My First Day of School!

Henry had become a creature of comfort in my new island home.  Though not nearly as attentive or affectionate as a pet dog, his alertness and allegiance to the morning sun proved his worthiness to the entire village.  Since our schools were located in the central village, most students walked to school. The little ones were trucked in from the northern and southern villages on the island council truck.

After a morning bucket bath and some Milo, my morning drink of choice, I walked outside of my house to give Henry some leftover tortilla scraps.  “Mike!  Are you ready for the day?”  Ari’i shouted from his bwia. Startled and filled with nervous excitement, I replied Yes, I’m ready!”

Smiling back at me, he took one last sip of his morning tea before making his way towards the council truck.  “I am off to get the children now, so I will see you when I return.”  I was used to a big yellow school bus in America, with seats and doors.  However, in Tamana, the school bus was an open aired truck bed.

Older students began arriving from the northern and southern villages soon after he left, and I could feel their curiosity as they walked by.  Trying not to make eye contact but yet at the same time, wanting to acknowledge my presence, many waved as they silently passed my house, which stood on the edge of the school compound.

No more than ten minutes after the truck departed, it returned with a full bed of primary students who shouted and waved “GOOD MORNING MISS,” as they passed.  I reciprocated the acknowledgement by waving and shouting back “GOOD MORNING CHILDREN!”  Ari’i dropped off the children from and turned around to pick up the children from the other village. When he returned, three strikes on an old air tank signaled the start of morning assembly.



Head boys and head girls led the organized chaos which ended up in perfect rows of students.  When all were seated, teachers went to the front of the lines and began morning assembly.  Julie, the head teacher started by saying, “Welcome back to school children!  This is the start of the second trimester and we expect that you all know the rules of morning assembly.”  Calling attention to the class six rows, she implored younger class rows to follow the older students’ example with hands in their laps, mouths closed, ears opened, and eyes on the speaker.  However, as so many times before, I could tell that my hairy legs attracted more eyes than I was used to in the States.

Unlike the I-Kiribati, my Mexican genes gave me a seemingly overabundant amount of leg hair which amazed everyone from the youngest of students to the eldest of villagers.  With hands waving in the air, students shouted “Miss!  Miss!  Miss!” trying to gain my attention.  This made every teacher quietly chuckle.  “Children…Children, Julie yelled through a fit of laughter. He is not a miss, he is a sir! Turning towards me she whispered, “Please excuse them, many have never had a male teacher before.”

The bell began to ring just as a little voice piped up from the crowd, “Sir, can I touch your legs?”  And with that the new school term began.

Tamana: Week One

It took nearly a full week to get used to all of the amenities in my new house. I had a water pump, two levels of living space, an attached roki, and a matted raised floor. But nothing could be better about my new home than the live, animated alarm clock that resided underneath my bedroom floor. Henry was one of our friendly compound roosters who greeted me each morning at 6:00 am.

Henry regularly took pleasure in waking up the entire village from their slumber when the first inkling of sunlight broke through the walls of my house. He led the symphonic blend of calls that came from other roosters, chickens, pigs, cats, and dogs. Soon after stirring the village to life, people began to rise. The men climbed up coconut trees with empty bottles in tow, to harvest the toddy that dripped from the palm branches overnight. As they climbed, their clanking bottles added to the symphony of animals below.

Below the men, mothers busily tended to their young children and lit morning cooking fires. Teenage girls fetched water from the wells to prepare the day’s rice and morning tea. Teenage boys mixed harvested coconuts, water and leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. When finished, they called out repeatedly, “Yah, yah, yah,” and almost instantly pigs came running to their feet as they poured the food mixture into old split tires. The younger children swept yards clean of fallen branches, fruits, and leaves. Such was the way in which village life began each morning.

Soon, Sunday dawned upon us, and the morning routine I had grown accustomed to ceased to exist. Henry crowed as he always did, and stirred others to their usual grunts and squeals. But the ensuing bottles didn’t clank, the fires didn’t light, and the children didn’t clean. The only sounds I heard were steady streams of snores reverberating across the compound. It seemed that everyone, except for Henry and friends, forgot that it was time to start the day.

Nevertheless, I began my morning by fetching water for a bath. Church bells began ringing while doing so, and within seconds the entire compound came to life. Babies awoke crying, children began rolling up their mosquito nets, and parents hastily ran from roki to house with empty buckets for water.

