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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

An Island Introduction

Upon arriving on the island, it was customary for visitors to partake in a ritual walk around the island to acquaint themselves with the land and pay respects to the spirits dwelling there. As we embarked on this journey, we carried offerings to present to the island spirits as a gesture of respect and to seek their protection during our stay. Tobacco offerings were a common choice, either placed on stone altars or ceremonially smoked by our guides near these sacred sites.


However, it was also customary to observe certain taboos during this ritual. Women who were menstruating were not permitted to join the walk, as it was believed that their presence could potentially harm the spirits. Consequently, a few members of our training class remained in the village while the rest of us set out on what was expected to be a one to two-hour journey around the island.


As the sun rose, we set out from the southernmost village accompanied by two local guides and most of our trainers. Our journey began with a visit to a site not far from my family's land, where we encountered a vast clearing that was periodically submerged by the ocean during high tides. Walking across this exposed expanse under the direct glare of the sun underscored the importance of the shade provided by the surrounding coconut grove, which encircled the first altar we reached.


At each altar we visited, we spent approximately 30 minutes making offerings to the island spirits. Instead of placing tobacco directly on the altars, our guides performed a ritual of smoking each offering while we observed. By the time we reached the third altar, the incoming high tide began to encroach upon the land, and within minutes, we found ourselves swimming across areas that had been dry land just hours earlier. 


This firsthand experience of the land's vulnerability to the forces of nature, compounded by the immediate effects of high tide, served as a poignant reminder of the existential threat posed by global warming to low-lying island nations like Kiribati.


As we reached the second altar, located near a tree at the center of the now-submerged clearing, I found myself floating on the surface, using my Nike flip-flops as makeshift flotation devices. Despite the unexpected turn of events, I couldn't help but feel a sense of elation at the cooling embrace of the water. However, as we waited for our guides to perform the ritual of smoking the offerings, I began to question the initial estimate of a 1 to 2-hour timeframe for our excursion.


While I recognized the significance of the ritual for our spiritual and physical well-being during our time on the island, the experience felt more akin to a pre-service physical fitness test in many ways. Nonetheless, I understood the importance of embracing these traditions and rituals as part of our integration into the local culture and environment.


As we reached the third altar, the sun had already dipped below the horizon, casting a spectacular display of colors across the sky. Shades of orange, pink, and yellow burst forth, painting the ocean's surface with vibrant hues. The reflection of the setting sun on the water enveloped us in a warm embrace, filling us with both vitamin D and a sense of serenity.


As we made our way back towards the shore, guided by the rising moon, our movements stirred up colonies of oceanic bioluminescent bacteria. In response, these tiny organisms emitted brilliant blue flashes of light, illuminating our path across the shallow lagoon. It was a mesmerizing sight, a natural phenomenon that left us in awe of the beauty and wonder of the world around us.


The journey back to the village was a remarkable experience, illuminated by the flickering light of burning coconut fronds. As we traversed the dark lagoon, the Milky Way stretched overhead, casting its gentle glow upon us. Behind us, the bioluminescent bacteria left a trail of shimmering blue light in our wake, creating a surreal and mesmerizing scene.


Despite the unexpected delay and the frustration of arriving much later than planned, the breathtaking beauty of our surroundings left a lasting impression on us all. While some may have been upset by the delay, the awe-inspiring sights we encountered along the way more than compensated for any inconvenience we experienced. It was a journey filled with wonder and enchantment, a testament to the extraordinary natural beauty of Kiribati.


***


The evenings in Kiribati were a welcome relief from the scorching heat of the day. As the sun dipped below the horizon, bringing a slight drop in temperature, the village sprung to life with activity. 

The youth would gather to play volleyball, their laughter and shouts echoing across the village. Meanwhile, the children would get creative, fashioning toys out of whatever materials they could find, from sticks and coconut shells to imported tins. These makeshift toys provided endless entertainment, whether used as wheels for rolling or as pucks for a makeshift hockey game.


