21 February 2010

There's no such place as Tonga

I was just chatting with a friend who described his recent encounter with the US postal service upon trying to send a letter to Tonga. It cracked me up for the rest of the day, so I post our conversation for funnies.    Friend: did u get our card? me: not yet... mail is ridiculously slow herewe haven't gotten the boat from the capital island in the last couple of days, so it could be just sitting at the main post office across the water13:56 Friend: uhhh, the man in the post office laughed at me and asked "tonga...do u mean tanzania?" me: hahahahaha no way! Friend: i said 'no, tonga' --  he said there's no place called tonga me: that's funny that he didn't sugest Togo
13:57 Friend: he refused to take it unless I could show him where tonga was me: hahahaha! Friend: he was abusive, he said why do ur frnds have to go there
13:58and said there's no postal service from the US Friend: he even made fun of us by saying 'u guys are WRONGA'
13:59me: this is making my day!!! Friend: all this is truethey wont accept the envelope me: i love it!
14:00they think they can't send here? Friend: they said no place in their directory called Tonga

After the string of conversation, the friend said that after a lot of looking in the USPS directory, the mail clerk finally allowed them to post the card. It evidently takes true friendship to argue with the US Postal Service for the existence of a country.

19 February 2010

Sat, 20 Feb: The first day of school

In the week since the cyclone, the grounds of the agricultural college have been swarming with staff and students, cleaning up the fallen branches, collecting the coconuts that flew everywhere, and putting the roof back on the dairy shed. We had several false-alarm-first-days, the ones where the night before, I'm told that we're starting school the next day, but then the next morning, in light of all there is to be done on the grounds, it's pushed back another day. I was glad for each delay, because, as I said two posts ago, we still didn't have a finalized class schedule and I still didn't know what I was teaching. And by this time, I wasn't surprised any of the days that were ghost first days, as it were, because we've both learned that in Tonga, nothing happens till it happens.

The real first day was yesterday, a Friday. It was a comical-on-me, frustrating, satisfying day overall. A study in my own cross-cultural confusion. I woke up in the morning, thinking that we had a school assembly, and not too worried about any of my tentative classes, because the classes I'm teaching never fall on a Friday. So I think that even if we really do start, I won't be teaching til next Monday anyway. I get dressed, put on my kie-kie (the woven belt that is the Tongan womens' version of a suit), and walk down to the assembly area. No one's there! I walk around to the chapel, and see that not only is everyone gathered, but the program has started and they're already singing. I think that it's probably better to show up after it's done rather than walk in in the middle, so I come back an hour later, and find out that there always is a 7:30 AM Monday and Friday staff meeting right before the assembly, a fact that I was utterly unaware of. "Didn't you hear the bell?" my colleagues ask me. Of course I did, but, feeling clueless and culturally out of it, I had had no idea what it was for. To me, it seems like bells ring at all hours of the day, and I'm never sure what they're for. Having gotten that cleared up, I ask what we talked about, and find out that we are starting school, and that I'm teaching my first class in an hour.

Thankful for years of "you're the visitor, why don't you give a little speech" kind of on-the-spot thinking, I quickly rush home, slap together a lesson plan, and to my surprise, pull it off. It was (Year 3) Communication, and by the end of it, I learned a lot about what the students already know, and I think, they also had a little fun with some of my crazy games.

Now that school has officially started, I'm teaching (Year 1) Farm Management and (Year 3) Communication this semester, and next semester, I'll tackle (Year 1) Computer Skills, (Year 2) Agricultural Marketing, and (Year 3) Farm Business Management. I'm learning as much as I can about agriculture in the mean time, and eternally grateful that management and marketing is essentially the same everywhere, once you relate it to the industry's specifics. And with that, I constantly feel like I'm channeling the first day of Strategic Marketing with Professor Ringold.

Tuesday, 16 Feb: Cyclone Rene

I wrote the last post on my laptop at home about 3 hours before we got the call. There had been some talk of a cyclone coming through, and the sky to the East was looking darker and darker. Ominous winds were gusting around the house, bending our lush, leafy soursop tree into waves of motion. Weird as it might be, cyclones were always my favorite in the Philippines, having always had the luxury of a relatively well built house and a stock of food and candles, so we were excited for the coming storm in the midst of wondering how it was going to affect the next few days. Peace Corps called all of the volunteers in the area, and told us to "consolidate" to the common meeting point: the Mormon church in town that was built like a castle and could surely withstand a midaeval siege. We all trickled in on Sunday evening, the three of us from the North of the island a little reluctant, a little unwilling to leave our securely built houses with stocks of food and showers, but mostly happy for the chance to see the other volunteers. We hunkered down in a bare Sunday School room for the night, sure that by the morning there would be gale-force winds whipping around the building.

