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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

It Begins

I walked outside to start my first full day in Kiribati. A local newspaper with a picture of four new Peace Corps trainees awaited me at the door.

Twenty-Seven New Peace Corps Volunteers, Here to help! Read the headline. I could not understand anything other than that since the rest of the story was in the local language. Flipping through the paper to the English weather section, the weekend's outlook was “fine” with temperatures reaching up to 33ºC. I had no idea what 33ºC felt like, but I guessed it was hot since the previous day was hot. Hot seemed to be the new fine. I left the paper in the room and made my way down.

We learned about common adjustment issues that volunteers faced, and the many cultural differences between Americans and I-Kiribati. Unlike us where individualism is prized, the I-Kiribati are collective in nature and sought the good of the group above the good of self. Just being in Kiribati with minimal interaction with anyone others, I sensed I-Kiribati were some of the kindest people I had ever met.

Busses honked as I walked down the street. Drivers smiled and waved. Vehicles were so sparse, I could hardly imagine a traffic jam in Kiribati. After a while, I got the impression that the honks meant something entirely different than they did in Ohio. Some drivers stopped to talk when I waved at them. Neither they nor I spoke the same language - such beautiful people, I thought. Busses would leave me on the side of the road with jubilant bouts of laughter and smiles from seated passengers inside.

Later in the week, I learned what my actions caused. Much like hailing taxis in the city, waving at busses signaled drivers to stop. If a bus honked, they were full. When busses stopped, I was expected to board, and when I didn't, confusion filled the air.

To teach us bus etiquette, Peace Corps planned a field trip to the capital village. Several partially filled buses with passengers stopped. The passengers moved to make room for us. However, our trainer thought it best to waited for an empty bus so we could ride together. Eventually, an empty red bus rolled up! Yes! Our trainer yelled, a red bullet!

Red buses, known for their speed and sound, were the newest transports in Kiribati. Like a sexy mustang, these were the busses everyone wanted to ride. Though new, this red bullet did not come with seat belts. Initially unnerved by the lack of western safety standards my thoughts were overshadowed by the impressive scenery flying by at unknown speeds on a narrow causeway with ocean and lagoon just inches from our feet. I tried not to think about the consequences of a blown tire, fallen coconut or a random dog as the cool breezes from cracked windows circulated the smells of cigarettes, perfume, sweat, and fish; all the while listening to an imported techno remix of Achy Breaky Heart by Billy Ray Cyrus.

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