Tag Archives: Marshall Islands

WORKING IN PARADISE: BEST BOOKS (PART 1)

‘Micronesian Blues’ by Bryan Vila, Cynthia Morris

Having spent 9 years as a street cop, Bryan gets a job as a law enforcement specialist in Saipan. Soon after his arrival he discovers that the islands of Micronesia, although dazzlingly beautiful, will be quite a challenge.

This is a brilliant book! Exceptionally well written, funny, and very informative. Bryan recounts his experiences in a refreshingly honest manner, showing readers what it was like to be a police officer in Micronesia in the early 1980s.

‘The Coconut War: Vanuatu and the Struggle for Independence’ by Richard Shears

Richard, a journalist working for the Daily Mail, is sent to the Pacific to cover the war that has just erupted in the New Hebrides. Trying to deliver a good story, he is forced to manoeuvre his way through the complexities of the country’s politico-military situation.

Richard Shear’s account is a wonderful description of a foreign correspondent’s job. Even though it’s a history book, it’s far from being boring. Actually, it’s a page-turner that reads like the most interesting novel.

‘Solomoni – Times and Tales from Solomon Islands’ by Roger Webber

Roger, a fledgling doctor with a committed passion for helping others, travels to Solomon Islands to provide medical assistance to those in need. But as he quickly learns, treating people from a completely different culture is not always as easy as he may have thought.

If you are curious what it’s like to live and work in Melanesia, this is a perfect book for you. Filled to the brim with interesting facts and information, it will show you the real Pasifika; Pasifika like you’ve never seen it before.

‘Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals’ Trish Nicholson

To fulfil her youthful desire, Trish decides to apply for an overseas job in Papua New Guinea. After being chosen, she flies to the dragon-shaped island to work on a development project. At the time she has absolutely no idea what the realities of life for a development worker in Melanesia are.

When a foreign consultant comes to a faraway country to implement and guide changes, he must know it’s going to be hard. When that foreign consultant is a woman, she must know it’s going to be very hard. You don’t believe me? Just read Trish Nicholson’s engaging memoir.

‘Up Pohnpei: Leading the ultimate football underdogs to glory’ by Paul Watson

What’s the easiest way to become an international football manager? Find a team bad enough you’ll be allowed to coach them. For Paul and Matt, that’s Pohnpei.

This hilarious book is a proof that if you can dream it, you can do it. Paul and Matt’s adventures show the different side of football – without big money, famous players, and magazine-perfect WAGs. Although their job is not always easy, it brings more satisfaction than winning the World Cup.

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IDYLLIC MICRONESIA

‘Ujae Island was part of Ujae Atoll, which, like every coral atoll, was a thin ring of reef studded with islets surrounding a lagoon. Ujae sat perched between the inner lagoon and outer ocean, and I quickly understood that the essential axis of the island was ocean-lagoon, not east-west or north-south. Walking to the two ends of that axis brought me to the island’s extremes. The lagoon was calm, shallow, and so transparent as to be color-coded by depth; its beach was smooth, sandy, and fringed by houses. The ocean was violent, mile-deep, and impenetrably opaque; its beach was rough, rocky, and utterly deserted. There were two sides to this island, and they couldn’t have been more different.’

Peter Rudiak-Gould, ‘Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island’


‘After our first week in Palau, Bourne took us out on the Milotk, the thirty-six-foot Marine Resources boat, to the rock islands. Southern Palau is dotted with these unique islands. Some are extruded limestone formations, deeply undercut at the waterline from erosion and the rasping action of hungry chitons. The rock islands, their crowns covered with dense native vegetation, appear as giant green mushrooms growing from the water. Others are laced with beautiful white sand beaches, as close to tropical paradise as imaginable.’

PG Bryan, ‘The Fish & Rice Chronicles’


‘The picture in our dictionary showed an atoll as a small ring of sand and coconut-palms around a dead flat lagoon kept fresh by the ebb and flow of ocean tides through breaks here and there in the land. Marakei in the Northern Gilberts is indeed rather like that – a ribbon of palm-green not more than twelve miles round; the regular golden circle of its beaches, closed save for one tidal passage, encompasses a sapphire lake forever exquisitely at rest.’

Sir Arthur Grimble, ‘A Pattern Of Islands’


‘Finally, Kosrae loomed on the horizon. The island was lush ad green, with long stretches of sandy beaches and two large, pointy peaks that defined what locals called the Sleeping Beauty, for obvious reasons. It was so beautiful and serene – like something right out of a picture postcard from paradise – that I felt a great sense of calm and peacefulness wash over me.’

Bryan Vila, Cynthia Morris, ‘Micronesian Blues’


‘Beyond Nan Madol lay the ocean and several uninhabited islands on the horizon. The beauty of the place left us speechless.’

