An overwhelming feeling of gratitude came over me, along with a super-sized sigh of relief when we finally touched down in Majuro. The Marshall Islands was my very last country on an absolutely ridiculous and downright unrealistic 11-country, 30-day itinerary that would take me through nine new countries, all in The Pacific. I’d revisit Fiji three times (for transit), plus a two-night layover in Manila. I’ve never been so challenged to put together a flight itinerary in my entire life.
Flights to some of these lesser-visited countries like Kiribati, Micronesia and The Solomon Islands were so infrequent and many of them not direct (hence the three Fiji overnights). And even though I finally got the itinerary worked out on the 36-row, 11-column spreadsheet, this plan only told the story of “scheduled” flights and would not account for any cancellations or delays. Just one upset along the way would most likely derail the entire trip – my stays in countries were so quick, missing just one of these flights would most likely result in scrapping at least one or two nations. One domino would undoubtedly affect others.
And boy, did I dodge some doozies: A fellow traveler-friend whom I met up with in Vanuatu ended up getting stuck there for three extra days due to mechanical problems. Just days after leaving Papua New Guinea, the news reported that the airline had “run out” of fuel (in general!) and grounded all flights. And leaving Port Moresby, there were only a total of two flights out that night: one to Hong Kong and my flight to Manila…and the Hong Flight was canceled – talk about playing a fierce and lengthy game of flight cancellation-roulette! And I really wanted to finish The Pacific. If I could nail these nine, I’d be done with the region altogether, but missing just one meant I’d have to make the trek back, which is very long and very expensive.
Yet here I was, cruising into the last country on my schedule and checking off number 192. The Marshall Islands would be my next to last country to see, in general, out of all of them! And 192 felt different. Maybe because 193 never felt like it could really happen. Now it was real. I could touch it.
On the ground and at immigration, I got stuck behind a bunch of guys (likely laborers) who had just arrived on the new Nauru Airlines flight from Kiribati. The line was sluggish, but I was finally out on the curb and into the hotel’s shuttle. Carlson was my driver and quasi-tour guide as he pointed places out along the way.
We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
I immediately noticed how industrial/commercialized Majuro was, compared to other islands of similar size like Kiribati and Tuvalu. Frankly, I was relieved. Though I adored the “off the beaten path” feel of Kiribati and others recently, I suffered through the lack of decent hotels and almost zero (developed) restaurants. In Buka, I couldn’t even find a place for coffee. I’d stay in Marshall Islands the longest—four full days, which is a long time for me—and I really didn’t want a replay of Kiribati or Buka situations. Call me spoiled. I breathed a silent sigh of relief as we passed under streetlights and by houses, not huts. There were stores and restaurants with lighted signs and even multi-story buildings. I’d had enough of “the sticks” for this trip. Hashtag lightweight.
A Little R&R
I’d booked accommodations at Hotel Robert Reimers. I’ll spend just a little more time talking about my hotel on this blog, since there are really only two decent choices here: the state-owned Marshall Islands Resort and Robert Reimers. Both are pretty old and “old-school,” but I thought R.R. was a tad bit nicer. I stayed in my own bungalow that was clean, had great AC, pretty good Wi-Fi and even three or four English TV channels. If you read my Kiribati and Buka (Papua New Guinea) blogs, you know how rough I had it there, missing all of the above amenities, plus some added cockroaches thrown in just for fun.
I found it interesting that the Reimers family owned a lot of businesses on the island. The hotel, boats/ferries, general stores…even the water I sipped in restaurants around town was bottled by Robert Reimers Enterprises. The German family had arrived on the island generations ago, and, today, have their hand in a lot – and probably so much more that I don’t even know about.
