When? December 2017, Coming from Guam, going on to Palau
How? Car, on foot, boat
I’m flying to Kosrae (pronounced Ko-shry) at the far end of the Federated States of Micronesia today and then I’m going to work my way back. Everyone refers to the country as FSM, but I’m struggling with this acronym. In the UK it stands for Free School Meals. I’m getting a foretaste of what is to come as we land first at Chuuk (say Chook) and then Pohnpei. (I’ve already covered the far end of the Island Hopper route from Honolulu to the Marshall Islands in the summer.) It’s cloudy, but there are rewarding glimpses of mountains draped in pea green jungle and swirling turquoise lagoons, the odd boat chugging across.
The Island Hopper flight is a pre-cursor of island colour. There’s a laidback holiday atmosphere, and as I’ve noted before in the South Pacific the locals dress up to travel. Many of the smiling women and some of the men wear long bead necklaces and crown their heads with artificial flower circlets. They are laden down with ‘carry-on bags’, the one per person rule is being flouted with gay abandon. The stewards are being remarkably patient – I can see them clenching their jaws. ’Please don’t open the life jackets unless we have a proper emergency’. But they also have a sense of humour. ‘Try the local green tangerines. Then you won’t catch scurvy’. The pilots are in leisurely mode also. Some of the crew hop off at Pohnpei to get takeaway food. I would have too if someone had told me we weren’t getting lunch on board. Breakfast, but no other meal on a six hour flight. I’m sure there is logic there somewhere.
All the airstrips on these islands are built partly on reef, above the sea to the north-west, more sheltered side. I’m not surprised that the plane is over an hour late. And I’m also not surprised to find that my lodge room is pretty basic, but this is luxury accommodation here. It’s half a cottage nestled between mangrove forests on a river and the sea. Simple, I don’t mind, it seems to have all the necessary facilities, but there’s an evil hydrogen sulphide type smell wafting around. I can’t decide if it’s coming from the bathroom or the mangrove forest. There are kayaks for the river and the mangrove channels and, what is touted as the best restaurant in Kosrae, Bully’s, atmospherically perched along a boardwalk at the edge of the river. Mudskippers and fiddler crabs maraud below.
There’s a narrow beach over the road; it’s rather marred by fortification with walls of sandbags, but there are the archetypal bent palm trees and the lagoon reflections of the clouds scudding across the blue sky are stunning. There are a couple of corrugated iron shacks snuggled in-between the trees. Primitive accommodation maybe, but definitely a room with a view. An impromptu roadside canteen has been set up close by in the back of a pick-up; rice and potfuls of thick hot fish and breadfruit soup.
And I’ve finally had time to open my prodigal case. Everything appears to be in order, despite all its adventures. But all these possessions seem like total overkill now.
I was going to take it easy today and catch up on some sleep, but it seems this is a good opportunity to snorkel. So instead I’m off on a boat with a long haired Puerto Rican guide called Carlos (his wife is a local), Ashley, an American anthropologist (the only anthropologist employed on Kosrae) and her boyfriend, Devon (who works in the banana leaf paper factory). I’m the only tourist; there aren’t many of those round here. Most of the lodge residents are here to work.
I wasn’t going to include Kosrae when I first planned this trip, but the little information available on the web described the island as The Jewel of FSM, so it had to be seen. Fortunately, my source was accurate . The view from the boat reveals that it is exquisitely gorgeous, with dramatic peaks, emerald vegetation spilling gloriously down the slopes. Trees line the ridges, a row of sentinels. The water is exceptionally clear and warm, but the coral is nearly all bleached out and there are just a few fish. And naturally, everyone but me sees the eagle ray and the stingray and the small shark. My initial descent into the sea is far more eventful and acutely embarrassing. The leg of my costume catches on a cleat, as I leap out, and the whole of the back of the suit rips open. Luckily, I have brought a zipped Lycra bodysuit with me this year, in case the water is cold (or there are jellyfish), so I slip that on. I notice that there is a label that I haven’t yet removed- it says ’burkini’.
We snorkel for several hours, at a couple of buoys, Carlos determines that I shall see every small fish, starfish (there are alarmingly several crown of thorns, so the reef is not going to recover without some help) and tiger’s eye. Back at my lodge, Ashley offers to accompany me down the road to The Blue Hole, another, easily accessible from the shore, snorkelling spot. There are, in fact, two Blue Holes, one closer to land, though they might more accurately be called Murky Green Holes. Visibility is much less good here and there still aren’t hordes of fish. But there are large coral drop offs to circumnavigate and sea cucumbers galore.
