15 Feb Sweating in Majuro

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 (five months) on Majuro to direct this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story, be sure to check the archives to your left.

I bought a bicycle because I didn’t want to be at the mercy of the taxis. (I’ll talk about the taxis at another time.) It’s a single speed bike, nothing fancy, what we used to call a “coaster.” I ordered it months ago via email through the Majuro hardware store, whose owner I know. The bike was made in China. But the store had to order it from the U.S. In coming to Majuro, the bike nearly returned to its country of origin. It probably cost $20. to make. By the time it reached me, it was $200. That’s the global marketplace.

Bicycles are a rarity here because they’re expensive. Median annual income for the average family on Majuro (7.5 people) is $14,737. This in a country whose currency is the U.S. dollar and whose food prices are, generally, twice as high as the U.S. A box of cereal on Majuro costs $6.50. Everything comes by boat or plane, don’t forget. Fish and fruit are the only local food. Thirty-five percent of Majuro households report that they don’t have enough to eat. I’m not sure how closely this correlates to the island’s 30+% unemployment. In any case, you don’t see many bicycles.

On my shiny new bike, I’m the quintessential ripalle (pronounced “ree-belly”), a helmeted geekshow. Strong winds make pedaling a chore. When I dismount, I look doused. The seat of my pants is soaked. It’s embarrassing. I said to my students today, “I can’t stop sweating!” Misako, the class jokester, replied, “We see that.”

As I helped the clerk put my bike together yesterday in the un-airconditioned hardware store (a stateside franchise), sweat rained from my face—it was puddling on the floor. The oddest moment I’ve experienced so far was then: the clerk and I wrestling with the bike, I sweating profusely, and, above us, Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze” playing through the store’s PA. It seemed to epitomize the nexus of global consumer culture and white/Western privilege.

”view I’m staying in a motel called “The Resort.” It’s more like a Red Roof Inn with a killer view. I have a small fridge in my room and an oldish TV that gets satellite channels from Asia (more on that another time). When I asked for a Do-Not-Disturb sign (so the maid wouldn’t have to clean my room every day), the desk clerk gave me a “Do Not Disturb—I’m Watching ESPN” hang-tag. Apparently, it was all she had.

local banana I’m washing my clothes in the sink and living mostly on fruit and peanut butter and cookies. I start my day with 5 of the local micro-bananas. I love the strange Asian cracker-cookie-biscuit hybrid mysteries at the stores. “Chocolat Wafer-peanut bar” made by Seven-Seven, of Taiwan, boasts this: “Selects only the finest cocoa butter to become ever body’s favorite peanut taste. Each wafer is a masterpiece elegantly flavored. Fashionable in Europe and America it has become today’s most stylish snack food.”

mystery cookie I hang my clothes to dry on my balcony. It takes two days because of the humidity. We’re just seven degrees north of the equator. The equatorial Pacific is considered the most corrosive environment in the world. It’s not just the relentless heat and damp, it’s the salt air. Nothing lasts. Everywhere I look, I see rust. Concrete cracks and crumbles. Plastic splinters. My motel once had reflecting pools on either side of its entrance, but those are empty, having long gone to ruin.

corrosion Those pools would have been filled with salt water. Tap water is a precious commodity. The northernmost Marshalls (800 miles above the equator) are uninhabitable due to insufficient rain. Majuro, which is well south, gets enough rain over the span of an average year, but it must endure the dry months. We’re just now entering those. “The change in season shifts the germs around,” someone told me. “That’s why we got this outbreak of pink eye. It’s gonna get dusty over the next few months.” Everybody keeps a cistern of rain water to supplement the municipal supply. If it’s a bad year, there will be rationing.

The national orchestra rehearses in a building across the street. It seems every time I step out my door, I hear them. This evening I heard the “Hawaii Five-O” theme. It’s mostly a brass band, the legacy of the late Father Hacker, a Jesuit who came to the Marshalls in the 1950s and built pride and unity among the Marshallese by teaching them to play brass instruments. He knew nothing about music but he knew how to teach. From the 1960s through the ‘80s, Marshallese brass bands were renown in the Pacific.

