Imagine living in a place where time has no meaning and neither does money. Imagine growing up in a place where no one wears a wristwatch and the only “jobs” that people do are fishing, housework, making handicrafts, processing coconuts (for oil), or teaching school. Imagine your only source of fresh water being what you catch from your rooftop in rain gutters. Imagine being completely dependent on your community for life itself and sharing everything that you have with everyone in that community. It is hard to imagine that such a way of life exists in 2007, and yet it does on hundreds of outer islands in the Pacific. This life is reality on 27 out of the 29 atolls that make up the Marshall Islands.
Last week I spent 6 days on Arno Atoll and I got a real sense about how people in Majuro feel when they get homesick for the peaceful life of their home island. My eyes were also opened to the kind of background that the majority of my students are coming from. My experience inspired me to be a more patient teacher. Understandably, many of my students are overwhelmed by the volume of new things they have to assimilate when they move to Majuro and attend an American community college. Most of us foreign teachers barely comprehend this. Now that I’ve experienced it firsthand, I have the capability to be much more compassionate and understanding when it takes a little longer for my students to understand what I’m teaching them. Not only are they learning in a language that is not their own, but they are also dealing with concepts and ideas that are COMPLETELY foreign to them.
Susan and I packed up our backpacks, food, tents, and bicycles and got on the boat to Arno on Friday. The boat trip took 1.5 hours over pretty rough seas. The men put a line out behind the boat and almost immediately caught a medium-size skipjack tuna. The smell of diesel fumes and the rolling of big waves made me very thankful our destination was Arno and not Enewetak (which takes 5 days on the sea). Also on board our boat were Newton Lajuan (director of counseling services at CMI) and Doug Walters (a consultant to CMI from West Virginia). Doug became overwhelmed by the fumes and eventually sat down on the bottom of the boat and looked like he might lose consciousness. He said, “If I die, just send me to a watery grave, alright?” He was joking, but from time to time we wondered if it might be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Luckily, we all survived.
We got out at the dock, Newton pointed us toward Jabo Villiage (our destination where our friend Erik (the venture-capital sea cucumber farmer) was staying), loaded up our packs and started off on our bikes. It had rained the previous days and the dirt road was full of mud puddles, rocks, sand and coconuts. The scenery was jungley and beautiful but we didn’t get to see it too much because we spent so much time dodging objects on the treacherous road. We knew that Jabo was about 12 miles away from the dock in Arno, but we had no idea how much effort it would take. The first half was fun and adventurous. We finished our ½ gallon of drinking water by the ½ way point. After that it just got hard. It started raining (which continued for the remainder of the weekend) and it took 3 hours of hard work to get to Jabo.
The rain let up and we talked to some local children. Erik is staying with the Jormelu family, who kindly allowed us to camp on their land. We met the kids and I got lots of practice in Marshallese. My Marshallese was actually a little better than many Arno residents’ English (I didn’t think that was possible!) The Jormelu family were extremely kind to us and let us sleep in their house on mats with them when our tent flooded the first night. They let us use fresh water from their cistern and they shared their food with us and visa versa. Katwell and Lilly have 7 daughters ranging in age from 15 to 2yrs old. Neighborhood children come and go all day.
We swam, relaxed in their hammocks, cooked, and helped hang laundry (all scrubbed in giant buckets with wooden boards). It was really wonderful.
On Sunday I met the missionaries in Inne and walked another 6 miles through mud to the next village to the house of Glorina (who spends ½ her time in my neighborhood in small island and the other half in Arno) for church. She was surprised to see me. Along the way (in the middle of nowhere!) we ran into my former student Ballen and also Moana, a young woman who recently joined my branch at church.
That first night, on my way to bed, about 10 adolescent girls from the village who I had met earlier came down the road and were very curious about where I was going to sleep. I showed them the tent and they wanted to check everything out. (This was about the most exciting thing happening in Arno on a Friday night…checking out a white woman’s tent :) It was really adorable. I got into the tent and said goodnight to them and they just stuck around for about 5 or 10 minutes serenading me with some Ukelele songs. The same thing happened when I took showers in the outdoor little room with a bucket of cold rainwater. The girls would patiently wait outside for me to finish and emerge so they could resume observing everything I did. It was very sweet.
