused on are:
1) Sharing what we learned about team teaching with the second teacher at our school. My counterpart is willing to support improved team teaching with him in anyway that she can. Also, we plan to start having regular meetings all together to keep our school atmosphere healthier all around.
2) I'm going to team teach with my counterpart during her morning and afternoon sessions with Class 6. each is about an hour long and helps prepare the students' for the end-of-year exams that determine whether or not they can go to secondary school. (Short story: when I asked what time the morning class starts, she replied "When the students can see". I thought she meant once they'd woken up enough, but really she waits until there's enough daylight to see the blackboard. Oh outer island life . . . )
3) My counterpart and I are going to try two new types of team teaching - remedial and supplemental. Both entail pulling different groups out of the main body of students to work with them more specifically.

I am so lucky to be working in a such a little school where I can build close relationships with both the teachers, enabling us to plan and work together very closely. We have the luxury of trying out lots of new things because we know each other and our little group of students so well. Student teacher ratio of 7:1. Amazing.

Before IST I was struggling a lot, letting things I have no control over bog me down. But I've been away from 'Otea for six days now and I can't wait to get back. I'm full of pride about the things I've already accomplished and so energized to work on the goals I've set for myself for the next part of the journey. Can't wait to get home, check on my pets, work on these new projects at school and dive into my language and cultural learning with renewed pizazz. Nofo lelei - Live well!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Meet my neighbors:

Just in case you’re keeping a tally of all the threatened species I’m sampling over here, I had my first taste of shark last Sunday. Didn’t get to see that one getting butchered, only ate it after the fact. Again, it was delicious. Last addition, my neighbor told me recently that I ate stingray at his house back in January. He says he told me at the time, which I don’t really believe, but is surely possible, especially given how many words still slip by me. I mean he ought to know, he’s the one who speared it. I’ve been hearing more and more stories lately about people eating whale, although mostly from a different island group, so I doubt I’ll be adding that one to the list. Most especially because whales are such an economic resource here, for the tourist business.

I need to write a few more words about this neighbor and his wife, need to pay them their due respect (a tribute!) on the worldwide web space. They are my sanity. Fipe and Isi live right next door to me in ‘Otea. They’re in their late twenties but only have one daughter whom they adopted. They’ve tried really hard to have kids (God bless them – their Mormon church demands it) but no success, something a little damning in Tongan culture, as you might imagine. This, combined with their age, makes them mature enough for us to have great conversations (not true for most of the Tongans my age) but also free enough of responsibilities (only 1 kid instead of 9!) and be able to spend lots of great downtime together. They’ve become my primary language teachers (sometimes we work on English instead), cooking instructors (I’m teaching Fipe how to bake), and everything in between, which of course includes my best Tongan friends. Fipe and I call each other sisters and I eat more meals at their house than my own.

Oh it’s such a good partnership. You may think as you read this, that’s nice. Amy’s making friends. NO! They are much more like my guardian angels in disguise. Something I’ve been missing for a long time I’ve finally found at their house – a place to be myself. We’ve come to know each other well enough that they can tell when my terseness is just because I’m upset and not that I’m trying to be rude to them. They’re comfortable with me just lounging on their floor listening them talk when I’m grumpy and exhausted but just need a break from speaking Tongan. They keep my puppy fed since I don’t farm and fish like they do. They keep me updated on the gossip. They debrief with me after meetings spoken too fast for me to comprehend. They are so good to me and so good for me.

Isi is the good guy friend I’m not allowed to have in Tongan culture, except that I can because he’s married! He’s a jokester and an expert diver and has figured out just how far he can push me in Tonga’s favorite pastime: teasing. Most who know me know this is decidedly not my favorite pastime, something I humbly admit but what can you do? And Fipe has the most open mind of anyone in my village, which is so wonderfully refreshing. I explained to her that I prefer to eat meat only once a day, that it’s better for good health, and lo and behold, she’s adopted that attitude too! I can’t tell you how huge this is!!!! I say these kinds of things all the time in conversation in the hope that it’ll seep through eventually but this is the first time it has! Small victories are my bread and potatoes. How can I experience all the hope and laughter Fipe and Isi and little Tova put back in my life? I am learning entirely new perspectives on the concepts neighbor and family here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

No Cadbury eggs, but . . .