Paul Watson, ‘Up Pohnpei’

THE ISLANDS OF MANY DELIGHTS (PART 1)

‘To picture Kiribati, imagine that the continental U.S. were to conveniently disappear leaving only Baltimore and a vast swath of very blue ocean in its place. Now chop up Baltimore into thirty-three pieces, place a neighborhood were Maine used to be, another where California once was, and so on until you have thirty-three pieces of Baltimore dispersed in such a way so as to ensure that 32/33 of Baltimorians will never attend an Orioles game again. Now take away electricity, running water, toilets, television, restaurants, buildings, and airplanes (except for two very old prop planes, tended by people who have no word for “maintenance”). Replace with thatch. Flatten all land into a uniform two feet above sea level. Toy with islands by melting polar ice caps. Add palm trees. Sprinkle with hepatitis A, B, and C. Stir in dengue fever and intestinal parasites. Take away doctors. Isolate and bake at a constant temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The result is the Republic of Kiribati.’

J. Maarten Troost, ‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific’


‘Fongafale (pronounced “Fō-gah-fah-lay”) was the major islet of the capital island of Funafuti. It seemed extremely green from the air, with tin shed houses partially hidden by coconut palms one side of the short runway. As we straightened up for our descent I could see in the distance an array of romantic-looking islets in a large lagoon comprising the entirety of Funafuti. My briefing pack noted that here the population was 5,000 and rising, home of the nation’s parliament, High Court, the Princess Margaret Hospital, Tuvalu Maritime School, daytime secondary school, government offices, civil servants’ homes – and the office and home of the People’s Lawyer of Tuvalu.’

Philip Ells, ‘Where the hell is Tuvalu?’


‘Fatu Hiva seems magical, a sort of Narnia in summer. We run up the valleys under the coconut and breadfruit trees, flowering plants everywhere. A tall waterfall an hour’s rocky climb up a goat track through old forest provides a shower and a shampoo. A boulder pool in the streambed serves as a first bath for weeks. The valley appears to have been cultivated from time to time since nature reclaimed it after nearly two thousand years of man, though no great effort is now made to gather fallen coconuts for copra. The hedges round a few paddocks are of hibiscus, grown for rope woven from its bark. The Fatu-Hivans pick for us lemons, bananas and pamplemousses, pomelo relations of grapefruit, perhaps the world’s most delicious citrus. The owner of the single tiny store asks for cartridges as barter for a chicken.’

Andrew Rayner, ‘Reach for Paradise’


‘I now understood on a visceral level why this region of the Pacific was called Micronesia, which means “small islands”. In the United States, there might well be parking lots bigger than Ujae. In the Marshalls, Ujae was unusually large at a third of a square mile. This was a country of 1,225 islands totaling only seventy square miles of land – it was Washington, DC, shattered into a thousand pieces over an area the size of Mexico. Ujae was five times larger than the average Marshallese islet, most of which were uninhabited.’

Peter Rudiak-Gould, ‘Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island’


‘My first impression of Tonga’s landscape, viewed through the bus’s smudged windows, was as dismal as Cook’s had been admiring. Pigs snuffled in the garbage that littered roadside fields. We passed graffiti-covered billboards for cigarettes, a vegetable stall named Prison Market, and a battered sign arcing over the road, emblazoned with the words “Long Live Your Majesty.” Sweeping under this arch, we entered downtown Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital, which seemed at first glance a dreary expanse of ferroconcrete boxes.’

Tony Horwitz, ‘Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before’

A CHAT WITH… BRYAN VILA AND CYNTHIA MORRIS

Bryan Vila spent six years working as a police chief in Micronesia. His experiences and adventures are vividly described in the book he co-authored with his lovely wife, Cynthia Morris. Bryan and Cyn were kind enough to answer a few questions regarding the Pacific Islands, ‘Micronesian Blues’, and their plans for the future.

BRYAN VILA CYNTHIA MORRIS

Pasifika Truthfully: Training police officers in Micronesia sounds like a dream job for a former LA street cop. Did it turn out to be your dream job?

Bryan Vila: Living and working in Micronesia did turn out to be my dream job, but not at all in the way I’d been expecting.

After Vietnam, and then nine years working some of the toughest beats in L.A., it’s easy to become cynical. You see so much brutality, so many awful things that people do to each other, and you start to feel like nothing you do can make things better – so why try? But I’ve always been an optimist, so I was determined not to let cynicism win.

Micronesia certainly wasn’t paradise – it had its problems, just like anyplace else on the planet. But I regained my connection to humanity in Micronesia. Unlike the anonymity of urban policing, I got to know people, become a part of their communities, and finally feel like I was making a difference.

Living and working in Micronesia gave me back my optimism and my belief that even one person can bring about change. The lessons I learned about community policing there have stayed with me and influenced nearly every aspect of my work – first as a federal law enforcement officer and then as a professor for the past 25 years – since I left Micronesia.

