Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Schoolin' & Laughin'

For the past week, I have been observing and slowly integrating myself into a Micronesian classroom. I was assigned to work with a 7th grade teacher at Enipein Elementary School during my training time on Pohnpei. During training, they have been emphasizing how drastically different the education system is in Micronesia from what are used to in America and preparing us for the worst. We have been forewarned about a lack of resources, a lack of motivation, a lack of structure, and a lack quality teachers. We were told to expect to find the classroom nothing like American schools and go in with very limited expectations.
To my pleasant surprise, I have not seen such a negative educational environment in my school. The school building is above adequate, the textbooks are identical to American resources (McGraw Hill, Harcout, & Houghton Mifflin), the students are motivated and my co-teacher is quite capable. The classroom is run in a similar fashion, and the lessons follow familiar patterns. However, I have come to find that my situation is slightly unique. My school appears to be better managed and better staffed than the majority of others in the region. I am particularly proud of this fact because my host father was the former principal of the school and I have 7 siblings that are current students.
I spent a few days observing the classroom and then got involved in actually teaching. We have been experimenting with different co-teaching models, because ideally we are supposed to be working side by side with another local teacher. I have been sharing the teaching time with my partner and having a lot of fun teaching them grammar, reading and writing. My co-teacher is great and has really helped me feel confident about teaching in Micronesia. I already feel ready to have my own classroom and get down to business.
However, other Peace Corps volunteers have had vastly different experiences. It is very common for a teacher to simply not show up to class. No note, no call, no lesson plan. Lateness and sloppiness is even more widespread. Many teachers are lazy, unorganized and unmotivated. However they get paid almost nothing, so I can see why they don’t really care something. Many students also seemed to be reckless and uninspired. A lack a rules and a further lack of enforcement give the children free reign to do whatever they want. Even at my “well-managed” school, they students behavior is pretty ridiculous. Feet are always up on desks, hands are rarely raised to answer questions, constant breaks are taken to spit and shoot snot rockets out the door, and violence goes unnoticed.
Coming from a very conservative elementary school job where I was in charge of making sure that kids didn’t fight and stayed on their best behavior, it is quite a change to see how Pohnpeians act at school. During recess and lunch, the kids don’t have balls or games to play. So instead they just run amuck and go wild. Boys are pulling girls to the ground by their hair, kids are kicking each other in the nuts, baseball size rocks are being hucked into crowds, and slaps can be heard all around the campus. Fake weapons are allowed and constantly toyed with. Kids bring carved swords, guns and knives to school and jokingly threaten each other back and forth. This may seem malicious and violent but somehow its ok. None of it is done with ill-will and nobody ever seems to get hurt. I am amazed how tough these children are in Micronesia. They are constantly being thrown around, banged to ground, and hit; however they never seem to complain or cry. I am fairly rough with kids in my family, but not one of them has shed a tear yet or whimpered yet. In fact, they seem to laugh hysterically while engaging in aggressive physical activities.
Laughing is an entirely different subject to be discussed. Micronesians laugh more than any other people I have ever met. They laugh loudly and continuously. They laugh when you say hello, they laugh when you say goodbye, they laugh when they ask you a question, they laugh when you ask them a question, they laugh when they play sports, they laugh when they fight, they laugh at everything. And I think its wonderful. I am huge proponent of laughter and I think its great that they can find humor in absolutely every situation. They even share a similar booming explosive “aahhh” that every boy seems to emulate. Laughter is deeply engrained in the culture and brings a happy light to all situations. I have heard about how laughter can enrich your soul and energize your mind, but I have never seen it practice so religiously as in Micronesian. These people truly are happy and they sure as hell let you know.

Tourist Weekend

This last weekend I took a break from my Peace Corps and family responsibilities and had some fun around Pohnpei. There are many amazing things to see and do on the island, but I have been too busy to take the time to enjoy them. So I decided it was kosher to act like a tourist for a couple days.
On Friday night, the majority of us Peace Corps volunteers spent a night drinking at the only restaurant/bar in the vicinity. It is called Jed’s Cantina and has a picture of a alligator on the front. The name and appearance are quite oxymoronic. Jed is a hillbilly American name, Cantina is a Mexican bar (but this place doesn’t serve any Mexican food), and the alligator is just thrown in to complete the ridiculousness. Nonetheless, it is the only place within 30 minutes that serves food that has a vague resemblance to American cuisine. We have been eating fish, rice and breadfruit for every meal so our palates have been yearning for a morsel of home country cooking. The 20+ of us piled into this little restaurant and all ordered cheeseburgers and fries. Of course we also proceeded to get saucy on some liquid intoxicants. It was a much needed release from the stress of training and a good time for people to vent away from our Peace Corps bosses. We have had very few chances to drink alcohol together, so it was a great bonding experience for our group. Relationships were strengthened, nerves were calmed, stomachs were satisfied, and alcohol cravings were quenched. We were definitely acting like typical loud flamboyant American tourists, but the locals didn’t seem to mind. No tourists come to Kitti, and I think they were quite happy that we splurged our money at their lonely restaurant.
