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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.