Thursday, September 27, 2012


The idea of getting a tattoo was something that always intrigued me, but nothing ever seemed important enough to scar my body with for the rest of my life. I never thought it was smart to get some random picture etched into your skin just because you thought it looked cool. It shouldn’t come as an impetuous decision on a drunken night or a spur of the moment impulse to do something crazy and wild. To me the concept of a tattoo is not simply to put a piece of art on your body, but to symbolize something meaningful that you want to stick with you forever. Don't get me wrong, pictures of big breasted women and fierce dragons are pretty badass, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I don't hate tattoos of butterflies and skulls, but those types of purposeless images are only for show and do not signify any deeper message or carry any worth beyond their exterior artistry. A tattoo should ideally be something that you will never regret getting and be proud to wear for the remainder of your years.
            It’s probably pretty obvious that I am spurting out this tattoo philosophy for a reason. I got a tattoo. I’ve been mulling over the idea since the beginning of my service here and been developing plans for exactly what I wanted. The phrase in the center of the tattoo took a lot of fine-tuning before I was happy with its syntax and the decorative island symbols all have personal meaning to me.  I decided to put it in the form of an armband on my right arm. A bicep can be covered up in formal occasions and the right arm is the masculine orientation in Chuukese. Also for some random reason I have always liked armbands as an accessory. In every single official sports game since the beginning high school that I have participated in (hundreds and hundreds), I have worn a sweatband on my arm. Now I’ve got one for life.
For a long time I tried to get in done in Chuuk, but I couldn't find anybody who could do the procedure legitimately. Battery acid and lime tree thorns are the standard tattoo tools on my island and I felt that it was worth looking around for something more sterile and permanent. So a couple weeks ago when I went to Guam, I cruised around and checked out a few tattoo shops before I found Harv at Low Tide Tattoo. Harv is a retired radio DJ who has been living in the Pacific for decades and exudes a likeable atmosphere in his cozy wood carved room. After talking to the man for a few minutes, I was convinced that he was going to be the guy to put his indelible mark on me.
The process of designing the particulars of my tattoo was a tedious series of trial and error with pictures, paper, pens and tracer ink. Harv was very patient and added his artistic touch to each of my ideas as we moved through the procedure. Eventually I settled on a series of designs and sat down to about 4 hours of needlepoint pricks. The stinging pain was bearable but had a unique hurtful sensation of combing a dentist drill and an eyebrow plucker. At the end of it all, I was left with a permanent armband of four island symbols encasing a Chuukese phrase on my right arm.
Each of the symbols has a particular meaning in the original Pacific culture that they originated, but since I personally picked a unique combination of designs I figured that I could also apply my own personal meaning to each image. The top line is a series of breaking waves and represents “flow”. I often find myself preaching to others about going with the flow and taking life at a relaxed pace. Crazy things happen to all of us, but handling those situations with a positive attitude and levelheaded approach will ensure that the best possible outcomes prevail. You cannot fight flow, you must take everything in stride and adapt to new circumstances. Understanding and embracing the flow of life is an important step in having an enjoyable and thriving existence.
The second line of images is a band of spearheads. My last name is Hunter and the spearhead is an obvious representation of my namesake.  I thought it would be kind of lame to just write my name, whereas a symbolic portrayal is much cooler. An unplanned bonus of the image is that my reputation on my island is as a proficient spear fisherman, so it carries that extra meaning.
 The third line is a Chuukese saying of my own creation, which reads “Suki Asamen Ekiekiomw”. The translation of this phrase is not a perfect one-to-one meaning in English, but it roughly means, “Open the doors of your mind”. I chose this phrase for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it sums up how my Peace Corps experience has altered my personality. I have not only gained a more worldly view by exploring the globe and living in poverty; but by integrating into a foreign culture I have truly come to perceive life and reality from an entirely different perspective. Seeing things through a wider lens has enhanced my understanding of the human condition and its potential, the natural world and its wonders, and the relationship between it all. It is important for me and everyone else on the planet to realize that there is more to the universe than what you see out your backdoor and you should always be willing to embrace the possibility of encountering new ideas and situations. I feel that being open minded about accepting alternative insights and welcoming different standpoints adds to my repertoire of knowledge and makes me a more well rounded person. The phrase is a reminder for me to never stop expanding my thinking and searching for new experiences.
Secondly, the saying is a source of inspiration for me in my continuous search for knowledge and education. I am passionate about learning and understanding anything and everything that comes my way. I want my mind to stay open to incorporate new ideas and thoughts, even if they don't make sense at first. That motivation about the expansion of knowledge leads into another reason for the phrase. I plan on pursuing a career in psychology and as a psychologist my job will basically be unlocking the secrets of the mind. In order to do that, I will need to delve deep into my mind and the minds of others to search for answers. In addition, the phrase serves as is a reminder for me to be non-judgmental. I aspire to refrain from biased judgments against people or things and feel that it is extremely important to stay open minded in that sense. First impressions, categories and covers of books often do not tell the whole story. 
In its overall sense, the words are primarily directed introspectively at myself but can also be seen as a snippet of advice to others. The beauty of the phrase is that it is open to interpretation. An onlooker can take whatever message he feels from the words and I am sure that my relationship with it will change throughout the years. Its variability of meanings and explanations are what make it special to me.
The line below the writing is an image depicting a woven mat of palm fronds. Typically this represents the home and family. Although my family is the most important thing in the world to me, I have expanded upon the meaning of the symbol and allowed it to signify all my social relationships. The complex but elegant connections between me and other people have molded my personality to be what it is today. This intricate web of relationships of my friends, family and acquaintances has defined who I am and is an integral part of my existence. The interconnectedness of the palm fronds represents the network of people that are important to me. Since I greatly value the social relationships that I have forged over the years, I felt it was necessary to make them part of my body because of their role in shaping my soul.
The bottom of the tattoo is a string of swimming dolphins. This particular artistic representation of dolphins originated in Chuuk and was meant to protect from the dangers of the sea and provide good luck. I appreciate having the intelligent mammals watching over me and I also like that they are relevant to my home in Chuuk, but a wandering dolphin also has a deeper meaning to me. When I imagine a dolphin streaking between the waves in a vast ocean, I think of freedom. I don't necessarily mean political freedom because luckily I have never dealt with oppressiveness in my lifetime, but simply a freedom to live life to its fullest. Freedom to pursue dreams and thrive in all that you do.
I am confident that I will never regret this decision to stain my body with inky marks. The significance of its symbolic meaning and its link as a souvenir of Chuuk will never lose its luster. The islands of the pacific and my personal philosophy are now engrained on my body until the end of time. The words and images wrapped around my bicep will forever serve as a reminder for how I want to live my life.

