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The Real Majuro, The Marshall Islands

Posted by Keith on May 16, 2007 at 5:20 pm  

About Midway between Hawaii and Australia

Author’s Note: There is no sense pretending there are investment opportunities here. There aren’t. The Marshall Islands are poor, heavily dependent on U.S. support, and have little in the way of natural resources or land. So in the article below I elect to enjoy the place for what it is. I hope you will too.
Correction (May 19, 2007) Please note that previous references to the “Japanese fishing fleet” have been corrected to reflect the fact that the tuna fishing fleet in Majuro’s lagoon is owned and operated by Koo Fishing Company, of Taiwan.


It was early morning when we entered Majuro’s large lagoon. At first light we saw the well-worn smaller ships, miles of net on their decks, making their way to sea. They will trawl for weeks – as far east as Ecuador, for example – in search of tuna.

Next we passed the four mother ships of the Taiwanese fishing fleet. Sparkling clean, they sit anchored, waiting for the trawlers to return with holds full of tuna. Then they’ll offload the trawlers, process and freeze the catch, watch the smaller ships return to sea, and continue their wait for more tuna, until their massive holds are full, when they will return, one at a time, to Taiwan.

Closer in, other ships rust on moorings. One barge in particular catches my interest. On deck above its rust-brown hull sit perhaps 30 FEMA-type trailers – the kind we all saw on TV in New Orleans after Katrina. Are they here on standby for a typhoon? A tidal wave? And wouldn’t those monster natural forces take out the barge as quickly as they would ruin much of the atoll? And if the barge survived would the trailers on its deck? But, who knows, the trailers and the barge might be something else entirely.

Later, I see there are shipping containers everywhere ashore – the type you see on ships or trains. People live in many of them. Sometimes, somehow, they stack the containers two or three high. Container condos.

Nearest to shore a handful of mainly small private sailing yachts are moored, their bows to the wind, and coincidentally, to that 32-mile crescent-shaped sliver of land upon which 20,000 Marshallese make their lives.

Our ship is safely secured at Uliga Dock – a tall cement pier with vertical rub rails. To get ashore, we must either leap from the bow or crawl up from amidships. Emelyn Simon with the Majuro Visitors Authority arranged it – by far the best available. Very nice lady. I want to give her a Global Adventure shirt.

Facing shore to our right two huge, hopeless, multi-decked derelicts seems to have run ashore, side-by-side. To our left, extending into the lagoon, a large pile of metal debris rusts into the water. The water at the dock is clear, but we see very few fish. There are fish farther out, we’re told. Later I see effluent pouring into the lagoon not far from my hotel. My crew swims near our ship. I demur.

I took a cab to my hotel, The Marshall Islands Resort. About a four mile drive. Cost $2. On the way I notice the young men. They are sitting everywhere. In groups or alone. Just sitting. Unemployment here is thirty percent.

I watched my Suns on the 19-inch TV in my small room overlooking the lagoon. They come from behind to defeat the Spurs in San Antonio. Series tied 2-2. In a day the crew will take accommodations at a hotel closer to the ship. There are no facilities on the island that offer anything approaching the teak and granite amenities of our Nordhavn. But after a long journey at sea it’s good for us all to take a break. To step away. Fancy or not, the AC and the TV in my room both work. And the room is not moving.

(Note: At this moment I am sitting on my small balcony here at the hotel, typing on my computer. An intense squall is passing through. Visibility is reduced to perhaps a hundred yards. Within minutes the sun begins to break through.)

At night I take a walk up the only main street on the island – Delap Road. Everything happens here. There are shops and parks and government buildings, those containers I mentioned, cars, and people everywhere. If there is a zoning plan along the road, it’s a mystery. The buildings seem mostly unfinished. Nothing fancy here. Once the walls are up it’s time to move in. Outside paint is optional. Block construction seems preferred. But mainly the shops and homes are wood or clapboard, or pieced together with whatever is available. A Catholic school is raised on block pillars. Surprisingly, it’s one of the few buildings constructed this way. The children attend class at least ten feet above ground. Safe haven for a tidal wave or typhoon? The highest point on the atoll is about 26 feet, and most areas are just a few feet above sea level.

I see a large domed, gray block building. The place is called The Educational Cultural Center. But it’s a large gym – large enough to house two full-sized basketball courts plus bleachers for at least a couple thousand people. Tonight it is overflowing. Literally overflowing. There’s a basketball game underway. The cheering reaches the street and beyond. Outside is electric too.

People outside are clinging to windows, and they are dozens deep at the door, trying to catch a glimpse of the game. There is no way I can enter. Cars are parading by. It’s the finals of the inter-island Constitution Day basketball and volley ball tournaments that began two weeks ago on May 1.

In front of the Gym, the Kili Island girls volley ball team cruises Delap from the back of a pickup. They drive back and forth, their uniforms still on, gold medals around their necks. They were victorious tonight. They are happy and proud.

Inside, the Majuro boys are being defeated by the visiting Likiep team. No joy in Mudville tonight.


I spent most of the day trying to secure an interview with The Hon. Witten T. Philippo, Minister in Assistance to the President / Senator Majuro Atoll. He is the Acting President of The Marshall Islands this week while the reform-minded President, Kessai H. Note is in Washington asking for more money.

The process of attempting to secure an interview began two weeks ago, involved numerous intermediaries, and ended in failure. With each passing day I was presented with a new reason why the Acting President’s office could not quite make a decision whether to arrange the interview. The final reason given late yesterday, through yet another intermediary, was that since the written list of questions they had requested and that I had submitted were addressed to President Note, Acting President Philippo could not possibly address them. (They were the exact same questions I would have asked any government official.) It’s good to know that the elected officials here have learned so much from our leaders in Washington.

