Not much new to report. So thought I’d write about…FAKALETIS!!!

March 14, 2010

Gender is defined by sexual roles, not sexual objects, but never so much as it is in Tonga. Men go to the bush, farm, make the umu for cooking, build houses, drink kava, mow the grass, do household repairs, fish, drive and preach. Women weave, cook, clean, sweep, take care of children, do the laundry, and iron. Tongans have big families, in large part to help with these various roles. When I was in Ha’apai, if my host father was not home, it fell to the eight-year-old boy to go to the bush and collect root crops for dinner or to fetch coconuts. The eldest daughter took care of the infants as much if not more than the mother.  You are either a man or a woman, and must do your corresponding man or woman roles. If a man is needed to do a woman’s activities, it does not fit in these strict definitions of gender. A third gender was conveniently created by situations when there is not an even gender distribution in the family—the fakaleti.

Traditionally, when parents did not have any female children to help with household chores, they would choose one of the male children to fulfill those duties and the child worked like a girl and was considered a fakaleti, a label that directly translates as “like a lady.” Such a term did not equate with homosexuality necessarily. Fakaletis were expected to fulfill the role of women in the home they grew up in, but were still presumed to marry a woman once reaching adulthood. It was not a stigmatized gender until recently, when Christian missionaries began equating fakaletis with homosexuals, determining them equal and thus sinful. Parents no longer choose their child to be a fakaleti in most cases; such a choice would go against God’s order and now holds a tremendous stigma. It is the child who now decides to fill that roll, but what is crazy is the child usually must decide at the age of three to five. Obviously many children make that decision as the evidence of large Tongan men in miniskirts and fake boobs attests, but how do so many know their sexuality at such a young age? Now that the association has been made, fakaletis are now pretty universally considered the Tongan homosexuals.

Fakaletis act more like western stereotypes of women then Tongan women. Whereas traditional Tongan women will wear long skirts and shirts covering their shoulders, fakaletis dress scandalously with short skirts and stockings, swinging their hips as they walk. They do have to work on that facial hair—far too often they seem like cross-dressing rugby players with lipstick and five o’clock shadows—but so do many Tongan women, so maybe it is a purposeful fashion statement. Fakaletis are now widely considered the homosexuals in Tonga, although they would probably be categorized as trans-gendered in the United States. What is interesting is that when it comes to sexual acts, they are not the only gay or queer people based on western standards. In the west if you kiss, have sex, or even fantasize about someone of the same gender, you are considered gay, queer, or at least bi-curious. The actual sexual act does not determine the orientation, but instead it is a question of your sexual object and that of your partner. Fakaletis in Tonga, on the other hand, are simply bottoms. For a man to have sex with a fakaleti does not make him gay as he is having sex with someone considered to be fulfilling the woman role, but this also means that to be a top, still a man having sex with a person with male sexual objects, does not equate being gay. In Tonga, sexuality is explicitly about the sexual role, and since tops have sex with men who are “like a lady,” it is OK, even straight.

Sodomy is illegal however in Tonga with laws based in Christian dogma, although obviously it occurs. Because of the spread of Christian doctrine about sexuality, fakaletis have become stigmatized like sodomy itself, causing most to move out of the small villages to the more cosmopolitan and international centers of Nuku’alofa and Neiafu where fakaleti communities exist and provide a pseudo safe haven. Those same Christian morals that made being a fakaleti into a sin also ensure that all expressions of sexuality remain a taboo. No public affection is allowed between a man and woman, let alone a man and man. Even if a couple is married, public kissing or holding hands is considered ostentatious and disrespectful. If a girl slept over at a guy’s house, rumors about their wicked sex life would spread throughout the village like wild fire. If a man slept over at a woman’s house, she instantly becomes a whore. (The weirdest thing is that the biggest taboo is two siblings of the opposite sex sleeping under the same roof, but discussing why that may originally be is just as gross as the presumption that would make such a situation taboo.) In Tonga, simply texting someone on the phone makes the person your “moa”—your boyfriend or girlfriend—and thus if a man was to date a man, it would actually be easier to sleep together, as two men sleeping in the same room or same bed or same floor is normal. Two men holding hands in public is even normal as it is not considered sexual. Fakaletis are probably the only people who are at all publicly sexual. They dance up close to the people with whom they are dancing, and walk and talk flamboyantly and suggestively. They still act pretty tame based on western standards, but they are the only people where one’s sexual being is even mildly suggested publicly.

Lesbians do not exist in any visible or talked about way in Tonga. There are not women dressed as men fulfilling the men’s role, but one would presume they are out there, somewhere, if natural laws of humans are taken into consideration. And Tongans do not understand the idea of bisexuality, as a Peace Corps staff made very clear during training. “Tongans have just gotten used to the idea of gays,” she said eloquently, “but they still do not understand the bisexuals,” as if it were a new and unique spice arriving on the latest ship from the New World. In Tonga, it’s pretty much Fakaletis, or straight men and women. There are no gray areas. Performing more than one role is traditionally unheard of.

