13 Mar Killed by a Coconut?

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 was nearly killed by a coconut last week This may sound melodramatic, but consider: a mature coconut palm stands 30+ feet high. A ripened coconut weighs at least 5 pounds. Physics majors help me out. The force of a free-falling 5-pound object from the height of 30 feet = you get the idea. I was pedaling my bike to the grocery store. The coconut–like a meteor–smacked the center tube of my bicycle frame, about eighteen inches from my head. I wasn’t wearing my helmet because it’s too damn hot for helmets. A helmet would have saved my life. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t have been killed. Knocked out, certainly. Then either I would have wheeled into oncoming traffic or simply dropped to the asphalt.

Oddly, this happened the day my grant check came through. Wouldn’t that have been ironic, to be killed by a coconut the day I’m rescued from bankruptcy? When the Ministry of Finance produced the funds at last, it took me a day to catch my breath. Privately, I was weepy with relief. For starters, I owed my college about $9,000. and, unsurprisingly, it wanted its money. When my stalwart dean allowed me to advance the cash from my department’s funds so that I could buy the Project equipment (after my own credit card was maxed out), he had no idea that he’d have to wait two months for reimbursement (thanks, Jim). Three weeks ago, the Loyola finance office froze my department’s budget and all eyes were turned on me, waiting for that check. It was awkward, to say the least.

It’s not over. There are two more grant checks to come. Unfortunately, so many expenses were front-loaded in order to start the Project, this first check will be spent in two weeks. But I can’t worry about that now. I’m worrying about other things. In fact, after the check came through, I could hardly sleep for two days, too aware of my deadline and all we have to do. Next week is spring break. Newton and I are taking the students to Arno. It’s a neighboring atoll. Though close by, in many respects it’s far away. Most of my students have never been to an “outer” island like Arno. But some have been to Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. It’s similar to New Yorkers never having visited the Statue of Liberty.

Newton laughed when I told him about the killer coconut. “In all my years, I’ve never heard of anyone hit on the head by a falling coconut!” he said. “You would have been the first!” It must have been my bad luck playing itself out, he said.

At mid-week, Majuro radio announced that the grant was official. My name was mentioned and I think there was a statement from the RMI’s Minister of the Interior, but I don’t know the details. Significantly (perhaps), the next day I was able to assist with an interview of the senator of Bikini atoll, the grandson of a king. When I first arrived, I was told I wouldn’t get this opportunity. It’s been my good fortune to partner the Project with CMI’s Nuclear Institute so that the Project can archive stories of nuclear testing survivors. The director of that organization, Mary Silk, is well respected in the community and an excellent interviewer. Earlier in the week, we interviewed a renown survivor from Rongelap. Even though I don’t understand what I’m hearing, I find the sessions fascinating.

The process of interviewing underscores how thoroughly this project belongs to the Marshallese. The people I’m working with–like Mary and Newton–have the access to and rapport with members of the community. All I do is help with technology and some technicalities, such as consent forms. I’m a facilitator. The cultural liaisons are doing the hard work.

This week is mid-term and students are stressed, scrambling to get their work done. Suddenly, they are working very hard. For weeks we’ve been playing catch-up, students coming late to class or not coming at all, work handed in late every time. It’s hard to teach when the work’s not there. That said, everybody handed in his or her portfolio on time yesterday. And all the work has been accounted for, finally. So here’s to a new start. This week the students are doing a translation of a story they’ve gathered (on tape recorder) over the weekend. The exercise will prepare them for the harder chores ahead–after we’ve returned from Arno with a boatload of stories.

Although I now have money in my pocket, I’m still eating most of my meals in my room. This is a low budget operation, after all. But Saturday–when I still didn’t know my fiscal fate–I lost control and spent my last four dollars on grilled chicken from a take-out. Every day I’d pedal past the grill, the cooks working in a tiny hut with chicken-wire windows. The smoky aroma of that grilling marinated meat turned my head every time. Having eaten only a handful of fruit Saturday, I could stand it no longer. I braked hard in the middle of the road, my tires skidding. Then, stopping traffic, I turned around. I got three chicken pieces, a mound of rice, and some kim-chi’d cabbage for $3.50. Amazing. I felt guilty, greedy, and grateful all at once.

The chicken was savory, sweetly marinated, and very tender. This is free range chicken, mind you. All chicken on Majuro is free range. Just look around. They’re everywhere, pecking at your feet, darting across the road. At all hours of the day, almost anywhere you go, you can see or hear a rooster crowing nearby.


A couple of weeks ago, an American scolded me for not having read the local paper. I didn’t have the nerve to tell him I couldn’t spare the 75 cents.

Another American looked at me in surprise when I admitted I didn’t know where the new International Conference Center is. How would I know? Nobody’s taken me aside to show me what’s what, much less tutored me in the intricacies of daily interaction. (Newton’s working off-island half the week.) Some may think that because I was here in May I know all there is to know about Majuro and the Marshallese. As I keep telling everyone: I know nothing.

Example: I came in to CMI on a Saturday to answer my email. The internet’s not as excruciatingly slow on the weekend (it takes 2-3 hours to post this blog). Halfway through an online phone call, the power went dead. That’s not unusual. It goes out at least once a week. So I went looking for power. But I ran into the president, who told me this was an all-day scheduled black-out–announced earlier in the week. I didn’t know.

For some reason, the scheduled blackouts seldom affect my part of the island, where the Resort is.

