Visiting the Marshall Islands Majuro Atoll

After four days in Pohnpei, FSM, some of them with drenching rain, all of them with power blackouts, it’s good to get the hell outta’ Slidell, that is Pohnpei.  I’ll leave half a bear of honey behind, but the flashlight and Virgen de Guadalupe votive candle will go with me, presumably all the way back to LA, since the trip’s almost over.  And certainly the brownies will come along, too.  Micronesians make damn good brownies btw.  So I board the plane—a pound or two heavier—in a downpour and get back on UA/CO flight 172, aka the Micronesian milk run.  Three stops later I’m in Majuro, Marshall Islands, and the first feel is good.  It’s clear, breezy, and dry.  And the manager of my hostel-and-no-tell-motel is a nice Fijian guy who could pass for African-American.  For the price of a dorm bed, I’ve got the entire left wing to myself.  There’s even a live band playing at the adjacent club.  I’m good. 


Don’t look too hard for the Marshall Islands on the map.  You might hurt your eyes.  These are true atolls, semi-circular wisps of coral barely above sea level surrounding an open lagoon, the stuff of Gilligan, the Professor, and Mary Ann.  In general the islands of the Pacific are one of two types: low coral atolls or high volcanic “true” islands.  If/when global warming becomes a reality, M.I. will be one of the first to go.  Others, like Nauru and Tuvalu, have already made contingency plans.  But they don’t have close connections to the US.  They’re looking to Australia and New Zealand.  R.M.I. might be looking to China.  Chinese people are here in force, and that seems to pre-date the current export-the-revolution (what revolution?) mentality.  This seems to emanate from Taiwan in the post-WWII reshuffling of the deck.


This difference between RMI and Pohnpei, FSM, is notable.  Though little more than half the population of FSM, the Chinese presence gives RMI probably one of the higher commerce-to-consumer ratios in the world, with supermarkets popping up about every half mile or less.  Now these aren’t all Carrefour, Ralph’s, or even Piggly Wiggly’s quality standard, but still … compared to FSM’s ubiquitous hole-in-the-wall mini-markets, it’s an improvement.  They’ve got those, too, of course, and many of them are also Chinese-owned.  They didn’t come to plant rice.  Of course with that many Chinese, there are bound to be a few Chinese restaurants, and there are, but at prices as much or more than typical US rates—which offends my budget travel sensibilities—so I’m slow to dive in.  Menus are almost a carbon copy of a typical US one, also.  I get it.  Apparently there was even a passport-selling scandal not long ago involving Chinese using RMI as a gateway to the US.


The Marshall Islands are most famous for the nuclear tests conducted in the late forties and fifties on the atolls of Bikini and Enewetak.  Yes, but for some marketing decision made in the fashion district in Paris, we’d have watched the girl from Ipanema strolling by in her slim form-fitting Enewetak…or not.  All that’s passed, of course, but I still cringe when I hear a linguist refer to the eastern closely-related dialects as “nuclear Micronesian,” bad choice of words.  RMI and FSM are still closely tied to the US and their foreign aid, but that may change one day soon.  The tourist potential is enormous, of course, but that requires political cooperation within the region to get some of those tourists in Guam out here to see the “real Micronesia.”  A national airline would help.  France stopped nuclear testing in their neck of the ocean in 1996 btw.


Me, I’m feeling a bit peaked, whether from all the rain in Pohnpei or the grueling long walks, I don’t know.  All I know is that I’m feeling a bit wobbly, like sitting on loose stools.  Maybe it was the sakau in Pohnpei.  I’m sure keeping the already-dubious sludge in a fridge during power black-outs is not recommended.  Hey, cut me some slack!  I don’t drink or smoke, hardly anything ever, not much anyway.  On top of that, the hostel manager now informs me that there is a special “water time,” an hour each in the morning and evening when the water is on.  What, do they have so many leaks that it’s just easier to limit water use rather than fix the pipes?  Or maybe they don’t want late-night trysters from the club next door playing water-massage.  Actually they just don’t have much fresh water. 


