The paradox in getting away from it all is that you can do it by heading right to the centre of things. Unfold your Gregorys and find the point at the middle of the map. Your finger is half way between Australia and Hawaii, on two parallel lines of dots. These, in the midst of endless ocean, are the Marshall Islands. The capital, Majuro, is right on the central fold yet the island nation is so far off ‘the beaten track’ your Travel Agent will look askance.
Tourism is not a big earner for this country, newly admitted to the United Nations in 1991. The Marshalls, or rather two of the 29 atolls that comprise the whole, are best known as the site of nuclear testing by the Americans in the 1940s and 1950s. Bikini Atoll added a new word to our vocabulary, and it is usually a bikini a Pacific traveller wants to pack in the suitcase, not a Geiger counter, so the package tour is unknown. Yet there is more radiation in Sydney than on these small atolls (with the exception of Bikini itself) and there is a lot more to them than their one appearance in the international spotlight could attest.
You know you are getting away by the decreasing size of aircraft on your journey. Sydney to Nadi, Fiji, is the standard 747 Qantas jet, inflight movie, hot meals and cold washers. Then the island hop begins. Air Marshall Islands runs a twice a week flight up through Tuvalu and Kiribati to Majuro, a throbbing propeller aircraft, ten hours, over ocean, over islands, all clearly visible below. It has been called the world’s longest, slowest flight. The cold hamburgers served at all meals can make it seem longer, slower. But don’t stop in Majuro. Robert Louis Stevenson called it “the pearl of the Pacific” in 1889, however a hundred years has left a lot of grime on the beauty and the real jewels are the outer islands. Maloelap is one such atoll, and for it you must board the smallest in the series of aircraft—a twelve seater Dornier. The plane can seem disconcertingly insubstantial for heading across the ocean, but the views are astounding.
Atolls, as described by Darwin after his tour of the Pacific on HMS Beagle, form from below; coral polyps clustering about sinking volcanoes, forming reef then rings of land. Approaching from the air their history can be imagined as quite different. In local legend the trickster god Letao stole a basket of dirt from his father and flew off to create his own land, little realising a hole in the basket was allowing gobs of earth and mud and rock to fall like chicken feed, sprinkling and scattering behind him. Thus the islands are like beaded chains, necklaces dropped around turquoise lagoons.
The grass airstrip on one minute drop stretches from one end to the other. The plane shudders to a halt in a picture postcard paradise. This is Taroa, Maloelap, close to as far away from it all as an urban Australian can get.
But it’s not quite like that. You can’t just arrive out of the blue sky. There are no hotels, motels, hostels, restaurants, cafes. This is ecotourism at its most basic.
All arrangements must be made from Majuro over the two-way radio, the Ministry of Interior and Outer Island Affairs at one end, the Health Assistant’s hut at the other. A family may agree to let you camp on their land—there is no public land, every piece is owned in a complicated hierarchical system. Or there is a small thatched hut built by a U.N. project in the 1980s which is available, but home to a mosquito colony which doesn’t necessarily vacate when there are visitors. A family may also agree to cook meals, eaten with them in the cookhouse, or out under the night sky, and so you are expected when the once a week flight lands. The community is waiting.
It can stir the ego to see the crowd and to have a lei, a crown of flowers, placed upon your head. There is such interest in every arrival, by air, or from across the lagoon on the onomatopoetically named boom-boom, so appreciate your welcome—in context. That can be the most difficult thing, because getting away from it all includes getting away from the cultural markers that make our world knowable.
The wheelbarrow standing ready to cart the luggage is quaint to an outsider, and worth mention in the postcards home (no postcards or post office on Maloelap of course!). Suitcases and backpacks are loaded in and trundled under the groves of breadfruit and coconut trees, the procession of passengers, homecomers and you, following behind. There are no roads on the island. There is no need for a road on the island. The lagoon is to the left, the ocean to the right, nothing is far. The heat is hot and bothering, but the beach is perfect for lying on, prone and at peace. There is a timelessness to breath in, tradition to hold up in opposition to our own jaded existence and our need to get away from it all.
Meals are simple. You can sit on a woven Pandanus mat in the cookhouse and watch the preparations over a small fire. The breadfruit, a football sized starchy fruit from big leafed trees, is peeled as it has been for centuries, with a device very similar to our potato peeler, only made from a cowrie shell. Rice has joined it as a staple, and reef fish, the eyes a delicacy, are often joined on the plate by canned tuna and sardines. There won’t be a can opener though, only an expertly manoeuvred machete. Bananas and pawpaw are the only fruit. And cheap coffee is served in old peanut butter jars.
Night comes and the stars gleam so close you could reach up and put one in your pocket. The work of the day unwinds into bwebwenato, a concept that can’t quite be translated. Gossip; shooting the breeze; talk by gaslight mingling with the breeze rustling the palms and the hermit crabs scrambling their borrowed shells over the rocks. Some of the community speak English; as the week passes some may include you in the storytelling, retelling of legends that have been told so many times before, each time new and fresh and alive.
Letao appears again and again, a favourite hero, or anti-hero, always ready with a trick and a laugh. One time he came upon an outrigger canoe so beautiful he knew he had to have it. Koko, the master boatbuilder had spent a lot of time on this canoe: the sail was woven for strength, the mast and rigging decorated with coloured feathers and coconut ribbons for luck. It was a thing of loveliness and utility. His outrigger could carry a heavier load than all others.
What Letao wanted he got. He had a plan. He built himself a canoe, using kone instead of the usual breadfruit wood. Kone wood can be polished to gleam like the sun; but there is nothing that can be done to make kone wood float. In the deep of night Letao placed his shining prize on some flat rocks a little way out from the shore and loaded it with heavy stones to show its strength. From land it appeared to be floating. An enviable craft indeed.
Koko desired Letao’s canoe as much as Letao wanted his, but Letao appeared to take some persuading to trade. In the end he acquiesced, and sailed away in Koko’s wondrous outrigger canoe. Koko believed he had the best of the deal even as Letao rushed to leave. Then the kone wood canoe was pushed off the flat rocks and sank to the bottom of the deep lagoon.
Everyone laughed into the island night, Koko’s anger and shame washed away on a tide of mirth.
If the eternally white sands of the beach grow monotonous as the days drift on, you can walk around—right around—the island. There is no village as such; each household is built on the family’s own land, a sleephouse, a cookhouse, for the more affluent, an outhouse. Some are still the traditional thatch, many are plywood. The smallest children will follow in fascination. Boys shinny up trees to collect coconuts, the young ones perfect for quenching the thirst in a long chug-a-lug of clear sweet liquid. Then you will come upon it, proudly, immovably, parked near a house.
On that island in the middle of the map, in the middle of nowhere, on that island without a road, there is a car. It is, or was, a small pick-up truck. The bright shiny surfaces are now rusting in the salt air. The tyres have long since flattened onto the sandy soil. Metal crumbles like wood.
It must have been irresistible once. As irresistible as Letao’s kone wood canoe.
Cars are amazing inventions; we couldn’t live without ours in Australia. But like much which ‘civilisation’ has introduced into the Pacific, it may seem beautiful, but is useless.
Ecotourism is a seductive concept too. We want to see something untouched by our world of technology and pollution. We think we can tread carefully and leave it as we found it: the unchanging face of nature and tradition, the exotic breadfruit peeler, the quaint wheelbarrow, a way of life we can envy, and leave.
You leave with perfectly formed cowrie shells rattling in your pocket, setting out on a series of flights in planes of ever increasing size, flying away from your dreams and back to reality. And as you go you cannot deny the island community what they have seen, and their dreams too.