Vava’u—We made it!

The lush green landscape, rolling hills of tropical foliage and pouring rain all signs that we were no longer on Tongatapu. After a shorter than expected ferry ride we made it to the northern island group of Vava’u. The ferry ride was an experience to be enjoyed once, but probably not again. As we were waiting to board, I was happy the Peace Corps requires each of us to take Life Jackets. The boat looked as if it had seen better days and once onboard our first impressions were found to be true. We had secured an inside room for our group of 33, plus three of the Peace Corps staff. However, the room was not nearly big enough for all of us to sit, much less sleep. Several people ventured upstairs to the open deck, a decision that some would later regret. I opted to stay inside and while the occasional ocean spray would come through the open windows, it was a dry trip. I did not take any photos of our cramped quarters but imagine one person with the head looking at another person’s toes. That person looking at the head of the person next to them and on down the line. There was not enough room to stretch out shoulder to shoulder. Somehow in all of this, I was able to sleep, but not without occasionally kicking or rolling into the persons next to me. Of course, I also got bumped plenty of times throughout the night.

We had all been prepped for a 22 hour boat ride. The Peace Corps Medical officer (PCMO) issued motion tablets with instructions to take two one hour before we leave, two more once we left, another two when we left our first stop and the final two, four hours after that. The last two were not necessary because we got in about four hours early and we were all ready to get off the boat, even though it was pouring rain.

We got a great Peace Corps welcome from the current volunteers serving in this region and the Peace Corps staff who had arrived ahead of us. The volunteers had made cookies for us which I thoroughly enjoyed. Because of the rain, there was a lot of confusion about the luggage. Originally our bags were to be taken to our villages in open trucks. But that plans was scraped for those going with me to my village. We all crammed into a bus with all of our bags. We made it fit, but it was a tight squeeze.

We are now in three different groups in three different villages. I’m with 10 other trainees in the village of Ta’anea. (If you have Google Earth, zoom into Ta’anea, find the town hall with a large church next to it. Directly across the street from the town hall is where I am living. Next door to me is another church).

My new host family consists of a father, mother and 29 year old daughter. It’s a very nice house and they have been very hospitable. When I first got here, after the initial introductions, my first words were “kaukau” which is bathe or shower. I was feeling pretty gross after the long boat ride, the sea spray and then the pouring rain. The bathroom and the shower are located in separate rooms that are connected to the main house, but you must go outside to get to them. The shower was awesome. The water did not feel as cold as it did in Fu’amoto, but that could also be because it is quite a bit warmer here. After a delicious lunch featuring two of my favorite foods: fresh pineapple and ‘ota ‘ika, (raw fish), I took a very long nap.

After my nap, I visited a bit with my host family and then went for a walk with the daughter, some neighbors and a couple of other trainees. We also stopped and visited another trainee at his house and then visited our language teachers at their house. When I got back, it was time for dinner. Here’s where I got a quick education into how Tongans are so eager to please everyone. I ate alone while the others watched. I’ve learned this is a sign of respect and while it takes a little to get used to, that is just the way it is done here. I reached for a slice of bread and my host Mom moves the butter toward me. I asked in English, “Do you have Jam?”. It was not on the table and at my previous host family, they always had jam or jelly. She gets very flustered, said Ikai, which is no, starts yelling for her daughter, grabs some money and sends her daughter to the store to buy me some jam. I tried to stop her saying it was not a big deal, but she kept pushing her out the door. After a few minutes when she didn’t come right back, she went to the front door and called for her daughter. By now, I’ve finished my dinner but not wanting to offend my brand new host parents, I sat there, with a slice of bread on my plate, patiently waiting for the jam to come. It finally got there and I enjoyed my bread and jam, but learned a valuable lesson about asking for something you don’t see on the table.

This village is much smaller and a lot quieter than Fu’amoto, our last village. The quiet is because there are fewer dogs, pigs and chickens. Since arriving in Tonga, I’ve been sleeping with ear plugs to deafen the outside noise. Here I was able to sleep without using the earplugs. I still awoke to the sound of roosters but not as many as before.

My room has a fan, a double bed covered with a lace mosquito net and a table with chair. It’s quite comfy and I’m looking forward to enjoying it. I would be easy to spend all my time in my room in front of the fan as it is definitely warmer here and during the day, there is not a noticeable breeze.

My new language teacher is 71 years old and seems quite patient. I was sad not to keep the teacher I had, but look forward to learning more of the language. Here is a sample of what Tongan looks like. You’ll get an A if you can translate this!!

Ko Steve au. Oku ou ha’u mei Florida pea oku ou saiia ‘ota ‘ika mo faina. Ko hoku twofefine ko Becky mo Maria. Oku ou ngaue e Peace Corps pea oku ou noto “i Ta’anea.

Figure it out? There are a few hints above, but if I did this correctly, it says “I am Steve, I come from Florida and I like raw fish and pineapple. My sisters are Becky and Maria. I work for Peace Corps and I stay in Ta’anea”.

I was able to write most of that from memory except to check the spelling of a couple of words. However, I’ve got a LOOOONG way to go. Being able to say it and being able to hear it and translate it are two very different things.

I was very sad to leave my previous host family. I got attached to them in a very short time. If I end up working on Tongatapu, I’m sure I will see them regularly. Monday night, our last night at home, we sat around and played cards at the kitchen table. I had brought a deck from home but didn’t give it to them until a few nights before we left. We played all kinds of games and sometimes just made up the rules as we went along. They also taught us a Tongan card game called “High Card” and a card trick. As it started to get late, I began to wonder why we had not eaten. Finally, Sia told us our dinner was coming from town. I told her that we could just get something here and she said no, this was something special. And special it was. They had ordered us two huge lobsters from the International Dateline Hotel complete with French Fries and vegetables. There was no way I could have ever eaten one by myself so we all shared. It was probably only the second time I’ve ever eaten Lobster. For those of you who are long-time readers of this blog, you know that I almost didn’t get sent to the South Pacific because I thought I might have had an allergy to Shrimp and Lobster. I’ve avoided both almost my entire life and even after passing an allergy test, I still don’t eat much shrimp or lobster. The good news is that it was delicious and I had no side effects. On Tuesday morning as we were leaving, the family presented us with flower lei’s for the trip and gave us each a Ta’avala.

Our Peace Corps Volunteer leader, Soraya has posted the legend of the Ta’ovala on her blog. As discussed previously, these are the mats we wear on formal occasions over our skirts (tupenas). It’s a good story and thought you would enjoy reading it.

I’ve also updated the list of links to blogs being written by other people in our group. While we have all had many of the same experiences, the blogs will start to be different now that we are living is three villages.

There are also some new photos for you to enjoy.

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  1. The head line shouldn't be that close. It's not healthy.

    Most people get sicker staying downstairs.

  2. Thanks for the update! Glad the journey to Vava'u wasn't too bad. I'm enjoying the insight you provide. What an adventure!

    Stan's Mom, Myra