The locals congregate to swim off the pier, though the women don’t remove any of their clothes. Bikinis are considered to be fairly shocking. The water is so warm it’s like being in a bath and Ashley and I sit, semi-submerged on the steps for some time, talking. Ashley is a mine of information about local customs. There’s a sleeping lady (the emblem of the state) formed, by the peaks behind the main town of Lelu. Unlike a number of other sleeping ladies I’ve come across I can vaguely discern a body shape here, both (very pointy) breasts are clearly identifiable. I still haven’t worked out which way round she’s facing, and I don’t like to ask. Ashley says that the small motu, just offshore, is used to store the king’s bones. And the king himself has noted, in writing, that the women of the (relatively close) Marshall Islands use the cucumbers as dildos. They obligingly become hard when picked up.
We are joined by three more tourists from the lodge (so I’m not the only one this time). Roxie and Gabriel are med students and Kento, a Japanese student studying for an MBA in the USA. They are fascinated by Ashley’s stories and we all go back to Bully’s Restaurant to carry on the conversation over dinner. (Out of the water.) I’m delighted to see cocktails and gin and tonic on the menu. ‘They won’t taste like the ones you’re used to,’ warns the waitress. And apparently they’ve run out of tonic anyway. And soda water. The menu says that they are happy to order anything that clients would like, but it will take eight weeks to arrive – on the next boat.
These are very conservative, very religious people, thanks to the overzealous missionaries, and very little is permitted on a Sunday. This is not nick-named the Holy Island for nothing. You may not work, cycle, or harvest in any way. Even entering the sea is forbidden, in case you are thought to be fishing. Most of the dishes in the restaurant are off, I suppose making them constitutes work (like cutting down coconuts). And definitely no alcohol allowed – though what’s the point of gin without tonic anyway…?
So I’m getting my relaxation and sleep today.
I’m told that I’ve been really lucky with the weather. There isn’t really a dry season in Micronesia, just a relatively less wet season and Kosrae’s luxuriant vegetation and waterfalls are due to the abundance of rain. It’s poured for three months until the day before I arrived. So far the rain god has only appeared at night, during my visit. Very considerate.
Carlos is taking me on a sightseeing excursion today to learn about local history and customs. I’ve already discovered that Bully’s is named after a notorious local pirate who controlled most of the area and ran a mafia like protection racket. He was eventually disposed of (and fed to the sharks) by his long suffering ship’s cook. He left behind a wreck in the lagoon and, according to tradition, not one, but two chests of buried treasure, that have never been found. However, I’m told that crime is not common in Kosrae today. It is one of the safest places in the world as there aren’t any deadly fauna either: no crocodiles, snakes, or poisonous spiders.
I’ve optimistically requested a Round the Island Tour, but the road extends north just past the airport petering out into the jungle and south, about the same distance, so it’s an Up and Down Tour. The rest of the island is only accessible by trekking paths or boat. And they are already making plans to replace the southern portion of the existing road, as there is considerable coastal erosion. It is anticipated that the current road will at least partially disappear in the next big storm. (This accounts for all the sandbags in front of the lodge.) I’ve been using a very old guide book, circa 1970s, as it was the only one I could find with any detailed information on FSM. This book refers to another hotel and cottages with a really beautiful beach. Carlos shows me where it is; there is no sand left here at all, just a few concrete remnants of the main building. I’m glad I didn’t try and book in.
The countryside is lush and tropical plants, mangrove, nipa and pandanus, draped in ferny neophytes, unsurprisingly, proliferate by the many channels. There are a few, towering sea almond trees with bulbous heads and small green fruits (genus Terminalia). Otherwise, there is little agriculture, other than the ubiquitous taro and tapioca and the fields, hillsides and banana plants are almost totally concealed by rampant vines. The locals have given up clearing the overgrowth away. They prefer office jobs or welfare payments to agriculture. There’s an enterprising business in one of the villages making paper products out of banana leaf fibres. Most of the houses are modern style, the traditional pandanus thatch has all but disappeared. The schools and government buildings are large concrete construction and the officials live in bungalows with pretty flower gardens. As in Polynesia, the dead are normally buried in backyards and nearly all the houses have well-tended, garland decorated tombs in their gardens. As it’s almost Christmas, there are also plenty of light strands dangling from the gutters, the odd inflatable Father Christmas and a more creative, pandanus tree, covered with spinning silver CDs.
