January 3, 2004 - Personal Web Site: Sandy Mackintosh's Essays on her life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tonga: Peace Corps Tonga : The Peace Corps in Tonga: January 3, 2004 - Personal Web Site: Sandy Mackintosh's Essays on her life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-151-196-188-54.balt.east.verizon.net - on Wednesday, March 03, 2004 - 5:29 pm: Edit Post

Sandy Mackintosh's Essays on her life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga

Sandy Mackintosh's Essays on her life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga



I met Malakai `Ofa Vakananumi Finau in 1969. Numi was from Kolofo'ou where he lived with his two older sisters. Then, he was a bright-eyed and inquisitive 11th grader at Tupou College, and the kind of student every teacher hopes to have in his classroom. Numi was determined to excel at everything he set out to accomplish, and he always devoted more effort than was expected in order to do so. Though my Tongan was fluent, during the time we spent together outside the classroom he always insisted we use English so he could hone his skill and expand his vocabulary...and learn more of those tricky little English colloquialisms. When we was working on an essay, he would often stop by my "fale" (house) in the evening to spend a couple of hours refining the work he'd already done, and to "po talanoa" (pleasure chat) if I could persuade him to switch to Tongan since MY second language needed help, too. He had aspirations of studying abroad, either medicine or theology, and there was no doubt in my mind at the time that he'd succeed. His two sisters both had good jobs and had assumed Numi's goals as their own: they were saving for their brother's overseas education. They, too, saw the tremendous potential that Numi represented.

A few years after I left Tonga, I learned that Numi had drowned in some sort of a boating accident. I was devastated. My heart ached for his family. I could not dry my own eyes for weeks. The world had lost a truly good person and would be the worse for it. I never did learn the details of the tragedy, nor have I ever forgotten one of the finest people I've ever known.


About forty percent of my "`api" (homestead) at Toloa was devoted to garden: kumala, manioke, 'ufi, beans, tomatoes, peanuts, lettuce, okra and much, much more depending on the season. The garden was not only a source of pride and a place to exert excess energy, but it was prolific in providing versatility to the dinner table. Daily attention kept the rows free of weeds, the baskets full of mature goods and the next phase of seeds planted. Of continuous irritation, however, was my neighbor's female pig which daily sought the root crops I had so carefully been tending. At first, I resorted to a rapid approach while shouting and waving my arms to chase the persistent pig away. There was initial success, but the pig always came back when my back was turned. The next step was suggested by the ever-present WW II-vintage airport runway steel. I built a fence. At first, the pig was thwarted by this new challenge, but soon discovered that a little digging would gain her access to the bounty just beyond its boundry. I went back to shouting and waving my arms, but the pig always came back. Le'openi, my neighbor and the pig's owner, though concerned at my distress, was amused at my antics over his pig's persistence, and how could I blame him' After all, pigs go where they know they'll find food and no amount of input from me was going to change that.

One afternoon, after a particularly frustrating morning in the classroom, I was reading in my "fale" (house) when I heard the familiar sound of snout probing cultivated soil. Incensed, I bolted out the door, snatched up the backbone of a palm frond and began swinging it in uncontrollable anger at the pig. Before I came to my senses, I had struck the poor swine several times, and she died before my eyes. The eventual realization of what I had done literally brought me to my knees in shame. The short, unsteady walk next door to inform Le'openi of his loss was the "longest" walk of my life. I was never to live down the severity of my thoughtlessness.

The following day, Le'openi had an impromptu "fakaafe" (feast) for a couple of dozen of the "kau faiako" (teachers), and as the "`umu" (earth oven) was deprived of its contents, the host directed the pig's head be served to me.

[NOTE: the pig's head at a "fakaafe" is traditionally reserved for the "guest of honor". I was never able to determine whether Le'openi meant the gesture as an ironic twist, or as an honest attempt to assure me that "all is well" between us despite my stupidity. The seriousness of my act is rooted in the fact that a pig, particularly a female, represents a tremendous source of wealth and income in Tonga.]


