A version of this story was published in The Sun Magazine, Issue 493, Reader’s Write
After two days and nights at sea, we sailed our 41-foot sloop into the lagoon of Ailuk, a 13-mile long sandy atoll in the Marshall Islands, home to about 350 people, where the tallest point is the top of a palm tree. Minutes after the anchor was down and we were sipping a celebratory cold beer, we noticed a kid breaking from the pack splashing in the shallows in front of the modest village of cement homes and thatched huts. He was deliberately, doggedly paddling toward our boat, bucking the stiff 20-knot trade wind in his own little vessel – a rubber fishing buoy that must have washed up with the tide. It had been artfully sliced in half to resemble an oblong black teacup, just big enough for the kneeling body of a boy, with flip-flops hooked over his palms to extend the reach of his strokes. “He won’t make it this far,” Brian said.
But he did. “Where are you going?” I asked as he floated into the lee of our stern. “Jambo jambo,” he replied, Marshallese for walk or wander. He grabbed onto the back of our boat, visibly catching his breath, then used a raggedy length of rope to tie onto the nearest railing he could reach. Obviously, it wasn’t his first rodeo. “You want to come aboard?”
“Yes,” he said. I explained how to drop the swim ladder and he was visibly impressed by this dignified boarding accommodation, low as he was in the water. He climbed onto the stern and took a moment to attend to his little vessel, double-knotting the painter and bailing out the several inches of water he’d shipped during his journey.
This was Danny. He was 14, but looked 12, tops. He lived on the “oceanside” of Ailuk – no, we couldn’t see his house from here, but he scanned momentarily with our binoculars, as if to confirm. “Are those your friends?” I asked, pointing to the passel of kids horsing around with an identical buoy-boat. They were, and no, none of them wanted to jambo with him.
Our boat was still in post-passage shambles – the mainsail a messy mountain of salty cloth, the bed unmade and strewn with foul weather gear, the forward cabin a nightmare of spilled books and musical instruments that we never seem to adequately stow. The dinghy needed to be launched and the deck washed down. We had things to do and we didn’t want to be rude, but after we’d exhausted the conversation, we simply got to work. As a sailboat voyaging in remote places, we’ve often had locals approach us on the water, usually because they needed something or had something to trade – fish, handicrafts, an enormous stalk of bananas to exchange for gas. We usually make the trades, but sometimes they don’t like no for an answer and linger on as if we’ll change our minds. Our new friend didn’t seem to want anything, nor was he ready to jambo on, so Brian explained the hoisting mechanism for the dingy and Danny immediately stepped into my role, controlling the line that lifts our 12-foot inflatable and perfectly landing it alongside the hull. He was a bit short to fold the mainsail, but he tried. While I put things away and attended to the tasks that mark the end of every journey he appraised our cabins, making himself at home without a hint of the shyness that had been so much a part of our experience in the Marshall Islands so far. He spun the iPod dial and put on Bruce Springsteen. He stretched out on the starboard settee, testing it for comfort. I recalled that it’s a rite of passage for young men on this island to steal something from a visiting sailboat. One of the admonitions I’d heard from another sailor echoed in my head: “Ailuk – I look, I see, I take.” I scanned our valuables scattered on various shelves and nooks, but if he’d absconded with anything, it was worth more to him than to us and would need to be concealed in his outfit – an oversized neon green t-shirt and a pair of saggy men’s blue plaid boxers.
Three sailing canoes were racing toward the village and passed close to our bow, outriggers flying clear of the water, rooster tails trailing, so fast I could only snap one photo before they slid to a halt on the beach, dropping their sails. “That’s my father,” Danny said, pointing to a smartly painted green and blue canoe. “And my brother.” They use the boat to fish and harvest copra, one of the only ways to make money on these remote atolls. “One day you’ll have a canoe?” I asked. He nodded, but his face expressed the hope and uncertainty of a class clown unsure if he’s ever going to graduate. The buoy must be a starter boat.
It’s protocol to proceed directly to the village’s Mayor or Chief and present your visitor’s permit and pay the $50 fee, so we needed to get to shore. Danny helped Brian maneuver the outboard onto the stern of the dinghy. He’d been kind and helpful and I thought to offer him something, but what would satisfy the magpie eye of a 14-year-old boy? We had a small cache of bouncy balls and stale, jaw breaking bubblegum, but that didn’t seem right for this upright boy on the brink of being a man. It occurred to me that I was still searching for a reason for his presence, that he must want something, but whatever it was, he was too polite to ask.
It was clear Danny would be riding with us instead of paddling back – maybe this was all he expected. Brian showed him how to start the outboard, how to handle the throttle, and it was Danny who drove us into shore, relinquishing command as we neared the shallow reefs around the island’s concrete pier. Definitely not his first rodeo.
We landed and he launched his little boat and climbed aboard, slipping his flip-flops onto his hands and paddling away. As he disappeared under the pier he took advantage of the excellent acoustics to sing a Marshallese song. “I wonder what he wanted,” Brian said as if reading my mind. We watched him paddle toward his friends who were helping unload the canoes’ copra cargos.
After meeting with the Mayor, it was that golden hour right before dark and the village had come to life in the diminishing heat of a diminishing day. Coconut husks smoldered into cooking fires. An older woman bathed a toddler with cups of water scooped from what could have been the other half of Danny’s buoy. At the school’s playground, women wearing modesty-preserving long dresses were viciously spiking a volleyball back and forth. Men leaning against a breadfruit tree waved to us. Dogs on patrol eyed us cautiously. Kids visibly skidded to a halt, stopping their play to watch these strange new strangers. The shy ones giggled, the confident chirped “Yokwe!” The truly bold approached us and offered business-like handshakes, requesting our names like polite little men. It was clear that our time in Ailuk would be memorable, that the people we were casually meeting now would become dear friends. Then we saw Danny, alone, riding a rusty red bike around the fringe of the Pied Piper-style crowd that had accumulated behind us. He was wearing a clean orange t-shirt and a closed lip smile, and gave us a knowing nod of recognition, the only one who could.
“To be the first to befriend us,” I said to Brian. “That’s what he wanted.”