So I was hoping to average more than one e-mail a month, but that's the track record so far. Thanks for checking up on me anyhow.

Last night I ate sea turtle for the first (and hopefully last) time. It was absolutely delicious. I'd venture to say it's the best meat I've ever had, although before living in Tonga I didn't eat meat for 2.5 years and my tastes are so skewed here anyway. But honestly, it was delicous. Very dark, rich meat, also extremely chewy, but that just meant I was able to savor the flavor for longer. I watched some of the guys bring it in on a wheelbarrow yesterday afternoon. The body was already severed from the shell and packed in ice (brought from town, we don't have ice here) in a cooler. I watched one of them (one of the teachers I work with) hack it into little pieces with a machete (the Tongan version of a Swiss Army knife). Luckily for my Western sensibilities they didn't cook the whole thing, so I didn't have to watch the head and flippers getting sliced. All the bite-size pieces were piled into the shell with some coconut cream, onion and bell pepper and cooked in an 'umu (underground oven) for an hour. Delicious. Although there were a few chunks of meat in my bowl that were decidedly turtle and decidedly mysterious - a dark blue green with a consistency like a thick jellyfish. Not so delicious.

I say I hope that was the last time I'll have to eat sea turtle, but in reality, that would only happen if 'Otea's men stopped bringing in turtles, which would only happen if the turtle population decreased so much they couldn't be found, and no one wants that to happen. So chances are I'll be eating sea turtle agin some time in my future. It's just one of those special South Pacific things I'm getting to experience. Turning down food here is really culturally inappropriate and not really an option. Especially in this circumstance where the Town Officer was offering it to me. Eating fonu (turtle) is a pretty big privilege in our village. I have to pick my battles. Community development doesn't happen by policing.

After I'd finished my portion I watched the Town Officer and several others scrape the inside of the shell with a knife to get all the bits out and tear meat off of the vertebrae. One of the women tried to get me to join her, but I declined having had my taste. Especially when she told me she'd be sitting on the toilet all the next day after eating so much ngako (fat). They knew it was my first time trying turtle so they goaded my for my opinion. I declared it ifo (delicious) and they agreed. One of the men asked me if I thought it was better than horse. Should've kept my mouth shut, but I told him I haven't tasted horse yet, initiating loud calls and chuckles. "Next we'll have to kill a horse then!" I don't think they really will, because 'Otea doesn't have many horses and they're usually saved for special occasions, but I shuddered anyway.

Now if you're shuddering while reading this, keep reading. When I left the TO's house, I stopped at my next door neighbor's on the way home. She and her husband are my great friends, two of the people I feel the most comfortable with both in their late 20's. I was in a little bit of a daze from dinner so I sat in their kitchen with them. Asked Isi, an accomplished diver and fisher) if he catches turtles often. Before tonight I'd hadn't seen one eaten in 'Otea. He said yeah, he'd caught one just this past weekend with only three flippers, but his wife made him let it go. Hurray! My heart was a little lighter after that news. I also know that Isi throws back the little reef fish he catches so they can grow big enough to fill his belly. Made a big deal out of telling him how glad I was he's thrown the turtle back and how faka'ofa (pitiful, pathetic) I think it is to eat turtles and went home with a bigger smile on my face.

