Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mariners Cave

The outside of Mariners Cave.

Me swimming out of the cave. (somehow it looks like I'm pulling my Tongan friend, but he is very much pulling me).

Mariners Cave round 2 with Ryan and Abby

After we spent a good hour climbing and jumping off cliffs inside the cave, completely exhausted we swim back out to discover our boats motor is broken and has drifted what seems like 10 miles away. After our very long swim to the boat, we decide not to worry and eat our picnic. This is our boat driver trying to fix the motor.

After a couple hours of drifting on the boat, we saw a yacht in the distance. We stood and waved and hollered and jumped around, until the boat, hesitantly and slowly, began to make its way toward us. When they arrived, after a little pleading on our part, they agreed to tow us back home.

All in all, a very fun and memorable day.

Sea Food

It's been a while since I've written about food, and I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the unique food we've gotten a chance to eat during our service. Most of these unusual fares, unsurprisingly, are various types of sea creatures. People here on the outer islands seem to be much more dependent on the sea than those closer to town, so we've gotten many great opportunities to interact with the sea and what it offers.

Before my list of seafood, it may also be interesting to discuss the various methods by which people obtain them. While many single Tongan words have large lists of English synonyms, often times it is the other way around when it involves a vital part of Tongan culture. A very poignant example is the word for "fishing". Because this has always been a central part of life in Tonga, it is no surprise that there are many distinct words that represent different methods of fishing. Here are the types that people on Nuapapu regularly participate in:

- "Uku" is the word for dive, but is also the word most often used for spear fishing. Most of the serious spear fishermen fish at night with waterproof flashlights ("ama") then string their caught fish on ropes that trail behind them ("velo") as they swim
- "Taumata'u" is hook and line fishing from the shore. No one has a fishing pole, so they usually wrap their fishing line around old cans or bottles and use their hands to cast and reel. I have my own taumata'u gear, but I'm still pretty terrible at it.
- "Fakatele" is the Tongan version of deep sea fishing. Men take their small boats out and troll thick fishing lines behind, catching bigger game fish like tuna and mahimahi. Yet whereas a special deep sea fishing boat has industrial riggings of pulleys and reels, Tongan men pull in these three to five-foot fish with their bare hands. Basically, the definition of hardcore, manly fishing.
- "Sili" is the word for fishing with a net. It's not super common, but for those who are skilled in this method, it seems to be much more practical than line fishing.
- "Fangota" is the word used for digging and collecting shellfish. This is really the only type of fishing that I am halfway decent at, and, invariably, it is also by far the least manly and impressive.

Anyways, here is a list of sea food that we've had the chance to eat and/or cook during our service so far:

- Fish, of all shapes and sizes, prepared every way you can imagine - sautéed, fried, baked, boiled, grilled. Alissa and I both agree that the best is a properly prepared, freshly caught tuna steak.
- Octopus
- Squid
- Sea cucumber
- Mussels
- Clams (including the delicious, rare Giant Clam)
- Other random shellfish that I don't know the English word for.
- Crabs
- Lobsters
- Sea snails
- Sea weed (supposedly the sea weed that is eaten here is unique to Tonga and considered a delicacy. It looks like vines of tiny balls that taste like they are filled with smokey sea water)
- Stingrays (technically, I've seen one caught, but haven't gotten the chance to taste one yet)
- Eels - perhaps the most surprisingly delicious item on the list. I recently got a chance to clean and cook one up myself - I was taumata'u with some buddies, and someone spotted a small moray eel. It was promptly bopped on the head with a machete and brought home with the rest of the fish. Here are some pictures:

The eel:

And here's what Alissa was doing while the boys were fishing:

- Mark

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I'm an auntie!

Introducing Jason Lane Austin:

He is handsome and healthy! Aim is doing fine-she was a rock star through a very long labor that ultimately ended in a cesarean. Mark and I can't wait to hold this little guy in our arms! December can't come fast enough! :)

(my students were very excited to see pictures, too)

Darien Book Aid

A few months ago, a fellow PCV sent out an email informing us all about a great organization called Darien Book Aid. The organization, upon request through a small application, sends out a box of free books. The organization is located in the states, but sends books all over the world.

I applied, and was told my books were sent, back in early March. I had almost given up hope that the books would arrive, when I wandered into the post office this last week and there they were! Here are a few pictures of my students enjoying the new books.

Thanks bunches Darien Book Aid!

The parentals visit!

Mom and dad just left after 10 memorable days visiting in Tonga! It was wonderful to share our life with them, as well as to catch up on their lives, movies we missed, big news stories, and everything else of note that has happened during our stay on this very remote island.

I took a total of 4 pictures during their stay....(oops!), but mom has quite a lot.

