Mandy and the World

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

Just keep swimming!

Since arriving in Tonga, alongside my ‘official’ volunteer role at the Ministry of Agriculture, I have also been volunteering at one of the local swimming clubs, Malolo Swim Club. In Tongan, Malolo means ‘flying fish’ (not to be confused with mālōlō, which means ‘to rest or do nothing’!)

I first heard about the swimming club through one of my volunteer buddies, Sarah, who is now on her second volunteer assignment in Tonga and has also recently married her Tongan moa (boyfriend). Sarah and I arrived in the same volunteer intake in February this year. She mentioned at our pre-departure training that last time she was in Tonga she used to help out with the swimming lessons run by Malolo Swim Club. This struck my interest as I am also a swimming instructor and really enjoy teaching kids to swim, so a few weeks into our time in Tonga, I popped down to the lessons with Sarah on a Wednesday afternoon at the Touliki sea pool to see what was happening.


Malolo’s Learn-to-swim program running at the Touliki sea pool (Pic thanks to: Pou Panuve)

There were loads of kids and only a few teachers at that point, the weather was still hot and attendance was booming. All the teachers are volunteers. When I first arrived at the club, no one had a formal qualification in swimming teaching, but all were keen to help young Tongan kids learn how to swim. They were mostly running off some training from a coach in Fiji, but the program was mostly focussed on competitive strokes.

Since then, three of our teachers have done their Swim Australia Teacher course through the Pacific Sports Partnership (funded by Australian Aid) which has given them some improved skills and a boost in confidence with their teaching. We have also revised their learn-to-swim program to include more focus on water safety and survival.

Growing up in Australia, most of us have been through swimming lessons to some degree, even if just in schools. And water safety is a pretty common message to hear every summer – things like ‘swim between the flags’, ‘never swim alone’, or ‘never leave children unsupervised around water’ are familiar to most of us.

In Tonga however, many people do not know how to swim, even though it is an archipelago surrounded by crystal clear, beautiful waters! Drowning is not uncommon (although the stats are not collected so it’s hard to know the real scale of the problem). Parents and children have very limited water safety awareness – I have seen parents just telling their scared children who can’t swim to jump in the water, and kids frequently jumping headfirst from a height into seawater of unknown depth. I have also heard it is common if someone is in trouble in the water that people will just jump in to try and help them, then get into trouble themselves. So swimming and water safety lessons are something that there is definitely a need for here in Tonga.


Teaching at the sea pool (Pic thanks to: Pou Panuve)

It has been very rewarding to be involved with the learn-to-swim program, the kids really enjoy their lessons and I have seen so much progress in the students’ confidence and abilities during my 8 months here – a testament to the hard work and dedication of the volunteer swimming teachers at Malolo.

We teach in what can be a challenging environment – the open water sea pool is subject to the tides and the weather, and the conditions never the same two weeks running! However, the teachers and students genuinely love the learn-to-swim program, and there are always plenty of smiles and laughs. For some awesome shots and profiles of our Malolo swim babies, you can check out @lifeontheislandphotography on Instagram

As well as the weekly learn-to-swim classes, I have also been helping out with the Malolo squad, three very talented and committed young swimmers – Noelani (13), Finau (15) and Calina (19).


Noelani, Calina and Finau at a fundraising event for their trip to the Samoa Swim Series

Together with Vila and Pou, I have been coaching them a couple of mornings a week at the one 25m pool on the island at Scenic Hotel. It is about 30 minutes drive from town and we train at 6 in the morning. During the dry season it was cold (by Tongan and my tropical acclimatised standards!) and also pitch black! There are no lights in the pool, no lines, lanes or flags, but it’s the best we’ve got, and hasn’t deterred the kids from training (or their incredibly supportive families from transporting them!). Thankfully now it is warmer and getting light earlier!

The squad also do a lot of open water training between two wharves at the foreshore in front of Nuku’alofa, and have mostly been entering open water events this year. They have done a number of distance swims locally to prepare them for these events, such as swimming from Nuku’alofa to the nearby island of Pangaimotu (1.8km or 2.9km depending on start point), or swimming there and back (5km), they have also swum from Holonga to Mounu Island in the lagoon and back again (5km) and their longest challenge was a swim from Nuku’alofa to Fafa Island (6km).

Being on the support kayaks for these swims has been a great way to see a bit more around Tongatapu as well.

As for their competitions, Noelani and Calina represented Tonga in the 5km Open Water at the Oceania Championships in Fiji in June, an amazing experience for them both to compete at a FINA qualifier. All 3 swimmers attended the Samoa Swim Series in August, completing the 5km Pacific Open Water Challenge and the 3-day swim series – Noelani and Calina did the 2km swim on 3 consecutive days, but Finau (the keen bean) upgraded to complete the 4km swim on 3 consecutive days! The Samoa Swim Series looked amaaaaaazing and is now on my bucket list – any open water swimmers out there should definitely look it up!

Most recently, Noelani and Finau competed at the Short Course Central Region Age Group Invitational in Fiji, their first pool competition in over 2 years. They took on 19 events between them in two days, set personal bests in every event and came home with 16 gold and silver medals between them! An amazing effort and we are so proud of them. You can read more about their experience here if you’re interested.

Their next team competition is in January – the 5km Lake Taupo FINA Open Water qualifier, as well as the Anthony Mosse Classic, a long course pool competition in Auckland. I am hoping to be able to attend with them as I’ve unfortunately been unable to get to any of their competitions so far, so fingers crossed we can make it happen!

These three will be the first three homegrown swimmers to represent Tonga on an international stage with Calina heading to the FINA World Swimming Championships (Short Course) in Windsor, Canada in December and Finau and Noelani aiming for the Youth Commonwealth Games in the Bahamas next year. I expect to see big things from them in future, so watch this space.


Caline, Finau and Noelani representing Tonga in the Samoa Swim Series parade (Pic thanks to Pou Panuve)

It has been so awesome to work with the swimming club because everyone involved is so passionate and dedicated. It means the world to me that the club has welcomed me with open arms, we’ve shared many fun times and being involved with such amazing people has added so much to my experience here in Tonga. I’m so glad to have met everyone at the club, my Malolo family, and count them among my closest friends. I am looking forward to the next 3 months in Tonga, and also excited to see what other adventures await in future.

