…for such a time as this

Stories about the adventure that is Peace Corps Tonga

Waiting

On store fronts, abandoned buildings, wharfs, in front of the bank and schools, in backs of trucks, on walls and on the side of the road, just waiting for something.

I see a lot of people waiting in Pangai. Whenever I ride my bike through town, I notice groups here and there. If I am honest, it bothers me. My American productive self screams “Do Something!” What are they waiting for you ask? First of all, most families in Ha’apai don’t have a vehicle, and with the absence of a city bus, most people just “catch” a ride with a neighbor or someone driving by. This means that they are coming to town with no plan on how to get back. Across the main road from my house in the end of town, many people wait there to go to one of the farther villages on my island or the next. They are waiting for someone to drive by and pick them up.

I also have to bike by the wharf each morning. We have two inter-island ferries, holding over 600 people at a time each. This is how most Tongans travel between islands because the flights are out of their price range. Both the Pulupaki and ‘Otuanga’ofa make trips between the different islands of the Kingdom each week but they are never on schedule. Sometimes the boat gets in mid-day, other times in the middle of the night. There is no consistency when it comes to schedules. This doesn’t seem to bother my community; they’ll wait for hours in the middle of the night, ready to pick up their container from a loved one or a friend.

Planning ahead to maximize productivity and minimize wasted time (waiting) is not rewarded here. Things change all of the time. For example, for Camp Glow, I secured the venue where the camp would be held two months prior to the camp. The Saturday before the camp started, someone living at a house next to the venue passed away. Tongan funerals last 2 to 3 days. During the funeral there are to be no “programs” including dances and social events. My camp had a closing ceremony scheduled with dances and skits performed by the girls. I was “encouraged” to cancel my program because of the funeral. (*Note: Tongan funerals happen every other week, the whole community is invited, many programs are canceled because of them) Canceling my program was not an option. Instead, my island planning team worked tirelessly to find a new venue one day before the ceremony. This was a huge task to undertake during our camp. It didn’t matter that there were contracts signed and that I had paid for the venue.

This is an event oriented culture, meaning that things don’t start and end at a certain time. They start when the event before ends and end when they’re finished. You won’t hear someone invite you to their house at 5 pm on Saturday for dinner. It’s “after the rugby games”. When someone gives a time (because I am a “palangi” white person), I know that it won’t stick. My neighbors for example don’t have many things to do in a day. They believe that they can’t anticipate future events. Things will happen when they happen. Again, they don’t seem to mind waiting for the late pastor to start his sermon, the teacher to start the class or the government official to open a meeting. This compounded with an non-challenging attitude towards authority makes most events start late.

I haven’t gotten used to this attitude. Though I can accept it as different from my own culture, you’ll never see me somewhere without a book. Sometimes, I’ll leave an event if it hasn’t started in a reasonable amount of time. As PCVs, we’ve had to learn to live within this event oriented culture. We work in Tongan schools and government agencies; we don’t have cars so we must rely on our friends for rides. Even our best Tongan friends who know that time is important to us still come 2 hours late to a dinner party or don’t show up at all.

You’d think that after two years, my sensitivity to time would have weighed, but it hasn’t.

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3 Comments»

  Kathy Beck wrote @

Oh, my, this blog post brought back memories.

  Abigail Joy wrote @

Sounds like Africa. I think there’s so much to be learned from this way of life, but it definitely doesn’t translate into American productivity. Don’t you ever want to scream, “If you lived in America, you’d be fired in two days with such tardiness!”

  Lois wrote @

I think it takes longer than two years to adapt to this mentality. It goes against just about everything that’s been ingrained in us in North America. Things are similar here (although not nearly as extreme) in that time has a different value and sometimes it depends on the situation. Anyhow, most of the time I’ve learned how to get around it in a way that won’t make me insane, but I still have days that it rubs me wrong. Hang in there, you’ll soon enough be back in North America and wonder why people are rushing around so much and won’t sit around and talk for hours 🙂


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