21 December 2012

Christmas, the third

This year's Christmas decorations are out of strips of coloured paper
Christmas has come around again, marked by a steady emptying out of the city as people visit family and friends around Tonga and abroad. Nuku'alofa in the middle of summer Christmas looks like any other time of year, but hotter and emptier. For us, Christmas here has always been a rather sad time. Most of our friends here have already gone abroad for the holidays, there are few decorations in the city, and not many Christmas events other than the occasional choir night. Even in most churches, the season is mostly just another day of normal service with occasional Christmas songs. It's just not as big of a deal here as in most other places I've been. That is why, this year, I wanted to make Christmas into a big deal - at least as much as I could with friends, decorations, and food. In part, all this is a celebration for making it through an incredibly difficult year.

08 December 2012

The Giant of the Pacific, Australia

Mid-last month, Elena and I departed on our first visit to Australia in the three years that we have lived in the South Pacific. We had a fantastic time, and tried to make the most of our time in the country, visiting a diverse range of visual and performing art shows, restaurants, markets, gardens, and a zoo, as well as spending time with good friends that we met during our work in Tonga. As it is difficult to share everything that we did, here are some snapshots and commentary of just some of the highlights of our visit.
Our first stop after getting off the plane

11 November 2012

The US elections in Tonga

Obama at a campaign event (AP Photo/John Raoux)(Credit: AP)
 I never thought the US presidential elections would be such a big deal in the middle of the Pacific. For weeks up until election day, I was asked "Who are you going to vote for?" and "What's the difference between the candidates?" and informed about the latest crazy election-related news that had come out that day. Never did I expect this in Tonga.

02 November 2012

Navigating with Sea and Stars

The Hine Moana
Last week, the Hine Moana majestically sailed up to the pier, the one just near the fish market, painted sails full to the waiting crowd. The vaka, or ship, is one of seven open-ocean voyaging canoes that have seen ports from Auckland, NZ to San Francisco, USA, and is manned by a crew that has been learning for the past year how to navigate the broad Pacific Ocean using the complex calculations based on stars, currents, sea creatures, and other methods that remain a mystery to most.

15 October 2012

Training, Trust and TBEC

TBEC's services are bilingually English and Tongan
When the training centre started, it was met with skepticism. "Will it really help to send my staff to these trainings? It might reflect badly on my ability as a manager if they need it." "Isn't that the centre that helps palangi (foreign) businesses?" people asked. "I'm doing alright right now. I don't want to risk meddling with some new idea," others said. At the time, I was working at Tonga Development Bank, and heard about it through the grapevine. The hope people had, like almost all hope for new projects in Tonga, was cautious. This was the humble beginning of TBEC, or Tonga Business Enterprise Centre.

07 October 2012

The True South Pacific

Clear water and sailing in Vava'u
The tourism industry in Tonga has always seemed to me like a two headed dog with each head eying warily and distrustfully at the other. You can take one look around downtown and see that Tonga is blissfully not a tourist trap - and that's why most tourists come here. Tourism numbers are generally low, but out of the major economic sectors, agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, and a few others, tourism is the only one showing a bit of growth as potential to support small businesses and families all around Tonga. On the other hand, it's viewed by some as a culture-eroder and as a blow to personal pride to work in customer service.

In my job, one of the major areas I look after is NZ's support to tourism in Tonga; a large and complex programme that is fraught with differences of opinion, politics, and barriers at every level - because in many ways, both heads of the beast have a good point.

14 September 2012

Farewell, Asa

Asa walking to an island through a tidal flat

We were very sad to say good-bye to Asa a week and a half ago, and he wrote a great reflection on his time here:

Three months have come and gone surprisingly quickly. As of the 4th of September, I’ll have been in Tonga for a total of 83 days since the 12th of June, and it’s been quite an adventure. I’m not sure if I could call it “There and Back Again; a Human’s tale” as I at no point traveled with dwarves and a wizard to slay a dragon and reclaim a mountain home, but it has been quite fun.