Without pictures it just isn't the same, but we had loads of fun. It was nice for Mark and I to do some of the things that tourists from all over the world come here to do. The role-reversal of vacation planning was also really fun. Mark and I worked hard to plan fun things, and for the most part everything worked out well. We snorkeled, swam after dolphins (you read that correctly, not with, but in a vain attempt,chased after...dolphins are faster), I curled my hair (for the first time in a long time), got to wear things that showed ,*gasp, my shoulders and knees and thighs, we talked, toured a vanilla plantation, played bocce ball, went on an unforgettable dinner cruise, listened to church bells ring, wondered at the beauty of the south pacific, rode on many boats of various shapes, speeds,and sizes, got to hang out with a lot of fellow peace corps volunteers and their loved ones, kayaked, laughed, attended choir practice and sang as a quartet, cried, hiked all over our island, picnicked, attempted to spear fish (the boys, anyways), feasted, experienced a most unique tapas meal, roasted marshmallows, annoyed Aimee with our constant calling to check if the baby had come, and ultimately, loved each other well.

It was also really encouraging, and eye-opening, to see our lives from their perspective. It made both Mark and I realize just how much we've learned over these last 10 months- about Tonga, Tongan culture, Tongan language, life on an island, each other, and ourselves. Of course, the nicest part of the whole time was just being together.

Love you mom and dad!

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Garden

This is something that I've waited a while to write about. Even before we came to Tonga, I knew that I wanted to do some gardening. And when we arrived at our house, I was pleased with the amount of space that the school grounds provided. A community vegetable garden was even something that the people expressed interest in. Most "crops" grown by Tongans are the standard root crops (cassava, yams, sweet potatoes, taro). Some healthy vegetables are available in the town market, but they are usually considered by most to be too expensive by most to buy regularly.

Most of my research for our garden came from a great little book that a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji wrote a few years back. It offers tons of good advice, but the thing that stood out most to me was instructions about how to make your own seeds. I've come to learn that many Tongans want to grow vegetables, but they think that vegetable seeds are too expensive and hard to find. So, a big motivator for me as I made our own garden this year was experimenting in making my own seeds, simply by drying seeds from vegetables from the market. These hopes have made gardening not only a plan for a cheap and healthy food source for us, but a potentially cool side project for our work here. I feel like if I can have success with self-made seeds, people in the village might be more motivated to try growing their own vegetables.

I started small, doing some transplants of lemongrass and ginger behind our house. I then tried my hand at growing some tomatoes, cucumbers, and long beans from self-made seeds. They did ok in a seed bed, but when I transplanted them, they did not do well. My best guess is that the spot was too shady and that it was still to hot to start. Yet, my original plan was to do our main garden in a nice, rectangular plot behind the school room. So one day, I borrowed some hoes and recruited some neighbor boys to help with the laborious task of leveling the grass and tilling up the soil. We tilled about half the plot, in which I planned to do my direct sowing. I also tilled in some animal manure I collected in the village and covered the section with banana leaves to get the soil ready. During this time, I also started some tomato, bell pepper, eggplant, and spicy pepper seedlings.

Before I did the serious planting, the first major hurtle was protecting the space from pigs, which I already discovered wreak havoc on all growing things. It took a while to put the plan into action, but I eventually convinced a helpful neighbor to help me build a little fence on either side of the plot, as I am not much of a handyman. Most Tongan men are amazingly skilled with their hands, so it took no time.

Then, after a pretty good rain, the time for direct sowing came. I used some self-made seeds and a few packets that I brought from America. The bok choy, beans, and cucumbers are doing the best, and there are a few carrots and onions coming up as well. Here are some pictures, after about a month of growth.

Bok choy (chinese cabbage)

Green beans

Long beans and cucumbers

After about a month of the seedlings growing, I was finally able to transplant the other veggies.

Tomatoes and basil

Tomatoes and bell peppers

Spicy pepper


From here, I'm trying some packets of salad greens in some seed beds, since we are finally in to the cool season here. For the garden, it's just a matter of weeding, praying for rain, and facing the challenge of finding water to water the plants, since the cool season also means the drying up of the town's water tanks. I think it would be great to expand and do a bigger, community garden next year, but we are waiting to see how this year goes. More on our garden, hopefully, to come!


The Kupenga

Because much of modern "Tongan Culture" is so Christianized (and therefore, sadly, Westernized), the chance to experience a piece of old, truly unadulterated Tongan culture is becoming rare, even for us. This, I believe, was one of those instances.

We heard about this village event in the way that most often occurs. People mention things to us in passing and assume that we already know what's going on. A week before the event, someone told Alissa about the "Kupenga Kava". "Kupenga" is the Tongan word for fishing net, so questions naturally came about. What net? People are having a faikava because of a net? We assumed we misheard and went about our week.

Then, a couple days later, one of the village guys asked me if I wanted to come to an event set to occur in the middle of the night. As I deciphered his rapid-fire Tongan, he basically told me that there was going to be a place where you can "hack at fish with your bush knife" at low tide. Sounding like something I definitely wanted to be a part of, I eagerly asked if I could join them. But later that evening, I was told that the event was postponed to the next day.

