My Recommended Packing List
One of the most useful things I found on the Internet before coming to Tonga was Dave S.'s list of things to bring, and not to bring. You can find Dave's original list on his website. Here is my version of his list based on living in Nuku'alofa in 2005-2006. Feel free to disagree!
Cool shorts and shirts – You will most likely be hand-washing your clothes in cold water and hanging them out to dry, so don't bring stuff that needs to be drycleaned. Lighter clothing that dries quickly is better. Cotton is definitely superior to synthetics in hot weather, with one exception. Lightweight nylon shorts, suitable for swimming and watersports, are great for wearing under your tupenu (going commando is not a good idea, particularly if you ride a bike) and ta'ovala, esp. when it is hot (which is almost everyday).
Self-winding mechanical waterproof watch with metal or plastic band – Watch batteries can be bought in Nuku'alofa (sometimes), but not on the outer islands. Leather bands are a big no-no, since they get moldy and smelly fast.
Flashlights – Very dark at night and, even in Nuku'alofa, working street lights are the exception, not the norm. Spend a bit more and get a high-intensity white LED flashlight, or Maglite (bring extra bulbs) – don't bother bringing anything cheaper. If you plan to ride a bike here, note that lights are required at night – so bring something you can hold easily while riding, or strap to your bike.
Swiss Army Knife – I brought a Swiss Army Knife and a Leatherman. I use the Swiss Army Knife on a daily basis, while I only use the Leatherman occasionally when I need the needlenose pliers. My Swiss Army Knife includes a screwdriver with multiple bits, scissors, can opener, small plier, and two knife blades – these are the tools I find most useful.
White shirt and tie – Yeah, every now and then, you need it.
Black shirts and dresses – Black is the color of respect when someone dies, and black clothing is worn for days, weeks, or even months, depending on the importance of the person who died. And, it seems like there is always a funeral going on here in Tonga.
Digital camera – Film is expensive and inconvenient to get processed, particularly on the outer islands. Digital is the way to go since photos can be uploaded on to computers at Internet Cafe's or on the Volunteer computers at the Peace Corps Office, then emailed to friends/family or put up on your blog/website. Bring an extra battery and a large memory card.
Rechargeable batteries and charger – The quality of available alkaline and non-alkaline batteries is improving in Nuku'alofa, but they are still expensive and probably not readily available on the outer islands. With a bit of planning, you can make sure that all of your battery-powered appliances use the same size/type batteries – I recommend AA size, since the chargers are much smaller (as are the batteries).
A good can opener – I have one of the can openers which leaves no sharp edges on the cans or lids, so I can reuse the cans for storage. A lot of Tongans, and some Volunteers, use a knife – I don't recommend this method.
Power converter for your electrical devices – Tonga is on the 230-240VAC power standard. If you plug your 110-120VAC device in without a converter, you'll definitely destroy your device and probably start a fire. Ideally, bring electrical devices which support international power (ie. the power supply says 110-240VAC, 50-60Hz). If you have a 110-120V only device that you just can't live without, then bring a small converter. Check the number of watts your device requires and buy the correct converter. If the device doesn't say how many watts it uses, then, typically, you can multiply the DC output of the power supply (in volts or V) by the number of amps, or A, to get the number of watts required. Note that mA means milliamps – so divide by 1,000 to get watts. For example, 12VDC output at 200mA is equal to 2.4 watts (or W). And, yes, I did study electrical engineering in college....
Talcum powder – You can buy this in Nuku'alofa, but it is useful/handy to bring a small amount with you for your first week. In my opinion, the worst tropical weather affliction is something called “pricky rash”, which occurs when water is trapped under the skin. It is utterly miserable, worse than chicken pox, and avoidable with the use of talcum powder to help keep your skin dry.
Ziplock or other thick resealable plastic bags – Protects your clothes, wallet, and other items from bugs, water, etc.
Backpack – During Training, you'll be doing a lot of repacking, as you travel between Homestays and guest houses. You'll want to bring a backpack suitable for holding stuff for a 2-week stay, as well as for a 5-6 week stay. After Training, you can use the backpack for your vacation trips, as well as for shopping.
Waist/fanny pack – Safer than a purse, and useful for carrying your camera, phone, and other small stuff, esp. when riding a bike.
Candy and chocolate – Tongans love candy and chocolate – and not just the kids. Cadbury chocolates are readily available here, but they are somewhat expensive. Soft candies/chocolates, however, are not a good idea since they melt rapidly in the heat.
Books – Recreational books, text books, programming books, reference books, children's books, whatever. If you have them, bring them – or arrange to have them shipped to you. There is only one real bookstore in Tonga, and it doesn't stock a large quantity or variety of any type of book – except for bibles and hymn books. I know this for a fact because part of my job has been working with them to fix their inventory tracking system.
Bank of America ATM card – If you don't have a BofA savings or checking account, get one and bring your ATM card. Most ATM and credit cards will work in Tonga at the WestPac and ANZ banks ATM machines, but BofA ATM cards can be used to withdraw money from your US bank account at WestPac ATMs for no fee from BofA or WestPac. And, since anyone can deposit money into your account in the US, you can arrange for your parents or friends to put money in your account there, and you can withdraw it here in Tonga! Faster than Western Union – and you typically get a better exchange rate than you do when exchanging cash or traveler's checks.