By 8:00 am, the road was filled with families dressed in their Sunday best, making their way to the church for the morning service. The service lasted for about one hour, and afterwards, different village groups hosted social gatherings. Of highest importance was making sure that Sunday was a day of rest. Some groups gathered to talk and play games, while others gathered to share food and watch movies.

My teachers and their families gathered in the school’s mwaneaba to watch movies. The mwaneaba was a great location as its constant cooling breeze and protective shade kept us cool in the 90°+ weather. Towards the end of the film, my eyes began exploring the compound, and spotted an old basketball court on the edge of the school’s property. I patiently waited for the movie to end before asking Meekei, my neighbor, if he would like to learn how to play a game called HORSE. He agreed to join me, and so after we cleaned up all of the mats and plates, we made our way to the court. We played several rounds before hearing the clanking sounds of bottles and hungry grunts of pigs.

“Mike, I think we should go and tend to the evening chores before it’s too late,” Meekei said. “and maybe you can stay for dinner after we are done.” Agreeing to help with the chores and go for dinner, I picked up the ball and headed back with him.

Not too long after dinner, the sun began to set, leaving kerosene lanterns as the only sources of light for the compound. Shadows of children could be seen making their way into mosquito nets in several of the houses that surrounded us. I too eventually made my way back to my net, and listened, as everyone, including Henry, shut their eyes and drifted off to sleep.

Roki- Bathroom

Mwaneaba- Village meeting house

Tamana Island

A beautiful view of Tamana resting on the ocean’s surface several hundred feet below signaled the end of my four and a half hour journey. This atoll was like no other I had seen before. It wasn’t long, narrow, crescent shaped, with a lagoon in the middle. Tamana was a small round piece of land in the middle of a deep blue sea. Coconut tree tops whizzed by as we touched down in the dusty field. I could make out Zenida, my new PCV island mate, waiting in a kiakia with a group of women as we taxied toward the brick building where many people were waiting.   Zenida and a bunch of people made their way to the plane as our propellers slowed.

Tamana Island 1
Tamana Island 1

“Welcome to Tamana Mike!” Zenida was leading a group of women behind her. “I want to introduce you to Elena, your head teacher at the primary school.” Elena, was a short older lady with one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen. “Mauri Mike! How was your flight?” “Surprisingly long, and I am so glad to finally be here,” I responded. “Yes I know it is a long flight since we are one of the furthest islands from Tarawa. We are very excited to have though! Do you have any bags?” “A few,” I said knowing full well that half of the luggage on the plane was mine. “We have many people here to help bring your things to your house,” she explained pointing to a truck full of women and children parked by the brick building. “Let me introduce you to the other teachers.” As I was being introduced to all of them, a team of men were loading all of my bags onto the truck.

The island’s climate was much different from what I had become accustomed to in the northern islands. The air was dry, the land was dusty, and the grass was brown. Following tradition, we drove around the entire island three times to familiarize myself with the island and introduce myself to the spirits. The island had three villages. The northern was Bakarawa, the central Bakaaka, and southern Barebuka. Ten village groups existed within these three villages. They frequently had social events in group canoe houses. Though villages covered the island from north to south, all facets of northern and southern village social life (houses, maneabas, stores, offices, canoe houses, and the church) existed only on the western side of the island. Bush land, where family burial plots and spirits resided occupied the eastern side of the island. The center village, where the government station was located, spanned the entire width of the entire island.

After 3 trips around the island, we pulled into Bakaakaa, the central village. Pointing down the road, Zenida said, “I live right over there.” As we pulled into the school compound, I could easily see her clinic from my house. My attention quickly turned to the large locally constructed home with concrete shingles on its roof in front of us when the truck came to a complete stop.

A young man who looked my age was waiting on the steps of my new house with a baby in his arms. “That’s Meekei, my husband,” said Matty, one of the teachers, as she jumped off to take the child from his arms. Meekei then came over and grabbed some bags. “Follow me, I’ll show you your home.” Jumping off the truck with bags in hand, I followed him up the steps to the split-level house. He opened the door to an enclosed porch, and a bedroom complete with built in shelving. Down the narrow hall was a large living room and stairs leading down to the kitchen, bathroom and indoor well pump! I felt like I had won a housing lottery. Once familiarized with the house, we headed back to the truck to bring more bags and buckets into the house.

