- Most of the postcards have been sent. Don’t expect any personal greetings on the back. I had way too many to send to do that. Writing addresses took long enough.
- When I got my tattoo in Rarotonga, I was given a piece of paper with the names of the symbols and what they meant. I thought I had lost it, but I found it in my bag when cleaning it out yesterday. I have the annotated tattoo up on Flickr now.
- I have half of my Palau photos and all of my Majuro photos up now. My time in Palau has mostly been overcast and raining so the photos aren’t as great as I had hoped.
- Tomorrow I’m off to the Philippines. I hope bandwidth situation is better than Palau. I think it has to be considering the connection to Palau comes from the Philippines.
I want to post this before I leave Micronesia and forget about it.
While walking through the Guam airport I was struck by a large sign that listed the Micronesian servicemen and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I knew that Guam and CNMI had soldiers in the US military. While I was in American Samoa I was frequently reminded that American Samoa had the highest percentage of enlistment of any US territory or state. One man from American Samoa and Guam were killed while I was in both places and it made the headlines of the local papers.
What I didn’t know, and sort of shocked me, was that FSM, the Marshalls, and Palau were represented in the US Military. All three countries have no military and their citizens can join the US military. Many do because it offers them a better career path than anything they could have at home. It was not uncommon to see American flags and Army bumper stickers on the cars in all of these places.
Palau has had three men killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. On a per capita basis, they have probably made a greater sacrifice than any state or city in the US….and they are technically not even Americans. I’m sure no one in the US would really fault them if they wanted to sit this one out, especially considering most Americans have never heard of these places and don’t know they even exist.
It was just something I wanted to pass along…
Where to begin about the Marshalls???
For starters, I didn’t explore Majuro as much as I did other cities I’ve visited. I put 20% of the blame myself spending too much time catching up on photos and blog posts and 80% of the blame on Majuro for being an uninteresting place with nothing to see.
I try to put a positive spin on places I visit. If you read my first post from Majuro you can see the positive impression I had in my first hour after arriving. However, the view was very different on the drive back to the airport. Sunshine will do that. (One of the nice houses I thought I saw on the drive in from the airport at night turned out to be the US Embassy…)
The Marshall Islands is an independent country. They have a seat in the UN, other nations have official relations with them, and they issue their own passports. They are however independent in the same way a 20 year old college student who has their parents pay for all their bills is independent.
Talking to people in both FSM and here in the Marshalls, I can only conclude that the only reason the Marshall Islands exists as a country, and not part of FSM, is to maximize the benefits and pay-outs it can get from the United States. I do not believe that statement is in any way an exaggeration.
There are a few things I need to establish before I talk any further about the Marshalls and its current situation. These things fall under the category of tragedy. The present day situation falls under the category of farce.
– The Marshall Islands are one of only four countries in the world which are made totally of atolls. (Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Maldives are the others). Atoll countries have zero resources. They have no minerals (unless calcium carbonate suddenly becomes a valuable mineral). They have no timber. They have little land to grow crops. They have no source of fresh water other than rain. They are isolated from major population centers. They have small, rather uneducated populations so they have very little human capital. Developing an economy beyond the subsistence level which existed before the arrival of Europeans is almost impossible without outside assistance. In sum, atoll countries are screwed and there is little you can do about this condition. (I have not even factored in potential sea level rises. The highest point in any atoll might be 10 feet at best. Most of the land is at the same level as a beach)
– The United States detonated nuclear weapons on four different atoll groups in the northern Marshalls in the 40s and 50s. The population of those islands were removed and relocated to Majuro or other islands in the Marshalls. The most famous example was Bikini Atoll which had 127 residents moved in 1947. While the islands have for the most part recovered, there are still some lingering effects. People can live on Bikini (and a few do), but you can’t eat any food grown on the island. You can eat fish, but not plants. There were health issues which resulted from the tests including increased rates of thyroid cancer, miscarriages, and other problems which were not handled well by the US. The US did cause serious upheaval and problems in the Marshalls and has an obligation to make it right. Detonating nuclear weapons can do that…
– The Marshalls, from the end of WWII to the 90s, was part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific. Along with the states of FSM (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae), Palau, and the Northern Marinas, they were, as a single unit, made the responsibility of the US by the United Nations. They were treated for all practical purposes as a US territory during that time being integrated into the US Postal System and other federal agencies.
