19 March 2010

The Souvenir that Never Leaves My Side

In early 2009 I was ambling down "the road" in downtown Tonga with the Shackle-Dragger.  We were deep in a conversation about kids, rules, piercings, culture, and tattoos.  We concluded that, given the opportunity, we'd get tattoos in Tonga.

In Tonga, two traditions converged at the junction of tattooing.  First, there was a strong culture of tattooing in Polynesian.  In fact, the word "tattoo" is believed to be a corruption of the Polynesian word "tatau" (fun fact: only one Tongan word ever made it into the English dictionary: taboo).  That culture disappeared in Tonga after the arrival of missionaries, and there is only one known sketch of a traditional Tongan tattoo.  However, the tradition continued strong on other Polynesian islands including nearby Samoa.  We drew the line there, and did not venture into the realm of traditional Samoan tattooing (an ordeal involving combs and hammers that takes many weeks to complete and is very painful). 

Second, and most important for the Shackle-Dragger and I, was the tradition of getting tattoos in Polynesia.  While he was in the South Pacific, Cook (that's right, another chance for me to talk about Captain Cook) saw many "tattooed savages" in New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii.  During the first voyage, Cook's Mr. Spock, Sir Joseph Banks, was tattooed.  Many of Cook's men also came back with tattoos, leading to a tattooing tradition among European sailors vising the South Seas and spawning today's association between  men of the sea and tattoos.  Like many sailors of old, I would spend years in the South Pacific, and decided that I, too, wanted a mark of the experience.

Having reached our decision, fate immediately stepped in.  A van sporting the word "TATTOO" under its windshield pulled over to the side of the road in front of us.  We approached the driver, Sonny, who seemed unfazed by his amazing timing.  He produced his business card (his first name, town, and cell # written on an old Sydney Metro pass).

A few weeks later, we bussed to Sonny's tattoo parlor in Hihifo for a look at his operation.  The parlor turned out to be the actual parlor of his house, an eight foot square room that was also his bedroom and living room.  But we were impressed with his trade (hospital orderly), experience (tatooing for the Tongan Rugby Team and Tongan players in Rugby teams throughout the Pacific), and equipment (unopened ink, needles, and a brand new autoclave from Sydney).  He showed us some beautiful pictures of his work, and pictures of other palangi showing off their fresh tattoos there in his parlour.

The following Saturday morning the Shackle-Dragger and I were again on the bus to Hihifo.  I bravely choose to go first.  I'd already picked my design - the turtle, in addition to being my favourite animal (sorry Angora rabbit), was also a popular tattoo in the islands.  I'd already noticed several Tongans sporting them in the past week.  I'd seen many bicep designs, and though I was now often mistaken for muscular Canadian woodsman Paul Bunyan, I imagined myself as an old man with a sad saggy tattoo where my bicep once was.  I knew that, muscular or not, I'd always have a shoulder.  I selected the location, the animal, and the size (go big or go home, I decided), but left the rest in Sonny's capable hands.  He free-formed the details, resulting in a beautiful strong design I'm proud to carry to the grave.

The tattooing process was pain incarnate.  I'd never broken a bone (aside from my skull), and I'd never been tortured, so this became the pain against which I would measure all future pain.  I took it like a champ, smiling in answer to the Shackle-Dragger's questions and the curious faces of Sonny's little girls.  Hours later, Sonny asked me to take a look.  I was relieved that the process was over, until I sized up the tattoo in the mirror.  There was the head, and four flippers.  The entire center of the tattoo was still a blank patch of skin.  I lay down for several hours more work.

If I worked for an oil company for two years, I don't think I'd get a tattoo of an oil rig on my shoulder.  And with no connection to China, I probably wouldn't get some characters tattooed above my heart.  But this was different, because of the Tongan culture of tattooing, the tradition of getting tattoos in Polynesia, and the significant part of my life that Tonga had become.  This wasn't some knick-knack on my shelf or a key chain in my pocket.  It was a physical reminder, every time I took off my shirt, of the country I'd never heard of that became the country I'd never forget.

30 November 2009

Nothing can go wrong-a, Daniel WAS in Tonga


Today is my last full day in Tonga!  I'm packed and ready to go, with plans to see the beach one last time before my 9pm flight tomorrow evening.  It's a long trip home to Ottawa, with stopovers in Samoa, L.A., and Toronto.  While I sit here, drinking what will be one of the last hand-plucked coconuts I'll have, I figured I should write a bit of a retrospective.

After six months on a military base in Afghanistan in 2006, where I made heaps of money but saw little of the local culture, I knew that I wanted a true experience overseas in humanitarian development.  With my university debt paid, I figured the time was now.  Many organizations offered the opportunity to teach English, but I found only one that advertised an open position for History (my major).  That country was...Kiribati!  I interviewed for the position and was accepted, but just hours later I was asked if I would prefer another opening in Tonga.  Tonga I had actually heard of (in Fahrenheit 9/11's list of the "coalition of the willing"), and a quick Wikipedia search made up my mind.   I was Kingdom-bound!

