Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

A Home Away From Home

Now that we have been living in Nuku’alofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, for a few weeks, I thought I would share some of what it’s like to live in this happy island nation. Of course, this is only based on my short experience to date, but I feel like the differences are more noticeable at the beginning of a new venture than they will be in a few months’ time so am writing it before I well and truly get used to everything!

To begin with, I guess I should tell you about my house. We are pretty lucky to be based in a great location a few minutes’ bike ride from the centre of Nuku’alofa in an area called Pili (however I don’t think you can find this area labelled as such even in google maps). As a matter of fact, addresses are fairly non-existent here, I don’t even know if the road our house is on has a name!  Directions are pretty much given based on the few major roads with names people know and landmarks such as churches and shops. Eg. ‘Go straight down Mateialona Road, past the 2 roundabouts and the green falekoloa (shop) on the corner. Pass the small white church on the left, our road is the next one on the right with the new white street light and a vacant block on the corner’. We have to give these kind of directions to the water company who deliver our drinking water or to taxi drivers.

Our house is on a block with another house where a lovely Tongan family live. We have a big yard with an umu (ground oven) as well as many fruit trees (breadfruit, banana, papaya, lime, guava) as well as a curry leaf tree and some lemongrass.

We also have two dogs who we have dubbed Champ and Sprocket (apparently they belonged to some volunteers who previously lived here). Champ is quite young and crazy energetic, he still likes to nip a bit when he is trying to play, but Sprocket is pretty chilled and likes to lie down for a lot of the day.

We kind of share care of the dogs with the family next door. The family are quite generous and often bring us a plate of food from the umu on Sundays, and also lend Ben and I their coconut husker so we can make our own coconut milk and dessicated coconut.

Our house itself is quite large, we have a good sized kitchen with a gas oven and stovetop, though the oven has no temperature gauge which has been interesting for my baking addiction! The gas bottle is located in a cupboard under the sink however… The town water supply is safe to drink, though is quite hard – our electric kettle has calcified shut and we can’t open the top anymore! But in addition to the town water, we also have a rainwater tank shared with next door, as well as our bottled drinking water supply (in the big 20L containers with a dispenser).

The taps don’t have great pressure, but we have a pump outside in the laundry we can turn on before a shower and have a decent spray. We can also have hot showers if we turn on the gas bottle in the laundry, but we’ve mostly been having cold showers while the weather has been warm. We often use rainwater to do the washing (because it is free) but this makes doing the laundry quite a process, as my house-husband Ben can attest to! We have a couple of buckets which he fills at the tank out the front and walks around to put in the washing machine out the back. Then the wash goes and when it finishes you drain it and bring more water from the tank for the rinse. After the rinse you put all the wet clothes from the washing tub into the spinning tub and then they are ready to hang out! Ben is really earning his dependant stars with that ordeal each week…

Ben and I have scored a big bedroom- it’s actually bigger than we had in Katherine, so we have plenty of room for our 2 suitcases worth of stuff! Our lounge room is about the size of a tennis court with an old but giant TV (of dubious quality… In the words of Ben: ‘When you watch anything it looks as if someone has smeared butter all over the screen’). We do get a channel called Australia Plus, so Ben can watch some of his favourite ABC shows and some of the footy as well. Despite the two 3-seater couches, a 2-seater couch, 3 armchairs, giant TV and cabinet in the lounge, all 4 of us can also keep our bikes inside!

Since we have arrived, the climate has generally been quite nice. We just had a week of pretty continuous rain which has amped up the humidity but brought some nice breezes. It has gotten hot at times, but our fan has been able to take the edge off. No luxury AC here, but the nights luckily aren’t as hot as a Katherine wet season!

In terms of other luxuries, there is not too much we are having to go without to be honest. One thing of note is that we are now living in a world of 1-ply toilet paper, which I don’t think I succumbed to even as a student! The bug situation here is probably comparable to the NT, we have had some ants recently and we get a few spiders (mostly daddy-long-legs for potential visitors!), but I would say less cockroaches here than in Katherine. Mozzies can be annoying but our house is really well fly-screened so we haven’t had trouble at home, mostly when we go out. The Tongan symphony of the night has taken some getting used to though, with typical selections including chorus of dogs, dog chasing chicken, rooster crowing and/or squealing pig.

