18 December 2011

When Christmas is summertime


Our Christmas wreath at home- made from
a misprinted book and a scrap of red fabric
It's Christmastime, which in Tonga, means it's very, very hot. Anything of value happens very early in the morning, very late at night, or in blasting air-conditioning. Most offices do have air con, including mine, which makes moving in or out of the building somewhat like stepping into a totally different climate as I'm hit with a wall of humid hot air or a blast of arctic chill in the doorway.

Christmas in Tonga is also blissfully lacking in the commercialization that bombards residents in the US and many other countries, and while I would love to see the streets and shops decorated for Christmas, it's also nice to have less commercial pressure. Instead in Tonga, as one would expect, we have feasts. This year we'll miss the three-day Catholic feast we're invited to because we'll be visiting family and friends in the US for the first time in over two years, but we did get to celebrate a Christmas opening of the new Fua'amotu church with friends yesterday.

07 December 2011

How thin is a thin client?

Elena's new office
Monday was a Tongan public holiday in celebration of the birthday of the first king of Tonga, Tupou I, so most of Tonga went to the beach or took some other form of relaxation. Elena did not get day because the New Zealand High Commission works through most local holidays, but it was still a relaxingly slow day for her after two weeks of breakneck job training. For me, it was a welcome respite from the busy last two weeks spent preparing documents for my visa and preparing for my close of service with Peace Corps. So what’s left to do in order to properly wrap up my work with the Free Wesleyan Church schools? In a nutshell, I have to make sure that I’m no longer a necessary element in both helping the schools adopt new computer systems, and providing procurement, maintenance, and repair support from Tupou Tertiary Institute.

20 November 2011

Hello to the New Zealand High Commission

After the application process was all over, I calculated that I had spent over 30 hours preparing for this one application and interview. By the time I finished the two-hour interview and practical test process, I knew all the preparation was worth it: my rehearsed answers gave me confidence but all flew out the window as I laughed and chatted with the interview panel, and actually enjoyed the practical test.

When I got the formal offer, Mark and I dropped everything and ran around the local stadium to work off the adrenaline.

09 November 2011

Farewell to Tonga Development Bank

There were tears in my eyes for most of the morning. Mark and I sat at the head of the table in the Tonga Development Bank boardroom, festooned with fragrant loops of tropical flowers at the Bank's farewell gathering for me this morning. The table was laden with apple tarts, crust-less sandwiches, spice muffins, chocolate cake, and crystal bowls of red watermelon slices, and surrounded by all the TDB managers.

Next week will be my last one at TDB before I move on to the New Zealand High Commission, and I kept reminding my tear ducts that I was only moving practically across the block, not across the world yet. Never the less, the speeches, songs, and gifts "melted my heart" as my mom likes to say.

I had moved to TDB under rather unorthodox circumstances.

31 October 2011

Hype and hope: breast cancer awareness in Tonga

A delightful pink attendee
at a fundraising lunch
I couldn't believe my eyes, but there they were: a a prominent national rugby and a very recognized political figure hula-hooping next to each other on stage to the crowd's wild delight. It was admittedly one of the funniest moments during the events of this past month: October as breast cancer awareness month.  Last year I had helped in a minor way with publicity, and this year, enjoyed being a bigger part of each of the events during the month.  Everyone got into the spirit: it was a month for community, fun, and altogether too much bright pink.

With all the dressing up, parading through town, and festooning everything in sight with pink ribbons, it only takes one survivor's story to remind everyone the real reason for all the hype. During a radio show last week, a woman called in to tell her story; she was obviously trying to hold back her tears. Her aunt, she said, had died of breast cancer, and none of the family had known of her struggles until it was too late. She had been diligently hiding it for years, ashamed to tell anyone, even her own family.

23 October 2011

The Peace Corps experience: Was Peace Corps worth it?

The design I made
for the post T-shirts
The best and worst part about it is not having to think.

Walking into the Peace Corps office several days ago, I met a fellow volunteer frowning at a computer screen. "How's it going?" I asked. "Oh just facing real life again," he said "I'm trying to decide what to do about health insurance next year." It was a topic with which I completely empathized, having just scowled the same scowl at the myriad health insurance options myself the day before. We hadn't made these kinds of decisions in over two years.

