In an attempt to make meaning in my life, I joined the Peace Corps with my husband, Mark Barry. We journeyed to the South Pacific and spent two years in the Solomon Islands from 1998-2000. We taught English and science in a secondary school with few amenities.
Examples of what we were dealing with include: limited chalk (at the end of semesters we would literally scrape the chalk rails and write with collected dust particles), no electricity, a mimeograph machine (which we in America have replaced with the copy machine and if we had textbooks they were moldy and grossly outdated.
We lived in a leaf and stick hut with bamboo floors, and it was held together with rope made from jungle vines. There was not a single nail or manmade material holding our house together.
Every morning we were greeted with flocks of cockatoos calling to each other, roosters welcoming the morning, and the waves pounding the surf. It took two weeks to get mail from home, two weeks if sent airmail, and up to 6 months if sent via ground mail.
Our students were the most loving and kind-hearted people I have ever met, and they continued to amaze me with their acceptance of these strange foreigners in their village. Every morning we would be greeted with gifts: fresh mangoes, pineapple, polished shells, sego-palm woven mats, rice meals, hand drawn pictures, shell necklaces – never again in my seven years of teaching would I be greeted every morning by teenagers giving “thanks” to their teacher. Don’t get me wrong- the benefits of teaching American children are as rewarding, just in a different way.
As a newcomer to the Islands, I was completely aware of nothing.
I was concerned about what water I should drink, how to wash clothes by hand with no warm water, when my next letter was coming, what movies, TV and music I was missing out on, how to cook rice without measuring cups, if my clothing was appropriate for their culture, how to keep myself from becoming overheated and when my next fix would come from America – like a packet of Kool-Aid in a letter, or possibly Hershey’s kisses in a care package.
After being there for seven months, those worries disappeared.
I began to notice life.
For example, my students, who had no technology, CB radios, cell phones, or electricity, knew when the ferry was arriving. Mind you, the ferryboat was never on time, but my students knew when it was coming. They would tell me the ferryboat’s arrival to the minute.
After the cloudy noise of technology and America was removed from the air, my brain and my being, I was able to recognize the subtle hum and vibration of the engine of the ferryboat at my feet. You could not see or hear it, but you could feel the constant deep hum of the engine carried through the water to land.
When we came back to the United States it was July 4 in Boston.
Gone was the flapping of fruit bat wings as they silently sipped nectar, the sound of the surf lulling me to sleep, the “good mornings” and smiles from everyone I saw and the hum of the ferry.
In their place were a thousand faces looking at anything but each other, so many hummings and drummings of engines that I couldn’t tune into a single one and the fast, fast life of us – Americans.
It took us a while to settle back in. We moved and taught on an Island off the coast of Maine, in an all Alaskan native village in the Prince William Sound, on the islands of Mauritius, Reunion, and The Seychelles, and finally back to my hometown, Fort Collins, Colo. In every place, in every town and village, I left with memories.
In our lives we have one chance to make a difference.
This, right now, is your memory of tomorrow. I have chosen to make memories in my students, their laughter, learning and what they teach me. This is how I give my life meaning.
Tami Wolff is the Peace Corps Representative at Colorado State University. The Office of International Programs’ column appears biweekly Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to email@example.com.