Unfortunately, I have stateside business to conduct on a weekly basis. The day the power went out, I raced over to the National Telecommunications Authority, which has internet stations you can rent for 10¢ a minute. They were pulling in signals at a blistering 400 megabytes per second. At CMI I’m lucky if I get 10 mbps (in the States you get 800 or more). But the NTA system won’t allow laptops to plug into its system, and I needed the software on my laptop to make my phone call. So I packed up, then raced to the Resort. When I say “race,” I mean pedal my bike. Which means lots of sweating. Finally, I got jacked in to the internet at the Resort, but it took ten minutes because I was down to 10 mbps again. It’d been an hour since I was cut off. later and I was now sitting in the noisy lobby. My call went through at last. I said, “Hello?” The person on the other end said, “Hello, Ron!” Then the line went dead.

I could deal with the slow connectivity; it’s the dropped connections that are driving me mad.

I still haven’t gotten pink eye, but I expect to any day now.

I wash my hands so often, they’re peeling.

Since my killer coconut incident, I’m anxious every time I pedal past a coconut tree.

The most formidable animal on land here is the coconut crab. It can get as big as a basketball and has claws so strong, it can snap a wooden broomstick in two. Nocturnal, it lives in burrows amid the fallen coconut and uses its impressive claws to cut into the husk so it can feed on the nut.

My generator-powered bike light works only if I plug in the front light or the back but not both. I’ve opted for the back. But it makes night pedaling hazardous. Pedestrians often walk in the road.

Ever since my arrival, I’ve been ravenous for sweets. My nutritionist brother would not approve. I’m pretty sure my craving stems from a need for comfort.

Things I haven’t been able to find: hydrogen peroxide and a micro-screwdriver for eyeglass screws (I’ve been using the mouth of a nail clipper.).

I’ve lost my hat. I think I know where I lost it but I don’t know how. I brought a back-up but it’s too small, I’ve discovered. It sits high on my head and peaks oddly. As a result, it looks like those khaki canvas caps that Japanese soldiers wore in World War II.

More than once, as I’ve spoken with someone in his or her office, I’ve seen a small a creature with a long tail dart behind a file cabinet or book case. It’s so fast, I see it only out of the corner of my eye, usually as the tail disappears. This isn’t a mouse, I’ve decided, it’s a gecko.

As with student work in the States, student email attachments here come with lots of viruses. None of the Project’s laptops have virus protection because it’s too expensive and we don’t go online. But the students are loading in their documents from their thumb-drives. I fear it’s just a matter of time before all of the Project laptops crash.

Speaking of viruses: I don’t know why I haven’t gotten sick since my arrival nearly two months ago. (Right now a cold’s going around.) It may be because I’m in emergency mode. I recall the first year we began to rehab our old house: I didn’t get sick because I couldn’t afford to.

Speaking of the house, I’ve learned that my article in This Old House magazine went online and made both CNN’s “Living” page and AOL’s “At Home” page. For a few heady days we were THE number-one home-decoration story on the internet, but then “Maria Carey’s Magnificent Manhattan Triplex” and “At Home with the Barefoot Contessa” knocked us down to number three. But THEN AOL posted us on their main page and we jumped from 100,000 to 300,000 in just two days–knocking out the Barefoot Contessa as well as “Senator and Mrs.John McCain’s Phoenix family home.”

Here’s the link:
From Animal House to Our House

This Old House online has a “comments” box for every page. Reading these has been a blast and quite heartening. Apparently our story really hits a chord because it’s about a couple struggling to make a home against great odds–and trying to undo the terrible damage done by a fraternity. Get this: some of the frat boys who lived in the house–and helped wreck it ten years ago–have made comments. The frat angle has really gotten readers stirred up. Many see fraternities as the epitome of our culture’s demise. In the article, I don’t say one bad word against the frat boys. I only report that they trashed the house, which is irrefutable, given the photos.

I’ve been thinking of doing a blog entry on Majuro dogs but so far I haven’t been able to get close to any of them. The moment I point my camera, they run away.

There’s a community of feral cats camped outside the resort. They’re not as skittish as the dogs. One tom makes his home in the tree outside my window. Despite my closed window and the hum of my air-conditioner, I hear him and his cohorts complain and cavort every night.

Something else I hear every night is the church just down the street. I went to one of their services. They are happening! Here’s a sample:
church song

My mom wrote this to me: “do not get hooked on those [betel] nuts.”

Yesterday I broke down and bought a box of Cheerios. It cost $8.24.

For the dry season, it’s really been wet. When the downpour comes, it drums at the roof like a swarm of locusts. In the morning, there are pond-sized puddles in the street.

Despite my sometimes desperate craving for sweets, I haven’t been able to bring myself to eat the five “chocolate brownie” Cliff bars in my bureau drawer. They’re that bad. They came in a variety pack I brought with me. Still, I keep them around just in case.

Here’s what I love to hear from the students in my web-design class: “What’s the code for that again?” They’re learning HTML so that they don’t get too dependent on the automatic code-generator in Dreamweaver. The great thing is, they don’t know they’re doing it the hard way so they’re not afraid of coding. Their mid-term project is a personal web-page–these are coming along so well we’re going to showcase them at the college’s Foundation Day.

The Marshallese language is rich with trilling “r’s,” which are more pronounced than anything you’ve heard in Spanish. Instead of cursing, some Marshallese (my students especially) will let that sound roll from their tongue in two rapid exhalations.

Since arriving here two months ago, I’ve worn short pants only once.

I haven’t heard the National Band rehearsing for two weeks. Usually they’re making a pleasant noise across the street. A recent report in the Marshall Islands Journal tells me that the new government has decided not to fund the band. Read into that what you will. Doesn’t every nation need a band?

My beard is getting orange highlights from daily exposure to sun.

One variety of ant here is nearly as small as a pin-head. It’s ubiquitous indoors but so tiny it’s of no consequence–unless you leave a smear of peanut butter on the counter. Often, when I’m talking to a Majuro resident, he or she will absently press a finger to the table top, obliterating one or more of these ants. It’s as casual a gesture as a yawn.