The Honorable Ve'ehala once told us a story to help explain the concept of "to'a" and the Tongan dedication to exemplifying national superiority. It seems there was a tree climbing competition between a Tongan and a Samoan, the object being the ascent of a coconut tree and subsequent return to the ground with the first to have his feet on the earth being declared the winner. As the Tongan reached the top and touched a nut, as required by the rules, he noticed out of the corner of his eye that the Samoan was already a third of the way back down his tree. Immediately, and without regard for the preservation of the skin on his arms, chest and legs, the Tongan loosened his grip on the tree enough to slide rapidly down like a fireman down a pole, thus winning the competition, but necessitating considerable medical attention (which, presumably, he declined).

TONGA: Sights, Sounds and Smells

...the aroma in the air of the morning breakfast fires

...the sight of the village's cooking fire smoke as it hovers over the ground and mixes with the morning mist

...riding home in the school Land Rover on cool evenings and, as we pass through villages, having to dodge people and livestock who sit in the road to gain benefit from the day's warmth stored within the pavement

...swarming sparrows around the 'api at precisely 4 PM each day (thus driving my cats crazy!)

...Sunday morning church GONGS and drum THUMPS

...exquisite four-part harmony from every congregation in the nation

...the two-mile walk on crushed coral to the nearest bus stop

...waiting for the bus

...the treat of a 35-seniti hamipeka at the Tungi Arcade...with mei chips!

...in town: Mimi Mokes and ve'e tolus sputtering around everywhere

...the long walk back down the crushed coral road from the bus stop, now laden with baskets of the month's groceries

...night voices coming from the darkness of the distant road: 'Saniti! Tau o fai kava!'

...my inevitable response: 'Yo-o-o-o-o-o...tali mai!'

...smiling, brown faces atop white shirts and black valas in my classroom

...students playing marbles, or 'lasi katia', before lunch

...barefoot rugby, as competitive as anywhere in the world

...hangin' out at the fale koloa while Siua Helu chops up a sipi 'aisi

...Tevita's school band blasting notes and enveloping the campus from within their practice hut

...haka for dinner: the fruits of my own garden and the cooking by Saia

...the kau ngaue arrives to cut our lawn...with hele lahi, only

...a neighbor sends over a basket of mango (we have no mango tree on our 'api)

...the mixed aromas of food spread over the poula at a fakaafe: lu pulu, lu 'ika, tunu puake, moa, 'uo (rarely, for we're in the 'uta!), feke...anyone hungry'

...reading by kerosene lamp

...helping Numi and Saia with their English essays late at night...due the next day. We waste a lot of time he po talanoa...but, so what'

...'Boat Day' in Nuku'alofa: swarms of underdressed pa'alangis buying ngaahi kato pea mo e fo'i poupau at the makeshift 'market'

...I sneak aboard ship (the 'Canberra', perhaps') and con a sympathetic Aussi into buying a 'poor, deprived Peace Corps Volunteer' drinks at the bar for the rest of the afternoon

...the early morning walk to class across the dew-covered rugby fields: my flip flops keep slipping off my feet from the moisture as I walk

...learning to 'sit' modestly while wearing a vala

...an 'aa po: sitting up all night with the deceased mother of a fellow faiako

...the solemn funeral the following day

...empty Steinlager bottles, overturned, surrounding all the mounds of sand

...ta'ovalas that reach from head to toe: the ultimate in reverence

...first birthdays: kai ke mate!

...The unending flow of popoakeni from Tonga Radio to every village in the country

...the ultimate proof of truth (aside from the Bible, of course): 'Na'e tala mai he letio...'

...Taniela Tupou, along with his sister, rolling his tobacco to prepare for sale so they'll have school fees. My fingers stink for a week.

...the giggle of joy and delight as Samiu Tuopu, the school faifekau, is amused by his own humor

...the kau VSA consuming Vegemite and Marmite: ugh!