05 September 2012

Running through the ancient capital of Tonga

When I was in high school, it was some perverse joy of US gym teachers to round up the class full of awkward, sweaty teenagers, spend months teaching them how to throw a ball into a hoop or how to hold a hockey stick, and then with no endurance training, let them loose on a track and tell them they will be timed as they stumble their way through a mile. I could barely do it; even two years ago, I could barely run five miles (8 km).

And so it’s a wonderful thing that here in Tonga - where you walk a block to a meeting and when you arrive, you’re greeted with exclamations of “you walked all the way?” - I am proud to say I ran a half-marathon, through the ancient capital of Tonga.

27 August 2012

Whale-song in 'Eua

Yet again, last weekend I was reminded why 'Eua is such a deliciously amazing best-kept-secret place to have a holiday. We'd gone back to 'Eua several times since living there, but this was the first time we went entirely for fun. The island of 'Eua is a large (for Tonga), samosa-shaped island off the East coast of Tongatapu, and is geographically completely unlike the entire rest of Tonga. While other islands are tiny, flat beautiful atolls spread atop porous volcanic material and ancient coral, 'Eua is a small mountainous slab of continent, bursting with natural springs, high rocky cliffs, and massive networks of subterranean caves.

16 August 2012

The New Red Roof

Langafonua's fading red roof
Every day as I sit at my desk, I look out at the normally faded red roof of Langafonua Gallery and Handicraft Centre. Given to Langafonua by her Majesty Queen Salote, reigning monarch of Tonga from 1918 to 1965, the building is beautiful but in need of repair. And the past couple of days have seen Langafonua get a newly painted, shiny red roof. This is the start of what I hope will be some exciting developments for Langafonua and the handicraft sector in Tonga as a whole.

15 July 2012

The Royal Wedding

The biggest talk of the city - along with, of course, the vote of no confidence that the Democratic Party has leveled against the Prime Minister - has been the royal wedding between HRH Crown Prince Tupouto'a 'Ulukalala and Hon. Sinaitakala Fakafanua. Not the least because of the divided opinions surrounding the fact that they are second cousins - on both sides, a fact especially savoured by foreign news sources.

In fact, it's not just the foreign news sources that look upon the marriage with skepticism, it's also close members of the royal family; the HRH Queen Mother Halaevalu Mata'aho and the current King's sister, HRH Princess Pilolevu were conspicuously absent from the past week's celebrations. This caused general scandal and also quite a bit of sadness from the general public, dismayed to see the royal family so divided after most have been thrilled to see the practical and considerate approach the new King has taken since commencing his rule.

09 July 2012

Mark's Photo Project

Back in April, I started on a photo project to take at least one thoughtfully composed photo every day. We had recently bought a nicer camera that we could use old manual film lenses with and had not really begun to take full advantage of it beyond general snapshots of events we had been to. I wanted to take better pictures to more vividly document our time here in Tonga, and this project has been the push I needed to do this. The second major reason for the project was to participate in the Shifting Sands and Movement Art Exhibitions that Elena organized with On The Spot, and for which Elena was already preparing art pieces. Although I was still in the middle of my month when Shifting Sands came along, I was able to exhibit 4 photos in the Movement Exhibition, three of which are included below (see the captions on the pictures).

Without further ado, let's get right into it:

These are some of the 59 photos I selected out of the nearly 3,000 photos I took between 15 April and 5 June. The original month stretched into nearly two as I was having fun, and so I didn't stop at the Movement Exhibition.

This photo was taken in "possibly the best bar in Tonga." She looked so bored under Audrey Hepburn.

30 June 2012

Highlights of this year's city-wide feast

Asa and I sit, ready for the feast
That is, if you're Wesleyan. The end of June always brings a huge influx in visitors to Tonga; Tongans come back from all sorts of places overseas as well as into the capital from the other islands, and all congregate on a huge field in front of the Wesleyan offices - and eat, meet, and eat some more.

We've always enjoyed going, especially to friends' tables. It's a hugely festive air, and we're lucky to know people who are excellent cooks. This year brings a special treat in that we're able to introduce Asa to the delicacies and sights that normally no visitor to Tonga at any other time has a chance to see:

20 June 2012

First impressions of Tonga: Asa's visit

 After a ten-hour layover in Fiji that stretched to a full twelve hours to cap off his multiple-day journey to get here, my little brother Asa made it safe and sound to Tonga for an extended visit during his "summer break" from university in the United States.
Asa and Mark doing dishes- we put him to work already.

