Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Final Day in Vava'u

Saying goodbye is so hard. It seems that with every passing year it gets harder.

When I woke up yesterday my first thought was "Wow. This is the last time you'll be sleeping here, Mandy." And as I slowly made my way out of bed I started thinking about this little house that I've made my home the last two years. I walked quietly through every room (all two of them) and thought about the memories that I had there and what this space has meant to me throughout this journey.

I got dressed, threw a few final things in my luggage and was ready to start the day. Not only was yesterday my last day in Vava'u, but it was also the first day of the Class 6 exam. The Class 6 students soon showed up and I was met with many comments about how it was my last day, that the students would miss me and how they wanted to make sure I would come back to visit.

Then it was time to line the kids up to start the examination and I went down the line, giving them huge hugs and high fives and wishing them good luck. When they started the examination, breakfast was brought by some local people for all of the teachers who were not proctoring. We sat and drank tea and ate fresh coconut and pie.

During this time Winne, a local woman that I have had the honor of getting to know the last two years, brought me a few gifts and said goodbye. She handed me a hand-made fan with "Vava'u Lahi" (the island's name) painted on it and added "so you will always remember your time here".

And then it was time for Salesi to take me to the airport. He packed my bags in the back of his car (he's the only teacher with a car) and I hugged Winnie.

This whole "going away" thing has not felt real - it feels much like I'm going on vacation and that I will be coming back shortly. But when I moved to hug Ane I fell apart. I realized that I may never be back in Tonga, I may never see these kids again, and that everything is again about to change. Ane, who is a very put-together lady, started sobbing and then I fell apart too. I got into the car and she walked to the gate waving and crying while I stuck my head out of the window and waved and cried too.

It was hard. So so hard.

Salesi and I drove to Katie's house (a Peace Corps friend who still has a year left in Vava'u) and she came with us to the airport. Salesi and I talked about the last two years while we drove, he thanked me for everything I taught him and I thanked him for sharing his stories, his ideas and his family with me. We drove across the island - under the coconut trees and through the bush. We drove around cows and through taro root plantations until we made it to the Vava'u Airport. One of the men from my village works there so there was no need to show identification. We joked about how the Tongan people had made me fat with all their me'akai 'ifo (delicious food) and they reminded me to continue to eat like a Tongan (ok, sure). It was about this time that my favorite cab driver drove up. Vava jumped out of the cab wearing a Florida t-shirt, saw me and gave me a hug. With tears in his eyes he said "Mandy, remember what I told you?" and I responded "Yes, Vava. When I come back to Tonga I am suppose to ask for Vava's cab and if you are dead then I am supposed to ask for your grandson." We both laughed. He hugged me again and left in his big white van.

It came time to board - I knew it was time because Alatini (the man from my village who works there) gave me and the other 6 passengers a thumbs up. I turned and hugged Salesi and then Katie. And was off.

As we were taxing out to the runway (about 20 ft) I frantically tried to find a good song on my iPod to listen to while we were taking off. "Wild Child" by Enya was the perfect choice and as we took off I looked down at the perfect moment. You see, every time I had taken the airplane before we always flew directly over Toula (my village) so I never got to see it from the air, but this time the pilot was taking a slightly different route. So as I looked out the window I saw my school, my little house and the kids playing outside. It was in that moment, with Enya playing in the background, that I let a lot of emotions I'd been holding in, escape. Enya was playing so loud that I didn't realize how vocal I was being (Guys, I may have been waling). I sobbed - I cried hard because this place and people had filled holes in my heart that I didn't even know I had. I cried because I'm not sure if I'll ever be back here. I cried because I made it the full two years. I cried because I was really overcome by how much love I've been shown here and by people back home who haven't forgotten about me.

And while looking out that window I noticed a rainbow which the plane ended up flying right over (I can hear Judy Garland singing it right now). As we passed the rainbow (I promise you I'm not making this up), two whales breached and I smiled.

What a wonderful farewell. In that moment, it was like the island had one more special gift for me.

The next few days will include language and medical tests, logistical paperwork to sign, a training session with the incoming Peace Corps group, and some time with friends here on the main island. I'll write more in my next post.