The King of Tonga is presumed by many in the populace to be gay. This may just be because he is not married. He does have a child out of wedlock meaning he has to have had sex with at least one woman, and he is restricted by the fact that he has to marry someone of royal blood which practically would necessitate a family member as there are not that many Tongan royals, but maybe all that means is he is not gay, he just feels restricted. Or who knows, he could be that impossible to understand bisexual category? Or maybe Tongans began to say he’s gay because he is the first king not to fulfill his societally prescribed role held to be of utmost importance—starting a traditional family? Or maybe he is gay? He is not a fakaleti, or at least does not act so publicly, although I really wish he would. Imagine a cross-dressing monarch in a mini-skirt and ample bosom showing up for his kingly duties at church or when foreign dignitaries arrive. The fact that rumors spread about the king being gay without him being a fakaleti shows that ideas of sexuality are becoming slightly more modern. The fact that people believe he could play a man’s role—the king—and still be a homosexual does not fit into the clearly defined gender roles Tongans have held onto for so long. Maybe it means mindsets are changing, but there is one thing that is clear. In this Christian society, fakaletis, bisexuals, lesbians, gays, queer people however one wants to define them, are certainly going straight to hell. And it’s going to be a big gay party.


Natural Disasters

February 28, 2010

The Peace Corps has five levels of color-coordinated emergency action plans, kind of like President Bush’s trusted terror alerts, but these plans have been enacted more and more recently as the world seems to be disintegrating into natural disaster. A few weeks ago, the big event was a cyclone. We were on stand-fast for a few days—pretty much a warning not to go too far from our homes. Volunteers in Ha’apai and Vava’u were made to consolidate a few days earlier than us in Tongatapu—stuck in a church and a house with few supplies and the never-ending company of each other. We had our freedom a few more days, although I did use the impending cyclone as an excuse to miss church, a pattern of excuses that increases every week. It was a sunny day that Sunday and I thought maybe the cyclone had turned, but just before five, I got a call saying it was time to consolidate. So I closed windows and moved everything as far from them as possible. I packed my bag including food and water, and we all made for the Peace Corps Office.

The storm was supposed to hit first at 9 pm. Then it was pushed back until midnight, then 12 am, then 4 am, and continued to be pushed back until 6 pm the following day—on Tongan time obviously, always arriving later than scheduled or expected. A category 4. It started raining during our first night of sleep and as we kept being warned of the delayed beginning, the storms increasing ferocity was also relayed with deaths reported in Samoa and Vava’u. When the storm hit, we were all moved upstairs, where we held a perfect theatrical seat to the fight between wind and tree, a quarrel the wind seemed to win when the trunk cracked a few feet from the porch, and toppled a few trees in the back of the office. A river poured down the main street in the front, and water seeped underneath the doors of the building on the second floor. It only lasted a few hours, and then we reached what some said was the eye of the storm; others, the armband. I don’t know if it was the eye, or the shoe or the headband or the jockstrap. We waited around for the storm to hit full force, but the heavy winds never seemed to materialize again.

At 6:30 the next morning, we were awakened and told it was time to go home. Streets and houses were flooded, power lines down, roofs blown off local stores, trees and house debris littering school lawns, but somehow my house was relatively untouched and my dog, who I had to leave untied and unsheltered to fend for himself, was lying on my porch when I arrived. There was no electricity for a week, and ants seemed to find refuge from the rain and flooding, but my house and I were safe with chainsaws buzzing outside communicating other houses and all our electricity would soon be restored, which it finally has been, although there are a few power lines still lying in the road. The storm seemed insignificant, and while the damage was not as bad as it could have been, it was certainly a lot worse than the storm seemed to merit. The craziest damage I heard of was on the eastern side of the island. Tongan graves are pretty much large mounts of sand, often decorated with glass bottles. The cyclone dug up many of these graves, and bones were spread across the beaches, families looking futilely to identify the remains of their already deceased.

Two weeks later—this morning at 2 am—I got many phone calls, all which I missed, but was finally awoken by another volunteer to be told about the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile and that we were on tsunami warning. Again we consolidated, first biking to the Peace Corps Office and then collectively moving to higher ground, but Tonga luckily did not seem to get too much damage, unlike certain other Pacific Island countries and of course Chile itself. Reports of impending waves reached as high as 12 feet which would have been horrible for this flat island, but the biggest one that hit the capital was only .3 feet, the largest hitting Tonga someone said being a meter. I haven’t heard of much damage, although best safe than sorry I guess. It does seem weird, however, how rapidly the world’s list of natural disasters seems to be expanding.

