Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fortress Kandahar

My flight into Kandahar descended through pale grey clouds to emerge into a darker grey of drizzling rain. I couldn't see much, but I did notice that the land was a patchwork of small farms. I don't know why I had the impression that the place was mostly desert, but if the wooden shacks had been houses and the cart paths been dirt roads, the place could have been mistaken for any arid farm country. 

The flight out of Dubai started with little promise as we exited the terminal and got on a bus to get to the plane. Plenty of airports use this technique, so I didn't think much of it until the bus took a wide turn and stopped at a plane that was a stone's throw from the terminal door. While I might have appreciated the ride, I could have walked the distance in about thirty seconds. Adding insult to slight injury, we waited on that bus for fifteen minutes, looking at our plane, before they'd let us out to board. The aircraft was a commercial plane, complete with video entertainment, so the trip was pleasant enough. 

On the ground in Kandahar, we were ushered into the airport terminal; a structure of brick arches that looked much older than it probably was. We listened to a scripted welcome/warning lecture from a young Afghan national and then a soldier collected our identification cards. There was no one to meet me so I waiting in the rain for a bus that supposedly came by every once in a while. I struck up a conversation with a contractor working in the terminal and he offered to help. After a few phone calls, my contact was on his way. The two of us had to wait another half hour while one of his colleagues tracked down a vehicle to get us to the billeting office. I was prepared to walk in the rain if need be. Fortunately, he objected to this plan as most of the fort was covered by deep mud after the rain.

I collected my room assignment and we proceeded to the dormitory. I share my room with three other contractors, one of whom was sleeping when I entered to drop off my bags. I was lucky not have gotten a tent as they often house half a dozen or more people.

The only green in this fort is the uniforms worn by the various soldiers. There are a few dust covered trees that look like hairy ferns, but there's not a patch of grass to be seen. There are a few paved roads and sidewalks, but most of the ground consists of mud the texture and color of fine humus, with patches of gravel. When it rains, workers drop pallets in the low areas so we don't have to slog through too much mud. More permanent muddy areas have broken concrete slabs to act as stepping stones. The mud is extremely fine. When it's dry, it raises a very fine dust that hangs in the still air and coats every exposed surface. I fear for my camera gear and my computer.
Troops going about their business in the dusty afternoon.

I've only visited a few areas in the fort so far, but from I've seen, the place is made up of concrete walls with metal buildings interspersed. There are a few brick buildings though. Nearly all the metal buildings incorporate a rather clever design: they are surrounded by tall concrete slabs protecting them from explosives and weapons fire. Metal buildings are as safe as cardboard and a projectile can shred through several of them with ease. The great monoliths of concrete prevent projectiles from penetrating more than one building. They can also be easily rearranged with a crane.

The slabs are perfect canvases for graffiti "taggers," but only stencils appear on the walls. Some of them are quite excellent. I've been keeping my eyes out for a "Kilroy was here" mark, but so far, nothing.

While the concrete slaps afford some protection, there are also concrete bunkers where everyone takes shelter during an attack. I've heard them referred to as Soviet bus shelters. Some have sandbags stacked around them for even more protection. A few folks have taken to decorating their home away from home away from home with paint and crude furnishings.

There are shipping containers everywhere. Some are ready-built for specific needs like refrigerators, toilets, accommodations and electric plants, but most are obviously converted from shells to laundromats, offices, and storage facilities. They are either sitting alone or grouped with a few others or stacked up. There are a few compounds that consist of nothing but a wall of shipping containers. I have no idea what's behind them, but they are the modern equivalent of medieval keeps inside a castle.
Some compounds consist of stacked shipping containers, making them resemble ancient castle keeps.

The roads are occupied by SUVs, delivery vehicles and buses. There's an odd mix of right-hand and left-hand drive trucks and vans. On more than one occasion, I did a double-take when I saw a vehicle with no driver, only to realize that it was a British or Australian truck piloted by someone in the "passenger" seat. 
There are also great brooding monsters, tactical vehicles, that sit alongside the road like predators digesting a recent meal. Occasionally, a small convoy of these machines roll out on a mission. I was amused to watch one of them wait patiently for traffic to clear the street and pedestrians to move out of the way before it pulled onto the main boulevard. I dare say if it had appeared on any North American road, everyone would pull to the side in awe and fear. Here, it had to wait it's turn, yielding to vehicles that are little more than golf carts. 
I was told to prepare for cold weather, so I brought my cold weather gear. On my third day, the sun came out and I was walking around without hat or jacket it was so pleasant. A few days after that, I walked to the gym with only shorts and t-shirt. Some contractors were dressed in cargo shorts. The nights do get chilly, but so far I've seen scant evidence of frost. I was quite disturbed when I noticed a small swarm of mosquitoes near one of the large puddles. Malaria is a real problem here, but in December? Not good.

