Thursday, January 17, 2013

A True Tongan Diet


In the course of this blog, I try show how my life in Tonga really is. My opinions are of course subjective, but in terms of the events I attend and my observations of the people and culture, I try to be as accurate as possible without bringing any preconceived notions or bias into my thoughts and writings.

The previous statement therefore leads me to this next one. The next few paragraphs are of a somewhat graphic nature. If you are squeamish or a particularly passionate lover of dogs, you may want to skip reading the next few paragraphs. If you choose to skip it, just scroll down to where it says, “It’s Over,” in large bold letters and you are then safe to read on. For the rest of you, I apologize if this upsets you, but this is simply the way of life in Tonga and I wanted to portray it accurately.

Tongans eat dogs. It is not a main staple of their diets in the same way lu, pigs, chickens, beef, and root crops are, but it is certainly a part of it. In the past, before Tongans had access to as much food and meat as they do now, dog, and even bat, was eaten frequently. Now, if a dog is hit by a car and dies, if a dog attacks anyone, if there are too many dogs in the village, or simply if a person want to eat a dog, dog is eaten.

Volunteers in the past, and in my group, have tasted dog while they have been in Tonga. Though I want to be adventurous and try new things, I really have no interest in eating dog. In more sad situations, Tongan villagers have eaten the dogs that were the pets of volunteers in the past, not realizing how important dogs are to Americans. As I mentioned in a previous post, dogs are not treated well in Tonga and are not considered pets.

I have never seen dog served on a Tongan plate nor have I ever been offered dog. I only bring up this topic now for an event that occurred last week.

Last week, in the middle of the day, I was reading in my house when I saw a Tongan villager I know walk past my house about ten feet away from my back door. I stood up to say hello to Saia, who his around 15, but stopped short when I realized he was dragging a dead dog behind him as if it was a pile of sticks. The dog’s throat was sliced – I could tell by the dried blood – in the same way a pig’s throat is cut when it is slaughtered to eat.

Silently, I went to my back door and watched where Saia was taking the dog. He dragged the dog another 50 yards and brought it to my neighbor’s house. I am sure I was watching dinner being served at the same house I attended a lunch last week, though I am fairly certain I did not eat dog as they would have told me before and the only meat I consumed was chicken…or at least, I hope it was chicken.

To be honest, after watching the event I was a little sad. While I am no great dog-lover, especially for the vicious dogs in Tonga, it was still difficult to watch an animal I have long viewed as man’s best friend so callously dragged around and served for dinner. I did not dwell on it long, as that would serve no purpose, but I thought it was important to relate this anecdote in my blog as it depicts how life in Tonga, though normal by standards in many other countries, is so different than the US. As I mentioned earlier, I hope this did not upset you.

IT’S OVER

As for me I have spent the past week in the main island of Tongatapu for a week of Peace Corps training. I do not have much to report that I think will excite you, my readers. I went to see my host family on Sunday, which was amazing. It was great to see the family that took such incredible care of me and treats me like a son. My host sister was not there, but I made arrangements to stay overnight with my family when I fly through Tonga on my way to see my parents in April so I am really excited about that.

It has also been great to see other volunteers in the group and just compare how similar and different our experiences are over the past week. The wheel was not reinvented, but just speaking English consistently was like a gift in its self.

I know I promised photos for the week but I had forgotten that I really do not like taking photos at group events. Eventually there will be some photos of me again on this blog, but I hope for now the contents of this post and possible future topics of the lack of beaches, adoption, the ocean, my life, and of course my many embarrassing moments can keep you satisfied.

To make your wait slightly less unbearable, I believe it is time that I finally relate to you the Great Onion Famine of 2012.

The Great Onion Famine of 2012 was a terrible event. For 3 weeks in Tonga, around the last week in November and the first two weeks of December, the onions disappeared. Before the eventual collapse of Tonga’s profitable onion industry, rumblings could be heard of future onion scarcity. Onions were going out, but none were coming in.

Tongans, never to be confused with ferocious vegetable consumers, do particularly like to use onions in their lu and when they cook meet. The Palangi population was similarly overwhelmed, as those of us in Tonga have quickly learned, cooked onions make even the most spice less and flavorless Tongan food taste slightly more appealing.

Tongans, expats, and volunteers flocked to the markets and stores buying every onion they could find. I luckily bought a few and threw them in my fridge. To digress for a moment, I have formed a tacit agreement with my food in Tonga – I will protect if from the ants, cockroaches, termites, lizards, pigs, the weather, small children, etc and be willing to cut off the parts that are rotten and eat greedily away, if the food just pretends not to discolor or smell as it rots. So far the agreement has been quite successful, leading to greater personal consumption and minimal stomach complaints.

Returning to the subject at hand, the last vestiges of onions quickly disappeared  -and the results were dramatic. The lu tasted worse. The one restaurant in town that had onion rings no longer had onion rings. I could no longer make spaghetti and tomato sauce – one of the four things I now know how to make and is scarily large staple of my diet.

At first I though this was only a Vava’u problem and that help was on the way. I texted my friend Michael to ask him about the onions in Tongatapu. There were none. Help was not coming.

I then texted my friend Chiara in the island of Eua, an island near Tongatapu that is far cooler than the rest of Tonga. I figured Chiara, a vegetarian, and someone who faced humiliation, lack of understanding, possible starvation, and a frightfully boring pallet for refusing to lose her vegetarian ways in meat-filled Tonga, of anyone I knew, would know how to find the onions. Nope. There were no onions in Eua, she had no clue what was going on, and she was even more concerned than I was.

I was now curious – and by curious I mean confused, angry, and kind of hungry - swirling with thoughts stemming mostly from an empty stomach. Knowing nothing about gardening myself, I asked a Tongan where the onions came from. No one really knew, which was not surprising as Tongans don’t really think of where things come from – they’re just happy it’s there - but the general consensus was that Tonga was too warm to grow onions and that they were probably imported from New Zealand.

My next thought was ok. Sadly, yes, that was my first thought. Resignation was fast at hand. I quickly snapped out of it, however, and decided to discover how a country could be out of onions. I asked around, again, and discovered the following truth (caution, I am using the word truth quite liberally, I have absolutely zero proof what I am about to write is accurate and Tongans love to lie, but I find this story plausible, oddly comforting, and very Tongan):

Apparently, the onions arrive from New Zealand in a large shipping container and are removed in Nuku’alofa. The container is taken off the ship at the wharf and then some onions are sent to the markets of Tongatapu, while the rest are sent to the other islands, including Vava’u.

The person in charge of unloading the onions, however, was sick when the shipment of onions came in but failed to notify anyone that he was not coming to work or ask anyone to replace him. This being Tonga, nothing was done, no safety nets were in place, and no one thought to ask why has the container just been sitting there for several days? The onions sat in the blazing hot sun for several days until the man returned from his illness to a container of rotten onions.

Thus one man, one individual person, caused the entire Kingdom of Tonga to survive without onions for several weeks and lead to your faithful writer’s growling stomach and his quest for the truth. That my readers is the sad Tale of the Great Onion Famine of 2012, may it never occur again.

Thanks for reading!

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