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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Marshall Islands - Traditional Dance
Start of Stick Dance, Aerok, Alinglaplap, March 18, 2003  

Flag of the Republic of the Marshall Islands THE MARSHALL ISLANDS


Mar 17. AILINGLAPLAP (Woja) “The Jebro Race” It wasn’t until early afternoon that we started to see bits of land on the horizon.   Rob asked what had happened to the meals and they quickly materialized a plate of what looked like sludge with rice.  We regretted having brought it up. 

The boat was headed for Bouj, a village on the end of Aerok Island at the south end of Ailinglaplap Atoll, in a small channel.  As we got closer to the destination we learned that our boat was bound for Majuro again the next day!  This wasn’t really what we had planned.  They’d told us that the boat would stay in Bouj for the whole week so we could watch the races.  Wallace Peter was supposed to be on the boat as well but we saw no sign of him.  After some negotiation with the Captain they put us in a dingy and transferred us to a smaller ship, the YFU 82.  This boat was supposed to have cabin accommodations for us but the only real cabin was already occupied and we were directed to a seedy dormitory in the bowels of the ship.  I was starving at this point so I ate some canned spaghetti but the A/C wasn’t running so it was stifling. We locked our bags to one of the bunks and went out in the fresh air. 

The outrigger canoes from the Litakbouki had been unloaded and were setting sail from the beach head at Bouj.  With three crew on each canoe, they moved quickly and rapidly disappeared from sight.  The water was unbelievably blue.  Where the ships were anchored it was a deep royal blue.  Closer to shore the water turned to different shades of aquamarine and finally rolled up onto the soft white beach in the color of tinted glass.  It was just stunning.  From a dingy you could see all the way to the coral bottom below.

There was loads of Marshallese lounging around the boat on white plastic chairs. After we boarded we saw a motor boat pull up and let off some foreigner passengers and we began to feel more like we were in the right place. One guy on the motor boat I recognized from Majuro. He was tall guy with a shaved head and a big bush gray and white beard. 

Not long after settling ourselves we felt the boat pull anchor and start to move.  The YFU was a bit of a rust bucket as well but wasn’t hauling any copra.  It turned out to be a Public Work's ship.  They also make rounds to the islands but they deliver equipment instead of supplies.  Up on the top deck Rob met one of the other foreigners, an older man by the name of Richard who was originally from Philly.  He was knowledgeable about the outriggers and their navigation, having spent the last 14 months in the Marshall Islands.  He was planning his retirement on an island up on Likiep Atoll, not far from Kwalelein. Richard informed us that the YFU was an old ship that had been built for the Vietnam War for use in the Mekong River. It shouldn't have lasted more than 5 years but some thirty years later is plying its way from atoll to atoll in The Marshalls.

We weren’t at all looking forward to sleeping on the YFU.  Even with the boat running the A/C wasn’t very strong.  I went in search of a restroom and found only one that was for women. It was in the galley and was in use. It continued to be in use for a long time.  I nudgingly jiggled the knob without results.  Thinking I might try to make use of the Men’s head I walked away.  A young guy in the galley called me back and banged on the toilet door to roust the current occupant.  It was a man who looked like he has been cooling off in the shower.  I appreciated that the young guy had come to my aid but as I began to close the bathroom door he smiled and asked if he could join me.  What could he have been thinking?  I was old enough to be his mother.  The whole experience didn’t exactly fuel my enthusiasm for our situation on the YFU.

It didn’t seem like much time had passed when we reached the island of Woja, some 40 miles across the Alinglaplap Atoll.  At the end of the beach we could see the outriggers all lined up along the shore.  The YFU backed up to the beach and lowered its giant tail gate to let everyone off.  The local kids ran up and down the steep tailgate entertaining themselves until the boat hoisted is gate and pulled into the lagoon to anchor.  Woja must only have had a few hundred people on the island. It was a small community with a couple of Seventh Day Adventist teachers from the United States comprising most of the education system.  We met them as we wandered down the only road on the island.  They had a third friend visiting as well, another SDA teacher from Majuro.

Some preparations for the evenings events were apparent in the decorations they’d put up on the church windows.  The windows had been decorated with green palm fronds and flowers.  The church was the central area in town and where they were going to set up dinner and the entertainment.  We sought approval from the people in charge to pitch our tent for the night.  That was much preferred to the dormitory on the YFU.  They gave us free reign to camp anywhere so we chose a soft green spot among the coconut trees behind the church.  As we set up our tent three young boys came to watch.   We were impressed by how well they could introduce themselves to us in English.  The youngest was only about 5.

