Breand and her husband had the unique experience of living on ‘Eua island as part of their Peace Corps service.
‘Eua is a two-hour ferry ride from Tongatapu (Tonga’s capital island and where Sam and I lived during our two years in Tonga). It is also the oldest (30 million years older to be exact!) and the highest elevated island in the Tonga group, the site of Tonga’s largest national rain forest, the only island in the kingdom featuring a river/spring/creek (the rest of Tonga relies upon rain capture for fresh water) and the home to the reclusive Shining Red Parrot..
Oh. And it is freaking beautiful. Giant banyan trees, pristine beaches, verdant, wind-swept cliffs where wild horses graze and mysterious caves are just some of the sights on offer. With a resume like that, who wouldn’t want to visit? But it is also rather remote, modern comfort items are bare-bones and the variety of food items limited.
What’s it like for a stateside couple to live on ‘Eua Island for almost two years? Breand is here to tell us!
Name: Breand M. Jones
Place of Origin/Residence:
Originally from Tennessee, but living in Oregon before and after Peace Corps service
Any contact info you wish to share (blog, facebook, twitter, email, etc):
breandmh(at sign) gmail (dot) com
For Returned Volunteers, Current Location: Portland, Oregon
Peace Corps Location: Kingdom of Tonga (Ha’atu’a Village, ‘Eua)
Age during service: 29-30
Peace Corps Time-Frame: September 2010- February 2012
What was your background (college, work, etc.,) before you joined the Peace Corps?
I had a B.A. in English, 10 years experience as a dance teacher, 2.5 years as an ESL teacher (in China, Korea, and Italy), a few years as director of a small non-profit, and a year as a case manager for a children’s outpatient mental health facility.
What was the process like when you joined? It was a pretty long and arduous process– especially the medical clearance bit. It is all very time-consuming and PC is very particular about all the elements of the application– and as I mentioned, especially the medical section– but it is certainly worth it, and I understand why it is so thorough.
Were you placed in a location and/or field you had indicated an interest in? If not, what were you thoughts on that?
Not exactly, My husband and I were willing to go anywhere, except certain countries/regions with extreme female oppression. On the application you can’t single out specific countries you want to go to or not go to (or at least at the time we applied you could not), but there is a section to mark regions you are willing to serve in. I think we marked all regions except the Middle East and North Africa.
As for the field we would work in, I felt a little like our recruiter couldn’t see past my experience (or my husband’s) as anything but ESL teachers. That was kind of frustrating, especially since most of my husband’s job experience was in the sciences, and he had just a little ESL experience thrown in, it was annoying for all the overwhelming work history and studying to be pushed aside. I felt a little like she just wanted to place us as quickly and easily as possible. I was happy with the prospect of teaching ESL as long as I had time for secondary projects of my choice. Also, I hoped it would encourage the recruiter to find something closer to my husband’s line of work, since my being an ESL teacher is pretty flexible and possible in most PC served countries.
What was it like when you first arrived in your new country? Did you think you would enjoy it?
I think my husband and I were both very optimistic. We never in a thousand years thought we’d luck up and end up in a South Pacific island nation. We were willing to go almost anywhere, and ending up in a country that is warm, beautiful, and very friendly was far more than we expected or even dreamed of. Once we actually arrived in Tonga, I think we were even more excited.
What was your assignment while there?
My primary assignment was teaching English for a government elementary school, but I also taught Music, Arts & Crafts, Library Skills, and led some optional after-school programs.
Did you engage in a secondary project? If so, what?
Yes, I had a few secondary projects. Two of my favorites were my library development project and our school renovation project. After many discussions with the teachers and principal at my school to see what resources they needed (for themselves and the students) I got book donations for our library from various sources: schools in the US, non-profit organizations abroad, personal donations, etc. Many of the books we already had were not age-appropriate and were never used so we exchanged a lot of books with the high school across the street.
After purging our library of the books that were either destroyed or not appropriate, we increased the number of usable books for our students by about 80%. I taught the students how to use the library and trained older classes to be junior librarians who then taught younger classes how to use the library and care for the books and other materials. The PTA and students and I renovated the library and redesigned the way it was set up to be more user friendly and accessible.
