Friday, November 2, 2007

Vignettes, West of the Marianas Trench

Before the sun sets, you often see the tops of clouds that, though they appear to end at the horizon line of the sea, are just the tops of cumulus so enormous, they bend around the earth.

The Chinese women walk home from the garment factories after work. They wear flirty thin dresses and hold bright, clashing umbrellas against the sun.

The Korean tourists stop to take posed photos. "Here I am smelling this lovely plumeria." "Here I am playing air guitar beneath the rotating Hard Rock Cafe sign."

Dong, sushi chef at Shin Sen, makes the perfect, half-dozen sets of spicy tuna rolls. The waitresses can't add in English. You have to make sure they don't under or overcharge you. "No, that's your tip. You need to keep that." Or "The sake was fifteen dollars? Are you sure?"

For Halloween at school, I dressed as Lady Macbeth. The students had performed selected scenes from the play--complete with costumes, music, and flyers--in lieu of a test. I recycled the foil-wrapped, cardboard dagger one of the students had made for her group's staging of Macbeth stabbing Duncan. One of my usually reticent students came up to me with a smile. "Miss, I'll kill Duncan for you." Hallelujah, they'll remember Shakespeare.

For the weekend party, a teacher friend went as the Marianas Trench. (The deepest known oceanic trench in the world. Among other things, it keeps tsunamis from our island shores.) She wore a tiny plastic tugboat on a headband, a filmy dress of blue covered in dried seaweed, and strands of shells about her neck and waist. "To uncharted territory," she toasted. As the evening wore on, the tide pulled out, the full moon rose, and the wide, white swath of beach in front of her house was an open invitation to walk far, far away in the night silence. I accepted.

Friday, September 7, 2007

You know

You know you're on a tropical island when you have to wipe the mold off your leather shoes.

When your mint tin rusts.

When the tip of your sewing needle rusts.

When an apple left on the dash of the car cooks in a day (slow-food--island-style).

When the roads are made of coral.

When you shower in a rain storm on the roof when the electricity goes out.

When you spend an entire evening with friends in the ocean, watching the stars come out after the sun sets.

When you learn how to heft a five-gallon bottle of water on your hip like a child.

When you never have to use lotion. Ever.

When you name the geckos that have become additional roommates.

The weeks since my last post turned into lesson plans and sunsets. The same week that mainland schools began their academic year, we had midterm progress reports.

Labor Day weekend, Rebecca and I developed an ear infection (from a waterfall at a local spa, we think). Regardless, we kept plans for a weekend girls' night with a few other teachers. We took a ferry to the neighboring island, Tinian. Tinian has a few thousand inhabitants, but they must hide in the hills. You can feel what Saipan must have been like before the it was westernized.

We visited ancient stone ruins and turquoise lagoons. Gorgeous. But by evening, I knew I needed to do something about my ear. Even so, I joined everyone for dinner. The meal was on the house, courtesy of an Australian marathoner who worked there and knew Rebecca.

After our second round of wine, a man came up to the table, friend of friends. He was the island doctor on weekend call and offered to drive us over to the Tinian hospital to check out the infection. Rebecca and I crammed into the cab of his tiny pickup truck as he told us about his hippie days in Israel.

The hospital was painted a definitive hospital green. A color so bad it hurt worse than my ear. We sat in a room stacked with enough little white boxes of various medical supplies to hide the green.

I was pleased that an "emerency room" visit (anything after 5 pm) cost only $25. And my ear drops $9. But they had no technology to accept credit cards. Between us, Rebecca and I had exactly $34 in cash. A bit of medical (and girls' night) serendipity.

On normal days, we all teach and then head for the ocean or sushi or home. Home feels like vacation. This morning, I skipped one of my six, nine-hour, saturday history classes to enjoy a full weekend. We had banana pancakes on the white-washed roof. Ben strung up his hammock, and Rebecca and I sat at the wood table we found for a steal when some other howlies (off-islanders, i.e., like us) were leaving island. As with the British who say they are "in hospital" islanders skip "the" and refer to being "on island" or "off island."

Back to the pancakes. I realized: I don't have to go anywhere to get away. I live on a tropical island. I repeat that to myself often. It still surprises me.

Life pulls me along. I haven't written much of anything other than with red ink on student papers. I feel on the verge of reaching equilibrium and am learning how to maximize my school time to bring less work home.

It is beginning to feel right. The kind of feeling that you can't put a finger on. You just know.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


"Miss Elkins, can I have your phone number?" sings Wilford. It is fourth period, my one remedial senior English class.

"You have a fine voice, Wilford. Perhaps you could use it with your group to finish the 'Words to Own' worksheet."

"Ah, Miss Elkins is . . . " he looks down at his sheet, ". . . ve-e-e-xed," he sings with a smile.

I shake my head, laughing. He has, indeed, owned his words.

I actually enjoy these "remedial" students the most. They don't expect me to expect much of them, and yet they have so much energy waiting for the right current to sweep them away. Beowulf isn't a bad way to command the attention of almost thirty teenage boys. Blood, guts, et al.

Et al, I have 120 students. This, along with the technical difficulties of powerpoint, speaker systems, and no prep period, slipped through the job description. I practice my sense of humor as my students practice their latin prefixes. I have learned that, in a climate where nothing dries, you don't sit in the car with a wet bikini and expect it to be dry even two days later (as I discovered on the first morning of school last week).

At the market after school, buying sushi tuna caught that morning, we see our kids with their parents or friends. "Hello, Miss," they say.

We drive home each night in the gold four-door now dubbed "Goldilocks Wiglaf." The first name is for the three bears (Ben, Rebecca & I). The surname it got this afternoon, because we decided an automobile needs a bit of Norse warrior blood to make it up the potholed road.

I relish the pre-dawn stretching on the roof, the roosters cawing in the neighbor's yards. I compare skyscapes American and European and wonder what I miss from those places. Each time I hear my new "name," the question arises. What do I miss? I don't even know. And soon, this will be as much home as anywhere has been. And someday if I leave, I will miss it too.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Spelling the Island


v: to constitute the letters of a word /to add up; signify

n: a trance

I vacillate between verb and noun. Do I spell the name of our new place Kanatabla? Does it mean something like a table rock? The view is splendid. 180 degrees of sea, the island Tinian. Around the corner, San Pedro Chapel is announced by a candy-bright statue of the saint standing next to a statue of a chicken.

And even though we spent three hours scrubbing the floors and walls of our apartment, I am in the trance of flame trees, ylang ylang, coconuts, lagoons you can walk far into, massages the evening after our labor.

Everything adds up to a good place to try teaching.

This morning, I woke early to learn powerpoint. School starts on Friday. I have a grand amount to do beforehand.

And I'll learn how to spell my home.

Anna, landed

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


why are we holding
our stories inside us
like knives—
handing them handle-
forward to those who ask
for a word?