On the side note of mosquitoes, I imagine people have heard quite a bit of the Zika Virus hype in the media recently. It is present in Tonga, but from what I have heard from a few people who have had it is symptomatically, it is a lot milder than the other common mosquito-borne illnesses in Tonga (Chikingunya and Dengue Fever). Many people are even asymptomatic. The main factor of concern is the possible link for pregnant women who get infected and microcephaly in their babies, as well a possible link with Guillian-Barre syndrome, but there’s not a lot of firm information around at the moment. We just have to douse ourselves in repellent, cover up and hope for the best.

With regards to material things, on the whole, though some things are less available than in Australia, we still have access to a lot. The internet is more expensive compared to home and we have data limits which takes some getting used to after mostly unlimited usage/streaming etc. in Australia, but we have unlimited data between 12am and 6am, so have to save our downloads for the wee hours! Also some food items we love at home can be more expensive and/or hard to find here, eg. Coffee, nuts, dried fruit, yoghurt, cheese, chocolate, wine, but we are rationing them if we buy them which makes us enjoy them when we have them. (Except for the coffee… I am still having that everyday! You can take the girl out of Melbourne, but you can’t take Melbourne out of the girl!) I have become a big fan of the Easiyo yoghurt maker, and am making my own yoghurt from milk powder these days which is a lot more economical than buying it here and means I can still enjoy my favourite breakfast food (thanks to Sustainable Suburbia for the know-how). It really is super easy; I don’t know why I haven’t done this forever!


Luxury items here in Tonga…

On the topic of food, shopping here is a bit of an adventure as you often need to visit several different stores and the market depending on what you want and who has it that week. There are several fresh food markets in different areas of town for your fruit and veggies; the fish market with fresh, unscaled, ungutted fish; the fish shop where you can buy big chunks of larger fish (like tuna) pre-scaled and gutted; several butchers and bakeries (but to get multigrain bread your best bet is the largest bakery and you have to get there early in the day!); the dairy shop which has the cheapest cheese… Then certain stores are renowned for having a good supply of affordable spices, others for having a variety of canned goods like corn kernels, chickpeas or beans, others for having the cheapest dried fruit. Everyone told us when we arrived- if you see something and you want it, BUY IT! Because it might not be there next time you go back… or even for several months after!

One of the other quirks of life here so far is the Sunday shut down. It is quite nice to have a designated day of rest and wake up to the sound of church bells ringing, but can cause unplanned inconveniences in other ways. We had an incident in our second week here where we were cooking dinner on Saturday night and the gas ran out. Our house has two gas bottles- one for the oven and one to heat water for the shower. Since all the shops tend to close around 1pm on a Saturday and don’t open again until Monday, we had the ingenious idea to swap the kitchen gas bottle for the laundry gas bottle so we could finish making our dinner. After a half hour bottle-changing interlude we managed to finish cooking – cold showers til Monday but a warm dinner on Saturday! Worst case scenario, the bakery has a license to operate on a Sunday, as well as a few restaurants so we wouldn’t have gone hungry. The bakery is actually a popular hangout on Sunday afternoons where people can go and buy huge trays of 60 cream buns or 7 loaves of white bread to feed the hoardes!

I think I will have to write a whole other post on Tongan food, so more on that next time. Til then, big hugs from the friendly isles 🙂

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Welcome to the Friendly Island!

So there has been a bit of a gap between now and my last posts in 2013…! Since finishing my roadtrip with Laura and Hugo in the US and Canada, I travelled to Columbia and Ecuador and then headed back to Australia. After living in Katherine in the Northern Territory for 18 months and back home in Melbourne for about 6 months, I have landed in Nuku’alofa, Tonga where I am starting a 12 month assignment with Scope Global as part of the Australian Volunteers For International Development program, an Australian Government initiative. I will be working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Forests and Fisheries’ Women’s Development Unit as a Health Promotion and Nutrition Officer where I will be helping the local staff to develop health promotion programs and resources aimed at promoting home gardening, healthy eating, and healthy cooking to help prevent non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease), the largest contributor to the burden of disease here in Tonga. My partner Ben has also come along as my trusty ‘dependant’ (in the official program lingo).

