Written by Lisa Rowan who is currently volunteering in Ine, Arno Atoll in the Marshall Islands. She is volunteering with her fiancée John Carney.
The slow days are the hardest: the Saturdays and Sundays when time slows to a crawl; when the hot sun doesn’t seem to be moving forward in the sky anymore. Sometimes I think John and I flew into a weird time warp coming out here into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Some days feel like months, and some months feel like years. Those are the times when it is easy to miss home. It is easy to feel like a fish out of water; A Seattle salmon that never belonged in these tropical waters in the first place.
As September passes into October, and October into November, there are less and less days that I feel like this, and more and more moments when I feel like we belong here on this tiny strip of land. It was within the white and green painted walls of Ine’s Protestant church that I first came to this realization: Things are getting better. I’m in a frilly red and green mumu, which looks like Christmas in dress form. John is sitting next to me in long pants, an unfortunate requirement for church in such a humid climate. As we fan ourselves with giant breadfruit tree leaves, I gaze at the community sitting around us. Half of them are asleep, slouched with their heads resting on the backs of the benches, but I know almost everyone here: Students and their parents, community grandmothers and grandfathers, fellow teachers from Ine and Japo. The pastor says something I can’t understand, then hymn books are opened and music begins. Marshallese harmonies swirl around us. I don’t understand the lyrics, nor how everyone learned to sing in such perfect harmony in the first place, but I listen as it fills the room and we try our best to hum along. It’s a very peaceful feeling, being serenaded by Ine’s church songs. More than that, it’s a feeling we belong to now. And that belongs to us.
My other favorite way of being serenaded here is by the Marshallese rain. It’s rhythm is my most familiar lullaby. Perhaps I just always feel at home in the rain, being from Seattle and all. Or perhaps some of the best memories just happen to pass in the pouring rain. Like when John and I went out to help our host brother, Noel, finish chopping open coconuts in the middle of a massive storm. (PS- the verb for that is rub-rub and it is one of my favorite Marshallese words, along with bwe-bwe – which means crazy). We were covered in dirt and completely soaked by the rain, but we all sat there anyways, using machetes to uncover the white flesh beneath each coconut’s hard shell. When we had finished the pile, John and I ran into the lagoon together. After being chilled by the rain, the tropical waters felt like a warm, salty bath I could melt into, with drops sprinkling the surface.
I felt like we belonged here amidst island-style baseball games and playing marbles in the rain, at Mama’s birthday party when all the family was dancing and we got up and joined them. I feel like we belong every time neighborhood kids just show up at our house when it gets dark because they know it is Friday movie night. I feel like I belong singing with my kindergarteners in a circle the songs they know by heart now.
It’s easy to see how dear Ine is to the people who live here. It’s a tight knit community, held together by Marshallese customs and food and church and bwebwenato (the art of conversation). We feel lucky to be welcomed into it, and with each coconut john husks and with each bucket of water I draw from the well to help with the dishes, we break way from simple being the ribelles on the island for the year. It’s not easy. On the worst of days, I feel barred from truly belonging here by a language where the d’s and t’s sound the same and the j’s and s’s get mixed up and where the dreaded ‘ng’ sound continues to evade me. Sometimes, the food feels far from anything I could enjoy and Marshallese time and communal sharing of everything seems to be a slap in the face. Some days, I would just really like to be back in my own apartment where I can make coffee whenever I want, not have to cover my shoulders and knees at all times, and finally feel clean for once.
But the days keep coming, and I keep waking up here on our Marshallese floor. I keep eating ramen and walking to school and passing out high fives to 1st graders that ask if it’s time for class at 8 am even though their class is in the afternoon. I keep walking back from school in the afternoon heat but sometimes our neighbor, Mary, will walk with me. Ever since I found out that she knows all the words to “As Long as you Love me” by the Backstreet boys I play it every time we walk home together. It’s a great dancing song. And I love to dance. So we break out in dance together. And she laughs and giggles at me as I get extra silly lip syncing into my own fist. We wave goodbye. The days keep coming. The rains as well. Church songs boom out of concrete walls every Sunday and will not stop. Little by little, step by step… we belong. And this sandy strip of land in the middle of the ocean is beckoning us to breathe in the salty air and memorize coconut lined roads. It asks us, when we are ready, to call it home.