And are we ever excited to have him! After the last seven or so years of too-short holidays too infrequently, we're enjoying all spending some good time together. Asa's an avid reader of the blog, and so we invited him to be our first "guest blogger" to relate some of his first impressions of Tonga.

An editorial note: Asa mentions being able to get all sorts of items and be very comfortable here, which is absolutely true. However, he's also in the unique position of living with people who have already figured out where to get these hard-to-find items and restaurants, already know a lot of people, and have already figured out how to budget to afford the occasional - very expensive - cheese, wine, muesli, and other goods that may be normal to someone in NZ, Australia, or the US, but that are luxury to us and most people here. We've been enjoying showing him everything we've discovered over the past few years.

09 June 2012

Buy Tonga Made

Our favourite Tongan chips by Cocker Enterprises.
Ingredients: casava, vegetable oil, salt. Yum.
A lot of people in Tonga tend to think that anything imported is better: you're high-class if you serve boxed juice at your table instead of delicious fresh young coconuts, canned corned beef is usually more highly prized than locally-caught fish, and importing construction materials is generally considered to make you a better house than what's available here.

In a small, remote place like Tonga, you can't avoid imports. There is just no way that a company in Tonga will be able to supply all of the population's needs of the basics like flour, eggs, oil, and meat, even with most people heavily eating locally-grown root crops. And that's not even considering the impossibility of manufacturing appliances, fixtures, electronics, and other necessities of life and business.

Even so, there are so many possibilities for goods made in Tonga:

28 May 2012

Starting a Movement: Local artists in Tonga

At 6:02PM on Friday night at the exhibition opening of the local arts exhibition Movement, there were exactly two people looking at the art. The exhibition had officially opened at 6PM. As one of the organizers of the event, I was racked with nerves. I again went over in my mind the multiple notices I'd sent out, the invitations delivered, even the TV crew that showed up during the hanging of the work earlier that day. What if no one came? At 6:23PM, the room was so packed that I could hardly push through the masses of people! Cars clogged the street outside, and more and more just kept coming in.

The exhibition was packed full

23 May 2012

The Kermadec Exhibition comes to Tonga

Contemplating a John Pule painting
As the local press release said, over one thousand primary school students - as well as a huge number of secondary school students - are starting to visit the New Zealand High Commission this week. I came down from my desk on Tuesday to see the first group filing through, a scattering collection of uniformed, bright-faced primary students, ready to see the Kermadec Exhibition on display for the first time in Tonga.

For me, this is an amazing second experience with the Kermadec Project. Last year, I was lucky enough to perform with On the Spot, a local arts group, at a reception night held for the artists as they came through Tonga. This year, I got to work on it from the other side, helping to organize the exhibition and related events out of the NZ High Commission.

02 May 2012

The Tongan Royal Family Tree

Last year, out of utter confusion about who was related to whom, I created a royal family tree. But families change, teenagers grow up, and the royal family has had quite a big change lately- the change in kings - as well as the much talked-about royal wedding between HRH Prince 'Ulukalala (Crown Prince Siaosi Tuku'aho) and Hon. Sinaitakala Fakafanua.

I've updated the family tree and re-posted it below, some with new pictures, some with better pictures, and some the way they've always been.

As always, a couple of caveats: Names have been shortened in some cases, and most of the names without Prince, Princess, King, or Queen in front of them have an "Hon." that I have left out for the sake of space. I've also left out first or second marriages that are not considered part of the royal line. Bold titles underneath the names are the hereditary names that get passed from generation to generation, and purple dates indicate when the monarch reigned.