The next morning I awoke to the phone call of my buddy Brian. He called at 7am and told me that he was going to Nan Midol with his family and I was invited to tag along. Nan Midol is the main tourist attraction on Pohnpei, so I immediately accepted. A truck pulled up about an hour later and I hopped in the back with 6 other people including another couple of my Peace Corps friends. Traveling in crowded pick up truck beds is the preferred method of conveyance in Pohnpei. We squeezed together and embarked on the half hour drive on the winding road across the island. Our destination was the ancient ruins of Nan Midol.
Nan Midol is a surprisingly historical and fantastical place. It is a 2000-year-old structure built of gigantic stone blocks. The blocks are expertly carved into pentagon and hexagon shapes and then stacked like Lincoln logs to make the walls of an ancient palace. The stone blocks are enormous and their origin is unknown. Nobody knows how the giant blocks were brought to this site and nobody has any idea how they were stacked together in such a perfect formation. Some on the stones weigh thousands of pounds and are over 10 feet long. How was this impressive feat accomplished without the aid of modern technology? No wheels, no metal, limited man power. Surrounded by crashing waves on one side and dense forest on the other. Nobody has a concrete hypothesis about how these blocks were transported, carved or assembled. The local explanation is magic. There are no written records of its construction or the civilization that dwelled within. It truly is one of the world’s most interesting mysteries.
After our day of wandering around the crumbling ruins of Nan Midol, I napped for a couple hours and prepared for my next weekend adventure. I met up with a different group of Peace Corps friends and took a boat out to small lagoon island about a mile off the coast of Pohnpei. The little atoll was named Nahlap. It is a popular vacation getaway spot for the locals and has about a dozen small huts scattered along the beach. The island is only about 30 yards wide and about a half mile long. However, it is covered by white beaches and beautiful reefs on both sides. Nahlap is the stereotypical pacific island scene that most people imagine. Quaint huts, palm trees and clear waters are the all the eye can see. We swam around in the 80 something degree water as the sun set across the horizon. As the night wore on we drank beer, rum and sakau as we lingered in the shallows of the shoreline. It was the stereotypical island experience that I was hoping for.
The next morning we snorkeled around the reef and scoped out the tropical sea life. They had a water slide on the dock and we had some fun slipping into the water with the little kids. I finally got a chance to wear my Vibram Five Finger shoes and walk along the reef. I hadn’t brought out the ridiculous looking multi-shoes yet and I was happy to finally put them to use. Some people laughed, but most were jealous. I am sure that come in handy as my journey wears on. The hotel/hut rental also had kayaks that we took out for a dollar. The entire trip only cost me $10. The only downside was a close call that I had with death. As I was snorkeling around the reef, I stopped to readjust my mask and went to put my foot down on a large flat piece of coral. I placed my foot on the edge and a stonefish squirmed away. I recoiled quickly and turned back around the make sure what it was. And sure enough, I saw a large flat stone fish about 10 inches in diameter settle back into his hiding place on the coral surface. In case you don’t know, stonefish are some of the deadliest sea creatures on the planet. One sting and your life could be over. Best-case scenario, excruciating pain cripples your legs and it could take months to recovers. Stonefish are also infamous because they are one of the best-camouflaged creatures in the world. They change their appearance like a chameleon to match their environment. This particular stonefish was almost indistinguishable from the flat coral surface. His skin exactly matched the intricate pattern and varied color shades of the coral. The only way that he was noticeable was his pea size eyes poking out of his flat body. Fortunately, I was about 6 inches away from this sly poisonous fish ending my Peace Corps service early.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Pohnpeian Delicacy

I consider myself a dog lover. I have not been a dog owner throughout the entirety of my life, however I have always felt a strong between with canines. I mean they are man’s best friend. My little aussie Dude is my favorite guy in the world and he is utterly devoted to me. He follows my every step and his emotions are intrinsically tied to mine. He holds a very special place in my heart. I also raised another puppy named Cheech. He was the cutest, most rambunctious dog ever and definitely rates among the coolest dogs on the planet. Nonetheless, neither of those dogs are here with me in Micronesia. The dogs in Micronesia are mangy, diseased mutts that wander the streets barking at strangers and fighting over trash. They are not viewed in the same endearing light as dogs in America. In fact, they are valued far below pigs and are merely seen as a nuisance of a wild animal. Another fun fact about dogs on the island, the Pohnpeian name for them is “kidhi” which is pronounced “kitty”. I found this quite hilarious.
