Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Just Chillin at the Top of a Coconut Tree

Pwen Mii Fenu (Walking Around the Island)

Fefan is a rather small island and is only composed of about 10 little villages that have sprung up along its coastline. I am on the northwestern corner of the island in the village of Ununo and had not explored much else of the area. I was eager to get out and see more of my new home. I talked to Ben and we got a couple of locals to guide us in a walk around the island. There used to be a road that went around the entire island and rumor has it that cars could even drive the entirety of the road.
Nobody seemed to really know how long it would take to walk around the island, so we decided to leave early in the morning. Some said it would take 30 minutes and others said 10 hours, haha. It was a perfect example of how Chuukese have no concept of time. It is just a general abstract idea for them that has no fixed meaning or significance. Even the intelligent, well-educated people do not have a firm grasp on time. They may tell you that a 15-minute boatride will take 3 hours, or they may tell you that a 2 hour walk will only take 20 minutes. Time just does not hold the same important as it does in American culture. However, I will have another extended blog entry sometime in the future about the relevance of time in Chuuk. I have a lot of philosophical ramblings to expound upon with relation to the concept of time around the world.
Anyways, we embarked on our journey around the island at 9am. Our group consisted of Ben’s two older brothers and my 8 year old brother Ennet. I brought plenty of water, a sweat towel and a camera as my essential supplies. The three locals brought one small water bottle to share amongst all of them. It is continually surprising to me how little water they seem to drink over here in spite of the debilitating heat.
As we walked along, we passed dozens of people and had short talks with them. When you walk anywhere in Chuuk, you are always asked “Kee war me ia” (Where are coming from?) or “Ka no ia” (Where are you going?). These questions are always asked. People are very curious about your whereabouts regardless if they don’t know you. Your destination and starting point seem to be very important. Whenever I walk anywhere, I formulate my response beforehand because I know I will be asked these questions several times.
Walking along the pathway/road, we were able to see the varying degrees of development throughout the island. In some places, the road was wide and relatively smooth. At other times it was just a rocky, muddy path that was overgrown with grass and plants. I cannot picture a drivable road in many of these places, but people have reassured me that cars once traversed this terrain with ease. The path would sometimes open up and fantastic views of the ocean and surrounding islands would be visible. Other times we were covered in a canopy of mango and palm trees that engulfed us on all sides. The road stretches primarily along the flat coastline, so we didn’t have to deal with much elevation changes. The center of the island is mountainous and dense with vegetation, so nobody really lives up on the inner hills. All of the civilization is along the coast.
We took this walk on a Sunday afternoon, so lots of people were out on their way to and from Church. I was greeted by many curious glances and friendly smiles along the way. I think Ben is the only other white person on the island, so the presence of a new whitey is quite a big deal. I introduced myself to as many people as possible and tried to remember as many names as I could. I already forgot anybody’s name that I met along the way, but I am sure that my foreign face will be recalled by most of them. It is much easier for them to remember one little white guy’s name and face, than for me to remember hundreds of similar looking people with obscure names.
We walked for 4 hours continuously, with only momentary breaks to sip our water bottles. We finally reached the village of Sapotaw. Sapotaw is on the northeast corner of Fefan and has many connections to my triple village of UFO. We stopped at a relative’s house and relaxed under the shade of a mango tree while a small boy climbed a tree to retrieve us drinking coconuts. We settled down for a while and talked about politics and history with a local fat man in glasses who spoke very good English.
After we were sufficiently rested, we were prompted to go over to the school and watch the volleyball tournament. An island wide volleyball tournament had been going on every weekend for the past month and many people from around the island come to watch. The players were actually very good and did the legitimate “bump, set, spike” every time. I was impressed to see over a hundred spectators watching the game. Each team had groups of cheerleaders that would clap and scream incessantly each time a point was scored. I was happy to see the enthusiasm of everyone towards the sporting event. It made me realize that this was their equivalent of our football and basketball games that enthrall millions of fans back in America. They don’t have TV here, so nobody watches sports on TV. They don’t have stadiums or indoor courts of any type. They don’t have leagues or endorsements or professional teams. So this is their athletic entertainment. I was glad to see that even without the resources and abilities to support large scale sporting events, people were still excited to participate and watch athletics.
As the sun began to drop behind the mountain, we decided that we better head home because we still had about an hour of walking. The last stretch of road was the most rural and undeveloped. It was a muddy, trampled footpath through the dense jungle. It’s still hard for me to believe that cars once drove on this little path. We arrived home right before dark and slumped down to rest. Our trek took about 8 hours, but we figured it was only about 5 hours of pure walking. I think the distance was about 12 miles. I am really glad that I toured the island in the beginning of my service. Now I know the land and the people know me. 

