…for such a time as this

Stories about the adventure that is Peace Corps Tonga

A Visit to the Pacific Islands (guest blogger)

My mom and dad visited me in Tonga in January 2011, instead of me writing, I asked my mom to write up her description of the trip. So here she is:

“Juleigh says that rather than writing a travel log like I normally do I should become a guest blogger on her blog.  So here goes, I’m now a blogger!  Our trip to Tonga, in a thumbnail sketch:

We booked our flights on Air Pacific because it was cheaper than Air New Zealand by a long shot.  We highly recommend Air Pacific, their service is excellent.  We got on a 747 at 10:00 pm at LAX and flew off into the night.  Hawaii was about half-way into the ten hour flight.  We were served hot meals for both dinner and breakfast.  Can you believe it, when’s the last time you had hot food on a plane?!  Because we were flying half-way around the world and towards the International Date Line we left on the night of Jan. 12th and arrived on the morning of the 14th.  We did not see Jan. 13th, we completely lost that day.  We arrived at the Fiji airport in the early morning facing a 6 hour layover.  As we walked off the plane we were greeted with native musicians playing South Sea Island music with ukuleles and singing.  Nice touch!  Now even though this is the capital of Fiji it is a very small airport.  One small café was open so we sat on the sidewalk and people watched.  It was a very international crowd; we talked to a guy from Canada and saw a New Zealand rugby team but no Americans anywhere.  When it was time to board our plane for the capital of Tonga, (Nukualofa) we were directed to walk across the tarmac and climb the stairs, it was a small plane!    Little did I know that this was not the smallest plane that we would be on during the trip!

Tonga is a series of South Pacific islands off the coast of New Zealand.  As we flew over it we could see endless blue water, fluffy white clouds and sugar sand islands with swaying palm trees.  Every movie that you’ve ever seen about the islands pales in comparison to the real thing.  Because Tonga is in the Southern Hemisphere it was summer in Jan.  We were so glad to have left cold, rainy California and to be whisked away to this South Seas paradise.  Once again we landed at a small airport in Nukualofa and walked down the stairs and across the tarmac.  Juleigh had asked us to stop by the duty free store to stock up on wine and liquor for her and her friends so we dropped in  there before going thru customs.  It was a small store with bottles stacked on boxes but they were very nice and opened just for us!  Most people in Tonga speak some English as it is a British Protectorate and English is taught in the schools.  Everyone is so friendly and helpful.  After customs we walked out of the open air arrival lounge and there was Juleigh waiting for us!  What a fantastic feeling to see her after 15 months!  She is beautiful as always but she has lost at least 50 pounds and looks 16!  We couldn’t stop smiling and hugging and chattering! She greeted us with the traditional South Sea flower leis which smelled heavenly.  It was like no time had passed!  She had a taxi for us so we drove thru the countryside to get to the capital, Nukualofa.  This is a country of winding country roads, lush jungles and tiny houses surrounded by beautiful flowers.  You see horses, chickens and pigs along the roadside.  Many houses have small farm stands set up along the road selling coconuts, pineapple and root crop, (like tapioca).  There are very few cars, lots of bicycles and no motorcycles.  It rains every few hours, (like Hawaii) so the vegetation is lush and green.

As we approached the city we could see more cars and stores and churches, (a lot of churches).  Our hotel was a western style one on the main drag.  It was very hot and humid so we were glad to see that our room came complete with air conditioning.  One of the only buildings in the city so equipped!  We decided to take a walk to the Peace Corps office to see if we could meet some of Juleigh’s co-workers and to get the lay of the land.  Now in Tonga dress is very conservative and the women all wear long skirts and tops with sleeves.  No shorts, minis or low cut tops.  So although I had my summer wardrobe I was mostly wearing cotton skirts past my knees and blouses with sleeves.  Even though the dress is conservative the clothes are very colorful with beautiful, bright fabrics.  Right up my alley!  So we walked along the ocean with Juleigh pointing out the local sights, (King’s palace, fish market, royal church etc.) and came to the Peace Corps office.  It’s a big fenced in compound that looks like a modern office building.  Since it was Fri. afternoon there weren’t many people around but we did get to meet the nurses that keep the volunteers healthy and Kelly, the Country Director.  She’s the highest level Peace Corps official in the country and in charge of all Peace Corps operations in Tonga.  At any given time there are about 50 Peace Corps volunteers scattered thru-out the different islands.  She’s from Santa Barbara so we were fellow Californians.  She told us that Juleigh is an excellent volunteer and that she loves working with her.  Can’t help bragging a bit!

