Thursday, February 28, 2013

Last days of summer

During one of the last few days before school started, we asked our neighbors to show us around the island of Nuapapu. Our neighbors are great-really sweet family with (usually) really sweet kids.

The day started early. We packed some lunch, some extra water, and after they told me to change my shoes, we were off. It was a bit of a rainy day, but we were ready to go!

We took a path I had never walked before. Past the Mormon church, through a little bit of bush, and suddenly, we were on a beach I didn't even know existed. We decided to walk to the far side of the island. There is a palangi that is building a resort on the other side of Nuapapu, and we had heard various rumors regarding the state of his resort, so we decided to go and investigate.

Our island is shaped like a giant U. I didn't know, but apparently this means that, during low tide, you can walk from one side of the U to the other. Pretty cool, huh?

It was a little....interesting, walking across the ocean, that is. I was often nervous about what I was stepping on/in...what with all the rock fish and such.

The boys were busy searching for and playing with crabs. Those things are fast!

We found some trash, which was turned into a rather sea-worthy vessel. (in fact, we had to turn back because the tide was coming in so fast, and one of the boys sailed the two hour walk back in this trash boat. I was impressed. And jealous. )

Here's the boys...they caught 8 crabs. Mark cooked them up, and we taught them how to play spoons while we enjoyed the food. All in all, A pretty great day!

Pen Pals

We have jumped head first into life as Tongan teachers, which as any teacher would know, makes life wonderful some days and dreadful on others. It's certainly a unique challenge teaching English to kids who don't speak a word of it at home. However, there's usually not many spectacular happenings day to day in a classroom, so it's hard to know what to blog about. But this week, our classes did something that could very well be considered blog worthy.

A while ago, my mom, who is a teacher herself, asked around her school in Oklahoma if any teacher would be interested in doing a little overseas Pen-Paling. So, a month or two ago, we received friendly pen pal letters from a class of American third graders. The letters contained the basics- some personal introductions, listing of favorite things, and some questions. This week, the older classes from both villages responded to the letters. The result was a stack of equally heartwarming and hilarious letters which will be mailed back to America straight away, this weekend. The combination of a low level of English and the limited life experience of a Tongan island kid, make for some genuinely funny and enjoyable reading. I'll transcribe some of the best bits below.

"What is Legos? We do not have Legos in here"

"My school is near to the sea. I see whale from my classroom sometimes"

"I am happy to have pen pal"

"I go church every Sunday, Monday, and Friday every week" (he's not joking)

"My favorite color is burble"

"I am go to the cherch. Do you go to the cherch?"

"My favorite food is a chicken"

"Jesus loves me"

"My favorite friend goodbye to you"

(in response to a letter mentioning Chucky Cheese) "What is yore Chucky Cheese?"

- Mark

A Welcomed Surprise

Our lives are full of daily surprises, some good, some not so good. This was of the good ones.

One of the other organizations in Vava'u that employs volunteers from overseas is VEPA (Vava'u Enviornmental Protection Agency). A few months before we arrived, a VEPA volunteer was working a few days a week in Matamaka on a coral nursery project. She constructed a few underwater structures with small, living pieces of coral attached to them, in the hopes that these will grow into new coral reefs. In the spirit of unity and supportiveness, I have volunteered to check in on the project periodically and report the continued status of the project back to the VEPA folks in town.

So, two VEPA volunteers, one from Australia and one from Whales, decided to pay us a visit for a couple days. They were wanting to check out the villages and give me a bit of a tutorial on the coral nursery. They luckily caught a ride out to the island on a palangi's deep sea fishing boat, and when they arrived, they came carrying what I considered to be a really big fish. It turned out to be just an extra tuna they caught during their ride, and they had brought it to cook up for dinner. Being an avid seafood lover, I was naturally overjoyed. It was my first time to attempt a filet at a fish this size, and I was moderately successful. We enjoyed some of it raw with a little lime juice, and blackened the rest. We had a wonderful time hosting them, and the highlight for me was definitely the dinner. A wonderful, welcomed surprise.