Moonlit Manual Labor

Over the next few months I will be responsible for the construction of a large water catchment system that is going to be built in our community. My predecessor Ben fundraised thousands of dollars and planned the construction of this water tank. It took longer than expected to organize the project and it is still in its nascent stages. Ben is also leaving in 2 weeks. So I am taking over the project and supervising its construction while handling the money.
After a confusing purchasing process that included multiple trips to multiple stores, the supplies were finally loaded onto a ship and brought to Fefan. They arrived at sunset last night. The ship needed to depart early the next morning, so it was our task to unload the supplies that night. We had a team of about a dozen community workers to help with the undertaking. These unemployed locals are going to be the primary laborers on the project over the next couple months.
Luckily, it was a full moon. Although it was nighttime, we didn’t even need to use flashlights in the unloading process. Instead we worked under the light of the bright moon. However, unloading the materials was no simple matter. There were a lot of materials.
The tank is going to be 14 ft in diameter and 8 feet tall, including a 16 foot square foundation. To build this huge water tank we needed: 72 bags of cement, 280 heavy concrete blocks, 150 twenty foot pcv pipes, 90 twenty foot rods of metal rebar, over 60 twenty foot 2 x 4’s, and loads of wire and other small accessories. Taking all of this off the ship by hand took hours of hard work. We formed a line and passed the materials in an efficient manner from hand to hand. Following Chuukese custom and the custom of construction workers around the world, we took plenty of breaks to lounge around and shoot the shit. A drunkard also wandered up and got in a fistfight with one of the workers. It was an unpredictably intense intermission for our work, but apparently its something that I will have to get used to in Chuuk.
Although it was hard work to unload all these materials, it was done in such a majestic setting that it didn’t perturb me at all. I took my time to admire the moonlight rippling on the calm waters of the lagoon and the thin clouds whisping overhead. It was one of those moments where I realized how lucky I am to be in such an amazing place surrounded by boundless natural beauty. 

Yummm....poisonous turtle

Turtle is a delicacy in Micronesia. It doesn’t matter that giant sea turtles are an endangered species and their numbers are dwindling rapidly. They are still captured and eaten as often as people can get their hands on them. Their shells are valuable materials to make jewelry and tools out of, and their meat is prized as tasty and delicious. One of the places most renowned for catching turtles is the Hall Islands in the western outreaches of Chuuk. This small lagoon is a turtle breeding ground, so they are easily caught and eaten at most special occasions.
A few weeks ago, my host mother on Tonoas went out to her original island of Murilo in the Halls for a funeral. At the funeral, there were of course a couple turtles that were to be feasted upon at the ceremony. Although I have not seen turtle prepared, I have heard about the gruesome process. It is very important that the turtle is still alive when the cooking process begins. If it is already dead, then it may be spoiled and the meat could be bad. So the turtle is killed immediately before its cooked. It is placed on its back on a stage and sharp sticks are stabbed through its eyes and nose to scramble its brain. The brain scramble is done to numb the turtle and supposedly make it feel no pain. Then they begin to disembowel the turtle while its still alive and pull out the entrails. After its been gutted, then it is thrown onto an open fire and roasted until it finally dies. The turtle meat is then ripped out from the shell and served to the willing guests.
Well, the process was slightly different at this funeral. One of the turtles looked different than most they were accustomed to and it was already dead before they began to cook it. The nervous cooks did not know how long it had been dead and were unsure if the meat had been spoiled in the blazing sun, nonetheless they roasted the shell and cooked the turtle anyways. When the meat was extracted, everyone noticed that it had a peculiar yellow tint to it. Many people felt that this was a sign of special turtle and grubbed it eagerly.
The following morning, two of the guests at the funeral didn’t wake up in the morning. They were dead! Dozens of other people also reported signs of nauseous ness and tiredness. Within two days, another three people were dead. Boatloads of sick islanders were rushed on the 30 hour bumpy boat ride to the hospital on the main island of Weno in Chuuk. Over 20 people were brought in the hospital within the next week. Three more died on Weno.
The government decided that this tragedy was worthy a full-scale investigation. Forty people from the Chuuk hospital, including my host father, and dozens of other researchers and doctors from Pohnpei, Guam, America and China were part of an emergency investigation team that was sent out to Murilo. They set up a makeshift medical tent on the far side of the island and tried to treat the rest of the patients. The team prevented any more deaths and contained the situation.
In totality, 135 people were infected and 8 people died. The cause was determined to be the turtle. There were rumors about a scientist who was conducting experiments on lizards on Murilo and injecting them with unknown chemicals. Many people thought that this was the cause of the poisonous turtle, but those rumors remain speculative. The team of researchers came to the conclusion that it was just a function of the type of turtle eaten.
It was a “Hawksbill Turtle”. This is a rare type of turtle that has a curved, pointed beak and sharp talons on its feet. The turtle feeds on a unique variety of sea life including poisonous sea anemones, jellyfish and man of war. The turtle’s toxic diet filled it with deadly chemicals that were eventually eaten by the unsuspecting funeral attendees. Also, the turtle meat could have been further lethal by being spoiled in the sun. The combination of its poisonous diet and unknown death date contributed to its tragic effects on the small community in Murilo.
My host mother and brothers were very fortunate to narrowly avoid being infected by the turtle meat. After the long boat ride, my mother felt sick and did not want to attend the feasting portion of the funeral. Her sons also stayed back and took care of her instead of going to the feast. Luckily, this serendipitous sequence of events allowed my family to forgo eating the turtle and return in good health. This tragic turtle tale is now contained and serves as a warning to others about ingesting spoiled Hawksbill turtle. 