PT: What had you been expecting before you boarded the plane?

BV: Ha! I remember having this ridiculous notion that my then-wife and I would be able to travel from island to island together by sailboat as I did my job. Of course, as soon as I got there and realized how enormously far apart the islands are, that dream was dead in the water (bad pun intended).

More generally, I initially viewed the job as a ‘paid vacation in paradise’. This idea got shot down on my second day in Micronesia, when a group of Chuukese police officers I was supposed to be helping to train almost killed me.

Other than that, I don’t recall having many expectations at all – just the excitement of a new adventure, which I’ve always loved. It was 1978. There wasn’t any Internet back then, and very little information about Micronesia was available at the library, so I couldn’t just look things up. That didn’t bother me at all – sometimes the very best adventures are the ones where you have no idea what to expect.

I went to Micronesia with an open mind, and a desire to learn. I think that’s the most important thing anyone can do when experiencing a new culture – or cultures, in my case.

PT: Ok, let’s get back to the day you arrived in Micronesia. Your initial thought?

BV: Hmm. I took the Island Hopper, which was an Air Micronesia Boeing 727 with reinforced landing gear. And when you took the Island Hopper, you didn’t just ‘arrive in Micronesia’. You stopped at island after island – Johnston, Majuro, Kwajalein, Pohnpei, Chuuk, Tinian – until you reached your final destination, which in my case was Saipan. Most of the runways were paved with crushed coral back then, so the landings were rough. We’d often land so hard the oxygen masks would fall down and the overhead storage bins would pop open.

It was all a bit surreal, especially because I’d been traveling so long by the time I got there that I was loopy with jet lag. On most of the islands, we’d have about an hour on the ground so I’d get out to stretch and take a look around. It was the middle of the night most of the time we were flying, but there were still people waiting to greet their loved ones with leis and mar mars everywhere we landed. I can remember watching them all curiously, listening as they spoke in languages I couldn’t begin to understand, and relishing the edge of a new adventure.

When I finally got to Saipan, I was surprised by the combination of incredibly beautiful natural scenery and the stark contrast of dilapidated man-made structures, most of them made of concrete or rusting metal. It looked pretty disreputable at first to an outsider, but after you’ve lived in the tropics for a while, you learn that there are three main colors there: blue, green, and rust.

I was also fascinated by the World War II relics – old tanks and fighter planes and bunkers and landing craft – scattered all over the island, since my dad had fought and almost died on Saipan during World War II.

But mostly, I remember that I really wanted a shower and a nap, and was relieved to get to the house where I’d be staying for the next couple of weeks. I didn’t even mind that the water that trickled out of the showerhead was red with rust…

PT: How difficult was it to adapt to so many different cultures?

BV: (Chuckles.) Well, I soon learned to apologize in nine different languages, if that gives you any idea. You can’t help but screw up when you’re trying to figure out 12 different cultures all at once.

But I loved that about Micronesia. I mean, imagine how boring Europe would be if all the countries were alike. The different cultures and languages are what make each island unique. Learning those languages, and participating in the culture, is what allows you to connect with people and become an ‘insider’. And insiders, not outsiders, make the most difference in any community.

So I learned the languages – or at least enough to get by. And I participated in the cultures. When the Pohnpeians drank sakau, I drank sakau. When the Yapese chewed betel nut, I chewed betel nut. I held hands with my burly cops on Kosrae, because that was the custom there, and I shook hands with as hard a grip as I could muster on Chuuk.

One of my most appalling early screw-ups was on Yap. I was doing firearms training for the police officers there and thought I’d lighten the mood with a well-timed fart. I had seen people laugh themselves sick over a fart on Pohnpei, so I thought everyone would laugh and it would relieve a little tension all around. But I was completely wrong. On Yap, farting was considered seriously rude.

Another time on Pohnpei, I was invited to one of my local co-worker’s homes for dinner. When it came time to eat, they served me a whole boiled chicken on a plate, along with a huge chunk of yam. Then everyone watched and nodded and smiled as I ate. I was thinking that it would be rude not to finish it all, and I did my best but I just couldn’t do it. When I finally handed what little was left on the palm-leaf plate back to my host, she passed it on to the next person to eat. I was mortified when I realized that I had just eaten most of a dinner that had been meant for the entire family!

PT: Speaking of cultures. Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Palau, The Marshall Islands, Guam. Different islands, different folkways. How would you describe each of these places in a few sentences?

BV: It’s hard to sum up the differences in a few sentences, but I’ll try.

Let’s see. On Yap, people were quiet and reserved. They spoke softly and tended to jump at loud noises. Yapese villagers valued their peace so much that right after the dirt roads were graded each month, they’d go out and dig big potholes so people would have to drive more slowly. Yap was one of the most traditional of all the islands, so many men on Yap still wore the traditional loincloth, called a ‘thu’, and many women went topless.