There are soldiers from many countries here and I make a game of identifying them based on their camouflage pattern. The US Army makes up easily eighty percent of the uniforms, but there are some marines and navy personnel mixed in. The second largest contingent is the Romanians with their lighter colored uniform and larger patterned camouflage. Their neighbors, the Bulgarians, don't seem to have camouflage but what can only be described as dressy fitness attire. My office has a few Australians so I've learned to recognize those. The Afghans have the sharpest uniforms, looking like WWII airmen in their short wool jackets. The United Arab Emirates soldiers I saw wear digital patterned sand-colored material while the two Singapore soldiers striking green camouflage in a similar digital form. The solitary Portuguese pilot I met wore dressy khakis. The British have a very practical green camouflage. I spotted a New Zealander and a Canadian but didn't have a chance to examine their attire. Contractors, oddly enough, are permitted to wear camouflage uniforms, but must include a "contractor" tag and obey all dress regulations. Like most of the civilian workers, I'm sticking with work clothes. 

My first few days were spent tracking down documents and missing requirements so I spent a lot of time waiting for other people to get back to me. That gave me an opportunity to take different routes when walking around the compound. One time I passed a group of soldiers shoveling a pile of gravel into buckets and wheel barrows. The shovels hitting the gravel made a delightful sound and it reverberated around the concrete walls. Having been sitting at a desk for a few days, I was up for a bit of exercise. I walked backed to the soldiers and asked that they identify the hardest working shoveler. They pointed to one of their fellows and I demanded his shovel. I explained that as an office worker, I seldom had an opportunity to perform honest labor, then I started in on the pile. They were quite amused at this and I insisted that I was serious. I spent almost half an hour, helping to fill half a dozen barrow loads and twice as many buckets. That was enough for me! They had been at work for at least an hour and spent a few more hours labor moving the gravel. I really think that desk jockeys should be required to spend one day of every five doing physical labor.

My dorm is quite near the Romanian compound. It provides me with one of the best landmarks for finding my way home: an Eastern Orthodox chapel. When I first saw it, I thought it might have been left over from the Russian occupation. I later learned it was  prefabricated and put together soon after the war began. Some of the other countries wanted it gone, calling it a target, but the Romanians held to their guns, so to speak.

The fort is really a small town. In addition to office buildings and residences, there are recreation areas, barbershops, two gyms, a few large dinning facilities, and a "downtown" consisting of a ring of shops and restaurants. Yes, there are restaurants, including a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a TGI Fridays. All the restaurants are expensive, but people go there for variety. Inside the ring is a soccer pitch build by the Brits (and used by the Americans for football), a basketball court and a hockey rink (courtesy of the Canadians).

The recreation halls and gyms offer activities for down time. The recreation center is equipped with half a dozen large screen televisions attached to gaming systems. It is a very odd experience to watch four camouflaged soldiers, their rifles and machine guns on the floor beside them, intently playing "Call of Duty." Actual warriors playing soldier on a computer in a combat zone.

Some of the rules and regulations around the base are a bit frustrating. At night, we're required to wear a reflective belt. I don't like that, but I support it a hundred percent as the lighting here is terrible and it's quite easy to get run over. We're supposed to wear protective goggles when outside and most people comply with this (though I've forgotten mine on more than a few occasions) . At night, we're also supposed to have a "battle buddy" when walking around (I call them "pacifist pal" or "shrapnel shield"), but my schedule is totally different from anyone else. Fortunately, they don't enforce this so much (plus I try to walk within spitting distance of anyone going my way to placate the MPs). We're not allowed to wear gym attire in the mess hall. I can see them wanting to keep the place professional, but not being able to eat while wearing sweat pants or shorts is inconvenient. We can't take a bag into the gym or into the mess hall, so we don't even get a chance to change. We must go back to our room. Bags aren't allowed in the recreation center and that means no computer bags. We can't even take our computer in a plastic shopping bag or transparent sack. Everyone has to walk with it under their arms; Great for the mini-tablet crowd, but I'm using a manly 17" computer that's more desktop than laptop.

I missed a USO tour where three athletes and a runner up on American Idol did some sort of meet and greet (where's Kathy Griffin when you need her?). I did manage to catch an Air-Force rock band called "Total Force." I was surprised at how good they were. While most rock bands wear hip clothing, they wore their camouflage fatigues. They would do well in some of the more rowdy American venues; they performed while wearing their sidearms. No one was going to throw a beer bottle at this band!

A few days later another Air-Force group performed. It was a ten-piece pop/rock band accompanied by a score of singers. One of the security soldiers told me that he was impressed with this particular group because not only did they put on a show, but they were responsible for setting up all the lighting and sound equipment and then breaking it down and stowing it afterward. Their show consisted of a medley of rock and pop songs. One or two singers would take the stage backed up by the rest of the musicians and singers. Those doing backup performed a dance routine worthy of any variety show on TV or Vegas. Unfortunately, they were dancing in their fatigues and that really bordered on the absurd  Still, they did a great job, putting 100% into the show. I'm glad they weren't wearing pistols, that would have been too much.