When finished, he said, “You must be hungry after traveling so many hours. We have prepared some foods for a welcome lunch with all of the teachers and their families.” He brought me to the school’s maneaba where all of the other teachers, and Zenida were. Everyone tried to speak English if I was not able to understand. For those who could not, Elena was more than willing to translate. I felt so welcomed and very thankful to have another Peace Corps with me! I felt so fortunate to have everyone there! I sat by Meekei’s family during the lunch and got to know them a bit more. He was four years older than I, and had a one year old child, Nash. Both not completely proficient in either one’s language, we chatted in Kiribati and English. Nash, and I became quick friends. After only a short time he was crawling all over me, and seemed to be amazed with my hairy legs. Most I-Kiribati lacked any kind of visible body hair. There were a handful of other children darting in and out of the maneaba, noticing my interactions with Nash. They made brief eye contact with me before rushing into the arms of their older siblings or parents. Eventually, some made their way up to me and also began petting my arms and legs. I succumbed to letting whoever was brave enough to approach, stare, and pet me. To everyone’s amusement, I was covered with little ones by the end of the welcome lunch.

Photo Credit: Jane Resture –

Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut in Tarawa!

Flying back to Tarawa after only a week at site was strange. Though I appreciated having the opportunity to get more supplies and food for site, I felt mixed about leaving my new village behind. Tateta seemed like a good place, and I really liked my new co-workers. However, as it was stated, we needed to vacate the island for the good of all volunteers.

The four of us spent the first few days taking care of each other, contacting our families back home, and getting those last minute materials that we weren’t able to get before we left. After the first few days, all of us began to get a bit wrestles. I decided to visit the Ministry of Education to see if I could be of any use to the Ministry while I waited on Tarawa.

The only time I visited the Ministry was when Peace Corps took us. We met a lot of people who were very excited to have us working in the country. Therefore it only made sense to go to them and see if I could be of any assistance while I waited in Tarawa. I took a bus to Bairiki, and got off where I thought I needed to. Unfortunately, I missed my target by more than a mile. It was extremely hot and I was walking with a backpack. Thinking that I was close to the offices, I decided not to jump on another bus. Well, I was nowhere near the offices, and when I finally arrived I was drenched in sweat.

“Hello! Do you want some water?” a voice shouted from behind the counter.

“No thank you, I’m fine.” I explained my situation, and what I was looking for.

The voice behind the counter responded, “Please have a seat, and I will go tell Regina you are here.”

It was only a few minutes before Regina, the director of the Tarawa Educational Resource Center, came out to greet me.

Mauri Tem Mike, you look like you could use a rest, why don’t you sit down in my office and we can talk about how can I help you?”

She was not aware of the circumstances which brought me back to Tarawa for an unknown amount of time, but was happy to help me find something to work on while there. We talked about the bilingual books I had developed with my brother in Maiana, and before I knew it, I was exploring curriculum resource development center with her. It was busy with people working on many different tasks. Some were making posters, others were proofreading texts, and even others were developing national curriculum modules.

At the end of my first week in the center, Regina invited me over to her house.

“Why don’t you come to my house, and we will have dinner with my whole family,” she said with the biggest of smiles.

Missing the comforts of a host family, I literally jumped inside and immediately said, “Yes!”

“Take the bus to the Australian High Commission. We are right across the street from them in a small white house. We will be ready for you around 6, is that ok?”

I thanked her for the invitation, and left the center early that evening so I could go back to the dorm and shower. When I arrived at her house, it was like nothing I had ever seen in Kiribati before. It had a full kitchen, complete with a refrigerator and stove.  The house had multiple bedrooms and a bathroom with a working toilet and shower.  Most shocking of all, the living room had a television and a DVD player. It almost felt like I was back in the United States. However none of these things impressed me as much as the dinner did that night.

“We call this KFC!  You know…oh what is it? Kentucky Fried Chicken, no?”  Regina said laughing. My eyes widened watching her niece walk by with endless trays of chicken and cold Cokes. After the blessing of the food, I was called upon to open the table.

“OK Mike, stick your spoon in the food you want to try first and we will all shout “Tekeraoi!” After this, the food will be open to everyone.”

Not wanting to waste any time, I stuck my spoon in one of the trays of chicken, and everyone shouted, “TEKERAOI!” and I opened the table and grabbed one piece of chicken and a large spoonful of rice. To her dismay, Regina said “Oh that is all? Please take more!” I resigned to my seat so others could have food first, but made sure to go back for more when I was finished so as to show my appreciation for the amazing food.

At some point during the meal, Regina told me about a restaurant in Fiji called Pizza Hut, and asked me if I knew how to make pizza. I told her that I had been making pizza in the dorm for the past week and had all of the ingredients in our dorm. The only things I needed were an oven, and willing hands to help make the pies.