There are so many emotions involved in a transition like this, but right now only one word comes to mind: grateful.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

#thefinal30: days 11-20

These 10 days were filled with lots of wildlife, a few goodbyes, and a leadership camp I had the honor of directing. 
 Day 11: Tropical flowers constantly amaze me. They all remind me of something out of a Dr. Seuss book. This one looked like it was a flower growing out of a flower. 
 Day 12: This evening I served kava to the men in my village to help raise money for a new school bus and in walked the Acting Prime Minister of Tonga. He smiled at me and said "Hello Peace Corps" and gave me this necklace. He is campaigning for re-election in November and stopped by the town hall to gain support. I did my best to sit as lady-like as I could.
 Day 13: "Anchor" in Tongan is "taula" which is one letter off from the name of my village (Toula). Anchors also remind me of camp and one of my favorite Bible verses (Hebrews 6:19). These are just some of the many reasons I got it. Special thank you to Kitione for this special gift.
Day 14: I love how slow and quiet Sundays in Tonga are. I've already talked about the fact that there are only three choices on Sundays: eat, sleep, church. I don't want to lose this when I get back to America. It's the perfect day to relax and recharge. Also, it's a great way to start the week!
 Day 15: What a beautiful first day of camp. The campers and leadership staff are already getting to know each other. We even played Biggest Fan!
 Day 16: We ended day 2 of camp with an off-campus adventure to 'Ene'io Botanical Gardens where we learned all about Tonga's only botanical garden, barbecued chicken, and swam in the South Pacific. We ended the day with the greatest campfire. 
 Day 17: Day 3 of camp included a career panel where campers learned what it takes to become a firefighter, police officer, teacher, Ministry of Agriculture officer, restaurant owner, or Tonga Communications Corporation. After the sessions they shared out what they learned about each career. 
 Day 18: Day 4 at Camp GLOW: now that they have learned what it takes to make healthy and smart decisions these great girls had the opportunity to apply their new knowledge to many different scenarios. Here are just a few of the campers discussing some sensitive topics.
 Day 19: Last day of camp and it's time for a final ceremony filled with what we learned, songs, poems, plays and a special video showcasing the events of the week. 
Day 20: Looking back on such a great week with these girls. One of the best things about camp (even if it's only for five days) is watching the girls grow and come out of their shells. The first night we attempted a dance party with very little participation and the last night of camp all the girls wanted to do was tisikou (dance). They had some sweet moves and laughed the night away.

- - -

Here's to the final 10 days!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

#thefinal30: days 1-10

I've been neglecting this little corner of the internet and I'm sorry that I haven't been filling you all in.

This time in this 2 year journey has been so sweet - so full of little amazing moments. It's a great reminder of how far we've come the last two years. I've started the process of saying goodbye and packing up my life here. But I've been in awe the last few days because there are still new things to learn, to experience and to appreciate here.

Here's what I have been up to:
If you'd like to follow in "real time" and have Instagram, I'm ms.mandymarie.

 Day 1: This is Koheleti and he has been working so hard to the last two years to learn English. When I met him he didn't know his ABCs and today he spelled "woman" correctly.
 Day 2: This boy. His excitement and love for the little things is contagious. Today he found a "tattoo" inside a candy wrapper that said "free bird" and you'd think he found real gold. And because he didn't want to waste our water to put it on (our water tanks are running dry) he just spit on his arm and stuck it on. He is helping to raise his 3-year-old sister and many times I find him holding hands with her as they walk through the village and teaching her all about the little things of this world.
 Day 3: Playing cards at recess is one of my favorite ways to spend time with my students during down time. Losalia used to think this palangi (foreigner) was not so good at pele (cards), but I'm slowly changing her mind. I love her sassy attitude towards everything... including cards. 
 Day 4: Today we started the morning hanging out playing cards. Peniteti sat in my lap for a good portion of the card game checking to make sure I didn't mess up. She also made sure to tell anyone in a 20 foot radius every card in my hand and somehow my teammate and I still pulled off the win. 
 Day 5: There are not many birds in Tonga (unless you are on the island of 'Eua), so when this little guy flew into my bag I was really surprised. So were the students and teachers. One of the teachers was so excited that she's decided to adopt him as a pet and plans to teach him to sit on her shoulder while she teaches. I wished her good luck with that.

