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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

Flag of the Republic of the Marshall Islands THE MARSHALL ISLANDS


Mar 22.  AILINGLAPLAP (Bouj) “Liberation Day” It was Ailinglaplap Liberation Day.  Each of the Marshallese atolls had their own liberation day from Japan .  Caitlin had invited Alan, Coral, Rob and I to visit her host family in the morning.  Alan and Coral came by our tent around 8:30 and we walked a good hour down Aerok’s road until we came to her very conspicuous purple and yellow house. 

Caitlin’s family was definitely one of the more well off families on the island and the location of their home was ideal.  The island was very narrow and could see the lagoon from one window and the ocean from another.  It made the home very cool and less windy than Bouj. The house itself was very comfortable with five rooms and tile floors. 

Caitlin’s host mother had her give us the tour before we sat down for some coffee, our small contribution to the visit.  She walked us further down the road to a beautiful long beach along the ocean side of the island.  Her host family owned the island down to the length of the beach.  The father’s grandfather had been a Japanese business man who married a Marshallese woman and had purchased this bit of the island.  His grandfather had been gathered up with the rest of the Japanese at the end of the war but after determining he wasn’t part of the military he was returned to his family.  This was unusual for Marshallese to reside on the husband’s land.  Land was normally passed down matrilineal side but Caitlin’s host mother’s family had come from Bikini .

On one side of their house there was a large breadfruit house that was from before the war and now housed the man who took care of their pigs. On the other side was the original, more traditional, house that was now rarely used except for occasional quests.  Also outside the house was a traditional cooking house.  It was an open wooden structure with two fire pits.  The house had a kitchen as well but the cooking house was used for large groups or parties.  They owned a store that sold goods to local people and when the ship came to deliver the goods they paid men to carry the supplies to their store with a good meal.  The store was even equipped with a refrigerator where they kept cold water. 

Inside the house there was a large family mat spread out in the main room with a bench and chairs next to the kitchen.  Down the hall there were three bedrooms, one for the parents, one for her five host brothers (one was actually a cousin), and one for Caitlin.  Caitlin’s room was about an 8x8 room with a desk, bookshelf and her own mat for sleeping on the floor – simple but cool and functional.  Off the main room of the house was another small room that was being used for the 5 month old baby since it was the coolest place in the house.  On the walls were some pictures, including one of the host father’s father standing in front of Buckingham Palace .  They also had a really nice painting that reminded me of the sign they’d done in Jeh for the race and it did end up being the same artist.

We sat with Kaitlin’s host mother for about a half hour and talked over some coffee.  We had learned that coffee, mostly instant, is a real luxury in the outer islands so we contributed what little we had from our thermos.  Alan and Coral had brought some nice gifts with them from Majuro.  In return, Kaitlin’s host mother gave Coral and I woven headdresses.  Coral’s was woven with handmade flowers.  Mine was rows of shells that made a two-toned headdress.  They were just beautiful and entirely too generous.  It would have been rude to refuse but I was again overwhelmed by the generosity.  A couple of small bags of coffee couldn’t warrant such a beautiful piece of jewelry. 

Caitlin walked back with us to Bouj to see the Liberation Day festivities.  The day was getting hotter and the walk was hot.  As we passed one of Kaitlin’s neighbors he offered us a freshly shucked coconut.  He had a sharpened stick stuck into the ground that he used to rip the husk away from the nut. Kaitlin then showed us how to find the soft spot on the top of the coconut that made a ready drinking spout.  The trick was just finding the right spot. There were three circles on the top of the nut and it was the circle that was opposite a seam on the coconut that had only a thin membrane over it and could be scraped off.  When the coconuts were fresh the water would squirt out when the membrane was punctured.  If you hit someone with your squirt it apparently meant they were going to have fish that night. 

As we continued walking one of Kaitlin’s students joined us on his bike.  She had grown close to him during her time in Ailinglaplap and it was possible that she was going to take him home to be educated in the US .  She asked him to show us how to open a coconut to eat the soft meat inside.  He just banged it against a rock, rotating it as he banged, and eventually it cracked all the way around and came apart. It was a young coconut so the meat was soft and could be peeled off the shell with your fingers. 