Carlos knows everyone. He is fervently dedicated to his job, providing a highly animated and non-stop and informative commentary and steepling both hands as he explains the different stages of atoll formation. I’m relieved we’re driving so slowly.
We return to the lodge with the intention of taking a kayak on the mangrove channels, but my luck has run out; it’s raining. So I have a massage instead, the talented and gentle masseuse leaves me sleepy and relaxed and declares that there is no charge. ‘Just give me what you like’. Last, the now regular lively politics, philosophy and travel over a meal discussion with Kento, Gabe and Roxie. The fresh off the boat yellow fin sashimi is definitely the highlight of the menu –Kento has even given it the Japanese seal of approval.
It’s now so humid that my hair looks like a sci-fi space helmet. There are a family of silvery tarpons leaping in the river at breakfast. (I’m not sure what the collective noun for these would be? And I’m just popping down the road to check out the other reputable hotel (still standing) in Kosrae before I leave. Carlos has told me that the Australian owners of the Nautilus won it for 150 dollars in a raffle. The previous owners were desperate to sell and couldn’t find a buyer.
The airport is another of those grit your teeth and get through it experiences I’ve come to expect from flying in the South Pacific. This one is especially trying, as there are no scanning machines for luggage or passports. Every item in each piece of luggage has to be examined separately. It’s a mesmerising slow-motion horror film, as jointed carcasses are removed from plastic crates and each bloody chop held up, rotated and deposited on the counter. The immigration man has to type in all the passport details and every piece of electronics has to be tested for explosive residue. They are wiped meticulously and the little white slip is walked over to the one machine, inserted and then brought back again – for each item. And it’s another full flight. The Micronesians are on the move for the upcoming festivities. Fortunately, the islanders are unfailingly polite and respectful, even if they possess not of a shred of a sense of urgency. Also fortunately, I’m allowed two bags on these united flights. My combined bag weight currently comes to 60 pounds after all my recent additions, so there is going to have to be a grand rationalization before I head back to South East Asia and other less forgiving airlines. The tannoy announcer has just informed us that our flight is running 12 minutes ahead of schedule (a miracle- that won’t last) and that hand-baggage screening will close in 15 minutes. Anyone not through in time will be re-booked on the next flight, which is four days later, on Saturday.
It’s the same crew on the Island Hopper, but today they are all sporting Santa hats or elf caps with large pointed ears. My young American friends are on the same flight, returning via Guam. I’m sad to see them go. (They are planning a Star Wars Fest when they reach Guam.) They have been very welcome and entertaining company – and I’ve been given an invitation to Birmingham, Alabama.
Pohnpei state (sounds very similar to Pompeii) is the capital of Micronesia (only after some ferocious wrangling), the main town, where the airport is, is Kolonia and the administrative area is Palikir, one of the smallest capitals in the world, with only 7,000 people (all clear now?). Kolonia is the height of sophistication after Kosrae – the airport has booths and stanchions for orderly queuing.
My room is comfy and has everything I need, even though the décor was probably designed by Air Asiana – it’s all fairly drab. There is an overwater balcony with wicker chairs and a view across the bay. Pohnpei Harbour and the airport are over to the right. I wonder if the plane ever has trouble avoiding ships as it comes in. There’s an imposing basalt ridge and plug on the other side, Kolonia’s own Diamond Head. Some yachts are bobbing in the middle. They’re not quite up to Monaco standard, but it’s very pretty. Even the wrecks dotted around the lagoon, (almost more than there are cargo boats and yachts) some World War II, some more recent, are prettily charming, glinting in the sun. Sushi from the bar below (it’s obviously the food of Micronesia), is accompanied by sunset viewing.
