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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

The Long Walk Home

The December seasonal storms brought about significant disruptions to daily life on the island, affecting everything from mail delivery to crop production. When I first arrived, the landscape resembled a desert island, parched and dry. However, nearly a year later, the transformation was remarkable—the once barren land had become a lush, green, and soggy jungle, teeming with mosquitoes.

The onset of the mini monsoon season further compounded the challenges, causing disruptions to both air and sea travel. Countless flights to Tamana were canceled, resulting in an entire month of halted transportation, dashing hopes for receiving Christmas packages that year. Additionally, the rough ocean swells made it impossible for small cargo skiffs to unload ships, forcing vessels to bypass our island altogether. The abnormal sea activity also hindered regular fishing trips by canoes, further impacting the local livelihoods.

Amidst these challenges, my second Christmas in Kiribati became even more memorable than the first, characterized by the resilience of the islanders in the face of adversity and the spirit of camaraderie that prevailed despite the hardships.

My Tamana family received Christmas bootaki invitations from both the northern and southern villages. However, since we couldn't split ourselves to attend both celebrations simultaneously, a decision was made for the children, including myself, to celebrate Christmas in Barabuka, the southern village, while the adults celebrated in Bakarawa, the northern village. This arrangement marked the first time I participated in Christmas celebrations as a family representative, a departure from my usual role as an honored guest.

Initially, being treated as an honored guest had its appeal, but over time, I grew weary of the status. The responsibilities and expectations that came with it often felt burdensome, and I longed for a deeper sense of belonging and connection, which I hoped to find through participating as a family representative.

As an honored guest, I found myself often seated alone at the forefront of the maneaba. There, I received the privilege of choosing my food first and was expected to deliver a speech and offer a gift of money. Over the course of several months, this role became a source of secret resentment for me. I longed to be less of a focal point in both everyday life and formal celebrations. However, amidst these feelings, I found solace in the fact that Zenida was consistently honored at these gatherings. Although she was celebrating Christmas with her host family in the northern village, I initially felt a sense of loneliness until my mother reminded me that I attended these events as a cherished member of our family, not merely as an honored guest.

As dusk settled over the compound, Uncle Ariri's truck arrived, its horn blaring as he called out from the cab. Immediately, the attendees of the Bakarawa celebration rushed to the truck, clamoring into the back. I waited expectantly, ready to join for the journey to the Northern village. However, with his customary smile, Uncle Ariri informed me that he would return for the guests from the southern village. Opting to pass the time, I decided to visit Meeki's house while awaiting his return.

From the bwia, I overheard my siblings receiving instructions from our parents. "Make sure you watch what he eats! Don't let him eat fish! And don't forget his plate and spoon!" Eriti, my eldest sister, emerged first, taking a seat beside me on the bwia. "We'll walk; it's not far. Let the older ones ride on the truck," she suggested. Indeed, nothing on Tamana was far. We patiently awaited the arrival of Bweni, my younger sister, who was still getting ready.

Both girls had doused themselves in the body spray I had brought back for them from Tarawa, while my brother, Oto, emanated the scent of cologne I had brought from the States. Together, we set off through the bush, dressed up and enveloped in the fragrances of a department store's beauty counter.

As we made our way, the sky suddenly opened up, drenching us in yet another mini monsoon. Our leisurely stroll transformed into a brisk pace to seek shelter. By the time we reached the maneaba, Bweni's carefully arranged hairpins and delicate floral adornments were in disarray. Oto's crisp shirt was now thoroughly soaked, and Eriti's elegant lava lava was speckled with mud.

Despite our bedraggled appearance, there was one thing that remained unchanged - our pleasant fragrance, a testament to the body spray and cologne we had adorned ourselves with earlier. In the end, it seemed that smelling good was the only thing that truly mattered!

The Christmas festivities this year unfolded against the backdrop of a year marked by peculiar weather patterns. A prolonged drought, succeeded by relentless storms, had left the island struggling with insufficient food supplies, both locally grown and imported. The saturated ground hampered crop growth and made cooking a challenging task. With cargo ships unable to reach the island for an extended period, any crops that did manage to grow were swiftly consumed.

