The following week was spent learning to live without electricity, running water, and modern conveniences most of us took for granted. Language classes were held in impromptu beachside classrooms under the shade of coconut trees and pandanus groves. In the evenings, we lathered up with mosquito repellent before walking down the dirt road to see the setting sun bounce fuschia rays off deep blue Pacific basin waters. Vikings of the sunset floating briskly across the water in canoes at speeds faster than the flying fish they hunted.
Our final night arrived before any of us were ready. Another bootaki, but this time, in farewell. Walking home from the celebration, sudden winds rushed in. Trees rocked. Seas roughened and rain, like a desert haboob, crashed down. Sopping wet, we waited inside the house for the storm to pass. Nine o’clock, ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, midnight.
The worst came in the early morning.
Winds took on the sound of a moving freight train. Seas roared filled with Poseidon’s rage. Grasping a flashlight with both hands, I flipped the switch and secured it in between the intricately woven coconut spines that separated us from the outside.
What I saw I would never forget.
Waves, rising and crashing deep into the land. Rain, flying in every direction. Water rushing in as though its sole purpose were to flood and destroy. Winds lifted us. Whoosh. Up. Whoosh. Down. Sprawled out, I prayed our combined weight would hold the house to the ground.
Dogs and cats took shelter under our bodies, and I am sure the rats hunkered down by the many freshly laid soap scraps.
The disaster that felt like forever passed before the sun rose, and at daybreak, we emerged from our hiding spots. Some houses were missing walls, others — roofs. Fallen coconut trees rested throughout the school’s compound. Corrugated tin roofs, blown from school rooms, wrapped themselves around remaining standing trees. Outside, the village was busy. Men were collecting fallen coconut spines and pandanus leaves for women weaving new thatch. Young boys adjusted and installed the new thatch high above the women. Collectively, the village worked to repair what had been destroyed hours before. They did not wait for transnational disaster relief organizations. They somehow knew the Red Cross was not coming. Collective action to repair and recover together seemed nothing less than instinctive.
“The WE is bigger than the I here.” It was Mikaio. He found me staring at the scene. “We value the collective group, not the individual self. The storm impacted everyone. Everyone must help everyone else. I know this is different for you, but this is how we are here.”
It was as simple as that. Again, I questioned why I was there. How was I to help a society that seemed to have it more put together than my own?
This lesson of the goodness of humanity, I hoped never to forget.
Tropical Storm's Aftermath