Just Another Day at Church

Church is very important in Chuuk. It is the center of the community, physically and conceptually. Everybody seems to be highly religious and the vast majority of the people attend church regularly. In fact, a large portion of the population attends church 7 days a week. Church bells ring at about sunrise every morning and awake the locals to get ready for prayer. There is also an evening service before the sun goes down. I usually do not attend the daily services, but I am all but required to attend on Sundays. Everybody goes, so it would be a big deal if I decided to skip out and just lounge around.
The strong religious sense in the island was established by waves of missionaries. My family on Fefan is Catholic; and Catholicism seems to slightly outweigh the protestant religions present in Chuuk. The Spanish were some of the first foreigners to colonize Micronesia and they brought Catholicism along with them. Successive missions have come over the last century and further instilled a religious fervor amongst the locals. Religion has brought a lot of positive changes to Chuuk and gives the community a center point to rally around on a daily basis. However, there are some downsides.
Ancient traditions have been abolished and traditional customs and beliefs have been shunned in forgotten corners. In my opinion, it is rather sad to see the complete disintegration of old Chuukese culture. Nobody dresses in traditional fashion, nobody performs local rituals or dances, nobody talks about ancient folklore, nobody seems to be in touch with the generations before Christianity. There are stories of fantastical Chuukese magic that could accomplish amazing feats and transcend the reality that we have come to know. However, the Chuukese magic has been stamped out by Christians. Today, people in Chuuk have a vague recollection of their ancient magic traditions and tell stories of how their ancestors walked under water and communicated with the spirits of nature. Some people seem upset that they have lost touch with their roots, but most people happily accept that Christianity has destroyed those beliefs.
I am well educated on the history and theologies of various religions and have always been very curious about their effects upon societies. My perspectives often come across pessimistic and cynical about the egotistical self-righteousness that missionaries have used to manipulate and infiltrate the blindly accepting people that they touch. The persistent belief that one religion is entirely right while another religion is entirely wrong seems ignorant to me, because they all share the same goals, origins, purposes and often even the same “God” (they just have different opinions on his manifestation). However, although I do not agree with hardline unwavering faith in a belief system that is simply a function of the environment from which you were raised, I do acknowledge the wonderful things about religion. Actually, in the last couple months I have gained a greater respect for Christianity in some respects.
Anyways, I didn’t start writing this blog entry to ramble about my philosophical beliefs on religion. I could talk about that for ages. I wanted to talk about what an experience at church in Chuuk looks like. This past Saturday, we had a special church event at the large Catholic church on our island. So this description of church is slightly different than an average day, but I have been assured to expect similar occasions at least once or twice a month. However, I felt that my first real experience at church on Fefan was appropriate to retell.
….. I awoke early in the morning to the usual “cock a doodle doooo” that echoes throughout the neighborhood as the sun rises over the mountain. I rolled out of bed, put on some shorts and walked out of my room. It was only about 6am but there were already half a dozen people sitting in my kitchen drinking coffee. A flurry of naked little kids were running around the living room playing tag and screaming. I skipped my way through the mess of flailing naked bodies and entered the kitchen. A seat was immediately vacated for me as I walked in and I was accosted by demands to drink coffee and eat food. I was brought a hot cup of coffee with about 3 tablespoons of sugar. Then a plate of steaming rice and a couple salted fish were thrust in front of me. I ate as I listened to the Chuukese chit chat that is still utterly incomprehensible to me. After breakfast, more people were shuffling in and out of the house and more food was being prepared. I showered, relaxed for a bit, then got ready for church.
We were running late, the church is a half hour walk, and we had a dozen plates of food; so we decided to take the boat. We reached the dock right as the rain started to come down in torrents. Nobody flinched and nobody complained. Although we were all dressed in our nice church attire and the rain splattered in our faces as we sped across the ocean, nobody seemed to be perturbed. Rain is normal around here and fussing about it won’t make anything better. I have come to realize this fact and actually enjoy when a tropical downpour drizzles down.
We pulled around a outcropping of mangrove trees and approached the church from the sea. This Catholic Church is quite a site to behold. It is a behemoth white building that shines like a beacon against the dark green background of the lush green mountains behind it. The church is located on an elevated flat spot that is on the edge of the part of Fefan that juts out the furthest. This majestic white building is flanked by two magnificent towers that are adorned with crosses. The church property is a compound and is complete with a basketball court, school, grassy hills and a few large buildings. As we walk up to the church, there are hundreds of people scattered on the lawn and a group of red clad youngsters are dancing in unison to a Chuukese song about Jesus. There is a pathway leading to the church that is lined with flowers and vines that form a border along the aisle. But the most impressive thing about the church is its view. Atop the small point, you have a breathtaking view of the lagoon. There is a cascading perspective of the west side of Fefan and several mountainous islands are spread along the water. From this vantage point, you can really see the distinctions in watercolor caused by the underwater features of reefs, rocks and sand. Four or five different shades of blue are melded together at various levels that denote the depth of the water below. I can definitely understand why they chose this site for the church; just beholding its wonder makes you feel spiritual.
The occasion for the Saturday mass on this day was that a newly ordained priest from Tonoas was going to give his first sermon on Fefan. He arrived and walked down the flowery aisle shaking everyone’s hand along the way. His entourage followed him into the church and then we mingled around the lawn area for about an hour until the mass began. My friend Julie came over from Parem for the mass and my fellow Peace Corps Ben was also in attendance. It is always great to see other Americans and I spent the time catching up with Julie about our new host families.
The mass takes a couple hours and I have no idea what is going on the whole time. First off Im not Catholic, second I haven’t been to any type of church very many times, but most importantly I don’t really understand Chuukese. I stand when others stand, I kneel when others kneel, and I bow my head when others bow their heads; but basically I don’t know what’s happening. I think the mass followed basic Catholic customs and performed all the rituals in the correct fashion. It is all very precise and everything seems to be done in a particular fashion. Since I haven’t been baptized in the Catholic church, I was told to sit idly with Ben as everybody gets up to take the communion.
After church is over, its time to eat. It’s always time to eat in Chuuk, but especially at church functions. Chuukese are always looking for a reason to feast and this provided a perfect one. I sat on the lawn and ate a big plate of rice, chicken, taro, and a few mystery items. Right as I finish my meal, a large man approaches me and requests my presence inside. He leads me into the large banquet hall adjacent to the church and seats me at the head table. There are three long tables at the front of a room that is adorned with giant palm leaves and tropical arrangements of flowers and leaves. I take my seat at the main table along with the religious and political leaders that are in attendance. Since I am white and a visitor, I guess I will always be an honored guest anywhere that I go. Ben soon follows and is placed in a seat of respect as well. In front of us are enormous platters of food. My plate is full of 6 types of meat, 3 types of fish, pasta, rice, kimchi, potato salad, cucumbers, breadfruit, taro and a whole mess other things. It is enough food to feed a small village, good thing I just finished eating!
We munch on our food as people begin to file into the building and sit on the ground. After a few minutes, hundreds of people are seated before us sitting cross-legged. Then the speeches begin. As I have said before, Chuukese speeches are the most long-winded, lengthy, ridiculous orations ever. Five different guys get up and each give 15 minute speeches about something. I have no idea what that something is. I asked Ben what they are talking about, and he says nothing. He says that the majority of the speech is just thank you’s and apologies. That’s the Chuukese way. Kinisou (thank you) and omusano (sorry) are used in every interaction and every conversation that extends for more than 10 seconds. People are very humble and always try to be respectful.
Anyways, after the speeches then the energy level perks up a bit and things really get interesting. A big group of kids from Parem (including my Peace Corps buddy Julie) get up and start singing and dancing. They perform a few songs and everybody cheers and claps. Then the next group of kids starts into their singing routine. They start kind of slow, but then things pick up quickly. One of the priests jumps out of his seat and starts boogying down the aisle. The crowd erupts in laughter and claps furiously. Then an old lady hops out of her seat and starts to shake her hips and swing her arms. Again everybody bursts into elated screams. Next, a fat man runs into the middle of the room with a bag and starts throwing candy to everybody. Within minutes, half a dozen people are running around the room with bags of little candies and hurling them up into the air. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces of candy rain through the sky and come down into eager hands of the singing crowd. The singing continues and transfers to other groups of kids in the crowd. More people randomly stand up and do a little dance to the utter joy of the raucous horde of onlookers. Meanwhile, the priest has been dancing like a maniac the whole time. He is coming up with all kinds of dance moves and goes around the room motivating others to shake their stuff. The atmosphere then quiets down for a while and another serious, long, inane speech is given. The energy level has fallen off and I could see drooping eyes all around the room. Then a man in a loincloth and flower necklace bursts into the room and screams some warlike cries. His group of kids then get up and perform a wild song and dance routine led by this traditional island looking man. More candy is thrown out and the crowd goes wild.
           After the performances are done, final speeches are given and the banquet hall begins to disperse. However, dancing and music has now begun in the center of the room. My host mother comes up to me and demands that I go get Julie and dance with her. Julie and I make our way out to the dance floor and are immediately the center of attention. Within 30 seconds, a big circle of connecting hands is formed around us and we are in the middle of hundreds of people. I do my goofy uncoordinated dance moves and try to entertain the masses of on looking eyes. Then Ben is thrown into the circle and the three of us whities are dancing in the middle of a gigantic circle. By the third song, the circle finally breaks and others start coming in to dance with us. Flowers and sticks and leaves are hoisted upon us in droves and I try to use some of them as dance props. This dance exhibition continues for a little longer and then finally the music stops and we slip our way out of the circle. It seems like at any occasion, we will be expected to dance. So far in Chuuk, every time I have been at any type of festivity I am demanded to dance in front of everybody. Too bad I am a terrible dancer. Just like on Tonoas, I now have a reputation as “that guy who dances”. Everyone is constantly asking me about my dancing and waiting for the next time they can see me. It is also assumed that Julie and I are going to get married because we danced together. Word spreads quickly on these little islands and my dancing exploits are already famous.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Chuukese Wedding