So one night, we were sitting around the outdoor kitchen hanging out with family and a neighbor came by and dropped off a bag of cooked meat. This is common occurrence on Pohnpei and I thought nothing of it. However, this was no common meat.
Bottom line…. I ate dog. Yes, I ate dog. And it was tasty. Juicy, flavorful but slightly chewy.
I do not really feel guilty about my digressions, but I cannot say that I am proud either. There wasn’t tremendous pressure on me to try it, however I had the inclination that it was a rite of passage that was necessary to fully experience my world travels. Much of the eastern world happily eats dog meat and I felt it would be ignorant of me not to give it a chance. I probably wont do it again anytime soon, but at least I’ve got another notch in my belt.
One thing that was rather odd was that my chest and stomach were overtaken by a slight warming sensation immediately after masticating the canine cadaver. I was told that it was a common effect of eating dog, but it still perturbed me a little. My friend had a different interpretation, and thought the warm feeling was actually my soul burning.

Settling in to Island Life

Another week has gone by and I have furthered my adaptation to the island lifestyle. Things have slowed down a bit and I have finally had a little time that isn’t consumed by Peace Corps lectures and overwhelming culture shock. I am beginning to feel comfortable with my surroundings and settle into my new life. I have made strong bonds with my family members and am blending into their daily routines. At first, I was constantly a source of entertainment and angst for them. They were constantly trying to please me and take care of every little need. They are still obsessive about making me happy and all try their hardest to do whatever possible in order to made my life easy and relaxing. They still vacate their chairs and offer me a seat when I arrive and coddle my every need, but it has lessened to a degree. Now it seems like they treat me like a respected elder rather than an elite foreigner. Ironically, I am neither.
Overall, I am very happy with my family and am quite lucky to have such a wonderful clan of people to help make my Pohnpeian experience the best it can be. The little kids have taken a special interest in me. When I return home each day; they scream my name, drop what they are doing and all come running towards me. I toss them around, throw them over my shoulders, and do all kinds of lil kid rough housing. The little three year old, OJ, is the cutest of the bunch and follows me wherever I go. His little face is looking through the cracks of my door as I go to sleep and his war cries often wake me in the morning. He is one of the only kids who doesn’t speak English, but he is learning a little while he climbs on back and sits on my lap during the evenings.
I have bonded with the older boys by doing manual labor around the household and playing basketball down at the school. I am never asked to do any work and am often discouraged, however I make an effort to try to assist with the daily chores to take care of the compound. Coconuts need to be husked and cut, wood needs to be chopped, pigs need to be fed, and a variety of other physical jobs need to be taken care of every day. I step in and lend a when I can, but I feel rather foolish because the 15 year old can adeptly do all of these tasks while I slowly putz my way learning the basics. I think they appreciate it, but I’m not sure.
Basketball has been a great source of fun and exercise for me so far. I have only played a few times, but it is exhausting in this heat and humidity. After just shooting around, I am dripping sweat and gasping for air. I clamor for a sip of water as the other Micronesians continue zipping around the court without the need for a break. I guess their bodies are a little better made to handle to stifling heat. Defense and passing have never been taught to these kids, but nonetheless they are very skilled at basketball. Every kid that picked up the ball could dribble and shoot with surprising skill. Micronesians are naturally strong and quick, so athletics come easily to them. Many are dribbling through the legs and draining threes. I honestly think that these Micronesian kids are on the whole better than American kids at basketball. Without any training, every one of them is able to show some skill on the court. Their athletic ability doesn’t just apply to basketball. Everyone is short, fast, strong and balanced. Until they get to about thirty years old; then most seem to become fat, sloppy and slow. Usually, basketball isn’t played in the traditional American style. Its more of like a shootaround 2.0. Guys will shoot and get change for made shots; but also drive into the lane and make lay-ups through groups of players or leap up for a tip in. This informal style works for the large groups of people and still provides adequate exercise and competitiveness.
