Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island
"Spain sobs, Italy wails, Germany bellows, Flanders howls, only France sings," goes an 18th-century (surprise) French saying. Yes, but what about the Marshall Islands way beyond God's back in Melanesia out in the South Pacific? After reading Peter Rudiak-Gould's charmingly funny memoir on spending a year teaching there, one would conclude it would only raise a collective eyebrow and sigh "whatever." A typical Marshallese reply when Rudiak-Gould would ask a fellow his plans for the day would be babu ("lie down"). "Don't get too ambitious," the visiting American would think to himself. Of course the main McDonald's-like outlet in the capital, Majuro, is Taco Bill's Almost Fast Food.
A non-profit group called WorldTeach sent Rudiak-Gould to the Marshallese island of Ujae, one of the country's 1,225 islands, for a year's stay to educate the school-age youngsters of the islands' 450 residents. After finding his host family, a walkabout. It took five minutes to reach each shore, 45 minutes to circle the third of a square mile comprising Ujae .There are bigger parking lots where I live.
For the next 365 days he would be 2,500 miles from the Philippines, 2,000 miles from Hawaii, and 70 miles from a faucet, store, bank, postal service, restaurant, car, road, shower, fridge, fluent English speaker, or fellow American. Rudiak-Gould's understandable first reaction was to hit Alt+4 to escape, but, oops, no computers. Or Blackberries, Palm Pilots, Twitter, IPhones, or any other mojo wire gadget.
At least he had the satisfaction of improving the minds of his pupils. Well, that would take some work. The United Nations ranked the Marshall Isles last in educational achievement among Pacific island nations; of the country's 82 elementary schools, Ujae ranked 78th. Rudiak-Gould knew he had his work cut out when an eighth grader asked, "How do I spell 'I'"?
"On a very good day, my second graders were working on the grammatical complexities of the sentence 'I walk,'" wrote the challenged author, who added the kids weren't dumb, just apathetic and not encouraged by their parents who saw little reason to study: life doesn't change on Ujae, learned or not.
Rudiak-Gould had to adjust to unchanging weather — always low 80s, never once even cool or dry and an unchanging landscape– flat horizon, sappingly-warm, doldrum-still air, green foliage, dark coral, a variously blue-hued ocean. Always the omnipresent sun, the perfect place for the helioholic, the sol-searcher.
An unchanging diet: "The four Marshallese food groups appeared to be starch, starch, starch, and starch." Specifically, unvarying servings of coconut, rice, breadfruit, and taro with occasionally bananas and fish. Not exactly the Spice Islands. I wondered if he ever longed for Urumqi, China, the city in the world farthest from an ocean.Despite this Van Allen Belt of deficiencies and constancies, Rudiak-Gould gradually discovered its pleasures people always had time to visit, the unrushed friendliness, learning the fishing and sailing lore , respect for the aged. He learned the mixed blessings of communalism, that lives were hard but secure, the roles narrow but certain. Most important, with nowhere to flee, one had to get along, do your part, no boat rocking, that harmony was all-important. Most of the time that lead to kindness, generosity, and avoidance of conflict .
"On matchless Earth we underrate the chance to dwell on thee," wrote Emily Dickinson in a letter to a friend. Rudiak-Gould has written an entertaining, informative book on this tiny underrated Marshall island where earth dwellers have much to teach the rest of us.
"Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island," Peter Rudiak-Gould, Union Square Press, 244 pgs., $21.95.
RICHARD WEST spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas
Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek.
Since then, he's had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West
was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a
member of Texas Arts & Letters.