Quin's Progress


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Picnic on Screensaver Island

islandersIf you research things to do on Majuro, you’ll find that the most recommended activity is to go someplace else.  It’s beautiful, but there isn’t a heck of a lot to do on Majuro, and the few things there are to do are often closed when you get there, notwithstanding the business hours posted at the entrance.  But, Majuro is a great jumping off point to explore the other, more remote islands in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.  You can catch a boat or a seaplane from Majuro to any of the other 29 atolls in the nation, some of which are pretty far flung.

Eneko Island

Eneko Island

Eneko Island is near-flung, relatively speaking, in that it’s day trip distance from Majuro by boat.  I decided to play chicken with Dale and go for the day.

The Ambassadog

The Ambassadog

So, I got up at the crack of ten, had the hotel cook pack me up a sandwich, and set off in a little skiff with a small group that included, as I found out later, the U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands and his dog, who would not stop licking my face.  The dog, not the Ambassador.  Yes, I was face-licked by the Ambassadog.  Such an honor!  And, it distracted me from trying to figure out who on the boat would play Gilligan, the Skipper, the Professor, the Howells, Ginger and Maryann in the movie I would otherwise have been making in my head of this trip.

Real Island. Not a screensaver.

Real Island. Not a screensaver.

Spiders!

Spiders!

As we skimmed the edge of the coral reef that makes up the Majuro Atoll on our way to Eneko, I couldn’t help but think of those screensaver images of palm trees sprouting out of small, sugar white sand islands in azure seas, taunting me from my computer screen back home.  I think I must have assumed they were photoshopped or something–that something that pristine couldn’t actually exist.  But it does.  It’s in the Marshall Islands.  The screensavers, of course, don’t show you all the SPIDERS!  Ugh, see, this is why we can’t have nice things.

AtollThese little islands, barely sticking up out of the sea, are all the last dabs of the rim of an ancient volcano, on which the coral reefs have developed.  The sometimes narrow separations between the islands are just the places where the rock and coral has eroded or descended into the sea more quickly.  From the air, you can see the coral connection between the islands just under the surface of the water.  If the sea level rises even a teensy bit, this country is going to disappear.  In the meantime, it’s a great place for a snorkel picnic!

Look at that water!

Look at that water!

The clarity of the water is peerless, and as I mentioned in my last post, the coral is among the healthiest in the world, teeming with life.  It has a perfect, sort of Disney-like quality to it that makes it seem not quite real.

(Click to enlarge the images below.)

See the little pipefish?  Look at his seahorsey nose.

See the little pipefish? Click to enlarge, and have a look at his seahorsey nose.

On Eneko Island, the sand shelf is limited, so the beach is powder soft, but you can’t walk out into the water very far before you hit coral.  The water over the reef is quite shallow, too, so for once, being fluffy and buoyant was a huge advantage, as it allowed me to hover easily over the coral in just a couple feet of water and see the abundant sea life up close and personal.  Like this little guy.  I thought he was a seahorse at first, because of his nose, but, apparently, he’s a pipefish.  It’s a cousin to the seahorse, but the body isn’t curled and paunchy.  He’s the supermodel of seahorses.  No curves.

I found Nemo!

I found Nemo!

Unlike at more traveled spots, where the fish are accustomed to being fed by tourists and swim right up to your snorkel mask and wag their tails, waiting for a treat, these guys were skittish and wary of human company.

Pretty Fiddy!

Pretty Fiddy!

Or, perhaps it was the fact that I had a tunafish sandwich for lunch, and to them, my approach was heralded by the stench of death and mayonnaise.  I’m not sure.  In any event, when they would allow me into any kind of close proximity, it was an even greater honor than being licked by the Ambassadog.

Why wasn’t I scuba diving with the rest of the group, you ask?

I should have had these breadfruit for lunch instead of a tunafish sandwich.

I should have had these breadfruit for lunch instead of a tunafish sandwich.

Well, I am certified to scuba dive, but not only did I not feel like putting on a wetsuit and lugging all the necessary gear, I had to fly the next day, and I didn’t want to risk the bends.  From what the others reported after their dive, I think I had the better day snorkeling in the shallows in my tutu-tutu anyway (“tutu” is the Marshallese word for swimming, and my swimsuit has a little skirt thingy on it; hence, tutu-tutu).

Speaking of flying the next day, travelers take note:  there’s a $20 per head departure tax in the Marshall Islands, and it has to be paid in cash, in U.S. dollars, and there’s no ATM at the airport.  Ignorant of this, I managed to run myself down to just three dollars by the day I left, and they wouldn’t take a credit card for the departure tax.  I tried to pay in banana bread and Snickers bars, but the guy wouldn’t go for it.  I still had 1,200 Macanese Patacas (about $150 USD) in my wallet from when I was in Macau, but the guy wasn’t having any of that either.

MAJ airportThere’s a little branch of the Bank of the Marshall Islands at the airport that purports to be a licensed foreign exchange bank, so I went there and tried to exchange the Patacas for US dollars.  The bank teller looked at the bills and was, like, “you git on outta here with yer funny, make-believe ‘Patacas’ before I call for the sheriff!”  Or, whatever the Marshallese version of that general sentiment would be.  They wouldn’t even let me do a cash advance on my credit card, although, I have to wonder if they would have permitted it if I had lead with that.  Who knows?

Gettin' my departure tax cash at the bar.

Gettin’ my departure tax cash at the bar.

Finally, the bartender in the airport bar took pity on me/took the opportunity to exploit my stupidity, and after I bought a shot of Jack—which I sorely needed by that point—and agreed to an extortionate 25% “convenience fee,” allowed me to get $20 cash back on my credit card so I could leave the place.  Good thing he didn’t know I had fresh banana bread to bargain with, or I’d have lost my inflight snack, too!


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Taxicab Compressions

MarshalleseIokwe, 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.”

The view from my hotel room.

The view from my hotel room.

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.

This was right outside my front door.

This was right outside my front door.

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.

That's one of the snappy new ones, right out in front of the airport.

That’s one of the snappy new ones, right out in front of the airport.

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.

Bikini Atoll Town Hall.  I really wanted to see the Mayor's car, but his parking spot was empty the whole time I was there.

Bikini Atoll Town Hall. I really wanted to see the Mayor’s car, but his parking spot was empty the whole time I was there.

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.)

They really do wear muumuus and play ukuleles under the palms.

They really do wear muumuus and play ukuleles under the palms.

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.

Marshallese lady gettin' in my cab.

Marshallese lady gettin’ in my cab.

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.

So expensive!

So expensive!

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.

BBQ'd chicken and pork with rice, slaw and macaroni salad for $3.  I ate here almost every day.  If they decided to be open.

BBQ’d chicken and pork with rice, slaw and macaroni salad for $3. I ate here almost every day. That is, IF they decided to be open.

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.

More taxi mates.  The little one is Gigi.

More taxi mates. The little one is Gigi.

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.

The driver and another passenger in front, me and three other people in back.

The driver and another passenger in front, me and three other people in back.

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.

She just got out of my cab.  The driver was flirting with her something fierce, and you can see why, with that smile.

She just got out of my cab, after giggling and flirting with the handsome young driver to the point he almost crashed into a Noni tree.

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.

Beautiful downtown Majuro

Beautiful downtown Majuro

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.

No AlcoholI 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.  P1070324I 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.

Iokwe!

Iokwe!

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.