However, on Sundays real games are organized. A local man brings whistles and organizes full-court games with different grades and skill levels of kids. I went down and played one day with the older group of guys and did pretty well. I knocked down some shots and showed them a thing or two about defense. I talked to the man and told him that I did a little bit of coaching back home and had a lot of basic basketball knowledge. He was overjoyed. He immediately handed me a whistle and had me referee the next few games of kids playing. So I hopped right in and regulated the slapdash play of a few games. A pretty sizeable crowd gathered around to watch me run around and act like I knew what I was talking about. Afterwards, the local man asked me to come back next week and run the kids through some drills to teach them some basketball fundamentals. So of course I showed up the next Sunday and tried to help. As I approached the court, the man blew his whistle, cleared the older guys off the court and gathered a big group of children around me. He handed me the whistle and let me go to work. I got the 30 or 40 kids organized into lines and got them running through a few drills. I stressed the importance of bounce passes, solid screens, and crisp cuts. I don’t think that the kids had ever gone through any kind of coaching like this, but they picked up on it really quick and they enthusiastically hustled through the different drills. The man really wanted me to show them defense, so I put them in the proper defensive stance and had them crouched and shuffling around the court in zig zags. At this point, dozens of people were gathered around and throngs of locals were laughing at the silly maneuvers of these young boys. One of my goals in the Peace Corps was the help kids learn basketball and I already got involved within the first couple weeks. I was quite happy to make this connection and establish a role for myself in the community. Now I have a reputation that goes beyond my proclivity to drink copious amounts of sakau.
Last Saturday, I also got the chance to get out on the water again. Peace Corps organized a water safety day and rented a couple of boats to take us out to the ocean. We were briefed on water safety tip and dangerous sea life to avoid and then shipped out to the clear blue waters. We went through some things about how to properly put on a life jacket in the water and attempt to hoist yourself back into a boat. However, only a couple other guys and I were able to pull ourselves onto the boat with our own strength. We then plopped in the water and spent a couple hours snorkeling around the reef. I saw many beautiful fish and leisurely enjoyed a pleasant swim along the reef shelf. One of the guides spotted a shark down in the depths and hollered at us to come check it out. Some people swam back towards the boat in fear, but I moseyed over the spot and tried to see the situation. They had talked to us extensively about sharks and assured us that the majority of sharks in this area are not aggressive and are actually more afraid of us than we are of them. There is joke in Pohnpei that Micronesian sharks are “vegetarians”. There are few dangerous types, but they all live outside the reef. Almost all the cases of shark attacks are accidental incidences when a person is carrying a recently speared bloody fish too close to their body and the shark gets a mouthful of human leg instead of a dying fish. So bottom line, there was no need to be scared. The only problem was that the shark was way down on the bottom. The guide and one other current Peace Corps volunteer could dive down deep enough and see the shark clearly, but it was no easy dive. A few other trainees tried to hold their breath and swim down towards the bottom to catch a glimpse, but it was too hard to get down so far. I got deeper than the rest of the trainees and saw the outline of the shark, but never got close enough to say hello. It made me realize that I seriously need to work on my deep-water breathing. The locals assured me that the skill will improve drastically with time and I just need to continue to practice. So hopefully I am placed near a beach and can get daily practice swimming with sharks.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My House

Training in Pohnpei

I have been in Pohnpei for about 10 days now, but have been too busy to spend any time writing. My days have been full of Peace Corps training and my nights have been consumed by drinking sakau and acclimating to Micronesian life. It has been much more hectic than I expected. I envisioned lying on the beach and staring at the ocean all day while I pondered the meaning of life and shit like that. Instead, I have been constantly bombarded by overwhelming cultural experiences and long days of classroom type learning.
The Peace Corps training has been tedious, but tremendously helpful. Basically they are teaching us how to be good teachers. We are being schooled in the various methodologies of English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching. We are practicing developing lesson plans with specific formats and understanding our roles at teachers in Micronesia. I have a little bit of teaching experience, but this knowledge is absolutely necessary to give me the tools to be a successful teacher. We are not learning the local language, but do spend a significant amount of time learning about the culture of Micronesian people. It doesn’t make sense to learn a language yet, because most of the volunteers will be shipped out to other islands of Micronesia and every island speaks different languages. So as of now, we are ignoring the language aspects and concentrating on the other skills we will need to successfully integrate into the society. We spend much of our afternoons listening to lectures on safety and health. I feel like they are deliberately scaring the crap out of us and overestimating the safety risks that we are faced with. However, it is highly likely that we will get seriously sick and have to deal with foreign threats that could endanger our health and safety sometime during our service.
