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.
I've just accepted a position as a Development Programme Coordinator with the New Zealand High Commission, and Mark is shortlisted for several jobs, so we can start making our plans: Tonga for at least another year.

We've weighed our options, and Tonga clearly came out first. Here's why we're staying:

1. The people. We've made wonderful friendships and connections throughout our time here, and have been really lucky to spend time with some truly amazing people here that have inspired us in our own lives. These relationships took a while to grow, and we want to see them grow further.

The ladies at Tonga Breast Cancer Society
at one of this month's awareness events
2. The culture shock. Frankly, we're just not ready to do it again. Tonga has become home for us, and as typical with any cultural adjustment, we spent the first year and a half here just getting to a place where we felt like we could really start learning about Tongan culture. Finally about a year ago, we started to feel things fall in to place more, and as the months go by, we become more effective at working within the Tongan context and having fun with it.

A friend at a tapa class at Langafonua
3. The projects. Both in jobs and volunteer work, we're excited to see what we will be involved in next year. For me, working with New Zealand Aid as a full time job, continuing to support Langafonua and On the Spot in whatever I can, and continuing involvement in various associations will be a lot of fun. Mark is keen to be part of the ongoing growth of EWaste Tonga and environmental groups, and the next jobs update on our side will be which of his opportunities he's going to be in for the next year.

4. The value of relationships over stuff. Don't misunderstand us - Tongans love stuff- and we do, too. Just walk in to the living room of someone who has recently returned from a trip to New Zealand, and you'll see new kitchen appliances, a flat screen TV, and maybe a new computer. But especially as companies in the US desperately try to attract more customers in a less-than-ideal economy, the contrast between "the next new thing" consumer culture of the US, and the less demanding consumer culture of Tonga is refreshing. My overall impression when I went back to the US as a presenter at the Smithsonian was that everything was amazing and beautiful and just cool, but it was amazing and beautiful and cool in order for someone to buy it. In Tonga, you usually make things beautiful to honour someone, not to attract buyers. Perhaps a future blog post on this is coming.

5. The natural products. There is nothing so satisfying as coming home, cracking open a fresh young coconut to drink from a farm several kilometers down the road while munching on half of a papaya grown in the back yard. While the imported items in Tonga are expensive and/or low quality (fatty chicken, low-quality soy oil, $7 for four oranges) the local products are abundant, cheap, fresh, and tasty. Volunteers who go back to the US often say that they miss the better-flavoured vegetables and fresh produce sold at the market here. Now that we've figured out how to cook with the seasons, we enjoy heaps of the best tasting cabbage, squash, and cucumbers for several months, to be followed next by a colourful abundance of tomatoes, eggplant, chayote, and cilantro. Not to mention grass-fed pork at feasts, fresh-caught tuna, and the butcher shop down the road that occasionally has cuts of local grass-fed beef. And then of course tuitui for soap, local ginger and lemon for colds, soursop and coconut juice to soothe upset stomachs, and papaya seeds for fakalele (literally translated from Tongan: "the runs"). Our hippy sides rejoice.

Makes me hungry just looking at it

6. The temperature and atmosphere. Tonga has one of the most pleasant climates out of anywhere we've been. It generally stays between 20 and 30 degrees Celcius here (68 - 86 F) and the nights are almost always cool and breezy. I personally love biking along at dusk when the sea air is blowing along the streets and the sun is setting over the water, passing groups of young people playing volleyball in neighbourhoods and pairs out for an evening stroll. 

7. The random events. We never know when one week might be livened up by the Ikale Tahi rugby team returning home, or a trade fair, parade, public holiday, or some other event. Because of how small Tonga is, we also never know who we'll run into at an event, and love meeting the amazing and interesting people that we cross paths with.

A float at a recent parade
8. The change. Tonga has gone through a lot in the last years. The late King George Tupou 4's death in 2006, the 2006 riots that destroyed large parts of the capital city, the current King George Tupou 5's coronation ceremony in 2008, the sinking of the Ashika ferry in 2009, the democratic elections in 2010, and the"rebranding" of Tonga as a tourist destination this year among many other interesting events. Tonga is due to be hooked to an undersea fibreoptic cable next year that will bring massively fast internet, and there are several other interesting initiatives coming up in the near future. All of which should be very interesting to see as we live here for a while longer.

And of course, who would want to leave behind such a cute kitty as ours?


  1. Congratulations on securing a job that will allow you two to stay! I will miss the chance to see you but am excited for you to be able to continue your relationships there. Are you planning on visiting the USA anytime in the near future?

  2. Elena, excellent blog. You and Mark are such a refreshing blessing !

    Don Watson

  3. Awesome! I would stay if I were you, too! Blessings as you work and play.


  4. Glad tidings indeed -- not least because it gives a welcome extension to the dream of visiting you two "one of these days..." (perhaps enroute NZ & Oz?)

    Ted & Femmy

  5. hello..I just wanted to thank all of you..for dedicating your time to help the Tongan people..cheers


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