Thursday, 13 March 2014
The other fallout came from Project 4.1, the medical study of those Bikini Atoll residents exposed to Bravo’s radiation. After the end of the Cold War, the Clinton administration declassified a number of secret documents about the test, which revealed that (1) The military knew that the winds were going to change, and detonated the device anyway, (2) The US had planned beforehand to implement the medical study, an admission of exposure premeditation, (3) It had injected radioactive substances into Rongelap residents and fed them radiation-containing drinks. Despite the adjudication of ‘acceptable fallout,’ the Marshallese, exposed to 4 times the radiation experienced by residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, began to suffer from birth defects, and die from cancer at accelerated rates. By 1956, the Atomic Energy Commission regarded the Marshall Islands as ‘by far the most contaminated place in the world.’
Two years later the final American Pacific bomb, code name Fig, was detonated. The Bikinian exile continued another twenty years, until in 1968, some Atomic Energy Commission scientists convinced Lyndon Johnson that the radiation levels at Bikini Atoll no longer offered ‘a significant threat to health and safety.’ Lyndon ordered the 540 Bikinians living on Kili resettled ‘with all dispatch,’ and by the mid1970s, over 150 islanders were living in new houses, and eating breadfruit, coconuts and pandanus from new plantings. In 1977 the scientists realized they had been terribly wrong in their estimates, recording alarming increases in cesium 137 isotope levels in the islanders. Three ships floated them all away on a sea of tears, back to Kili, and to Majuro. The only thought left on Bikini was the sign in the machine shop. We can fix everything except broken heart.
But wait. The scientists were back with two more Happy Lucky Welcome Fun promises in the mid1980s. They had discovered that, by applying large amounts of potassium fertilizer to Bikini’s soil, cesium levels could be reduced ten-fold. Furthermore, this combined with the simple removal of the topsoil layer, would get the Bikinians very close to the 15 millirem safety standard necessary for repatriation. And, there was other good news.
The Bikinians had come into some real money. In 1986, as part of the new Compact of Free Association with the US, they had received $75 million in damages. Two years later, they got another $90 million, designated specifically for radiological cleanup. The compact also set up a Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which meant that their grievances all the way back from the early 1980s, would be heard by a new US court. The Bikinians, ‘if they desired, could go back.’
But the Bikinians had not only been living in a cultural and scientific and financial limbo for over thirty years, for over thirty years they had changed. They were the five thousand children of original 147 of the deep cobalt blue and coconut palms and breadfruit and pandanus. They no longer fished with homemade nail hooks baited with hermit crabs, nor swam in crystalline waters. They were the children of housing and food subsidies and insurance and medical plans and scholarships and health care. They were part of the Marshallese forty per cent unemployment and four per cent population growth and emigration to Oregon and Arkansas. Their trust fund balances were chopped in half by the market crashes of 2001 and 2008, and the critical mass was reached in 2010, when they lost their Nuclear Claims Tribunal case against the US government. The Supreme Court of the United States of America, the country responsible for their 66 year nuclear exile, their starvation, their irradiation and medical experimentation, their five time relocation, the loss of their way of life, and the exploitation of their generosity of spirit, determined that, like Bob and Patti on Pohnpei, it didn’t have the right to rule over international agreements. The nation that had spent twenty billion dollars on the Manhattan Project, fourteen billion dollars on a thousand ICBM launch pads and silos, that had built 67,500 nuclear missiles and 4,680 nuclear bombers, and given the Marshallese the equivalent of 7,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs at the rate of eleven a week, producing 104,000,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste, had no jurisdiction over or responsibility for the few Pacific islanders they had so ignobly made permanently dispossessed and homeless. One might think that there could be no better glow, after such a Bikini waxing. But you would be wrong.
According to the Compact of Free Association, the Marshallese are not allowed to shop in the facility stores on Kwaj, or swim in the pools, play on the tennis or racquetball courts, or tee off on the golf course. They’re probably teed off enough, already.
Frankie Avalon hermit crab nailed it, in Bikini Beach.
“Baby.” He said. “I think we associate with a very unstable group.”
