Thursday, February 19, 2015

Smokin' for the Gods

To familiarize ourselves with the island spirits of Maiana, our entire group was required to make customary offerings at the island's effigies scattered throughout the land.  It was customary not to permit menstruating women to join the walk for fear of harming the spirits.  Because of this, a few members of our training class stayed in the village while the rest departed for what was supposed to be a two-hour trip. We were told that the ritual was important for our spiritual and physical well-being while staying on the island.  To prepare for the offerings, Peace Corps staff purchased three tins of caked tobacco, which were shared between all points of offering.  Some offerings were physically placed on stone altars while others were fashioned into pandanus leaf cigarettes, and smoked by our two spiritual guides.

The first altar was not far from my family’s land.  At night, I would see this land disappear beneath the cool ocean waters.  However, walking across it under direct sunlight was a very different experience. When we reached the shady grove surrounding the first altar, we were more than appreciative of the brief respite from the sun's rays.  From there, we traveled another hour or so on foot to reach the next offering spot.    

The day carried on in this fashion, as we travelled from altar to altar, spending about thirty minutes waiting for our guides to smoke our offerings at each one.  By the time we made it to the third altar, high tide was quickly approaching, and seemingly, within minutes, we were swimming across land we had previously crossed on foot.  Global warming suddenly seemed real as I began to swim across my family's land.

Mangrove tree

The fourth altar was a mangrove tree located in the center of the now submerged reef flat.  My Nike flip-flops I had worn for protection turned into flotation devices as we waited for our guides. I began to think that this was going to take much longer than two hours. 

Maiana shoreline

By the time we reached our fifth altar, the sun was beginning to set, and the beauty of being on an island really sprung to life. The sun's rays bounced off the ocean and surrounded us with its warm temperatures.  It was as though the ocean exploded with light, cloaking us in ultraviolet pink rays as we made our way towards the shore. 

At night, we approached dry land. As we inched closer to the shore, our movements triggered colonies of bioluminescent bacteria, leaving glowing blue streams of light in our path.  Needing more light to guide our way, our guides took a detour through dry land to gather fallen coconut fronds. These were quickly fashioned into torches, and lit with the lighter Peace Corps staff brought with them. These guided us through the remaining reef flats under the Milky Way-lit sky.

Our group had walked, crawled and swam across countless flooded reef flats, dense bush lands and faced high tide head on.  By the time we returned to the village, nearly ten hours had passed.  All of our host families were upset with the guides. I could not understand the exchanges that were taking place, but the anger and frustration on their faces was hard to misinterpret.  Despite their grievances, all of us felt the experience was amazing.  To this day, I can say that crossing those lagoons under the Milky Way-lit sky, led by coconut frond torches and followed by oceanic bioluminescent trails was one of the most remarkable journeys of my life and more than made up for any missed meals that day. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Maiana's Introduction

The clocks began chiming at 5 am.  Was I ready for this? I thought to myself as I rolled up my pillow and sheet.  We slowly gathered our belongings and made our way downstairs to the awaiting transports.  The air was cool, and the road was empty.  Nei Matangarei, our hired cargo ship, was waiting for us at the end of the sparsely lit wharf.  There you are now, said Tekaai, it will be about three hours on the sea before you arrive in Maiana.    

Stumbling off the transport, we heard a tone of urgency coming from the ship’s deck.  Hurry up!  We can’t wait, the tide is going out! Get your assignments and get on. The boat has many more stops after it drops us off! 

Before jumping on, each volunteer grabbed their village and family assignment.  I was assigned to a village called Bubutei Meiaki (Boo-boo-tay May-akee).  My Father’s name was Tateka, my mother’s name was Beretia, and together they had three children, Ageiti Ngao, and Tawita.  Jumping from the dock to the ocean, I was becoming part of a new family for the next three months of service.

I swallowed the government issued Dramamine and made my way towards the rear of the ship where I found the perfect resting place between the captain’s stairwell and several rescue boats.  Spreading out my lavalava and using my life preserver as a pillow, I slept through the entire trip.