A rude awakening as the dive shop is just below my room and the surf dudes set off noisily at 7a.m. ‘Surf’s up’. Today is spent mainly on the water. It’s ostensibly an expedition to Nan Madol ruins, on the other side of Pohnpei, but the tides aren’t favourable and most of the day is spent snorkelling or lounging on a pretty island beach, waiting for the tide to rise so we can skim over the reef. Neither is a hardship, except that it pelts with rain not long after we set off, and all my clothes have to be discarded. The snorkelling is far superior to that on Kosrae. These are fairly impressive living reefs. Our trainee guide seems to have missed the point however. ’I’ve seen a manta and a shark’, he informs us excitedly, as we swim back to the boat without having laid eyes on either of these. The lagoon water is a continuing swirl of pi greens and blues and I’m running out of words to describe its magnificence. Maybe cobalt and aquamarine. We feed on coconuts and banana bread while we wait.
When we finally arrive, at four o’clock, our trainee is deployed to lead us. He knows very little, but the same has to be said of the guide books. As far as I can glean, Nan Madol is an ancient ruined city built on 100 man-made coral islets. It is believed that the construction of the islets started in the eighth century, whereas the megalithic structures started on the twelfth century, at the same time as Angkor Wat. This was the ceremonial and political seat of the Saudeleur Dynasty, the first unifying dynasty in Pohnpei. We navigate numerous canals to reach the main ruins; one guide book grandiosely claims that Nan Madol is sometimes referred to as the Venice of the Pacific.
Today, it’s is a series of ruins occupying a space of 18 sq. km. inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2016 and rarely visited by anyone. Apparently, they can’t even agree who actually owns it. That’s not the only mystery, as no-one can work out how the stone was brought here or how it was constructed. It’s made of basalt columns, the heaviest of which weighs 20 tonnes-it would certainly sink a canoe. The nearest basalt is on the other side of the island.
It’s a picturesque spot. We walk round the inner sanctum, scramble round the sanctum wall and wade round the outer fortification. There are piles of loose stones on the ground and artistically arranged in the water. An eagle ray gently whisks gently along to join us in the shallows.
Back in my room it’s apparent that I’ve been burnt to a crisp. My lost luggage replacement sun tan cream obviously isn’t as waterproof as it boasts it is.
No surf today- hurrah. So I get to sleep in. In fact, very little seems to be happening today. I can laze in bed and watch the sunrise over the lagoon. Micronesia is to all intents and purposes a USA overseas territory and the bar downstairs only sells pizza, burgers fish and chips and sushi. I specially don’t fancy sushi for breakfast so I decide to sightsee in town and stock up on food there. I will save some money I rationalize. The resort receptionist looks astonished when I ask for a map. Because there is only one main road in Pohnpei and locals pretty much know the ins and outs of their place, no-one uses addresses. It’s a hot and humid climb. The pavement is non-existent most of the way- there’s a muddy track at times- and drivers hoot if as I so much as teeter to the edge of it. There’s a long line of slow-moving scruffy cars, which explains why pedestrians are rare here. Kolonia is strung out along this one main road. There are a few shabby warehouse type buildings, I’m not sure what they’re selling, it’s hard to tell. Investigation reveals huge bags of sweets, toys, tinsel and a couple of seen-better-days plastic trees in one. The aisles are packed with people dancing to Christmas pop music. No-one seems to be doing any buying. Another is festooned with the puffed sleeve floral dresses that are favoured by the local women. The alternative is a gathered skirt with a black embroidered frill at the bottom. They even have one of these framed at the airport, so it’s obviously a tradition they are proud of. The men don’t seem to have any dress customs they wish to adhere to. They wear western style uniform of tee-shirt, baggy shorts and baseball cap (worn, naturally, with the peak at the back).
A little further on there is pre-cooked food in plastic boxes out on display on trestle tables- rice and fish. There’s no sign of a fridge, so I decide to pass. A mini mart at a garage has Pringles and a few cans of spam and pineapple. ‘Happy Christmas,’ call some passers-by from the back of pick-ups. I arrive at a sign saying CenterPoint – is this the middle of town? Some road workers in hi-vis vests are concerned and tell me I shouldn’t be wandering around. ‘You’re much too pretty’. I don’t follow up on their logic. I’m too weary and sticky. My chest hurts and I’m decidedly below par. My road working friends direct me back the way I came to a ‘supermarket’. It’s mostly filled with racks of bananas. The floor is covered with taro root; a lizard scuttles across it. The air con in Arnold’s diner is enticing, I decide to give up my quest, and I order an egg and bacon muffin.
Then it’s back to my waterside veranda. No tonic at the restaurant here either and tuna is off too. So tonight it’s wahoo poke. (Poke is raw marinated tuna with onion and whatever else takes the cook’s fancy). There’s a Kiwi surfer at the bar being refused any more alcohol on the grounds he’s already had enough. It’s the shortest day of the year back home in the UK. I’m glad I’m not there. I think.
