Scared and depressed, I prepared for the worst. If I had to leave, I wanted to go without anyone noticing. I was ashamed. Shamed because I was not the perfect Peace Corps Volunteer. Shamed for my fear of the ocean, boat travel, for everything that surrounded me because of the broken plane. I left my bags on the porch and started walking back to the dorm.
Two miles into my walk, my path was blocked by a transport. A familiar voice called “Mike! Mike! Welcome back!” Startled, I turned towards the voice. Why? Of all times, why now? Why, when I am contemplating leaving, did she find me on the side of the road in this condition?
Her voice was both the first and the last thing I wanted to hear. Rubenang’s round face toasted dark brown from the Kiribati sun with eyes full of life and experience that seemed to sense somehow precisely how I felt at all times. Four foot something, she barely rose above the Ministry of Education’s transport side window. “Mike! I am so happy to see you, when did you get back? Why haven’t you come over to the house? Mike!”
Hearing her voice brought tears to my eyes. I turned away, refusing to look her way and acknowledge her presence. I had no response. Veering away from the road towards the lazy turquoise lagoon, I continued walking to the dorm, trying to convince myself that no one would find me there. There, I could hide.
She could tell something was wrong. She knew me. She continued shouting from the transport as it merged back into traffic. “COME TO MY OFFICE TOMORROW; WE NEED TO TALK!” Hoping she saw me, I nodded as it sped away.
That night, I slept alone in the dorm. Hungry, tired, and jet-lagged, I fell asleep faster than a coconut dropping to the ground. I decided not to think about the events of the day and those to come. It was all too much for me then, I would leave it for the next day when things would be better.
Waking up around noon the next day, I quickly rushed to the bathroom. Nearly tripping over my bags, which had mysteriously appeared in my room while sleeping, I grabbed a change of clothes and toothpaste. I couldn’t believe I slept for so long. I planned to wake up early and start my day in Peace Corps, but jet lag got the best of me, and instead of Peace Corps, I decided to make my way to the Ministry of Education, about 20 minutes by bus from the dorm. Rubenang’s office was a good 50 meters from the road. The sun was hot and high, but calm winds were blowing across the ocean and cooling the land. Climbing the creaking wooden planked steps to her office had never been so nerve-wracking.
“Can I help you?” A voice asked from above before ascending the last two steps. Um, yes, I am here to see… “Mike!” Rubenang shouted from her seaside suite, “Wait there, I will be ready soon, we need to talk about your Peace Corps assignment!” Her, I replied. I am here to see her. The secretary smiled and offered me a chair. Nothing stayed secret in the islands.
Rubenang cared a great deal for me, but at that moment, her care and suspiciously profound knowledge of my situation gave me more embarrassment than comfort. It was inevitable; I would be dismissed from service and kicked out of Kiribati. Ashamed and upset, I felt like a criminal.
“She’s ready for you,” the secretary said. Leading me down the hall, each step felt more oppressive than the last. I was a bad person for not wanting to return to my site. I was a bad person for letting my fellow volunteers down. I was a bad person for letting my school down. Finally, I arrived. The door closed behind me, and except for the sounds of Frigate birds and waves, the room was silent. Her back turned to me as I entered. She was looking at the ocean. The ocean I had just spent three days traveling across. She turned around with tears in her eyes. I will be leaving soon. She whispered, “I know.”
The coconut wireless was always in operation. Everyone knew everything, all the time. The family already knew, and I did not want to face them. I did not want to say goodbye. But, there I was, in her office preparing to say goodbye. It would have been easier to leave without anyone knowing what happened to me. I did that with the Peace Corps, but I could not do that to them. I struggled to tell her how much I fell in love with Kiribati, how much in love I was with the family. I couldn’t tell her how lonely I was in the states, how I longed to be … here. I couldn’t tell her I wanted nothing more than stay.
The one thing that comforted me, to a degree, was the fact that she too was crying. Kiribati people rarely cried in front of others. I had to do something, so I did the only thing that seemed appropriate; I began laughing. I laughed so hard that my tears were no longer tears of sorrow, but tears of ridiculous joy. Flabbergasted, she huffed, “you are just like everyone else, Mike.” She began laughing.
Laughing distracted us from the sadness of the situation. It livened our hearts and took our minds away from the here and now. We talked about the ups and downs of life in America; my surprise welcome party, my 3-year-old nephew and the disastrous department store trip that ended with me running out of the store yelling, It’s all too much! with my mom chasing me into the parking lot, screaming, “what’s wrong?”
I couldn’t explain what was wrong because I did not know what was wrong. I became accustomed to Tauro’s truck, the canteen made from corrugated tin sheets stocked with two or three shelves of rice, flour, soap, toothpaste, shampoo, sugar, tea, cordial mix and a handful of other things when the ships came. The department store was big. People entered and touched endless amounts of product illuminated by lights, enhanced with sound and surrounded by space. It was too much. All I wanted was my canteen by the village meeting house with three simple shelves and simple products I knew. Having lived overseas, Rubenang knew precisely what I had experienced. Just imagining the department store scene nearly made her fall off her chair.
After she recovered, I told her about the fear of crossing streets in New Zealand, my confusion with cell phones in LAX, my fascination with water fountains, and the near half-hour spent in the bathroom after an all you can eat buffet. After living on flour and water for 19 months, I had lost about sixty pounds. I gained almost twenty over two weeks in America.
“You are too funny, Mike. You are an American, but you act like a real Kiribati boy.”
We talked until the entire office was empty, laughing for hours at my newfound awkwardness with American life. “The transport should be here in ten minutes, would you like to come over to the house?” I wanted this more than anything. I could not see myself staying secluded in the dorm one more night. I did not belong to the Peace Corps any longer. I belonged to my Kiribati family. With two days left, I was not going to miss my chance of being with them one last time. I still had a Kiribati family, and the Peace Corps could not take that away from me.
In one of my last stances of defiance, I decided to run away, which is a difficult thing to do on an island. I’m sure everyone knew where I was going before I did. We caught the Government’s transport and asked the driver to stop at the Peace Corps dorm. Within twenty minutes, we were loading my bags and continuing north to the family’s village. I had no idea what I would do with the suitcases; I did not plan on bringing them back with me. All I knew was that my last two nights would be with my Kiribati family.