I also worked with the PTA to apply for a grant to renovate more of the school and build one new building and new toilet facilities. We were approved for a grant from Japan’s Cultural Grassroots Aid Program and the new building and renovations were completed toward the end of 2012. Previous to the building and renovations, 2 classrooms leaked very badly, had many missing window panels, and a Japanese architect who visited our school said that the toilet facilities were not structurally sound and needed to be replaced as soon as possible. And so they were!
Other secondary projects included: sponsoring an after-school dance club, working at a pre-school on Fridays, directing ‘Eua’s first Camp G.L.O.W., and working with my fellow teachers so that they may apply for book donations and various grants unassisted in the future.
Are/were you posted in a remote or urban setting? Near other volunteers? What challenges or rewards have you experienced because of this?
We were in a quite remote setting. When we were first on ‘Eua there were 5 volunteers on the island, including my husband and myself. The other 3 volunteers were on the far north end of the island, and we were in the southernmost village on ‘Eua. Two of the other volunteers were back in the states by the end of our first year there (one had interrupted service, and another completed her service but had started a year before us).
However, even after it was just my husband, me, and one other volunteer on the other end of ‘Eua we still felt very comfortable and at home. I feel like my husband and I assimilated into our communities well and kept ourselves very busy with our many projects and that there wasn’t much time to get bored or homesick. We loved ‘Eua and our village. We had tea or dinner or some kind of get-together with the other ‘Eua volunteer once a week. Personally, it was my experience that the happiest volunteers were the ones in the most remote areas. I don’t know why exactly, but it seemed like the least satisfied volunteers were the ones in the capital or nearby. We hardly had Internet, and what we had was awful and only reliable in its unreliability, but we got used to it pretty quick.
What was/is the living condition for the people there?
Tongans, especially on ‘Eua, are fortunate to have fertile soil that will grow almost anything. They never have a shortage of food. The weather is also to their benefit. So the quality of life is quite good in that respect. The biggest struggle in terms of quality of life, I think, is getting basic health care. Although there was a hospital on ‘Eua and a couple doctors, they were more often than not out of basic necessities like antibiotics.
What are the health concerns, if any?
My biggest health concern was over the lack of access to a variety of vegetables year-round, particularly leafy greens. Because of pigs constantly digging up the yard it was near impossible to have a garden, and Tongans don’t usually grow foods like spinach. The only leafy green that is widely found is pele, and we of course got very tired of pele.
What was/is the greatest need, based on your observation?
I think health education or some sort of health initiative should be a priority in Tonga. I wish the PC focused more on health and environment issues there. Most people burn their garbage, and have no idea the toxins they are releasing into the air. There are countless examples I could give to support my feelings that there should be an environmental focus in Peace Corps Tonga. Other countries are trying to take advantage of Tonga’s lax (or non-existent) environmental laws, and it is to the detriment of the Tongan people.
What do you observe about the culture there?
Tongans are a very warm, friendly people. It is an extremely laid back culture, which can be frustrating for volunteers eager to get their noses to the grindstone and start working on their projects the second they get off the plane. Change happens slowly everywhere, but that is especially true in Tonga. I found that volunteers who were willing to keep an open mind and spend most of their first year learning and assimilating into their communities were much more likely to enjoy themselves( and be enjoyed), not to mention have more successful, sustainable projects.
What is/was your housing like? Did you live alone or with a family? What challenges and rewards have you experienced from this?
My husband and I had two housing situations once at our posts, and in both we lived alone as a couple. We first had a very small house in great disrepair. After our first year, my husband’s school built us a brand new cinder block house, which was very nice! The first house was pretty bad. That was in part due to the PCV who lived there before us. Some of the things we found in the house are unmentionably disgusting. We were able to clean most of that though. We even scrubbed the walls, and it was much homier after that.
