So, what do you really need to be a parent for a week? Turns out you need a lot less when you're in Tonga, a tropical island-nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hell, kids don't even need shoes in Tonga. I discovered this within the first hour of a week-long babysitting gig my husband and I set up here.
"Ok, boys!" I called out, as I finished packing a picnic lunch to take on our hike up to the top of Mount Talau, the highest point on this island of Vava'u. "Let's get your shoes on and we're off."
Luca, 7, explained patiently, "Bri, we only wear shoes on airplanes." And off he scampered to join his two shoeless brothers, running barefoot over sharp gravel on the dirt road.
As the days wore on, I realized shoes were just the beginning of the long list of things the boys didn't need...things that were on my list of "what I will probably need to raise a kid" after three decades of living in the United States. My list includes crayons and balls, DVDs and a TV, after-school engagements, playgrounds, a host of special foods, and a car to drive them around. We had none of that.
Instead, the boys walked to and from school, and we all hitchhiked to the one pool in town for an afternoon outing. We played with a stick and a rock, a bucket and a rope, our feet, our minds, our eyes. They giggled over a complicated game with one balloon for hours in the living room, and shared the one mini-computer with a broken screen. The seven of us lived in a 2-bedroom, 1-bath house quite comfortably. The boys ate whatever we fed them, since they understand that treats like candy or pepperoni are a luxury when they come by ferry from a thousand miles away.
Jack, Felix and Luca are 11, 9, and 7. They are blonde, barefoot, and beautifully at home in this land that is still foreign to me. They are the most self-reliant and capable kids I have ever met. They swim like fish, hike faster than me, and blithely deal with the dead rat on the front steps or the cockroaches under their bed.
These boys are teaching me how to live in Tonga. And they are teaching me that being a parent is less about all the stuff I thought I needed, and more about the creativity, patience and sense of humor I already have.
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