There are lots of soldiers walking around and most of them are armed with a rifle or machine gun and often a pistol as well. Between the domestic and foreign forces, there's quite a variety of weapons. I must admit that it was quite unnerving to have so many guns wandering about. What's even more unnerving are the people holding them. I expect to see some serious, hardened, bad-ass soldier walking around, and there are a few of those. Most of the guys look like regular Joe's with baggy clothing and hair cut too short. For them it's a job and a job that requires they carry around a weapon. It's the women who really throw me off. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for women serving in the military and while I have reservations about them serving in combat (that's a discussion for a different time and place), that's not what bothers me. What throws me is extremely good looking women walking around in camouflage fatigues toting killing machines.

I never look at a guy and think "That dude looks awesome, he should be on the cover of some fitness magazine," but I do look at some of the women and think they should be in Vogue or Glamour (seriously). Anywhere else, I'd be tempted to approach them about doing a photo shoot, but doing so here might get me a ticket home (fraternizing of any sort is frowned upon). So, I'm biased or prejudiced or something, but at least I'm aware of the fact.

One of the shops on the boardwalk sells "tactical gear," military clothing and accessories. I noticed that they have a calendar of hot babes, often wearing a bikini top, brandishing assault rifles and sub-machine-guns. All the models have a generic look that leaves me cold. In one afternoon I could recruit a score of more worthy "models" who are better looking and are actually capable of using their weapons.

The fort is really an airfield, Kandahar Air Field, but it's really a fort with an airfield. Some afternoons we hear, then see, fighter jets doing low-level passes over the airfield (which begs the question of why we need fighters here, but that's another topic). The jets are tremendously loud, but it's nothing compared to some of the large cargo planes taking off. Stuck behind concrete walls, I can never see them, but they make a sound that I'm sure is very similar to being close to a Saturn Five rocket at liftoff. They often take off while I'm asleep.  My dorm is probably about a kilometer from the airport, but sometimes it feels like I'm sleeping in a hangar at the end of the runway. I'm convinced there is some sort of atmospheric conditions or acoustic properties of the base that amplifies the volume.

The previous occupant of my bed tried to make it more comfortable by stacking a second mattress atop the first. The result is very soft, but that's not particularly comfortable. You see, the mattresses here are essentially bags of springs formed into rectangular shapes. A softer mattress affords those springs more opportunity to poke into me. I plan to get rid of the second mattress and obtain some sort of pad as soon as it's feasible. Meanwhile, I'm usually so exhausted by the end of the day that I fall fast asleep by 9:30. It's not like there's much to do here in the evenings, so sleep is welcome!

My roommates are quiet and we all pretty much keep to ourselves. Unfortunately, two of them snore occasionally. One sounds remarkably like an old single stroke fishing trawler ("putt-putt-putt-putt-putt ... putt-putt-putt-putt-putt ..."). The other sounds so much like a coffee peculator that I was convinced he was making coffee on the other side of the dividing closet ("Khhhhh ... khhhhhhh ... khhhhhhh ..."). They have no idea why I call them Tugboat and Captain Coffee.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ponhpei, Micronesia

I could tell you that Pohnpei is an island a couple thousand kilometers northeast of Papua New Guinea, but that would probably not tell you much. There are thousands of islands in that part of the Pacific, but few have a population large enough to warrant an airport. Pohnpei boasts a population of 34,000 and is the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia.
Arriving on the island from sea, the first thing you notice is Sokehs rock.

Although it’s a volcanic island, after a few hours of exploration you’d think it was made primarily of mud; Pohnpei is one of the wettest places on earth. The rich, well-watered soil gives rise to lush vegetation covering the entirety of the land. The place is an emerald expanse of green foliage. The inhabitants must constantly fight back the encroaching jungle plants.
Although the town of Kalonia is large, it lacks a distinct “downtown.” I spent a few hours wandering the streets, looking at shops and trying to find a restaurant open before 5pm. The shops were surprisingly well stocked with goods from the United States, China and Japan. There were no local products of any significance, unfortunately.
The island was discovered in 1595, but no European set foot there until the early 1800’s. The native population discouraged any visitors. Some did eventually manage to settle there and by the late 1800’s, the Spanish held claim to the island. The name of the capital, Kalonia, is derived from the Spanish word for colony. The Germans possessed it for a while then the Japanese took over in 1920. While the previous occupiers built churches and trade missions, the Japanese established a military presence. American forces all but ignored the island during the war, however. Japanese citizens were forced to leave after the war and their works were abandoned.
Despite being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, Pohnpei does not have any beaches. The hills come down to the water’s edge where mangrove swamps take over. A barrier reef surrounds the island, protecting the coastline and discouraging the early explorers.
With a diameter of about twenty kilometers at its greatest point, it does not take long to drive the road encircling the island. Getting into the hilly interior, though, requires a considerable trek. I contented myself with road travel. I made a few sorties off the main road to find waterfalls, though.