The next morning comes, and it's sunny. We get a call from the main office saying that the hurricane has slowed down over the north island of Vava'u, gaining in intensity, and will be upon us at 1pm. It starts raining hard within the hour, and I go out with two other volunteers to the store to get crackers, jam, tea, and Milo chocolate drink. The staples. We come back soaked, and read, sleep, watch movies. 1pm comes and goes. That evening, we get another call, each time more crackling than the first, saying that the storm will now hit at about midnight. Obligingly, the rain gets harder and harder, seeping in the louvered windows, and the kids of the other families also staying at the church scream delightedly outside. We all drop off to sleep to the sound of hard rain, and wake up at dawn the next morning to silence. My first thought is "we missed it!" Peace Corps calls again, saying that the consolidation order has been lifted, and so after 36 hours in the same hard-floored, cement room, we scatter like mice in front of a flashlight, and struggle back home through the still-hard rain and wind, marveling at what the weather has done while we slept: overturned signboards, roofs bent back upon themselves, tree branches in the roads. The sea is foaming with whitecaps. Mark and I get home, wet, muddy, and smelling like a day and a half in a wet, closed room, and find that our house is intact, but our trees haven't been too lucky. Our beautiful soursop tree that just a week ago was laden with almost bowling-ball sized spiky green, creamy tasting fruit, is lying on its side in our front yard, and two more trees are horizontal in the back.

It was a category 4 storm, but overall, it could have been worse. Power poles were down across the street, one of our neighbors' house was flattened, and roofs needed mending everywhere, but no one had been hurt and most of the damage was fixable. The biggest effect on us was that for the next week, the school and nearby town was without power, postponing school at the ag college for another 4 days, and causing havoc with our fridge. We rushed to save the quickly spoiling food in puddles of water in our freezer, and made several delicacies. Our biggest success was green mango chutney, which we made with thawing grated mango and slightly molding fresh red pepper. We also made spicy pepper vinegar, pickled ginger, pickled garlic, soursop apple sauce, green mango tuna soup, and 4 batches now of banana bread. Even so, our dog and cat got several tasty, foul smelling leftover meals, which they dutifully scarfed down.

Sunday 14 Feb: Enough vacation, what are you actually doing?

After a month and a half of meeting our neighbors, getting acclimatized to ‘Eua, and enjoying blissful rest after a full summer and fall, we finally have some idea of what we might be working on this year.

Mark’s high school started three weeks ago, and he’s left every day for Petani, the high school’s town, to spend most of the day working there with his co-teachers. This year, he’s teaching Form 5 Computers and Form 4 English, the equivalent of Junior and Sophmore years in the US system. In both of the classes, he’s co-teaching, which means that he follows the lead of the head teacher in each class, but works with them to plan lessons, and will end up teaching roughly half of the classes.

The school is very happy to have him, because for about a year now, they’ve had no certified English teacher, and as a result, they’ve had many students unable to progress to the next grade level because they haven’t passed English. The Tongan school system requires students to pass at least Tongan and English to complete that year of school, so even if a student has high marks in every other subject, they could be held back if they do badly in either class.

Mark’s also been working a lot with an NGO in that town that focuses on education and school scholarships, helping them fix and maintain their computer lab, looking into internet cafĂ© software, and helping them decide what projects to take on next. They are in the classically good but hard dilemma of a small NGO that is growing fast and is not quite sure what to do with their success. At the moment, the NGO wants to push ahead with a grant for a vehicle to take the village’s children to school, so Mark is working through that with them.

Hango Agricultural
This last week, I’ve been planning for classes here at the agricultural college, an exercise that might have been partially pointless as of tomorrow. Right now, the school is pulled between the Tongan education board standards, the Wesleyan Church education office creating a strategic plan for the school, and the desire to get accredited by the University of the South Pacific to allow students to transfer class credits there. So we had a big faculty meeting a week ago on Friday to determine what classes each person would teach, and then a week later, last Thursday, we changed the entire class schedule again because of some of these requirements. Needless to say, it’s put the school in barely controlled chaos, and has resulted in it being a day before classes officially start, and no one knows exactly what they are going to start teaching tomorrow.

