Remote File: Australia and Oceania
3,074,800 square miles
10 people per square mile
Claim to Fame
Longest reef: the Great Barrier Reef (1,247 miles)
Most Remote Region
The Great Sandy Desert, Australia
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin
Sailing Alone Around the World, Joshua Slocum
WHEN THE PEACE Corps informed me that I was being sent to Micronesia, I went straight to my atlas. After much searching and squinting I found a sprinkling of dots just north of the equator and 2,000 miles east of the Philippines. Finally I located the Truk islands, my soon-to-be home: 11 small grains of pepper on the map's wide blue middle.
Almost immediately I constructed an imaginary Micronesiabeautiful island women, succulent fruit, warm trade winds, translucent seas. I would spend my mornings helping desperately poor islanders, my afternoons snorkeling in wild, unpolluted waters, my nights reading in my thatched hut, or making love. At 25, I had already spent years dreaming of an Eden free of the rush, spoilage, and obsession with money that I felt surrounded me. Now I was sure I'd found it.
After a long flight across the Pacific and a few weeks of training on Guam, it was a two-day sail to my island, a speck of sand called Murilo, in the Hall group, eight degrees north latitude. Finally, on a brilliant September afternoon, I climbed down the ladder of the field-trip ship and into the skiff that would take me to the atoll. Above hung an enormous sky burned white by the tropical sun. Ahead was a Robinson Crusoelike crescent of land fringed with palms and pandanus trees. On all sides, as far as I could see, the green Pacific sparkled and rolled. For a minute or two I was struck full in the chest by the wonderful mercilessness of the nonhuman world, the immensity. Salt spray flying up against my sunglasses, I sat amid an embarrassment of luggage, bearing big dreams.
Murilo was home to 200 people. Its summit stood six feet above sea level; you could walk the entire shoreline in 15 minutes. During the day, the heat was so intense that the Murilans sought shade whenever they could. But as soon as the sun set, bathing the cumulus clouds stacked on the horizon in scarlet and lavender, a sweet breeze rose off the water and blew until dawn. Yet it quickly became apparent to me that my visions of paradise had been absurd. The humidity curled up the edges of my notebook paper and glued my envelopes closed. Tiny flies swarmed my face and arms. The single females were all under the age of eight. The foodfresh fish of a hundred varieties, breadfruit, taro, coconuts, bananas, pumpkin, lobster, pig, dog, snailswhile as tasty as I'd imagined, carried bacteria that plagued even the locals.
There was no mail. The only way on or off Murilo was the field-trip ship, which stopped by with supplies every three months. Worst of all, however, was the fact that I was completely superfluous on Murilo. The people were contentmore content, by a good measure, than those I'd left behind. The women sang as they made rope from coconut-husk fibers. The men passed cigarettes around a circle, two puffs apiece, and carried buckets of fish over to a neighbor's house after a lucky afternoon at sea. My elaborately detailedPeace Corps jobwriting up the island laws into a kind of constitutiontook an hour a month.
I filled the broiling, empty days by teaching myself to fish with a snorkel, a spear, and a slingshotlike loop of surgical tubing the locals called a Hawaiian sling. The waters around Murilo were full of sharks, nurse and black-tipped reef sharks, mostly, but tigers and hammerheads too, so the speared fish had to be killed immediatelyby crushing the skulls between my back teeth. Every morning I returned to the sea, losing myself in schools of angelfish, surgeonfish, and barracuda, diving down after my speared lunchliving, for a few hours at least, like a full citizen of the natural world.
Despite the thrill of spearfishing, I lasted only five months, climbing back onto the field-trip ship with my idealism bruised and my body host to battalions of infections. The Murilans, friendly and hospitable as they were, simply didn't need me. Still, when I stepped out of Logan Airport, after the 30-hour flight from Truk, I was carrying a fishing spear wrapped up in cardboard and tape. I keep it in my workshop now, a rusty reminder of the most remote place I've ever been. And sometimes, swimming in the waters off Cape Cod, I take a breath and dive, running my chest along the sandy bottom, imagining a solitary surgeonfish there, just ahead, just out of range.