First stop in the North Pacific: the Marshall Islands

Majuro atoll, in the forefront and faintly in the background

Majuro atoll, in the forefront and faintly in the background

There are a lot of different words to refer to this part of the world, like Oceania, Australasia, or simply the Pacific, but there are three distinct parts to the Pacific islands: Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. They don’t refer only to geographical separations, but also cultural and genetic differences between the islanders. Melanesia includes the countries furthest west and closest to Australia: Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. Polynesia can be described as all the islands within the triangle between Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. Micronesia are all the North Pacific islands, including the country called The Federated States of Micronesia.

Majuro airport

Majuro airport

My first stop in the North Pacific was the Marshall Islands. From then on, it was only Micronesian islands and the US dollar, despite there being different countries along the way. All of these islands were once peaceful, self-sufficient communities originating mainly from Asia, but during WWI and WWII, Japan, Germany and the USA ravaged the islands and their people as they fought for these strategic territories that they themselves had never even settled. The Marshall Islands probably got the worst of it, since they were not only bombed and invaded during the war, but heavily bombed with nuclear bomb tests after that. More than 60 nuclear bombs were dropped on Bikini atoll in the 10 years following WWII, islands where the local population had been removed and later returned to their super-polluted, nuclear contaminated, radioactive islands. The Marshallese still suffer from exposure 60 years later and haven’t been able to return to their homes.

And to make matters worse, the US hasn’t learned much from their mistakes, since they are now bombing the hell out of Kwajalein atoll, called a Ballistic missile defense test site. Although its not nuclear bombs, its still killing huge parts of the coral reef and marine ecosystems, and again they’ve displaced the local community from nearly the whole island, isolating them to just one atoll called Ebeye where the population density is worse than Manhattan. Neither locals nor tourists can visit any other part of Kwajalein unless you’re part of the US Military on task there, or one of their family members or an invited guest.

a hammock kinda day

a hammock kinda day

Aaaanyway, enough ranting… I loved Majuro atoll, the friendly, happy, bomb-free, locally inhabited part of the Marshall Islands. It’s a huge, broken up, u-shaped connection of atolls and islands, little spits of sand and coral sticking out of the sea, and traditional canoes sail alongside the fishing boats and private yachts in the space between them. I went to Eneko for a night, reachable from the capital city in about 15 minutes by speedboat. There me and a friend had the island to ourselves for $45 a night, including our private beach, some kayaks, a coral reef to snorkel, our wooden hut, an outdoor kitchen, the hammock and one nearly washed-away picnic table. Another night we camped at Laura beach, which isn’t a camp site but we hung a hammock and used the benches, but a drunken dumb and deaf guy came tearing through our camp a couple of times in the middle of the night, so it wasn’t quite as relaxing as Eneko.

our beach hut at Eneko

our beach hut at Eneko

If you make it to Majuro, there’s only one proper backpackers called Flametree Backpackers (and very affordable at $20US/night for a semi-private room). All your tourist things can be taken care of from the nearby Marshall Islands Resort, the Visitor’s authority tourist office in town, or the REE (Hotel Robert Reimers/ Robert Reimers Enterprises) docks. There are fully-stocked American style stores everywhere, it was cleaner and cheaper than many of the other islands, so Majuro comes highly recommended in my books.

our half-standing picnic table

our half-standing picnic table

*For more information on the hydrogen bomb test and the US’ impact on Bikin island and the Marshallese people, read this article: www.theguardian.com/bikini-atoll-nuclear-test

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Nauru, the wierdest country I’ve ever visited

Can you imagine a chunk of rock sticking out of the Pacific Ocean, only 20 square km in size, 300 km away from the nearest island, with 10,000 people living on it? Then imagine that this little island and all its Micronesian/Polynesian peoples changed hands from Germany until WWI, to the UK until WWII, then the Japanese invaded, and finally Nauru became a recognized, independent state in the 60’s. Now this is when it gets crazy – then Nauru became one of the richest countries in the world during the 70’s, with millionaires flying on the country’s regional airline all over the world and buying Lamborghinis for their president (who was too fat to fit in it, rumor says). By the late 80’s, the source of their billions, phosphate mines, began to dwindle, and they started to shut down. Many of them were built by the Australians, who just left them as they were, and they’re still there – tall, rusted buildings and half standing cantilever arms stranded on a dock-less beach. By the 90’s, unemployment was everywhere and a new generation of Nauruans were born into poverty.

This structure may fall down at any time!

This structure may fall down at any time!

