29 March 2010

Tongan Royalty

A beautiful "tapa" (or bark cloth) painting. Big tapa are presented at funerals and special occasions.

Last week, the Queen came to 'Eua. She's the mother of the current King, Tu'i George Tupou V, and owns quite a bit of pine-forested land in the North of the island, as well as having a claim to the royal residence at the outskirts of our very own town. On Monday last week, we met the other staff and students of Hango, dressed to the nines, and walked down to the royal house for "church with the Queen." I wasn't sure whether this meant that other people would come, or whether the Queen always had church on Mondays, but as soon as we arrived, quickly saw that this was the equivalent of a personal royal meeting.

Speaking in whispers as we got closer to the house, we were ushered into a long screened porch with mats on the ground, where we sat cross-legged, packed in along the walls and center. At one far end was a bare-walled, white room with a stuffed chair in the middle, facing our long screened porch, evidently where the Queen received her visitors. When she came in, her royal demeanor belied, or perhaps enhanced her simple, clean surroundings. The Queen's representative in town sat immediately to her right on our porch, answering her questions and introducing the speakers. The principal, deputy principal, and school chaplain all sat on her left at the front, and started out with formal thank you speeches and a long prayer. For the next 30 minutes, we had church much like any other day in Tonga, singing from the small blue hymn books, reciting the Lord's Prayer in Tongan, and ending with a closing prayer, everyone stealing surreptitious glances toward the Queen in her stuffed chair. When church was done, the Queen asked about Hango, putting everyone at ease with humour and gentle teasing, and encouraged Hango in several farming projects she had been thinking about. After about an hour of talking back and forth with Hango's managing staff, each person walked up to the Queen's chair on their knees as he or she was introduced by the representative, shook her hand, and then crouch-walked out the door, keeping our heads well below hers.

It was a very interesting experience. For one, I never expected to be allowed to sit and have church with the King's mother, and I never expected it to be on a simple, screened porch. I was surprised that she was so approachable, and at the relative lack of pomp and , and was impressed, if not surprised, at her easy command of the entire room.

28 March 2010

Back at Work for Two Weeks

We arrived back in 'Eua on Friday the 19th as planned, and boy is it good to be back. We are only back for two weeks though, because at the beginning of April, we have our "Inter-Service Training" or IST. During that training, there will be sessions on business, 4 hour intensive language classes, and a training on grant-writing. We're both looking forward to seeing everyone, but it's a shame to have to go back to Tongatapu again so soon after getting home. We enjoyed our mini-forced-vacation in town, but the novelty of Nuku'alofa is quickly exhausted. The best part of being in town was shopping for things we can't get in 'Eua, and seeing other volunteers, and we did both exhaustively. It was very good to see the other volunteers and to have supper with some of them. It was a good way to catch up and get new ideas for things that we are working on in 'Eua.

Coming back, we had to leave a couple bags in town for the office to ship over to us on the boat because we had stocked up on dry goods like beans and muesli. Elena was able to buy a new hand-crank sewing machine which she proudly carried with her on the flight. It has gotten quite a bit of use both in town before we left and as soon as we got back home. She has been able to make herself a few new clothes which she desperately needed for work. (When we were packing to come to Tonga, everything we saw said to just bring a couple sets of professional clothing, but because Elena works at Hango, she's in professional dress every day, and so was wearing sunday outfits, etc.)

Co-pilot Elena

Coming in for a landing over the Niuan villages

Flying over 'Eua

'Ohonua from afar

The beach of Tongatapu as we are leaving
On the flight back from Tonga to 'Eua, Elena got to sit in the co-pilot's seat on the shortest commercial flight in the world. She was able to get some fantastic pictures of the flight and of 'Eua as we were landing.

Back at Work

We've been back at school for a week now, and have been slowly getting back into the rhythm of life here. On Saturday, we were able to go to the first fruits 'Ufi (yam) harvest at Hango, which is an important event wherever you are in Tonga. Every time you harvest the 'ufi, there's a ceremony in which everyone involved in farming the plot of land and sometimes your neighbours, comes and digs up the biggest 'ufi from each row. They give this 'ufi to the school, or the landowner as a thank you for using the land. 'Ufi is the favourite root crop in Tonga, and takes 6 months to mature, so it's a delicacy. We went to the fields behind the school up the hill, and everyone was already there digging up yams. There was also an 'umu (underground oven) already made and smoking, getting food ready for the feast once they were done with the harvest. After a few hours, everyone came to sit down, and the pigs and yams that had been cooking in the 'umu were pulled out and cut up. The yams in Tonga are not dense at all, and taste delicious when cooked in the 'umu, and with a side of pig to go with it, it was just about as good as it gets for a picnic in the bush. I was then sent home with a whole 'ufi and another side of a piglet for myself even though we hadn't been part of the planting. We'll be enjoying 'ufi for a few days now.

And on that note, I'll tell you how we use 'ufi with other dishes besides picnics in the bush. I made up a curry with pele (A local green leafy vegetable) and hamhock (from town) and some of the delicious Capetown Masala mix I picked up in Seattle last time we were there. I then sliced up the yam into thin round slices and ate it with the curry. Delicious. You can also used the 'ufi like mashed potatoes with excellent results, or cube it and use it in stews, or as the starch side with your meal. The taste is great.

Peace Corps get-togethers

One of the weekly events that we have enjoyed has been the tea that we all get together for every week. One afternoon a week, all the volunteers gather at someone's house to have tea and treats and talk about our weeks or just catch up with eachother. There's a lot of good conversation to be had and it's pleasant as it draws us all together as a group so we can better support and work together.