Missionaries were the first to make any real inroads on the island, and their presence is very clear today. Ever few miles, there is a large church. Some are easily a hundred years old while other are large, modern and pristine. Only two radio stations can be picked up on the island (and only on the north side). One plays music while the other is a mix of Radio Australia and American televangelism broadcasts. Sadly, the televangelists get more airtime. 
A typical old church.
Some of the touristic sites have signs indicating their presence, but once off the road, you’re on your own. Finding my first waterfall required dealing with a forking road. Thankfully, there were usually a few locals nearby to point the way. The path to the falls was well marked with a sort of monument. No sooner had I left my car when a man approached me and asked if I was going to see the falls. He then asked me to pay the one dollar entrance fee. I upped the ante by asking if he had coconuts for sale. He agreed to three coconuts for a dollar. They would be a welcome drink after my hike to the falls.
The entrance fee was well worth a dollar if only for the well maintained path. The caretakers had planted broad, red leafed tropical plants and flowering Hibiscus on both sides of the narrow trail. It was a pleasant, although wet, walk.
The falls consisted of two cascades. The upper falls poured into a large basin that looked just right for swimming; in fact, there was a ladder leading up from the bowl. One end of the edge of that basin, however, dumped into the next falls, making the edge rather dangerous.  The lower falls were easier to photograph as I was able to get close to the water’s edge. There’s something so alluring, so primeval, about a jungle waterfall.
Liduduhniap waterfall is a gem in the jungle.
I drove along the western side of the island, moving slowly over the old pavement, avoiding people walking alongside the road. Much of the road had jungle growth creeping onto the surface, which made for an interesting visual effect. Wherever a few homes clustered close to the road, there was usually a little convenience store, which was little more than a booth with a window from which to pick the items you wanted. They sold only the basics, no sign of touristic crafts or local products.
I spotted the sign for the pepper farm in time to turn off the main road and head down the side road. The intersection had a few homes so I expected a full scale plantation. Eventually, I came to a small sign that said “Pohnpei pepper farm.” I was still in the jungle and the only building was a family dwelling not much more advanced than a shack. The road continued, however, so I kept driving. I came upon a low stone wall, so that was very promising, although the plant life had remained unchanged. The road came to an end at what was obviously a farm. It was a poultry farm, however. There were no signs of any farmers and no signs of anything that looked like a pepper vine. Mind you, I’m not exactly sure what a pepper vine looks like, so I could have been standing in the middle of grand pepper station. With no one around to speak with, I drove back out to the main road.
My next stop was the abandoned city of Nan Madol.
When Europeans found it, some thought lost Greek sailors built the place more than two thousand years ago. Admittedly, the stone structures are impressive, but nothing like anything built in Europe.  Constructed with of alternating layers of prismatic basalt, it looks like something made with old Lincoln Logs.  Archeologists date the structures to the thirteenth century or older. This long-abandoned city consists of a series of small, artificial, stone islands adjacent to the island of Temwan. 
Getting to the location was a bit of an adventure by land. I managed to find one sign leading off the main road, but had to get assistance from locals after that. When I found the final sign leading to the site, an old woman came tottering out of her home looking for a one-dollar entrance fee. It seemed a bit cheap, but I didn’t argue. She instructed me to drive down the road to the site. A few minutes later, I found a sort of parking lot with two other vehicles. The only thing I saw was a large farm house and several people milling about. One of the men approached me.
“Is this Nan Madol?” I asked. He smiled and said it was. “I was expecting something ... older … and made of stone,” I said, gesturing to his house. He laughed and told me I had to take a path on the other side of his house. He then asked me for three dollars. “I already paid the woman up there.” Apparently she was collecting tolls for driving over her land, not for the entrance fee. “So, how do I know there’s not someone down there looking to collect more money from me?” I said, pointing down the path. He shook his head and smiled. I paid the three bucks and began my hike.
I walked only a few paces down the jungle path when I noticed the first wall, overgrown with vegetation. It was high and dry on land, not in the water. Did they build on land, or has the water receded  leaving this bit high and quite dry?

