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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Forever Changed

My heart swelled with joy as the long, narrow coral atolls slowly came into view through the airplane window. The shifting hues of the ocean, coupled with the subtle drop in cabin pressure, sent shivers down my spine. This was home, and I couldn't contain my excitement. Unlike my first arrival, when I was accompanied by twenty-six other volunteers nervously awaiting customs clearance, this time I was the sole American on board, eagerly anticipating my return.


I felt a deep familiarity with the language, the people, and the landscape that surpassed anything I could have imagined upon my initial arrival. I even knew the exact village where the plane would touch down. With two packed suitcases brimming with gifts from America, I already had a plan in mind for navigating my way back to the dorm on the island's iconic "red bullet" bus.


As before, the opening of the cabin door heralded the swift release of pressurized cool air, immediately replaced by a rush of hot, humid tropical breeze. Stepping down the aisle onto the tarmac, I joined the line of passengers making their way towards re-entry into the country. The familiar one-room immigration hall, doubling as a luggage claim area, enveloped me with its sense of comfort.


Amidst the laughter, joyful exclamations, and hearty handshakes that echoed through the hall, I made my way towards the waiting bus, grateful for the warm reception that welcomed me back home.


My initial plan of staying on the main island for just two days was abruptly disrupted upon my arrival at PC Headquarters. Welcomed with warm smiles and hugs from the office staff, I was quickly informed by the country director that I would have to take a boat back to my island, as the domestic flights were indefinitely grounded.


Waiting in Tarawa for the next scheduled boat departure, I learned from John, a fellow island mate, that the journey could stretch anywhere from 10 to 15 days. The prospect of spending such an extended period on a boat filled me with dread, especially considering my propensity for motion sickness. Despite my concerns, John explained that it was either endure the two-week boat journey or sign a Close of Service (C.O.S.) petition, as returning to my post by plane was no longer an option.

The country director expressed that allowing me to remain in Tarawa for the duration of my service could negatively impact volunteer morale. Though I struggled to comprehend how my seasickness could influence morale, he remained adamant. My primary concern, however, was my safety during the arduous journey, not any potential impact on volunteer morale.


During my week in Tarawa, I remained secluded in the Peace Corps dormitory, grappling with a mix of fear and depression over the prospect of leaving Kiribati due to my struggles with motion sickness. The situation felt profoundly unfair, and I found myself consumed by shame and a desire to slip away unnoticed if departure became inevitable.


Alone with my thoughts, I braced myself for the worst, resigned to the idea of departing without fanfare or acknowledgment. However, as is often the case in island communities, news travels swiftly through the informal communication network known as the "coconut wireless." Despite my attempts to keep my concerns private, it was only a matter of time before word spread.


As I strolled toward the dormitory that day, the Ministry of Education's bus abruptly pulled up in front of me, halting my progress. To my surprise, it was my Tarawa mother, her warm smile contrasting with the sternness in her voice as she expressed her joy at my return to Kiribati. However, her puzzled tone betrayed her concern over my failure to visit the family home upon arrival.


With a mixture of apprehension and curiosity, she requested my presence in her office the following morning. As I veered away from the roadside, I couldn't help but wonder if my host mother had voiced her disapproval of my absence.

 

Somewhat apprehensive about what lay ahead, I resolved to honor my commitment and meet with her. "Can I help you?" the secretary inquired as I entered the office. "Um, yes," I replied tentatively. "I'm here to see..." Before I could finish, I heard my mum's voice echoing from down the hall.


"Wait there. I'll be ready in a couple of minutes. I need to talk to you about your assignment," she called out, her tone carrying a mix of authority and concern. Almost unsurprisingly, it seemed that word of my situation had reached her by now.


After a brief wait, the man she had been meeting with emerged from her office, signaling my cue to enter. "Okay, Mike, come in now," she beckoned, and the secretary guided me inside.


Walking down the lengthy hallway, a sense of impending reprimand hung heavy in the air. Despite knowing that Mum was, in fact, my mom, this knowledge did little to quell the fear and tumultuous emotions churning within me. 


As the door clicked shut behind me, the outside world faded away, leaving only the distant cries of Frigate birds and the rhythmic roar of ocean waves. Inside the office, a heavy silence enveloped us, broken only by the occasional gust of hot, salty breeze that swept through an open window.


Turning around, Mum's eyes met mine, glistening with unshed tears.


"I might be leaving soon," I hesitantly admitted.


"I know," she replied, her tone carrying a mix of understanding and resignation. It seemed that my attempt to conceal my inner turmoil had been futile; she had seen through my facade with ease.


I confessed that I had avoided visiting her or the family since my return. The impending departure weighed heavily on me, and I found it difficult to face the pain of saying goodbye. In my mind, disappearing seemed like the easiest solution.


The thought of reuniting with everyone only to bid them farewell tore at my heart. How could I pretend to be happy when my heart ached with longing for Kiribati and my beloved host families? How could I convey the depth of my emotions—the love, the longing, the despair?


But Mum's tears mirrored my own, a poignant reflection of the emotional turmoil we both experienced. In a culture where displays of emotion were often restrained, our shared tears spoke volumes.