Samoa Swim Series 2017 anyone? 🙂


Thanks to Pou Panuve for many of the photos used in this post – check out more of her amazing shots on Instagram @go.pou

Also, if you are keen to follow what the amazing team at Malolo Swim Club are up to, please check out our Malolo Tonga facebook page .

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Food, Glorious Food!

No blog on life in Tonga would be complete without an entry dedicated to food, glorious food! Food is a huge part of the culture and everyday life here in Tonga, and given that I am working here as a nutritionist and am a self-confessed foodie, food is obviously a massive part of my daily life too.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about food here is sharing. Culturally, food is considered to be a token of love or appreciation, and it is very common that if you have food, you share it. Sharing of food is seen as a way to maintain good social relations. In fact, there is a term here for not sharing food – kaipō – which directly translates to ‘night eating’ but in effect means ‘eating secretly so you don’t have to share’!

I think I have mentioned that in the office staff will share various things, like fruit or root crop from home, leftovers from feasts, crackers, loaves of bread with tinned corned beef, or keke, the ‘Tongan doughnut’ (read: ‘deep fried ball of plain dough’). It is sometimes tricky to navigate this aspect… I know many Tongans don’t eat lunch in the office because they can’t afford to cater for everyone, but then the things that do get brought in are typically the super cheap and not very healthy options which are not great to eat regularly. I tend to only bring things in to share when I am running a training session or if it’s someone’s birthday or a special occasion, and the rest of the time I go home for lunch (or sometimes kaipō a snack from my bag!)

work lunch

Gourmet work lunch – sipi (mutton flaps), manioke (cassava) and chicken 2 minute noodles!

With the cultural understanding of food as a symbol of appreciation or respect, it is also believed that the amount of respect is proportional to the amount and type of food… The best food and the most food are given to people of higher status. That brings me to my next point- portion sizes! Religious and cultural events are the epitome of this, where exorbitant amounts of food are prepared for kai pola (feasts) to celebrate. No-one can actually physically eat all of the food on the day, but the provision of plenty symbolises the worth of the hosts, their guests and the community. Truckloads of leftovers are taken home. These enormous feasts are thrown for the church conferences, milestone birthdays, family reunions, anniversaries, weddings, funerals, Easter, Christmas, you name it.


Table set for kai pola

Ben and I were invited to attend a kai pola for the Wesleyan Church conference in June with one of my workmates, Lini. It is crazy to see the amount of effort people go to for these events and the resulting mountains of food. The women are preparing dishes and table centrepieces for days beforehand and the cost is substantial. I have heard it costs about $1000 just to reserve the table! I have also heard some people take out loans for this, and to ensure they can provide a suitable amount of ‘appropriate’ food to impress, or show the right amount of respect, which is pretty outrageous. The imported (more expensive) foods have a higher status than most local foods and are more likely to impress, so the tables are full of chocolate bars and soft drinks, flavoured milk, potato salad, chocolate cakes and imported fruit like apples. More expensive local foods like roasted pig, seafood and yams are also popular.

When Ben and I went, we were picked up by another workmate of mine, Ma’ata, who was coming to Lini’s kai pola as her church (Seventh Day Adventist) doesn’t have a conference this year. It was meant to start at 5pm, but Ma’ata came to get us at 2.45 and we were quite unprepared! When we arrived near the kai pola, traffic was mayhem so we got out and walked. There were vehicles upon vehicles trying to get close to unload huge 70+ litre plastic storage tubs full of food, while other vehicles were loading up the leftovers and dirty dishes from the previous session (yes, there were multiple feast sessions each day during the week of the church conference! There was a schedule published where each church had a timeslot and table allocated.)


Our kai pola session…

We wandered around watching table after table decorate and pile up the food. There were amazing (and hilarious) centrepieces on all the tables, like fruit bowls with skewers of cheezels poking out, fruit bowls dotted with blocks of chocolate, baskets with handles laced with lollipops mounted on huge cans of corned beef, and giant food towers topped with Cheetos. And surrounding these fantastic creations, dishes of food in flimsy imported plastic containers were piled 3-4 layers high on each table.

Once things were set up we sat at our table and waited til 5pm. It took so much self-control to sit in front of so much food with a rumbling tummy and not touch it! I had forgotten to bring my water bottle in the rush to meet our earlier-than-expected pick up, but there were only 1L cartons of chocolate milk on the table (one for each person!), so I couldn’t even sneak a sip of water!

Finally, the minster started the opening prayer, during which Ben spied a stealthy young boy quickly pinching the block of Milky Bar out of the fruit bowl in front of him! Once the prayer had finished, it was on. Being newbies to this experience, Ben and I didn’t realise it was an unspoken rule to rock up with an empty bag of reasonable size and start hoarding right away! All the ladies around us started clearing out the fruit and chocolate from the centrepieces, tucking away cartons of flavoured milk and stacking dishes of the foods they wanted to take with them later around their part of the table!


Waiting for the feast to begin with Ben, Ma’ata and Miho (note the 1L chocolate milks…)

Then started the eating – so many different dishes to try (and deliberate over whether or not eating it would give us food poisoning since all were at room temperature!) There was sweet and sour fish, potato salad, roast chicken, clams, octopus, roast suckling pig, baked fish, lobster, plates of yams, seafood salad, giant trays of cakes amongst a myriad of other things I’m sure I have forgotten…

Beside us, a bunch of older men tagged out and a new contingent of hungry younger men jumped in. We were reaching capacity and no-one had even touched the suckling pig! Ma’ata said we should take it home. We said we don’t need a whole pig, so she gave us half. Then began the process of our Tongan friends trying to give us aaaaall the food, and us trying to bargain for a smaller amount! We ended up with half a suckling pig, an enormous tray of chocolate cake drowning in frosting, a box of yam, a whole octopus, 3 apples and several containers of sweet and sour fish and potato salad. We didn’t have to buy food for a week!

So besides kai pola, every day portions here are still quite big (and cheap to buy!). Here are some examples – 1) A lunch box I was given (one per person!) at a meeting, 2) a $6 serve of Chinese food from Tiger Inn, and 3) a $5 serve of fried chicken (aka ‘Kentucky’) from Singapore Restaurant. (For reference, I am talking in Tongan pa’anga – T$1 is roughly AU$0.60 at the moment!)

