21 Mar Arno, Part I: Making Camp

Ron Tanner, chair of the Writing Department at Loyola College-Maryland, won a grant from the National Parks Service to help Marshallese college students preserve the oral culture of the Marshall Islands. He’s spending the 2008 spring semester (5 months) on Majuro to direct this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story of his personal experiences, be sure to check the archives to your left.

I’m writing this by the light of a kerosene lantern in a pandanus-leaf hut. The noise you hear is the relentless wind, the ocean on two sides, and, closer, the boys in their hut. There’s intermittent laughter and somebody’s singing to a ukulele. Newton’s camp is on an expanse of white sand no wider than fifty feet, the wind-whipped lagoon on one side, the becalmed (leeward) ocean on the other. This is our first night in and everybody is wired. The minute we made landfall, one of the students took out a ukulele and started singing. Apparently every one of them knows how to play that instrument. It’s been nonstop uke-playing, which I find comforting. Right now James, who does more singing than talking, is running through the Marshallese rendition of the Eagles’ “Take it to the Limit,” which a popular Marshallese singer has just released.

Majuro’s a distant glow on the horizon, just 17 miles across the open ocean, but much farther in many other ways. There’s no electricity here, unless you have a solar panel or a generator. No phones. No running water. Newton’s camp is comprised of three pandanus-leaf huts. The girls get one, the boys and Newton (who wants to keep an eye on them) another, and I get the royal suite–a tidy, 7 x 8′ hut with a nine-foot peaked roof, two windows at ground level, and a door. This is authentic construction (pandanus wood, pandanus leaf, and twine) made by the old man down the road. It’s impressive work, the roof water-tight, the walls sturdy, and the proportions accommodating. It’s open at both roof-peaks and around the roof line to encourage circulation. The floor is white coral gravel. My bed is a pandanus-leaf mat laid over that. Actually, Newton brought a box-spring mattress for me. When I saw him load it onto the boat, I withheld comment until it showed up in my hut. I thanked him for his thoughtfulness but told him I’d be fine with the traditional bed, which is surprisingly comfortable, I can attest already after an hour’s nap.

I napped not because I was weary from travel but because I was sick. The boat ride over nearly killed me. We chartered a 36′ fishing boat called the Four-X, after a popular Australian beer. The boat belongs to one of our student’s husband. Apparently, it’s the most popular boat because it’s one of the most powerful. When the students learned of our trip, they asked which boat we were taking. I didn’t know we’d have a choice. As it turned out, because this is spring break, the regular ferry (a smaller boat) was already sold out. It can get very crowded, especially with the many boxes and belongings people ferry to Arno–cases of frozen meat, boxes of canned goods, a wheelchair, etc.

It’s been especially windy this month. The Marshalls sit in the trade winds, which make for good sailing and cooler temperatures but some rough waters. Last week, it got so rough the regular ferry couldn’t make the crossing to Arno. Earlier that week, after Newton made the crossing, he said it was like being a wet sock in a washing machine’s spin cycle. If Newton says it’s bad, you know it’s really bad. I was hoping we’d luck out. This morning, it rained. Rain calms the seas. Had we left in the early morning, as planned, this might have helped. But we didn’t get away until 1:30 this afternoon, for a host of typical delays–foremost of which was the broken bank machine.

We didn’t get our cash advance from CMI (for another host of typical delays: key people with key signatures were not in key places at key times), so I had to front the money for the trip. I didn’t know that Majuro has only one bank machine. Fortunately, the bank fixed it late this morning. Then we had to do some more shopping–Newton knows all the places to get stuff cheap. Then we rounded up the students. As we were loading the boat, I took a seat up front, on the nose. I wanted as much air as possible and thought I’d enjoy the spray. But then one of the deck hands said, through a translator, “I wouldn’t recommend it. You will get wet.” I thought about it for a while, then relented, returning to the back of the boat. I expected to take photos on the crossing and begin my podcast of the trip for Loyola radio and thought I’d have more freedom on the nose of the boat. But, then, I didn’t want to get my equipment wet.

