Tag Archives: Tonga

Building Bridges to the Future

I just finished teaching the first 10-week term at Ocean of Light International Schools in Tonga’s capital of Nuku‘alofa last Friday. It’s like no other experience I’ve had in my 30+ years in the classroom.

Ocean of Light International Schools

Ocean of Light International Schools in Nuku‘alofa, Tonga. Click on this photo to read more about the school. • Credit: Ocean of Light International Schools

Every Monday morning the whole school meets together, students sitting on mats on the floor, and begins the day with a devotional of beautiful singing and inspirational thoughts. Throughout the week, this ritual is continued in each individual homeroom class, not only at the beginning of the day, but also at the end of the day.

As you can see in this video, the students wear traditional Tongan uniforms. The girls wear skirts with a blouse tucked in and a kiekie, usually made of woven pandanus palm leaves, which resembles an apron that goes all the way around the skirt. Girls must wear their hair in braids with yellow ribbons. The boys wear shirts tucked inside their tupenu, a wrap-around skirt, over which they wear a taʻovala, a solid mat also made from pandanus palm leaves. The taʻovala the boys wear at school are woven from nylon since they are less expensive than those woven from palm leaves. Each school on the island has their own colors so you can determine which school students attend by the colors of their uniforms. The colors of Ocean of Light International Schools are yellow and blue. Both boys and girls wear sandals for shoes. Flip flops are not allowed.

My school offers educational programs for students as young as three years old up through high school. It’s run by the Bahá’ís of Tonga. The Bahá’í Faith and its teachings provide the foundation for the school. One of the essential principles of the Bahá’í Faith is the belief in “unity in diversity” and the need to establish communities free of all forms of prejudice. As such, students and staff of all religious, cultural, socio-economic and linguistic backgrounds are welcome at the school and all are treated equally.


Bahá’í Principles • Credit: vivaciousvjr via Pinterest.com

All classes are taught in English, but there are several students who speak no or very little English. Most of the students’ native languages at home are Tongan or Chinese. There are several students whose parents are from New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and India.

The majority of the students are extremely respectful and well-behaved. They are not allowed to have cell phones or other mobile devices on campus.


Students at Ocean of Light International Schools • Credit: Ocean of Light International Schools

I teach Information and Communication Technology (ICT) using a curriculum based on the Cambridge International Examination Program. My biggest challenge is the technology, or better put, the lack of technology at the school. When I first arrived there were nine computers in the lab that actually worked. Now I have 20 that work most of the time. (Some classes have as many as 35 students.)

OOL Computer Lab

The school’s computer lab within view of a coconut plantation.

Last week, there was no Internet and the server was down since the main building where it was located had no electricity. There is one laptop computer for all the teachers to share as well as one projector. None of the teachers have their own computers in the classrooms so a few usually come to use computers in the lab during their recess or lunch time.

There is no air-conditioning in the school. The first two weeks of school were absolutely miserable with heat. (I was ready to quit after three days!) A cyclone blew through in the end of February and cooled things off a bit. The summer heat has finally abated. I am told that February and March are the hottest months here. Remember, Tonga is in the Southern Hemisphere, so we are in autumn–the equivalence of October in the Northern Hemisphere.

With no air conditioning, the computer lab is open to the outside. Dust, humidity and insects take their toll on the equipment.

With no air conditioning, the computer lab is open to the outside elements. Dust, humidity and insects take their toll on the equipment.

And to make matters even more challenging, the second ICT teacher left in the middle of the term to teach at another school, leaving me to teach all the classes, Grades 3-12, as well as to maintain the computer network.

Despite the challenges, I do enjoy teaching at the school.

I love this quote by Nikos Kazantazkis: “True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.”

At the end of the day I joyfully collapse, in hopes that I will be able to help these students build a bridge to their future.

“Better and Better.”

Sūsana and I left Tonga in early November to return temporarily to the United States. After a month in the Kingdom, we had fallen in love with Tonga and were sad to walk out on the tarmac at Fua‘amotu International Airport to board the waiting jet to Auckland.

Air New Zealand Boeing 767 parked at Tonga's Fua‘amotu International Airport. • Courtesy jokertrekker

Air New Zealand Boeing 767 loading passengers at Tonga’s Fua‘amotu International Airport on Tongatapu Island • Credit: Jokertrekker

Seeing the “Welcome to the Kingdom of Tonga!” sign that greets arriving passengers only served to heighten our awareness of leaving this beautiful place. I got a lump in my throat as I read, “Mālō e Lelei” in big letters, “Hello,” in Tongan.