Monday, September 3, 2012

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem

Minimize the page on your Internet browser and take a look at your computer’s desktop background. There is a 37% chance that it depicts a tranquil scene of sparkling blue water and a white sandy beach with a single swaying palm tree. You might have this picture as the backdrop of your workspace to provide a glimmer of mental paradise that whisks you away to a fantasyland of carefree relaxation. (Or maybe it just came installed on the computer and you were too lazy to change it). Regardless of the reason that its there, it probably has the effect of inducing a dreamlike yearning for untouched island bliss.
Now take your daydream one step further and imagine stepping into your computer screen and burying your feet in the soft sand as the warm water laps at your ankles. A shallow turquoise sea melts into the powdery blue sky all around you and a crisp salty breeze caresses your cheeks as it flutters by. Tiny hermit crabs ramble along the beach beneath your feet and a school of dolphins playfully frolic in the distance. The only sounds are the gentle whoosh of waves sliding towards the shore and slight rustle of palm fronds quivering above your head. Your worries and concerns float away with the outgoing tide and you are left alone basking in the summer sunlight of the tropics. Welcome to Pisar Island.
            The isolated island of Pisar sits on the outer edge of the Chuuk Lagoon in the remote emptiness of the western pacific. Thousands of miles from the nearest continent and invisible on almost every map, Pisar is an unsullied paradise that seemingly only exists in fairytales. It has sprouted its head above the coral garden that surrounds it and sits atop a mound of crushed seashells that form its body. The rippling blue ocean spreads in all directions and stretches its endless arms towards the feathery clouds on the distant horizon. A couple dozen coconut palms and a few small bushes are the only plants that have taken hold in this nascent geologic wonder. Sand and water fuse together and make this a landscape of uniform beauty.
            In most scenic areas, the observer is drawn in one direction to look at some spectacular site. The difference with Pisar is that there isn’t a particular view that is any better than any other. In a 360-degree circle, each vantage point is equally amazing. Vibrant blue water, lazy drooping palm trees and silky white beaches can be seen anywhere that you look. It’s impossible to escape the visual stimuli of paradise.
            The island is small and basically deserted, but it’s not hard to keep yourself entertained. A short walk across a coral embankment will bring you to the edge of the outer reef and you can enjoy the thunderous crash of whitewater waves. Snorkeling amongst the colorful fish is always invigorating and spear fishing is an option if you are so inclined. The island is just big enough to have a sandy spot in the middle perfect for volleyball, and the space can also serve as an area for Frisbee or bocce ball. Hammocks are strung up from many of the trees and provide a shady respite from the powerful sun where you can catch up on some reading or simply take a nap. However my favorite thing to do at Pisar is just float. Maybe with a tube, maybe without, a leisurely buoyant bath with a beer in hand cant be beat in my book. A couple feet of warm water with a negligible current is the perfect place to dissolve away into absolute relaxation.
            You have to bring your own food and cooking gear, but they provide housing and bathrooms. So its kind of like high class camping…in the middle of the ocean. There are plenty of rooms to sleep in, but I prefer to sway in a hammock at night and fall asleep under the twinkling array of stars. My friends and I usually spend the days eating, drinking and playing games while we soak up the soothing atmosphere of the setting. The time ticks away slowly and the only thoughts running through my head are of sublime tranquility.
                        In my mind Pisar represents ultimate freedom, however I have established a few rules that I have adamantly adhered to on each of my trips to the island. I’m not allowed to wear shoes, put on a shirt, or let a single negative thought enter my mind. Given the circumstances, these personal laws of Pisar are rather easy to follow.

