Majuro, the Capital of the Marshall Islands

The island hopper plane from Hawaii sets me down at Majuro and leaves for Guam, via several other Micronesian stops. The Marshall Islands capital is three ribbon strip islands, joined by bridges, leaving one gap in the atoll. The strips are just wide enough to fit a building at each side of the 32 mile paved road that romps through the middle. At times, the width expands to fit in another house or even a little shopping square. They’ve squeezed the airport in at one end.

It’s partly open air, and the luggage is brought out in pickups. Most of the local people, who decant off the plane, just wait for their bags and disappear, without any immigration formalities at all. I say bags, most of their cargo seems to be cardboard boxes and polystyrene cooling boxes. The people are dark skinned, dark haired and dark eyed. Local dress is colourful. The women wear loose floral dresses and some have pretty headbands across their foreheads.

Facts and Factoids

  • The only indigenous land mammal in the Marshall Islands is the Polynesian rat.
  • The average height of the islands is only 7 feet above sea level.
  • The trade in copra (dried coconut) is very important to the economy of the Marshall Islands. Copra can be ground or pressed to yield coconut oil and is classed as “dangerous cargo” when in transit, as it can spontaneously explode with great force, when it is being transported in volume.
  • French designer Louis Réard named his 'daring new two piece' a bikini when he unveiled it in 1946, to commemorate the first testing on the site. Bikini is now famous as a wreck dive site.
  • Kwajalein Island is home to a radar installation and the U.S. Navy. My plane lands there on the way to Majuro, but only authorized military personnel are allowed on and off the aircraft.
  • The Marshall Islands (five islands and 29 atolls) is very much treated as an unofficial American state. Americans come and go freely, there are U.S. aid boards all around and the currency is the dollar. Officially, the Marshall Islands is a parliamentary republic with an executive presidency in free association with the United States, with the U.S. providing defence, subsidies, and access to U.S.-based agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission and the United States Postal Service.

DUD, The Marshall Islands

The main populated area, on Majuro, is two miles long and known as DUD (Darrit, Uliga and Delap). Djarrit is as also known as Rita (Hayworth – from GIs). DUD is lined with schools, government buildings, churches and industrial bits and bobs. There are several ships moored in the huge lagoon, which is edged with a few patches of sand and some battered coral. It’s not hugely inviting. The shore is littered, and the water polluted. There are tricky currents. And sharks. It’s definitely prettier from the air, though the spiky pandanus trees, lining the shore, weave intricate patterns against the blue sky.

The islands are exceptionally flat; the bridges are the highest point, if you don’t count the coconut palms and the warehouses. They’re reinforced with stone barricades, though I’m not sure how helpful they will be when global warming sets in. It’s a little disconcerting seeing the sea so close on one side and the lagoon on the other, as we motor along.

A Brief History and Nuclear Testing on the Marshall Islands

  • Historically, these Micronesian islands were a Spanish colony, followed by indirect German administration. They came into American hands after Japanese occupation and the Second World War.
  • However, the Marshall Islands are perhaps best known as an American site for nuclear testing in the mid twentieth century - the so called Pacific Proving Grounds and Operation Crossroads. 67 nuclear tests were carried out on various atolls, most notably Bikini Atoll. 'Mike', the world's first hydrogen bomb, was detonated on the island of Elugelab, in the Enewetak Atoll in 1952. It’s not there any more, so presumably the test was successful.
  • According to Wikipedia: 'Over the years, just one of over 60 islands was cleaned by the U.S. government, and the inhabitants are still waiting for the two billion dollars in compensation assessed by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Many of the islanders and their descendants still live in exile, as the islands remain contaminated with high levels of radiation. There's a Bikini Island website which states: 'At 15 megatons, the blast (the 1954 Bravo Hydrogen Bomb on Bikini Atoll.) vaporized 3 islands and was 1,000 times the magnitude of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear weapons dropped on Japan in World War II. The fallout from this weapon has forever devastated the lives and the lands of the people of the Northern Marshall Islands. 2022 marks 76 years that the people of Bikini Atoll have lived in exile away from their beloved homeland.'

The Best Hotel in DUD

I’m in the best hotel in town, set in the centre of DUD, and on the edge of the lagoon. It has the basic necessities, but it’s definitely seen better days. Hot water is elusive. The pool is decorated with a large yellow boat and is full of water that’s alarmingly green. It’s been out of action for some months according to Trip Advisor. I’m not sure how you would swim round the boat anyway. There are chairs stacked around and a ramshackle pool bar. None of this looks as if it’s seen much action lately either.

The restaurant serves passable western style food and fish (there are lots of guide book warnings about not eating toxic reef fish) and the waiters are friendly. I’m now 13 hours ahead of BST and my body isn’t sure what’s going on. It wants to sleep at all the wrong times. The hotel receptionist demands money from me, insisting I have a reservation but no payment has been made. I demur (to put it politely) and after prolonged phone calls they agree to sift through all their emails to see if payment has indeed been promised by my tour company. While I’m eating dinner they phone down to tell me that they have found the relevant email and I need not worry.

Majuro International Airport, The Marshall Islands

My computer reports that it's 20.50 on Saturday July 15. But I’m told it’s actually 7.50 in the morning the next day and I’m back at the airport. There’s no air-conditioning, the queue crawls, it’s exceedingly muggy and I’m already covered in mosquito bites. I can see the pesky little things zooming round the dark airport building, despite the fact that Dengue and Zika warning posters abound on the walls. As do How To Get To Safety in the Event of a Tsunami signs, though I’m struggling to see that there would be much hope there.

It rained last night and the roads are all flooded, so now we’re driving down a water way between two other areas of water. I’m so disorientated I wouldn’t be surprised to meet myself going the other way. And when I checked out this morning the (different) receptionist gave me the bill for the room. He insisted he couldn’t alter an invoice without his manager’s permission. All I could do was cross out all the offending items and hope for the best. I’m looking forward to the view from the air again. Kiribati next.

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