Fran‘s Namesake City and The Almost-Absolute Monarchy
The Marshall Islands
We just had to go to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. We hadn‘t been there, and the capital city is named for the maternal Fran: Majuro (or as we spell it, Ma Juro). As son Kevin commented: „Its the most Fran-centric place in the world.“
The Marshall Islands is a nation with over 1000 small islands about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Older folks might know it best as the place where the USA tested its atomic bombs from 1946-1958. While Bikini atoll is probably remembered because of its name, it was the Enewetok Atoll where the first Hydrogen bomb was detonated in 1952. As a result of the atomic explosions, four of the islands are still more radioactive than the infamous disaster of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine.
Most of the 58,000 inhabitants live in Majuro, and are Micronesian by ancestry. The Micronesians came from Asia and first settled about 3,000 years ago. The official languages are English and Marshallese, a Micronesian tongue. After WWII, the US took over the administration of the islands, and began conducting the atomic tests. The Marshall Islands Republic gained independence in 1979 and continues „in free association with the US“. That means the US gives financial aid and has the responsibility of international defense. So the Marshall Islands receive about $60 million a year, but, frankly, it doesn‘t compare with the $2 Billion that the Nuclear Claims Tribunal assessed that the US owed for the residual radioactivity.
Another benefit that the Marshallese have is they can move to the US without a visa, immigration forms, etc. And many of the locals have moved to America because there are very few jobs in the Marshall Islands. There is a tuna processing facility, and not much else. Many commercial and cruise ships are registered in Majuro for convenience. The shipping companies pay a small fee and don‘t even have a personal presence in the Marshall Islands.
The United Airlines plane landed late but the Marshall Islands Resort van was there to pick us up. They said the room wasn‘t ready, so we prevailed on the van driver to take us to see the sights. We drove the length of the atoll to see a Japanese memorial plaque to those who had died there in WWII. On the way back we passed the tuna processing factory. And that‘s all there was to see.
By then, it was time for dinner, so we ate at the hotel, and it was ok. Afterwards, we got the key and walked to the room. Entering, we saw with dismay that the bed was unmade. Further, it was quite damp and stained. Yuck!
We called downstairs to the office and were told that the housekeeper had gone home. Eventually, the security guard came. We looked into a couple of empty rooms until we found one that was halfway acceptable.
The next day, at breakfast, we found out that we were not the only guests with horror stories. A young American, who was there to work at the tuna plant for a few days, walked into his room after work and found a local guy laying on his bed and eating his snacks. Worse, we talked a young Asian-American woman who was also there for the tuna facility. When she walked into her room at 11 pm she found the room occupied with a middle aged man. They were both embarassed, but the front office shrugged it off as a regular occurrence.
We learned that the same United plane that had dropped us off was returning from Guam. Instead of staying for 3 days, we were happy that United would put us on the next flight back to Hawaii for no charge (the United flight that we would have taken in 3 days was full, and this one was pretty empty). And so we left Marshall Islands and Majuro, the city named for Fran. We don‘t plan to return.
We left Majuro 2 days early, flew back to Honolulu, and enjoyed a couple of days of typical R&R tourism. Then we boarded our Air Pacific flights which was to take us, after stops in Samoa and Fiji, to our next tropical destination: Tongatapu, Tonga. Of course, Fran complained when they gave us different seats than we had had confirmed for nine months. She then sweet-talked a very nice Tongan man into switching places with us, so we got back our original seats. Then, on the last leg of the journey, Fran charmed him so much that he offered to drive us to our hotel when we arrived in Tonga.
We landed on time Saturday evening, but our luggage was nowhere to be found. Our new friend, Elmon, was greeted by his wife, Moklana, and kids. Then he helped us fill out the lost luggage forms. But as the flights to Tonga are only every 2-3 days, we knew we would have trouble getting the bags before we left the island. So we were very concerned that our two big red duffel bags would arrive in Tonga right after we left for a cruise from Brisbane, Australia, and would never catch up to us till we got home to Omaha 3 weeks later.
Using our travel maxim, “the worst that happens makes the best story later,” we determined to have a good visit to Tonga even without more than one change of clothes. Our hotel, the Waterfront Lodge, was fine, with 12 basic but pleasant rooms overlooking the Tongan harbor. Nor did I miss lugging the two heavy bags up the flight of stairs.
Elmon called a local taxi/tour guide, Anna, to take us “downtown” to see if there were any stores open Saturday night that had clothes to fit us. There weren’t, except for a T-shirt that Fran found to sleep in. Elmon also arranged to have Anna pick us up Sunday AM to see the sights of the island. She arrived accompanied by her cousin, Bessie, and Bessie’s 18 month old niece, also named Bessie. Little Bessie is a sweet little girl who made nary a peep during the whole day. Her mother and father are working in New Zealand, so her Aunt Bessie is raising her. This is not unusual as many Tongans live and work in NZ, Australia, or even in California if they can get American work visas.
Anna also had new clothing for me: two pairs of trousers, an orange Polo shirt, a nice bright Hawaiian type shirt, brown socks, and one set of underwear. She said that Elmon owned a nice store from which he had picked out the items.
We then toured the sights of Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga. The king of Tonga recently had passed away. We saw from the outside the Royal Palace, the new Royal Cemetery, and the ancient royal cemetery dating back almost 1000 years. Only recently has the monarch changed from an absolute ruler to a constitutional head of state. Many of the streets and buildings were still decorated with purple and black decor indicating mourning for the late departed King George V. In the royal cemetery, which commoners like us, or even Elmon, are not allowed to enter, there were a number of royal family members living in tents until 100 days after their royal majesty’s demise. I’m not sure if the new king, George VI, was among the campers. but it wouldn’t have surprised me. We also didn’t know if there were genetic problems in the royal family due to 1000 years of inbreeding.
