Marshall Islands – the storm maker!
Day 2,276 since October 10th 2013: 193 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
From 11 hours to 14 days
My discontent, anger and smouldering rage is by no means the fault of this fine country. So I will briefly cover it and move on.
Welcome to 2020!! Same as 2019 but more futuristic!!
In last year’s last entry I had to make a choice: leave the Marshall Islands after just eleven hours or wait fourteen days for the next vessel. While Once Upon A Saga has developed greatly since its beginning on October 10th 2013 there are some elements which have never changed: absolutely no flights, no return home until the end and a minimum of 24 hours in every country. Not 23 hours and 59 minutes. 24 hours or more! What a pain that rule has been. It took four months before we could cover 24 hours in Equatorial Guinea back in 2016. Long before we succeeded in that I had been offered a special 12 hour pass across the border. But that isn’t 24 hours. Also, the Saga first reached the Vatican See in late 2013 however I left after only 3 hours realizing that we would not get 24 hours back then. We got the full 24 hours (and 17 minutes) in 2018 when the Saga returned. Marshall Islands main island where the capital Majuro is located is a relatively small place and much can be seen in a few hours. What is this crazy obsession with 24 hours? Well it is not the 24 hours in themselves which are important. That is just a number which corresponds with earth’s full rotation of its axis. The real value lies within setting down ground rules and sticking with them. People swear to “until death do us part” and then they get divorced. People claim to have read books they never opened. Others say they go to the gym twice a week when it’s really just once. Cutting corners is very human and yet the world we have built depends on rules: certain age before you can vote or have a driver’s licence, certain grade before you pass your exam, certain laws, certain regulations…the list is endless. You have not been to the top of Mount Everest is you stopped a little short of it. You have not completed a full marathon if you did not run all 42,195m (26.2mi). You have not been to a country according to the Saga if you left before the 24 hours were up. This being a brand new year I bet many of you have made resolutions. Are you going to keep them? Really keep them? Or will you cut corners and give in when it gets inconvenient or hard? ;)
We reached this milestone by arriving to Marshall Islands.
Once Upon A Saga is nearly impossible! The three rules ensure it. 24 hours means that if a visa is required you can’t tick off a country by stepping over the border. You need to apply for the visa. And a certain amount of countries require that you apply for it in your resident country. Since there is no return home until the end of the project then that is already a problem. Meanwhile more and more countries are opening up for access through their airports. However crossing land borders is far more complicated for certain nations. E.g. Iran will allow a Danish citizen to fly into any of four international airports and get a visa on arrival. Wonderful. And Iran, which I have been to four times, is a wonderful country. However if you intend on crossing a land border to Iran then you are required to apply for the visa in advance. And that proved hard within the Saga for a couple of reasons. In addition to all of that I see ferries disappearing and flight becoming far more common. It was hard getting around the Caribbean but even harder getting around the Indian Ocean island nations (Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius). Reaching Qatar without flying required two containerships as the land border with Saudi Arabia had been closed. Lift any of the three cardinal rules and the Saga will instantly become far easier: go home a few times, stay less than 24 hours in a country, fly just once or twice… What would be the point? If it was easy then anyone could do it. And why do anything at all? Paraphrasing U.S. President JFK we do some things: “…not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” The Saga is hard physically, mentally, logistically and bureaucratically. Downright hard and demanding. Not long ago I could see the light at the end of the tunnel but it was painfully removed and yet only by moving forward will I see it again. What most fail to understand is that travel is in fact a byproduct of the Saga. Clearly you cannot reach every country without flying without traveling. However conventional traveling is a completely different matter. Going to the moon in 1969 was also travel but the goal was reaching the moon and returning safely. Heading to the top of Mount Everest in 1953 was travel but the goal was to conquer the summit. So was reaching the South Pole in 1911. As such you’ll find that achievement is clearly a goal within Once Upon A Saga. And so is promoting every country positively and promoting the Red Cross and Red Crescent worldwide. It is a full bodied project and I’m tired of it.
A lot of Majuro looks something like this. The ocean is on either side of the buildings.