On my first Saturday here I went to a wedding, Chuukese style. The wedding was on the neighboring island of Parem and I was very excited because my fellow volunteer Julie was just placed there. We dressed moderately nice and walked down to the shore to take the boat over to Parem. I was wearing zip off lightweight pants, a Hawaiian shirt and sandals…. I was one of the best-dressed people at the wedding. T-shirts and shorts were the norm. As we got down to the boat, I noticed that there were a lot of people but only one boat. The maximum capacity for these small motorboats is 7 people. We piled 18 people into this boat! We squeezed together and bounced our way along the waves to Parem.
The wedding was in a nice little church that was next to a sandy beach on the shore. The predominant religion in these parts is Catholicism, so the wedding was performed as a Catholic mass. They went through a rather traditional American ceremony with a few Chuukese quirks. The bride was wearing a nice white dress with a veil and everything. The groom was also in black suit, but was wearing some old Nikes. There were no bridesmaids or groomsman. During the ceremony, I took the time to do some people watching and observe the wedding party. There were dozens of small children and babies wandering around (some of them partly naked). There was a dirty dog sitting docilely along the isle. I saw multiple women whip out their boobs and begin to breastfeed their crying babies. And as I mentioned before, the attire was not exquisite. As the couple was pronounced man and wife, the groom lifted the veil from his new bride and consummated the marriage by shaking her hand. Public affection is taboo and kissing in public would be shocking, so a hearty hand shake seals the deal.
During the reception, we were all served gigantic plates of food. It is customary at Chuukese social events to bring way too much food. The size of the plate is determined by your status and some of the single plates were enough to feed a dozen people. The humungous plates are given with the intention that most of it will be taken home as leftovers. My family brought two large boxes full of plates for the party, and went home with the boxes filled with other people’s leftovers. Food is very important to the culture here and its abundance is a status symbol. The reception was similar to American style in that the important people sat a big table in front and the rest of the attendees were scattered around in a large room (but of course everyone was sitting on the floor).
Then the speeches began. Speeches in Chuuk are in a whole other ballpark and put our modest toasts to shame. Every speech giver has to thank every important person that attended the event. Just the beginning thank you’s can sometimes take a few minutes. After the thank you’s, then they say hello and go into the meat of their speech. I have no idea what anybody was saying, but they were saying a lot. Each person spoke for about 10 or 15 minutes and about 9 or 10 people stood up to speak. Apparently, these extended speeches happen at every party, meeting, funeral, and social gathering; so I have plenty to look forward to. The bride and groom both had their heads laid down on their hands and didn’t look the least bit interest. In fact, I don’t think I saw either of them smile during the entire event. Other people were laughing and joyous, but the couple seemed to be somber and serious. During the meal, a hungry pig came snorting his way into the crowds and was promptly guided back out….only in Micronesia.

