Sunday, June 24, 2001



Livin’ On
Marshall Time

Wealth and ambition take on
altered auras on these balmy
atolls fit for would-be kings

See also:
>> Renowned crafts showcase natural beauty;
>> Marshallese outriggers sail from the past

By Tim Ryan

Majuro Lagoon, Marshall Islands >> For a few hours on "Murphy's" atoll at the northern edge of the immense Majuro Lagoon, I'm living a tame version of "Castaway."

The six of us brought enough chicken, rice, soft drinks and water to feed us for days rather than hours.

We're 10 miles northwest of Majuro, the Marshall Islands' capital city. The only sound is that of waves crashing on this less-than-an-acre hunk of coral and sand.

Then something curious happens. I'm actually having a meaningful conversation with someone, free from distractions. I'm sitting on a pile of soft coconut fronds, sifting coral sand through my fingers, as a new friend and I discuss living on an atoll, happiness, women, and how we wished we'd brought some beer.

Nearby, Suzanne Murphy and her brother John build a fire from dried coconut husks to cook the chicken. The 20-something Marshallese-Irish woman, who works for the Marshall Islands Visitors Bureau, is our guide and host today on the atoll her father bought in the 1980s.

Murphy picks a coconut off the ground and breaks it open using a long pointed stick, handing me a chunk of the pure white, moist meat. I lay back down and close my eyes, dozing to the lullaby of the elements. When I hear several thuds I sit up quickly. Murphy is laughing.

"Don't you remember the movie 'Castaway' when Tom Hanks hears the same noise?" she says. "It's falling coconuts. Relax."

The Marshall Islands is all about relaxing. This is my second trip to Majuro in three months. My first visit lasted about 24 hours in an exploratory expedition. I was tantalized not just by its natural beauty but also the pleasant Marshallese people.

But the Marshall Islands is an easy spot to pass over. Only Aloha and Continental airlines fly there a few times a week. If you want to visit the pristine outer atolls, known for superb diving and camping, you have to be prepared to fly on Air Marshall Islands or charter a boat. Majuro, the nation's business and population center, is only about 38 miles long, and a half-mile wide at the widest point.

The people here are poor but not impoverished. Family life is important, as are friends and meeting new people. Expectations are modest.


Republic of the Marshall Islands

Capital: Majuro island
History/geology: Low-lying coral atolls that are remnants of high volcanic islands. Within the Marshalls' 29 atolls, there are 1,225 islands, 870 reef systems, 800 species of fish and 160 species of coral. The atolls, first discovered and colonized more than 2,000 years ago, have been occupied and administered by Germany, Japan and the United States over the last 150 years. Population is about 60,000.
Official Language: Marshallese and English
Currency: U.S. dollar
Climate: Average daily temperature 81 degrees; annual rain in Majuro is 135 inches. January to March are dry months, though the islands are cooled year-round by northeast trades; the rainy season is in October and November. Winters can be stormy.
Entry: Visas not required for U.S. citizens. All visitors must hold a valid passport and possess an onward air or sea ticket.
Electricity: Current is 110V, 60 cycles. U.S.-style plugs are used.
Airlines: Distance and flying time between Honolulu and Majuro is 2,300 miles, five hours.
>> Continental Micronesia: Three weekly flights to and from Honolulu, 1-800-231-0856.
>> Aloha Airlines: Two weekly flights to and from Honolulu, including Majuro and Kwajalein atoll. With purchase of a "seven-day advance purchase" round-trip excursion fare, travelers can purchase an additional companion ticket at a 50 percent discount. Offer valid through June 27. In Honolulu, call 484-1111.
Accommodations: A variety of hotels, most offering restaurant/bar, airport transfer service, car rental and gift shops.
>> Outrigger Marshall Islands Resort, offers oceanfront luxury. Write P.O. Box 3297, Majuro, MH 96960; 001 (692) 625-2525; fax: 001 (800) 622-4852; Rates: $130 to $240; 150 rooms, all air-conditioned. Special air-hotel packages are available.
>> Hotel Robert Reimers, P.O. Box 1, Majuro, MH 96960; 001 (692) 625-5131. Rates: $75 to $150; 39 rooms.
>> Flame Tree Backpackers Hostel: 001 (692) 625-4229, fax 001 (692) 625-3136; e-mail:; four single rooms with bathrooms. Rate: $25; no air conditioners.
For more information: Marshall Islands Visitors Authority (MIVA), P.O. Box 5, Majuro, MH 96960; 001 (692) 625-6482; fax: 001 (692) 625-6771; Web page:; e-mail:

The Majuro airport runway looks like a long parking lot. I'm met by Bill Weza, the Outrigger Marshall Islands Resorts' general manager and a larger-than-life character who later tells me I've become one of his favorite son-of-a-bitches.