Don’t be fooled by the name, Singapore Restaurant is first and foremost a fried chicken joint, best on the island according to many. We’re pretty sure they have kidnapped Colonel Sanders and he is being held out the back of Singapore churning out batter filled with his 11 secret herbs and spices… Fried chicken is all called ‘Kentucky’, and it is hugely popular here. The scent frequently wafts past you as you’re cycling around town. You would be hard pressed to find a take away restaurant that doesn’t sell it, all the Tongan restaurants and even the Chinese restaurants all have it on the menu!

Now for dessert…

Yes, ice cream is dirt cheap here, and almost as big as your head! When I asked how much the ice-cream was for that last one, the lady said ‘$4 for one scoop, or $4 for 2 scoops’ What…?! So it was the obvious choice really!

Here is the famous ‘Juicy Lucie’ double patty burger at Billfish Bar and the wonderful breakfast item ‘Tonga Toast’ from Coffee Post…

The Tonga Toast is obviously inspired by the Tongan method of making a sandwich which I think I have previously described, but basically consists of getting an unsliced loaf of white bread, breaking it in half, pulling out the middle and stuffing it with something else, for example, tinned corned beef, ice-cream or even soft drink if you happen to be thirsty!

White bread is super cheap here, about $1.20 a loaf, and it’s not unusual to see people walking out of the bakery with 9 or 10 loaves to feed the hoardes! That brings me to my next point – bulk buying. Foods that are cheap are often bought in large quantities. An example is keke (the deep fried dough balls) which cost about 20c each and are usually seen purchased by the shopping bag! (Us palangis are always scared about suggesting the idea that they would taste so much more delicious rolled in cinnamon sugar because of the sheer volumes that are consumed!) Pork and fish is sold in massive hunks and chicken in bags of about 1.5kg as standard.

Local crops like root vegetables (sweet potato, cassava and taro) are always available cheaply in big quantities (like an entire shopping bag or basket for $10) which will last several months in a palangi household. Same with coconuts ($7 a basket) and bananas ($3-5 for a whole hand). Vegetables are sold in ‘piles’ in the market which always cost $3, however the size varies depending on how much is available. In season, tomatoes are $3 for an entire shopping bag full, out of season, $3 for a pile of 4-6 small fruits. It’s always a battle to eat all the fresh foods before they become overripe, disintegrate or start to sprout! We ended up with about 12 cucumbers for $3 once so Ben got into making pickles!

To help use up the copious cucumbers, I tried making these Indian cucumber pancakes which Ben and I enjoyed for breakfast with yoghurt and chilli sauce. I thought I’d take them to work as the recipe was pretty healthy and cucumbers were prolific, but the workmates weren’t so keen on them (though I did bring them in without dipping sauces…) They asked me, ‘Amanda, what would you put in this to give it flavour so kids would eat it?’ I said it has lots of spices to add flavour, but the difference they were probably noticing was that it didn’t taste like salt! The response was, ‘Maybe people who were health conscious would eat it, but most Tongans, maybe not…’ Sai ke tau ilo (good to know)… no good putting that one in the recipe book! I guess when kids these days are eating Twisties and chocolate biscuits from before the age of 2 they are conditioned to strong salt and sweet flavours… however people will happily munch on plain crackers or boiled cassava, so go figure! All part of learning what recipes appeal to a Tongan palate!


$3 of cucumbers…!

There was a lot of drama during the ‘Sugar Crisis’ of 2016, when earlier this year the entire country was running out of sugar. A vital ingredient Tongan tea and other sweet treats, people were freaking out. Normally you buy raw sugar here in giant bags of 2-3kg for a few dollars a kilo, but all the shops were sold out. The more expensive white sugar disappeared off the shelves, and then the brown sugar. Apparently the bakery was illegally selling off small bags of their stocks at black market prices, and everyone started rationing out their remaining sweet stuff. Every now and then someone would get a hold of some sugar – I remember one day at work all the ladies disappeared and I asked where they were going. They said ‘Bela has sugar!’ so they were all going to grab a share! Our household managed to survive relatively unscathed, we successfully rationed until the next supplies had arrived (albeit at higher prices, I think because it was imported from Australia rather than South America).

The other major national food challenge has come with the closing down of the bakeries on Sundays. The Sabbath is enshrined in the constitution of Tonga, that “no person shall practise his trade or profession or conduct any commercial undertaking on the Sabbath Day”. Previously, the bakeries were exempt because of a cyclone a while back and they were allowed to stay open so people could access food, but that rule was never repealed until July 1st this year. Disaster for those Sundays you wake up craving a pie and a coke after a few too many drinks on a Saturday night! Initially they tried to shut down all restaurants, even those with accommodation, but it seems like that has been given up now (which is great for the sake of tourism… and the expats!). So there are still a few sneaky places you can get food and drinks in Nuku’alofa on the Sabbath if in need. Phew!


Really, even for a Melbourne native, Nuku’alofa is a pretty decent place for food-ventures. I can get my locally grown and roasted ‘Kingdom Koffie’ beans to use in my stovetop espresso maker, or I can buy a nice strong double-shot latte from Coffee Post. I can go out for Korean food or Fijian curry or pizza or find an awesome kebab (if I feel like a trek to the west coast!) and to top it all off, a ‘bubble tea’ shop just opened here!

At home it has been great to experiment in the kitchen with all the local ingredients- using pele, the local leafy green (edible hibiscus), any variety of root crop, arbitrary sour citrus from the tree in the backyard, green or ripe papayas from the backyard, breadfruit from the tree next door, cheap fresh fish and seafood from the market, bananas and coconuts… We have been able to try out a lot of different meals besides our standards. I will leave you with some images of our culinary creations… Til next time, ‘ofa atu! (cheers!)


Every Friday is Christmas Day

So it’s been a while since my last post, and I have been in Tonga around 3 months now. I guess it’s time to tell you a bit more about the reason I am here – my volunteer role at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Forests and Fisheries (what a mouthful! So it’s usually referred to as MAFFF). For the full spiel on what I am doing you can see the profile on the Scope Global site (but you will have to be really committed as you need to enter Intake: February 2016 Mobilisation, and Country: Tonga)

To recap for those who can’t be bothered following the link or can’t remember, I am helping the Women’s Development Section at MAFFF to develop their health promotion and nutrition program. You may wonder why the Ministry of Agriculture has anything to do with health promotion and nutrition, but it is quite progressive of Tonga incorporating a multisectorial approach to the national prevention of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like heart disease and diabetes.


