This was it. I’d have to leave this island home I’d come to love… forever.
I asked Rubenang if it would be ok for me to leave all the school supplies I brought for Margaret Field with her, I have no use for them back in the United States.
“Are you sure Mike?”
Before I knew it, we had driven past ten villages, and familiar faces of uncles and cousins were in the front yard greeting us. My exhaustion and the overwhelming sense of defeat melted away as soon as I saw everyone. Areta, my four-year-old cousin ran in the house, giggling no doubt. Meanwhile, everyone else in the front yard made their way to the transport to help unload my bags. I was moving in.
All gathered in the common room to share food, stories, games, and gifts. Typically, shy, my Kiribati father was very inquisitive about what was in the suitcases. I asked him to open them one by one and share the contents with everyone. Running his hands through his thick black hair, his eyes bulged as he sized up the suitcases, his shyness magically transformed into that of a cattle auctioneer. Handing out gifts left and right, he became the island Oprah.
The most prized gifts were American headbands. Calling out their names, little cousins ripped them from his hands, tied them on their heads, and began yelling. “I look like a soldier!” and “I’m from American!” By the end of the first minute, I had a pint-size collection of Kiribati warriors wrapped in American bandanas, posing for pictures and running into the village to show off their new look. It wasn’t too long before they returned, drenched from head to toe.
The back porch, their refuge from the sudden monsoon rains, filled with shouts of joy and laughter. They were no match for Mother Nature. Despite underlying circumstances, we had a great time together. The time spent sharing gifts, stories, food, and catching up on life affirmed what I already knew, I would miss this dearly.
At night, I slept in the kids’ room. By two years, I was the eldest “child.” We fell asleep long after the little ones and well before the older ones even got tired. Using our bodies as pillows, the young ones did little to disturb our card games. But eventually, one by one, the game lost its players to sleep. I took pictures of the house while everyone slept. I wanted to remember these moments, and not just in my mind.
On my last day, the family threw a going-away party for me. Complete with banana sprinkled vanilla ice cream, Rubenang’s famous Kentucky Fried Chicken, and family entertainment. The little ones did not leave my side that entire day. In the evening, I went out to purchase food for the party. The Peace Corps’cardinal sin was riding a motorcycle in Tarawa. At the time, motorcycle accidents were a leading cause of injuries and deaths.
I did not care.
In my last act of defiance, I rode a motorcycle. It was the rebel inside of me bursting out, screaming FUCK YOU PEACE CORPS! Of course, fully protected and slightly muted by the helmet, I at least got it off my chest.
I stayed up with the adults after dinner and they told me stories of the family. Stories I never knew about before. I learned about my sister and her half-brother who lived in England. I learned my Kiribati parents met in a village field playing volleyball. Like my biological grandfather, my Kiribati grandfather was a church builder. Eventually, time got the best of the storytellers. I made my way back to the kids’ room, found an open piece of floor, laid down, and fell asleep.
Morning came with the sounds of roosters. The house was silent but full. I was the only one who woke with the first crow. I walked out to the lagoon and sat on its shore in complete seclusion. This would be my one last time to watch the Frigate birds fly through the growing sunrays over the calm lagoon. I sat in complete stillness, just wondering what my American family would say. How could… how would I explain the fact that I got kicked out of the Peace Corps? Would they be disappointed? What would I do? What could I do?
Eventually, the house started stirring with movement. I saw my Kiribati dad walk next door to get the truck he hired from our neighbors to take the family and me to the airport. I just watched. I was there but not there. I watched as everyone prepared for the trip. Everything of mine, except for a backpack with a change of clothes and some toiletries stayed. The kids wore their bandanas, boondoggle bracelets, and my parents wore formal island shirts. It was indeed an American/Kiribati send-off.
All of us piled into the truck for the 30-minute pothole-riddled stretch of road. Each bump left a new bruise that would last for weeks, my last few souvenirs of the island. A few volunteers showed up to say goodbye. The country director was also there. He kept his distance. He gave the tickets to his secretary, who checked me in. Both she and I felt nothing but pure sadness.
Air Fiji arrived on schedule. The number of hugs, tears, kisses, and handshakes overwhelmed me. Like my initial departure from Cincinnati, I chose not to look back as I made my way to the plane. Too difficult to think about one last wave, one last glance, one final... I went numb.
From there, I do not remember much, and it is probably best this way. What I do remember, is that the engines roared. The engine’s thrust pushed me into my seat, and I was airborne. I knew I was not ready to leave, and before falling asleep, I prayed I never would. My final moments in Kiribati were spent with a family, who ultimately would give my life purpose. Though my service to the country ended that day, my commitment to the nation had just begun.