Feeling overwhelmed by the weight of unspoken emotions, I knew I had to break the tension somehow. And so, amidst the tears and the heaviness of our impending separation, I did the only thing I could think of—I laughed.

Shaking her head in amusement, she remarked, "You are just like everyone else, Mike. But you've learned a lot from us." Her laughter filled the room, easing the tension that had hung between us moments before. We began to chat about my trip—my family, friends, and the unexpected surprises that awaited me back home.


I regaled her with tales of my surprise welcome-back party and recounted the hilarious mishap at a department store that had left me sprinting into the parking lot, overwhelmed by the chaos. My mom's frantic attempt to calm me down elicited uproarious laughter from Mum, who found the whole scenario immensely amusing.


We shared anecdotes about my struggles to navigate life in New Zealand, from my fear of crossing busy streets to my comical encounters with all-you-can-eat buffets. With each story, Mum's laughter grew louder, her joy contagious.


"You are too funny," she chuckled, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes. "You may be American, but you act like a real I-Kiribati boy."


In that moment, amidst the laughter and shared memories, I felt a deep sense of belonging—a bridge between two worlds, embraced by the love and acceptance of my Kiribati family.


That night, I made my way to my family's house, knowing deep down that my return to Tamana was unlikely after opting out of the boat journey. Despite the weight of disappointment, I carried with me over a hundred pounds of school supplies intended for my students, now left without recipients.


Mum accompanied me, guiding the government transport to a halt at the Peace Corps dorm. Together, we retrieved the suitcases laden with supplies and gifts, each one a symbol of my commitment and dedication to the community I had grown to love.


With the weight of uncertainty on my shoulders, we journeyed to my family's village, where I hoped to find solace amidst familiar faces and comforting embraces.


Despite the challenging circumstances, we found joy in each other's company as we caught up on life's happenings. The children eagerly embraced the opportunity to explore the school supplies, their eyes alight with curiosity and excitement. Meanwhile, my typically reserved father surprised us all by taking charge of distributing the gifts, his face beaming with pride as he facilitated the exchange.


Among the treasures, the American-style head bandanas proved to be the most coveted, sparking a playful frenzy among my younger cousins. With enthusiasm reminiscent of Harley Davidson bikers, they gleefully adorned themselves with the bandanas, transforming into a pint-sized gang of American enthusiasts.


Captivated by their infectious energy, I couldn't resist capturing the moment with a quick snapshot, immortalizing the image of our impromptu American gang. However, our newfound revelry was short-lived as a sudden downpour descended upon us, sending us scurrying for shelter on the porch of the house.


In the final days spent with my family, we shared moments that would remain etched in my memory forever. They orchestrated a heartfelt going-away celebration, a testament to their love and affection. The festivities were adorned with banana-sprinkled vanilla ice cream, a delightful treat crafted by Mum, complemented by her rendition of Kentucky Fried Chicken, adding a touch of home to the occasion. Amidst the festivities, my eldest sister delighted us with her playful and spirited dancing, bringing laughter and joy to the gathering.


Throughout the festivities, my adorable four-, five-, and six-year-old cousins remained steadfast by my side, their innocent presence adding an extra layer of warmth and comfort. Meanwhile, my older siblings reveled in the night, engaging in heartfelt conversations, capturing cherished moments through photographs, and indulging in spirited rounds of card games. As the night unfolded, laughter filled the air, mingling with the sounds of joy and camaraderie, creating memories that would endure long after my departure.


As morning dawned, my host father arranged for a truck to take me to the airport, symbolizing the beginning of my departure from Kiribati. A few fellow Peace Corps Volunteers gathered at the field to bid me farewell, offering their support during this challenging moment. While the country director was present, he maintained a respectful distance, understanding the gravity of the situation.


Boarding the plane for the last time in Kiribati proved to be an immensely difficult task. I fought to suppress any burgeoning emotions, unwilling to confront the overwhelming sense of loss that threatened to consume me. Refusing to look back, I walked onto the runway, unable to muster the strength for one final wave goodbye. Numbness enveloped me as I stepped onto the aircraft, my mind clouded with a haze of mixed emotions.


As the engines of the 737 roared to life and the aircraft ascended into the sky, I surrendered to the overwhelming wave of emotions that washed over me. Tears streamed down my face as I grappled with the profound sense of farewell, a poignant reminder of the deep connections forged during my time in Kiribati. Lost in a tumult of emotions, I drifted into a fitful sleep, awakening only upon reaching Fiji, the next chapter of my journey awaiting me.


Leaving Kiribati under those circumstances was not something I had anticipated or desired at the time. However, upon reflection, I realize that it was precisely what I needed to propel me forward. It ignited a passion within me that has endured over the years and continues to shape my life in profound ways.


In countless ways, the experience reinforced the notion that my connection to Kiribati runs deep within me. Though physically separated from the islands, I carry its essence with me wherever I go. Kiribati has become a part of who I am, woven into the fabric of my being, indelibly etched into my soul. And in turn, I have left a part of myself behind in Kiribati, a bond that I hope will endure for a lifetime and beyond.


Leaving Kiribati was not the end of my journey; rather, it was the beginning of a lifelong connection that transcends time and distance. As I navigate the paths that lie ahead, I carry Kiribati with me as a guiding light, a source of strength, and a reminder of the profound impact it has had on my life.


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