As dusk settled in, the men would prepare their canoes for nighttime fishing, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures and the opportunity to catch fish under the cover of darkness. At the same time, the women would come together for a game of bingo or to catch up on the latest gossip, their laughter and chatter filling the evening air.


The village's rhythm mirrored the natural cycle of the sun, with mornings and evenings being the most vibrant times of the day. Living near the Equator meant that there was no need for daylight savings, resulting in consistent 6 am sunrises and 6 pm sunsets throughout the year.


At 6 am, I would wake to the cacophony of sounds from the animals that slept under my kiakia, signaling the start of a new day. As the sun rose higher in the sky around 7 am, its rays penetrated through the walls of my house, nudging me further awake. The air carried the aroma of smoke from the family cooking house, where breakfast preparations were already underway. Meanwhile, young girls could be seen sweeping the compound clean, while boys filled buckets with water from the roki for their morning baths.


By this time, my sister Ageiti would have brought trays of food from the uma ni kuka, the kitchen house, to the bwia where our father sat, ready to start the day. However, my brother Ngao was nowhere to be found, perhaps still asleep or busy with his own tasks.


The transition from sleep to wakefulness in Kiribati was always marked by the lively sounds of animals and the comforting crackle of fires, grounding me in my new reality. As I stirred from sleep, momentarily questioning my location, these familiar sounds reassured me that I was indeed in Kiribati, far from my family in Ohio.


Gathering my senses, I emerged from the security of my mosquito net and embarked on my morning routine. The roki beckoned with its promise of fresh water and soap, a welcome invitation after a night's rest. With renewed energy, I returned to my house to change into fresh clothing before indulging in the invigorating ritual of the morning tebotebo, or bucket bath. Despite the initial shock of the cold water, I quickly embraced this refreshing start to the day, relishing in its revitalizing effects.


Emerging from my morning ablutions, I found Ngao, Beretia, and Tateka waiting for me on the family bwia, ready to begin breakfast. Taking my place from the night before, I watched as they swiftly laid out ten trays of food before me, each covered with white linens to ward off flies. It was a thoughtful gesture, perhaps influenced by tips from Peace Corps staff, and a testament to the hospitality and care of my host family.


 As the trays of food were laid out before me, I realized there was no way I could consume all that had been prepared. Seeing my hesitation, Tateka instructed Ageiti to bring out another item from the uma ni kuka, specifically for me. With a warm smile, she presented a fancy new thermos filled with hot water and a crystal coffee mug, along with an unopened tin of powdered chocolate drink mix called Milo. 


As I began preparing my morning tea, a comforting remnant of British colonial influence, Tateka lifted the white linen covering one of the trays, revealing a large dead fish staring back at me. Despite my initial startle, I focused on making my tea, grateful for the familiar ritual amidst the unfamiliar surroundings.


With the village maneaba meeting looming and the transport passing by shortly, I felt a sense of urgency to finish breakfast. Despite my desire to excuse myself from the meal, I knew it would be considered impolite after the effort my host family had put into preparing it for me. I silently hoped they would understand my reluctance to eat seafood due to allergies, though I struggled to articulate this to them.


As time passed, my host family grew accustomed to my dietary preferences, particularly my aversion to fish, and life became more harmonious. In return, I shared some of my own culinary knowledge with them, teaching my mom and sisters how to make tortillas, which became a staple in my diet for the remainder of my service.


One evening, Ageiti surprised me with a plate of spaghetti, a dish she had learned from her cousin who had visited Australia. I suspected that my family had contacted relatives in Tarawa to procure spaghetti packages for this special occasion. However, lacking traditional spaghetti sauce, they improvised and created a unique and spicy sauce using Tabasco sauce and ketchup. It was a memorable and unconventional twist on spaghetti, and although I struggled with the heat of the Tabasco, I smiled through tears and proclaimed it as kangkang, or delicious. 


To my surprise, I later learned that other volunteers in the village were also being treated to their own families' interpretations of spaghetti, each with its own unique twist.


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