Years after radioactive fallout, paradise still found on Likiep Atoll in Marshall Islands



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Local color: Just another sunset on Likiep Atoll. CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON

Paradise found in Renaissance man’s footsteps

Special to The Japan Times

Continental Micronesia airlines operates an island-hopper run to Majuro in the Republic of the Marshall Islands via Guam, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae and Kwajalein — a great way to see fantastic scenery and sample the flavors of each airport.

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Where 79-year-old Joe de Brum runs a guesthouse. Meanwhile, with a storm brewing, fishermen sail off from Majuro in an outrigger.CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON
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Descending into Majuro in the Marshall Islands, a narrow Pacific coral atoll, feels like landing on an aircraft carrier, with waves crashing on both sides of runway barriers. The airport has old Pacific charm. Passengers walk across the runway, get passports stamped at a little shack, and pass giant ladies in muumuu dresses weaving baskets for sale.

It’s easy to take a taxi or catch a ride with friendly locals. Majuro has one road running from end to end, flanked by the calm lagoon on one side, and the wild Pacific Ocean on the other. Like the High Arctic or the Tibetan plateau, it’s an extreme environment, with no high ground to escape a tsunami or the storms and high tides that flooded the atoll during Christmas 2008. It feels like being on a long ship, and some travelers feel anxiety at first about being so far away from it all.

But the roughly 68,000 people who inhabit the Marshalls’ 34 atolls comprising 1,156 islands and islets couldn’t be more welcoming to the 1,500 foreign tourists who visit in a year. An eagle-spotted ray also came to greet me under my balcony at the Marshall Island Resort, one of Majuro’s three main hotels.

You could spend days at the resort, snorkeling or kayaking over the technicolor reef, and exchanging tales with explorers or yachties from Japan, China, Taiwan, Hawaii and Australia. I hung out with traditional navigators carving outrigger canoes from the long trunks of native breadfruit trees and painting shark teeth on them to ward off sea monsters.

“Here is the real Pacific,” said the resort’s manager, Bill Weza, who knows many of the 150 expatriates on the Marshalls. “It should be a UNESCO World Heritage site. You go to Outer Islands here, you’re stepping back in time. No electricity. No running water. Cell phones don’t work. It’s subsistence living.”

Aid workers and missionaries in Majuro warned me, however that those Outer Islands have no hospitals, doctors or speed boats for medical emergencies. Anyone there could die from a minor accident or an appendix attack — and those mesmerizing lagoons are teeming with sharks.

Dolores de Brum-Kattil, manager of the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority, laid out my options. I could kayak among yachts and tuna trawlers in Majuro’s lagoon, or hike at low tide between islets to camp or stay in cabins on Eneko Island. I could brave a little cargo boat for an hour’s crossing to Arno Atoll to “snorkel and surf in your own ocean.” Or I could hop a supply ship and let it take me me for a month-long voyage to Outer Islands such as Jaluit, littered with warships and tanks. Or, I could fly to remote Likiep Atoll and stay with her grandfather, Joe de Brum, “the old wise man of the Pacific,” at one of the only Outer Island guest houses in Micronesia.

“Don’t go,” warned several locals and aid workers. A few years earlier, Air Marshall Islands left a group of divers for months on Bikini Atoll — the epicenter of atomic testing — because they couldn’t afford to fix the plane. But airline officials assured me they now had a second plane, just in case.

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While a man harvests coconuts to make jakaro hooch. CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON

Taking locals’ advice, I stocked up on crackers, sugar, tea, coffee, toothbrushes and books about history and folklore. At the Museum of Culture, anthropologist Ingrid Ahlgren showed me a stunning collection of photos taken by Joaquim de Brum, “a Renaissance man.” In the 1860s, he of Portuguese origin, together with a German named Adolph Capelle, acquired Likiep Atoll in exchange for selling chiefs tobacco and a cannon. Harvesting copra and exporting it to Europe, de Brum built a plantation house on Likiep out of California redwoods brought to the islands strapped to a vessel sailed from California. “You should definitely go to Likiep,” she assured me. “You might want them to strand you there.”

The airline’s service was surprisingly efficient, with motherly service. On the horizon, towering cumulonimbus clouds resembled battleships going to heaven. To the east, the nearest island group, Hawaii, was some 4,000 km away.

Seen from above, the atolls appeared like clam shells, tiny hidy-holes of humanity in the blue Pacific. After landing on a runway of grass between coconut groves, I was met by half the village and a jolly little barefooted man, Joe de Brum, who I was told had built the airport himself.

For de Brum, 79, the modern world is “amazing.” “In my lifetime, there was radio, then came telephone, computer, Internet, cellphones and all that jazz,” he said with a grin. “It used to take three months by steamer to Australia. Now, can go in four hours by plane, one week by fast modern ship. Everybody using the green paper, the U.S. dollar. It’s amazing.”

His guesthouse, resembling an American motel, has five rooms for visitors, with nice beds and clean bathrooms for passing yachties or any of his 100 or so offspring, including nine children and two great-great grandchildren. Solar panels, donated by Taiwan, power an outdoor shower and a portable video player for him to watch gory war movies. “The world is changing,” he said. “The sun gives me light at night. If I told my father this, he would never believe me.”

After a seafood lunch, we plan a trip around the 50-km-long atoll. “I have a small boat, working really good, called The Titanic,” de Brum declared with a twinkle in his eye.

The Titanic turns out to be a little Hemingway skiff with paddles and an outboard motor. As we putter away, I notice water seeping in, and a squall turning the lagoon purple and silver.

“It’s not a good boat if it doesn’t leak,” said de Brum.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” I ask.

“The Titanic is safe,” he said — “unless we hit an iceberg.”

As de Brum predicted, the wind blows the squall away, and the midday sun colors the lagoon in bands of peppermint green, swimming-pool blue and blinding white. In “the snorkeling channel” where the lagoon meets the rough ocean, I dived into a pristine canyon of staghorn coral teeming with reef sharks, turtles, Moorish Idols, and surgeon fish.

De Brum, spotting a black hole in the water, cast a net overboard, claps the surface and watches as dozens of sardines dart into the net. Using them as bait, we caught skipjack and tuna in seconds.

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Top shop: Japan’s influence writ large in this Majuro shop name. CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON

De Brum said two was enough. “We only catch what we need for today,” he explained. “We call the lagoon our refrigerator. When we are hungry, we take something out of the refrigerator. If we are full, we keep the rest in the refrigerator for tomorrow.”

After a psychedelic sunset, the village feels like a living room. Breezes blow away bugs and storms, adults drink jakaro (fermented coconut wine), and children sing and dance in churches till midnight. There are no police or jails. Trees provide medicines and everything needed to build the material world. The “fridge” is full of fish for tomorrow.

On some nights, harking back to when Japan was the local power, Majuro radio tells islanders to gather round to watch the hanabi (Japanese for “fireworks”) display — rockets from a U.S. base on Kwajalein shooting down Minuteman missiles fired from California 27 minutes earlier.

“When people see this, they pray,” says de Brum. “They remember the atomic bomb testing. They’re afraid.”