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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

A Migrant's Debt

My time on Maiana was amazing. Having a loving and supportive family for three months meant everything to me. Acclimating to life in Kiribati was possible because of them. However, I was not in the best of shape; losing more than 40 pounds over training, my clothes hung off my body like bedsheets. I was determined to gain the weight back, but I was missing all of my food and nearly half of my luggage.

I planned to make a trip to the canteen, however, I did not have any money. The only bank on the island was by the airport in the government center. Mr. Taake offered his son’s bike, who was in primary school. Although there was a good two-foot difference in height between us, my small frame made it possible for me to fit. Halfway to the government station, a storm blew into the island. High winds and heavy rain made traveling difficult. I persisted until the dirt path became too difficult to cross. I crashed into a tree, busting a pedal, and as I sheltered, palms from above crashed to the land below. It was just like the storm I experienced before, only this time it was happening in the daytime. A strong gust ripped palm fronds and coconuts from the trees hurling them towards the bushes beside me. I saw what I had heard that first week. When winds calmed, I resumed my journey, carrying the broken the rest of the way.

Walking across a coral atoll with a child’s bike on one’s shoulder attracts a lot of attention. Children chased me screaming Mauri te I-Matang (hello foreigner) as if I were a thief and them - the village’s alarm system alerting everyone that I had done something wrong. I responded with smiles and a warm Mauri tan I-Kiribati (hello natives). When not in villages, I passed through long stretches of the bush. Running from packs of dogs with a broken bicycle on my back in a Pacific island was something I never expected I would do when I interviewed for the Peace Corps. Exhausted, wet, muddy, and hungry, I arrived three hours after departing from Tateta.

The island clerk was not in her office when I arrived. The secretary said she was near and asked me to have a seat while she went to get her. Minutes later, she returned. “Please come with me, I will take you to her house.” Muddy, bloody, and drenched from head to toe, I followed her.

The clerk was sitting on her bwia with a package of biscuits and two cold Cokes. “Hello, Mike! Come and sit here, we will wait while the workers search for your things. You can eat these while we wait. You must be tired!” I savored each orange cream-filled biscuit and cold gulps of Coke. They were welcome pieces of home I didn’t think existed there. Finishing everything in minutes, she brought me a bar of soap, towel, and a change of clothing. “It was a long journey in the rain I see, you can take a bath with these in that roki over there.

It was like I was back in Maiana; I had a whole new family taking care of me! It was what I needed! My first bath in Abaiang since returning was wonderful. Afterward, I made my way to the bwia and fell asleep. When I woke, all missing luggage was waiting for me in the bed of another truck. She arranged a truck to bring me back to Tateta with all my stuff, including the busted bike.

“Here,” she said handing me an envelope filled with money, “this is your Peace Corps stipend, they said that you would need this to start your life here.” I thanked her for everything and asked her why she did all of this for me since she did not have to. Smiling, she said, “Mike, this is our way, the Kiribati way.” With more of a subdued tone, she continued, “I have a niece studying in America. By helping you here, maybe someone would help her there.”

It was Jess’s rat karma all over again, but with humans. Her kindness to me, a stranger, and a migrant gave me a lot to think about that night.

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