Tuesday, October 5, 2010

One of the waterfalls along the river in Salapwuk

In a cave underneath a waterfall on the mountainsides of Pohnpei

Climbing a wall at the ancient ruins of Nan Midol with Brian

A few of my lil siblings around the house in Pohnpei

Where Am I Going?

I have been in Micronesia for over a month now and living with host family in Pohnpei trying to adapt to the culture. However, this has all been a warm-up. All of this is just preparation for my actual service over the next 2 years. This is like the practice round before I actually play the real game. I haven’t been able to learn a language, or study a culture, or plan for my actual service. The islands of Micronesia are vastly different and my final placement entirely determines everything that I will experience over the next couple years. I could be placed on a main island like Palau and live a cushy life with TV and pizza or I could be placed on an outer island and chew on rotten coconut while I putz around a landmass the size of a golf hole. I figured that I would adjust to either lifestyle and be happy wherever they put me.
Well, after about 18 months of waiting they finally told me officially where my Peace Corps assignment would be ……FEFAN Island, in the state of Chuuk, in the country of Micronesia, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And I am excited! Chuuk has the largest population of the any of the states of Micronesia but also has the most problems. The main island is riddled with crime, its education system is in shambles, pollution is rampant, and it has the reputation of being similar to the hood of East LA. Nonetheless, I am stoked!
Most of the problems are on the main island Weno, and no Peace Corps volunteers are sent there because it is far too sketchy. However, I will be on a lagoon island 5 miles away from Weno called Fefan. Fefan is known as the agricultural center of Chuuk. It is the garden isle of the lagoon. It has moderate elevation and farms are spread over its green hills. It is also surrounded by beautiful beaches and colorful coral reefs. There is only a population of about 500 and they live a pretty simple life. I will have limited electricity provided by local solar panels. No telephones, no internet, and no running water. It is the perfect compromise between an outer and main island. It is close enough to the main island that I can go there to utilize technology when I need to, but it is also rural enough to give me a true Peace Corps experience. I will still be in the boonies and struggle daily to maintain a comfortable existence, but I wont be far from safety and a few western amenities.
Chuuk lagoon is mainly famous for its scuba diving. The bulk of the WWII Japanese navy was sunk in the lagoon and a plethora of ships and planes lie at the bottom of the coral bed. It is renowned as the best wreck diving location in the world. Luckily I have my scuba diving license and can swim my way to the sea floor and explore the wreckage down below.
I expect to be spear fishing and farming daily. But my real responsibilities will be teaching at an elementary school and focusing on English Grammar, Reading and Writing for grades 5-8. My role as a teacher will be further defined when I arrive at the site, but I am excited to get in the classroom and actually do some real teaching. Hopefully I can build a basketball court, install solar panels, or figure out what the people of Fefan need to make their community better.
I will be arriving in Chuuk on October 9th and going through another 5 weeks of training before I move to my final site. I will unfortunately have to live with another host family before I move in with my permanent folks. Over the next month I will be intensely studying the Chuukese language and refining my teaching skills. I have 6 other volunteers coming with me to the state of Chuuk but we are all on different islands. The group of volunteers is a great bunch of people and I am really excited to be placed with them.
The only downside is that I will miss Pohnpei. Although I would have been disappointed to stay on the capital island because of their perpetuating progress into westernization and complete lack of beaches, I will nonetheless miss many things. Foremost, I will miss my family. The little kids of the household have fallen in love with me and will be bored when their playmate is gone. Their inquisitive little faces and incessant giggles have surely left an imprint on my soul. I will miss coaching and playing basketball down at the school. I feel that I have made a positive impact on the basketball skills and enthusiasm of many of these kids. I have also been destroying the competition every time I step onto the court to play a pick up game. It helps that everybody is under 6 foot, but I like to think that I am just an awesomely skilled baller. I will also miss the social atmosphere and philosophical conversations around the sakau markets. No longer will I sit with my host father and discuss the history of the island or the conceptions of the world. My family and community have shown me an unparalleled amount of collectivist love and support. I hope that Chuukese are as hospitable, giving and unselfish as the Pohnpeians have proven to be.
Despite these drawbacks, I am ecstatic about my final placement and cant wait to leave for Chuuk. I am ridiculously excited to finally be heading to my final destination and actually get started being a real Peace Corps volunteer.

