Thursday, January 28, 2010

The ups and downs of Peace Corps service

During training we were told that we would experience a never-ending circle of emotions during our service. We were told that one day we would feel absolutely in love with the culture of our country, the posh beach side location of our house, our fulfilling jobs, the wonderful students we get to work with daily, yada yada yada. On other days we might feel nonchalant about our positions and just go through the motions of our jobs, feeling comfortable where we were and just going through another day at the office. And other days we would be thinking, “WHY THE HELL AM I IN THIS CRAZY COUNTRY???????? PLEASE GET ME ON THE NEXT PLANE BACK TO CORNER CAFÉ’S, CHINESE FOOD AND WARM SHOWERS.” Well today was just one of those days where I felt all three of those emotions.

I woke up this morning excited and confident about my lesson plans and ready to breeze through the planned twenty-minute classes scheduled for the day. My goal was to get to know my students a little bit better, learn a few new names and get a general idea of their skill level. So I did that for the first twenty minutes of my first period economics class but when twenty minutes was up the class did not end. I stalled for five minutes and made the kids write a little about what they knew about economics and told them they would have to turn it in. After the finished the assignment the bell still had not rung. I thought to myself, “What’s going on here? I know this class has already gone well past the allotted time.” But there was nothing I could do. I had twenty-five kids looking at me wondering what to do. So I had them share their answers and when the bell had not rung still I cracked open the text book and just expanded my lesson plan on the spot. The class ended up running for forty minutes, almost a full class. When the bell finally rang I went up to another teacher and asked them what was going on. They let me know that we were actually doing full forty-minute periods all day! I quickly scrambled to think of new ideas to expand my lessons for the next three classes I had. I quickly thought to myself, “you know as a volunteer you can just leave service anytime with a simple call to Tongatapu and then you’ll be on an airplane in less that seventy-two hours and headed back to the land of plenty with all you can eat sushi buffets and schedules that actually run on time.”

Luckily those thoughts quickly fled my mind. I ran back to my house and picked up some more resources and figured out what I could do for each of my classes. I expanded some sections of my lesson plan and brought out my Dr. Seuss book and read the story of the Lorax to my next class and introduced environmentalism. The rest of the day went by rather smoothly and I ended the day content with new confidence in myself to figure out what to do when things do not go as planned. The rest of the day was actually kind of fun.

After school I went over to a fellow volunteers house for a joint meal and commiseration session. We discussed teaching and the sad fact that the only cargo boat coming to our island might not be coming back. Everyone seemed to have similar teaching stories to mine, it is just the reality of teaching and of teaching in Tonga so it seems. There is no other way to deal with what we are experiencing than laughing about it. So that is what we did.

I ended the night talking to a volunteer who is in her third year in the Peace Corps. She already completed two years in Benin and now is doing one more year here in Tonga. I learned all about what it was like to do a third year and how to go about it. It sounded like an awesome opportunity to explore another country for just another year and if I can get through the ups and downs of Tonga I might be interested. And there I was, excited about Peace Corps again and contemplating signing up for a third year in a different country. I had officially done the Peace Corps circle of emotions in less than twelve hours. Get me out of here! O wait I actually like what I’m doing here and how do I sign up for more?????

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Pulupaki is Osi

I just received an e-mail from the country director here informing all of the volunteers that the only large boat servicing the islands of Tonga other than Tongatapu has been deemed unsafe and unseaworthy. A year ago there were two boats, the Princess Ashika and the Pulupaki. The Princess Ashika was used until it sank and ended up killing over a hundred Tongans. After the Princess Ashika sank there was a massive review of what happened with the boat to look into why it was still in service. The hearings showed massive amounts of negligence in the ministry of transportation down to the captain of the boat and many of the crew members. The captain was even asked if he knew if the boat was going to sink and replied, "Yes, I thought it was going to sink every time I got on it." He still did nothing and let many of his passengers die. After the Ashika sank the Pulupaki had to carry all of the cargo that the Ashika was to carry. Many people knew that this was dangerous as well and the crew often did not follow many international marine laws such as providing life jackets or giving a safety briefing before each trip. After hearing about the negligence in the case of the Ashika and what I knew about the Pulupaki I decided never to get on the ship. I am happy that the boat is now out of service but now we have a huge problem.

Few goods are made on many of the islands here in Tonga. My island only produces a few root crops and exports little. We are almost completely dependent on outside imports. With the Pulupaki out of service we will soon run out of basic food items like sugar and flour. Even the chicken, eggs and canned goods are imported here. If the Pulupaki is not replaced soon it appears that everyone on my island will have to survive off of root crops, fish and the animals native to the island. Nobody knows where a new boat will come from and Tonga cannot afford a new one. The Japanese are building and donating a boat for Tonga but it is not expected to be finished until January of next year. It looks like my diet is about to change tremendously.