Next it was time to go back to the hotel and get ready for dinner.  Because Juleigh and her fellow volunteers had been in a meeting that week we were able to meet some of her friends for dinner.  Juleigh had told us that it was a tradition in the Peace Corps that when parents come to visit they buy dinner for all of the volunteers that happen to be in town.  We were happy to do this because then we were able to meet her friends that we had heard so much about.  As we were leaving for dinner we saw that the restaurant in the hotel had been set up for an event, there were flowers on the tables and matching table clothes and napkins and a head table.  We asked the workers what was going on and they said that the Princess of Tonga was coming to a dinner that night.  Tonga is a kingdom ruled by a king and the Princess is his sister.  Juleigh had never seen the Princess so we were hoping that we could catch a glimpse.  Ask and you shall receive…as we came out  the front door we saw a motorcade of black SUVs pull up to the entrance and out popped the Princess.  She was tall and stately, dressed in a bright red silk full length gown.  She was surrounded by her entourage and a personal umbrella holder kept the rain off.  We couldn’t believe it; we come to town and get to see Tongan royalty!

It was on to dinner with the Peace Corps volunteers who were in town.  A local pizza place was chosen, I believe it was one of the only ones in town.  It was a small place around the block from our hotel and it featured outdoor seating.  We weren’t sure how good the pizza would be but it was surprisingly delicious.  Beer was not available at the restaurant but one of the volunteers “found” some around the corner and our meal was complete.  We got to meet Kelly, Josh and Dominica.  They’re all teachers in the schools on different islands in Tonga and from different places in the United States.  It was fun getting to know them and listening to them talk about their experiences working in this developing country.  How energetic and enthusiastic they all are!  Ah, to be 25 again!  It’s very inspiring to talk to these young people, if these are the types that will be running the US in the next generation then it seems like our future is secure.  I’m so glad that Juleigh gets to be friends and co-workers with these caliber of volunteers.  It’s an experience of a lifetime for her.

The next morning it’s on to Ha apai, Juleigh’s island.  We taxied to the open air airport and sat in the café waiting for our plane.  At the table next to us sat a young pilot, (who was not more than 25!) working on charts and graphs by hand.  Juleigh tells me that this is our pilot and that he’s charting our flight.  Next our plane comes out; it’s a six seater with a prop.  The white knuckler is now officially scared!  When we checked in we were asked how much we weighed and our baggage was weighed.  Now Juleigh introduces us to the pilot and explains that I’m a white knuckler and he says that it sometimes helps if we sit up front and watch what he does.  I’m all for it so that’s what we do.  He explains that this is one of the most beautiful plane rides in the world and that it’s a piece of cake.  I’m dubious but willing.  He’s very knowledgeable and efficient.  As he takes off he explains everything as he does it.  Once we’re aloft I can see what he means!  As far as the eye can see is endless, sparkling turquoise ocean, fluffy white clouds in the glorious blue sky and small tropical islands surrounded by coral reefs.  I forget to be scared because I’m drinking in the sights on the ride of a lifetime.  As we come over Juleigh’s island, Lifuka, I see that the runway starts at the edge of the island and ends at the other end.  If you don’t stop you roll right into the Pacific!  I again get nervous but our pilot knows what he’s doing and confidently touches down and stops way before going into the ocean.  We have arrived!

As we get off the plane we notice that there are many Tongans in the arrival lounge crying and all wearing black.  Juleigh explains to us that in Tonga funerals are a huge deal and that if you have a close relative who dies then you have to wear black for a year.  During the funeral everyone drops by to pay their respects and the family has to feed whoever comes and that could end up being most of the island.  Needless to say, in Tonga you see a lot of people wearing black, of all ages.

