Almost immediately after arriving in the Marshall Islands, we took a boat to Arno Atoll. I wish I’d taken some pictures of the trip there – it was quite a roller coaster ride – but I was too busy trying to hang on to my breakfast, and to the boat.
Despite its proximity to the capital city of Majuro, Arno is an “outer island,” a place where electricity is rare and subsistence living is common.
How do I describe Arno? In some ways, it’s unreal. When you’re sitting on the beach, you watch little wavelets of aquamarine water dissipate against the sand. As you look further from shore, the lagoon deepens into a sapphire color, richer than my photos can capture. You relax in the shade of a gently rustling coconut tree.
Nightfall brings an equally spectacular sight, undimmed by city lights. In more developed areas, the light pollution drowns out the stars, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s a metaphor for modern society’s withering connection to nature or something, but I’m too busy fending off mosquitoes to finish that thought.
When you’re on the beach, though, expect some visitors. Sometimes it’s the pigs, which amble around the trees uprooting things with their snouts. Sometimes it’s the stray dogs. One of these dogs, when she spots you, will dissolve into a wave of pure joy that is so intense that her tail can’t wag fast enough to express all that emotion and instead just twitches spastically and then she’ll crumple onto the sand because she’s so excited she can’t stand up straight and then she’ll roll onto her back and when you tickle her pink tummy she just can’t handle it anymore and she falls into a coma of undiluted ecstasy.
I’ve heard stories of vicious dogs on other atolls, and was worried that I’d have to run around the island carrying a big stick to fend them off, which is especially worrisome since big sticks are hard to find in a forest of coconut palms. So I was pleasantly surprised to meet Shelby. I was less pleasantly surprised when I rubbed Shelby’s tummy and felt a squishy lump that shouldn’t be there. And that’s how I discovered that dogs have ticks.
Now, I hate blood, and bugs, so ticks represent a combination of these two things that’s best left in whatever corner of Hell it crawled out of. But over thousands of years of domestication, humans have bred dogs to do one thing really, really well: beg. So I scrounged up two credit cards for tweezers and a sterilizing wipe, and Diane and I got three ticks off of Shelby that day. I’m sure she’s collected at least five more ticks by now, but, for one evening at least, we walked away feeling accomplished in the art of ersatz tick removal.
Many of the older customs are still alive and well here. It’s inappropriate for women to bare their thighs and shoulders throughout the Marshall Islands, but Arno has a much stricter dress code than Majuro. To hide the space between their legs, women in Arno wear “Guam dresses” (which, despite the name, are made in China). They’re basically polyester muumuus. Diane, Sara, and I made a point of buying the most outlandish patterns we could find. After all, if we have to wear dresses in the field, why not have some fun?
Fortunately, the Guam dresses are pretty versatile pieces of clothing. Here’s an example of our daily wardrobe:
- Pajamas: Guam dress
- Going to the boat: bathing suit and rash guard and Guam dress
- While on the boat: change into wetsuit, covering up with Guam dress
- Going from the boat: bathing suit and Guam dress
- Shower: Guam dress
- Afternoon exploration: sneakers, field hat, and clean Guam dress
- Bed: Guam dress
Given that the temperature is ~90°F and humidity is 75-100%, lightweight Guam dresses are relatively practical. I say “relatively” because no clothes on earth can really handle that type of weather. Because it’s hot, you sweat, and because it’s humid, the sweat doesn’t evaporate. You can only resign yourself to the fact that you’ll never, ever be dry in Arno, a place where air conditioning or fans are a distant dream. Fortunately, you get used to it: when we got back to Majuro, our AC was set to 81°F. We promptly turned it off because we were frigid.
Staying at Arno got me thinking about isolation. One one hand, being isolated deprives people of amenities, like electricity, and necessities, like plentiful fresh water. But, on the other hand, isolation itself is a resource. RMI’s distance from other landmasses is the reason that the US government decided to test nuclear weapons here. Arno’s isolation has also kept its shores relatively pristine and its corals free from the pollution that harms reefs on some of the other islands. So, maybe isolation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In case you were wondering, we did plenty of work on Arno, but I’m saving that for another post.