Imagine getting a letter in the mail, and for the next two years, you wouldn't have to worry about where you were going to live, what house you would choose, whether or not you could afford the rent, what job you would take, or how to get an employment visa. You wouldn't worry about getting laid off because of a bum economy, and all your medical care would be paid for, 100%, including medical evacuations to the best doctors out of country. The only logistics you'd think about for two years would be where to buy your holiday tickets: Fiji or New Zealand? Or when the irregular bus schedule goes in to town for the weekend. Or how to teach 30 students with no curriculum to refer to.


But also imagine not having control over any of those things either. If there is a problem at work, imagine someone else deciding that you were going to be finding a new job. Faced with a nasty medical problem, imagine being told you had to accept whatever care was approved by doctors half way around the world, no questions asked.

18 October 2011

8 reasons why we're staying in Tonga

Throughout the past two years, we've gone through culture shock, adjusted, gone through culture shock again, made friends, become comfortable with Tongan working patterns, and made ourselves at home in this little capital city on an island in the Pacific ocean. And we're not ready to leave it, not quite yet.
Some parts are definitely idyllic

Now, don't be mistaken that Tonga is a perfect place where everyone lazily hangs out on the beach drinking coconuts. There are huge busses that spout black smoke into dusty streets, white-collar criminals that get their sentences forgiven, and huge piles of nappies (diapers) collect in the forest like a plastic foul smelling mountain. In short, Tonga is filled with amazing beauty next to surprising ugliness, just like any other country. And yet it's not like any other country. Not at all.

We promised to update you faithful readers, family, and friends around the world, and now we can definitively (as definitive as anything is in life) say that we are staying in Tonga at least another year.

07 October 2011

Tongan beauty products: the all-in-one soap, exfoliant, and perfume


 The crushed tuitui for some reason
reminds me of pecan pie
One morning in 'Eua as I was strolling through town, I stopped to talk to some neighbours, who were sitting in the shade next to their house with a big pile of brown nuts in front of them. I saw them scooping out the center of each nut, and popping a handful into their mouths. After masticating it into a fine pulp, each woman carefully scooped the mash out, and deposited it in a bag next to her. "Try some! It's Tongan soap!" one neighbor said, depositing a gob on my arm and instructing me to spread it around.

This was my rather abrupt introduction to one of the best Tongan beauty products out there: tuitui, or in English, candlenut.

01 October 2011

Goodbye. Goodbye?

"Have you heard anything yet? How did the interview go? What are your plans for next year? Skype does make an awkward interview, doesn't it? What will you remember about this coworker? It's for our goodbye party on Friday. Yes, ok, just look into the camera and start speaking... now."

One well-known expat in Nuku'alofa slipped away without telling anyone exactly when she was leaving.

21 September 2011

The game that roused an entire capital city


Dr. Ungatea, principal of a local high school, in her outfit
"GO IKALE TAHI!!!" we heard from every corner of the neighbourhood last night. The Rugby World Cup started on the 9th of this month, and the Tongan team, the Ikale Tahi, just made their first win of the tournament last night, playing against Japan.

Translated as the Sea Eagles, the team was officially named as such by the King, and their arrival two weeks ago in New Zealand, was heralded by two-hour delays at the airport as every Tongan in a hundred-kilometer radius arrived in red-bannered trucks to greet their team. It broke the record as the largest fan turnout during this world cup. We read each article with increasing delight, as the reports came in of a "sea of red and white," the Ikale Tahi's colours, and of cars facing the wrong way on the freeway as their owners' fervour got the best of them and they danced in front of their vehicles.

09 September 2011

Top 5 memorable things about visiting Tonga



Buying fai kakai (Tongan sweets) at the market
We have just returned from arguably one of the greatest three weeks of our last few years: hosting our first visitors to Tonga, my parents and brother. From the rainy night they arrived and we ushered them home to our little house-on-stilts to eat lu and sweet potato to the tearful farewells at midnight at the Auckland airport three weeks later, we managed to see a huge number of things in Tonga and New Zealand, and -miraculously- had a relaxing time throughout. 


