Friday, September 26, 2014

Unsympathetic Radio Gods

I had been awaiting this package for almost eight months, stuck in a state of fear, excitement, and disbelief. Anxiously, I opened the door just in time to see the FedEx driver climb back into his truck. Kneeling down to pick up the package, I yelled, “Thank you!” over the sound of his diesel engine, and stepped back inside!  
I applied to the Peace Corps at the beginning of my last year at university.  Recruiters advised all to apply months in advance since the application process was rather lengthy.  Holding my final correspondence package, I ripped into it to find this letter.
Peace Corps Acceptance Letter
The Volunteer Assignment Description said I was going to The Republic of Kiribati! Where is Kiribati I thought to myself?  Peace Corps correctly assumed I had no knowledge of this country and provided an ample amount of information on the nation in the package.
At the time, Peace Corps assigned volunteers to countries based on three factors; a candidate's health, skills and their availability. I was healthy, had a degree in elementary education, and was available to leave in mid to late 2000.  These factors had qualified me for three regions: Africa, Central Europe, and the Pacific. However, despite stating my severe motion sickness, allergic tendencies towards seafood, and strong dislike for hot and humid weather, I was assigned to this small nation located in the Pacific Islands.  Not wanting to disappoint the Corps, I said nothing.
Kiribati? I thought to myself, where is Kiribati? I searched through the package to find out more information about my assignment to this nation. At the time, I recall Peace Corps assigning volunteers to countries based on three factors: a candidate’s health, skills and availability. I was healthy, had a degree in elementary education, and was available to leave in mid to late 2000.  These factors had qualified me for three regions: Africa, Central Europe, and the Pacific. However, despite stating my severe motion sickness, allergic tendencies towards seafood, and strong dislike for hot and humid weather, I was assigned to this small nation located in the Pacific Islands.  Not wanting to disappoint the Corps, I said nothing.  

Besides my sister’s honeymoon pictures she had taken in Hawai’i the previous year, I knew nothing about the Pacific. So I tore through the rest of the package, and learned that Kiribati was located in the middle of the ocean, had less than 90,000 people, and was composed of 33 islands. Soon, I stumbled upon the government SATO travel documents, and suddenly it all became real.  

I became so distracted thinking about my future paradise on this tropical island that I forgot all about my job. I grabbed my package, and rushed to the restaurant. During breaks, I snuck into unoccupied booths to continue my reading.  When I returned home, I googled the nation.  But I only found a handful of websites that had information about the country, and most were run by world governments.  

However, more challenging than finding information on Kiribati was deciding on what to pack for the next two years of my life.  Peace Corps allowed each volunteer two 70 lb. bags.  Mom suggested I bring a good supply of toilet paper and Pepto Bismol, while dad offered no suggestions.  I suspected he didn't believe I would join Peace Corps, since all of my actions stated otherwise.  

After all, I had several local school districts requesting interviews. To him, surely I would take at least one interview, which could lead to a job and stable future. However, it was not until we were sitting at the Cincinnati airport that my desire for a different kind of life hit home for the both of us.  

In 1997, my maternal grandmother, Mona, daughter of Jose and Cruz, passed away. We attended her funeral in El Paso.  However, instead of flying, my father, sister and I drove. I refused to fly after seeing the movie Alive in high school. It was a true story about a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed into a mountain range while they were en route to a tournament. Almost all of the passengers died immediately upon impact, and the survivors spent weeks inside the wreckage, warding off starvation by turning into cannibals.  Because of this, I forced us to drive 3,076 miles to El Paso that summer.  

Somewhere between Fort Worth and Odessa, the consequences of my decision became obscene.  We had been traveling non-stop for more than twenty hours before reaching this long stretch of barren dessert.  Tension was high in the car because no one, including myself saw an end to the journey.  A journey, we did not have to take by car.  The straw that broke the camel’s back was the radio.  In our rush to make the funeral, we forgot to pack music for the trip. This left us at the mercy of the desert radio gods. Frequently searching for stations to no avail, we were forced to listen to the stillness of the desert.  Dad fought hard to stay awake.  Internally, I jumped for joy when anything but static came in.  One station, which came in loud and clear for roughly 50 miles, repeatedly played one country song and a Gold Bond medicated itch cream commercial.  Singing along with the song and repeating ‘for almost every kind of itch’ on queue became less entertaining with each rendition. Dad had enough and turned off the radio after about five rounds.  I could only stay silent and feel bad as we continued our journey to El Paso.  

We spent a week in El Paso, traveling from house to church to cemetery and back. In the end, it was good that we drove since we were able to bring back some of my grandma’s treasures. We also made sure to equip our van with a CD player for the trip home.  It was this trip that broke my fear of flying.

