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.
I did everything I could. I tidied the galley and washed all the dishes. I downloaded a weatherfax that showed 15 knots of northeast wind, 6-8 foot seas for the next 48 hours. I scrutinized all the cabins, stowing books and tools and snorkels and fins and all the other things that creep out from their places the longer we stay anchored. I spent two hours scrubbing the algae off the bottom of the boat so we’d sail as fast as we could. All I had left to do was lash down the surfboards, haul the dinghy up onto the foredeck, and pull in the flopper stopper, then crank up the anchor, set the sails and windvane on a compass course of 330 degrees and sail this boat the 100 miles back to Majuro.
After we arrived in the Marshall Islands, we were warned against visiting Mili Atoll: the locals aren’t friendly and the Mayor might kick you out. There was all manner of scuttlebutt among the longtime cruisers, who swirl like driftwood around Majuro’s mooring field. Boats had been told to leave, cases of mistaken identity, bribes gone wrong. Mili’s reputation was so bad and the coconut telegraph so fiercely effective, it had been a few years since anyone we spoke to had actually been there.
“When the apocalypse happens, this place won’t even feel it,” Brian observed. We were wandering the equatorially-scorched, dusty streets of Tarawa, the capital island of Kiribati, a place we’d been told to “get in and get out as fast as you can.” No two cruisers are alike and we often love places that other sailors hate, but this was surreal: an atoll mere inches above sea level where the population is bursting over its sandy seams as the land literally disappears from underneath them, where the shoreline is shored up with trash and the public beach is the public toilet, where people are still living on and digging up the remains of thousands of missing Japanese soldiers and US Marines from WWII.
I don’t even have any photos of the place.
“You’ve got three species of feces here: dog, pig, and human,” a fellow American schooled us on our first night in town. We were sitting in the bar of the nicest hotel, pounding cold ones to wash away the strange flavors of a beef curry that hadn’t tasted quite like any cow I’d ever eaten. Continue reading “Three Species of Feces”→
The kids are always the first to spot what’s coming. They have safety in numbers, proceeding in a pack out of the palm shadows to the edge of the beach to eventually wave abundantly at us I-Matang in our funny hats riding ashore in a rubber boat with wheels.
Mao was the eldest, tall and teethy, with a dramatic swath of black hair. She didn’t know what we wanted, but we didn’t know what we wanted either. We rowed ashore because it’s what you do when you anchor off a village; this one just happened to be far off the well-sailed paths and they seemed baffled by our sudden appearance. We were at the very northern tip of Abaiang, an atoll just 30 miles from Tarawa, the main island of western Kiribati.
People who hate eating their vegetables would love traveling in equatorial Micronesia. Dry, sandy atolls where nothing edible thrives but coconut palms and pandanus are but idyllic paradises on which one can easily waste away of nutritional deficiency. The perennial heat and drought-like lack of rain mean you’ll be guaranteed plenty of sunny beach time, without having to put up with any of those obnoxious fruity umbrella drinks, due to the general lack of fruit.
Tuvalu wasn’t quite that bad (Kiribati is.) Most shops had mushy imported oranges and apples. Breadfruit was happening. There was a guy with a papaya grove who was willing to sell 2 for $5, pick your own or select from the ripe and ready ones stored inside an unused washing machine on his patio.
But the unexpected surprise was the raised bed gardens and flats full of seedlings, operated by Taiwan Technical Mission in a tin-roofed structure on the northeast side of the airport runway. Continue reading “Green Thumbs Up in Tuvalu”→
A version of this story originally appeared in the magazine Capital #31, May 2016. Click the magazine image below to read the PDF.
In Funafuti, in front of most homes there are large, long, cement boxes, sometimes neatly tiled, sometimes painted bright reds and greens and blues and pinks, sometimes festooned with garlands of plastic hibiscus, sometimes accompanied by carved crosses. Graves. All are big enough to house a human, the last remains of past family members, kept close to their future generations.
“It ties you to the land,” one man told us when we witnessed the same tradition on Bora Bora, and makes it very hard to sell. Or leave.
What if the land is the first to leave? To be on an atoll in Tuvalu is to be in the midst of the climate changing, an island disappearing.