I had plenty of time in Majuro, so my time here, overall, was pretty kick-back and care-free. I spent the first full day just bummin’ around town. I’d made it my mission to find postcards. It was my last stop and I’d promised some cards to my readers and listeners back home – and this was my last chance to get ‘em out. The only problem was, postcards were almost impossible to find here. Both the post office and both hotels didn’t have a one. But I liked the challenge; it gave me something to do, a mission. I’d spend the next couple of hours walking the main road, popping into stores and supermarkets, usually coming up empty, although one shop had a few in stock. I’d eventually make it over to the local newspaper headquarters, where I bought out all of their remaining Marshall Islands-branded Christmas cards. My final stop was the tourism office, but it was locked and its manager missing. It was Friday afternoon. Island time.
My most exciting stop that day was The Office of The President. It has been my dream to meet a sitting president in one of my “193” and I hadn’t yet. I put the goal into high-gear on this trip, sending emails and queries to officials ahead of time, asking to meet their Prime Ministers and Presidents. With no replies from Marshall Islands (or anyone for that matter), I figured I’d try popping my head in to the President’s office and just asking in person. Bold? You bet. But this was a small island and I figured I’d have much more luck in a place like Majuro than a big nation.
Sure enough, I literally waltzed right in! The lone security guard patrolling the empty lobby pointed to the staircase, which led me right up to the big man’s office. I made my way to the first desk and began telling the lady my story, presenting her with the official request letter that I’d emailed earlier. One of the administrator’s ears perked up when he heard me mention I was a radio DJ. Fred Pedro was a radio guy too, and soon we were cementing plans for breakfast in the morning. He told me he’d try and work out a meeting with The President. You can say day one was a success. And I was worried there’d be nothing to do!
Mr. Pedro and I enjoyed an American breakfast at Robert Reimers. Finally, pancakes! Turned out, he was a radio man – a former DJ and station owner. He now worked directly under The President. Mr. Pedro was a very pleasant man to talk to, and told me that a meeting with The President would be possible. I tried to keep my cool but I was screaming inside. Maybe it was finally going to happen!
I finally left Robert Reimers after 1PM, this time, on the hunt for a nice “aloha” shirt for my pic with The President. I couldn’t show up for my big photo-op in a t-shirt. Finding a nice shirt was my mission for the day. Coincidentally, The President’s niece, Emma, owned the store where I ended up finding my shirt. I quickly realized that everyone knows everyone in Majuro – it’s one big family.
My next mini-adventure would be a visit to the small island of Ejit. The island was just three islets away and my GPS showed a ferry landing just down the street from my hotel. The port looked like someone’s backyard. There was a bench and a couple chairs, but no signs or schedule posted. No ticket booth. No dock. And I was the only one at the shore – it didn’t look promising. A few minutes later, another lady arrived and confirmed there would eventually be a boat. Eventually. A couple dogs and four or five cats kept us company.
Sittin’ at the Dock of the Bay
Finally, two young men carrying cases of Bud Lite walked past us and began to unmoor a small boat. I confirmed they were going to Ejit and asked how much it was to ride with them. “No cost” was the answer. Of course, when we arrived to Ejit I insisted on paying them, but I loved the idea that they didn’t want to charge me.
Ejit is pretty tiny and there are zero roads and vehicles on the island. I felt a little hesitant to explore, as you simply can’t move without walking through people’s back yards. I tried to step carefully, quietly and respectfully – if there’s such a thing – ducking under clothes lines and trying not to upset protective dogs.
I passed a group of kids playing ball in a field and a small hospital; then an even smaller police station with no signs of life. At the end of the island was a simple cemetery with white crosses and gravestones poking out of the overgrown weeds and vines. There was a retaining wall, still being built, that would eventually protect the island from the rising sea levels.
At one point, I heard kids saying hello to me, but didn’t see them anywhere. I finally spotted them just feet from me, above, in a tree. I liked it here.
Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
My favorite part was discovering, by accident, the history of the Ejit Island. A curious resident emerged from his front yard to introduce himself. Chicki seemed happy to meet me and would go on to explain that he and his family had been relocated here from Bikini Island – the place the US tested their nuclear bombs after WWII. The entire island populace would be relocated to places like Ejit Island while the US would detonate enough nuclear explosives to equal the Hiroshima blast 1.6 times, every day for 12 years! The weapons experiments on The Marshall Islands are quite a story and worth going down the rabbit hole to learn about. I couldn’t believe I’d walked right into the place where the Bikini Island residents were living…wow!
