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Friday, August 12, 2011

Tongatapu - A Hardship Assignment (Yeah, Right!)


This is Liahona High School, on Tongatapu Island, the main island of Tonga.  This is where we will be working for the next two years.  I know -  a real hardship assignment!  We will live in an apartment on the campus of the school, and vistas like the one below will greet us.  I just hope they don't become ordinary.

Tonga is a nation of 170 islands and islets, but if you put the land mass all together, it's only four times the size of the District of Columbia, and one-third the size of Rio Grande County, Colorado, where we currently live. (For those of you who can't relate to either of those factoids, all of Tonga is three times the size of Salt Lake City proper.)

Tonga's population: about 106,000, but 70,000 of them are on Tongatapu, an island of about 100 square miles - that's about 20 miles long by 5 miles wide - short car trips everywhere!  Temperatures average between 67 and 82 F, and yes, it gets hit by one or two typhoons a year.  But look at the low-hanging roof above - the buildings are designed to withstand the rains, and resist the winds.

Tonga is the Pacific's last monarchy, but the country is establishing a democratic government.  For the first time in its history, Parliament opened, just last year - and every high school marching band in the country took part in the parade to celebrate: 

More hardship (haha).  Our back door basically faces the LDS temple on Tongatapu.  We will be close enough to walk from our door to the temple door in less than five minutes.  This "benefit" was completely unexpected, and we look forward to attending the temple much more often than we ever have.

The country's king lives in a building that looks more like something from the British Empire than a long-independent  island nation's palace.  The aged king has chosen to retain many European-style trappings, reflecting the nation's  long history of dealings with so-called "western" civilizations.

Dutch navigator Abel Tasman (yes, as in Tasmania - he's a hero in the South Pacific) was the first European to actually visit Tonga.  More than a hundred years later English Captain James Cook named the islands "The Friendly Isles."  And in 1789, the mutiny on the British ship Bounty took place in Tongan waters.  The kingdom has always governed itself, but in 1900 and again in 1958, Great Britain took Tonga under its protection.

One sight I look forward to is sighting humpback whales offshore.  The whales come north each year to calve, and let their young grow for a few months before taking them back to the krill-rich waters near Antarctica.    I've never seen a living whale - and this would be thrilling to see.

Other sights to see are the natural rock formations along the shoreline.  This picture shows a cascade of rocks which are filled with holes, some of them below the water line.  As the ocean waves hit the rocks, the water surges up through the holes and forms waterspouts that go straight up, called blowholes.  Does look like a whale spewing water vapor, doesn't it?

It's almost too much to hope for, but as a frustrated volcano scientist (I never knew such a career existed until well into my 30s), I would be absolutely ecstatic if I got the chance to see some island building in action.  The picture below shows the force of an underwater eruption of a seafloor volcano in the Tongan islands.  It will be many years before this part of the island rises above sea level, but just being present during an eruption would be such an event that I think I could die contented right afterward!

We have yet to receive written confirmation of our call as missionaries from Salt Lake City.  But according to our telephone conversations, we will enter the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah on Monday, October 3 and then ten days later fly to Auckland, New Zealand, for a week's further training, including videoconference training with BYU-Hawaii, so we can become adjunct professors for them.  We should arrive in Tonga by October 24th!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Waiting for Godot

Just like Beckett's play, the past four weeks in our lives have bordered on the absurd, mixing the mundane and the truly extraordinary. Activities like packing boxes and holding yard sales have followed on heels of our son's temple wedding, occasioning a wonderful reunion with family and friends.   We still have to mow the grass, but the next door neighbor has agreed to buy our house!  Our sons are going to help with inheriting and storing furniture and boxes, and friends have already offered to share their home after we sell the house.  Then it's back to packing more boxes.

All the while, we have waited for word from the headquarters of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City.  We initially told them we could be available by the first of September, but we're kind of thinking that it would be nice to have more than two weeks' notice between receiving our call and reporting to the Missionary Training Center in Provo.  We continue our preparations, rearranging bill payments and contacting friends of friends, who have served in Tonga themselves.  Pragmatic yet banal thoughts fill my head at night:  do I bring a two-year supply of hair color?  Bug repellent?  I don't want anyone to have to ship stuff to me unless it's medical necessities - our post office told us it would cost $11 per pound to ship merchandise to Tonga.  That adds up quickly.

Then there are the wonderful moments.  Colleagues and friends are extremely excited to hear our news.  Even people we haven't told come up to us saying, "I heard you are going to Tonga!"  We have the support of many, many people around us, whether or not they happen to be members of the Church.  We were a little concerned about how Jim's mother, age 85, would receive the news, but we shouldn't have worried.  Her response was, "I knew you couldn't stay in one place for much longer!" 

There have been opportunities to bear testimony.  When Jim's brother expressed apprehension about Jim's physical ability to fulfill this assignment, I found myself assuring him that the Lord would sustain Jim.  I also told him that if we did come home early, we wouldn't be the first ones.   It's not like we're going to be dropped in the middle of the Pacific and then not contacted for two years.  And you never know if you can do something until you try!

One more pedestrian concern has yet to be addressed.  We have two dogs, and we need to find a long-term dogsitter.  Pazzo, aged 15, came home with us from Italy, and he may or may not survive two more years to greet us when we return.  And 4-year old Tucker is a handful; he is half Jack Russell terrier (need I say more?).  Someone with a lot of love and a lot of patience needs to appear on my doorstep!  Okay, Lord - I'm going to trust that this one will get taken care of as well (but yes, I'll start asking around!).