On Palau, people tended to be extremely forthright. I would often join in on heated political debates at a beachside bar called ‘The Cave’ at night. For the most part, they were all in good fun – Palauans love a good argument. Stateside clothes were more the norm on Palau. I think many Americans would feel most at home on Palau, because the culture is more familiar than on the other islands.

On Chuuk, people greeted each other with crushing handshakes and the men tended to be tough and hard-drinking, despite the fact that the women had recently voted in prohibition when I was there (they scheduled the vote on payday Friday, when the men were drunk). Chuuk was also home to Xavier High School, where most of Micronesia’s new leaders had been educated by Father Fran Hezel. He was a wonderful force for thoughtful change in Micronesia.

On Pohnpei, the people were warm and welcoming. One thing that set Pohnpei apart from the other islands was sakau, a kava-like drink that plays an important role in Pohnpeian culture. Sakau ceremonies are used to honor people, for negotiations, to settle disputes, and other reasons. You can try sakau at a sakau bar or at the local cultural center, but I don’t think you’ll really understand the significance of it until you’ve participated in a local ceremony. In fact, Cyn and I chose to end the Kindle version of ‘Micronesian Blues’ with an informal local sakau ceremony on a remote hillside, because we felt it so strongly captured the feel and beauty and communal nature of Micronesian life.

In the Marshalls, people tended to avoid conflict. It’s important to be peaceful when you live on a low, flat, crowded atoll with people you’ll know all your life. But that doesn’t mean they’re meek; they’ve done a good job standing up for themselves for the past 40 years or so. They’re determined and stalwart.

Of course, when most people think of Guam and Saipan they probably think of World War II, since those islands played such a strategic role in the Pacific theater. There were still World War II relics all over Saipan back when I was there – and probably still are. The indigenous people of Guam and Saipan – the Chamorros – welcomed progress, but they also worked hard to preserve their unique blend of cultural heritages. Since the time of Magellan in the 16th century, they’ve absorbed different aspects of Spanish, Japanese, and U.S. culture. But they’re still very much their own people. I lived on Saipan for six years and loved it, although I spent about three weeks of every month ‘wheels up’, traveling all over the region.

Kosrae was the most communal, and most religious, of all the islands. Religion pervaded life there – I couldn’t even swim in the lagoon on a Sunday, because it was against custom. People would come over to my house to sit with me – even if we couldn’t communicate more than a few words to each other – just to keep me from being lonely. When I first got there, it was difficult to get used to, but I soon found myself enjoying being part of such a close-knit community. I especially loved participating in the communal singing – or maybe I should say ‘trying to sing’. Kosraeans have lovely, lilting, high-pitched voices, and I have this deep baritone voice, so it was always pretty funny when I joined in. I’d try to copy their tone, and end up sounding like a cross between Julia Child and Tiny Tim!

PT: Where did you feel most ‘at home’?

BV: That’s easy. Kosrae. It’s funny that I ended up feeling that way, because at first I had found the strong religious presence and all the togetherness on Kosrae to be a little overwhelming.

But as I learned the language and the culture, the very togetherness I had initially found so alien and uncomfortable turned into a real sense of belonging.

We had a strong sense of community on Saipan – but it was mostly among the expatriates who worked there. We were sort of a community within a community. On Kosrae, I had begun to feel like part of the extended island family, and I enjoyed that.

I could’ve stayed – the Kosraeans had offered me land to stay there, which was very unusual as a foreigner. And there have been many times when I wish I had stayed on in Kosrae and lived in peaceful, uncomplicated tranquility. But my wife at the time was eager to get back to her job and her friends on Saipan, and I had a job to get back to, too. So we went back to Saipan on schedule. But I still think of Kosrae often and miss it.

PT: Now, the islands of the Pacific are often portrayed as paradise. But, as we all know, even paradise is not crime free. What did you have to deal with?

BV: More than I ever expected, that’s for sure. People are people, wherever you go, and sometimes people behave badly – very badly.

My first day on Kosrae, for example, I was confronted with a rape that had just taken place. Two young Kosraean men had raped two American Peace Corps women, and the Americans were understandably furious. To make matters worse, it turned out that one of the suspects was the younger brother of the deputy police chief, so the cops had been too embarrassed to do anything about it yet. I explained to them that we had to treat everyone the same, and I think it helped to have an outsider come in and make that call. We went and arrested both young men, who were tried and convicted under Kosrae’s new rape laws, which were based on the California and Oregon penal codes.

A while later on Pohnpei, a group of prisoners broke out of the local jail, shot the jailer in the back, stole the police jeeps and weapons, and then went to the local radio station, which they mistook for the island communication station, and shot and killed the DJ. I was on Saipan when it happened, and put together a ‘posse’ to go out and take care of things. But by the time we were able to get there, the Pohnpei police had the situation pretty much under control. All but one of the suspects was in custody, and one had been shot and killed when he opened fire on the Pohnpeian cops.