Unbelievably Beautiful Hike Through the Jungle to Six Waterfalls

I have been around the world and seen many breathtaking views and pristine natural vistas, but my experiences this last weekend might have surpassed any place that I have visited. Pohnpei is the second wettest place on Earth and its volcanic slopes are covered in lush greenery and flowing rivers. I have been marveling at the natural beauty of the island and appreciating the overabundance of trees and ferns, however I had only seen the tip of the iceberg. A day’s hike up the mountain would bring me to one of the most amazing places that exists on this planet.
Early on Sunday morning I met up with 4 of my friends and got a ride up a winding road towards the small village of Salapwuk. The rural community is nestled in the mountains and lies at the base of a series of trails that leads farther up to the source of the rivers that rush into the ocean. We had heard of a legendary hike that took you on a tour of 6 waterfalls. Luckily, one of the current Peace Corps volunteers lives in Salapwuk and her host father is a guide for the trails. She arranged for us to meet him and embark on our journey to the waterfalls.
Our first site at the beginning of the hike was a large water buffalo that was swarming with flies as he chewed on some grass in the jungle. I was quite surprised to see this large foreign beast just chillin in the forest, but apparently water buffalo are rather common on Pohnpei. We continued past the hefty horned creature and entered the thick of the jungle. The path began to dwindle and it became imperative to watch every step. I call it a path, but in actuality it was a randomly trampled line that barreled its way through the overgrown greenery. There is no possible way that we could have ever known where we were going if we didn’t have a guide. We would have been lost within 5 minutes and followed a water rivulet to our doom. Our guide carried a big machete and hacked his way through the thick stuff to clear a reasonable passageway for us to traverse.
We scampered over logs, hopped from rock to rock, slid down muddy inclines and crawled up steep slippery slopes. I consider myself fairly nimble and did pretty well with keeping my balance. However, I cannot say the same for my counterparts. My friend Lee in particular was struggling with every step. He must have fallen close to thirty times throughout the duration of our hike. He tripped on roots, slipped in puddles and stubbed his toes on rocks. His arms, legs and ass were brutally bruised by the end of the day. He isn’t really a klutz; the hiking terrain was just ridiculously difficult. I would not consider the hike to be an overly strenuous cardiovascular workout, however the agility and grit necessary to conquer the trail should not be underestimated. The faint of heart wouldn’t stand a chance on this “path” through the jungle.
After about an hour of jungle trekking, we finally reached our first waterfall. We threw down our bags and dove into the cool pool below the falls. The water was the first cold thing we had felt since being in the Pacific, needless to say it was quite refreshing. We waded around and gazed up at the falling water for a while and then set back out on our way to the next waterfall. In just a few minutes, we reached another majestic stream of water cascading down a carapace. Again, we hopped in the water and washed the dirt from our bodies and the dripping sweat from our eyes. At this point, we would have been happy with a fantastic day of hiking and swimming. These two waterfalls were both breathtaking and could easily have brochures written about them to attract tourists. However, we were just warming up.
From this junction forth, our trail took a decidedly different turn. Instead of climbing hills and skipping over fallen logs, we spent the majority of the rest of the day fording rivers and rock hopping across streams. We burst out of the jungle and were faced with a substantially sized river. It was not very deep and wasn’t rushing at a fast pace, but it was challenge to cross. Throughout the day, we probably crossed this river approximately 15 times. Needless to say, this presented numerous problems of slippage and slidage for our group of amateur hikers. Many hilarious missteps elicited bursts of laughter from the onlookers and bruised tailbones for the victims. The slimy stones at the bottom of the creek were a perfect trap for the careless foot of an American visitor.