Making lu at home
Upon their return to the Northwest (US) and ours to Tonga, we asked them to tell us the 5 things they will remember most clearly about Tonga- and they gave us 15. "There were so many memorable things about Tonga," they wrote "that we had a hard time keeping it to only 5, so we did 5 each!"



14 August 2011

The earthworm and the whale

We sat in the plyboard entrance of Marco's Pizza, a long table full of volunteers sitting on a motley collection of plastic chairs, old bar stools, a bench, a cooler (me), and a paint bucket (Mark). However rudimentary the seating may have been, the food before us was five-star; antipasta with hand-cured salami, handmade sausage, and mozzarella cheese, large plates of savoury pasta with mushrooms and cream sauce, and thick, handmade pizza hot from the oven. Marco takes his cooking seriously.

"Do you want to hear the story about the earthworm and the whale?" Paul, a volunteer visiting from the island of 'Eua says from across the table. Immediately the table goes quiet after a chorus of "yes"s.  "I heard it from the TCC guy who drives around in that beatup van with no drivers seat," Paul continues. "That guy!" I exclaim. "He gave us a ride several times," referring to hitchhiking rides during our stint in 'Eua almost two years ago.

03 August 2011

Your cousin's mother-in-law's brother is my aunt's cousin's father

A military march for the King's birthday
When anyone first meets someone in Tonga, the conversation will most likely go like this:

"Hi. 'Ofa Fifita*?" [They have already asked who this new person is from several people around you]
"Yes, hi."
"Mele Maka" says new person.
"Do you know my cousin, Melenaite Maka?" they ask.
"Isn't she the daughter of Sikaleti Po'oi? Sikaleti's my aunt's father in law."
"From Kanokupolu?" they ask, citing a large town on the island.
"Yes, are you from there?" the new person asks. "You know the blue house right before the Chinese shop as you come into town? That's my family's place!"
* Names are completely made up

And the conversation will move on from there. I am always amazed at the huge genealogies that everyone in Tonga seems to carry around in their heads, effortlessly referring to them at any useful occasion. It gets even more confusing when, as foreigners, we ask how certain members of the royal family are connected to each other--because at almost every important event, the guest of honour will be royal, or at least noble. 

26 July 2011

Be Wise: The first step? Join the association


The decorated hall's centre food court attracted a lot of visitors
Last Saturday was a living reminder that amazing things always happen when talented women get together. I returned to Tonga just in time to minimally help with the WISE Tonga official launch, the opening event of the new women in business association. Fully named Women in Sustainable Enterprises Tonga, the official association name is often shortened to WISE, not least because we can refer delightfully to the wise board, the wise membership, and the wise supporters.

20 July 2011

Smithsonian Folklife Festival: The whole story


Mele is weaving and I am practicing weaving in our booth
After two weeks presenting at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival following months of preparation and heaps of planning, I am back in Tonga and reeling from the exhausting, inspiring experience.

In short, the best part about it was epitomized by a trip to see the White House (from the gate, of course) with several other presenters. In a group of seven people, we collectively spoke five languages: English, French, Spanish, Tongan, and Bambara (from Mali). The diversity, accomplishments, and interesting experiences of other presenters at the festival were what inspired and delighted us throughout.

12 July 2011

Do-it-yourself: How to eat at a feast

The Conference Feasts seat over three-thousand people 4 times a day for seven days
Imagine you are walking around Nuku’alofa, and you turn a corner and find the street jammed full of vehicles and people all headed for an open field covered by tents. You wonder what all the commotion is about, so you ask someone what is going on. They tell you that this is the church conference, and that you should come eat at the meal that is just about to start. So how do you proceed, and what do you have to look forward to?

21 June 2011

Come see Mele and I at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

At this time next week, Mele, a Tongan artisan, and I will be making our way through U.S. customs with four full suitcases of Tongan crafts, heading to Washington D.C. We are attending the Smithsonian Folklife Festival as presenters of Tongan handicrafts; Mele will spend the two week festival demonstrating and discussing weaving techniques using lou'akau, or pandanus leaves, while I do my best to answer questions about Tonga and some of the work that I have been doing with handicrafts through Peace Corps.

