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 our time in the country.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

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 learned about the furious wrath the ocean possessed on our last night. Our last dinner was interrupted by 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’ well-being… 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.