Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands – November 1998
Kwajalein. Ailinglaplap. Jaluit. Bikini. Their names dance across my mind like an ancient incantation. Ages ago, far below the blue, a volcano sunk and coral reefs reached towards the sky, forming refuges for prehistoric sea voyagers.
The plane swoops and descends towards Majuro. I look down at the dainty ring of sand, the place that the descendants of those long ago wanderers call home.
“They had to widen the atoll to make the runway big enough for jets,” the woman next to me, a lawyer from Guam named Jennifer, says. She flashes a goofy grin and laughs. The folds of her belly shake.
Nothing but water outside both windows. I grip the armrests and close my eyes. Her banal chatter lulls me out of the panic as the plane touches down. I brace myself for the bang as the engine thrusters are reversed. I’ve had four such landings on my island-hopping trip through Micronesia. I should be used to it by now. The passengers break into applause as the plane shudders to a halt a few meters before the sea wall.
Jennifer looks out the window as we taxi to the tiny cement block terminal. “It’s been ten years since I was last here. I’m anxious to see how it’s changed.”
A weather beaten sign greets us as we walk into the terminal. Yokwe! Welcome to Majuro Atoll, Capitol of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
“Yokwe means ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, and ‘love’, but it literally means, ‘you are a rainbow’,” Jennifer says.
A woman and a young girl wave and walk over to us. “This is Anne, a lawyer from Saipan, and her daughter, Lindsey.” Jennifer introduces me by name. “Our law firms are putting us up in the swanky new resort,” she says, rolling her eyes.
They look at me expectantly, so I mumble the name of a budget hotel in the center of the atoll.
“That place is a landmark,” Jennifer says with a wide grin. “I always liked staying there. Much more personality that some luxury chain resort. You should join us for dinner. We’ll give you a call tomorrow after we finish our meetings.”
“Okay.” I turn and walk towards a waiting taxi. A familiar sadness washes over me. Jennifer is the first person I’ve had a conversation with in over a week. I’m tired of traveling alone.
The sun slips under the horizon. I lean my head against the taxi window and watch it disappear. Palm trees line both sides of the road. Beyond them there is only the incoming tide, which surges towards the road. A strange stirring in my mind. I know this place.
My hotel room has no windows and smells of chemical air freshener. I crawl into bed and turn on the TV. I count the rest of my money and try to calculate how close I am to my credit card limit. It looks like I’ll be sleeping in the Honolulu airport for one night. Washing up in the restroom. I thought that I was beyond all of that. I fall into an uneasy sleep while watching a black and white war movie with the sound on mute.
I’m the last soul on Earth, on the last remaining island. There is only the sand, the sea, and me. I’ve survived when all others have perished. I should feel triumphant, but all I feel is regret. A faint rainbow appears on the horizon. I open my mouth, but no sound comes out. The rainbow vanishes. The waves begin to wash over my feet.
I open my eyes to pitch darkness. The same nightmare that I’ve had for years. And now I’m here. Panic seizes me. I reach over and flick the lamp switch, but nothing happens. I feel my way through the darkness to the door and open it. A small light illuminates the hallway. They must switch off the generator at night to save energy. I sit on the floor next to the door until morning and listen for signs of life.
* * *
I walk through the hotel lobby and out into the parking lot, where Jennifer, Anne, and Lindsey wait in a rental car. I pass a group of men who have congregated around a minivan. They’re all wearing tropical print shirts and carrying briefcases. Something about their smug demeanor makes me uneasy.
“The Marshall Islands are a tax haven,” Anne says after I close the door.
“Lots of dodgy stuff going on here,” Jennifer adds. She exchanges a knowing look with Anne.
“Thanks for coming to get me.”
“No problem,” Jennifer says. “I can’t imagine coming to Majuro and not going to Laura Beach.” She maneuvers the car around gaping potholes and piles of rusted junk as we drive through D-U-D Municipality, the closest thing to a town on Majuro. “Sit back and enjoy the ride. It will take at least thirty minutes to get to Laura. We’re going to the end of the Earth, ladies.”
My chest tightens. I look ahead, rather than at the land, which constricts around the car as we head out of town. Waves creep toward us, first on the left shore and then on the right. Back and forth. Squeezing the land in its claustrophobic embrace. The world tilts and my head begins to spin. I take deep, deliberate breaths.
Lindsey hums to herself and then turns to look at me. “I just turned eleven. How old are you?”
“Wow, I thought you were a lot younger,” Anne says. “When are you leaving for Honolulu?”
