25 Mar Arno, part II: In Search of the Giant’s Footprint

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.

We slept little our first night on Arno. Recovered from my sea-sickness, I stayed up talking to Newton. It was a blustery night, the sands blue with moonlight, the stars bright, the sparse clouds aglow and gliding fast On Majuro, Newton and I had not yet gotten the opportunity to trade our life stories. We had a lot to catch up on. He was still drinking coffee at two AM. He’d just let off the spear-fishermen at the dock. You can hunt flying fish only when it’s fully dark–between the moon’s setting and the sun’s rising The fishermen would be swimming in totally dark, deep water on oceanside. That takes nerve.

The cheeping of chicks woke me at dawn. One of the camp-hands had gathered the chicks into a plastic milk crate because the hen had gone wild in the bush. Everyone was hoping she’d return. That pretty much says it all for Arno. The students ate ramen and egg for breakfast. I had fruit. Then we piled into the pick-up and drove–very slowly–down the rutted muddy road to the end of Arno-Arno. The air was smoky with burning coconut and trash. Children were walking to school. Newton stopped often to shout good morning. You say “Yukwe waj” if you’re unsure how many are within listening range. Pronounced “yuck-way watch,” it means, roughly, “greetings to you, however many of you may be listening.”

These islands are so small, you have to be really careful about everybody’s feelings. It’sclose living in the extreme. Everybody knows everybody’s business; everybody owes everybody something. Doesn’t matter how lowly your neighbor may be; one day you will need his or her help and support. So mind your manners, watch yourself, and show care for any- and everybody.

On either side of the road I saw grave-sized pits every ten yards or so. Newton explained that these were dug by those who were caught drinking in public. Drinking in public is prohibited on the outer islands. If caught, you are fined a hundred bucks and have to dig three pits by the side of the road. Locals fill the pits with garbage, then cover them over. The extra dirt is used to fill in the holes in the rutted road.

When the road dead-ended, we took a jungle trail to the reef. But we found that the tide was too high–we’d have to get up earlier tomorrow for our trek to the giant’s footprint. Newton wanted to show the students the rest of the island, which meant driving the rutted road about 25 miles south. I wasn’t aware yet how much planning had gone into Newton’s arrangements. The big Chinese pick-up we were driving, for instance, was the best ride on the island–and the only one big enough for our ten students and two guides. It belonged to the Arno town council and was rented out daily, sometimes by the ride. Later I would realize that we’d been remarkably lucky to have the truck waiting for us when we got off the boat. Lucky too that the truck was available to us first thing on this morning.

Arno is very narrow–in most places no wider than 50-70 feet. Its single road is mud or sand, very rough, and bordered closely by jungle, much of it swampy. Pigs, like chickens, roam freely. In the swamps they are wild. Newton grew up on the south end of the island, where the population is sparse. Slow as we were driving, the ride gave our students in the back a very bumpy time. I felt for them. They were sitting in the hot sun too.

We stopped for a lunch cook-out at the old grass airfield, which had fallen into disrepair because the former government prevented Air Marshall Islands from flying to Arno due to the president’s dislike of the Arno senators. (I’ve heard lots of stories of such abuse by the former government.) When the students started gathering flat coral stones from the beach, I thought they were collecting these to take back to Newton’s camp. I soon discovered that Newton had sent them gathering stones for the cook-fires he was tending. As soon as the coconut husks and driftwood had burned to coals, Newton laid the stones over these. Then he laid our marinated chicken and turkey on the stones for a very picturesque cookout. This was improvised–Newton had forgotten to bring the grill.

Nobody does cook-outs as easily and adeptly as the Marshallese. They’ve got it down. Just be sure to bring the rice you cooked over the campfire the night before. I didn’t think I was hungry but, by the time I was done, I’d gone through four pieces of chicken and a bowl of rice. Sako wove a basket to hold the grilled meat. I’ve seen both men and women make these baskets quickly from palm fronds. The students broke open some immature coconuts for drinking. Then someone from the town council found us, informing Newton that the Arno mayor was asking for use of the truck to transport building supplies from the southern dock to a nearby village.

