Thursday, September 5, 2013

Unexpected Visitors

Here in Vava'u, there are two distinct worlds: the Tongan world and the world of white tourists, most of whom arrive in luxury sailing boats. In modern Tonga, these two groups go about their lives side by side, but their very many differences could not be more obvious. Yet, as volunteers whose mission is to work towards the development of Tonga by integrating and trying our best to live "like Tongans", we find ourselves in a difficult spot somewhere in between these two worlds. Much of the time, we feel so unlike the western tourists that their world seems almost as foreign as that of the Tongans. But, no matter how hard we try, the Tongans will always, in some way, associate us with this world that is both so near and so far away.

Now that it is winter in the southern hemisphere, "tourist season" is well underway. What this means, especially on the outer islands, is that life continues as it always does, but it is accompanied by the appearance of scores of sailing boats and curious tourists. As is typical, the tourists are interested in native Tongan life, so there are many advertised opportunities for them, but many would rather explore Tongan villages on their own. So, it is not uncommon for tourists to randomly wander into our villages for a look around.

Many find themselves at our schools, adoring the cuteness of the "native children". The kids of course put on a great show, and the teachers are good at, for lack of a better term, schmoozing the tourists. It is also a common occurrence for these tourists to come bearing gifts, usually comprised of school supplies or toys for the kids. While their intentions are fine, and to them, they are just trying to help out, I've grown to dread these exchanges. From the perspective of people who live in the villages full time, these frequent gifts are nice, but they unfortunately only contribute to many systemic problems of Tonga - namely, a lack of care for resources, dependence on foreign aid, the belief that all white people are extremely wealthy, and a constant widening of the gap between Tongans and Westerners.

In the midst of this constant tension, we were pleasantly surprised by the arrival of Ken and Diane - visitors from Australia who go about their travels in a different way. Ken is a retired mechanical engineer, and he and his wife have been traveling for the better part of the last five years around the pacific. Instead of bringing gifts of material things, they have chosen rather to help the people at their various destinations by sharing their skills. Ken is an extremely skilled mechanical engineer, so wherever they go, they try to fix any variety of broken machines that the villages may have. Throughout their travels, they have fixed countless machines, including water pumps for entire villages in Vanuatu and piles of sewing machines in Papua New Guinea.

When they showed up and met us, we quickly spread the word in our village about their skills and availability. And, quite unexpectedly, our lives for a number of days were thrown into a frenzy of traveling around the village, serving as translators, as Ken and Diane worked their magic. The amount of machines they fixed, many of which were in deplorable condition, was extremely impressive. As word spread instantly through the village of these miracle workers, folks came out of the wood work with all sorts of broken devices. People even rushed to bring things from town in the hopes that they too would be brought back to life. Here is an estimated list of everything that they managed to fix or improve: 4 generators, 4 boat motors, 5 weed eaters, 4 lawn mowers, 4 sewing machines.

Over the course of these last few days, we spent a good amount of time with these two interesting people. It has been full of good conversation, and it's been interesting seeing the village's reaction to their presence. Though their stay was very short, it was a blessing to have met them and hear about their hearts and experience.

- Mark

(pictures of them fixing things at the school. I'm trying to look like I'm being helpful, but I wasn't fooling anyone)

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