Other "Europeans" (as I would be called) had settled in Tonga.  Could I?


Abel Tasman's landing point in Tonga.  He was the first European to visit (1643).  As curious Tongans approached his ship in canoes, Tasman (in succession) fired a gun, blew a trumpet, played the violin, then played the flute.  What fun!  He proceeded to trade pieces of iron and glass to Tongans for their pigs, fruit, and fresh water.  I'm sure he was the topic of many dinner conversations for generations before more Europeans arrived. 

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them (they're in Tonga), maybe you can hire... The A-Team.

Pushed out of the international spotlight by younger supersentations including the Powerpuff Girls and Bratz, Barbie re-located to Tonga where she could live out her dream as a stylist in relative anonymity.

I've lived in Tonga longer than I have in any other country (aside from Canada, obviously).  I've written about many of the experiences here, so there's no point in revisiting them.  But Tonga has been a very important part of my life for many reasons.

All throughout my time in University, whenever I was asked the question, "History?  Are you going to be a teacher?"  I'd always answer with a resounding "NO."  Yet to get to Tonga, I accepted a position as a teacher, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  So much so, that my only real regret in not staying for a third year is that I won't get the chance to teach my students next year.  I know I would consider teaching again, though probably not in a developed nation.  There was a lot of freedom here and a real respect for teachers, and I know I wouldn't find that in many other countries.

I learned a lot about all the things you'd expect from living in a third would country: other cultures, my own "culture" through the eyes of others, money, poverty, consumerism, fitness, religion...the list goes on.  It may be over-said by people in my situation, but I feel I learned a bit "about the things that really matter in life."  I hope my heart hasn't hardened, but I know that I'm less sensitive about some things, including shocking living conditions and the treatment of animals.  I imagine I'm much more skeptical then I once was.  I now question conventional wisdom, and am less willing to accept at face-value everything I'm told I need to have and need to do.

While adapting myself to local cuisine and the availability of foods on an island away from major trade, I made many changes to my diet.  Some foods were easy to find (pork, chicken, fish/seafood of all kinds, coconut, vegetables/fruit in season), some foods had limited availability and/or questionable quality (bread, pizza, sushi, baking ingredients), and some foods were near-impossible to find (particularly vegetables/fruit that weren't in season).  Slowly I abandoned many foods, settling for a diet that was mostly meat and plants and did not shy away from animal and coconut fat.  This was the traditional diet of Tongans, although many had since abandoned it in favour of the SAD (Standard American Diet).  I had never felt better, and saw a vast range of improvements in my health, temperament, appearance, energy, and sleep.  Eventually I stumbled across the name for my new eating habits, and completed the transition to a "primal/paleo" lifestyle (Maclean's Article, Video Link 1, Video Link 2).  Plants (vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts) and animals (meat, fish, fowl, and eggs) now represent the entire composition of my diet, with some dairy (love yogurt and old cheese).  Gone are rice, corn, grains, refined sugar, white potatoes, and anything they're found in.  It's served me well in Tonga and is a lifestyle plan to carry on once home.

Hopefully I'll re-adjust quickly to western civilization without suffering the worst effects of "reverse culture shock."  I know that, during the month and a half that I was in New Zealand and Australia last year, I wasn't too comfortable in towns and cities, and chose to spend the majority of my time camping and driving open roads.  I don't know how my feelings will change once I return to Canada.

Travel remains high on my list of "Likes" in life.  During my time away from  home, I visited six countries, four of which were radically different from what's found in Europe/North America.  My experiences only increased my desire for more.  That feeling is something I think about when I consider "What's Next?"

I thoroughly enjoyed writing this blog, and my thanks to everyone who read it (and in particular, those who commented).  The positive experience of traveling and writing has encouraged me to do something similar in the future if (or when...) I go somewhere else.  But now, it's time for one last coconut.  Faka-Tonga!!

10 November 2009

'Api Fo'ou...this is the name I'm proud of!

So begins our school's theme song, which I will gladly sing for you if you butter me up with copious amounts of wine.

Well, I'm coming home to Canada in three weeks. School's basically finished here, just external exams coming and little more then informal study sessions until then (which the students LOVE, because they don't have to wear their uniforms - take that conformity!). I'm just working through my "things to do before I leave Tonga" list, which is mostly eating various animal species that are illegal to eat in Canada but perfectly acceptable to consume here.

I've also got a new internet connection (long angry story) that is WAY more stable then what I used for the last year and a half. AND, I've got about a thousand photos of Tonga, thanks to the information sharing network put in place by the Patriot Act. As a result, until something really fancy happens, I figured I'd do a few photo posts.

I thought I'd start with something that I probably don't write about often enough, considering I go there and work for AT LEAST 50 minutes a day (at most, four hours): school! Some of the pictures were taken by a shutter-happy "shackle dragger" (Australian) who volunteers at the school with me.

