Peter Rudiak-Gould is an American student studying for an anthropology doctorate at Oxford University in climate change and its effect on the Marshall Islands. He lived for a year on a remote atoll of the remote Marshall Islands, publishing his first book titled Surviving Paradise describing his experience. In a two-part interview, Peter discussed his time on the island. All photos are courtesy of Peter. Many more can be found on Peter’s website.
Travel Wonders: Ujae sounds like many people’s idea of a paradise. What did you miss most about living in Ujae and what did you miss least?
Miss: Batheably warm water, every day of the year, twenty paces away.
Don’t miss: Knowing that that water is only going to get warmer, and closer, due to climate change.
Miss: The fact that the islanders are always happy to talk to you.
Don’t miss: The utter lack of anonymity that goes with this. (Ujae, like Cheers, is a place where everyone knows your name; but that’s a mixed blessing.)
Miss: The endless quantities of island lore that you can learn.
Don’t miss: Living in a world where you are laughably ignorant.
Miss: The privileges that come from being everyone’s guest.
Don’t miss: The fact that those are the only privileges you have – and therefore you are living entirely on someone else’s terms.
Miss: Impossibly star-filled skies.
Don’t miss: The isolation necessary for such skies.
Peter: By the second half of my year on Ujae, people were sometimes calling me Marshallese. That indicates some level of acceptance, but of course they didn’t think of me as just another of the boys. And it certainly didn’t mean that I felt like a local. Fancying myself to be Marshallese might have felt cozy, but it would have been a denial of so many things that I am.
Probably the closest I came to feeling like a real member of the community was when someone even less familiar with the island showed up. This wasn’t too common on Ujae, but it did happen. When two Australian tourists, returning by plane from a diving adventure on Bikini Atoll, stepped onto Ujae for a few minutes before heading onwards, I could see how exotic this outer island was to them, how familiar to me, and for those few minutes I almost felt like a native. It was the same feeling when my parents arrived, something that I write about in my book.
I should also mention that if shouting my name whenever I approached within two hundred feet is any indication, then the younger children never got used to me at all.
TW: How did you adapt to the small village mentality where everyone knows everyone else’s business?
Peter: Four hundred and fifty people may not sound like much, but when they’re crammed into such a small island, it feels pretty populated. In one part of the village, the houses extend well into the interior of the island; it’s like a little metropolis, by local standards. In the face of that, you get creative in your efforts to preserve your privacy. One refuge is your own thoughts; no one can read your mind (although they come pretty close in this culture – it’s spooky). Another is the jungle—and there is some of it, even on a tiny island with 450 people—which is deserted most of the time. Another is the ocean side of the island, which is the polar opposite of the heavily peopled lagoon shore. A local man once built a house there – he told me it was his “vacation home”, which feels apt even though it was a five-minute walk from the village. So, you do find ways to get away.
Peter: Education in the Marshall Islands leaves a lot to be desired, and Ujae has one of the very lowest ranked schools in the country, in terms of average scores on the high school entrance exam. This was a school where the 8th graders couldn’t point to their country on a map, and a 14-year-old asked me how to spell “I”. But this didn’t make my teaching efforts heroic. It was more like the opposite, because the current conditions were so bad that even a mediocre teacher could make huge improvements (which was good, because I was such a teacher). Some of the children could carry on simple English conversations, sort of, by the end of the year – which pleased me very much. And two of my 8th graders passed the high school entrance exam, something that hadn’t happened in five years on that island.
Please read Part Two of the interview.