Nowhere Slow: The Great Public Bus in the Sky

Jonathan Gourlay takes Continental Micronesia from Honolulu to Pohnpei in Micronesia.

The plane leaves Honolulu early in the morning. Passengers greet each other with easy familiarity. Many exhibit the features of a certain type of well-traveled Micronesian government official — a large belly, short stature, easy-going manner, and flip-flops. A group of Seventh Day Adventist teacher-volunteers in their late teens are ensconced in the back of the small plane around my seat. They have no idea where they are going. I have gleaned what information I can from the Philadelphia Free Library in books so rarely checked out they had to be fetched from an adjacent building. But the exuberant SDAs seem to require nothing but their own company and a faith that they are doing something good for someone, somewhere (even if the particulars of where are fuzzy). In contrast, I am traveling alone and for no higher purpose.

In 1997, the journey to Pohnpei from Honolulu required four stops. The first stop, Johnston Atoll, has now been decommissioned and apparently left to the turtles and birds that inhabited it before the U.S. military. Very little separates landing on Johnston Atoll and a water landing — a few feet of coral atoll and a bit of man-made extension. The island is exactly as long as the runway. Our landing is so precise that the nose of the airplane, when we come to the famous “complete stop,” juts out over the ocean with a kind of upper-class condescension toward the water, as if to say, “Ha, you won’t get me today!” To this, the gently rocking ocean replies, “Just wait, I’ve got time.”

As the plane turns around on the tarmac, we get a grand view of a factory belching black smoke into the air. The atoll is made up of these things: the runway, a factory, and a collection of neat, yellow tin dwellings.

The books in the Philadelphia Free Library were mum on the existence of Johnston Atoll. Yet there it was, spurting thick globs of black something-or-other into the sky. Kurt Vonnegut called Ohio the “asshole of America,” and I can’t disagree with him. However, if there was an offshore, secret asshole of America, it was surely Johnston Atoll. Here, the U.S. military destroyed chemical weapons (or so they say — what happens on Johnston stays on Johnston). Day after day, the smoke gushed out of one of the most desolate islands in the world, a thousand miles from any other piece of land. It stood with its hulking factory in the middle of an endless ocean looking like an existentialist’s wet-dream of meaninglessness.

The only people who deplane here are large, sullen looking ladies, presumably military or military wives, burdened with overflowing shopping bags from the Ala Moana mall in Honolulu. They balance the weight of the bags to add some equilibrium as they waddle forth onto the tiny atoll. What will they do to stave off madness on this inhospitable lump of coral and hardened bird shit, its factory belching god-knows-what into the endless blue sky, secreting god-knows-what into the endless blue ocean? Maybe play bridge, or eat each other.

As we leave Johnston, the plane lifts above the ocean just as it runs out of atoll. We are headed for the less dire destination of Majuro, Marshall Islands. There is a bit more runway on this atoll, though the width of it leaves little room for pilot error. The runway appears to be below sea level. Haphazard piles of rock on either side of the plane keep the ocean at bay.

On Majuro I get my first breath of Micronesian air. It tastes hot and salty, like an suspiciously flavored ramen bowl. I wander out of the small airport, across a cracked little street, to the ocean. The reality of my departure from all that I had known seeps into my bones with each gentle wave and warm, caressing wind. Perched on a pile of rocks between the runway and the ocean, I strain my eyes to see Lauren Bacall. Lauren Bacall, or simply “Laura”, is a beach on the far end of the atoll. I wondered if Lauren Bacall had ever been to the beach named after her by horny WWII Navy officers. What would happen if you swam in yourself? Lost in my contemplation, I might have missed the plane but for an enormous man who introduced himself as “Mr. Bunglick.” He told me I ought to get back in my seat.

Back in the cement hut that was the departure terminal, passengers were haggling over various shell-based souvenirs, some gorgeous woven purses, and traditional Marshallese star charts, used by the locals of ages past to navigate vast stretches of ocean. The airport was a bustle of colorfully muumuu-adorned women hawking wares and the aforementioned chubby guys on government tickets laconically grazing on local fruit. The spastic SDA kids excitedly wondered where the hell they were, but had little time to figure it out before we were off again.

The next stop was another Marshallese atoll, Kwajelein. We were not allowed to de-plane here as “Kwaj” is a U.S. military base. The atoll is more spacious than Johnston Atoll, but just as incongruous. If Johnston looks like an American industrial corridor plopped into the ocean, Kwaj looks like an American suburb suddenly sprouted out of the coral. There is a golf course alongside the runway and a few ranch-style houses. There are also large geodesic domes that are presumably part of the satellite-tracking and missile-launching capabilities of Kwaj.

Thick-muscled women grab their duffles with military precision and march off the plane, followed by a few Marshallese travelers, including Mr. Bunglick. In all likelihood, he lives on Ebeye, an 80-acre island that is a short boat ride from Kwaj. 12,000 people live in Ebeye’s 80 acres of ramshackle houses and raw sewage, while across a little channel U.S. military contractors practice their golf swings. Each day Marshalese ferry over to Kwaj to work in service jobs, then ferry back to their overcrowded pit known as the “slum of the Pacific.”