The house itself had a great deal of holes in it, which made it very easy for rats to get in. My husband, who is such a wonderful life-respecting, animal-lover, unfortunately got highly skilled at decapitating rat with his machete. I even once woke up with a rat on my body. It was pretty gross. It was on my shoulder crawling down my body. After that we started tucking our mosquito net in all the way around the bed so nothing could crawl in. Some of the holes in the kitchen were quite large.
One night we heard a crash in the kitchen, and my husband jumped out of bed thinking it was a rat, but it turned out to be a large cat. That’s how big the holes were.
The second house was polar opposite to our first. It was bright white with lots of windows for a nice airflow. It was cinder block so rats didn’t really stand a chance. It was 3 times the size of our first house. Neither house had warm water, but for most of the year in Tonga you really don’t need it.
What was/is the hardest thing about your PC experience?
Without a doubt, the most difficult part of my PC experience was the part of pre-service training that was spent living with a host family on Ha’apai. During that 8 weeks or so of language training I struggled a great deal because of our host family situation. I was hungry a lot because my host mother didn’t cook very much food (which is VERY atypical of any Tongan woman), and she often prepared fried chicken despite my being a vegetarian. So many of my meals were just boiled or fried mei (breadfruit). We literally had mei and fried chicken 5 meals a week.
We told her that I do not eat chicken, and PC staff discussed it with her, but I don’t know what the deal was. I honestly just felt like she wanted to spend as little as possible on food for us so that they could keep all the money PC paid them. I know that sounds awful, but our host mother flat out told us how much she was getting paid and that she had wanted to host a couple so she’d get twice the money. She was very friendly and never directly mean to us, but she was just a terrible cook and didn’t seem to mind if we got enough to eat. Again, that goes against every other Tongan I ever met.
Another difficult thing was that our host family was very dirty. Most Tongans pride themselves on keeping themselves and their homes tidy, even if they have next to nothing… but our host mother’s kitchen literally made us dry heave when we went inside. I tend to be a little OCD so the whole 8 weeks was a trial. I never wanted to appear unappreciative, but sometimes it was difficult to not show on my face the emotions I was feeling.
A perfect example is when after a few weeks I asked my host mother if I could wash our sheets. She smiled and said she would get me new sheets, but then she just pulled the sheets off the couch in the living room– filthy sheets that had been covering an even filthier couch for who-knows-how-long– and then she put them on our bed. It was disgusting.
Also, our host family was Mormon and although they had been told they were not allowed to proselytize, they did a little. It was worse when they had a family reunion and an American relative was there going on and on about his Faith. Thankfully, that terrible host family situation was made more bearable by the two things: 1. knowing that it was only temporary and just a small part of our PC experience and 2. Sandy Beach… probably the most beautiful, perfect beach I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying.
What is/was the most rewarding thing?
The most rewarding thing was just actually becoming a part of the community and finally reaching a point where I didn’t feel like an outsider. I loved when we finally got to that point.
After living on ‘Eua for 8 or 9 months, one of my student’s sisters stopped by our house one day and asked me if I would help her with some college applications, which I of course agreed to do. We worked on several applications together, and she eventually got into a college in Japan (with a scholarship!). She is still studying there, and I occasionally get emails from her. Although I’m proud to have helped her in any way, and that in itself is rewarding, it felt even more rewarding to just be someone to her that she felt like she could pop over and see and casually ask for some help.
What are/were your hobbies or activities you engaged in during your free time?
During the rainy season, I watched far too many movies on our laptop. I also read a lot. I’ve always been an avid reader, but my Peace Corps service was a great opportunity to read a lot of books that had spent too much time on my “To Read Someday” list. When it wasn’t raining, however, we were always outside. There are so many beautiful beaches and amazing hikes on ‘Eua. I also spent a great deal of time making various things for my school and working on the library.
What is/was your favorite place to go?
We spent a lot of time on Ha’aluma beach. It is probably one of my favorite places in the world.
If visitors came to your location, what highlights would you recommend?
The Big ‘Ovava tree, Fangatave, and Ha’aluma Beach were a few favorites of ours. Fangatave probably ranks highest.