School begins

February 13, 2010

Monday. The first day of school. All the students sit in the assembly hall singing hymns in perfect harmony, boys on the left taking accompanying parts and the girls on the right doubled in number singing melody. Visa, the head tutor, stands outside the entrance chain smoking, ignoring the law of no smoking on campuses and extinguishing his cigarette against the clearly marked “No Smoking” sign. A minister files to the front and speaks a hymn, which the student body dutifully repeats in song, and then they collectively utter the Lord’s Prayer, competing to be heard. The first day of school is ready to commence. Classes? No. Clean-up day, where students re-paint walls, sweep and mop the classrooms, wipe down windowpanes and otherwise do very little. Tuesday is also clean up day, followed by the first large assembly on Wednesday, the end of registration on Thursday, and a feast to mark the beginning of school on Friday. Classes will start during the second week.

I arrived for the Friday assembly and feast early, not knowing it started at 10 instead of 8:30, and so I joined in the Kava circle that had taken over the faculty room. Two female students from Form 5 were the toas, the people who serve the kava, and the two youngest teachers flirted shamelessly with them. I was seated where it turns out talking chiefs are placed. Whenever someone new arrives at the kava circle, he says a speech thanking the group for allowing him to join and a bunch of other stuff I can never understand, and then the talking chief responds, thanking him for joining the group and making him feel invited. I was told to take this roll, a great honor, although they were by no means making me a talking chief, but it was an honor I of course immediately relinquished when the kava circle was done and the assembly was ready to commence. My feet were so asleep from sitting cross-legged in the Kava circle for over an hour that I fell over when I tried to stand. And almost fell the second time. It took what seemed like forever for me to effectively rise and walk and I’m sure everyone thought I was drunk on Kava, and by the time I had effectively risen, everyone was already in the assembly hall waiting for me to begin the ceremony.

My dog also followed me to school for the first time that day and created havoc during the feast, running around to everyone—jumping up on laps, being pushed away, and jumping on the next person. Most dogs aren’t allowed inside buildings, so know not to go through a sheltered overhang to enter the school grounds, but my dog feels no such limitations. I felt like a parent ignoring a screaming kid in a supermarket—“He’s not mine, I swear”—but Uli of course ruined my attempt to disassociate by lying at my feet after getting his fill from teachers feeding him under the table and followed me religiously from then on. I don’t know why people who love beating dogs, sometimes even with a machete, are so obsessed with sneaking them food? Maybe something to do with their love of eating dogs, so it becomes habitual to fatten them up. It might sound ridiculous that people eat dogs here, but it’s not. Another Peace Corps Volunteer’s dog was recently eaten by the police stationed directly behind her house. You can’t go to the police if the police are the ones who ate the dog.

I’ve started tying my dog up before I go to school as he entered every one of my classes on the first day of actual classes. This shouldn’t be a big deal, as about a third of the female faculty have infants they drag to school, who wail during assemblies and teacher’s meetings and often classes as well. It is funny to see a biology teacher with baby in one hand, pouring some viscous liquid into a Petri dish with the other hand. I don’t know what else would be expected with no day care in Tonga, but it certainly results in a lot of infants running around. But somehow dogs are not viewed in the same way. Even though Uli will just lie at my feet, his presence is not welcome where vociferous babies are accepted with open arms. Tying him at my house is probably the safest way to keep him from the dinner plate, as people at least know him as my dog now, although no one likes the name because they thing I’m saying “Ule” instead of “Uli”, which might sound similar, but Ule means balls and not the kind used in sports.

Teaching is going OK, but it is difficult. I’m teaching form 5 and 6 English, the equivalent of 11th and 12th grade, and more than half the kids do not know how to write a complete sentence. Form 5 computers is also difficult, because I am supposed to teach complex things like binary code, ASCII code and all this other useless technical jargon when only one of the kids has ever even turned a computer on. I did rewrite the syllabus to be far more practical. For example, everyone getting an email is now one of our projects, but I still have to skim over the useless stuff as they are being tested on it.

That is teaching life in Tonga—teaching for the test. It is a difficult duty, especially when the ministry of education does not even have syllabuses ready for half the subjects, and say they won’t until over half way through first term. “That’s why we are getting a new government,” Ungatea, my supervisor, said angrily. The people can’t enforce much when all appointees are completely political—friends and brothers and cousins—instead of elected bodies that can be held accountable by the electorate (theoretically). It’s also hard when the teachers seem not to care about the classes. One fellow English teacher said he would not start teaching until next week, because there was sports week this week, and he said the students don’t want to learn until after sports week. Another teacher who usually teaches scripture was made into a history teacher because there weren’t enough, and he asked my if I knew anything about World War I, because he didn’t so skipped on to World War II. The nice thing is, that even if I left today, I would have made a difference just by tweaking both computer and English syllabuses to more practical and level appropriate material. The bad thing is, there is no changing the school or teacher habits unless the government tackles a compete overhaul of Tongan education. But I guess these aren’t just problems in Tonga.

Eating, Sleeping, Church and Bugs

January 24, 2010

What have I been doing? It’s a good question. For two weeks, it’s been very little really—going to the beach, watching movies, working out, sleeping, going to church, eating a lot whether at home or at feasts, and fighting bugs—although the dominance of church, eating and sleeping make it a very Tongan schedule.

