December 25-26: Welcome to the Marshall Islands
I woke up at 4 AM on Christmas Day in Honolulu. After quickly gathering my belongings, I walked the 20 minutes from the AirBNB to the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport through total darkness.
Most visitors aren’t awake to know, but every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7:30 am, a most unusual flight takes off from Honolulu. Its official name is UA154, but most people call it the Island Hopper. After taking off from Honolulu, the flight stops on 5 Pacific islands (Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Chuuk) on its way to Guam. This flight is the only sane way to reach these islands which includes the capital cities of two countries: the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. There are many unusual quirks about this flight.
The goal was to spend 2 days in both the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. Because the second Marshallese destination (Kwajalein) is a secure US Army missile testing base that requires orders to disembark, my only choice in the Marshall Islands was Majuro.
Despite being remote island destinations, the check-in was packed. Nearly everyone looked Pacific Islander and many were wearing traditional outfits. Many of the people were large, overweight, or obese (which is not surprising because the Pacific Island nations have the world’s highest obesity rates). Most people brought at least two large boxes wrapped in plastic with them, as they appeared to be taking the maximum allowed number of goods with them. The number of heavy bags actually caused weight issues with the plane and caused some seats to fly empty despite the 40-person standby line.
Right at 7:25, the flight took off and for the first 4 hours and 50 minutes of the 5 hour flight, we passed over nothing but ocean.
After the pilot announced we were going to land, a thin circular strip of green appeared out of nowhere. 10 minutes later, we landed on that strip of land-it was no wider than the runway. This was, without a doubt, the most interesting runway I have ever landed on as there was water on both sides. As we cruised back to the terminal, we were accompanied by a firetruck- standard procedure. It was now 10:00 AM on December 26th (since we had crossed the International Date Line).
There was one other plane there- a Chinese commercial jet that had broken down days ago and was awaiting repairs.
In the immigration line, I overheard a lady telling the official that she was only going to the Marshall Islands for 2 days. I said that I was doing the same. She asked me if I was counting countries. I said yes and we both laughed very hard. We both knew that except for volunteering or government work, the only semi-rational reason to fly on a 5-hour 7:30 AM flight FROM Hawaii to an island undeniably less awesome in every way is that this is part of a quest to visit every country in the world. My new friend, Birgitta, had now been to 170 countries. We exchanged hotel information and agreed to meet up for dinner that night.
After walking by a sign saying “4G LTE is here”, I found a shuttle driver for one of the two hotels and convinced him to take me into town on the condition that I book a day-trip with them. He agreed and I got in the van with a man in his early 30’s and his parents. The man was volunteering as a teacher on another island.
Majuro is 50 miles long but only 100 yards wide. There is only one road that goes across the entire island. Despite having so much ocean-front land, the island has only one beach at the furthest end of the island-two hours from town. The rest of the ocean-front is rough coral. The ocean (on the outside of the circle) here is very rough. The lagoon (on the inside of the circle) is calm and protected, but the waters near town are too polluted for swimming.
First we passed the “nice” suburbs. Then we passed the bridge- the tallest point on the island-about 6 feet above sea level. Then we drove through Majuro town itself. It’s mostly shoddy stores and homes- about half of which are closed. The only bowling alley closed a long time ago but the signs are still up. As we passed by my hostel, the guy mentioned it the bar where volunteers were told to stay away from. Oops.
Eventually we reached the Robert Reimers Hotel, one of two decent hotels on the island. There I went upstairs to the reception and booked a day trip to the nearby Eneko Island for tomorrow
I then got lunch in the restaurant-considered the best in all of the Marshall Islands. I ordered tuna- amazing and pandamun juice – some local fruit. There were quite a few people at the bar- all white people. Monday night football was on…on Tuesday morning. The guy next to me at the bar moved here two years ago with his wife. She used to be a nuclear physicist but now teaches remedial algebra at the local community college- the College of the Marshall Islands. They are deciding whether to go back to Idaho this summer or stay 5 more years. Because she makes enough money, he doesn’t have to work and is a self-proclaimed beach bum (on an island with no beaches, but whatever). He claims he is on a permanent summer vacation since the weather never drops below 80 degrees here. They do get to leave the island during summer break. Last summer they went back to Idaho but this summer they’re going to Fiji.