Beyond learning how to maintain our well-being, we are being taught the intricacies of the Micronesian culture and how we can successfully bridge the gap between our societies. Micronesia is a vastly different place from America and we cannot behave in many of the ways that we are accustomed to in the states. Micronesians are extremely collectivist and conservative, which sharply contrasts with the individualistic and liberal attitudes of the volunteers. We must step carefully over here and be cognizant of all the differences that the lifestyle presents. For example, women have sharply defined roles over here and must be careful not to overstep their boundaries. They must always wear long skirts and cover their shoulders. Any promiscuous dress, playful conversations, licentious looks, or extended interactions with men will be perceived as sexual advances and lead to unwanted attention. We are also instructed in the importance of meals, the strong relationships of family members, emphasis on hygiene and appearance, and the general behaviors of Micronesian people. Our goal is to assimilate into the culture, so it is imperative that we respect the cultural norms and do our best to adhere to practices of Micronesian people. We are also being taught how to assess the needs of a community and work to develop practical plans of improvement. Our main goal beyond teaching is to help the community by whatever means necessary. It is hard to plan anything yet, because we need to be in our specific villages before we can start generating ideas about how to create sustainable projects that will benefit the community.
Well now that I’ve told you about the training aspects of my experience, let me get into the really interesting stuff. Living in a 3rd world village on a tropical island! I have been ridiculously overwhelmed by my experiences over the last week. The people and lifestyle are so starkly different from southern California that it amazes me how people can exist on such varying levels. Nonetheless, my living situation is actually much nicer than I expected. I have a concrete room to myself, fully equipped with a fan and a light. We have electricity (although there are constant blackouts), so I am skeptical to plug in my electronic devices for fear of them blowing up. There is no running water, but we have a huge water basin that has a couple faucets coming out of the sides. I take bucket showers twice a day and have been maintaining surprisingly good hygiene. People in Pohnpei are greatly concerned with cleanliness and require that you shower twice a day and always smell nicely. It is ironic that I am showering more with a bucket in a 3rd world country than I did in my dual headed deluxe shower back in Irvine. However, it is rather necessary because I sweat about 8 pounds of water weight a day and am constantly resisting bugs, dirt, rain and humidity. The property of my family is quite substantial. The main area stretches about 100 yards along the road and contains 3 or 4 buildings. I live in the main structure will the majority of the family; but we also have a couple huts, a market, and a few covered seating areas. We have 4 enormous mango trees, a half a dozen coconut palms, and endless amounts of trees and bushes that are scattered throughout the property. There is an outdoor kitchen with two fireplaces for cooking. The kitchen is constantly in use, but most of the time women are the only ones allowed to prepare food.
Food is extremely important in Micronesian culture. It is the centerpiece of family life and is an essential part of daily life. There are specific customs that must be observed and I am expected to respect the methods of dining. I am usually always served first, because I am a guest and a man. I sometimes eat with my host father, but if he is not around then I eat by myself. I eat in the kitchen while the rest of the family is idly sitting around and watching me. The women watch me carefully as I taste each of the foods that they have prepared. I am very open-minded when it comes to food and I will try just about anything, even if I don’t know what it is. And I definitely don’t know what I’m eating here some of the time. Every meal is accompanied by a heaping plate of sticky white rice. I usually am served a fried fish with sides of cooked bananas, boiled breadfruit, a chunk of taro and other various tropical sides. I have also had plenty of spam, little sand crabs, spaghettio type things and ramen noodles. I am expected to finish my meal each time, which can sometimes be quite a challenge. Eating three plates of food with a family of onlookers can be intimidating. Overall, I have enjoyed the food but am getting sick of eating shredded mackerel for breakfast. O, I forgot to mention that utensils are not used. I grub with my fingers almost exclusively. However, sometimes I will get a spoon for soup. I have become quite dexterous at tearing each and every little piece of edible flesh and skin from a fish (fully equipped with his head and tail). The food has been pretty damn good, but I would kill for a In N Out double double right now.
