week 1 of orientation
24.07.2014 - 27.07.2014 86 °F
Wow, it has been a very packed 4 days in the Marshall Islands. Our orientation site is one of the elementary schools in Rairok, Majuro (the town Erin is placed in), which is on the opposite end of Majuro from my future placement. My fellow volunteers and I were split into three classrooms with a single mat for each of us. The electricity was out across the entire island when we arrived so there were no fans, no flushing toilets, and obviously no lights. Luckily the breeze is constant and makes the scorching sun much more manageable. As soon as we arrived a huge number of local school children had congregated at the school to get a look at these new crazy foreigners. The kids have been so cute and friendly. While it has been fairly impossible to communicate verbally the universal language of laughter and physical movement has made communication fun and effective. The hardest part is easily getting used to saying “no” when they ask for the food we are eating or the water we are drinking or kicking them out of our rooms as soon as they enter. It sound cruel but as soon as we entered the grounds we were told that the local kids are fed and cared for and will try to get whatever they can out of us because they know we have it. Also, as adorable as they are, theft is an issue and maintaining boundaries between what is ours and what is theirs is very important. That being said, it is not easy to constantly say no when my natural instinct is to share what I have with these kids. That is definitely going to take some getting used to. In particular I have befriended the young girl who lives across the street named Ita. We ran around and taught each other dance moves until she and her outrageously outgoing younger brother were kicked out at 8:00. The next morning she came around asking for me and I have found myself to be attached to her for most of my free time. (She is certainly not making this whole “saying no” thing any easier. I already love her and I have known her for about 24 hours.)
I’m really enjoying getting to know all of my fellow volunteers and their different backgrounds. We have a volunteer from England, one from Scotland, one from Vietnam, two from Canada and a whole bunch from Michigan (actually 4…but still that’s a lot…wooo Michigan). It’s really beautiful being surrounded by 30 people who are all passionate about working with children and being active members in contributing to a developing country. Anytime children are around everyone is excited to play and joke and get to know them. Everyone is kind and supportive and inclusive of one another, it is the furthest thing from “clicky” that I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of. I can tell that it is going to be somewhat sad to say goodbye to 85% of them when we all separate and head to our assigned placements.
The climate is something that I’m trying to get used to. It is HOT here. Pretty much as soon as the sun rises it is blistering hot. However, when it is breezy (which is often is) the air feels refreshing and comfortable. On days when it isn’t breezy…it is pretty exhausting; Especially since we spend a lot of our time in a cramped elementary school classroom learning cultural customs, the Marshallese language, teaching strategies and the process of cultural adjustment. Somehow two ceiling fans in a classroom with a little over 30 people in it, isn’t cutting it. We are all doing our best to stay hydrated and drink a lot of water. Unfortunately the Marshall Islands is also going through a drought, so conserving water is also of utmost importance. I was anticipating a lot of rain, but have been surprised about the scarce rainfall. It does rain pretty much every day, but it will rain for about 10 minutes and then stop for the next few hours. The rain is a welcomed relief. Apparently the locals hate it, but all of us sweaty westerners play in the rain every chance we get. It’s also usually pretty light. The running water in the school is not safe to drink for our weak, western stomachs. Of course I had my first moment of idiocy when we first arrived. As soon as we got off the bus I was dying of thirst and filled my water bottle up with water from the sink, I had gotten about ¼ of the way through my bottle by the time our field director told us not to drink the water. DUH we shouldn’t drink the water. That’s like the one joke I consistently heard from everyone before I left. It was just a stupid, instinctual moment that was my first wake up call. Day 1 and I was already acting clueless. Of course I dumped the rest of the bottle and filled it with the safe water provided by World Teach. Then I spent most of the first day freaking out that I was going to die or end up in the hospital and lose all potential World Teach friends because I was such a clueless dummy. Luckily nothing whatsoever happened to me. I felt fine all day and continued to feel fine afterward. I was lucky, and I was hyperaware of staying safe from there on out. There was water coolers in the two rooms that I wasn’t in that were full of water left over from the school year. A lot of volunteers unknowingly drank the old water, thinking it was safe, and one of the girls ended up getting sick and left for a couple days to rest in air conditioning. Long story relatively short, I lucked out.
There is a deaf program that World Teach started a few years ago and 5 of our volunteers are deaf and exclusively communicate with sign language. It’s awesome. We’ve all been trying really hard to learn sign, they have been so patient and helpful. I’m loving learning sign. A few of them are teaching in the same High School that I am and I’m hoping that we live in the same place so that I can keep learning after we leave orientation. Also we started learning Marshallese. It is hard and unlike any language I have ever heard, but it is so beautiful and I am very excited to get better at it. My groups language teach is a high school student named Patsy who is just as snarky and sarcastic as any high school senior in America. She’s hilarious and I love her. She kept going off the syllabus and telling us slang that the kids use. I’m really looking forward to our next lesson.