About This Place

Most of the he coral-reef Marshall Islands rise just a few feet above sea level. They are located about midway between Hawaii and Australia. They are east of the islands of Micronesia, which are themselves due east of the Philippines.

About 60,000 people live here. A third live on Majuro. Through a Compact of Free Association, the details of which the the local officials constantly try to renegotiate, the U.S. sends to The Republic of The Marshall Islands (RMI) about $65,000,000 per year in military and economic assistance. That’s more than $1,000 per person. Yet, RMI’s per-capita gross domestic product is only $1600 per year. The U.S. is funding a special trust for the islands for another fifteen years or so, at which time its current system of payments to the Republic are scheduled to end.

As part of the Compact, the U.S. continues to maintain a military base – part of our missile defense system – on Kwajalein atoll.

The Marshall Islands became a U.S. trust territory in 1947, after we drove out the Japanese during World War II.

In 1986 the Marshall Islands became The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) – an independent nation; and in 1991 they were admitted to the United Nations.

We blew the hell out of Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls from 1947 until 1958. We’ve paid more than $183,000,000 in damages since then, but there are still claims lingering in Federal Court — despite the signing in 1989 by all parties of what was supposed to have been a final settlement. This past week a contingent of Marshall Island officials sat in for yet another Federal Court hearing in Washington on the subject. The local media here was delighted with comments by the judge that the U.S. government should settle the matter out of court. Meanwhile, along Delap Road on Majuro there is a very nice building. It is the Bikini Town Hall — literally a government in radioactive exile.

Perhaps one of the reasons I did not secure an interview with the above-mentioned dignitary was the tone of one of my questions: Regarding damages for Bikini and Eniwetok, how much is enough already?

All Marshallese enjoy free-travel rights to the U.S. Many have availed themselves of this right to take jobs in the states. I am told, for example, that there is a large community of Marshallese working at Tyson Chicken in Arkansas.

Because the natural resources here are severely limited, it has been suggested that the best hope for economic independence for both RMI and Micronesia, is the enlargement of their “remittance economy”┬Ł, where more Islanders work in the States remit funds here. Not coincidentally, both the Bank of The Marshall Islands and the local Western Union branches do a banner business in remittances. The notion of a remittance economy may have economic merit. Remittances are Mexico’s second-largest industry. At least the Marshallese all enter the U.S. legally, and presumably pay taxes first on their earnings.

Back to Wednesday

But the day was far from a total loss. We have two very cool collapsible electric bikes aboard The Global Adventure. I threw my camera gear on the back of one and took off for the neighborhoods on either side of Delap Road.

Clapboard shacks abide next to modest block homes, but the neighborhoods I saw were very pretty, very peaceful. They had an old Florida look to them, but poorer. Much.

Among other things, I learned that I cannot keep a Polarized┬« lense on my Canon camera if I want to take effective portraits. I missed some opportunities as a result, but prospectively I should do much better. I’m learning. Many of the photos I took are in the Majuro album on this website. I hope you enjoy them.

This is a very Christian island. Long before the Japanese claimed the place in 1914, the Germans hung out here. And they brought Christianity with them. It seems that many, if not most, of the children attend Christian schools. They wear uniforms. There are many churches.

The neighborhoods seem safe and quiet. Children play in the yards and in the streets. Women hang laundry in their front yards.

Apparently alcoholism is an acute problem here. There are billboards and editorials everywhere discouraging drunk driving, and the wasting of modest pay- or government checks on booze. High unemployment doesn’t help.

Wednesday evening we celebrated Captain Wolf’s birthday. On my cab ride over to join the party I encountered another large group of several hundred Islanders, this time surrounding an open field. I asked the driver to stop while I took some pictures. In the middle of the field were two girls’ teams competing in a tug-of-war. The crowd roared its approval at each incremental move of the rope. The team wearing red won. That’s all I know. Great fun.

The Global Adventure’s crew had taken a cottage on the waterfront at a hotel near the boat. They had loaded their gear in the ship’s dingy, and had driven over, tying up just feet from where they would sleep. We held the party at water’s edge next to their cottage. Wolf lost a hotly contested game of horseshoes to Rip (a rematch was promised), and we feasted on fresh barbecued Rainbow Runner (a very tasty light fish, found in abundance here), grilled potatoes and onions, and birthday cake. Alida also supplied noise makers, streamers, balloons, snacks and drinks. And a squirt gun. The stars were bright and Wolf and I studied the Southern Cross.

Later I caught a cab back to my hotel: A 12-year-old Nissan with a towel on the dashboard and a dirty windshield. Your Cheatin’ Heart in Marshallese played on the radio above the sputter of a failing air conditioner. People were still everywhere along Delap Road. At the hotel, $2 please. Goodnight.



3 Comments so far

  1. Trig Johnston on May 20, 2007 10:03 am

    I’m enjoying your stories!

    We used to fuel the 727 in Majuro from Guam while enroute to Hawaii & Minn…Minnnn…Minneapolis (ugh). Never got much of a chance to look around.



  2. Lee Robinson on May 27, 2007 11:48 am

    I enjoyed your piece about Majuro. My son is a volunteer teaching there since last July, with an organization called World Teach. He has also sent home emails and many pictures about life on the island. Some of your thoughts were parallel.

  3. A.J. Konou on June 10, 2007 10:31 am

    I was born on Majuro (Laura Village) at the end of the island. I noticed you did not have any picture of my beautiful village. It’s much more beautiful and cleaner at Laura than Dalap or Rita. Nice beaches too. Thanks for the wonderful story…

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