This is from about a third into my first year in Tonga. I took my Form 6 students on a field trip to the Paepae 'o Tele'a monumental step pyramid. In true Tongan fashion, they all rode in the back of a pick-up truck. Of course it rained the whole way there and the whole way back, but they were just happy to get an afternoon off from school.

Basket weaving! Yes, it's on the curriculum, up there with other such useful classes as Communications, Art History, and Care of Magical Creatures.

Inter-College sports, where we DOMINATED on the field, though the other colleges ran circles around us in "school spirit." A boy's college made matching hats out of palm fronds, then some of them dressed up as girls and danced around like maniacs. No competition.

Proof that cyclone season is no deterrent to AFC's sports training program. the ball floats instead of rolls, and the game continues (the game being, thanks to massive Mormon influence, netball).

The yearly march downtown, for the opening of Parliament (such as it is). Our brass band lead the way. We had a week of marching practice that I knew would benefit from some intensity, but I didn't know how to say "drop and give me fifty, you maggots!" in Tongan.

Waiting for the reagent to drive by to open Parliament, the kids show how much they love to pose for the camera, with no fear that it may steal their souls.

The school's coolest girl (last year's head girl) naturally posing with the school's coolest boy (who asked me to stand in for him while he went to the toilet).

This photo was taken today! This is my Form 4 Gym class, the only intermediate class I taught in my whole time here (I'm a senior teacher). I typically joined in whatever sport I taught (including three weeks of Ultimate Frisbee!). Highlights included racing them all in a lap of the track, learning to skip double dutch (well, trying to learn), and playing about nine weeks of volleyball (can I blame Mormons for that?). It was MASSIVE fun.

Truly the highlight of my time in Tonga was the school, which is fortunate because it's the whole reason I was sent here! Teaching in Tonga is a joy, and for the students learning is a privilege, which made for a great combination.

25 October 2009

UPDATE: Volcano video

With a new internet connection, I was finally able to upload a video I took at the mouth of Mt Yasur in Vanuatu. Video worked much better then pictures, further evidence that I could have had some good pictures if I had mastered the camera's settings.

24 October 2009

The Tonga Beard Experience

When I was in high school, as my smooth-as-a-baby's-bottom-faced friends jealously watched, I grew a beard through sheer force of will. And I never looked back.

Its been a decade since that first face fuzz, and it's suddenly occurred to me - through all the beard variations I've sported, never have I grown the full beard (the neck, face, and mustache, which some might call "the lazy man"). I blame social pressure to not look like a hobo. This style of beard requires a special combination of curiosity, patience, laziness.

But with three months left in my teaching contract in Tonga (in the South Pacific), I could think of no better time to grow a "Robinson Crusoe" before I left the island paradise. Making my location even more ideal for the experiment is the fact that there are no bearded hobos here! In fact, there are hardly any bearded men at all (or unbearded hobos, for that matter). Normally such an experiment would also require an ignorance of social conventions, or a willingness not to cave to social pressure. But I'm lucky enough to find myself in a culture that considers the beard a sign of virility and manliness. Although my cup overfloweth with these qualities already, I decided to risk the chance of overdose and grow a massive beard.

Thus on Friday 4 September, in anticipation of my return to Canada on Tuesday 1 December, I began the Tonga Dan Three Month Beard Experiment.

The blank slate

The experiment was off to a grand start. I shaved my face, to provide a fresh canvas for my hormones to do their thing on. By a week into the experiment, I had already grown what would take many "men" the full three months to accomplish. In fact, just two days after I started and announced the beard experiment, I already began to get comments and compliments.

The comments were usually "isn't your face itchy?" These comments came from women, who (hopefully) had no beard growing experience and instead bowed to the "conventional wisdom" on the subject. On this point, though, they were correct. It was like wearing itchy. I knew this stage would not last forever, though, and just focused on the rewards to get through it.

Compliments typically ran along the lines of "wow, you can grow a beard really FAST!" Now it's not quite the same as "wow, you can run really FAST!" or even "wow, you can eat really FAST!" This is a race that seemingly requires no practice, and can be run at any time (or even all the time). I like to do my hardest beard growing while asleep, but every athlete has their own particular preference.

And they were right, too. I'd probably have to shave twice a day if I ever wanted to be clean shaven. I imagine somewhere way back, there were a whole lot of hairy cavemen in my family tree. The kind who had lots of babies in Siberia thanks to their "super hairy" adaptation. In high school I just stopped fighting it and embraced it as a gift. If you have the ability to grow a ridiculously awesome beard, shouldn't you do so? To not would be like Mr. Fantastic saying "I could turn off the lights with my stretchy arm, but I think I'll just get out of bed and walk to the switch." Madness!

Two and a half weeks into the experiment, my beard was out of control. It was big, and thick, and it was still very itchy. Frankly, I looked like a hobo. And so, one day, after telling a friend that I would "never shave it off!" I shaved it off. If he knew, Mr. Fantastic would slap me with his super stretchy arm.