"That's a very good thing," an Outrigger worker says later.

Every region has its own cast of characters and Weza is one of several who add to the Marshalls' charms. He's a large man with a red face and a fondness for Victoria Bitter beer. He's stern but polite with employees, open to ideas, occasionally frustrated by Marshallese time, which is flexible.

The two-lane road from the airport to downtown Majuro has no name.

"It's not like you're going to get lost," Weza says driving down "Maj 1." "You're either on the lagoon or ocean side of the road. Any SOB can figure it out!"

Soon we cross the highest point on Majuro, a 12-foot bridge spanning a manmade pass between the ocean and lagoon. We cruise through rustic neighborhoods where families watch and wave. Weza points out the upscale Japanese and United States embassies, in distinct contrast to the surrounding modest homes, many painted in vivid colors reminiscent of Baja or Caribbean abodes.

Weza stops at a crescent shaped beach where we watch dozens of adults and children sailing toy Marshallese-style canoes in the gusty tradewinds.

"The future," Weza says, eyeing the kids.

There's a resurgence in Marshallese sailing tradition, considered one of the most sophisticated in the Pacific.

Contestants ready their model canoes for the Outrigger
Marshall Islands Cup at Majuro Lagoon. To see the
race, plan to vacation there in May.

The country's tourism future is in the pristine outer atolls. The Marshalls' visitor industry is trying to create overnight or weekly excursions that would take people to the atolls for snorkeling, diving, camping or just relaxing. Many feel regularly scheduled flights are needed for this task.

We arrive at the Outrigger to find an oasis of cool air, friendly service and expansive lagoon views. At dinner, over a thick prime rib, I meet Michael Kabua, an Iroij, or chief, of Kwajalein atoll. Kabua is dark, stout and polite, wears surfer shorts, slippers and a black tank top with a Budweiser logo. He's wealthy by Marshallese standards and wears a gold watch inlaid with what looks like diamonds. He owns an apartment in Honolulu.

"It's good to be a king," someone whispers.

The next morning at 8, I meet boat captain James Bing, whose 42-foot speed boat -- the fastest in Majuro -- will serve as one of three escorts for the riwuks, or model canoes, in the Outrigger Marshall Islands Cup held annually in May. Another resort guest, a photographer, and Kabua, who is sponsoring one of the 30 riwuks in the race, joins me. I ask Bing if the race will start on time.

"Probably," he says.

We reach the atoll about three miles away, just a few minutes before the race, along with many of the contestants. The men jump from boats to swim or walk to the rocky beach pulling the riwuks alongside.

There's politeness about confrontation here. It seems locals do everything they can to avoid it, including not asking why a boat race scheduled to start at 10 a.m. doesn't begin until 3 p.m.

Each contestant's riwuk takes dozens of practice runs more than a mile offshore. The escort boats retrieve the canoes, transporting them back to shore where the owner adjusts the tiny sails or adds or removes lead weights from the hull, ... over and over and over again. The tide was low when this all started; it is high when it finishes, and there are several wind shifts.

Meanwhile, Kabua sits in the back of the boat, talking on his cell phone, watching his riwuk sail by three dozen times. I learn later that someone else of high authority is on the atoll with the participants and neither Kabua nor his counterpart want to take the initiative to start the race. It's only when a Westerner on board complains loudly about the delay that Kabua gives the approval to start the race.

I understand. It's good to be a king.

Suzanne Murphy, whose Irish father owns a couple of bars, restaurants and a hostel on Majuro, smiles when she hears about the delay later that day. She explains that Marshallese society is stratified into three general classes: Iroij, Alap (clan heads) and Rijerbal (workers).

"The Iroij have ultimate control of land tenure, resource use and distribution, and dispute settlement," Murphy says. "No one wants to mess with them. They are quite powerful because they control the land."

When we arrive back at the Outrigger, Terry, a Caucasian who was raised on the Marshalls and runs a school in Laura, asks "Where have you SOBs been all day?"

I head to an adjacent sandy beach to swim. A Marshallese sailor in a wa, sailing canoe, glides toward shore in the breeze, slowing near me. He waves and we chat as he unfurls the sail. He's in Majuro for the big race, and represents an outer atoll. He explains the engineering of the canoe's asymmetrical hull, the large pyramid shape of the sail, and the breadfruit wood hull.

"We were very lucky when the (breadfruit tree) washed up on the atoll," he says.