I continued down the path of built-up stone and coral. I knew my three dollars was a good investment as this walkway took some considerable effort to build. In some places, there was water on both sides and small wooden bridges to let the briny water pass through. Despite the afternoon sunshine, it was quite dark in that mangrove swamp. The occasional fish that splashed and darted away as I approached, turned out to be mud skippers. They would climb onto the rocks to sun themselves!
Finally, I broke through the trees and saw some of the Nan Modal structures rising up from the water. The path took me directly to the largest of the walled islands, a sort of temple burial site. I could see a couple of tourists on the island, but I was a stone’s throw distance away on the mainland with no boat apparent. The canal was only waist deep, but I did not trust wading across with my camera gear at risk. I hoped that there was a boat somewhere nearby which I could employ for a tour.
One of the mysterious islands of Nan Madol.
The two tourists came into sight and called out to me to cross over. They had waded across and assured me that it was navigable.  The local woman with them waded across to help me with my camera bag, but I was still apprehensive. I capitulated and, with my bag balance on my shoulder, waded across the warm water to the steps of the islet. It was then that the local woman asked for three dollars as the site entrance fee. “What about the three dollars I paid to the guy back there?” She told me that was just for walking across the land. Sheesh. I gave her three bucks and began my exploration of the ruins.
The island had a large outer wall and smaller inner wall, surrounding what looked like a small tomb (which I later learned was the case). The large wall held a number of openings, which had either collapsed or had been filled in at some point. The central tomb had a very small passage leading to the water, from what I could see. Outside the inner wall, I saw further evidence of this water passage.
Beyond the little island on which I stood, smaller structures rose from the water, now overgrown with vegetation. Some had stone walls; others were just platforms where, I imagine, wooden structures once rested. I could see the surf beyond the boundary walls. I wondered how much effort it took to collect the great stones around me, sail them to this little corner of the island, and construct these great structures with no metal tools. The Polynesians were masters of watercraft and the island provided an abundance of food, but the scale of the project was daunting. 

I knew there was a Japanese battery somewhere near Nan Modal, but I saw no clues indicating where it might be. I stopped some teachers on their way to school and discovered that I was very close. They told me to take a road just a stone-throw away. The road was not very road-like. It was more a cart path leading into a very dark jungle. The ruts were not too bad, though, so I ventured in. I drove carefully for about a kilometer when the road branched. The path leading up the hill was much too overgrown while the path leading down was cluttered with large rocks. I started down but soon abandoned my car to go on foot. Just around the bend, I discovered two homes; a normal island-style house and a more traditional "outdoor house" that was open on one side. I asked the fellow there if the Japanese guns were somewhere nearby. He went to the other side to fetch his brother-in-law, the owner. 
Robert, my guide, stands inside his outdoor house (a three-sided living and working enclosure).

Robert, a police officer on the island, agreed to guide me to the battery. I didn't think a guide was necessary, but I was very, very wrong. We walked back past my car to the road leading up the hill. It was so overgrown that he needed his machete to cut through. When we reached the top, he pointed out the first of four gun emplacements. It was totally hidden by the jungle but the entrance through the overgrown concrete was a visible. 
Abandoned Japanese battery overlooking the southern part of the island.

We toured the other three batteries. I wondered at the effort it took to build the fort and haul those great guns up the hill on an island that was mostly jungle seventy-five years ago. Although it was nothing like Nan Modal, it still took considerable effort. In the end, the guns were never fired. 

Robert pointed out what I thought was a mound. It was a mortared stone cone with steps leading up the side. From the top, I could see the hollow, unfinished interior, but it's purpose escaped me. My guide didn't know either. We took a different jungle path down, Robert whacking the jungle back with every second step. He lead me to an ammo bunker built into the hillside. The walls were a foot thick and it once had heavy steel doors. The interior was small, maybe the size of a small bedroom. It was now the home of a few hundred bats ... who excited flew out as I approached.

We continued back toward his home were we saw a small artillery piece and what could only have once been a shrine. The Japanese had also left him two great cisterns. One had a hole blasted in it's side—apparently the soldiers had converted it into a defensive position—while the other was still being used to store water for Robert's home. 

Not far from the Nan Madol site, I found the gorgeous Kepirohi waterfall. It was a short walk through the jungle and well worth the trip to the other side of the island to see.
The gorgeous Kepirohi waterfall on the south side of the island.

The dive master relaxing after the first dive of the day.
One of the biggest attractions of Pohnpei is for the diving. The atoll has many beautiful coral formations and I was fortunate enough to get two days of diving in while I was there. On the first trip, my fellow divers and I drifted through an underwater grand canyon near Ant Island. The tide was flowing so we had only to hover in the water and let it carry us along that great wall of coral. 

We stopped on the island for lunch afterward. We were in the middle of nowhere. There was no sign of civilization from horizon to horizon. I was just starting to appreciate this degree of isolation when another boat came around the island. The beached and a dozen locals decided to picnic right next to us, ha, ha! 

Being on Ant, I had an opportunity to explore a real deserted isle. As I made my way into the interior, I spotted the biggest hermit crab I've ever seen crawling over a fallen branch. His shell was the size of a baseball. I grabbed him to take him back to the beach for a proper photo. While most hermit crabs are somewhat shy, this one wasted no time coming out and letting me know what he thought of my plan, by grabbing my fingers with his pincers. Before he could grab me, I tossed him toward the beach, but he fell short. I spent the next several minutes trying find him in the brush, but he eluded capture a second time. That was one impressive crab!