Things You Might Want to Bring:
SIM card-type mobile phone – Chances are that you'll be somewhere in Tonga where mobile phone service is available. If you have a SIM card-type mobile phone, such as from T-mobile, then you can use it here, after you get it “unlocked” (which can be done by contacting T-mobile, or by paying someone here to do it – which is pretty cheap). If you have a BREW phone, such as from Verizon, then leave it at home – it won't work here. Tonga has voice mail (with one of the carriers) and text messaging, but don't bother bringing a fancy high-end phone with multi-media capabilities (unless that is the only one you own) – the networks here do not currently support these features. If you don't have a suitable phone already, then you might want to get an used one from a friend, or from eBay – the phones here are fairly expensive.
Tevas or other high-end walking sandal – Flip flop slippers are commonly available and cheap, but they (a) don't last very long, (b) are not as comfortable when you are walking a lot (as you will in Tonga), and (c) kick mud/water up when you are walking in the rain (which happens a lot) which is really annoying.
Bicycle – I'm of two minds on this one. If you are a biking fanatic and absolutely need a multi-gear mountain bike, then feel free to bring it. The multi-gear models here are cheaply made and break easily/frequently. Bring your own tools and spare parts, esp. including spare tubes, – you won't be able to find them here. If you just want a bike for basic transportation, then the single-gear beach cruisers here are ok (because they are much simpler in design and have less mechanical parts, as David R. of my Group pointed out). Several of the Volunteers in my Group bought them (approx. $110 USD each), including myself, and they are working out just fine. Bike racks can be bought here, as can patch kits. Saddlebags are nice to have, but can be adapted from a low-cost backpack (which is what I did). Mudflaps are essential, but they are available here or you can make your own cheaply (no one here really cares what the bike looks like – most of the Tongan bikes are rusty and falling apart). Definitely bring your own cable-type bike lock (preferably one with a long cable that you can wrap around a thick tree) – the ones here are not very good. Don't bring a U-type bike lock (ex. Kryptonite) – it is difficult to find places where such a lock can be used. A small bike pump would be nice to have, but is not essential.
Snorkel, mask, and fins – Bring your own. The ones available here are of poor quality, suitable only for a swimming pool.
Surfboard or kayak – If you are into surfing or kayaking, then you'll want to bring your own equipment. I'm fairly certain you can't buy them here, and the rental equipment is generally of poor quality.
Laptop computer – You don't need it, but they are pretty useful and several Volunteers have them. Computers, and Internet access, are becoming more generally available here in Tonga. In particular, if you have any computer experience listed on your resume, then chances are you'll end up doing some computer work while you are here, in which case having your own laptop is very useful. Non-computer geek Volunteers also use laptops to occupy their copious spare time by watching DVD's, listening to thousands of hours of downloaded music, playing games, writing blog posts, editing photos, etc. However, Tonga does not have a computer-friendly environment – hot, humid, insects which crawl into cooling vents, unstable electrical power – so bring something that you won't mind if it goes belly-up while you are here.
iPod or MP3 player – Nice to have, but make sure you bring a standalone charger or rechargeable batteries. USB2 ports are still not very common on the computers here and you can't charge these things off a USB1 port.
Shoes, socks, and long pants – You won't generally need these at your site in Tonga, unless you get cold easily, but if you plan to do some traveling outside of Tonga and/or camping, they will be useful and/or necessary. Remember that New Zealand, with its large range of extreme sports and outdoor activities is only a 3-4 hour flight from Tonga. They are good to have on the overnight boat to Ha'apai and Vava'u – it gets cold on that trip.
Blanket and sweatshirt – I don't generally use one, but the light fleece blanket I brought was good for the overnight boat to Ha'apai and Vava'u; and I would not have minded having a sweatshirt along, too.
Sleeping bag and tent – If you plan to go hiking/camping, then bring them along. You can't buy them here (at least, I haven't seen any available yet). Also, a sleeping bag is nice to have on the overnight boat to Ha'apai and Vava'u.
Spool of blank CD-RWs – You can buy these here, but they are much more expensive. If you take a lot of photos, you'll want them to make backups from your camera's memory card. CD-RW's are generally better than CD-R's, since you can erase and reuse them if you make a mistake. Don't bring DVD-R's or DVD-RW's, unless your laptop supports burning them – DVD burners are just becoming available in Tonga, but (a) they are not common and (b) we don't have them on the Peace Corps computers yet (we're trying to get approval).
USB flash drive – This is probably the most useful, and commonly used, computer accessory in Tonga. They are very expensive here, so bring a couple from home.
Umbrella and/or rain jacket – You can buy an umbrella here, but a high-quality easy-to-carry pocket umbrella is more useful since you never know when it is going to rain (sunny one moment, pouring rain the next). If you absolutely hate getting wet, then you probably should not be coming to Tonga; however, a rain jacket might suffice – bring a lightweight waterproof model. Heavy raincoats are too hot – this is warm rain, not cold rain. And a windbreaker won't keep you dry in the typical Tongan sudden downpour (if you've ever lived in Florida, you know what I mean).