The next night I had another interesting experience. I went to bed around 8pm since that’s what everyone does shortly after the sun goes down (with no electricity and only a kerosene lantern, there’s not much to do after dark!) The tent was actually dry because the rain had stopped briefly, and I drifted off to sleep. At 2am I heard Susan open the zipper of the tent, so I kept sleeping. But immediately I knew it was not Susan because the whole tent REEKED of alcohol. Now there is no alcohol on outer islands because there are no stores to sell it, which is a good thing. Well, there’s home brew made with yeast, but that’s about it. I realized it was not Susan in our tent, and in my sleepy state I figured out that it was Erik. He was faking a French accent and he was really drunk and sappy. He lay down next to me and threw his arm over me. I was groggy and joked about how he would be so busted when I told Susan what he had done and rolled him away from me. Finally his breath became so nauseating that I climbed over him and told him I was going to the bathroom. I left him in the tent to sleep it off, and went into the house and slept on the corner of the jeki (woven mat) on the floor with the girls. The next morning I told Susan about it and she said, “No, Erik was sleeping in the same room as me and he didn’t drink.” She was right! Erik was not hung over the next morning and did not emerge from the tent, but from his room. But whoever was in my tent had his exact same build. We joked about all the possibilities including everyone in our village and even some American World-Teach volunteers in the next village, and soon I questioned if it was just a very vivid dream.
I had almost forgotten about the whole experience when yesterday Erik and Doan came back from Arno and Erik said, “We found your boyfriend.” What?? Who?? Evidently after Susan and I left Arno, Flatney (a Marshallese guy that works in the Sea Cucumber business with them) confessed to Doan and was really apologetic. He had been watching us while playing basketball and was mesmerized by my blonde hair (something really foreign to him) and accidentally wandered over on Saturday night after drinking a bit. Erik described him as the most muscular, handsome guy on Arno. He even said he would become a Mormon if I came back to Arno. I got a kick out of that. Hmmm… it’s very flattering, but something tells me it’s probably not going to happen. But I must say it is tempting!
It is a very unique experience to be the subject of a commotion everywhere you go. When Susan and I laid in the hammock, groups of local children would come and interrogate us: “How old are you?” (30) “Are you married?” (no) “Is Erik your husband?” (no!) “Well is he your brother?” (no) “Is he Susan’s boyfriend or brother?” (you’ll have to go ask her about that!) So then they moved over the Susan’s hammock to start interrogating her. Only that didn’t work because she doesn’t understand or speak Marshallese, so they all just stood there and watched her in silence for 10 or 15 minutes. Meanwhile, the Jormelus’ cousin Kenny, an adorable little stinker who is about 5 years old came over wearing his batman outfit (complete with a cape attached to the back) to push us on the hammocks. “Wow, this is the life,” we thought!
I went to the beach to look for some shells to attempt to make Amimono (handicrafts) with. I met 3 adorable little boys (grandchildren of a Japanese man that lives next door) putting sand in their shirts and throwing it at each other and giggling with delight. They asked me what I was doing, so I told them. So they came with me and collected EVERY shell that they saw and gave it to me (even the really ugly ones), so I spent my time discretely re-depositing shells while they kept picking up more and more.
The 2 year old girl across the street was adorable, but every time she saw us (which was at least 15-20 times per day, she would call out, “Ri-belle!” “Ri-belle!” “Ri-belle!” (white person) over and over, and no matter how many “Yokwes” we called back, she wouldn’t shutup. Then there was Waito, the youngest of the adorable Jormelu girls who is also 2 years old. She’s skeptical of Ri-belles. Every time any white person came within 4 feet of her she would making an uncomfortable moaning noise until one of her sisters picked her up. Her older sister Idea (whose real name is Selina) loved the mosquito repellent that Susan shared with her. The mosquitoes were vicious, and we needed a lot of repellent. Seven-year-old Idea said, “Wow, Enno Bwin” which means “Wow, smells wonderful!” That cracked us up. One of these days we’ll send her some real perfume and she’ll go crazy.
Monday came quickly and it was time to take the boat back. We thanked the Jormelus for their hospitality and loaded up our bikes. The missionaries told us that the Roxana (another boat) came to Inne Villiage (which is only 2 miles from Jabo rather than 12), so we pedalled there to catch it. We waited on the dock for several hours with the missionaries and two World-Teach volunteers, one of whom was trying to get back to Majuro as well. All the local school kids came too. They were swinging off the dock into the water, singing songs, and playing games. Finally, 3 hours after he was due, the captain of the boat sent a message on the CB radio (no phones on outer islands) that he would not be coming because he was stuck in a long voting line. There was not enough time to make it all the way over to Arno Village to catch the other boat. The Roxanna captain said he would come the next day.