“I’m going to miss Tonga,” I told Sūsana as we approached the roll-away stairs. “It feels like home and I wish that we didn’t have to leave.” I vowed silently to myself that we would be back.

"Malo e Lelei" welcomes visitors to the Kingdom of Tonga • Courtesy Lindsey Christine

Mālō e Lelei” welcomes visitors to the Kingdom of Tonga • Credit: Lindsey Christine

In the States, we visited family and friends; applied for Tongan employment visas; house-sat for six weeks in Wellington, Florida; concluded our fall/winter/holiday butterfly season; then sold our car, picked up two more suitcases from storage and filled each with clothes and supplies. Soon enough we were on our way back to Tonga, content to have tied up so many loose ends and very thrilled to be going to our new home.

I worked for American Airlines to have flight benefits upon retirement. This is the only reason that Sūsana and I can afford to travel as much as we do. The downside is that we fly standby and can only board when there are empty seats. We’ve learned to be flexible, resilient and to have multiple back-up plans.

Leaving Florida, we flew from Gainesville to Raleigh, North Carolina, via Charlotte. From there we flew to Salt Lake City, Utah, via Philadelphia. From Salt Lake we flew to Honolulu, Hawai‘i, via Los Angeles. All six flights were on American and we got on all six without having to wait for the next available flight: a minor miracle, to say the least.

From Honolulu to Auckland, we were scheduled to fly on Hawaiian Airlines and we almost did not get on. In fact, we were the last two passengers boarded. The nine-hour flight across the Pacific was uneventful. We were grateful to arrive in New Zealand to stretch our legs as we explored favorite stores and restaurants in a now-familiar place, this being our third Auckland layover since October.

We arrived in Auckland late on Tuesday, 19 January. Our flight to Tonga did not leave until 9:35 the next morning. Air New Zealand opened their ticket counter at 4:00 am and we got in line to report in and weigh our bags. Graham, tagged our bags and delivered the discouraging news that the flight was oversold by 14 passengers. He told us to return at 8:30 am to see if anything had changed.

Shortly after 8:00 am, we were back in Graham’s line. When it was our turn, we tentatively asked him how it was looking for the flight to Tonga. His response sent us soaring, “It’s looking better and better by the minute.” He then printed our boarding passes and sent us to bag drop and on to the gate.

During the past week and a half that we have been in Tonga, whenever a serendipitous moment strikes such as discovering a jar of Mexican salsa in a local store or the rental car agency giving a weekend discount (three days for the price of one) or the landlady lowering the rent without us having asked, we look at each other and quote Graham with a smile, “It’s looking better and better by the minute.”

Mālō e lelei and welcome home! School starts Monday.

When Life Hands You Lemons, Bring on the Lemonade

Sūsana and I spent this spring and summer preparing for 27 months of Peace Corps service in Tonga. We shopped for luggage, clothes and supplies. It consumed our thoughts and actions most days. We tied up loose ends as we looked forward to making a difference in a beautiful part of the world.

I retired from American Airlines in March, the same day Sūsana returned from eight months of Peace Corps Response service in El Salvador. I picked her up in Miami after working my last shift and we celebrated with steak, grilled asparagus and chocolate cake at a favorite restaurant.

Susana teaching butterfly biology in El Salvador during her service with Peace Corps Response. Click on this photo to read about her experience.

Susana teaching butterfly biology in El Salvador during her service with Peace Corps Response. Click on this photo to read about her experience.

Renting a car in Salt Lake City in April, we traveled 6,000 miles through eight western states, taking two months to visit family and friends, many of whom we had not seen in decades.

In June, we sorted through personal belongings and consolidated everything into 75 square feet of climate-controlled storage.

By July, we had traveled to Spain, one of our favorite destinations, to participate in a week of Pueblo Inglés, a total-immersion English program for Spaniards with intermediate and advanced language skills.

Hotel Doña Teresa in La Alberca, Spain, our favorite Pueblo Inglés venue.