Hearing this, Regina said, “Do you think you can come over tomorrow and teach us how to make pizza? My niece will help you.”

I was back at her house the following night making pizzas with Sarah.  She was two years younger than I, and had one of the most interesting life stories I had heard on the island.  She had fair skin, an I-Matang name, and was virtually fluent in the English language. It was her last year of senior secondary school and she was going to start university in Fiji the following school year.  As we conversed in English, time seemed to fly by as we made pizzas for the family that night.

Soon, all of her little cousins came into the kitchen to watch us. Some joined us and helped to put toppings on the pies. Eventually we ran out of ingredients and had to go to the market to get more flour and cheese. The oven that was in the kitchen worked, but it was very small, so Sarah’s mom went next door to see if we could use their neighbor’s larger oven in exchange for a few of the pizzas.  Since I felt pizza was best served with a cold Coke, I splurged on Coke for the whole family that night. That night brought me closer to Regina’s family, and made me feel as though I gained another family in Tarawa.

Amazing new family members!
Amazing new family members!

Two days after the pizza dinner, John and I made the decision to relocate to another island.  Tamana was the smallest, and one of the most remote islands in the Gilbert Chain. I was excited about the new assignment, but at the same time, nervous and sad to leave my new Tarawa family.  I planned to visit them each time I returned to the main island.

The Waiting

A week after my penis fiasco, I received a telegraph from Peace Corps – Tarawa. Mr. Patrick handed the folded, light pink carbon copy to me, as he explained that a transport would arrive early in the morning for me. Looking at the paper, I read: “Meet at government station tomorrow, 11:00 am –PCK.”  Not sure what or even why PCK staff was coming to my island the next morning, I slept a bit uneasy that night.

I woke to the sound of a truck’s horn at 7:00 a.m. Jumping out of my mosquito net, I threw on a shirt and yelled “I’m coming” as I rushed to brush my teeth. Once in the cab, it only took about one hour to reach the airfield. There I met John, our country director, and Tieraata, our education program officer. The truck brought all three of us to the government station where we were met by a council member who escorted us into the eerily silent meeting house.

A feeling quickly crept inside the pit of my stomach and it told me that things were about to get serious. As my eyes scanned the perimeter of the room, I saw solemn faces stamped across all present. The room was hot and the air was still as we were shown where to sit in the room. Like an oasis in the desert, the only source of joy seemed to sit on the floor in the middle of the room: three kettles of tea, three bowls of assorted breads and fruit, and a pile of plastic cups and plates. My mouth began to water. I would take anything to break the silence and fill my stomach with happiness.

After we took our seats, two younger women came in and distributed the food and tea. When they were finished, the emcee offered a blessing for the food and the meeting. Eating and the sharing of food was always a joyous and social occasion. Men would talk with other men about fishing, construction, and make jokes while sipping tea. Women would talk about bingo, village happenings, and the occasional snippet of gossip. However, none of this joyous banter happened during this time. We continued to eat in silence for about fifteen minutes before the meeting began.

When it did, John and I remained silent as voices, and seemingly tension rose. Unaccustomed to sitting on the floor, and largely detached from the discussion, John and I kept busy by readjusting our seating positions whenever a leg or foot would fall asleep. However, with my limited I-Kiribati I could understand that the meeting was about an incident with a fellow volunteer. Throughout the meeting there where points when it seemed as if the discussion was over. Then it would pick back up. End again. And pick back up. The exhausted look on Tieraata’s face coupled with an unusually long period of silence after at least two hours signaled, in my mind, a welcomed end.

When we left the room, Tieraata took us to a secluded road and filled us in on what had happened. As guessed, the meeting was called to address a volunteer incident. Several months prior, a volunteer from the northern part of the island relocated to a different house. While in their new location, an incident occurred which immediately forced the volunteer out of the new location. Ultimately, the volunteer chose not to return their site because of this incident. Tieraata and John came to the island in hopes of resolving concerns over volunteers on the island.

The disappointed look on Tieraata’s face said all we needed to know about the meeting’s outcome. “That meeting accomplished very little and resolved nothing,” he said as he sighed. Hearing this, John’s demeanor turned from calm and hopeful to agitated and distraught. Saying nothing to Tieraata, he turned to me with the most serious of looks and said, “I suggest you pack your bags, and return with us to the main island. Until something moves forward with this incident, I think we need to send a strong message to the island’s council.” All volunteers were vacated from their sites in hopes of making something … anything happen.