Also, I've left out quite a bit of detail between HM King George Tupou I and II : HM King George Tupou I had three children. His eldest son was HRH Prince Tevita Unga, Former PM of Tonga. His youngest son was HRH Prince Vuna, which Vuna Rd. in Nuku'alofa is named after. HM King George Tupou I had only one daughter, named HRH Princess Salote Pilolevu (whom the current Princess is named after).  HRH Princess Salote Pilolevu had 2 sons: Hon. Alipate Halakilangi and HRH Princess Salote Pilolevu (the first her 2nd son is named Hon Fatafehi) he is the father of HM King George Tupou II.

26 April 2012

A big PLUS for Youth in Business

The team receives the big cheque from the Minister of Education
"WE WON!!!" The team lept up to recieve their huge cheque on the stage and I couldn't stop myself from yelling and clapping from the audience. The team, PLUS Archi-Design & Management from Tupou Tertiary Institute, had just won first place and $TOP 2,300 to start their business.

It was the culmination of the first stage of the Youth in Business awards that most of the secondary and tertiary schools have competed in for the past several weeks. Currently in its third year of operation, 11 secondary schools and 7 tertiary schools sent teams to take part in the competition. Each school's team had been working to develop their own startup business, which were judged in ten-minute presentations last week. Ideas ranged from coconut cookies and cleaning services to PLUS Archi-Design & Management, an architectural design services business - the tertiary idea that won.

22 April 2012

My Angry Stomach: an update

Cooking in Tonga with a sensitive stomach is sometimes an exercise in creativity. Fresh food is seasonal, starches other than root crops and bread are unusual, and good quality meat of any kind is particularly hard to get. Since I developed stomach problems last year and discovered it was IBS, I've honed my list of "safe," "somewhat safe," and "not safe" foods. I was surprised at how many people have IBS, and while what I've learned doesn't work for some, it's at least a good place to start.

31 March 2012

The royal funeral of King George Tupou 5 in pictures

Sports day, weddings, and all sorts of events were cancelled because of the funeral. Bilboards advertising events got a makeover just outside of town, complete with purple draping.

Kids prepared for the royal casket's procession from the airport by sitting on the side of the streets for up to 5 hours before the actual passing of the late King.

25 March 2012

The path of the Royal Casket

At 8:20 PM last night, Sunday 26 March (Hong Kong time), His (Late) Majesty King George Tupou V departed on a Chinese aircraft, bound for Tonga. Accompanying the casket is his brother, the new King Tupou VI, his sister, HRH Princess Salote Pilolevu, his customarily adopted daughter, HRH Princess Angelika Latufuipeka Halaevalu Mata'aho (who is the daughter of the new King), and his neice, Hon Salote Maumautaimi Tuku'aho, as well as a retinue of government officials.
Royal bier carriers practice for the funeral tomorrow. Photo courtesy of Ministry of Communications.
Meanwhile, in Tonga, schools have been lining up since early morning to line the (only) road from the airport to the palace in preparation for the funeral party's arrival at 12:30 pm. In the words of the official funeral schedule, "The royal cortege departs from Fua'amotu International Airport through an unbroken line of school children seated on either sides (sic) of Tuku'aho and Taufa'ahau roads, in silent homage to their Beloved Late Monarch."

22 March 2012

So long King George Tupou V

HM King George Tupou V
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

We heard the news in the taxi as it sped through the rain to our respective offices. "Did you hear the news on the radio this morning?" the driver asks us. We gave him two blank stares and a "no..." Convinced we had understood the question but simply didn't know, or perhaps too excited to share the biggest news of the year, he continued on, "Tupou V died last night. He was in Korea. His brother is now the new King!"

10 March 2012

How to fix an $80 million hole

Tonga's biggest export is its people. It manufactures them (in large numbers), refines them in government and church schools, and adds value by encouraging them to pursue postgrad degrees. An oft-quoted fact which may be urban legend but does have some truth to it is that Tonga has the highest per-capita rate of PhDs in the world. Tonga's exports go to work in a range of jobs at every level, and send back money from primarily the US, New Zealand, and Australia to their families in Tonga. And so, unlike most economies that are affected by the business cycle and market forces, the economy here is heavily affected by the employment rate elsewhere.

This money sent by overseas families, or remittances, are the greatest single contributor to the economy. Topping most other Pacific island countries, Tongan families overseas send money back totalling around 30% of its GDP. So when those families aren't making as much- when unemployment in the US remains high or when prices in NZ go up, the Tongan economy goes down.