I woke as the ship pulled into the lagoon.  Maiana’s clear blue waters revealed an abundant amount of sea life.  Urchins and fish scattered, as the ship pulled closer to the reef’s shelf.  It eventually came to a halt, and small skiffs were used to transport people and supplies to shore.  The first things to go were the training supplies, followed by the Peace Corps vehicles and eventually us.  Correctly timing the tide was essential for getting all of the transport completed within one day. 

Once all people and supplies were on dry ground, Tekaai shuttled us to our villages in one of the Peace Corps trucks.  Due to its close proximity, volunteers in the northernmost village were dropped off first.  Since my village was the most southern village, I had a couple of hours to readjust myself to stable ground with other volunteers.  The truck returned just as the sun began to set for the six volunteers moving into the southern village of Bubutei (Boo-boo-tay).  

OK, Bubutei Volunteers! Yelled Tekaai, Your turn!

Tateka and Ngao were waiting by the road as we approached.  Tateka, my host father looked as if he were around 50 years of age. Ngao, my host brother, looked as if he were my same age.  Jumping off the truck, I greeted both with a firm handshake and a feeble Mauri (Hello).

My kiakia by Ngao Tateka

The full moon illuminated the walk from the truck to the kiakia (key-a-key-a).  Its walls were constructed from coconut spines, and its roof was made of pandanus thatch.  Attached to the underbelly of the roof was a florescent light bulb, which was powered by an old car battery.  I had no idea where my family got this from.  I can only guess that perhaps Peace Corps informed our families that Americans liked to read at night and he took the idea to heart.  He was more than excited to show off this amenity.  With the flip of a switch, he lit the small room revealing a small white scorpion pointing its stinger directly at my face.  Inside I felt like screaming and running away.  Instead, I froze.  I felt a rush of wind snap me out of fear’s grip.  It was Tateka’s bare hand, flying straight towards the scorpion.  Whap! I gasped.  His fingers scooped the dead creature and brought it to meet my face.  “Scorpion” he said.  I nodded and muttered a faint thank you.  

I was left to unpack my things.  From inside, I could hear my new family gather on the bwia (boo-yah).  Serving as the household’s living room, front porch, bedroom and dining room, the bwia is the center of household social life.  Once finished unpacking, Ngao took me to the bwia to meet my new family. This family was easily seven times larger than my nuclear family in the states.  What was worse, was that I could not communicate with them beyond basic greetings and my name.  I felt like a voicemail that repeated “leave a message and I’ll get back to you when I can.”  This was magnified by the thirty pairs of eyes staring at me, listening intently to every utterance I vocalized. 

After about ten minutes of polite smiles and nodding, I asked to go to bed.  Lying in my mosquito net, I heard the family continue their conversations, laughing every now and then.  In that moment, I wished that I could have been a part of it all. Laughing, talking, listening and understanding.  More than anything, I wanted to convey my gratitude to them for including me in their family.  All in due time, I thought.  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A brief respite (and a forewarning of things to come) in Tarawa

Another welcome party at the Australian High Commissioner's house awaited us upon our return to Tarawa. Given the circumstances, from surviving a rising ocean and horrific storm,  it was no surprise that all of us were extremely happy to see each other uninjured.  The recent storm provided ample conversation for everyone, including Brad, the Australian High Commissioner who shared this story with us. 

Two nights ago, I got the call from Australia warning me of a strong storm headed our way.  As soon as I got the call, I phoned the Kiribati Minister of Environment and warned him of the approaching storm.  He told me not to worry about it and to call him back the next morning.  I’m wasn't sure if the Minister was tired or extremely optimistic, but I wasn't going to take my chances.  I slept at the highest point of the High Commission with a life preserver just praying that I would be able to call him back in the morning.

We spent a few days in Tarawa before heading out to our HFV (Host Family Visits) on Maiana Island, our home island for the next three months. 

