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.