When standing for election in for Manchester University Student’s Union back in the late 90s, you were not allowed to have your name appear in the student newspaper in the run-up to polling day, even if you had written an article, supplied a photo or even edited the damn thing: you’d have to use an alias.
It may have been perfectly acceptable to send an email to every Muslim student on campus implying that your opponents were both gay and Jewish, (two things I’m told will not speed up your visa application for Saudi Arabia) but having your name credit in the student paper was a big no-no.
To get around this silly no-name rule, Mr. Julian Marshall (now chief newshound at the NME) added the question “Pacific Island Nation (3,8,7)” while compiling the weekly crossword so that he could get his surname into the paper. The wily old fox got away with it too, and went on to win the election… but more importantly, I had my first introduction to The Marshall Islands.
In terms of being miles from anywhere, the Marshall Islands are pretty much up there with Pitcairn Island. Closer to Hawaii than they are to Fiji, they sit slap-bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Your closest continental landmass in any direction is one hell of a swim.
The capital atoll, Majuro, is famous amongst the elite group of weirdos like myself who travel on freighters: it’s the third most popular place to register ships, after Panama and Monrovia (Liberia). This has something to do with the law on board a ship being the law of the country in which it is registered, which is probably why ships registered in Jeddah are as rare as chicken’s teeth.
But there’s another reason why The Marshall Islands is famous and if I say the name ‘Bikini Atoll’ I hope your ears prick up, because that was Ground Zero for the US nuclear weapons testing programme after World War II. The vast number and incredible power of the 67 bombs exploded in the Marshalls from 1946 to 1958 equated to 1.6 Hiroshima bombs being detonated every day for 12 years.
Might want to bear that in mind next time you hear somebody saying you shouldn’t eat fish because it might contain radiation from Fukushima. Put your Geiger Counters away: that tuna is many, many times more likely to be contaminated with poo from India.
Needless to say, you’d still be ill-advised to eat vegetables from any of the atolls used for the bomb tests. But if the US got its ass in gear, it could clean up the mess it left behind over fifty years ago by using imported topsoil. But, like the landmines they left in Laos while fighting the Vietnam war, the US government has better things to spend money on. Like beer, prostitutes and unwinnable wars.
We arrived off the coast of Majuro on the Friday evening, but like the other islands we’ve visited on this journey, you’re ill-advised to enter the lagoon after dark. We therefore came alongside on Saturday morning. I skipped ashore, happy that I had now stepped foot on dry land in 191 countries.
Majuro, in keeping with fellow atolls Tarawa and Funafuti, is a big fancy coral ring in the ocean, the landmass measuring just a few hundred metres wide at any given point. Again, there’s one main road that leads from the top of the main islet to the bottom. The other islets are less built-up, and more what you’d have in mind when you think of a tropical island paradise.
Sadly, I only had a few hours to enjoy myself, as The Southern Pearl wouldn’t be staying the night. First up, I got online. Working in the small park outside the Telecommunications Agency’s two massive satellite dishes, I started hurriedly answering critical emails and updating my blog. I had only bought an hour online, so it was a real race to get everything done… a time frame made even more pressing 45 minutes later when it started to rain.
But all done, I wandered up the road towards Uliga, the main part of the Delap-Uliga-Darrit Municipality that is The Marshall Islands’ actual capital (fact fans!). Police sirens (a sound I’ve not heard in a long, long time) up ahead, I thought maybe I would see the Marshall Islands president. But, even better, it was a procession of Marshallese people, dressed as Santas, travelling on pick-up trucks and throwing candy to the kids.
And they say size matters not!
After filling my pockets full of sweets (and kicking any remaining small children out of my way) I checked in with Jess, my CouchSurf contact for Majuro.
Both lamenting the death of Christopher Hitchens, Jess and I elected to meet up for a liquid lunch in his honour. Jess is originally from Florida, but we won’t hold the result of the 2000 Presidential Election against her. Although even the most rabid gun-toting Republican would have to admit (quietly, to themselves) that the world would be a much better place had Gore won. After doing a two year stint in Ethiopia for the Peace Corps, Jess did her MA in International Security at St. Andrews and is now working in the Marshall Islands (her second choice after Afghanistan). She’s a fellow card-holder of the anti-religion brigade and has very good taste in music. And, as it happens, whisky.
The restaurant we chose for lunch, above the RRE hotel, had no Johnnie Walker Black Label, so we opted for the only single-malt on offer, The Glenlivet, instead. I was delighted to see that Jess, like all true Scotsman, drinks her whisky neat and without the inconvenience of ice.
After lunch, Jess and I headed to the highest point of the island (possibly of the entire country): a raised bridge between Delap and Long Island. Rising all of 10 metres into the air, it just reinforced how much trouble these nations are going to face as sea-levels rise.
But the all-aboard for the ship was at 2pm so we headed back to the port. Jess and I said our fond farewells (I’m sure I’ll run into her again somewhere along the line) and I clambered back on board the good ship Southern Pearl, its run (and mine) to Wallis and Futuna, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands completed. Next we head back to Fiji, where after Christmas and New Year I’ll be embarking on The Southern Lily to Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand.
I have just TEN countries left to go. This time next month when I’m in New Zealand the figure will be SEVEN. For the first time in a long time, I’m seeing light at the end of The Odyssey Expedition’s tunnel.