Travel Read: Surviving Paradise

If you have any friends who’ve taught English in a foreign country, you’ve heard some sob stories–the trouble of simultaneously dealing with culture shock and a new job, the students who just don’t get it, the adverse conditions at school. . .the list is as long as there are ESL teachers.

Peter Rudiak-Gould
has them all beat.

Right after turning 21, Peter went to spend a year on Ujae, one of the more remote atolls in the remote Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands. This tiny island has a population of 450 people and he could walk around it in less than an hour. He arrived speaking virtually no Marshallese and quickly discovered his students were equally lacking in English.

So how does one teach a class of students when there is no shared language and the culture has no tradition of classroom learning?

Badly, at first. But Peter rallies quickly, and as he adapts to the culture he’s immersed in, we’re right along with him. His ability to learn the island’s subtle and alien language shows a deep intelligence and no small amount of desperation, and he shares some fun linguistic tidbits. For example, the eleven words for coconut, ranging from kwalinni (just beginning to grow on the tree) to uronni (ready to husk and drink) all the way to jokiae (turned into a sapling). There are also 159 coconut-related terms, like emmotmot, the sucking noise you make when you drink green coconuts.

There are the usual traveler-out-of-his-depth stories, some of them hilarious, and all of them teaching something about the culture rather than simply whining about discomfort and lack of modern amenities. Peter’s greatest shock was to find out he wasn’t going to be living on a tropical island paradise. No grass huts, no luxurious food, just concrete shacks, noisy children, and nightly Nintendo marathons courtesy of the local generator.

Braving shark-infested waters and falling coconuts, our hero forges ahead with his teaching. He comes to understand and respect these very different people while not being blind to their flaws, and fear for what would happen to them if sea levels rose just a few inches and ate away their island. Surviving Paradise is more than your typical traveler’s tale–it’s a look at a culture that might literally vanish beneath the waves, and also a look at Peter growing up. Perfect for the traveler or English teacher in your life.