After making the Australians a few million too, they now depend on Aus Aid to function. They  The Chinese run all their small businesses and Japan helps them build roads. One of the most significant financial inputs to their economy comes from the Australian run detention center holding refugees seeking asylum in Australia. It was opened from 2001-2007, and reopened in 2012 and now holds nearly 1000 people from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. Australia pays 8 figures to Nauru for the center, and even more money for each refugee’s transport when and if they leave this middle-of-nowhere island. While they’re still there, they get amnesty from the local law, and police won’t even help a Nauruan if a conflict arises with a refugee since each one is worth so much money.

The President's destroyed and vandalized mansion

The President’s destroyed and vandalized mansion

The President’s beautiful mountain-top house was torched in a 2001 riot by local people who had lived through the country’s downward spiral. Alot of the blame fell on the government, who managed public funds through international investment projects gone bad. They basically gambled away their millions, lost all their airplanes except one (still functioning Our Airline was nationalized and the government has gone into debt to keep it afloat), and one of the grandest hotels ever built in this part of the Pacific has become a spooky concrete structure resembling something like an imcomplete construction project from the 80’s. It probably has 50+ rooms, but ours was the only one occupied for our one night stay, and the owner keeps her prices just $10 cheaper than Menen Resort, the only other hotel on the island at $150/night for a dirty room in a dying building. The prices of things, in Australian dollars, is ludicrous, since only political or NGO related people travel here, and what you get for what you pay for isn’t even worth a tenth of the price.

deserted industrial areas - a common sight in Nauru

deserted industrial areas – a common sight in Nauru

When I got off the plane, I had the feeling Nauru would be a unique place in the Pacific, but it was a weird and eerie kind of unique. I’m certainly glad I went, just to try and understand a bit how such a tiny country and its history could truly be real… but I don’t know if I’d go again. It’s a sad little place, and I just kept wishing I could time travel and visit it back in the 80’s when the place was booming and all the hotels were filled with foreigners that could have enjoyed Nauru with me.

Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati

One of Kiribati's many atolls

One of Kiribati’s many atolls

The difference between an island and an atoll is basically just a lot of land and soil. While an island can be just as wide as it is long, be covered in green grass, and rise up out of the sea into huge mountain ranges, an atoll is only a narrow bit of raised coral rock, dotted along in strips of land surrounding a big blue lagoon. Just try to imagine a sunken volcano in the sea, with only the ridge around the crater sticking out, with a few resilient palm trees and banana fruits growing strong. The highest point on Tarawa is 3m above sea level, a small rise in the road that you’re over in a second, and the 2.5m high bridge connecting two of the atolls. There were huge stretches of land where it was only as wide as the road, since a series of roads and bridges connect the pieces of land slowly drifting apart from rising sea levels.

There are only 4 atoll nations in the world, countries which live on slivers of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and its amazing what they do with so little land, and how many people they can fit on it. There are around 700 people per square kilometer in Tarawa… plus their pigs and chickens. They had to get rid of goats because they ate all the seedlings of the little vegetation that does grow, and horses or cows never had a chance without grass. The pigs stay tied up by their back foot under people’s houses, and the roosters are free to roam around and cockadoddledoo as they please. The stray dogs and homeless cats squeeze somewhere inbetween the boundaries, and somehow everyone fits, including the regular influx of seamen coming in from fishing boats and cargo vessels.

Tarawa Atoll

Tarawa Atoll

People had been asking me if I was going to Christmas Island, which I thoughw as weird since its in the Indian Ocean half way between Africa and Australia, but then I learned that ‘ti’ is pronounced ‘s’ in the Kiribati language, making Kiribati’s name ‘Kiribas,’ and Kritimati (the other large island in the island group) ‘Kirismas.’ Even though they’re both part of the same country, they’re hundreds of miles apart, since Kiribati is speckled around the equator from 170`W to 150`E. The date line technically passes through them at 180`, but they’ve all shifted in favour of the west side, making the easternmost islanders the first in the world to see a new day every morning. They renamed this island ‘Millenium’ island (formerly Caroline island) in 2000, but some deserted beach in Antarctica technically saw the millennium first.

Since there’s not much topsoil or any grass, it’s a stony, dusty place. There’s a strange grayness to the colour of the land, as if someone poured an unmixed bag of concrete over Tarawa, making this greyish dust float all over the place when its dry, and turning all the streets into a sticky gray mud and potholes into greywater pools when it rains (and it rained, a whole lot, while I was there). There were atleast one or two dedicated workers in each shop to wipe dust off the products for sale, an endless job that meant starting all over again as soon as you finished, because by that time, more gray dust and mud had crept back in with the wind or tromping feet.

you have to wade through a channel between islets at low tide to get to this bungalow

you have to wade through a channel between islets at low tide to get to this bungalow

I stayed at a lovely place called George’s, where all the female and fa’afafine men who worked there knew my name and the restaurant made delicious, cheap, food. George’s was also a bar where live bands performed to celebrate the weekend and Valentine’s day, and I met a lot of men from all over the world working on various ships docked in the Betio harbor. I met a Venezuelan helicopter pilot who nearly took me on a helicopter tour of Tarawa (dang…), a 24/7 drunk observer from Tuvalu, and a chief engineer from an American ship who sank the little speed boat his crew uses to go from the fishing boat to shore.