Amidst these challenges, the celebration took on a different tone for me personally. For the first time, I found myself seated with my family on the outskirts of the maneaba. It was a moment of profound belonging, a sense of finally fitting in. Yet, like all moments of fleeting happiness, it proved to be just that - fleeting.

The feasting tables were adorned with half-cooked pigs, semi-raw breadfruits, and raw rock melons. To enhance the flavor, a few bottles of soy sauce and plenty of Tabasco bottles were strategically placed next to the trays closest to the elder males and missionaries. Given the co-op's soy sauce shortage since November, it was evident that someone had thoughtfully saved these condiments specifically for Christmas.

A purchasing error made nearly a year ago resulted in the unexpected delivery of two hundred bottles of Tabasco sauce to Tamana. Surprisingly, Zenida and I were the only regular purchasers of the sauce from the store. The vibrant color and abundance of the bottles added an unexpected splash to the festive tables. I hadn't anticipated people taking them, but to my surprise, Christmas in Tamana took on a Mexican flair with the abundance of Tabasco sauce. By the time it was our turn to visit the table, the soy sauce had vanished, but the Tabasco sauce remained plentiful. I decided to add some to the pork I had cut from the pig. However, upon returning to my seat and taking a few bites, I realized that the meat was undercooked, and I instantly felt ill. I excused myself from the table, promising my siblings that I would return shortly.

For over a year, I had been grappling with bowel issues in Kiribati, so this bout of discomfort was nothing new to me. However, as I walked to the roadside, it became apparent that it would be some time before I could return to the festivities. Slowly, I began the journey back to my house, each step taken with great caution. Soon, I realized that I was contending with a severe case of explosive diarrhea. The arduous walk home was made even more challenging by the raging storm. While the inclement weather posed an additional obstacle, it spared me the embarrassment of encountering anyone along the way. With every step, my sole focus was on holding it in. "Please, God," I prayed fervently as I navigated through the southern village, "if there's one thing I want for Christmas, please let me make it to my roki."

As I reached my house, the realization struck me like a bolt of lightning: I had left my keys behind in the maneaba. Faced with desperation, I resorted to breaking into my own home. With trembling hands, I attempted to light my lantern with matches that had been rendered useless by the relentless downpour. After rummaging through my belongings, I finally located a dry pack of matches and managed to ignite the lantern. However, in my haste, the lantern slipped from my grasp as I attempted to place the glass cover over the flame. Within moments, the fire was extinguished, leaving only the faint glow of the moon to illuminate the interior of the house.

As I assessed the damage, I realized that my legs and feet were riddled with glass shards, and the incessant buzzing of mosquito colonies filled the air around my pit latrine. With a grimace of pain, I began to extract the glass from my wounded flesh, all the while acutely aware of my neighbor's proximity. I could only hope that he hadn't overheard the commotion and wouldn't come over with a flashlight to investigate. I was in no condition to entertain guests on Christmas Eve.

With my primary concern being reaching the safety of my roki, it seemed like a Christmas miracle when I finally succeeded. After painstakingly cleaning up the messy aftermath – blood, excrement, sweat – and hoping fervently for a dengue-free outcome, I retreated to the dubious sanctuary of my scorpion-infested sleeping net. Despite the discomfort and the bizarre turn of events, I found myself chuckling at the absurdity of the evening, overwhelmed with gratitude for my safety and the familiarity of home, even if it was thousands of miles away from my other home.

It was heartwarming to hear that my siblings had checked on me, even though I had missed their visit while I was asleep. As I recounted the events of the previous night to my mum, she couldn't help but laugh. Then, in her characteristic mix of concern and love, she scolded me for not letting my brother select the cooked meat for me and expressed worry about my thin frame, urging me to eat more to gain strength. Despite the scolding, I couldn't help but feel grateful for my Tamana mum's care and affection.

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