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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Host Volunteer Visits (HVV)

The Peace Corps experience introduces volunteers to a lexicon of intricate acronyms, which become second nature to every Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Learning this specialized language feels akin to mastering a new dialect of English, alongside the challenge of adapting to a completely unfamiliar service language.

At the conclusion of the first week of Pre-service training (PST), we eagerly awaited our Host Volunteer Visit (HVV) assignments. For me, this meant embarking on a daunting seven-hour boat journey due north of my current location. As an official Peace Corps Trainee (PCT), enrolled in PST and under the guidance of the Country Director (CD), I was destined for Abaiang Island for my HVV experience. 

Following this initial assignment, I would embark on a nearly three-month Host Family Visit (HFV) assignment, situated two islands south of my HVV site. This sequential arrangement, orchestrated by the Peace Corps leadership, aimed to provide a comprehensive and immersive introduction to the diverse cultural and geographical landscape of Kiribati. 

Navigating the intricacies of these acronyms became not only a linguistic exercise but also a practical necessity, facilitating communication and coordination within the Peace Corps community. Each acronym represented a unique aspect of our service journey, imbued with its own significance and challenges. As we embarked on this adventure, armed with our newfound vocabulary, we embraced the opportunity to immerse ourselves fully in the vibrant tapestry of Kiribati life.

At 8:00 am the next day, nine fellow Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and I embarked on a journey to Betio, where we would board a double-hulled canoe named Te bwa ni karawa, meaning "the meteorite." The sight of the sturdy vessel swaying gently in the harbor triggered a wave of nausea, prompting a frantic search for the Dramamine bottle my mom had packed for me. Hastily downing the remaining pills, I settled onto the deck's floor, hoping for relief.

As the medicine took effect, I succumbed to drowsiness and drifted into a deep sleep. The gentle rocking of the canoe and the rhythmic sound of the waves provided a soothing backdrop to my slumber. When I awoke, the landscape had transformed into a vision of tranquility: crystal-clear waters of a vibrant blue hue stretched out before us, the shallow lagoon shimmering under the morning sun.

Grateful for the restorative power of the medication, I marveled at the beauty that surrounded us as we approached our destination. Despite the initial discomfort of the journey, the promise of new adventures awaited on the shores of Betio, beckoning us forward into the unknown. With renewed energy and anticipation, I eagerly prepared to disembark and embrace the next chapter of our Peace Corps journey in Kiribati.

As my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers shared their experiences, I couldn't help but feel a pang of regret for having missed out on the wonders of the boat ride. According to their accounts, the journey was nothing short of spectacular. Magnificent stingrays glided gracefully beside the boat as it traversed the azure waters of the lagoon, their sleek forms slicing through the surface with effortless grace. Bottle-nosed dolphins leaped in playful arcs alongside the ship as it ventured across the open ocean, their joyful antics a testament to the boundless beauty of the marine world.

The clear waters of the lagoon provided an unobstructed view of the vibrant underwater landscape below. Schools of fish darted in and out of the spectacular coral reefs, their iridescent scales shimmering in the sunlight. The coral reefs themselves were a kaleidoscope of color, teeming with life in every hue imaginable. Brightly colored corals, darting fish, graceful lobsters, and other mesmerizing sea creatures populated this underwater paradise, welcoming us with open arms to the shores of Abaiang.

As I listened to their tales of wonder and awe, I couldn't help but feel a sense of anticipation building within me. Despite having missed out on the sights and sounds of the boat ride, I knew that the beauty of Abaiang awaited us, ready to reveal its secrets and wonders in the days and weeks to come. With each passing moment, my excitement grew, fueling my determination to immerse myself fully in this extraordinary adventure that lay ahead.

From the vantage point of the boat, a crowd had gathered along the shoreline, eagerly awaiting the arrival of passengers. Amidst the throng, it was impossible to miss Amanda, our Host Volunteer Visit (HVV) PCV, her vibrant pink-sunburned skin and curly brown hair making her unmistakable amidst the sea of shorter, dark-skinned individuals gathered with her.

As our vessel approached the island, smaller silver boats began to converge, ferrying passengers closer to the shore. These smaller boats facilitated a smoother transition for passengers, dropping them off nearer to the coastline, allowing them to walk the remaining distance to the island itself. Our group of Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) and staff piled into one of these smaller vessels, the sound of backpacks clanking and Nalgene bottles chiming against carabiners creating a symphony of anticipation.

As we waded ashore, the sensation of setting foot on Abaiang Island was nothing short of surreal. The warm embrace of the tropical breeze, the soft crunch of sand beneath our feet, and the vivid colors of the surrounding landscape combined to create an unforgettable moment of arrival. It marked the beginning of a new chapter in our Peace Corps journey, filled with excitement, possibility, and the promise of countless adventures yet to unfold.

Upon reaching the shore, we eagerly hopped onto a transport vehicle alongside several other I-Kiribati, making our way towards our host's house. Vehicles were a relatively recent import to the island, and we soon found ourselves aboard an industrial-sized flatbed Isuzu truck, a common mode of transportation used primarily for ferrying large groups of people to and from social gatherings and events.

As we settled into our seats, Amanda discreetly shared a word of caution with us. She explained that the flatbed truck we were on had a history of mechanical issues, with the bed occasionally detaching from the truck's cab, inadvertently leaving passengers stranded. Her advice was simple: hold onto the sides of the bed tightly to avoid any potential mishaps.

