17 Jun On The Reef

When I saw Jill again, she looked like a farm girl, her face freckled and without makeup. We hadn’t seen each other in four months. Newton and I presented her with a traditional crown of flowers and a lei, both of which Newton’s wife made. Then I bought her a Marshallese sunhat at the handicraft store–because you really need a hat out here, especially if you’re going to walk the reef. To my surprise, Jill wore it right away. I thought she’d find Majuro disturbing because many do. Too dirty and crowded. But Jill likes things more complicated than not. Majuro is plenty complicated. She said, “Don’t some parts of Florida look like this?”

We got several orders of take-out, including stir-fried octopus, then drove a rented car the length of the island to Laura, where it’s green and less populated. We ate at the Peace Park, built by the Japanese government in 1986 to commemorate the war (II) dead. We had the place to ourselves. On weekends, the Peace Park and much of Laura are crowded with the thoroughly sociable Marshallese, who picnic and cook-out with family and friends as much as possible.

The next day, Newton took us to a small island, which we had almost wholly to ourselves. While he fished with rod and reel (casting into deep water), Jill and I snorkeled. Jill had never snorkeled before, but took to it easily. And she wasn’t freaked by the rain of jelly fish we swam through. They were about the size of quarters, tiny nearly-transparent bells, and they were everywhere. But they didn’t sting. Still, they freaked me out. As we swam through them, and they bounced off my dive-mask–and my forehead–I was sure we’d feel the stinging later. But later Newton told us that these were dead jelly fish. This particular kind sheds its skin at certain times, he explained. That’s all we were seeing, the sloughed-off skin.

I made Jill tramp through the jungle a while. I love picking through a jungle. It was tough going and Jill wasn’t happy about it but she humored me for a while. That’s how I run my life, it seems: I push into weeds, then go too far to turn back. “I see light through the trees,” I kept calling to Jill. “Almost there!” We also walked the reef, checking out the tide pools and lifting rocks to see what’s there (always return the rock to its original position b/c every rock is an ecosystem, with lots of stuff living on its underside). We came across a healthy looking moray eel, about a foot long. Also, while wading in the tide, Jill came across a black tip shark. A baby, hardly two feet long. It was mighty fast, zipping past us once, then twice, then it was gone–before I could get my camera ready. Black tips are fairly common on the oceanside.

Exactly forty-eight hours after Jill’s arrival, I came down with a sinus infection. No doubt she introduced me to a handful of Stateside microbes, an exposure exacerbated by two days of snorkeling. I’d spent over four months in the Marshall Islands without getting pink eye, without getting the flu, without getting a cold, and here at last I got sick. Maybe my body simply gave in now that the pressure was off. Not that the job is done. Newton and I have pushed the Project deadline to September 1. There’s simply too much data to process. I have to finish editing the videos, then compress them and upload them to the website. Same with the audio. Newton has piles of translation and voice-overs to do. But the website is up and operational and it’s looking pretty good. I’ve decided Newton must come to Baltimore to review our final work. On Majuro he won’t be able to view the video–their internet connection is so slow, it’ll take all night to download a single one-hour clip.

Jill’s not sure what to make of my tattoo. Her first response was “it’s so big!” She also had mixed feelings about my haircut. Only Jill cuts my hair. But I couldn’t wait for her this time and had a local cut it several weeks ago–someone Newton recommended. The stylist, a Filipino hoping to get to the States, did a great job and ended the session by giving me a back massage. How different would we be if haircuts in the States ended with a back massage?

Jill and I stopped in Honolulu on the way back. I had to visit the Bishop Museum to see what Marshall Islands artifacts it displays. Not enough, I thought. The museum was founded in 1893, shortly after the Hawaiian royal family was dethroned. Though the museum took possession of many royal family belongings, a larger number were auctioned off. The story of the Hawaiian monarchy is a sad one and implicates the U.S. in the worst way. By many accounts, the monarchy was enlightened and beloved by the people. In fact, the last king, David Kalakaua (the “merry monarch”), reinstated the hula dance and other elements of native culture that the missionaries had attempted to eradicate. But outside forces–mostly American and European business interests (among them some recognizable names)–controlled his cabinet and revised the constitution to their benefit, infamously dubbed the “bayonet constitution.” In the end, the powerbrokers got their way and the island nation was soon annexed by the U.S. in 1898.

We’re now on our way home on a 767, Jill trying to sleep beside me. It didn’t take long for us to re-acclimate to each other–we’re back to our usual, teasing selves. At bottom, I didn’t expect this separation to affect us adversely. But it’s going to take me a while to sort out how my time here has affected me in other ways. The night before we left Majuro, Newton made us a traditional meal: the reef fish he’d caught that day, a coconut stew, baked breadfruit, and fried breadfruit. It was glorious. The next day, he and several of my student–Obet, Jefferson, Benson, Ayson, Decency, and James–saw us off at the airport. I don’t know if these young people know how much hope is riding on their shoulders. I’ll continue to be on call as their technical advisor. (Check out their website at http://rmitdt.org.) They’re in good hands with Newton. He’s gentle and wise and they respect him tremendously. But, obviously, none of us oldsters can protect them from all the world will bring their way. This worry for them is something that, as a teacher, I should have gotten used to long ago but, apparently, I never will.