25 January 2010

It's always, all about food

Sharing what we love

Last week, one of the kids from our town showed up with a huge plastic bag full of fist-sized, thick skinned, bright yellow passion fruits and dumped all of them in front of me on our kitchen counter. During the right season, Tonga is incredibly rich in certain fruits and vegetables, and it's been a lesson for us in the different cultural values that go in to generosity and sharing.

In the US, we were accustomed to certain kinds of generosity; making a big meal for someone, baking a cake or pie, or spending time helping a friend with something. Baking, cooking, or helping someone took immediate time and certain special ingredients (the valuable things), and used the plentiful groceries and kitchen supplies that we had only to drive across town to get (the plentiful things). I would never think of going to a friend's house in Portland to drop off a huge bag of tomatoes, or several ears of corn, but in essence, it is the Tongan equivalent of bringing cookies to a party (not that bringing cookies would ever be snubbed here either). Most people here have bush plots where they grow a variety of crops, and so in the same way that I would make twice the amount of cake for a birthday party, knowing that I can easily just double the recipe and have plenty on hand, our neighbors in town share their harvest plenty with us and each other.

And we love what we can't have... it's not just true in soap operas

In Portland, it seemed that to make something special for friends to eat, you had expensive cheese, seafood from Washington, fresh berries, or new tomatoes from the farmers' market, or something along those lines. Having something that was fresh and local was valuable. In contrast, here, fresh and local are the norm, and are actually mostly looked upon as the poor persons' food. When we go wild over the beautiful new heads of cabbage that just got harvested from the agro college 100 metres away, or the passion fruit from our neighbors' backyard, people look at us with amused and quizzical stares. "You can't possibly want greens or cabbage, do you? Wouldn't you rather have corned beef?" our host family back in training would always ask us.

Several times, I've looked down at my plate during a feast, and realized that everything on it was from no farther than a couple of miles- the pig from next door, the taro leaves and sweet potato from the bush plot, the coconut milk squeezed from the pile of brown coconuts sitting in the back yard, the clams from the wharf fishermen, the list goes on and on.

In a wonderful twist of irony, just like we seem to value the expensive organic local vegetables and grass-fed meat in the states, people here seem to value the expensive and rare Doritos chips, corned beef, New Zealand taffy caramels, and off-brand sweet soda pop. A new friend from across the street came over and saw the puffed chicken-flavored cheese curls that had been neglected on top of our fridge since Christmas, and her eyes got wide as she recognized how long they'd been there. "Don't you like those?" she asked me incredulously. Equally convicted in my opinion, I screwed up my face. "Yuck, no we don't like them much at all," I said, and offered her the two bags. They were gone before our conversation was over.

17 January 2010

A Happening Couple of Weeks

Hi Everyone!
The past couple of weeks have been pretty exciting. Last week was Church Week or "'Uike Lotu" and is the Tongan holiday to kick off the start of the church year. On the first sunday of the year, we had our regular Sunday morning church service, which was then followed by a big feast prepared by one of the families here in Ta'anga. On a side note, we haven't quite figured out when the feasts are planned and coordinated, and we haven't yet seen the preparations for the feasts, but they certainly happen, and they aren't spontaneous. After we were leaving the feast laden with tasty leftovers, we were asked if we were coming to the Wesleyan church in 'Ohonua for the afternoon service as well? Well everyone else was going so we decided to go as well. After that service, everyone trooped downstairs and had a teatime feast of tarts and cakes and Milo, and we came back from that heavy-laden with leftovers as well. After splitting the bounty with another volunteer, we managed to whittle the food down to a manageable quantity to store in the fridge at home.

The next morning started 'Uike Lotu in earnest, and we trooped off in the dark to church for the first of the 5AM services for the week along with the rest of the village. And to our surprise, just about the whole village was there looking sleepy and singing hymns spontaneously started by this person or that. At 5:30, the service started with a devotional Bible reading, and a hymn. The structure was reading, hymn, kneel for prayer, the message, hymn, kneel for corporate prayer, final hymn, and then everyone filed out into the newly risen sunlight to sit around the road and church to talk. The men all gathered along one fence, or by the jasmine shrubs that line the whole road, while the women talked under the eves of the church, and the youth meandered home. Then the day started, but we went back home and took a nap before starting anything. At 5PM, we went back for the afternoon services, and the structure was identical with a different speaker. I should mention that 'Uike Lotu was one of two occasions I saw women in the pulpit, and women from our community were the speakers for the whole week. After the afternoon service finished, we all filed out of the church again, but this time, everyone was fully awake, and so we all spent the rest of the daylight out in front of the church talking to people. The men gathered by the jasmine and eventually moved into the village hall to drink kava and socialise, while the women sat in the grass or by the church talking. The younger men and youth all went over to the village volleyball court and we played king of the hill volleyball (winner keeps the court). The young women all gathered in the netball field and talked with each other, and eventually started playing netball (a sport popular in the British South Pacific/Australia). Finally when the sun went down, we all eventually went home. The rest of the week pretty much followed the same pattern with vary levels of participation, but it was a fantastic way to meet all kinds of people in the community we hadn't met the previous two weeks we've been here in 'Eua.

