Losing and Finding

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I lived in the house I grew up in Finland for 18 years with just a couple of years in between spent in the US. I had a very happy and safe childhood of going to school, ice skating, hanging out with friends, giving some hard times to my ever-loving and understanding parents as a teenager, and learning about independency through my first jobs.

After that I had a year of not knowing what to do: I had a summer job in France, I worked in a school for 6 months and volunteered in Angola for a little less than a month. I traveled all over Europe and didn’t know of anything better I could have done with the money I was earning. I went to free therapy to talk about how the uncertainty of the future stressed me out. I often got upset with my boyfriend and felt like there weren’t many people to relate to.

In 2012 I moved to Estonia and little did I know that the following three years there would be the best of my life. My mind was at peace and despite the inevitable difficulties of life I went to bed already excited for the next day almost every night. I lived in a gorgeous apartment and managed to build an amazing network of fellow students, co-workers and all sorts of younger and older people of Tallinn. I felt much like I did in my childhood: happy and safe.

Now I am about to leave Micronesia to go to the Philippines for an indefinite period of time. I feel much like I did during my gap year. Uncertain and slightly alone. Stressed and to some degree unsupported.

I want to travel but it seems that consistency and routine makes me content – i.e. living in one place, like I did in my childhood and in Estonia. It’s not until now that I have learned the true price of life on the road. It’s giving up the feeling of safety that comes from what we know and more importantly, our support that has had years’ time to build. It’s starting over repeatedly, getting new friends time and time again. It’s finding the balance of being strong enough to support yourself and being wise enough to trust strangers when you need to rely on the help of others. It’s saying goodbyes to the ones who became the most important people in your life and facing the big and small, cruel and wonderful, but always humbling world completely on your own. And I’ve overestimated my ability to do so.

Someone I look up to and have had the honour to spend a lot of time with once said that he disagrees when people say that one finds oneself through traveling. He said he believes that you lose yourself, but find the world. My interpretation of that is that one becomes less self-absorbed, more trusting of the unknown, and aware of the wonders of the world, through being constantly thrown into new situations that may be uncomfortable, confusing, even dangerous.

In all honesty, I am not feeling well at the moment. This year in Micronesia has been in many ways overwhelming and I have by no means been the carefree world explorer who is satisfied in life in such an admirable way. Even if that is how I haven’t been this year, I believe, or at least truly hope, that it doesn’t mean that I won’t ever be that way. After all, isn’t the way to learn always through trial and error? This year I’ve met enough incredible humans, perpetual travelers, to see that it is possible, but that it comes with a big price.

So, World, I haven’t lost myself to you just yet, but that is my full intention. First I need to go home to calm down and collect my thoughts, more than ever. I truly can’t wait to see and live the known again, but I know that sooner or later I’ll yet again itch for the unknown.

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Humbling

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If I would have to describe my year of teaching in Chuuk with one word, it would be humbling. In particular, there are four things that I lived through this year that have had a lasting impact on how I view our world.

Nature

Watching the sun rise behind the mountains of Weno at 5AM from the pier at Truk Stop while the birds are catching their breakfast straight from the sea, the little fish jumping away in perfect unison, as in a well-rehearsed act at Sea World. Hearing about my host mom’s gardening problem: too many sprouts of papaya trees are popping out. Seeing gigantic bats on a mangrove, looking for their next hang out spot. Catching a glimpse of a small shark, blue star fish and Nemo while snorkelling. Diving with an eagle ray inside a ship wreck. The sound of waves of the turquoise water, climbing a palm tree to fetch coconuts, seeing all of Weno from the top of Mt. Octopus. Being stranded in a storm in the great Pacific on a boat that’s out of gas, seeing the effects of the drought… To me, whose natural habitat is basically an ice cave, this completely opposite environment and its inhabitants have made me amazed in countless occasions so that I am truly humbled by the wonders and powers Mother Nature and have gained an increased respect for Her.

