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!).

Friday, August 1, 2014

Camp GLOW/GROW: Fundraising

Working closely with the campers from last year, the counselors chosen for this year's camp and with other host country nationals involved in Camp GLOW and GROW has been such a rewarding experience for Harrison, Joey and I (the co-directors of camp). It's been especially amazing to see how involved and excited these people are about creating and implementing a camp for this year.

Part of the process of preparing for camp for this year is fundraising. Money is spent on guest speakers, lodging and catering for the week of the camp and the supplies/rentals needed to help with Club GLOW/GROW after the camp in 2015. Local fundraising efforts have commenced in the Kingdom of Tonga, but there ways for others to get involved too.
If you're interested in helping with Camp GLOW and Camp GROW this year you can donate here.
Any amount helps! Thank you so much for the consideration.

Life According to... [Vol. 7]

I work with three teachers at the Government Primary School in Toula.
 Salesi (Charlie in English) is the sole male educator. 

He teaches Class 3 and Class 4 and loves to talk with me about the differences that exist between teaching in Tonga and teaching in America.

What I love about talking with him is that it isn't about figuring out which school system is the best, but talking about what works in each culture.

Here's a little bit about Salesi:
1. Salesi is only a couple years older than I am.
2. He's a family guy - happily married with a cute little daughter.
3. He's proud to be Tongan, yet loves to 'eva (wander/travel).
4. He has a deep respect for Tongan culture and is constantly making sure I kai faka-Tonga (eat like a Tongan - which means about 3 times as much as I normally eat).
5. He loves to be active - he and I worked together with the Ministry of Education to teach many of the Government Primary Schools the ta fuka (zumba dance) when the King came.

I'm very grateful to know him and to have had the opportunity to teach with him the last two years.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


I had the opportunity to spend last weekend visiting two volunteers on the outer island of 'Eua. I'm glad I waited until almost two years into my service because it reminded me of a cross between Vava'u and Northern Wisconsin (home) and thus made me a little homesick.

To get to 'Eua I jumped on a 3-hour (so much better than a 24 hour boat ride!) ferry with three other volunteers and two Tongan friends (Michael, Tynesha, Joey, Hepi and Samu), took some motion sickness pills and fell asleep under a large fleece blanket.

Chiara and Katy were waiting for us at the warf when we arrived. They were such wonderful hosts. We shared stories, cooked meals together, caught up and enjoyed each other's company.

A little bit about 'Eua: 'Eua is covered in lush rainforest (which isn't very Wisconsin-y), but there are also pine trees and hilly and beautiful fields (which is the part that reminded me of home). Both rugged and breathtakingly beautiful, this island paradise has many beaches, rocky cliffs and trails for trekking.

'Eua is the oldest island in the Kingdom of Tonga and is the place where the Polynesian god Maui supposedly stood when he fished the other 175 islands of Tonga out of the depths of the great Pacific Ocean.

We spent an afternoon hiking Fangatave (cliffs and beach). At one point I scaled a 20-foot cliff and free climbed using ropes that were tied into the side of giant volcanic rocks. It was an exciting and relaxing way to spend a few days before our COS (Close of Service) Conference began on Tongatapu (the main island in Tonga). 


A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the souls of its people.
- Mahatma Gandhi

COS Conference [part 1]

Together for our final conference together. This week was full of reflection, sharing stories and enjoying each other's company. I'm so proud of these people and so grateful to call them friends.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tongan Culture 101: Showing Love

When I was little I knew my mom loved me. I knew it because she'd tell me it every day (and still does!), but I also knew it because of what she would do for me, my sister and my brother. 

She hugged and kissed us, did our laundry, she sometimes (okay, most times...) made our beds, she wiped our fingerprints off the windows, and cleaned up the tornado messes we'd leave behind wherever we went. And over time she helped us to become more responsible by giving us more to do.

How did I show my mom love in return? 

I let her do all those things, I'd hug her back, tried not to grumble when I was told to do something, and tried not to be a bad kid. I think, if you asked her, she'd say that she liked to feel needed (and I know that sometimes we took advantage of that).

The same can be said for my dad, too.