The bugs thing has become way too much of a problem. I got rid of the table infested with termites, only to find that my couch and my ceiling still rain termites every evening as the sun goes down. I thought I was doing well with molekau—enormous centipedes anywhere between an inch and a foot whose sting causes excruciating pain—but then the night after spraying chemicals for the first time, I found three in a five- minute period! The first came out of my toilet, the second from the window behind my sink, and the third I barely noticed, being far too preoccupied with the first two! Killing a molekau is quite difficult because if you cut it in half, both sides keep running and can still sting you. You have to kill it as a whole, and they are amazingly quick! I killed two, but the third is still out there, somewhere, ready to strike. I know the bug problem is bad because I’ve started ignoring the constant influx of ants, as long as they stay away from what I eat. They are almost cleaners of run-away crumbs and deceased bugs, maybe even a friend! We’ll see how I feel when they invade my fridge or destroy my computer. I boil my water now, as my friend Sandy suggested, after finding numerous worms and mosquito larvae each time I fetch it from the tank outside. Cockroaches are now my favorite of my bug problems. At least they are not destructive like termites, ants and rats. They are kind of just fat and lazy, hanging out but doing nothing, although they are creepy when you find one unexpectedly on your forehead.

Uike Lotu, or the week of prayer, finished without too much fanfare. I did not go to the 6 am and 6 pm church service every day for the entire week, but I did go to a couple, and the culminating feast. Feasts are an interesting affair in Tonga, and by interesting I mean excruciatingly boring. The CIA might want to look into these events as a far more effective means of torture than water-boarding. People get up to say thank you speeches while you eat, speaking for sometimes twenty to thirty minutes about who knows what, (honestly, what could people have to say that takes thirty minutes?) but no one actually pays any attention, being too preoccupied with the over-abundance of food in front of them. The Uike Lotu feast was good, as it only lasted about an hour of thank you speeches after everyone was done eating. There was another feast a week later marking a day of education at church, and it was a complete nightmare. The church service lasted almost two hours, ending just before noon. We started eating at 12:30 and were done by 1, but the thank-you speeches continued until almost 4. Every speech during this feast was 30 minutes. I got up and said a speech, being obligated after having been put at the head table with all the faifekaus (ministers, but a lot like chiefs), the church steward and the village elders, pretty much all the important people in my village. I started my speech saying, “Oku ou vale lea fakaTonga ka oku ou fie ako lea,” or “I am not good at speaking Tongan, but I want to practice.” I then said a speech in Tongan, which was definitely appreciated, but then everyone made fun of me, a sign of acceptance in a Tongan community but still disconcerting as I only understood a few of the jokes. At least I could be a central punch-line to all the speeches, but that did not help sitting through six hours of church related activities on a rickety old bench. Praise Jesus!

My work is officially beginning now. This past week was Uike Palani or planning week at Tupou High School, which involved full days of not knowing anything that is going on as every session was conducted entirely in complicated Tongan. I almost fell asleep in many sessions and felt quite bad about my oscillating eyelids, but when I looked around, half the teachers were constantly asleep and did not seem abashed in the least. The only one they all stood awake for was the financial session that detailed their salaries. Visa, the head tutor and a faifekau, literally fell asleep in every session. His main job, as the supposed third most important figure in the school, seems to be to start the singing of prayers before and after every work day or church sermon, but even then he sometimes sleeps through his duty. At least I found out what I am doing: teaching form 5 and 6 English (the equivalent of 11th and 12th grade), and one form of computers. I will be rewriting the computer curriculum, and expanding a film program that started last year for which I will have to create a syllabus from scratch. I also have started coming up with a punishment system for missed homework and absences that actually makes students do their school work instead of manual labor, although it is tempting to have them clean my house as punishment as some teachers do. Life in general has been quite relaxing, but it is about to get quite busy.

A quick hodgepodge of other news: a gang of dogs attacked Uli a few nights ago, causing a day of bleeding and continuous nightmares! It’s very sad. Well not that sad. Better than being roasted in an umu and eaten, but still somewhat sad. The youth group I am a part of, On The Spot, had its annual feast, which was a barbeque by the beach, filled with relay races, sand sculptures, ultimate Frisbee, touch rugby, and a game of tackle keep away in the water that ended with coral rock scraping the left side of my back. And well, that’s it for now. Teaching starts this week, and I’m sure there will be a few stories from that…

Arriving at the new decade

January 3, 2010

Every conversation I have with someone in my community, after formal introductions, begins with, “Osi mali?” “Are you already married?”

“No, no I’m not,” I reply.

“You will marry here,” they tell me assuredly, and then point out every girl who will be my future wife, which becomes every girl that walks by. “She is single,” and they point to a girl who may not have even reached secondary school.

If they are married, the conversation proceeds to “What church are you part of?” and if they are not married, they ask to be set up with a Palangi girl, assuming I’m the world’s best pimp.

