I've been awake most the night baking croissants for a farewell party for the supreme court judge and his wife. At 4:30 A.M. I hear distant bells signaling for one community that Sunday mass will begin in half an hour. At 5:00 A.M. I hear the same distant bells signaling church is starting. The bell from one of our neighborhood churches soon drowns out the distant chime – mass near us begins at 5:30 or 6:00 A.M. By 6 A.M. many more bells are heard, both near and far, and choirs are heard from all corners. At 10:00, noon, 4:00 P.M. and 6:00 P.M. there are more bells and more singing. Church is a big thing here in Tonga, and not just on Sundays. One of our neighborhood churches bells rings every morning at 5:00 A.M. Most mornings we sleep right through it; a noise along with the pigs, that our minds and bodies can easily adjust to. The crowing roosters and clucking hens outside our window by 7:00 A.M. are a different story. At around 6:00 A.M. our neighbor's breadfruit tree explodes with a cacophony of noise as the 10+ chickens wake up and let everyone know it. By 7:00 their scratching around our yard for breakfast, the rooster announcing to all in the area that he's up and has his hens. It's a reliable alarm clock we could do without.
Life as a Gilbert and Sullivan Musical
Can you believe it! Patti (Lu'isa) had to be acting country director for the month of June while her boss traveled back to the States for a country director conference and annual leave. Thankfully, after 25 years, the office of Peace Corps Tonga and all its processes are well established and Patti was glad to let things run themselves (as much as she could). The up side of her acting country director responsibilities was representing Peace Corps (and the United States) at various events. One such event was the opening of parliament. King Taufa;ahau Tupou IV ceremoniously opens parliament each year. It's an event the entire town turns out for – not the speech itself, but parades, marching bands, feasts, etc. After the pomp and circumstance of parades, cannons, and royal archways, the King rolled in by wheelchair – at 86, the unspoken thought on the minds of many was that this might be his last. Many members of parliament – the representatives of the people, not the nobles – boycotted the event. We were in the second row (behind the Supreme Court judges and the Ambassadors) and had a great view of the nobles, the King, and the Crown Prince. Afterwards, school children from every school on the main island marched in formation to the palace.
The myriad of other events was a bit overwhelming. A friend from the New Zealand High Commission joked that it sometimes felt like we aren't living in a country - but inside a Gilbert and Sullivan musical – full of tin horn bands, 18th century royal uniforms, political intrigue, an endless round of cocktails and feasts and dinners, and a self-important group of royals and expatriates - all on a tiny speck of land in the middle of the South Pacific.
Other events we attended included: A birthday party for Queen Elizabeth II, held at the British High Commission; a farewell dinner for the US Military Attaché from Fiji; an Awards Dinner from the Rotary Club of Nuku'alofa, at the Austrialian High Commission; and a military parade and send-off for the Tongan soldiers headed to Iraq. (Can you believe it – Tonga has sent soldiers to Iraq!)
Of Monopolies and the Monarchy
The reason for the parliamentary boycott was the demise of Royal Tongan Airlines, the erstwhile national airline of the Kingdom. The airline had been in trouble for quite some time and there had already been tons of rumors on the coconut wireless about their precarious financial situation. One plane had been out of commission for 4 months (due to their inability to pay for a replacement part). The other two flew erratically. The biggest complaint from most was the lack of information from the government. The international plane was repossessed – by the Sultan of Brunei. Rumor has it that the government knew about 2 weeks ahead of time but continued to sell tickets anyway. Shortly thereafter, the domestic flights were also suspended. Hundreds of Tongans and tourists were left stranded – and holding useless RTA tickets. For several weeks there was no plane service at all in the country – and no good information from the government about when there would be.
The airline is now in receivership and Dino (Dean) is awaiting word about whether or not his credit will be returned to him. The peoples' representatives, and many other Tongan business people, complain that the RTA debacle is typical of the way that the royal government runs the country – like their own fiefdom. The royal family, the nobles, and their immediate relatives have a monopoly on virtually all major infrastructure in the kingdom (e.g. water, phones, electricity, television, radio, air and boat transportation). And they tend to function in monopolistic fashion – with apparent disregard for the actual needs of average citizens. Most frustrating of all, the perception is that they don't see the need to share even the most basic information about their decisions with the people.
Of course, we often point out that it doesn't seem so different from our own government….except that the scale is different. If you substitute "Halliburton" for "Royal Tongan Air"….
We have managed to spend most of our weekends (and not a few holidays) exploring the various natural wonders in the Kingdom. While the main island, Tongatapu, is relatively small, it does manage to pack in a wide range of interesting features including pretty beaches, impressive cliffs and blowholes, caves, some bird watching, mangrove swamps, interesting archaeological ruins, and even some beautiful "bush" roads which are perfect for long Sunday bike rides. We've learned that it is ok to go out on Sunday afternoons, so long as we dress respectably and make it clear that we are just going for an "eva eva" (stroll around) without any particular destination.
Of course, we've also realized how spoiled we became in East Timor. While the beaches here are nice, the offshore snorkeling is virtually non-existent and the water is COLD.
On the other hand, over the 4th of July weekend, we saw whales! A whole pod of humpback whales was swimming just off the shore of the beach where we happened to be picnicking. It was amazing and everyone tells us this is just the beginning of the season!
A Palangi View of Tongan Culture
We're still working on our cultural integration here – and we're not ashamed to admit that we continue to find some Tongan practices a little perplexing. Here's an insensitive palangi (European) view of some random Tongan cultural practices (no using this for blackmail later, please).
A Tongan carwash
Features 10-12 Tongan young people standing along the side of the road with crude, hand-written signs (think of the Gary Larson cartoon writing); they yell and shout as cars drive by. There is no water. There is no soap. There are no towels or brushes. There is, in fact, no car wash. Apparently, what you are expected to do is slow your car down long enough to toss a few pa'anga (dollars) out the window. This happens approximately every Saturday.
Tongan traditional dancing
Dancing is another fundraising mechanism that we still find a little odd. The dances themselves are Polynesian - Dean has described them as "Hawaiian dancing without the hips." We still haven't figured out the various different dances, hand movements, and music and their significance but we have mastered the fundraising part. The dancers are always young women (virgins) who are slathered in coconut oil before each performance. During the dance (think hula not strip tease), spectators show their appreciation by placing money on the arms, neck, or other areas of exposed skin on the dancer's body. Volunteers who have participated in these dances have found themselves drenched in oil, since Tongans fear that the money won't stick on the skin of non-virgins.
Driving out in the rural areas, lots of little kids tend to practice their English with us. We wave and say hello and they ALWAYS respond with a single word – "bye!" No " hello mister." No "what's your name?" Just "bye" and a big toothy grin. This is an accurate translation of the appropriate Tongan expression – because you wouldn’t say "hello" to someone unless you were actually going to stop and chat with them. They know better than to think that the palangis will be stopping.