But the scenery is a revelation to me, that you can walk down the (one) street and see the windward side of the island to your right, and the leeward side to your left.  So I walk as far west as I can go, then wait for the tide to go down, so I can walk across to another island and walk some more.  They all do it: Mom, Dad, kids, dog.  This is how they go to market.  It’s peaceful over there, I guess about as “traditional” as you can get without flying or sailing even farther into the outback.  No, they don’t live in grass huts or wear grass skirts, but still life is mostly a quiet family-based affair.  The effect is not too dissimilar from some of the US’s Indian reservations or similar groupings of indigenous people across the border in Mexico.  Some are nicer than others, and there are frequent references to the donors of aid: Japan, Taiwan, and the EU, which donated tanks to catch rainwater off roofs.  Hey, now there’s an idea… 


Again there seems to be an almost total lack of tourists, despite at least one major “resort hotel” on the atoll.  I don’t think those tourists get out much, though, probably staying with “their own kind” on the compound.  That’s not how my itinerary works.  Next day’s Sunday, so that means church day, of course.  I don’t think I’ve been to church since the middle of 2010 in St. Johns, Antigua, so I guess I’m about due.  I’m still looking for divine intervention.  The day’s looking a bit cloudy anyway, so that’s good.  I’m battered and fried from the previous day’s walk.  I definitely don’t need another one today, maybe tomorrow, when I’ll need to kill most of a day before the red-eye to Honolulu, with onward connection to LA. 


The hostel guy says his English-language inter-denominational church is fairly unexciting, but the local-language churches can be quite entertaining.  I’m not traveling with a Sunday suit, of course, but I do have long pants and figure to try to spit-shine one last glow out of my semi-retired Doc Martens.  They’ll just have to live with my flowery Hawaiian-style shirt.  Well, they’re all wearing flowery outfits, of course, especially the women, that serving as the Sunday-go-to-meetin’ uniform of choice.  Many of the local churches are hardly defined by cross or steeple anyway, but by their congregations.  Every village needs a church I reckon.  The one I happen into is one of the more nondescript of the lot, a barn-like structure with exposed rafters and tin roof.  One of the members greets me and acts as my guide. 


Much of it seems familiar, with nods to both Catholic and Protestant forebears.  Witnesses testify, and singers sing along with what looks and sounds like a Farfisa organ.  Kids wander among the aisles throughout, and more than once half the congregation wanders around shaking hands with the other seated half.  I even get a red silk-flower lei, which I figure is a very nice gesture.  The sermon itself is pretty animated and animating, too, though I can understand scarcely a word of it—just “Jesus, Christ, amen”—still the vocal inflections and exhortations reverberate through the rafters and off the tin roof carrying with it the weight and power of righteousness, presumably offering something like heaven for the true believers and holy hell for the miscreants and misanthropes.  They probably deserve it.  I finally leave after what seems like a couple hours.


They’ve got some mean dogs in Majuro, too, I’m here to testify.  Sons-of-bitches simply will not take “ssshhh” for an answer.  It drizzles off and on all day Sunday, which somehow seems fitting, then storms through much of the night.  That’s the breaks.  So Majuro is not perfect, much less paradise.  Prices for basic needs—like Internet—can be high.  Five-dollar Wi-Fi card gets you fifty minutes?  That’s the highest I’ve seen since Havana.  And I’m here for only three days over a weekend?  I’ll pass.  And three bucks for an espresso?  Nescafe’s okay.  And no, restaurants are not cheap, but as always to do it on the cheap you have to do it like the locals.  That means the two-dollar lunch boxes they tend to offer at gas stations and elsewhere, decent hearty fare for low dough, what we used to call “blue plate specials.”  Maybe I should make it my mission to turn the locals on to Internet.  Need creates the means to sustain it.


Unlike Pohnpei, there’s not much fish available, and the fresh vegetables, well, they’re probably best unmentioned.  There’s some Chinese people selling produce they probably wouldn’t eat; that’s all I’ll say.  But for a limited time, you can get three solid scoops of ice cream over at the Formosa Shopping Center for only fifty cents, so it’s not all bleak on the food front.  Better hurry.  And now I realize that the reason I got so sunburned is because the air is so clear.  And there’s not a red light to be found on the entire atoll, unsurprising with only one long… winding… road… hmmm, maybe that could be a song…   When I check in for my flight I realize why there’s not much fish available locally.  It’s all being carried in ice chests on the flight to Hawaii, in checked baggage!  Standby passengers pass through immigration, even though they might not get on the flight.  People wander in and out at random.  It’s a zoo.


More than anything else, the Marshall Islands seem like the perfect metaphor for our lives and times.  Somehow we got here, on this narrow band of livability, with intent and purpose, despite all odds and enduring all hell, but existence is still fragile even when life is easy, and we really haven’t got a clue where we’re going from here.  That just about sums it up.  In a few minutes I’ll be on the plane, back to Honolulu, back to those United…States…of mind… I hope.  That’s a wrap.  This trip’s history.


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