Once we left the lagoon, sluicing through the channel under the Majuro bridge, the feel of the sea changed dramatically. The Four-X heaved into huge swells, then slammed into the troughs. Mind you, it didn’t look that rough. I mean, there were no frothy whitecaps cresting over the bow. But it was a hell of a ride. At first, it was amusement-park fun–up and down, water spraying, waves surging past the bow in foaming geysers. The water was kicking up so high, it cascaded over the roof, drenching my feet. I was standing just beyond the awning. Students offered me a seat in its shade. But I politely declined. I knew I was in trouble and needed to stand. Gripping one of the rails and trying to focus on the horizon, I hung on. The boat nosed hard into the chop, slamming again and again.

Did I mention that I get motion sickness fairly easily? It runs in the family. At 10, on my own at a local amusement park, I tried the octopus (the many armed up-and-down whirligig) and was stunned and thoroughly disappointed by my body’s rebellion. Afterwards, I spent 20 minutes prone on a park bench, my head pulsing and reeling. I vowed I’d never again subject myself to such punishment. Since then, I’ve been cautious. For the most part, I’m fine on a plane and can outlast most bumpy rides. But occasionally I succumb to the cold sweat-inducing, hollowed-out stomach-wrenching, bile-raising torture of a bad trip. When this happens, I try to think pleasant thoughts. As the Four-X rose and fell, spray raining, the waves swelling high like the heaving chest of a watery beast, I looked to the horizon and thought of Jill and how happy I’ll be to hold her and what a lucky person I am because my life is good and how fortunate I am to be taking this trip as Newton’s guest.

I fought it, in other words. But there’s only so much you can fight. I remember seeing a flying fish hurl itself 30 feet across a trough. Then I submitted to the illness. It came fast. It held me under. Then it let me go. I gasped for air. Then it pulled me under again. I received momentary relief. How long till landfall? Just show me land and I’ll have hope.

The Marshallese people are exceptionally discreet. If anyone saw me retching over the side, no one let on. All eyes were forward, on a destination that had yet to show itself. I was gratified to see that some of the students had their heads lying across their folded arms and one student was lying on his back. My misery really wanted company. But nobody looked distressed. I felt like I was being pummeled. As the boat pounded on, I was losing my grip on the grab-bar, my legs were trembling, and, worst of all, the sun on my back was excruciating. I couldn’t decide whether or not the ear-reaming rap music was helping or hurting. The Four-X is a party boat, apparently, and has a killer sound system (water-proof, of course). The recorded music was LOUD. On the one hand, it was a distraction; on the other, it was torment.

To my left, Newton was smoking a cigarette and gazing thoughtfully over the back at the scalloped seascape. He could have been idling on somebody’s patio. Oh, how I envied him. More than an hour later, when we sighted Arno, I thought I was good to go but, alas, one more surge overwhelmed me and this time it wrung me hard.

As soon as the captain snugged the boat to Arno’s concrete dock (thank goodness we didn’t have to navigate a pass), I leapt off, right behind Newton. Then I stumbled to the nearest shade tree and collapsed on my back. Newton was excited to be home. He was shouting greetings and orders all at once. Above me a white bird was making odd bird noises from its perch. I closed my eyes. It was as though I were drunk with the bed spins. I alternately pitied and loathed my body. Newton called to me. When I opened my eyes, two piglets were snouting a greeting near my face. Newton handed me a husked coconut. “Just poke a key in the top and drink,” he instructed. I didn’t have the strength.

The students had off-loaded everything. They were sitting a respectful distance from me. Someone had taken out a ukulele and several were singing. Yes, Arno felt very different already. The piglets seemed to agree. I shooed them away from the cartons of eggs someone had deposited next to me.

Here’s my radio report right after our Arno landing:
Ron’s first report from Arno.