We started our adventure by arriving at the airport in Melbourne super early to sort out excess baggage with our airline after having been handballed to 4 different departments over the prior 6 weeks. We had a 23kg allowance and they are pretty strict about not allowing pre-booking of extra bags to the pacific islands (we have been told by previous volunteers that this may be due to islanders previously attempting to bring extreme excess baggage such as washing machines…) but for whatever reason they like to charge you an arm and a leg to bring anything extra on the plane and do not guarantee that anything you bring will be allowed to be taken with you… Bit of a pain when you are uprooting your life for 12 months! Anyway, thankfully we had a very helpful supervisor at the service desk who checked with their operations team and allowed us to take our 1 case and 1 bike box each, and let us pay the pre-booked baggage rate which we were very relieved about. It took a while to figure it all out and had been quite frustrating as every person we spoke to about excess baggage told us a different rule so wherever possible when travelling to the pacific, I’d advise to stick to your luggage limits! After grabbing lunch with my sister Cara and Ben’s mum, Marg, and taking the obligatory airport snap with Caz, we were off!

We flew from Melbourne to Sydney where we met up with the other 3 volunteers mobilising with us (Sarah from Tassie, Ina from NSW and Emma from Brissy). We had our intro to ‘Tonga Time’ when our flight didn’t board at its scheduled time with no announcements telling us what was going on, but when we did finally take off an hour later than we were meant to, our flight was pretty uneventful. We were provided with our ‘meal’ (as referred to by our flight itinerary) or ‘dinner snacks’ (in the words of the air hostess…)- literally a box containing a bread roll, a pack of crisps, a mini quiche and a muffin for our dinner! It was like they had run out of meals and had to chuck together the leftover snacks from the bottom of the barrel! Since we had been overfed for a week before we left at our pre-departure training in Adelaide, we weren’t too worried!

We arrived in Nuku’alofa at about 2am local time. Ben and I were last of the volunteers out of the terminal not knowing how to gracefully push into the queue of determined Tongans with our trolley of cumbersome bike boxes! We were greeted by a little 3-piece band playing lively tunes outside the terminal (still going strong at 2.30am!) and were met by our in-country management team, David and Una. They transported us and all our gear to Sela’s Guesthouse, our home for our first week of orientation. Sela’s is a little locally owned B&B with some very interesting décor!

For those of you who have not heard much about Tonga, I will diverge a little here to enlighten you. Tonga is an archipelago of about 170 islands in the South Pacific Ocean. For my assignment, I am based in the capital city of Nuku’alofa which is on the main island, Tongatapu. Around 70% of Tonga’s whole population (a total of ~100,000 people) live on Tongatapu, but it is not a large island. Apparently it would take about an hour to drive end to end (and the local speed is around 60km/hr!). There are many uninhabited islands in Tonga, and small populations living in the other main island groups, ‘Eua, Ha’apai, Vava’u and the Niuas. The official languages are English and Tongan (a Polynesian language). We had some basic training in Tongan as part of our orientation. So far my favourite word is ‘fakapikopiko’, which means ‘lazy’.

Tonga is the only remaining monarchy in the pacific, and is the only pacific nation to never have been colonised, a fact which Tongans are very proud of. Just in our first few days we have seen that culture is strong here, with many people wearing traditional garments such as the keikei (an ornamental belt worn over the skirt for ladies) and the tupeno (wrap skirt, for men and women) and tuvala (woven mat, worn by both men and women). The current king is HRH Tupou VI who was crowned just last year in July. The Kingdom is undergoing a transition toward democracy with the king relinquishing some of his constitutional powers in recent years, and the people now having elected members of the public in parliament (not just the nobles). Tonga has held 2 democratic elections so far in 2010 and 2014.