Upon arrival we meet our taxi driver, Tomase.  He has a small, old car that he will drive us around in for the next couple of days.  There are only two taxi drivers on Lifuka and Tomase is at our beck and call at all hours of the day and night.  He drives us to Juleigh’s school and home and we get our bearings.  Her village is a small, sleepy town with one grocery store, several schools, churches and a post office.  It is right on the ocean.  There are no gas stations, restaurants or fast food.  The houses are small, open air and built out of tin.  The vegetation is lush with many fruit trees, flowers and bushes.  All over are the animals, horses, chickens, pigs and dogs. Tongans don’t keep pets per se; all of the animals are possible meals for the future.  Many of the Peace Corps Volunteers have dogs that they feed and care for, and the natives view this as a foreign concept.  It is very hot and humid on this afternoon, but there is a nice breeze blowing off the ocean.

Juleigh lives in the Catholic Church complex that includes a church, school and convent.  The buildings are old but very clean and well organized.  Juleigh has a bedroom and living area and shares a bathroom and kitchen with the nuns.  She has a big front lawn and many flower bushes around her building.  She has decorated her living room with so many pictures of family and friends; it looks like a rogue’s gallery!  Because it was school vacation there were no nuns or kids around so Juleigh picked up a few things to take to the resort that we were staying at and we set off in the taxi to go to the end of the island where the resort is located.

We drove across the island on a small 2 lane road thru thick jungle.  Lifuka is much more rural than the island with the capital, there are few houses or cars and the jungle is not cleared in many places.  At the end of the island we came to our resort, Matafonua.  It’s situated on a peninsula surrounded on 3 sides by water.  Juleigh had told us that it was one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and she wasn’t wrong. Sparkling sand, palm trees swaying, warm turquoise water, beautiful blue sky and not a soul in sight.  This was not Waikiki!  The resort is run by an English couple with 3 kids and they couldn’t have been more friendly and welcoming.  The accommodations are fales which are traditional Tongan houses.  We had 2 small rooms with big beds with mosquito nets covering them.  The fales had big porches looking out over the ocean.  The bathrooms were dorm style but with very hot showers which were solar heated.  The dining room was a lanai with the most beautiful view of the Pacific on 3 sides.  Everyday our hosts would ask us what we wanted for dinner and then they would prepare it for us.  Western style breakfasts and lunches were available everyday also.

The first day we logged some beach time, I read my Kindle, (yes, the librarian broke down and asked for one for Christmas!) and Juleigh got caught up reading the magazines that I had brought.  How do you explain Snookie and jeggings to someone who’s been out of the country for a year and ½?!  She needed to peruse the mags and soak it all in.  That evening we had fresh caught fish for dinner and Todd and Connor joined us.  They are other Peace Corps volunteers on the island and it was great to meet them because Juleigh works very closely with them as they are all teachers in the schools.  It was a lovely dinner on the lanai with New Zealand wine and conversation with the other guests who formed a truly international crowd.

The next day Darren, (the host of the resort) offered to take us snorkeling in his fishing boat.  He spear fishes, (as do most Tongans) and he said that he would take us to the best reef for snorkeling because he knows the waters around the island.  What a reef it was!  It was huge and there were so many beautiful, colorful fish, some that we had never seen.  There was even a bright blue starfish that Juleigh said is found nowhere else in the world.  The water was clear, warm and a beautiful turquoise color. It was like an aquarium!  The visibility was incredible, probably 20 to 30 feet which is amazing.  Some of the best snorkeling we’ve ever done!  When Darren got back from fishing he had three huge fish, including a tuna.  He told us that he had speared the fish and then because they were so big he had to use his knife to finish them off with a stab to the brain.  That’s pretty intense fishing if you ask me, none of this just putting out a line in Tonga!

On the way back to the resort we decided to stop over on Blair’s island.  Blair is another Peace Corps volunteer that lives on a small island near Juleigh’s island and teaches in the elementary school there.  Blair’s island is very remote and rural and she’s the only Peace Corps volunteer there.  We were invited to her small, open air house and then decided to take a walk thru the jungle to the other side of the island.  We bushwhacked thru the jungle, gazing at all sorts of beautiful flowers, butterflies and birds.  When we reached the other side of the island it was a rocky coastline, (like California) with huge rocks to sit on and take in the view of the endless blue Pacific.  An unforgettable vista!