Local snack of papaya topped with fresh grated coconut 


NCDs are the biggest contributor to premature deaths and disability in Tonga so are a huge issue for the country. Health and nutrition actually fits quite nicely with other Women’s Section agricultural activities, such as promoting home vegetable gardens for community women, which includes running training in vegetable growing and distributing seedlings. This enhances food security as well as providing nutritious produce for the family. They also support a small loans program with one of the banks which promotes income generating projects for women in traditional handicrafts, sewing and cooking. As part of this they promote replanting of the raw material required for handicrafts (paper mulberry to make the traditional tapa cloths, as well as pandanus for mat weaving). The health program at the moment involves healthy cooking demonstrations as well as nutrition awareness training for groups of women in the community.


Written like that it all sounds quite impressive! However, the reality is there is a massive lack of funding and resources and these programs run far less regularly than is ideal. There has been no funding for vegetable seedlings since I arrived and no seed saving happening to reduce the reliance on external funding for imported seeds. There has been one cooking demonstration since I arrived (and it didn’t feature any vegetables) and also only one vegetable growing training session for a women’s group who purchased their own seedlings.

The Women’s Section sits under the Extension division of MAFFF (this section is responsible for most of the on the ground community outreach work). The section has 8 female staff- there is one officer for each of Tongatapu’s districts, the head of the section (my supervisor, Vaimoana) and the nutrition officer (my counterpart, Taha). The district officers are based in their respective district offices, and Vaimoana, Taha and myself are based in town at the main Extension Division office with the Admin and Information Sections. The Information section develops and distributes leaflets and bulletins on agricultural techniques, Admin basically look after the day to day stuff of the Division, eg. IT access, vehicles, leave, staff training, etc.

Despite the fact that the extension division’s main role is to get out to the communities, there are only 2 vehicles for the whole division and both are located in town! This is one of the factors that restricts how frequently programs can be run. Sometimes staff need to use their own vehicles but I don’t think there is any compensation/reimbursement from the ministry, so understandably they are often reluctant to do this. Additionally, the ministry’s cars aren’t in the best nick…  one of them needs one hand holding the battery terminal with pliers while the other hand turns the key in the ignition!


Starting the car requires some multitasking…

The main thing I have been working on so far is a training program for the Women’s Section staff and developing some locally relevant health and nutrition education resources that they can use with their women’s groups. Currently they rely on Taha, our nutrition officer, to deliver the cooking/nutrition training in each district together with the district officer, so they need a vehicle to get Taha (and the gas stove) to the district. We have just been successful in getting some funding to set up each district with a cooking demonstration kit (including the gas stove and kitchen utensils) as well as a set of the health and nutrition education resources. The idea is to train up all the district staff in health and nutrition and set them up so they can run their own sessions in their districts with their own set of equipment which reduces their reliance on the Division vehicle availability, and if they do need to use their own vehicle to travel to another village at least the distances are shorter than coming into town and back. Taha would be able to go and support if there was a vehicle available, but would not have to be there for the session to run. Hopefully she would be able to take on the monitoring and evaluation as well as program development and ongoing nutrition training and updates for all staff.

I have only run one training session so far in mid-April, and have been waiting about 8 weeks now to run the next one. There have been a few hold ups, like multiple staff being on leave and our entire office moving buildings. The office move was pretty hilarious. I was told when I first arrived in February that we would be moving office in the next few weeks, but it ended up happening in May! We used to be based in a building right on the waterfront and right next to town which was a great location, but our office was nothing fancy. We were on the bottom floor of a 3 storey building shared with the Ministry of Education, there was no flywire, no fans and the place was filled with mozzies! We had the mankiest toilet which only had one key between all staff. If by chance you had to go to the bathroom badly enough, you often had to search through every office for the key to finally get you access to this…

Anyway, apparently it was decided the Ministry of Ed needed the space of the whole building there, so MAFFF’s Extension Division had to re-locate. Sad to leave the waterfront location but not the gross bathroom… The move took about 2 weeks all together, during which time the ladies mostly sat under a tree and talked and the men shifted furniture bit by bit across town using a couple of utes! Then there was a lot of cleaning, and then finally putting the furniture inside the buildings. I was sent home by 11am on several of these days, being told we were “finished” for the day!

We have now moved to what used to be a training facility for the Women’s section built by Japanese aid – a great little “Masterchef” style kitchen with individual little benches and sinks and a couple of big ovens. They used to have a bus which they would use to transport women from their village to the centre for training, but when the bus broke the centre sadly stopped being used. Now the entire Extension main office is located inside the kitchen! There are computers and printers and desks as well as millions of dusty documents from the 90s piled in amongst the benches and ovens. This will apparently be temporary, but they are waiting for a new building to be constructed on site before that happens, so realistically, I think I will be in the kitchen-office for most of my assignment!

The good thing about the new office is it has a slightly better toilet (but still only 1 toilet for about 15-20 staff!) and it also has fly wire. However, the annoying thing is because there are so many of us in the kitchen-office, people get hot and so prop the doors wide open so I still get murdered by mosquitoes! I have my own desk, but there is only one computer between my supervisor and my counterpart (which is filled with viruses), so I BYO laptop. The wireless internet is intermittent, which makes things a bit challenging. It usually often gets switched off less than 2 weeks into a month when the entire data limit is used (probably because sites like Facebook and YouTube are not blocked in the office, and they are very popular here!).

In terms of the work environment, it is a very casual and relaxed atmosphere compared to any job I’ve worked in Australia. We get a lot of holidays – with my volunteering role, I accrue 4 weeks of annual leave over my 12 months of work, just like in Australia. But in Tonga, the ministries also have ‘casual days’, 7 extra days you can take off each year which don’t need to be accrued from what I understand. In addition to this, the ministries all shut down over the Christmas/New Year period, so you get another week or so off. We also get all of Tonga’s public holidays (which I think there are roughly the same amount as in Australia). And on Fridays, it is usually a lazy day, everyone says Friday is “Christmas Day” so the theory is you should relax and not work too hard!

