I did a lot of thinking about this article while walking along the beach, breathing in the scent of plumeria and jasmine. I decided to first explain where we are. Kwajalein is an island in an atoll of the same name, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We are part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (named for British Naval Captain John Marshall). If you drew a triangle between Hawaii, Japan and Australia, Kwajalein would be smack dab in the middle. Located just north of the Equator, and west of the International Date Line, the Southern Cross is included in the dance of stars across our night skies. The Marshall Islands are part of Micronesia, a name that literally means "tiny islands", and since Kwaj is 3 1/2 miles long and only 1/2 mile wide, I guess you could say the name fits. Though we are part of the Marshalls, Kwajalein is more of a microcosm of all things American, because the whole island is an U.S. Army base.
The sound of the waves breaking along the sea wall is interrupted by the bugle call signaling lunch time and I realize that though technically this is an Army base, Kwajalein is unique in that our civilian population is around 1500, but there are only a handful of military personnel. The sight of the Flag sends my thoughts to the history of this base, and the Marshall Islands in general. Many books have been written on the subject, so I won’t try to cover much here. Suffice to say that Spanish, British, German and Japanese influence can be seen throughout the area. During WWII the Americans took the islands away from the Japanese in a bitterly fought battle that continues to haunt the area to this day. Artifacts and memorials of this battle can be seen on any stroll along the perimeter road, commingled with the beach ivy and sea lettuce. It is sadly ironic that these "tiny islands" with barely enough resources to sustain a native population, have been involved in the same global tug-of-war as the giants of this planet. For that reason and others, this base was established after WWII.
Americans who come here in a civilian capacity, like myself, come for many different reasons. Many come out here looking for a traditional "third world" experience. We work closely with the Marshallese, but the vast majority of them commute from their homes on a nearby island. Some may come to escape the perceived technological revolution of modern America. Coconut palms and breadfruit trees swaying gently may seem idyllic, but this is not Gauguin's Polynesian paradise. Most come just for the opportunity to see something new and different, and the sight of a woman sitting streetside weaving a basket from pandanus leaves would probably qualify. One thing nearly everyone can agree on is that Kwajalein is an experience you never forget. It is unique, tiny and beautiful, and for many of us, it truly is "Almost Paradise".
Before anyone even starts to pack for Kwajalein, they have met with their sponsor either by phone or e-mail. They are told about the housing, the weather, the work they will be doing, the schools and the shopping. The housing is pretty much all the same, families choose from 3 styles; bachelors live in dorm-like BQ's. The weather is pretty much always the same – very warm with either trade winds or tropical rains, depending on the season. The work is naturally dependent upon their skill set, but for the most part we are a highly educated and very technical group of folks. The schools are tough, due to high standards and higher expectations. The living reef, a plethora of sea life and flora of all descriptions, and the history surrounding us provide a constant "field trip" atmosphere. And the shopping...well...I did say "almost paradise", however that will be addressed in another article. For culture, we have two theaters, one under a thatched roof and one outside, so you get the full benefit of the glorious tropical skies; stars or storms whatever Mother Nature has in store. We also get many of the Armed Forces Entertainment shows. From comedians to dance troupes, rock bands and classical pianists, we do get entertainment. Even Bob Hope performed here back in the day.
Naturally water sports and activities play a large part in island life. Every conceivable water sport is indulged in here. Just this weekend we are having a boat race, and a fishing tournament, and divers, kayaks, jet skis and surfers are all strutting their stuff for Labor Day. The Kwajalein Scuba Club is one of the largest scuba clubs in the world, (and it is the most active with over 1200 dives a month), which is only fitting since ours is the world’s largest lagoon. For a taste of the incredible beauty and fascinating sea life to be found in our lagoon, visit here. Those looking for more land based activities will have the pleasure of the Labor Day Funfest down at the beach...bounce houses, huge slip 'n slides, a sand castle building contest and of course, beach volleyball.
I have so much more to tell you, but that will have to wait for next time. Jamie, an Optics Field Engineer who is a drummer in his spare time, has a sister visiting who plays a kickin' violin and a lot of the musicians on island are getting together for the jam session that has started next door. Voices similar to James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett and Arlo Guthrie are serenading the sunset, and I have a date on the lanai with an umbrella festooned tropical drink and conversation with good friends. The weather is warm and balmy, the sky is painting everything gold and life is good on my little island.
Many thanks to Tropicalmajik and Bluespiral for editorial assistance!