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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

A New Migrant's Perspective

Living with a host family during Pre-Service Training (PST) had its comforts, spoiling me with familiar meals and a sense of camaraderie. However, my allergy to fish posed a considerable challenge during our communal dinners. Over time, the dietary restrictions took their toll, and I found myself shedding weight rapidly. By the time I settled into my site, I had lost a staggering 43 pounds, leaving me weighing just over 120 pounds. The clothes that had made the journey with me now hung off my shrunken frame like oversized sheets, a stark reminder of the toll my allergies had taken.

Determined to regain some of the lost weight and adapt to my new circumstances, I resolved to take charge of my own meals. My plan was to purchase food from the local canteen, but fate intervened. With no money on hand and the island's sole bank located an hour's drive away, my options seemed bleak. I lacked transportation, not even owning a bicycle at the time.

Witnessing my predicament, Mr. Patrick came to my aid, offering his son's bicycle despite a significant height difference between us. To my surprise, I found myself fitting surprisingly well on the bike, despite my now diminutive stature. With this unexpected solution, I set out on my mission to procure nourishment, grateful for the kindness and resourcefulness of those around me.

As I embarked on my journey towards the government station, ominous clouds loomed overhead, threatening an imminent downpour. Despite my determination, I found myself caught in the midst of a sudden deluge halfway through my route. 

Attempting to pedal through the heavy rain, I soon realized the futility of my efforts. The road, once a relatively clear path of dirt and coral, quickly transformed into a treacherous obstacle course as it became inundated with water. Each pedal became a struggle against the relentless current, with the road proving impassable for even the most determined cyclist.

To add to the peril, strong winds accompanied the rain, lashing out with ferocious intensity. Coconut fronds were wrenched from their trees with lethal force, becoming projectiles that posed a threat to anything in their path.

With no other option available, I made the difficult decision to dismount and continue on foot, carrying the bike alongside me as I trudged towards the government station. Despite the adversity I faced, I pressed on, determined to reach my destination against the backdrop of nature's relentless fury.

As I trudged through the villages, burdened by the weight of a child's bike on my shoulders, I inadvertently became the center of attention, drawing stares and unwelcome curiosity from the locals. Children trailed behind me, their voices ringing out in a chorus of "Mauri te I-Matang, Mauri te I-Matang" — a constant reminder of my foreign presence. It felt as though I was being cast as a thief, and they, the village's vigilant alarm system.

Growing increasingly frustrated by the relentless attention, I retorted with a defiant "Mauri te I-Kiribati, Mauri te I-Kiribati," attempting to assert a sense of belonging amidst the scrutiny. Yet, the unwanted attention persisted as I pressed on, my journey leading me through stretches of uninhabited bush.

Navigating through these remote paths brought its own set of challenges, including encounters with packs of dogs whose barks seemed to echo through the wilderness, alerting their counterparts to my presence. Faced with the unexpected obstacle of fleeing from these canine sentinels, the broken bicycle weighing heavily on my back, I couldn't help but marvel at the unpredictable nature of the challenges presented by my Peace Corps experience.

Exhausted from the arduous journey, I finally arrived at the government station three hours after departing from my village. As I reflected on the day's challenges, I couldn't help but wonder if every Peace Corps Volunteer faced such trials on their first day. It certainly felt like a lot to handle.

Upon reaching the government station, I sought out the island clerk in hopes of locating my missing luggage, accessing my funds, and procuring some much-needed sustenance. However, I was informed that the clerk was preoccupied with cooking lunch for her children at home. Undeterred, I patiently awaited her return, eager for any assistance she could offer.

When the secretary returned, she conveyed the clerk's apologies for her absence but extended an invitation to join her at her home for a conversation. Grateful for the gesture of hospitality, I followed her to her house and was introduced to her family. To my surprise, I was presented with a package of cookies and two cold cans of Coke—a taste of home that I hadn't expected to find in the outer islands.

Instructed to wait on the bwia (porch) while government workers searched for my belongings, I relished every refreshing gulp of the ice-cold Coke, savoring the familiar taste amidst the unfamiliar surroundings. Despite my desire to prolong the experience, the cookies and soda disappeared within minutes, offering a fleeting moment of comfort and satisfaction.

As I finished the food, the secretary returned with a thoughtful gesture—a bar of soap, a towel, and a change of clothing. "Nako tebotebo," she said, offering me the items. "Here, you can go and take a bath with these." Grateful for her kindness and generosity, I accepted the provisions, thankful for the unexpected moments of warmth and hospitality in the midst of my new surroundings.

After indulging in a refreshing bath, I returned to the bwia with every intention of staying awake. However, the exhaustion of the day's events caught up with me, and before I knew it, I had drifted off into a deep slumber.

When I finally awoke, I found myself startled by the presence of the island clerk and another man seated at the opposite end of the bwia, my luggage neatly arranged beside them. It was evident that I had slept longer than intended, and I felt a pang of embarrassment at my unintended nap.

However, any lingering discomfort quickly dissipated as the island clerk informed me that she had arranged for a truck to transport me back to my service site. Grateful for her assistance, I joined them in the vehicle, where I was pleasantly surprised to find that both the driver and the island clerk spoke impeccable English. Their fluency made communication much smoother and more straightforward, easing any lingering apprehension I had about navigating the challenges of my new environment.

Before I left her house, the island clerk handed me an envelope filled with money, stating simply, "Your Peace Corps stipend." I was taken aback by her generosity and kindness, expressing my gratitude and asking her why she had gone to such lengths for me. She replied with a laugh, "It is the Kiribati way."

After a moment, she shared a deeper insight into her motivations. She explained that she had a niece studying at a university in America, and by helping me in Kiribati, she hoped that someone in my country would extend a helping hand to her niece if she ever found herself in need. It was a manifestation of what she referred to as "Amanda's rat karma," but with humans.

In that moment, I realized the profound impact of her kindness. It wasn't just a gesture of goodwill; it was a reminder of the interconnectedness of humanity and the responsibility we have to care for one another. Her selfless act bound me to a greater commitment to helping others for the rest of my life.

Leaving her house, I carried with me not only the tangible gift of her generosity but also the weight of an immense responsibility—to extend the same kindness and compassion to others, both in Kiribati and in my own country. It was a lesson in empathy and reciprocity that would shape my outlook on life for years to come.

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