Peter Rudiak-Gould, just barely into his 20s, is stuck in a place he would later describe as having its own “curious rituals,” “inscrutable values,” and “traditional huts of metal and concrete.” And he can’t wait to leave.
So he hops a plane in his native United States and flies to a tiny and remote island in the Pacific Ocean, a place that climate change could wipe out.
He would spend a year in the Marshall Islands, teaching English to children who watch Hollywood movies but believe America is perched, as they are, between a lagoon and the ocean.
Rudiak-Gould’s story of his fantastic voyage is a joy to read, a tale full of humor and heartache. In Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island, he turns a tiny strip of earth into one of the most fascinating places on the planet, home to people who fit no stereotype.
If you’ve heard of the Marshall Islands at all, you may connect them with World War II or the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, which gave the revealing swimsuits their name (not the other way around). As he embarks on his one-year trip, Rudiak-Gould is no expert about the country of 59,600 either. But he’s entranced by the possibilities of its remoteness, beauty, and isolation.
He ends up on an island called Ujae, “an ocean-flat, third-of-a-square-mile speck” that’s home to 450 people including, now, one Caucasian. That would be him.
Here he is, in a place he’d naively dreamed would be full of “gentle, prosaic islanders.” They’d entertain him with “colorful festivals and noble traditions,” and he’d emerge “wiser, calmer, kinder.”
Reality had other plans.
They aren’t “charmingly oblivious,” but wear T-shirts, know about world affairs, and play basketball. Children trail him, villagers watch his every move, and finding solitude becomes a crucial mission as he tries to keep his wits about him.
And amid it all is the noise. Not from traffic jams and airplanes and televisions, but erupting from the families and animals he lives with, as the island and its inhabitants pass from day to day, “performing [their] daily, dawn-to-dusk Wagnerian opera of dysfunctions.”
There’s more to endure: the food (just rice and flour cakes for the first week), the language (Marshallese, which he can’t speak at first), and the weather (it’s so humid that his envelopes seal themselves in this nation that’s never seen a recorded temperature lower than 70 degrees Fahrenheit).
There’s no power grid, but generators provide power for video games and VCRs that play violent movies for children and their families to watch. “I would not learn from them the virtues of the simple life,” Rudiak-Gould writes.
He actually finds much that is disturbing. He’s disgusted by rampant mistreatment of kids, which might be considered child abuse in West.
He’s appalled by the pathetic school system in which he teaches. And he finds that the grimly overworked women have only minutes to relax each day, while the men get to endlessly lollygag.
But he also finds plenty to love in a place of beauty where he himself is a fascinating exotic object, with his penchant for swimming for pleasure and the strange hair on his legs and arms. He discovers sublime pleasures amid people whose rough edges are softened by generosity, kindness, and curiosity.
In the hands of a less capable writer, Rudiak-Gould’s wide-eyed naiveté and dawning realizations could seem cloying, precious, and patronizing. But in his hands, his memoir is genuine and moving, a coming-of-age tale that’s less concerned with Very Important Life-Changing Lessons and more about discovering new worlds abroad and in himself.
Through it all, he comes to terms with his own status as a man of the West. “I had always fancied that I wasn’t, that I had somehow escaped the influence of my upbringing and emerged free-thinking and unburdened by cultural baggage,” he writes. “How wrong I was.”
In fact, “I carried my civilization with me at every moment: my nervous efficiency, my emotional openness, my sense of individual entitlement, my war against the status quo.”
He even falls in love with the US as he embraces the Marshall Islands, remembering a faraway place where people hug easily, treasure children, and, on occasion, feel a cool breeze.
A small number of foreigners travel to the Marshall Islands and never leave. Rudiak-Gould is not one of them. He returns to the US, to a world of publishers, literary agents, and bookstores.
Readers will be glad he did. And they’ll want to send him on his next voyage with a simple command: Don’t forget to write.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.