Hotel Doña Teresa in La Alberca, Spain, our favorite Pueblo Inglés venue. Click on this photo to read about volunteer opportunities at Pueblo Inglés • Credit: Diverbo

Later that month found us house-sitting in Costa Rica on a lush 26-acre estate in the Orosi Valley, taking care of four parrots, chasing blue morpho butterflies along the cascading Rio Negro and enjoying the ¡Pura vida! lifestyle.

Then our Peace Corps plans crashed and burned. Word from Washington arrived the last day of July that I was not medically cleared for Peace Corps service. I appealed and lost.

Over the next six weeks, I continued to importune Peace Corps to allow me to accompany Sūsana to Tonga. Multiple positive medical opinions from my long-time physician failed to change their minds. By mid-September, with our Peace Corps group already two weeks into pre-service training, it became clear that Peace Corps service wasn’t going to happen.

What do you do when life hands you lemons? You squeeze them, add a little sugar and make lemonade, of course. That’s just what we did.

We bought tickets to Tonga to create our own adventure. We arrived in early October and have spent the past month falling in love with this place.

Turquoise Wave at Blow Holes

A turquoise wave crashing ashore at Tonga’s Blow Holes near Houma on the main island of Tongatapu.

Tonga is tranquil. Tonga is peaceful. Tonga is the epitome of relaxation with tropical breezes and Polynesian sunsets, a different masterpiece in pastels each evening with the melodious call of wattled honeyeaters in the bush as twilight falls on the kingdom.

Tonga is its people. They’re friendly. They’re polite. They laugh heartily. They sing into the night in multi-part harmonies.

Tongan landlady and her granddaughter

Our Tongan landlady and her granddaughter dressed in Sunday best.

There’s a church across an open field from our house, perhaps a quarter-mile away. We hear the choir practicing every Saturday night as we play cards on our front porch. They sing Sunday mornings and during Sunday afternoon services. Most Wednesday evenings they are back at it, filling our world with angelic praises.

Two doors down from us, a group of Tongan visitors from New Zealand laughed and sang into the early morning hours as we fell asleep a few nights ago. Far from being disturbed by their merry-making, we were lulled once again by the rhythms of Tongan life.

Our future in Tonga is starting to take shape. Last week, Sūsana was appointed senior information and communications technology (ICT) teacher at Ocean of Light International Schools. She starts her two-year contract in January.

Ocean of Light International Schools

Ocean of Light International Schools in Nuku‘alofa, Tonga. Click on this photo to read more about the school. • Credit: Ocean of Light International Schools

Ocean of Light is the premier K-12 school in Tonga and the only one in the kingdom with an international curriculum. Plantations of coconut, papaya and breadfruit surround the peaceful campus three kilometers (1.9 miles) west of Nuku‘alofa, Tonga’s capital. I’ve signed an agreement to volunteer at the school on a regular basis. We’ve applied for employment visas in Tonga to make our residency official.

So, we’re creating our own Peace Corps-like adventure in Tonga. We will still make a difference in this beautiful part of the world. Had we come here with Peace Corps, we would have been assigned a site and told where to live. We would have been restricted in our movements and transportation options. We would have had pages of rules to follow. For us, it’s better this way.

Life’s lemons are indeed a gift. Squeeze vigorously. Sugar abundantly. Sip, savor and smile.

Tongan Stature, Perfect Timing and the Sweet Symphony of Life

Like the recurring themes of a symphony, life has a way of reprising melodies, descants and rhythms in later movements. Thirty five years ago today, Sūsana and I met and, for me, it was love-at-first-sight. For her, it took a while longer.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra • Credit: VSO

But, stop the orchestra! I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s rewind this tune back 12 days.

One cold evening in late January, I saw her at the time clock of the language school where we both taught. It was easy to tell that she was on the Spanish faculty like me because her name tag sported a red background. So mesmerized by Sūsana and so delighted that we both spoke Spanish, I forgot to actually read her name. After exchanging hellos in passing, I also failed to find her timecard among the hundreds in the rack.

Her smile was intoxicating and I realized moments after she left that this was the same lady who had playfully winked at me days earlier in the corridor. She claims that she winked at all the male teachers. I’ve never believed it for a minute and maintain that her wink was just for me–that one, at least.

Thus began the most agonizing 12 days of my existence. For nearly two weeks I actively watched for this mystery co-ed on campus, at work, while shopping–anywhere and everywhere–with no success. She was driving me crazy!

It turned out that she normally taught during the day, but on that one occasion she had exchanged shifts with an evening instructor. So our paths didn’t cross again until the 12th of February.

