This is Normal

In our village of Fu’amoto, there is an Internet café. Except there is no coffee, no drinks and no food at the café. It’s actually not a café at all but a house that has Internet service. Inside are about eight computers and space to hook-up one laptop computer. The Internet House, as I’ve started calling it, is located just behind the building where our classes are conducted each day. The arrival of 33 Peace Corps trainees has done a lot for its business.

But that’s not the point of this story. Friday, after class I stopped by to download my e-mail onto my laptop. I’ve found it is much more efficient to write off-line and then upload and download mail than it is to try to do it online, which can be painfully slow. After I was done on Friday, I asked the woman at the door how long they would be open tomorrow. She told me until 12. Since many Tongan businesses are open only for a part of the day on Saturday and many not open at all, I figured I would get there early in case they decided to go home early. In Tongan, time is always relative and you never really know if someone is going to be somewhere at a certain time or if a place will be open. Saturday morning, I finished breakfast with my host family and walked to the Internet House. When I was about two blocks away, a kid yelled at me in English from inside the yard, “Hey Steve, where are you going?” How this kid knew my name, I don’t know. Several kids have asked me my name but I didn’t remember him. I told him I was going to the Internet. He said “It’s closed”. Now how he knew this, I didn’t know either. I thanked him, told him I was going to take a walk and continued on to the Internet House. Guess what, it was closed. There was a man outside who said they would be open later. When I asked what time, he said when he got back from town. I said, ”so around Noon”? He said, after lunch. That was his answer. I walked back home a different way, not wanting to offend the kid who gave me the correct information.

Fast forward to about 3pm. My host family is preparing to go to the beach for a picnic. I tell them I’ll be right back that I want to go to the Internet. This time, I get all the way there and it is still closed but I see a woman across the street. She says they’ll be open this evening.
After a truly memorable trip to beach, I decide to walk home with a couple of others and walk by the Internet Café and it is now open. Of course it’s now dark outside and probably close to 8pm.

This simple story has several messages. One, why would I walk to this place instead of calling? Because that’s the way to do it. I’ve noticed that when my host family wants something, they don’t pick up the phone and call, they go there. Want to talk with someone? Just stop by. Second, the people in this village know a lot about what is going on, from my name to the status of the Internet. We used to talk about the “coconut wireless” when I lived in Hawaii, but Tonga operates this method of communication to perfection. And finally, don’t bank that things will happen on any kind of schedule. It’s all normal here, just different to us.

In fact, there are many things that are starting to seem perfectly normal after just a few weeks in Tonga.

· Wearing a skirt or tupena. All the men wear one to work, school and other more formal occasions like church. I have borrowed a few from my host family and I now own two of my own. Who would have ever guessed that I would ever go shopping for a skirt for me? While it feels normal to wear one, I haven’t quite mastered the art of sitting in one, especially on the floor. The first day I “flashed” several people in my group making me realize that until I get used to wearing one it is best to wear shorts underneath instead of just underwear.
· Seeing pigs everywhere. On the road as you walk around the village, driving to town, sitting at the kitchen table and looking out the door or while in class. They are everywhere and while at first it seems kind of strange, it now seems much more normal.
· Saying hello to every single person you see in the village. And often they want to talk, ask me my name or where I am going. Fortunately I can now answer these questions in broken Tongan instead of English and even when they ask me in English, I try to remember to respond in Tongan.
· Going to sleep to the sounds of people singing. Whether it is men sitting around a kava circle or a church choir, it is not uncommon to be serenaded as you go to bed and even as you wake up in the morning. The village has lots of noise from roosters to dogs. And of course there are the people too.
· Drums signal the start of town meetings and other events. You can distinguish them from the constant sound of tapa being tapped by the women of the village. Tapa is the bark of the Mulberry tree which is pounded into a cloth and decorated.
· Church Bells ringing all the time to remind people to get ready for church and that church is starting. Most bells ring an hour before the service and there are services all week long. On Sunday, the first services start at 5am.
· Food is everywhere and served all the time. Most is grown right here in the village and you only buy what you don’t raise or are given from family members.
· Being called “Sitiveni”, which is the Tongan word for Stephen. I haven’t quite gotten used to calling myself that, but am working on it.
· Cold showers. They are not as bad as they sound.
While learning about the village, its people and the customs are all very important parts of what we are learning every day.

I will close by saying how impressed I’ve been with the other people in our group. It is very refreshing to be around so many inspired and intelligent people. It’s also great how we continue to support each other as we all adjust to our new surroundings.

I've also uploaded a couple of new photos including a really cool one from the Blowhole here on Tongatapu.

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