The revelation sent a ripple of concern through our group, still reeling from the experiences of the red bullet rides in Tarawa. The prospect of facing yet another transportation challenge so soon after our arrival was daunting, to say the least. Nevertheless, we resolved to heed Amanda's advice and brace ourselves for whatever the journey ahead might entail, knowing that resilience and adaptability were key virtues in navigating life in Kiribati.

As our journey continued along the pothole-ridden dirt road leading to her village, the aftermath of recent storms became glaringly evident. The driver, perhaps in an attempt to lighten the mood, referred to the numerous bumps and pits in the road as "speed bumps," chuckling every time the vehicle jolted particularly hard over one. Despite his lighthearted demeanor, the condition of the road served as a stark reminder of the challenges posed by the island's harsh and unpredictable weather.

In accordance with Peace Corps policy, each volunteer was required to travel with a life jacket when venturing out onto the ocean. In this instance, the life jacket served a dual purpose: on the boat, it had served as my makeshift pillow, providing a modicum of comfort during the journey across the water. Now, in the back of the truck navigating the bumpy terrain, the life jacket became my unexpected cushion, offering some relief from the jolts and bumps of the uneven road.

As I clung to the sides of the truck's bed, my life jacket tucked beneath me, I couldn't help but marvel at the resilience and adaptability required to navigate life in Kiribati. Despite the myriad challenges and uncertainties that lay ahead, I felt a sense of determination and resolve coursing through me, fueled by the knowledge that I was part of a community bound together by a shared commitment to service and a willingness to embrace whatever adventures lay in store.

 As our journey meandered through the landscape, we passed numerous villages nestled amidst the dense bush. Each village seemed to be cocooned in its own verdant surroundings, with thatched-roof houses dotting the landscape amidst breadfruit trees, taro pits, pigpens, and small gardens. Despite the vibrant scenery, there was a noticeable absence of people outside as we drove by.

Recalling a remark made by an Australian expat I had encountered in Tarawa, I couldn't help but reflect on the truth behind his words. He had humorously quipped that only mad dogs and Englishmen ventured out in the daytime in Kiribati, due to the oppressive heat. As we traversed through the villages under the scorching sun, it seemed that there might indeed be some wisdom in his jest. It appeared that most residents had sought refuge indoors, shielding themselves from the relentless heat, the harsh glare of the sun, and perhaps even the mythical presence of mad dogs and wandering Englishmen.

As we continued on our journey, I couldn't help but marvel at the resilience of the people living in these remote villages, enduring the sweltering tropical climate with stoicism and grace. Their ability to adapt and thrive in such challenging conditions served as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the Kiribati people, whose warmth and hospitality shone through even in the most trying of circumstances.

As our journey progressed, our bodies had begun to acclimate somewhat to the relentless equatorial heat. However, venturing outside during the peak hours of the day remained a daunting challenge. In Tarawa, we had grown accustomed to the luxury of air-conditioned rooms, providing respite from the sweltering temperatures. Regrettably, such comforts were noticeably absent in our new host's residence.

The absence of air-conditioned sanctuaries served as a stark reminder of the stark differences between our previous accommodations and our current environment. While the lack of modern amenities posed a new set of challenges, it also offered an opportunity for personal growth and adaptation. As we settled into our new surroundings, we embraced the simplicity of life in Kiribati, finding solace in the warmth of community and the beauty of the natural world that surrounded us.

Amanda, an education volunteer dedicated to teaching English at the village Junior Senior Secondary school (JSS), had already spent a year in Abaiang, residing on the school compound alongside fellow teachers. Her boundless optimism was evident from the moment you stepped into her home, where a sign boldly proclaimed, "Ignore the Skeptics."

Hailing proudly from the northwest, Amanda possessed a deep love for nature and animals. Her unique approach to dealing with the island's rat population, however, bordered on the unconventional. Believing in the principle of rat karma, Amanda had devised a method to keep the rodents at bay by feeding them soap. According to her, rats had a penchant for soap, and providing them with this unusual delicacy not only kept them content but also purportedly cleaned their insides. As part of her weekly routine, she would place a piece of soap on her bathroom floor, much to the delight of her furry visitors.

While I admired Amanda's creative approach to pest control, rat karma was a practice I chose not to adopt during my time in service. Though I held a deep respect for the island's wildlife and the potential hazards they posed to humans, my methods for managing such challenges leaned towards more conventional means. Nonetheless, Amanda's unwavering optimism and innovative spirit served as a constant source of inspiration, reminding me of the importance of adaptability and ingenuity in navigating life in Kiribati.

Returning to Kiribati five years after first hearing about rat karma, I found myself back on the main island, settling in for the night. However, my slumber was abruptly interrupted by a sharp pain in my right foot. To my horror, I discovered that a rat had managed to infiltrate my mosquito net and was nibbling on my toe while I slept.

Determined not to repeat the harrowing experience, I took immediate action the following day. Remembering Amanda's unconventional solution, I placed a piece of soap in the bathroom, hoping to deter any future rodent invaders. Remarkably, almost ten years have passed since that fateful night, and I have yet to awaken to the disturbing sensation of rats gnawing at my feet.

Reflecting on this experience, I couldn't help but marvel at the unexpected efficacy of rat karma. While my initial skepticism may have led me to dismiss Amanda's unorthodox approach, the practical results speak for themselves. Sometimes, the most unconventional solutions yield the most unexpected benefits, teaching us valuable lessons about resilience, adaptation, and the interconnectedness of all living beings.

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