There are lot of things I love about this place. Just like any new place, there are things that are a little frustrating, but there are a lot of things that warm my heart, make me laugh, or make me scratch my head. But all of them make me enjoy my time here, and make me grateful to know I am not the only one still learning.
First rule in Tonga: practicality wins out over style. I have not gotten a proper picture, but I have seen this three or four times – a pickup truck with four or five young men riding in the back, in the hot sun. Most of the time they just throw a tee-shirt over their heads as they ride, but I love it when I see someone with a piece of Styrofoam or cardboard, with a hole punched in the center, that he’s using as a sun visor! Whatever works!
Now, sometimes the practicality backfires. The other day, we were behind a van driving along the road with the tailgate partly open (as happens quite often here – at least you get a breeze through the van if the tailgate is open). But he hit a pothole, and out bounced his chainsaw. Oops! Jim laid on the horn immediately, and the driver looked in his mirror and saw the problem. I hope he shut the tailgate for the rest of the drive that morning.
Second rule: I’ll give anything a try. I watched a little girl (maybe 8 years old) trying to rollerblade the other day. She pulled herself along the railings around campus – wearing inline skates that probably would have fit her father! I had visions of myself at about age 4 when I used to stomp around the house in my dad’s workboots – but those never had wheels attached!
Another illustration of this rule was at the church dance, celebrating the 170th anniversary of the Mormon Relief Society, the oldest continuously-operating women’s organization in the world. There was a man of about 60 there, and his dance partners could not wear him out. He’d dance to any tune: Pacific pop, big band, rock, you name it – and he moved exactly the same way to every kind of music. Go for it, brother – don’t worry about which dance fits what kind of music, just move the way you want!
Third rule: What’s yours is mine. Jim made an avocado pie and had given the last piece to Fehi (FEH-hee), a friend visiting us in our office, when another friend, Mary, came in. Mary saw the pie, and I told Fehi to give her a bite. He offered her a bite, but she took the whole pie pan! Fehi did not let go, but Mary took off holding the pan, with Fehi’s arm still attached, and proceeded to eat most of the rest of the pie! Fehi made only a small protest, but he still got some more of the pie along the way. I laughed until I cried – it was like watching a couple of four-year olds!
Another example was told to me by Maopa, a friend who should have been my sister. She walked into the school office building with a piece of warm breadfruit (think of a basketball-sized potato that grows on trees), and her cousin, who is one of the administrators, literally took the breadfruit out of her hands, asked someone else to go get a can of corned beef from the little shop across the street, and that the meeting could begin because now they had lunch! If that had been me, I’d have been shouting, “Wait a minute – that was MY lunch!” But everyone here just smiles and shares.
Fourth rule: Don’t fix it if it’s working. Liahona campus has its own sets of generators, because the electricity in Tonga is pretty unreliable. So instead of being out of power for hours twice a week, we have backup generators that take over within 90 seconds. Usually. Last Saturday, the power went out, and the backup generator on our side of campus didn’t kick in. So we found out finally what happened. The generator was out of diesel. The guy who was supposed to refill the tank had not done it because “Well, the electricity was working!” Fortunately, the power came back on after about an hour, and we got two truckloads of diesel the following Monday.
Fifth rule: Look pitiful and a Palangi missionary will feel sorry for you. Five of us took a picnic lunch to the beach a few Saturdays ago, and a little boy about 9 showed up, hanging onto a tree, just as we started lunch. We had some extra apples, so I tossed him one. I don’t think he had ever seen one before, but after sniffing it and feeling it for a few minutes, he bit into it, and ended up eating the whole thing. Then he went back to looking sad. I gave him a few oatmeal cookies. Those didn’t last long! We didn’t have extra tuna salad, but we had a couple of extra rolls, so I tossed him the last two in a bag. He sniffed the bag about twenty times, but when we didn’t offer anything else, he ate those, too. And about halfway through putting away lunch, I noticed he had given up and left. Well, he got lunch that day, anyway – I know that some people on that end of the island are lucky to get one meal a day – even our missionaries only eat once a day there, where they eat twice a day on the rest of the island. But that little boy would have gotten food a lot faster by acting happy with me – might even have gotten more!
It’s not just food, either. For a while, our office had books to loan out to children, but most of the kids thought they were gifts, so the books are now gone. Hopefully the children are reading them. The other day a couple of little girls came in, looked around in surprise to see the books were gone and when they said “Books?” I simply said, “No more!” They hung their heads in disappointment, then brightened and asked, “Stickers?” I laughed – I had given out stickers to those who actually returned the books. I gave them each a few stickers, and sent them on their way. Not two minutes later they were back, looking pitiful again. “Stickers?” they asked. A teacher translated – they said they had lost their stickers, but more than likely they had given them to friends. I gave them the rest of my stickers. Now the stickers are “finished” as well.
Sixth rule: Don’t hurt a Palangi’s feelings. Another senior couple got in a car accident a few months ago, and found out that it was their fault. The one-way street they were crossing had the right of way, and they didn’t know that. So okay, pay the fine and you’re done, right? No, the police wanted to have a meeting. So they went to the meeting. They spent two hours together with the police (not the other driver) and the police kept telling them that Tonga is called the Friendly Islands, so it was okay to talk about this accident. If they felt they were in the right, they should write a letter to Parliament and get the laws changed. How did they feel about the accident? How did they feel about the law? How did they feel about the other driver? Well, that was all last December, but this past week the police came to Liahona to talk with them again. Where are they? asked the police. Well, I hope we didn’t hurt the policeman’s feelings when we told him that the senior couple in question had completed their assignment, so they had left Tonga and returned to the US!
Seventh rule: Move slowly. I’ve been amazed at how all life – human or not – moves slowly here. Drivers, pedestrians, even the few on bicycles – we are definitely on island time (except that Church starts on time no matter what, and announcements begin at ten before the hour, so if you want to know what’s happening, you’d better get there on time!). Dogs never move faster than at a trot, although if you frighten a cat, it will run a short distance. Birds, bats, even the wasps here move slowly, as if they’re dancing, not just flying. I know, intellectually, that in this climate (we’re usually in the high 80s with humidity over 90%), you move slowly so you can last the day, but I also understand why no one loses weight – unless you exercise before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m., you don’t last long! But in Tonga, everyone is beautiful, no matter their shape, speed, height or skin tone – I love it here. It’s Tonga. And it makes me smile.