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Monday, February 27, 2012


Two cyclones in two weeks.  Whew.  First Cyclone Cyril brushed past us, flooding the eastern end of our fishhook-shaped island, and bringing the mango season to an early end – there were thousands of mangoes for sale for a few days after Cyril, and then - done.  Then seven days later, Tropical Cyclone Jasmine began toying with Tonga.  Her track went northeast from Australia, then she did a Dr. Seuss-worthy loop in place just west of us that lasted four days, before she finally headed southeast and dissolved over the empty ocean.  During those four days, we went from sunshine to sprinkles to 28 inches of rain in 24 hours, and back to sunshine, with the humidity staying at nearly 100% the whole time.  Can you say soggy?

The Humanitarian Services building downtown -  this was
typical of the flood damage.
Jasmine did much more damage to our island than Cyril.  The houses which were flooded the first time didn’t even have time to dry out before they were inundated a second time.  And even in our area, the center of the island, the storm brought down trees and damaged buildings – that lovely little roadside stand that I showed in the last blog was completely in shambles, though I must say the industrious family had a makeshift version up about five days after the storm.  I expected some of the softer-wood trees, like pines and coconut palms, to suffer, especially the ones with small root systems, but I have been surprised at the number of large, hardwood trees split open by this Category One storm.  Makes me wonder what would happen in a Category Four – no, never mind, I don’t have to find that out.

Well, living on an island during a storm has taught me the value of the phrase “batten down the hatches”.  Most of the stores downtown boarded up their glass windows and rolled down their metal security doors, to be secure.  I expected that kind of preparation, but there were a few surprises in store for me.  The electricity went out (nothing new, that happens frequently here, but Liahona Village has their own backup generator), and along with that, our internet connection.  We don’t have a key to get into the storage area to push the “reset” button on the internet supply, so we were without an internet connection for three days, until the Tech crew reported back to work.  Couldn’t get a weather report, couldn’t tell family what was going on.  Then the TV stations (there are only 2 here) stopped broadcasting.  Their equipment is not sturdy enough to be exposed to winds of hurricane speed, so they just closed their doors and sent everyone home.  And finally the cell phone service was cut – again, the antennae are subject to damage in high winds, so they retracted their antennae.  I felt like I was in a time warp, about 50 years in the past.  I can’t remember being as isolated as that since 1958, when a snowstorm made Falls Church, Virginia look like Nome, Alaska, and my mother boiled snow for drinking water.

Again, the eastern end of our island suffered the most – flooding, roofs torn off, electrical wires down, even along the road that leads to the King’s Palace.  And lots of downed trees.   The Red Cross brought in emergency clothing, bleach and soap, to help families stave off water-borne infections.  The Prime Minister made an official address to the nation, thanking families for protecting each other during and after the storm.  Thank heaven the village structure is still alive and well here, with the chiefs making sure that every family was okay, and reporting to the government.  No fatalities were reported, and that’s always a good thing.

Our little home was pretty safe during the storm.  We did get some water inside the “attic” space, and it managed to drain down into our bedroom ceiling light fixture, on the north side of our home, where the wind was blowing the rain sideways.  At the end of the second day, an electrician came to our house and drained the water from the light fixture.  He took the rest of the fixture apart, wiped it dry, and reported that even though the water that had collected in the light was orange with rust, apparently the water hadn’t gotten into the wiring.  The wiring looked safe, so he put everything back together and said it would be okay.  We still waited a couple extra days before we turned on that light, just to make sure everything DID dry out!  Keep your fingers crossed, no problems since. 

As the electrician left our home, Jim noticed that he was barefoot.  “Did you leave your shoes inside our house?”  asked Jim.  “Oh, no,” replied the electrician, “I left them at the last house I worked at.  The house was flooded, so I just left my shoes outside, and I forgot them there.  I’ll go back for them now.”  It wasn’t until later that Jim and I understood the impact of that electrician’s statement.  He had been working in a FLOODED room on ELECTRICAL WIRING – without wearing rubber shoes!  And if his example in our house was any indicator, he hadn’t ever turned the power off to the wires. 