We also have gotten together a couple of times at our house, which has been very fun. Most recently, everyone came over with pizza makings and we made a mexican pizza with black beans, an eggplant pizza with mozzarella, and an eggplant, ham, and bean pizza with mushrooms...eclectic but tasty. We all had a great time, took a bunch of pictures, met a visiting friend of one of the volunteers, and then had cake and ice cream.

A Not-So-Short Hiatus

Bacteria and Forced Vacations

Well, we have discovered what has been plaguing me for the past four weeks. It turns out, I had a Gram Negative bacteria colony happily growing in my throat, and Elena has a different bug plaguing her. The nice thing about Gram Negative and Elena's bug as opposed to Whooping Cough are that they're easier to treat, and we are now on the right medication.

The flip side of this little trip to Nuku'alofa is that it has been a forced two-week vacation, and not terribly unpleasant either. Besides the frustrations over being away from our work for two weeks and seeing our return date get pushed back repeatedly, we have been quite enjoying ourselves. After mostly being on 'Eua over the last three months, it's funny how big Nuku'alofa feels, and how novel it is to be able to go to a cafe and have coffee or tea. We have had some quite phenomenal Chinese food while we've been here, along with pizza, and breakfast delicacies.

Chinese Food

You will never quite realize how much you miss Chinese food until you can't get any. This was the priority of one of our dinner location searches. After a lengthy debate among the volunteers at the office, we decided to go out and get Chinese food for supper. There are a couple prominent establishments in Nuku'alofa, but we've been to all of them, and at least one person disagreed with going to each. So Ashley, another volunteer from 'Eua suggested we go search out this hole-in-the-wall establishment that none of us had been to named "Golden Chicken" or something along those lines. So we went out with a vague idea of where it was, and some misgivings about an unknown restaurant. We found it, and it was rather unremarkable-looking, and looked closed to boot. We were about to walk away from what we now knew was the "Golden Star" when a man ran out of the Chinese shop next-door and opened the restaurant for us. They started cooking everything up right there when we got there, and we were the only ones in the place. However, it was completely worth it! When the food came out of the kitchen, we were quite impressed with the quality. It was hilarious that such an unassuming place had what was probably the best Chinese food I have had in Nuku'alofa since I arrived in Tonga. I have no doubt that there will be additional trips to the Golden Star next time we are in town.

14 March 2010

Whooping Cough?

-Whooping Cough?
Dealing with illnesses of various sorts is sometimes the expected cost of working in the tropical world, and while I don't at all think that we deal with sickness here any more than in the US, for the past three or four weeks it has been something that has started to affect work here. Well, this whole story starts four weeks ago when Typhoon Renee came through Tonga, and all Peace Corps volunteers were gathered in one place to weather the storm in 'Eua. During our consolidation, I started coughing a bit, but didn't feel sick. Within a week, however, it was starting to turn into a slightly more serious dry cough with no other symptoms but violent coughing with a tickle at the back of my throat. My lungs and sinuses were clear, but the coughing just was getting worse. When I went into Tongatapu for some vaccinations, a doctor checked me out and after finding very little to go on, thought it would be safe to put me on broad-spectrum antibiotics. So I went back to 'Eua after our tsunami warning two weeks ago.

Back in 'Eua, despite the medicine, my cough kept getting worse to the point where it was keeping both Elena and I up at night. I would be fine most of the time, but then I would have violent spasmodic coughing and would be gasping for breath for a few seconds after the fit. I even threw up a little bit a couple times because I coughed so violently. After a week of this, I thought it would be best to contact our medical staff here, and last monday, both Elena and I flew in to Tongatapu again to get some tests done to see if they could find out what the cause of the cough was. At that point, Elena was showing some of the early symptoms I showed in consolidation, and at least three people at Hango have been coughing like me for a month.

We went back to the doctor I initially went to who wasn't able to find anything except for the dry tickling cough in the back of my throat. Because it didn't seem like I had responded to the treatment before, I was put on Augmentin, a different broad-spectrum antibiotic, and Elena was also put on antibiotics to see if they could catch it early in her. We have stayed a week in town now for observation by the medical staff, and I am finally getting better. Elena is starting to develop a heavier cough than before, so she might end up going through the same thing as I have in the coming weeks. We still don't have any definitive word on what this cough is, but the medical staff seems to think that it most closely resembles whooping cough, or 90-day cough. In a couple weeks we will get back the results of my blood tests, throat swab, and chest X-ray, so we might find out more.

-Typhoon Thomas draws near at a snail's pace
We are clear to return to 'Eua now, but there is a tropical cyclone (hurricane) that has been brewing up around Fiji that might drop down this direction in a few days that is pushing a lot of rain our way. We will find out in a couple hours whether or not we will stay in town for another week or be able to go back home and return to work. Latest projections are saying that the storm probably won't actually hit Fiji until tomorrow, but who knows. At the moment, Thomas is moving very slowly, and will likely miss us completely except for giving us a good deal of rain. Unfortunately, because it is in our general region, Peace Corps will be putting travel restrictions on us at the end of the day, so if our flight gets cancelled because of rain, we won't be able to go back home for another few days.

01 March 2010

The False Alarm Tsunami

The thing was, it never came! Peace Corps called at 2am on Saturday morning, warning us of a possible tsunami coming our way from the disastrous Chile earthquake. I slept soundly for the rest of the night, knowing that our house on top of one of the highest points in Tonga was very safe, but nonetheless worried about the rest of the islands. Church the next morning was canceled in a lot of parts of Tonga (a big occurrence for a place where you miss church only when you're on your deathbed!) but after all the warnings, nothing came.

We were actually very glad about the seriousness with which people took the warnings, even though it turned out to be for nothing. With the recent deaths in Samoa and the Niuas from the last large tsunami still fresh in people's minds, everyone is especially keen to be safe rather than sorry.
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