Gordon and Sonia cook up a scheme to volunteer for a year in Tonga

IMAGINE renting out your house, selling your car, taking leave from your job and putting your life on hold for a year to help someone else.

That’s exactly what Orange couple Gordon and Sonia Muir did when they spent a year volunteering in Tonga with the federal government’s Australian Volunteers For International Development - which aims to build the capacity of developing countries.

The Muirs are full of praise for the scheme and after returning to Orange on March 13 - exactly one year and one day since they flew out of Australia - recommend the experience to anyone.

 Mr Muir, a chef, had to go through a lengthy selection process before scoring as a cookery teacher at TAFE-style college ’Ahopanilolo Technical Institute in Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa.

“You have to rent your house out, sell you car, get time off work,” Mrs Muir said.

“But the great thing about the Australian volunteer program is there is a whole heap of scaffolding around to support you.”

The couple had training before they left Australia and an in-country manager helped them become established in Tonga and find accommodation covered by the program’s allowance.

Although he started as a commercial cookery teacher, Mr Muir’s role at the college soon “morphed into a dozen jobs”.

Mrs Muir too spent her days volunteering at the college teaching communication classes and being a general “dog’s body”.

“There was so much to be done and it was such a fantastic place to volunteer and work that we both went there for a whole year,” Mrs Muir said.

“Gordon was there as a volunteer and I was known as the bonus.”

The Catholic college has about 120 students and 18 staff with “dynamic nun” Sister Kieoma Finau at the helm.

Although the students are aged from 18 into their 30s, all wear a uniform and the outcomes are positive.

“Of the 52 students that graduated last year 47 are employed in a high unemployment country,” Mr Muir said.

In a country where food is everything, Mr Muir encouraged students to add more salad and vegetables to their root vegetable-dominated diet through night cooking classes.

“They’ve got fantastic fruit and vegetables in the market, but they didn’t know what to do with them,” Mr Muir said.

“Diabetes and non-clinical diseases are a big problem, [like] heart [conditions], [or being] overweight, because its an unbalanced, high-carb diet.”

Mr Muir also helped students run the Pot Luck Training Restaurant where, as well as learning the ropes of hospitality, the students entertained their customers with dance and song.

The Muirs were surprised how inclusive the Catholic school was, even for the fakaleiti - transsexual males.

“We went there with the objective of not hanging out a lot with expats, we wanted to really get in with the whole Tongan way of life ... we went to funerals, weddings and feasts and a whole lot of traditional activities, which was fun"

But the country remains deeply conservative and Christian, with a culture that encourages modest clothing and means male and females swim fully-clothed at all times.

Surprisingly for the tropical climate, most Tongans hate the sun and use umbrellas as a shield Mrs Muir said, but in wet weather the umbrellas come down and the locals like walking in the rain.

Despite the Muirs renting a modest besser-block house local visitors, used to multi-generational households, were shocked the couple lived alone.

“We went there with the objective of not hanging out a lot with expats, we wanted to really get in with the whole Tongan way of life,” Mrs Muir said.

“We went to funerals, weddings and feasts and a whole lot of traditional activities, which was fun.”

The pair could not praise the locals enough.

“They have a great sense of gratefulness and gratitude for what they have ... they’re very open to new ideas and embrace things,” Mrs Muir said.

“In our culture people are very resistant to change.”

With no art gallery, museum or library at times the couple felt starved of culture, but in a country where complex health problems mean being airlifted to New Zealand there are other priorities.

Healthcare is free, but flights for medical treatment are offered through a ballot system.

“If you’re old and someone young has cancer they get priority over an older person,” Mrs Muir said.

Initially the pair found the unreliable internet and postal service isolating, but since returning to Australia feel overwhelmed with technology after living for a year with no traffic lights and no fast-food chains.

Although both admit it has been difficult slotting back into everyday life in Orange, they encourage anyone who wants an “amazing chapter in their lives” to join the program and help build the capacity of developing countries.

“So many people have said to us ‘you look so good’,” Mrs Muir said.

“And I think it’s that year of giving, not focusing on yourself. Being immersed in another culture is such a privilege and to be able to give something back to our neighbours.”

The couple plans to return to Tonga in December for the college’s graduation.

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