This week on The Traveler Series meet Elayna Tekle, a travel-enthusiast who spent a year abroad teaching English in the Marshall Islands as part of a World Teach volunteer program. Here I interview Elayna on what inspired her to volunteer abroad, how she adapted to Marshallese culture and her best travel advice.
What inspires you to travel?
Curiosity about the world, adventure, a want to understand different cultures. My dad didn’t grow up in the US so a big part of me has always been interested in different ways of living. It’s important to see other perspectives in the world. If you see other cultures first hand, humans are more likely to be understanding in times of conflict.
What is your favorite destination you’ve been to so far?
I loved the Marshall Islands. I’m probably biased since I lived there for a year but it’s such a unique country and so few people have gotten to experience it, leaving it almost untouched by tourists. I really liked being in a country where I felt completely immersed in the culture and really had no “tourist” escape. I more recently traveled to Nicaragua to visit my brother and absolutely loved the people and culture too.
You spent a year teaching English abroad in the Marshall Islands, what made you choose that location?
The Marshall Islands was kind of a random choice. I knew I was graduating soon and would be competing with my peers for jobs due to the financial crisis. After having my education handed to me on a silver platter, I decided I should do something to give back to the world. I studied abroad in Italy during college with the hopes of an eye-opening cultural experience, but it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I had a fantastic time in Florence but it wasn’t a culture challenge for me. I lived with other students, took classes taught in English and had all the comforts I was used to in the states, in the largest study abroad city in the world (they had beer pong at the bars!). I was a global studies major and wanted to immerse myself in a culture that would put me out of my comfort zone, so I applied to three volunteer programs–one in China, Korea and the Marshall Islands. I hadn’t heard of the RMI (Republic of the Marshall Islands) before applying but figured if I was going to volunteer for a year why not be somewhere tropical. After doing a little research, I realized I probably wouldn’t ever visit the RMI unless I took this opportunity and so I did.
What inspired you to take a year off to teach English?
I wanted to volunteer, but I wasn’t set on teaching English. One of the things my GST (global studies) education focused on was enabling cultures to help themselves but not by forcing another culture on that said country. This includes traveling the world to teach English in a country whose first language isn’t English. However, the RMI is a unique case for two reasons: First, the Marshallese people speak Marshallese, which is not a written language, the only book written in Marshallese is the Bible. This creates a challenge for the school system. If children are expected to learn Math, Science, History, etc., they need to learn from books, the books they are using in school are in English but often school is the first place they hear English. Second, the RMI might not exist in the near future. It is a country comprised of low-lying atolls only a few feet above sea level. Global warming is causing the tides to rise, disrupting the geography of the lands and potentially making the islands uninhabitable. The US and the RMI have a Compact of Free Association, which allows Marshallese people to move to the US whenever they want without a passport. Assuming global warming continues, the people of the RMI will eventually move to the US. World Teach is in the RMI to help teach students English as well as educate the teachers and help to improve their English so the education system may become more sustainable.
What company did you work with for this program? Would you recommend it to others?
WorldTeach and yes, definitely! It is a year-long teaching program offered in over 10 different countries. It was a good amount of time for the kind of placement I was in.
What’s the funniest or weirdest cultural idiosyncrasy you either witnessed or experienced while living in the Marshall Islands?
A lot of Marshallese people believe that demons are real and that if you sleep in a room alone at night, they will come and get you. The entire year my host family and friends would tell me that if I slept in my house alone, demons would get me (I always slept alone, and they never did). I never really understood how having someone else sleep in the same room as you prevented demons from coming.
What was the best part of living abroad in the Marshall Islands? How about the worst?
Being completely disconnected from the world. In the developed/connected world it’s so hard to not text, check Facebook, read articles, etc in the middle of conversations. Without having electricity, wifi, phone service or running water for a year, I feel like my time with other people was more genuine. My two favorite pastimes were “jambo”ing (wandering aimlessly), and “bwebwenato” (story-telling) with the other people on my island. With all my free time (not spent on the internet) I was able to immerse myself in the culture and truly felt like my island was home and my host family was my family. It was so much easier to learn a culture and language with minimal distractions. The hardest part probably strengthened the best part, but not being able to speak to my family for a year (we had snail mail that came infrequently). I think my parents lost a lot of sleep that year worrying about me!
What keepsake do you have to get at all your destinations? Memories- I’m not very consistent with keepsakes!
What is the one thing you cannot travel without?
A way to clean water! There is nothing worse than being stuck somewhere knowing that you will either be dehydrated from not drinking or you’ll soon be sick from drinking water that you know your body can’t process.
Do you see yourself taking time off to travel and live abroad again?
I would love to just travel, or volunteer, or just work abroad!
If you could spend a year living anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I would love to try Thailand or Eritrea. I’m fascinated by Thai culture! My family is Eritrean and due to the war with Ethiopia it’s not the safest area to go, especially without knowing the language. I haven’t been yet but would love to live there and learn more about my dad’s culture and where he grew up.
What’s the best travel-related lesson or tip you’ve learned that you would share with others?
Remember that you made the choice to travel and with that comes the cultural differences between your home country and where you’re visiting. While we are only human and it’s in our nature to judge, try to keep an open mind. We’re all born into a culture, and that culture makes sense to us. Other cultures may seem strange or even offensive but that’s what is customary in that country, so try to respect it.