Later, as I was lying in my hut, Newton stopped in to say that he could make dinner. We had agreed that I would do it the first night. He was willing to throw something together. It was a tempting offer but I couldn’t accept it. I didn’t want to start the trip with the ripalle sequestered in his hut and everyone wondering if he’d be all right. Plus, Newton looked distracted–he had errands to run, people to see, a lot to set up. I told him I’d make dinner. I didn’t admit my fear that I might not be standing when I was done.

Newton installed me at a weathered table beside one of the huts. It was raining off and on. He had a one-burner kerosene stove for me and a well-used cutting board. Still reeling, I started chopping cabbage, onions, garlic, carrots, and celery for stir-fry. Newton drove off in a big Chinese pickup, which we’re renting from the Arno town council. Apparently, it’s the biggest, most reliable truck on the island. He took most of the students with him. Those who remained in camp left me alone, probably because it looked like I needed it.

The stink of the kerosene stove chased me away again and again. If I could keep the world from spinning, I thought I might be all right, despite the smell. The flies are numerous here and some, I’ve learned, bite. But I was getting the job done, dumping the fried veggies into a big plastic tub–that’s how you cook out here, everything goes into a plastic tub to keep the flies off. Suddenly, I was sick again. I had to run to the rocky shore nearby and let it go. I’d eaten some fruit after our arrival, to get my strength back. But now, apparently, I was sick from being sick.

Once I was done, I felt better and more determined than ever to finish making dinner. Newton and the rest returned shortly. He had hired several camp-hands to do make fires and other chores, including cooking our daily pots of rice. These guys can make the best rice on an open fire. We had this with dinner. Thankfully, I had an appetite. Most everybody had seconds and suddenly more strangers were in camp, including Abram, the old hut-maker from down the road. He’s one of the story tellers we’ll be talking with tomorrow. A little man, with a squinting, good-humored expression, he walked nearly two miles on crutches to get here. He and the camp-hands ate after we did. I noticed that Abram took half of his home in a plastic bag.

Finally, I took a nap. Then, feeling better, I went outside. The ice-white gibbous moon is high overhead in the open dome of sky, where a few fast-moving cotton-balls speed by. On the horizon hunker the mountainous cumulonimbus that the equatorial Pacific manufactures daily. Out here they rise up like meringue K-2’s every morning, then retreat to the horizon every night. The moon makes the landscape blue. I can’t stay in my hut because I don’t want to miss any of this–the humpback moon amid the stunning stars, the palm fronds clattering in the wind, the wave-wash soothing in the near distance. A night like this will make you believe in God.

Back in my hut, I am getting acquainted with the habitat that impinges on my sleeping. There are big, bold cockroaches. I wouldn’t mind their off-road adventures over my body if only they wouldn’t wake me up. What I mind is their tentacled, leggy greeting on my hand or arm or neck just as I’m drifting off. I’ve had to roust them out of my bags. Rule number one: keep all bags zipped tight. There are also ants but these seem to be infrequent and so far only one has offered a bite. There are also lizards all over the place. Skinks and geckos. The geckos eat the roaches. I welcome any and all.

I just visited the boys to ask about the crickets–yes, that’s what I’m hearing, they have confirmed. The boys are lying on their mats and chatting as one or more sing. They take turns passing around the ukulele. Here’s a sample of James singing:

James’s late night serenade.

The girls are chatting and laughing in their hut. After a long absence, Newton returns, telling me he has seen all five of our story tellers. That’s the protocol: you have to visit first. Now he’s about to fetch two spear fishermen who will hunt for flying fish after the moon sets, at about two a.m. “We will have lots of fresh fish tomorrow,” he promises. I tell him I didn’t know you could eat flying fish. “Oh, it’s good eating,” he assures me. So he’s off to get the fishermen. It looks like he won’t be getting much sleep tonight. None of us will, apparently.

NOTE: I will continue the Arno story in another 3-4 installments over the next two weeks, so check in every few days if you’d like to keep up with it.

P.S. Thanks to my colleagues and students who sent the care package. I greatly appreciate the goodies and good wishes.