Reflections on a Year in Pohnpei
Mike, a WorldTeach Micronesia volunteer, reflects back on his experiences in and all that he has accomplished so far as he gears up for even more exciting adventures during the rest of his term of service.
My last month in the States was filled with trips to what seemed like every major retailer in the Tucson area to outfit myself for a year in one of the world’s wettest and most humid climes. Luckily, I got to spend lots of time with Katie, Jon, mom and dad before leaving. Saying goodbye was tough but in no time I was in LA, meeting the other WorldTeachers that would become my new family for the next year. I’m proud to say the consensus guess on my age was only 28 but in reality, I’m the second oldest one in our group. Even though most of these kids were just out of college, they carried with them a degree of maturity eclipsing that of your average recent college grad. Sadly, we’ve all since regressed to 6th grade humor. I jest, but for real, these guys are awesome and I couldn’t have hoped for a better group.
We went through a frenetic three week orientation, learning to be a teacher and acclimating ourselves to living in Pohnpei with its near 100% humidity, perpetual summer and equally unending monsoons. I stayed with an incredibly generous and welcoming host family who taught me a little bit about how to be a real Pohnpeian and eventually moved in with another local family who have become my best local friends. Our WT group was awesome – it was a great mix of conversationalists, partiers, energetics, roll-with-the-punches types, adventures and accomplishers. We experienced and learned so much in those weeks that our shared experiences brought us closer to one another than I ever thought possible in that short amount of time. We became like brothers and sisters. Then tragedy struck.
In the most horrific moment of my life, a fellow volunteer slipped while we were climbing near a high waterfall, lost control and slid back over the falls. Disbelief and terror pounded in my head as I raced across the river and down the opposite hillside to save her but she was gone; there was nothing we could have done. I’ve never in my life felt more powerless. Becky was an exceptional person taken far too soon, but having experienced and achieved more in her 23 years than most could hope for in entire lives, she inspires me to live a life uncommon in devotion to good works. The rest of us supported one another in the aftermath and were drawn that much closer to one another through it. Our Field Director in particular, exhibited tremendous composure, compassion and strength in the face of this most difficult of circumstances. We all have our good days and bad but there’s not a single person here for whom I wouldn’t lay down my life and that’s a fact.
Classes started the following week. Along with its rewards, I’ve found teaching to be the most arduous job I’ve ever had…and it’s relentless. I struggled to find downtime and there’s always more that could be done. In addition to my work at the PSBDC, I taught two classes. The math class, Introduction to Technical Mathematics, was a marathon of sorts, held every day with hour and a half long classes. Despite the grueling schedule, a vast majority of my students passed with flying colors, as I developed and integrated active learning modules into what was an otherwise fairly standard math course format. This class was awesome – I got to know the students well, how they worked and what motivated them. This course cemented my confidence that, not only can I teach, but I can be a good teacher. The other class, Introduction to Entrepreneurship, was more of a struggle as student attendance waned, causing them to fall behind on assignments. Maybe I thought I could change the teaching landscape in one fail (literally) swoop by dividing the class in two distinct sections. The first half of the semester would be based on theory, the second on practice. Short story: The class did not go as I had hoped. The good news is that I get a second chance because I’m teaching it again this coming semester. I’ve found that I really like teaching – it’s kind of like being back in school, which I also liked, but there is always homework, always something hanging over my head. So, I could definitely see myself teaching again, but who knows if I can make a career of it. For those who do – God bless you.
Working at the Pohnpei Small Business Development Center (PSBDC) also had its share of successes and setbacks, but overall I accomplished quite a bit. Because we were (and still are) awaiting funding for and the arrival of QuickBooks accounting software, for which I’m tasked with crafting a training course, I spent much of my time with clients vis-à-vis business planning and financial forecasting for their small businesses. I got to know a number of Pohnpei’s budding entrepreneurs quite well and have helped open new doors for private sector growth – for which the island is in dire need. Specifically, I helped business owners start or grow taxi companies (everyone and their brother here wants one of these), laundromats, fish and local food markets, gas stations, hotels, apartments, convenience stores, a used tire/auto repair shop, and a kayak-adventure outfit, among other endeavors. One of the low points at the PSBDC occurred when, as I was trying to print out about a month worth of work, my MacBook crashed, erasing everything I had done the last three months. Luckily, I had backed up my computer when I first got here, so all was not completely lost and the PSBDC agreed to help me pay for most of the repair bill. Repair time: about six weeks. I really enjoy working there and wish I could devote more time to it, and would, if not for my teaching responsibilities. Working at the PSBDC solidified my desire to continue working in the banking and business development fields, quite possibly in an international capacity.
Aside from teaching and working at the PSBDC, simply living here has afforded me some extraordinary, what I would call OIAL, experiences. I got to meet and suhkasuhk (prepare) Sakau for the Nanmwarki of Madolenihmw (i.e., King of Pohnpei) on our way to the legendary ancient floating stone city of Nan Madol. A few friends and I got to camp on our own private deserted island during a long weekend trip to Ant Atoll, where I camped on the beach and snorkeled with sharks, stingrays and giant sea turtles. Myself and a few soldering colleagues attended the biggest party of the year (Kahmundihpw) in honor of the Nanmwarki of Kitti (the third ranking paramount chief of Pohnpei) in another eye-opening, paradigm shifting experience. In one of the most enchanting weekends of my life, I lived with my friend Consuela’s family on Dehpehk Island, where we celebrated a birthday and local wedding. And finally, in what was the most badass adventure so far for WorldTeach Pohnpei, we sailed 200 miles into the heart of the Pacific on the deck of a cargo ship to the storied island of Pingelap, enjoying deck diving, tree jumping, swimming, and relaxing as the inaugural guests of the Neime Beach Resort. Along the way, I learned at least the basics of another language, grew a beard, read some good books, lost lots of weight (regretfully, as does apparently ever other man working abroad), enjoyed eating sashimi, sea turtle, dog and mud, screened my new favorite movie, learned to play the ukulele and broadcast most of these experiences on my blog, which has been seen in 36 countries and 335 cities. Boom.
But all this hasn’t come without some sacrifices. I liked my old life and sometimes pine for it. I miss my family and friends, with whom I am rarely able connect, outside of the one-sided conversation that is my blog. Also, I haven’t earned money in the better part of a year. Although I quit smoking (Yay!…on Memorial Day), I’ve lost weight (alas, not a good thing) and have taken a half step backward with respect to my physical health. And who knows what a year away from my career (kind of) will do to my immediate and long-term employability. Were these sacrifices worth it? ABSOLUTELY!