05 March 2012

The most well-travelled dish in Tonga

Sapasui: it generally tastes better than it looks
Pop quiz: where does Tongan chop suey come from? Ask where sapasui gets its origins, and some people might say, "That delicious mix of glass noodles, kapa pulu (corned beef), veggies, and soy sauce? It's Tongan, of course." And they would be absolutely right about this global dish, in a way. It's usually a side dish that always shows up at feasts, to be eaten ostensibly with the huge pile of fluffy baked yams and roast suckling pig, and something I thought had come from the influence of the large handful of Chinese immigrants who have made their lives in Tonga.

And so when I offered to make sapasui for a welcoming party that On the Spot held last night for some incoming volunteers, I expected to find a similar dish's Chinese equivalent. In hind sight, it is hard to believe the exact magnitude of my sapasui naivite.

25 February 2012

Brazenness and Burglery

This week was a sad week for us. One day, between 7:30 and 10:30pm, our laptops, hard drive, and Mark's work bag with its contents were stolen from our gated, locked, lighted, security-screened house. Within about an hour, the Tongan police were there, and it was the first time a detective and forensics officer have ever investigated any occurance related to us.

12 February 2012

This cyclone season, Tonga may be the new Venice

Kids faka'uha, or take rain baths
While kids in some parts of the world get snow days, kids in Tonga get cyclone days. And while no one wishes for a full, damaging gale-force-winds catastrophe, there is a certain excitement in the air, as workers get half-days, kids stay home from school, and people nail strips of tin roof sheeting over windows to protect the fragile louvers.

We've had two almost-cyclones even this early in the season, and may be due for our third tomorrow. There's something ominous and half exciting about seeing "A TROPICAL CYCLONE WARNING IS NOW INFORCE FOR TONGATAPU GROUP, EUA AND SOUTHERN TONGA WATERS." on the government of Tonga's meteorological site. We're on the Tongatapu group.

06 February 2012

How Aid works (in Tonga)

"So we had a big feast one day, out of the blue. I mean, not even with any reason, just celebrating life, I thought," a friend started the story. "Then guess what! I found out later that Organization X had just received a bunch of funding from Organization Y!"

While this doesn't happen as frequently as the stories make it out to be, aid funding in Tonga is a part of life- a part that is sometimes needed, sometimes taken advantage of, sometimes in the news, and frequently misunderstood. Speaking from personal experience, it is hard to understand aid's complexities.

Road donated by China Aid, with a helpful sign: "CHINA AID" (from blog.travelpod.com)

After spending several years on the other side of the fence with cash-strapped nonprofits, always wondering about the inscrutable decisions of the funding organizations, working at my new job now has been incredibly enlightening. Suddenly, I understand. I can't speak for anything but the processes I currently work with, but here's how it's done in my job:

31 January 2012

Improv comedy in Tonga

I never thought that coming to Tonga would make me an improv comedy performer. Shortly after we moved to Tongatapu last year, I joined ON THE SPOT (OTS), a community-focused arts organization that puts on quarterly performances, offers occasional weekly sessions of film classes, performs modern dance at increasingly frequent charity events around town, and brings together a small core group of talented visual artists, musicians, dancers, and writers. After a full day of something like analyzing cash flow statements, it was a welcome relief to ride out to the old warehouse we use as a practice/performance space and dance or practice improv for three hours, twice a week.

21 January 2012

Down the other side of the Pacific: A Christmas trip part two

As we made our way down the coast, we kept seeing wonderful people, having good conversations, and eating good food together. Our next stop was Portland...

We had nostalgic dinners with old friends - Lebanese food piled high!

03 January 2012

Down the other side of the Pacific: A Christmas trip part one

The Christmas tree is all decked out
Happy two-thousand-twelve-tacular from the frigid and beautiful Northwest US. For the last week and a half, we've been on a long-awaited trip to visit our families and friends in the US, after not being back for almost two and a half years. The Washington state part of our trip is over and we're heading South to see a lot more people before we come back to Tonga.

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