The work day usually starts at 8.30 and finishes at 4.30 and you are entitled to a one-hour lunch break, though there is quite a lot of flexibility around this, eg. For dropping kids off to school, picking up family members, going to the bank, if it is raining, etc. At lunchtime, many people don’t leave the office- it’s quite common that Tongans don’t typically eat a lunch time meal. I think this is partly due to the unspoken rule of sharing any food that is brought into the office. You need to bring a fair bit of grub to satisfy a room of hungry Tongans and get a decent feed yourself! Sometimes everyone will get together though and cook something up on a fire outside or on an electric frypan that’s floating around the office, or buy something to share. Often boiled root crops brought in from someone’s plantation, occasionally with some meat or greens, sometimes a giant bag of keke (a ball of deep fried dough, kind of like a doughnut, but not sweet) or a bunch of white bread and tinned corned beef (to make a tongan style sandwich, you pull out the middle of the bread loaf and stuff it with corned beef)!

I often go home for lunch for a number of reasons- 1) the sharing food thing- my volunteer allowance doesn’t really cover me for catering for 20 people a day 2) there is no fridge at work, and its usually a bit warm to have perishable food sitting around for several hours, 3) my job here is super sedentary so at least I can go for a ride at lunch, and 4) so I can see my trusty dependant Ben! I do sometimes hang around for lunch if there is a shared event going on, but my tendency to get hangry means I usually need to make sure I eat a decent meal before 1pm!

In the office, there is always a lot of chatter and laughter- everyone here seems to get along quite well and women are well respected in my workplace. That said, all of the casual conversations at work are in Tongan, so it is sometimes hard to know what everyone is talking (or shrieking with laughter!) about. I am gradually picking up more words I hear, but the speed of the average conversation at work is still beyond my very basic Tongan! In some ways the fact that everyone speaks English is probably a bit of a hindrance to learning and practicing Tongan, because if I don’t know a word or can’t think of a sentence fast enough in Tongan I can just say it in English and be understood so I am not really forced to use it. But I guess it is also a plus that everyone speaks good English as I can generally communicate quite well in the workplace and there is no significant language barrier with the staff.

Meetings in Tonga are usually endurance events, sometimes lasting 3-4 hours. In this very Christian nation, meetings always start and end with a prayer, occasionally it will be a hymn which someone will just start to sing and everyone knows the words so joins in with amazing harmonies! One difficult thing is that meetings are usually conducted in Tongan too, so I often understand very little besides some random words, which can be tough for a multiple-hour stretch! My workmates are pretty diligent at taking notes in meetings and often write in English, so sometimes I can pick up a little more by peeking at those, otherwise sometimes people’s PowerPoint slides are in English so I can follow that way. Occasionally someone will translate bits for me during the meeting, but most often I just have to ask someone afterward what it was all about!

All my workmates have been very friendly and welcoming though. I have been given many gifts of home-grown produce from my colleagues, including guavas, bananas, oranges, coconut, Tahitian chestnuts, breadfruit, a giant yam, bitter melon, tomatoes…

It has been interesting for me to get some insight into agriculture and gardening being from a nutrition background, and I’ve enjoyed visiting the Research farm, demonstration plots in the districts, vanilla plantations and seeing home vegetable gardens in the community.

Despite the challenges of Tonga-time and trying to promote health as a priority (even though it is a ‘non-core’ activity for the ministry), I am hopeful that we’ll be able to get through the nutrition training program for the women’s staff this year, and with our funding grant, we’ll at least be able to set up the districts with the equipment and resources needed to run nutrition and health education sessions as well as cooking demonstrations in the communities. 12 months sounds like a long time, but in development, it really isn’t! Fingers crossed I’ll have more to report in the next 3 months 🙂

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My First Tropical Cyclone

For some reason, I thought cyclone season in Tonga finished at the end of March, so in the first week of April, I wasn’t expecting to receive warning of possible cyclones. This being my first cyclone experience, I thought I would share with you the blow by blow…

On Monday, our in-country manager Dave (who is a weather buff and loves keeping on top of Tonga’s meteorological forecasts) sent word out to all the volunteers that there was a low pressure system in the area with potential to develop into a cyclone. We were warned at the least, it would bring some wind and rain. Not too scary yet, but one to keep an eye on.

That night, it rained consistently, then poured with rain again all day Tuesday. It was the heaviest rain I’ve had to ride in since arriving in Tonga. When myself and fellow Japanese volunteer Miho (who is also working with the Women’s Development Unit) turned up at work that morning drenched from cycling to work, we were told to go home and change out of our wet clothes, and “if you want, you stay there!”. Miho had no change of clothes with her so retired home for the day, but I had a dry skirt to change into from my wet leggings. I was still pressured to go home and change my top as my shoulders had gotten slightly wet through my rain jacket, but I explained I was meant to have a lunchtime meeting in town with the swimming club (who I have been helping teach swimming lessons after hours), and there was no point in riding home to change if I had to ride back in the rain later. They ended up getting the driver Enaki to take me home to change my top anyway and then brought me back to work to stay til lunch!

I worked the morning, and at lunch changed back into my wet clothes to ride through the ongoing downpour to the café where the swimming team normally meet. When I got there and couldn’t see anyone else, I checked my phone and saw the meeting was cancelled last minute due to bad weather! I had been told to work from home in the afternoon so that’s where I headed. Tonga really shuts down when it rains (despite the fact it is a place where rain is not at all rare for half of the year!). My colleague’s high school aged children once spent a rainy day in the office as school had apparently been cancelled for the day because of the weather!

On Wednesday, we woke to a cloudy morning but no rain finally. An early email from Dave confirmed the good news that the storm that was brewing had turned south and was weakening so no longer a threat. The bad news was that there was an actual cyclone, Zena, currently a category 1 storm hanging out near Vanuatu that was predicted to pass through Tonga on Friday or Saturday. We were advised to keep an eye on the weather updates and not to travel by sea or to any surrounding islands until it had passed. Wednesday was clear all day until the late afternoon when it started to pour again and continued all night. We came home to our rainwater tank overflowing and the neighbours enjoying a “faka’uha” (a Tongan word meaning “to bathe in the rain”!)


Overflowing gutters and water tank

On Thursday we woke to a dark and grey morning. It was very still with no rain, but the humidity lay thick around us. The update from Dave that morning was that Zena was now a category 2 cyclone and was moving much faster than expected. The predicted path had her set to hit Tongatapu directly that afternoon/evening. We were advised to get out and do any pre-cyclone preparations such as shopping and clearing loose item around the house early and to stay indoors during the storm.