The sky is clear and the humidity has dropped, so I decide to walk the few blocks into "town" to the grocery store. A couple of people stop me on the way to ask if I'm the travel writer from Hawaii. The coconut wireless is efficient in the Marshalls.

At the market in the Majuro Shopping Center a dozen extra large eggs are $1.99, yellow onions 59 cents a pound, three apples $1.70, a pound of bacon, $2.45, and a bottle of Bacardi 151 Rum, $21.61. I buy a liter of Arrowhead Spring water, $1.09, then hail a cab, 50 cents a person, telling the driver to take me to Mothers restaurant, which was recommended.

Mothers is small, clean, cool and crowded with chattering expats, a few with Marshallese girlfriends, who complain about the energy brownouts, government bureaucracy and foreign fishing vessels' catches.

The mahimahi I order is cooked perfectly and tasty; with salad, beverage, rice and dessert under $3.

On the cab ride back I tell the driver to drive through neighborhoods I haven't yet seen. Many of the homes are built of cinderblock; wood doesn't last long here in the moist air. People sit outside on benches, talking story.

Things to say
Marshallese language belongs to the Austronesian language family, the most geographically widespread language family in the world, spreading from Madagascar to Easter Island. There are two major dialects in the Marshalls that correlate to the two chains of atolls: Ralik and Ratak.
Here are some Marshallese terms and phrases:
>> Welcome: Yokwe
>> Thank you very much: Kommol tata
>> You are welcome: Kin jouj
>> How are you?: Ejet am mour?
>> It's good: Emman
>> Tastes good: Enno
>> Tastes bad: Enana
>> How much does it cost?: Jete onean?
>> Where is the bank?: Ewi bank eo?
>> What time is it?: Jete awa kiio?
>> Excuse me/I'm sorry: Jolok bod
>> Good-looking woman: Likatu
>> Good-looking man: Lakatu
>> Beer: Pia
>> Beach: Lar
>> Canoe: Wa
>> Swim: Tutu
>> Fish: Lik
>> Reef, coral: Wod
>> Dollar: Tala
>> Go away: Etal
>> Yes: Aaet
>> No: Jaab
>> What?: Ta?

"Having to have a job is not part of the Marshallese culture," the driver tells me. "If you catch fish for your family it doesn't mean you're a fisherman. You do what you have to do at the time."

It's so pragmatic my Western mind has a hard time grasping the concept. "Don't people want to be something professionally?" I ask.

"We are something just being, aren't we?" he answers.

The next day is my last on Majuro and I'm scheduled to go to Arno atoll a few miles to the east across open ocean with Captain Bing.

I'm in luck at dinner. A Pacific region delicacy, coconut crab, is on the menu. The waitress brings a sprawling blackish-brown thing with thick legs and powerful claws. She even shells the beast. The meat is white, tender, sweet and plentiful; the drawn butter accompanying it is unnecessary.

After dinner, several of us, including Murphy, walk a block to the Flame Tree, a bar-restaurant managed by her sister. At 9 p.m. only a few people are here, including an Australian helicopter pilot who offers to take me for "a ride at dawn" if I buy him a case of beer. I decline when I learn he's been here for several hours already.

When Weza walks in the door I yell, "You son of a bitch, get over here," and he does.

Murphy's boyfriend attends school in the United States, returning to Majuro as often as possible. He has strong opinions about the Marshalls government and economic future. "The young people will start the changes the country needs," he says.

When I ask Murphy where these 20-something Marshallese are this night, she suggests going to The Pub a few blocks away, where a sign reads: "No drunks allowed."

The interior is dimly lit; the dance floor is even darker. The Marshallese are modest about public displays like dancing, she says.

Soon men and women in a group introduce themselves, talking abut their jobs, life on Majuro, goals, changing the traditional Iroij system, land ownership, getting their voices heard by Marshallese leaders.

"We are the future here," a 5-foot-tall atoll owner yells over the disco music. "Changes need to be made to help all Marshallese."

He's surrounded by several pretty women who politely smile in my direction, listen to him intently, then nod their collective heads when he invites me to visit his island. He orders a round of drinks and tells one of his entourage to dance with me. Embarrassed for the young woman, I try to beg off.

"You must have fun here," he says, pushing her in my direction. Another woman quickly fills the space my dance partner vacates.

"It's good to be a king," my photographer friend whispers.

The last day on Majuro is windy and rainy so the trip to Arno is canceled. Murphy offers to drive us to Laura, a breathtakingly beautiful beach on the western tip of Majuro.