‘No longer can I stay, it’s true
No longer can I live in peace and harmony
No longer can I rest on my sleeping mat and pillow
Because of my island and the life I once knew there
The thought is overwhelming
Rendering me helpless and in great despair.’
Lore Kessibuki, Rongerik horror, 1946
Wednesday, 12 March 2014
It’s not as if the Americans were deliberately trying to kill them. It was simply that they were measuring how they would die, in the lethal environment they had decided to create for them. Some of the outer island migrants that had been relocated to Ebeye had come from the place that had given Diana the name of her swimsuit- the group of atolls that had originally been named in 1529 ‘Los Jardines,’ The Gardens, by Spanish explorer Alonso de Salazar, arriving on his ship Florida, to the first place in the Marshalls he had been received with gifts, rather than stones, from amazing 30-foot outrigger canoes that could hit over 20 miles per hour. Bikini.
Between 1946 and 1958, the Americans did what any civilized liberating force would have done. They detonated 67 nuclear weapons in the ‘Pacific Proving Grounds.’ In August of 1945 what Harry Truman was trying to prove was that he could sink a warship at sea with an atomic bomb. He sent 42,000 military personnel, 242 ships, 156 aircraft, 300 cameras with 18 tons of film, and 1.3 billion dollars to sink 95 ships (including the Nagato flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy, from whose bridge Admiral Yamamoto had launched the attack on Pearl Harbor), 3,350 rats, goats and pigs, sheared and smeared with suntan lotion, to the ground zero waters of Bikini lagoon, in the most spectacular and expensive science experiment in history. He called it Operation Crossroads. The local US military governor had persuaded the 167 dutifully Christian Bikini Islanders to leave their remote idyllic paradise temporarily, ‘for the good of mankind and to end all world wars.’ They were shipped 125 miles east to Rongerik Atoll and given a few weeks’ worth of food, with cheerful assurances that they could return as soon as the tests were over. No one could imagine that they would never come back.
The first blast, code-named Able, was a bit of a dud. The bombardier had missed his target. Baker, the second detonation, drove a half mile wide column of water into the sky in less than a second, falling as millions of tons of atomized reef and ocean collapsing back in the lagoon, sinking the 26,000 ton battleship Arkansas, and lifting the stern of the 880 foot Saratoga 43 feet in the air. Harry had his proof.
Meanwhile, 125 miles away, the Bikini islanders waiting patiently on Rongerik, had discovered that the reef fish were poisonous, the island’s coconut trees had been damaged by fire, and there wasn’t enough water. Benign neglect was turning to tragic neglect, and starvation set in. They tapped Uncle Sam on the shoulder. Are we there yet? Unfortunately Uncle Sam had discovered that Baker’s shock wave had released massive amounts of radiation, and saturated the soil of Bikini with cesium 137. The isotope’s half-life was thirty years. No one but the Americans was going home anytime soon. They moved the Bikinians to Kwaj, and let them camp out on a small strip of grass next to the runway. A few months later, they relocated them again, this time to the island of Kili, to a different kind of disaster. Kili was a true island, no coral fringing reef, no protected lagoon, no forested outer islands to fish and hunt, just the big breakers of the Southern Sea crashing up against rocky shores. Fishing was almost impossible. They began to starve again, saved only by an emergency airdrop.
In 1952, the first US hydrogen bomb, Ivy Mike, vaporized the island of Elugelab in the Enewetak group and, two years later, the Americans detonated another load of happy lucky welcome fun on Bikini. Because they thought that one of the isotopes, lithium 7 was inert, and it wasn’t, the force of the resultant explosion would be underestimated by a factor of four. On March 1, 1954, Bravo blasted into a crimson15-megaton thermonuclear hydrogen fireball almost five miles wide within the first second, seen and felt on Kwaj over 400 kilometers away, the equivalent of a thousand Hiroshimas, and the largest US nuclear detonation in history. Expanding at 330 feet per second, the mushroom cloud was 9 miles high and 7 miles wide within the first minute, and 25 miles high and 62 miles wide, within the first ten. It raised the temperature of lagoon to 99,000 degrees, and vaporized three islands in the atoll. The crater was over a mile wide and 250 feet deep.
Bravo killed every living thing in the air, on land, and in the sea for miles around. The fallout cloud contaminated more than seven thousand square miles of the Pacific, and included some of the inhabited surrounding islands. Three to four hours after the blast, the sixty-four inhabitants of neighboring Rongelap Atoll, watched in wonder as two inches of snow-like ash covered their island. Children played in it. People drank water saturated with it. Their eyes burned, and their arms, and legs and necks swelled. Vomiting and diarrhea followed.
The Americans had not bothered to tell the Rongelapese about the bomb. They also hadn’t informed the crew of the Japanese boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), which had been fishing for tuna in supposedly safe waters. Six months later chief radio operator Aikichi Kuboyama died of radiation sickness.
Tuesday, 11 March 2014
“The bikini is the most important thing since the atom bomb.”
Diana never saw the pathos of her remark. Also, we weren’t supposed to be there. Also, we weren’t supposed to be there. Robyn and I were headed from Pohnpei to Kosrae, but Continental, being the large landmass landing that it was, missed it, and we ended up in the Marshall Islands instead. Our entry point was the Kwajalein Atoll, or ‘Kwaj,’ as the American military missile expert sitting next to me referred to it, just before he deplaned. And that was the second reason we weren’t supposed to be there. Because Kwaj, at 2174 square kilometers, was the planet’s largest lagoon, and the site of the Reagan Test Site, the biggest missile catcher’s mitt on Earth.
“All nonmilitary personnel must remain on the aircraft.” Said the stewardess. I hadn’t realized we were personnel. It felt more like we were impersonnelators.
There were some nonmilitary personnel that were getting off the plane, however. These were local Marshallese, who lived outside the Reagan Test Site area, in the adjacent Slum of the Pacific island-city of Ebeye. Over 13,000 residents lived in abject poverty, on 78 acres of semi-permanent project housing, in one of the most densely populated places in the world. It had been like flying over Soweto.
Every flimsy shack had up to forty inhabitants. Whatever Marlon Brando had said about privacy entitlement on Tetiaroha, hadn’t sailed over on any stick and shell charts to these people. The gutters were full of aluminum cans, and the storm drains clogged with rainy season dirt.
Natives and migrant workers went from undersized children to supersized hypertensive diabetic adults, from the ramen noodle and American potato chip and candy bar and cola junk food downtown diet. Some of it had paradoxically saved some lives, four years before Robyn and I arrived.
Ebeye’s drinking water came over from the US military instillation in trucks, already chlorinated, but apparently not enough. The citric acidified sugar bomb powdered drink mixes, which some residents added to the liquid, had killed the cholera that had killed their neighbors.
The other lethal liquid that was killing them was alcohol, which accounted for most of the criminal acts, and practically all of the suicides. Ebeyites killed themselves at a rate of ten times that of the suicide rate in the States. A third of the population tested positive for syphilis, and AIDS was on its way.
For 1800 years before the Spaniards decided they owned them, the Marshallese had lived a tranquil existence in the sun and waves, on a diet of fish and coconut meat, in thatched huts to keep out the rain and wind. But then the worlds of the third and the first collided. In 1788 a British convict transport captain named John Marshall cruised through, on his way to China, and named the islands ‘Lord Musgrave’s Range,’ before his own name was attached. Spain sold them to Germany in 1885, which ceded them to Japan in 1914, until the Americans overran everyone in 1944.
And paradise went from free, to commoditized, to lost- mournful, monotonous, and superficial. Ebeye is less than a mile long and about 200 yards wide. Trees and plants are scarce. Children swim off the crumbling pier, in water polluted by human waste and ‘pampered’ by disposable diapers. Sores on faces and bodies are common. They seldom return to school after lunch, if there is any. Instead, they play on run-down basketball courts, or bicycle aimlessly. Their older brothers kill time in a similar manner, circling the island in already rusted new vehicles, air conditioner and boom-box hip-hop cranked, all day every day, headed for no specific destination and less purpose. There is only one gas station and no service station. The minimum wage was a flat two dollars, and cash was king.
From the serenity and symbiosis of breadfruit trees and coconut trees pandanus trees and flame trees with brilliant red blossoms where, on the Eastern ‘towards dawn’ Ralik chain, the island of Kuwakleen had actually been named Ri-ruk-jan-leen for ‘the people who harvested the flowers,’ with an uncrowded way of life that included raising pigs and chickens and fishing and collecting snails, had become a prison.
After more than 40 years of American control, the metal and plastic and glass ‘benign neglect’ garbage was dumped where it fell, forming ugly rings around the Marshall Islands.
Monday, 10 March 2014
On New Years Day, Robyn and I took a boat across Manado Bay, to Palau Bunaken, an eight square kilometer island of jungle known for its marine biodiversity. It had seven times more genera of coral than Hawaii, seven of the eight species of the planet’s giant clams, and seventy per cent of all the known fish species of the Indo-Western Pacific, including over thirty-three species of butterfly fish, and graduate schools of groupers, wrasses, gobies, and damsels. I paddled mine in an outrigger along the eastern coast, until we found a small beach. Robyn was content to check into one of the small bungalows, but I had heard that the accommodation was better on the other side of the island.
“I’ll go check it out.” I said, and left her with half the water. There was a scarcity of fresh water on Bunaken, and drinking water had to be imported from Manado.
“How long will you be?” Asked Robyn.
“Not long.” I said. “It doesn’t look that big on the map.” Unless you got lost.
I started up the bushtrail to what I thought would be the most direct route to the other coast. The path grew steep and started to meander through the tropical forest, as the heat of the day began to penetrate the canopy. The streams of perspiration were the only streams on the island, and threatened to outpace my water supply. I trudged on and off the path, in the direction I thought should be due west, but I couldn’t see the sun above the green maze and, even if I could have, it was midday. Two and a half hours later, heat prostrated and parched with thirst, I finally punched a hole in the jungle, and onto the western coast. I almost collapsed onto the first two Bunakenese boys that I encountered, and they quickly revived me with water and reassurance. I explained that Robyn was still around the island on the eastern shore, and asked if there was a way we could rescue her from what, by now, must be a similar degree of dehydration. One of the boys disappeared down the mangroves. Not five minutes later he was back at the wheel of a deafening noise. It looked like a World War II American PT boat, and it was, except for the lack of torpedos, and the fact that it had been constructed of local hardwoods. But it had the same shape and displacement hull, and two seventy-horse Johnson outboards on the stern. It flew like a Sulawesi horeshoe bat out of hell, and we were around the northern tip of the island in no time. I pointed to the beach that Robyn should be waiting on, and they cracked open the outboards to warpspeed. I crawled onto the large curved bow, and stood up with my arms crossed, for added effect. As we roared into the shore, I saw Robyn emerge from the tree she had sought shade under, and I straightened my profile and pose, like MacArthur would have, if this had been the Philippines. I caught the first terms of endearment from my rescued damsel, just as the boys shut down the Johnsons.
“Where the hell have you been?” She demanded. I wasn’t so much offended, as startled, by what I thought was the rather inappropriate ingratitude that had been demonstrated, considering the lengths I had gone, to ensure her salvation. She piled onto the PT boat, and the boys roared us back around the island, to a small homestay, which was also ultimately deemed to be anything but an improvement on what I had initially paddle our outrigger to.
“Mangroves?” She said. “You brought us to mangroves?” They was nothing for it, but to admit the truth of her observation. The mangroves were fairly obviously there. We got the last room in the crowded homestay, next to the noisy lounge where the divers drank at night. And then the mosquitoes arrived, just to make it all perfect.
Our trip back across the bay next morning continued south and inland to the rusted tin roofs, donkey drays, and tarp-covered market stalls of Tonohon. We climbed to the caldera and sulfur smell of the Mahawu volcano, and its crater lake, before continuing on to the waruga stone sarcophagi of Sawangan. Gnarled frangipani trees contributed to the eeriness of the place. Ancient Minihasa, wearing huge copper necklaces and bracelets, were buried otherwise naked in a fetal position, squatting atop a china plate, inside stone graves shaped like a house. The rooflike lids were carved with scenes depicting the life inside the hollowed out rectangular base. There were almost 150 of them, the oldest dating back to 900 AD. The Dutch outlawed the practice in the early 1800s, because of outbreaks of cholera and tuberculosis, long before they were able to outlaw the practice of Minihasa headhunting. The Minihasans were as fierce as the Bugis and Torajans. Ceremonial Foso feasts celebrated successful hunts with accomplished headhunters in their exclusive red garments, dancing their Kabasaran war dances. The novelist Thomas Mayne Reid, who was a drinking mate of Edgar Allen Poe, admired Lord Byron, and was admired back by Robert Louis Stevenson, Vladamir Nabakov, Teddy Roosevelt, and Conan Doyle, not only wrote The Castaways, about a party shipwreck in the Celebes Sea, but also The Headless Horseman.