Picnic Feasts
On Saturday after the last 'Uike Lotu service on Friday afternoon, we all went down to the beach just down the road from us for the end of week celebration. It seemed like every village on 'Eua was represented there, with at least 200 people in the water, and maybe 3 or 4 times that up on the beach. Occasionally a lorry absolutely full of people and kids sitting on the roof of the cab would go by with people singing at the top of their lungs as another village arrived. Everyone from Ta'anga spread out the mats they had brought, and some of men and boys promptly started barbecuing chicken and tuna. Some other men started playing cards, and guitars were brought out. The young kids scampered off to the water, and various groups of people started playing cards. We checked out the water, and as it turns out, it's a really nice beach. After being told that there are NO good beaches on 'Eua, this came as a very pleasant surprise; the beach is very long with soft, white sand, water deep enough to swim in, and a lot of live coral. Sometime when there aren't 200 kids and youth thrashing around in the water, we would like to explore it in more detail. But back to the story: after about an hour of drinking kava, playing cards, and playing in the ocean, the food started to come out of the fire, and this enormous plate of amazing BBQed chicken was set down in front of me; it wasn't immediately clear whether this was ALL for me or whether I was just supposed to take a couple of pieces, but after a little but of clarification, I was told to take a couple of pieces and then to go eat with the women. A little confused, I grabbed a couple delicious chicken legs, and retreated to eat with Elena and some of the women who live across the street from us, and then I figured out why. The women get all the delicacies and all the special dishes, while the men just eat chicken and root-crop. So everyone set to the task of gorging themselves with all the food, and the chocolate crazy cake that Elena had baked before-hand was much-appreciated and actually managed to go all around to everyone. Finally, around late afternoon, we decided it was probably time to head home as it had changed from a beautiful bright sunny day into a slightly drizzly day. All in all, it was a very pleasant day down at the beach, and we are looking forward to any chance for a repeat.

Sickness and Emergency Training
On Sunday, I came down with a high fever (39.1 C), body ache, sore throat, and queasy stomach. I spent the whole day in bed and Elena was wonderful and took care of me even though I didn't feel like eating or drinking. Coming up on Monday was my birthday (the 11th of January) and a Peace Corps Emergency Coordinator training session in Tongatapu (read US embassy warden for Peace Corps), so I was worried that the sickness, whatever it was, would taint the beginning of the week, and I might not be able to go to my training meeting. However, my fever thankfully broke in the evening, and I felt well enough to get out of bed. On Monday morning, after refueling the lory, Elena's counterpart dropped me off at the airstrip here in 'Eua with 10 minutes to spare before the plane arrived. After a beautiful, extremely short flight to Tongatapu, another volunteer and I get into the airport, and met up with the other volunteers coming in for the Emergency Coordinator training. After a good drive into Nuku'alofa catching up with other volunteers from our training group, I was told by the Peace Corps nurse that I had strep throat and that I should take it easy. So I walked around town for the rest of the day shopping for things that Elena and I need back in 'Eua. I picked up gardening equipment for our proposed garden behind the house, and as much fresh vegetables as I could carry, and regular and flea collars for our new dog, Oni. Dende' the new cat could probably use a flea collar, but there's nothing kitten-sized, so he's relegated to taking baths.

The Emergency Coordinator training went pretty well, and we learned quite a bit of interesting stuff about about various natural disasters and how to respond to them. We also training on how to take care of our fellow volunteers in the case of a emergency. All in all, it was an interesting and informative session, and a good excuse to get into Tongatapu to see other volunteers and stock up on necessities such as cheese.

After getting back to 'Eua on the morning of Wednesday, I went on a drive with Elena's counterpart to pick lu (taro leaves) before going back to Hango. Elena baked a bunch of tasty treats for me as soon as I walked in the door, and the birthday festivities started. We had a fun day, and then that evening we invited the other volunteers over for a bootlegged copy of the new movie "Avatar" that I bought in Nuku'alofa. Even in the middle of the South Pacific, there are some pleasant moments when you feel connected to the rest of the world.

This week, we're starting to get ready for the start of school either at the end of January, or beginning of February. Some of Elena's students are already at the school, and mine are in the process of registering for school. Everything is about to get a little bit busier than it has been over the past month, but probably will never get quite as busy as life back in the States (which we're grateful for).

03 January 2010

Oh George, not the livestock...

