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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Unsympathetic Radio Gods

After completing college, I returned home to Cincinnati for the summer. As I lounged around the house before heading to my summer job at a local sports bar and grill, the distinct sound of a delivery truck's diesel engine broke the tranquility. For nearly eight months, I had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of a package, oscillating between fear, excitement, disbelief, and anxiety. At last, the moment had arrived. As the diesel engine ceased, the doorbell chimed, signaling the long-awaited delivery.


Filled with a surge of nervous energy, I hastened to the front door, catching a glimpse of the delivery truck driver walking away from the package left on the doorstep. "Thank you!" I called out appreciatively as I knelt to retrieve it. The weighty box was tightly wrapped, hinting at the significance of its contents. With anticipation bubbling inside me, I carried it through the short corridor to the heart of the house, where I would unveil my Peace Corps assignment.


I had applied for an education volunteer position during my senior year, following the advice of recruiters who suggested that the start of my final collegiate year was an opportune time to begin the application process, considering it could take up to a year to complete. It had been almost exactly a year since I first encountered the Peace Corps at a festival in Hamilton, OH. For a brief moment, I simply held the package, gazing at it in disbelief. Then, with trembling hands, I tore it open to reveal a folder containing a detailed country description and a letter bearing life-altering news.


"Kiribati?" I muttered to myself, puzzled. Where on earth was Kiribati? The realization dawned on me that I hadn't been given the opportunity to choose my destination. Peace Corps had made the decision for me, considering factors such as health, skills, and availability.


The reasoning behind the first factor was clear; if volunteers had medical conditions that couldn't be managed in a particular country, they wouldn't be sent there. As for skills, it was a matter of what each volunteer brought to the table. With my degree in elementary education, I was eligible for a teacher-trainer role. Lastly, availability played a crucial role. Wanting to savor one final summer at home, I had indicated my availability starting from fall 2000.


It was a bit daunting to realize that my fate was determined by these criteria, but I couldn't deny the excitement and anticipation building within me as I prepared for this unexpected journey to a place I'd only just begun to learn about.


Based on the criteria outlined, I was presented with three regional service opportunities: Africa, Central Europe, or the Pacific Islands. Despite grappling with severe motion sickness, fish allergies, and a distaste for hot and humid climates, the Pacific was deemed the most suitable match for both my timeline and the country's requirements. Determined not to let this unique chance slip away, I concurred with the recruiter's assessment and eagerly accepted a Pacific assignment. My knowledge of the Pacific was limited to glimpses of Hawaii on television shows like Wheel of Fortune and snapshots from my sister's honeymoon in Waikiki the year prior. However, I was well aware that these images hardly represented the reality of where I would soon find myself.


The moment of truth arrived when I received the official invitation letter. It was a triumphant realization – I had made it! Finally, I could provide a concrete answer to those incessant inquiries about my post-graduation plans: I was leaving the country! Yet, amidst the excitement, a logical question surfaced: where exactly was The Republic of Kiribati? Hastily, I delved into the package, craving more insight into my future home.


Among the documents was a map of the Pacific Ocean, dotted with islands scattered across the Equator, one of which was circled with the caption 'your assigned country.' Additional materials described Kiribati's population of fewer than 90,000 people, boasting a high literacy rate and a youthful demographic, spread across 33 islands totaling 811 square kilometers, surrounded by vast oceanic resources. As I perused the assignment details accompanying my travel documents to San Francisco, the reality of leaving Ohio sunk in, though the destination remained a mystery.


Lost in daydreams of a tropical island paradise, I arrived at work that morning with my invitation package in hand, eager to share the news with everyone. During breaks, I seized every opportunity to sneak away to empty booths, devouring as much information as I could about my assignment and its people. Despite my efforts, information about Kiribati remained elusive, driving me to scour the internet relentlessly for any tidbits I could unearth.


As I struggled to wrap my head around the impending adventure, a more immediate challenge loomed: packing. With Peace Corps limiting me to just two bags for two years of service, the daunting task of condensing my life into 140 pounds seemed insurmountable. Suggestions from my mom, like stocking up on toilet paper and Pepto-Bismol, felt impractical given the weight constraints and customs regulations.


Meanwhile, my dad, ever the pragmatic engineer, remained skeptical about my decision to join the Peace Corps. Despite my lack of applications for domestic positions, he insisted that at least one interview would lead to a local job, where I could earn a steady income like a "normal" person.


It wasn't until we sat at the airport, facing the reality of my imminent departure, that the gravity of the situation truly hit us both. Boarding a plane bound for the other side of the world was surreal, especially for someone with a fear of flying like me. Yet, despite the uncertainties and challenges ahead, the excitement of embarking on this extraordinary journey overshadowed any apprehension.