In the 80s and 90s, the question of what to do with the Trust Territories of the Pacific came to a head. There was a great deal of debate among the different islands as to what they were going to do. The Marinas decided to stick close to the US and become a commonwealth on a par with Puerto Rico. Palau decided they didn’t want the baggage of the other islands and went it alone, becoming one of the smallest countries in the world at the time of independence (~12,000 people). The Marshalls had to decide if they wanted to become a state in the FSM or go it alone. In the end, they decided that they didn’t want their biggest assets (an Army base on Kwajalein and nuclear reparations) to be diluted by other islands, so they went it alone.
While the official population of the Marshalls is about 60,000, the actual number is probably much less. I have heard estimates of maybe 50,000. That 10,000 represents an exodus to the United States. Citizens of the Marshalls, FSM, and Palau can all work in the US without green cards and without limit according to the terms of the Treat of Free Association they have with the US.
About half of the population lives in Majuro and a quarter lives in Ebeye. Ebeye is on Kwajalein atoll and is one of the densest places on earth with about 15,000 people living on 1.5 square miles of land. I was told by the travel agent I booked tickets with I could not visit Kwajalein if I wasn’t in the military, so I can’t visit Ebeye, but I have been told by several people it is a slum and probably the worst city in the Pacific (having been to Honiara, that is quite a statement). The rest of the people are scattered on the atolls in the country, living mostly without electricity and eeking out a subsistence living.
The benefits to the original 127 Bikini residents has bloomed into about 3,200 people. Clearly this many babies, even over several generations, did not come from 127 people. I was told the story of one woman who’s mother was moved from one of the test islands and has never set foot on the island. She married an American man. Her, her husband, and their children, none of whom have ever been on the island or have any desire to ever live there, can get all their health care paid for, housing, and a stipend. Factoring in all the people who receive benefits, it is a significant part of the population.
The tragedy of the nuclear tests had led to the farcical situation where the fact that nuclear weapons were blown up on their country is now perhaps the single largest asset of the Marshall Islands. Re-read that last sentence closely. If there had been no nuclear testing done 50 years ago, the Marshalls would be a poorer place and probably wouldn’t even exist as an independent country. That is messed up.
Reading the local paper, its seems to be nothing but a list of various scandals by government officials. There was one case of someone creating a blog which criticized a local official. A complaint about the blog was raised, not on the factual basis of the claims made, or because of slander or libel, but on the basis that if someone in the US were to see it, they could get a negative view of the Marshalls and that could hurt they good deal they have going getting money from the US….I shit you not.
The Marshalls is more firmly attached to the teat of the US government than any place I have ever heard of…. and by a wide margin….and it isn’t even part of the United States.
A recent crisis here and in FSM was that they were moved from domestic treatment by the US Postal Service to international. This increased postage costs and everyone flipped out. The USPS eventually reversed the policy. The Marshalls has its own zip code (96926) and state code (MH). Before I arrived a navy ship was here for a week performing all sorts of good deeds on the island, including health clinics and doing repairs at schools. The health clinics I understand. Washing the walls at a high school, however, seems like something locals could have done for themselves. I watched an Army Corps of Engineers group working on installing a basketball court and fixing an elementary school in town. The airport runway is being fixed by the Department of Transportation. A grant from the Department of Education made the newspaper while I was here. The banks are FDIC insured. Citizens can, and do, join the US armed forces.
The total dependence on US money has created a situation where they have paid large amounts to lobbyists because they are desperate to get more money. Sometimes they get scammed.
At some point, I think all of this is going to come to a head. The US will one day say:
“We apologize for what we did decades ago. The land is once again habitable and we have created housing and roads for you to use. The infrastructure is the best it has ever been and we have paid for it all. However, no one wants to move back and leave behind the luxuries they have grown accustom to on Majuro. The people we are paying stipends to are several generations removed from the original people wronged during the nuclear tests. The government of the Marshalls is corrupt and much of the money we provide is squandered. We will be ending the financial support we feel we have been very generous with over the last century. We wish you the best of luck. Sincerely, Uncle Sam”
…weeeeell, maybe it wont go down quite like that, or even all at once. but the fact is the Marshalls are dependent on their sugar daddy. If we did stop or even reduce aid to the Marshalls, they would be screwed. Flat out screwed.
I would not be surprised to see the exodus to the US accelerate in the future. Kids are more aware of the outside world and the limitations they face living on an atoll. I can’t blame them one bit for wanting to buy a one-way ticket to Honolulu or LA. I’d do the same.