Micro ants tend to appear at some point in most of my journeys and sure enough they’ve invaded my bathroom here. There’s a trail from the ceiling, down the side of the door, so nothing too distressing. And today I was due to go out on the boat again, travelling to And Atoll, popularly, but erroneously (apparently) spelled “Ant”. It’s billed as an idyllic cluster of 13 low, luxuriant islands (part of the Senyavin group) some 30 miles away. However, there aren’t enough people who want to go so they are only surfing. O yay! The surfers are the vast majority of residents. I can come and snorkel off the boat if I like. The weather forecast isn’t very optimistic, I’m still feeling unwell and I haven’t slept well after my poke. (There’s a risqué clause, but you know what I mean. It’s all in the pronunciation.)
It’s a good decision not to go out, it’s poured down all day (I can’t even see the lagoon it’s raining so hard) and it’s almost chilly enough to put a sweater on. I’m getting a little stir crazy, as the weather is now as dull as my beige and brown room. Strains of island music interspersed with some sort of house music waft in from the marina office and I can’t even sleep. The inevitable sushi for lunch means I have to settle for chicken and chips from Arnold’s in the evening. So it’s antsy rather than Ant in the end.
It has poured down, very loudly, all night and it’s still torrential rain. I’ve been chatting to an Australian surfer. She says it was really uncomfortable on the boat yesterday (good decision then) and all the surfers have been suffering fluey symptoms too. Air con, climate, some chemical who knows? But at least I’m not imagining it. Let’s hope Chuuk is better. Though I’m travelling there with trepidation. I’ve read that it’s very dirty and heard that it’s unfriendly and dangerous. Carlos, on Kosrae, has told me I should not go outside my hotel without an escort.
A final sashimi lunch. They’ve only got salmon left ( with coleslaw salad too) and it’s very good. A shame I didn’t discover this before. My bags have been loaded onto the bus before I realise that as a result of my chopstick inexpertise (yes-even here) I’ve spilled salad dressing all down my white tee shirt. I hurriedly give it a scrub under the tap. Now my shirt’s gone see through. I’ll have to try holding my handbag in front of my chest all the time. It’ll take a very long time to dry in the humidity. And the plane is, unsurprisingly, considering the weather, two hours late. (They still make us check in at the usual time).
I’m more surprised (and relieved) when the hotel I have booked with sends a man to meet me at the airport. Booking procedures were laid back, to say the least. There’s me and an American couple and they’ve sent a 15 seater minibus and a separate van for the luggage. The driver says they were expecting more people….The road is so full of potholes our pace is exceeding slow past the port, before the familiar palms close in as we end our way across the island. We stop at a supermarket (yes, a proper supermarket, there are several of them) so my companions can buy beer. People in the shop are reserved, but polite. They seem to be stocking up for major Christmas barbeques.
My room aspires to be more luxurious than the last two; there are new lampshades (still covered in plastic), carved wooden panelling behind the bed, a diamond patterned vinyl tile (very slippy) floor, beige (!) curtains falling off their runners, lots of power points and a large bathroom. The beds are very hard. There’s a musty smell emanating from the air con and an odd chemical smell, this time more overlaid with disinfectant permeating the whole room. At first glance it’s equipped with all the modern amenities. But the fridge doesn’t work, neither does the hairdryer and there’s a Samsung smart TV, but that’s not smart enough to work either. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of aerial or cable connection. The ‘hot’ water is erratic (the maintenance man assures me it will come on later. (I hope so. I’m half way through washing my hair.) He has managed to cure the shrill whistle emitted by the bathroom taps (temporarily). The outside of the buildings is very green. Green balconies and green fake grass steps. My balcony isn’t quite overwater this time, but there is another great view across the huge lagoon, through the bendy palm trees. There’s no Wi-Fi in the rooms- just a very intermittent signal in the lobby. The residents cluster on the seats outside, heads down, phones in hand, fingers working furiously.
The restaurant is all enclosed, which is annoying when it’s such balmy weather, but it’s a long menu that features considerably more than sushi. A good half of it isn’t available, (it’s not our busy season) but that’s still a vast improvement on recent offerings.