Fortunately, I came prepared. Before I left for Micronesia, I invested in a crazy looking pair of multi-shoes called Vibram Five Fingers. These shoes were originally designed to emulate barefoot running. They have individual slots for each toe and have a thin rubber padding for support on the bottom. They are supposed to be good for feet and posture while you are running; and bring us back to our ancient roots of walking barefoot. Then they decided that these types of shoes would also be great for water. So they made them out of a water-friendly neoprene type material. The shoes become a trendy fad and began to be used for hiking, kayaking, running and swimming. In my opinion, they work perfectly for me here in Micronesia. First off, I can walk on coral reefs without fear of scrapes and have the ability to swim without significant drag. On my hike, I was able to seamlessly transition from water to land without having any uncomfortable or cumbersome problems. I could swim in the water, navigate through the slippery river rocks, and bound my way through the jungle with ease. My other friends struggled with trying to make due with shoes, thongs, or strap sandals. None of those worked. Shoes get wet and can’t handle the water. Thong sandals are terrible for hiking and fall off in the water. Strap sandals are adequate for water and land, but do not provide the agility and comfort that come with my toe shoe things. All of my friends were falling on their asses all day…I did not fall once. I never slipped in the river, I never fell on the trail, I never stubbed a toe and I never had to change my shoes. These Vibram Five Finger shoes may look foolish, but they are the most resourceful things ever.
Anyways, enough about my awesome frog feet shoes; let me get back to the waterfall hike. We crossed the river for the first time and came upon the tallest waterfall on our hike. I am terrible at estimating distances, so I am not even gonna apply a concrete height to the falls. Suffice to say, I had to crick my neck in order to see the top. We gawked at the sprinkling display of white water pouring down the cliff and then continued our adventure up the course of the river.
After another half hour of hiking, we climbed up a small face of trickling water and came to our fourth waterfall. This was a double waterfall. A thinner stream of water pounded into a large rock basin and then the water spread out and flowed over the edge to form a larger wall of water. This waterfall also had a cave hiding behind its veil of liquid. We swam through the forceful flow of water and pulled ourselves up onto the rocks behind the falls. There was a cave that stretched for an unknown distance back into the mountain. The crevice got progressively smaller and nastier, so we couldn’t get all the way to the back; but we threw stones into its depths and never heard a clank or splash so we assumed it continued for quite a ways. We snapped some more pictures and joked about the mysterious monsters that lurked in the recesses of the endless cave and then moved along our way.
The fifth waterfall was the smallest, so we didn’t spend much time admiring its attributes. Instead we walked and discussed the amazing natural environment that we were experiencing. On our entire trip, we never saw a piece of trash. We never saw a hint of a human presence. We simply saw nature at its finest. A clear river of pure water meandering through a lush green jungle that speckles the hillsides of an ancient volcano. Huge trees towering over the abundant undergrowth of vines and ferns. Flowers, bushes, birds and sunshine encompass everything all around us. Even if this place did not have gigantic waterfalls, it would still be an unbelievable display of beauty of and magnificence.
To reach the final waterfall, we had to take off our back packs and swim through a narrow channel of the river. Our guide went first and grabbed two stones to take into the water with him. He banged them together as he swam through the chute of deep water. He told us that he was smacking the stones to scare away the giant eels. He wasn’t joking….giant eels apparently reside all throughout the waters of Pohnpei. Usually they aren’t aggressive, but it was still enough to make us swim briskly through the channel.
As we reached land on the other side, we were greeted by an extraordinary finale to our waterfall excursion. Another double waterfall burst out of a V-shaped crack in the cliffside at the back of a rounded semi-circle of volcanic rock. It reminded me of a miniature glacial cirque with a calm lake at the base like the ones I am accustomed to in the Sierras. There was a gigantic pool at the bottom of the falls and we spent about half an hour hanging around the area. We scaled a wall on the side of the pool and did some cliff jumping into the deep blue pool of water.
It was a picture perfect day….the sky was clear, the temperature was pleasant, the birds were chirping and the river was rushing. We were on the top of a mountain on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific bathing in a clear pool at the bottom of a regal waterfall. This place has probably been envisioned as heaven in the dreams of people around the world. It has all the elements of paradise rolled into one. And I get experience it all under the cost-efficient and morally respectable title of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Damn, I’m lucky.