We also had some Marshallese culture lessons that were not totally what I expected. The girls definitely have more to worry about than the boys. We have to keep our knees covered at all times. Apparently showing your knees is the equivalent of flashing a boob in the states…. We also need to wear a slip if you can see the sun through the dress….which is true for pretty much any dress…great. We also need to keep our shoulders covered. Especially because we are attracting attention as Westerners, if we don’t adhere to these customs it will result in a lot more cat calls and attention from the local men and some judging from the older women. Also it is basically required to go to church. However, it sounds like a pretty fun community event that is packed with fun and bonding so I’m looking forward to checking it out. The thing that has been most surprising is the dating culture here. Since everyone knows everyone here and has grown up with them the Marshallese don’t have the same dating scene as we do. Apparently the boys will go to a girls room at night, throw some rocks at her window and travel into the jungle, chop down some palm tree leaves and …. Get it on. Premarital sex seems to be a very normal event in the islands and teen pregnancy is very common. In fact apparently the locals will assume that you are pregnant if you go on a walk with someone of the opposite sex. While safe sex is hardly mentioned it seems that the dating culture is much faster and complicated than any of us are used to… (Don’t worry mom, I’m planning on avoiding any and all “Jambos” (long walks in the jungle). I’m also planning on setting up a workshop in the high school that explains Sexual health to try and expand the knowledge for the girls in my community. (hopefully someone shows up).
I finally went swimming yesterday and it was wonderful. The coral is super sharp but luckily my wonderful mother insisted that I get expensive outdoor sandals with a closed toe and hard bottom and it has made my water adventures painless. The water is the warmest temperature I have ever swam in and is clear as can be. I can’t believe that I’m going to be spending a year splashing around in this tropical wonderland. Speaking of water… I have yet to discuss the joy of our shower situation. We are taking bucket showers, which entails waiting forever for the tiniest stream of water to fill up a giant bucket and hauling it up to our bathroom. Then taking a pitcher and pouring it over yourself, soaping up and shaving what you can, then grabbing that pitcher for another douse and a half. I was anticipating this to be a pretty terrible experience. Surprisingly the cold water is a welcomed relief from the hot air and really not nearly miserable as I anticipated. The worst part is walking on that slimy wet floor, but I brought shower flip flops and am cheating the system. I asked my field director about the shower situation in the dorms in Rita and I was told that every room has their own individual bathroom… so I will be living like a Queen in a few weeks.
A few of us decided to take a walk last night through the town and it was so pleasant. The air smells sweet and the people are out late and so friendly. Apparently we are the talk of the town so we attract a lot of attention but its been so fun getting to meet people. Other than the 100000 guard dogs at every house it feels like a safe and welcoming environment. Unfortunately they also think that because we are “Ripalles” (All us pale folk) that we are the richest people in the world. Last night we had a pretty upsetting situation. Overall we have been pretty adamant about keeping our room doors locked whenever there is no one in the room, but last night someone accidentally left one of the room doors unlocked and one of rooms was broken into when everyone was sleeping. One volunteer lost his smart phone and another volunteer (who had arrived late and was experiencing day one of the Marshall Islands) had $500 cash stolen. Needless to say everyone was shaken up and felt horrible. I guess our little compound isn’t as safe as we thought. I think we are going to be even more aware of locking everything at all times. We all decided to donate $10 each to give Aras and Chris some money to try to help out a little, obviously it is no substitute for their loss but we all realize that could have happened to any of us.
On a happier note it is finally Sunday and we have the day off. So we got the chance to take a cab into town ($1 no matter how far you go per person. WOO). We stopped at an internet café and threw down $5 for 60 minutes of happy email time for family and friends. I still haven’t changed my clock on my computer so I can see what time it is over in Albany. Apparently it is 7:39 pm on Saturday back at home and 11:39 am on Sunday in Majuro. The time change keeps surprising me every time. (But if you guys are online between like 6:00-11:00 Satruday nights I’ll probably be on at some point over the next 3 weeks. My Wifi time will definitely increase when I move to Rita but for now I’m just happy to have something. Anyway, at this point I have written way more than I expect anyone to read so I will take a break for a bit and allow your Western eyes to rest. Please know that I am safe and happy and amongst trusted, great friends already. I honestly can’t believe that I have only been here for 4 days, it feels like I’ve been living with these people for weeks. I guess when you are in this much of a close knit, culture shock ridden situation you bond quickly. (Also the games of catch phrase and rain volleyball help). I will continue to document as many adventures as I have time for!