A Writer Writes — “A Season of Survivor Was Filmed on an Island Nicer Than Mine“ by Harry Seitz (Tonga)

I served in the Peace Corps in Tonga from 2014–2016. Some of the volunteers got sent to sites in the capital. They had electricity, running water, supermarkets, the works.

A few of the others were sent to ’Eua, a large island close to the capital. Life was a little more difficult there, but they still had all of the basic amenities.

The remainder and I were sent to Vava’u, the main island of which is relatively developed, but also much further away from the capital.

I alone was sent to Ofu. While technically a part of Vava’u, it is an outer island. No roads, no restaurants, and very limited electricity. Ferries didn’t even run there. I had to hitch boat rides with my neighbors every other weekend to buy food on the main island of Vava’u.

Lifuka (Survivor Island)

Lifuka is a part of the Ha’apai group of islands. It is relatively remote, but they have electricity and shops, and while many of the larger villages are relatively far away from each other, they do have roads, so you can walk or take a bus. You aren’t 100% reliant on hitchhiking to get your groceries.

Not to say that life in Lifuka or Ha’apai is easy. Two of the volunteers from the group before mine were sent there, and were stuck in limbo for months because their homes were destroyed by a cyclone.

Groups overlap by a year, so the previous group can help the newer group adapt. When my group arrived, they were a little more conservative about sending people so far out.

Except, of course, for me.

The Grass is Always Greener

Years before me, one of the volunteers was sent to Niuafo’ou, one of the most remote places on earth. The boat didn’t even stop to deliver their mail, they just dumped it in the ocean, and the locals had to boat out to retrieve it.

That volunteer came back a little demented.

I asked one of my neighbors on Ofu who had worked on Niuafo’ou what it was like, and he said “Tatau pe’ Ofu, neongo kovi ange.” (The same as Ofu, except worse). He told me that when he had asked the locals how a cow had died, they told him it was from mosquitoes, and he wasn’t sure if they were kidding. He’d had to sleep with six mosquito coils burning all around him, and was still nearly eaten alive.

Ofu

Once I adapted and learned the language, I grew to love Ofu. We didn’t have electricity or running water everyday, but we did have peace.

There were sugar shortages and egg shortages on the islands and to cap it off, a gasoline shortage, which basically means a shortage of everything. If you can’t get gas, you can’t go anywhere , so we were basically stuck there for six weeks subsisting on root vegetables.

But still, I have never before or since had so much freedom over my time. I could kayak out into the Pacific at midnight and just stare up at the unfamiliar stars. I could still see Orion, but he was upside down.

When my service time was up, I asked to stay another year, and the Peace Corps said no. They were supposedly worried that I was becoming too weird and demented.

One of the Tongans who worked for the Peace Corps asked me if a woman could survive on Ofu, and I told her it depended on the woman. I’d had to jump off a wharf with 40 pounds of groceries on my back seven or eight feet onto the slippery deck of a tiny boat, and lug heavy gas bottles back and forth between islands to get them refilled.

Tongans are sexist, and generally more protective and helpful toward women, so I said yes. A healthy, mature woman who could deal with isolation could make it.

So they sent a 22 year-old to replace me and she quit within six months.

Why I Made It

The volunteer before me and I made it not because we were men, but because we were in our mid-thirties. Or in other words, we were old enough to live without much of a social life, and it’s definitely easier in your 30s than it is in your early 20s.

Gender biases existed, and they affected our behavior. Most of the volunteers were women, but even so, a greater percentage of them quit. For a woman in her 20s, fear and failure are more tolerated. For a man, at any age, any signs of weakness in general are not.

I’m not saying whether this is wrong or right, but it is a reality of most cultures, especially in the West.

Also, in some ways, the women had it much tougher. Most villages wouldn’t allow them to go out walking alone after sunset, and most of the assaults, at least during my time, were against women.

A few angry Tongans attempted to assault me once, but it’s a lot more difficult to assault someone who can really fight back.

The women were more protected and coddled, and rightfully so, but also had much less freedom. For women from America, being treated like a child isn’t easy to tolerate. For a man from America, being left to your own devices is pretty much the norm.

The Survivors

The cast was only out there for a few months, and they came to celebrate the end of their season at a small resort within kayaking distance of my island. While the urge to speak English and talk about American things was almost overwhelming, I didn’t want to see them.

I held them in contempt, and a part of it was jealousy, just as I was jealous of the other volunteers who could visit each other or lived in the capital.

What on earth would I have to say to them?

The season I’m referring to never officially aired. Maybe it was the earthquakes or the cyclones, or the general malaise of living in Lifuka. But for whatever reason, they didn’t quite survive.

Conclusion

In retrospect, I didn’t want to see them because their reality was no longer a reality for me. I didn’t want to go back to America, and I didn’t want to be reminded.

Most of the outer islands of Tonga are extremely beautiful places to live. You have to adapt and endure, but also experience a lot of joy of freedom, and the experience is better embraced, rather than “survived.”

I’ll probably never have to go without eggs or gasoline or electricity ever again. But I’ll never be able to kayak alone in the Pacific at midnight again, either.

3 Comments

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  • Harry — sounds like an amazing and in-depth experience you had out on your island, an experience unique to you and can be absorbed nowhere else on this earth. It was a gift to you that you obviously treasure. In some aspects, we had similar experiences in the rural villages of south central India back in the early ’60s.

    What was the main means of economic survival for the people on the island? What kind of work or development program did you help implement? All good cheers John Chromy India III

  • Harry – Thank you for this visually descriptive account of your unique Peace Corps experience and its unique challenges offset by kayaking under the midnight stars. I’m ready to leave.

  • A very nice glimpse of your “splendid isolation” in your Peace Corps assignment. Many of us can relate due to how cut off we were from others and lived without electricity and running water (I was in an isolated village in southern Chad in the 1970s). I hope the lesson you drew from this is your essential resilience, something many Americans never really test or appreciate. What a great gift for you!

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