Tuesday, October 22, 2013

An Overwhelming Goodbye

By far the most meaningful and heart wrenching farewell occurred our final morning in Nuapapu, when the village loaded up all of our belongings on the tractor and we all headed down to the wharf. It is impossible to capture the emotions of this scene, but we were absolutely blown away when the entire village came down to the wharf to see us off.

After our things were loaded onto the boat, everyone walked to the edge of the wharf and formed two lines. Then, weeping, we made our way down the lines of people for a goodbye fe'ilo'aki and 'uma (hug and cheek kiss) with every single person on the wharf. As we stepped, tear soaked, onto the boat, the village waved and softly sang a hymn of farewell as we sailed away. It was an unbelievable send-off, absolutely unlike any goodbye we have ever experienced.

I was again moved to tears as we rounded the bend, and all of my old students from the school at Matamaka were standing at the edge of the sea, singing and waving goodbye with palm branches.

Later that day, another PC volunteer remarked how different it must have felt saying goodbye to an island, and literally sailing away from everything and everyone we knew so well in one place, disappearing in the distance. When we said goodbye in the States before we came to Peace Corps, it was a very gradual farewell. It happened in stages, as we said separate goodbyes to people at work, church, family, and friends. Never in our lives had we experienced such an overwhelmingly emotional, totally communal goodbye. So hard, so wonderful, so fitting, and so Tongan.


Faikava Faka'osi (Final Kava Ceremony)

Another part of goodbyes in Tonga is holding a final faikava (kava ceremony) for the man who is leaving. It's funny to think about the mystery of kava culture to me a year ago, and how much a part of my life it has become. On the island, it is essentially the equivalent of hitting the town and having a good time with your buddies. I have grown to love it so much, and I will always fondly remember my times at kava as some of the times that I felt most connected to these people, this island, and this culture. In many ways, to me and all the men that I am close with, the goodbye feasts and gifts were only a precursor to this, the real party.

I wanted to celebrate right, so I bought a bunch of canned sodas, candy, bags of kava, and tobacco to bring. This might sound like a funny combination, but to a group of Tongan guys, these are all the necessary ingredients for a truly good party. Most of the guys had already shown up to the hall, so I entered, put down my box of goodies at the appropriate spot, did the kava handshake circle, and was asked for the first time to sit in the seat of the "matapule", the seat of highest honor that is directly opposite of the "kumete" (wooden kava bowl). Then, I gave a little speech of appreciation and respect to them and kava culture, and the party got underway.

Eventually, most every male on the island came to join in. Some men from Matamaka even made the trip across the island for it. After a while, because I couldn't resist on my last kava, I got my ukulele and moved to join the band. The music was played, the kava was drunk, and the good times rolled late into the night. I stayed as long as I could, knowing that I would need the energy the next day to move. It was another wonderful way to end things, to say goodbye, and to bring closure for our time on our wonderful island.



In Tongan culture, formal "fakamavaes" (farewells) are very important. When the village found out about our move, we were very humbled and blessed when they planned a farewell celebration for us. We had seen it before, when the Wesleyan pastor was transferred earlier this year. Nothing too out of the ordinary happens - just lots of eating, lots of speeches, and giving of gifts. It's impossible to fully describe the emotions of the everything that happened; needless to say, it was unlike any goodbye we have ever experienced.

Ours was set to occur on our last Sunday in the village. In typical Nuapapu fashion, as the various church denominations make it a challenge to plan anything as the whole village, there was a bit of drama when the day came. It was set to occur after church in the evening, but when one church asked around if they could move it to lunchtime, confusion ensued. Eventually, through much deliberation and grumbling, and eventually lots of laughter, the families who were ready brought their food to the hall after church. The majority of the families came to this one, and it was really beautiful. As is typical in Tonga, all speeches, including both of ours, were full of tears. We felt so loved, so sad, and like such a part of this wonderful village.

Pictures from the first feast:

The remaining families that were not able to come to the lunchtime event planned another one for the afternoon. It was a simple celebration, and the families just brought a little feast to share on the floor of our house. We again felt so blessed at their love and acceptance.



Big News

Hello friends and family! We have some big news around here...we are moving. It is such a long and complicated story to share, as so much of the bureaucracy of PC we never talk about, but we are very sad about the decision that has been made.

Ultimately, PC is run like a business, and the numbers and data that we volunteers report back to Washington (especially in tiny countries like Tonga), determines if the PC Tonga program is viable or not, as well as drives most programming decisions regarding site placement, etc for volunteers. Unfortunately, it has been decided that our work in Nuapapu and Matamaka GPS just isn't BIG enough. PC has arranged to move us to a much bigger site back on the main island of Tongatapu.

So you can get it: 176 islands make up the Kingdom of Tonga, but the islands are grouped into four major island groups. The main island group, where the king lives, where the capital is located, where the PC office is, and where we spent our 2 months of training, is the island group Tongatapu. For the last year, we have been living 2 island groups away from Tongatapu, in the island group Vava'u....which is miles and miles and miles of ocean away.