HOME & all the responsibilities that come with it


Now its for real. Now I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now all the legitimate challenges of living in a third world country are about to be thrust upon me. Now I am away from the comfort of my fellow volunteers and trainers. Now I’ve been taught all that I need to know about teaching in Chuuk. Now I am done with language training. Now I am finally with my permanent host family. Now I am finally on my permanent island in my permanent village. Now I am finally at my new home for the next two years.
I am on the island of Fefan, in the Chuuk Lagoon, in the Federated States of Micronesia. My village is called UFO. So yes, I will be away in a UFO for the next two years…. I hope they don’t have any probes over here. UFO actually stands for the name of three villages that make up a larger community. I live in the village of Ununo, with Fongen and Onongooch down the road a little ways. I believe that the village has about 500 people in it, but the exact numbers are hard to come by. Most of the community is related in some way, and they all consider themselves one big family.
As you arrive in Ununo, you will pull your small motorboat to the side of a crumbling concrete dock that juts out into the blue waters of the lagoon. The boat is then tied to a tree and you turn around to see your majestic view of the beautiful paradise before your eyes. You can see half a dozen small islands scattered throughout the lagoon and the main island of Weno is easily visible several miles to the north. The view is facing westward and is ideal for watching sunsets drop below the horizon as they are silhouetted by the myriad of tiny islands. Unfortunately there is only a little bit of sand along the shore, but swimming is ideal off the edge of the dock. To reach my house you walk away from the shore on a dirty, grassy, coral road about ten feet wide. The road is lined with giant palm trees that bend inward to form a tunnel of tropical leaves towering overhead. My home is only about a 5-minute walk up this beautiful pathway through the cathedral of palm leaves.
My house is one of the nicest places that I have been inside during my time in Mirconesia. It is recently renovated and complete with tiled floors and curtains on the windows. Its pretty much a mansion by Chuukese standards. The property is elevated off the road by 10 feet of stacked boulders and is built into the hillside. The house has an indoor kitchen with a sink that has running water. We have cupboards and shelves lining the walls of the kitchen. It even has an indoor bathroom and shower! But don’t get too excited. The shower just means there is a trickling faucet and a bucket on the ground. The indoor toilet doesn’t have running water and is flushed by pouring a bucket of water into the bowl. This may seem ghetto by American standards, but it is plush and luxurious for Micronesia. It is far nicer than the living conditions I prepared myself to encounter. We also have a generator that powers a few light bulbs most nights and can play the portable DVD player that they have. My bedroom here is actually bigger than in America and has ample shelf space. It has plenty of natural light and is well protected with mosquito screens on every opening. They even gave me a table and stool. I am ridiculously lucky to be in such a nice place. It is far better than either of my two training sites and is comparable to a slightly shabby American house.
My host family is also great. My father’s name is Benisio Joseph and he works as a specialist for the Department of Education. My mother, sister and brother are all teachers at my school! I also live with 5 or sometimes 7 kids that range between the ages of 2-11 along with my sisters husband. I am excited to have a bunch of little kids to play with, but I hope they aren’t too overwhelming like with my family in Pohnpei. My grandmother and a few of the kids stay at our house sometimes or sleep at the other house farther up on the property. It is regular for a few other teenage kids to be hanging around our house and often sleep here at night. People are constantly coming in and out of the house to drink coffee or eat food. As I mentioned many times before, everyone here is family. Even if you aren’t officially family, you are still family. Everything is shared. Extra food is always made for meals, because undoubtedly others will come wandering through and be invited to eat. Care of the kids is shared by everyone and the chores are completed by whoever is around. Nobody is a freeloader. Everybody chips in and everything gets done.
The only unfortunate part of my situation is that my host father is going to Hawaii for the next month or two to have heart surgery. I don’t know the exact details of his health and hope that he will be ok. He is a highly respected member of the community and speaks perfect English, so I was looking forward to having him help me learn Chuukese and integrate with the locals. However, I will instead have to assume “man of the house” responsibilities and adjust rather quickly.
Another circumstance that will acquire me to expedite my adjustment period is the onset of a secondary project. A volunteer named Ben has been in my village for the last two years and is about to leave. He has been an amazing help in assisting me with the language and integrating into the community. He has guided me through everything I need to know and has made my transition much smoother. However, there is one problem. He has been working on constructing a large water tank system to help with the availability of running water in the village. This is a large-scale project that will cost at least $10,000 and require months of labor. Unfortunately, it is being built on Micronesian time. Which means that it is behind schedule. Actually, construction hasn’t started yet. The supplies haven’t even been bought yet. And Ben leaves the first week of December. So basically I will have to undertake this project. He has done the planning and fundraising, but now I will have to oversee the construction and make sure that everything goes smoothly over the next few months. Peace Corps strongly recommends that we don’t even think about doing a secondary project until we have been at our sites for at least six months. We are supposed to learn the language and be a legitimate member of the society before we even consider trying to handle the huge responsibilities of doing a secondary project. However, I don’t get this luxury of an adjustment period. I am doing it now. I am a little bit nervous about taking this project over and seeing its completion, but I really have no choice. I gotta step up and handle bizniz.