Chuuk used to be known as Truk (lots of puns there and the locals have made free use of them- Truk stop café etc. Of course, there’s potential in Chuuk too) and it has an enormous lagoon that is still called Truk; this is dotted with numerous islands large and small. The biggest island, where I’m staying, was called Moen, but they’ve re-named it Weno. (I think that’s brought you up to date.)
Because the Americans sank a large number of Japanese ships here during World War II (The Japanese version of Pearl Harbor) Truk Lagoon is reputed to have the best wreck diving in the world. I’m snorkelling over two planes and a reef by the resort’s private lagoon island today. I’m on my own in the dive boat, which could be fun, but the boatman speaks hardly any English, the motors are struggling and the ship’s canopy roof is so frayed that half of it is missing. The boatman’s forgotten to bring a ladder. He and his mate have to heave me back in by the outboards after I’ve looked at the planes, him in the water shoving and his friend in the boat pulling. It’s not very dignified, but painless. Unfortunately, I can confirm that Chuuk’s reputation for being dirty is justified. The little island we visit is filthy, the coral is littered with bottles and cans, and there are old doors and other bits of wood lying around. (The banks of the lagoon at the resort are mucky too. Bottle caps and Styrofoam beakers roll around on the grass.) They’ve found me an old plastic sunbed with some broken slats to prop on the coral (there isn’t a beach). There is a smallish reef and reasonable visibility, but the sea is rough today and snorkelling is hard work. And the final straw- tomato salsa has leaked all over my picnic lunch. It looks as if Jack the Ripper made it.
Christmas Eve is as quiet as any other evening in Micronesia. (Nightlife is generally non-existent and by 10 p.m., bars and restaurants are all closed.) Most of the hotel guests are American and Australian divers, but there are some Japanese too. No Christmas menus here, though the resort has splashed out on half a dozen trees and a galaxy of lights. Even the dive shop is decorated.
I’ve run out of puns now. I don’t want to tempt fate with Chuuked up. . There have been a plethora of Happy Christmases from the staff. The women are all wearing embellished circlets on their hair.
The weather is continuing to change its mind every five minutes. There was a big storm last night. The wind moaned all round my balcony and the whistling pipe joined in too. This morning the grass beneath the palms is covered in litter. And I’m giving the snorkelling another go. I’m promised a different island and I’ve managed to obtain an English speaking guide this time and a ladder. We putter off, but don’t get beyond puttering. Neither of the outboards is functioning at a level beyond feeble, and half an hour later, we’re back at the dive-shop dock, being transferred to yesterday’s boat. I point out that the motors on this one weren’t very efficient yesterday, but my boatmen just grin. I’ve just noticed a Yamaha engine hospital up behind the dive shop. There must be fifty of them stacked up there. Or is it a graveyard?
My amiable guide is sporting the fashionable hairstyle in Chuuk. His dark hair is short, apart from one thin pigtail that sprouts from the centre of his skull. This is braided and woven with silver decorations. (A bun is also a popular choice). Three wrecked boats today; this is more interesting. The water is really clear and it’s fascinating to see the tiny fish nibbling on the layers of coral that now covers the ships. We head, finally, for a different islet on the horizon. On the way, a squall blows up, the remainder of the roof blows off and the island disappears from view completely. The boatman maintains his course and we arrive to find this ocean dot is a little cleaner than yesterday’s offering. Maybe the clutter has been blown away.
The late start means a late return and the restaurant’s closed, so it’s Snickers for Christmas lunch. I doubt I will be catching the queen’s speech either.
My change the name knowledge has come in useful this evening. One American (who’s had rather too much to drink), is down at the bar asking about trips to Moen. He’s desperate to visit. ‘You’re already there,’ I inform him. The barman nods his bun to confirm that I’m right. It’s a bit like an episode of Dr Who.
My temperamental pipe is still whistling. I’ve worked out I can silence it (for a while) by flushing the toilet and turning the bath and sink taps on and off in sequence. I haven’t cracked the TV, hairdryer and fridge yet.
And today I’m off to Yap, the last of the states of Micronesia. There must be potential for really bad puns there too…I’m charged an exorbitant amount of departure tax -40 dollars- at Chuuk airport. They must figure everyone will be desperate to leave.
