Iokwe, gentle friends! That’s hello in Marshallese, the language of the Marshall Islands. It’s also their word for welcome, goodbye, and love. It translates directly to English as “you are a rainbow.” As a Marshall, although admittedly not a Marshall Islander, I feel obligated to speak a little Marshallese, so, from now on, I am going to use “you are a rainbow” as my all-purpose salutation. God help me next time I have to go to court. “You are a rainbow, Your Honor. Quin Marshall for the defense.”
Before I came to the Marshall Islands, I was joking around with my friends that I was hoping for a royal reception when I land, with a parade or something, but that my Marshall name never seems to carry much weight at Marshalls the store, so I wasn’t going to get my hopes up. Fernando said that if they did receive me as the Grand Marshall, as it were, that the parade would be followed by a tour of all the things in the islands that need fixing, so I’d better hope to pass unnoticed instead.
As it turned out, everyone I introduced myself to just looked at me kind of funny—kind of like you’d imagine people would look at you in the States if you introduced yourself with “Hi, I’m Trudy United States.” Either that, or they’d say “Oh, are you related to that guy who sailed past our islands two hundred years ago and named them after himself?” Uh…no. So much for my parade.
Actually, I take that back. There was a parade every day. A parade of taxicabs, trawling slowly up and down the only road on Majuro, the main island of the Majuro Atoll—the capital, and one of 29 coral atolls, including the Bikini Islands, that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
Majuro is a long, skinny, boomerang-shaped island that is barely wider than the plane I flew in on, no exaggeration, and hardly sticking up out of the ocean at all. Maybe that’s where the word atoll comes from? Anyhoo…there’s one road, from one end to the other, no way to get lost. If you stand in the middle of the road, there’s water within spitting distance on both sides of you; the ocean on one side, and the lagoon sheltered by the atoll on the other. (I was seriously tempted, for some reason, to measure the distance across the island in cartwheels. It would be a double-digit number, for sure.)
The way most folks get around Majuro, if they don’t have a car of their own, is by the plentiful taxis that run slowly back and forth between the airport and Rita Weto, the village on the northern tip of the island. A few are nice, late model economy cars, but most of them are rattletrap jalopies just a bit of twine and some duct tape away from collapsing in a wheezing heap.
My first morning on Majuro, I was told to just flag one down on the road to get to town; you can’t call for one to come for you. Being the city girl I am, I stood on the edge of the road and politely waited for an empty cab to approach before I waved.
So, imagine my surprise when, a couple hundred yards down the road, the driver pulled over and two more people got in. No one seemed to think this required any explanation to me, so I just went with it. Sure enough, half a mile later, we stopped and picked up another person.
Then, we stopped for gas, and the driver made us all pay our fares up front so he could afford some gas. When he stuck his hand out to me, I didn’t know how much to give him, so I handed over three dollars. He gave me back 75 cents.
Between there and town, we stopped and let people out, picked up others—sometimes up to six people at a time were crammed into that little Reagan-era Toyota Tercel—stopped at the BBQ shack for chicken, then dropped off the food at the driver’s mom’s house, and then finally made our way to town.
It took 45 minutes to go about seven miles. But, it was a sure ’nuff local experience. And, I learned my lesson after that, not to wait for an empty cab to flag them down.
By the end of the week, I was an old pro at it. I knew that, although the fare from my hotel to downtown was two dollars, if all I had was a five-dollar bill, the fare was five dollars. Still, nothing to complain about, relatively speaking. Plus, I had also learned that the drivers have to pay 35 dollars a day to rent the taxi, and that whatever they make over and above that is theirs to keep. But, when the average fare is 25 to 50 cents, and tipping is not customary, it’s a long, hard day to make 35 dollars, not to mention exceed it. So, I never groused about being held up for an extra buck or so when I didn’t think in advance to get small bills for the fare.
I noticed that no one ever announced their destination to the driver when they got into the cab, like I did. It’s what I’m used to from home, but on Majuro, they just get in the cab and say nothing. Maybe “Iokwe,” but that’s about it. No chitchat, no nothing, unless it was obvious that the passenger was related to or closely befriended with the driver. So, I tried it. Flagged down a taxi, got in, and said nothing. No driver ever asked me my destination.
One guy drove me all the way to the northern end of the road at Rita Weto (Rita Village), and just turned the car around and started driving the other way, without asking me why I hadn’t gotten out anywhere. So, the system is, apparently, just like riding a bus; when you want off, you let him know. There’s only one route, and as long as you’re happy to pay the accumulating fare, cheap as it is, you can ride back and forth all day if you want.
I saw a lot of these signs along the side of the road at the edges of various villages on the island, that say, in Marshallese on one side and English on the other, that consumption of alcohol in the village is prohibited. I asked a waitress in a restaurant why that prohibition existed, thinking it might be a religious thing, like I had seen in some villages in India. But no, she said it was “because, plenty people make trouble when they drink, so the landowners, they don’t want to allow the drinking.” I asked who enforced the rule, and she said “if someone makes too much trouble, they send him to the outer islands.” So, I take it this is not an official, but probably more effective, form of local justice, administered by the Marshallese “iroji,” or tribal chiefs. Get out of line, and get banished until you can behave. I like it.
I should put in a complaint to the iroji about the driver of the last taxi I took, who seemed to think his solitary tooth and emphysematous cough were as intoxicating to me as the information that I was traveling alone and leaving the country soon was to him. He was NOT a rainbow.