This is my purpose for the month of free time between swearing in as Peace Corps and starting work: meeting people and becoming a part of my community. I have done so by going to church on Sunday, including the Sunday Kava before church where all the important men in town hang out before service. I have gone to Kava with the brother of a man who died recently, where I met most of the men my age and was given a lot of free bread and raw meat. I was woken up at 7 am by my neighbor, the band teacher, and told to come march with the marching band through the capital, a surreal experience being the sole Palangi bridging the predominantly male band with the five female netball teams marching behind me. And I went to an amazing Christmas Concert run by my school at the King’s church, with a full chorus, band and drum-line. But most community integration occurs walking down the street with conversations proceeding like the aforementioned one.

Which is why I have joined a youth group called “On the Spot.” Started by the Fefita family, it is the first youth group in Tonga founded as an arts initiative. Youth groups in Tonga consist of pretty much any age as long as the participants are not married, so people are anywhere between 13 and 33. In “On the Spot,” girls and boys converse and joke around without dating and marriage being presumed. It’s revolutionary! Granted the Fefitas are only half Tongan, and half New Zealander. They are also all in ridiculous shape due to these incredible workouts they run three times a week. I guarantee I will have a six-pack by the time I leave Tonga.

Besides the meet and greets and going to the youth group, I have also biked to the beach. The one beach I have pictured is called Secret Cove, and it is worth coming to the Pacific to see. Take a right after the kings house, bike until the end of the road, take a left and then turn right at the big mango tree and you can’t miss it! It is a circle of rock surrounding a sandy beach leading to a pool surrounded by a wall of lava coral that the waves strike against. The pool fills up like a bathtub at high tide making it swimmable, but is walkable during low tide, and every time the waves hit, they fill the blowholes making them spurt like geysers, and are quite fun to attempt to stand above. There are even bigger holes that fill and empty with every wave, hissing as they empty like a ghost or a kettle. The pictures do not do justice—it is simply gorgeous.

Went to a Christmas Eve potluck with a Peace Corps Volunteers, Aussie Aid, Japanese Volunteers and Tongans, and watched movies with some fellow volunteers all Christmas Day. For New Years, we went camping at a beautiful beach on the east side of Tongatapu. People from the youth group made a roaring fire as the sun went down for the final time in 2009, and we roasted hot dogs on whittled palm tree sticks. Once it was completely dark, the Fefitas brought out kerosene and started doing fire tricks with balls dipped in the kerosene at the end of strings. The youngest at 13 years old to the oldest at 26, were carving incredible patterns in the sky with fire, once even standing on each other’s shoulders and simultaneously doing tricks. And even that wasn’t enough for Ivane who had to then blow fireballs from his mouth, including while burying himself in the ocean. We set off fireworks and firecrackers as the first watch hit midnight, and did the same when the second watch hit midnight, but kind of cool knowing for an hour that we were the only time zone in the new decade. I feel asleep at 2:30 after a brief dance party, but woke myself at 5 am to see the first sunset of 2010, which was amazingly mirrored in the sky by the setting of a full moon. And then I went back to sleep in my tent.

Now “uike lotu” commences, or the week of prayer, where people go to church twice a day, every day, for the entire week. Now the question is, do I have to go every day as part of my community integration? And I discovered that the tiny bugs running across my table where my computer sat were termites, and that the table was completely infested with them. I finally conceded to a little poisonous spraying, something I tried so hard to avoid but I guess there was a reason I was the only volunteer I know of not to have used chemicals yet. Anyway, Happy Holidays!

Ha’apai back to Tongatapu

December 20, 2009

It has actual been a month since I last emailed, although this is the premiere entry as a blog! No new pig killings or castrations to report about. Well that’s not really true, I’ve probably seen about ten now—baby pig stabbed in the neck while in a bag, another gunshot to the head, machete to the neck, the list is endless! But here are some other things that happened in Ha’apai.

I went to a strange fundraiser one night at the Wesleyan church hall, but they made $500 from one to two dollar donations so who am I to judge. In the bottom right corner were the men, drinking kava and smoking rolled cigarettes, using telephone phonebook pages as papers. In the bottom left corner were the speakers, and the rest of the hall was for dancing. One mother brought her son dressed fully in drag—not an actual fakalate, but apparently a popular fundraising technique. He had hair extensions, a bonnet, and a beautiful white dress, and his face was plastered with make-up only the finest drag queen could dream of. An older and biological woman had done her face similarly and, wearing only a mat, shook like no other. There was also a man dressed like a Palangi tourist who danced like a narcoleptic. And every other dance, I was dragged to the dance floor, where girls aged 3 to 30 fought over dancing with me, pushing each other out of the way and grabbing my wrist. It is strange to see a thirty year old get jealous of a three year old.