Sweet relief came during a linguistics class, specifically devised for us total-immersion language teachers, watching Professor Taylor draw his lecture on a transparency sitting  on the illuminated glass of an overhead projector. (Google “overhead projector.” The way we measure time with technological advances, it was eons ago.) Classroom lights were dimmed during his presentation.

Overhead Projector

Overhead Projector • Credit: Wikipedia Commons

When the lights came back on, there she was, sitting just a few seats away and one row back. She wasn’t there before, so she must have arrived late to class. But, there she was now and that’s all that mattered.

I don’t recall anything that transpired in class after that moment. All my academic fervor was directed toward devising a strategy of getting to the door before she did, so that I could casually greet her after class. I didn’t want anyone in the room to buttonhole me while she escaped again, so I had to be strategically placed.

She was not going to get away that night without me discovering her name. Anything we happened to say to each other after that would be icing on the cake.

Class ended. I worked my plan and positioned myself in the hallway, then waited. She finally walked through the door. I smiled, said hello and we stood and talked for perhaps ten minutes in spite of the fact that her “boyfriend” was at her elbow and wouldn’t take her hints that he could, “Go on to class,” and that she would be along shortly.

I didn’t care! Boyfriend or no boyfriend, I had to know who this chick was so I could call her later and ask her out.

Finally, I got her name and, as I started to breathe easier with my mission accomplished, our small talk rambled into medium-sized talk, then into Tongan-sized talk.

Yes, it’s true! In that first conversation one of us brought up the naturally large stature of Tongans (you really can’t make this stuff up) and we chewed that fat for a while.

Queen Sālote of Tonga

H.M. Queen Sālote Mafile‘o Pilolevu Tupou III, who reigned as Tonga’s elegant sovereign from 1918 to 1965, stood a stately 6-feet 3-inches (1.91m) tall. Beloved of her people, Queen Sālote was also a renowned poet and song writer. Click on this photo to read more about Queen Sālote, including an example of her poetry in both English and Tongan. • Credit: State Library of Victoria

I located her listing later that evening in the student directory, called her up, asked her out and we had our first date that weekend. Only four months and two days passed from that first conversation about Tongans and such to the day on which we became Mr. and Mrs.

Our courtship was agile adagio and while we paced ourselves with mostly perfect meter toward the second movement, friends kept asking us what was taking so long.

So here we are, 35 years later, preparing to teach in Tonga, the land of our first discussion. Coincidence or serendipity? Cause or effect? Whimsey or just whatever? Or is it perhaps a recurring theme in the sweet symphony of life?

Ponder that thought and remember to hold the applause for last. Next movement’s about to start.

“I’m delighted to invite you to serve …”

TWO EMAILS ARRIVED this afternoon on a tropical breeze and splashed down softly in our lagoon, rippling the surface. Mine read,

“Dear David,

“Congratulations! On behalf of the entire Peace Corps family, I’m delighted to invite you to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga. You’ve been selected to serve as a Primary Education English Teacher, departing August 31, 2015.”

My wife, Suzanne, received a similar invitation to serve in Tonga as a Primary Education Teacher Trainer.

After brief instructions on how to accept the call, the message concluded,

“Again, congratulations!
Carrie Hessler-Radelet
Peace Corps Director”

Logo of the U.S. Peace Corps

Suzanne and I were in El Salvador when the news arrived. She’s completing a short-term assignment for Peace Corps Response as the resident lepidopterist at a touristic butterfly zoo. I happened to be visiting her during a few days off work in Miami.

Within mere seconds, our ship set a new course toward the South Pacific. As a following wind filled the main sail, we grabbed each other’s hands and jumped up and down chanting, “We’re going to Tonga! We’re going to Tonga!”

What began as ripples of excitement roared ashore in a crash of seawater, foam and salt spray. It’s what we wanted. It’s what we hoped for. We’re ecstatic and look forward to the challenge of learning a new language, the delight of meeting new people and the pleasure of serving together in a place we’ve never seen except through photographs, others’ writings and in our own imaginations.

Islands of Ha‘apai Group, Tonga

Tatafa Islet in front of ‘Uiha Island, Ha‘apai Group, Tonga

Bookmark this journal titled with our Tongan names, Tēvita and Sūsana, and join us on our South Seas adventure for 27 months. It should be quite a voyage!