I was now sitting at gate number twelve with my mother, father, sister, and one-year-old nephew. Each of us would have been happy not to be there as the boarding ramp doors opened.  As I stood up to gather my bags, dad let out a loud cry.  Its echoes still ring clear in my mind when I think about that day. It was as if all of his emotions, which had been building up for months possibly, had finally been released.
Somewhat taken aback by this uncharacteristic display of emotion, and feeling a little embarrassed, I did not want to expose my own insecurities.  I felt the same way inside. I silently repeated to myself just hold it in… just hold it in.  My eyes watered as I handed my ticket to the attendant.  Turning back one last time, I waved and proceeded down the ramp. As soon as I made it past the boarding ramp turn, I let the tears pour out. I heard a girl sobbing behind me. By chance, I asked, are you joining the Peace Corps too? Patting her eyes with a tissue, she nodded.  I asked, where? She said a country called Kiribati.
Unsympathetic Radio Gods
The roads to El Paso/Kiribati

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Fabens Bridge to America

To begin the blog, I have to take you back,  way back to my own family's story of migration...
Cruz, Jesus, and Jose
Jose de la Luz Olivas and Cruz Estrada immigrated to Tornillo, Texas (USA) from Sausillo, Chihuahua (Mexico) during the Mexican revolutionary war.  Jose was a farmer and Cruz was a homemaker.  According to their daughter, Mona, he was very strict, very short and very dark skinned.  Her mother was tall, pretty, light skinned and a saint.  Mona always said that she looked like more like her father than her mother.
Mona had several brothers and sisters. Her first brother and his wife had several children.  One became a nun in Mexico, but later left the order and married.  She eventually moved to Fabens, Texas and had nine children.  One died in his early 20s after being electrocuted during a storm.  Another mysteriously disappeared during the Mexican revolution while tending to sheep in the mountains.  Many suspected that soldiers took his life.
Mona was young when the soldiers came.  She would talk about seeing a man’s body hung from trees in the town’s center while walking to school. She and her older brother walked to school each day until she decided that it was too dangerous.  It was because of this, that she stopped attending school before finishing second grade. 
A third brother of hers died in a car accident.  He was traveling with his wife and child in Fabens.  The only one to survive the accident was the baby boy, Jesus, of only a few months.
Mona’s brothers had gone to the United States to find work as farmhands.  Soon after they left, her father, Jose, decided that he would move to the U.S. to be with his sons.  He sold the family’s animals and left.  He brought Mona with him, entrusting her with the money collected from the animal sales.  Only ten at the time, her father thought that, she would be the least suspect of having money if they encountered robbers.  They traveled in a horse drawn wagon and crossed the boarder at Fabens.
Her father had a letter of reference which stated that he was a good worker and an honest man.  With this, he found a job and settled in Tornillo.  Jose eventually became a supervisor of the farm, and they all lived together while the rest of the family stayed in Mexico.  The car accident that took Jess’s parents forced Jess to join Jose and Mona in America. The accident instantly killed both of his parents, yet he survived it all with only a broken limb.
About ten years later, Jose decided to go back to Mexico after the death of his wife at age 63.  She became ill with a fatal case of pneumonia and died.  Jose took Jess back to Mexico with him, leaving Mona in the United States.  It was not too long before word got back to Mona that her father had died of a heart attack in Mexico.  Mona was unable attend his funeral since she did not have proper immigration papers.
After Jose’s death, Jess decided to return to the U.S.  He didn't feel like he belonged in Mexico.  At sixteen, he moved to Arizona but remained in touch with Mona and the U.S. family.  Mona thought very highly of him all throughout her life.  The feelings were mutual as evidenced by the fact that they always kept in touch up until his death.
Mona married Pie on June 5, 1910.  They had three daughters, Alice, Mary, Maria Elena, and Franky, from a previous marriage.  Mona was a homemaker, but when cotton season came, she was a cotton picker.  She was good and fast at picking cotton, and she earned twelve cents per pound of cotton.
A small pickup truck would come early in the morning to pick her up and it would bring her back in the afternoon.  When not in school, her children would go with her.  Running through the rows of cotton, they would entertain themselves, and  pick a little cotton every now and then.
Sometimes we would have small bags tied to our waists to help.  I would always wander away and she would yell, stay close so I can see you!  She always talked in Spanish.  Spanish was my first language.  When I started school, I did not know English.  It was difficult but eventually we picked up on the English language.  My daddy was well-liked by everyone who met him.  He was very kind and gentle.  He was good to his wife and he was a very hard worker.  He was an honest and very decent man.
Pie, Mona's husband, was born in Villahumada, Mexico.  He was very tall, maybe six feet she recalls.  His mother died when he was very young and from that point, a sobrina (niece) raised him until the age of thirteen.  He would call her mom until she married and left with her husband.  He moved around a lot, staying here and there with relatives until he decided to come to the United States.
He started working when he moved here at age thirteen.  One season, when working on a farm, he got very sick.  The owners took him in and nursed him back to health.  It was there that he met Mona.  She lived on the farm and had a small business cooking lunch for the farm hands.  Her previous marriage fell apart, and she was doing her best to make a living for her and her son.  To make a long story short, Pie ate frequently at Mona’s restaurant.  He fell in love with her, married her and helped take care of her son.  They eventually had three daughters of their own.  Decades later, I came into the picture.
Migration, like so many U.S. citizens is in my blood.  It is in the blood of the I-Kiribati people, whom this blog is about.  And I am pretty sure it is in your blood too.  Our past connects us to the present which will connect us to our future.  It is the migration of the individual which ultimately connects to others, creating at the very least a shared history and collective future.

