Republic of the Marshall Islands – Home to Popcorn Delicious and Coral Reefs – Marshall Islands
Republic of the Marshall Islands
It was 5:00 in the morning and the Franciscan friar I work with had driven me to our regional airport to catch my first of 17 hours worth of flights. I stood there, mouth agape, as the airline representative scrolled through her computer screens searching for one “Julie Ostergaard”. I waited. Nothing showed up. I had anticipated this day for a year and had spent May through December without an official residence of my own in order to save money toward this trip. The plane ticket from North Carolina to New Jersey to Honolulu to Majuro had cost me $1700 and the travel agent I’d trusted had fouled up my ticket. The friar began praying silently and wrote down a prayer for me to recite as we stood there for the next twenty minutes, as she searched. Then, viola, before I knew it, a ticket (minus the return flight from Jersey…details, details) was found, and moments later, I was in my seat.
I have to admit I felt cool in Hawaii, thinking about the tourists for whom this trip would be their piece de resistance, the one they would tell stories about forever, while for me, I was just passing through. In Hawaii, I had the great fortune of meeting up with my older brother’s friend, a former Coast Guard helicopter pilot and mother of adorable toddler name Kaian. Her husband was a marine in Afghanistan. Similarly, my own mom was left in Hawaii with her toddler when her husband was a marine in Viet Nam, 30 years earlier. Spending that time with her helped me understand what that was like for my mom as she waited for my dad day after day. I also crashed with my younger brother’s friend Sarah, who, along with her boyfriend Jay, moved to Hawaii after graduating from college. He makes money by volunteering for medical tests and she works at a community theatre. They live at the top if a lush valley in a Filipino community. Their balcony is just wide enough for a sideways folding chair and the sounds of thousands and thousands of roosters (raised for cock fighting) wafts in waves through the air from the valley. That side of Hawaii, away from the few square miles of Honolulu and the non-native Hawaiian sand beaches (long story), is incredible.
What I did not realize before I went on this trip is just how many countries are in the Pacific. Dozens. I can only remember about five by name right now, but there are dozens. Hawaii, while to us, seems like such a faraway and exotic place, is seen by most in the Pacific countries as a sort of ultimate destination. A fortunate few get to go to Hawaii one day to study at the colleges or University. Hawaii has modern hospitals (founded by Franciscan sisters who ventured there from upstate New York in the 1800′s…not a bad move if you’ve ever seen a Syracuse winter). Hawaii is to the Pacific what New York is to America.
Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, is about the same distance from Hawaii as California is from Hawaii. The Marshall Islands are comprised of hundreds of islands spread out over an area the size of the United States. You may have heard of the country because of its crucial position for World War II naval strategy: Kwajelin is basically a US Navy base. Bikini atoll was the site of nuclear testing for decades. The French designer who created the bikini gave it that name for its exotic association with the island known for nuclear testing.
The islands and island countries of the South Pacific can be loosely designated in one of three groupings: Melanesia, Polynesia and, I can’t remember the third…I think it is Amnesia. Just kidding, it is Micronesia. “Melan-” refers to the dark, almost Africa-dark complexions of the people native to that region. “Poly-” means many and includes the islands of Hawaii. While there is indeed an independent country known as “Republic of Micronesia,” that word is also used to include the Marshalls. By the way, it gets on my nerves when people get offended at my compatriots’ use of the word “America” as the name for our country. Do you think the people of countries in Micronesia get similarly offended when citizens of The Republic of call it that? And, besides, what are we supposed to call our country, “The United States”, ï¿½cuz if so, one might suspect we are talking about “The United States of Mexico”.
…but I digress.
Majuro, where Jackie lived, is a horseshoe shaped island that measures thirty miles from tip to tip. Its width, in most places, is that of a football field. On the inside of the horseshoe is a perfect harbor for ships, calm water. On the outside of the horseshoe is the he coral reef. Basically, all these “islands” are more appropriately called “coral atolls”, as they are the tippy tops of ENORMOUS coral reef formations stickin’ out of the water at an elevation of about 1-3 feet above sea level. When you stand in such a place, only a few feet above sea level in the middle of the sea, you realize that if the polar ice caps really are melting and if the ocean level is really rising, then it is only a matter of time until entire countires/cultures/ways of life are wiped out forever, slowly flooded over.
Landing on Majuro is what I imagine landing on an aircraft carrier feels like: its just you, the plane, a whole lotta ocean and a landing strip that is just wide and long enough for a flawless landing. That’s it.
Jackie came to greet me with the girl she lived with, both wearing flowery muumuus. I soon learned that in heat so relentless, a muumuu becomes a girls best friend: airy, light and it doesn’t stick to your moist skin. They let me borrow muumuus from their “community box”, a stash of local clothes. I spent my first day melting, staring into the blades of a fan and hoping it would all prove to be worth it…and soon.
The Marshallese are historically excellent navigators. Theirs was a system built on celestial navigation and reading the waves. Even on a starless night, a Marshallese person could find his way home by how the waves looked. Incredible. Originally, their staples were breadfruit and fish. The language of the Marshallese is unlike anything I had heard before. I can imitate a lot of accents and languages, but theirs remains an enigma.
The obnoxious lushes who work in the US embassy there think of themselves as heroic for serving a “hardship tour”. While its isolation would make it a difficult to live, I think that living in a cloud of alcoholism for the duration of your four-year stint there only adds to the difficulty. They are regulars at the bars in Majuro. They are missing out on life there.
In Majuro, I went snorkeling among incredible coral reefs and a wrecked passenger plane. I got my haircut by a woman who was born a man. Her name is Popcorn Delicious and she did a great job. I sat and watched the sun set over a vast expanse of ocean. I befriended dozens of cute, curious kids who all insist on drinking out of the same glass. I took the standard mode of transportation-taxis which go back and forth all day along the one road-from one tip to the other. I bought beautiful handicrafts made from shells and woven palm branches and I giggled when I learned that Jackie’s address, in this sparsely populated place was simply: PO Box 8.
Since my trip there, I have continued to send tobacco for Bata Rich’s pipe. A Jesuit priest from Connecticut, Rich has lived in the Marshall Islands for almost 20 years. He hopes to stay there for the rest of his life. His one pleasure in the world seems to be his pipe, so once a month, I visit the local tobacconist for a few ounces of North Carolina’s finest. And everytime I do that, I think of those poor tourists in Hawaii who think they’re seeing the Pacific.