Welcome to my home

Welcome to my home

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Island Life Winds Down

Life here on Kwaj has been incredibly busy for me over the past few days. As the final days of camp ticked off the calendar, I was finally hit with the reality of leaving the island. On Saturday I said my final goodbyes to my campers before I left the teen center for the last time, and I must admit I was a little sad. Yes, I am returning home to family and friends, but part of me has grown close to these little buggers. I know, I know, Scott is usually the sarcastic bastard who is, at best, a cynic. But somewhere within me, tiny sinews of sentimentality exist.

Yesterday, I went over to Ebeye to see some of our Marshallese campers from the summer with two of the other counselors: Katie—the girl who blew chunks on the fishing excursion, and Kristi—the girl who rode in the ambulance with the victim of the infamous fish drive-by. We got off the three o’clock ferry and headed down to the south tip of the island where a small park exists. This place is called a park, but it really isn’t what we would typically associate with the word “park”. It had two pavilions (concrete slabs with old, corrugated tin roofing that is pock marked with holes), and some open space covered with sandy gravel. The periphery of this park is their beach, which is primarily rocky. Garbage litters the ground. It had rained earlier in the day, so large puddles of dirty water stood proudly in the midst of it all. But these are all things I remember now. When I got there, all I saw was our small army of smiling Marshallese campers.

Almost as soon as I had rounded the corner and caught my first glimpse of the scene, my hand had been snatched up by a mitt of five gruff fingers. I looked down to my left side and saw Elio, a boy from an earlier camp session who does not speak much English at all. He escorted me into the midst of the party. The children (campers ranging from seven to thirteen years of age) had set up a large boom box under one of the pavilions. Outside this pavilion, a large charcoal grill was tended by Binton, the translator who worked closely with me all summer. Many of the campers from earlier summer sessions had yet to see my Mohawk. It was well received by most. However, some of the younger kids asked C.J. if I was in the mafia. So of course, C.J. and I had fun with that for a while.

After I had said my initial hellos, I made my way down to the waters edge to see the view. I leaned against an old concrete picnic table, so old that the weather had split it in half, and tips of the metal rebar had been rusted over and filed down into incredibly safe pointy ends. While the motto of Kwajalein is, “Safety first, safety always,” the motto of Ebeye would probably sound something like, “Do what is necessary to survive, everything else is a luxury.” So, the fact that picnic tables exist at all is a nice touch to this park. From this picnic table, I watched the children wrestle with one another in the water of the Pacific. However, not a long bit of time had passed before someone had climbed up on the table to sit next to where I was standing. I turned around only to see Elio, chewing one of the few pieces of grass that grew somewhere in the area, and looking up at me with soft, somber brown eyes. Then in a quiet, but earnest voice he said, “I miss you,” and nothing more.

The rest of the day was filled with time with the children. The kids found a basketball and took us over to one of the courts in the area to mess around. After a while we came back to the park and the kids danced as the boom box grew louder. Then we ate. Our translators had prepared a small feast for the party: chicken, hotdogs, rice, sushi, fruit, and a dish that was awesome but I don’t know the name of, but it was made with rice, coconut, and something called “scrote.”

After we ate, we cleaned up and walked back through Ebeye toward the dock. I can only imagine what we must have looked like, marching through town with a battalion of children singing camp songs in broken English. On the way to the docks we passed two Mormon missionaries. They were really nice guys. They have been living on Ebeye for about a year now, one is from Utah, the other is from England. After a brief conversation as we walked, they moved on in their direction and we moved on in ours. If these gentlemen had the capacity for jealousy, I’m sure that at that moment they would have been full of it, because they walked away alone, and we walked on with about thirty followers. We got back to the dock area around eight o’clock. The last ferry leaves at eight thirty on Sundays, so we had time to buy some ice cream for the kids that had made it all the way to the docks with us. So we bought our ice cream, ate our ice cream, said our final goodbyes, and in a cliché moment, had to run to the boat through the rain. I was so happy I had a chance to see my Marshallese campers once more before I leave on Wednesday.

In other news, I just received an e-mail that contains the transcript of a speech given in the RMI congress just a few days ago. It discusses the extreme disaster that is Ebeye, and calls for aid from the RMI government. But, the RMI government doesn’t believe that Ebeye is that bad off right now. However, the speech called out the government officials (all of whom live on Majuro, another island) for being uninformed. The last time the government visited Ebeye was fifteen years ago. To quote Binton, “How can our government say that we are not living in absolute poverty, if they do not come and see it, and live it?” This makes a lot of sense to me. Although the RMI has a royal family, they also have a president. Usually the president is someone from within the royal family, but the current president is the first commoner to ever hold the office. He is not well liked by anyone in the country. It might sound weird to us to have the royal family also holding the presidential office, but the royalty over here is not anything like European or Asian royalty. They truly are one with the people. Yes, a heightened attitude of respect is reserved for them, but they will be the first ones to tell you that they are just one person in the greater Marshallese people.

The royal family lives on Ebeye, and calls for government aid, but the government refuses it. They have sought aid from the United States; but, because of our land lease agreement, international law holds strict regulations on what we can do for them. So, either the Marshallese government has to pony up some kind of relief for the island, or private contractors will have to willingly come to Ebeye to provide relief by creating jobs. As was already mentioned, the RMI government is not indicating intentions of aid, and the last large company (Exxon Oil) just left Ebeye unannounced. Now Ebeye has extreme gas and power shortages, which, in turn, has created an insane shortage on fresh water. Keep in mind, that all of this is going on on an island that is one mile long, ¼ of a mile wide, and is home to over 15,000 people.

I received this e-mail because land owners are considered to be in the lower ranks of nobility in the RMI. Essentially, this means very little. However, nobility does have the power of influence with the people. Because C.J. has indicated that he wishes to give me an island, I am now charged with the task of staying informed in the goings on of the government, simply because I am to become a land owner. At some point, something is going to have to happen. C.J. says that a civil war is not so unlikely if things do not improve.

I sit here in my room just a mile away from Ebeye, and I am typing on a computer in sanitary conditions. I can get on my bike and ride down to the cafeteria where I can eat as much as I want for free. I can turn on the tap and let fresh water pour down the drain if I so desire, because we have an endless supply of it for free. If I want to turn the lights on, I can, and I can leave them on. In just two days time I will get on a plane and fly back to Iowa. Then I will be thousands of miles away from Ebeye, but Ebeye will still exist. And the people of Ebeye will still be living as they do now. And Ebeye is just one place among countless others just like it across the globe.

I am anxious to see my family and friends. I miss those whom I love. I hope to keep this blog going even after I return to the states. However, until I do, I must ask a favor of all of my readers: do something for someone. Whether it is great or small, solicited or unsolicited, for someone in need or not, change can never happen unless someone starts it by doing something.

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