Another time, one of the magistrates on a small outer island of Chuuk and his family ran amok. They had been terrorizing the people on their island for a long time – raping and torturing and such – and eventually killed a 14-year-old boy in broad daylight in front of many witnesses. Everyone on the island was too afraid of them to do anything about it, so we went in and arrested them all. I have to admit I was pretty scared of them too, based on the stories we’d heard, but it turned out they weren’t nearly as fierce or as well-organized as everyone thought. It felt really good to be able to put those guys behind bars and restore peace to the island.

PT: Quite a few stories appear in your book, ‘Micronesian Blues’. When did you come up with this idea: ‘Oh I want to write about my experiences in the Blue Continent’?

BV: I’ll let Cyn, who actually wrote the majority of the book, answer that question…

Cynthia Morris: I remember the exact moment when the idea hit me. Bryan and I were friends at the University of California, Irvine, back when he was a new professor and I worked as a science writer there. One afternoon over coffee he said, ‘One of these days I’ll have to tell you about my experiences training cops in Micronesia’.

As a writer, I was completely intrigued, but we were both too busy to talk about it any further for a long time after that. In fact, I don’t think the subject came up for another two or three years, after we were married.

We would go for long walks along the beach near our house with a tape recorder on, and Bryan would share his stories from Micronesia with me. Pretty soon, I had boxes and boxes of tapes about his experiences in Micronesia to go along with the boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings, photos, and other memorabilia he had saved from his time there.

It was still several years after that until I finally was able to transcribe all the notes from our talks and start to put the story together. By the time I was finished, I knew I had something really special on my hands, because ‘Micronesian Blues’ is more than just a collection of funny tales from a remote part of the world. Bryan gained a great deal of cross-cultural knowledge and understanding during his six years in Micronesia, and his willingness to participate in local culture wherever he went serves as a great blueprint for people living and working in foreign lands. And, at the risk of embarrassing Bryan, I’d say that ‘Micronesian Blues’ is also a touching, beautiful story of a man who became whole again in a faraway land.

PT: I must say that your book is thoroughly engaging, highly amusing, immensely entertaining, and very thought-provoking. But it is definitely too short! Do you have any plans to write a sequel? If yes, when can we expect it to be released?

CM: Thank you! Bryan’s experiences really are pretty amazing, aren’t they? And this is just a small portion of his life story…

We actually do have plans to tell more of his story, and quite soon. We can’t say any more about it just yet, but a very exciting project is in the works.

PT: Will Bryan Vila ever come back to Micronesia?

BV: Absolutely! I’m looking forward to visiting again, hopefully sometime soon. I still have several good friends who live in Micronesia, and we keep in touch when we can. It would be good to see them again, and to see how much Micronesia has changed in the years since I was last there.

‘MICRONESIAN BLUES’ BY BRYAN VILA, CYNTHIA MORRIS

‘Micronesian Blues’ is a travelogue-cum-memoir co-authored by Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris. It chronicles Vila’s sojourn in Micronesia, where he worked as a police chief and trainer from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.

MICRONESIAN BLUES

Summary

Having been a street cop for nine years, Bryan feels he needs a little change. So when he hears about a job opening for a law enforcement specialist in Saipan, he just cannot say ‘No’. Training police officers in a tropical paradise… How hard can it be? Well, quite hard, it turns out.

With six different governments, twelve different cultures, and nine different languages Micronesia proves to be a great challenge. But Bryan takes his assignment seriously. Travelling from Yap to the Marshalls, from Kosrae to Palau, he keeps busy teaching the Islanders and absorbing their fascinating way of life. And even the occasional riots or prison escapes can’t ruin his contentment. Because in Micronesia one always finds a reason to smile.

Review

I will start by stating that this is one of the best travel books you’ll ever read. Which is somewhat surprising, because on the surface it looks like just another memoir that describes someone’s experiences in a distant land. In other words, nothing special. But, as the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover (by the way, the cover of ‘Micronesian Blues’ is absolutely gorgeous!). In this case, that is so true.

The travelogue is co-authored by Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris. Well, as a matter of fact, it’s Bryan Vila’s story written by Cynthia Morris. Oh, what a perfect match they are! A match undoubtedly made in heaven. Let me explain why.

As you may imagine, it is never easy to recount another person’s adventures. Achieving someone else’s voice, sharing their point of view, and conveying their message is an incredibly difficult task. And yet Cynthia succeeded. She managed to show Bryan’s personality so well that you quickly forget he’s not the one who actually narrates the story. Everything – from the lively writing style she adopted to fantastic humour to vivid but not overwhelming descriptions – lets you believe you read a book penned by a man who’s been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale. Something like this is impossible to achieve, unless you are a very talented writer. Cynthia Morris definitely is. If it wasn’t for her, ‘Micronesian Blues’ could be just a title in a pile of other titles.