The waterfront in Nuku’alofa

Tonga was given its nickname ‘The Friendly Isles’ by Captain Cook. The story goes that when he arrived in the 1700s, the locals actually wanted to kill him and his men and take their boats so they threw a big feast for them as a decoy. However the chiefs then had a disagreement which foiled their plan, so in the end, Captain Cook sailed off unharmed with a full belly telling everyone how friendly the locals in Tonga are! I’m not sure if that story is true or not, but I must say the locals sure are friendly for real here. Riding or walking down the street, everyone smiles and says hello (or “Bye!”). I talked to another customer in the bank on my first day here, a girl who works in a local café and when I visited the café a few days later and she saw me, she remembered my name and greeted me like an old friend!

Explorers and missionaries of Cook’s era brought Christianity to Tonga which remains a strong part of Tongan life today. The main religion followed is that of the Wesleyan Church, but there are also Church of Tonga, Catholic and Mormon followers. Sundays are officially a day of rest, most people go to church in the morning then come home for a lunchtime feast cooked in the ‘umu’ (ground oven), often followed by a food coma/afternoon nap (like Christmas every week!). Most of the shops are closed (with the exception of bakeries and a couple of restaurants at hotels) and it is frowned upon to exercise or go swimming at the beach (unless you head out of town to a resort where anything goes). I plan to use Sunday as my baking day, and Ben plans to take up the local hobby of Sunday eating and naps!

We were lucky enough to experience a church service at the King’s church during our orientation (sadly the King was not in attendance that day though). Unfortunately, Ben missed it as he was down with what he has dubbed as ‘Tonga tummy’ L But I went along with Ina and Emma- our language teacher Poli was excited to dress us all up in tupenos and tuvalas to celebrate the special occasion of our first Sunday in Tonga. We headed to church with her daughter Seini and her friend Nelu while she prepared the umu. The service was in Tongan but was very enjoyable as it was interspersed with beautiful harmonies from the amazing choir as well as a brass band.

After church Poli spoiled us with 4 types of lu (a taro-leaf-wrapped package of meat dressed in coconut milk and cooked in foil)- she had corned beef (the tinned variety, very popular here), salty beef (what we would know in Australia as corned beef), as well as fish and lamb (mutton flaps), served alongside ufi (yam) and kumala (sweet potato which is often purple here). There are the biggest yams I have ever seen here, more than half a metre long!

We also had some amazing ‘ota ika, a local dish which I think of as the ceviche of the pacific- raw white fish is dressed in lime juice and then mixed with a range of chopped veggies (carrot, capsicum, tomato, chilli) and coconut milk. It is delicious! Poli very sweetly packed up a Tongan-sized take home umu pack for Ben to try as well (sans ‘ota ika at my request- I wasn’t sure raw fish was the best cure for Tonga tummy!).

So far we have been very impressed by Nuku’alofa and it seems like it will be quite an easy place to live. There are like 10 times the number of cafés and restaurants than we had in Katherine! There are Korean, Italian, Indian, Filipino, Chinese, local and western options to name a few. Though some ingredients are more expensive than back home there is a good range of foods available in the shops. The roads in Tongatapu are quite good too, most are sealed and there’s not too many potholes which has been good for riding. Lots of the volunteers get around by bike, and Ben built us one each from old parts before we left. They have ridden well so far, apart from a few minor mishaps with my left pedal falling off, my front wheel being dislodged (luckily not while riding!) and Ben’s back brake getting stuck on the wheel a couple of times.

We have moved into a share house with another Aussie couple, Matt and Naomi, who are from NSW. It is a 3-bedroom place which means we have a spare room for visitors! (Yes, you! Come visit us!) It sounds like there is plenty to see and do both in Tongatapu and the outer islands which Ben and I are looking forward to exploring on weekends and holidays. There are lovely beaches a-plenty, sea kayaking adventures, great snorkelling and diving, and one of the biggest draws is swimming with humpback whales. So if you feel the need for a tropical island getaway in the next 12 months, definitely let us know! So now that I’ve completed the shameless plug, I’ll sign off for now. Toki sio (see you later)!