Tag Archives: Peter Rudiak-Gould


‘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’



‘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’


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.


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.


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’ 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.



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.


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.