28 Feb Walking the King’s Road

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 of his personal experiences ‘on island,’ be sure to check the archives to your left.

When I was here in May, I was much more tentative about my interactions with the Marshallese. I felt too self-conscious. I was sweating a lot and I knew only two words of Marshallese. (I know three now.) I even felt self-conscious about saying Iakwe. But, after receiving little or no response to “hiya,”I tried it and was met with enthusiastic returns: “Iakwe!” Young children are inclined to shout a greeting at outsiders, such as, “Good Evening!” or “What up?” They’re practicing. They might also call you “bell’lee,’ which is short for “ripalle” (pronounced ree-belly), which means “pale person.”

I was reluctant, too, to try the taxis. I’d heard that 75 cents would take you anywhere. It’s the only form of public transportation. Every other car on the road seems to be a taxi, a small four-door sedan made in Asia. If you’re looking to get somewhere fast, however, a taxi isn’t necessarily the way to go. Taxis are obliged to stop for every rider until the car is full. As a result, traffic on the main road is slow. Also: speed bumps erupt from the two-lane asphalt every fifty yards. Plenty of pedestrians walk the narrow shoulders. And plenty of children and animals dart across without warning. So drivers are cautious, for the most part. They don’t seem to see bicyclists, though, probably because there are so few bikes. Several times I’ve had to steer away from being hit by a car whose driver hasn’t thought to look for a bike.

During my May visit, I decided to see how far I could walk down the main road. Originally it was called Ial an Iroj, “the chief’s road.” The chief owned everything. Even now on Majuro, many households pay a “roof rent” to a chief (irooj) or a landowner (elap). There is a difference between the two but not as great as the difference between these privileged classes and everybody else. Directly across the street from me–the first thing I see when I step to the road–is the sprawling embassy of mainland China. It’s been closed since 1998, when the RMI opened relations with Taiwan. Apparently, Taiwan was willing to invest much more than China. So China gathered up its marbles and went home.

Walk farther west, toward the less inhabited part of this long island — which is actually several islands linked with landfill –and you’ll come to the Tobolar Copra plant. Copra is the processed meat of the coconut. Its by-products–oil, especially–are in more things than you think, everything from cookies to detergent. Tobolar runs a small coconut soap business, for instance. Once the oil has been pressed out of the coconut meat, the leavings are bagged and sold as livestock feed. It’s especially good for dairy cows because of its fat content.

making soapCoconut palms were planted as a cash crop during the German occupation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Copra farming remains the single largest category of work in the RMI, accounting for 24% of the employment. Interestingly, more women are farming copra than ever before. But copra’s not the mainstay it once was, in part because it’s labor intensive and the market’s volatile. Tobolar no longer ships to the U.S. because Homeland Security restrictions make it too big a hassle. However, Virgin Airlines announced recently that it will start using bio-fuel made from coconut oil, so copra farmers may be in for good times.

banter A young man named Banter gave me a tour of the plant. One of the warehouses contains heaps of raw copra, which a loader dumps into a grinder. Oil is expeller-pressed from the meat, then refined. If your car’s ready for it, you can buy coconut bio-fuel from Tobolar for $4.20 a gallon. The plant is dimly lit, houses a huge, oily rendering machine, and reeks of a sweet nutty aroma. The soles of my shoes were buttery from walking in the smeared renderings, flies swarming near the floor. Most impressive was the mountain of spent copra in a corrugated tin warehouse that was hazy with copra dust. Three men were shoveling the copra into bags for export to Australia for horse feed.

copraThe Marshallese have several origin stories centered on the coconut, the most famous version of which has the first woman giving birth to a coconut named Tobolaar. In that story, the woman plants her child, then watches its growth to see when it will be good to eat. This and other stories teach listeners when and how to eat the coconut.

On slippery-coconutty soles, I continued my walk on the shoulder of the road and soon came to what looked like a small park surrounding a marble tomb. At first I thought this was a Japanese memorial. The Japanese are frequent tourists to the Marshalls, where so many of their WWII dead are buried. Peace Park, farther down the road, is one of their memorials. As it turns out, the tomb I discovered belongs to Amata Kabua, a high chief who served as the republic’s first president from 1978-96. Though he sometimes entertained controversial ideas (such as the proposal to storehouse America’s nuclear waste for $100 million a year), he was instrumental in resisting American exploitation during the Trust Territory days and remained a strong advocate for Marshallese autonomy.

His tomb is on private property, I decided. It’s adjacent to a white, stucco villa that no doubt belongs to the family. But I didn’t see any “no trespassing” signs. In fact, I have yet to see such a sign on Majuro. Still, I tip-toed out of there.

