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Anita Taylor served in Peace Corps in Tonga
Anita Taylor served in Peace Corps in Tonga
New Harbor Woman Serves in Peace Corps
Anita Taylor with pupils
A year ago (February 2002), I was coasting with my grandson at the country club in South Bristol. It was a great day for playing in the snow and a great memory to carry with me when I left for two years in the Peace Corps. A week later, after several thousand miles, five changes of plane, endless waiting lines, bag searches and two days of exhausting travel, I stepped from the air-conditioned interior of an Air New Zealand jet onto the blistering tarmac of a tiny airport on an island in the South Pacific most you have never heard of. There were 30 of us, tired, hot, confused and oh so glad to arrive, at last.
As Peace Corps Volunteers-in-training, our first impression of Tonga, after tantalizing glimpses of lush green islands rimmed with coral and sand seen through the clouded windows of the airliner, was the heat. We walked to the terminal building through hot scented air that consumed us even though dusk was already obscuring the gracefully waving palm trees. Then we spent an hour wrestling with a mountain of luggage in a tiny, airless, sweltering baggage claim and customs area before emerging into a crowd of smiling faces and welcoming leis (kahoas in the language of Tonga.) The bus was filled with excited chatter and crammed with so many people that seats folded into the aisles in order to use every inch of space. It was barely cooler than the airport. And in the guesthouse where we finally threw our exhausted bodies onto real beds there wasn’t even a hint of breeze to stir the heavy humid air. It felt like light years from the chilly brilliance of that snow-covered hill in Bristol.
The only thing that outclassed the warmth of the climate was the welcome of the Tongan people. Tonga is not a third world country starving for existence – the sort of place most of us had in mind when we applied for Peace Corps service, but rather, a developing country, starved for the limitless opportunities for learning and easy access to the fast paced technology that Americans take for granted and desperate to create a better future for its people, especially for its youth.
We were here to share what we knew, what we’d learned in college and in the workplace, to offer our time, energy and enthusiasm and we couldn’t wait to get started. But before we could begin, we were treated to the most incredible outpouring of generosity most of us had ever experienced. Our training included six weeks of home stay with families in villages all over the tiny island of “Eua. These families took us into their homes and hearts with unstinting charity. We were fed and clothed and cared for as if we were treasured children. They helped us with our language lessons, taught us how to behave in Tongan society, introduced us to people of importance, invited us to feasts and celebrated every achievement, however small. And, when it was time for us to leave for our swearing in, they were up well before dawn to take us to the boat, sending us off with gifts, good wishes, their love, and yes, even tears.
It has been almost a year since I said goodbye to that family and began my service here in Tonga. I work with the Vava’u Red Cross, help out at a women’s handicraft cooperative, teach English to children, facilitate workshops for young people and serve on the local public library committee. Yet, no matter how hard I work, or how much I give of myself, I feel as if I am the one who is receiving. The family I live with now is just as warm and unstinting as my home stay family. Neighbors bring me gifts of food: fresh caught fish, a sweet ripe pineapple, Sunday dinner. My supervisor at work has adopted me as her “special friend” and invites me along whenever something fun comes up. I’ve been to picnics at the beach that are more like feasts than picnics and feasts that could feed armies. People I don’t even know often go out of their way to give me a ride all the way to my destination.
After my two years with the Peace Corps, when I am back in New Harbor, with winter in the air and frost on the ground, the warmth of this tiny island kingdom will seem as far away as home feels now. But I will have the memories of this place and these people to keep me warm forever.