One evening we decided to take in a Kava circle.  Kava is a root that is chewed for its relaxing properties.  A Kava circle is a social event where the men sit around and drink Kava, (a liquid made from the powdered root) and discuss religion, politics, current events and the local gossip.  Generally speaking married women are not allowed at Kava circles however Juleigh told the leader of her community’s group that her Mom really wanted to attend so permission was given.  Single women serve the Kava and many of the Peace Corps volunteers do this in order to experience these cultural events.  The Kava is poured into a huge bowl that sits at the center of the table and the leader uses a ladle to serve to each member of the group.  Each person has a ½ coconut bowl to drink the Kava out of.  You’re supposed to drink the whole serving in one gulp, (like a shot) however the Kava is bitter so I sipped it.  The Tongans laughed and teased me for this.  Of course Tim had no such problem, (maybe its practice) and he drank bowl after bowl.  The men loved it, they encouraged him with clapping and back slaps.  There’s lots of discussion, laughing and bantering back and forth.  The only thing in America that I can remotely compare this to is a poker night or “boy’s night out”.  The men in Tonga have Kava circles about 3 times a week.  We were much honored to be allowed to participate in this unique cultural experience, we felt like we were experiencing the “real” Tonga.

On Sun everyone in Tonga goes to church, whether it is Protestant, Catholic or Mormon.  No businesses are open and all over the island you see families walking to church dressed in their Sun. best.  It truly is the Sabbath day of rest and family.  When visitors go to church they dress as the Tongans do, (when in Rome!) and the clothing is colorful and ceremonial.  For the women it’s a long cotton skirt in a bright, island pattern topped with a tunic of the same fabric.  Around the waist the women wear a woven belt of tapa which is leaves beaten and woven into an elaborate pattern.  The belts are individually made by each woman and reflect her own style.  The young women have smaller ones but some of the Grammas have huge ones that are very intricate and colorful.  Juleigh loaned me one of her outfits that she wears to teach in and I was very proud to wear it.  It was very similar to western clothes and easy to wear.  Now the men are a different story!  Tim was hesitant but was told that the Tongans like large well-proportioned men so I told him that he fit the bill!  A Tongan male dressing up starts with a long calf length skirt and tops it off with a Hawaiian type shirt.  So far so good!  Then it gets interesting…The men wear a tapa mat around their waist held up with a leather thong.  Like the women’s belt this mat is individually made and is different for each guy.  Some of the older men wear huge mats and can barely walk.  It makes for an interesting parade of fashion at church.  Tim wasn’t sure how he looked but I told him he rocked it!

The church was a large open-air building with no air conditioning.  Most of the women carried large, woven fans and fanned themselves thru- out the service.  Juleigh had one so we were able to join in the fanning and stay somewhat cool.  The building was set up like a western style church with rows of pews and a platform for the altar and pulpit.  There is no Sunday school so everyone attends the service, babies, children, teens, parents and grandparents.  The service was in Tongan, (which Juleigh speaks fluently) but we were able to follow along with her help.  The singing was the most beautiful part of the service.  The choir uses no instruments but the Tongans excel at singing.  From their large chests the hymns sound like opera arias.  We were lifted up even though the words were in a language that we didn’t understand. The priest in his announcements welcomed us to the community as Juleigh’s honored parents.  We felt comfortable and accepted and were able to worship and fellowship just as we do every Sun., only we were 10,000 miles away from La Mirada!   Isn’t it amazing how the Lord is able to provide that for us?

After church everyone goes to a home for the mid-day meal which is the largest one of the day.  We were invited to one of Juleigh’s fellow teacher’s home.  Before they go to church the family digs a hole and places large, hot stones in the trench along with whatever meat they are cooking, (chicken, pork etc.)  When they return from church the meat will be cooked.  The meat is then mixed with coconut juice and placed in cooked leaves for serving.  This dish is delicious!  The side dishes are banana bread, fish, and root crop which are somewhat like sweet potato.  The meal is served on the floor family style.  Since we were honored guests we got to sit on the only couch.  The house is open air and everyone drops by and is welcome to eat along with the family.  When she goes to a Tongan home Juleigh always brings books, crayons, coloring books, play-do and toys for the kids.  She reads to them, plays with them and teaches them English words and songs.  Because of this she always has a few kids trailing after her where ever she goes.   During the Sun. meal we sang, read books and learned English with the children that were there.  It was so much fun, the kids knew the words to the song,” The ants go marching one by one” and they were so excited that the word guava is the same in English as it is in Tongan.  One little boy, Lopete went outside and picked a guava off of a tree and showed it to us.  It was so gratifying to see Juleigh interact with the kids and it was such fun to share in a typical Tongan Sunday afternoon, (and no TV!)