The main road, built as a gift from the Japanese government, has become a problem, I’ve been told. Standing water on the roadway now breeds mosquitoes, which until recently have never appeared in the Marshalls. Though the road was built with excellent drainage, the drains have filled with sand and deteriorating concrete. Some predict that malaria and dengue fever, among other mosquito-borne diseases, will soon plague the island. I myself haven’t seen anything wrong with the road, though, true enough, the drains are filled with sand. How long can water stand in a climate like this?

I left the road for the reef because the tide was out, exposing the oceanside moonscape. During their occupation of the island (1914-45), the Japanese excavated swimming holes on the oceanside reef. The “holes” are about the size of swimming pools and can be found every thirty yards or so for miles. Some are ten feet deep and, unlike the apron of oceanside reef, contain colorful coral, anemones, and fish. I thought it’d be nice to go swimming in one of these but wasn’t sure if, once in, I could get out–unless I wanted to wait for the rising tide and the arrival of sharks.

breadfruitI returned to the road when I got to the Majuro Bridge, which connects the eastern island to the western. At twelve feet above sea level, it’s supposed to be the highest point in the Marshalls (discounting Majuro’s few-story buildings). Actually, the highest land mass is the decommissioned missile silo on Kwajalein. It’s 24 feet tall, a relic of the Nike program in the 1960s. Missiles now fire from Meck in the northern rim of the Kwajalein atoll. Named after Ronald Reagan and located 350 miles northwest of Majuro, the U.S. Army at Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) test range is attempting to develop Reagan’s Star Wars Defense Initiative at a cost of billions a year. Much has been said about the wisdom of this investment. Most people in the States don’t know the program still exists. The Republic is handsomely compensated for this imposition, though it could be argued that the RMI never had a choice in the matter. There’s some suggestion that now, with a new RMI government in place, the nation may try to rid itself of USAKA. That would cause quite a stir in the U.S. Congress. In any case, the owners of Kwajalein want to return and have started a “Kwajalein Liberation” movement. There’s a lot of back and forth among them, the new RMI government, and the U.S. government, which is insisting that its contract with the recently ousted government still holds.

After an hour of hot walking–past a woman washing laundry in a plastic bucket, a dog barking at two grazing pigs who ignored him with impunity, a rooster chasing a moth, a man napping face down in the ruin of a shack–I was soaked with sweat. For at least a mile, I had been eager for a cold drink but reluctant to step into the grocery stores I passed. Not that I feared any harm; I simply felt too ripalle. To outsiders, the rimajel (the indigenous name of the Marshallese) may seem shy. They’ll nod, smile, or offer a greeting, but generally they’re noncommittal, leaving strangers alone. This makes them appear both polite and aloof. No matter how friendly, they don’t seem particularly eager to be with, much less be like, Americans or other outsiders.

Marshallese grocery stores come in two varieties. The first is a dimly-lit, cavernous cinderblock structure, named “Crazy Price Mart” or “Lucky Discount House,” offering everything from handbags to frozen krill. This is usually overly air-conditioned and warehouse-like, with goods stacked on tables. It could be as nice as a miniature Wal-mart. Often there’s island music drifting from a boombox near the register.

The other kind of store is the ‘take-out,’ a brightly painted plywood shack whose vendor sells soda, SPAM, candy, and cigarettes. None of the prepackaged food is particularly cheap because it comes by boat from the States. Some take-outs grill chicken at lunch time, an aroma that spins my head. Some also have some local specialties, like pickled breadfruit.

fun store Upon entering “Fun Mart,” I nodded my bashful greeting. The cashier and bagboy nodded theirs. Children stared at me. Women avoided looking my way. No doubt I was a sweaty sight. The cashier was about to ring the wrong price on my Martin’s apple juice until the bagboy corrected him. The Marshallese are famous for their honesty– everywhere except in government, some outsiders would say. The usual complaint is that government jobs go to the unqualified. It’s a complicated situation because those who have jobs are compelled by tradition to provide for their relatives. That means that many jobs do indeed go to unqualified people. Also the hierarchical social order, which places chiefs and land-owners first, further complicates social policy and spheres of influence. I’ve heard it said that even some Marshallese pastors have begun to compete with iroojs and elaps for influence and are themselves getting corrupted by the system of gift-giving and privilege.

One thing is clear from what I’ve seen so far: family comes first for the Marshallese. I don’t know that Americans can fully grasp what this means. We are the least familial people on earth. Often we hear of the Europeans–the French, Spanish, and Italians especially–who work thirty-hour weeks, take two month vacations, and spend lots of quality time with their families (over long meals, for instance). Statistics show that they experience less stress, express more satisfaction with their lives, and live longer than Americans. Many of us Americans say we envy that kind of life but none of us does anything about it.” This doesn’t mean that American children love their parents or families any less. But it does mean that they are less inclined to help parents and relatives, particularly when it comes to taking care of them in old age.