The language hurdles in a new home

It always happened at night.  That feeling when I was alone and I would think about home.  I would dream of water fountains, chicken wings, and family.  I would remember how easy it was to communicate with people, and friends.  I had friends back home.  But here, I didn’t want to bother anyone with my own problems.  Knowing full well that my neighbors would hear any sobs I made, I tried hard to keep quiet while my tears ushered me to sleep that night.

A-a-A-a-RoOoOooooo  A-a-A-a-RoOoOooooo   A-a-A-a-RoOoOooooo

The chickens that lived on the compound alerted me to the approaching rays of sunlight that would eventually slip through the holes of my thatched roof.  Once up, I heard what I assumed to be chickens or pigs or dogs, walking outside of my window.  I rolled over to avoid the sun, and saw six pairs of eyeballs staring right at me.  “He’s awake,” said a small voice from the outside.

Begrudgingly I whispered, “Good morning children…”

They all replied excitedly, “Hello I-Matang!  Hello!”

When I sat up, all of the eyeballs vanished as they ran back to their homes.  The fishbowl effect I thought I had left in Maiana clearly found me in Abaiang. I wondered if this was real.  Was I really here?  As I flicked off a dead scorpion from my mosquito net, I answered myself, “Yup, I really am…”

I heard an airplane flying overhead, and once again, thought about home.  But instead of wishing to be on that plane headed in that direction, I thought I would try and start making Tateta my home.  After using my roki and brushing my teeth, I headed out to the local canteen determined to buy tins of food, fresh bread and kerosene.  The store was a quick walk from my house.  As usual, my presence was announced by the sounds of animals and children when I entered the southernmost village on the island.  It was more than obvious that the store had an I-Matang customer by the time I reached the window.

After I made my purchases, the owner and I had a brief conversation.  I needed this so much, as it not only boosted my self-confidence, but also helped me feel more than welcomed in the village.  Once again, children swarmed around me. But this time, I shrugged my shoulders, purchased several packs of gum, and shared it with all of them as they accompanied me back to the school compound.  I felt great about my small accomplishments and my new found friendships with a small army of local bodyguards.  Tateta began feeling less lonely with each hour that passed.

Local kids from the village

I started unpacking more items I had in my luggage.  I hung up pictures, made a place for my clothes, stored my toilet paper and filled my stove with kerosene.  The house really started to feel like a home as the day progressed.

Later, my neighbors invited me to their house for dinner and playing cards.  While we ate on the bwia, winds picked up and rain fell down.  Looking into the lagoon, you could see another storm approaching.  It sounded like a slow moving freight train traveling across the ocean.  Soon after it began, the rains were once again falling hard and coconut fronds were flying across the school compound.  The storm lasted less than one hour, but the debris in the middle of the school compound suggested it lasted for the whole day.  Most of the teachers and their families went out to the compound to clean up after the storm.  I too joined the cleanup efforts before turning in.

The storms returned at midnight causing more damages to the compound, classrooms, and houses.  My house was directly under two coconut trees, and these rounds of storms knocked loose several fronds and coconuts which landed on my roof.  Their impact created several holes which only got bigger as the night progressed.  To stop the rain from pouring in, I tried to cover the holes with duct tape and several Ziploc bags.  Surprisingly, the duct tape and plastic bags seemed to work for a while.  However, the patchwork eventually gave way to the weight of the water, making the holes in the roof even bigger.

By morning, the roof had four gaping holes in it, and my house was soaked.  During training, I learned the words for ‘hole’ and the preposition that would turn a noun into a verb.  I wanted to try to ask for help in repairing my roof.  So, in my best I-Kiribati, I went looking for Mr. Patrick.  When I could not find him, people began questioning what it was that I needed.  I tried to tell them what had happened to my roof that night, but I could tell that I was not being clear in what I was saying.  They seemed confused and pointed me to another house. So I knocked on the door and told them what happened. Laughter spilled from their mouths, and confusion spread across my face. So they pointed me to another house. I walked over. Same laughter, same confusion. They pointed me to another house, and then another house.  I moved from house to house asking for help and found it odd that no one wanted to help me.  I-Kiribati were the most considerate, kind, and helpful people I had ever met in my life.  But no one wanted to help me, and choruses of laughter continuously erupted whenever I would speak.

