I think I dreaded the travel portion of this trip more than any other journey to date.
There is no easy way to get there from here, to regurgitate and misuse that New England expression. I would be spending more than forty-three hours EACH WAY in transit. You can only get to Kosrae via Continental airlines, which means Hawaii is the transfer point. You land late evening, and continue on thirteen hours later in the morning light. Because the layover is longer than twelve hours, you must collect your check-in baggage and find a place to hunker down. I intended to rough it out in the airport and save a few bucks, but I learned the airport shuts down for two hours at night. Rather than wait until I reached to airport to find out if that meant passengers had to leave the gates and hang out by the ticketing area, I got a decent deal at the motel chain that my cousins were staying at.
The leg to Hawaii was uneventful and long, and in spite of the daylight I managed to catch a short nap. I figured I would get at least six hours of sleep in Hawaii, knock myself out with some sleeping pills on the next flight, and arrive in Kosrae with my internal clock on its way to being properly set for the time zone.
The motel restaurant was closed by the time I checked in at around 9 PM, so finding food would have to wait. The first order of business was to say hello to my geographically distant cousins, one of whom I had never met.
George, Hannah and I hit it off immediately. They are from the West Coast side of the family, so I had met Hannah all of once or twice in the past. But for the last three months, we had been talking via phone and email in preparation for this journey. Within minutes, we were joking and kidding like the family we were, years and miles disappearing with the warmth that family can bring.
While they went to sleep, I left in search of food. The night attendant clued me in to an all-night drive-in joint around the corner. Hawaii cuisine greeted me in garish neon as a paper menu listing the available spam preparations sat inside a glowing green frame. I passed on that delicacy and instead went old-fashioned; hamburger, fries, coke.
By the time I finished eating in my motel room, I was pretty well wide-awake. So I hit up my “home channel” to see the latest in news. This was where I learned Rick Sanchez was fired from CNN, and that my life back at Time Warner Center would likely be a little different when I returned. Rick was out of Atlanta, but things had a way of resonating through all the bureaus. I spent the next several hours flipping channels in that jumpy haze you get while simultaneously changing time zones and screwing with your own normal operating schedule.
Three hours of sleep and it was time to meet the relatives in the lobby and head off to the airport. I thought of the sleeping pills in my pocket, determined to knock myself into an anticipated night’s sleep right after they served breakfast, and wake with a few hours before landing. It was an agenda designed to help me land rested and ready for adventure.
My hopes were dashed when the island hopper landed in Majuro, Marshall Islands. For some reason, the TSA inspects the aircraft at every stop along the way. This annoying process involves half of the aircraft de-boarding on the tarmac and waiting in either a hot, sweaty concrete room, or in the intense morning light, while the other half wait on the plane, switching sides of the aircraft as the inspectors hand-check each seat for any dangerous items.
I was shaken awake by the flight attendant. She explained through my medicated fog that I was on the side that needed to deplane. Like some slow-motion robot, I pulled my carry-ons from the overhead compartments and joined my cousins in the sweltering heat. For at least twenty minutes, the three of us tried to find elusive relief from the triple digit temperatures, but none was to be had in the tiny holding room in spite of the fans. At least in the sun there was a slight ocean breeze. Part of my brain was coming to terms that I was once again in the tropics, just as we were allowed to return to the air-conditioned comfort of our 737.
A second attempt at sleep was snatched from me when we came in to land at Kwajalein. This atoll, a part of the Marshall Islands, makes up one of the main United States military listening posts in the Pacific, if not the biggest. The islands also serve as a testing facility for anti-ballistic missile systems and space operations support.
Groggy still, but certainly more awake, I watched as we landed on this fascinating little strip of land. Barely long enough to hold the airstrip, every available piece of real estate had some super-secret piece of technology designed to either support our own forces or listen for the enemy’s signals and track them by air and sea. Geodesic domes of all sizes hid specialized arrays from view, buildings bristled with antenna and dishes, and a series of curious berms ran between the landing strip and the sea – a design that reminded me of Tom Clancy’s description of an Ultra-Low Frequency antenna made to listen for submarines from one of his books.
We were instructed to take no pictures. Once all the people who were destined for this slice of tropical military paradise deplaned, the TSA appointees came inside to do their mandatory seat check. Nobody else was allowed to leave the plane – passengers had to crowd the alternate sides of the aircraft as the inspectors faithfully patted down the seats and removed each cushion in case someone hid something nefarious there.
Leaving Kwajalein, I wondered how many pairs of eyes were watching our flight gain altitude on their scopes, their computers calculating complex firing solutions for expensive missiles that were sitting on launchers with their safeties on. After all, I wouldn’t doubt it if these boys used the regular flights as a way to drill and test the systems that feed their defense network. It’s cheaper than calibrating off a test flight.
The landing in Kosrae, a short time later, was the most spectacular I have ever seen. We approached the island from the north at an altitude of what I am guessing was 2,000 feet. As we flew south on the east side of the island, the mountains of Kosrae flew by on the left side of the plane, as did the airport below. The peaks seemed to reach just above our fight path as the aircraft traversed nearly the entire island before turning a tight 180° to line up with the runway.
Even from across the aisle, I watched the mountains on the other side of the aircraft fly by as we finished our decent. It was, in a word, majestic; a word that also describes the visual beauty above and below the water, which I would soon experience.
How it all began...
Thomas, a close friend who lives in Thailand, lost his family in the 2005 Christmas tsunami. Searching for good amidst the tragedy, he discovered Biorock, the reef restoration process championed by Dr. Thomas Goreau. After some convincing on his part, I grabbed my camera and journeyed to Indonesia to learn about saving our coral reefs. But the story didn't end there. My education about the perilous state of hard corals brought me back to Florida, where I followed another restoration process developed by Ken Nedimyer in Key Largo. Trips to Kosrae and Australia followed, as I sought out healthy corals in an effort to explain what is going on with our coral reefs.