The festival will be held on the National Mall between the Smithsonian Museums every day from June 30-July 4 and July 7-July 11 and will have three main sections: Columbia, Rhythm and Blues, and Peace Corps. We'll be in our own booth in the Peace Corps section for anyone who wants to come by, watch Mele weaving, try on a traditional Tongan outfit, or just chat. To see articles about what we and other volunteers are doing at the festival, visit the Peace Corps site.

In addition, we'll teach four small cooking classes on several iconic Tongan dishes at different times during the two weeks. Check out a schedule at the festival, or on the website to find out when.

We'll also be giving a weaving demonstration and participate on a panel at the Textile Museum on July 6th with a group of Columbian weavers, and I'll be part of several different panels throughout the festival.

And when we're finally back in mid-July, after I sleep for about 5 days straight, I will write all about it on a blog post for everyone to read and see!

18 June 2011

Invading 'Eua

Our full 'Eua flight
Last Tuesday, I received an urgent phone call, "Mark, we need to get to the airport soon because it is very crowded, and if we miss our flight, we will miss our opportunity to go to `Eua!" We had to catch one of the five flights that day to a small island that normally only gets two flights at most. There were so many people on standby for other flights that the airline continued to schedule additional flights for the next few days and still could not keep up with the demand. The normal one ferry-a-day was bumped up to two standing room only trips with three times the number of passengers they normally carry. So what was suddenly drawing an additional thousand people to the tiny island of `Eua?


This year marks the 50th Anniversary Jubilee of Hofangahau College, the only Wesleyan secondary school on `Eua. For four days last week, former teachers, students, and anyone who had ever had anything to do with the school flooded back to `Eua for three days of feasting, ceremony, dancing, marching, donating money, and generally catching up. For that week, the tiny island of normally 4,000 inhabitants doubled in size.

05 June 2011

The bug that beats up all top 5 pests in Tonga

Gather around for a blood-chilling story, a tale to make your scalp crawl, a mental picture so terrifying it makes babies cry and young children gasp with fright. This is a tale of the without a doubt, number one top pest in Tonga, a pest that puts all other pests to shame. That number one top pest, ladies and gentlemen, is .... skin infection.

For some reason, skin infection in the Pacific is particularly, shall we say, virile.

Pacific staph encountering American staph is like the Rock towering next to a skinny, pimply 13-year-old and booming down to him "WE'RE RELATED," and then glaring out at you in no-necked scary-muscle intensity. "Ouch!" I said to the Rock. "Your bulging muscles scare me!" but he paid me no attention, and kept gnawing on my hand.

It started as a little bump on my forefinger, where a tiny paper cut had healed just days before. Three days later, it had swelled to twice its size and a rapidly expanding white area had appeared on its surface. I could almost watch it spread over the top of my forefinger's first knuckle. 

29 May 2011

Celebrating the birthday of a Queen

The tau'olunga dancers from Queen Salote College
We sat on rough cement bleachers, looking out into the bright tropical sun at row upon row of uniformed young adults, color-coded, it seemed, into large blocks stationed around the track field. A line of girls started padding out from the right of the field, their coconut-oiled feet crossing the white track lines painted on the rubber surface, their shiny hands held together before them at eye level in a graceful dancing posture. It was time to start the next performance.

The spectacle looked like a marching band competition to my unaccustomed eyes: orderly blocks of young people, blending together in uniforms of blue, red, green, and white, each taking the field in succession to present their performance. All of this was part of the Queen Mother's five-day, 85th birthday party.

18 May 2011

When art meets nature

The Kermadec Project
Last night, we got to share in a tiny part of an environmental project that's using art to spread it's message. As we arrived, the dusky night was spreading along the Nuku'alofa harbour, and we stepped into a white balconied wood floored italian restaurant, packed with art, people, and sauna-like air. The event, put on by the PEW Environment Group and the New Zealand High Commission with performing group On The Spot Arts Initiative, was like an overseas gallery opening: beautifully displayed pieces, nice lighting, and a steady stream of appetizers.