 Day 6: First annual Camp GLOW/GROW 3K Fun Run/Walk was a success! What fun was had! We all met at the Vava'u Red Cross and had a blast walking through the bush past cows, coconut trees and pigs.
 Day 7: Sunday afternoons spent reading in a hammock. I spent the morning at church with some wonderful people from my village and now I'm reading The Fault in Our Stars.
 Day 8: The students received a very awesome donation of books from the Australian Rotary Club. We have been taking picture walks all morning and they are beyond excited to start reading them. 
 Day 9: This is Melinta. She is my co-teacher's 3-year-old daughter and today we drove to the Ministry of Immigration with her father to get her grandmother's passport information. Melinta loves to respond to "How are you?" by shouting "YES!" at the top of her lungs.
Day 10: This is the first thing you see when you walk into my house. Over the last two years this wall has brought me so much joy and good feelings. I've filled it with inspirational quotes, pictures of wonderful memories, cards and letters from abroad.

Hope you have a great Saturday/Sunday!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

30 days?

That's it. That's all I have left on this island. 
October 2012: The day we found out where we'd be living for the next two years!

It's crazy to me how fast the last two years have flown. There were moments when I never dreamed I'd be at this point - getting ready to say goodbye, enjoying the final few weeks of this little life I've made for myself here in the South Pacific. And then it feels like yesterday when I stepped off the plane in Tongatapu and my foot touched Tongan earth for the very first time.

I've been thinking about a special way to say goodbye (amongst the other things I will be doing in country). And I thought it would be great fun to include 30 of my favorite memories/stories/things I learned in Tonga/Peace Corps throughout my time on here... one a day until I leave the island.

And because some of you asked...
What's Mandy up to next?
On October 7th I will fly down to Tongatapu (the main island in Tonga) and meet with Peace Corps staff and make my way through a mountain of paperwork so I am free to leave the country. I will also hopefully have time to meet the 79th group of Peace Corps volunteers (who just arrived in Tonga yesterday!).
On October 10th I'll start my journey back to my homeland (Wisconsin!). 
This fall? I'll be hanging out in Wisconsin with my parents and making a few little mini trips around the States reuniting with some family and friends.
January 2015 I'll continue my graduate degree at University of Colorado - Boulder with a tentative graduation date set for December 2015.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Thank You!

Well I didn't win the Blog-It home competition and that's okay!
I'm so excited for all of the winners and the opportunity to come together to talk about ways to use the third goal of Peace Corps: to bring home the world.

And that's what this little blog's goal has been the last two years.
I want to share with you from my perspective the people, culture and world of Tonga.

If you voted for Beneath a Balcony of Stars know that I am so grateful. It was an honor to be nominated and to get even more people talking (and knowing!) about The Kingdom of Tonga.

Also, with the conclusion of this contest it now means that I know officially when I'm headed back to America. The special day is October 10, 2014. 

So until then (less than 8 weeks away!) I'm going to take in each moment as it comes and make some more memories with the friends that I've made here while helping serve the people of Tonga.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Hello from Tonga!

If you were directed to this little corner of the internet from the Peace Corps Blog It Home Competition, then I'd love to welcome you! I hope you enjoy learning about Tonga and the wonderful people that live in this little island nation in the South Pacific!
If you are wondering what the Blog It Home Competition is and are interested in voting, click here.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

COS - Close of Service [Part 2]

This week Group 77 convened at a resort on Tongatapu to reflect and celebrate our service. The COS (Close of Service) training not only included story telling and reflection, but also thinking about our transition back to America (reverse culture shock, logistics, etc.).
It was surprisingly a very emotional time for me. I expect the next two months to be full of hugs and crying (it's hard to leave a place that has turned into your home), but I wasn't necessarily expecting to get emotional at this conference.
But these people have become some of my closest friends the last two years. We share a unique experience that will forever connect us.
They understand what it's been like to live on this little island for the last two years.
The conference was such a wonderful way to begin the "goodbye" process.
I am so proud of this group of people and what they've done in Tonga. We all feel so grateful for the last two years in the Friendly Islands and feel like we've all changed (for the better!) because of this experience.
Thank you Peace Corps Tonga Group 77 (and thank you PC staff for all of the support!).