At 2004’s midpoint,  I absconded from my beloved Montana in favor of law school in Virginia, pulling my U-Haul of can’t-be-left-behind-yard-sale-treasures behind me.  At the same time, my dear friend Betsy trotted off to spend a year in the Marshall Islands, teaching English through WorldTeach.

Betsy is hard working, a heckuva a femangler, a masterful baker, a patient teacher, a loyal friend, a dog lover, a woman who looks good in leopard print heels and in wading boots.  She makes the best homemade honey-spiced-whiskey I know of.  When she left, I had a vague idea that she was going to teach English on an island in the Pacific where coconuts grew on trees and the temperatures never dipped below 70 degrees.  That sounded lovely to me.  And, I think, to her, too.

But I knew from the tone of Betsy’s first letter that life on Ujae, in the Marshall Islands, was not tropical paradise, and in fact seemed to involved three meals per day featuring rice and/or breadfruit as the main character.  My heart ached for my friend, who reveres fresh food and rarely misses a farmer’s market.  Though she never complained, I knew she was unhappy, though her unhappiness did not fully register with me, as Howard had just died.  I had a hard time focusing on much beyond Howard when Betsy was in the Marshall Islands.  I remember sending her rambling letters, though I don’t remember what I wrote to her about, and old nylon shorts of mine, as she had explained that the Marshallese women are too modest to wear bathing suits in the sea.

The year passed.  I left law school behind for the summer, heading due west for Montana.  About the same time, Betsy returned from the Marshall Islands.  She looked like brown sugar that’s gone hard in the bag – deep, caramely tan, and a little unsure of herself amongst the masses of people inhabiting northwest Montana in July.  We went off to Polebridge, an area akin to Babb, remote but on Glacier’s west side, not far south of the Canadian border.  There is no electricity in Polebridge, but there are huckleberry coconut macaroons.  On the trails, Betsy and I talked of little more than the second half of 2004, and how bitterly disappointed we both had been by it.  She told me about what it feels like to go months without having an “intelligent” conversation with another adult, and then delved deeper into the topic, explaining that it had taken her a while to understand that what is, and what is not, an “adult” conversation is measured through the lens of your own culture, and that lens is hard to wipe completely clean, even when you try to.  I told her what it felt like not to even want to have an “intelligent” conversation.

It wasn’t until Betsy gave me a copy of Surviving Paradise, by Peter Rudiak-Gould, who had been the WorldTeach volunteer on the same island as Betsy, just a year before she arrived, that I really understood what all had happened to my friend.  Or maybe it’s better to say, what all had not happened to my friend.  As Betsy says, the author is the male version of her, so closely does his story tracks hers.  Ujae was not the tropical paradise either had hoped for. Ujae is tiny, only a 1/3 of a square mile.  Only four hundred people crowd it:

Like the narrator of Surviving Paradise, at first Betsy was charmed by the new customs and language (Marshallese) of her temporary home.  But as the newness of the experience wore off, and she realized she would leave Ujae only once during her year there, the island began to resemble a cerulean prison, a sort of glittering blue Groundhog Day, where every day she woke to cloudless azure skies and a view of the seemingly limitless sea.  Every day she attempted to teach the children of the Marshall Islands a language that they did not speak.  And of course, she spoke very little of their language.  I believe my friend felt like she was trapped in a beautiful turquoise jewel box.

That’s Betsy with some of her students, above.

Surviving Paradise touches on the frustrations and pleasures of teaching, the serrated issues of cultural conflicts, and the doldrums that can come from living in tropical paradise.  I enjoyed Surviving Paradise for the insider’s look it gave me into a significant period of the life of my friend, but I think it should be required reading for anyone considering a WorldTeach-type, Marshall Islands-esque experience.  Peter Rudiak-Gould skillfully weaves his tales of life on Ujae with insightful cultural commentary, and humor.  I recommend Surviving Paradise.

Photo credits to Betsy Murphy.  2010.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

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