It's tough to know which is more photogenic, the island ...
Inside a Pohnpei jungle.
... or the surrounding atoll.
Spectacular sky over a mirror-calm sea.

Despite its famed diving, Pohnpei does not get many tourists (mostly due to the excessive cost of flights). The hotels are rather worn and the choice of restaurants is limited. One exception is The Village, an eco-hotel built back in the seventies that is still going strong. The rooms are individual huts built along a ridge. The result is that each cabin feels like it's alone in the jungle.
One of the jungle dwelling of The Village hotel.

See more photos of Pohnpei here.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Kwajalein Atoll

Kwajalein Island feels like the creation of a bad novelist. Picture this setup: the American government takes over a few palm-tree-laden Pacific coral islands on which to conduct missile experiments and track spacecraft orbiting overhead, building antennae and futuristic domes everywhere; yet there is a small town atmosphere as people happily wave to each other as they ride their bicycles to work and children play in the streets. It's downright surreal.

The main island of Kwajalein is a squashed J-shape. A large airport runway sits on the elongated base of the "J" while the community part of the island inhabits the ascender. The runway is flanked by a nine-hole golf course on the bottom and administrative, scientific and support buildings on the top. The inward side of the "J" is the lagoon, the inside of the gigantic coral ring that is the Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands. There are a few swimming beaches on the lagoon side. The seaward side is ringed by a reef, preventing the impressive surf from striking the shore, but also preventing swimmers from venturing out (I tried and bear the scars in witness).
The sun sets on the most popular swimming beach.

The Marshall Islands were settled by Polynesian people. Various European governments claimed ownership to them at different times in the past few hundred years, but the Japanese held the Kwajalein islands prior to WWII. They fortified the place thoroughly. Americans shelled and bombarded the islands then fought a hard land battle to wrest them away. They've kept a military presence ever since.
The rusted remains of a Japanese gun emplacement still looks out over the sea.

Today, Kwajalein Island is inhabited by a small administrative military contingent supported by a much larger group of American contractors and their families. A large workforce of Marshallese also support the outpost, but they all live on a neighboring island and commute by ferry.

The residential neighborhoods are what fascinate me the most. While single people live in the college dormitory-like buildings, there are four different styles of family dwellings. The oldest homes, built in the mid-fifties, are one- and two-story duplex units built of cream-colored concrete block. The design is squared off, but the architect did a great job of giving the buildings style.

The most unusual neighborhood consists of futuristic dome-like structures built of white fiberglass, or some similar material, with domed windows and doors that, at a glance, resemble airlocks.
One of the surrealistic housing units on the North end of the island.

The place is literally bristling with coconut palm trees. There is a slight danger of getting conked on the head by a falling coconut, so work crews go out and remove the nuts and the dying fronds. The result is that even the undeveloped areas look beautifully groomed, like something out of a Disney film. What troubles me is that the coconuts are discarded. No one seems the least interested in harvesting this crop to drink the coconut water or consume the meat inside. It pains me to see all those coconuts and not be able to drink any of them.

There are a couple of other types of trees here, but they're not as plentiful as the palms. There are two types of pines, massive low-limbed trees (perfect for climbing) and another sort of palm that puts down addition roots from its trunk. My favorite, though, is the fragrant frangipani tree. When you're down wind, there is no mistaking its sweet scent. Sometimes, while walking around, I'll catch the smell of other flowering plants, but have yet to identify them. 
Fragrant Frangipani trees can be found everywhere.

Perhaps I watched too much "Gilligan's Island" as a child, but I really expected to find bamboo shacks and bamboo tables and chairs and all sorts of other things made out of bamboo. Unfortunately, there are no bamboo groves on the island. Plastic chairs and tables abound. 

I had hoped for at least one or two local restaurants or shops selling locally produced food, like my longed-for coconut water. However, only American-style food businesses are permitted on the island (to adhere to domestic health regulations, I'm told). The result is a very limited selection of dining options. In addition to the chow hall, there is a sort of food court with a pizza place, Baskin Robbins, Subway and Burger King. I had longed for fresh fish, but I was having none of that here. There is a grocery store, selling primarily frozen food, but my dormitory-like room was equipped only with a microwave.

You might think that this sort of installation would be very military in its organization, with operations being run by the army instead of a civilian workforce. The remote location would have precluded families from spending more than a few months at a time here. However, it has become a small, isolated town, with a general store, a library, a bank, a gym, and schools. In some ways, the place reminds me of the village from the old TV show, "The Prisoner," only not nearly so colorful.
A father and daughter on their way to a dive.

I don't know what kind of grass grows here; it's green and soft underfoot and it makes for nice lawns. I see crews mowing the stuff occassionally, but it rarely grows more than a few inches in hight. Kwajalein gets hit with a torrential shower every few days and the grass does very well. That doesn't stop some peculiar residents from using sprinklers, though. Oh, I neglected to mention that there is no source of fresh water here.