At the time, this was a freak storm.  However, the frequency and intensity of the ocean storms grew over out time in the country.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Storm

The Storm

The rest of the week's activities revolved around intensive language training, sporadic village tours, and constant lessons on how to live on an outer island.  Surprisingly, adjusting to life without electricity and running water was not as difficult as I had imagined it would be.  The most challenging part was getting fresh water.  The most basic thing I took for granted back home was now the most challenging thing to obtain.  Fetching water from a well required a good amount of patience, practice and strength. To understand why, I had to learn about how the island formed and evolved to this state.

Over 95% of Kiribati’s populated islands are coral atolls.  These ecological structures are remnants of ancient barrier reefs that once surrounded and protected high volcanic islands.  Circular in shape, and rising only a few feet above sea level, they maintain a naturally occurring filtration system which produces fresh water for terrestrial survival.  Since fresh water lenses are thickest beneath the center of an atoll, most wells were located near the middle of the atoll.  Each well had a large empty tin with some string next to it.  I-Kiribati made fetching water seem easy.  I found it anything but. 
Successful water retrieval first depended on making the tin land upright on the surface of the water.  A quick jerk of the tin’s string would tip it, and within seconds fill with water.  My bucket bounced all the way down to the water’s surface when I tried to do it.  Twice, the string fell into the well.  Fortunately, for me, I had several small onlookers who were more than willing to climb into the well to retrieve the tin. After several attempts, I re-filled my bucket and carried the 20+ pound bucket back to the house.  By the end of my service, fetching water was a routine task I performed at least three times a day.  After only days, I had gained a humbling new appreciation for indoor plumbing and 24-7 access to fresh water. 

As I developed an appreciation for water, I also had to learn firsthand about the furious wrath of the ocean waters.

Our last dinner was interrupted by a fierce storm. And this storm became one of the most terrifying storms I had ever lived through.  

The winds howled like the sound of a fast moving freight train. The seas roared as though they were Poseidon’s rage. My hand searched for the flashlight. I picked it up. Flicked the switch. I poked the flashlight through the coconut spines. What I saw I could never forget— true fury being unleashed. We saw waves rising up and crashing down. Rain flying in every direction. Waters rushing in as though its sole mission was to flood and destroy. And then that’s when we felt it. The winds. The house. All going up and down, up and down. Whoosh. Up. Whoosh. Down. The four of us had never felt this way before. We laid out on the raised platform, praying that our combined weight would keep hold the house down. Dogs and cats took shelter under our bodies, and I am sure the rats found shelter next to the soap dish in the bathroom.  

At sunrise, we emerged from our hiding spots to find numerous houses missing walls, roofs and uprooted coconut trees laying all around them. One school building lost its entire roof.  Fallen coconut trees laid across the school’s field and large portions of the school’s roof were missing. By 10:00, we headed to the lagoon to board our canoe to the main island.  On the way to the lagoon, I saw many families working together to repair the damages to their houses.  Men were collecting coconut spines and women and were weaving new thatch. Boys were on top of roofs installing new thatch, while girls swept the land clean of debris.  In such an interdependent society, it should have not surprised me to see such cooperation and care for others’ wellbeing… but it did.  The village’s resilience taught me about the power of collective action in the face of an immeasurable destructive force. This was yet another lesson that I strove to never forget.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Bootaki!!! Bootaki!!! Bootaki!!!