I feared I was now the butt of some kind of joke.  I must have visited at least five different houses before I found the school carpenter who spoke some English.  I explained my problem to him with a mix of both languages.  Like everyone else, he laughed at me before telling me I needed to practice my I-Kiribati. 

“Mike, your thinking is good, but your words are bad.”  He explained that the Kiribati word for hole is bangabanga, and by placing the preposition ka before it, does not mean ‘to make a hole.’  Rather, the way I was using it, meant penis.  Immediately I laughed so hard as I thought about all the houses I went to asking for help. It made perfect sense why no one wanted to help me fix my holes.  But thanks to Tom’s understanding, I finally found a brave soul to come to my house and help me.  And we continued to laugh the entire time while mending those darn penises.

Thatched Roof Repairs

A Much Needed Change

Living with a host family during my first three months spoiled me.  Though I could not eat most of the food, I could always count on having water, bread, and Ramen noodles when returning home.  After my first night in Abaiang, I planned to purchase food at the local canteen. Unfortunately, I only had a few dollars in my pocket, and the only bank on the island was a good hour’s distance by truck. Mr. Patrick offered his son’s bike for transportation to the government station. There, I would meet the other volunteers, pick up my luggage, and receive my stipend from the Island Clark.  There was a two-foot difference in size between his son and me, but with my new slender figure, I had no trouble fitting on the bike.

I made it about halfway to the island council before it started raining. The rain made the coral path slippery, and the strong winds threw coconuts and palm fronds from the tops of trees with great force, damaging whatever lay in its path. To secure my safety, I decided to stop and wait for the storm to pass. After about twenty minutes, I hoisted the bike on my shoulders and proceeded to walk towards the government station.  This attracted great amounts of unwanted attention.  Children swarmed me, screaming, “Hello foreigner, hello foreigner.” Frustrated by all the attention I attracted, the only response I could garner was, “Hello I-Kiribati, hello I-Kiribati,” and continued walking in a hurried pace.

The remainder of the walk took me through long stretches of mostly uninhabited bush.  In these parts, dogs announced my arrival. One dog’s bark alerted the pack, and soon I found myself running from packs.  Four hours after leaving my village, I arrived at the government station exhausted and wet.  Fortunately, the rain had subsided by the time I reached the steps to the offices.  “Hello?” I stated, hoping for any kind of response.  After a few minutes, I resided to sitting, and drying off on the steps.  A young lady walking by the building saw me sitting in front of the office and asked if I needed something.

“I am trying to find the island’s clerk, do you know where she is?” I asked.

“Oh I am sorry, but she is home preparing food for her children,” she said.  “Wait here and I will go find her.”

When she returned, she took me to her house, just a few feet from the station, and introduced me to all in the house.  Like before, I was seated at one end of the family bwia, with a cadre of I-Kiribati eyes staring and smiling at me.  This was my first true test: Could I communicate with them?

An man on the bwia yelled, “have you eaten yet?”  “No, no… not yet,” I responded.  “Tiiua, go get him some food from the store,” yelled the Island Clark.  This was followed by a chorus of questions from kids in the buia,  “What is your name? Where are you from? Do you have a gun?”

All kids wondered if I had a gun.  They kept throwing questions my way, and my head spun just trying to translate them, and form answers in the Kiribati language.  Soon after I assured everyone that I had no gun, a plate filled with two packs of biscuits and two cold cans of Coke flew in front of my crossed legs.

In almost perfect unison, all said… “EAT!”

My thumb pressed tightly against the cold can’s condensation and my index finger slid under the silver tab.  With gentle pressure, I popped open the can.  It’s cold fizz bubbled out of the can, spreading its familiar carbonated smell.  I savored each cold gulp, and each bite like I never had before.  It was as if I was dreaming, but I wasn’t.

After I finished the food, the Island Clark laid a bar of soap, towel, and a change of clothes beside me.  I feared the soap was the Abaiang test Tekaai had warned me about until she said, “you can take a bath if you like.  And, when you are done we will have all of your things ready in the truck to bring you back to Tateta.”

The truck wasn’t back from it’s deliveries when I finished my bath, so I decided to lay down on the bwia.  The sun was setting when I woke.  I rolled over to see the Island Clark sitting in a truck filled with my luggage.   “This is your Peace Corps stipend,” she said waving me over to the truck.  The envelope was full of money.  Pointing to a man on the opposite side of the bwia, she said “Baauro will take you home.  If you need anything else, just tell us and we will do all we can to help.”  Knowing fully well that she did not have to do any of this for me, all I could do was say thanks for what she did.