By the time we had set up our campsite things were starting to pick up.   Richard and the other foreigners were starting to congregate in front of the church where they had erected a large open tent.  One couple was staying abroad the YFU in the one real cabin they had on the ship.  They were an Australian couple, Alan and Coral, who were volunteers working in Majuro.  Alan worked for the Public Works Department and Coral was working with a woman’s organization.  They guy with the big beard I had seen earlier was Ferdinand from Austria.  He was a documentary filmmaker who worked on various projects in the Pacific Islands.  A big American guy, Terry, also had camera gear set up to film the evening. Terry had spent his childhood in the Marshalls while his parents were teachers, so he was fluent in Marshallese.  He had returned to the Marshalls about 7 years earlier after a career as an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles.  The generosity of the Marshallese has to be unparalleled.  Terry wasn’t the last person we heard of having received land from the Marshallese to live on for the rest of their life.  Dani was another long-term resident of The Marshalls, an American guy who had also grown up in the islands and after living in various parts of the world found his way back.   

It was getting later and later.  The Woja women, wearing matching skirts with red hearts woven into the bottm were slowing escorting the importing people to the chairs under the tent.  It became clear who the most senior people were because the others lowered themselves as they walked over to shake their hands.  We were adorned with leis on our heads and seated on the church benches in front of the tent. A number of local men were seated behind us. Dozens of children were seated on the ground along with the SDA teachers and a few other adults.  Most of the people stood shyly in the background.

Once everyone was seated they began the festivities with a prayer and speech, followed by Marshallese singing.  The local music had a really nice sound.  It wasn’t as lively as its Polynesian counterpart but was a calm, soothing sound, more like a Caribbean tune without too much of the reggae twang.  The singing was followed by a women’s fan dance.  The women slowly shuffled and turned their way into a large moving circle, waiving their fans and singing.  They all wore the matching skirts with hearts.  It was a considerable investment for people on this remote island.  As the dance came to an end all of the women took their turns removing their woven hats, fans and shell jewelry and left it in a pile before the Irioj, high chief or king.  Other items had been placed there before the entertainment began – mostly woven mats – all offerings to the Irioj.

The women’s dance was followed by a men’s dance.  They didn’t have coordinated dress but formed a series of lines and moved in unison while chanting.  We’d heard that there would be a rare stick dance and possibly a fire dance but these had been replaced by this men’s dance.  We’d heard different reasons but the Irioj had left his seat so the primary audience was gone.  The entertainment ended with a prayer.

After the entertainment concluded the women of the community began serving dinner.  They came out with baskets woven out of palm fronds that were full of food – chicken, pork, and traditional foods made of breadfruit – and fresh young coconuts.  We were invited inside with our baskets and coconuts to partake in another buffet that included coconut crab, giant clam, fermented breadfruit, sweets, and other delicacies.  We were in the company of local mayors, senators and the Irioj himself.  When we were introduced to Mike Kabua his first question was “How do you spell your name?” When I told him he chuckled and said that it was like his grandfather’s name J-E-M-E-T-A.  He was related to the woman sitting across from me because she had made the same comment and Marshallese names are often created from parts of other family names which makes them unique.  For a high chief, Mike Kabua, was a very approachable and personable man.  He was well traveled and was making a special effort to help his people preserve their cultural and was the most significant benefactor of the Jebro Race.

After dinner, as we prepared to go to bed, we saw a light flashing off of the YFU. It had been a late evening and was already past 1am .  Alan and Coral had tried to signal the boat earlier to get a ride back but the crew didn’t notice so Alan and Coral had already found themselves a spot to crash in the church.  The boat apparently thought our headlamps were their signal.  We slid into our tent and kept the door unzipped so we could feel the ocean breeze.  It was a full moon and a palm tree bending over the beach in defiance of the wind made a beautiful silhouette.

MARSHALL ISLANDS Majuro March 11 March 12 March 13 March 14-15 March 16 Alinglaplap March 17 March 18 March 19 March 20 March 21 March 22 March 23 Majuro March 24

FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA Kosrae March 25-26 March 27-28 Pohnpei March 29-31 April 1-2 April 3-4 April 5-7 Chuuk April 8-9 April 10-11

GUAM April 12-23