- Mark


Hello friends and family!

I wanted to say a huge thank you for all the packages you all have sent! We feel so blessed and it has been so fun to hear from you and enjoy your goodies. :)

We are pretty set on school supplies like pencils, pencil sharpeners, colored pencils, crayons, and markers. Thanks so much!

As we have started teaching we have thought of a few more things we would like, so I thought we could put it out there in case anyone was still interested in sending us a package.

Scissors (preferably children's size. I don't have any so....20 would be amazing!)
Glue sticks
Scotch tape
Clear tape (we use this to's going quick)
Popsicle sticks
Big and little ziplock bags
Prizes (as the main form of discipline here is hitting, I am attempting to swing the opposite direction and award them for good behavior. It may or may not be working...but mostly isn't. I need prizes! Little fingernail polishes and chapsticks for the girls. Candy, fruit roll ups, fun snacks etc, slap bracelets are apparently very cool, and who knows what for naughty little boys..?)

Also, teacher friends...any suggestions for creating lessons without many resources?

Thanks a lot!

(thank you Mom and Dad Richards and Mom and Dad Cooprider for the jump ropes...the kids are loving them!)

To my family, And the elders

It was a cold and rainy day, so we decided to play scrabble. Inspired by my letters, I started humming a song (which happened to be the gnome mobile song...really hoping aim and Adam are chiming in with memories on that one...we watched weird movies as children...). Anywho, after I'd hummed a second or two, mark said, "oh good, I thought you were about to sing the "Ghost of John" song. " Oh...thank you lakehoma elementary music teacher, Mrs. macDonald. So, then I did. I sang the Ghost of John, with his long white bones and his skin all gone. And I had a small fit of giggles as I recalled how often Aimee and I used to sing that song to annoy our parents, and wondered about how I know sing that song to annoy my husband.

And then, whilst singing, I recalled that often, during the fall season, Beth and I would sing our weird Halloween songs. Hers, written by her mother, about witches and such, and mine about John. I recall more than one occasion, our voices rising and falling, not at all in unison, as we sang these songs from our childhood, and our husbands looked on in wonder. Soul mates, we two, I suppose.

Love and miss you all!


Friday, February 15, 2013

The Two-Sided Coin

Before our Peace Corps service, I primarily thought of "different cultures" simply in terms of superficial things like language, food, and customs. Having now lived, fully immersed, in a different culture for a while, I'm learning that these "differences" that are so often talked about are much more significant than they seem. A different culture is a different lens to the world; one's motivations, one's rationale, one's life goals, one's daily routines are all so, entirely different.

Something else that I'm learning is that there is no perfect culture. I knowingly idealized the simplicity of village life, but the truth is that there are many things that I enjoy about Tongan culture, and there are many things I don't enjoy. In the same way, there are things that I like about American culture and things that I dislike. And I'm sure that it would be that way in any culture in the world. There is no perfect group of people; there are only people who do their best to live according to their circumstances and their interpretation of life.

This week, our lives were greatly impacted by a fitting example of this two-sided coin.

First, an aspect of Tongan culture that is not necessarily our favorite - their lack of foresight. Something that is unfortunately seen when a boat sinks due to overcrowding, most Tongans (and they admit it) do not often think of or prepare for the future. They live in the now, the day to day. All summer long, Alissa and I have been wondering, "since we are living in the normal teacher's house, where is the new principal going to live?". But the village, apparently had not thought of this inevitable quandary. So, when our new principal showed up, as I wrote before, he had to move in to the tiny thatched roof house that the other teacher was living in. Thus, for the first week, the village was scrambling, trying to decide where he will live.

Now, on to an aspect of Tongan culture that I'm a fan of - their communal spirit and identity. It was quickly decided that the half-built tin and concrete structure to the side of our house (which I was thinking about turning in to a chicken coop) would be improved and made into a suitable dwelling for the new principal. So, as soon as some wood was acquired for the project, literally, the whole village showed up to the school grounds to work on the house. Granted, there was not near enough work for all 50-100 people, but it was a community event, so everyone came to help. It did turn in to quite a multi-day event indeed, complete with mini-feasts and thank you speeches during lunchtime. It was quite a thing to behold, that when something needed to be done, how quickly and efficiently the community rallies to undertake the task, and how truly second-nature this type of community support was.