This was not the first time in Kiribati that random strangers did more for me than I ever would have thought about doing for strangers back home.  In college, I never reached out to international students.  To me, internationals were different… weird.  They didn’t speak my language, and I didn’t have any desire to learn theirs.  After jumping on the truck, I asked her why she did all of this for me.  Laughing she said, “It is the Kiribati way, and” she paused, “I have a niece studying in America.  If I help you here, maybe someone there will help her if she needs help.”

It was a small gesture, but those two Cokes, bath, clothes, food, luggage, money and truck ride back showed me exactly how much I needed to change once I got back to the US.  I was raised with a strong sense of what a good American was, and did.  We fought for our freedom, we worked hard, and we took care of our own.  Going overseas changed this.  All of this.  No longer was I comfortable of just taking care of “my own.”  I needed to take care of others.  In a way,  I guess I vowed to never be who I was again before coming here on that long truck ride… home.

Bwia- Raised platform

Tateta- Southernmost elementary school on island

An Aussie nun and … my camping chair

I was preparing to take shelter in the roofless one-room building for the night when an old white pickup truck came roaring across the airfield.  Pulling up to the cinder block structure, a nun with an Australian accent shouted, “Do. You. Speak. English?!” from the cab.

Stunned by the presence of a white truck with a white nun inside, I stuttered “Ye… Yes!”

“Right. Are you a Peace Corps?” she asked.

“Yes!” I responded.

“Then tell me, where do you belong?” she replied. 

“Unity of Tateta Elementary School.”

Turning her wheel, she yelled “wait here.”

Within minutes I heard the roar of the truck coming back in my direction. As it rolled past me, six teenagers jumped out of the bed. They ran towards my pile of luggage, and proceeded to load all of it onto the truck.  In perfect English, one told me to get on the truck so they could take me to my site.  I…was speechless. Quickly following his command, I grabbed a space in the bed of the truck and sat with all of the teenagers.  I yearned to engage in conversation with them, but timidity stole my courage to try. Instead, we conversed in the form of awkward nods and smiles, making the long trip feel even longer. After a painful, stiff hour, the truck finally slowed down and turned into my new school compound.

A short, round-faced man named Patrick rushed to the truck with his own army of kids.  “Hello, I am Patrick, are you Mike?” I was so taken aback by his British accent that I forgot how to say “yes” and “hello.”

“Um Mike…” I hesitated. “I am sorry, my name is Mike, it’s nice to meet you Patrick.”

“Yes, likewise Mike, please forgive us, the Peace Corps did not tell us that you would be coming today, why don’t you come into the school maneaba and we will have the students unload your stuff.”  As if on cue, the children shuffled around to create a human chain from the truck. My eyes followed their chain and led me to see a house filled with women sweeping and shaking out multiple woven mats.

Mr. Patrick summoned the rest of the teachers to the maneaba for an impromptu meet and greet.  Everyone who came brought trays and trays of food.  I was offered tins of corned beef, crackers, biscuits, and heaps of fish and rice.  We talked for a while, and when the house was ready, my teachers walked me over.  Their kids were waiting outside as we approached.

Abaiang house with kids from the school compound
Abaiang house with kids from the school compound

When I began unpacking, I was surprised to see how much luggage had not made it on the plane.  I was not too worried though, since what did not make it on the plane would come the next day via boat.

I slept on a camping chair that night. I had no mosquito net or sleeping bag. At the time, I thought it ridiculous that my dad insisted on packing a camping chair for service.  He was never a camper; always insisting on ordering Chinese takeout while the rest of my friends and their families roasted hotdogs.  I never would have imagined that his camping foresight would impact me so heavily in Kiribati.  That night, and every night after, I slept on my camping chair.

Maneaba – Village meeting hall

The Land of the Soap Eaters

They eat what! I exclaimed, as Tekaai, loaded my bags and buckets onto the airport’s rusty scale.  With great solemnity he restated, “The people of that island eat soap. They may try to feed it to you during your welcome bootaki to see if you are like them.”  My mouth dropped.  “You’re kidding right?  They really expect me to eat soap?”  “Yes,” he responded, as we balanced a kerosene stove and several buckets of food onto the scale.  “Eat it,” he said, “and ask for seconds,” he patted me on my shoulder and proceeded to walk away. Just as people from Maiana, where Tekaai was from, had an extraordinary ability to tell believable lies, people from Abaiang were apparently known for eating and enjoying soap.