Let me break down the family dynamics a little. I am not entirely sure because so many people are constantly filtering in and out of the household, but I am guessing that approximately 20 people live in my house. My house father, Papa John Waltu (his title is Soulik), and his wife take care of quite a large clan. Two of his daughters and one of his sons live with us along with their families. The son has a wife that does most of the cooking and chores around the house and takes care of gaggle of kids. They have 4 kids of their own, one of the daughters has 3 kids and a husband, and the other daughter has 3 kids who were born in America. Their names are Cleopatra, Rihanna, Alana, Randall, Rinard, Lenard, OJ, BJ, Ray Ray, and Nora. Then there are a flurry of cousins that kind of live with us. I am not sure there exact relation, but they are always around and seem to be part of the household. My Pahpa and Nohno (host mother) live in their little hut together, but the rest of us live in the main house. Most of the kids sleep together in one big room huddle in a circle of sheets and blankets. There are empty rooms in the house, but the family prefers to sleep in a big group. It is part of the collectivist nature to prefer to sleep in tight quarters. There is absolutely no privacy and I am slightly ostracized for having my own separate bedroom. It is not uncommon to have group showers with several naked children running gleefully around the property flaunting their business to the world. The closeness of the family is remarkable and it truly proves the group mentality that the community embraces. However, it is not just my family that is tight knit. The entire island is related. Every person in my village has some sort of relationship to one another and knows every person in the surrounding villages by face and name. I have always joked about how Armenians claim that everybody is cousins, but it’s actually true over here. My father’s cousin lives across the street, and my mother’s uncle lives next door, everybody on our road is related as cousins on some level. So basically, the village is one big family. People will walk through and eat meals casually, borrow shirts off the clothesline, and interact comfortably in all situations. Every time that I have been in the car we have picked somebody up on the road and given them a ride towards their destination. Like I said, everybody knows everybody, so everybody helps everybody. It is really a collectivist society. The chickens, cats and dogs run freely throughout the neighborhood and nobody really takes ownership over them. I asked my father how he knows which chickens are his; he replied, “When I am hungry, the closest chicken is mine”. Dogs are not really treated as pets. Each family has 3 or 4 that hang around their property, but they are just used for protection and meat. Dog is a common meal over here, but I haven’t been lucky enough to dine on Lassie yet. However, I am sure that my first dog grubbing experience is on the near horizon. This does dismay me a little because we have two 3 week old puppies at our house that are a constant source of entertainment. I also have a lovable Dude at home in Irvine, and really appreciate the cuteness and friendship of canines. But not everybody feels the same. Pigs are the only animals that people truly care about. They are caged and taken care of religiously. Pigs are a sign of wealth and are an essential part of the diet. Much time and effort is put towards maintaining the vitality of your pigs.
I have also gotten the chance to become involved in a few island activities in my time over here. I climbed a coconut tree and knocked down a couple that I husked and drank. It was one of my goals to climb up a palm tree over here, and I have already accomplished it. Scaling up a palm tree seems pretty impossible and highly dangerous, but after watching my younger host brother scamper up the tree, I felt that I had to do it. It just took a tight grip and a lot of balls to get myself up to the top. I have also cracked a coconut with a machete and scraped out the insides with the blade. This may seem kind of bad-ass, but it is common practice for most everyone over here. It is not uncommon to see a naked infant running across the road wielding a machete. It seems that pacifiers are replaced with machetes when the babies reach toddler age. Machetes are used by everyone for everything. Luckily, I have not seen any errant blows or severed digits yet.
Outside of the household, I have participated in a few of the daily activities for subsistence living. Harvesting taro is one of them. My host brothers took me out on Saturday to try my hand at harvesting this staple crop of Micronesians. Harvesting taro is a dirty, muddy, sweaty, grueling job. The edible part of taro is root of a huge green leafed plant that grows in muddy swamps throughout the island. The leaves of the plant can be 4 feet in diameter and the stalks can stretch over 10 feet in the air. To harvest the taro, you jump into the mud with a machete and hack your way through the thick foliage. Tromping through these huge green stalks to carve a path through the plants was utterly exhilarating! The plants slice like butter and I felt like a jungle explorer fighting my way through the forest. As you trudge through knee-deep mud, it is important to keep your eye out for taro plants that are green all the way to the bottom of the stalk. The ones with reddish tints on the bottom are not ready yet, so we searched through the swamp for a proper clump of plants. After finding a suitable green-based grouping of stalks, we really went to work. With a series of machete chops and shovel stabs, we began to pull the taro roots out of the watery muck. You dig around the base and then pull with two hands to try to rip the roots out of the ground. The result is a bulbous white base of bland tuber food. We worked through a patch until we had harvested a sufficient amount of thick roots and then lugged them out onto the road. We piled the roots on the side of the road, covered them in a giant taro leaf and then began our walk back home. At this point, I was covered up to my waist in muddy itchy water and splattered all over my arms and face with sweat and dirt. We walked about a mile in the blistering sun until we came upon a little stream. To my great delight we dove into the pool and cleansed ourselves of the dried mud and stinking sweat. It was a satisfying ending to a hard days work.
