A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: gabbyfo

First Impressions

week 1 of orientation

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!


Posted by gabbyfo 17:01 Comments (0)

Opening statement and three days across the globe

Hello all! I’m not really sure if there is a “right” way to keep a blog…. So my plan over the next year is to use this piece of the internet as a sort of inner monologue. Ideally it will end up changing and evolving as I do throughout this adventure, but for now please anticipate nonsense anecdotes and thoughts that are swimming in my brain.

So, first things first, what adventure am I referring to? Over the next year I will have the honor of living in Rita, Majuro in the Marshall Islands. At this point I honestly have very few expectations about what this year will bring. I will be teaching at the Marshall Islands High School and trying to share whatever wisdom I have in me (hopefully there is something in there worth passing along). I have a lot of experience working with kids, however, the oldest child I’ve worked with extensively has been 10… So at this point I’m pretty terrified of the daunting task of teaching a gaggle of high school students, especially ones that have spent their whole lives growing up in a culture that I am only beginning to experience. I’m 5’2”. Some of them are going to be bigger than me. I make a lot of jokes, bad jokes, a lot of them. Perfect for a younger crowd, and perhaps not as captivating for a more mature Marshallese audience. The general advice I’ve gotten from friends and family is to hide any fear I have and exude confidence from the beginning. So I will try my best and keep my fingers crossed. I have a feeling that my students will end up teaching me as much, if not more, than I am able to teach them. I have no idea what this year will have in store for me but I look forward to every wonderful friendship and every difficulty as an opportunity to learn something about myself and the world.

Anyway, at this point my adventure has consisted almost entirely of traveling. Before this trip I had not really traveled far out of my time zone and (excluding vacationing in Jamaica for a week in 2009) I have never left North America. The Marshall Islands is far away. SUPER far away. It is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and is 16 hours ahead of my home time zone in New York. So I will be living a day in the future from my family and friends back at home (I’ll be sure to give you guys a heads up if the world is ending and give you the final scores of sports games a day before they happen in America, as long as I can collect half of the gambling winnings). Needless to say, I have had a long few days of traveling and have no concept of time at the moment.

On Monday I drove from Albany to Boston with my generous father who agreed to listen to Fiddler on the Roof and Wicked on the way (what a guy) and then met up with my fellow adventurer Erin Girard. She has been a joy the past few days and has made this transition so much less overwhelming, I am very grateful that our paths led us both to this program at the same time. We were supposed to take a plane from Boston to LA at 7:20, but unfortunately our flight got delayed 2 hours. As ‘glass half full’ kind of people (literally) we took this opportunity to drink over priced airport beer and catch up on our lives since we left Geneseo and our thoughts about our lives over the next year. We had to part ways during the flight and suffered our own respective hardships during the ride. Erin had the bad luck of sitting next to the token screaming baby, and I was given the task of trying to survive a 6 hour plane ride next to a sleeping man with the most disgusting breath I have ever come in contact with (and I lived with Joey Visconti). Which honestly doesn’t sound that bad, but considering that he slept with his mouth wide open pointed at my face for a majority of the trip I was pleasantly surprised that I managed to stay conscious the whole time. Finally we landed in LA and met up with Erin’s friend Keith, who was such an incredibly kind and generous host. He insisted that Erin and I sleep in the bed while he slept on the couch because “there’s no memory foam mattresses in the Marshall Islands.” I thought, Fair enough, and didn’t put up much of an argument. The next day we woke up and drove with Keith to work in Hollywood. He is currently working on the set of the t.v show “Castle” and was able to give us a personal tour of the full studio. The attention to detail in each of the sets was so incredible and made the actor in me quite jealous of the people who get to work in an environment like that every day. We even got to see some props from the show “Lost,” so needless to say, it was a pretty awesome tour. We also got to bop around the shops in a less touristy area of Hollywood and had a great time. First of all, there was literally not a single cloud in the sky all day. It was amazing, and kind of unreal how clear the sky was there. Also there were adorable, small, fluffy dogs everywhere you looked.