(Our little island, Nuapapu, is the equivalent of Greeley. When we say we are going to "town" , or Neiafu, that's like Denver. Tongatapu would be the equivalent of.... New York.)

While there are some exciting opportunities ahead for us, we are very devastated about leaving this place. We feel, in so many ways, that we just began to be comfortable here in Nuapapu. So much of the last year has been full of nervousness, stress, fear, failure, awkwardness, frustration, loneliness, confusion...just you name it, we felt it. Oh how hard it is to move to a new country, arrive in a tiny island with a population of 100 people, barely be able to speak the language, and to try and fit in there! So many times we just plain didn't know what the heck was going on! Just lately I feel like I can actually enjoy this experience. I'm no longer worried about understanding Tongan....I can get by just fine. I'm no longer worried about knowing what to do, what to expect....I've finally gotten the people and pace of this place down. Finally, I feel like I can have a personality in Tonga-which is absolutely amazing and freeing and so life-giving after a year of feeling like a strange, white, weird observing ghost of a person. Finally, I'm at a place where I can begin to understand the beauty of the culture here. Gosh, there were just so many days when I disliked it, misunderstood it, didn't know my place in it. Man, we are so sad to walk away right now, so frustrated to leave after we're finally reaping the benefits after a year of hard work.

Telling the people of Nuapapu about our move was probably one of the hardest things we've ever done. We went to each house, sat on the floor, and told them all that had happened-how we'd fought so hard to stay, how much we loved them, how we have to listen to the PC boss. There were many tears, an overall feeling from these island people that they are the least important in all of Tonga, and feelings of anger and injustice. We appreciated the support the town gave us-they called a town meeting and decided to write a letter to PC asking for us to stay. Though we knew the decision was final, it was nice to know they wanted us to stay as badly as we wanted to stay.

It has been a crazy hard two weeks. We said goodbye to our island, our neighbors, our friends, our dog, and our students a few days ago. We said another hard goodbye to our PC friends yesterday. I can't say enough about what they have meant to us. I was so surprised to learn that I needed them to do this, and am so sad to think about trying to do this whole thing without them next year. We love you guys.

We are waiting in town now to take the 22 hour ferry ride to Tongatapu.

With tears in my eyes and Nuapapu in my heart,


Thursday, October 17, 2013


Living in community, that's a phrase I've tossed around a lot.

From college, to married life, to moving in with Nick and Beth...and now here on our tiny island....I am still learning what it looks like and feels like to "live in community".

Tonga is a tiny place...the whole country is made up of 100,000 people and 70,000 of those people all live on Tongatapu, which is the main island group. The other 30,000 of us are spread out in Ha'apai, Vava'u, and the Niuas.

Im almost positive I know all 10,000 or so people that live on Vava'u. :)

This is weird, this is hard, this living in community stuff. (and I'm a palangi, I get free passes all the time...)

I have never lived like this before. Everyone knows everything I do, everything I say. And, the longer we are here, the more I know everything about everybody else!

In so many ways, I see a sense of comfort and love in this knowing and being known. There is an honesty that exists that is sometimes uncomfortable for me, but that seems real and good and healthy.

Sometimes I see that people are stuck though, because of this being known. Afraid to try and fail, afraid to become something different than who they are already known to be.

Sometimes I love how small this community is. How something I do in town makes it back to the island before I do. Sometimes I feel like my privacy is invaded. (a few months back I had to go to the clinic for a health issue, and not more than a day later I received a text from a fellow volunteer asking if I was okay. Turns out the taxi driver is quite the little gossip.)

There is a beauty here, in this communal living. I find it moving and touching and challenging and frightening. But I think it is right. I think it is what He intended. So I am trying to embrace even the most uncomfortable parts of it, to open my doors wide and let people in.

Below is something I have meditated on quite a bit these past weeks.

"Real wisdom, God's wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable and overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor." James 3:17-18


Water tank

From start to finish, in pictures:

Transporting the tank from town back to the island.....we really didn't think it was going to fit....

Building the foundation.

The students enjoying clean water while brushing their teeth!

Gotta love these ridiculous little creatures!

Thanks New Zealand Aid Programme!

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Living here for a year now, I often wonder what has imprinted itself....what will I take with me, what will I leave behind. What things will stick, and will I want them to?

One thing that has grown on me over time is this idea of giving a "fakamalo". At every important event, from church to holidays to birthdays, etc, there is a time for anyone present at said event to give a little speech. A "fakamalo" literally translates as, "to give thanks, to be grateful, to feel or express gratitude, to praise or congratulate". By no means is everyone required to speak, but the floor is open to anyone who might wish to.

Oftentimes I find these speeches to be very tiresome, as the hierarchy in Tongan culture dictates that every important person be thanked individually, and oftentimes it feels that there's not much genuineness in these speeches. It is also expected that you will cry. It is a bizarre thing to witness, but I've seen grown men pinching themselves to make the tears fall.

That aside, sometimes the speeches are a riot, a one man show, a straight up comedy act. Oftentimes long fables or parables are told, many times juicy gossip and merciless teasing happens. This too is sad for me-fakamalos are a hard thing to follow where I'm at in my language, but boy, Tongans know how to laugh and once they get going you so desperately want in on it.