13 May 2011

There's no "us" in bureaucracy

We just published this blog post two days ago, and to our bewilderment, the post was missing today. And even more strange, everyone got emailed an old post from October entitled "Business in Tonga." 
We apologise for this confusion. We've looked for clues as to how this happened, but are baffled. Ooo!
-Elena and Mark
Update on 19 May: Based on feedback we received from other bloggers, it seemed like there was a major glitch at Google, wiping any blog posts from the internet that had been published during those days. We change our "Ooo!" to "Boo!"

---------------------------
There's no "us" in bureaucracy

The idea started as a little thought that simply consisted of "Two years is so short!" but grew to "What if we stay for a third year through Peace Corps?" as we fell in love with Tonga.

30 April 2011

You say sea grapes, I say limu

The limu is kept fresh inside
When I see a triangle-wrapped leaf package I know there's bound to be something good inside. At feasts, little leaf packages hold fai kakai, a delicious cassava sweet, dripping in caramely coconut sauce. During Sunday dinner, larger green parcels sometimes hold lu, our favourite special dish of taro leaves wrapped around meat and cooked in coconut milk. This week, it happened to be limu.

25 April 2011

How running a business workshop works

Workshop participants working on an exercise
Out in the beautiful island group of Vava'u where the clear water laps over teeming coral reef, for at least three days a week, I was inside by a wheezing copy machine, replacing page after page to copy, compiling folders of materials, and making sure for the umpteenth time that the projector worked with the laptop. The other two days were the reward: village business workshops run with my coworkers at Tonga Development Bank.

18 April 2011

Peace Corps visits the Navy

"Sometimes, it really pays to be Peace Corps," I thought, as I looked out the open helicopter door into an areal view of clear water filled with colourful reef. I looked back at the helicopter that Mark was in, circling above a spit of green land, in an azure blue sky filled with puffy clouds.

The other volunteers around me wore the same wide-eyed, open mouthed expression that was on my face, like the expression on a kid's face if you told her Willy Wonka's chocolate factory was real and she had an all-year pass to swim in the chocolate river.


03 April 2011

The Octopus and the Mouse

One day a very long time ago, a small, clever mouse was out on a fishing boat in the middle of the sea. It was a very small boat and a very small mouse, so when the boat tipped in a wave, the mouse found himself tossed out into the wide blue ocean, swimming for his life. The fishermen had gone far, far out on this trip, hunting for the fish that swam only in the deep dark parts of the water, and there was no land in sight.

The waves tossed the little mouse back and forth, and the mouse started to become very worried. He looked down at his swimming feet, and saw all the creatures swimming comfortably under the water. "If only I could swim like them!" the mouse thought to himself. 


He was a very clever mouse, but finally, it seemed as if all his crafty ways had deserted him, stranded now in the middle of the wide blue ocean. But the mouse didn't give up hope. Deep below him, he saw an octopus swimming in the dark depths. "Octopus!" he called, "Help me! I'm about to drown, and need to get to land!" 

The octopus surfaced and looked at the little wet mouse. "Why should I help you?" the octopus said. "The nearest island is a long way away, and I will be very tired taking you there," he complained, gesturing in the direction of the island. The clever mouse had an idea. "If you take me to land," the mouse said, "I will pay you handsomely for your troubles. I have many good things on the island there, if you will just take me. You won't regret it."

The octopus, wondering what treasures the mouse had hidden on land, agreed to take him, and told the mouse to hop up onto his head. The mouse was very tired, and gratefully climbed up on to the octopus's head as the octopus started swimming toward shore.

Now the island was a very long way away, and the mouse had had quite a fright. They went up and down waves, passed by sail fish and sea snakes, and skirted around large beds of seaweed until the sun was low in the sky. Finally, the mouse could see the shallow ocean bottom and the little puffy sea cucumbers that lived there, near the shore. They had come to his island! 

The octopus swam right up to the island, and the little mouse hopped off of his head and onto the warm sand. Saved, at last! The mouse looked back at the octopus from the safety of shore and laughed. "Thank you!" he said. 

"Where's my payment?" the octopus demanded. "Why, I've already left my payment for you," the mouse replied, "just look on your head!" 

The octopus reached up and felt three little mouse pellets left there, and the mouse ran away into the trees, laughing.

And that is why fishermen always use a mouse to catch the octopus from the deep blue ocean, because ever since, the octopus has been trying to catch the mouse that so insulted him.

