Monday, November 20, 2006

Update on Tonga Riots

In my previous post I mentioned the events transpiring in the island nation of Tonga. It appears, from reports now arriving, that eight people have perished in the riots there. The Matangi Tonga Online Website was down and the offices of the organization were also on fire, so the information I had at hand was not as accurate as I would have liked.

To view some of these terrible images of the aftermath of destruction in Nuku'alofa, Tonga click here!

In my last post, I said I thought I was going to be okay after the 2006 elections in the U.S. Would that I could say the same for those caught up in the happenings in Tonga.

It's still unclear to me if the riots that are being reported are the work of pro-democracy leaders, or if they are an offshoot of social unrest. There have been reports now that the riots were a result of business rivalry and not as a result of the pro-democracy movement.

There's been a lot of posting on the NY Times Blog site talking about the upheavals there.

Other stuff about this turmoil in Tonga reported by the BBC: Here!

Friday, November 17, 2006

Explosive Tonga -- Volcanos and Riots and Democracy

For about six years now I've been kidded by my friends and family about Tonga. I was depressed with the outcome of the 2000 elections; about the rigged votes; about 9/11; about the lies and missed opportunities leading up to the invasion of Iraq; about the destruction; about the moral hypocrisy that seemed to be coming from an unelected administration bent upon consolidating its power.

I was immersed in books that recorded the world travels of past generations of sailors, actively seeking a safe haven where corruption, where it occurred, was on more on a scale of human failings than institutional decay. Scale, beauty, simplicity, safety, and humanity: These were the goals. More and more, I found my mind turning to descriptions of the island kingdom of Tonga.

I'd complain and quip about what was going on this country, and eventually people would ask: So what are you going to do about it?

"I want to move to Tonga!" became my response.

Tonga! Tonga! The dream of an island kingdom in the South Pacific! Lots of sailing! Beautiful people! Simplicity! Life! Maybe another chance for happiness!

I'd laugh at myself, along with everyone else, but once inoculated with the idea, the dream seemed to take on a life off its own.

"I'm a writer! I can work anywhere!"

"So where do you want to be?"

"Tonga, maybe! I think we should move to Tonga!"

Meanwhile, Tobias came back from Europe and started college in Pennsylvania. Arwen tried Pennsylvania and returned to California with me. Dagan meandered between Northern California, Southern California, and Oregon. Judith was teaching in Pennsylvania. I felt like I was holding down the fort in St. Helena while the world was collapsing around me.

"Tonga, maybe!" I kept saying to myself. "Maybe in Tonga I can figure all this crap out!"

By the time the 2004 elections arrived, my disgust with the direction things were moving here had reached a new low. "When are people going to finally wake up?" I demanded. I had done a little election work in Pennsylvania, acting as an election observer at the polls: Helping to roll in the huge, ancient polling machines; helping people with instructions before they entered into their booths; checking peoples' names off of election rolls; helping to tabulate ballots off the continuous-roll ballot machines; cross-checking the results; talking with the volunteer election officials at the little church where I was stationed.

I began to see the election process in the U.S. as an embodiment of those ancient gray machines with their faded black-velvet curtains and their worn, painted levers -- rows and rows of levers aligned into columns of parties, candidates, issues, and initiatives. And the election volunteers themselves, so happy to have someone new to help them out in the basement of that little brick church. They were lovely elderly people from the neighborhood, gray themselves like the old mechanical machines, and slightly frayed at the edges like the velvet curtains. Blue-haired old ladies directed by an earnest old man. Even I, nearing retirement age, seemed young to them. They were as old as the balloting machines themselves, and it seemed that in their eyes they were looking to me, with a bit of hope, that I might take up their work at the next election.

"Tonga!" my heart murmured in denial. "Tonga!"

One of the balloting machines became stuck. It jammed in the middle of someone's vote-casting. It was stuck solid, and the master lever could not be budged. "No problem!" said the elderly man in charge of the precinct. He moved the voter to another machine, and then -- with my help -- we rolled the broken machine aside, opened the back through a set of shiny polished spring-mounted screws, breaking the metal election seal. He could not do it alone, not because the machine was too heavy, but because I was to act as a sworn witness to what he was about to do.

The back of the machine opened downward to reveal the continuous roll of paper, pre-printed with names of candidates, party affiliations, and ballot initiatives for local and county issues. The recordings of each person's vote had been marked like mechanical chicken marks on the roll as the master lever had been pulled. Each vote, a series of punches permanently imprinted beside each candidate.