...during a hurricane, neighbors descend on our fale to deposit banana suckers at the peak of the roof to keep it in place. Now, why didn't I think of that'

...the storm rages all day and night. We huddle in the safety of our little faletonga.

...A trip to Vava'u: while awaiting departure from Fa'ua Wharf, Tongans consume mass quantities of food knowing they'll be too sick later to eat.

...shortly out of Nuku'alofa harbor, the aroma of seasickness is unmistakable and unrelenting; the boat seems to stay on a 45 degree angle

...on the trip home aboard the 'Ata, a hurricane at sea and I almost lose my wife overboard (she was grabbed at the very last second by an alert crew member!)

...I had eaten some raw tuna caught on leaving Neiafu harbor: my own seasickness was unmistakable and unrelenting during the storm

...tour completed, leaving Tonga: my tears would have filled a dozen bathtubs


It was January in 1970 and one of those perfect summer days in Neiafu Harbor: pure blue sky, a slight breeze and temperatures in the high 80s with humidity approaching a hundred percent. The MV 'Ata was due to leave for Nuku'alofa 'sometime before lunch'...as close an estimate as Tongan shipping scheduling ever got in those days...and the wharf was bustling with the activity of loading even when we arrived at 8 AM. Our friends from Ofu had come to see us off, and to lament with us through our mutual tears the end of our three-week visit to their little island located about a hundred years from the commercialism and conveniences of Neiafu. Finally, we boarded to await the eventual departure which could happen with, or without, warning any time over the next several hours. Our 'deck passage' status allowed us free reign of all surfaces on board that were exposed to the sky, so we staked a claim to a spot on the after deck where there was room for our sleeping mats. This was to be a trip of about 24 hours.

As we steamed out of Neiafu Harbor across the absolutely placid water, we trailed, as usual, a couple of fishing lines...just in case there might be a fish out there who hadn't noticed the lures were following a 65-foot government fishing vessel. I had been on several inter-island voyages in the past and had never, yet, witnessed a fish being caught on one of these lines. This trip was different. Before we even got out of the harbor, we hauled aboard a 55-pound tuna! Excitement among the crew and passengers was rampant as the knives came out and slices of the raw tuna were passed around to anyone who wished some. I had never eaten raw tuna, but decided to give it a try if, for nothing else, the experience alone. My wife was less adventurous. I found the uncooked meat a little tough to chew, but very flavorful...so much so that I ate almost a pound of meat before deciding I'd had enough. Stuffed, I sat on the deck and watched, calmly in thought, as Vava'u and it's many smaller islands shrank in size until they disappeared one by one over the horizon as if it was they, rather than we, who were moving. This, I mused, was going to be a good trip...without all the tossing we had been put through when we came north three weeks earlier on a much smaller, and much more crowded, vessel.

A couple of hours after Vava'u disappeared from sight, I noticed the skies beginning to darken in the west and the Pacific swells gradually growing in size. Becoming concerned as these trends continued, and as the 'Ata became much more animated in reaction to the undulations of the sea, I asked a crew member what we might be in for. He responded using the word 'taufa', which is a squall, or rainstorm, so I was not just a little relieved that all we would be was wet...really, an opportunity for a shower in the fresh water. It wasn't long, though, before the rain came accompanied by a considerable increase in wind...and much larger waves began tossing 'Ata all over the place. My stomach began feeling a little unsettled, what with the raw tuna in it and the violent motion of the boat. Now, crewmembers were using the word 'afa' to describe our immediate future: we were in for a hurricane!