Of course, the book would have never come into existence if Bryan hadn’t decided to take a job somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His adventures and experiences are obviously what make the memoir so immensely interesting. Right from the beginning, he amuses readers with personal anecdotes and little snippets of his daily life in paradise. And he does so with a hefty dose of self-deprecation. You can’t help but appreciate his honesty when he relates his cultural mishaps and misunderstandings that not only make you laugh (hysterically) but most importantly let you understand the complexity of Micronesian cultures.

Speaking of which, I’m not quite sure who’s responsible for cultural context in the book, but the abundance of information regarding local customs, habits, traditions, and beliefs is just phenomenal. You get to know the region as a whole, and then you get to know individual islands. The authors wonderfully delineate the differences between the countries (FSM, the Marshall Islands, Guam, Palau, CNMI) and states (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae), unravelling the peculiarities of each culture. You will be surprised how diverse this lovely part of our globe is. But you can be sure that with a little help from Bryan and Cynthia you will understand it so much better.

Do I recommend ‘Micronesian Blues’? Wholeheartedly! It is a brilliant piece of travel literature that entertains, enlightens, and educates. You will learn a lot. You will laugh. You will enjoy every single second spent with this book in your hands. And then, after reaching the last sentence, you will want to read it again.

MARSHALL ISLANDS BY PETER RUDIAK-GOULD

Marshall Islands. Where to go? What to see? What to do? Peter Rudiak-Gould, the author of ‘Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island’, gives his recommendations.

Visit Ejit Island, Majuro Atoll

This is a small island just by Majuro, the country’s capital city. It is a unique place, being the home of many of those displaced from Bikini Atoll by nuclear testing in the 40s. As everywhere in the country, people are friendly, but it is best to dress modestly, not take photos of people without their permission, and always say ‘yokwe!’ (hello) rather than looking like you’re sneaking around. Getting there is fun. Consult a tide table to make sure that you’re walking at low tide. Then walk or take a taxi to the end of Rita neighborhood (the far end of the island that the capital city is on). You can walk on the reef at low tide without getting your feet wet! Walk towards the next (very small) uninhabited island, then the next one, and then you’ll get to Ejit. Make sure that you walk back to Majuro before the tide comes up. When the tide is medium or high, it will be very dangerous to try to wade or swim back to Majuro. In a pinch you could ask nicely to catch the next small boat back to Majuro, but they depart irregularly and are not commercial boats.

Visit Arno village, Arno Atoll

This is a beautiful community that gives you a flavor of outer island living without requiring a lot of planning and logistics. You can take a boat from right by the RRE Hotel in Majuro. You’ll go through Majuro lagoon and out of the artificial channel on the south into the wide open ocean. Get a sense of what ancient (and modern!) Marshallese seafarers braved when they set sail. About an hour later you’ll arrive on Arno. There is a guest house that you can stay in. Explore the lagoon beach. The water is unusually choppy for a lagoon (Arno means ‘lagoon wave’), but it’s still very pleasant for a swim. The atoll is so large that you’ll see the curve of the lagoon beach disappearing in the distance; very beautiful. The island is quite thick here (about 1 mile) so you can explore quite a large swath of jungle. (Don’t worry about getting lost. Just head in any direction until you hear the sound of waves!)

Visit Leb Island

Difficult to get to, but well worth the visit. Leb is a single island rather than an atoll, and is much higher in elevation (though still very low!) compared to other islands in the country. Only about 100 people live here. An unusual feature of the island is the large (semi-)freshwater lake in the middle, which used to be a saltwater lagoon until the channels were naturally filled in over time, walling it in and turning it into a lake. There are beautiful mangrove trees fringing the lake on one of its sides. People are very friendly and they don’t get a lot of visitors. It’s only accessible by a chartered boat from Kwajalein or on the ‘field trip’ ships that goes around the country buying and selling copra (coconut meat) and transporting people. That is a huge adventure in itself! If you do go to Leb, ask for someone in Majuro or Kwajalein who has a connection there, and ask their permission and ask if you ought to radio the island first. There’s no guesthouse, restaurant, stores, or anything of the sort on Leb, so bring plenty of gifts (practical things like rice, flour, coffee, sugar, etc.) and ask to stay with a family.

A CHAT WITH… PETER RUDIAK-GOULD

Peter Rudiak-Gould is a writer, an anthropologist and a climate change consultant. His book, ‘Surviving Paradise: One Year On A Disappearing Island’, is a fantastic memoir of his first visit to the Marshall Islands. Here’s what he had to say about the country and the Blue Continent.