Years ago, when we lived in Naples, Italy, we used to joke that you were completely comfortable in Naples when you offered to light the cigarette of the gas station attendant filling the tank of your car.  Now we’ve got one for Tonga – you’re completely comfortable when you invite a barefooted electrician to come work on live wires in a flooded room!  Ha!

Our other casualty was our little Macbook – apparently four days of 100% humidity was more than the six-year old laptop could handle.  We’ll buy another one and have it shipped from New Zealand, but it will take a few more weeks, doing bank transfers and waiting for delivery.   Nothing happens quickly in the islands!  Here’s  hoping the next one is more moisture resistant!

So, all the trees are a little one-sided now, but life is getting back to normal.  It took three weeks to have six days of school, and some of the schools closer to the coast still have large pools of water on the grounds, but everyone really appreciates the sunshine and the breezes, and we’re all grateful for the protection and shelter we enjoyed during the storm.   Thanks to our window-unit air conditioners, we have dried out.  And the sky seems a little bluer, the air a little cleaner, the birdsongs a little more joyous, the flowers a little more colorful.  Life is wonderful – now let’s get back to business.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


 Shopping in Tonga is an adventure.  This is still a third-world country and small shops are the way of life, but the culture is strangely cooperative when it comes to retail – two shops next to each other will carry similar products, but different brands, so both can prosper.  But since there are mostly small shops, it takes a significant effort and at least two hours to do a simple grocery run.

We do our shopping on Wednesday mornings, while the other missionary couple covers the office for us.  Then they shop Friday mornings while we cover.  If we have to wait and do a Saturday run, we want to be out of the house early – by 10 am the crowds are tremendous.  Most people here in Tonga do their major shopping on Saturdays.  We were in a store a couple of weeks ago the Saturday before school began, and there were about 50 people waiting in line for two registers.  At least people are social here – you just stand and talk with just about anyone while you wait in line.  Hey, wait a minute – that’s exactly what used to happen to me in the Alamosa, Colorado Walmart!

Anyway.  First stop is the “maketi” (mah-keh-tee) – the “Tonganized” word for market.  This is where all fresh produce is sold, other than at family-owned roadside stands.  We are regular customers of a Chinese family here who raise bok choy, bib lettuce, English cucumbers, and eggplant.  The women who sell here always give us an extra piece of pumpkin or some mangoes, as a gift, to keep us coming back.  And we do

Other vendors have tomatoes, carrots, bananas, pineapples, green peppers and (when it’s not too hot) zucchini.  Things are not weighed here – you can get five or six green peppers for three pa’anga (pah-ahng-ah – that’s about $2) when they are plentiful, or you can pay six pa’anga for one small pineapple when the season is ending.  Eggs are cheap right now – about $6 for 30 of them.  That’s the Tongan version of a back-to-school special!  Usually they’re more like $10-14 for 30 small ones (the only size).

This old gentleman speaks no English, and I speak about 5 words
of Tongan, but we smile and greet each other every week.

And at every doorway to the maketi, the old men abound.  Most of the women are here to work, and most of the men are here to play.  They sit and smoke cigarettes, or they play cards or board games, or they just sit and talk.  Or they stand around outside wearing only one flip-flop – I still haven’t figured that one out.  In any case, they seem to find their entertainment here, and they are always glad when we say hello to them.

Compared to other shops, the market is huge – a two-story building the size of a grocery store.  There are probably 70-80 different vendors, some with only 6 feet of table space, others with 30 feet of display.  There are gutters built into the floor, so you have to be very careful when you walk around – it’s easy to step wrong, and I’ve had enough turned ankles for a while!  The upstairs is mostly fabric and hand-made jewelry, the first floor is produce, flower leis, and crafts.    Once again, the prices vary wildly, even from month to month.  I can get a pair of coconut-shell earrings for  $2, and a hand-made basket might be $8, but then a lei might be $30.  Just depends.  