Culture

Not only is the nature the complete opposite of what I am used to, but so is the culture. The rules and norms of the Chuukese have forced me to adjust my behavior and to think about what values and mannerisms are the ones I am and am not willing to compromise. On top of that, I am one of the only Europeans, and the only Finn on island. Generalizations are something I avoid making, but in this case I can quite confidently say that people here have little to absolutely no idea of the background I come from. I have never felt as alone as in some of lowest moments I’ve had during this year. Being subjected to such a drastic change of everyday life with what has sometimes felt like the complete lack of support has humbled this young lady who prior to Chuuk thought she had mastered the art of adjusting to different ways of living within another culture. That realization might have hit my ego hard, and admittedly, it wasn’t easy to get my big head humbled in this way, but in the end, I’m thankful that it was.

Expats

Back at home, I was definitely well-traveled compared to the average of my age group. Compared to the expat group of Chuuk… I have some way to make to reach the average. I am so honored to have had the chance to listen to the stories of these people who have seen and done so much. People who have sailed all over the Atlantic, people who have been tour guides in North Korea, people who have learned Swahili in Africa, people who have been called to help the Afghan refugees after serving in the Peacecorps in Afghanistan, people who have literally dedicated their lives to improve the education of the FSM, people who have taught sex workers to apply a condom by using their mouth in Thailand, people who have made it their life goal to travel the world although they never, not once, went abroad with their families when growing up. These Citizens of the World have taught me so much and I am forever grateful to have met each and every one of them.

Locals

Finally, I am amazed and humbled by the unique bunch of young men and women I teach every day. Life in Chuuk is, more often than not, difficult, and like anywhere else in the world, it is the toughest on the teenagers. However, out of what my students have told me, they swallow all the hardships and have no choice but to be strong and endure it all. Too see them work hard on class work only to hear their father died over the weekend makes me admire their emotional strength and feel ashamed of the petty things I complain about on a daily basis. In a community based environment, they do anything to make sure the people around them are doing well. They may be shy, but nevertheless they openly share their feelings and stories about their lives and count you in their family. I find this truly admirable and it is all thanks to them that I have been able to feel welcomed in this foreign land and that we have been able to build a relationship far from a regular teacher-student relationship. I will miss them so much.

Wedding Day

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Corey and I sort of self-invited ourselves to our student’s wedding.

We had tried to ask her for the day of the wedding. December, she said at first. Then January, before school starts. After school starts, she announced. This Saturday. And her cousins confirmed.

The wedding was to be held at the church of Wichup.

“Come with my family’s boat,” the cousin of the bride suggested.

“Where will we find you?”

“Maybe I’ll come find you in the morning,” the cousin promised.

Ride fixed – what to wear to a Chuuksese wedding was the next thing troubling my mind. I borrowed a sparkling muumuu from a friend and hoped for the best.

The morning of the wedding day Corey and I were hovering around town, hoping to see our student who had promised to accompany us to the wedding. We didn’t see her, so we went to where we thought she lived. Another student lead us to her door.

“I’m so sorry! For real!” And she brought us sodas while her younger siblings had stopped their play and stared at us with big bright eyes.

We ended up walking to the other side of the island. The students told us all sorts of stories about their lives and we were served mangoes and coconuts straight from the tree once we arrived to the bride’s house.

We waited around for a couple of hours. “This is why I don’t live here,” the bride’s cousin groaned, “it’s so boring!”

As soon as the wedding started I realized that I had worried about what to wear in vein. The guests had muumuus, suits, t-shirts, shorts, leggings, skirts, blouses, snapbacks… Anything goes when it comes to Chuukese weddings, it seemed.

The ceremony reminded me of confirmation ceremonies we have for our 14-15 year olds back in Finland. After the ceremony the bride sprang to Corey and I to give us a big hug.

Food was served to everyone in individual plates. Some people stayed by the church to eat, whereas other took their plates and left home. We sat by the church eating our meals, before our students told us it was time to go home.