Cooking utensils – If you are serious about cooking, then bring your own knives, pans, and other tools of the trade. The general quality of the cookware available in Tonga is very poor, with the exception of Pyrex glassware.
French press coffee maker – If you are addicted to fresh coffee, bring one of these – and a grinder if you prefer to use whole bean coffee. The locally grown Royal Coffee is not too bad, although most Tongans drink instant coffee. Don't bring a paper filter type coffee maker; the filters are not available here.
Small toolkit – While you won't need tools to build a house from scratch (see below), it doesn't hurt to bring a small hammer, screwdriver with multiple bits, a wrench, pliers, and other generally useful tools which you might be used to having around the house. If I had known then what I know now, I probably would have brought my Makita cordless drill. The quality of the tools here in Tonga is generally poor, or very expensive.
Things You Don't Need to Bring:
Tools for living off the land – Peace Corps Tonga does not put Volunteers in areas where you have to build your own house, or hunt/fish for your own food. Most Volunteer houses have electricity, running water, showers, and flush toilets. A few Volunteers on the outer islands “suffer” with partial electricity, water from a sima vai, bucket baths, and outhouses – but these are becoming much less common.
Jewelry – You will get enough attention by simply being a palangi (foreigner), esp. women. Wearing expensive jewelry will just tend to make you a potential target for criminals. You'll also get asked by regular folks if they can have your stuff just because they like it (its a common Tongan thing). Besides, there are some nice, inexpensive pieces available locally.
Cash and/or traveler's checks – Unnecessary and dangerous – the Peace Corps provides enough money to pay for your expenses. As in most third-world countries, foreigners tend to get robbed because criminals think they have a lot of money lying around. You don't want to flash your wad here because word gets around very fast.
Credit cards – Some places in Nuku'alofa and Neiafu (Vava'u) will take them, but many will not or cannot, since most Tongans don't have credit cards. Bring one for vacation trips, if you plan to travel overseas; otherwise, leave them at home.
Dress shoes, pants, or jackets – Black sandals, tupenu, and ta'ovala are the standard formalwear in Tonga. Tongans do wear jackets, but it is not expected of us and it is simply too hot to wear them.
New clothing or fancy “outdoor” clothing from REI or Patagonia – You don't need them; normal clothing is fine. I usually wear polo shirts or button-up Hawaiian-style shirts which I got in Tonga.
Leather – Bad idea. It will get moldy and smelly fast.
Power plug converters – Available for cheap at many stores in Tonga. You can pick up a couple during your first days in Training.
Water purifier – Filters are difficult to find. Most Volunteers drink rainwater from the sima vai (rainwater tank), which is fine. Bottled water is also readily available, currently costing about $1 USD per 1.5 liters.
Solar shower – Most Volunteers have cold-water showers in their homes; some Volunteers on the outer islands use bucket baths. Personally, I've only missed having a hot shower on two days since I've been here, and I could have just heated water on the stove and poured it into a perforated bucket, if I wanted a hot shower that badly (which I didn't).
Travel books on Tonga or the South Pacific – Several are already available in the Peace Corps Volunteers library, and the Resource Center, from previous Volunteers. They can also be purchased at the Friendly Island Bookshop.
Tupperware or other plastic containers for food – You can buy these in Nuku'alofa, or reuse plastic drink bottles for items such as flour, sugar, etc. The bottles actually work much better than standard containers for keeping bugs out.
Hunting or bush knives – Bush knifes and machetes are readily and inexpensively available in Tonga. Just about everyone owns a bush knife.
Mosquito net – Provided by the Peace Corps Office.
Mosquito repellent – The type which is applied to the skin is provided by the Medical Officer. You may want to bring the type you spray on clothing and mosquito netting. Electronic repellers and other high-tech gizmos don't work (I brought one just to see if it would do any good).
Vitamins – Available from the Medical Officer.
Water purification tablets – Available from the Medical Officer.
Sun screen – Available from the Medical Officer.
Condoms – Available from the Medical Officer.
First Aid Kit – Provided by the Peace Corps Office.
Bicycle helmet – Provided by the Peace Corps Office.
Life jacket – Provided by the Peace Corps Office.
Dramamine or other seasickness medication – Available from the Medical Officer.
Soap, shampoo, toothpaste – A week's supply of these things is sufficient and handy to bring with; but, you can buy all of this here when you arrive. I'm even using the same brands as I did back in the US.
Booze – Here's the one item on which I disagree with Dave. If you need to drink hard liquor to have a good time, then you are far better off staying in the US. Getting ****-faced in Tonga is generally not a good idea, since it puts your safety at serious risk, and the Peace Corps does care about that. Reasonably priced beer and wine of passable quality (for social purposes, if not for the connoisseur) are available in Tonga. Leave the hard stuff for when you go back home on vacation.
Recreational drugs – If you are stupid enough to even consider bringing this sort of thing with you, esp. across international borders, then stay far away from me.