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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

My Tarawa Host Family

While waiting for developments in Tarawa, I kept myself occupied with a side project that blossomed unexpectedly. Drawing inspiration from my experiences in Maiana, I began writing short stories about island life, which my brother skillfully illustrated. As our collaboration evolved, we worked on translations, resulting in the creation of two bilingual texts.


Eager to remain productive, I sought out opportunities to engage with the local community and was directed to the Ministry of Education. There, I had the pleasure of meeting Regina, the director of the Tarawa Educational Resource Center, who showed keen interest in my work. Intrigued by the possibility of contributing to the center's endeavors, Regina suggested that I volunteer while in Tarawa.


After a day spent touring the center and brainstorming ideas for potential projects, Regina extended a gracious invitation for me to join the staff the following work day. Embracing the opportunity wholeheartedly, I soon found myself volunteering regularly at the center, immersing myself in its activities and initiatives.


As our collaboration flourished, Regina extended another invitation—this time, to her home for dinner. Grateful for the chance to escape the confines of the Peace Corps dormitory and indulge in some take-out Chinese food from Bongs restaurant, I eagerly accepted her offer, relishing the opportunity to connect with a kindred spirit in this new and unfamiliar environment.


 Entering Regina's home was like stepping into a different world altogether. It was easily one of the largest and most well-appointed houses I had ever encountered in Kiribati. As I was introduced to her extended family, I struggled to match faces to names amidst the distractions of modern conveniences that surrounded me.


The kitchen, equipped with an icebox and oven, was a marvel in itself, a far cry from the simple cooking setups I had grown accustomed to. Multiple bedrooms provided ample space for the family, while the presence of a bathroom with a toilet and shower felt like a luxury in this island setting.


However, it was the sight of a television with a DVD player in the living room that truly took me by surprise. Sitting across from it, I couldn't help but feel a sense of disbelief—it was as if I had been transported to a home in the United States. The juxtaposition of modern amenities against the backdrop of traditional island life was both intriguing and surreal, a testament to the evolving landscape of Kiribati society.


As we gathered around the table for dinner, I couldn't help but marvel at the spread laid out before us. To my surprise and delight, the main dish wasn't the expected fish but instead crispy fried chicken paired with cold cans of Coke—a combination Regina jokingly referred to as "KFC," short for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Her laughter filled the room as she explained the acronym, and I couldn't help but join in, my eyes widening in astonishment at the unexpected treat.


Throughout the meal, Regina's nieces continued to emerge from the kitchen, bearing trays of food that seemed to multiply with each passing moment. Amidst the lively conversation, Regina mentioned a Pizza Hut in Fiji and inquired whether I knew how to make pizza. Memories of my time working in a restaurant specializing in pizza and chicken wings flooded back, and I eagerly shared my expertise.


In fact, I had been experimenting with pizza recipes in the Peace Corps dormitory kitchen for the past two weeks, and all the necessary ingredients were readily available. The only missing piece of the puzzle was an oven—and, of course, a willing set of hands to assist in making the dough. With Regina's enthusiastic approval, plans for a homemade pizza night began to take shape, promising yet another memorable culinary adventure in this unexpected corner of the world.


Back at Regina's house the following night, I found myself in the kitchen with her niece, Sarah, eagerly preparing pizzas together. Sarah, two years my junior, possessed a captivating story that captured my attention from the moment we began conversing. Despite living in Kiribati, Sarah had fair skin and bore an I-matang name, standing out amidst her peers. Fluent in English and nearing the end of her senior secondary school years, she had an exciting future ahead—she was set to embark on her university journey in Fiji the following school year.


As we kneaded dough and layered toppings onto the pizzas, I found myself engrossed in Sarah's narrative, marveling at her resilience and determination. Despite our differences in background and experiences, our shared passion for cooking and conversation bridged any divides, and time seemed to effortlessly slip away as we worked side by side in the kitchen.


As we worked on the pizzas, Sarah's little cousins gathered around the kitchen, their eyes wide with curiosity as they watched our culinary creations take shape. Some even joined in, eagerly lending a hand in adding toppings to the pies. However, our enthusiasm soon outstripped our supplies, and we found ourselves needing to replenish our stock of flour and cheese.


Determined to see our pizza-making endeavor through, Sarah's mother stepped in and negotiated the use of a larger oven from their neighbors in exchange for a couple of freshly baked pizzas. With ingredients restocked and a larger oven secured, we resumed our cooking with renewed vigor.


To complement our homemade pizzas, I decided to splurge on Coke for the entire family and their neighbors, as it seemed like the perfect accompaniment to our meal. As the fragrant aroma of baking pizza filled the air, laughter and chatter filled the kitchen, creating an atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie.


By the time the pizzas were ready, everyone gathered around the table to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The joy and satisfaction on their faces as they savored each bite filled me with a profound sense of fulfillment. In that moment, I felt a deep connection with Regina's entire family and their neighbors—a bond forged through shared laughter, good food, and the simple pleasures of companionship. It was as if I had gained another host family, one rooted in the heart of Tarawa, and I felt incredibly grateful for the sense of belonging they had extended to me.


Two days after the memorable pizza dinner, my country director delivered the final decision: I would be relocating to Tamana Island. Situated much further away from Tarawa, reaching Tamana required several hours of flight time and a refueling stop along the way. With the plane servicing Tamana only once a week, I had just three days to prepare for my journey.


While I felt a surge of excitement about this new chapter, there was also a tinge of sadness at the thought of leaving behind what had become my extended Tarawa host family. Despite our brief time together, their warmth and hospitality had left a lasting impression on me, and I knew I would miss their company dearly.


Nevertheless, I took solace in the knowledge that my relocation was not a permanent farewell. I looked forward to returning to Tarawa for intermittent Peace Corps meetings, and I made a mental note to visit my newfound family whenever I had the chance. With a mixture of anticipation and nostalgia, I began to ready myself for the journey ahead, eager to embrace the new experiences and opportunities that awaited me on Tamana Island.


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