The other sad part about losing the Pulupaki is that the Peace Corps will no longer be able to support five volunteers here is Ha'apai. The Pulupaki was their only means of getting to their islands so they are all being pulled from their schools and will have to find new sites. Two of the volunteers have only spent three weeks at their sites so far but the three others have already been there for over a year. It is devastating for them to have to leave their sites and start all over again at new schools and in new communities.

I am a little worried about what will happen to the rest of us in Ha'apai. Will all of my basic supplies have to be flown in? We are expecting some serious inflation here; will I still be able to live here within my living allowance? There are a lot of tough questions to be answered. I have already spent my entire monthly allowance stocking up on food items here. As soon as I receive my money from next month I am planning on spending it on as many canned items and food that come on the boat as possible.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

First days of school

Today was the first real day of class here, sort of, if you can call it that. We started off school last week with planning week with most of the teachers. Several of the teachers were not around yet. The only boat traveling to my island is currently stuck in Tonga for a repair and for a legal review. There is only rumor about the Pulupaki at this point but it appears that it is not up to safety standards and will not be moving in the near future. This is really sad for me because my washing machine that I got as a Hanukah present is supposed to be on it, but I've digressed. So several teachers did not show up for school planning week because they were stuck in Tongatapu and a few others did not show up because...umm actually I don't know why.

I often get bogged down here when I compare things here to the way they are in America but I have realized that I cannot do that because the two are simply different and will never match up to each other. But if one were to compare planning week in Tonga to planning week in America, one could say rather little was accomplished. We came up with a mission statement and a vision for the year and covered a few policies, the key one being annual leave. I believe last year teachers got twenty-eight days off during the school year. Yes, that is twenty-eight days other than school breaks or holidays to simply take off for any reason and usually without prior notice. This year some of the teachers were a little sad to hear that they now only had twenty anytime vacation days a year. It is also important to note here that there are not enough teachers to teach all of the classes already so when a teacher takes off there is nobody to replace them and no substitute so the class simply sits there. After planning week we got ready for the kids to come on Monday, well I'm not sure if ready is the right word for it, but we made sure that we knew that in fact the kids would be coming to the school compound on Monday.

So yesterday Monday came and the kids came as well. School is a little different here. School does not exactly start on the first scheduled day of school like in America, it is more like a rolling start or soft opening. The kids were each instructed to bring in some supplies since funding is a big issue here and the school cannot afford many basic supplies. The kids each brought in a large mat that we often use to sit on here, a broom and a roll of toilet paper. During a short assembly we collected the items and the teachers were all introduced. I loved getting to sit in front of all of the children on their first day of school.

The youngest kids were very cute and I could tell how excited and nervous they were to start high school. There is no middle school here just primary school and then high school. The youngest kids here are just twelve years old and the high school is in the big city on the island. There is no school bus here and the kids have to hitchhike to get to school and it can take up to an hour for the furthest away students. It is definitely an intimidating journey for the younger students. So after the assembly we went to our homeroom classes. I am sharing a homeroom class with another teacher named Tupou and the class is filled with the youngest students. Each grade is called a form here. The youngest are called form 1 and the oldest are form 6 and the rest fill in between. Tupou is an amazing English teacher and the head of the English department here. She'll be helping me a lot with my classes and lesson plans and has a gazillion ideas for secondary projects to do with me. After homeroom yesterday we just let the kids go and got ready for the next day, sort of.

When I asked the deputy principal yesterday what I would be teaching he still did not know and he told me not to worry about it. I just went with the flow and tried to not let myself stress out about going into the first real day of school without an idea of which classes I would be teaching or lesson plans. I wrote down a few ideas for introductory activities but there was not much else I could do. This morning when I came to school the schedule was up. I had four different classes. I would be teaching form 1 English -my homeroom students, form 4 English that my homestay brother Amoni is in, form 4 economics and form 4 accounting. So I got my classes and that meant it was now time to teach. It felt exactly like my first day of high school. Where do I go? Wait, what am I teaching? I thought I was supposed to be teaching that class with another teacher, what is going on? I did not know quite what to do so I just figured out where my classes were, walked in and introduced myself. I am somewhat confident my students understood me. I had the students all sign in and introduce themselves to the class and then I took pictures of my students so I can memorize all their names. Maybe I'll be able to actually pronounce their names later in the term. With almost no planning or foreknowledge of my classes I somehow got through them and it was not even that bad. As I type this blog I am waiting on the curriculum handouts so I can get an idea of what I am supposed to teach the students and what they already know. At the very least I will be able to make a lesson plan for tomorrow. So that's school so far. I've got some great projects planned with the school which I hope to tell you all about next update.

I also just heard in that the only boat that comes to Ha’apai, the Pulupaki is being sent to Fiji for repairs. After seeing the boat I am surprised it still floats so it could be stuck in Fiji for sometime. Almost nothing is produced here so it is a little scary not having the only boat that restocks this island currently out of service. I did a major restocking a few days ago in case this happened but it looks like I might have to go out and get some more basic supplies like sugar and flour just in case.