I went night spear fishing with my host dad, Kelepi, just as it became completely dark, which while lots of fun, was completely terrifying. Being with Kelepi helped me overcome my fear of sharks enough to stay in the water, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to wander far from him. We were in the middle of the ocean, both with a semi-waterproof flashlight to guide our way that illuminate about six feet in front of you, and who knows what lurks behind those six feet. I tried to stay right behind him thinking that the best way to avoid sharks, but once the fish are speared, he pierced them with another smaller spear tied to a rope which is in turn tied to an empty plastic bottle After piercing the stomach, he pulls the string through the body until it reaches the bottle, and that way all fish can be kept together floating on the surface and therefore not drag on the coral below. But it also meant the bottle with fish behind it was very close to Kelepi’s feet, which means I would swim into them if I swam close behind him. This might not sound like a problem except for two things: one, if sharks were around, the bleeding fish flesh floating near the surface would certainly be their first target, and two and far more imminent threat, most of the fish he was catching had poisonous spikes on their backs and stomachs that wouldn’t kill me, but would keep me hurting for at least a week. So I stayed to the side of him. Which of course resulted a number of times in me swimming individually into small groups of jellyfish that somehow Kelepi knew how to avoid. We caught twenty fish by the end. By which I mean he caught twenty fish. I got some flesh, but the actual fish got away.

There was a 6.8 earthquake in Ha’apai! I, of course, slept right through it. Did you know that there are thirty earthquakes a month in this area?

I tried horse a couple weeks ago. Didn’t say anything because didn’t want my mom to know, but I have to fess up. A woman died in Faleloa, and so they killed a horse. Really tough meat but a tad tasty cooked in coconut milk and onion. Just blocking pictures of Dixie and Esprit from my mind…

My host father, Kelepi, the bishop, talked me about in church every Sunday I was in Ha’apai. Here are a few of the lessons you could have learned about me from attending church:

-How hosts are supposed to take care of their guests, but that his wife, Una, failed because I got sick.

-My host father asked me one Sunday morning when I was drinking tea with the neighbors if I was going to church and I said yes but later, which in Tonga means you are not coming, but I came, and he was surprised to see me and said so in Church—a lesson about keeping your word in Tonga versus the US.

-My pathetic skills at spear fishing—a lesson that you must practice and fail in order to become good at something.

(The rest are kind of boring. But then again, it is church.)

I have now left Ha’apai! We had a good-bye feast with, you guessed it: roasted pig, fish and root crops. My host mom cried when I left. But now I am in Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, a true metropolis with two story buildings and more than two cars on the road, more than one restaurant, and even palangis I don’t already know. 20,000 people in the city—it’s huge. I finished training and swore in on Wednesday so I am now an official volunteer, and now I am living in my own house with my new dog Uli. Uli is the Tongan word for dirty, and Kuli means dog, so you can call him Uli Kuli, meaning dirty dog! Lots of fun words you can make with uli: fakauli means to “make dirty” or “to drive,” and fieuli means “want dirty” or “horny.” More language lessons coming soon! I have to keep track of my dog though, because Tongans find dog to be delicious meat, and while I did end up trying horse, dog is not so acceptable for me, and especially my dog! Someone already mentioned that I’m fattening him up, and they certainly were not implying he was looking cuter. People best not touch my dog, but alas, many a volunteer have lost theirs to such a fate so I have to be vigilant!

The only story I have so far is the club I went to on Friday with a bunch of PCVs. FULL of fakalates, the third gender. A quick explanation of fakalates: traditionally, if a parent did not have a female child, he or she would make one son a fakalate and he would do the strictly prescribed female chores. It has become the culturally accepted version of being gay, and is usually chosen by the child now, but is not considered in Tonga as the equivalent of being gay. You are not even gay if you are a man and have sex with a fakalate. It is a third gender—men who choose to fill a woman’s role. But anyway, fakalates at the club are quite amusing because these are large Polynesians dressed as woman. Some are easily mistakable as women just as some of the more masculine woman can easily be mistaken as fakalates, but most fakalates are incredibly obese and built like rugby players, but dressed in mini skirts. The most popular is a seven footer name Mangina (I’m not even kidding) with a nice bob haircut and a miniskirt. A few did not take the time to shave, but still wore wonderful skirts or dresses. The club was full of fakalates, a great safe environment for all genders to express themselves, although I’m pretty sure one of the male peace corps volunteers got confused in talking to what he thought was a lovely biological young lady.

Otherwise, it’s just been training, going to the beach, and moving in. Glad to actually be a volunteer now.

