Can you imagine not having your phone for one entire day? How about two? Or (gulp) a week? It’s almost inconceivable, but I once lived and breathed without my mobile phone for two whole months. It was in a place they called “paradise” where the sun shines eternally, but somehow Sun Cellular or even Sprint couldn’t reach it.
It’s free of any kind of pollution, unmarred by unsightly phone lines and cables, and free Wi-Fi was also unheard of. To get around, you take a bike, and the occasional traffic hold-up is caused by a crossing hermit crab (only if you bother to yield for a crustacean). Out there, the favorite pastime is lounging on powdery white sand and occasionally getting up to make a drink. But be warned, you can’t post your selfie by the shore (not #HappeningNow), because your phone is pretty much dead around those parts. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of.
Yes, I once lived off the grid. As scary as it may sound, I survived with only tan lines as battle scars. The place is called the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), an island country in the Pacific Ocean. To get to this chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls, you get on United Airlines’s Island Hopper from Guam. It’s called an Island Hopper because the plane hops from Guam to the islands of Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, and then finally to Kwajalein, one of the largest islands in the atoll.
On each stop passengers are required to vacate the plane as a security procedure. You get to wait in a little shack terminal at the edge of the jungle, watching the lone plane on the tarmac finish its security sweep. Back in the plane, the smell of flowers gets stronger and stronger as more and more islanders in generous muumuus and wreaths of flowers on their head pile in on every stop.
Then finally at Kwajalein, the landscape drastically changes. The airstrip is abuzz with military airplanes. Beyond the squat whitewashed buildings and neatly lined coconut trees, large tracking radars, some looking like gigantic golf balls, are hard to miss.
There’s a moment of smugness as I stand up to exit the plane and the flight attendant looks at me, an eyebrow raised. The look says: “Nobody gets off on this island unless you have a badge or you’re in uniform. Not even I can get off.”
This is where I get off, I would reply. I have a permit. This is where I unplug. It’s easy to get a visa to the RMI, but the Marshall Islands is typically not a destination one would add to the bucket list. Although it’s somewhat untouched by development and commercialization, it’s also precisely the problem. There’s little infrastructure to speak of and squalor is evident in many of the islands.
However, Kwajalein and its neighboring atoll Roi-Namur are a different story. These atolls are home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, which provides range instrumentation, missile launch facilities, mission control center, range safety, meteorological support, and support space operations. Needless to say, it’s a high security area and not open to the public unless you can get one of the residents to sponsor your entry. Luckily, I’m married to a retired Roi Rat (residents of Roi-Namur). From Kwaj, I get on a tiny plane after I’m weighed along with my baggage (every pound counts apparently) to get to the northernmost part of the Kwajalein atoll, my final destination—Roi-Namur.
Like most of the islands, Roi-Namur doesn’t have cell service of any sort, because to get in touch with anyone, all you have to do is ride a bike—the main mode of transportation—to deliver your message in person. If you don’t have a two-wheeler, then you take the bus—that one bus that circles the islands non-stop the whole day. The bus fare is a nod or a smile which hardly ever gets noticed anyway. I’m convinced the driver ferries the bus around half asleep, stopping almost unconsciously at the same spots day in and day out.
Anyway, it isn’t that hard to locate any one of the 120 Rats (mostly Americans and a few Marshallese, all employees of the Reagan Test Site) in a two-mile long and three-quarters of a mile wide island. If he’s not working, then he’s more than likely having a beer at the Surf Shack or the Parrot Head bar. There’s not much to go from there aside from the Café Roi (a glorified cafeteria) and a small convenience store. At the bar you will more than likely find the same regulars night after night, playing “Dream Weaver” from the jukebox for the thousandth time. If you decide to stay in, don’t rely on cable for company. There’s only the American Forces Network channel, which really isn’t much especially if you’re used to at least 100 channels or satellite TV. A few bored residents have put together their own station for movies, playing Cast Away three times a day.
It’s ironic because the largest radars in the world are found on these tiny atolls. Although I can’t easily access Google Maps on the island, that very same island hosts one of the ground stations that assist in operating GPS.
It really isn’t that bad. You can actually connect to the rest of the world through the ol’ dial-up. You know, that mode of internet access that forces you to sit through those mechanical screeches and beeps while your computer connects to an ISP. And the speed? Let’s just say you can go ahead and make yourself a mojito every time you try to load a page. Everything and everyone are on island time in these parts of the planet.
Not your idea of an island resort, right? But it has it perks. You can literally swim with the fishes in crystal clear waters without being bothered by noisy obnoxious tourists in skin tight Speedos. There are no peddling hawkers to deal with or a waiter waiting for a tip. There’s just you and your drink of choice and a hundred hermit crabs frolicking on the sand. If you go while everybody else is at work, you will have the Surf Shack to yourself. It’s a party every night after work and everybody is a friend. What’s for dinner? Sushi caught right off the ocean on the same day.
If you don’t feel like company, you can step out of your quarters and walk to the beach outside the door (it’s an island after all, everywhere around you is the beach), leaving everything behind, including your mobile phone. There’s a sense of liberation in not having to worry about being low on battery, not having to worry about chargers, missed calls, or misplacing or losing your expensive new toy.
It took a while for the ghost ringing of my phone to disappear, that imagined ring until your realize that your phone is dead. And even if it was powered on, there would be no cell service anyway. But when my phone was finally silenced—no ghost rings, no imagined beeps—my mind too was hushed. I was finally freed of the pollution of the big city and the noise of my news feed, liberated from too many choices and information overload. I no longer feared missing out. The fast world that I knew ebbed with the water lapping at my feet. Finally, I was able to focus on recharging myself.