“Tomorrow.” I wipe my sweaty palms on my sundress.
“We’re on the same flight,” she says with a smile. “How nice.”
At the side of the road, three young boys are sitting behind a wooden table that’s piled high with coconuts. A cardboard sign reads Coconutts $1.00. The misspelling makes my heart wrench.
“Oh, we gotta have fresh coconut milk!” Jennifer says. She parks the car next to the table.
Lindsey jumps out of the car, picks up an unripe coconut, crosses the road, and stands with her back to the seawall. “I bet I can throw this coconut all the way across the island!” she screams. She lifts the coconut over her head with both arms and then heaves it. It lands with a thud on the small strip of grass next to the boys, and then rolls into the water. She flexes her biceps and growls.
I toss her another coconut. “Okay, but let’s see you do it again, Super Girl.”
The boys cringe in Jennifer’s hulking shadow. “Yokwe!” she booms. “Four coconuts, please!”
They blink a few times in confusion, and then hand us our coconuts and some plastic straws. As we continue our drive, Majuro widens slightly, and small wooden houses, no bigger than sheds, line the road. Watermarks adorn the sides, the lines of demarcation creeping ever higher.
“Only one small tsunami away from oblivion,” I say.
“Or typhoon,” Anne says. “Luckily, Majuro is on the very edge of both of those zones. Otherwise, I’m sure it would have been wiped off the map by now.”
“I hear that sometimes waves wash across the road and the locals wake up to the sound of them lapping against the sides of their houses,” Jennifer says. “Soon, maybe even in our lifetime, this place will disappear.” She sighs and shakes her head. “As if the Marshallese need any more trouble.”
“By trouble, you mean Bikini,” I say.
“Bikini and Rongelap and Ebeye. You’d think the Marshallese would hate us for contaminating their country and crowding them into ghettos, but they don’t.”
We are silent for the rest of the drive.
Jennifer parks the car next to a battered picnic table. “The end of the road. Isn’t it beautiful?” She walks ahead without waiting for my answer.
I try to mask my disappointment as I look at the small beach, which is littered with plastic soda bottles and other unidentifiable detritus. The sand is dingy and coarse. I walk gingerly, taking care not to step on broken glass. We find a clear spot and spread out our towels. Jennifer walks to the water’s edge and wades in.
“What do you do?” Anne asks me, as we take turns using Jennifer’s Swiss Army knife to dig holes in our coconuts.
“I’m a travel agent, but I just moved across the country, so I’m in between jobs.” My throat constricts. I couldn’t afford this trip. I shouldn’t have come here. But I had to get away. “I went to college for a while for anthropology, but I got burnt out trying to work three jobs to pay for it. And I didn’t want to be shackled by debt. I just wanted to travel…”
The finality of my impending return to normal life rises up. Only two flights away from my oblivion. The despair is so strong that I’m afraid I’ll say something strange and incomprehensible. I bite my cheek and look down at my hands. These women are successful, stable. They wouldn’t understand.
“I didn’t realize coconuts were so thick,” Lindsey says with a giggle. She beats her coconut against a palm tree.
“Bring it here, Lindsey.” Anne says. She turns to me. “What an interesting life you have ahead of you. True freedom.”
* * *
I leave my door open a crack, so that a tiny beam of light pierces the darkness. For a moment I wonder if this is a smart thing to do, but then I remember that I have nothing to steal. I crawl into bed and fall asleep almost instantly.
I’m on the island. The sea lurches towards me. Its motion now seems desperate rather than menacing. I look out over the horizon in expectation. The rainbow appears. This time it grows more vivid. An unfamiliar peace fills me. I kneel on the sand and write S.O.S.
* * *
“Where are you staying in Honolulu?” Anne asks as we taxi down the runway.
I look out the window and then down at my hands. “I don’t know.”
She’s quiet for a moment, and then says, “You can stay with us. Lindsey can sleep with me and you can have the other bed.”
I blush. “I wasn’t trying to ask if I could stay with you.”
“I know. People helped me out when I was traveling through Eastern Europe. Now it’s my turn. It’s not easy for a female to travel alone. One day it will be your turn to help a young woman traveler out.” She pauses. “And you will be in a position to do so, wherever you are. The turmoil will subside.”
“Thank you.” I lean my head back against the seat as the plane takes off.
I look down for one last glimpse of the fragile arc of sand, but it has already disappeared into the blue. Yokwe, Majuro. When the waves rise up to reclaim you, let it not be said that you are forgotten.