Thursday, April 01, 2004


The small boxy plane that (somewhat) regularly transports passengers from Nuku’alofa to Vava’u had just landed uneventfully. We watched for three slightly more pale passengers to emerge from the ancient aircraft, knowing well the dazed and awe-struck looks that accompany one’s first glimpse of our island home. The camera crew from Washington DC was seeking updated marketing materials from Peace Corps sites, and their recent excursion to Turkmenistan left them uniquely grateful for South Pacific scenery.

“What’s it they say? ‘The toughest job you’ll ever love.’ Man.”

The twenty-minute ride back toward town offered many similar comments on our good fortune as Peace Corps volunteers, our picturesque site, our two years in ultimate paradise. Muddy pigs and naked children beyond the van’s windows passed by strangely unmentioned. The one-hour hop from Tonga’s capital to Tonga’s lone tourist center often transforms visitors’ perspectives, vanquishing memories of mangy dogs along dusty roadsides in favor of bright blue waters Americans see only in glossy magazine ads. I once assumed South Pacific seas to be exaggerated, doctored up in Photoshop to achieve that utopian shade of aquamarine. Then sixty minutes of commercial flight changed everything. So we humored our guests from distant lands, allowed the overwhelming beauty to overshadow the realities of daily life here. I couldn’t begrudge them after all; I vividly remembered stepping off that very same plane only nine months before.


The Tongan word for airport is mala’i vakapuna. Vaka means boat; puna means jump; mala’i refers to both fields and cemeteries. Thus, our local airfield is the jumping boat graveyard. Tourists rarely discover such idiosyncrasies, but these quirks effectively portray this nation’s juxtaposition of modern convenience and primitive infrastructure. It’s impossible to convince outsiders that this place can try one’s patience, challenge volunteers’ endurance, and even produce near-constant stress. The South Pacific’s reputation simply precedes itself: the friendly islands, sailors mutinously opting to never return home, yachts cruising through for sunny relaxation. But behind every pleasant plane trip and remote island oasis is a frustrating reality. Royal Tongan Airlines owns three decades-old aircraft and loses approximately a million pa’anga per month; the financial bleeding chiefly stems from Tongans who cannot afford air travel and the Crown Prince’s ill-fated dreams of international flights. Two volunteers in the remote island of Niuafo’o were assured flights every Tuesday and Thursday…a plane hasn’t landed on that island since January and the volunteers haven’t received mail for over two months. Our flying boats offer their share of difficulties, and life on the ground can exceed even those trying circumstances.*

Six desktop PCs constitute our Youth Centre’s computer lab. These machines are mostly composites built from the scraps of other computers that once functioned seamlessly and now comprise a technological graveyard in our building’s back room. Our scrap metal lab hosts regular classes in computer basics, Microsoft Word, and Microsoft Excel; from all appearances the Vava’u Youth Congress is just another indication of Tonga’s rapid ascent to developed nation status. Except the floppy drives work only when unnecessary, networking has repeatedly proved itself impossible, and there’s an apparent rotation amongst the machines regarding which one will simply refuse to turn on that particular day. The phrase appearances can be deceiving has never been more relevant, especially when the simplest of documents takes three computers, four disks, two printers, and several pa’anga spent at local computing establishments. The Tongan word for computer? Kompiuta.

However, few frustrations exceed those stemming from Tongan business development. Downtown Neiafu always places its best foot forward: t-shirt printing businesses, waterfront drinking establishments, quaintly decorated internet cafes. But such endeavors are rarely Tongan-owned, reflecting instead New Zealanders and Americans quests for fulfilling retirements in paradise. Tongans typically settle for yet another corner store carrying the same basic products at the same basic prices with the same basic lousy customer service and the same basic IOUs for every local customer. Peace Corps volunteers and development banks have been attempting to revolutionize Vava’u residents’ business instincts for years, but the same ten people have been attending workshops and eating free lunches for some time now. This country is developing around Tongans but rarely through them. International aid agencies and foreign-born developers pour millions into this little island society. Communities here aren’t committed or equipped to developing business concepts, and every foreign-financed project convinces them there’s little need to invest or think creatively or risk. Just wait for the palangis (white people) to build new roads and provide new services and finance our projects. Peace Corps volunteers become little more than grant-writers, and Tongans become little more than innocent bystanders in their country’s desperate attempts to become the next Fiji or Tahiti. Someday planes will start flying regularly and computers will start functioning reliably…but many residents will wonder whether paradise just arrived or already departed.

The camera crew asked about the pros and cons of Peace Corps service. I recounted for them medevac’d volunteers’ stories from around the globe: Latin American volunteers who feared violence but watched satellite TV while drinking American beers, Eastern European volunteers with comfortable apartments but remarkably dreary communities, African Peace Corps workers in housing arrangements much like ours but craving social contact with other volunteers. Every site offers upsides and downsides. Visitors from distant lands immediately see Tonga’s benefits, but the drawbacks conceal themselves very effectively. Amber and I live less than ten minutes from the picturesque blue waters of Vava’u’s Port of Refuge, but lately our service-related projects have proven hopelessly complicated. There are moments when our backyard offers a glimpse of starry skies and the faint sound of the tides; there are moments when our co-workers demonstrate little commitment and local residents seem equally indifferent. Our three pale visitors from Washington DC seemed skeptical of our troubles with paradise. Then their Royal Tongan flight got cancelled and a cyclone warning affected travel plans. Ah, utopia indeed.


*An addendum: In May of 2004, we rode with my parents on Royal Tongan Airlines’ final flight ever. The sorry financial state of the monarchy’s commercial airline became painfully apparent in the following days, as bankruptcy was declared and refunds were refused. While two new air carriers are presently attempting to commence with domestic services, returning from vacation with my parents meant a 26-hour ferry ride on rough seas. If only the camera crew wouldn’t have missed that experience.