Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"Inside all of us is hope. Inside all of us is adventure. Inside all of us is a wild thing."
- Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

Monday, May 27, 2013

Things I Have Learned So Far in Peace Corps: The Power of Listening

Nerd alert: This is me practicing my listenin' skills.

I know that this journey has changed me in ways that I am not aware of yet and may not be for years to come. I know that Tonga and Peace Corps will continue to impact my life long after I leave this place and will perpetually make me think about the ways in which I interact with the world. I believe that one of the biggest things I have learned so far on this journey is the power of listening.

I've encountered the importance of this throughout my Peace Corps service. There have been moments when I have really felt like I listened well and experiences where I know I didn't do my best, screwed up and chose to learn from those screw ups. I entered Peace Corps thinking that, because I was a girl with a pretty good head on her shoulders and a college degree, that I would have heaps of useful and valuable information to impart on the people of whichever country I traveled to.

And while there may be some truth to that, I'm realizing more that these people, this place, has a lot to offer and teach me as well. Good listening skills are important in every job and role in the world. I know this seems kind of obvious. But you can't be a poto (smart) McDonald's drive-thru operator if you can't listen, you can't be a good ballroom dancer if you don't first watch and listen to your partner's moves. If you can't listen, forget about being a good friend. No one wants to hang around someone who just talks all the time. You definitely can't be a good Peace Corps Volunteer if you don't occasionally shut up and just take in what's around you.

When we listen we learn from other people. We connect to other people. When we give our undivided attention to others and stop thinking about ourselves, we can help. We learn what the needs are and if we really have what it takes to help them. And if we don't have what it takes, we should listen so we know where to look for that help. And maybe help isn't needed at all. Maybe they just need an ear - someone to give them a verbal high five and tell them they are doing a good job. Someone to wipe away tears. A presence. But there is no way to know, unless we close our mouths and open our ears (and our hearts). We have two ears and one mouth so wouldn't it make sense to say that listening is twice as important as talking?  Didn't Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock say something similar to that? Smart guy.

I'm not perfect. I have a long way to go in terms of my listening ability. But I'm working on it and I'm glad that Peace Corps has helped me realize how much further I have to go and how much listening can help.

What's something you've learned recently?

To Peace Corps Tonga 78

The following message is dedicated to the 78th Group of Peace Corps Volunteers headed to the Kingdom of Tonga in September 2013:
Dear Peace Corps Tonga Group 78,

First of all let me say how excited we are for you to get here! That being said, this is a strange letter to write. It feels like just yesterday I was in your shoes - not knowing exactly what to pack and wanting to soak in as much time with family and friends as I could, and feeling like I was about to leap off a cliff into the unknown. September will be here before you know it!

I thought I'd write this letter to help you a little bit with the packing process. The rest of Peace Corps - Tonga 77 would definitely agree with me when I say that I was the girl who brought way too much. Which is funny because I'm not at all high maintenance in the States. So first off, don't be that girl (or guy). The mail is pretty reliable, so if you do happen to really need something, I'm sure you can find some awesome family member or great friend back home to send it to you. Anyhoo - I'm sure not everyone in Peace Corps Tonga would agree with my list, but if I were to do it over, here is what I would do differently:

To bring:
Skirts/Dresses (girls): Bring breathable (cotton) dresses and skirts. Make sure they cover your knees! Also, don't bring anything that is made of a thick material - you will sweat right through it. Back sweat is the worst.
As few pairs of shoes as possible: I wear three pairs - flip flops, Chacos (or something similar) and occasionally some running shoes when I work out. That is all you need. Seriously. That's it.
A hammock: You are about to move to the South Pacific Ocean where coconut trees are plentiful which means that there are prime spots to hang a hammock. Do yourself a favor and cut down on time and bring some "slap straps" too. I have them - they are wonderful!
Ear plugs: If you are like me you may end up living 10 feet from a Mormon Church. Sometimes the villagers like to get up at 5am for choir practice. It's the most beautiful singing I have ever heard, but it can be early. Luckily, I came prepared. Also, despite what childhood cartoons teach us about the rooster crowing once in the morning, this is a lie. They start before the sun comes up and don't stop. :)
An external hard drive: If you have time, fill it with your favorite movies and tv shows. You might find yourself with a little bit of downtime here and it's always nice to have something to watch. Plus, you can share it with your fellow volunteers.
Perfume: It's always nice to smell good. Bring your favorite sent so it reminds you of home!
A Journal: Chronicling your Peace Corps journey is so important. I'm already finding it so so much fun to go back and read my early journal entries.
Febreze: Unless you like doing laundry by hand, it's not a bad thing to pack. Makes things last a little bit longer - I don't live in Febreze scented filth. I promise.
A good backpack: Chances are you will have to walk some sort of distance to get your food (to the market, to town, to the local store, etc.) so it doesn't hurt to bring a day backpack or some re-usable bags.
To leave at home:
Scarves: Tonga is hot. There is no use for scarves here. Let your neck breathe. This seems like an obvious statement and I thought I was a pro when it came to understanding heat (I have lived in Florida during the summer time), but I have never experienced heat like this.
Expensive camera/computer equipment: You're about to move to Tonga where the humidity is higher than average. With humidity comes mold and it's no fun when your electronics grow fungi. 
Jeans: I suggest bringing one pair (that's it). I've lived here almost 9 months and I can count on my fingers how many times I have worn my jeans.
Leather goods: Belts, sandals, bags, whatever. It will mold if it comes to Tonga.

