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Commonly Asked Questions about Peace Corps Kiribati
Commonly Asked Questions about Peace Corps Kiribati
Commonly Asked Questions about Peace Corps Kiribati
Note: This information is purely the opinion of Eric and Marian Larson. Views may differ depending on the volunteer. For official policy and information, consult Peace Corps literature and Peace Corps officials.
Q: What is it like getting to Kiribati?
Depends on your group's situation. K27 came through Australia and had to pay extra for their luggage (they were reimbursed). K28 (our group) went through Hawaii and Fiji, without a hitch. K29 went from Hawaii to the Marshall Islands in two batches, having to leave a lot of luggage in Hawaii. They were reunited with their luggage a few days later in Kiribati.
Staging, usually in San Francisco, is an afternoon-long process of paperwork and mental preparation for the trip. Ours was run by a woman contracted by the Peace Corps. We didn't meet anyone who had been to Kiribati, but somehow we didn't mind. We were up for an adventure, and that meant unpredictability. Most of our questions were answered soon enough when we got to the country. If you think this Q&A might spoil your adventure, feel free to stop reading.
Q: Do I need to worry about vaccinations before staging?
In our experience, no. When we arrived in Kiribati, the Peace Corps nurse who is a fulltime employee of the Peace Corps office in Kiribati looked at our vaccination records and filled in the gaps: tetanus, measles-mumps-rubella, polio, hepatitis A and B, and typhoid are the ones I remember. Just be sure to have records of your vaccinations, or you risk getting the shots again. Ouch! Luckily there's not a lot of weird deadly stuff you can get here. No malaria, and no rabies, for example.
Q: What is training like?
Peace Corps Volunteers everywhere get trained before they are sworn in. You'll be thankful for this when you start your service. Other volunteer organizations don't have much in the way of training. Peace Corps currently believes in community-based training, which means for 8 weeks or so you live with a local family. (This is in addition to a week or so staying with a volunteer, and a few more weeks in Tarawa learning your way around the governmental ministries and Peace Corps policies. About 12 weeks in all.) Homestay is where you begin to learn the culture and the language. It's hard. You eat new types of food, awake to the roosters at 3 a.m., get sick, sit on your tender rump for hours at a time on the ground, miss home, pray for mail, get wet when your little hut leaks. You get the picture. You might learn local dance, ways of getting fish, how to fetch water from a well—skills that will serve you well living on an outer island. Some people have a blast.
You might wonder, if your service is going to be in Tarawa, why you're being forced to endure this outer island boot camp. Well, it because it humbles you. It also shows you what kind of life most of those in Tarawa come from. And if you're doing work in Tarawa that will impact people on the outer islands, wouldn't it be helpful to know how those people tick? The alternative is the colonialist model which is more like: "I'm going to come in and show you poor people how to do things right." The community-based model says: "I'm going to live like you, understand you better, so we can do great things together."
Q: Is the work fulfilling? Will I learn new skills for future work?
The work varies tremendously from volunteer to volunteer, island to island. Work depends on local counterparts, resources, shared vision, and personal motivation. Some volunteers are very busy while others are not. Some decide to focus instead on the cultural exchange aspect of the Peace Corps mission, which is 2/3rds of your job description. One thing is certain: Work is treated differently in other countries. Learning how to adapt to that and still manage to get things done involves a complex set of personal skills that is bound to serve you well in whatever future work environment you find yourself. Or, it may drive you insane and cause you to end your service early with bitterness. It all depends on how you decide you're going to be. Will you change, or will you die trying to change everyone in your host country?
Q: Is life in Tarawa much different from the other 16 Gilbert Islands where volunteers are placed?