We could tell countless stories of this two-sided coin of life in a different culture, but I'll leave you that one for now.

'Ofa atu,


From our porch:


A few weeks ago, one of my...sure, friends, in Nuapapu, asked me what my talent was.

I thought it was a really cute question, but didn't know how to answer. It seems like, in Tonga, if you are a girl, you either need to be a good net ball player ( I'm awful), a good dancer (Tongan dancing...not that it would matter. Any time I have to move my hands and feet in opposite directions at different beats, I am done for), or a good singer (some people like to tell me that's my talent, but they have never heard me sing.) Since nothing Tongan suitable came to mind, I just answered I didn't know what my talent was. My little Tongan friend was shocked and appalled. Of got me thinking...

What is my "talent". What am I good at? And now, I don't have to be the best at it, but, what is something I'm more inclined to than other people?

This is an especially interesting time in my life to be asking this question for a few reasons. The first is....for the last 10 years (or maybe more!) I have set myself apart by my passion and inclination towards people from other cultures. Yes, I would call it a "talent".You all know this, you must. I have invested in books, organizations, education, food :), and people from all over the world as much as possible for the last decade. I've been weird about it. I've bored you with it. I've carried around statistics about aids in Africa and genocide in Burma and I've forced them into every day conversation. Yeah...I was that girl.

And at 26 years old, I am really embarrassed to admit that my identity has been so, no, too tied up into that notion. So on days when I find that I actually hate eating haka and ota and can't stand to sit through one more fake crying fakamalo, I don't really know what to do with myself. Isn't this, all this, supposed to have ME all over it?

And then, to make matters either worse or better, here comes my husband. Who is far better at absolutely every aspect of our current life than I am. He's better at speaking the language, a better teacher, better at eating weird food (which is really important here), better at making friends and finding things to do with them. Better.

And I am so thankful he is because, if he wasn't, who would teach me Tongan, or help me prepare my lesson plans, or eat my bowl of raw fish cause I just can't ingest another morsel of it? But I'm jealous.

Jealous in Tongan literally translates to "bad inside". I think that's awesome. But, that's not the kind of jealous I am.

I have had a life plan since I was 14 years old. And every year that has passed since I was 18 that has not had me where I expected to be, have been years tinged with waiting, expecting. I think it's time that that stops. I think I'm finally ready to accept that we don't suddenly "arrive" at the dream job, or really, anywhere.

I guess I just hope, that by the end of this journey, I'll know what my talent is.


Friday, February 8, 2013

The first week of school

First day of school!

We set the alarm for 6, but when we awake, we realize it's still too dark to see anything without lights. Yes! We get up at 645. By 7 the students arrive. At 830, the official starting time, I walk the 3 yards to the school. My co-worker tells me we'll wait to start when the principal arrives. He arrives at 1. He unpacks his belongings from the boat, moves into the school room, and promptly dismisses the students. End day 1.

Day 2

We (meaning the students) wash the windows, pick up the trash, pump water for Mark and I's water tank (yeah...I made them), throw pretty much everything away that was left in the school rooms, burn the trash, weed the weeds, trim the bushes, and listen to a one hour radio program (it is a requirement for all schools to include this hour radio program in their every day instruction...even though on our island, it barely comes through. It is beyond exasperating to me). The students leave at 12.

Mark comes home around 4 from Matamaka. He is a pasty white, and the first thing he says is, "I'm going to faint". I prepare the oral rehydration solution for him ( given to us by our medical officer) ,take his temperature (which is somewhere between 101 and 103), and immediately begin putting cold,wet rags on him and fanning him. He was up every hour of the night, and I along with him. 10, 1045, 12, 2, 330.... I can not imagine having a fever in this weather! (and yes, my arm is quite sore from the hours of fanning). Day two melts right in to.....

