Joan Rutherford: A woman alone in the Marshall Islands - Part 1 of 3
One of the joys of cruising is meeting the disparate and intriguing globetrotters who journey, each for their own reason, to the far reaches of the world. While sailing in the Marshall Islands, we met Joan Rutherford, an American woman who was living alone on a tiny island.
“Have you ever slept with the sea birds?” Joan asked. “Oh, God! Do it! In your lifetime, do it!” Joan’s voice trilled as she described the sounds of the terns. She was excited. “When I was on Wau, the jungle birds talked all night. The white ones sound like harps.”
For five years, Joan Rutherford, a woman in her 50s, lived alone on a 30-foot by 90-foot Micronesian island where seabirds were a daily part of her life. After spending the previous 27 years raising children and working for the state of Washington, she was ready to rest.
“Resting means not having to be responsible or worry about what’s happening in one’s society,” explained Joan.
In 1988, Joan took six weeks off work and travelled through Micronesia looking for a place to light, visiting islands like Palau, Saipan, and Yap.
“I wanted to go to Micronesia when I retired, damned if I know why, but it had become somewhat compelling.”
When she landed in the Marshall Islands that was it.
“It had something to do with the quality of the air and the wind. We’re not talking rational here. It doesn’t involve valuing and judging and what is there in terms of services,” Joan said, her voice rising, her hands fluttering.
Once she had decided on the Marshalls, the narrowing process continued. There are 34 atolls in the island chain.
“I didn’t want to stay in Majuro [the capital] because I don’t like cities. It took weeks to get to an outer atoll and Mili is where I got. The farther I got from roads and cars and the closer I got to people in this culture, the more comfortable it got. So I went home and retired and came out.”
Living on an atoll—a flat, narrow strip of sand and coral surrounded by, as Mark Twain put it, “lonely wide deserts of sea”—isn’t always easy. Strung across the equator, the Marshalls are in a tempestuous part of the world where cumulous clouds tower overhead and march across the horizon bearing violent squalls and intense tropical rainstorms. The wisps of land seem incredibly fragile, defenseless against the moods of Mother Nature. The weather is hot and steamy, 80-degree temperatures with humidity about as high as it can go.
Besides the harshness of the geography, the living conditions are primitive. Except for the rare generator that is cranked up on special occasions, on most atolls there is no electricity. Food is cooked over an open fire. Clothes are washed by hand. The only source of fresh water is what is collected from the rain. Medical care is virtually non-existent.
But the payoff is big: blue lagoons with multi-colored fish and a cornucopia of coral, tropical islands thick with palm trees, and a race of people with a love of family and a sense of sharing that has been lost in the United States.
“Do you know what rebelle [the Marshallese word for white people] means?” Joan asked. “It means human beings who value possessions above people.