Unplugged: An internet addict heads to The Marshall Islands for low-tech holiday
Dec 17, 2011 | 3:10 pm
I got off the plane and immediately my hand went to my pocket. There was no faux hallway, like after the other Continental flights; just a mobile staircase, humid 85 degree heat and a strong breeze. I felt like a visiting dignitary, deplaning the only aircraft in a small military airstrip.
Before taking in the sights, even though I knew it wasn't going to work, I took out my cellphone and turned it on. There were no voicemails, no texts, no bars, no signal — just the wrong date and time and the word "Searching."
I worship at the cult of the American city. I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Houston and Milwaukee, pre-planned grids of beige sidewalks and identical houses, mini-marts and shopping malls. Never in my life have I been more than a half an hour ride from an electronics store, or a movie theater, or a store specifically for orthopedic matresses. In Austin (where I've lived since July), there is not a convienently located Panera Bread, a harsh fact I sometimes find legitimately distressing.
In short, I think of Austin as the quintessential representation of what I mean when I say "modern life." It's rampant with tech firms, pervasive wireless internet, sophisticated transit, blossoming arts and very connected people. Austin is an up-to-date city if there ever was one, with every amenity you could ask for without the annoying surfeit of people that New Yorkers or Los Angelinos complain about. Because of the heat it's still a car-first city, so people are always mobile and always checking in with one another. I hit the ground running five months ago and am proud to think of it as my home.
But I jumped at the chance to visit my sister in the Marshall Islands for the holidays. They're an archipelago of small islands (and island derivatives) in the south Pacific, twice the distance of Hawaii in the same direction. After establishing a military base there for strategic reasons in World War II, the United States maintained their presence mainly to test bombs (the Marshall Islands include the Bikini Atoll, still slightly radioactive to this day). The base has since remained as an outpost, along with some civilian meteorological companies that maintain Pacific radar equipment.
I realized that just over two weeks without the trappings of modern life would be "hard," but obviously the rewards spoke for themselves. I won't go crazy without Twitter, will I?
The journey here required five flights: from Austin to Houston to Los Angeles to Hawaii to Majuro Atoll to Kwajalein Atoll, where my sister lives, covering nearly 7,000 miles and 36 hours. It's an unthinkable journey on the face of it. In truth, the only perniciously annoying parts were the modern conveniences that went too far, like the LCD screens on the back of every seat in economy that insisted on playing a preview of FOX's Alcatraz over and over.
Because the "island hopper" flight that runs the south Pacific gamut all the way to Guam doesn't fly around the clock, I spent an eight hour layover in Honolulu international airport enjoying ubiquitous wi-fi for the last time, fortifying myself at a 24-hour Starbucks and relaxing with sessions in an automatic massage chair between naps.
When the plane set down in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Island republic, some people deplaned and some local islanders got on — Continental does inter-island traffic for a modest fee. And for the short hop to Kwajalein from there, I sat next to a Marshallese man whose name I didn't get and whose language I didn't know, but who I loved because he spent the entire hour looking through the SkyMall catalog, pointing things out to me (camoflauge slankets, hundred dollar pet beds, roses preserved by hand-dipping them in gold) and laughing hysterically.
The first two days here have been a peaceful respite, a time to unwind. I took a nap after I arrived and as soon as mind realized my phone was lifeless, my laptop wasn't connected and I had nowhere specific to be and nothing specific to do, I slept as I haven't in a long time.
If I were texting my friends or thinking of new updates to hashtag with "#islandtweets," I wouldn't have noticed the shells starting to move in my periphery as hermit crabs grow bold, hear the dull thumps of palm tree fronds falling to the ground in the distance or noticed the small black-beaked birds that run on spindly legs instead of flying when it's hot.
It's beautiful, almost comically so — the sands are white, and the water a cerulean blue that still seems like a postcard after you've waded in it. My sister paid for my trip, of course, so my bragging is only about my circumstantial luck, and my shame is that I still can't shake the need to check the internet: there is a snack bar with spotty wi-fi, a combination Burger King/Subway/Baskin Robbins that is a haven of Americana, to which I've returned three times already.
In the coming days I'll be seeing how my sister (who works for a school attached to the base) and other civilian contractors live in a sort of hybrid life, and then visiting other islands to see even more remote places and the third world existence of many indigenous Marshallese. And either it'll subside to a manageable degree or drive me insane, but the entire time, my hand is going to look for my phone. When I arrived and turned it on against all hope, I knew I was being foolish to begin with. But after giving it a second, even though I know that my life will be there when I get back, I couldn't stop myself from holding the phone up to the sky, looking in vain hope for a signal that isn't coming.