The ride is pleasant. In some spots, the road is so narrow that from the middle of the road I can easily throw a rock into the ocean on one side and the lagoon on the other. The landscape turns lush.

Small one-room shanty-like stores selling candy and soda and cigarettes dot both sides of the road.

At Laura Beach Park, the ocean and lagoon sides have deep sand beaches; the water is clear and deep just a few feet from shore. Palm trees and shade trees line the beach.

Across the lagoon a squall is building, dark and ominous, moving toward Laura where I'm alone in silence. I think of my time on Majuro, filled mostly on top of the ocean rather than under it, the reason most people come here.

I've had an unexpected experience. I've met lots of people, learned about both sides of the culture, met a few "kings," and in the process became a worthy son-of-a bitch.

The Marshall Islands grows on you.

Things to do

The Marshall Islands, whether you visit the capital of Majuro or the outer atolls, is for the active visitor. There are a lot of outdoor and ocean-related activities, and if you tire of diving, sailing or beachcombing, don't be shy about visiting Majuro's rustic neighborhoods.

Alele Museum: Houses implements and photographs documenting the traditions and history of the Marshalls. On view are tools and artifacts, canoe displays, photos from the Joachim deBrum collection, a geological history model of the islands and photos from the German, Japanese and U.S. colonial eras.

>> Location: Downtown Majuro, open 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Mondays to Fridays.

Handicraft shopping: Visit one of Majuro's handicraft shops to discover the most desired crafts in the Pacific from mats to hats, handmade, all natural and original, at low prices.

>> Locations: Ask your hotel's front-desk officer for directions.

Majuro Charter Boats Association: Troll, bottom-fish or book a half- or full-day charter. The association offers a variety of boats with modern fishing gear and safety equipment. Boats also available for snorkeling, cruising or visiting neighbor atolls.

>> Best Bet: James "Bond" Bing is an excellent seaman and funny guy. His 45-foot high-speed "cigarette boat" carries the Marshallese flag and the pirate skull and crossbones. Contact Bing through the Outrigger Marshall Islands Resort, P.O. Box 3297, Majuro, MH 96960; 001 (692) 625-2525; fax: 001 (800) 622-4852.

Marshalls Billfish Club Tournaments: These popular events occur about once a month on Majuro, landing blue marlin, yellowfin tuna, skipjack, mahimahi, wahoo and barracuda. The annual National Fisherman's Day Tournament the first week of July is the largest of the tournaments, followed by the Mobil All Micronesia Fishing Tournament in August.

RRE Clam Farm tour: Located next to the RRE Long Island Grocery Store is RRE's giant-clam holding and raising facility. The farm features state-of-the-art aquaculture technology and guided tours. Free.

Tobolar Copra Processing Plant Tour: See the processing of copra -- the dried meat of coconuts -- into coconut oil, soaps, body oil and coconut feed. Free.

Laura Beach Park: A beautiful sandy beach and picnic area provides a popular weekend hangout for locals. There is a shower for rinsing off salt water. $1 entry fee. Location: 25 miles west of downtown Majuro.

Peace Park Memorial: Constructed by the Japanese government to commemorate the soldiers who fought and died in the Pacific during World War II. There are several picnic areas allowing visitors to stop and contemplate the granite and concrete structures.

>> Location: Just past the airport toward Laura.

1918 Typhoon Monument: A big one struck the southern atolls in 1918 and killed about 200 people. The monument is a large sandstone upright on the lagoon-side dirt road at the end of Laura, commemorating the victims and paying homage to the emperor of Japan for his contribution in rebuilding Majuro atoll.

Diving: The water temperature year-round is 84 degrees. Natural attractions include sea fans, coral pinnacles and walls, channels, sharks, turtles, rays, whales, giant clams and reef fish. Wrecks include an abundance of German, Japanese and American WWII ships. Some companies to contact are:

>> Marshalls Dive Adventures on Majuro & Bikini: Lucy-Emma Martin, P.O. Box 1, Majuro, MH 96960; 001 (692) 625-3250; fax: (692) 625-3505; e-mail:

>> Marshall Islands Aquatics: Matt Holly, P.O. Box 319, Majuro, MH 96960; 001 (692) 625-0567/625-6267; fax: 001 (692) 625-3669.

>> Kwajalein Atoll Dive Resort: Steven Gavagan, Manager, P.O. Box 5159, Ebeye, Kwajalein, MH 96970; 001 (692) 329-3100/329-3102/329-1220; fax: 001 (692) 329-3297.

>> Bako Divers: Contact the Outrigger Marshall Islands Resort or Jerry Ross at 001 (692) 247-7254.

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