Part way down the island Kaitlin’s friend took us on a detour into the overgrown brush to a small stone Buddhist altar that was left over from the Japanese occupation.  The foundation of a house could be seen nearby and according to the boy’s grandfather there were both Japanese and Americans buried in a grave near the altar.  The stone statue in the eroded little altar didn’t look too old so it appeared that someone was taking care of the place in spite of the dense growth that surrounded it. 

Two pickup trucks passed us as we got closer to Bouj.  On the back one of truck we saw the President of the Marshall Islands who had flown in for the celebration.  He was considered a “commoner”, unlike his predecessor who had been an Irioj.  All the same, the back of a truck didn’t seem like the appropriate place for a president.

By the time we reached the school yard in Bouj people had begun to assemble.  We sat with the group of non-Marshallese for a while until the speeches slowly began.  They were all in Marshallese so decided to use the time to get washed up by our tent.  Since everyone was watching the speeches we wouldn’t have an audience while we washed up.  Our handy bucket made it possible to bring some fresh well water over to our tent.  It had been nearly a week since we’d had a shower and it felt great to at least wash my hair.  While we sat nibbling some peanuts outside our tent a women from the house at the tip of the island came over to introduce herself and offer us a couple of fresh coconuts.  We offered her some of our peanuts.  I felt pleased with myself that I could now open a coconut and crack it apart without needing to use a knife. 

The speeches didn’t last too long because by the time we were ready to head back we saw a flow of people coming our direction.  When we reached the school yard we could see a long line of people queued up for lunch.  The non-Marshallese group we had been sitting with had their woven baskets of food.  I couldn’t face a big meal but Rob got in line to get his lunch.  He’d been there a few minutes when Mike Kabua walked past and said something in Marshallese to the man behind him.  The man disappeared and reappeared with a basket of food.  Rob sheepishly took his basket and walked across the school yard to where we were all sitting. 

Lunch hadn’t started until about 4pm so we only had a couple of hours of daylight left before the entertainment started.  Several of us stretched out on a couple woven green mats. A number of Caitlin’s students gathered around us as well.  We had given our remaining canned food to Caitlin, Rion and Tomas.  It wasn’t much because about half of the food had been pilfered from the locked storage area on the YFU.  Rion gave us a woven headdress with a beautiful cat’s eye as a thank you.  The cat’s eye to the Marshallese is the shell that covered the opening to the large shellfish and had a beautiful purple color to it. 

As it grew dark the stage was lit up with tiki torches but the fierce winds made it difficult to keep them lit.  After some introductory speeches we heard the chanting and clacking of the stick dancers approach through the crowd.  It was the same dance we started to see in Woja but for Liberation Day we were privileged with the full dance.  The first part was slow and methodic but as the chanting grew more intense the stick movements were faster, hitting again and again as the dancers turned and moved around one another. This was the first time that the people of Ailinglaplap had ever seen this dance and they were very focused on the performance.  Even the women had left their homes after a long day of cooking to see the rare stick dance.   The dance was so old that the many of the words were no longer familiar to modern day Marshallese.  It was an impressive performance that was only slightly compromised by the torches blowing out and darkening the stage area a bit too much. 

The stick dance was followed by more elaborate renditions of the boys’ dance we’d already seen on a couple of occasions.  The dancers were all dressed in matching T-shirts and had to keep their movements going for a long time as each dancer came and presented himself to the chief and joined the group.  The final dance of the evening we had been hearing about all week along with the stick dance – the fire dance.  The stick dancers lathered themselves in oil and put fire to the ends of their sticks and performed what was more of a Marshallese interpretation of a Samoan fire dance, since the fire dance was not typically Marshallese.  They actually put on a good show.  The fire of their sticks gradually blew out during the course of the performance but it was precarious business whirling those sticks around in grass skirts.

After the entertainment finished people slowly queued up for dinner.  It had already been a long night so we passed on dinner and headed for bed.  Throughout the night I could hear people passing our tent after a late night of partying.  Two people even stopped to sit about 15 minutes from our tent for some unknown reason.   The island was supposedly “dry” but I have a feeling a few people had found some alcohol that night.

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