After familiarizing ourselves with the house of two rooms, outdoor roki and the most picturesque seaside bwia, Amanda showed us around her school’s compound.  No larger than half the size of a football field, the thirteen houses encircling the school were busy preparing the meal for our welcome celebration which was to be held later that night on the school’s compound. 
“Nako mai, Toka! Come over, sit!” we heard as we walked through the compound.  Residents beckoned us to sit and talk on their bwia.  Unable to say anything more than our names and hometowns in the Kiribati language, the families still showed great appreciation for our feeble attempts at speaking their language.  Once seated, it wasn’t long before plates of food and cups of hot tea were rushed to the center of the raised platform for our enjoyment.  We continued to receive such warm hospitality with each house we visited, making us feel more welcomed.  As the day’s sunlight faded, our visits progressively shortened, as it was time to return to our house. When we returned, we could see billowing clouds of smoke rising from the back of each house.  “They are all cooking for your welcome Bootaki tonight,” Amanda informed us as we began touring the empty classrooms.
Bootakis are highly structured celebrations that recognize special occasions, achievements, and individuals.  These celebrations recognized the celebrated individuals as well as the hosts through gift-giving, speeches, and performances.   Large celebrations took place in village maneabas, the centers of village social life.  These towering structures were as much symbolic as they were practical.  The large meeting halls reflected the village’s strength and unity.  Each supporting post in the structure represented a family lineage found within the village.  Families supported village life, as posts supported the maneaba’s roof.  When there were tensions in the village, there were tensions in the maneaba’s social system of governing. 
During celebrations, guests sat against maneaba posts facing the lagoon, while hosts sat against posts facing the ocean.  Since atolls rise just several feet above the ocean, maneaba structures are often the first things seen by approaching sea vessels; seating arrangements reflect this dichotomy.  

When missionaries came, they built their church next to the village maneaba
Local thatched roof maneaba

Instead of a maneaba, our welcome bootaki was held in a classroom.  Teachers rented a generator to provide lights and music for the celebration.  We sat according to maneaba protocol, facing the lagoon, while the teachers faced the ocean.  After a formal welcome speech, which was delivered in English by one of the teachers, we introduced ourselves in our best broken I-Kiribati.  Our introductions were riddled with multiple errors, which created roars of laughter from everyone in the room.  Laughter rose to a fever pitch when Stacy accidentally introduced herself as an ass.  We became both the guests and entertainers for the night.  Our only saving graces were the teachers who were not shy to share with us the comedy of our mistakes.  We had as much fun laughing at ourselves as the teachers did laughing at us.
Any outsider could see that the school and teachers did not have a lot of money to fund celebrations, complete with imported foods and fuel for electricity.  Nevertheless, it did not stop them from collectively gathering what funds they could to provide food, electricity and a sound system for the night.  Like the posts that supported the village maneaba, the teachers came together to support our welcome to their island, which filled us all.  In a letter home, I told my family how moved I was at receiving so much from people who clearly did not have much at all. 

Only one week in the country and I was beginning to see the world in a very different way.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Host Volunteer Visit (HVV)

Our first week of pre-service training (PST) ended with the unveiling of our Host Volunteer Visit (HVV) sites.  The country director assigned me, along with nine other Peace Corps trainees (PCTs), to Abaiang Island.  This meant a seven-hour boat ride across the open ocean.  When we broke for the day, I returned to my room and packed for the HVV assignment.  Dreading the inevitable seasickness, I brought all of the Dramamine my mother had stuffed into my carry-on.  I didn’t sleep well that night.  I worried about what would happen on the boat ride, what would happen during the HVV and how I would live without air-conditioning at night. 
Alas, it seemed all my worrying only made the sunrise come too soon.  I took my last shower and then headed downstairs to board a transport to Betio, home of the national harbor, with the nine other PCTs.  Once there, we waited to board a double hauled-canoe named “The Meteorite.”  The canoe was not very large, and I questioned whether it would be able to handle the open ocean.  The sight of it rocking in the harbor was enough to make my stomach turn and dive into my carry-on for Dramamine.  Just before the last boarding call, I downed three pills and within minutes, knocked out on the deck’s floor. 
Fortunately, I slept through the entire voyage and woke up just as we pulled into Abaiang’s lagoon.  The clear, turquoise water exposed an amazing world of color and life below the boat’s deck.  Fish of all shapes and sizes darted in and out of vibrant, colored coral stems.  Long black eels hovered with grace over the lagoon’s floor, and crustaceans scampered across the basin, concealing themselves in plumes of coral.  This underwater paradise welcomed us to Abaiang.  
Soon as we pulled in, my fellow PCTs came over to check on me.  They told me about the amazing trip I slept through.  Stingrays and bottlenose dolphins swam alongside the boat as it traversed the deep blue ocean.  The boat apparently hit some rough waters halfway through the trip, which explained why many containers were in different places when I woke.  I was just happy we made it into the lagoon and could not wait to get off.    