Today was the first day of testing for our class six students. Once their tests were finished, the students, the students' families, and the teachers sat down together to enjoy a feast made by two of the class six students' parents. At the end of the feast, amidst all of the other fakamalo's, the two students whose parents prepared the feast gave their first ever fakamalo. It was such this rite of passage thing. I was so proud of my two boys, so happy to be here to observe this little coming of age thing.

It's a beautiful thing, really- To be so accountable to a town that raised you, that knows you, that's hoping for you, that has seen you fail and succeed, that has walked through life with you. So beautiful this time of "fakamalos", which I also think of as a storytelling time.

I want this to be apart of our family culture in the future. Want us to finish dinner at a family gathering and put off the movie or the games, and just tell stories, express gratitude. It's another part of the intimacy of this place that I don't wanna shake off when our time comes to leave.



Today was the big day, the aho sivi (test day). My five class six students (which is the equivalent of 5th grade in the U.S.), arrived at 7:30. They were squeaky clean and their uniforms were pressed and starched. They all had new shoes on their feet, and flower necklaces around their necks.

We stood at our door and called out our shouts of encouragement.

Gosh, they looked so young, my four boys who so often have driven me mad. My Tom Sawyers and Huckleberry Finns- my boys boys-naughty, wild, silly, playful, charming little things. They haven't let me baby them once, not the tiniest of bits (and I am such a mother hen...those four and I had a huge learning curve when school first started). But today, with their little white shirts tucked into their khaki shorts....I was reminded of how still childish they are.

They came up onto the porch, like they have every other morning at 7:30 for the past year, and before I knew it we were all inside.

They were nervous...clutching their pencils and rulers, much quieter than normal. We got out the cards and played a few games. We showed them pictures of my adorable nephew. They laughed about Mark's new hair style and we taught them how to make dreads.

Some of their anxiety faded.

We talked about what school they hope to test into, and where they will live when they move next year. I got sad, and told them so. I can't imagine our island without these 5 students. They are the ones who most sit at our table and share meals, who so patiently try and understand (and truth be told, mock and correct) my Tongan, who are the most curious about our life before Peace Corps, who know about our friends and family back home. These are the few who play scrabble and kickball and cards with us. Who are literally on our porch when I emerge from my room every morning, and more often than not, still there when I close the door to go to sleep. They tell me the gossip and I tell them my gossip. They answer my questions about who is who and try their best to explain Tonga to me.

I hate that the island kids have to move if they want to attend secondary school. It's so hard on the kid, the family, on the town, which almost halves in size during the week when all the 12-18 year olds leave.

But it has been incredibly neat and heart-warming to see the community response to this important day, this rite of passage. As I speak our neighbors, along with half of the town, are preparing a feast for the students. There were kisses of good luck, and a special breakfast this morning. Literally, the whole town is waiting to see how these five do on the test- so much pressure for these kids, but also so wonderfully unique to be so utterly known.

I want the best for these five. I hope they dream big.


Only in Tonga


We have a rat problem.

In the past, this has been easily solved by sticky traps. We put them out, a rat walks across it, it gets stuck, we throw the sticky trap in the trash pile.
No sweat.

That was until The Beast. Seriously, this rat is the size of a puppy, perhaps bigger. It has wreaked havoc in our kitchen.

I heard it earlier this week, and went to investigate. I was not prepared for its size. Of course Mark thought I was exaggerating until today, when he got his first look at it.

If this helps you know how to feel about, Buster whimpers any time it's near the house.

Mark abandoned me tonight to go drink kava. As I lie in bed playing what I can only assume is my 10,000 th game of solitaire, I heard a sudden thrashing about such as would be made by a large animal, say, a deer. Yes, I think, we have trapped The Beast on our sticky trap. As I hear more thrashing, I begin to wonder if perhaps the rodent is running about with said sticky trap attached to him. To accurately paint the picture you need to know that we had noticed earlier in the day that the sticky trap had caught yet another rodent, but hadn't had the time to throw it out yet when The Beast made his appearance. As this is our last trap, we thought best just to leave it be awhile longer. So, as I hear this thrashing, I wonder the state of these two rodents.

I carefully untuck the mosquito netting. I run to the living room and immediately stand atop a chair. I wait. All is silent. I pick up the chair next to me, run the short distance to the light switch, put the chair down, jump on top of it, and turn on the light. I hear a loud noise. I wait. I jump to the next chair, crawl across the table, and arrive at the chair closest to the mouse. I see signs of a struggle. Half of the sticky trap is covered by a piece of wood (yes, apparently there is one lone piece of timber in my kitchen...I have no idea why or when it got there). I can tell The Beast has escaped.

As I stand on the chair contemplating my next move, there's a knock on my door. One of my students. Yes, I shout, come in quick. In he comes, and he doesn't even ask why I'm atop the chair.

He walks right to me, asks for the grill part from in our oven, I say yes, he opens the oven, and takes it out.

I tell him about my giant rat. He yells goodnight.

So much for my knight in shining armor. When did these kids get used to my antics?