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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Fragrant garlands and coconuts

As soon as we made it through the one-room customs and baggage pickup area, we moved to the crowded outdoor terminal. Peace Corps staff greeted us with coconuts, head garlands, and sprayed us with tubes of perfume. I wasn't sure if we smelled that bad or if this was part of a traditional greeting. Nonetheless, the perfume was greatly appreciated by all as we gathered to take our first group picture.

Children with big beautiful smiles raced towards us with arms stretched for our coconuts as we lined up in front of the transport. Barker, a volunteer, relinquished her coconut to an adoring fan, unknowingly signaling other children to approach us for more coconuts.

Sarah, an energetic older woman with curly red hair introduced herself as our Peace Corps training leader. She was fierce. I had witnessed her reprimand our transport driver after suggesting he drop us off and return for us after the next event. She was anything but happy with his suggestion. Worried that he would confiscate certain items of our luggage, she made sure he stayed with us throughout the welcome ceremony.

Once aboard, she yelled out a laundry list of rules for us to follow.

Keep your head level.

Don’t sit with the soles of your feet pointing towards others.

Boys sit cross-legged.

Ladies cover your legs.

Stand when speaking.

And for God’s sake people, SMILE!

Under her watchful eye, we entered a traditional village maneaba or meetinghouse. It was the oldest one on the island and very special for that reason. Again, each of us received another head garland, perfume, and baby powder. More apparent now than ever, the natives had welcomed plenty of weary travelers without access to showers for days on end before.

We were directed to sit on woven mats laid atop thousands of little white coral pieces. Males sat in front, while females sat in the back. Once seated, a village elder stood to welcome us. Bauro, a Peace Corps trainer, acted as our interpreter and spoke on our behalf. For the next hour, we exchanged sweaty smiles, nods, and laughs. The combination of the heat and floor got the best of some of us, but when the ceremony concluded, we were rewarded with an air-conditioned hotel room.

Jet-lagged and caked in fragrant sweat I ran towards the air-conditioner as soon as my eyes made visual confirmation. Matt, my roommate, a tall redheaded man, two years my elder yelled, Wait! Before you turn it on, I want to let my body adjust to the heat. Too tired to question why I rerouted myself to the shower.

He must have changed his mind while in the shower because as soon as I turned off the water, I heard the hum of the air conditioner. I laid down on the bed, pulled a sheet over my head and immediately fell asleep.

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