I’m not going to say too much because I want to save it for a much longer post with photos and video. I got to go diving in the rock islands of Palau today as well as snorkeling in the jellyfish lake. Swimming with jellyfish is a surreal experience. Especially thousands of them. It is easily one of my top experiences on this trip.
I should have several minutes of video of the jellyfish. I rented an underwater camera for the day and got my use out of it. I’m also going to be diving tomorrow and using enriched oxygen (Nitrox) for the first time. I’m should have my Nitrox certification as of tomorrow.
I did get to talk to the commanding officer of the US Naval mission to Palau (yes there is one). It is a group of Seabees who just do construction projects on the island and train Palauans to build things. I met a similar group from the Army Corps of Engineers on Majuro who was building a basketball court and fixing up an elementary school. I think the guys assigned to Palau have the #1 assignment of any branch of any military in the world.
I’ve been swimming all day and I’m tired and it’s raining.
Diving is the best way to meet smart, interesting women.
Oh, being a few feet from a giant manta ray kicks ass…
The internet here is like the opposite of the Majuro. In Majuro, the infrastructure on the island was horrible, but the actual connection to the net was OK assuming you could get one.
On Palau, there are internet cafes all over, but it feels as if the whole country is on the same dial-up connection. Everywhere is slow. I’d be willing to be the country has one crappy link to the outside and there is way more demand than there is bandwidth. No matter where I have tried to get on, I’ll have long spells where no data gets through, then there will be a torrent of data and everything will go quickly.
Uploading my photos is painful. I got a few of my photos from Majuro up, but the rest will have to wait until I have more time or until I get to Manila, where I’m assuming it will be much faster.
There is a great little walk-up restaurant on the street here. The English under the Chinese sign says “FRIED CHICKEN WITH SALT”. I’m going to eat there because I can think of nothing better than advertising fried food with salt.
I think everyone will love the Palau stamps I had to buy. It’s so……well, you’ll see. Remember, small countries view stamp sales to collectors as a form of revenue.
I’m going to rent a digital camera tomorrow for my dive and trip to Jellyfish Lake. I think it merits the expense. I will also probably be taking a kayaking trip to some of the rock islands on Sunday as well and maybe a short helicopter flight too. The islands are just that cool.
I also desperately need a hat. I lost my hat on Guam and it really makes a difference in the sun…especially with my head. I don’t know if Palau is usually hot or it just happened to be hot today, but this has been the warmest day I’ve experienced in the Pacific so far.
I’m typing this at the Palau version of the Peach Pit, across the street from Palau High (Go Palau Spiders!)
For the third smallest country in the UN, Palau really has its act together. It is a smashingly beautiful place. It is clean. It is reasonably developed. They seem to realize where their bread is buttered and way out of their way to protect the reefs.
A longer summary of the former Trust Territories of the Pacific is coming, but suffice it to say I think Palau decided the other islands were an anchor, so they cut loose to be on their own.
Amy asked me a good question in light of my postcard offer: “Why does Palau use the US Postal Service?”
The answer is: they don’t.
When Palau became independent and the Trust Territories of the Pacific were dissolved, they signed the Compact of Free Association with the US. The compact let Palau be treated as a domestic destination for the purposes of postal delivery. Same as the FSM and the Marshall Islands. All three places use the US dollar as their currency and all of their postal systems rates mirror the USPS. That is why I can send postcards to people in the US at domestic rates from Palau, but you will still get a Palau stamp and postmark on it.
Tomorrow I go diving and snorkeling in Jellyfish Lake and get to eat lunch on a beach on the rock islands.
It has been six months to the day that I closed on my house and became a homeless wanderer.
Since then I estimate, with the help of Google Earth, that I have traveled 42,000 miles and have visited 20 “countries” (See the link on the country list to the left for the definition of country I use). I have traveled on ten airlines, met hundreds of people from dozens of countries….and was kicked out of the nation of Kiribati (NEVER FORGET!)
In that time, I haven’t slept in the same bed more for than two weeks. The act of going to new places, sleeping in strange beds and meeting new people has become second nature to me.
Through this website I’ve been able to meet a ton of new people and reconnect with many people I’ve lost touch with over the years. While traveling you also get a good idea who your friends really are. Some people keep in touch with you on a regular basis and others sort of forget you exist.
