Welcome Home K-27!
Arriving in plenty of time, everyone made one last purchase of familiar comfort food before leaving the USA. Even though I would not celebrate it, I bought myself a package of M&Ms for my 21st birthday. Our fourteen-hour flight would cross the international dateline, skipping my birthday, and have us in Sydney two days after we departed.
Between the turbulence and taking care of another volunteer, I kept my attention on my watch. We were moving too fast as the plane's clocks switched from November 5 to November 7th. I wished myself a memorable “HAP” as my birthday disappeared. When we landed, the pilot announced our presence and personally wished me a belated happy 21st. Fellow passengers applauded and wished us luck as we headed down the aisle.
The shortest route from the United States to Kiribati is through Fiji. At the time, our government saw Fiji as an unsafe layover due to the (then) current military coup, a result of long-standing political unrest between Fijian and Indo-Fijian populations. The problems began when the British colonial government imported Indian indentured laborers to sustain the economic sector. In 1999, Mahendra Chauhry became the first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, and in opposition to his election, he and his government were overthrown by a Fijian military coup.
Because of this, we circumnavigated the Pacific via Sydney, and Melbourne Australia to Nauru to Kiribati. With each stop, we boarded smaller planes and landed on seemingly shorter runways. I began to worry more the further we traveled into the Pacific, and silently reassured myself that the American government knew what they were doing, and everything was going to be alright.
As we approached Tarawa, I looked out to see a tiny strip of land with clear blue water on one side, and dark blue water on the other. Aqua green and crystal blue colors blended in the most surprising ways. The landing strip looked too small for the 737, but what was I going to do? I had to trust the pilots’ ability to land us safely. I pressed my nose to the window and prayed for the best. Coconut treetops zoomed past my eyes. The jolting bounce from tires touching down threw my body forward and then back again as we slowed to a taxi.
People with darker brown skin than mine and bright white smiles lined the rusted chain-link fence surrounding the runway. A group of kids on bicycles watched as the plane made its way to the open-air terminal overflowing with people awaiting friends and relatives.
The cabin swelled with excitement as the "remove seatbelt" ding chimed. Females adjusted their long black hair. Kids, free from the restraint of seatbelts, jumped up and down. Fathers gathered belongings from overhead compartments. Teens sprayed perfume and cologne. I and other volunteers tried to intercept floating fragrances to make up for our multi-day lack of bathing. Everyone took their places in the aisle as all of us haphazardly gathered our overstuffed carry-ons from every unclaimed corner of the plane.
The hot steamy air filled the cabin the second the door opened. A fellow volunteer yelled, WELCOME HOME K-27! We all smiled. Kind of in disbelief, I wasn't sure how I felt about the idea of this being my new home. Regardless, I made my way towards the door, stepped into the hot, humid air and took in the moment, whispering a very timid, Mauri? (hello?)