Hang in there people…I’ll get to how wonderful the Marshallese are in a moment. It is just that when plans changed on arrival (to this beautiful country made out of 29 atolls) and I had to stay true to the 24 hours, then that meant waiting for the next ship and coming home two weeks later. “Oh” you say, “what is another two weeks on top of six years already”. It is everything! It was another two weeks here and two weeks there which pushed the Saga from a four year project to a potential seven year project. I’m not on the hunt for a ten year project here. Time management is as vitally important as managing the budget of the Saga. The unexpected is always there when you are doing what has never been done before. Extra two weeks did not sit well with me. I also had to reschedule appointments in upcoming countries. I was very unhappy with it and to some degree I still am. But that really isn’t any fault of the Marshallese who also deserve a positive promotion. The weather didn’t help though. Rain, wind and grey skies. Typhoon season although the Marshall Islands apparently do not get affected much by storms. It appears that the storms start here and then move west attempting to destroy Guam. I’ve seen beautiful islands before. Plenty of them. The main island which I’m on is called “DUD” (Dulap-Uliga-Djarrit) and comprises of three narrow islands. Being an atoll it is basically just a main road lined by a string of buildings on each side along with the Pacific Ocean. You can literally walk across a lot of the islands in less than a minute. That is how narrow it is. Going to the end of it is however a 40 km (25 mi) drive. As with most small Pacific islands there is a garbage problem which shows in the azure blue water and on the white sand beaches. Dengue is present so some precaution is required. There are several derelict buildings: a once was cinema, a once was sports facility, a once was bowling alley…what the heck was I going to promote? The answer came soon enough.
The roads don't take to well to the rain.
Meanwhile I needed to find accommodation and get a simcard so I had internet access. The Flame Tree is an interesting establishment. It is a guesthouse in connection to a bar/restaurant. When I first entered the bar/restaurant area I was instantly reminded of the movie “Roadhouse” in which Patrick Swayze had to clean out a rowdy bar. The setting was right but it was quiet being a Sunday. Tiny air-conditioned rooms with private toilet and shower facilities went for $40 USD in the guesthouse, which is considered really cheap in Marshall Islands. However the Flame Tree also offers a “backpackers” establishment with dorm rooms and shared facilities. The dorm also reminded me of a movie. This time “The Beach” staring Leonardo DiCaprio as Richard. My room looked like the room Richard is in when he receives the map to the secret island. But quiet. Flame Tree has a reputation for being a noisy place due to the bar and its “lively” clientele. However I was alone. I had eight rooms, a living room and a combined toilet/bathroom to myself: $20/night USD. I’ll take it. Mosquitos could fly freely so I invested in some mosquito coils and aimed a fan towards my bed. Done. I needn’t worry about food because the good crew on board “Kota Hakim” supplied me with plenty of instant noodles and in fact wanted me to take far more :)
The good ship "Kota Hakim" still keeping me well fed.
Getting a simcard was a bit of an adventure. The main street was lined with plenty of palm trees carrying heavy coconuts and the wind was at times strong. Getting hit by a coconut can crack your skull. I should say that at this point everyone I had met first of all seemed shy and reserved but enormously kind and helpful once approached. Simcards are not sold on Sundays so I had to walk back to the port where I had the code for some nearby wifi.
Hanging out at the port fence for free wifi under a dauntingly grey sky.