Having taken me half a year to cross the ocean, I hope everyone keeps reading as I invade Asia the next several months. I do enjoy knowing that people are reading and following along with where I’m going. I also think I’m getting better at posting. I certainly think my more recent stuff is better than early stuff I look back at now.
My route for the next few months will be sort of convoluted as I skirt the edge of the Asian mainland and work my way down to Borneo and the Indonesian archipelago to Australia. I’ll be in Australia for their summer, probably spending four weeks there before heading back north through PNG to Singapore and SE Asia and eventually China. I’m so used to navigating between dots on a map and around flight schedules I don’t know what to do once I hit a large two dimensional area…
So thanks for reading, tell your friends, and feel free to offer me suggestions now that I’m going to the part of the world that you’ve heard of, and may have been to, before.
…oh, don’t forget the free postcard offer! Limited time only!! One of the smallest countries in the world!!
Sunday, July 29
On Sunday, I asked if there were any trails I could take to go see the cliffs. I think they were confused why I would want to go there, but they obliged.
We took off across the lake again to go to the village. The same one we were at the previous day. The trip across the lake is almost reason enough to visit Rennell. The lagoon area is dotted with small islands which are home to the birds of Lake Tengao. Some of the islands are so small, they are home to only a single plam tree.
I should take a moment to talk about the lake and the lagoon itself. Rennell is noted for its bird life. I’m not even a casual birdwatcher, but it didn’t take an expert to realize this place was special. You could watch birds flying and diving all day long. I assume they were eating tilapia, which is the only fish I knew of in the lake. The tilapia was actually introduced several decades ago and was the biggest reason why malaria was eradicated on the island. Rennell is in the Pacific malaria belt and has an enormous body of standing water. By all rights, it should be a hot spot for malaria. However, malaria has been gone from the island for a few decades now, in large part because of the tilapia eating the mosquito eggs in the lake. I noticed only a few mosquitoes, certainly nothing in comparison to what I’ve seen in the Midwest.
On the drive in to the lake, during one of our eight flat tire stops, we found a few kids who had a small fire going. They had shot a few small birds with their slingshots. I wasn’t able to identify the birds because they were well past the point of identification by the time got there, but they couldn’t have been any bigger than a sparrow. Some of the guys with me chipped in to take the feathers off the bird to help cook it. They didn’t bother to gut the birds or anything, they just put it in the fire as is. The cooked product looked like a thanksgiving turkey shrunk down to the size of your thumb…above the knuckle. To say it didn’t have much meat would be an understatement.
As you crossed the lake you could see birds flying, diving, and sitting in palm trees all over the lagoon. Anywhere a stump or log jutted out of the water there would be a bird perched on top. I wish I knew more about birds. I spent the entire weekend looking at them and to this day I have no idea what they are called.
The March to the Sea
We got to the village and two of the guys grabbed a machete and we started our trip down to the sea. Most of the people of Rennell don’t seem to spend as much time with the ocean as inhabitants of other islands do. The cliffs prevent easy access to the shore, so unless you live where there is an easy path down to the water, you probably just didn’t go that often. I wasn’t sure why they grabbed a machete, but I’m the new guy so i just followed along.
The path was through the forest. What I found strange were the flip flops you’d see long the trail every so often. Everyone on the island wears flip flops. Walking through the bush is rough because the rock is all jagged limestone. When a sandal would break, they would just abandon it on the path. This actually happened to one of my guides on the way back so he just walked with bare feet. I tried taking a few steps with just my socks during a break and I found it painful. How he managed to keep up and walk without shoes is beyond me.
The hike was about an hour and, like the tourist I am, I had my camera bag and tripod with me, whereas the guys just had the machete. By the time we got to the cliffs, I was really sweating and thirsty, damning myself for not bringing water.
