Marshall Islands: Living on an Outer Atoll

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Namdrik Atoll, Marshall Islands

What is it like to live on a tiny tropical island?

Many People fantasize about living on a tropical island in paradise.  I know I had for a long time, especially during cold winters in the Northeast US.  Last year I finally had my opportunity to make that dream a reality by moving to one of the most unknown and least visited countries of the world, The Marshall Islands.   The Marshall Islands is a small island chain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean consisting mostly of small atolls.   An atoll, if your not familiar with the term, is a coral island that usually forms a ring shaped island with a lagoon in the center.  I spent a year on one of the smallest inhabited atolls in the world, Namdrik Atoll, as an ESL teacher for the local elementary school.  Life in the middle of the Pacific on a small atoll was very different than my initial expectations, as I found out.

Where are we going to land?

While being on a plane I have never had an experience like that of flying into Namdrik Atoll.  I started by boarding one of the countries two small planes and took off from a tiny strip of cement runway lined on both sides by water. For the entire flight, which can take up to an hour from the main island, Majuro Atoll, I didn’t see anything but the endless deep sapphire blue of the ocean only slightly broken up by the white caps of waves crashing below and the white clouds above.  Seemingly out of nowhere a tiny shadow appeared along the horizon, so small at first that I didn’t realize what it was.  Even upon nearing the island and the plane turning slowly towards it I couldn’t believe fathom where the plan was going to land.  A lush green thick jungle lined the entire length of the one square miles island surround on all sides by dark deep ocean water,  encompassing more shades of turquoise and blue water than I thought ever existed.  It was Beautiful! We started our decent and I could see a tiny coral and grass runway.  “Is this real?”, I remember thinking.  As the door opened, the heat hit you like a bat to the face, and my dream reality had begun to the stunned and surprised local faces.

Where is the welcome Party?

The first thing I heard on the main island was how lucky I was to be placed and living on Namdrik.  It was known for its beauty, both natural and its people (Everyone was correct).  As with most small pacific islands I had heard wonderful stories about the welcome parties they give to new visitors.  Once that plane door was opened I realized my reality was quite different.  I felt like an alien stepping foot onto an unknown planet.  No one spoke, just stares of surprised faces as everyone loaded up all the gear and people into the only truck on the entire island and we all watched the plane take off and disappear back into the sky across the blue of the ocean.  Apparently I had taken an earlier flight than was expected and none of the school teachers or mayor had arrived back yet from their voyage on the supply ship (only three times a year) back from the main island.  Surprise! Not a word was spoken as the truck bounced up and down dirt path that cut through the lush jungle of the island.  I could not believe where I was, the entire drive I could see water on both side at almost all times through the trees.  After what seemed like forever, after many stops at tiny houses and huts where people and goods were unloaded, the truck pulled over in a grass field next to a cement building that had a sign reading “Community Center” and when my bags were unloaded for me I knew I had found my stop.  A small room, on a tiny island, in the middle of the ocean.  (My welcome party came later when everyone else arrived back from summer break)

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What was living on Namdrik like?

Namdrik was where is lived for the year but it will always be home.  I was hosted by the Jikit family for the year; living, learning, and surviving while trying to teach.   The island itself is actually two small islands that comprise the atoll.   One small uninhabited island and an inhabited island (currently around 450 people) that is a thin, crescent shaped, 5 mile long strip of land.  It has only one road that goes from end to end.  Starting from the landing strip at the far end of the island there are very few houses and lots of lush jungle.  As you make you way down the island and as you notice the curve of its crescent shape the houses and community become more and more apparent.  The “downtown” part of the island consist of a majority of the islands housing, the community center, school, churches, and basketball court.  I lived right next to the basketball court, catholic and protestant churches, and a short 2 minute walk away from the school and fields.  The very first day I walked the entirety of the islands lagoon shore but it would be months before I even scratched the surface of the culture or language of my tiny abode.  Life on the island was simple!  We had no running water, no electricity other than small solar units, and only a few tiny house “stores” with very basic goods.  My days consisted of teaching (and planing), community bonding (sports and church activities) and catching food (mostly spear fishing).

I am lucky to have had such a unique experience in such a remote place.  Please check out a short video to see what an amazing place Namdrik Atoll is.


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