When not working, I head out to one of the beaches or coconut groves and sling a hammock in the trees. I've managed to get through quite a few books this way, while enjoying the breeze and sea air. Unfortunately, it's also rainy season. During most of the year, the rain is a brief torrent, but now it can last for hours ... and usually waits until the weekend for the really long rains.

A hermit crab enjoys the bounty of fast food snack.Sometimes, I'll set up my hammock an hour before dawn and watch the sun rise over the Pacific. My timing is usually bad because I've missed the most spectacular sunrises. Because I am taking my camera from my cold room into the warm moist air of the island, condensation on my lenses is a huge problem. It takes a good hour before I can take photos. When waiting for the sun to rise, I like to catch a few hermit crabs to see what sort of shells they have acquired. If I have a snack, I'll coax them out to feed. They are particularly fond of snack food. I tried keeping a few as pets, but my room is too cold for them and they spend their time huddled in a corner (as effectively as a crab can huddle). I've yet to find a coconut crab. That's the one creature I must see before I leave.

One day, it occurred to me that there were no seagulls. I'm used to seeing those birds everywhere, even well inland, but there are none to be found around Kwajalein. There are other seabirds, terns and boobies and a rare crane, but no gulls. 

In addition to conducting its own programs, Kwajalein Island supports other island installations with their various radar and antennae arrays. One of those is Roi Namur. It was originally two separate islands, but the Japanese occupiers brought Filipino workers to merge the two into one. This island is home to one of the largest tracking devices I've ever seen. This monster towers above the trees and focuses on a different part of the sky every few minutes. It takes only a few seconds for it to swing from one horizon to another.
This gigantic antennae sweeps the sky day and night.

Roi is practically overrun with rats; they live in the trees. At one time, feral cats roamed the island, keeping the rat population in check. Some commander deemed them a non-native species and had the cats eradicated. The non-native rats have since flourished. The workers on Roi refer to themselves as Roi rats, for their tenacity.

There's also a small population of chickens on the Namur side of the island. Every time I scooted by in my golf cart, they'd come running out of the brush, thinking that I was going to feed them. I had a very funny flashback as I looked in the side mirror of my cart, watching the chickens chasing me; I was reminded of the scene from "Jurassic Park" where the jeep was being chased by a dinosaur.

The Namur side has an haunting collection of Japanese pillboxes and blockhouses. They are all heavily damaged from the battle, but time has taken the greatest toll. The concrete walls, more than a foot thick, are a crumbling ruin. The grid of reinforcing steel inside has been exposed to the salt air, creating spider webs of corrupted metal.
The interior of a bombed out Japanese blockhouse on Namur.

There are no families on Roi, so no schools and no standard housing. Everyone lives in dormitories. Lacking personal space to relax, some residents set up areas about the island from which they can swim or sit and enjoy the sunset after a long day. Collections of curious shells, discarded buoys and flotsam decorate these areas. They're great places to meet the local workers on the weekend. Roi also manages to have the best beaches.
Roi island beach.

As on Kwajalein, the local Marshall Islanders commute from off-island. I decided to take the ferry across to see how the locals lived. Ennubirr, usually referred to as Third island, is small ... really small. It's a flat trapezoid of an island, 300m by 400m. It's packed with ramshackle huts built of scrap lumber, concrete block and aluminum sheets. The homes are clustered together with no semblance of organization save for the crude paths of crushed coral between them. The island has a small school, a small clinic and three churches. Nowhere on the island is there evidence of craft or industry.

Many of the graves on Ennubirr island are imports from a more crowded island elsewhere in the atoll.
There's no water on the island. It's brought over from Roi-Namur in whatever containers people have at hand. Some water is shipped in to the island, though, as I saw a converted tanker truck trailer dispersing water to plastic drums near the center of the island. 

The island has two tiny one-room shops. I tried to buy a bottle of water but they were out. The goods available are primarily packaged and canned foods.

On one corner of the island, I found the garbage tip. Piles of cans and assorted scrap metal lay on what might have once been a baseball diamond. The pile had been burned at various times as the metal was blackened. Next to the heap, in the shade of a few trees, I found the rusted remains of three tractors. Did they once grow food here? I saw no vegetable gardens, let alone something that would once have required a tractor. The trees are not as plentiful as on Roi-Namur, but there are still some coconut palms, including one species with nuts within easy reach of the ground. Kids were climbing another species of tree, gathering a soft, unattractive-looking fruit. I learned that it is boiled as part of another dish.

After a hour of wandering around, I had seen everything twice. I went back to the dock. The ferry would not return for some time. Had there been someplace to sit down and have a drink, I might have stayed longer and contemplated what life might have been like on the island at the turn of the last century. I found a few fishermen heading over to Namur and caught a ride with them. Back to "civilization."