Despite the twice weekly flights, most of the major supplies the island gets is delivered by boat. We were taking the trail to the old “port” where the boat used to land. The current landing site is more situated towards the middle of the island, close to the road with a reasonable gentle slope. Our path down to the water was to where the old port was. There were some old cement steps leading down to the beach at a slope which was something close to vertical. Before the current port was built (and calling it a port implies there is some sort of structure. There isn’t anything, it’s just a landing spot and a break in the reef for ships)
Prior to the new port and the landing strip, everything that go on this island had to be hauled several hundred feet up these steep stairs and an hour through the bush to get to the village. Boats, barrels of fuel, everything had to be brought up this way and carried by hand. (After I got back to the village I expressed amazement at how they used to have to carry everything up the cliff and through the forest. One of the men told me that he thought the people of Rennell had gotten soft since they now had life so easy. I almost choked when he called life on Rennell “easy” as it might be the most difficult existence I’ve ever seen)
We get down to the beach and it was like no beach I’ve seen in the Pacific so far. It had shells scattered all over the sand. All of the beaches I’ve been to tend to have the shells picked over by locals and tourists. This beach, for all practical purposes, never saw people anymore. There were giant clam shells and snail shells all over the place. Let me also add that the image of a pristine beach on an uninhabited island is wrong. Beaches are usually filled with debris from the sea and trees.
I also finally found out what the machete was for…
Rather than lugging around water, they just climbed a palm tree when we got to the beach, took down a bunch of coconuts and opened them with the machete. Bingo. Instant natural Nalgene bottle.
We hung out on the beach drinking coconut milk and eating coconuts and sleeping for about an hour before heading back up the cliff and to the village.
The flight back to Honiara was scheduled for Tuesday, so we had to leave early Monday to make sure we got there on time. Given our problems on the drive in, I mentally gave the over/under on the number of flat tires we’d get at five. We loaded up at the village and to my surprise, we had 10 people again for the ride out to the airstrip. Mostly women and children, but still a full load.
We had our first flat tire 15 minutes after setting out. After two hours, we had gone maybe a mile or two and had three flat tires. I was getting frustrated and bored and decided to start walking ahead on the road, figuring they would eventually catch up to me at some point and I couldn’t get lost because there is only one road. This turned to to be a decision that had much bigger ramifications that I ever expected….
After I began walking, it started raining. All of the rain I had experienced in the Pacific to date had been brief showers that come in, dump water, and stop. I didn’t think much of it and kept walking. Eventually the rain stopped and I was about an hour’s walk away from the truck.
..and then it stared raining again. And it did not stop for the rest of the day.
I was in the middle of the bush with no rain gear. i was soaked. The rain was warm so it wasn’t that big of a deal, but I had my passport in my pocket. By the time I eventually walked back and met the truck, my passport and wallet were drenched in water. (My bags in the back of the truck also got pretty wet, but nothing was damaged. I keep all my important electronics in waterproof bags inside of my camera bag). While I was out walking, they transferred most of the passengers and baggage to another vehicle and that solved our flat tire problems. We actually only had those three flats on the way back.
The drenched passport directly led to be being denied entry into the nation of Kiribati two days later.
I stayed at a guest house near the landing strip and went to “check in” at the “Solomons Airline office” in the village that night, which was a desk in the bottom of another guest house. I was told that the schedule was really spotty and the plane just might not show up tomorrow, or there might not be seats. It was Solomon Airlines and anything could happen.
I was also told that I wouldn’t have to pay the full SBD$500 fee for the ride to the lake, just my share, so the cost turned out to be reasonable. All my fears about not having enough cash at the start of the weekend turned out not to be warranted. I had just enough for everything.
When I got back to Honiara, I also found the ATM working and accepting my card again. I had just tried to withdrawal within 24 hours after taking out the maximum (which is only like US$120).
I’m really glad I took the time to get to Rennell. With the travel schedule I’ve had the last few months, it was my only real chance to visit an outer island and Rennell is more unique than any other place in the region. It was also an accomoplishment to visit a place that few people have heard of and even fewer have seen first hand.
I had a few people email me asking if it was worth going. My reply is, if you are willing to put up with everything I described, go for it. Else, I’d wait a few years and hopefully they will have built a new runway on the east side of the island. If they ever do that, then travel to Rennell shouldn’t be any bigger of a hassle than traveling elsewhere in the Solomons.
This is probably one of the nicest places in the Pacific. Save for Guam, easily the most developed country in Micronesia. Night and day compared to Majuro.
People here have houses, not shanties. There is furniture in the houses. I could tell because they had electricity, which also says something There are businesses and shops all over Koror. This is definitely a significant tourist draw.
The people of Palau seem more Asian than the rest of the Pacific, which makes sense considering they are closer to Asia than any other Pacific country.
I’m writing this on a wireless connection eating very cheap sushi. I think that says it all.
I’ve been very excited about Palau. I have budgeted more time here than any other place in Micronesia and have high expectations. So far, it is delivering.