There are more shipwrecks than boats afloat, or so it seemed, with rusted boats from WWII to the speed boat that sank yesterday scattered about the shallow lagoon. The deranged chief engineer didn’t even have a radio to tell the captain he’d sank their speedboat, and he had no way to get back out to the main vessel, so he sat around the bar at our hotel drinking and retelling the story until someone with a marine radio could help him.

getting away from the gray streets

getting away from the gray streets

I get used to hearing weird stories like his, and other equally strange but wonderful stories like the helicopter pilot who saw a blue whale give birth while scouting for fish. My taxi driver mixed west and east with north and south and told me about how the sun set on the south side of the island. I suspended judgment for a moment to try and see how he could be right, but we’re literally on the equator so there’s no mistaking that. I’ve started to collect my own strange stories too, and my favourite from Tarawa is about the two cockroaches that my air conditioner threw at me. A live one got hurled at my leg when I first turned it on, and during my first night sleeping, a second one got caught up, killed, then launched onto my bed. Just another day in the life in the Pacific.

Themes of the South Pacific

It’s interesting to travel here, since your day is governed by the sunrise and the sunset, waking with the rest of the village according to the suns wishes, and your diet is limited to the market’s availability. For a while it’s an overabundance of fresh papaya and watermelon, then its pineapples and eggplants. Trying to find avocados when its cucumber and tomato season is tough, but I’ve been lucky twice. Your activities are controlled by the weather, since the rain makes you stop wherever you are and worry only about finding shelter, and the shining sun makes you hide under shade until the temperature drops below 38 degrees and you can once again bare to start walking. An umbrella is a very versatile item, since it works as protection against the rain and the sun, so it’s not weird to always have an open umbrella above your head. The tides govern when you can get in or out of the water safely, or when it’s good to snorkel, or when there’s actually sand on the beach to lay on, or waves past the break to surf on.

Weird things I’ve learned is to always keep my bag shut in my room at night. If not, you’ll find a couple cockroaches who’ve moved in and you won’t find them til a few days later, a little groggy from lack of oxygen and food, but still alive and creepily crawling further into your backpack when you try to chuck them out. Buses don’t often have windows on them, so it’s also important to keep your mouth shut whiles it’s driving… the bugs and bees do not taste good flying in at 50km per hour. Another important lesson is that you can never have too much bug spray, and you certainly can never be wearing too much bug spray, because those damned mosquitos will still get you, even if you think you’re in a mozzy-proof net. They’re like cockroaches, they just never die… or they multiply faster than you can kill them, I’m not sure. And they come with horrible threats of diseases I hadn’t even heard of – like chikungunya – or the regular malaria, dengue and yellow fevers you’re equally weary of. But, I do know that if mosquitos were to die a horrible painful death in the burning depths of hell forever, I would not feel bad, or sad, or any remorse, since their total extinction wouldn’t make me mourn one bit.

There are a few common themes in the South Pacific that stay even when you change islands or countries. Fire dancing and other types of traditional dance are always present, in their own local flare. Some are done in grass skirts, some in sarongs (whose names can change from pareos to lava-lavas), some are scary (like the Maori haka – google it if you’ve never seen an All Blacks rugby game), most are beautiful, some are danced to percussion and body slapping, and others to the sound of ukuleles and beautiful Polynesian songs. All the South Pacific countries have memorable graves, each burial practice done slightly differently, but they’re usually very present, in the front yards of peoples homes, along the side of the road, or in mass graveyards decorated with colourful plastic flowers. They range from mounds of sand with a simple tombstone, to full-on housed shelters where the relatives of the deceased like to play or rest.

Tattoos are important, and visible mostly on men, but women will also often have them on their upper leg or a band around an arm or ankle. Maori’s have them on their face, and Samoans get a solid tattoo from their knees up to their midwaist which takes 6 hours a day for 2 weeks to complete the traditional way. Apparently everything is tattooed except the genitals… that’s got to be painful.

The food has, for the most part, been consistently bad. They don’t use much spice or flavor except for fried oil, and the staple is canned tuna, corned beef, instant noodles and different forms of potatoey-starches. Ive never seen so many different types and flavours of instant noodles – everything from Korean Kimchi to Maggi noddles and Indonesian packages I couldn’t read. The food was refreshingly amazing in Fiji, and some fully-catered hotels in Samoa had yummy curries and rice, which was a welcomed change to noodles or starch.