That next day, someone finally realized that I haven't lived here all my life and took the time to clarify and explain. One section of our island is a beautiful "tide flat" - a place full of mangroves, where at low tide, one can walk very far from the shore in shallow water (the same place that those boys took us exploring a few months back). Every year, seemingly out of duty and tradition, one of the men in the village strings a net about four feet high, tied to a secured stick every twenty feet, over an extremely long distance on the tide flat. He does so at low tide during the day, so that as the tide comes in over the next few hours, hundreds of fish get stuck in the net. Then, in the middle of the night, all the village men go to the net with flashlights, ropes, bush knives, and burlap sacks to collect the fish.

Thus, I finally understood the Kupenga Kava - the night before the event, there was a very formal kava ceremony in honor of the kupenga . I attended and expressed interest in at least seeing this phenomenon. One of my neighbors agreed to come wake me up for it, so at three in the morning, I was awoken and taken to the spot, where a few men were already waiting. A few minutes later, I set off with a few of them for the net. It was a cold night, but reasonably easy work; you simply grab the fish, force it through the net, and give it a good whack if it's wriggling too much. As we worked our way down the hundreds of feet of net, the ropes and bags were quickly filled. Most catches were average size reef fishes, but a number of three foot long, barracuda-like fish with long rows of teeth were caught as well. I even got to witness my first sting ray catch - a feat that involves chopping off the tail while it's still in the water.

After about an hour and a half, we had picked the net pretty clean, so we headed in to make room for some more men. The best fish were loaded into the coolers of the man who set up the net, and as we rested, a couple of fish were scaled, gutted, and sliced right there for some true 'ota ika (raw fish). As I dipped my fish into the ocean for a salty kick and tore into it with the other men, I felt honored having been given the chance to take part in this tradition. I love when you think that you know a place so well, but you can still get utterly surprised by newness.


A Tragedy in Vava'u

The local economies of our two villages are different, mainly due to the geography. Nuapapu has much greater access to farmland, so most men daily go to the bush and farm their plots. Those with a surplus of crops (which are usually limited to root crops, taro leaves, kava, and fruit) choose to share them with extended family or try to sell them in the market. Matamaka, on the other hand, has far less access to farmland, but their houses are much closer to the sea. So inadvertently, the men of Matamaka have grown to depend on the ocean. For the men who are hard working and want to earn extra money for their families, this means that they spend very extended periods of time spear fishing - filling multiple, giant coolers with fish to sell in town.

One of my closest friends in Matamaka is very hard working and seems to be a leader in the fisherman community. He and some other men typically spend multiple days and nights on "fishing trips" a couple times a month. At first, I assumed that they were merely going to a nearby island and spear fishing there - I figured that there were plenty of good spots. However, a few months ago, he told me that they actually go to a place that is very, very far away. Apparently, he drives his small boat with its meager 15 horsepower engine to a reef that is very close to Ha'apai.

Ha'apai is the middle island group of Tonga, between Tongatapu and Vava'u. Having spent the full 24 hours on the lumbering ferry between these island groups, I was already well aware that this was a huge stretch of ocean, with not much in between the island groups. Yet according to my friend, people from Vava'u have been going to this place for generations. It's an uninhabited place, with a few untouched, tiny islands and some massive corals reefs that are teeming with fish. Men from Matamaka spend around 8 hours on what is surely a treacherous boat ride to reach the spot. Then, they construct a small sleeping shelter and do nothing but eat, sleep, and fish for a few days. Upon hearing this, a few thoughts ran through my mind.

At first, I was amazed at the feat. How downright hardcore a trip like this seemed. But being quite familiar with what kind of seas these boats can handle, not to mention how many times I've already seen an engine break down, I naturally wondered about the safety of a trip like this. When I mentioned this to my friend and his family, they admitted that it is dangerous, but that they pray and trust the Lord to protect them.

About a week and a half ago during kava, someone told me about three fishermen who had been lost at sea. It had been a weekend of rain and some extremely high winds, the worse that we'd seen yet. The news quickly spread throughout Vava'u that a group of six men from a couple northern villages had gone to this distant reef, without having heard the projected weather forecast. The men arrived at the reefs and had split up at night with their gear, each scouring the vastly spread reefs for fish. The weather hit hard and unexpectedly, just as I remembered, in the middle of the night. According to everyone's stories, only three men managed to make it back to the boat, and with the weather only worsening, the decision was made to attempt the voyage home, leaving behind the other three men.

One of the men who was lost tragically turned out to be a brother of my fisherman friend. When the weather improved, the Tongan government sent a plane and ships to look for the men. Even my friend and some Matamaka men took his boat out to search the seas. But after a few days of unsuccessful searching, the men were pronounced dead. It was a solemn time around all of Vava'u, especially Matamaka. We mourned with and prayed for the families of the lost. A terrible tragedy and a grim reminder of the power and unpredictably of the weather and the seas...