This is the third post in a five part series covering the Island Hopper written by Dave Schaverien, a guest contributor to Pointsnerd. You can follow Dave on Instagram at @davidschav
The Island Hopper
Part 3 – Majuro
My second 24 hour stop on this journey was in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. I flew directly from Pohnpei to Majuro on the shorter version of the Island Hopper which skips the Kosrae and Kwajalein stops.
The Marshall Islands, like Micronesia is a party to the Compact of Free Association with the United States which gives citizens of these countries the right to live and work in the US without a visa (and vice versa). Also like Micronesia, the Marshall Islands are an independent sovereign country recognized by the UN. When I visited in January 2020, there were very stringent health checks required before entering the country. Every traveller was required to have proof of a measles vaccination, and there were health workers wearing masks at Majuro airport taking everybody’s temperature before they were allowed to proceed to immigration.
Majuro is the name of the entire atoll, which is rectangular shaped and approximately 40km x 10km. The atoll itself surrounds a large lagoon, however, the land area is only 500 metres wide at its widest point, and throughout most of the atoll it is only around 100 metres wide.
At its highest point, Majuro is barely a couple of metres above sea level. Due to this unique geography, you can see both the lagoon and the ocean from almost anywhere on the atoll. Unfortunately, it also makes Majuro one of the most threatened places on earth from rising sea levels due to climate change.
I stayed at the Marshall Islands Resort. To say I chose this hotel would be slightly inaccurate. It was the only hotel in Majuro listed on any of the hotel booking platforms. To call it a resort would also be a stretch, but it was perfectly fine for a one night stay. Although the hotel charged for wifi, the connection is provided through a local telecommunications provider and included use of their hotspots around the atoll of which there were a few.
Despite the natural beauty surrounding the atoll, Majuro actually has quite a poor reputation. Before arriving I was warned incessantly about aggressive stray dogs, garbage on the street, the lagoon being full of trash, and there being a lack of things to do. Unfortunately, all of these things are true, but also somewhat exaggerated.
One interesting feature of Majuro is the shared taxis. Since the atoll is so narrow, there is only one major road with one lane each way. For the same reason, Majuro is not very walkable. However, a seemingly unlimited number of taxis drive up and down the street picking up and dropping off passengers on demand. It costs US$1 to go just about anywhere within a reasonable distance of the main town.
I set off in the morning to see the sights of Majuro, but unfortunately there was not much to see. The Alele museum contained an interesting history of the Marshall Islands, including some of the more tragic aspects such as when the US used several of the Marshall Islands for testing nuclear weapons hundreds of times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was also a local supermarket which had a very strange definition of everyday low price (see photo below). This was a good reminder of just how remote the Marshall Islands are, and that almost everything needs to be imported. Finally, I visited and was politely asked to leave the Legislature of the Marshall Islands for violating their dress code – shorts were not acceptable.
The Marshall Islands is one of a small handful of countries which officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country. Taiwan contributes a lot of aid to the Marshall Islands and in return there are signs everywhere thanking Taiwan for the donation of things like infrastructure and sporting facilities, as well as recognizing the friendship between the two countries.
With a lot of time on my hands and no hotel room to return to, I decided to try to make it to Laura Beach, all the way on the other side of the atoll near the village of Laura. This journey (both ways) turned out to be more eventful than I had expected.
The information I found on the internet on how to reach Laura Beach was both scarce and inaccurate, so here is how it actually works: There are shared taxis (definitely a taxi, not a bus) leaving from the parking lot opposite the Robert Reimers Hotel. They will look like a large van with a taxi sign on top, but may not be there when you arrive because there is no regular schedule or timetable, but keep asking people and you will eventually find one. They leave when full, and cost US$3 in each direction. Make sure you are taking a shared van as a private taxi is significantly more expensive.
Apparently it is 100% acceptable to ask the driver to stop at random places for snacks, water, and of course betel nut, an extremely popular stimulant similar to chewing tobacco in both its effects and method of consumption. I left at 11am and spent the next hour surrounded by very friendly betel nut chewing Marshallese on the road to Laura. As the villages we passed became more and more remote and traffic reduced to zero, I asked my fellow passengers how I might get back in time for my flight.
Each passenger had a slightly different answer, but most were along the lines of “there might be a taxi home, but there might not be, just ask people and you’ll find a way home, somebody will be going in that direction”. Needless to say, those answers didn’t fill me with confidence. The village of Laura is actually very pleasant. It is quiet, remote, surrounded by great scenery, and devoid of much of the trash, shipping containers and stray dogs which make the more built up parts of the atoll unpleasant.
Laura beach itself was a very nice place to spend a couple of hours. There were perhaps four other people on the entire beach and the water was clear and warm. You can’t go too far from the shore though because the current is extremely strong and there is nobody to save you if you get into trouble.
After a couple of hours at Laura Beach, I started the journey home, with the expectation that it might take some time. I walked about a kilometre into the village of Laura down a very quiet road. At this point, I was starting to get worried about whether it would actually be possible to get home. In the space of 15 minutes I saw zero cars, and three people. I was starting to prepare for having to walk a very long distance to get back to some kind of civilization.
This is where I met Thomas, whose name I have changed to protect his identity for reasons which will soon become apparent. I saw Thomas sitting on a chair outside a building in Laura staring into space. I asked him where I could find a taxi back to town. He said they would arrive right here, and that I was welcome to wait with him. He said perhaps it will be 10 minutes, and perhaps 2-3 hours, there is apparently no way to know, but he says there will definitely be one today.
Thomas works for a government agency, and the reason he was sitting on a chair doing nothing on a Monday afternoon was because he didn’t really feel like going to work that day. He was ready to leave in the morning, and just decided to stay home instead. Thomas was very well travelled due to his job, and sounded like he lives quite the life. He shared a bunch of bad taxi experiences in foreign countries with me, and I introduced him to Uber to make his life easier next time (yes, there are still people in 2020 who haven’t ever heard of Uber!).
Thomas was right, a shared taxi arrived about 40 minutes later and I was on my way back to town with a brand new set of betel nut chewing passengers. After arriving back to town there was enough time for a meal and a quick walk before heading over to the airport which has a wonderful park with scenic views about a five minute walk away.
So would I recommend Majuro as a layover on the Island Hopper? Unfortunately, probably not. While the people were very friendly, and I have no regrets about going, there isn’t much in the way of things to do beyond Laura Beach. Most people who visit Majuro stay for a day or two before heading off to some of the other more remote and less developed atolls. It saddens me to say it, but I appreciated Majuro much more from the air than from the ground.