PETER RUDIAK-GOULD

Pasifika Truthfully: Quick question. Ujae – Heaven on Earth or Hell?

Peter Rudiak-Gould: For the people who live there, it’s more like heaven, I’d say. Not that life is always easy there, not that people always get along, but I think that most ri-Ujae (people of Ujae) love the place and are able to live full and meaningful lives there. They live a minute’s walk from their friends, they have land and a house with no mortgage to pay off, they can let their kids go and play without worrying about getting lost or kidnapped, and although life gets tougher when the money runs out, they can do pretty well with local resources, at least for a little while. Some of the best modern technologies – basic Western medicine, medical evacuation if needed, communication radio, bicycles, solar panels, etc. – are there, with few of the bad ones. There is still no television reception on Ujae.

For me – it’s a little bit of both! But as I explore in my book, there were fundamental differences between me and Ujae, sort of like a rocky romantic relationship with deep attraction by equally deep incompatibility. Heaven and Hell aren’t places, they’re relationships.

PT: What are your memories of the Marshall Islands?

P. R.-G.: Too many to recount! But what they all have in common – nearly all of them anyway – is the feel of warm, humid air. If I close my eyes and imagine that feeling, it brings me back to being there much more than thinking of what the country looks like. The air, atmosphere, or weather is the basic medium of every experience we have. That’s why climate change will alter our realities so much.

PT: And what did you learn during your stay?

P. R.-G.: How to fish with a spear. How to speak Marshallese (not all that useful outside of the Marshall Islands!). How to play the guitar. How to take a shower with just one small bucket full of water. I learned how incredibly dark night can be, and how incredibly bright day can be.

PT: Why did you decide to write a book about your adventures in the Pacific region?

P. R.-G.: I always wanted to write a travel book. It’s a genre that really attracts me. The best travel books combine the best of memoir writing and essay writing – a compelling narrative that also provides a lot of fascinating information about a culture and a place, and interesting perspectives on life. Travel books also captivate me because they are about the gap between expectations and reality, what we thought we’d get and what we actually got. So they are about confronting difference and reality in all of its unexpectedness, which is not just fun and stimulating but can also be humiliating and painful.

PT: How has Ujae changed since your first visit?

P. R.-G.: I definitely noticed a difference between the first time I was there (2003-4) and the second time (2007). There were more electric lights, powered by solar panels. There were a few more gadgets than before. It seemed to me that there was more coastal erosion than before, but it’s possible I was just looking harder for it the second time because I had gotten much more interested in climate change. Locals said that they had observed erosion. I remember a particular coconut tree that had stuck out into the lagoon in a conspicuous way. It was very distinctive. It was alive and standing in 2004, collapsed and dead in 2007. Of course that doesn’t prove anything, but it did make the threat of climate change feel much more real for me.

PT: Do you think the atoll, and the rest of the country, is in danger of being swallowed up by the ocean one day? What are your views on climate change?

P. R.-G.: Chances are that it’ll be a while yet until the Marshall Islands are totally submerged by the ocean. But there’s a real possibility that the country will be uninhabitable (even though not totally submerged) within the lifetimes of children living in the Marshall Islands today. It’s impossible to know for sure because there are so many unknowns. Will climate legislation succeed? Will green energy take over the market? How fast will the oceans rise? How will the island ecosystem respond? How will the people respond? This creates uncertainty, and in uncertainty there is hope. I believe that it is much too early for Marshallese people to give up on the idea of inhabiting their country far into the future. But the possibility of eventual exile must be taken seriously, even so.

PT: Is there anything we can do to stop climate change?

P. R.-G.: It’s impossible to completely stop climate change, unfortunately. It’s already occurring, and more of more of the weird weather events we’re having now being scientifically attributed to climate change. Also, there is certain latency period in the climate system, meaning that greenhouse gases we’re already emitted will cause further climate change even if we stopped emitting any greenhouse gases immediately. There’s change locked into the system.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s still to be determined whether climate change is moderate, severe, or catastrophic. It’s definitely good to bike or walk rather than drive when possible, eat less meat, only boil as much water as you really need for that cup of tea, take the train instead of a plane, etc. But I think that greater change comes about not from these individual choices, but from banding together to push for larger change. I’m not talking about something grandiose like all people becoming hunter-gatherers. I’m talking about medium-sized change like making bike lanes more available in a particular city, starting a petition to pressure your representative into supporting a clean energy bill, etc. Medium-sized change, not huge change which is unrealistic or tiny change which isn’t significant. I firmly believe in making it easier for people to do the right thing. In Copenhagen, for instance, all kinds of people bike to work, not because they care so much about the environment, but it’s been set up in a way that makes biking very safe, easy, and economical. Make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing.

PT: What can we, Westerners, learn from the Pacific Island countries and people?