As we rounded the main road to our house for the first time and turned on to increasingly rough dirt roads, we first saw cows, and then our little blue and white house in the middle of the field. For the first week, we'd look up from cleaning something inside and find that all the cows were milling around our outer gate, looking dubiously through the windows as they lined up at their water trough behind our house. We'd try to go up to them, but they would fix us with a stare of extreme indifference and then go ambling off, as if they didn't want to be bothered with such a small, fast creature as was approaching them. Our house is a little green grove in a wide, flat cow pasture, and all around the house, we have eclectic foliage such as miniature palm trees, three lemon trees, two types of cactus, a soursop tree, a guava tree, and a huge thicket of ten foot tall grass that we accidentally burned to a crisp last week while clearing a place for a garden. The cows disapprovingly lowed at us and moved quickly away.

A Deodorized Fire

Living for just three months in Tonga so far has been a huge exercise in the waste we produce. We were already trying to be aware of our trash in Portland, but not so far to the extent that I'd feel regret at the plastic milk jug or empty cans of beans that we regularly threw out. Now, I actually feel a twinge of stress when I open a plastic bag of oatmeal or unwrap the foil off of leftovers, thinking “this will sure be hard to burn.” Tonga has virtually no waste management system. Everything that comes in to Tonga stays here, above ground, unless it gets incinerated in one of the many trash fires everyone lights on a Friday or Saturday. Anything metal, electronic, or aerosol is especially tricky. There is a big pile of discarded computers outside the school classrooms here, old first generation Macs from the 80s because there is nothing that can be done with them. We cleaned out a busted old curling iron and two aerosol air freshener cans when we first moved in, and they are still sitting outside our back door because we can't dispose of them safely. That leaves burning for everything else. I walked around just outside our gate two days ago, collecting the plastic bag shards, tooth paste tubes, and plastic bottles that had somehow accumulated there before we got here, and made a huge fire with old coconuts, leaves and brush. Aside from being fun to burn things at the slightest excuse, the fire curiously smelled like someone I wouldn't have wanted to date in highschool, which confused me until I remembered the old deodorant bottle that I'd thrown in there. The plastic that gets burned doesn't fully break down in the low-heat fire, and then stays in the air as toxic chemicals that later cause all kinds of havoc in the body. But there's nothing that really can be done at a household level other than save all the cans as planter boxes, and buy larger bags of goods. No matter what, plastic gets in there somehow, even as hard as we try to cut back.

A Week of Church= sleep, church, eat, church, eat, sleep, church, sleep, church, eat.

Yesterday started the first week of the year celebration, 'Uike Lotu. Quite literally it means “Week of Church,” and it is no exaggeration. There are services at 5AM and 5PM every day throughout the week, so this morning we blindly stumbled across the cow pasture at 4:50AM in the dark and blearily tried to follow the Tongan songs during the service. Here, it is not whether you go to church, it's where you go. In a town as small as ours, we only have one church of the Wesleyan variety, which happily means that church is an all-community event -- one that as new volunteers, we can't miss. Yesterday was the first Sunday of the year, a huge deal here, and so we had a feast after morning service, and then the whole town walked south to the main city to have afternoon service at the large Wesleyan church there. This was followed by yet another feast, but this time of baked goods. We sat down at long tables, each in front of a plate piled a foot high with the eclectic combination of:
a custard tart
chocolatey muffin
slice of chocolate cake
jam muffin
egg salad sandwich
slice of rolled whip cream cake
corned beef sandwich
guava-filled bread
corned beef crackers
two fried dough balls
graham cracker-tasting flat cake
slice of sweet unidentifiable cake

Literally a foot high. After everyone finished eating, they handed out plastic bags, and everybody dumped in all their leftovers to take home, the corned beef crackers right along in there with the custard tarts. We got a kick out of the whole affair.

Summer Vacation in January

For the moment, we have nothing to do but the always surprisingly difficult job of getting to know the community and learning more Tongan. Mark's school starts at the end of this month, and my school doesn't start until mid-February. Teachers here get moved around a lot by whatever sponsoring organization runs the school- the government or a church denomination- so no real planning happens until mid-January when the teachers are firmly assigned. Most schools have an actual planning week to determine school events, class subjects, teaching schedules, and sports, dancing, and other school-wide competitions. Hango Agricultural College, where we are living and I will be teaching, is getting accredited with a Samoan university this year, and so during our planning week, one of the goals is to integrate more business skills into the agricultural subjects. I met with the principal the other day, and this coming year, I'll probably be helping design the business aspects of the curriculum, teaching three computer classes, and during the second semester, possibly teaching agricultural marketing and/or farm management. It's all up in the air right now, because although the actual large subjects won't change much, the individual classes could change quite a bit with accreditation, so my job, like everyone else's, will probably change as the situation does. Mark has been helping with a local NGO near the high school where he'll teach, getting their computer lab virus-free and fixing their router problems. They were going to get a new router, but he saved them around $150 by being able to fix its issues, for which they love him. He has yet to meet his principal and co-teachers because all of his school's staff are in the capital city right now with the school band, raising money for the coming year.
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