Sade

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Istun riippukeinussa, katson ympärilleni. Näyttää syksyltä, vaikkei vuodenaikoja täällä tunneta. Ruoho on haalean vihreää ja ruskean keltaista. Lehdet ovat samanlaisia kuin kotipihani tammessa: syksyisin ne kuivuvat, mutta hädin tuskin tippuvat oksilta koko talveen. Hibiscukset ja muut sateenkaaren väreissä kukkivat kukat näyttävät viikon vanhoilta ylppäriruusuilta. Muutamat appelsiinin kokoiset papaijat notkuvat puussaan yhä.

Katselen Pou lahden pilvistä maisemaa, enkä avaa kirjaani. Yhtäkkiä nesteytysjuomani pinta värähtää. Pisara. Ja toinen. Alkaa tihkuttaa ja ehkä ensimmäistää kertaa elämässäni toivon, että sade yltyisi. Istun riippumatossa liikkumatta ja annan sateen kastella minut, ihan kuin silkka hengitykseni voisi lopettaa tasaisen tihkun. Sade alkaa yltyä ja ruoho näyttää jo vihreämmältä. Vesi tälle luonnolle on varmaan sama kuin kosteusvoiteet atoppiselle iholleni: ensimäinen kerros kirvelee kuivan kiristyneellä ihoa, toinen helpottaa ja kolmanella tuntuu jo huomattavasti paremmalta.

Sade yltyy ja juoksen sisälle. “Vettä!!” huutaa kaverini, kun avaan oven. Kolme heistä juoksentelee ulkona kuin lapset. Heillä on hauskaa, mutta minulla on kylmä ja jään sisälle. Sillä hetkellä muistan, miten syksyllä ihmettelin, kun oppilaani kertoivat rakastavansa rankkasateita. Silloin he menevät ulos juoksentelemaan, tai jäävät sisälle juomaan kahvia, koska on niin kylmä.

Art Club

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On Thursdays, Alice and I run Art Club. I don’t know what it was about today’s art class, but something about those six students drawing and asking for help made me all warm. Everyone in the class room seemed relaxed and to be enjoying themselves.

Quite often I have been amazed how easy it is to please these Chuukese adolescents. Give them crayons, a piece of paper and ideas what to draw – and they’ll love you forever. However, today during Art Club, I thought of something more.

We are not only providing these teenagers with the possibility to create art. We are providing them with a place where they can safely enjoy themselves. They know they will only receive support and encouragement from Alice and I. They know nothing will happen to them during our session. They know they will only be asked to express themselves on paper for the time they decide to spend with us.

Knowing these students felt this way and knowing that this feeling may not be assured to them always made me realize how little I, or anyone else, can do to make the day of another person a lot better. Safety, encouragement, support, love… It’s all it takes – no need even for crayons or paper.

And I started to wonder – wouldn’t it be just as easy to please anyone as it is to please these Chuukese adolescents?

Drought

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Mt. Octopus on fire

“If you’re ever stuck out in the wilderness, remember what survival experts call ‘the Rule of Threes’.

You can live 3 minutes without air, though we don’t recommend trying. In a harsh environment — it’s snowing, say — you have 3 hours to survive without shelter. After 3 days, you need water or you’ll perish. You can make it 3 weeks without food, though we promise you that won’t be fun.

Despite this possibly helpful rule, some people have survived 8 to 10 days without water. Again, leave such shenanigans to the truly desperate.”

Source: Livescience

“The truly desperate” can now be found in Chuuk. Yesterday many of my students were extremely low on energy, those who normally jump around screaming were sitting still, holding their red faces with both hands. My host family welcomes people without water to bathe in their bathroom. Bottles of water, expensive ones, can hardly be found from stores. The roads are puffing with dust due to severe dryness. One night one of Weno’s mountains had forest fires at several places. It looked like a village festival, but the next morning a large portion of the mountain was brown and prickly instead of its normal lush green.