The next day I was ready to get that simcard and the kind ladies at Flame Tree sent me on my way to the National Telecommunication Authority (NTA). Surely I could just pick up a simcard in a kiosk somewhere? Nope. It has to be at NTA. Taxis are quite cheap in Majuro but I prefer walking. Having been on board a ship for a while walking would do me some good. But by walking I also get to observe more and meet some people along my way. Everyone was shy but kind. It was often hard to get eye contact but easy to get help. How long does it take to get a simcard? Well often less than a minute and in Fiji I walked into Digicell and was set up within five minutes. In Majuro I got to wait for more than an hour even though there were only two people ahead of me. Once it was my turn I found out I had a challenge. The lady there, Shuny, was nice and competent however the setup time-consuming. My challenge consisted in that my busted up smartphone no longer reads simcards. That is just one of its newly adapted quirks since I stupidly got it really wet in Solomon Islands. The solution to the faulty simcard port is to use a mobile wifi device and I carry such a thing since Hatem the Egyptian I met in Sudan gave me one. Through the device I can connect the phone to a wifi signal. Easy! Well…for whatever reason Marshall Islands simcard is a single frequency simcard and could not be read by my mobile wifi device. I plan to get a new phone in Hong Kong as that would be the best place to make a bargain. What should I do with my faulty phone in Marshall Islands? How about buying a new mobile wifi device? Sure: $93 USD. The simcard itself was $15 USD and there was a special Christmas offer of 50gb for $35 USD. Normally that would be the cost of 12gb. In Fiji the simcard was free and 7gb cost $3.5 USD (and most social media was also free). When I raised my eyebrows at all of this Shuny smiled and said: “welcome to Marshall Islands”. Everyone laughed. I couldn’t borrow a mobile wifi device and they didn’t have a cheaper one. Ah – monopoly :) However Shuny agreed to buy it back from me for $50 USD the day I leave :) I left having paid $143 USD to get online!!! However this project would look vastly different without internet. Someone once said: “you must need internet like you need oxygen”. True…very true… I sat down near a palm tree and inserted the simcard so I could see if it worked. It did. Then three loud “thumps” came from the ground nearby. Three coconuts now rested in the grass next to me. Good thing I wasn’t standing there when they fell.
My brand new $93 USD mobile wifi device. Soon to be Shuny's.
Constructed in 1997 the sports stadium closed down in 2011 due to termites. Now it just waits.
I wasn’t in the game. I wasn’t feeling much love for Marshall Islands. It was just yet another place and it was hard to comprehend that I needed to spend two weeks in it. But that changed. Making the best of things I quickly sat up a meeting with the US Embassy. I also organized having a special friend come and visit me on January 9th. Not the kind I shave for but someone interesting you are unlikely to guess. Making the best of time. The US Embassy delivered!! Much easier than I would have thought having heard rumours about how some applicants were treated in Suva (Fiji). And it was quite exciting too. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a US Embassy before? It is generally not needed when you are from Denmark but it does become a requirement once you visit every country on their “no no list”. It wasn’t one of those huge fortress looking embassies which the USA now has all over the world. It was a nice residence and I met a lot of kind people there. A German couple who had been sailing around the world for six years and were now slowly on their way home through US territory. A Kenyan missionary working as a teacher at a school. And then some seemingly local people. Soon enough I was asked to pay $160 USD and not long after that I had a rather informal interview through a glass wall with a kind employee who just smiled when I said I was planning on going through US territory on board a containership in an attempt to reach every country without flying. Have no doubt people. The United States of America is a formidable country. Not always due to its actions but certainly because of its people. 330 million strong they stand with a diversity unrivalled across this planet. I am willing to bet you that no matter which nation you may think of then the USA has someone representing it somewhere within their borders. Every religion, every meal, every culture, every type of smile or tear. The USA has it all and that is unique. A little more unique in Majuro though. We were told to come back to collect our passports on Friday January 3rd. But we were not told what time. Since the visa interview was at 08:30am I figured that 10:00am would be good enough. Too be continued!!! (crazy story coming up at the end of this entry).
Mr Enock. A Kenyan and a Dane faaaaaar away from home :)
Walking back toward the Flame Tree a friendly fellow stopped to offer me a ride. It was Mr Enock from Kenya. Imagine that. All the cars passing by and the one who offers a ride was from Kenya :) He is such a good fellow. I have a huge heart for all of Africa and a special place in it for Kenya which was the country where I asked my little rock star to marry me…and she said yes. Marshall Islands is a small and rather funny place. DUD might not be the most scenic part of it. It has become very urbanized but it is a good launching point for adventures to the other islands which I hear are pure paradise. I have no doubt it is true. Marshall Islands was home to extraordinary seafarers for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived to plant flags in the sand. The outside world brought its wars with it and eventually the Japanese invaded. The USA pushed them out and decided to stay long after the war had ended. Then the USA figured that Bikini Island was a great place for testing atomic weapons and lots of islands were soon contaminated with radiation. Some islands do not even exists anymore. In the process a lot of Marshallese were relocated to other islands. Marshall Islands was under a USA trusteeship back then but along with the rest of the world Marshall Islands began looking towards independence. In 1979 government was formed and in 1986 independence was obtained from the USA. In 1991 Marshall Islands became a UN member and today the two countries remain closely related with the USA being home to about half of the roughly 60,000 Marshallese population. They like basketball (like the Filipinos), they use USD as currency as legal tender (like Ecuador does), distance is measured in miles (as in Liberia) and temperature is measured in Fahrenheit (why does anyone still do that?). I still had not quite warmed up to this country but it came very soon after this.