P. R.-G.: I recently read a book called ‘Bowling Alone’ that shows a huge amount of evidence that in the US (and, I would guess, other Western countries) people’s interconnectedness to each other, trust in each other, generosity, etc. has plummeted in the last 30 or 40 years. That probably won’t surprise anyone, but the sheer amount of evidence really impressed me and made me realize what a huge problem this is, not just for having a functioning democracy but also for individual health and happiness. I think that Pacific Islanders, or at least the ones I knew in the Marshall Islands, are keenly aware of how important this ‘social capital’ is to all aspects of life. They talk about it all the time, and about how worried they are that it will erode in the future. I think that many Pacific Island communities have held onto their social capital more than most Western communities. This requires some sacrifices – for instance, in the Marshall Islands people have kept their traditional land ownership system in which land cannot be bought or sold or owned individually, and this is definitely an obstacle to economic development in the country. But, I think it is probably worth it for the social capital that it helps to safeguard.

PT: What did the visit to Marshall Islands change in your life?

P. R.-G.: It taught me that no simple story about indigenous people, ‘traditional’ people, and so forth is ever correct. For instance, colonialists have often told the story of native peoples as being savages that needed to be civilized, missionaries have told the story of native peoples as heathens who must be saved, romantics have told the story of native peoples as infinitely wise and noble, etc. None of these stories is right because indigenous people are people, full of all of the complexities of humans everywhere. Once my preconceptions were challenged by actually living with the people, it’s hard to take seriously any simple stereotype, whether positive or negative, about a culture.

PT: Do you think Pasifika is a special place in the world?

P. R.-G.: I do. It’s the most extensive group of islands in the world. Paul Theroux called it a constellation, which I think is a great description. The people who settled it were the greatest sailors in history. They found almost every tiny bit of land in an area that is larger than all of the continents put together. They almost certainly made it to South America and back. They found Hawaii, the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, and probably sailed back and forth from there to the rest of Polynesia for several centuries.

‘SURVIVING PARADISE – ONE YEAR ON A DISAPPEARING ISLAND’ BY PETER RUDIAK-GOULD

‘Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island’ is a memoir written by Peter Rudiak-Gould, who spent twelve months working as a teacher on Ujae – a coral atoll in the Marshall Islands and one of the most remote places in the world.

SURVIVING PARADISE

Summary

Peter, a fresh graduate, decides to become a volunteer. He applies to the WorldTeach program and soon after that moves to the Republic of Marshall Islands. From Majuro, the capital of the country, he sets out to Ujae in order to teach English in a local elementary school.

Peter’s dream of an idyllic island life is quickly shattered into pieces. The place is not exactly as he imagined it would be – the nearest telephone, car, hotel, store, or even road are miles away, and the only thing he can see is blue water. He doesn’t speak the natives’ language and the natives don’t speak his. What is worse, his new job turns out to be real hell on earth.

Although his sojourn on Ujae is filled with ups and downs, Peter gradually starts noticing its positive sides. He makes friends with local inhabitants and begins to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. But most importantly, he discovers who he really is.

Review

If you have ever dreamt of escaping to a tropical island, this book will get you there. Literally. The way Peter Rudiak-Gould depicts the surroundings is just phenomenal. With his vivid language, he paints a very real picture of a remote archipelago, its people, and their fascinating culture. And he does it in a light-hearted, humorous manner that is both enjoyable and extremely pleasant to read.

Now, although ‘Surviving Paradise’ is a personal memoir, the author doesn’t write much about himself. Instead, he uses his adventures as an ‘excuse’ to acquaint readers with the country. Everything he describes – his spearfishing escapades, his teaching efforts, or even the locals’ attire – serves a higher purpose. He doesn’t only share his experiences and observations, he educates us. He explains the Marshallese way of life: customs, traditions, and beliefs; expounds on the tragic history of the islands; and delineates the most important political issues. Quite a few pages are dedicated to global warming – a growing problem we should all be aware of, even though some people still refuse to acknowledge its existence.

Apart from being a wonderful piece of travel literature, the book is also a detailed and compelling linguistic study. The author’s narrative contains an unusually large number of Marshallese words. They form a kind of mini dictionary that may come in handy for those of you who plan to follow in Peter Rudiak-Gould’s footsteps and one day visit that Micronesian paradise. And if you’d like to broaden your linguistic knowledge even further, you can download Peter’s textbook: ‘Practical Marshallese’.

The engaging story, of course, is unquestionably the highlight of this memoir. But Peter’s writing style is also quite outstanding. His prose is clear and elegant, without being prosaic or dull. There are no flowery depictions, and yet you can imagine the scenery pretty well. Every single sentence captures attention, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself chained to this book from its very first page.

‘Surviving Paradise’ is a charming and deeply entertaining travelogue. Written with a gentle sense of humour, it casts a light on human nature and the power of culture. It is a real eye-opener; something everyone should read.