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.
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.
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.