Friday, September 19, 2014

WTWNM Introduction

When I returned from Peace Corps service in 2002, America was a different place.  It was not home to me any longer.  Not like it was before I left.  The buildings, the streets, seemingly everyone had cell phones, and food was everywhere.  Everything was different, everything was bigger.  Friends and family alike were happy to see me back, but I could not relate to them like I used to before.  Striking up conversations was different.  They talked about movies, clothes, money.  I could only stare in amazement at the amount of things that existed in stores and water fountains.  I loved water fountains like no one else.  The water was cold, safe to drink and tasted delicious!
Sleeping in a bed was difficult.  I froze when temperatures dropped below 90 degrees.  Things which I cherished in the village (talking, relationships, a slow-paced life) did not seem to be valued in America.  Here it was all about the go go go.  Going to work, going to school, going to appointments... just going without stopping.  Most of the going seemed to revolved around money.  It was a far cry than what I had become accustomed to in the village.  Reverse culture shock was the bane of my existence at that time.  I often cried myself to sleep just wishing to be back home in Kiribati.
The Republic of Kiribati, located in the Central Pacific, is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries facing devastating consequences from rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.  Most of the nation is composed of low-lying coral atolls, which rise just feet (2-3 meters) above the Pacific Ocean.  Since taking office in 2003, climate change has been an issue of great importance for President Anote Tong.  As ecological problems have increased within the country, adaptation and migration strategies have been utilized to  cope with the changing environments.
Transnational migration opportunities (higher ed scholarships and migrant labor schemes) have increased since my first time in the country.  Today Kiribati students are traveling to Cuba, Taiwan, Fiji and Australia on scholarships for their education.  Once receiving their degrees, many students hope to find employment overseas since employment opportunities within Kiribati is limited.  The few who do find employment largely work for the government or on foreign ships as contracted seafarers, commercial fishermen, or merchant seamen.  These, typically males, employees earn far less than the U.S. minimum wage their first few years and only slightly above it the following years.  Most of their earnings are remitted home.  It is easy to see in the villages which families have connections to overseas wage employment.  These are the families with televisions, radios, generators, DVD players and even refrigerators.  With greater access to money and manufactured imports, the outside world impacts village life greatly.  However, even greater of an impact is found on the local environments in which these villages exist.
As I sit here in an air-conditioned office with a water fountain just steps from my door it is easy to ignore climate change.  If I get too hot, I turn down the air conditioner, too cold I turn up the heater.  I live a life of privilege and convenience.  Ignoring the science of climate change allows me to continue living this way without needing to think about my own actions and the impacts they may or may not have on others in this world.  As long as MY world remains intact, I have the power to do what I please, when I please and where I please.  Climate change holds no real threat to MY way of life.  And besides, changing MY lifestyle to cater to climate change would cost money and ultimately inconvenience ME. Therefore, I don't believe in climate change.  Science has not proven it 100%.
Believe me, I understand these kinds of perspectives.  I have heard them for years. Whenever I make talks or presentations on Kiribati and climate change, I can always count on a handful of skeptics to speak up.  I get it.  It is not in our best interest to think about others when we are too busy thinking about ourselves.  However, at a time when climate change, immigration, and economies are sociopolitical hotbeds across the world, it might be time to start thinking about ways to solve these problems by changing our own minds and putting others first.  Even if we will never meet them face to face.
This blog brings forth these individuals, and perspectives less commonly heard from in the nightly news broadcast or highlighted in high level international meetings and popular discourse.  Small Island States, the ones most impacted and least responsible for what is happening to them, often find themselves placed in side events at COP conferences while the bigger nations decide on how to delay meaningful action on climate change.
The title, When There Was No Money, is inspired by just that.  In the village, there was little to no money.  We survived.  Money did not drive our society, humans relationships did. The U.S. society was like this at one point in time.  I worked with an older gentleman who confirmed this.  He talked about how things had changed in our country and how the world was better back then.  To him, the thing that broke our society was air-conditioning.  I think he was right.
When air conditioners were put in houses, people stopped sitting on porches, we used to see and know everyone in our neighborhood because we were hot.  When we needed to cool down we went outside, like everyone else, and we talked to our neighbors.
Then them dang things got put into cars. No longer could you just pull up next to someone and start a conversation. They had their windows closed.  At the intersections, you couldn't just stick out your arm and wave people through.  Your windows was up.  This was how traffic jams got started on my street. It was maybe one or two cars at the time, not like today.  But people couldn't communicate like before.  That ain't the point though.  The point is how can you connect with people when everyone is closed up.  
We lost our connection to others when air conditioners came around. It got worse with computers and cell phones.  Heaven forbid you try to strike up a conversation with someone at the grocery store.  Hell, we don't even know half the people on our own street.  You see it all started with air conditioning.  
You should call this dang blog thing of yours "when there was no air conditioning" because it sounds to me as if that's what it really is all about.
Metaphorically speaking, lets turn off our air conditioners and open our window for the sake of living life again.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Nation Called Kiribati

