Stranded on the Marshall Islands, you’d risk your life for a drink, too.
Salt caked my face and frothed out my mouth, my arms were locked and cramped from clinging to my seat. A wave rose over us and dumped six more inches of water into the boat. This is it, I thought.
The whole horrible experience began with a dolphin.
I was sitting outside a house on the beach in Ailinglaplap Atoll, the Marshall Islands, waiting for a boat. The sky grew gray with a storm, the tide was rising, and my ride across the lagoon was late. He had gone fishing. I was thinking about my weekend trip, which it seemed I needed to give up because of the rising storm.
I lived without running water, electricity or communication with the outside world aside from a radio while working as a volunteer middle school teacher. I ate white rice, Spam, fish, canned corned beef and then more rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Alcohol was taboo; I hadn’t had a drink in months. The object of my voyage was a friend, an old Peace Corp guy, who had constructed a paradise on the other side of the lagoon. He had solar panels that powered lights, a bread maker, a TV and a VCR. He had warm water for showers and food from the states. He had alcohol, and ice for drinks. I licked my lips. I was desperate.
I sat, kids gathered around me, skinny dogs scratched, chickens pecked the rocky earth, sweat ran down my back under my polyester mu mu.
Finally, the motorboat appeared on the horizon. The winds that always presage a storm over the low islands were blowing strong, and I believed that anyone with any sense knew the boat ride was too dangerous. Personally, I had no desire to become chum for the hundreds of sharks that made their happy homes in the lagoon. But Jane, the other American on the island and my traveling companion, was not going to let the possibility of becoming shark bait stand between her and a
cold beer. She ran across the beach and down to the boat.
People were shouting with excitement, and I saw a huge fish-like body in the bottom of the boat; maybe a shark had met its end. I walked down onto the sand, where men were pulling the boat out of the water.
Right away I saw that the animal leaking blood into the bottom of the boat didn’t have the rough sandpaper skin and triangle fins of a shark. It was smooth as rubber, eyes wide open, tiny cone teeth bared in its mouth. “Oh my god,” I thought. “They’ve killed flipper.”
This was a great catch. No one on the island had landed a dolphin for years; they don’t bite often. This dolphin had bitten, and the epic battle between dolphin and the man who caught him on a cheap, tiny fishing pole waged for hours. The Marshallese were pleased. Apparently dolphin is delicious, and they were ready to get cooking.
In the states I buy dolphin-safe tuna, of course, and had fallen in love with the fellers over the course of thousands of nature shows. But I have to tell you, I looked at this little guy and felt…hungry.
Trust me. Enough canned corned beef and anything starts to look edible.
I was ready to sit down and watch the men prepare the meal, but Jane was not to be tempted by a little dolphin steak. She asked the boat captain if he could take us right away. He said no, but he had two guys who would.
I looked at the guys. Did they think the trip was OK? Sure, they shrugged. Really? I asked, because the storm had most certainly begun. Sure, they said again. I considered their knowledge of the ocean versus mine. I had none, and the Marshallese are seafarers to their cores. Their ancestors traveled to these tiny islands, probably from Asia, in little outrigger canoes. I decided to go with the experts.
I took one last look at the dolphin I wasn’t going to have the pleasure of eating, and got into the boat. This boat was about twelve feet long, a fiberglass number with a single engine on it. As soon as we got out past the shore the waves tossed us from side to side. I asked the guys for the last time if the trip was a good idea. It’s up to you, they said, as they tied a hook to the end of a spool of fishing line and strung it off the back of the boat to trawl for tuna.
“Let’s go, it’s not bad,” Jane pleaded. I found a life jacket in the bottom of the boat and put it on.
A half hour later the shore was just a band on the horizon, and I was hanging onto the sides of the boat for dear life. The waves were much taller than the boat, which fell down in between them and then peaked with a lurch that left my stomach in the ocean. The driver steered up and down the sides of the waves. He looked calm as he hauled in the fishing line and pulled a flailing blue-backed tuna from the hook. He threw it into the bottom of the boat where it thrashed and bled.
I was starting to panic, but the worst was yet to come. By the time the tuna was dead, waves were breaking into and over the boat, filling it with water that we bailed out frantically with a tiny plastic cup. Salt water filled my nose, my ears, my mouth. It mixed with my saliva and poured over my lips and out my nose in a salty foam.
“We’re going to capsize and die,” I thought. The lagoon was huge, we had bloody fish on board that were sure to attract sharks, and if the boat filled with water the entire thing would go down to the bottom of the sea. If we didn’t go with it, we would wait to drown or be torn apart by sharks. The Marshallese guys were beginning to look worried as another huge wave nearly swamped us.
But the worst was still yet to come. Suddenly, the motor stalled. The fishing line we were trawling with had wrapped around it. A phrase suddenly rose to the top of my mind – A disabled boat in a storm is doomed. Because we couldn’t meet the waves anymore, they turned us around and pushed the boat onto steeper and steeped angles. We pitched through a mountainous landscape, taking to the air and landing with a crash again and again.
Jane and I were leaning against the waves to keep the boat from going over and bailing like maniacs while the guys struggled to cut the fishing line from the motor when I started to cry. Actually, I wanted to cry but I couldn’t because I was caked in salt and every ounce of moisture had been leeched out of me. I pictured my parents learning, probably weeks later, that I was lost at sea. Lost at sea. That’s not how I thought I would go.
And then the engine started.
An hour later the bottom of the boat scraped against the beach; we made it. We found our friend waiting for us, totally freaked out. “I can’t believe you tried to cross the lagoon today,” he said, staring at us like we were totally insane.
Apparently, the Marshallese on our home island had been all over the radio to see if we reached our destination or had washed up somewhere.
As I peeled my soaked mu mu off and tried to wash the salt out of my mouth, I shivered uncontrollably. I began to nurse suspicions of Jane’s sanity, my trust in the “experts,” and of the Marshallese definition of an “OK” boat trip. Days later, when I recounted the ordeal to a Marshallese friend, she didn’t seem impressed.
“Well, if the boat had turned over, you could have floated on it until you reached an island,” she said. That’s when I realized I should stick to my own better judgment in all things.
And I have to tell you that to this day, whenever I see a dolphin I have the strangest sense of foreboding.