- A Tongan story

27 March 2011

Puke and Rocket: Tongan names that catch foreigners off guard

What's in a name? He whom we
call Puke in any other language
would still smell as sweet.
When I first met someone called Puke, I was, to say the least, confused. My bewilderment wasn't at all diminished when I learned that puke (pronounced poo-kay) is the Tongan word for "to be sick," bearing an uncanny resemblance to it's English meaning. But Puke doesn't mind his name, which is actually a shortened version of a longer name, and the sidelong glances I kept expecting when people met him were just nonexistent. I was the only clueless foreigner snickering at my own tasteless joke. It just wasn't an issue.

20 March 2011

Shopping Trip on Bikes


In Tonga, you very quickly get used to seeing large baskets of root crop, coconuts, and huge piles of vegetables by the side of the road for sale. What you don't typically think about is how heavy root crop and coconuts actually are when you have to carry them by foot or on a bike.

Bicycles are fantastic for getting around, and they give you a fun excuse to exercise, but they usually do not come equipped to carry cargo right out of the box. For this you need racks mounted over the back or front tires, or a basket mounted on your handlebars. While in New Zealand for our early December vacation, I bought a back rack for my bike to allow us to tie things to the top and carry bags attached to its side. This has vastly increased the amount of groceries we can buy in one go, and for the first time since we moved to the main island of Tongatapu, we are willing to buy bags of root crop and coconuts (both of which are extremely heavy and difficult to transport in any quantity on foot, let alone by bicycle).

06 March 2011

Do-it-yourself: How to make a Tongan mat

Mark wearing a ta'ovala
Imagine you visit Tonga and see the beautiful formal waist mats (the Tongan equivalent of a suit) that people wear and the fine mats people give at ceremonies. You decide you want to buy one, but are surprised that most regular waist mats, or ta'ovalas, cost upwards of $100 USD! You are clever with your hands, so you decide you will make one yourself. After all, it looks difficult, but how hard can weaving a bunch of strips of... something... be?

28 February 2011

Pulling together medical care, pun intended

Last night at 7, I found myself lying in the Peace Corps medical office, feeling the particular raspy tug of nylon thread being pulled through my numbed knee. This was the first time I've ever had stitches, and maybe the only time I may ever have them on a Sunday night by a jet lagged (but exceedingly competent) doctor in a simple office with borrowed anesthetic and only one type of thick black nylon thread. It was an adventure.

22 February 2011

'Eua, 8 months later

Coming in on the flight to 'Eua
We just got back from a lightning work trip to 'Eua last week. A perk of both of our jobs is the occasional chance to travel to another island group to help a school better develop their computer lab, for Mark, or to help run village trainings and staff trainings, for me. We took the seven-minute flight on Tuesday through thunderclouds and turbulence, and arrived back to the island that still feels a little like home even after all these months.

13 February 2011

8 ways to have fun in Tonga

The back of a truck, loaded for the beach
Early yesterday morning we were awakened by what I thought was someone running up the flight of stairs to our house, an indistinct rumble. Several seconds later, the windows started rattling, our closet swung crazily, and the whole house shook! It was a 6.1 earthquake, originating almost under Nuku'alofa! No one was hurt, and nothing was damaged, so it was little more than a jolt awake and some excitement. We had been sound asleep from a busy, fun weekend. We'd made apple pie with some friends on Friday, gone to the weekend market on Saturday morning, and capped off the day with an exciting game of ultimate frisbee, dinner, and an evening movie night with friends where we watched 12 Angry Men, which everyone loved.Which brings me to a question recently posed: "What do people do for fun in Tonga?"

05 February 2011

Looking backwards isn't backwards: saving Tongan material culture

Princess Pilolevu laughing with Langafonua leadership
 The doors, closed, were guarded by the Royal army, and it was hot. The crowd in the room was slowly melting into their chairs, the women vainly trying to slow the process with the slow flap of woven fans. The only breath of cool air in the room was coming from a solitary electric fan, pointed at the most distinguished guest of honour, the current king's sister, Princess Pilolevu.

