Munching in the Marshalls
Living and working in the Marshall Islands for three
months was very much like eating a meal different from anything else I'd
ever tasted. This dish was full of unexpected and seemingly conflicting
flavors. The recipe included spices from such diverse places as Japan, New
Zealand, Australia, China, the Philippines, Canada, and the United
Statesall served up the Marshallese way, casually, with the waitress
certainly in no hurry to bring your food. Yes, the flavor was unusual, but
not unappealing. In fact, over time I developed a real taste for the
unexpected. What follows is a description of some of my very favorite
Marshallese entries and the places where I was fortunate enough to sample
Majuro--Lobster in the Alley
Majuro, the capital of
the Marshall Islands and home to 50 percent of its population, is a busy
and bustling thirty-mile sand bar full of taxis, schools, restaurants, and
people. Life along the main road (practically the only road) was never
dull. The road was constantly lined with people talking, children playing,
wild dogs barking, and an occasional frolicking pig. Despite the relaxed
pace of life in the Marshall Islands, on Majuro it always appeared as if
everybody was going somewhere. Shopping, laundry, and visiting friends
are more then just chores or pastimes in the Marshallese culture: they are
woven into the very fabric of everyday life.
One of my favorite places
to spend my free nights in Majuro was PJs bowling alley and lounge. The
bowling alley was a beautiful facility. Ten lanes with computerized
scoring and plenty of Budweiser on hand. It was very American, or so I
thought. One night after my supervisor and I bowled a couple of frames,
the waitresses began to bring out enormous platters of food. As I began to
salivate over the mounds of lobster in garlic sauce, yellow-tail sashimi,
fried vegetable rolls, and calamari, my first thought was, This isnt your
typical bowling alley cuisine! After the buffet had been laid out, an
older man announced to all of us that it was his birthday, and all were
welcome to come and join the feast.
I was given a special place in
line, and as I served myself a plate of this fantastic fare, I thought,
This is how a birthday should be. Birthdays shouldnt just be for an
individual, but shared by everyone present. After all, isnt every day a
good day for us to stop and rejoice in the festival of life? The
Marshallese certainly think so.
As I ate among this smiling and
joking group of strangers, I realized that this seemingly exotic meal
actually had a very pleasant and familiar flavor. It tasted of community
Wotje--Bounty in a Basket
Wotje atoll is an
outer island in the Marshall Islands located about 150 miles north of
Majuro. Most of the outer islands, Wotje included, have no electricity,
running water, or automobiles and are very sparsely inhabited. I found
this absence of western amenities quite refreshing. The people of Wotje
are lively and seem content living their traditional way of life. On Wotje
everyone smiles and says, Yokwe! meaning hello, to each and every
passerby. One neednt earn much money there because fresh fish, crab,
coconuts, and breadfruit are always abundant.
One Saturday evening on
Wotje, I went with some friends to watch a video of The Lion King.
Nearly the whole population of Wotje gathered around the small video
screen beneath the brilliant night sky to bask in the splendor of this
Walt Disney masterpiece. It was a very entertaining film, but I grew
hungry before it was finished and headed back to my house to see if I
could find something to eat. Just as I was entering the house, my friend
Labuk stopped me and said, Hey man, I think you will find a surprise in
there left for you by some visitors to the island. I entered the house to
find a basket woven out of coconut leaves full of breadfruit, pandanus,
steamed nuts, and a roasted chicken.
As I sat alone, devouring the
banquet by the light of a lantern, I savored not just the food, but the
warmth of generosity and kindness.
Arno--Cream of the Coconut
I fell in love with Arno the moment I arrived. Just fifteen miles from
Majuro, the rocky and pristine beaches of Arno beckoned me as I approached
by boat. I was amazed that Arno could be so close and yet so different
from Majuro. The people of Arno live a traditional life as they do on
Wotje, but there is a certain peacefulness on Arno that I had not
previously encountered. Arno is dense with jungle and flowering trees.
Its deep turquoise lagoon is bordered by an immaculate white sand beach
that curves toward the horizon and finally out of sight. This beach was my
home for two weeks, and I didn't want to leave.
I was fortunate to get to know my counterpart and several of my coworkers
on Arno very well. We passed the days working in the farm fields, touring
the surrounding islands, and conversing about pressing international
issues such as the way that Cracker Jack is made and the passing of sports
legend Mickey Mantle. Each season at the first harvest, certain people are
responsible for preparing a banquet for the island chief. One of my
coworkers rented land from the chief and therefore was expected to prepare
a banquet. So we all pitched in one day preparing sautied breadfruit,
baked pandanus, fresh cooked pork, and hundreds of coconuts for the chief.
It was, in truth, a lot of fun, but we figured after all our hard work we
were entitled to sample this smorgasbord ourselves.
As I sat among these
gentle, peaceful people, I tasted a flavor more fulfilling then any I had
sampled previously this summer. It was the unmistakable taste of
Kit Cottrell is a second-year graduate student in the Community and
Regional Planning Program at the University of Oregon. Kit spent three
months working on an agricultural resource and management plan with the
Department of Agriculture in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.