This woman's son is serving a Mormon mission in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Nice to trade places.  Those are handmade fans above her head.
This man may not look like he's working, but he's a traditional artist.  That's not a quilt beside him, that's a traditonal bark painting called a tapa.  I couldn't afford one of the big ones (they can reach half-a-block long and street wide), but I got a little 11X17 one.

So now we’re finished at the market.  Some weeks we make a stop at the U.S. Mini-Mart across the street.  Imagine a small 7-11, with only two aisles, supplied by the owner who flies back the States every three or four months, and makes the purchases himself at CostCo and other places, packs his own container, and has the contents shipped to Tonga, which takes 4-8 weeks.  Fortunately, he’s willing to take orders – some of us senior missionaries are going to split a case of cornmeal, and I’ve ordered a case of hair spray.  This is a culture of grow-your-hair-long and tie it back – I can do that, but I need some glue!  

Then it’s on to Molisi’s, (Moh-lee-sees), where we can get chicken, pasta, rice, flour, sugar, and so on.  Oh, and Granny Smith apples from New Zealand.  That’s a sack lunch staple (we usually eat lunch at the office).  This is also the place I can get composition books for about 75 cents each, and sticky notes are cheap too.  But paper plates are $20 for 25 plates – gotta watch what we buy. Oh yes, we could buy a crock pot there, too, if we wanted to pay $200 for one.  Never mind, we’ll slow roast in the oven at home.  (Scratch cooking is a must here – canned corned beef, ramen noodles and three or four choices of cold cereal are about all the choices for processed foods.)

Other shops include Lord’s – electronics, some clothing and fabrics, and eye shadow, if you want 24 color choices – everything comes in a palette here!  Then there’s the store the missionaries call Home Depot – we went there because we were told they sold curtain rods.  Turns out you buy dowels and brackets – and the day we were there they didn’t have dowels and brackets in the same size.  Oh well – our cafĂ© curtains will continue to hang from shoelaces wrapped around nails!  There’s another shop the missionaries call Towers, since it’s located on the ground floor of one of the few 4-story buildings on the island (and one more is right next door).  

Now if you are really into impulse shopping, you wait until Saturday and go to the open-air market, which for some reason is called the Fair.    Families with relatives in New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. receive shipments from their relatives – used clothing, shoes, durable groceries (peanut butter is a big seller, and so is Crest toothpaste) and toys, for family members to re-sell here.  There are also some produce vendors, but their prices are higher than in the maketi.  And there are some vendors selling skewered meats and veggies – smells great, but the meat still has bits of bone in it, whether it’s chicken, pork, or beef.  So you chew carefully.  I’d rather go to the far end of the parking lot and buy some freshly caught tuna and swordfish.  Yum.
Red and white are the colors of the Tongan flag, so the family
celebrates by decorating the roadside stand!

On the way home, we usually stop at this roadside stand, where a family sells the produce they grow on their farm “in the bush” – back in the central part of the island.  I love the way they wrap the front poles of their stand with palm leaves, and decorate their stand so nicely.  This family grows the best watermelons on the island.  

And right across the street from our home is “Pink’s” -  one of the stores the Tongans call  Chinese Stores, because there are a lot of Chinese who operate these stores. Ours is operated by a Tongan.  She sells convenience foods like candy and soda, but she also sells bread and rolls, milk, and even yeast – all at the same prices as the big stores half an hour away in town.  Imagine a shipping container  with one side cut open to form a window with heavy wire grating across it, and as much food packed onto the shelves as one person can reach, and you’ve got Pink’s.

So, to market to market, then home again, home again, jiggety jig.  Well, not exactly.  Elapsed time: three hours eleven minutes.  We can do a minor run in about an hour and a half, if we hurry.  But everything moves slowly on this island – even the wasps – so we’re learning it’s okay not to hurry.  Now all that’s left is to put away the food, rinse the produce in bleach water, and stick everything in the refrigerator to keep it away from the ever-present ants.  Like I said, everything here is an adventure!