Also last night: I was lying in bed reading by the light of kerosene lantern as I've gotten into the habit of doing before sleeping (right now I'm reading "Kiwi Tracks", indulging the insatiable itch I've recently acquired for tramping around New Zealand). I heard a little voice calling my name. Its owner climbed up the stairs underneath the bedroom window and I peered through my mosquito net to see a round white object held up for my appraisal. As I reached for it, Malakai, my favorite little companion among 'Otea's kids, explained that he'd found it on Monday. It'd been a holiday so the whole town had spent all day picnicking on the beach. As he scampered just as quickly off into the moonless night I discovered that I held a large, perfect sand dollar in my palm. I laid it on my bedside table, next to the tiny baby one he'd found for me that same Monday, diving down 20 feet to retrieve it while we were snorkeling together. He knows my weakness for beautiful gifts from the sea (sand dollars and sea biscuits are my favorite) and beautiful little buddies.

Speaking of this weekend, Happy Easter! I celebrated it Tongan style. It began with a Thursday night Mormon service where the preaching centered around the theme "What is love?". Afterwards we all gathered in the hall where every Mormon woman and I had baked a myriad of cakes. Every single person, old and young, received a bowl containing 4 slices of cake and no less than (and usually more) nine scoops of ice cream. None of us had any trouble finishing our portions. In fact we all went back for seconds. Ice cream is the ultimate treat when there's no refrigeration! One of the favorite Tongan flavors is Hokey Pokey, inherited from New Zealand, vanilla with bits of toffee. Yum!

Friday the Wesleyan preparations began. The Friday night service kicked off a young people's Sunday school type camp that went until Monday. Every night the boys sleep in the church hall and the girls sleep in the church. I joined them on Friday night only. Haven't quite acquired the Tongan ability to sleep on nothing but concrete all night.

Also Friday night we had rehearsal. Almost every single night this month we've (all the kids 15-22) gathered in the church hall to learn the movements (like graceful hula dancing, but just with the arms) to Christian songs, both Tongan and English. The Tongans call this kind of performing actions songs. They actually call it that in English. This Sunday will be out big show. We'll travel to the neighboring village by boat and give their Wesleyan church a run for their money (they did the same thing in 'Otea in February).

Saturday I spent all day at the church camp, just spending time with the kids and learning some new Tongan church songs. We did some Bible reading and performed skits for each other. The kids got to have their feast, which was pretty special. I sat at the head mat of course and ate the biggest lobster I've ever seen in my life, on a plate, in a tank, or in the wild. It was bigger than most newborn babies, no joke.

Sunday I went to the Mormon church service, which was the same as far as I could tell, just longer. Afterwards, tucked under the wings of one of the older women, I attended the tail end of the Wesleyan service so that we could both eat at the feast afterwards. So many different kinds of meat and some root vegetables = very happy Tongans. Roast pig, lobster, crab, raw fish in coconut cream, hot dogs, canned corned beef, fried chicken, hard boiled eggs, mini omelets and lu pulu (beef cooked in taro leaves). Whew. All the Wesleyan children were dressed all in white. I told some of the women how Catholics for Easter like to dress in pastels, which they informed me is lanu langi - the colors of the sky. I like the sound of that.

After the feast, I went to the beach for awhile to write in my journal. This has especially become a favorite thing to do on Sunday afternoons. Sundays tend to make me pretty melancholy as I watch all the families together and try so hard to understand the services, which ends up making me miss Catholicism and its traditions and community much more than I expected it to. Had a sweet tooth afterwards and I was in the midst of stirring the batter for cinnamon bread when one of the girls came to fetch me. I hadn't the minister's speech that said we were going to formally perform the action songs in full costume for the whole town. Oiaue. It's a good things I go to every practice. So we performed and it was great. It makes Tongans so happy when they see people eager to learn about their culture. Less great was the 3 hour rehearsal we endured afterwards. It's great to have such a structured way to interact with the community and show them I care, but I'll be glad when this is all over!

