Sad, excited, and scared, this was my first time leaving Kiribati since I arrived, and aside from the initial shock of seeing Air Pacific’s 737, the flight to Fiji was uneventful. Kiribati had become my home, and somehow, I was going home. Tears filled my eyes as the plane revved its engines. Coconut trees lining the runway sped past my window faster than they ever had before, and within seconds, Kiribati was fading into the deep blue ocean below. I was leaving home all over again. The memory of my father crying in the Cincinnati terminal before I went had magically transformed into tears I shed for Kiribati. Thank God I was only going for two weeks, I thought. From Fiji, I flew to New Zealand and then home, or so I thought.
Not only was it my first time in New Zealand, but it was also my first time being on New Zealand television. Our initial descent was stable; however, it was anything, but as we got closer to the runway. We were advised to brace for the final approach as the plane before we experienced a challenging landing, which caused severe injuries to passengers and crew members. Both planes needed repairs, backlogging all flights to the U.S.
THIS IS BLOODY ABSURD! A fellow stranded passenger yelled as we waited in line for rebookings. Everyone filled immigration arrival forms as we were not going anywhere anytime soon. THE LAST COUNTRY VISITED, SHOULD I SAY NEW ZEALAND? He voiced his frustration louder with each question. All in the same boat, so to say, we were tired, hungry, and unwillingly stuck in a country none of us wanted to be in. After several hours of waiting, a representative told all passengers they would be placed in a hotel for two days.
Everyone seemed upset, that is, everyone but me. I received a complimentary pass to a 24-hour all you can eat buffet which had potatoes, chicken, vegetables, cake, and ice cream. This was a dream come true! With a plate of chicken and a bowl of melted ice cream, I fell asleep on a king size bed trying to understand something called rugby. Channel one was airing a game. I had never seen a rugby match before, but it was essential to New Zealand people.
I woke up with a piece of chicken in my hair and vanilla cream in my bowl and decided to go for a walk. Outside, I smelled freshly cut grass for the first time in almost two years. I walked on a paved sidewalk and saw cars stopping at stoplights. It was the first time in a long time that I experienced such things. They were familiarly foreign. In New Zealand, there were paved roads with many filled lanes of traffic. I waited to cross the street, watching an endless amount of cars drive by. When the traffic lights switched, signaling me to cross the road, I froze. Something held me back, and I did not know what it was. All of a sudden, I flashed back to Tamana, remembering the dirt road how friends and families piled into Tauro’s truck for rides around the entire island. New Zealand was so much bigger than Tamana if I crossed the street, would I get lost finding my way back? Something that should have been so simple was so complicated. I turned around and headed back to my room until I was called back to the airport.
Los Angeles was bigger and scarier. It seemed as if everyone was yelling at everyone else, even inanimate objects were not safe. The USA had gone crazy. Approaching a yeller, I noticed that he was talking into a device. Technology had changed so much since I left. It seemed everyone had a tiny handset with earbuds and microphones.
In the middle of the night, I made it to Columbus two days late. My entire family, including my 3-year-old nephew, were at the airport. I traveled around the world in shorts, sandals, and a t-shirt for this moment. Mom brought a coat; dad brought pants, and my sister brought gloves, shoes, and a hat. Hugging my parents and sister, my family, I was home, but I wasn’t the same. The 2-hour long car ride home was strange. I felt torn between the person they knew, and the person I had become. I was home, but it didn’t feel like home.