Marshall Islands Red Cross Society ready to respond at the Block Party.
The last day of the year arrived and I was somewhat worried that it would be a lonely evening. I had asked around and apparently the big thing was the “block party” where a part of the main road (often the only road) would be blocked off for the public to gather. This would take place at the “sort of town centre” by Robert Reimers Enterprises (RRE). I got there around 8pm which was probably a little too early. However I met Roger and Bruce from Marshall Islands Red Cross Society (MIRCS) whom I had briefly met a few days before. They had set up a first air station in the heart of the event and I got to meet the dedicated team. MIRCS is along with the Bhutanese Red Cross Society the two newest countries to tag along in the world’s largest humanitarian organisation. It is officially found in 192 countries now although I’m not sure how that is counted given that the movement is not present in Oman and Nauru? Probably they are counting UN 193 + 2 observatory states = 195 – 2 – Vatican = 192? I have asked several people in the movement but they don’t know and it is not obvious on movement websites. Anyway…nearly every country now. They seem to be catching up to me. I think the movement was in 187 countries when I left Denmark. Defenders and protectors of the most vulnerable people in the world. We are into our seventh year of promoting the movement. One for each fundamental principle ;)
Majuro Block Party 2019/20.
I wasn’t too early for the New Year party. I was right on time. There weren’t many people yet but they came. There was good food, a good mood, nice weather, music and a strong sense of community. I feel like I understand small society mentality. I grew up in a village with 1,200 people before I landed in Copenhagen (Denmark’s capital). Growing up in a 1,200 kind of place teaches you a thing or two. Everybody kind of knows everyone and nothing ever happens without everyone knowing it. If you misstep then you are bound to get caught. A true sense of community. The beauty of it is that people know each other’s best and worst and live together in a sense of unity in spite of it. Maybe because of it? I headed over to a stand and bought myself some raw salmon with salad and rice. The only drink available was a coconut. Sure – why not :) Super kind people selling it!! I walked back and forth a few times. I decided to buy a $1 USD raffle ticket for the red 2004 special edition Ford Mustang. Basically I figured it would be spectacular if I won it as I could donate it to the MIRCS. Red Mustang, Red Cross. Genius!! ;) But seriously I figured they could sell it or raise money through an auction. And of course I would win it!! Right?
(okay - so I didn't win it. Some fellow off island won. But it was a good idea)
The evening went on. I sat down to listen to a local cover band which was performing “Mustang Sally”, “have you ever seen the rain” and then on a request they performed: “Creep” by Radiohead.Not perfectly but we all loved it!! That almost brought tears to my eyes. At this point I had finished my dinner and was standing among the crowd. What a feeling to be singing among likeminded strangers: “I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here”. As the night went on I heard a man shout: “hey Thor!?” That was Hilary from the national newspaper. He had been tipped off regarding my visit to the country and had seen a few of the Saga’s YouTube videos. So he knew my face and we hung out together for a while. Hilary is a great guy and introduced me left and right. I also ran into Mr Enock from Kenya. A man very easy to spot as he was the only one of thousands in the crowd dancing to Rosie Delmah’s reggae covers. Rosie has a really nice voice and flew in from Solomon Islands, where she is from, to perform at the Block Party. She was doing her best to get the party started but struggled getting the kind hearted Marshallese to engage much. The audience (apart from Mr Enock) were as still as if they were watching TV. Mr Enock was as surprised as I was. He swore that if it had been Kenya then people would have been all over the place :)
I spent a great deal of time people watching. Looking at curious children with angels smiles. Looking at mothers chasing them. Looking at those holding hands. Looking at the ones in conversation with a beer in hand. Looking at the elderly slowly moving forward. Looking at the ones buying food. Looking at people admiring the Mustang. Looking at people listening to music. Looking at people taking selfies. And somewhere among all of that observing my heart gave in and I fell in love with these people. I could hardly imagine any of them ever harming anyone. They seem so friendly, kind and polite. The police do not carry weapons. There is no need. Even when people got drunk they just seemed to be happy and slightly sleepy. It was a kind and safe place to savour the last hours of 2019 and welcome 2020 into our lives. I think the Marshallese saved my heart on New Year’s Eve. It was rapidly turning bad and sinking into a tarry pit of darkness. I don’t think I was meant to see as much as I have. I don’t know if I can cope with all the memories of all the people from around the world. All which I have discovered, learned, observed, suffered and enjoyed. However after a night in the fine company of thousands of Marshallese strangers with enormous friend potential…I felt a thousand times better.
