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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Arrival

As soon as we exited the passenger processing room, we were welcomed to the country with head garlands, coconuts, and perfumed sprays by Peace Corps staff.  Unsure if the perfume was a cultural practice or a corrective measure for weary travelers, we were, thankful to be entering our new home smelling fresh.  Before leaving the terminal, we gathered for our first group picture with a banner that read "Welcome to Kiribati."

Our training officer was an energetic older woman who no one dared cross after witnessing what seemed to be an unwarranted tongue lashing to our bus driver, Mango Chuck.  Apparently, Mango Chuck had other obligations to attend to at home while we were at the welcome ceremony.  He asked Sarah if he could drop us off and pick us up when the ceremony was finished; he assured her that nothing would happen to our belongings.  She was adamantly against his proposal and made him sit next to her throughout the whole ceremony.  I later found out that not only she, but also the entire Peace Corps staff did not trust him.
The ride to the welcome ceremony was nothing less than amazing.  With the bus’s air-conditioning out of commission, Mango Chuck advised us to open each window.  As the bus started moving, the hot, muggy air quickly transformed into cool, refreshing breezes.  Traveling down the only paved road in Kiribati confirmed the smallness of the land that I saw from hundreds of feet in the air just minutes before. The ocean, now just inches from my feet, lapped against the layers of sandbags that lined both sides of the road.  It was the island paradise I had envisioned when I first received my assignment. 

The bus slowed as we entered the village that was hosting our welcome ceremony.  There, beautiful sun-kissed children with bright white smiles and straight black hair ran alongside the bus, extending their hands to greet us, shouting, “Mauri tan I-matang,” a.k.a., “Hello White People!”  When the bus stopped, Sarah began instructing us on proper maneaba (a village meetinghouse) etiquette. 
Keep your head low when you enter. Don’t sit with your legs stretched out. Boys sit cross-legged.  Ladies cross and cover your legs.  If you speak, stand.  If spoken to, stand. And keep smiling people, I know you are tired but we got a lot to do still.
 As we enteredvillage elders greeted us with more head garlands, baby powder and perfume.  Smelling like fresh baby bottoms, we took our places across from the esteemed village council. The first speaker formally welcomed us to his village and country in English.  Not expecting this, I was stunned.  However, that was short-lived, as the following speakers addressed us in the I-Kiribati or Gilbertese language.  Bauro, an I-Kiribati Peace Corps staff member, translated these speeches and addressed the council on our behalf.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, we returned to the hotel.  Jet-lagged and caked in the sweetest smelling perspiration I had ever produced, I took my room key and proceeded to my room with Matt, my assigned roommate.   I was beyond excitement when I opened the door to find an air-conditioner unit.  I immediately lunged for the power switch.  Seeing my reaction, Matt said, “Wait… before you turn that on, I actually want to try and let my body climatically adjust itself to this weather as soon as possible.  I feel as if air-conditioning would just delay the process.”  Too exhausted to develop a counter argument, I obliged and headed to the shower.  He must have changed his mind while I was in the bathroom because as soon as I turned off the water, I could hear the hum of the air conditioner's motor.  I gladly laid down in my bed while he went to take a shower. 
When I woke up the following day, it was afternoon.  All of the volunteers were jet-lagged and because of this, our training ended up beginning on the next day .  On my way to the training hall, I picked up a local newspaper at the concierge's desk.  Splashed across the front page was a picture of four newly garlanded Peace Corps Trainees!  Unable to read the story, I was able to understand the English weather forecast, which predicted a “fine” week with temperatures hovering in the mid to low 90s.  Sweating profusely just standing in the lobby, I couldn't help but think that this new definition of "fine" would require a good amount time to adjust.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Kiribati Bound

By the time we arrived in San Francisco, Katie and I had gone from a state of loss and anxiety to a state of wonder and purpose.  We spent two days in San Francisco for our pre-departure staging. There, we filled out more paperwork and bonded with other volunteers over teambuilding activities and brief outings.  Since we were the 27th group of volunteers to serve in Kiribati, we were known as K-27.  The following day after we checked out of our rooms, the Peace Corps staff gathered us and distributed travel per diem, boarding passes, and luggage identifiers.  Once all was set, they whisked us off to San Francisco International airport.

The shortest route from the United States to Kiribati was through Fiji.  At the time, the U.S. government saw Fiji as an unsafe stop since the country had recently lost its elected leadership to a military coup.  Because of this, our travel to the country ended up being over 13,000 miles.  My route, from the start, included Cincinnati, San Francisco, Sydney, Brisbane, Yaren and finally Tarawa.

Our fourteen-hour plane trip to Sydney was scheduled on the eve of my 21st birthday.  Traveling to Australia required us to cross the international dateline, meaning my birthday, that year, did not exist. As far as I'm concerned, I'm still 20 years old. Despite the time change, I wished myself a memorable happy birthday as the inflight clock switched from November 5th to November 7th.  When we landed in Australia, the pilot announced K-27's presence on-board and thanked us for our service.  Hearing this, passengers applauded and wished us well as we disembarked the plane.

With every stop, we boarded on smaller planes, and landed on smaller pieces of land.  I began to worry about the stability of the planes the further we progressed into the Pacific. Still, I tried reassuring myself that the American government had our best interest and safety in mind when rerouting us this way.

First glimpse of Tarawa, Kiribati

As we approached our final destination, I peeked out of the window to see a tiny strip of land with endless dark blue water on one side and clear blue water on the other.  The aqua, green and crystal blue colors blended in the most amazing ways.  I could see the tiny runway below as our plane turned to make an approach. Leery of how our plane could land on what I was seeing below, I pressed my nose to the window and prayed for a safe landing.  Coconut treetops zoomed past my eyes, the runway became much larger, and within seconds the plane's landing gears made contact with the asphalt.  As the plane taxied, I saw rows of brown skinned people with bright white smiles lining the runway.  Groups of men, women and children sat on the sides of the runway watching the plane as it pulled into the unloading area.

When the plane's seatbelt sign turned off, the cabin swelled with excitement!  Kiribati females combed their long dark hair and sprayed ample amounts of perfume all over their bodies.  Since all of us had gone without bathing for an extended period of time, we appreciated any amount of spray that came our way.  The Kiribati passengers exited first since most of us were gathering our overstuffed carry-ons and preparing our cameras for the first pictures of Kiribati.

A fellow volunteer yelled, “WELCOME HOME EVERYONE!”; I had no idea how much of a home Kiribati would actually become.

K-27's first official picture