Day 3
Up early. Fix a strong cup of coffee. Call our doctor. Call Marks school. Late to my work getting everything cleaned up and taken care of for Mark. Arrive at school just in time for the one hour radio program. It is my co teachers birthday, baker that I am, I decide to bake a cake for him. I spend two hours cleaning and sorting the library books. The kids are playing outside. I call it a day and go to do laundry.

Peace corps calls. We have a tsunami warning. Apparently there was an earthquake somewhere here in the South Pacific. We are allowed to be at either our home, or the Wesleyan church. We choose home. I briefly wonder what exactly a tsunami entails....isn't it just a big wave? I'm confident we had training about such things....but I sure wish I could google it. Of course, the first thing I want to do is go down to the beach and take a look...but that is definitely not allowed. I decide to stand on the school porch and observe the ocean. It looks the same as it always does. I get bored and come inside and wonder what to fix for dinner. I decide to fill our water filter and water bucket...just in case. Mark finally leaves the bedroom. End day three.

(tsunami warning lifted)

Day 4

PRE-assessments. I remember how much I love my new students and enjoy teaching. As I watch even the oldest kids squint their eyes, their lips silently, slowly forming words as they try to answer questions like "how old are you?" And "where do you live?" I am reinvigorated about teaching here. Supposedly, hopefully that will start on Monday. End day four.

Day 5

Fridays are...somewhat confusing. I've been told I WILL teach and that I WONT teach, so who really knows what they will hold for me. :) On Fridays, every school in Tonga is supposed to have a local minister come and do a kind of Sunday school. Today the Wesleyan pastor came (I watched from my house, in my pajamas). I'd woken up earlier and seen that my principal was already getting in a boat and heading to town, so I assumed we didn't have school. I guess I was wrong. Sometimes communication with the palangi is forgotten....

Wow, what a week. I'm exhausted from it, and I didn't even teach. Wonder what next week will hold...

End first week of "school".


The Ultimate Invasion of Privacy

One of the inevitabilities of serving in the Peace Corps is getting sick; it just comes with the territory. I've been decently sick, but this week, I experienced my first bout in being significantly sick. It does make for a good story, and I'll set the stage by telling you about some recent changes to our living situation.

Alissa's new principal in Nuapapu is Ma'asi, one of my co-teachers from Matamaka last year. Because he's a younger guy and is a relative of Paea (the other teacher here, also a younger guy), he's decided to share Paea's thatched roof Tongan house, which lies a mere 15 yards from our front porch. This translates into a couple noticeable changes to our home life. For one, the moderate privacy we enjoyed during the school break is completely gone. And, the school grounds have now become the new hangout spot for a good number of the younger guys in our village. These things aren't inherently bad, but they made my situation this week much harder than they needed to be.

Back to the story. I had not felt well all day on Tuesday, and when I arrived home from my hike, I entered our house ready to collapse. My body was stricken by a marvelous mixture of intestinal problems with some heat exhaustion and dehydration sprinkled in there as well. My champion of a wife quickly set about caring for me- preparing rehydration solution for me, putting wet cloths on me, and fanning me- attempting to manage my dehydration and fever. If ever there was a time that I was thankful for being a married Peace Corps Volunteer- heck, just being married in general- now was that time.

What this meant for me was incredible discomfort from my stomach and 102 degree fever and frequent, very frequent, trips to the bathroom. I'm sure you get my drift; I won't go into the gory details. And let me just remind you the location of our bathroom. It's about 15 feet outside our house. Which is about 15 feet from the classroom porch. Which is now, as I said before, the new hangout spot of the village youth. One can only imagine my joy.