The sun was setting and I figured I’d better get back. There were no hotels or lodges on Ejit –not so much as a coconut stand. A cool island, but not somewhere I wanted to be stuck for the night. I headed to the cement dock and began to worry, as there was not another soul in sight. Finally, a family leaving the island invited me to “hop in;” another no-charge invite. What a place!
Multi-million dollar idea: Reality show on Ejit Island, with the residents as the stars. What a story that would make!
What’s Up, Doc
If you have a moment, watch this documentary – or bookmark it for later. It’s so fascinating and a quick and easy watch. You’ll never think of Marshall Islands the same!
That evening, I pinged the local radio station in town to see if I could get a tour. The owner, Daniel Kramer, called me personally, and minutes later we were having drinks at the hotel bar. That same night, Daniel would not only take me to the radio station, but I would go on air with hosts Yasta and Lori. We chatted on the air for what seemed like an hour, while they interviewed me about my radio show, my travels and my thoughts on Majuro. They were so nice and made me feel so at home. After the broadcast, we all met for dinner and more drinks. The second-in-charge at The Australian Embassy joined us, as did a gentleman from the US Embassy there. I was taken aback by how hospitable Daniel and his crew were. I’m pretty sure, in all of my travels, this was the most inviting a group of complete strangers had ever been to me.
There was rain on day three, which made it easy for me to justify spending the morning lazily lounging in my room. This was the end of a long, 30-day, exhausting trip (as exhausting as it can be touring The Pacific), so I had no issue with loafing around a little extra on this longer stop. Daniel had invited me to a family picnic on his family’s island (Yes, they own an island!), but it would not be a good day to be at the sea and the trip was canceled. In the afternoon, Daniel swung by to to usher me to the complete other side of the island to see the village of Laura. That night we had a nice meal back in Majuro at Marshall Islands Resort.
I was met with more rain on day four, but I wasn’t bothered by it. I’d meet Fred Pedro for lunch at a local’s favorite called Ruwit Corner, where we had more great conversation and food. Sadly, I’d miss The President this time. I was told he’d been called away for an emergency Parliament meeting. Bummer! So close but so far away! I’ll have to try and meet the leader of country 193, which would be next: Turkmenistan, if they ever open.
On the way to the airport that afternoon, I asked the cabbie to make a stop at the mysterious and abandoned Majuro Bowl. Against my better judgment, I squeezed through a hole in the wall to enter the old bowling alley and snap some pictures. I dare not take too many steps – I didn’t want to fall through the floor, step on a nail or encounter any squatters, creepy-crawlies or anything else that could lead to my peril. I imagined giant boa constrictors falling from the whopper-jawed ceiling tiles. I’d remained unscathed for almost a full 30-days during this journey and I didn’t want to break my streak. I was able to take a few photos and was shocked to see that a collection of bowling pins remained on the floor of this place. Had I just a little more room in my bag, I certainly would’ve snagged one for a souvenir. It would’ve made for a great story, sitting atop my desk back home.
Many of my stops, especially on this trip, are quick ones – where I’m in and out and everything can seem a little blurry. Such was not the case in The Marshall Islands. Between having four full days, being able to really take it slow, and most of all, getting to know a couple Marshallese really well – I felt like this stop, in particular, was one of my most authentic and true visits to a community. Besides buying postcards, I didn’t really do anything “touristy;” I slowed down enough to really take things in and spent meaningful time with some really great people, getting to know their story as they got to know mine. It was also surreal to see daily life and the culture of those in such a far away and isolated place – yet a country so connected to the USA in so many ways – sometimes that played tricks on my brain. Like Palau and Micronesia, The Marshall Islands is part of a special compact with the USA; hence the United States Post Office and American zip code. You were probably not aware that some of your tax money leaves for The Marshall Islands each year. Nor was I until I got here. Either way, I loved Majuro, I loved the people, and I hope to return one day.
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