03 Apr Arno, part III: Story-teller Secrets

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.

Our third day on Arno, we ran out of water. We’d brought 15 gallons. Newton started boiling the catchment water, which lay in a stone cistern at the center of camp. It had a faint coppery color but tasted fine. We also had to return the town council’s van. Newton’s nephew loaned us his dual-cab pickup. Though it wasn’t very old, it was a wreck. Nothing worked except the steering, the gearbox, and the engine. It had no brakes, not even an emergency brake. Newton said, “This thing scares me. There are too many children in the road.” Arno toddlers tend to stand in the middle of the road and gaze at oncoming vehicles. This had happened a few times to us the day before and we’d had to wait until a parent came out and snatched up the errant child. “I will take the jungle road,” Newton announced.

“There’s another road?” I asked.

“The jungle road,” he repeated. “It goes to jungle town, the village in the interior.”

For a brief span, Arno widens to about half a mile.

“Haven’t we been on the jungle road all this time?” I asked. “Isn’t everything around us jungle?”

“This is the real jungle,” he said. “Nobody will be back there.”

Entrance to the jungle road is little more than two muddy ruts through a grassy yard. I thought it was a driveway. We passed Reimers’ plantation, a quarter acre garden and green house. The mango and cherry tomatoes I see on Majuro come from here. Then, quite abruptly, we were in the jungle, the road shaded by over-arcing the trees. As Newton predicted, nobody was back here.

Our story-teller, Samuel, was a big man. Wearing a ‘do-rag over his long silver hair and a black tank-top with dirty, gray shorts, he looked like an old Hell’s Angel. We walked back to his smoke house, just a coconut’s toss from the ocean, which we could see through the trees. Surrounded by jungle, his place was private, very unlike houses on the main road, where your neighbors (and their many children) are a few steps away.

Samuel told us about Rilong, the giant whose footprint we visited. Rilong was the son of a king and he became king himself after saving Arno from his warring grandfather, who’d come to conquer Arno and kill his own son. The intra-family fighting–fathers and sons at each others’ throats–appears to be a universal theme.

After Samuel finished his story, Newton asked him to tell us about his life and how things used to be. Samuel said that, when he was a young man, he wasn’t paying much attention to his surroundings. He was always making trouble, he said. Newton asked Samuel to tell us what he could remember. Samuel hesitated. Newton asked again. Samuel then made Newton promise not to let his (Newton’s) family know all that he was about to reveal.

Years ago, Samuel told us, he stole a pig from Newton’s wife-to-be and her aunt. It was a pet pig. Samuel ate it. Samuel was always doing things like that. In fact, at one point he had to leave the island for two years in order to let one of his enemies cool down. Samuel was notorious for playing practical jokes, like tying hanging this man’s wheeled cart from the top of a coconut tree. His exploits and misadventures have become legend on Arno. The students and Hiram, our guide, asked Samuel several questions. His answers brought much laughter. Then the students presented Samuel with his gifts (coffee, sugar, cigarettes, tinned meat, and rice).

Our next story teller lived nearby but Newton and I found him asleep in an out-building. We did not wake him. His family said he’s ill with diabetes, which is common among elderly Marshallese. Newton would have to come back when the old fellow was feeling better.

When we returned to the truck we discovered Hiram, Samuel, and the students gathered around the rear left tire, which was flat. Hiram had brought a hand pump: you had to pump up the tire every twenty minutes, we learned. Before one of us could stop him, Samuel was at the pump, slamming away. It’s not good form to let your host work but, then, it’s not good to interfere with your host either.

Newton had one other story-teller lined up: Biti. We found him home. Biti is a renown spear-fisherman, now retired. He told us two traditional tales in a wonderfully effusive manner. Then Newton asked him about his life. Suddenly he was on his feet and we were following him into the yard–Sako snatching up the audio recorder, Obet grabbing my bag, and I cradling the tripod and video camera. Biti said he had to show us how to make a torch from fallen palm fronds. This is what he used on moonless nights to attract the flying fish.

With deft hands, Biti wove a single fallen frond into a long wand. He happened to be sitting in front of the gravestones of his father and mother. Because land is scarce, this is where most ancestors are buried–in the back yard. It made a poignant scene as Biti recounted enthusiastically the lost art of spear-fishing and the navigation it entails. He described how, before setting out, the fishermen would have a feast, after which they would throw everything they could into the sea. His listeners were puzzled by this. Why throw everything into the water? one of the students asked. We throw in everything so that it will float on the surface–the way we hope the fish will float to the surface when we hunt them. At this everyone in the group said, “Oh!”

Biti told the many names for the water one encounters when fishing. These names are now all but forgotten. Then he began to chant. Chants are nearly sacred and very secret. Outsiders never get to hear them. Later, Newton shook his head in wonder. “I’d heard of these things,” he said, “but I’ve never heard them. This was very special.”

After we pumped up the flat tire again, we had enough daylight left for a quick swim off the concrete dock. Newton loves to spear-fish. It wasn’t long before he was tossing his catch onto the pier. One of the students showed me how to skin a just-caught fish with your teeth — for the freshest sashimi. I did not follow his example. The students played a game where you sink a bunch of pandanus (about the size of a beach ball) and then dive to see how many pandanus pieces you can break off and bring up (each piece the size of cell phone). Then the students chewed on it. Pandanus is starchy, slightly sweet, and very stringy. Raw, it’s a challenge to go at. Its consumption demands half a day of gnawing. Cooked, it’s much more manageable and tastier.

Wearing my new snorkel and leaky mask, I swam out to otherworldly coral heads–a couple looked like gargantuan flat-headed fungi, eleven feet across. Another was a white brain coral so big I could not have wrapped my arms around it. Well below me, I saw a school of striped fish as big as cats. Closer by I passed a raincoat-yellow fish with a black snout. Then I was in a flurry of tidbit-sized fish as blue as bluebirds. My ignorance of the water is monumental. I’ll talk about that next time, when I recount our octopus hunt.

When we returned to camp, the camp-hands fried up the flying fish the spear-fishermen had brought us the night before. Nobody bothers cleaning or scaling the fish. Just drop them on the grill or in the pan, douses them in soy sauce, then dump them in a bowl of rice. It had gotten to the point where I’d eat just about anything put in front of me and I’d eat with my hands. I no longer cared what I looked like or how many critters crawled through my hut. Another few days of this and I’d look and act like a cave-dweller. Newton, by contrast, looked as well-groomed and civilized as always. What I did and did not know often gave him a laugh. I was obsessing about the inevitably rough ride back, for instance. “Look at that water, how calm it is!” I exclaimed. “Don’t dwell on it,” he advised with a smile. “The water’s calm here because the curve of the island shelters it from wind.”

Despite his advice, I was thoroughly, irrationally optimistic about my prospects on the trip back–because I was several days past recovery from the crossing and I was feeling good and strong and ready for just about anything. But I knew I was delusional, possessed of the kind of optimism that allows women to try childbirth a second time or explorers of old to seek the Northwest passage. Still, I gazed at the ocean, which seemed so calm, and I thought, Maybe, just maybe. . . .

Next: the octopus hunt and the boat-trip back.