Small silver skiffs taxied passengers from the edge of the reef (where the boat anchored) to the shore.  We waited until all the passengers had been ferried to shore before boarding a skiff.  Somehow, we all managed to fit into one skiff with all of our supplies.  However, as the water became shallower, the weight of the skiff nearly parked it on the reef.  We ended up leaving our heavy supplies in the boat, and walked through the lagoon for the last hundred meters or so.  
Like the airport, people lined the shore, waiting for arriving passengers.  It wasn't hard to identify our HVV host, Amanda, from the lagoon.  Her nearly six-foot tall frame, bright pink-sunburned skin and long brown hair differentiated her from the shorter, darker-skinned I-Kiribati who surrounded her.  
Once on shore, Amanda led us to a transport that would take us to the assigned villages.  Transports (outer island busses) were industrial-sized flatbed trucks imported from Japan.  Some had rails and some did not.  Our own transport looked safe, but Amanda advised us to hold on tight since this transport’s bed was known to randomly detach itself from the cab.  From the look of the rough dirt road, my fear of sudden detachment appeared to be a major possibility.  Throughout the trip, the driver would shout, “Speed bump!” and proceed to laugh every time his bed of passengers bounced.  Fortunately, Peace Corps dictated that each volunteer travel with a life jacket.  This was my pillow on the boat and my trusty cushion on the truck.
 Speeding down the road, we passed through many villages.  Numerous large breadfruit trees, deep taro pits, pigpens, and small gardens surrounded each home.  Unlike Tarawa, there was plenty of space here with very few people.  We arrived around high noon, and it was then that I remembered what an Australian ex-pat told me one night in the hotel lobby. 
“Mike, only mad dogs and English men go out in the daytime because it’s too hot here.”  From what I could see, he was right.  Everyone must have been inside trying to avoid the heat, mad dogs, and/or random English men. 
Our host volunteer, Amanda worked in the island’s Junior Senior Secondary school (JSS), and lived on the school’s compound with all of the other teachers.  Her dog, along with a sign reading, “Ignore the Skeptics,” greeted us as we entered the house.  She gave us a quick tour around and pointed out something she did to appease the island rats in order to have good rat karma.  According to her, rats loved soap.  Feeding them soap not only kept them happy, but also cleaned their insides.  She warned us about making the rats upset, and instructed us not to move the soap that laid on the roki (bathroom) floor.  Though I respected the island rats and the potential dangers they posed to us, rat karma was something that I never really bought into during my service.

(Nearly five years after learning of rat karma, I too began offering gifts of soap to the island rats.  During a 2005 return trip, I suddenly awoke from a deep sleep with a sharp pain in my foot.  A rat made his way into my mosquito net and began eating my toes.  Remembering Amanda’s practice, I decided to make an offering the next morning.  It has been almost a decade since that offering, and during each of my many returns to Kiribati, I have yet to wake up again from rats eating my toes.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Lets not worry about global warming...