***


In 1997, we mourned the passing of my maternal grandmother, Mona, the daughter of Jose and Cruzita (Cruz), in El Paso, Texas. Although I had spent much of my childhood flying due to my dad's job, my aversion to air travel was solidified during this particular trip. It stemmed from watching a harrowing movie called "Alive," based on the true story of a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed into a mountain en route to a tournament. The graphic portrayal of survival, including resorting to cannibalism, left a deep impact, leading me to swear off flying altogether.


Refusing to board a plane, my father, sister, and I embarked on a 3,076-mile journey from Ohio to Texas. Somewhere between Fort Worth and Odessa, the consequences of our decision became starkly apparent. In our haste, we had forgotten to pack music for the trip, leaving us reliant on the whims of desert radio stations to break the monotony of the Texas landscape. In the wee hours of the morning, our attempts to find a new station only yielded static, while one repetitive country song and a commercial for medicated itch cream provided a surreal soundtrack to our journey. As the song's chorus lamented loss and the commercial promised relief from every imaginable itch, the novelty quickly wore off.


Our week in El Paso was spent shuttling between homes, churches, cemeteries, and back again. Driving allowed us to transport sentimental items for my mom that would have been too costly to carry on a flight. Equipping our vehicle with a CD player for the return trip, we stocked up on a diverse selection of non-country music, breaking my vow against air travel in the process.


***


Sitting in the airport terminal with my family – my mother, father, sister, and one-year-old nephew – I sensed their mixed emotions, each silently hoping I'd abandon my illogical vow against flying. But fate had other plans. As the door of the boarding ramp swung open and an airline employee called for our boarding passes, a wave of emotions engulfed us.


As I rose to embrace my family, my dad's unexpected outburst shattered the somber atmosphere. His loud cry reverberated through the terminal, echoing the disbelief and suppressed hope that perhaps I would change my mind about flying.


Caught off guard by his uncharacteristic display of emotion, I felt a pang of embarrassment and didn't want to expose my own insecurities. I resolved to hold back my tears until I passed the boarding ramp's turn, where I would no longer be visible. Handing my ticket to the airline employee, tears welled up in my eyes. With one final wave, I proceeded down the ramp, tears streaming down my face the moment I turned the corner.


In that moment of vulnerability, I heard someone else sobbing behind me. Glancing back, I saw a young girl, around my age, wiping her eyes with a tissue. By chance, I asked if she was also joining the Peace Corps. With a nod, she confirmed, revealing she was headed to a country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – a place called Kiribati.


Katie's words struck a chord with me. Beyond the name, I knew nothing about the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean or the nations it housed. My understanding of Pacific peoples and their rich histories was limited, and I was ill-prepared to deconstruct the complexities of my assignment. All I knew was a desire to contribute to making the world a better place.


It wasn't until two years into my service that I developed a genuine academic interest in the Pacific region. Looking back, I realized how this knowledge could have enriched my understanding of the journey I embarked upon.


***


In Micronesia, storytelling holds profound significance, transcending mere entertainment to become a conduit for cultural transmission and identity formation. It bridges the gap between past and future, serving as a timeless link between generations. Storytelling in this context is not merely a narrative but a vehicle for sharing secrets, power, and knowledge, while also defining one's place within the community. It symbolizes meaning, connection, and purpose, embodying an intimate relationship between individuals, their surroundings, and the passage of time.


Yet, when my host mother initially asked me to share a story, I was devoid of such insights. My mind wandered to questions of origin and heritage – where did we, as Kiribati people, originate, and how did we arrive at our present state? With my background in education, she expected me to possess ample knowledge on the topic. However, my response – a vague reference to Southeast Asia – left me feeling inadequate, prompting us to swiftly transition to dinner. Since then, I have endeavored to equip myself with a more informed understanding to better address her initial inquiry.


The Pacific basin, spanning one-third of the Earth's surface, holds a geological history as vast as its expanse. Some 200 million years ago, during the era of Pangaea, all continents were unified before tectonic forces began their relentless rearrangement. The East Pacific Rise, acting as Earth's conveyor belt, gradually pushed continents apart, while the Mid-Atlantic Ridge drove the Americas westward, overriding the Pacific Plate in the process. This dynamic interplay of tectonic plates sculpted the outer edges of the Pacific plate, giving rise to the diverse island chains dotting the region today.


Throughout the Pacific, various tectonic plates continue to shape and reshape the landscape, creating continental and oceanic islands through hot spot activity. This perpetual movement has led to the formation of island chains and archipelagos, with the Hawai'ian Archipelago serving as a prominent example of hot spot activity at work.


Darwin's theory of coral atoll evolution offers insight into the lifecycle of volcanic islands. Beginning as large, rugged landmasses protected by barrier reefs, these islands undergo weathering and erosion over time, eventually subsiding below sea level to form enclosed lagoons surrounded by barrier reefs – the hallmark of coral atolls. This dynamic process, influenced by factors such as sea level temperature and salinity, shapes the diverse and ever-changing environment of the Pacific basin, setting the stage for my service and exploration of its rich cultural tapestry.


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