I have to go via Guam, so I leave the country and come back again. It’s a long day, with a 6 hour wait at Guam airport before I board exactly the same plane and sit in exactly the same seat. A bare breasted grass skirted lady, slips a flower garland round my neck to cheer me up after enduring yet another queue for immigration. There are three Russians standing just behind me. The male is typically tall, well turned out with dirty blond haire. His wife/girl friend is like a delicate china doll with dark hair in bunches. She seems to be having a good sulk. Their little boy is hovering between the two of them and deciding that his father is the better bet for entertainment at the moment. Finally, bed at 2 a.m.
Things are looking up all round. I slept well, if not for long enough and even though, I discovered to my surprise that I have a waterbed. It’s a little lively, but it seems quite comfortable. My room is lovely and everything works. It’s yet another lagoon view. The hotel is called Manta Ray Bay Resort and it’s definitely a place with a theme (or two). There are photographs of the (many) mantas of Yap, all named; I like Newbie for a juvenile best. The rooms are all called after fish (I’m barracuda- read into that what you will). There’s a hand-painted manta sea scene on the bed throws. Manta shortbread biscuits are supplied and even the towels on the bed have been artfully crafted into a manta shape. The restaurant and bar is atmospherically housed on a hundred year old schooner moored by the dive shop.
And I’m engaged in a tour of the island with my guide Theo. He carries a small holdall with him everywhere. It transpires that this is crammed with betel nuts. The chewing isn’t as prevalent in Micronesia as it used to be. It causes the teeth (except the gold ones which are still seen as a sign of wealth here) to become red and stained, and making it looks as if the gums are bleeding. Theo says his mother gave betel to him while he was a child, to keep him warm while she worked in the fields. so he became addicted. And he’s disgruntled because his wife wants to grow flowers in the garden, rather than more betel nut palms. I can see why he would want to grow more, as the nuts in the bag are diminishing at a rate of knots, but at least he waits till I’m looking the other way till he spits. And he’s a relaxed and attentive guide, if not fully appraised of all the historical facts.
There are more Japanese bunkers, planes and guns from World War II to be seen, but I’m more interested in the Yap culture, which is uniquely fascinating. This is Indonesia meets Samoa. In complete contrast to Chuuk the main island is almost (not quite) litter free. The roads thread through nipa and mangrove swamp, like Kosrae, but here they well maintained and are neatly lined with crotons, hibiscus and other tropical delights. The villagers stay quietly out of sight. The roads skirt the villages and they are entered via a network of stone paths which criss-cross the island. There are traditional, very tidy, woven long houses, with their pointy roofs, meeting houses for the men (with the best breezy views out to sea) and community halls. Slabs of stone protrude from the ground around all of these. They look like gravestones, but they are back rests for the men while they sit and rest or talk.
Theo tells me that the villages here are still very traditional. Most Men wear the th’us”, a type of loin cloth and women, urohs, the traditional brightly coloured dresses or grass skirts (bare- breasted) for festivals and ceremonies, though there are a few villages where this is still everyday wear. All the land in Yap is privately owned and we have had to acquire permission in advance to visit everything on our itinerary. Theo has also carried a small branch with him throughout. In Yap, you should never enter a village without anything in your hands. If you have nothing, then it is understood that you have nothing to do there and have ill intentions. The world wide web tells me that carrying one green leaf will suffice, but apparently the internet is wrong and one leaf alone is viewed as insubstantial and the bearer therefore someone asking for trouble. So maybe there are observers, even though I can’t see anyone.
I’ve read about the Stone Money Banks located throughout the island. Massive pieces of Stone Money (roughly circular with a hole in the middle) line stone pathways in the villages, so displaying their wealth. Here, size does matter as each piece has a value based on where it came from and how it was made. Many of them were quarried in Palau. (The hotel soap is Yap money shaped, with a hole in the centre, and so are their pizzas!) I happily wander the stones I have been given permission to visit. It’s quiet and serenely beautiful. Only lizards, crabs and butterflies accompany me on my excursions along the moss covered paths.
The only slight fly in the ointment are the over excitable dogs that roam the roads, as in much of the Pacific, singly or in groups. (I can feel a pun coming on here and I’m desperately trying to avoid it.) On the return journey Theo asks me what I will have for dinner. He says that one of his favourite meals is fruit bat. I don’t think it’s on the schooner menu.