Newton asked me if he could oblige this request. It meant the students and I would be stranded for a while, maybe a long while. I told Newton we’d be fine. He dropped us off at another beach. This was the fourth beach of the day, every one of them just as beautiful as the one before. I was wasting so much camera space on beach pictures, I vowed to take no more. My students were clowning around, taking silly photos of each other. Don’t forget, as part of our web-design course, everyone was equipped with a digital camera with a one-gig memory card.

We ended up waiting two and a half hours for Newton. But I had a chance to hang out with my students. They were incredibly gracious about the wait. They didn’t like it, but the Marshallese are used to waiting–island life demands it–and they do so with remarkable patience. My students sang songs, tossed rocks at trees, took photos, napped, chatted, kicked a ball around, then joked with me. They asked where I was from. I demonstrated my Southern accent, which they found wondrous. Then someone pointed out the plastic bottle hanging from the tree we were sitting under.

It was bottled scripture, tied to a branch. An old custom. Before Christianity, one would have filled a coconut with potion and dangled it from the branch of a tree to ward off evil spirits–especially demons at the places they were reputed to come ashore. Now one puts pages of the Bible in a bottle and hang that. My students said the people on Arno both believe in potions and still practice magic. Some spells could get you to fall in love with somebody you didn’t like. “It could happen to you!” they warned.

The good thing about being a ripalle, one student told me, is that demons are afraid of white people. I said I was happy to hear this, since it meant I could protect them all. This made everyone laugh. The bad thing, someone else added, is that sharks are especially fond of white people. More laughter.

When Newton picked us up, he was most apologetic. I assured him it was no big deal. It was a request that none of us could have refused. I asked if we had time still to visit our first story-teller. He said, yes. So we raced against the setting sun, my poor students bucked and bumped in the back.

We found our story-teller asleep on his back in his gravel yard. (Everybody has a gravel yard.) . I thought it a good sign that he was waiting for us. And I was happy we had beat the sunset. The students piled out, we gathered at the back of his hut, in the orange light of the setting sun. I set up my camera and audio recorder; Newton explained the consent form. Then we were good to go. Abram, the story-teller, is actually an accomplished hut-maker. He’s the guy who made the huts at Newton’s camp. He began talking in an animated nasal tone. Students started taking photos. I was watching my video.

Then Abram stopped talking. I looked up. Newton stared at me solemnly. “That’s it,” he said. Abram hadn’t spoken for more than five minutes. But I knew better than to protest. I thanked our host. The students presented him with his gifts–coffee, sugar, tinned fish, and a bag of rice–then we climbed back into our truck. Newton got behind the wheel, and growled, “I’m gonna kill that guy.” As we rumbled away, I reminded him that it’s the story-teller’s prerogative to talk for five minutes or five hours. “He was nervous,” Newton admitted. “All those cameras. He couldn’t remember what he had to say, so he just stopped talking.”

So there it was: our first day was a bust. But we’d done what were supposed to. We can’t make people talk. Newton began to suspect that Abram had been bullshitting about all the stories he knew–he’d seen a chance to get some goodies and he went for it. Oh, well. Abram was one of only five elders over sixty years old on Arno. In the days to follow, we’d get chance to talk with the rest, Newton assured me.

We were nearly to camp when the girls started screaming and the boys hollering in the back Newton slammed on the brakes. One of the girls jumped into the road. Everyone else was standing and laughing. I hopped out to investigate. They explained that a lizard had dropped into the truck bed. One of the boys caught it finally. We took a photo, then let it go.

When we returned to camp, we found our cooler filled with flying fish, parrot fish, surgeon fish, red snapper, and lobster. I had the snapper and lobster–with lime. Nobody bothers cleaning the fish, by the way. You throw it on the grill, then eat around the guts.
A few students preferred their fish raw.

