Majuro: Getting Past the Grime

marshallese boy throwing ball, sv cavalo

I’ve been feeling generally uninspired by Majuro. Engaging with the locals is difficult; taxi rides are awkward at best, and despite dressing to blend in we still get stared at everywhere we go. We’d been warned directly that the locals were unfriendly, and while I wouldn’t necessarily use that word nor apply it to everyone, there is an underlying dissonance. Though I’m sure it’s exaggerated by the fact that we’ve come from Fiji where everyone treats you like family, even in the city. The city itself isn’t attractive. It’s pretty fucking filthy, a feature highlighted by the recent hepatitis outbreak and my refusal to get in the water.

And now, much to my chagrin, we’re back in Majuro.

We got here right before Christmas with no plans to stay long. Matt’s parents were visiting so we saw and did all there was to see and do, and intended on taking off for several months soon after they went home. Which we did. And we made it up to Aur. It really deserves its own feature, but it was what we came to the Marshalls for. Clean, clear water and unspoilt fishing grounds. A beach perfect for launching the kites. Privacy. Seclusion. The locals were kind and outgoing, and we really started to get a feel for the Marshallese culture which tends to be a little diluted in the capital. Then the kicker quit. We’ve been experiencing some issues with the old Mercury lately, but they’ve mostly been fuel-related and a good carb cleaning usually did the trick. But after three days of tinkering we accepted that whatever the problem was, it was beyond our ability to fix. I wish I could say that we could get by without it, and we honestly tried to convince ourselves we could, but with kiting being our MO it’s a necessity. The consensus shared between fellow sailors as well as the mechanic we found is that we should just replace the thing. It’s old, a ’99, and major parts are starting to fail. But we’re stubborn and in our small world that is a boat we tend to become absurdly attached to things like pieces of PVC and broken springs. I don’t know if we’ll ever forgive ourselves for replacing the windlass in French Polynesia. Also a new outboard that can perform the way we need want it to is well over our budget, so we’ve committed to fixing our ancient but beloved Mercury. The serial number is gone, of course, and no parts distributor will ship to the Marshalls, so we’re here for a bit while we sort this mess out.

Now, the real issue with Majuro is simply that an atoll isn’t capable of supporting the amount of people that live here. Like everywhere else in the world, people from more rural areas, i.e. the outer islands, flock to the city for jobs and amenities. Or because nuclear fallout has rendered their home atoll uninhabitable. In exchange for things like fishing rights, missile rights, essentially the rights to take advantage of location and resources at the detriment of the indigenous people, more “established” nations may provide subsidised goods to help keep everyone fed and clothed. Of course, these nations usually have reasonable means of dealing with the amount of waste the modern world produces, but while shipping things in is one thing, shipping out is another. Most of what arrives in Majuro is here to stay; cars that break and can’t be fixed, construction materials inadequately constructed, the plastic packaging on nearly everything. With sea levels rising all these things and people are pushed further inland and everything that isn’t useful is likely to end up on the street, in the water, on what once were beaches. It’s been affecting the Marshall Islands since the mid 1940’s, and it’s gotten really, really bad.

Angry, and seeing an opportunity to channel said anger into something more productive, I packed a bag and set off to capture the ugliness that is Majuro. In a place where land is so valuable, seeing it wasted on useless abandoned buildings, piles of deceased cars and impossible amounts of garbage is enough to make someone’s head spin. Territorial dogs ran me out of the Darrit district pretty quickly, which did nothing to improve my impressions, so I grabbed a handful of coral ammunition and hightailed it towards Uliga and Delap. With the sun and temperature rising the dogs became lethargic and disinterested, seeking shade wherever they could and leaving me free to wander the more residential areas. I let the coral fall back to the ground, slowed my walk. And then something happened- someone said “Good morning!”

Everyone slowly seemed to drop their guard, including myself, and started in a sort of transient conversation. Kids grabbed my hand as they passed, staring for a moment before shouting “Hello!” or following me a bit before returning to their prior engagement. People made sure to poke their faces out and greet me as I passed their homes. I realised that tourists must not amble through the back streets of Majuro often, which is unfortunate because they, or at least this one, turned out to be the most beautiful part. Standing amidst the homes and heartbeat of the city, I was embarrassed to think I’d assumed they wouldn’t take care of it. Merely 200 meters across to the lagoon side I’d been trudging through the refuse of 30,000 people, and here I found myself enamoured by a culture I’d believed buried. A tennis ball rolled to a stop at my feet, and I tossed it back to a group of boys who were thrilled to show off their ballgame. Folded up cardboard boxes made perfectly acceptable mitts.

I’d walked so far that I needed to take a cab back to the dock if I wanted to get anything else done that day. It had gotten awfully hot and as I climbed into the backseat of the taxi I welcomed the air conditioning with quiet relief. The driver met my eyes in the mirror and smiled, asking me how I was, making it the most conversation I’d managed in a taxi yet. He drove slower as we talked.

The Marshallese have to be given their due credit for resilience. The cultural upheaval they’ve endured in less than a century is ludicrous, and expecting a seamless transition is equally so. They came from the sea, live by it, and one has to realize that the state of the environment in and around Majuro hurts them more than it would any tourist. And for those that were born and raised in this city, many have never seen with their own eyes the paradise that it once was or had the pleasure of visiting the outer atolls. It’s times like these that make me realize how truly lucky we are aboard Cavalo.

1 Comment

  1. Annie, this is beautiful! I’m so glad you got to see the beauty nearly buried in Majuro. And I hop the parts arrive soon and you’ll be off again!

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