By Sarah Binau ‘19
It’s July 1st, and I’m on an Alaska Airlines jet headed to Bethel, Alaska, to work for the town’s Cultural Center and live with a Pomona friend. I land on Bethel’s only runway in a 50-degree drizzling rain. “Remote” and “rural” begin to take on new meanings. The town of 6,000 has one main road (warped by the melting permafrost below), a gallon of orange juice costs $12.99, and the next biggest city, Anchorage, is 400 miles away—by plane. I go to bed that first night near midnight, the sun still blazing in my window. This is like nothing I’ve ever experienced, I think as I drift off.
Living in Bethel this past summer was simultaneously the most curious and loving experience I have ever had. Southwest Alaska provided a lesson on how to share my gifts in a small community and celebrate learning. I worked a job funded by PCIP (Pomona College Internship Program) at the town’s Cultural Center, and when my supervisor found out I play the ukulele, I found myself performing on Bethel’s single radio station to advertise a community event. When I asked that same supervisor how to contact people whose phone numbers I didn’t have, she advised me to call that same radio station and send a message: “Hello Bethel, Sarah Binau at the Cultural Center is looking for so-and-so: please call Sarah at 4574.” What do you mean I just give four digits of my phone number? I asked, skeptical. It turned out that all landlines in Bethel start with the same three digits, and, because all Alaska numbers have the same area code, only four digits are necessary to make a call.
Every day in Bethel taught me a new lesson. There was an excitement about learning, about meeting someone with a skill and knowing they could impart it to you, that was deliciously contagious. I learned to fish for heavy, slippery salmon, and how to rip their gills and sort them (I now know the true meaning of the phrase chum bucket). I wrote a 42-page cookbook for a community event we held at the Cultural Center. I flew in a Cessna propeller plane over the wide Yukon Delta, diving to see moose and bears and the never-ending Kuskokwim River and her various sloughs, another word I learned up North. I made a variety of international and local friends.
Most of all, my summer was another lesson in a never-ending class I like to call Maybe Your Way Isn’t the Only Way, Sarah. Being a visitor in someone else’s home (whether that home is a house, a town or a country) teaches me that sometimes my world view is not that of others around me, and that that is OK.
Looking back on the summer, I know that trusting my friend (who swore I’d love the experience) and living in Bethel was better than doing something “just because everyone else is doing it” at Pomona. I would give the same advice to my Pomona peers–listen to your friends. Visit them. Learn from them.