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In which I travel to Micronesia in search of my brother . . .

January 21, 2014

So more than a week after I wanted to publish a post about my recent trip to Chuuk, Micronesia, I am finally doing so.  I would be remiss if I didn’t first give a shout-out to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as yesterday was the federal holiday in his honor.  I  encourage everyone, but especially Christians who were the letter’s intended audience, to take a few minutes this week to read (or re-read) King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and reflect upon his words.  Beautiful yet challenging words.  (I could have written an entire post on that alone, but I unfortunately didn’t.)

After finishing up what became a rather stressful semester, primarily because of my own procrastination, and then blowing my chance for a quality internship due to my singularly terrible performance in the interview, I road tripped back to Phillips.  I was in Phillips for only about a week, although a joy-filled week it was, so that I could visit my brother Will in Micronesia and get back to DC in time for the spring semester which started last week.

As some loyal Free Spirit Runner readers know, Will graduated from Marquette University two years after I did and also joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC).  He accepted a two-year placement as the first Jesuit Volunteer (JV) ever to teach at Akoyikoyi School on the island of Weno, in Chuuk State, part of the Federated States of Micronesia.  The last time I saw him was in early July 2012 when he and the rest of the family visited me in Tanzania during my own JV service (see my 8/19/12 blog post for the mug shot of us subsequently published in the JVC newsletter per our suggestion under the caption “The Bro’s of Kilimanjaro”).  Thereafter, he immediately flew to Boston College for JVC orientation and then off to Chuuk.  JVC rules prohibit U.S. visitors within the first year.  When the rest of our family visited him this past summer, I was deep into my Swahili studies at the University of Illinois and unable to go, but I knew I wanted to visit him in Micronesia on my own if at all possible.

I found myself driving south from Phillips on December 30, on a morning when the temperature was -28 degrees Fahrenheit without the wind chill factor.  I was wearing dark glasses because I had a morning eye doctor appointment at which my pupils were fully dilated.  Both of the factors suggested that I had chosen a good time to get out of the blessedly frozen promised land and visit a tropical island (and Will, of course.)

My plane left Milwaukee early on New Year’s Eve and after flying to Houston and then from Houston to Honolulu, I was able to rest in Hawaii during a lengthy layover.

Part of Honolulu's skyline as viewed from Waikiki beach

Part of Honolulu’s skyline as viewed from Waikiki beach

New Year's Eve sunset at Waikiki beach

New Year’s Eve sunset at Waikiki beach

On January 1, in the Year of our Lord 2014, I boarded the United Airlines plane bound for Chuuk (and several other island stops as well).  The flight was long but generally uneventful.  I took the opportunity to get off at those airports where it was permitted, which included my first ever arrival at the only sovereign state with which I share my name.  Yes, the Marshall Islands.

Airport sign at Majuro

Airport sign at Majuro

At long last, I arrived at Chuuk International Airport (TRK) and thanks to the International Dateline, it was January 2.  Fortunately, Will was there with some of the other JVs.  For the Will truthers out there, I attest that I did see him, and he is real, and not merely a disembodied Skype user.  (For the Will birthers, I have not yet verified his birth certificate.)

I won’t bore you with all the details of my time in Chuuk, but I’ll give you the Sparknotes version accompanied by many pictures.  I hope to write a more reflective post soon with some impressions from the trip and how I feel that experience helped me to reflect and let God re-center me, but that won’t happen tonight.

Will’s island of Weno is the most populous island of Chuuk State, the most populous and poorest of the five states which make up the Federated States of Micronesia.  He lives with five other JVs and a number of independent volunteers at Xavier High School, an elite Jesuit-run boarding school whose main building is the World War II-era communications headquarters used by the island’s Japanese rulers.

During the course of my time in Chuuk, I spent a weekend with Will and many other JVs and Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) on a small island called Pisar.  This island is one of the outer islands in the Chuuk lagoon and was very near to the expanse of the Pacific Ocean beyond the Chuuk islands.  We snorkeled around some beautiful coral.  Despite my weak sauce life skills, I survived both an unusually strong current on our first time snorkeling as well a coconut which fell on my back.  It was a great place to hang out with Will and the other volunteers.

After our weekend on Pisar, we came back (by motorboat, just as we arrived) to Weno and headed up to Xavier, which is at higher elevation away from the island’s main town and most of its villages.  I enjoyed walking around Xavier with Will and also getting to know his fellow JVs a bit more and meet some of the school’s independent volunteer teachers.

On Monday, I went with Will to Akoyikoyi School, located in the village of Penia.  After teaching 1st grade last year, Will has transitioned into administration and teacher training.  However, I had the privilege of watching him in action as teacher because he filled in for another teacher who was getting back from Christmas break that day.  Will has worked very hard to master the methods of the structured English, reading, and math curricula used in the school, and it was wonderful to see him put that expertise into action.  (I doubt that I ever taught that effectively at Majengo, and I know that none of my classes were ever that disciplined!)  In almost every Skype call and email from Will, his passion for the school and its students has been evident.  However, seeing the school in person, meeting its staff, and observing its students learn (as well as later getting a handmade drawing of myself falling out of an airplane clad in scuba gear from one student) shed new light on everything Will had been telling me about his work.  Even though one morning of school obviously couldn’t show me more than a sliver of his daily experience, it was a sliver I feel very blessed to see.  After school, we walked a short distance from school to greet Will’s host family, who have played a huge role during his time in Chuuk.

After returning from Penia, we had community dinner with the other JVs and spent another night at Xavier.  The next day, we went into town and briefly saw the JVs from the second community on Weno, located near the harbor at Saramen Chuuk Academy.  In town, we picked up some fabric for what I hope will be an awesome shirt one day, and I got to eat some taro, a local root vegetable that was rather good and reminded me of a blander sweet potato.  We eventually made our way to the Blue Lagoon, a diving-oriented tourist resort.  Although we didn’t dive, we did relax, have a great supper, and enjoy the last night of my visit (or at least I enjoyed it–Will have been secretly waiting for his crazy brother to get back to the States).  The next morning, we had breakfast and then headed back to the airport.  After checking my bag, we went across the street and chowed down on a pretty amazing pizza.  And then, we said our goodbyes, and I went through the security checkpoint.  Before long, I was on the plane and on my way back east, with lots of hours to reflect on the past week and attempt to read my economics textbook for this semester’s course on international finance.

Yes, it was an amazing trip, one that I feel so blessed to have had the privilege to take.  Let me leave you with this shot of the bro and I sporting our Lawrence University cross-country team t-shirts from our sister Maureen.  (Sorry to Marquette for missing out on a great propaganda opportunity.)

We are . . . Lawrence?

We are . . . Lawrence?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Peggy Straight permalink
    January 23, 2014 8:50 pm

    so nice to see both of you again…. glad the adventures that you have shared are always such positive ones. I am so completely proud of both of you. Thanks for taking the time to share some of the details of your trip. hugs to you both. ps

  2. will asma permalink
    January 25, 2014 9:23 pm

    Brother Marshall,
    It’s always great to hear about your adventures.
    Keep that freedom train rolling!

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