This is not how it was when I first came to this country 15 years ago.  I never imagined it would look like this, or get this bad so fast.  Locals used to tell me not to worry, "God promised Noah that he would never flood the Earth again."  For many years scientists argued over the idea of global warming; they said it would happen over thousands of years, if it were to happen.  My experiences on the front lines of climate change over the past two decades makes me think otherwise.  My story is only one story in a sea of stories, over 500,000 to be precise.  It is a story commonly unheard of in the day to day lives of those less impacted by climate change, and for good reason.  My story, which is a collection of may others' stories, has the power to scare the entire world.  Collectively, we live what the world does not want to see.  Yet for the sake of humanity, it is a story that must be recognized and acted upon for the benefit of all humanity.
This blog is my attempt to bring a fifteen year story of secrecy to light.  This story is kept from the general public for two major reasons,  power and money.  This story comes from a time and place where money was not the focus of daily life.  In the middle of the Central Pacific Ocean, there is a small atoll with three villages, 1,000 people, no running water, and little to no electricity.  Understandably, for many who spend their lives in a cash based society, going to a developing nation for an extended period of time may seem like a crazy or even dangerous thing to do.  However, doing this at a young age really taught me more about life and my own thirst for humanity than any university class could have done.

For example, think about living in a world where people, communal ties, and family are valued more than anything else.  Think about a world where an individual's existence is tied so intimately to everyone else's well-being, that losing just one person touches all in the village, the island, and the nation.  Picture a world where everyone works together to ensure everyone else's survival.  Where no one goes hungry, and everyone has a place to call home  Where lethal violence is a rare occurrence, and the loss of just one life impacts the entire society.  Where family is everything, and everyone is family.  

Money has compromised so many valuable connections in our world today.  It has taken the humanity out of most of our daily transactions.  Do we know the farmers who grow the foods we consume?  Do the foods we eat even come from our own country?  Do we care about their lives?  Money masks any connection to those who produce, transport, and ultimately sell the goods we consume with complete trust.  Money takes away any chance for connection to, and concern for the lives they lead.  

I work in a United States university that attracts many international students from China.  Each year, I welcome new international students and orientate them to the university, and surrounding community.  We organize shopping trips for these students, and each year without failure Chinese students are shocked by how many American stores carry products from China. Even more surprising is the affordability of these products.  "In China these are twenty to thirty times more expensive," they constantly tell me.  Without failure, most talk about how they want to send the products to family in China.  Where family is everything and everyone is family.  

Most of us in the United States, don't even know our own neighbors, much less the entire street.  We close our doors, roll up our windows, and distract ourselves from those around us with technology in pursuit of our own goals.  At times, our virtual presence consumes our desire to be physically present from others around us.  Values that promote individualism, and seclusion ultimately come into conflict with the existence of our shared humanity.  Further distancing us from others is the idea of individual wealth and independence; money becomes a tool for division rather than unification.  When an overarching focus remains solely on individuals, the larger community suffers.  These are some of the "first world" lessons I learned in the middle of a "third world" village.  I sought to help the poor, not realizing that I was the one in need of help.    

These entries, as distant and remote as they may seem, add to the collective story of our shared human experience on this Earth and embolden an activist’s call for Climate Change action, through voices less commonly heard on the larger world stage.

This blog is not about the science of climate change.  It is not about the politics of climate change.  It is not about the financial losses or gains which might or might not result from any kind of action or inaction taken.  It is an attempt to introduce you to those on the front-lines of climate change.

With it, I hope to raise awareness of the many real-world climate change impacts that have already occurred within a nation most of the world has little knowledge of.  Though this story is about one nation, there are many other low-lying nations facing similar environmental consequences now.  This story is a collection of stories from real people.  Polar bears are not the only ones suffering from climate change.  My friends, and my adopted family have long withstood the impacts of climate change while the world debated its existence and “real” danger.