What Had I Gotten Myself Into?
By WorldTeach Marshall Islands volunteer Smitty McGowan, 2015
The tiny boat rocked up and down the gargantuan waves, tossed around like a child playing with toys. While the boat seemed to be no match for the ocean, it appeared that we had formed some kind of a symbiotic relationship. Poseidon allowed us to live as long as we filled that void of space. If we did our job and did not disturb him too much, our boat continued to rise up to the peaks and race back down to the valleys. An unstable relationship, the simplest mistake could send us toppling. What had I gotten myself into?
There I was, sitting on the bow of the boat. My spirits were still high enough, but not as great as at the outset. Our original goal was to deliver new volunteers to one of the outer islands, Arno, of the Marshall Islands. A resident of the capital island, Majuro, I was permitted to travel with my peers to their villages and teaching sites. However, what began as a magnificent idea was quickly becoming a questionable one. After dropping off our first WorldTeach volunteer at one part of the atoll, we attempted to make the second delivery. But the waves had increased in size and the weather had worsened. Rain poured forth from above, and the strengthening wind whipped an aqueous mixture of sea and sky into our faces. The second drop-off was not possible. Neither was the third. Or the fourth. So there we remained, waiting to receive confirmation that we could return to the capital island. Due to remoteness of our location and the tumultuous weather, our radio barely worked and any phone calls would not go through. As I looked around the vessel, my eyes met with a variety of worn-down souls. More than half of the travelers were seasick, Marshallese and American alike. My smile was fading as quickly as my thoughts of adventure. What had I gotten myself into?
Although the truest of tales, the previous story perfectly analogizes my overall experience in the Marshall Islands. I came to the beautiful islands with thoughts of grandeur and change. I desired to make the world a better place. I hoped to drink the world and taste the sweetness of the journey’s honey. My first time outside of the States, my nerves were overtaken by the stronger feelings of glee and excitement. From the beginning, my time in the islands was magical. The people I met pushed me to become a better person. The culture, the language, the lifestyle, I loved everything about being “rimajel.” Yet, typical to most undertakings, the original euphoria slowly disappeared once the difficulty of living in a new country started to set in. Without my family and friends, homesickness became a reality. My profession changed. My language changed. My diet changed. My living arrangements changed. Everything and anything I knew before the Marshalls transformed. Teaching was definitely an incredible challenge, especially given the status of education in the country. Similar to the treacherous seafaring, I constantly asked myself that prior question. What had I gotten myself into?
Thankfully, the captain made the ultimate decision to head back. Goodbye Arno. Hello Majuro, safety, warmth, and solid ground. Before I stepped on the boat, I was told that our time on the water would last 2 hours or so. The truth was 10 hours of storm. Still, what began as a glorious day, and then took a turn for the worse, just as quickly reversed course. As we neared the opening of the Majuro atoll, the sun broke through the dark clouds above and embraced us all with its emboldening rays. The smiles were back. The high spirits were revitalized. We had conquered the battle with Poseidon. And to show his respect, his gift from below rushed to the surface. The most majestic dolphins you could ever ask for blessed us with their presence, swimming alongside our boat and guiding us to the channel. The tempest was a distant memory of the past. Pure joy was our new present.
In much the same way, my experience as a WorldTeach volunteer underwent that process. The period of confusion and concern eventually gave way to bliss and gratitude. In the end, to adapt to all of the changes, I too changed. What had I gotten myself into? The greatest adventure of my life. The people I met, the students I taught, the trials I overcame, the personal growth I faced, I would not want it any other way. I love the Marshall Islands, so much so that I am still here. And akin to the stormy waters of the sea, the darkness is gone and only assurance remains.