And recently I've spent a lot of time thinking about love and how it manifests itself here. 
How do you show love? 
How do you receive love? 
How do you feel loved?

It looks so different here and, in many ways, very similar.

Yesterday when church finished one of my neighbors invited me over for Sunday lu (meat/coconut/onions baked in taro leaves and put into the ground to cook). She has 3 children (with a fourth on the way). When I sat down in their house, she sat down next to me and the kids got right to work. The kids! The two oldest boys went out to the 'umu (underground oven) and brought in lunch and served it to us. The 3-year-old girl grabbed a piece of fabric to use as the table on the ground and grabbed plates for us to eat on. And mom? Mom sat and patiently waited. The kids did all the work!

I was talking recently with some friends here who relocated from America in the late 1970s. One of them mentioned that many years ago they adopted a local teenage girl into their family. During her first year living with them the girl was pretty miserable and seemed to be very angry all the time. My friends didn't understand her disposition until one night when one of their Tongan friends was visiting after dinner. The father of the family was doing dishes and the adopted daughter was trying to push him out of the way. When that didn't seem to work, she crossed her arms and stood glaring at him. The father looked to his Tongan friend and asked "Do your daughters treat you this way?" The Tongan man responded, "No. I let them respect me." And it clicked. The way the Tongan girl had been taught to love her family was through helping - she wanted to feel needed. And in feeling needed, she felt love from her new family. As soon as my friend let her have control of the dish washing, laundry, and sweeping, the situation greatly improved.

What I've noticed throughout my time here is that in order to feel loved you need to feel needed. There is a smaller emphasis on words of appreciation and more on acts of service. 

For some of us we feel love when people use their words. For others it's through gift giving, intimacy, or quality time. But what I've noticed here in Tonga is that love is almost always given and received through acts of service and it starts at a very young age.

I think there is something really powerful about paying attention to the people in our lives and the ways in which giving and receiving love change - from culture to culture and from person to person.

"Spread love everywhere you go: first of all in your own home. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to a next door neighbor... Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God's kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting."
- Mother Teresa

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Snow in the South Pacific!

As the sun was setting over the South Pacific this evening I took a walk around the school grounds to see a transformation nearly completed - a school, that just two days ago had crumbling cement walls, broken windows and wires that hung all over the place. And now? Now the school looks brand new! After studying each new window, paint color, and door knob carefully, I returned to my house and found snow in a big pile next to my door! No, it did not snow. The soldiers just dumped out their cooler before leaving, but it SURE DID LOOK LIKE IT.

I called some of the neighbor boys who happened to be passing by over and told them about snow in America. And we spent the next 10 minutes making snow balls...
 ...surfing in it... 
 ...singing songs from Frozen (yep, the Disney gem has made it's way here) and challenging each other to stand in it barefoot. You'd think the girl who grew up in it would be able to out challenge three little boys... nope. Boy do they have some tough feet.
What a fun way to end a busy week. And I may have sung them this song before they ran home for dinner (and they may have called me faka'saseli - crazy).

Hehe... I like to plug my favorite movie any way I can.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Camp GLOW/GROW: An Update

This morning Harrison, Joey and I pulled together as many of our campers and counselors for Camp GROW (Guys Reshaping Our World) and GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and continued to introduce the concept of Club GLOW and GROW.
Sharing what we love about camp!

As dynamic and engaging as camp was in 2013, we didn't want the learning to stop there. Club GLOW and GROW gives an opportunity for the campers to extend what they've learned into the rest of their schooling experience. By keeping each other accountable in their goal setting, learning more about empowerment and offering the opportunity to create a service project that gets the word out about GLOW and GROW, Club GLOW/GROW promises to be a positive addition locally.
Joey leading a brainstorming session.
Sharing why we love camp!
Today we specifically talked about recruitment for this year's camp (it's in less than two months!). Over the next few weeks we will visit local high schools and present Camp GLOW/GROW to the Form 3 (13-15-year-olds) in hopes that they will consider applying. 
Making a list of things we loved about camp and want to share with others!
We also are planning a service project for September that I will share with you soon! (We're still nailing down the specifics! Hint: It involves running!)