From there we went to the seacoast where for a mile along the shore we could see not only pounding surf but numerous blowholes. The incoming wave would be submerged under the rocks, then come spouting up dozens of feet through small holes in the rocks. Another interesting sight was the “Ha’among ‘a Maui Trilithon”, a large Stonehenge type stone structure consisting of two massive 35 ton vertical stone pillars connected across the top with huge long horizontal rock. It has been there for about 800 years, but how it was built or why is subject to conjecture. One theory is that the ancient king had two sons, and the two vertical rocks are symbolic of them, joined by their father via the top lentil. Another idea is that it was the gateway to an ancient royal palace. But no one really knows…
Then we drove to the other side of the island, walked down an uneven set of curved cement steps to the beach, and entered a large cave carved by eons of pounding waves. There were many wooden tables with long bamboo trunks lashed together as benches, and a band playing religious pop songs on electric guitars. The music sounded similar to the Gospel Tent at the New Orleans Jazzfest. Did I mention that the best looking structures around the island are churches: Seventh Day Adventist, Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses along with the more familiar Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist? Hence the religious vocals but with a modern sound. Soon a huge lunch buffet feast was presented: many local fruits and veggies like seaweed, taro, yams, cooked and raw dishes of all kinds; also chicken, local seafood including clams, octopus, shrimp, fresh snapper, and a whole suckling pig. The locals piled up their plates and ate with their fingers while we used plastic utensils. Surprisingly, we loved the seaweed which was spiral-shaped and crunchy, and had a very nice flavor.
Exiting the lunch buffet, Anna announced that Elmon was the lay head of all the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) churches in the nation and wished us to come to their annual conference. We entered an imposing large white edifice where the elders, sitting on the front platform, gave long speeches in Tongan alternating with beautiful vocals sung by a large chorus which was led by a very large but energized chorusmaster holding a very small baton. When Elmon spoke he inserted a few sentences in English about Fran and I arriving in Tonga with no luggage. The congregation laughed and looked at us with welcoming smiles. Both Fran and I tend to doze off at concerts and especially at lectures, so we had to make a real effort not to be rude and let our heads roll into our chests while the lilting but sonorific sounds of the Tongan tongue rolled over us. We didn’t want to act like the blowholes, emitting snoring noises as the words entered and exited the apertures in our head.
Finally the speeches and singing were over and it was time for another huge feast in the community room. Long tables were piled high with foods prepared by the congregants: small dishes of various veggies and seafoods in covered plastic containers, fish and chicken on paper plates cooked with various spices and wrapped in Saran Wrap. There were big 2 liter bottles of Coke and Raspberry Fanta Soda (no alcohol for the observant Mormons), quart containers of fruit juices, big baskets filled with packaged snacks and treats from Kraft, Frito Lay, Keebler, Nestle and other multinationals, and of course a whole roast suckling pig in front of every fourth person. The good folks attacked the food with gusto, if without silverware, tearing the pig apart and stuffing it in their mouths followed with long draughts of juice. Whatever was left people took home. Afterwards, thanking Elmon and Moklana for the Mormon hospitality, Fran compared the feast to the 7-word Jewish tradition: “We were persecuted, we persevered, we ate.” Our hosts thought that was an appropriate comparison.
Because we had the large lunch at the cave, Fran and I ate very little at the church banquet. We were also concerned about our bodies’ reaction to unrefrigerated seafood and unpeeled fruit. So after arriving back at the Waterfront Lodge we eventually decided to try their culinary art for a late dinner. We had an onion soup that was excellent, and a garlic-chili fresh snapper that was as good a fish dish as we’ve had anywhere. Like everything else in Tonga, the portions were like the Polynesian people: large and effusive.
After making a few unsuccessful phone calls to the USA, Fiji, and Honolulu about our lost luggage, we retired for the evening, well stuffed but well satisfied with our visit.
Anna picked us up early the next morning so we could make a couple of stops on the way to the airport. I’ve always collected first day covers, which are envelopes postmarked with stamps the first day they are issued. Usually, but not always, they are available at national post offices. Sure enough, the Tongan Post Office had several of them, including stamps commemorating the Chinese New Year, Tongan fish, costumes, etc. We bought serveral. (The Marshall Islands Main Post Office not only had none, they had no idea what we were looking for.)
Then we stopped at Elmon and Moki’s business office. They were apparently in construction, travel, finance, and other enterprises, but not clothing. We tried to pay Elmon for the clothes, but he would have none of it, so we finally made a nice donation to the LDS church, which was acceptable to him. The final stop was to pick up a young Tongan man who worked in New Zealand. He spent the whole drive to the airport taking pictures of scenes of Tonga so he could have them with him in his NZ home.
Of course, our flight from Tonga started with Fran making a scene, this time because Air New Zealand didn’t want us to have a rollerboard carry-on that weighed more than 15 pounds. Fran cried that we had no other luggage and that she couldn’t bear to part with it as we were getting on a two-week cruise in two days. Finally, the ANZ steward relented, probably because the cargo hatch was already closed. He allowed both the rollerboard and Fran to stay in the main cabin. Sitting next to us was a young Polynesian man dressed in a white shirt and black tie. We knew he was Mormon, and he told us he was on the way to the USA to be an LDS missionary, in, of all places, California! Good luck!
When we got to Brisbane, after frantic nighttime phone calls to Air Pacific in Brisbane, Tonga, and Fiji, we were shocked and delighted to have the two lost bags delivered to our hotel the next morning. Final tourist note: not only was our stay in Tonga wonderful, but the other islands of Tonga offer wonderful diving, snorkeling, and beaches, at prices well below Bali, Tahiti, or other Pacific paradises.
So we would recommend Tonga as a vacation destination, but not the Marshall Islands.