In Marshallese, iokwe means hello, goodbye, and I love you. Translated literally, it means “you are a rainbow.” It’s not a word that’s reserved for family members or even for friends; if you walk down the street in Majuro, strangers who pass you greet you with iokwe. It is, in my opinion, a beautiful way to tell people you appreciate their presence, made even truer because it’s not exclusive — everyone is recognized and appreciated.
Rainbows are ubiquitous in the Marshalls. It rained at least briefly most days we were there, and when the sun came out again, it almost always cast a rainbow. We often saw multiple rainbows a day when we were diving, which is a lot, especially considering we spent half of our time underwater. It makes sense that the rainbow would be incorporated into such an important word in the Marshallese language.
It was difficult for me to say goodbye to the Marshall Islands. It’s true that I worked hard while I was there, and I learned way more than I ever could in a classroom. I also had a ton of fun and made some connections that I hope will be a part of my life for the foreseeable future, both personally and professionally. I participated in a fishing tournament and got to reel in a wahoo. I fulfilled my lifelong dream of sleeping on a hammock on the beach on a remote island, and spent an afternoon picnicking and snorkeling on another remote island. I did a dusk beach dive with some friends and surfaced just as the sun was setting over the lagoon. I’ve seen what seems like a million beautiful sunrises and sunsets, watched the stars come out from the deck of a boat, and counted meteors while laying in the sand on the beach. I got to attend a Marshallese wedding and a birthday celebration, and I was warmly welcomed at both, despite barely knowing the people celebrating. I’m sure there were a million other things that I’m forgetting to mention. Going into this trip, I knew the summer was going to be special. I didn’t know that by the time I left, Majuro would feel like home.
I’ve learned that the Marshallese usually don’t say goodbye. Instead, they say see you later (bar loe eok if you’re speaking to one person, or bar loe kom if you’re speaking to a group). Fortunately, in my case, this is actually true, since I’ll be returning to Majuro to continue working there. I’m already counting down the days until summer 2017. So, for now, bar loe kom to all my friends in the Marshalls, and kommol tata for helping me feel at home there.