So what are two girls to do when stranded on an outer island? More snorkeling, of course!! Greg and Tim (the worldteach guys) highly recommended the area where we were waiting for the boat. We jumped in and swam out across the shallow coral reef. Suddenly the coral drops off into the Ocean and you’re in the middle of a live National-Geographic documentary on Coral Ecosystem Biodiversity. We saw large schools of parrotfish eat the coral and then poop out sand (very interesting), we saw 3 white-tip sharks, schools of parrotfish, angelfish, clownfish. It was absolutely amazing! And because you’re above everything looking down on this vast world below, it feels as if you’re flying instead of swimming. It’s just a feeling that can’t be described, you have to try it.
After that we biked back to Jabo where the villagers were not surprised at all to see us again (apparently the boat schedules are less than reliable and they are used to it). So Lilly made us doughnuts and IQ (my favorite Marshallese meal made with coconut that has started to sprout, milk and sugar) and we set the tent back up. That night the wind blew it over and I ended up sleeping on a plywood for the rest of the night because the wind and rain pounded me. When I went back to the tent the next morning it was under a pool of water and some local girls helped me rescue my belongings from inside and hang the tent on the laundry line (see photo above).
The next morning we woke up early and wandered up the beach where they had told us we could find a WW2 airplane wreck. Sure enough, at low tide were were able to walk right up to it. It is an American bomber that was shot down in January 1948. Two crew members were killed initially but 8 survived. The Islanders took care of them until they were discovered by the Japanese military and never seen or heard from again. The wing section, propeller and an engine turbine are all still there in the same place they landed nearly 60 years ago. It’s amazing to me that it’s still in such good shape considering that the salty air has turned my bike from yellow to orange with rust in the space of 1 year!
We went back to the dock in Inne the next day and waited again. The kids were back and we sang, gave out free sunblock samples (they had never seen it before, but they all wanted to experience it after we put some on!), learned some new Marshallese words from them, and then took cover under an old fishing station when it started raining again. The boat never came. By this time we had missed a whole day of classes and were going to miss another day because the boats didn’t arrive in Majuro until afternoons. The 5 of us (world-teach, elders, Susan and I) decided to forget about the Roxana boat and hire one of the 4 trucks on the island to take us up to Arno Village to try to catch the Kiritake (the boat we came on) the following day. We were happy at the prospect of sleeping at the bed and breakfast there since we were soaked, tired of the tent, and didn’t have any food left. The ride to Arno Arno took longer than the bike ride out (the truck had to dodge all the same obstactes) and we got hit in the face multiple times by low-hanging branches.
When we got to Arno and checked the B&B, there was no room, and we were disheartened. The sky was threatening rain again and we had nowhere to go. Newton had already gone back to Majuro. The missionaries decided they would try one lady who they knew was a member of our church, Namor Alferty. She happened to be building a new house to rent to tourists. It was unfinished, but the walls and roof were up and we were so thankful for a dry place to sleep. She gave us (complete strangers) food to eat and jekis (mats) she had made herself. She was so good and kind to us, and I had great conversations with her the next morning. She makes mats by harvesting the Pandanus leaves, cutting off the prickly edges, boiling them, pounding them with a stone, and then weaving them together to form King-Size beds. They are absolutely beautiful! She was so generous and hospitable to us, and told us to come stay with her anytime we were back in Arno.
It was Wednesday (another day of missed classes) and our 3-day long weekend had turned into 6 days. We got the news that Kiritaki boat was in Arno atoll picking up ballot boxes from 10 different island locations and might not have room for us. It was scheduled to arrive at 11am, but no sight of it. We went snorkeling again and saw some new things: a puffer fish, black-tip shark, and a neon-purple giant clam. Still waiting, hungry, dirty, salty…finally at 4pm Kiritaki showed up. They did have ballot boxes, but they also had room for us and we were SO thankful! It was a wonderful but exhausting trip.
The first day back in class the lesson was about finance: IRA’s, sinking funds, annuities. Suddenly I realized why many of my students don’t comprehend this topic: they are still adjusting to living in a society where money is necessary! Of course they will struggle with their calculators! One of my students said, “Oh, you went to Arno? Inne village is my hometown!” and a lightbulb went on in my head. Ok, ok, I get it now. I’m so thankful to have experienced outer-island life from the perspective of an islander. Few foreigners ever get that chance to experience this. At best, they stay in the B&B and snorkel a bit. But what a treat to be welcomed by gererous Marshallese people, bucket-shower with cold refreshing rainwater, sleep on a jeki, cook on a kerosene burner and share with the whole neighborhood, and speak Marshallese with curious children and youth. It was hard to come back to the busy, crazy, overwhelming mess on Majuro. Of course I was happy to sleep in my bed and check my email. But this experience of being away from all of it was just amazing!