Zena’s predicted path – right into Nuku’alofa

We were briefed on natural disasters in our pre-departure training as well as in our orientation in Tonga, but this was the first time we’d had to put theory into action. In the event of a cyclone, there is the possibility of some damage to infrastructure and short term loss of communications/utilities so generally we are expected to have about a week’s supply of non-perishable food and water, adequate gas supplies for the house, as well as essentials like batteries, matches/lighters, toilet paper in case of being unable to leave the house for a few days. The good thing is you usually have fair warning for a cyclone, unlike other natural disasters, (especially with a weather attentive guy like Dave as your in-country manager!)


Cyclone rations…

So Thursday morning Ben set off to get us some extra non-perishable food supplies and I rode in to work… The attitude at work on the dry morning of a predicted cyclone hit was very different to the one where it was pouring with rain! It was cheerful greetings and business as usual and so we took off to a Division meeting at the research farm, about a 30-minute drive from Nuku’alofa in an area with sketchy phone reception! This had me a little worried, as at least in the office I had internet access and could receive updates on the storm, as well as being just 10 minutes from home if I needed to get back! However my colleagues didn’t seem phased, and since they had all been through this before I figured I would be ok… I texted Ben to let me know of any important updates by text and hoped that my phone would have a bar or two of reception to receive it!

The meeting only lasted 1 hour (the last one I went to was 3 hours long…) before it was prematurely aborted as it was noted the wind was picking up and the rain was starting to fall again. We all loaded into the minibus and made our way slowly back through the wet and crowded streets to head office. The roads were chockers at about 11am, and the skies were dark and ominous. The radio was announcing cyclone warnings and updates in Tongan and then in English, interspersed with jaunty island tunes. They announced Zena was now a category 3 storm, schools and the wharf had been declared closed. The average windspeed was around 110km/hr, with momentary gusts of up to 155km/hr. There was a sense of nervous anticipation in the air.


Ominous sky and whipping winds on Vuna Road

One of my colleagues Snowden interrupted the radio reporting by telling Miho and I, “See, this is why you need to eat Tongan food- it makes you happy because you won’t blow away in the hurricane!” Everyone had a good laugh at that, quote of the week!

When we got back to head office, no-one wanted to let Miho and I ride home, and we were first to get lifts with Enaki with our bikes in the back of the ute. Everyone was looking out for the nervous palangis! Enaki loaded up the bikes and was saturated before we even left. He dropped us and our wheels off and then headed back to the office to take other staff members who didn’t have a lift home.


Driving home before the storm

Back at Casa de Pili (as our house is now known), everyone was home and battening down the hatches. We were closing the many louvered windows in the living areas that hadn’t been shut since Ben and I moved in (and noticing at the same time they were pretty dirty and we should probably clean them!). We had all our gadgets and lights charging, as the power was meant to be cut around 2pm. The radio was playing the customary island tunes (obviously it was cyclone update break time).


The downpour continues

I caught up on Dave’s latest email update which had us expecting Zena around 3pm, though she was moving fast (around 55km/hr, the last storm had been more like 30km/hr) so it was hoped she’d pass quickly. Time to sit tight and wait!


Ahhh Zena!

At about 1pm I was making lunch in the kitchen and we had decided to open the windows back up because the rain and wind had died down and it was getting really humid inside. I was looking out the window and I could see Champ lazing on the lawn in a patch of sunlight that was pushing through the clouds. I thought, how weird, this must be the old ‘calm before the storm’. But not long after that, the radio announced that the cyclone was weakening and was no longer looking like it was going to hit Tongatapu!

It was a little bit of an anticlimax after all that hype that we weren’t going to get to ride out the storm, though of course it is much better that the island was spared, as even a category 3 cyclone could have done some damage. The worst we have to deal with is several backstreets with yards turned into swamps and probably a heightened population of mosquitoes in the next few weeks!


Backyard lake in Nuku’alofa

Ben and I spent the afternoon of our ‘storm day’ napping. We got a little more rain during the afternoon, but it was super calm compared to the morning. When I woke up from my nap, I had received an email from SmartTraveller alerting me that Cyclone Zena was currently affecting Tonga and we should monitor the media and follow the advice of local authorities. At the exact same time, Dave had sent an email giving us the all clear – Zena had weakened to a category 1 and was passing to the south of us! Thanks SmartTraveller…

To wrap up our exhilarating day, that evening we enjoyed some of our cyclone rations with Naomi and Matt and ended the day with a ‘Piano-off’, where the goal was to take it in turns play a song from your collection featuring the piano. The trick was you weren’t allowed to listen to it beforehand and you only got 2 tries (though Matt introduced cheating to the game and soon everyone was pre-listening…)

It was a very strange week overall, being on stand-by the whole time with all of the anticipation and preparation turning into a lazy afternoon at home! Hopefully with the excitement of the title of this blog post and the underwhelming ending, you have all felt the same slight disappointment as we did when Zena stood us up :-p But luckily for Tonga, for about the 6th time this season I am told, the Kingdom has again escaped a direct hit from a cyclone. Hopefully they can keep up their record!



Easter Escape to ‘Eua

Everybody loves a long weekend. And I think most people would agree, Easter is one of the best, being a whole four days long! Tonga being a largely Christian nation celebrates Easter, so Ben and I decided to take advantage of the super long weekend for our first getaway to another island.

‘Eua is the second largest island in Tonga, and the closest to Tongatapu (with the exception of the tiny inner islands just off the coast of Tongatapu). To get to ‘Eua from Tongatapu, you can either take the world’s shortest commercial flight (around 7 minutes) or you can take a ferry (around 3 hours). We chose to take the ferry for this trip since we had some time (and it is also about half the price so it suits our volunteer budget!).

eua location

There are two ferries that run between Nuku’alofa and ‘Eua, the MV ‘Onemato and the MV Alaimoana. Our volunteer program recommends the ‘Onemato, so we decided to play by the rules and take that one. The tricky thing about the ferries is no-one really seems to know the schedules. We managed to reach someone at the ‘Onemato office by phone and found out there were no ferries on Good Friday or Easter Monday, and as per usual, they do not run on Sunday either (mandatory day of rest), so I decided to take a day of leave so we could catch the ferry on Thursday and avoid being stuck with a standard 3-day long weekend (what a tragedy). The ferry was returning 5am on Tuesday, so theoretically I would make it back to Nuku’alofa in time for work…

You don’t make bookings for the ferry, you just rock up on the day and get your ticket at the wharf. Simple in theory except for the fact that you don’t know when the ferry is leaving. We looked online and asked around and found a variety of departure times ranging from 10am to 12.30pm, so we thought, let’s get there at 9.30am and hopefully that means we won’t miss it. So we jumped on our bikes with our backpacks stuffed to the brim and a bag full of food in my basket, and with a short detour past the bakery for our weekend’s supply of hot cross buns, we got to the wharf right on 9.30. We parked up at what looked to be a waiting area where people sat on metal benches under a tin roof and saw the ‘Onemato hadn’t left yet, so next up was finding tickets.