With These Two Hands

Many of the circumstances of my current life conjure up images of what you might imagine to be a stereotypical Peace Corps volunteer experience. I live in a small tin roofed house in the middle of the jungle, I speak one of the most random languages on the planet, I sleep on the floor and do without amenities or luxuries. However, during the last week I think I outdid all cliché moments of my service. I built a school out of discarded scrap wood so that the poverty stricken children of my village could have a place to learn.
The ramshackle mess of crumbling concrete that we used to call our school has just begun a renovation process. This is wonderful news; except for the fact that it means that we have nowhere to have class for the next year. Faced with this problem, the other teachers and I put our heads together and decided that we had to make something happen. So we gathered some of the intact pieces of the torn down building and hammered them together over the remains of another nearby decrepit shack of a building. By straightening out rusty bent nails and cutting off the rotten ends of wooden beams, we were able to pile together a decent supply of materials to begin our work.
            From early morning until sunset each day, the two other male teachers and I have been working tirelessly under the scorching sun to construct this random conglomeration of wood and tin that will house a hundred students for the next school year. Through a process of knocking down termite ridden walls and decayed roofing to make way for borrowed plywood sheets and chunks of scrap wood, we have put together a place that we are now proud to call a school (temporarily).
            After finishing the construction of the school and setting up my classroom, I sat in my broken plastic chair at the front of the class and took a moment to soak it all up. This was my class. Literally, it was mine. I built it myself and I was finally going to be a fulltime teacher of an entire grade. In my entire teaching career, I have always floated from class to class and assisted with numerous grades. Now I have a desk, a chair, a blackboard, and students that are all mine.
As I gazed at the discolored mishmash of plywood that made up my wall, my mind began to wonder about the possibilities of the final few months in Chuuk. After a disheartening end to last school year and a summer break to relax, the importance of school had drained out of me. I was just looking towards the end and going to coast out for the last couple of months. But as I sat in that newly constructed room of old wood planks I became rejuvenated with a spirit of excitement and enthusiasm for my last moments on the island.
I put together a mental map of all the things I could do as a 7th grade teacher. A new Peace Corps volunteer is already here to replace me and will be taking over my old responsibilities, which basically allows me to do whatever I want. What I want to do is teach this class of seventh graders in whatever crazy fashion I deem worthy. And that's exactly what I am going to do. I am going to give these kids a few months of education like nothing they have experienced before. This particular group of students holds a special place in my heart (maybe because some of them are my little brothers and sisters) and I am determined to do everything I possibly can to make them excited about school while I still have a chance.
Beyond my duties as a classroom teacher, I have also taken over most of the administrative responsibilities. Our principal is in America having a baby, and I have taken it upon myself to make sure that everything stays on the right track. I have always taken an overly active role in the functioning of our school system, but now I am officially the man. Ive been running staff meetings, organizing schedules and making plans for the year. Our school building is a mess, we have no principal, a new curriculum was just enacted, and we still have all the other problems that have been plaguing us for decades; but I am confident that I will be able to help guide the students and the teachers in a positive direction for the remainder of my service.