This is a serious dive resort, the dive boats are smart and extremely well organised, (roofs with no holes to boot) and it promises a lot of its dives. To reach the reef we have to slowly navigate the very narrow channels through the mangroves that divide the four flattish, main islands of Yap. The banks are alive with tiny, scurrying red crabs. Because I’m the only one not diving I have my own snorkel guide, Joe, in attendance. And he is very attentive. He brings me drinks, carries my bag and escorts me along the reef for a front row view of the manta rays and the reef sharks. He grabs my fins and twirls me around, pointing me directly at the mantas to take my photos, as they sweep gracefully into their cleaning station. (The wrasse on the reef nibble away the parasites that inhabit the manta’s wings, so the mantas tend to favour spots where they know the fish gather). Joe is also a betel nut addict. He and Nico, the dive guide, are sharing a Rasta bag full of the nuts, which they open and inject with lime powder. They spit into the sea, which isn’t quite so interesting and not very alluring. ‘Caring is sharing’, smiles the captain.
Later, Joe hangs grimly onto my fins again, this time to make sure I don’t get swept onto the reef while I’m shark watching outside the lagoon. There’s a huge swell on and I’ve been told to float in the water until the divers have finished – the boat at anchor is not a comfortable experience. I’m even feeling a little queasy bobbing about in the water. No wonder this site is called Vertigo. I’ve taken so many pictures on my thrilling big animals of the sea safari that I’ve exhausted my fresh battery. My butler dispatches my camera to the boat for me. And naturally eight sharks immediately swim right up close. How do they know? Nevertheless, it’s been an exciting trip and a surprise contender for Uepi’s thrilling snorkelling crown.
Dinner in the schooner bar. The Russian family I saw at the airport are at an adjacent table –we’re on nodding terms now.
There’s a sunbathing area next to a small shallow pool (with mantas painted on the bottom, of course). Space is tight and it faces east, so sunny spots are at a premium. There were four Germans on the dive boat yesterday and as soon as we had docked one of them headed for the only bed still in the sun and put her towel on it…I had planned to spend as much of today in the sun as I could and I’ve succeeded in beating the Germans to the optimally placed bed. But the forecast suggests that the weather isn’t going to comply.
Descending the gangway after breakfast I’m accosted by two very loudly squeaking cats. I made the mistake of paying them attention yesterday and it’s obviously a novelty. They are fighting for the right to approach, so I sidle away, only to find that one of them has followed me all the way back to my room.
Back at the pool, I’ve noticed that there’s a brass ship’s bell to ring if you want to be served. Very nice. Though not to be confused with the bell on the top floor of the schooner which indicates that you intend to buy for everyone in the bar. There are also two working (loud) cannons on the schooner. They fire those when it’s happy hour.
I was going snorkelling today, but there’s been a continuous downpour again all night and the weather forecast is all doom and gloom. I’m told visibility won’t be good and it will be cold. Naturally, it stops raining as soon as I have made my decision to cancel. But it’s still very damp and muggy. My sarong is still really wet and it’s been hanging up to dry for three days.
I saunter into town (Colonia with a C) but that takes five minutes. There are four general stores in a row in one direction. The rickety shelves, cans, hands of bananas and racks of cheap clothes are now a familiar sight. Towards the port are a handful of restaurants and the local version of a mall. This is a lime green roofed corrugated iron building containing a variety of dilapidated shops and offices. It’s very sleepy and I’m not sure that anything is open. There’s no sidewalk through town, but the few cars are careful to drive slowly round me. I consider walking further, but I can see some dogs prowling in the distance. And I don’t have a stick.
My flight on to Palau leaves at 11 pm. There’s a leaving garland too. And at the airport I’m talking to a flower bedecked family seeing off their son, who is returning to college. They insist on presenting me with a flower crown as well. I don’t feel I can take remove them quickly, as I usually do, as he’s waiting for the flight with me. Also seated close by are the Russians – the lady is smiling today.
The Federated States of Micronesia (literally small islands) is a country spread across 1500 miles of the western Pacific Ocean. It comprises more than 600 of the Caroline Islands, but only 65 are inhabited.
FSM sits just north of the equator around 7 or 8 degrees.
The Federated States of Micronesia is commonly known as FSM
The total population is around 100,000
The islands, inhabited by Micronesian and Polynesian peoples, were colonized by Spain in the 17th century. Germany purchased them from Spain in 1898.
The four island states: Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk and Yap, which form the FSM, became an independent country in 1986.
To see more of my photos of Micronesia, visit this page.