Paynesville Press - August 24, 2005

Guest Column

Trainee takes eventful boat, car rides in Tonga

By Dan Starken

I'm here in Neiafu, which is the main village in the Vava'u island group (northern Tonga). Neiafu is maybe 5,000 population. It's right on a big harbor, so there are a whole bunch of "yachties" from New Zealand everywhere.

The Tongans don't really like them much because they don't really adhere to the conservative Tongan lifestyle.

I survived the 17-18 hour boat ride without getting sick. It was not warm during the night...we were riding in the top level (three-level boat) out in the open with an awning over our heads, so when the boat was cruising the wind made it chilly.

The most fun part was one of the volunteers in our Peace Corps group decided he was immune to getting sick (even after he'd gotten himself extremely sick a couple weeks ago by drinking way too much kava, which is like alcohol except it just makes you sleepy and happy as opposed to angry and drunk). Anywho, he went out and got drunk before getting on the boat and didn't even make the takeoff of the boat without getting sick. Then he proceeded to puke for the next 17 hours. He tried to play it off as food poisoning, of course. So everyone in our area had to sit in a room with puke smell for the whole trip.

I didn't sleep much, but the last half of the trip was pretty sweet. I left the puke room, and somehow got up to the very front of the boat (think "Titanic," the movie) and stayed up there for the last eight hours or so, and it was incredible. There was quite a while where we couldn't see any land at all. Then we saw a couple whales, which was pretty spectacular.

After a night's rest at one of the PC staff's relative's home by Neiafu, we went bright and early the next morning to our second homestay. Five volunteers went to Mangia (population maybe 60) and four volunteers went to Ha'akio (population maybe 100). They're about a mile and a half apart.

I'm in Mangia, and my family is pretty cool for the most part. They've all been really nice, but the dad is kind of creepy sometimes. My dad is a farmer, mother stays home and takes care of the house and does a lot of weaving, and then there's a 10-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter (who's gone from Monday-Friday to Neiafu for school...she comes back for the weekends). They speak almost no English, so I've been picking up a little more Tongan out of necessity, but still mostly do a lot of head nodding and smiling.

One thing I do love about Tonga is there are two ways to say "yes." You can say "Io" (ee-oo), or you can raise both eyebrows to say "yes." So most of the time when you ask someone if they're doing fine, they don't say anything, just raise their eyebrows.

My dad doesn't like to let me alone basically. If I go in my room for a minute, he'll start calling out my name to get me to come out, and it's always for no apparent reason, just to ask me some random question that he already knows the answer to.

Then we started having language class in the other village on Monday (two days's Wednesday here now), and next thing I know my father walks up and sits right by where we're having class in the neighboring village for three hours. Then we had a night session for an hour, and of course he shows up and sits right behind us again while we're having our class (our classes are outside).

Then there's the first day I was in Mangia. I get there and meet the family, and it's all cool and I pick up enough Tongan to realize my father wants to take me for a ride in his car (think the worst car you've ridden in and make it scarier). So I hop in, and we start driving around, no worries. Then we drive down by Neiafu on this one-lane road with water on both sides down by the bay. We come to a bridge, get out, and look around a little bit then I guess he wanted to go back so instead of going over the bridge he tries to do a three-point turn on this one-lane road. He apparently isn't real adept at changing from reverse to drive because I had to shift for us quick several times to keep him from plunging our car into the bay!

Oh well, that's plenty excitement for one day. Or is it? No, it isn't. Then we drive to the bank, and the police pull up behind the car and start talking to my homestay dad. The police walks away after a while, and my homestay dad comes back and says "blah blah blah puaka fakahela!" Fakahela means like nuisance or pain in the butt and puaka means pig. I noticed the car we were driving didn't have a license plate, so I figured maybe that's what that spiel was about.

We go in the bank and head back home. Then we get back, and my dad summons one of the neighbor kids to hop in this little cement rectangle pit, which is maybe five feet deep. I look inside. and there's a three-foot long pig in there. Mind you, there are pigs and chickens and dogs everywhere in Tonga, no matter if you're in the city or the villages. So the kid starts trying to round up the pig, and the thing starts going berserk and trying to bite the kid. Then my father leans way over the rail from the top of the pit, and the kid corners the pig, so my dad picked it up by the tail and yanked it out...enough excitement in and of itself. Then, instead of just letting it go, another kid gets a gunnysack, and they drop the pig in the sack and tie the top of the sack. Then he opens the trunk of the car and tosses the pig sack in there.

Then he tells me we're going for another ride, so I hop in and we drive back to Neiafu, and he says something about the police again. Apparently we're delivering the pig to the policeman's (the one who stopped us earlier) home. So we swing by the policeman's home and my father gets the pig sack and gives it to some guy and then we drive on back to Mangia.

I still don't understand everything that happened that day, but it was weird and hilarious.

There are a ton of kids in Mangia, and all I have to do is walk outside and in about five minutes there'll probably be 20 kids gathered around wanting to play some game. I grabbed a flat soccer ball and passed it to a kid like a basketball the other day and about 10 minutes later there were 30 kids yelling and screaming my name for me to pass them the ball. It's fun as heck, even though it's the silliest little games you play with them.

One thing that's struck me is I still haven't seen an ugly kid here and very few if any ugly Tongans. In America, ugly people are everywhere, but Tongans, even though they are definitely bigger (they eat a lot and that's a good thing here culturally), are far and away more attractive people.

I've got plenty more stories, but I'm running out of time, so I'll just finish with that. I'll try and make sure to keep my journal up to date, so I can relay any that seem especially ridiculous.

Starken is a 1996 PAHS graduate who joined the Peace Corps in July and went to Tonga in the South Pacific.

Contact the author at | Return to Viewpoint