That's about it from me. Obviously pay attention to the packing list that Peace Corps provides because I really think they did a good job with it. These are just items that I use often or found especially beneficial. 

Toki Sio, (See you later!)


Sunday, May 26, 2013

My Weekend on Fofoa.

Part of the Peace Corps journey is meeting people from all over the world.
And though I work in a small village with many host country nationals (Tongans), I am also getting the opportunity to meet folks from all over the globe right here on this little island. I am feeling pretty lucky.

We are entering "high season" here in Vava'u. The weather isn't unbearably hot anymore (well at least not EVERY day), there is usually a nice breeze coming off of the water and soon the whales will be arriving. (Life goal: to swim with the whales - which will hopefully be realized sometime later this year! Stay tuned. Eek!)
The Port of Refuge fills up with sailboats that come from places near and far. It's so much fun to listen to the passengers'/captains' stories and to learn about where they come from. 
There are also those people that aren't from Tonga and live here year round. And this last weekend I had the privilege of hanging out with a few of them.
I spent the weekend on an island near Vava'u called Fofoa. In the late 1800s Fofoa was home to an orange plantation and to this day, old orange trees dot the island. Fofoa is a smaller island off of the larger, Hunga Island. Its considered an outer island in Vava'u because it is exactly that. It's one of the last islands before you hit open sea. I was able to snorkel (and see a sting ray!), watch sea turtles off of my balcony and take in the beauty of the South Pacific. And meet some totally rad people too. Boris and Karyn live with their family on Fofoa and run an eco-friendly (the entire thing is run on solar power!) guesthouse there. Aside from being amazing cooks, they were gracious hosts and showed me such a good time. If you are ever in the area and need a great place to stay, check them out here.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

[playing moa at recess]


Life in the South Pacific is wonderful. The air is cooling off, winter is here and I am loving the rhythm that I've had going recently.

I am 4 weeks away from eva pe-ing (wandering) to America for a brief visit and have so much to do before then. 

Here are 5 little moments that had me smiling this week: (In no particular order)

1. Last Sunday was Father's Day here in Tonga and I went to the Wesleyan Church to celebrate. During the service all of the fathers were asked to come forward and each of their children put a giant candy necklace around their necks. On their way back to their seats, three of the dads thought the palangi (me) looked like she needed a little sugar in her life so I ended up walking out of church covered in candy. Goodtimes.

 2. Touna (pictured below) came up to me every morning this week and gave me a huge hug. She loves to take her clothes off and yell at me from across the school grounds. It makes me laugh. Every time.
 3. Nigeria (pictured below) read with me during every lunch hour. She is in Class 1 and only knows Tongan right now, so we read Tongan books and she taught me new words.

 4. My students and I sang "Mmmm-Ahk! went the little green frog one day!" every day this week. They loved it and it was great to practice saying color names.

5. My principal and I had a great meeting about the success of the students so far. She is happy with the work I am doing. It felt good to hear that. 

Hope you have a wonderful weekend. :)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Peace Corps BBQ at Don & Nori's.

As much as I love staying in community (in my village) and hanging out with my neighbors, sometimes it's nice to meet up with other Peace Corps Volunteers. I'm lucky to be a PCV in Tonga, where we all really aren't that far away from each other. There are 9 of us that live rather close to each other in this part of Tonga. I have heard that in other countries where PCVs serve, they can be days away from the nearest volunteer.

On Saturday the PCVs I live near were able to meet up at Don & Nori's. Don & Nori's is not a restaurant, rather a home away from home. This lovely couple moved to Tonga 30+ years ago and raised their family here. They are originally from America and are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.
We spent the late afternoon enjoying each other's company, eating great food and watching the sun set. I have referred to where we live as "Neverland", but Saturday night it really did feel that way.

An Open Letter to My Momma on Mother's Day.