Crash course: family fun, culture and dating

December 20, 2009

I thought killing a pig was an unparalleled event, but here is an activity the whole family can enjoy: pig castration. A pig is tied tightly around the waist with a rope as the forty or so other pigs my host family owns scream at the animal, even biting it almost cannibalistically. The entire family—Kelepi the father, Una the mother, Gunisi the 10-yr-old, Suli the 7-yr-old and Laveni the 3-yr-old—all come outside to see what they can find to throw at the shrieking napping pigs, whether it be coconuts, sticks, rocks, laundry, or parts of an old car battery. Finally, when enough pigs have scattered and before more can return to biting the tied up pig, Kelepi picks the animal up and carries it by the snout as Una holds its back legs, bringing it outside the fenced area. Kelepi stands on the pig’s head, and Una, Suli and Gunisi stand on their respective legs so Kelepi can cut out the testicles with one of the few precious kitchen knives, slicing small slits and squeezing until each pops out. He generously feeds both to the dogs as Laveni continues to throw rocks. And when the procedure is done, Una and Kelepi carry the little boy back to the pen to join its fellow piggies. Turns out castrating a pig allows it to grow ridiculously big, and they do. Think small donkey, or mini horse. But a pig. And the family had so much fun.

Last Saturday was culture day, the performance of the three girls dancing a traditional dance, as I sang with pretty much my whole town and then did a traditional supportive dance behind them. (The thing I said we were practicing for.) I only had to wear a necklace and skirt made of leaves outside my normal tupenu and ta’ovala, the traditional skirt and mat I must wear to all formal or working events. The girls however had to wear special dresses: one, a purple velour outfit with shells and stars marking her nipples; another, simply a mat; and the third something in between. They also had to bask themselves in baby oil, as during a Tongan dance at a big event, people in the crowd come on stage and stick money to your body as a sign of support. For a girl, if the money doesn’t stick, she is not a virgin. Luckily, all Palangis (sorry, the Tongan word for white people) are assumed to be non-virgin whores so they stick the money in their bras and skirts instead, or in my case in my shirt or skirt. The traditional way to feel like a stripper.

So a little new gossip, as Tongans love talking and the coconut wireless ensures nothing stays a secret. One of my host parents’ children stays with Kelepi’s youngest sister who works at the school where I will eventually be working on the main island. She is married to a Tongan from America, but the oldest sister in the family was previously married to the same man, a marriage that ended because she died of AIDS two years ago. And now the youngest is married to the same man, and has just had a child of her own. Make of that what you will.

The whole dating scene is ridiculous. For a place where nothing is OK—in fact a sister and brother sleeping under the same roof is one of the biggest taboos, and texting on the phone is considered dating—a lot seems to be going on. Pre-marital pregnancies up the wazoo (the most in the Pacific) and an allowable three divorces per man (more is unacceptable and illegal!). Strange.

How to Get Over Homesickness

December 20, 2009

So I was in a really bad mood missing people, and all of a sudden I heard a gunshot. The shot itself did not so much disturb me. This is a place where kids from first grade on often bring a machete to school, but I had not seen a gun since I’ve been here and was told only cowards use them, so I went outside from lying and sulking in my mosquito net to find a pig bleeding from the head. Glad to see that dinner was the only victim. I was told to start collecting banana and coconut leaves, which I did, and we quickly covered the pig with them so we could burn the pig until all the skin and hair was charred, and
then they had me help scale the charred skin off with a machete like fish’s scales before they grabbed it and cut it open by the rectum, pulling out all the insides by hand which of course made the deceased pig make wretched smells but also interesting in a culture where no one washes their hands ever. Made me wary of the next meal, although I still agreed to eat some pig heart, which tastes like liver except the metalic taste lingers in your mouth, and stomach, which tastes like bacon. I didn’t try the intestine. Having seen it, that was a little to much for me, but there’s nothing like burning a pig for making you
forget your strange mood.

So it’s been a few weeks since the last time I was in town to check the internet, and it’s still going to be another month until I have any form of consistent internet access. It’s been pretty much language class, and culture class, and starting next week we have technical training. The only really unique stuff going on is that I get to drink the freshest alcoholic drinks you’ve ever had, cracking open a coconut with a machete and pressing some fresh pineapple into it before adding a dash of rum to the coconut. Not a bad drink. And also, in preparation for culture day next weekend, I’ve been singing with a tongan band as a few peace corps girls do a traditional dance, and they actually like me voice (take that ioana!). Also been to a few more kava circles, which is fun except its all about joking and most the jokes are about the Princess Ashika ferry sinking a few months ago (almost like the Tongan sept 11 in terms of impact) and making fun of this mentally challenged dude. Guess there is no such thing as politically correct here.

My favorite new info to relate is about adoption. There are orphanages here, and well there are many crazy reasons for adoption. If the older sister of a husband wants the kid, she can demand it and he has to give it to her. If the grandparents want the kid, they also have the right, and almost definitely will take the kid if it is has their name. If another family wants a child of a certain gender and a family has a lot of children, they can just ask for a kid and will almost certainly be granted it. A childless brother or sister can have a child if their sibling’s family is abundant. And if a mother is not married, someone in the family will probably show up at the hospital or at the home and take the child from her without giving her the choice. In fact birth mothers rarely get the choice over their own child, and the child is usually not told by his parents if he is adopted, but will eventually find out by someone in the community. But the adopted children are often treated better than the biological child. For example, the latest female on female murder in Tonga was because the adopted child was older than the oldest biological child, and since the eldest boy inherits everything from his parents, this is a big deal. The wife of the biological child was jealous that the adopted one inherited everything, so she got in a fight with the adopted child’s wife and killed her.

