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Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience Eco-Bore Takes the Good Old Days Back to Tonga

by Tina Martin (Tonga 1970–71)

I HAD THOUGHT of my village in Tonga as my Walden Pond though David Thoreau might notPrinter friendly version have recognized it. It was in the South Pacific instead of in New England, and while Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately, my woods had coconut trees. The pond was the Pacific Ocean — or maybe my lawn every time it rained, since my hut had been built in what appeared to be a ditch. Still, it was deliberately that I went to live in a hut with no electricity or running water. For two years I used a kerosene lamp and kerosene stove, drew water from the well, and bathed by soaping myself and pouring a quart or two of water over my body for the first and final rinsing. Everywhere I went, I took my hand-woven basket, and when I wanted a pound of sugar, it was poured onto a piece of recycled newspaper, which was wrapped into a package and placed in my basket.
     For almost forty years I told people about Tonga, where nothing was wasted. Tonga, where I had come of Eco-Age.
     Then, about the time that San Francisco banned plastic checkout bags at supermarkets and the mayor banned plastic-bottled water at City Hall, I heard that plastic had attacked, invaded, and occupied Tonga, and I flew off to rescue the island that I loved.
     Granted, there were other reasons for going. There was a coronation coming up, a Peace Corps reunion, and some Tongans I really wanted to see again, but I had a mission: Taking the good old days back to Tonga.
     Four decades earlier, one of my jobs in Tonga was at a teachers re-training center, where I taught methods of teaching oral English to children. Now I would be re-training them to do what they’d taught me: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
     Now, before I go any further, I should mention that I’m cursed by a passion for all sorts of things that produce gaping yawns in others. My office mate, Bob, whose imagination soars so high that he was hoping the coronation was mine, gives his students writing assignments allowing them to be Koko the gorilla and explain how frustrating it is that Dr. Penny and her Stanford-educated staff can’t learn one word of gorilla. Meanwhile I’m asking my drowsy students to write about the evils of bottled water. I was going back to Tonga as Eco-Bore — bearing a message, boring the people. But there was no stopping me now.
     I packed green shopping bags and Wrap-n-Mats, (squares of cloth with plastic centers to wrap around sandwiches to keep them fresh and then, once opened, to serve as mats for the sandwiches) something that appears to be modeled after the food packages Tongans put in the ‘umu, their underground ovens. Tongans used banana leaves and taro leaves instead of cloth and plastic for the food packages they put in ‘umus, and they tied them up with the rib of coconut leaves instead of Velcro’s, but the principle was the same. I would give these bags and Wrap-in-Mats as gifts. I packed other things, of course. Nick-knacks from Walgreen’s San Francisco Souvenirs aisle and pictures of Tongans and me, 1970–1971, which I’d made into collages and laminated like placemats. I also threw in something to wear to the coronation and something to wear every other day. Like the Tee-shirt, I would say, “I Recycle. I wore this shirt yesterday.” And the day before. And the day before that.
     Once over the International Dateline, where we dropped Tuesday and got right on to Wednesday, I was taken to a house in my former village of Ha’ateiho, where I found electricity and running water — even hot — as well as a microwave, and, gulp (or not) bottled water! Lots of bottled water with the Tonga label. The son and daughter-in-law of ‘Ana, who was hosting me, were watching “Lawrence of Arabia” on television, an invention that had never been seen by most villagers back in the 1970s, when we could see English-language movies in coconut sheds that had electricity and translators with good imaginations or in Nuku’alofa, where we paid 10 sentini and once saw “Romeo and Juliet” with the reels reversed, so that the lovers killed themselves for love of each other before they met. Now there were DVDs and TV. I was given a towel, a washcloth, and a cell phone, which doubled as my clock. I peeked out the window and saw a van under a canopy of net and soon noticed that in a village where people went by foot or by horse and cart back in my time, there was now a car on almost every lawn, and most of the cars were big. Well, Tongans were king size, and so were their families, but considering the price of gas, I suspected that Tongans were earning more than my 1970 living allowance of thirty-two dollars a month. I soon learned the word “Remittances.” They are now the main source of income in Tonga, it turned out, where relatives living in other countries send money back for SUVS and the other fine things in life. People also hire entire shipping containers to send home things like furniture and clothes. Some of the people living abroad had been deported back (recycled?), and Tongans were concerned about this. In the US, they’d learned “bad habits” like crime, and now they were back to teach those still at home what they had learned. (Re-used?)
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