Local workers on Kwajalein island all commute from nearby Ebbe island. A ferry plys the water between the two islands, running six to ten times a day. The trip takes about half an hour and is much more pleasant than being stuck in traffic.

The boat from Kwajalein island prepares to dock at Ebbe island. the wharf here was once rammed by a careless ship, but never repaired.

Ebbe has a regular island shape, but is much smaller than Kwajalein. Like Ennubirr, the island is crowded, but it has proper streets and sidewalks along with large stores and houses. What surprised me most was the number of cars. I walked around the entire island in an hour, but people have cars shipped there so they can drive. I later discovered that the island is connected by causeways to other islands, but these are also small. I was further astonished that no one rode bicycles on Ebbe. Everyone either walks or climbs into the back of one of the pickup trucks that serve as taxis.

The houses of Ebbe are not quite as ramshackled as Ennubirr, but they are still very makeshift in appearance. On my tour, I saw three large stores, several small snack shops serving convenience food, one restaurant a couple of schools and too many churches to recall. I saw no sign of any fishing industry, no trade-craft, no artistry; only construction and marine salvage operations seemed to offer any employment. There is a large medical clinic, but it was closed the day I walked past. There is a water treatment plant, but I am told that it breaks down frequently and workers from Kwajalein are the only ones who can fix it.

At the north side of the island, I found the scrap heap. It had the usual plastic trash and empty cans you'd find anywhere, but I was suprised to see automobiles and even a bulldozer in the rubbish. The lagoon side of the island has its share of discarded scrap metal wallowing against the rocks. Overall, a rather depressing sight.
I decided to go back to Kwajalein. I had an hour to kill before the ferry arrived, so I visited the one and only restaurant on the island. The menu had a lot of choices, far too many considering the availability of ingredients available. I went with some fried rice and garlic bread. They didn't serve beer, sadly. The fried rice was acceptable, but the garlic bread had been prepared a few days earlier and warmed in the microwave (which did nothing to reduce the hardness of the bread).

To get around on Kwajalein, most people use bicycles. I was privileged enough to get an electric golf cart. Every time I get into the thing, I mentally reach for the non-existent seat-belt. Once I get it moving, I mentally reach down to turn on the non-existent radio. These mental routines are tough to break! I have to plug it in to recharge overnight. That's a new game for me: find a plug that works. So many of the outdoor plugs crap out in the salty air that it becomes a challenge to find one with current.

Being immersed in a military environment, the inhabitants take on some of the bad habits of the military, namely abbreviating things needlessly. Where in the real world we might refer to someone as a visitor or temporary employee, they use DTY for temporary duty. Instead of calling the recreation center the "rec center," they spell out A-R-C (adult recreation center). When someone leaves the island, they don't "leave the island," they PCS They don't even refer to it as "leaving" but "PCS'ing." I have no idea what PCS stands for, but instead of having a moving sale, they have a PCS sale.

Things that don't require a name are given names. There's only one grocery store on the island. Rather than simply calling it "the grocery store," it's "Surfway" (a tongue-in-cheek homage to Safeway). It's not like you're ever going to have specify which grocery store you're going to on this island. The convenience store is another example. I forget what it's called today, but no one calls it "the convenience store." It used to be "10-10" because it was open from ten o'clock in the morning until ten o'clock at night (a homage to 7-11). Some people still call it 10-10, but 1010 is also an important administrative building on the island. They call that building "1010" instead of "Missile command."

My favorite thing about the island is the casual environment. You know how some offices have casual Fridays where you can wear a golf shirt to work with khaki pants? Well, in Hawaii, they get to wear the traditional Hawaiian shirt at the end of the week. On Kwajalein, the Hawaiian shirt is everyday work attire ... along with shorts and flip-flop sandals. You half expect to see a waiter walk by with a tray of pina coladas. Any time you spot someone in slacks or long-sleeve shirt, you know they've just arrived and didn't get the dress code memo. This is the most laid-back looking place I've ever seen. Work certainly gets done, though, and everyone takes their job seriously. It's worth noting that only the civilian administrative staff are so tropically attired. The military personnel wear their uniforms and those working outdoors dress appropriately for their job.

Don't know where to go? This will help.Most of the people I've met have been on the island for a few years and expect to move on to another post before too long. Some, however, have been here for more than twenty years. Their kids have never lived anywhere but here. I can't imagine what it's like to grow up here. It's not the same as being in a small town because here there are no other towns you might choose to visit ... unless you take a very expensive flight. One of the firemen told me that some guys will arrive on the island for a job, spend a few days and take the flight out. 

This degree of isolation is not for everyone. It's made easier with internet access, but the long-term residents are still on dial-up connections! That alone would deter me. Still, for a few months, the experience is like none other and I intend to make the most of it.

See more photos here.