Hango, the agricultural college, like the other 2 tertiary schools in the Wesleyan school system, is sort of like a Tongan community college. Because there are no universities on Tonga, many people who want BAs go to Samoa, New Zealand, or somewhere else for higher education. But a lot of people go to a tertiary school to either get specific credentials (like Hango’s Diploma in Agriculture), or to do the community college hop of taking the first two years at a cheaper, nearer-to-home school, and then quickly finishing the degree out at a university. Several of the recent graduates from Hango are now studying at the University of the South Pacific, getting their BA or BS in Agriculture. One of the reasons Hango is being pulled in many directions is that it is trying to upgrade the resources and course structure here so that students can smoothly transfer right into USP.

Theoretically, this semester, I’m teaching Farm Management (essentially an introduction to basic business management, tailored to running a farm), and possibly Computer Skills 1. Next semester will be more interesting, with theoretically Farm Business Management, Agricultural Marketing, and Communication Diploma level. But I’m keeping flexible, because they might change at a moment’s notice.

Other projects
Along with class teaching, this year I’m helping Hango create a brand and maybe eventually a marketing plan. I know it’s backwards, but the priority is to get a website up and running by June, to show to alumni and donors during the 40th anniversary celebration. I’ve liked the idea of Google Sites so far, because it’s simple, free (after you buy a domain name), and easy to update for people who don’t have web design experience. While I’d love to get good at website creation, I want to make sure that it can be maintained even if there’s no one who knows the technicalities.

As I mentioned above, the Wesleyan education office is also creating a strategic plan for Hango, and I’ll be involved in that as well. Mainly, I’ll be helping with the various improvement projects, working with Hango staff to figure out how they should be done, and writing project plans and grants for them. I might also be teaching a short series of optional sessions for students who want to start small businesses or do direct selling from their farms, and if I have my way, maybe even a section of the communication class on good graphic design.

Mark and I are also working with our town to help improve our town hall. Every Tongan town has a town hall of some sort, used for a huge variety of things from kava drinking circles for the men, to womens’ tapa making and weaving, dances, fundraisers, town hall meetings, and kids’ Sunday school. Our town hall here has seen better days, and it’s been a desire of the town leaders to refurbish it a little, fix its broken toilet, and generally make it look reputable again. They’ve asked us to help find funds for it, so we’ve been talking with people from town to find out what kind of community fundraising people can organize, and looking at small grants to make up the rest of it that one of the town leaders can apply for.

Finally, I’m trying to figure out how vanilla is bought and sold on ‘Eua and in Tonga, because it seems that several farms (including Hango’s) grow vanilla, but don’t sell it because of not being able to get a good price for it. The guy working on the town hall grants grows vanilla in his plot, and is thinking of starting a small business to sell it. I don’t know enough about the market to really be of any use yet, but we’ll see where that goes

09 February 2010

Cameras and Cats

There are those moments in life when you really wish that you were carrying a camera at all times. Here's my present reason for wishing:

Tonight, I got home from work at 7:00 in the evening, and after getting to talk to Elena for a little while about our respective days, she had to leave for a staff meeting. So I am home alone, and need to feed two voraciously hungry growing little animals. We have no root crop, blast! I'm going to have to boil either some sweet potato, or some rice, so I choose the rice because it's faster and I can knock out two birds with one stone because I want to eat some for supper. The little beasts are circling me, eyeing every movement with the interest of starving vultures hovering over a man staggering through the desert. And then I light on a brilliant idea: I'll serve the pets hopa (fat local variety of plantain bananas). So I mash some up with canned mackerel, and with two mouths out of the way, I go back to supper preparations. Finally, after spending another hour chopping, washing, stirring, and mixing, an extremely tasty dish of pseudo-stir-fry is ready. I sit down to my first meal since breakfast, and say a quick prayer, and dish up.

The animals have long been finished with their feast of hopa and fish (which I would have considered cooking for myself as well) and Dende, the orange tabby kitten, is sitting under the table edging closer and closer to my feet. Finally, as I'm halfway through eating, he starts to lick my toes as he cleans his paws. A moment later, he climbs up between my crossed feet under the table, and curls up, and goes to sleep. WHERE'S MY CAMERA?! It's not twenty feet away, but I'd ruin the picture if I got up...%@&#!! Oh well, here's to the descriptive power of words.

Elena can attest to the extreme amusement we get out of our new pets, especially Dende. He has an adorable habit of climbing up onto you and curling up in odd places, or simply dropping where he stands, regardless of how unlikely a sleeping place. We have been trying to get pictures, so fear not, the visual representation of these fun moments is not long in following.
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