I asked Henry to attend my story-telling class in case the students needed encouragement and reassurance. But Henry’s help wasn’t necessary. My students are funny, earnest, and mischievous. They joke freely with one another. And, thankfully, they joke with me too. In fact, the Marshallese are very humorous people. Just today as I pedaled past a boy, he waved me down as if I were a taxi. Then we shared a laugh.

The class and I started by reading some Aesop’s fables aloud. They laughed when the fox—foiled in his attempts to reach a vine of grapes–said, “Oh, who cares, I’m sure they are sour.” My students said they know people like that. “Isn’t that remarkable?” I asked. “This guy wrote his stories 2500 years ago and yet we understand him—we even laugh with him.” Yeah, pretty cool, they agreed.

Our guiding question this month is Why tell stories? As we read stories aloud, I ask the students to follow along with pencil in hand and circle words they have to guess at. Before discussing the story, we spend a few minutes sharing our guesses. This seems another occasion for joking, as when I tried to draw a picture on the board to illustrate the fox going after the “lofty” grapes. My fox, we decided, looked like a bird.

When discussing the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, they pointed out that the Marshallese have a similar story about a needle fish and a hermit crab. The slow moving hermit crab wins the race. My web-design class consists of the same students as the story-telling class. This makes it easy for me. The primary challenge is to get the students to come to class and do their homework. One student showed up for the first time yesterday. He’s missed 3 weeks. Two others have never shown up. Father Hacker, an old man trying to build his last school when I met in 1993, often complained in jest about how the Marshallese will always tell you what you want to hear and then do exactly as they please. So it is with Marshallese students. You can’t browbeat, punish, or threaten a Marshallese student the way you can an American student. The Marshallese simply won’t respond to that kind of treatment, which is why the Imperial Japanese Army had a hard time with them sixty-some years ago. The Marshallese, when put upon, can make themselves so passive, it becomes a form of emotional violence against those who push for action.

So patience is most important. I was reminded of this when I tried to track down the key to my CMI office, where I’m supposed to store all of our computers, cameras, and tape recorders. First, I’m told there are no key blanks on the island. Apparently they’ve run out. Never mind that Henry showed up with new spare keys to his office, which I’m sharing. Second, I’m told that the Marshallese don’t like to make duplicate keys. As a result, some businesses don’t open if the person with the key is out sick.

I’ve been spending a lot of time walking from one office to the next. People are often out and it’s never clear where they’ve gone. The Americans are no better about this than the Marshallese. It has something to do with island life. I appreciate the need to keep moving in this heat. I tried to hold a dinner for my cultural consultations—about 12 influential Marshallese—but more than half were “off island,” back in the States. So I’ll try again next week.

I expected to feel weird this first week for all the predictable reasons, being away from Jill and other comforts. Little things are telling on me. For example: I was sitting in front of my laptop and talking to somebody at CMI about web design; I mentioned a website of interest and said, “Oh, here let me show you.” I laid my hands on my keyboard, about to Google, but then realized there is no Google–there is no internet. If I want internet, I have to go into another building, then wait five minutes for a connection, then wait five or ten minutes for every page to download, if at all. That kind of thing can wear you down. My laptop doesn’t know what to do; it wants to update, it wants to connect; it keeps beseeching me with error messages.

typical beach in the Marshalls My primary comfort is my Mp3 player. I’m in such a weird headspace right now, I enjoyed listening to “Revolution #9” just a minute ago. It’s a seven-minute soundscape of seeming nonsense, the highlight of which is Yoko Ono saying, “You get naked.” What makes me feel most weird is not my strangeness among the Marshallese but, rather, the strangeness of the Americans and other Westerners who have made Majuro their home. Among the ex-pats there are some interesting and accomplished people, without question. But all of them are on the outside in some significant way. They are people who can live in a motel room for years on end, for example. I myself am no stranger to this kind of life. I was a road musician for 6 years, spending months every year living in motels, mostly in northern Nevada casino towns.

But I don’t share the ex-pats’ indifference or aversion to the madness of American life, with its email obsessions and over-extended work-days. That madness feeds me as nothing else can. Removed from it, I have a gnawing hunger that sometimes feels like panic. To cope, I’m setting small goals for myself every day. Tomorrow I’ll try to get my story-telling class organized. A third of the students still haven’t handed in their homework—due two days ago.