Dear Mom, 
We both know that as a child I may not have appreciated you and your wisdom as much as I could have (or should have). For this, I am so sorry. It's taken moving to three different states and one very tiny island in the South Pacific to really truly begin to understand the things you have taught me. Everything makes a lot more sense now. 
From a very young age you taught me to always look for the positive - the thing to learn in a rocky situation, the silver lining, the smiles. Even when life gets tough, positivity and smiling really go a long way. It has also ensured that my very first old lady wrinkles are pretty awesome looking laugh lines. 
Speaking of laugh lines, I appreciate you constantly waving your freak flag when we were kids and even more so, now. Whether it's lip syncing to Beyonce Knowles in the middle of a department store or doing yoga in the Department of Motor Vehicles while I was trying to get my driver's license, I have always appreciated your goofiness and your confidence (maybe not as a 16-year-old, but I sure do now!). You show everyone your true colors and it is this honesty -  this openness that inspires me. Finally, above all else thank you for helping to cultivate my self-worth.
Growing up I wasn't sure what I wanted to be. As a 9-year-old the plan was to be a tornado chaser (until I saw my very first one) and then I was set on becoming "the next Barbara Walters". It didn't matter what crazy plan I had - you always told me that the sky was the limit. You made me feel special and loved, and also showed me the importance of looking for the beauty in everyone and everything too. In terms of the bigger things in life, you have never forced me to fit into a specific mold - you allow me to be who I am. Thank you for introducing me to yoga and the different ways we can be spiritual. We both know I don't have everything figured out yet and that I'm still growing and finding a path, but I love that I know that no matter which way I choose, you will always be there - my biggest cheerleader, my greatest friend.
I love you, Mom. I love your laugh and how crazy loud it is. I love that every time you cut up an apple, you don't mind when I steal a piece. I love that you still will dance to "I'm a Rover" in the kitchen with me. I love that you are still so in love with Dad. And I love how passionate you are about fakahuhu (breastfeeding). But mostly, I love that you are my mom.

Love always,
Your Panda Bear 

Monday, May 6, 2013


Since moving to Tonga, I have developed a love-hate relationship with Sundays.

Everything slows down here. The culture dictates that there are only three things that are appropriate to do on the seventh day of the week: eat, sleep and rest.

There are no afternoon trips to Target with your best friend.

No coffee dates at Starbucks.
Forget about hikes in the foothills.

No frantic planning for teaching during the coming week.

I sound like I’m complaining. But this is something I am getting used to and something that I need to embrace. I still get restless. I still feel like I should be doing more on this day, but instead I’m slowing down. This is good for me.

The last couple of Sunday afternoons, some could say that I have “cheated”. I spend an hour doing yoga, but to me this is a form of relaxation, so though some Tongans would say “Oua Mandy! ‘Ikai fakamalohisino!” (Don’t Mandy! No exercise!) I’m saying that this doesn’t count. It’s just practicing living in the moment and finding some peacefulness.

That is, until today. I was about thirty minutes into a very relaxing yoga session, when I had a visitor. For those of you familiar with yoga, I was in the downward dog position (my body forming an upside down V on the mat) when I opened my eyes, looked between my legs and met the gaze of the largest rat I’ve ever seen.

Peering his head around the corner, seeing if he had a clear getaway to the outside exit located underneath the sink, I met his gaze. I mean he wasn’t even scared of me. He was the size of a small squirrel and was just hanging out. His beady little eyes seemed to be judging me. That little bugger.

Needless to say, Mandy vs. the Kuma: Round 3 commences tomorrow. While preparing for this match I was looking for the rat poison and found that my little friend had left presents in my cupcake holders. One little present in each. You're so going down, Mr. Kuma.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Pizza Time.

Term 1 is officially finished and last week the little primary school I call my home and place of work, began Term 2. This means that the school year is already 25% over.

Time flies when you’re having fun!

And I have only 20 school weeks to get my Class 6 students ready for a test that will determine what secondary school they will earn admission into.

No pressure.  

Similar to America, these students take the test long before the school year is finished. So like I did in America, what is supposed to take all year to teach is consolidated (and rushed) into 30 weeks of teaching.  And when you take out all the reasons school gets cancelled (rain days, hot days, ANZAC day, funerals, the King’s Birthday, … etc.) we are talking about much less time.

The Ministry of Education here in Tonga introduced a new English curriculum last year. The school year is broken up into 8 units – each unit has a different theme and a different set of standards to master in 4 weeks time (the suggested time it should take to finish a unit). These eight units really need to be taught before the Class 6 exam so I have organized my schedule in order to complete them all prior to the second week of October. I will be teaching night class (a common occurrence here) in order to get it completed on time. Sometimes I can’t help but think that students need a break, time to play and have fun – I believed it when I taught in Wisconsin, Florida and Colorado and I believe it even more now when so much is resting on the results of this test.

This week we started Unit 3 - “Instructions and Directions”. Each class is working on the language needed to give and receive instructions and give and receive directions. And what better way to learn these things than to learn it through FOOD.

Because… really, people… everything is better with food.

My Class 5 and 6 students began the week by learning the language needed in order to cook. Mix, roll, stir, put, place, boil, and bake. Then they practiced creating “pizza lo’i” - literal translation is “lying pizza” (or fake pizza). This pizza was made out of laminated construction paper and each student became a chef. By the end of the week they were writing and creating their own recipes. They tested them out and “kai lahi” (ate a lot). The next day we made “pizza ma’oni” (real pizza) and the kids loved it!