Though the afterdeck of the 'Ata is a good fifteen feet above the waterline, waves were now occasionally soaking us to the bone, and it was getting more and more difficult to remain in one place on the deck. Concerned for our safety, and being too busy with handling the ship to think of using their bunks, the crew led us to their own cabin, forward and belowdecks, to get keep us out of the storm. We thanked them profusely for their kindness and collapsed into the indicated bunks. By now, my stomach was signaling that the tuna was preparing for a 'round trip' and would soon be seen again. My wife was already throwing up (lua) from the motion alone. We hung on to the bunk rails so as not to be thrown to the floor as the bow of the boat headed for the sky on the front side of each wave, then was thrown down the backside nose-first into the trough between waves...over and over, the cycle repeated itself. My stomach released its contents all over by bunk, several times, and kept on trying long after there was nothing remaining to be ejected. To make matters even worse, each cycle of up-the-wave-and-down-the-wave caused the anchor, only a few inches from our heads outside the bow, to crash against the hull with a deafening 'clang'. The combination of the heat and humidity belowdecks, the tuna all over by berth, the violent motion of the ship, and the noise of the anchor against the hull made for a very unpleasant time. It was several hours into this set of conditions that my wife could no longer contain her bodily demands and wailed to me through the noise of the storm that she needed to use 'the facilities'...which were located aft and required crossing the open deck amidships.

Though we were both too sick to stand, together with arms around one another we managed to crawl up the stairs of the cabin and open the door to view the conditions on the deck she'd have to cross to reach the 'head' located in a stern cabin. The sight was awesome! As we rode through the troughs between waves, a wall of waves fully 30-40 feet high surrounded the ship on either side and occasionally slammed full force across the entire amidships, taking with it anything not bolted to the deck. Then, we'd be on the crest of a wave and subject to the full force of the winds and pelting rain that must have been close to 100 mph...then, slam back down into a trough with tremendous force. My wife and I clung helplessly to the door frame and to each other, terrified at the thought of proceeding any further. Through the thick ocean spray and the horizontal rain, we could barely make out the captain and crew on the bridge doing their best to maintain control of the ship that seemed more like a cork being manipulated at will by the anger of the unconcontrolable seas. I went into another fit of the 'dry heaves' and thought my internal organs would be next to make an appearance, 'cause that's all there was left. At the same time, apparently sensing a lull in the violence outside, my wife jumped up and shouted as she pushed her way through the door, 'I'm gonna try it!'. I tried to stop her, but the weakness from my sickness left me helpless to do anything but watch as she tried to make her way on hands and knees across the 20-or-so feet of open deck to the aft cabin. Then, at the same time that I saw one of the crew charge off the bridge in an effort to reach her, I also noticed another huge wave about to come crashing down on all of us. It hit the deck with unbelievable force and noise, and its power swept my wife to, and half-way through, the railing at the deck's edge. Just as she was about to be carried completely overboard, the gallant crew member arrived and grabbed her arm in a piece of timing that, an instant later, would have meant the end of her for sure. He entered into a brief tug-of-war with Mother Nature until finally pulling her to safety and, through the wash of another wave a few moments later, carrying her to the shelter of the aft cabin. My heart was in my throat at what I had seen. I could only collapse back into my soggy bunk and wonder at that Tongan sailor's ability to anticipate what was going to happen, and to react as instantly and as adroitly as he had. Anything less would have resulted in disaster.

The storm raged through the night and into the following morning. I managed to get about 15 minutes of sleep spread over a ten-hour period before conditions began to ease around noon the following day. It wasn't until then that my wife made the trip back to the crew's quarters. We were both ashen in complexion and completely spent. Our clothing was saturated with vomit and there was pain in every muscle and joint from being thrown about all night. Some time after noon, the rain stopped and the wind abated, leaving only tremendous swells in the ocean as a reminder of the ordeal we had just passed through. We spend the remainder of the daylight hours on deck in an effort to breathe some fresh air and regain the color in our faces. It was almost dark...fully in excess of thirty-six hours since our Neiafu departure...when we finally tied up at Vuna Wharf and were able to once again step onto a surface that wasn't moving.

Written at various times...

Copyright 1997 by Alexander Mackintosh II

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Story Source: Personal Web Site

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Tonga



By sepiuta ( on Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - 5:24 am: Edit Post

Hi Sandy,

Was wondering if you had any old pictures of your time at Tupou College. We would love to collect some old photos for our website. Thanks.

'ofa atu,

Visit www.tct.to

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