Monday was a fantastic day, a national holiday just like Good Friday. Everyone in the church camp spent the entire day playing on 'Otea's beach. I'd been aching to swim for days, but had been too busy. Ended up staying in the water from 10-8, joke. Even included several solid hours of snorkeling in there (found some new clownfish and their anemone!). While we were swimming one of the old old 'Otea men came paddling up in his modern kayak with a bunch of crops piled on the bow. He'd just spent three weeks with relatives in Tu'anuku, a village across the water. He unloaded his vegetables and hopped right back in! Said he had to get his clothes. When I say him again that afternoon he was returning for good and out of nowhere offered his kayak to me. I jumped at the opportunity and jumped in the kayak with another girl for a lovely jaunt to a different village across the way and some of the smaller islands to the east of 'Otea. Such a good day. Even had roasted pig for dinner in true Tongan style.

As for more traditional work: school's going much better! I'm actually achieving my difficult tasks of co-teaching and co-planning and we're going to have the library system up and running next month! That and helping the youth navigate the grant application process has kept me occupied. I think I'm starting to adjust to working slowly and painstakingly with few results. Things are starting to run a little more smoothly, and many days I really do feel at home. Now if Mom's package would only arrive with the Peeps in it . . .

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tried to upload photos, but here's the next best thing:

Don't know how I can catch you up on everything, but here's a start: I was in the Taimi Tonga (the Tonga Times)! The daughter-in-law of my neighbor works for the paper and interviewed me about my goals for working in 'Otea. The actual article isn't online, but it's in Tonga, so you'd have a hard time reading it anyway. And this isn't the same photo they printed either, though it's close. But that's definitely me in the photo with my puppy Launoa (Tongan for nonsense/silliness) when she was still little. Here's the link:

The government primary schools in Tonga have been in session since the beginning of February, so I've been teaching. There are 23 students in my school and 2 teachers. One teaches Class 1-3 and the 4 and 6. There are no students Class 5 age in 'Otea. The classes are roughly equivalent to the same grades in the U.S.

So far, I've been teaching Classes 2-4 and 6 Monday-Thursday for 30-45 minutes each. Not a whole lot seems to happen on Fridays in the schools. I'm still trying to figure it out. The teachers listen to a radio broadcast (these are part of the daily school schedule - a way to disseminate information to the teachers and give the students more access to Tongan and English language skills) and either the Mormon bishop or the Wesleyan minister ('Otea's two denominations) come and give religious instruction. The kids are usually out before noon so that the teachers can catch a boat into town. Needless to say, I don't teach on Fridays.

Right now I've been teaching the classes individually which is nice for them and for the teachers, who usually teach multiple levels at once. I need to make a paradigm shift though, in my work and my role at the school. It's just hard to know how to get it started. I'm learning lots of lessons about failure . . . My goal is to co-teach and co-plan with the teachers. I need to be a resource teacher, facilitate the use of new and different teaching methods, assessment methods, etc. These are wonderful ideas and so important but so tough in practice. I'm still brainstorming how to start doing this.

I GOT A KITTEN THIS WEEK! Lifelong dream come true. My parents can tell you I've wanted one every year for my birthday since I could speak. And now it's finally happened. No name yet, but he's already taken full control of my bed, including attempting to tear my mosquito net to shreds. He's so beautiful :)

Held a little Valentine's Day party for the few girls in 'Otea. Really fun - part of the cross-cultural exchange. Made invitations, baked cakes, listened to American love songs, ate and read Sweethearts, courtesy of my mom, and made V-Day cards. I think they really enjoyed having something to look forward to - they got so dressed up.

I wish you could see the sheen of sweat on me right now. Even though when the rain comes it stays for several consecutive days, it's heavenly to have some cool air for awhile. The stars have been especially brilliant this week. I really don't miss electricity.

But I do miss you all! Thanks for the e-mail updates and especially the mail. So far the standing record for both parcels and letters from the States is 4 months. Can you beat it? Don't worry, most things come faster than that.

Highlight of the week: watching all of 'Otea's men come down to the beach to literally pull a boat out of the water. Combination of ropes tied to the bow, tree limbs as rollers underneath and lots of "Taha, ua, tolu!" (1, 2, 3) and it was up on shore ready to be worked on.