Matching Outfits that Barely Fit

My training in Tonoas has now come to a close and I am officially about to begin my Peace Corps service after the last couple months of intensive training. At this point, the seven of us Chuuk trainees will be sent off to our respective islands and truly begin our Peace Corps experience. So far we haven’t had to deal with loneliness, lack of English, lack of fun, or lack of structure because we have had each other to depend on. But all of that is soon to change.
Training has given us time to become ridiculously close and establish bonds that will surely last a lifetime. The type of person that is attracted to do the Peace Corps is a unique breed. We are all adventurous, all think outside the box, can all deal with hardships, and are all a little bit crazy. These commonalities unite us together and we share the difficulties of our experiences together in order to cope with the troubling adaptations that we are all going through. Nonetheless, allthough we all share certain core characteristics we are an extremely diverse group of individuals. We all have varying interests and vastly different personalities. Julie is the stereotypical All-American girl, Becky is a hyperactive go-getter, Farrah is a tough fearless woman, Naavid is a mysterious badass, Paul is a friendly New Yorker and Ben is an adventurous musician. Together we cover all the spectrums of young Americans and provide a complete package to bring to Chuuk.
Before we shipped out to our remote islands in the vast stretches of ocean around us we thought that it would be appropriate to have a party to send us off in style. Fortunately, our last weekend coincided with the birthdays of Julie and another volunteer Kirby, so we had a legitimate excuse to have a little shindig. We came into the main island of Weno and rented a few hotel rooms at the shnazzy Blue Lagoon Resort. Blue Lagoon is reminiscent of Hawaiian resorts with quaint wooden rooms lining a small peninsula on the tip of Weno. It is most definitely the nicest place on Weno and we thought it necessary to take a break of sleeping on the floor and eating taro to come in and take advantage of some western amenities. Since we are now all living in Chuuk, we got the local rate at the hotel and only paid half the price. We also thought it was a good occasion to celebrate Halloween, since we missed the festivities back in the states. We all pulled together some sloppy costumes and made it a tropical Halloween birthday celebration. We used lots of local materials and got pretty creative with inventing some island costumes. So needless to say, we partied amply and had a roaring good time.
The following Wednesday was our swear-in date. We had been anticipating this event for quite some time and it filled us with a mixture of pride and anxiety for the significance of becoming official volunteers. It is a Chuukese Peace Corps tradition to wear matching outfits for the swearing in ceremony. The girls had purchased fabric in Weno and our parents had sewn shirts and mumus for the occasion. The other day, volunteers were talking with my mom about making the shirts and discussing the different sizes that they needed to be. Everybody laughed incessantly when my host mother said that my shirt needed to be bigger than the rest because I am “husky”. Now it’s a running joke through our group that I am “my mamas husky boy”. In actuality, there is some truth to this. I have gotten much bigger. I am force fed multiple gigantic meals every day that usually consist of the fattest, saltiest, greasiest and most sugary food that you can imagine. Chuukese love fat and try to integrate it into every facet of their diet. Eating pure chunks of pig fat and slurping the oil out of tuna cans are common practice. Sugar is also mounded upon everything edible. Sugar water is preferred over pure water, and a standard cup of coffee has at least 3 or 4 rounded tablespoons of sugar poured into it. Hmm, no wonder Micronesia is one of the leading diabetic countries in the world. Bottom line is that I am gaining a significant amount of weight. I cant even button my pants anymore! Yes, I walk around everyday with my top button open and just the belt holding my pants up. This presents a serious problem because I only brought a couple pair of pants and they are all the same. My family is extremely proud of this fact and brag to other community members that their Peace Corps volunteer gets the best food. It is a sign of wealth and attractiveness in Micronesia to be fat, so I guess I’m on my way to further integrating into the culture. I will have to sacrifice my six pack and my health, but at least I will look like a respected Micronesian.
. Our swearing in ceremony was a big deal for the small island community. After intensive urging by our community members, the festivities changed location and were slated to be in our little village of Nukuno. The whole village prepared food and decorated a community center for our ceremony. They even cancelled school for the day. The Peace Corps Country Director of Micronesia, Kevin Carley was in charge of administering our swearing in. The Lt. Governor of Chuuk, Mayor of Tonoas, and all other important village members were also in attendance. Our families were all beaming with pride and were elated to see their host daughters and sons “graduating” as they called it. We all lined up in our black and purple flowered costumes and underwent our swearing in. We affirmed our commitment to the US and swore, “to defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” I felt like a soldier, haha. After the oath was taken, we each gave a speech in Chuukese and thanked all of the people who helped us through the last couple of months. We went through the rest of the formalities and then officially became Peace Corps volunteers. That night we feasted for hours and enjoyed our last moments with the families and each other.