Women, men and children all wear flowers in their hair, live ones, plastic ones, white ones, pink ones, and most a variation of a frangipani or hibiscus flower. It’s funny to see it on the men, since it doesn’t take anything away from their masculinity, even if its paired with a pink sarong or flowery skirt, since that’s just become a normal, manly sight for me in the pacific. Every island has a different name for cross-dressing men (my favourite is the very feminine word fa’afafine in Tahitian), the flamboyant gay guys who are not gay guys but women who take female roles and like men. They’re a source of pride for any family who never has a daughter, since they fulfill the daughterly void, and even though homosexuality is illegal in many countries and the church would never approve, they bypass this sin since they’re simply fully-functional women (stuck in men’s bodies… but that’s not their fault).

Kava, which is a cloudy-brownish narcotic drink made from a root plant, has also been a reoccurring theme. Every island has its own kava – a special recipe, different names or pronunciation, a special time or place to drink it, and various ways the kava ceremony should proceed. When I had it in Fiji, it was from a small wooden bowl that we all shared by passing around and drinking until the cup was empty. It would be refilled and repassed til we’d all had enough, or our tongues became to tickly to hold up to the bowl, and I didn’t feel drunk or drugged but a lot of people acted like they did.

After five months in the South Pacific, it’s all starting to feel very familiar, and most things are comfortable except the heat and mosquitos. I actually met someone in Samoa whose name (in Samoan) was South Pacific Ocean, and first I laughed, but then I thought about it and realized that the meaning behind it is a beautiful thing to be named after. If it didn’t have such a terrible ring to it in English, I’d probably consider naming a child after the South Pacific too.

Too long in Tuvalu?

not the most beatiful picture of Tuvalu, but certainly a memorable one... the island is slowly sinking under the sea and debris

not the most beatiful picture of Tuvalu, but certainly a memorable one… the island is slowly sinking under the sea and debris

I had never heard of Tuvalu before, and apparently Im not the only one. I was also the only idiot on the whole plane who didn’t know Tuvalu is off the banking grid, as in no atm’s, credit cards or debit cards (in my defense, I googled if there was a bank and there were 2… they just dont have atm’s), so I had to survive off $200AUD for nearly a week. Tuvalu only has a population of about 10,000, living on 25 square kilometres spread out over 9 islands in the middle of the Pacific, so it’s not surprising few people have heard of it and a cash economy does just fine. But, it is an actual, UN recognized, functional country, with a Taiwanese embassy and one little airstrip that takes up half of the main island. Fongafale is more than 10 km long, but only 10-400m wide and the airstrip lies smack dab in the middle of the widest part. It’s a couple km of un-fenced concrete, only a metre above sea-level at high tide, and a little cottage near the middle of it marks the airport terminal. It’s the international airport, with two flights a week to Fiji, and the duty free shop doesn’t fit inside so instead it’s a portable trailer driven up for the occasion. All the passengers don’t even fit inside to line up for customs, but they’re kind enough to provide umbrellas for those stuck outside.

The narrowest part of Fongafale

The narrowest part of Fongafale

It rained cats and dogs while I was there. Puddles turned into small lakes and the whole length of the runway was under water at one point. I was there during a full moon and the king tides brought the ocean right over the roads. Rising sea-levels have slowly been chewing the island away, pushing the coast line further and further inland. Coconut trees that used to be on the beach have now been washed away and drowned, and the seashore is more often a man-made wall made of rock piles or decaying cars.

king tides wash debris over the low-lying roads

king tides wash debris over the low-lying roads

I was in Tuvalu for 5 days, and knew that would be enough time to see it all, make some friends, read a book, and relax a lot. After 2 days, I had done all that, and then watched the entire Godfather movie series. The weather had been mostly rain, and most people stayed at home or went to church. Even school got cancelled because of the rain, and a concert I wanted to see, so I wondered what I’d do with the rest of my time. It didn’t take long until I was nearly too busy to sleep, because that cancelled concert night I ended up at another live music event where an Argentinian film crew befriended me. I spent the next few days tagging along with them, filming scenes of the island, interviews with locals, boat trips to secluded islands, live-dancing and singing, and the hustle and bustle of the bi-weekly plane days.

man-made barriers against the king tides

man-made barriers against the king tides

I didn’t realize how likely flights are to change or be cancelled. The morning I was supposed to check in for my flight, it had been raining buckets for hours straight, and the plane was delayed and only barely managed to land and take off on the flooded runway. But thank god the plane did come, since it’s one of the most well-attended events in the community. The ladies selling farewell necklaces set up shop, the kids line up to watch the plane soar over the runway, the passengers getting ready to go just wait around on the side of the runway, and every other Tom Dick and Harry knows someone already there or arriving on the flight that it seems all of Fongafale shows up to greet the plane.