One evening we were invited to Todd’s home for dinner.  Todd is one of the other Peace Corps volunteers on the island who teaches English at the public school in Juleigh’s village.  He’s from Philadelphia.  He knew that we were from California and loved Mexican food so he made us chicken mole.  We couldn’t believe it, we don’t get a lot of mole even in California and here we were having it homemade in Tonga!  He was a gracious host and it was fun getting to know him and hearing his stories of Philly and teaching in Tonga. Once again Tim and I were very impressed with the caliber of people that Juleigh serves with.

Next up was Fa-Fa Island.  When we had decided to go to Tonga one of our goals was to give Juleigh a relaxing vacation.  During the planning stage we had asked Juleigh to check around and find an upscale resort that she would be truly relaxed at.  Fa-Fa Island was recommended as the place where the western diplomats go to stay when in Tonga.  It’s a resort that is a 30 minute boat ride to a small island off the coast of Nukualofa, the capital.  It’s on its own island and defies description.  Take every movie or dream that you’ve ever had of a South Seas Island and triple it and that is Fa-Fa.  As we approached the island in the boat we saw the thatched filas and open air lobby and dining patio set on an endless sugar sand beach ringed with palm trees.  We jumped barefoot into the warm turquoise water and walked up to the lobby to be greeted by our hosts, a German couple.  We were shown to our fala by walking on a sandy path thru the emerald jungle.  Our fala had 2 big bedrooms with a private lanai, beach and an outdoor bathroom.  The shower was tucked in a flower filled grotto and there was a swinging hammock looking out over the water.  The beds were covered with huge mosquito nets that the maids would put down every night for us.  In the afternoons the kitchen staff would ask us what we wanted for dinner that evening and then they would make it for us if they had the ingredients.  We had a lot of fresh fish and pasta dishes.  Dinner was served on the lanai looking out towards the ocean and viewing the full moon shining on the glistening water.  Even though it was hot the trade winds kept us cool.  There was also a choice of New Zealand or Australian wine and a full tiki bar.  Exactly what dinner should be in the South Pacific!

One day we decided to go snorkeling and we took a 30 minute boat ride to a deserted island.  There was no one there and once again there was a huge coral reef with beautiful marine life to look at.  Another day Juleigh and I had massages and pedicures in the spa hut in the jungle.  Very relaxing!  On Fa-Fa they have a designated nature walk thru the jungle on the far side of the island and while we were walking we saw colorful parrots and the horse corral where they keep 4 horses.  Such a beautiful place, we really felt like we were on the quintessential tropical island.  If you ever need to truly relax Fa-Fa is the place to go!  What a magical South Seas paradise!

On our last day in Tonga we were back in the capital, Nukualofa at the hotel we had stayed in the first night.  On our final evening we had dinner at an Italian place on the ocean which was very good and reminded us of restaurants in California.  Juleigh was happy to eat some Italian!  Since the next day was Sat. we were able to go to the Sat. market which is a huge swap meet in the center of town.  There were so many stalls set up with fruit, vegetables, fish, clothes and crafts to buy, what a shopping opportunity!  It seemed like everyone in the city was there, there was lots of talking, laughing and music.  It seemed to be the place to be on a Sat. morning!  We fit right in with the locals!

Then it was time to say good-bye, we had to go and catch our plane.  It was not as hard to say good-bye this time because we knew we will see Juleigh in Nov. which is not very far away. We know it will go fast!  We’re so thankful that we had the opportunity to visit Tonga, what a beautiful, exotic place.  Even though Juleigh is half-way around the world we can picture her in her shining island paradise and know that she’s doing well and is happy serving.  What an experience for both her and us, a trip of a lifetime!  We’ll never forget it; it’s etched on our hearts forever.”



  Gypsy wrote @

I loved every word of this! So fun to get your (rightfully proud) mom’s perspective!

  Heidi wrote @

Juleigh you look GREAT and that water is oh so beautiful too! Can’t wait to see you (kinda) soon.

  tkoehler1961 wrote @

Absolutely LOVED reading this. I felt like I was there every step of the way. Love you!

  Trishia wrote @

Love the pictures with your parents, it looks like a great time was had by all 🙂 I really enjoy all your updates, the Filipiaks keep you in their thoughts!

  Ryan Jones wrote @

Thanks for the really detailed post… it really helped put things in perspective!

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