Ranting Opinions on Progress & Modernization

Tonight around the sakau table I had an intensive conversation with my host father and uncle about the modernization of Pohnpei and the changes that have inescapably taken place. The topic started by me asking my father about his childhood and how things were different when he was growing up. He described the lack of roads, cars, boats, electricity, clothes, food and all technological devices of the modern age. Although he is only around 60, his life has seen changes applicable to Americans 50 years before his time. The progress of westernization did not reach Micronesia until after WWII and technology is even more recent. He did not see his first car until the late 1970’s and did not have electricity until a decade ago. I was fascinated to hear about daylong canoe trips around the island and hours of walking to reach school. The timeline of modernization has been delayed in Micronesia and it is an interesting example to analyze how our western society has progressed henceforth. Micronesia can be viewed as a microcosm of societal expansion on a global scale. There is an influx of influences flowing into this small island and transforming its culture rapidly.
In the last couple of years of my time in America I have become rather disillusioned with the exponential technological advances and increasing dependence on cell phones, TV, video games and the luxuries of western world. I was critical of the abandonment of the natural world in favor of concrete jungles and air-conditioned cars. I felt that Americans were in some way losing touch with the things that truly make us human. Instead of having serious conversations, people tap some keys and send a text message. Instead of playing games and joking around, people zone into a video game world and become lost in a fantasyland of virtual reality. Instead of spending quality time with family, people melt into the couch and mindlessly drone themselves into a hypnotic state of contentment in front of the TV. Instead of taking a hike through a forest, people wander through the endless pages of the internet looking for an intriguing tidbit of something to excite their dulled senses.
Usually I am an unrelenting optimistic. I am a huge proponent of positivity and have a foolish expectation that everything in the world is keen and dandy. I rarely dislike people and hardly ever criticize things around me. However, this exponential progression of technology and our ignorance of the natural world and traditional lifestyle have irked me lately. Nonetheless, I do see the benefits of modernization and technological improvements. Improved communication, loads of fun, exciting entertainment, better quality of life, and reduction of work are all positive aspects of these changes. It is inevitable that people will want better things and a better life, so these progressions will continue to multiply.
One of the main reasons I joined the Peace Corps was to experience what life would be like without all these modern amenities that we have become accustomed to in America. I wanted to see how people have survived and prospered for thousands of years. I wanted to prove to myself that people can still be happy (maybe happier) without the material objects that we prize so dearly. I hoped to find the true meaning of our existence by stripping humanity down to the bare essentials and just living simply and purely.
Pohnpei provides a wonderful example of a society caught between these two worlds. They are beginning to embrace technology and western culture, but also maintaining their traditions and values. Talking to my host uncle tonight really enlightened me to the opinions of the locals on this progression into the modern age. I asked if he thought that Americanization of the Micronesia was a positive or negative thing. He undoubtedly thought it was positive. He acknowledged the negative aspects of bad influences from music and movies, the increased pollution, and the disintegration of ancient traditions. However, he had many more positive points that he illuminated to me.
First off, he assured me that Pohnpeians still maintain their cultural heritage despite the stream of outside influences. People still value the importance of community and family. Local leaders are still honored. Collectivism is still practiced in every aspect of life. Their lifestyles may have changed, but their true culture has held stable and resilient. Furthermore, they are a ridiculously happy group of people. They smile, laugh and relax all the time. Although they may seem destitute and poor by our middle class American standards, they live comfortably and happily. They have what they need to survive, and everything else is a bonus. Family and community outweigh all other aspects of life and as long as those entities are intact, there are no problems. So far, I am convinced that people are contented and happy here in Micronesia.
My uncle then explained that a desire for a better life is undeniable in all human beings. People want to have more things, people want to work less, people want to be healthier, and people want to be happier. In many ways, westernization has brought these things to Micronesia. Medical care is available, transportation opens doors to new places, media shows outside ideas, and education enlightens the youth to the knowledge of the world. Daily life is no longer a struggle to survive. Pipes bring water to the household, instead of walking a mile to lug a pail of dirty water up a hill. Roads allow quick movement around the island. Markets provide easy access to products and food that would usually not be available. Schools teach children about concepts and ideas that spark passion in their minds and motivate them to pursue their dreams.
All of these things are progress. Progress is good. Overall, progress almost always improves the quality of life. Technology is a function and byproduct of progress that conveys information and applies the ideas spurred by progress. Ideas and knowledge are wonderful and everybody in the world deserves to be educated to their hearts desire, but sometimes those ideas can create technological advances that ultimately harm the vitality of our society. The expansion of knowledge should always be supported and the progress of civilization that ensues is a natural stride that improves our society.
Our discussion then moved to the anomaly of a civilization that denies progress and modernization. For example, some of the Yapese outer islands in Micronesia do not allow motorized boats or western technology to infiltrate their traditional society. They want to maintain their culture, so they refuse to progress on the same path as the rest of the world. At first, this seems very admirable to me. I respect their decision to obtain knowledge of the outside world but decide to disregard it in favor of their customary way of life. They do not want technology. They do not want to progress. This may seem respectable and commendable, but then I thought of the Dark Ages of Europe. The middle ages were a time where knowledge and progress were forgotten. People stopped emphasizing modernization and expansion of ideas. As a result, life sucked. Feudal lords dominated the lands, 98% of the population were starving peasants who died by the age of thirty, and the field of academia was washed into obscurity. Progress was impeded and everything went to shit.
So no matter how much I kick and scream, the world will continue to modernize and globalize. The diverse cultures and societies of the world will meld into a homogenous mixture of universal modernity. It is very likely that in 100 years local languages will be replaced with English, the majority of the world will dress the same, listen to the same kind of music, and aspire to the same lifestyle. That utopian possibility of the world is wonderful in many ways. Equality will pervade the oppressive regimes of the world, overall well being and health will skyrocket, everyone will have the opportunity to travel the world and pursue their goals, communication will be less complicated and life will be a hell of a lot easier. However, we will lose a lot of what makes us special as a race of human beings. The diversity and unique traditions of the world will be slowly replaced with a globalized norm of culture.
I refuse to be pessimistic about these changes. The transformation of the world is underway and it cannot be slowed. Societies will alter, technology will advance, and the world will homogenous and connect. These things are inevitable. Instead of complaining about the changes, I hope to make people cognizant of the progress that we are undergoing and urge them to remember to stay in touch with the things that make us who we are. Go climb a tree, talk to your friends face to face, walk sometimes, read a book, and never lose the things that make you special. Remembering our identity and culture beyond the constraints of modern society is imperative to our happiness.
And when it comes down to it, that’s all I really care about. I care about people being happy. I am a hopeless hedonist and strive for the things that make like worth living. Progress makes people happy, so I support progress.