Now the real experience starts……

Dogs & Nigthcrawlers

Last Sunday, I was taking a walk with my host brother after Church. We were strolling through the forest along the water and enjoying the beautiful day in paradise. We were leisurely wasting away the day without a care in the world. The two of us then came upon a  house along the path and my brother suddenly put out his hand and stopped me in my tracks. He knew something was wrong. We were approaching a house that had a couple over-protective dogs that could be dangerous. He hollered to the owner of the house and the man came out to shoo the dogs under the house. We approached slowly and inched our way past the house as the man stood guard between the growling dogs and us. Suddenly, the mangy canines darted out from behind the man charged right for us. I had no rocks, or sticks or any weapons to defend myself with; so I figured the best defense was to stand still and exhibit no aggression. This was not the best approach. The first dog pounced at my brother and narrowly missed his leg. The next one twirled around my backside and quickly sank his teeth into my calf. We both went to smack the dogs but they retreated hurriedly and scampered off into the trees. The result of the encounter was a big gash on my inner calf. We continued our walk and left the property promptly. After we were a safe distance from the house, my brother took a closer look at my wound. He noticed that it was bluish-purple and swelling quickly. He squeezed the wound and blood began to flow from the bite mark. After sufficient squeezing, he found a small sprouting coconut tree and gathered a chunk of the soft pith from the inside of the bark. He rubbed the natural remedy into my cut and assured me that it would be a good temporary cure for the bite. My brother then began cursing angrily and swore that we were going to kill and eat that dog tonight. He was enraged that we didn’t have anything to beat it away with when it came to attack and assured me that he would stab it in the heart to avenge the attack. I told him that it wasn’t necessary to kill and eat the dog, but I wouldn’t stop him if he really wanted to do it (We never killed it). I later returned to my house and cleaned the cut properly. My host father is a nurse and helped make sure that it was suitably sterilized and free of infection. I have been vigorously applying Neosporin and hope that the wound doesn’t get infected with the flurry of contaminated elements that are present in this tropical climate. Even slight scratches on feet and fingers will get nastily infected within a day if not properly treated. So I must be very careful to watch my wound closely and monitor its healing process. Although it sucks to be bitten by a dog, I do feel like it’s kind of like a rite of passage for being here in Chuuk. Angry dogs have bitten most people here in Chuuk and I feel like more of local now that I’ve dealt with it, haha.
On my last night in Tonoas I partook in another Chuukese custom that seems particularly weird under American standards. It’s called night crawling. And it has nothing to do with the myriad of creepy crawly things that scurrying around our rooms at night. Rats, lizards, spiders, and cockroaches seem to be in every corner of every room; but my description of those night crawlers can be saved for another time. This type of night crawling has to do with courtship. Rules of courtship and relationships in Micronesia are extremely conservative. It is taboo to showcase any type of public affection, especially if you aren’t married. Holding hands or even direct eye contact are off limits between unmarried men and women. You aren’t really even supposed to have extended conversations or ever be seen alone with a member of the opposite sex. Men and women usually sit apart at social gatherings and stick to their own sex in almost all walks of life. There is no concept of dating in the western sense and you must be extremely careful not to exhibit any sexual advances.
Despite this strict cultural customs about relationships, people are people and still crave the presence of the opposite sex. So in Micronesia, its gotta be sneaky. Very sneaky. Sneaky to the point that would be considered creepy in America. Let me explain the standard method of courtship in Micronesia. It is called night crawling. This process is totally acceptable and understood throughout Micronesia, but would get you thrown in jail and labeled as a sex offender in America. Basically, men creep around at night at go to young woman’s houses. They approach quietly and tap on the window or splash water or doing anything necessary to wake up the girl of their desire. They must be extremely careful not to wake up the father or other members of the family. This can be exceedingly difficult, because in most Micronesian homes all of the family sleeps on the ground in one room. Nonetheless, the man will hopefully get the attention of the girl and be invited in or bring the young lady outside. From there, you can use your imagination to what happens next. Sometimes a romp in the jungle, sometimes a silent embrace under the covers, or sometimes just a romantic talk. The ancient Chuukese technique actually employs something called a “Chuukese Love Stick”. The Love Stick was traditionally slid through the thatched walls of the house and  poked the girl to wake her. Each love stick has a unique design on the sharp tip and the female looks at the artwork and decides if the craftsmanship is good enough for her. If she wants her suitor, she will accept the stick. If she rejects the love stick, then she pushes it back through the wall and stabs the night crawler to death. Talk about tough love. This method of the Chuukese love stick is really practiced anymore, but nightcrawling is more popular than ever. Nightcrawling is really the only way for men and women to have any sort of relationship. It is the only way they have privacy to talk. It is the only way that they have time alone. It is the only way that they can get to know each other. And it’s the only way that they can satisfy their inborn urges.
Anyways, on the last night in Tonoas I was walking along the shore with my brother and cousin and they snickered to each other in Chuukese and then pulled me along with them to go night crawl some girl. We approached the house softly and my brother began his process of slight taps and quiet whispers to try to wake the sleeping maiden. The three of us were standing outside the window and patiently trying to infiltrate the defenses and find a way to surreptitiously get the attention of the girl without waking the family. Suddenly, achooooooo!!!!! Despite my best efforts, I unleashed a booming sneeze and undoubtedly blew our cover. We hurried off into the forest laughing at my amateur move, and without a lady for the night. It was a funny introduction to the art of night crawling and I cant say that I was too disappointed that we didn’t wake up some random young girl. I wasn’t really intending to do anything with the unsuspecting girl; I just thought it was exciting to experience the trade of night crawling. Sometimes woman also venture out and night crawl men, so I am gonna bide my time and let them come to me, haha.