First Few Weeks in Ha’apai

December 20, 2009

So Ha’apai has one Internet cafe and I found it! Which was a quick hitchhike away from where I’m living (not too dangerous as there is only one road, but the road is awesome—it connects two islands with this massive land bridge that sometimes doesn’t exist at high tide during the rainy season). Hitchhiking is called Suto, which means Judo except that there are no J’s or D’s in this language, so when you hitchhike, you do it with a Judo chop.

So I’m living with this awesome family—six children, five living there. There aren’t really any doors to the house except to my room, although there are things that act as doors that you can keep closed with a nail, but there is often chickens, cats, bugs, mokos (the lizards that croak really loudly) wandering through. Dogs, pigs and goats have to stay outside. I get a bed, but everyone else in the family seems content simply sleeping on the floor or in the shed outside where they cook over coconut shell fires. They are the best, although I’m losing a bunch of weight as some meals consist of flour, water and coconut mixed together, which just tastes like flour, or pig fat gravy, which is disgusting in concept, execution and taste. But that is then contrasted with amazing fish, both cooked and ate as coconut oil ceviche. And the best meal ever which I’ll tell about it in a second.

First, things about my family: the seven year old cuts his nails with a machete, while holding the seven month old infant in the other arm. And I’m teaching my host sister the piano! Not that I’m any good, but I know more than nothing. Only problem is they are Mormon, which means 3 hours of church in Tongan on Sunday, although from now on I’m only going to go to the last hour. My host father seems like a Mamonga kaka or cheating Mormon, as he only joined the faith when he got more money teaching at a Mormon middle school than a government primary school, and he still drinks Kava, a big no-no in the substance free religion. But he is also the bishop, so take it as you will. An American missionary tried to convince me to convert, although I felt happy because he left our meal doubting the Mormon bible as I attempted to show him everything that was factually incorrect about potential past histories. Such as the white civilization in the Americas from 600 BC to 420 AD, and Christ coming to the US and Machu Pichu. He also knew nothing about Obama, so anyway…

I went to kava circle. I haven’t exactly discovered what the kava high is supposed to feel like, but you can tell that all the Tongans are very much so from their red eyes, stumbling, and raucous joking. Kava tastes like dirt water, I feel nothing, and then am hung-over the next day, so I don’t really understand it. Only men can come, except, for the To’oa, which is the woman who serves the kava who must be an available virgin, unless she is a Palangi or white person, in which case she is assumed to have had sex and thus be a whore. They put the boy who likes her next to her, which of course they forced me to do and subsequently tried to get me to marry her, although I politely declined. But it was great—60 full grown men, five with guitars and ukuleles and everyone singing amazing island songs the entire time as coconut shell bowls of kava are passed around in a circle. You only get your second once everyone has drunk a bowl.

But back to the best meal yet. I went fishing with my uncle, which eventually will be spear fishing, but when I went Saturday, it was only with a net, and we caught a few with that. But we also left a huge hook with a fish head on it tied to a rock. When we went back the next day (I didn’t swim that day, but my host father did—illegally I might add as you cant do anything that can be considered work on Sunday, which includes swimming and fishing— there was a four foot shark on the hook! Pregnant with four babies too! So I’ve been feasting on shark for the last week and it is AMAZING! Ifo aupito. The only other things I’ve had this week besides shark is lu cooked in the umu; the turkey tail version is damn good, although I’ve heard it’s illegal in Samoa because it’s too fatty. So food is looking up hugely, although I do miss vegetables of any kind…

Mishmash intro update after 3 days

December 20, 2009

The weather has been consistently in the 70s. I went to church yesterday as I have to in my tupenu, a long skirt men wear, and the king of Tonga was there! You can only go to church, eat and rest on Sunday, the last two being all I ever do anyway, so not too bad. We had a pig for lunch yesterday, full body with hair and all with a giant spicket through it to roast over a fire. Also an umu, a grill dug in the ground, where we cooked lu shredded pork, which means the meat cooked with coconut milk in banana leaves.

All Americans are considered white. If you are black, you are from Fiji. Michael Jackson is from Fiji. As is Michael Jordan. Don’t know how they grasp Obama… Centipedes are HUGE! Oh, and I was fine even with the tsunami warnings a couple days ago. Been lots of training stuff about safety, development, teacher and language training…etc… What else what else. My memory seems shot right now, and I have a plane to catch very soon. Ha’apai is supposed to be all beaches and snorkeling coral reefs, so hopefully will be nice, but will be living with a Tongan family which should be interesting because supposedly even showing some knee is insulting. There was a sexy knee contest a couple weeks ago which is hilarious! But considering my obvious affinity for being naked, this might be difficult.