As I looked into the mechanism of this machine, with its cogs and levers, I felt as though I were looking into brain of the democracy itself: Heavy, technologically ancient, complex, adequately oiled and cleaned, but worn by sixty years of occasional intense usage. It was an artifact of an industrial age that had long since been surpassed by electronics, but still it persisted to stand. I was faced with the fragility of that democracy, yet chastened by the intensity with which the election official performed his volunteer tasks.

"These machines are older than I am," he said as he drew a line through the spoiled ballot on the machine. "Sometimes they just jam like this, and all you can do is mark where the last ballot ended. He pulled out his clipboard and had me read off the dial of numbers in that indicated how many ballots had been cast on the machine that day. 321 ballots! Then he had me read off the number of ballots that had ever been cast by the machine in its lifetime. I don't remember the number, it was so large. He had me read off these numbers three times, marking them down on his clipboard. Then he signed the clipboard, made a note on the huge roll of paper, signed the roll, had me sign his clipboard, and recorded the date and the time. Then we closed up the massive machine and, together, we rolled it out and down the hallway by the stairs.

"Tonga!" my heart murmured. But the sound of it was a little fainter, a little less intense, a bit like an echo of a desire.

Later, as we closed up the polling place, I thanked the poll workers for the experience. It had been a long night, reading off the numbers off the balloting machine, calling the numbers back and forth, checking and cross-checking each others' work. We had formed a kind of team, and we made little quips about what we were doing as we worked. No one spoke of politics. This was just another job, like raking the leaves or straightening the folding chairs into rows at the end of a church social. We were straightening up after a national election like we were straightening up after a dance. It was a strange sort of dance, indeed. But we were tired. Some of the blue-haired poll workers had been there all day, and they were hungry. I'd been there no more than three hours. I said goodnight and walked out into the rainy darkness and drove to Judith's house.

"Tonga?" my heart now seemed to be questioning me. "Tonga?"

That night my desired Presidential candidate, John Kerry, took the county and ultimately the state of Pennsylvania. I had not voted in that polling place where I worked. I knew I would probably never see those poll workers again. Their looks seemed to be asking for someone new to pass the baton of electioneering, but I knew it would not be me who picked it up. Still, I was humbled by their dedication to an idea about democracy; chastened by their matter-of-fact belief in the process; awed by their persistence to "get it right", "double-check it", "Did you get that number Gladys?" It was like watching my parents do the dishes together so long ago: Doing the dishes of an election.

Tonight I read the news from Tonga on the Internet.

In Se
ptember, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV died at the age of 88. The royal family was just completing the traditional period of 100 days of morning. To mark the official ending of the 100 days of mourning period for the Royal Family the Lanu Kilikili ritual or the Washing of the Stones will be held at the Royal Tomb at Mala’ekula, Nuku’alofa to be carried out by the Ha’a Tufunga. The newspaper said that they have just started receiving the fine stones that have been carefully selected from the shores of the volcanic island of Tofua.

But then, last Wednesday a riot broke out as some drunken teenagers got hyped up after a pro-democracy protest that had been going on all week in front of the new king's administration office.

Cars were overturned. Grocery stores were ravaged. Windows were broken. Fires were set. Fortunately, no one was killed.

If you're interested in my double life in Tonga, you should check out this story at Matangi Tonga Online.

It's clearly been a tumultuous time for the Tongan people. In another story on the newspaper, a new volcano is breaking the surface of the ocean in the Kingdo
m of Tonga. Huge rafts of floating pumice clogged the engines of boat that was the first to actually witness the erupting volcano.

In other news, the electrical utility in Tonga has created a big stir. The electrical utility had been privatized a couple of years ago, but now wanted the government to buy back the assets. The price of diesel fuel to run the generators had ruined the profitability of the company, and it was threatening to sell the assets to Chinese interests. Instead, it was decided to sell the power company to a New Zealand firm. There's still some legal issue about whether the original privatization was constitutional to begin with.

All this is sound
ing hauntingly familiar. sail boat has been sitting on its trailer for a year. Judith thinks I should sell it and get a smaller boat. I don't know.... (...."Tonga!... Tonga!... Tonga!...)

I miss Tonga, having never ever set foot on the tiny island. I miss the Tongan people, having never met a single one. I miss the ceremonies, the island winds, the coral beaches and the palms. My heart still calls out "Tonga!" and I worry about their riot, their volcano, and their electricity.

But here, in Northern California, the leaves are blowing off the trees and the grape vines. It is time for Thanksgiving, after an important election. Tobias is in Cambodia now, but Arwen and Dagan and Kellie and Judith will all be at the dinner table.

The volcanoes are silent in my heart. The riots have been, for the moment, silenced.