As we emerged from the stream and starting our trek back towards our house, a car pulled up besides us and asked if we wanted a ride. Of course it was a cousin of the family named Ketis, so we happily accepted. The driver spoke pretty good English and inquired to whether I would like to go out to ocean and catch some fish. Woohooo!! I had been on a tropical island in the middle of the ocean, but hadn’t touched the ocean yet. I was delighted to be invited to head out to the reef to try my new snorkeling equipment. Within an hour, we had our gear and loaded up into an open 15 foot motor boat down near the mangroves. Pohnpei is a tropical island, but it has no beaches. No white sandy stretches cascade down the coastline, rather it is surrounded by miles of mangrove forests. Mangroves are scraggly trees that protrude their roots down in the salt water in scattered bunches. The entire coast of Pohnpei is encircled by about a mile of mangroves before the ocean is reachable. So he hopped in the boat and sped off through the trees. The ride through the mangroves was insane! We zipped this little craft through crevices and dodged roots, I had to duck every 10 seconds to avoid being clocked by errant branches and hanging vines. It felt like I was in a boat racing video game traversing my way through a tropical tunnel of death. Then suddenly…. whoosh, we were out in the ocean. We sped out into a pristine lagoon and left the lush green island in our wake. I turned around to see leafy emerald mountains silhouetted by a cloudy blue sky. Out towards the open ocean, I noticed waves crashing on the reef a couple miles in front of us. Pohnpei is surrounded by a coral reef that circumscribes the outline of the island. Inside the peak of the reef is calm blue water that stretches for miles in all directions. Small islands are scattered throughout the lagoon, some have fishermen houses or local hotels propped upon their sandy shores. We swerved our way out in the lagoon and came to a stop about 500 yards from the waves crashing on the reef. We didn’t have spears this day, so we were planning on using a net to fish. However, they have a most peculiar way of net fishing. We dove into the to water and swam around for a bit to get our bearings and make sure we were in the correct spot. Then we attached one end of a large net to a chunk of coral and stretched it across into a deeper area where the reef fell off. Then I stayed in the water near the net to mark the spot and my fishing partners drove the boat a couple hundreds yards towards the reef. Ketis started smacking the water with a big stick and slowly creeping back towards the location of the net. The splashing of the water scares the fish and they race off in the other direction. He corrals them towards the net with his constant water smacks and they unknowingly run right into their doom. The boat pulled up next to me and we dove down to check our luck. To my surprise, 8 or 10 fish were stuck in the grasp of the net. We dove down, plucked the fish out of the net with our bare hands and threw them into the boat. I was amazed how helpless the fish seemed once they were ensnared in the net. I was easily able to clench them in my hand and toss them out of the water into the boat. We repeated this process once more and then called it a day. We caught about a dozen fish and spent a fantastic couple hours swimming around the reef. On our way in, we checked my friends crab traps near the mangrove forests. He set the traps up with a newly caught fish caged inside the larger cage to attract the smell of the crabs. Hopefully, the crabs will smell the dying fish and crawl into the cage and end up as dinner for us next week. One of fishermen asked if I liked sashimi, and of course I said hell yeah! I didn’t know that he meant immediately. He scaled one of our fishes, sliced it lengthwise and handed me a full fish that had been dead for less than an hour. I am not one to refuse generosity, so I chomped on the side of the fish and had a slimy little snack. I felt like Gollum from Lord of the Rings….”I likes ‘em raw and wriggling”. I was disappointed that we didn’t get to use spears yet, but overall I was ecstatic that I finally got out on the ocean and caught some tropical fish.
I returned home and had a tasty meal of fully cooked fish. We handed some of the fish out to the neighbors, but saved the fattest one for me to eat that night. I felt rather proud to eat a fish caught with my own hands in the lagoon of Pohnpei. After dinner, I went across the street and participated in a nightly ritual for the people of Pohnpei. Drinking sakau. Sakau is the Pohnpeian word for the popular Polynesian drink called Kava kava. Sakau is a mudlike drink made from the roots of a pepper bush and squeezed with a hibiscus leaf into a large bucket. First the sakau roots are pounded on a large flat rock with smaller handheld rocks, then the mush is mixed with water and squeezed with hands on another large flat rock, the concentrated slop is then wrapped in hibiscus leaves and filtered out into buckets. The result is a brown bitter drink that is the glue of social society on the island. Sakau is made by most households, but is especially produced at various markets throughout town. My family has a market, our neighbors have a market, and there are probably 3 or 4 more on our street. Markets do sell some small products like cigarettes, soap, beer, water and snacks; but they mainly serve as social gathering spots for drinking sakau. The men of the area, and a few women gather at these markets every night and spend the evening slowly getting “drunk” on sakau. The effects of sakau are most analogous to having a strong body high. You become extremely relaxed and fade into a sleepy state of leisure and pleasure. The taste is horrible and many people use chasers to follow each sip of sakau. But apparently it’s worth it. An average person will drink 5-10 cups a night and then crawl off to bed. The point of sakau is not only to chill out and slip into a drug infused euphoria, the main focal point of drinking sakau is social. It is the time