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.


  1. definitely thought provoking to think about the trash issues you raise. I wonder what it would do to our consumer habits in the US if we were forced to deal ourselves with somehow disposing of all the trash we made.

  2. This is all fascinating.

    I have some great cow stories from my days as a youth pastor in rural Kentucky. Cows have great personality and gravitas, and yet we eat them!

    Mark, your folks are going to be with here at First Portland this Sunday.

    Blessings, Pastor David


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