10 Jan Getting Ready for the Marshalls: the unexpected arrives

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 next sixth months on Majuro directing this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story, be sure to check the archives to your left.

I’ve spent the better part of two weeks getting equipment together to send out to Majuro, 7,000 west of here: 17 laptops, 15 cameras, 15 tape recorders, piles of rechargeable batteries, battery chargers, piles of cassette tapes, etc. As I was loading in the software—which has to be done on this end because internet connectivity is dicey out there (very slow via satellite)—I was thinking about background pictures on the computer screen. My screen at home shows a vast grassy emerald-green hill, with snowy peaks in the distance. You couldn’t choose a more alien image to send to the mid-Pacific.

island Islands in the Marshalls are small, many no larger than a shopping mall parking lot and just as flat. Majuro, the capital island, is actually four islands tied together with landfill—it’s no wider than a four-lane highway and about 30 miles long. That’s a big island in the Marshalls. If you fly over this island nation—some 1,000 islands strewn over 750,000 square miles of ocean–you’ll see a scatter of sandspecks, each plugged with a handful of palm trees. Some islands come and go with the storms, sand washing onto the reef long enough to establish a palm or two. I imagine that land like ours in the States looks quite exotic to someone from Majuro. I met an American who’s lived in the Marshalls for 20 years. She said she feels claustrophobic when she returns to the States. That sounds odd but, then, not so odd after she explains that we have too many trees and buildings, too much crowding in. In the Pacific, it’s mostly sky. Wide open.

Now, three weeks before my departure, I’m feeling a bit crowded myself because there’s lots to prepare and some things are starting to go awry. Of course, this is part of the adventure. One should expect the unexpected at a time like this. So I’m trying to savor the taste of it without wincing. Here’s what’s happened—or not–so far.

First: my cultural liaison, Henry–a brilliant, modest Marshallese fellow whose written and spoken English are impeccable—pulled out of the project two weeks ago because someone at the CMI (the College of the Marshall Islands) insulted him. The insult wasn’t intentional; it was the result of a new American administrator saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. A cultural gaff. Intentional or not, it embarrassed and belittled Henry. So he quit the project. In fact, to save face, he had to quit.

I can’t do the project without Henry. He’s critically important in helping me work with the Marshallese students and make connections in the community. Don’t forget, our main aim is to gather stories from the elders. My students and I can’t do this if we don’t have a good rapport with the community.

The only way Henry can rejoin the project is to regain the respect he lost when he was insulted. So he’s asked to be paid $3000 for his work on the project. Mind you, he’s worth every penny. But, last year, when I visited Majuro to set up everything, he had agreed to work on the project for free. It meant that much to him—and it really helped get the project off the ground. But now he has to save face. So I’ve got to find $3000 in the budget to help him do that. Which I will. But this budget’s a fragile thing and, hey, I’m not even off the ground yet. I’ve got three weeks before I step on the plane. Never mind the six months following that.

Second: the very competent Historic Preservation Officer I was working with (on Majuro) has been moved to another office. A new officer is in her place, someone I haven’t met. Someone who doesn’t know me. As a result, my check—the check that’s going to pay for all those computers and software and the exorbitant freight and give me enough to pay my bills while I’m gone and give my wife, who’s in graduate school, enough to eat—is deep in the bowels of the Republic’s fiduciary system. No one knows when this check may appear. I send desperate but respectful emails to the Majuro Historic Preservation Office, which is getting its funding from the National Parks Service (which has politely informed me that it can’t help). I wait. I watch the eyes of my credit cards roll to the back of their heads: big knocked-out X’s.

Third: I’ve just learned from Henry that Marshall Islands Airlines has gone bankrupt, more or less. (He’s very diplomatic in his descriptions.) Marshall Islands Airlines is supposed to take me and my students to Jaluit, one of the unspoiled outer islands, where we are to meet some remarkable story-tellers. Marshall Islands Air has earned the reputation of being, let us say, liberal with its flight schedules. It can get you there but it may take a while to get you back. Still it’s faster than a boat. Without Marshall Islands Air, you have to take a boat.

So that’s what we’ll do, Henry tells me: we’ll take a boat to Jaluit. Henry says it should be no more than 14 days round trip. There are a few other stops along the way. Should I be worried? I wonder.

By the way, until just a few years ago, Jaluit’s elementary school had been built of corrugated tin salvaged from Bikini island after the atomic testing there. It was highly radioactive. This says something about how difficult it is to get building materials on the outer islands and, yes, something about how desperate things are in the Republic’s outer reaches. That’s not to cast shame upon the Republic. If we’re going to cast shame, let’s look to those who have the resources to do better. Jill, my wife—a social worker—could tell you more about that right here in our backyard.

Speaking of backyards: the fire department woke me up at 7:30 this morning. Two big guys and a woman, each in uniform. Their serious expression made clear they weren’t collecting for the firefighter’s relief fund. They told me I had a “situation.” As I’m not too coherent at 7:30 in the morning, I blinked at them in wonder. Was my house on fire? “Could be,” the sergeant said. “Soon. You got a gutter down at the back of your house, smacking on the power lines. It’s arcing.”

“Arcing?” I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans I had hastily pulled on, and no shoes.

Arcing, sir. Throwing sparks. BGE’s coming to cut the lines, then we’re gonna take that gutter down. We had high winds last night. If that thing drops, somebody’ll sue you for sure.”

“And my house will burn down?” I added.

“Yeah, that too.”

fallen gutterThat’s about par for the course when you own a big, old house. Things fall off of it occasionally. No big deal, really. But I do have to get that gutter replaced before I leave. And then, no kidding, as soon as the fire company and the BGE guy left, Jill called me into the butler’s pantry to look at the sink: it was stopped up. Really stopped up. It looked like a toxic waste spill. Smelled like it too. She’d been at it with a plunger. I tried plunging it for twenty minutes and succeeded only in creating a spooky upwelling of brown particulates. It was stopped up good. So I spent half a day under the sink, trying to snake out the stoppage. But I couldn’t get to it. I sighed, watched the dark mouth of the open drain pipe, thought of my life passing in faucet drips.  Then I called the plumber to get rootered. He’s due soon. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow.

Like I said, the unexpected must be expected at a time like this: it’s coming in waves.

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