A Different (but better) Peace Corps Experience

While I have been in Vava'u for a short time, arriving only last Friday, I can already tell that my Peace Corps experience here is going to be much different that the 2 ½ months I spent on the main island of Tongatapu. Not only are there fewer volunteers here, but there is a strong sense of teamwork and commitment from those who are serving here. My first official function as a volunteer was a meeting of all the volunteers on the island and all but one were there. It's a diverse group of people with a couple of volunteers who are older than me and many who are still in their 20's. There are 14 of us and I'm one of just four male volunteers. What struck me as we were talking was how much everyone was involved in their communities, several talking about new projects they were starting and asking for help to make something happen. It really inspired me to want to get started with my own projects and perhaps to work with some of the projects that are already underway. As we went around the room, each person not only talked about what they were doing but also HOW they were doing. It was pretty easy to see that it is a very supportive environment.

I couldn't have asked for a better welcome on Friday. In addition to being my first day in Vava'u, it was also the birthday of Justin, one of the volunteers who happens to be a leap year baby. Friday was just the 6th time he's celebrated his birthday. (This is not the same Justin who I lived with during home stay.) My friend Shannon, who was in my training group, baked a cake for both Justin and me which was a great treat.

Things are off to a good start at work as well and I'm actually busy. On my first day I quickly learned how much Tongan vocabulary I have forgotten. Unlike the head office where I have been working, the people here do most of their talking in Tongan. The people I'll be working with greeted me warmly and they seemed happy to have me with them. It has been a long time (more than 10 years I think) since there was a volunteer working at the Vava'u Branch. Tuesday I met with the managers of the three commercial banks here in Vava'u and offered my services to them as well. I also paid a visit to the only TV station in Vava'u which just signed on the air in December. I will be going there again later tonight to teach them non-linear editing. Right now, they air everything the way it is shot in the camera. And I even have my first business project. I'm going to be teaching the bartenders at a local bar how to use a cash register. While that might sound simple, they have only tracked sales on paper and are nervous about making the change (Pun intended).

I'm pretty happy with my office at the bank. I have a beautiful view of the harbor with the mountains in the background. (I will try to remember to take a picture of my view and post it soon). And thankfully there is air conditioning and a ceiling fan, something I was not expecting. The branch manager told me that most of the year they just open the windows except for when it is really hot, like it is right now. In fact, it is miserably hot. Thankfully the days should start to get cooler soon as we wind up the summer season.

My new house is pretty awesome. The other volunteers tell me it is probably the second nicest house for a Peace Corps volunteer in Vava'u. Stan just got a new house and while I haven't seen it, it sounds pretty nice. Some of the things that excite me about my new house are going to seem pretty basic to most people, but I'm thrilled to have a sofa (actually I have two) and an arm chair. In the place where I was staying in Nuku'alofa, I had neither, so anytime I wanted to read or sit, I either had to sit on my bed, which was actually a mattress on the floor, or sit at the kitchen table. If I watched a movie, I usually laid on the floor.

I also now have two bedrooms, each with double beds. The best new addition is a washing machine. The washing machine is not like the kind you would find in the United States, but it is wonderful to have it. I spent a good part of Saturday with James, who is the volunteer who lives next door to me doing laundry. The machine is stored in the house but you take it outside to use it. You use a hose to fill the tub, add soap and clothes, plug it in and it agitates for 15 minutes. You then drain the tub into the grass, fill it back up with a hose and do the same things again to rinse the soap out of your clothes. Then you drain it, take two or three items at a time put them in the spinner, which is separate from the washer. Then you hang the clothes on the line to dry. It takes a lot longer to do your clothes than washing by hand, but they come out much cleaner. In fact, I was amazed at how dirty the water got just from each load of clothes. James doesn't have a washer, so after I got done, he did his.

I haven't really moved in yet as my stuff doesn't arrive until tomorrow. I have had just clothes and toiletries to last me until the boat arrives. I picked up a few things in town on Saturday and immediately noticed not only the higher prices on everything I bought compared to Tongatapu, but also the lack of a selection. At the market, there were no tomatoes, cucumbers or avocados, all things that I was able to purchase last week in Nuku'alofa. In fact, the only thing I bought at the market was bananas. That was a first for me as I did have a banana tree at my last house. Things like milk, pasta and canned goods are all more expensive here.

On Sunday, my landlord, who lives right by me, surprised me with a big plate of Tongan food. It was enough for both lunch and dinner on Sunday, lunch on Monday and I split the remaining root crops with two other volunteers for dinner on Monday night. Portions here are always huge and I've learned to not even try to eat it all. And if you are eating with Tongans and clean your plate, you'll just be expected to eat more.

***Other News***

I had a nice final week in Tongatapu and got a chance to say good-bye to many of my friends there. At the bank, my supervisor got pizza for our department on Tuesday. On Thursday, there was a going away tea for my counterpart at the bank, who is leaving after 17 years to take another job. While the tea was mainly for him, they also wished me well in Vava'u and I made a short speech (in English) thanking everyone. Giving speeches is pretty much a part of Tongan culture and if you are the honored guest it is pretty much expected that you will say something.

Last Wednesday, the bank sponsored a business development workshop in the village of Kolovai. These workshops are a big part of what I will be doing in Vava'u and was my first chance to attend one. There was no English spoken but fortunately all I had to do was introduce myself which I did in Tongan. I even got a round of applause afterwards so hopefully they understood what I was saying.

I hope to start language lessons again soon so hopefully will be able to do more next time.

I no longer have Internet at home or at work. That means that if you send me an e-mail, it may take a while to get a reply. I don't know yet how often I will actually get online, but my goal is to answer e-mails and update my blog at least once a week.

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