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.)