Monday, March 1, 2010

Weekend vacation and a tsunami

This past weekend I traveled with John and Juleigh one island over to the island of Kauvai to visit Blair and enjoy some rest and relaxation on a sparsely inhabited island. Kauai is only a forty-minute boat ride away but is significantly less developed from my island of Lifuka. Only about two hundred people live in Kauvai and probably only sixty or so in Blair’s town of Ha’ano.

The only people who hold formal job positions are the priests and the teachers and everyone else works in the house or fishing and farming subsistently. The pace of life is slow and the people live without many of the luxuries I have on Lifuka such as running water and twenty-four hour electricity. The water pump broke several months ago in Kauvai so there is no running water and the electricity is only turned on from seven at night until two in the morning. There are only a few tiny shops the size of newspaper stands and only sell a dozen products. There is no shop or market to buy groceries so Blair often received fafanga (cooked meals) from her community.

Living without so many amenities may sound tough but Blair also gets to benefit from living in such a small and isolated community. The people are very friendly and care for her like she is family and hardly anyone speaks English so her language skills are very good. Sometimes I get jealous of how much more immersed she is and how far away she is from other Palangi’s (people not from Tonga). Then I hop in my shower, buy some groceries, post a blog, grab an ice-cold coke from my refrigerator, and have an English conversation with an American friend forget about it.

We arrived to Kauvai on Friday night with a ton of supplies, we knew that we had to pack everything we wanted to eat or we would be stuck asking the community to feed us. The first night we planned a huge meal of chicken and vegetable curry and when we were about ten minutes away from completing the meal all of Blair’s gas burners went out. We could not understand what was going on at first. We checked the gas line and tried to light the burners again but had no luck. We quickly realized that nothing was wrong with the stove but we were out of gas.

Being out of gas on an outer island is tough news. There was nowhere to buy gas on Blair’s island and the only gas shop to fill up is on my island (by gas shop I mean the general area where gas is occasionally sold by a man who is occasionally there). Filling her gas canister was not happening anytime soon. Even if she could get her gas canister filled, there is a new law since the Princess Ashika sank that gas is not allowed on boats except tanker boats. No tanker boats visit her island so I am not quite sure how she is going to get a new canister, swim?

Luckily, our meal was close enough to being complete and the chicken had already been thoroughly boiled so we were able to eat but we knew that the rest of the weekend we would have to cook fake-Tonga style (faka means like or the way of so the Tongan way) over an open fire. We had eggs and pancakes planned for the next mornings and spaghetti with red sauce that we had to make from scratch the next night. We were going to have to learn how to cook over an open fire quickly.

After almost dying from smoke inhalation and burning my eyes out with coconut shell smoke I got the fire started and we were able to cook almost like we were cooking over a regular stove. Over the next few days, we successfully made all the meals we planned and some awesome spaghetti sauce. We even made a vegetable curry with coconut milk that we laboriously made from scratch. A future blog will have to show how to make coconut milk.

When we were not cooking faka-Tonga we enjoyed a beach side resort whose New Zealand owner had gotten into a disagreement with the town noble and had his visa pulled on a short trip back home. The resort was in construction at the time so it remains about eight-percent complete and a great place for PCV’s to relax without paying. As is typical with most resorts in Tonga, the resort was located on one of the most scenic beaches in the kingdom. We lounged at the resort all day reading, swimming on the coral reef, eating, and taking naps. A major activity throughout the kingdom on Saturdays is to malolo pe or doing nothing and just relaxing. We certainly embraced the culture and made sure to malolo pe all day long.

After a day of malolo pe the world must have known we needed some excitement so it gladly obliged early Sunday morning around two-thirty am. I was sleeping in my tent enjoying the cool breeze of the ocean and the sound of the waves splashing on the coral reefs just twenty feet away when I was awoken by Blair, “Umm Todd and Juleigh, sorry to wake you but, the Peace Corps just called and there has been a large earthquake in Chile and there is a tsunami heading for the entire Pacific region. We don’t expect it for until around eight in the morning so just go back to bed and we’ll go to higher ground at seven.” The news about the looming tsunami was exactly what I needed so get a restful night of sleep while staying in a tent just twenty feet from the sea on an island a quarter mile wide with a maximum elevation of forty feet. Good thing I brought my life jacket.

We woke up much earlier than I ever wanted to on Sunday morning and prepared however we could for the looming disaster. We only had basic information and had no idea how sizeable the tsunami would be. In training they told us that if you island is small enough in the event of a tsunami you should actually climb a coconut tree as high as you can with you life jacket on and tie yourself to it to avoid being swept out to sea. Legend in the Peace Corps community here is that several years back a volunteer on a remote island became a little mentally unstable and climbed a coconut tree with his satellite phone, dog and life jacket. Supposedly, he called his family hysterically crying and remained in the tree hours with his community coaxing him to come down from the bottom of the tree.

We did not want to look like him so we just got all of our emergency supplies together and climbed to the highest point of the island on the opposite side of the island that the tsunami was supposed to hit which happened to be the noble’s cemetery. We remained there for several hours listening to the Tongan radio station and waiting for updates from the Peace Corps. All of the Tongans went about their normal Sunday routine of going to church. We must have looked silly to the Tongans as they passed the only four Americans on the island hanging out in the cemetery with our life jackets on.

We knew that the earthquake was one of the biggest in recent memory and that the last devastating tsunami to hit Tonga was in the 1960’s and had come from an earthquake in Chile. We should have been scared of what was to come but just like in the cyclone two weeks ago, we all just wanted to see what it would be like. Kind of strange when the island you are on is so small. After hours of waiting, we got an all-clear call from the Peace Corps. The wave had only been about a foot and a half and had caused no damage throughout the kingdom. Tahiti and the Marshall Island had a big wave but somehow Tonga was missed.

So natural disaster number three check! I slept through a big earthquake in training, got my house flooded in a cyclone two weeks ago, and got sunburn waiting out a tsunami. I cannot wait to see what the next two years brings us.