I have more stories for you but there will also be another entry from Marshall Islands as my ship is not due until January 11th. And since this is the first entry of 2020 I would like to take the opportunity to remind everyone that most things are in fact getting better. Sure the Marshallese are keeping a close eye on global warming and the raising water levels. But what people are not keeping an eye on is that globally extreme poverty has plummeted, basic education has risen to unprecedented levels, the same goes for literacy, democracy and vaccinations while child mortality is at an all-time low. While this planet is seeing more frequent and much harsher environmental disasters we are seeing fewer casualties as we have become better at warning and protecting ourselves. The figures for tiger populations have upped significantly and giant pandas are no longer an endangered species. More girls are in school than ever before. Huge companies are today actively fighting ocean pollution and I believe that we have long ago proven that most walks of life are regular, normal, mundane and that people are generally goodhearted and helpful no matter which country we point to. This is NOT the time to rest!! This is the time to get more active and see even greater change!! Go out there and be a part of it. I will not quit the Saga. That is my promise to you. Which goals will you achieve in 2020? Never quit! Keep on keeping on!!
If you’re looking for REAL inspiration in 2020 then check out my friend Tony the Traveller and please support his quest to raise money for Galloway's Society for the Blind and to trek the Inka Trail in Peru!! Tony is totally blind, 80% deaf and has visited over 130 countries!!! Support here: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser
Edit: Friday, January 3rd (the day I was told to collect the US visa)
I wanted to reach the embassy around 10am but encountered some delay and arrived at 10:55am at the same time as the Germans. We approched the window together at 10:57am and were told to wait until they opened at 11:00am. So we waited three minutes while the Germans commented with a smile: "how very German of them". At 11:00am we walked through the door, cleared security and were told to wait another 15 minutes. Finally we reached the office and approched the lady who could tell us that only one passport was ready for collection and that there were "technical issues". "Can you please come back before 3pm?" Eh? Well it was already before 3pm?...so I enquired when we could come back which turned out to be after 1pm. As soon as we (the Germans and I) had left the embassy I tried to text Mr Enock to tell him that the visas were not ready. But the moment I pressed send was the moment he arrived. I told him face to face and together we drove off after saying farewell to the Germans whom lived nearby. Then Mr Enock and I decided to pay a visit to his school which we did. Good guy. I was back at the embassy at 2pm at which point I was told that they still had issues and asked me to come back Monday January 6th at 3pm. All the visas had to be redone and any visas they had handed out had to be recalled and redone too. So that was unexpected? I mean: if that is from the worlds only superpower then the rest of us are doomed ;) However I still felt confident that I would get the visa...it would just take more time. I left the embassy feeling like I had lost most of my day running to and from the embassy. Mr Enock however showed up at that moment and I could tell him the news. Together we walked back towards town talking about ignorance among people around the world :) Not long after that I received an email revealing that immigration has denied me to disembark an upcoming ship at an upcomming destination. Oh welcome 2020!! Not much different than 2019 I see. But will I give up? Heck no!!! We keep on keeping on!! ;)
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Happy New Year.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga