You’ve probably seen photographs of the nuclear bombs that went off in the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and ‘50s – enormous, lint-colored, mushroom-shaped clouds rising like nightmares from the ocean, utterly surreal against the slender palm trees in the foreground.
Since visiting last week, I’ll never see those images the same way.
During our week-long stay, the small group of journalists I traveled with met government officials, community leaders, scientists, and residents of some of the smaller islands around the capitol of Majuro. We also sat down with members of the National Nuclear Committee, who are trying to increase awareness about the nuclear testing that took place here, in a gut-wrenching meeting I’ll never forget.
I’ll be writing more about my trip – which I took partly to learn about Sawyer Products’ efforts to bring clean water to residents, partly to learn about how climate change is affecting the low-lying atolls, and partly to explore the region as a travel destination – in coming weeks.
Until then, here are ten things to know about visiting this remote string of islands located midway between Hawaii and Australia…
1. First, the Republic of the Marshall Islands is one of the least visited countries in the world. Just 10,500 people visit annually, according to Carlos Domnick, head of the Office of Commerce, Investment and Tourism.
2. About 60,000 people live in the Marshall Islands. About half of them live on the main island of Majuro, where I stayed.
3. Some experts say parts of the Marshall Islands could be uninhabitable due to rising sea levels in as few as 30 years if nothing is done.
4. If you go, don’t expect a developed travel destination. Majuro has just two hotels, and they’re basic. I stayed at the Hotel Robert Reimers, where my room was clean and perfectly satisfactory, but would be considered lower end by many Americans. Focus on the people, who are amazing, and the culture, which is friendly and welcoming.
5. Dress conservatively. Women – including visitors – cover their knees and shoulders. Although the bikini swimsuit was named for Bikini Atoll, locals don’t wear swimsuits (and neither should you, in public areas). Women swim in shorts and shirts or even skirts and dresses.
6. You should filter all water, or drink bottled water, even at hotels.
7. Most locals don’t talk much about the nuclear testing that took place here. Until recently, it wasn’t taught in schools, and families directly affected by the bombs tended to hide it. Members of the National Nuclear Committee told us that women who had miscarriages after the tests were told they were caused by incest. Cancer rates are high.
8. Weirdly, the Hangar Bar at the airport serves “Bravo Shots,” named for the hydrogen bomb called Castle Bravo set off on March 1, 1954. Castle Bravo formed a fireball more than 4 miles across within 1 second, and a mushroom cloud stretched 9 miles high after 1 minute. Contamination spread to surrounding atolls. The radiation and its effects still linger.
9. Visitors who travel to the Marshall Islands can fish, snorkel and scuba dive. I saw orange and white clown fish tucked in anemones and a shy octopus as big as a cowboy hat. A few folks surf on the outer islands. There’s a small museum, and you can take a ride on an outrigger sailing canoe at a local club for $20 per person.
10. The islands are situated just west of the International Date Line. That means when you return to the United States, you get a replay on the day you fly out. I left on Friday night, after spending part of the afternoon skimming across the turquoise waters of the lagoon on a traditional outrigger sailing canoe. But an hour after leaving the airport that night, I got to start myday all over again, whiling away Friday Number 2 on airplanes and at airports.