We had a couple of American visitors from a tourist group up the road. The man happened to be an airline pilot. He and his girlfriend had come over the morning we had crossed. He admitted that he could hardly keep his stomach, the sea was so rough. I thanked him for sharing this. It made me feel less a wimp–because, when we crossed, the sea was even rougher. What’s more, this guy was a pilot. Don’t they have steel stomachs? I dreaded the return and tried not to dwell on it, though it was hard not to dwell on the thought of rough seas when the ocean was right there, every time I turned my head.

The next morning we were up at dawn. It was my turn to make breakfast: pancakes for 17. I whipped up a big bowl of batter, then began cooking in a large skillet over the kerosene burner. After I started serving, Newton sidled up to me and said the camp-hands were “shocked” to see a man making pancakes.

Spatula in hand, I turned to him in surprise: “Shocked?”
“Shocked,” he confirmed. “It’s a woman’s role. The students understand but the locals, it’s difficult for them to grasp.”

“Oh, great,” I said. “They’ll never look at me in the same way.”

He laughed. “It’s okay,” he said. “You’re a ripalle.”

The spectacle of a man making pancakes didn’t prevent the camp-hands from eating them. They were pretty good pancakes, I don’t mind saying.

Hiram, one of our guides, told us it was time to go. Newton drove our pickup back to the end of Arno-Arno. When we broke through the jungle trail, we found the tide far out, great expanses of sand and reef exposed, the sun flashing from the shallows. The wind was strong. We could see small islands shoulder to shoulder along the reef rim. It was hard to say how many there were or how far apart each was from the other. Our nearest island was just a city block away.

Hiram is a quiet, bearded bushy-haired guy in his forties. He set out barefoot across the reef. Newton and the students were in zoris (flip-flops). I wore jogging shoes. None of us could keep up with Hiram. There was no way to avoid wading through shin-deep water. Hiram appeared to be crossing to the next island. I was under the impression he didn’t know where he was going. He entered the jungle, then a bit later appeared a hundred yards down the beach.

We pursued. The beaches, good Lord, they don’t get more beautiful than these–untouched, fringed by jungle, lapped by blue lagoons. It’s such a cliché to describe, all I can say is fill in the blank with whatever tropical paradisical fantasy you please and you’ll get the picture. At this point we could see that Hiram had pulled from the jungle a bunch of pandanus, which he set carefully in the sand, then he kept walking.

When we got to it, we saw that he had propped the pandanus upright in the sand like an offering. Newton confirmed that it was indeed an offering–to the spirit of the giant we were about to visit. Hiram continued well ahead of us. Two islands later, we rounded a bend and found him examining a raised portion of the exposed reef. We had come to the right spot, he said, but the shifting sand had covered the footprint. “We should’ve brought a shovel,” Newton said. He hadn’t seen the footprint in twenty years.

Sure, it would have been nice to see the footprint, I agreed, but the more important thing was that we were in this spiritual place. I’m not sure the students appreciated this fact. Hiram said we had to get back because the tide would be coming in fast. We had walked a couple of miles. We took photos, then I followed Newton back the oceanside way while the students returned on the lagoon side. The tide was indeed coming back fast. I was up to my knees in water. When we got to the pass between the next two islands, Newton reconnoitered to make sure all the students were accounted for. I saw a number of baby moray eels–supple grey ribbons–but couldn’t get any to stay still for a photo. Two islands later, our group came together. Hiram had retrieved another pandanus bunch. It was time for lunch.

Back at camp, I offered to make Newton the rest of the pancakes, but he shook his head no, indicating that the camp-hands were sitting nearby. He didn’t want to upset them. We had to take half our student group to the dock because they were wanted back on Majuro for Easter and family obligations. Then we’d have to turn in our big truck. “How are we going to visit the two story tellers we have lined up today?” I asked. “We’ll get another truck,” Newton assured me. “But it may not have any brakes.”

Next: Story-Teller Secrets.