He said that getting quality American TV on Majuro is too expensive, as the closest signals are actually Filipino. Therefore, he has to go to the hotel to watch football and most American TV programs. The only American station that he can get at home is NatGeo.
Packages here take a very long time to arrive- about 2-3 months. He is still waiting for the Halloween candy his brother sent him. Most container ships go to Guam then to Micronesia then here.
Finally, he told me the location of all 3 ATMs in the country. Grocery stores and the two hotels take credit card but most places only take cash. I knew my hostel only accepted cash payments, so I needed to stop by one in order to guarantee I would have enough cash for the trip.
I went downstairs and tried the first ATM. It was broken.
On the 30 minute walk to my hostel, I passed by the National Museum. Despite being staffed, I was told it was closed. I also saw quite a few churches (including 2 Mormon churches staffed with the unlucky white-shirted young missionaries), shoddy stores, government buildings, some homes and a factory-like building. Of note was the relocated Bikini Atoll Town Hall- the Bikini Islanders and their government were forced to relocate because the US government tested nuclear missiles on the island during the 1950’s and 60’s. In 1975, they were allowed to move back, but many developed side effects from the radiation, so they were re-relocated to Majuro.
I then went into a large grocery store. The ATM there was also broken (clearly there are no ATM repairmen on this island). I also perused the store. Almost everything sold was prepackaged, preserved, or canned, which explains the terrible obesity problem on this island. About half the items were expired. Prices for non-expired food were double what you would find in the US.
I kept walking and stopped by the largest grocery store on the island. It had a branch of the Bank of Guam, a member of the FDIC. It only opens 5 hours a day, 5 days a week. Their ATM was also broken. I went inside to withdraw cash, but they said I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t a member of the Bank of Guam. They assured me that the ATM will be restocked with cash later in the day.
I then checked into my hostel, the Flame Tree. The hostel was directly behind the bar. There I met Isaac the caretaker. He was from Fiji and when he was 26, canoed 1,500 miles here with his uncle to Majruo, met his wife…and never left. They have 7 kids living in Texas and Fiji. He said that a large percentage of his guests have been to many many countries.
Isaac showed me my room, cooled by a fan. It had two doors and I was told repeatedly to lock both doors so ladies and drunks won’t get in. The strangest part of the room was the fact were the semi-see-through walls. I could tell if the bed next door was occupied. It’s better than a true hostel with 8 people in a room but bizarre nonetheless.
There was one other guest, a Fijian man who works for the Marshallese government tracking tuna. I don’t know exactly what that means and he didn’t really want to tell me. He gave me a stern warning that the women here have “black magic” and will cause you to never leave. He suggested I avoid talking to women at bars and definitely avoid getting massages because the magic was probably in the massage oils. He claimed to have been once under the spell of a woman and forgot how to walk for two weeks. Then she took all his money. I assured him that I won’t be getting any massages- special of otherwise- and definitely won’t be bringing back a girl here because the walls are see-through.
I also met the maintenance guy, originally from Georgia. He was stationed at Kwajalein- a US military base on another atoll and decided to vacation here for 6 months before heading back to the mainland. At some point he realized he didn’t have enough money for a flight back… That was in 1986.
At 5pm, I met up with Birgitta, my Swedish friend for dinner. We walked to a restaurant that she thought looked good. Lo and behold we were actually able to order local food, something that is nearly impossible. My reef fish was amazing but everything else wasn’t all very tasty. We chatted about travel, how to travel, world politics, self-awareness and life stories. I was so impressed by her. Interestingly, 5 years ago she had only been to 100 countries. Then she joined a “Century Club” and though the club has been to 71 countries in the last 5 years. She gets lots of free flights through her former career in the airline industry and can fly for free. I was very inspired by this conversation.
After dinner, we walked back to our hotels, nearly got attacked by wild dogs and I quickly crashed around 8:30pm.
December 27, 2017: Paradise Found
I woke up very early- around 3 AM but managed to go back to sleep until 6 AM. The jet lag was bad.
At 8 AM, I headed over to the Robert Reimers Hotel for my boat trip. On the way, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up food for the day, as there was no food on the other island. With no fresh options, I bought pretzels, cereal and dried cranberries. I also bought sunscreen which cost $24- I suppose that since everyone here has dark skin, here the only people buying sunscreen are unprepared tourists like myself who will spend the money to not get burned to a crisp.