I left the newspaper on the table and went down to the hotel’s maneaba.  There we met all of the Peace Corps-Kiribati staff, received inoculations, and began processing our in-country paperwork.  Tea breaks were frequent throughout the morning, and in the afternoon, we learned about common adjustment challenges, culture shock, and Kiribati phrases and greetings.  The most complicated part was learning how to introduce ourselves in I-Kiribati (Ee Key-rey-bas), the Kiribati language.
Mikaio, another trainer, phrased it like this: in your country the big ME is important.  Here it is the big WE.  While Americans value independence and individualism, the I-Kiribati (a person from Kiribati) value codependency and collectivism. The big me, myself, and I simply cannot exist here, because having an individualistic mindset in Kiribati is isolating and potentially dangerous; their identity is dependent on their relationships with others. This concept is reflected in their introductions.
When I-Kiribati introduced themselves, they highlighted their connections to others and to the land.  In Kiribati, land connects individuals to their past, present and future.  For example, most people are born on their family’s land.  They live their lives on that land, and when they die, they are buried in that land.  The cycle continues with each succeeding generation.  Therefore, when they speak about their individual lineage and connection to land, it is easy for others to make connections with those introducing themselves.  This depth unites all I-Kiribati with others.         
Tokan, one of our language trainers, introduced himself to us by saying, Arau Tokan, Ngai kaain Abaiang. Au kaaua, bon Koinaua, arana tamau Mikaere, ao tinau, Nei Areta. Iai teniman maneu ao teuana tariu. My name is Tokan, I am from Abaiang Island. My village is Koinaua.  My father’s name is Mikaere, and my mother’s name is Areta.  I have three sisters and one brother.
Unlike the I-Kiribati, my introduction began and ended with myself. I focused only on my own personal accomplishments, such as my education and occupation.  Shallow, I know, but over time, I learned to introduce myself the way the I-Kiribati did:  
Arau Mike. Ngai kaain New York. Arana tamau Ramon ao arana tinau Elena.  Iai maneu, arana Jennifer.
Even after I got the introduction down, I knew I still had a lot to learn about the language and culture. In my days outside of training, I would walk down the only paved road in the country, and wave to approaching minivans.  Frequently, the drivers gave a honk and wave in response.   One driver even stopped to talk.  I was both flattered and scared at the same time.  The door opened, and the operator shouted toka, get on!  Unable to speak the language, I just stood there in silence wearing a look of confusion.  When it was clear that I wasn’t going to toka, the minivan erupted with laughter and sped off. These situations only intensified my desire to gain a working knowledge of the language.  When I returned to the training center, I shared my minivan experiences with the language trainers.  They told me that waving was akin to hailing taxis, and honks indicated that the minivans were full.
As my fluency level increased, my way of thinking changed.  I started understanding customs that once confused me, and learned to embrace this different land with different values. In essence, I took on their perspective. This was strangely enlightening and frustrating at the same time. 
Eventually, I did get on a bus with other volunteers later in the week.  Drivers, hoping to earn more money, asked seated passengers to sit on top of other passengers so us I-matangs (ee mah-tahngs), foreigners, could fit.  We appreciated the gesture but passed on overcrowded busses.  Eventually, an empty red bullet made its way down the road.  Red bullets were the newest and fastest minivans in Kiribati.  The minivans had no seatbelts, and speed limits seemed to be open to interpretation.  Scents of cigarettes, perfume, sweat and fish permeated the interior as we sped down the two-lane road.  It was scary since a blown tire, fallen coconut or a careless dog could have easily catapulted us into both the ocean and lagoon.  Trying to keep my mind from thinking about an imminent death, I kept my mind busy with other thoughts.  Unfortunately, the only thing that I could think about was global warming.  In the states, I hadn’t paid much attention to it. At the time, it seemed controversial and unimportant.  If anything were to happen, it would happen first to some random islands in the middle of the ocean before it came to Ohio.  Funny how life happens.  I was now on that small island in the middle of an ocean… far from Ohio.  Speeding down the road with the ocean’s spray soaking my face took my mind off imminent death, but made me seriously contemplate global warming.  I wrote this to my mom and dad on November 10, 2000. 

It’s so pretty here but scary too.  I heard about this thing called global warming before I left home, and I just wonder if it’s true.  Being here sure makes it real to me.  But, I guess I trust the US Government. They wouldn’t send us here if they thought it was a serious threat. I asked Mikaio what he thought about global warming.  He assured me it was nothing serious.  You know, Mike, he said, they said Kiribati would go under the ocean in the 1980s and look, we are still here, so don’t worry.  God promised Noah to never flood the Earth again, so see, no need to worry.