“Headlessness seems to be another common theme in the Southern Sea.” Said Robyn. It was not too far wrong.
“Even San Juan Bautista, on Isla Robinson Crusoe, was named after St. John the Baptist, whose head was presented on a silver platter to Salome, at her request, as a reward for the dance she had performed for King Herod.”
We spent the night at a losmen on Lake Tondano, inside four walls of floor to ceiling carmine curtains, chunky faux French Provençal furniture, and tall vases full of pink plastic flowers. But the bamboo lakeside restaurant that supplied our lunch, from pens containing the huge carp we pulled up with nets, was a delicious fresh fish feast of gastronomic grandeur. Along the shoreline north were fisherman pulling up their oen Chinese fishing nets, and a manufacturer of prefab rare hardwood houses, that looked so much like alien crabs, I expected them to begin moving sideways with us, along the road.
The final stop of our Northern Sulawesi excursion south of Manado, was to the Tongkoko National Park, thirty kilometers from Bitung. We entered a forest of tremendous trees, buttressed with protruding fins like rocket ships, strangler figs, spiraled vines, and subdued light. We were so surrounded by crested black macaques, at one point, that I seriously feared for our safety. Twenty-five of them, baring their long eyeteeth and grimacing, moved in random patterns around us. One female turned to show us her red bottom, not a highlight of our journey, in any sense.
What Robyn and I had really come to see, was a tiny extremely shy nocturnal primate with soft velvety fur, and unusual anatomy. Only ten centimeters long, their hind limbs are twice this length, due to the elongation of their tarsus bones, from which they get their name. Each of their enormous eyes is as large as their brain, and their fingers are extremely extended, with their third finger as long as their upper arm. In light of how fast we are driving them to extinction, it didn’t seem like an inappropriate adaptation. We hired a guide to takes back in with flashlights, in the middle of the night. After scrambling around for what seemed like hours, one illuminating beam caught a small gremlin above us on a branch. It was a tarsier, with a baby, jumping at insects. She was magnificent. We spent the night in the ranger’s accommodation. The locals, including the women, were drunk on beer.
But in the early morning there were swooping hornbills, with large eyelashes. On an island where more than 60 percent of its mammals and more than one third of its birds are found nowhere else on the planet, Sulawesi has lost more than eighty per cent of her forests, from logging, agriculture, and mining. The animals themselves are disappearing because of habitat loss, hunting for bush meat and the exotic pet market, disease introduced by domestic animals, and the lack of any truly organized conservation measures. The Sulawesi and Knobbed hornbills are some of the most endangered, declining at a rate of forty percent over three generations.
“How does he hold his bill up?” Asked Robyn. His red comb and blue beard and yellow bill made one more pass throught the canopy.
“His first two vertebrae are fused together, and his neck muscles are very powerful.” I said. “It may confer some slight protection against the headhunters.”
We walked to the beach and rested under the huge mimosas. I made a big heart on the black sand with two dozen of its white and red-fringed flowers. On the way back through the ranger’s village, we came across a local marching ensemble made up of elaborately plumbed facsimiles of euphoniums, tubas, trombones, and some that had no comparators. They were made of bamboo. Just before the bemo back to Manado arrived, we were visited by a slow large marsupial Sulawesi bear cuscus, which seemed to have come to remind us of Alfred Russell Wallace. Or to plead for help.
We had three more days left in Kansas. Before we left Manado, I had made some inquiries. There was a place off the coast on an island called Pulau Gangga, that had a resort owned by some businessmen from Northern Italy. It was apparently empty and in trouble, but still open, and we negotiated a favorable discount. A heavy plank boat picked us up late morning and, with Robyn sitting on the anchor in the very bow, holding onto her Torajan conical hat, we plied the Celebes Sea, through pods of dolphins and square sailed outriggers, to the white beach and coconut palms of the last resort. We were greeted by Surat, who took on the role of man Friday. He showed us to a luxurious bungalow, and welcomed us every morning with fresh papaya and a Peter Lorre flourish.