It took a little while loitering around near the boat to find someone who worked for the ferry but eventually I found a lady with a book who looked official and found out where the office was located (once it was pointed out it was pretty obvious, but it was behind the boat, so we couldn’t see it from where we were sitting!) So I finally got our tickets (23 pa’anga each, and 5 pa’anga for each bike), we loaded our bikes onto the ferry, and then… we waited.


Oh… there it is…

The MV Alaimoana was on a neighbouring wharf and we saw it leave a bit after 10.30am, but we then also understood why the program doesn’t recommend us to take it! It is a pretty small boat, and was loaded up with stuff, including a couple of cars which seemed pretty ambitious. An hour later when we were still waiting however, Ben was starting to wish we had taken it anyway! We ended up leaving about 12.30pm and we were already sick of sitting down, but took up a spot in the open air at the top of the ferry. It was quite cool up there and I ended up wearing my rain jacket as it was the only long-sleeved item I’d brought with me! The first half hour of our trip was accompanied by a prayer and then announcements in Tongan blasted from a loudspeaker right next to us. We were starting to think it might go for the whole 3 hours when finally it stopped and we could hear ourselves think!

The ferry ride was pretty smooth for the first hour, the waters sheltered by reef and the inner islands, but after that we hit some decent swell. You actually have to cross the Tonga trench to get from Tongatapu to ‘Eua- apparently the second deepest ocean trench in the world. The weather was quite windy and we went through patches of rain, but luckily we had sat in the middle of the ferry and not at the edges as they copped the brunt of it! The roof was made of tarps weighted down by ropes and the water tended to pool at the edges and pour off even after the rain had stopped. We had one hairy part where we had been hitting waves head on for couple of minutes, feeling the impact and the resounding THUMP to the body of the ferry before careening down the wave, when we hit a huge wave with an even bigger THUMP and all the engines cut. I looked around and saw we were still in sight of the eastern side of Tongatapu, and it did run through my mind that maybe I could swim there if we were stranded… but before I mentally started checking off which of my possessions I would surely have to sacrifice, the engines started up with a shudder and we were off again!

The rest of the journey was not so eventful, though I did feel the need to hang on to my seat at times because we were rolling around on such big waves, but the engines held up all the way to ‘Eua. Phew! When we got off the ferry, we had to find our way to our accommodation at Taina’s Place toward the south of the island. We got off to a cracking start when we had to walk our bikes up the first hill because we couldn’t make it with all our luggage! (We haven’t ridden a hill for a month as Tongatapu is really flat for the record…) And just our luck, school had just finished so the street was swarming with high school kids who would grin and wave and yell ‘Bye!’ to the crazy palangis who thought riding bikes was a good idea. There is one main road in ‘Eua which runs down the Western side of the island, unfortunately for us it was ascending the majority of the way to Taina’s. The humidity was thick because of the recent rain and I’m sure I looked a treat with sweat pouring down my face trying to muster a smile and a cheery ‘Bye!’ when we passed anyone.

It was almost 5pm when we finally made it to Taina’s, and despite sitting down for three quarters of the day we were pretty ruined! Taina’s Place is the only accommodation in ‘Eua which isn’t on the beach, but it is surrounded by beautiful gardens in the rainforest. It is also the only accommodation with a self-catering option which was appealing as we didn’t really want to buy all our meals for 5 days. The rooms were basic, but comfortable and the shared bathrooms were all kept very clean.

Taina’s is a family run guesthouse and has the feel of a homestay. You share all the common spaces with the family who were all very friendly and welcoming. We often played cards with the girls in the evenings after dinner. There are also 12 dogs (no joke), as well as a male cat named Rose (after the character in Titanic).

‘Eua is not nearly as developed as Tongatapu. Outside of the main town area where the wharf is, there are no markets or banks, so you rely on the little village falekoloas (corner stores) for supplies. These are not usually open on public holidays or Sundays so we had brought a stash of food from the main island with us to see us through the weekend, and were glad we did. The main supplies at these stores are sweet biscuits, chips, instant noodles and staples like water, milk, butter, eggs (when in stock!). Our stash included some vital Easter goodies too- no Easter eggs available in Tonga, but we got a block of NZ Cadbury chocolate as well as some Tim Tams that were made in Indonesia to compensate (these ended up being quite underwhelming, but the Cadbury was good!).

‘Eua only has a population of 5000 spread through about 10 villages. There is no real nightlife or restaurants here, the only ‘eateries’ are at the guesthouses, all the locals just eat at home. It is fairly quiet and there is a slow pace to life so it’s the perfect place for a relaxing retreat, but with plenty of outdoors activities if you’re keen to explore. The roads are pretty quiet and mostly sealed, so it’s nice for cycling, and you can also use the clear space for activities like pumping up your bike tyres and having snack breaks…

On our first day we decided to hit the beach as the weather was looking improved after 2 weeks of rain! Taina’s Place has a great map originally produced by a Peace Corps volunteer as well as a bunch of detailed directions for various walks which were super useful for self-guided exploring (their website has an interactive map which shows several of the sights). We first rode to Ha’aluma Beach on the south coast of the island, it was a short walk from where we parked our bikes on the main road down a hill to the beach. You were meant to be able to see areas where large slabs of reef rock had been cut to make royal tombs thousands of years ago, but we couldn’t figure out where this was (perhaps the tide was wrong). We did see some cool coral fossils in the rock though…

You were also meant to be able to snorkel at this beach, but again, don’t think we were there at the best tide, or perhaps not in a good spot, as we did attempt it but it was quite difficult in about a foot of water! It was still a cool beach, with some great blowholes where the ocean hit the reef. A couple of German girls who were staying at Taina’s had walked down to the same beach accompanied by 2 of the dogs, Simba and Sarabi. The dogs made sure we didn’t feel left out and came to hang with us for a while too…

We then went to check out Fangalahi Beach on the west coast. We rode most of the way and then parked our bikes up before a massive dirt hill that I was sure to stack on. We did take a wrong turn at one point which sent us out of our way for 10 minutes to a dead end, but eventually we found the right track and followed the overgrown path and then goats trail through the jungle down to the beach. This beach was truly very isolated, we were the only people there.