After the fifth or sixth trip in an hour of futile attempts to sneak my way to the toilet, they started to visibly take notice. Naturally, I was quite embarrassed and felt that every snicker I heard was directed my way. After a few hours of this mortifying cycle, I came out just as a number of them were leaving. They had clearly deduced what was going on, and were not quite sure how to react to me. Should they laugh? Should they show sympathy? Should they ask if I need anything? This mixture of conflicting questions translated into blank stares, until one of them asked matter-of-factly "puke koe?" (are you sick?). Attempting to bottle my embarrassment and my frustration at this gross invasion of privacy, I sheepishly responded yes. Then, offering the only amount of sympathy that any Tongan feels comfortable doling out (they are not the most emotionally open bunch), he blankly said the expected word of "faka'ofa" (how sad..) and the boys headed home.

The cycle continued off an on for the rest of the night (have I mentioned how thankful I am for my wife?), and the worst of it was over by late morning. I narrowly avoided using the toilet while one of the teachers was bathing in the stall next to me, and made it though the night without the dreaded fear of riding the boat to the hospital, sitting on a bucket, if it had gotten really, really bad.

We think we are mentally prepared to deal with the challenges. We answered interview questions and application essays about how to them. But nothing prepares you for things like this.

On a final note (and this is not meant to worry you, parents), this was perhaps one of the most poignant situations in which I realized how helpless I really am, and how much God (yes, corny I know...) watches out for us. I can't go through being that sick and knowing that I am 2+ hours away from any kind of medical facility, without thinking it. If nothing else, it's a good reminder about how helpless each and every one of us are, even if we don't care to admit it or realize it. Bless the Lord.


Summer break

The last two months have been summer break for schools here. To fill our time, Mark and I taught summer classes two days a week in each village. It was a great way to get to know our kids! Here's some fun pictures of the last day in Nuapapu-we made bubbles!

We used grass and plastic bottles to make the bubble blowers. The kids loved it!

Chathams Pacific

Well, I'm sure you've heard by now. Just positive it was splashing all over your nightly news stations.

But, in case you didn't, I'll fill you in.

Chathams Pacific, the only airline that flys from Tongatapu to Vava'u, has decided to pull out of Tonga. What that means for us, is ...really hard to say.

Chathams has announced their last flight to be beginning of March. Supposedly, part of the reason they are pulling out is because the Tongan government is allowing the Chinese to operate an airline here sometime in the future. So, hopefully the Chinese will come with an airline. Though, if they do, Peace Corps Safety and Security will have to deem it safe to travel on. In the meantime, Vanuatu will be sending some planes over. These too, I'm sure, will have to pass safety and security tests.

So, currently, after March, we don't know what traveling will look like.

Crazy, huh? For one man to make a decision that can impact so many people.


It's been awhile....

A lot has happened in the last few weeks....

Mark and I, along with our fellow volunteers, had a week long training back in Tongatapu. It was so good to see Lose and Noa and Tulu again. So good to catch up with the 13 other volunteers (8 of whom we hadn't seen since november). It was also really nice to have taimi tea again....right back to those 12 cookies a day but soooo totally worth it!

It was so surreal to fly into Tongatapu for the second time. I couldn't help but remember what it was like in September when we first spotted the islands. We were all so excited, jittery. Oh...we didn't have a clue! It felt good to reflect on all that has happened. On the amazing amounts a person can grow, change, customize oneself to a new culture. It felt so good to think, "this is old news" , when mere months earlier I was practically peeing my pants out of fear of the unknown.

Of course, now, I have to make a confession. The plane landed and I was still lost in my own self-glorifying thoughts-Patting myself on my back for all that I had overcome and accomplished the last few months, thinking I was now so culturally aware, so fakatonga. Then, as people began to exit out of the plane, the people BEHIND me started to get up. I was perplexed, annoyed, tried in vain to do the old, "oh,Ididntknowyouwerecuttinginlineandtryingtogetbyme arm barrier across the aisle". It didn't work. I got huffy. I might have said something (I realllllly had to use the bathroom).

We laughed later at how predictably uptight I can be. (but really, Isn't waiting ones turn a universal concept?)

Anywho, we are ....5 months in. I can't imagine being 12 and 19 and 25...just honestly can't imagine. But, wow, those five months have flown. And boy, I've sure learned a lot.