The State of Chuuk depends on rain as the source of fresh water. However, an event called El Nino takes places in the Pacific Ocean every 3-7 years. During El Nino, the surface of the ocean warms up. Wind changes course, making the rains travel with it, i.e. away from some of the small Pacific Islands including Chuuk. An event of El Nino can take anything from 6 months to 2 years.

One of the strongest El Nino events in history remains entrenched across the Equatorial Pacific Ocean. Analysis of the event indicated that it has peaked and is slowly weakening for the Pacific region. The El Nino pattern will persist through late spring.  Increasingly dry weather is taking hold across much of Micronesia. Well below normal rainfall is already affecting Chuuk State in the Federated States of Micronesia and is expected to continue through the coming months. There could be a slightly wet month or two from now through late spring 2016, but overall conditions will be much drier than normal as 2016 progresses. Some damage to food corps is likely over the next few months and the health of food corps should be closely monitored.

Source: NOAA (Took a very free hand to edit this passage.)

Children without water – something I’ve been aware of for my whole life. But it isn’t until now that I have truly understood the pain of it and cried because of it. Being here has put things into perspective. I feel guilty using the toilet, boiling eggs, even taking a shower. Ever since learning in grade school that water is a resource that should be conserved I have been very conscious of it and on multiple occasions gotten wildly mad at my mom for letting the water run while brushing her teeth. Now my water conservation habits have become even more important to me and I hope that this is how they’ll stay for the rest of my life.

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Fiji is also affected by El Nino and in risk of drought. Meanwhile Western consumers will find this from well-equipped supermarkets. Enjoy.

Just to know that my wonderful students and their families are thirsty every minute of the day. Knowing that even if they manage to get water it has a good chance of being dirty – and I don’t know which is worse – no water or contaminated water. Coughing on that dusty road, gazing over to the mountain once so green. Seeing those red-faced students and having no way of helping them. Hearing no news about rain and having now a much better insight on disaster relief organizations – often times their help, inevitably, comes too late. Chuuk, in my eyes, has transferred greatly and very noticeably – to the worse –  ever since the drought started. This has broken my heart.

If it really takes 3 days without water for a human to perish… With a heavy soul I say that I would not be surprised were I to hear that a student at our school had left us for Heaven.

Picnic @ Uman

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Julia, Corey, and I were treated to an open fire picnic on a deserted island by a couple of our students. We had chicken and rice, of course, and a lump that was supposedly pounded banana and coconut. I collected beautiful seashells and we took loads of pictures with Corey’s underwater camera. I carried some rocks over when we were building the fire, but my student told me to just sit and relax. We went snorkeling and after coming up from the water my fellow teachers and I re-applied some sunscreen. The boys wanted to try, and went a little crazy over it. “First time sunscreen!” they kept chanting. After our picnic we went for a quick stroll to our students’ home island Uman. I asked my student whether they have any cars in Uman and he laughed like there was no tomorrow. “No teacher, no cars.”

Back at school, one of the students shouted “First time sunscreen!” in the middle of class. He also asked when are we going for another picnic and a few weeks later, brought me similar seashells that I had been collecting.

I’ve always appreciated these students: they are sharp, lively and outspoken, and care about getting good grades. However, these students also seem to enjoy talking back to me. I handle those situations well, most of the time at least, so we have always gotten along just fine. But it was nevertheless quite wonderful to see what fun-loving sweethearts these boys are outside the classroom.

Right now life in Chuuk has not been roses and dandelions: I have some tropical bacteria infection, I’m still a little shaken by the theft I recently experienced, teaching can be really stressful from time to time, and on top of that, Chuuk is undergoing an extreme drought. But it’s moments like our picnic, extraordinary moments of Pacific happiness that I never thought I’d experience, that keep me going and what I will hold as special memories for the rest of my life.