I think I'll pour a glass of wine at the Thanksgiving dinner table and propose a toast.

"To Tobias and Tonga!" I'll say.

And, of course, everyone will kid me.

But I think I'll be okay now.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Skyping Tobias in Cambodia

I sometimes am lucky to catch Tobias on Skype, late at night, right before I send my computer to sleep. Last night was one of those times. Tobias is currently in the area of Seam Reap, Cambodia -- which is where the temples of Angkor Wat were built. He's been there, off and on, for almost three years now, working on an interesting project to build an agricultural dam for the people there. How he became interested in this area and involved in this project is documented at his Web site and the particular story is kind of a parable for how younger people engage the world. You should probably read this story at:

What's become even more interesting, to me personally, is how I'm responding to his project. There was a time, immediately after his first return from Cambodia, when I was very skeptical of his experience. And, to be honest, listening to his stories about his travels and the people he's met, I was probably a bit jealous of his adventures. He had recently graduated from college, had no particular plans in mind, was not immediately involved in any long-term relationships, and was as wide-eyed about the world as most people his age. I kept kidding him that his bedroom was in worse shape than many third-world countries, and he laughed at that analogy. But then, over time, I started to watch him pull things together.

You know how it is, I'm sure. It's like when you happen upon an accide
nt in the middle of the street. You're pulled in multiple emotional directions: Do you stop? Do you help? Do you go for help? Where do you go for help? How do get the help? How do you get the help to the victims?

Or do you turn away? Do you try to put it out of your mind? Do you say to yourself "I really wasn't equipted to help!"? Or "That's someone else's job!"?

I was deeply interested in how Tobias would deal with this particular problem of Seam Reap and the requests of the people for help. How would he sustain his focus? Would he sustain focus?

All these are questions of a father, watching his son move into the responsibilities of adult-hood. And so his journ
ey has become a sort of parable for me too, trying to stay in contact when he is half a world away.

And then, there are the pictures that he sends back: Haunting pictures of ki
ds like these.

This morning, I showed these pictures today to Merriella who comes every week to clean the house. Merriella is from Mexico -- (Yes! She is a US Citizen, in case you're wondering.) She's known Tobias since he was called Toby in highschool, and many is the time I've asked her to help me clean up his bedroom. So she asks what he is doing. And I do my best to explain it to her, but finally just show her the pictures. And she says "These very very poor people! So poor!"

And of course it's true. Then she says "It is good that we send money to help these poor people!"

And I say "Actually, I sent them my son." and she laughs.

Then I look again at the pictures, and here is a young man, holding his own son up proudly to the camera -- his prosthetic leg (his own leg blown off by a mine?) just barely in the picture, and scars on his face, and his little boy naked ....

Can you blame him for looking so proud?

So anyway, what is Tobias up to?

  • He's managed to incorporate his work into an organization (HumanTranslation.Org) and obtained legal help to turn it into a non-profit corporation with tax-exempt status. (Not a trivial task, in and of itself).
  • So far, his organization called has raised about $25K of the $50K estimated to build the agricultural dam that will irrigate a second crop of rice for about 5K people. This money has been kept aside and ear-marked solely for the dam project and assorted water infrastructural projects. A lot of help has come from the Orange Kids network.
  • He's found another good person, named Will Haynes, from Chicago, to volunteer his time over in Cambodia and help in the project. Will wrote a great intro to his own experience that can be read at "Field Report: Words from Will".
  • He's managed to get a small promotional film started, which has appeared on YouTube, which you can view here!

  • They're going to start digging the dam soon, having obtained engineering help from Engineers Without Borders.
  • They've made some sort of arrangement with a water filter manufacturer back here in the US to provide reverse-osmosis (I think) filters for villagers (the orange box in the top picture is one of over 40 installed so far.)
  • He's planning to return to the states at Christmas time to try to raise more funds.
  • He's currently trying to help orphans who live in a Buddhist pagoda with an outbreak of scabies (that's what we skyped about last night.)
  • He's living off his scant savings with no health-care himself.
  • Seems to be in good spirits, but has no time to write about them right now.

So, that's why I'm posting this somewhat nostalgic message, I guess. Tobias is really out in the world, on his own, making his way. Yes I'm jealous of his adventures! Of course, as a father, I'm proud of what he's accomplished so far! Sure, I'm still skeptical that he'll get it all done -- but there is so much to do! But he's doing something! So how can I criticize, sitting here.

And, finally, he sends his congratulations back to the U.S. to all of us who were involved in the elections. All this, Skyping Tobias in Cambodia late at night.

So what am I gonna do?

I'm going to go clean up his room!