Change is inevitable-especially in the Peace Corps. This being my fourth year, I already expect it. Heck, I even tend to welcome it. It’s almost like it’s better to just accept things coming and going, breaking and working, appearing and disappearing, etc., etc. So when I went from more than three years in Peace Corps Romania to another year with the organization as a volunteer with Peace Corps Response for the Kingdom of Tonga, I expected to be challenged somewhat by the cultural divide. I readied myself for a bit of disorientation, frustration, disconnect, after being ingrained in the Romanian cultural experience for so long. Now I would assume a new role in the South Pacific with a different set of responsibilities in a far-flung region of the world-a truly foreign life.
I really though that it would be such a stretch to go from “old” Romania, not skipping a beat at all to revisit my own home in America after this long tour, but jetting like an odyssey over most of the world on five flights to get to an immediate restart in this Polynesian archipelago. The only country in this region never to be taken over by foreign rule, the Kingdom of Tonga still has traditions which reflect the values and the flavor of times traceable thousands of years back, yet I am already meeting families and children who are so different on the outside, but are like a warm, close relative on the inside-Tongan life as I see it now is a blessing.
On Sundays, you’ve never heard such beautiful tones resounding from each and every church in every corner of the kingdom. There are fruits of every tropical persuasion, vegetables and fish which I’ve not tasted the pleasure of in years and others which I’ve never seen, many things to learn, customs to admire and products which I could buy anywhere in America (Canadian maple syrup, English ginger marmalade, birthday candles, safety pins, shower curtains-so many things that I couldn’t find easily or at all in Romania). The people look and dress conservatively, moving always with an air of lilt and happiness. I can hear conversations in Japanese, Korean, Fijian, Mandarin, Samoan, Indonesian, Hindi or English and Tongan (Tongan and English are both the official languages)-quite often in the same sentence. Aussie, Kiwi or Brit accents are common. The Pacific radio channels, the sounds of the neighborhood pig grunting, or the unique sound of the wind in the coconut palms are all nice voices to wake up and go to sleep by. The sandy shores, the sunsets, the clear and tepid sea, the whales who come back every year to nurture their young and the ancient archaeological places are all a part of the charm.
Tonga is really so different than my years in Romania. Romanian life had harsh winters. I rode the train from place to place frequently while trying to avoid the overcrowded and oppressively hot (or freezing) microbuses which are usually shared with chickens, the occasional sheep or goat. It was the worst when everyone screamed “cur-RAHNT!” at the top of their lungs as a warning of evil aural monsters about to attack with a deadly, imaginary pneumonia-like affliction when I tried to open the window for some air just before I was sure I’d throw up. There were times when I felt that I’d never want to see another head of cabbage in my life. And other times when everyday chores became week long activities. Something simple like finding a picture hanging nail, a hairbrush, a roll of aluminum foil or other essential item at the local store was like trying to find a watermelon in the desert. It just wasn’t possible. Even so, very fondly, it was the scenery, the tradition, the life and the people whom I forged friendships with there, that will forever be a part of me.
Tonga is different in other ways, too. Although they are isolated by geography, the people here have a good grasp on what is going on in the rest of the world. Their cultural savvy for other places goes beyond the classrooms. Certainly, though, it is first and foremost an island nation, with a culture, family life and heaps of ceremony unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It’s a taste of that which I only dreamed about before. Despite that, it is still somehow a bit familiar to me. Coming from Charleston, South Carolina, the climate, the relaxed atmosphere, the influx of visitors, international foods, global influences, it’s almost alike. Surprisingly, in many aspects, as with Charleston, Tonga fits like a favorite sweater. The people are warm and friendly-they are the people of the “Friendly Islands” after all and Charleston is known as “The Friendliest City in America.”
After only three days here, although I’d just been sworn in as a Peace Corps Response volunteer, I reached for my new handmade kie kie (a required item of formal clothing for women which is draped around the waist) sewn by the talents of a Tongan craftswoman, it was second nature. Already, I’d become accustomed to the transition. Already one of the norms of Tongan life fit so naturally. Already, I didn’t flinch at how I’d begin to feel with all the newness or the changes I would need to adapt to being here. Already, that great distance between my home and here was becoming less so. In the vast expanse aside the blue horizon, this place is beginning to feel closer to home; a place where another chapter of my Peace Corps life will be written, a place where someday, I will sadly have to say goodbye to many friends as I had done in Romania. As I finish this story, I reach for a fresh, green coconut, poke a hole in one of the top three “eyes” with a knife, insert the striped, plastic flexi-straw (available in stores everywhere) then take a good, long sip of the healthy, cool milk inside. Second nature.
*Natalie Montanaro earned a masters degree in ESOL, Latin and foreign language education from the College of Charleston, South Carolina, USA, 2006. She is a returned Peace Corps volunteer, after successfully completing three years of extended service in Romania as a Peace Corps TEFL volunteer and an additional term of six months in the critical needs sector as a teacher trainer with Peace Corps Response in the Kingdom of Tonga. She is currently a visiting foreign expert teacher for the School of Finance at the Chongqing Technology and Business University in Chongqing, People’s Republic of China. You can view her professional profile at: www.linkedin.com/in/nataliemontanaro for more information on traveling, studying. working and serving abroad.