Peace Corps Tonga, my group of volunteers off on our new adventure
My parents brought me up confident in my ability to do anything I wanted and equally confident that I was smart enough to make things happen. Ask anyone who knows me, I don’t lack for confidence . . . most of the time, anyway. In the second half of my life I chose to leave everything I knew behind and join the Peace Corps. Some of my friends thought I was crazy, others though I was brave. I didn’t think I was either. I was looking for an adventure, and I was confident I’d find it if I put my heart and soul into making it happen.
So, off I went. My dad took me to the airport and he so wanted to help me carry my luggage inside, but I reminded him I’d have to start hauling it myself soon and I might as well start now. I flew from the East Coast to Seattle where my group had their staging. It wasn’t really training so much as a chance to get to know the rest of the group. There were thirty of us, ages 21 through the early 70s. So, turns out I wasn’t the oldest one after all. The next leg of our trip took us to Hawaii, but the plane we were to be on from there to Tonga was grounded. We had a layover of twenty-seven hours and were given a hotel room and meal vouchers by the airline.
Arizona Memorial At the top of Diamond Head Sky Tower, Auckland Looking straight down
An unexpected adventure. We filled those hours with as much as we could, starting with a trip to the Arizona Memorial. Then half of us hiked up Diamond Head for a spectacular view of Honolulu and finally just five of us ended our busy day with a swim at Waikiki Beach. Then it was back to the hotel for dinner before catching a late night flight to Auckland, New Zealand. By the time we got to Auckland it was the day before again – we’d crossed the International Date Line and it was morning. We had only an eight-hour layover this time, but once again, there was an opportunity not to be missed. Setting off for downtown Auckland, we headed straight for the Sky Tower and took the elevator to the observation deck. The view was magnificent in all directions. All of Auckland harbor and the islands that dot it as well as the city itself. There were even glass panels to stand on and look straight down. Just my kind of fun. After returning to ground level, we headed to the harbor and found dozens of neat places to eat along the waterfront. Then it was time to head back to the airport.
It was dusk as we landed at Fua’amotu International Airport on the main island of Tonga. Out the tiny of windows of the airplane we could see the graceful palm trees silhouetted by the setting sun. It was a beautiful sight. What was not so welcome was the heat that attacked us as soon as we stepped from the air-conditioned cabin of our Air New Zealand jet. I’d been playing in the snow with my grandson just a week earlier. Seattle had been chilly and damp. Even Hawaii was in its winter mode with seasonably comfortable temperatures. Tonga was south of the equator and in the middle of summer.
Landing at Foua'amotu Airport Finding our luggage and clearing customs
Tonga does not boast an air-conditioned airport, nor jetways to get into and out of the plane. I climbed down the stairs toward that steaming tarmac, closer and closer to the heat that had been stored up there all day. The terminal was no better. Several big ceiling fans lazily stirred the air as Tongans hauled suitcases off the conveyor as fast as they appeared, piling them into a mountain in the middle of the room. One had to be half billygoat to find and claim your luggage. Then there was a very slow line to clear customs. Finally, after what felt like hours in a sauna, we emerged into the now completely dark night. The air was soft and welcoming, and that’s where my Peace Corps adventure began. Greeting us just beyond the barriers were dozens of smiling faces and we were adorned with kahoas (leis) fragrant with dozens of blossoms and lovingly made for us personally.
Piling into a bus like nothing I’d ever seen with seats that folded into the aisles once the permanent seats were full, we were soon on our way to the guest house where we would be staying for the next week. That night, as I lay spread eagle on my bed beneath a fan that was as lazy as those at the airport, I pondered how very far I was from home and how very different my life was going to be for the next two years. I was on the other side of the world, on the other side of the equator, in a culture very different than the one I was familiar with. It was hotter than anything I’d experienced before, but one thing was already clear – the Tongans were the most welcoming, happy people I’d ever met. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” played in my head as I fell asleep that night. The adventure I’d been seeking was already unfolding.
My home Stay family Sapa'ata, my first home Vava'u - my home for 2 years
For more about my adventures in Tonga, see the Peace Corps Tab at the top of the page or click here: Peace Corps