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One big happy family

At 8 am all PCTs and training staff boarded the ship bound for Maiana Island. We were to be “adopted” for three months by awaiting families. To say I was nervous would have been an understatement, I was terrified. Host families lived in three different villages; each village would have four to six trainees. Seemingly all were excited for this next stage, including the families. Informed that families were preparing for our arrival, trainers were more than happy to leave the hustle and bustle of Tarawa behind.


The ship, Nei Matangare, was big. It had enough room to carry trucks on its deck and containers in its hull. Compared to the B’a ni Karawa, Nei Matangare was like a luxury liner. Aware of my anxiety, the country director assured me that the boat’s size would nullify any motion in the ocean.


Hurry up people, we aren’t the only ones traveling today! Let's go, let's go, let’s goooo!


The familiar voice of Janeen erupted from the boarding ramp. It was the first time I heard the words hurry up and felt compelled to do so in Kiribati.


Once en route, surprisingly, I was not sick. Joe, the country director, was right. Its size allowed me to walk freely on the top deck, play guitar, and enjoy the cold breeze with others. Quick, the entire trip only took three hours. Unloading took another two. We spent most of the time waiting for high tide to lift us past the reef’s edge so vehicles could unload directly onto the reef.


Unfortunately, Peace Corps issued medicine was no match for the idled ships bobbing. Because of my degraded state, I was first to offload and more than thankful to be on solid ground again.


Once all was unloaded, the dark blue Peace Corps trucks shuttled everyone to their assigned village. First, the northern village, followed by the central village, and then the southern villages. Assigned a family in the southernmost village, I had time to adjust before jumping on another transport.


As the sun began to set, my village was called to load. It was dark by the time we arrived. Despite this, each family was waiting by the road for their new child. Since I was one of the last houses, I was able to meet each family. All of us wanted to greet our new family with hugs, but we were in Kiribati and informed that overt public displays of affection were not approved behavior. Unsure of whether to hug or shake hands each meeting was unique. We learned that Kiribati people were modest people. I believed this, as over two weeks of being in country, I had not seen a single public display of affection.


The first to greet me were my host father, Tokantekaai, and brother, Atiia. Making eye contact, we exchanged head nods before shaking hands — we picked up my bags and carried them to my kiakia (small house), built specifically for me!


The full moon illuminated the short walk to the kiakia. Its walls, made from lashed coconut spines supported a thatch roof made from pandanus leaves. Excited, Tokantekaai made me wait for a big reveal. With the flip of a switch inside the front door, he lit the interior of the house, revealing a mosquito net draped foam mattress and a woven floor mat covering the entire floor. He had jimmied an old car battery to a fluorescent light bulb with refashioned wiring.


Staring at us from the center of the room was a white scorpion with its stinger pointed directly at me. Amazed and terrified at the same time, I froze.


WHAP! A rush of wind blew past my ear as Tokantekaai’s bare hand expunged all life from the scorpion. Smiling with an almost toothless smile, he picked it up, held it in front of me, and said, “Scorpion!” I nodded and muttered a faint thank you in Kiribati.


We gathered in the bwia (boo-yah), where almost all family interactions took place. This location served as the household’s all in one, a living room, front porch, bedroom, dining room, you name it, it was exactly that. The family was easily three times larger than mine. I felt it most when thirty eyeballs fixed on my face.


They waited for me to do something, anything.


Mauri! Arau Mike.


Saying hello and my name was all I had. The eyeballs did not blink. The awkwardness of the situation somehow made me even more exhausted. Through interpretive dance, I asked for permission to go to sleep. Again, the eyeballs stayed put.


Silence.


I left.


As I laid in the mosquito net, I heard the family laugh. I wished to have been able to understand them and tell them how thankful I was for everything. That I was happy to meet them, that I wanted to be the best adopted son I could be. But, I couldn’t.


I said a prayer.


I thought of mom and dad.


I fell asleep.

Photo Credit: Atiia Tokantekaai - RIL

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©2020 by Michael Roman