We were next door to the handicraft centre where I help out, gathered in the central room of the Langafonua women's association for the official opening of the Royal Art Gallery and Demonstration Village. This was a big day; the collection of royal portraits and the two fine mats displayed in plexiglass cubes are the first and only museum area showcasing Tonga's governmental history in the entire country.

28 January 2011

My Angry Stomach

Yes that's right. My stomach is angry at me. After three months of going through every digestive test imaginable - involving x rays, blue dye, internal cameras, and loopy sedation, among others - the good news is that the doctors have ruled out everything very serious, and have concluded that I have an unusually bad case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I was equally amused to find out that it's also called spastic colon. What a spastic, irritable bugger - who knew that my stomach had emotions!



I'd heard of it plenty before, but was surprised when the doctor explained how it works. IBS is a problem in the communication between your brain and digestive system; your brain misinterprets signals from your stomach, and tells your digestive system to speed up or slow down -- when it really shouldn't. So that deliciously creamily melting double chocolate ice cream cone I just ate ends up sitting there in my stomach, creating a nice little puddle of fermenting cream that doesn't actually get broken down in my digestive system. And its been months since I've been able to eat a double chocolate ice cream cone.

Despite a ton of testing that's been done on IBS, still no one knows what exactly it's cause is, but it seems to crop up when your stomach has been weakened (in my case by stress from the beginning of Peace Corps service, Brazilian parasites, lactose intolerance, and possible other parasites that have come and gone.) 

The bad news is that it's a Syndrome, so it's kind of with me for life, and it's a particularly bad case -- but at least I can't pass it to anyone else. The way to manage it is with a restricted diet (no milk and very low gluten for me... forever perhaps), small amounts of regular exercise, probiotics (like the good little bacterias in yoghurt and kim chee), and keeping very low stress ("I'm sorry, boss, but my condition prohibits me from working extra this week..."). I'm also taking aloe vera juice, flax seed, and peppermint oil, all of which have proven to be useful in calming angry stomachs.

Maybe my stomach needs counseling: "Now stomach, what made you reject this food, cramp up, and make a lot of gas?" "Mm hmm.. I see... so what you're saying is that you feel misunderstood by the brain..."

Any suggestions from people who have encountered IBS? Conflict resolution for the stomach?

14 January 2011

Sex, gender, and politics

credit: CEDAW
Roughly 20 years ago, the UN published an international treaty for women's human rights, called CEDAW. It calls for equal rights for women, female access to education, women's health, and calls for measures against violence and trafficking. Most prominent nations signed it: the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, Brazil, among many others, as well as most smaller nations. So far, only a handful of countries have failed to ratify this treaty - one of them is Tonga. And another is the United States.

08 January 2011

A day in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer

It's raining heavily outside, and the wind is gusting horizontally through our house, blowing the basil pots on the balcony and spraying occasionally through the open door. It's exciting cyclone season in Tonga! The past week has been a wonderful, lazy break - everyone in Mark's school office has been away for the summer holidays, and things are slow in the business advising department as the new year starts.

It's been a contrast from our daily schedules.

We often get asked what our every day life looks like, so here is one typical day for each of us:

01 January 2011

Why the old King's village is famous for its pigs

Mark dug the knife into the side of the pig, it's golden roasted skin crackling as he drew it down to its foreleg, carving out a generous haunch for the guest of honour sitting to his right: a pastor that would, at 10PM later that night, be one of the dozen preachers to give consecutive messages until bell rang 2011 in at midnight.

We were sitting at a long table, looking out across green, waving fields from the airy porch where the feast was set, red flowered cloths tacked up in horizontal bands around the porch roof's edge to soften the tropical sunlight that filled the air around us. Before us was set stacks and stacks of some of the best food, its cooks coming from a family that taught their community to serve and eat a five-course meal, and who served Queen Salote's fresh breakfast bread. Around my slowly emptying plate were still-full saucers and bowls of stuffed beef rounds, fresh grilled fish, turkey slices, chicken curry, and creamy pasta. Everything was overshadowed by a massive platter of sliced yams, sweet potatoes, and taro next to the enormous pig, looming up in the centre like a golden glistening log. It was just bigger than my torso, and sat steaming and dripping on a tin platter that I might be tempted to use as a toboggan in colder climates.

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