Our next stop, Kosrae, is all the more beautiful for having spent the last ten hours flying over unbroken ocean interspersed with tiny atolls, none of which rise higher than ten feet above sea level. It’s a shock to see something that is so clearly habitable, lush, and alive after the cramped atolls of the Marshalls. As a Midwesterner, I can only liken the feeling to stumbling upon Chicago after hours of driving through flat Indiana scrub land (the taint of America). Kosrae is a high island, which means it looks like you expect an island to look. It announces itself in as many shades of green as are imaginable, and then adds a few more for good measure. Its mountains rise in sheer rocky splendor. The shape of the mountains are called the “Sleeping Lady.” Sure enough, if you squint your eyes you will notice a prone female form in the mountains. Her proportions and outline are reminiscent of a Lauren Bacall pin-up.

Besides seeing naked ladies in the rocks, Kosraens mostly go to church and eat oranges. The bag of oranges I buy in the small, open-sided airport are fantastic. The green skin peels easily in one motion, the fruit inside packs the flavor of an entire cart-full of supermarket oranges — they are the apotheosis of orange-ness, beyond which there can be nothing better.

Kosrae is the first stop in the Federated States of Micronesia, the country in which I have come to work. I have one more stop to go: Pohnpei. My excitement has turned to fatigue during the long plane journey. Even the giggly young SDAs are muted in their reaction to the lush mountains of Kosrae. One sits holding a teddy bear and staring at the luggage being unloaded from our plane. We all feel the dread of journey’s end, when the plane will leave us behind in a strange and alien culture.

So we board the plane for the last time without the exuberance with which we began. We are lost in our private thoughts (except for the Micronesians who are happy to doze and gossip). I’m wondering if any one will meet me on Pohnpei. I have no phone number to call or hotel to go to. I’m tired. I am burdened with books and clothes and a laptop that will last about ten minutes in the jungle humidity.

When at last we screech to a stop on the tiny spit of land created for Pohnpei International Airport, I am exhausted from anticipation. The airplane door sighs as it opens, and we are greeted with a blast of humidity that hardly seems breathable. As I step onto the tarmac, the full force of this heat drenches me in the sheer otherness of the place. I sweat profusely and immediately. The calm air is moldy, stagnant. The short walk across the tarmac is unrelenting. The foreigners trudge towards the small terminal, unsure if this new planet is habitable or if we will all soon be writhing on the ground gasping for air.

I want to go home. I have an overwhelming feeling that I should turn back. The whole trip seems surreal, and yet — how exciting to have an adventure to an unknown island before me! How I love to be the sort of guy that goes on adventures. Here I am: a fellow who will hop a plane to unknown climes without a care in the world. How cool I am!

But who’s around to appreciate it? What’s the point of an adventure unshared? How very lonely to be swimming in the humid air toward a little stone building where not one person could possibly know me.

The airport has none of the comfortable regularity of most modern airports — no glass, no air-con, no walls, no fast food, no rental cars, no hotel attached. I’m wondering what I will do if nobody greets me. I move on toward a booth where a Pohnpeian woman is stamping passports. I am already beaten by this intense and aggressively green island where mountains rise thousands of feet in the middle and spill down towards a fringe of mangrove swamp — it’s the life that really gets to me, it’s the teeming life that hits me in my first breath of Pohnpeian air. The island seems to sweat and breathe and just grow and grow and grow endlessly. And suddenly I am in it, a tiny speck of mold in a vast petri dish. And the island gets me. It starts to grow in me and on me even after one breath.

The plump brown woman at the counter is wearing a bright orange and blue muumuu. She has incredibly long, black, greasy hair knotted up into a fancy bun. With her wide eyes she looks like a sinister butterfly. I am suddenly horrified by what I am doing. How much better to have this all ahead of me, in the future, the cool new thing that I’m doing. Now, sweating, fishing for my passport in my sticky leather bag, I am suddenly forced to face consequences that I never clearly thought through. Where will I live? Does the college even know I’m coming? They seemed so vague and mellow on the phone. It’s 1997, but there is no reliable internet connection on Pohnpei. I have none of the e-mail confirmation that we require before travel today. I feel utterly alone, lost, disoriented.

“Oh hi, Jonathan. You’re teaching at the college? I went there. My cousin is a teacher too,” says the butterfly lady.

I am so baffled by the sound of my name that I can’t answer.

“My other cousin works at public affairs, so I picked up your work visa from there.”

She staples a little visa to a page in my passport.

“Jonathan, I think you’re staying at my auntie’s place, right?” she asks.

I can hardly stammer out an “I don’t know” before she sends me along to collect my baggage.

I’ve never been so comforted by the sound of my own name. The feeling must be like what babies feel when they first learn their names. It calls them into existence as this particular thing, this Jonathan or Lauren or Bunglick. And around that name a whole personality, a whole life forms like a sturdy, colorful coral. The sound of my name — even if it’s pronounced with a “t” sound instead of a “th” sound in the middle by a large, brightly colored Pohnpeian woman in a hot airport — means that I am known. My apprehension fades. I step out of the small terminal and into a new life.

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.