As I understand it, to be Marshallese means that–no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing–if your family calls for help, you come help. If that means leaving your job for a day, or even a week, then you leave your job. Americans leave work only when it’s an emergency and sometimes not even then. Most of us place “professional” concerns before our spouses, our children, our parents, our friends–everything, it seems. When my students here say they have to attend to family, even if it’s just to babysit, I know to let them. In the States, the only acceptable absence from class is the funeral of a family member.

After my apple juice, I returned my sweaty self to the out-of-doors, where the air was smoky from a nearby trash fire. I decided that one is never alone on Majuro. Just when I thought I had a shady path to myself, I had only to look around to find somebody or several somebodies smoking, chatting, or napping. Though not the most crowded island in the nation, it is the most populous: about 25, 000 residents.

Despite the 90% attendance rate at schools, there are a surprising number of children in the streets and alleys during school hours-=-more boys than girls because the girls still have well defined roles. Traditionally, the boys would be learning to fish or sail. “The population that needs the most help is the boys,” one of the American priests told me. “They don’t know what to do with themselves. Girls–women–have their act together.” Women own the land in this matrilineal nation; they raise the children; they cook the food; and, as a result, they are most in touch with the cultural traditions.

Patriarchal colonizer–the Germans, the Japanese, and the Americans–tried to undermine the central role of Marshallese women. When the Americans took over in 1945, for example, they selected a group of Marshallese men to train as leaders and ignored the women. The Marshallese men were increasingly encouraged to push women aside. In the Nitjella, the RMI parliament, there is only one woman among the 33 senators. So women leaders have been sought influence in other areas, particularly in the Non Governmental Offices, which subsist mostly on grants.

Gender roles in daily life are strictly defined but I don’t know enough yet to enumerate the many distinctions. Some younger women wear jeans, for instance, but I never see them wear shorts. The usual dress for women is a colorfully printed shift that rises only to the calf. Men usually wear trousers, not shorts, though the young men have taken to the shin-length surfer short popular in hip-hop fashion.

Taxi drivers, like everyone in commercial fishing, are universally men. I started taking taxis because I simply can’t walk around for long in this heat. I noticed that every taxi I rode was running on Empty. Gas is going for about $4.00 a gallon. So it’s a wonder that most taxi rides cost only 75 cents. But you always share the ride, as I said, and the money adds up. Most taxi drivers are working for one of three companies that expect $30 a day for use of their car.

The driver keeps his car always fridge-cold, though in older cars the air-conditioner may not be working. In older cars there’s a colorful towel tacked to the dashboard to keep the ravenous sun from eating the plastic. You’ll notice too that some kind of yellow waxy substance is stuck between the louvers of the vents in the middle of the dash: air freshener. And always there’s Marshallese music tumbling from the radio. One or more riders may be singing along. I will talk about “island music” at another time. For now I can only describe it as a folk-disco church-song hybrid kind of thing.

Having walked about five miles on the main road, I pooped out finally. Had I continued I’d have passed the American Embassy, the Amata Kabua International Airport, Peace Park, and then dead-ended at Laura Beach Park, the least developed part of the island. It didn’t take long to flag down a taxi. The driver was a young man wearing surfer shorts and a black t-shirt. I offered my yokwe to him and his front-seat passenger and her baby. I wanted to apologize for sweating all over everything but words failed me. Shortly, we stopped to pick up another woman and her infant and toddler. I slid over, noticing that I’d left a wet seat for the new passenger, who was too polite to register dismay or disgust. Soon we stopped for an older man. He took the toddler onto his lap. The infant next to me was fidgeting, so his mother let him breast feed. I tried to will myself to stop sweating. I smelled loudly of roasted coconut, I decided.

taxi baby My ride back to the more populated end of Majuro cost me seventy five cents or so I thought when I handed the driver a dollar. He said something in Marshallese. I asked, “More?” Then the woman beside me handed me two quarters. I took them, said “koommool” for “koommool tata,” thank you, thinking that this was my change. Only as the car pulled away did I realize my mistake. The woman had given me what she thought I didn’t have. The ride cost $1.50. But they were too polite to make a point of it. So I had short-changed the driver a buck. Which is a lot on Majuro. As I stood on the white-coral shoulder, I surveyed the heat-rippled distance. Odds were, it’d be a long while before I’d see the driver again. Of one thing I was certain: he would not make an issue of my debt when he saw me the next time.

That was in May. I have yet to take a taxi this time because, as you know, I’ve got a bike. Here’s this week’s big news: all of my students showed up for the story-telling class yesterday–and we started on time. I joked that it was an occasion for celebration. In fact, I got out my camera and took a photo. I’d been bringing it to class for over a week because we owe a snapshot to our Loyola counterparts. Take a look. You can tell that this posse likes to give me a hard time. I love ’em.