For Eua, could you describe the different areas of the island (north end vrs south end, demographic differences, places to see around the island, caves, hiking etc.)
The north end of the island is quite hilly, while it is slightly flatter on the south end (though still much hillier than, for example, the Ha’apai island group). Feral horses and the rock garden are on southeastern ‘Eua. Fangatave is on the north end. The national forest runs along the eastern side of the island. And Ha’aluma Beach is on the southern end.
What would you recommend visitors bring in terms of clothing and supplies?
Sturdy flip flops and/or sandals (e.g. Chacos), modest but breathable pants or capri pants or long shorts*. Shirts of a breathable fabric. Tongans– particularly those living on outer islands like ‘Eua– dress very conservatively, and although tourists are not expected to dress as a Tongan, I suggest observing some of the local standards out of respect for the culture.
*In Tongan culture, a woman’s thighs are regarded as one of the most sensual parts of the female body, and it is generally considered inappropriate to wear shorts cut higher than the knee.
Do you have a favorite restaurant? If so, what, where, etc.?
No restaurants on ‘Eua. Sometimes we went to Hideaway guesthouse to hang out with the owner, Taki, who was good friends with my husband, and we would eat dinner there.
What are you doing presently?
I stay home with our 1-year-old daughter, and I also teach dance part-time just one afternoon a week.
If you are a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, did you have difficulty re-adjusting to life post-Peace Corps? Please explain as much as you feel comfortable.
Yes, I did struggle with reverse culture shock. It’s strange because it’s kind of difficult for me to even think of specific examples or a decent explanation now, but I’m sure at the time I could have verbalized exactly what was most difficult.
Most of the difficulty for me, I think, was in trying to have “normal” conversations with people after I got back. I had had a life-changing experience. I felt that I was doing work in Tonga that contributed to a greater good. It’s hard to find meaningful work that is so obviously rewarding and also a work environment in which you feel so appreciated. After living in our little village on ‘Eua it was hard to get used to the speed and consumerism of the States. I found myself overwhelmed with all the choices in every store, and I was constantly getting in people’s way because I had adopted the Tongan walking pace. I strolled.
On top of that, I was pregnant. Many well-meaning loved ones wanted to make small talk about baby products I just had to have or the difficulties of childbirth and how I couldn’t possibly imagine the pain and struggle until it’s happened to me. One poor woman asked me if I was afraid of giving birth and, having caught me in a less-than-stellar mood, I told her how I really felt:
“No. I have fears about not being a good parent, but I’m not at all worried about childbirth. Women all over the world do it every day. Dogs do it, for crying out loud.”
It just got so tiresome having what I saw as molehills being made into mountains and talked about endlessly. Tonga, and the work I did there, had changed my perspective. I think I have maintained that perspective in some ways (thankfully), but I also have a little more patience than when I first got home. People often ask what PC was like and it can still be frustrating because although many people ask, very few actually listen to your response.
More frustrating is when people glean small bits of what you say about the country or the people and then they sort of fit it into some stereotype they have and don’t hear anything else you say. Still, every now and then someone asks about Tonga and then they really listen to the answers I give to their questions. Those someones are usually children.
If you are a RPCV, have you returned to your post country? If so, what changes have you observed, etc?
No, but we hope to return for a visit in 2015.
Overall, how would you summarize your PC experience?
Overall, it was a beautiful, life-changing experience that I will always be thankful for. Even during the most difficult times– which for me was definitely training– I had the support of my husband, the wonderful PC staff, amazing community members, and my fellow volunteers. The best part of being a PCV in my village was how appreciated everyone made me feel. I think it’s rare to put in that kind of volunteer work and really feel like every bit of it was thoroughly appreciated. I don’t mean to paint it all too rosy-colored, of course there were difficulties, but that’s really how I feel about my PC experience for the most part. After we finished our training, I managed to assimilate into my village and I feel I got a lot accomplished in the time I had. And I miss the smiling faces of my students, co-workers, and neighbors.
All photographs in this post are the property of: Breand Jones Copyright 2013, and may not be duplicated, copied or otherwise used without her express permission.