Again it was meant to be good for snorkelling but we may have misjudged the tides as we were creative snorkelling in a foot of water once more, though this time we did see some cool things like sea urchins and a nudibranch.

We ended our Good Friday with pizza night at the ‘Ovava Tree Lodge in town, one of the other accommodation options and also the home of ‘Eua’s dive operator Deep Blue Diving. We thought there might be a few people we could chat to over a beer, but other than us there were only 2 others there! It is still off season I guess… As soon as we arrived they had a pizza ready and served us right away. We had caught a cab and originally arranged a lift home at 10.30pm, but luckily we got his number so we could ask him to come back at 8.30pm instead! We enjoyed too much pizza (which was tasty albeit with some interesting toppings like canned ham, mixed frozen veg and seafood extender) accompanied by some crazy sweet and heavily artificially coloured Tongan cordial, then retired to Taina’s to watch a movie on Ben’s laptop (a nightly event over Easter!)


Tongan style meat lovers pizza at ‘Ovava 

Our next day’s adventure was a guided tour with Mathew from Taina’s Place around a loop in the centre of the island to the east coast. We left accompanied by the standard Pacific Island hiking tool (machete) plus an entourage of 3 dogs, Toby, Simba and Sarabi. First stop was the big ‘ovava (banyan) tree #2. It certainly was impressive, and Mathew showed us how easy it was to climb (“Just like steps!”) in his Tongan climbing boots (thongs). He scaled the tree in about 30 seconds and then strolled down the back of a big branch back to ground level as if it was easier than walking on the ground.

We then saw the “Smoking Cave”, ‘Ana ‘Ahu, a huge sinkhole which usually has a waterfall running into it, so it gets its name from the mist that appears to be coming out of the cave. It was not “smoking” on our visit, but still quite an impressive sight! Our walk was peppered with sightings of edible plants- a clove tree, galangal, snacks of fresh fruit picked from the wild fruit trees (guava, banana, orange), and at one point, drinking water from a vine (Mathew told us the Tongan name for it is Tarzan vine, but I’m not so sure that’s an official botanical name…)

We then visited Rat’s Cave (so named because it looks like a rat’s hole, not because there are any rats there), which we climbed down into and had magical views over ‘Eua National Park and Lokupō Beach on the East coast. (Fun fact: ‘Eua National Park is home to the largest remaining patch of virgin rainforest in Tonga.)

We got some more great views over the coast and forest from a lookout a little further along the trail. There is a guided hike that goes down to Lokupō Beach, but it is straight down a steep slope through thick jungle and then back up again, so we didn’t attempt that one this visit!

Our next stop was Makalea Cave, which involved scaling down a wet and slippery rock face which I almost chickened out of. I didn’t feel my sandals were grippy enough, so I ended up doing some barefoot rock climbing because Ben had already gone in and of course I get massive FOMO and didn’t want to wait at the top while he had all the fun!

Once we were down the initial vertical climb, it was a lot easier. There were some cool formations inside the cave, including one that looked like a soft serve ice-cream hanging from the roof (my personal favourite).

On Easter Sunday, we decided to take the obligatory day of rest. Ben hadn’t been to a Tongan Church service yet, so we went with 2 of the girls from Taina’s, Christine and her friend Helala, to their local church, a little wooden hall in the village of Ha’atu’a with an old rusted oxygen tank as a church bell. There was a small congregation of about 25-30, so I was wondering what the singing would be like, but what the group lacked in numbers they certainly made up for in volume! It is always amazing to hear the multi-part harmonies that everyone just knows. The rest of the day was spent napping (as is traditional in Tonga) and watching movies.

On our last full day in ‘Eua, we rode our bikes down to the south-eastern point and did a walk up the coast from there. There are quite a few wild horses in this area, we kept our distance but they were quite cool to see. We passed several “rock gardens” which were pieces of ancient coral reefs pushed up onto land by volcanic activity, and got some pretty spectacular views of the cliffs on ‘Eua’s east coast along the way.

There was a side track up to a lookout where you could view the “Natural Archway”, with a peculiar direction sign and a ridiculously difficult to open gate (where you had to prise a pole out of 2 loops of barbed wire), but it was worth the short struggle and almost stabbing of the hands in the end, and the platform did still look like it was being used…

The walk to the archway was through some amazing mangrove type forest, the root systems of the pandanus were incredible. The story about the creation of the archway is that an ancient Polynesian God called Maui threw his spear from the centre of ‘Eua to this spot on the south-eastern coast, and then he pulled it out to make the archway. The sign didn’t tell us why, just how. Anyway, it was a beautiful spot to watch the tumultuous ocean crash into ‘Eua’s rocky shore.


The natural archway

We ate our lunch in a cool and shady cave, one much easier to get into than Makalea! The last stop on the walk was meant to be a freshwater stream but at the end of the trail we reached a pretty steep rock face which we would have to climb to get to the source of the stream so we decided to call it a day and head home. It was an early night for us, with the 5am ferry back to Nuku’alofa the next morning.

A 4.15am start on our bikes got us to the wharf at 4.40am, just in time to scamper onto the ferry, rack up our bikes and get a seat up top. It was packed, because there had been no services Sunday or Monday. I don’t know what time people arrived to pick up prime lying locations on the deck and benches!

The weather was fine and it was a much easier ride back than on the way, half an hour quicker too. We got home at 7.30 and picked up breakfast from the bakery before I headed home to change and get to work! All in all, a great break and recommended destination for visitors to Tonga who like a bit of trekking. We hope to get back again later in the year to explore the northern part of the island as well as do some diving, so I’ll keep you posted!


Sunrise from the ‘Onemato

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