TRAVEL: Likiep Atoll, the Marshall Islands

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In the Marshall Islands, neighbours are 3,000 km away

January 14, 2011

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Joe de Brum takes his skiff, called The Titanic, out into the waters of the desolate Marshall Islands.

Chris Johnson photo/for the Toronto Star

 

LIKIEP ATOLL, THE MARSHALL ISLANDS — Everywhere he looks, Joe de Brum is always surrounded by water. Living on a narrow strip of flat land between the lagoon and the wild ocean, he has nowhere to escape from a tsunami or rising seas due to climate change. Between him and Hawaii, 4,000 kilometres away, there’s nothing but marine life and dangerous currents.

But Joe, 79, is one of the least worried people on earth.

From above, his atoll appears as a hidey-hole of humanity in the central Pacific, near the Equator and the International Dateline. Greeting a rare foreign visitor on a grassy runway he built, Joe waddles like an old turtle in his bare feet. “The modern world is amazing,” he says in a folksy drawl. “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.”

His five-room guest house sometimes hosts yachties, aid workers, or some of his 100 or so offspring, including nine kids who are scattered across “the islands of the world” such as Australia and North America. “The world is changing,” he says, showing off solar panels donated by Taiwan. “The sun gives me light at night. If I told my father about this, he would never believe me.”

After a lunch of reef fish and breadfruit in coconut cream, Joe recalls the time his grandson showed him Google Earth on a computer. “He zoomed down from space to the Marshalls and then Likiep Atoll. ‘Go in closer,’ I said. ‘I want to see if my wife is cleaning up the leaves in the yard like she’s supposed to.’”

As cumulonimbus clouds rise on the horizon like battleships going to heaven, we plan a trip around the 50-kilometre-long atoll. “I have a small boat, working really good, called The Titanic.”

Parked near an outrigger canoe made of breadfruit, the Titanic turns out to be a Hemingway skiff with paddles and an outboard motor. As we putter away from shore, I get nervous. The nearest hospital is days away by boat, and planes only pass maybe once a week. Like Tibet or the high Arctic, this is an extreme environment, where elders navigate by star maps and wave patterns, and paint shark teeth on canoes to ward off sea monsters.

With a squall painting the lagoon silver and purple, water begins to seep in.

“It’s not a good boat if it doesn’t leak,” says Joe.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” I ask.

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

The wind blows away the storm, allowing the mid-day sun to colour the living organism of water peppermint green, swimming-pool blue and blinding white. At the “snorkelling channel”, I dive into a pristine canyon of staghorn coral teeming with reef sharks, turtles and Moorish Idols. Joe, meanwhile, catches skipjack and tuna in seconds, and then spots a “black hole” — a school of sardines. They dart into his net when Joe claps the water, and then scale themselves by rubbing against each other as Joe shakes the net.

With a live sardine on my hook, I quickly jig a grouper, and get greedy for more. But Joe says one is enough. “We only catch what we need for today. We call the lagoon our refrigerator. When we’re hungry, we take something out of the refrigerator. If we already have enough for today, we keep the rest in the refrigerator for tomorrow.”

After a 5 p.m. dinner of raw sardines in soya sauce, Joe, who 60 years ago sailed to Japan as an “oiler” scrubbing copra ships, tries to radio a yacht missing in a typhoon off “neighbouring” Fiji (some 3,000 kilometres south). Before sunset, I wander through a village where elders are buried in yards and nearly everyone is related. (Joe once lost an election to his nephew.) Land can only be inherited, not bought or sold, in a caste system of chiefs, caretakers and landless workers. But with breezes blowing away bugs and clouds, it feels like nothing can go wrong on Likiep, and there are no police or jails. A “medical helper” can stitch a wound, and the island’s trees provide local cures for local illnesses, as well as furniture for children to sit on. As the sky erupts in colours, a barefoot man climbs a tree to cut down a young coconut and gives me a cup of the juice inside, while kids sing and dance in Protestant and Catholic churches painted white and gold.

Fishing with Joe every day and hearing his folk tales at night, it’s easy to believe that paradise exists in the Marshalls, which only get about 1,500 tourists a year on 1,200 islands. On Likiep Atoll, under the stewardship of Captain Joe of the Titanic, it’s being kept in the refrigerator for tomorrow.

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