- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009


By Peter Rudiak-Gould

Union Square Press, $21.95, 244 pages

Reviewed by Philip Kopper

The moral is to be careful what you wish for. Such as a sojourn on a tropical island where coconuts grow for the picking right off the tree and fish swarm in the blue lagoon, where the skies are forever azure, and the horizon unbroken for 360 degrees.

Peter Rudiak-Gould dreamed of such an idyll, and got it, on an atoll called Ujae in the Marshall Islands, then chronicled his experience in “Surviving Paradise,” a labor of hilarious catharsis. The Marshalls, in case you’ve forgotten your World War II strategic geography, lie 2,500 miles east of the Philippines and 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, the nearest landfalls of consequence.

Just turned 21, Mr. Rudiak-Gould volunteered to go there on a Peace Corps-like program and spend 10 solid months teaching English to surly, rude, wild children who behaved horribly and did not want to learn from the stranger they ogled as a curiosity. Meanwhile, he thought their parents were treating him like a pariah.

When he embarked he barely spoke a word of the local language, Marshallese, a name he thought “someone had invented … in a moment of panic.” One of the few words he knew on arrival was mona, “it meant both ‘eat’ and ‘food’ ” and for weeks on end the only mona he got to mona was plain pancakes and plain rice. Period. Cuisine shock augments culture shock.

The whole island was smaller than some parking lots in his native California, one-third of a square mile. But then, “This was a country of 1,225 islands [most of them uninhabited] totaling only 70 square miles of land - it was Washington D.C., shattered into a thousand pieces over an area the size of Mexico” with an average elevation of seven feet above the surrounding sea which, of course, is rising.

“This was my new world, so I decided to explore it. … I stepped onto the beach and embarked on a bold one-man expedition: to circle the entirety of the island’s shore. Forty-five minutes later I wondered what else I could do for the rest of the year. … I had circumnavigated the world before lunch.” Later he realized that he earned the local men’s respect by willingly walking abroad at night, something that terrified them.

“There were a few seabirds, a few dozen hogs and cats, a few hundred chickens and pigs, a few thousand mice and lizards, a few million flies. …” And 450 people, who wore T-shirts and flip-flops, played Ping-Pong and basketball, spent their days fishing and processing coconuts, and beat their unruly children regularly. It was also the loudest place he had ever been, with “a mix tape of crying babies, screaming toddlers, and parents yelling at their children. I soon yearned for the comparative serenity of an American metropolis.”

This archipelago, mandated by the United Nations to American control, was best known for Bikini, itself the atoll best known for having been rendered uninhabitable by our nuclear bomb tests and for lending its name to the abbreviated swimsuit. Mr. Rudiak-Gould found, not surprisingly, that the archipelago’s indigenous culture had been soundly Americanized but with some remnants. Fishing by hand, with spears or nets, for example.

Also, sailing an outrigger canoe across thousands of miles of open ocean, navigating by the waves and skies without so much as an astrolabe. (Prehistorically, these Micronesians sailed to Hawaii and Madagascar, settled Easter Island, and brought the sweet potato from South America. Come to think of it, they must have sailed without charts or electronics to the Marshalls in the first place. Since time immemorial, the Pacific was their oyster.)

Yet it became a dependency of the United States and, thus, the beneficiary of federal largess in various forms, including post-Sept. 11, 2001, paranoia. Witness our embassy’s two-ton bathroom door: “One room in the embassy needed to be a bunker, capable of withstanding … restive outer islanders brandishing fishing spears until a helicopter from Kwajalein could rescue the besieged dignitaries. So the restroom was upgraded to a two-foot-thick solid-metal door. … It was probably the most heavily fortified lavatory in the world.”

He revels in paradoxes, such as the evolution of dress codes from the days when everyone went topless. Christian missionaries imposed “not only the muumuu but also the particular notion of bodily decency that went with it. … [Now] 150 years later, all this had resulted in an unforeseen irony.” Only tourists wear bikinis, which the prudish locals consider improper. “After all, they said, it was against Marshallese tradition.” The aforesaid missionaries earned the name ribelle, “people who cover up,” which long since became the term for all white people.

Americanization meant trash, alcoholism, obesity, rising rates of birth and suicide and a host of other ills. It also meant planes that saved islands from starvation, federal contributions that supported the local government’s budget, assisted housing and free entry into the United States for Marshallese citizens. “It was not that America was victimizing the Marshallese … it was coddling them.”

At first appalled by many of the natives’ habits, toward the end of his year Mr. Rudiak-Gould experienced an epiphany of understanding: “their way of life made sense. … This was a culture based on survival. What looked like paradise was actually one of the hardest places on Earth to live,” a place that dictated a subsistence fishing-and-gathering economy and where storms often destroy a remote island’s entire food supply, leaving the people to starve.

He concluded that the culture was a function of local conditions; the people of these islands survived because they had adapted. Their social mores evolved in response to the realities of difficult living in small spaces. “Confined survival” led to interrelated values: communalism, avoidance of open conflict, anti-emotionalism, strict social rules, idolization of the old, marginalization of the young. (Children were not valued traditionally because most of them died. Also they did not gather food but only consumed it; they were a burden.)

Part adventure chronicle, part global warming thesis, part comparative sociology study, part entertaining travelogue and part humane pensee, “Surviving Paradise” belies one of its author’s closing regrets: “In my clumsy and barely adequate way, I walked the walk and talked the talk - but I did not think the think.” He did, however, come to appreciate and describe a mind-set almost diametrically different from his own. No mean trick for a young man who went so far west he reached the Far East.

Philip Kopper’s books include “America’s National Gallery of Art,” a history of that museum.

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