Editor’s Note: Over the past 35 years, Jim Mielke has had the privilege of living and working in some of the poorest, most remote and under-served countries in the Asia-Pacific region, assisting governments, international aid agencies and communities for improved health and development. Jim also enjoys speaking to students, members of voluntary organizations and other interested groups about international travel, study, and overseas volunteer and professional opportunities – just as someone spoke to him when he was working a summer job at Silver Bay YMCA of the Adirondacks. Many people are keen for an overseas experience, and searching for direction, but for various reasons never get there. Each year Jim sends a Christmas letter to family and friends to share some of his experiences. In June 1986, having completed his assignment with the YMCA of Western Samoa, Jim set off for some adventure travel through the Pacific and Southeast Asia:
Traveling Road Show 1986 (Part One)
It was like leaving two and a half years of summer camp. Blowing the clouds away, the winds of the tropical winter signaled a change in season – excited and a bit nervous as I prepared to leave Western Samoa following my years at the YMCA – to be on the road for an indefinite period.
Smoke from Sunday umus (rock ovens) drifted through the coconut grove, the morning sunlight filtering through, softly lighting up the leaves and tall trunks, as I waited to take the final trip to the airport. After two years, the funding from my YMCA sponsors in the USA was exhausted, but the Samoan YMCA had continued its support for the final six months of my assignment, providing housing, along with some taro, bananas and coconuts.
We drove up to Lanato’o Crater Lake trail head and hiked in for our final outing – it was the clearest day ever. Barefoot all the way through the cool, green bush, up and over the rim, sliding down and once again hitting the water – we breathed it all in.
It was so incredibly hard to leave, but apparently the time had come to make a move. I was comforted a bit knowing that the place and the people are so much a part of me. Friends are forever and the memories live on. With so much of life to live and wonderful friends to love, I wouldn’t stay away for long. Fa’fatai le Atua (Thanks be to God).
It was thrilling to think of the adventures that lay ahead. Camped on the deck of a tiny Fijian freighter with five other passengers and crew during its monthly supply run to the Tokelau Atolls, we voyaged three days from Western Samoa into the vast remoteness of the Pacific, finally reaching three groups of tiny, low-lying islands. The lagoons were coconut-fringed and windswept. Our tiny freighter stood off-shore like the old clipper ships.
Lowering a dingy over the side, we counted the waves and surfed safely over the surrounding barrier reef and into the lagoon. 500 people live on each of the three atolls – healthy, happy and peaceful. There are not many untouched and unspoiled places like this left in the world. When I swam across the lagoon to a distant islet, I found only coral sand, coconuts, crabs, sea birds, and utter peace.
Two island girls hustled me off to their fale (Polynesian house) and fed me coconuts and pandanus fruits – eager to play “touch” with this bewildered papalagi. (the Polynesian name for white people). It literally means “burst from the heavens” as it seemed when the first European explorers arrived, their tall sailing ships appeared to emerge or burst from the clouds as they materialized on the distant horizon.
On to Fiji, I volunteered with the local YMCA for six months before continuing on to Vanuatu and Australia. Culture shocked in Australia’s big cities, I was not used to the tall buildings, fast cars, quick service and cold winter air.
Traveling up the east coast of Australia, I stayed with our cousins in the cool, scenic mountains of Queensland and dove on the Great Barrier Reef. On to Papua New Guinea, I joined my brother Dave for a month of adventuring through Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya, Sulewesi and Bali, Indonesia.