The soap eating habits apparently dated back to the mid 1800s, when I-Kiribati made first contact with black birders and missionaries.  Peruvian black birders sought plantation laborers from Kiribati, and enticed them with cloth, tools, tinned foods, and soap.  Missionaries arrived around the same time with similar objects and promises of spiritual salvation.  Enticed by the soap’s smell, I was told that the people of Abaiang began eating it, producing this reputation.  To make sure I would fit in, Tekaai jimmied a bar of soap into the handle of my red bucket.  “It is for good luck” he yelled, as he walked away.

A few minutes later, I buckled myself into the 16 passenger island hopper.  When we reached the end of the runway, the co-pilot turned around and yelled, “Are you ready?”  After a unified affirmation, he pushed the throttle, and within minutes the main island shrunk behind us.  After ten minutes, coconut treetops were once again buzzing past the windows as we landed on Abaiang’s airfield.

We taxied across the field to a small one room brick building.  There, families waited for friends and relatives.  As the propellers sputtered to a halt, they started making their way to the plane.  Once parked, the pilot walked to the rear of the plane and opened the door for all passengers.  One by one we exited and began unloading our luggage.  I kept an eye out for anyone who looked as if they were involved with Peace Corps, but did not see anyone.

Getting luggage from the plane in Abaiang

Being of Mexican descent, I did not fit the I-Matang white skinned, blonde haired image.  I could tell people were trying to figure what I was.  Many may have assumed I had family coming to get me, but unfortunately after the airfield cleared I was still in the field with only mosquitoes to keep me company during a beautifully fading sunset.  Not knowing where to go or what to do, I sat on my bucket.

Black Birders – Those who recruited people through trickery and kidnapping to work as laborers. For less than a year between 1862–63, Peruvian ships (and a few Chilean ships under the Peruvian flag) combed the smaller islands from Easter Island in the eastern Pacific to Tuvalu and Kiribati, seeking recruits to fill the extreme labor shortages in Peru. [1]

  • Maude, H. E. (1981). Slavers in Paradise. Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies.

An Island New Year

During the time between Christmas and New Year’s, the village hosted a week-long celebration in the maneaba.  Most families brought their sleeping mats to the venue and took up residency for the week.  The nights were filled with various activities from dancing to eating to viewing imported Chinese films with various German subtitles.  More often than not, these nights lasted well into the early morning hours.  One of the films was someone’s recording of a movie shown in a theater.  This allowed us to not only watch the movie, but also to watch theater patrons as they went in and out of the theater for popcorn, drinks or to use the bathroom.  I often fell asleep in the maneaba on coconuts, cups or whatever else was around during these events.

With all of the late nights, New Year’s Eve seemed to come quickly.  To escape the constant celebrations, all Peace Corps Trainees and staff planned a quiet camping event for the new year.  I, along with the other three male volunteers, were charged with setting up a secluded site in the bush.  Setting up lines for mosquito nets, collecting firewood, and digging a beach-side pit for the bonfire, our site was set within a few hours’ time.  Our I-Kiribati families questioned us as to why we were working in the bush for so long when we returned.  They feared for our safety, because the bush was where dead bodies lay, and spirits resided.   I knew nothing of this.

Even more perplexing than wandering around the bush at night, was our plan to celebrate New Year’s with a bonfire.  I-Kiribati use fire for practical purposes such as burning trash or cooking food.  We were doing neither of these.  Collecting fallen branches for a fire with no use confused even our trainers.  Despite this, the bonfire was a huge success. It provided us with a sense of familiarity as we watched the first sunrise of the new millennium +1.

first sunrise
New Year 2001 on the shore of Maiana Island

By the end of training, all 27 PCTs had survived bouts of homesickness, weeks of confusion, countless cultural mistakes, physical ailment, exhilarating travel experiences with accompanying episodes of seasickness, seemingly constant celebrations and weeks of stealth 3am dance practices.  We were sworn in as K-27 on January 23, 2001. We were to receive our official assignments upon arrival in Tarawa.

Swearing in
Swearing In Ceremony Maiana Island January 23, 2000

Leaving Maiana was both exciting and sad as all volunteers developed a strong connection with their families. While most of the goodbyes took place in the village, some families traveled to the boat. Some students, my host sister included, took the boat back to Tarawa for the new school year. The next day volunteers gathered to learn our assignments. I was assigned to a Primary school in Abaiang Island, just north of Tarawa.

I-Kiribati: People from Kiribati

Maneaba: Traditional meeting house

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