At 10 AM, I walked over to the boat dock next to the hotel. There were seven of us plus the captain: the son and two parents from yesterday plus three teachers from the local high school- all American girls in their late 20’s. The girls told me I was smart to have picked this day trip because there apparently is a giant squid living in the waters near the other island I had considering visiting. The giant squid had the potential to destroy boats, although nobody had confirmed that it had actually taken down a boat.
As the boat left, the landscape changed from third world city to beautiful pristine islands. The water too changed from pollution grey to the brightest shades of aqua and deep blue. Wow!
We then landed at Eneko, a small island that forms part of the circle of Majuro Atoll. However the circle has many breaks. This island is probably 1/2 mile long and again only 100 yards wide. The boat then took off, leaving us seven alone with the family that lived on the island.
The next six hours, I hung out on the beach in the perfect water, snacked, and kayaked out. I also wandered through the jungle for a bit.
At lunchtime, I got to chat a bit with the “expats”. Apparently Marshallese are quite superstitious and that believe strongly in black magic. However, apparently only islanders can feel the effects of said magic. One popular demon takes the form of a palm tree- hence Marshallese are skeptical and wary of palm trees. Despite many successful missionary attempts, the superstitions remain.
The islands are incredibly insular and removed from the rest of the world. While most people have a good sense of the US and some of the landmarks, nobody knows much about other places except the other island nations, Australia, Philippines and Taiwan. One girl said she hosted an international day in her classroom to help expose kids to the rest of the world. Each kid got to pick a country. Kids only picked other island countries: Tuvalu, Fiji, Kiribati, etc.
I also learned that the outer islands are some of the most remote places on earth. Air Marshall Islands flies to each of the outer islands once a week. While Majuro has a paved runway, the other islands only have dirt runways. Therefore if it rains- which happens a lot, the flights are cancelled. The only other way to get to the outer islands is by cargo ship, which leave at uneven intervals. The ships also take days to cross the country as distances are long. It’s at least 500 miles to sail to Ebeye, the second most populated island. The man- who teaches on the Atoll of Jaluit said some of his students arrived 2 weeks late for school because he had to wait for a cargo ship to show up. Considering that Jaluit is so remote that he didn’t feel comfortable taking his parents to the island on their 3 week trip, i can only imagine where these kids come from.
At 4pm, the boat arrived and we returned to Majuro. I then walked back to my hotel, where I saw Isaac counting stacks of $20 bills, which seemed strange because there were only 2 people staying in the hotel and we each were paying $20/night. Then I met up with Birgitta for dinner again before going back to my hotel.
Not ready for bed, I decided to hop over to the hotel bar. I kind of had a suspicion that this place was a brothel, but those suspicions were quickly confirmed. As I walked over, I passed by the hotel reception to learn that Isaac had gone to bed and that night manager, Danny, was now in charge. When talking to Danny, a couple quickly dashed into the first room in the hallway. Once in the very nice and spacious bar, I ordered a can of Budweiser and quietly sat down in the corner of the bar. There, young and young-ish women and drunk middle-aged men chatted and played pool. The music was bumping- all Marshallese music with some sprinkles of Marshallese covers of American songs such as “The Sound of Silence” and “Islands in the Stream”.
An older toothless man walked up to me and said we should go after two ladies at the end of the bar and “learn the hospitality of the islands”. I suggested he take both of them instead. He liked that idea better and walked over to the girls as I walked out of the bar and back to my hotel room. Danny was surprised I was not with a girl. Rather than say “I’m not the hooker type” I said I was tired and went to bed around 11.
December 28, 2017: Farewell
At 8:30 I got a ride to the airport with Isaac. He was so nice and acted unaware that prostitutes worked out of his place, although he mentioned that there was a group of strange youths inhabiting some of the front rooms.
He was so kind and profusely thanked me for visiting his island. “Thank you for your contribution to the economy here. I hope I live long enough to see you once again,” he said as we parted ways.
He then dropped me off at the airport in front of the “4G LTE is here sign”.
Unfortunately there was a mechanical issue that caused us to leave 45 minutes late. The entire time I was hoping that we weren’t going to be stranded on Majuro like the Chinese plane still on the runway.
30 minutes later we were on our way to Pohnpei.
Places I Went:
RRE Hotel & Restaurant, Payless Super Market, College of the Marshall Islands, Bank of Guam ATM, Marshall Islands Resort, FlameTree Hostel, Eneko Island