“Pigs before Pearls: A Journey to the South Pacific” (a story from the collection Of Moose and Me)

Despite posing for many years as a pessimist, my father is really a romantic. When I was ten and we temporarily moved from our home in Alaska to the South Pacific for work and play, he was determined to visit Majuro. Nineteenth-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson had described this tiny atoll in the Marshall Island chain as “The pearl of the Pacific”: we had to go there.

But first, we went to some nearby islands. First there was Guam, largest and most southern of the Marianas Islands, and the final transfer point on our flight from Anchorage via Hawaii to Saipan, our destination. The Marianas were at this point controlled by the United States, as they are to this day, and so my father and mother had not thought to bring our passports or any kind of documentation. This proved a problem when the local officials decided that perhaps we children did not belong to them. The officials insisted on seeing some documents, and they would not let us leave until my parents somehow resolved the issue.

I remember sitting for what seemed like several decades in a small, hot lobby on hard plastic chairs while my parents argued with the indifferent officials. Finally, my mother asked, in exasperation, why any sane person would travel for days, for at this time it had been days, with three grumpy, whiny, squirmy children unless that person was indeed one of those children’s parents and therefore forced to do so. Upon consideration of this statement, perhaps delivered with a slight edge in my mother’s normally very calm, cheerful voice, the officials finally acquiesced to this argument, or perhaps they simply wanted to go on a lunch break. Regardless, we were finally able to move on to a stay of several months on Saipan. There we enjoying snorkeling off Saipan’s largely undeveloped beaches; learning about the island’s vexed history, first as a Spanish, then German, colony and as the site of fierce battles between Japanese and U.S. forces during World War II; and, magically, sailing to the nearby island of Managaha in a tiny glass-bottomed boat, delighting in the coral reefs and the schools of fish—indigo, bright yellow, soft greens, flashes of orange and crimson—in that clear blue water.

After those months in Saipan we moved on to a week on the lush jungle island of Ponape (Pohnpei), part of the Caroline Islands, where we enjoyed a day trip to the mysterious ruin of Nan Madol and the discovery of a host of toads of many sizes underneath the magnificent bug zappers at our hotel. We also met a number of native islanders in traditional dress: women bare-breasted and clad in grass skirts and men in loincloths. We felt very overdressed in our shorts and t-shirts.

After several days in Ponape we set out for the Marshall Islands and the small atoll of Majuro. When we arrived in Majuro we found that it was a narrow island, in some places no wider than a road, subject to hurricanes or any kind of storm. It was not as my father had imagined. I’m sure it has changed a good deal in the decades since our visit, but at that time the pale gold beaches were covered with glass, the green-blue water was polluted from the sewage pipes that emptied right into the lagoon, and the population seemed to have little other option for employment than serving as taxi drivers (I’m sure this was not really the case, although the taxis were amazingly pervasive). But it was when we got to our hotel that my parents panicked.

It wasn’t long after we checked into the hotel and started to explore that my parents started talking in a worried way, their heads inclined to each other, faces concerned. They were worried about the gardener, who had been maintaining the grounds, carefully working on some shrubs, since we arrived. He was not dressed in a shirt and shorts or in a loincloth; no, he was naked: not just from the waist up, but completely and utterly naked. Our parents were anxiously conversing because they were worried that we children had seen the gardener. Indeed we had, but we were quite unconcerned by his nakedness: we were just interested in the pigs.

To that point I had never been all that fond of pigs. A pig had eaten one of our favorite chickens while we were boarding our animals at a friend’s house and I held a grudge (the same pig later ate a rabbit, and then it was eaten itself—apparently, it was delicious). I’d always found pigs to be smelly, dirty, and without personality, but this was not the case with the pigs in Majuro. They were small and clean; many multicolored in shades of rust, black, and white; and not slow and vast but quick moving and slim as they rooted around in the small garden by the hotel. My sisters and I followed their progress with delight. And while my parents worried that we’d somehow been damaged for life by seeing the gardener gardening in nothing at all, we were neither worried nor impressed: we were just enjoying the pigs.

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