Some things are the same, like topography of land and the kindness of the people, but not much else. Tarawa is the city, while outer islands are the country. Think of Tarawa as having the stuff of a small town in America and the outer islands as small farming hamlets. Tarawa has a power plant and buses that travel at high speed. Outer islands have a bit of solar power at scattered homes, some small gas generators, and maybe a handful of trucks for transport. Drinking is, in general, more accepted in Tarawa, and there is a much larger population of Westerners. One can get most foods in Tarawa (and goods, tools, etc.) while the stock on outer islands is unpredictable. Tarawa has email and telephones, while most outer islands don’t have phones (as of now, two or three islands have solar-powered pay phones. Telcom is expanding phone service each year to new islands.)
Q: Is Kiribati safe for single females?
Kiribati has the reputation as a safe country overall. The people love Americans. They have a stable government and no civil unrest. Thievery happens but is rare. However, there have been a number of instances of sexual assault on PCV women over the years, including at least one rape. Usually the attacks have involved men who overdrink. There have been break-ins of homes at night and attacks on the road or in the bush. Almost always they have occurred when the woman is alone at home, on the beach, on the road, or in the bush. PCV women protect themselves by traveling with other PCVs or local female friends. Some single women sleep at a neighbor's house, keep a dog, or ask a trusted friend to sleep on a buia outside her house. It is rare that a woman taking these measures has any serious problems.
A single woman living alone is not familiar to the Kiribati culture. Women don't sunbathe on the beach alone, travel through the bush alone. Many PCV women have led very independent lives without a single problem, but others have experienced problems. A woman should have the freedom to travel alone without fear, but a corresponding reality is that there are some men in Kiribati who are violent--and Western women are very conspicuous targets. Likely this would go for most Peace Corps countries, of course. The nice thing is that women in Kiribati who believe in safety in numbers and allowing their neighbors to "protect" them are rarely refused help. Marian lives very conservatively. Sometimes it frustrates her that she can't do things alone like a guy can, but she is happy with her decision. To date, she has not experienced any violence directed at her.
Q: Can you save enough money to travel? What about meeting family?
Most PCVs travel to other countries during their service. From Kiribati, Fiji perhaps is the most popular destination, followed by Vanuatu, Australia, New Zealand, and other Pacific countries like Samoa and Marshall Islands. And, of course, many return to the States one time for Christmas after their first year.
At the moment, PCVs take in about $350AUS each month in various allowances. Tarawa volunteers take in a bit more, but costs are higher on Tarawa. We've managed to pay for a 12-day trip to Fiji (one night in a resort) and roughly half of a trip to Australia on Peace Corps dollars we've saved. We decided not to meet family in Fiji last year, as we worried flights might be delayed. But many volunteers do meet family, usually with no problem. And some PCVs have family visit them in Kiribati, almost always with good results. The people here are very generous and there is usually a week or two of things to do on an outer island before some people start to go stir crazy.
Q: Just how isolated are you in terms of emergencies?
Living on Tarawa, you are near the Peace Corps medical officer, a hospital, and an international airport with regular service to Australia. On an outer island, you have only between one and three regular flights per week, and only a few islands are in close range for speedboat travel. In case of an emergency, the PCV or a friend would CB or use a satellite phone (some islands have them now, and all islands are due to have them in the very near future) to call the office and the medical officer might elect to hire one of Air Kiribati's two planes to come and get you. One problem is that none of the landing strips have lights for night flights, but conceivably villagers could light up the runway with flashlights (I'm not kidding). And the Marshall Islands has an American base with military craft that conceivably could be called on in an extreme emergency. Yes, it's remote and scary, especially in the case of a dreaded appendicitis. At the same time, were something to happen, everyone would be going well out of their way to help you. It's risky, but one we've decided we're willing to take for all the BENEFITS that come from being hard to reach. It's nice not to return home and automatically look for the answering machine.
Q: What are the advantages or disadvantages to joining Peace Corps as a couple?
Having constant moral support is wonderful. Living in close quarters for two years can be very difficult, but if you can adjust, your relationship is all the stronger. Sharing experiences is priceless. Doing it by yourself I would assume is a huge confidence booster and something to be proud of. But it's hard enough with Marian's help; I wouldn't trade this decision for the world.