“Enchoy you Brakefasst.” He would say. And we would. We spent three wonderful days on Pulau Gangga, eating pasta in squid ink in the Coconut Bar, collecting rare shells and red coral that had washed up on the shore, and playing along the waterline with the kids and dogs in the village on the next beach over. And then it was.
Surat gave us two coconuts to take on the plank boat journey back to Manado. They were carved. In the shape of heads.
Sunday, 9 March 2014
“The little town of Menado is one of the prettiest in the East...To the
west and south the country is mountainous, with groups of fine
volcanic peaks 6,000 or 7,000 feet high, forming grand and
picturesque backgrounds to the landscape.”
Alfred Russell Wallace, 1859
What Darwin had been to Chiloé, Wallace was to Sulawesi. It was the line on either side of this orchid of the Southern Sea, that separated the species of Asia from those of Australia, and made Sulawesi, as a distinct biogeographical entity containing marsupials and mammals, part of what is known as Wallacea. It was the finish line of the theory of evolution, which Wallace had actually crossed first.
Robyn and I could see Manado Bay in the distance, as our Merpati flying house made its final approach. Volcanic cones rose out of the Celebes Sea from great submerged monsters, and puffs of cloud hovered over the surface of the water like steam from their nostrils.
We thanked the pilot for his hospitality, and marveled at his longevity, once we were safely on the tarmac of Sam Ratulangi. We passed Sam’s statue on the way into town, six giant clay garden gnomes in gray cubscout uniforms. The musical creole of Manado Malay greeted our exit from the bemo, with numerous borrowed words, like those for horses and chairs and enticing women and bad men, from their Portuguese and Spanish and Dutch Stranger Kings history. But there were also Chinese shops and Kung Fu movie houses, and ice cream banana splits at the News Café on Jalan Sam Ratulangi. It was a lively place.
Robyn and I had been spoiled by our night at the Palu Golden, and our search for truth took a degenerate detour towards beauty. We checked into the old colonial feel of the Hotel Minihasa, and checked out its tiny infinity pool, with the plump juicy cloud-covered volcano hanging on the water’s edge. In Minihasa, there was one church for every hundred meters of road. We dropped into a few hundred meters worth, and then stopped by the red and kaleidoscopic colors of the three hundred year old Ban Hin Kiong Chinese temple, whose pamphlet description excused the fact that ‘there is not much to buy in this complex because it is basically a house of worship.’ We ate more koktel udan, and smoked fish tinutuan, a rice porridge containing corn, greens and chilies, at the Dolpin Donut restaurant.
The next day we pushed it further, and traveled twenty miles down the southwest coast, to Tangawangko Bay, and the Tasik Ria. Where comfort is paramount. It was two days before New Years, and the entire resort was empty. We got our choice of cobalt blue-tiled roofed Chinese bungalows, with white pillars, and a view of palm-filled gardens and expansive pool, and dined on delicious Tasik Ria fried chicken with chilies and kecap manis, in the Bunaken coffee shop. For the New Year’s Eve that would welcome in a new millennium, we flagged down a bemo back into the city, and checked into the Novotel Manado. A Minihasan orchestra of wooden marimbas was playing in the lobby. There were ‘Happy Third Millenium’ cards, with a picture of the solar system, on our pillows and, later, under the door, as if in answer to the Y2K paranoia of the age, a friendly note from the manager. ‘To prevent any problems at midnight we will stop the operation of all elevators at the main lobby between 23:50 to 00:10.’ The fireworks display outside was more of a threat. It should have incinerated the entire city.
On the last night of the Twentieth century, Robyn and I ate at the Rumah Mkan ‘Bahari.’ We had heard that Minihasa food could be all ‘bat, cat, and rat,’ not to mention rintek wuuk dog, so we stuck to the rica-rica spicy fish and dabu-dabu sambal beef, with sayur bunga sautéed papaya flower buds.