when people hang out. It is time where people make friends. It is the time when gossip happens. It is the time when stories are told. It is the time when bonds of family and friends are cemented. The drinking of sakau was traditionally reserved for high chiefs at ritualistic occasions. Offerings of sakau would be brought to the elders and they would ceremoniously imbibe these gifts. Over time, sakau spread to the masses and became a popular drink of the commen man. Now everybody drinks sakau. It has a similar function as alcohol in America, but is much more socially accepted and does not have as many deleterious effects. Nobody fights on sakau, nobody commits crimes on sakau, nobody blacks out on sakau, nobody ruins their lives on sakau (maybe). The transfer and sale of sakau is a funny practice though. The standard price is 60 cents per cup and all the men seem to drink at each others markets. The money and sakau seem to be in a circular process that benefits everybody equally. One night you will go across the street and drink at your buddies and pay him for the sakau ,but the next night he will be at your market repaying the favor. My host father even pays for the sakau at his own market. The sakau is always plentiful and always flowing. And to say the least, I have gained a modest reputation as a strong sakau drinker. I have never shied away from a good time, so I jumped right into the sakau scene. Everytime I go out, the old men buy me sakau and love to sit around and shoot the shit with me as we sip our bitter cups of poop water. I am asked every night to drink sakau, and have refused only a couple times. It does sometimes result in a slight hangover, but not comparable to alcohol hangovers. It has much milder effects and does not seem to alter the mind nearly as much. It is almost purely a bodily sensation, which is easily manageable. So I plan on continuing regular sakau drinking to increase my integration into society and acceptance as a community member. Everyone, including the current and former Peace Corps volunteers, say that it is a necessary step to truly understand the culture of Pohnpeians.
Well, I have had a relatively insane first week on Pohnpei and I am sure that my experiences will only get wilder. I am becoming accustomed to the culture and learning the language bit by bit. Although I most likely will only be here for another month, I am excited to learn about the island lifestyle and continue to have the time of my life. Kasalehlia.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Beginning

            I have just begun the most epic adventure of my life. I have arrived in the Federated States of Micronesia to spend the next two years teaching English for the Peace Corps. The decision was made, the bags were packed and the goodbyes were taken care of. Now the real experience is underway. I will be challenged like never before and pushed to my mental and physical limits throughout the duration of my service. I will most assuredly get diseased, struggle with loneliness, and be faced with the most difficult situations imaginable. As the Peace Corps motto says “ Its the toughest job you’ll ever love”.
            I am currently on the capital island of Pohnpei and going through the initial stages of training with my fellow volunteers. The majority of the people are young adventurers like me, and we have immediately become a tight knit group of friends. We spent one night in Honolulu, then hopped at a plane at the crack of dawn and flew across the ocean. It was an 11-hour flight from Hawaii that took us across the international dateline (which essentially meant we never had a September 3rd). The flight was grueling and exhausting, but we are all very happy to be on this little speck of land in the middle of the Pacific.
            I will be training on Pohnpei for the next 5 weeks then ship out to my official site that will become my island home for the next couple of years. I might be on one of the main islands of Micronesia or I could be sent out onto one of the outer island atolls. However, the term main island is a little deceptive. You can drive across any of the islands in an hour and they only have a population comparable to small American town. Regardless of my final destination, I will be living in a little village that most likely lacks running water and electricity.
I will learn to live without cell phones, TV, movies, cars, air conditioning, electric toothbrushes and all the technological amenities that we have all become so accustomed to. Instead, I will embrace the simple pleasures of life such as a good book and a beautiful sunset. Rather than buy a filet of salmon at Ralphs, I will most likely stab a fish with my spear to feed myself each night. Rather than drink an ice-cold cocktail, I will slurp the warm milk from a cracked coconut. Rather than playing a round of golf, I will trek through the lush rain forests on the slopes of volcanoes.
I will be sacrificing most things that modern day Americans consider essential to happiness, however I believe that I will find a deeper level of happiness within my self and my natural surroundings. I hope to transcend the constraints of society that dictate how we live our lives and what we think. I will break free of the shackles of our technology based civilization and learn to survive how humans have been living for thousands of years.
My mind is still a ball of mush from jet lag, so I don’t have many insightful comments to make about upcoming experiences. However, I will attempt to update this blog as often as possible. Maybe once a week, maybe once a month, maybe never. I plan on writing down everything that comes mind over the next couple of years and hopefully I post much of it online for all of you to enjoy. I will most definitely have some wild and crazy adventures that will be far different from anything that I have known in Southern California. I am ready to take the biggest step in my and see what I am capable of as human being. Hopefully, I will return back to the states as hardened bad ass with a global perspective and zest for life.