Q: What's the food like?
Some of the food is quite amazingly good, especially the fresh seafood when you can get it. It all depends on what village you live in and whether you know people who fish, or if people sell fish. There are some coconut recipes that are very tasty. There is not too much in the way of veggies, but there have been vegetarians who have gotten by (though none would say it's been easy, and most give in and start eating fish.) There are a lot of canned foods, like canned meats, that are popular and very unhealthy. Lack of variety is a common complaint by PCVs, including us. We spend hours talking about food we miss. I miss food almost as much as I miss friends and family.
Q: How about your health?
Some people never get sick, but they are the exception. Marian and/or I have had the following: giardia, salmonella, something like dengue (blood test being processed), food poisoning, fish poisoning (a mild version, not ciguatera, thank God), 24-fever, common cold, heat rash, diarrhea, and just plain feeling tired, low energy. I'd say we've been sicker than most in our group, however. I've lost 40 pounds, Marian 10. It's nice to have year-round sunshine and a place to swim to make up for feeling cruddy sometimes. I've probably only lost about 3 weeks of work due to sickness, however. Somehow you make it. The physical challenge is something I was looking for. Though 12 of our original 32 group members have left, only one left due to a medical condition.
Q: Is mail reliable?
Yes and no. Most PCVs get mail once or twice weekly. Most airmail takes about three weeks coming through Fiji. Surface mail (by ship) can take months or more than a year. Any mail, even junk mail, is better than no mail.
Q: What happens in case of a family emergency back in the States?
If you have a satellite phone, your family can simply call you. If not, Peace Corps Kiribati keeps trying by CB until they get hold of you, and you can then go into Tarawa to speak with your family by phone. There is free email at the dorm that is currently working, and there is an Internet café in Tarawa that costs $8AUS per hour. Peace Corps has strict policy as to when you can return to the States on their dime. Consult the maroon handbook for this one.
Q: When does your service end?
Most Peace Corps terms of service around the world are 27 months. Currently PCV groups arrive in Kiribati in October and leave 26 months later, in December, before Christmas. This is because there is a long school break December and January in which very little work gets done, so there's often little point in sticking around. Some health volunteers leave even a bit earlier, with special permission. Others get permission to stay beyond the 26 months, and some extend for a third year.
Q: Can I have a pet?
Cats are great for mice, and there are plenty of both in Kiribati. There are plenty of dogs here, too, and many PCVs adopt one or more. Then comes the question of what to do with them when you leave. We're researching on how to bring ours home, but most elect to pass them on to other PCVs (when possible), make them dorm pets (when there's not one already), or let them fend for themselves (they don't always survive.) It's a very difficult issue that has no clear answers. Take note: If you get a pet pig, it will certainly be eaten.
Q: How easy is it to go swimming? Snorkeling? Diving? Surfing?
Most PCVs swim, even in Tarawa where it's hard to find places that aren't polluted. Getting past the breakers to snorkel is harder on some islands than on others. There are wonderful places to dive (unfortunately the latest word is that the dive school on North Tarawa is going out of business in June 2003), and there is some good surfing. People do bring surfboards and find opportunity to use them. (Remember if you are a single woman that getting to water might mean traveling alone, as water is almost never used recreationally by locals and most beaches are deserted. See the above statement on safety for women.) We believe in the buddy system and never swim alone. We have seen sharks, lionfish, Portuguese man-o-war, and a few other prickly sea critters, but we're alive to tell the tale. Everything's pretty well fed and has very little use for a starved PCV.
Q: Do many PCVs travel after their service?
The ones in Kiribati certainly do. When you leave, instead of letting the Peace Corps buy your ticket home you can take the cash equivalent and purchase around the world tickets at good prices. We're going straight home, but most of our friends are doing at least a couple months of travel on their way home. Some travel for a year or more, and some even go to Holland. Isn't dat veerd?