After exploring the surrounding Hollywood area for a couple hours we were off to LAX to meet most of the other volunteers that we will be working with this year and switch time zones yet again. I was pretty anxious about meeting everyone but those nerves were quickly calmed when everyone was so friendly and outgoing. I’m excited to get to know them and learn about all the amazing things they have done and have plans to do. Our plane left LA at 7:30 and flew into a golden sunset, heading toward Honolulu, Hawaii. Our flight got in at 10:30 in Hawaiian time and we had to be back at the airport at a charming 4:30 am. Woof. We woke up at 3:00 and groggily enjoyed our last shower for a while. (We will be doing “bucket showers’ over the next month…which is exactly what it sounds like.) It took the hotel shuttle 3 trips to get all 30 volunteers to the airport but eventually we all made it safe and sound. While I didn’t get the chance to see much of Hawaii the airport was surprisingly lovely. For the most part all hallways were open and let in a refreshing tropical breeze. It made me want to stay for longer on our way back a year from now to see more of the island (if the airport is beautiful…I imagine the rest of the island is pretty impressive). Also, as my close friends will tell you, I LOVE airport art. I was actually planning on having an airport art section of this blog post but I was disappointed to find very little art in the Boston and LAX airport. Hawaii however had beautiful statues and a beautiful mosaic of constellations on the main floor (WOO!) and some recreations of the islands natural foliage. Overall, the airport absolutely convinced me to explore Hawaii more. Then we were off to our final destination! Along with a few dozen Marshallese natives rocking some sick muumuu’s and offering constant friendly greetings. I ended up chatting briefly with the flight attendant who actually grew up in the city that I will be teaching in. When I asked her for some “insider tips or island secrets” she told me that every Sunday the community has a picnic at one of the islands and that you can hop on any boat and go eat and mingle with everyone. She warned me that there are no malls or establishments that I am used to in America and I quickly proclaimed that I would rather have a picnic than a mall any day. So I’m pretty excited for that!

The pilot announced that we would be landing soon in the Marshall Islands and immediately we all got excited and starting peering out the window trying to snag a glimpse of the place we would be spending the next 11 months. We were surprised when all we saw was the vast blue ocean that we had been flying over for what felt like forever. (I knew that most of the world was covered in ocean..but I don’t think I truly appreciated what that meant until this trip. WOW there is A LOT of ocean) Slowly we starting to see the thinnest strip of land I have ever seen in my life with small ant sized islands surrounding it. You could feel the excitement on the plane rise, especially from the world teach volunteers who were all trying to snap the perfect picture behind the flight attendants backs (“ALL ELECTRONIC DEVICES AWAY PLEASE”), making some Marshallese enemies before we even landed..great. I could feel the air stick to you as soon as I stepped onto the stairs leading out of the plane. The breeze made the heat feel warm and welcoming and the smell of sea air was intoxicating. Walking through Marshallese customs consisted of a man sitting at fold out table looking at my passport and welcoming me to the island. Then a forklift manually (and slowly) moved our luggage from the plane to the waiting area while I started to sweat like I have never sweat before. I didn’t realize that the tops of my feet were even capable of sweating. 10 minutes after landing and I was learning new things about myself already. I walked around the near by area and was overwhelmed with the beauty of this tropical oasis. The island is so thin that you literally can see ocean on either side of you at all times. The water is the clearest blue green I have ever seen, and SO warm. Even the trees are amazing, palm trees with coconuts ripe for the picking and so many others …if I knew more about trees I would tell you what they are, maybe in a few weeks I will compose a more educated tree post. Eventually we all piled onto a school bus with our luggage and headed for the orientation site, where my 3 days of traveling would come to a close for the most part. With that I am closing this travel post and will write more about life here in due time.

Yokwe! (An interchangeable word for Goodbye, Hello and Love  )

Posted by gabbyfo 16:58 Archived in Marshall Islands Comments (0)

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