…for such a time as this

Stories about the adventure that is Peace Corps Tonga

Dreaming of Cheese

So here’s what you can buy in the falekoloa, or store on my island. There is plenty of canned beef, canned fish (in tomato sauce or oil…your choice) and hot dogs (from Texas) but no buns. There is flour, salt and sugar that come by the kilo in unmarked plastic bags. There are unrefrigerated eggs from New Zealand…sometimes. There is “frozen” chicken (only legs and thighs) and lamb in plastic bags that are chopped up on the floor of the store before packaged. There is roti, an Indian flat bread just like tortillas, processed cheese product called Chesdell (like Velvita), mayonnaise, full cream boxed milk, powdered milk, peanut butter and jam from California, white bread Monday-Friday, processed palm oil for cooking, and edible drippings which comes in painters buckets (this is used to fry dough for breakfast). We have Hunts tomato sauce and ketchup (which by the way, makes everything taste better).  This is all on one side of the store; it probably takes up 2 aisles, about 15 feet each in length.

There are usually about 3 or 4 aisles in a store. There is some space taken for dish soap, toilet paper and diapers. The really big stores (about the size of a 7-11 at home) may have some cheap utensils and dish towels to sell. But what about the other 2 aisles you ask? Those are reserved for the (excuse my language) crap.

Each morning on my 5 minute bike ride across town to my school, I meet many of my students in the road. They are usually enjoying a package of dried ramen noodles. This is a perfectly normal breakfast for Tongan children; it is cheap (about .30 cents) and readily available.

Two to three aisles in each store are holding cookies, chips, ramen noodles and candy all from Indonesia, New Zealand, China and Australia (ok, sometimes there are Doritos and Pringles, so I guess America is a part of this too). There are about 8 to 10 varieties of chips, tons of sweet, gooey candy and several kinds of cookies, including my favorite “Chocolate Sandwich Cookies” (a poor substitute for Oreos). Don’t forget the “Royal Island” soda (a perfect name!) and fruit punch syrup. Honestly, I would say more than half of the store is devoted to this kind of junk food. For a country that is just now learning about obesity, diabetes and the benefits of brushing their teeth, you can imagine the problems that this kind of food creates.

I say all this to alert you to the fact that there are no vegetables (none, unless you count ketchup as a vegetable), no fruits, no whole wheat anything, no fresh milk and the kicker, NO CHEESE!

My brother Tyler’s first words were “I want cheese”. My family has always had cheese in the house. Cheddar for quesadillas and tacos, parmesan for pasta and pizza, mozzarella and feta for salads. I discovered brie more recently. When I arrived in Ha’apai, I really tried to assimilate. I tried to eat what was here, to explore different recipes with locally available ingredients. That can be difficult without fruits and veggies, but my fellow volunteers and I have done a lot with what we’ve got.

One time, on a trip to the main island for training, I stopped in at a grocery store there. Their stores are much larger, they have a higher foreigner population, the demand for Western type foods is there. I noticed a large block of Mozzarella cheese. I enquired about the price and bought it. I was addicted. Adding cheese to my daily diet took care of a few things. One, it gave me needed calcium and two, it tasted so good! So now, I import cheese. When my parents came in January, they asked me for a list. I had several things that I wanted, but the main thing was cheese. I told them to just put it in their suitcase, declare it, explain to customs that I live in Ha’apai and everything would be ok. Whenever I travel outside of Ha’apai (not often), I pick up cheese. Whenever someone else travels outside of Ha’apai, I ask for cheese, it’s now standard.

I also ask for vegetables. Here’s how it works: Whenever a Peace Corps staff, volunteer or Tongan friend is traveling to the main island, I ask them to bring some veggies. This means them getting up early to go to the main market in Tongatapu. They buy the vegetables, put them in a box and carry them on the plane or boat with them. The same goes for cheese, bicycle baskets, and newspapers.

I live way the heck out there. My diet is supplemented by my friends and family at home through packages of goodies. And the fine folks over at Goldrush Creamery in California are allowing me a daily dose of home (mozzarella). I don’t know how or why their cheese gets to Tonga, but this volunteer is eternally grateful!

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