It Takes Some Getting Used To

It's difficult to describe the typical goings-on of a normal day here- most days are not filled with anything spectacular. Especially now during the school break, our days have been simply filled with daily efforts to get used to life here, occasionally trying to help our neighbors in little ways, but much more often getting helped by them. Thus, in an effort to give you a clearer picture of our daily life, I've decided to describe a couple "Tongan cultural phenomenons" that really do illuminate some of the near impossible task of describing our lives to friends and family.

Eva pe (pronounced ay-vah-pay)

When walking anywhere in Tonga, the first question one is typically asked is "alu ki fe"? (where are you going). To a westerner, this may seem like an outright rude invasion of privacy, but, believe me, there is absolutely no private life in an island village. A perfectly acceptable and very common answer to this question is "eva pe" which roughly translates "just wandering around".

We learned this phrase back in the States from our language introduction packet, and I remember thinking to myself, "why in the whole world would I need to say this?". We now realize the important social function of this seemingly strange act of aimlessly wandering through the village.

One can eva pe at any time of the day, but Alissa and I have deemed the hour and a half before the sun goes down (around 6:00-7:30) as "eva pe time". This is the time of day that the village comes out to mingle. Most activities take place at the center of town, where adults play nightly games of volleyball and netball, children play any number of games, and groups of people sit down to chat and gossip. For us, this time has become an invaluable time of being present in village life and further integration into the culture. We also like to eva for the simple reason of reconnecting with certain folks in the village. If we haven't seen someone in a while, the solution is always, "let's eva to their house".

Another important point to make about eva peing is the speed at which one evas. As Joey, one of our teammates, likes to point out, a true eva pe is done properly at a veritable snail's pace- something that overly-stressed Americans have to consciously work at. We are, after all, living the "island life". An eva pe around town that involves nothing more than a few conversations with some neighbors, could very well take up a significant portion of one's evening.

Ui mai (pronounced "oo-ee-my")

The word ui means "to call", and when I first learned this word, I figured that it meant to call someone on the phone. I was quite wrong. This second cultural norm is just another concept that took some significant time to adjust to. Coming from a world where if you want to hang out with someone, have a meeting, or simply ask a question, you either call them on the phone or set up an appointment. Never would you, at any time, intentionally inconvenience someone or encroach on their personal life. This is not the case in a Tongan village.

If you need anything from anyone else here or if you just want to sit down to chat, you simply go to their house and "call to them". What this means, much to our surprise, is that you approach someone's house and repeatedly, in a loud voice, say their name. I don't mean call out a few times, and if they don't answer, you come back another time. I mean that you stand there and literally shout that person's name over and over again. Like 20-30 times.

More than a handful of times, we have been awoken at 6:00 am by someone's piercing voice saying "Ma'ake", "Ma'ake", "Ma'ake", "Ma'ake", and so on... This was tough to get used to, but as with eva peing, this form of connecting with people is just another cultural norm that just makes sense in the context of village life. You don't call someone on the phone. You don't set up a meeting. Why go through the trouble? You just go to their house when you want and repeatedly shout their name. Naturally.

And here I am now, needing to talk to someone or borrow something, shouting their name 20-30 times outside their house. When I want a friend to come tell me when kava is going to start, I say "ha'u 'o ui mai!" ("come and call to me!"). It's funny when things that once seemed strange, start to make complete and total sense when you allow yourself to adjust to a different way of life.

- Mark


For those of you who have ever joined us for know that cooking is Marks thing. I don't cook. Really, ever. If mark goes out of town, I live on yogurt and grapes and wine and cheese.

So, of course, it makes total sense that, here, I am known as the cook, as the baker.

I'm not even sure how it started....but I have now cooked over 20 cakes for the people of Nuapapu. (2 are currently in the oven right now).

Want to see a picture of the cookies I had just pulled out of the oven when a group of people came over to ask me to bake a cake?

Yeah....thats them....

Clearly, I deserve to be known as the island baker.

- Alissa