Friday, November 5, 2010

My Stereotypical Tropical Paradise 10/26/10

I have been slightly disappointed during my island time that I have not had the quintessential setting of white sandy beaches and remote lagoons that are often depicted in pictures and movies representing the pacific islands. I have been amazed by the wonderful beauty of the rain forests and awed by the breathtaking views of calm ocean and lush mountains, but nonetheless I have been yearning for a soft sandy stretch to relax upon.
This last weekend, my dream came true. We heard of a picnic island out on the edge of the reef of the lagoon called Pisar and thought it would be a wonderful idea to spend a Saturday out on the little island. We talked to our families and roused a lot of enthusiasm for the idea. One of my cousins mentioned that you have to actually pay to go to Pisar, and he had a much better idea for our venture. His family owned two small islands that flanked both sides of Pisar. We could spend the day at these islands free of charge and free of people. We had permission to play for a day on our own private tropical island.
After buying gas and oil for the boats, we departed early Saturday morning in two outboard motor boats. Ben, Naavid, Paul, Becky, Julie and I were accompanied by my host mom Kira, my brother Boi and a few cousins. We zipped through the blue waters of the lagoon and reached the outer reef in less than an hour. As we approached, we noticed a small cluster of sandy atolls covered in waving palm trees. We drove our boat right up to the shore and pulled it onto the sand at the corner of one of the islands. The group of us hopped out of the boat and beheld the glory before us.
The site before our eyes was unlike any scene even imagined in dreams. I cannot do justice to the beauty of the place with my simple writings. It was beyond description. The water was clearer than any I had ever seen. The visibility had to be at least 50 or 100 feet underwater. You could look down from the surface and see 15 feet straight down to the coral with crystal clear precision. Waves could be seen in the distance crashing on the edge of the reef but the light blue water around us was as peaceful as could be.
There were three small atoll islands forming a triad of magnificence around a shallow lagoon in the middle. Each of the islands was covered in dense vegetation but had a welcoming crust of soft white sand. The beaches sloped leisurely into the water and eventually dropped a few feet into a sandy coral surface that encompassed the bottom of the small lagoon. I cannot attest to the accuracy of my estimates, but I surmised that the water temperature and air temperature both hovered around 85 degrees. Although the ocean was warm, it was still quite refreshing to relieve ourselves of the humidity and splash around in the shallow water. A slight breeze and thin layers of scattered clouds protected us from the harsh beating sun, but we still adamantly applied sunscreen throughout the day to shield our white pasty American skin.
We encircled the island with a short walk and took a rest under the shade of a large bush. We gazed out over the ocean and marveled at the pure ecstasy that we were enjoying. As the day wore on, we ventured out from our immediate location and waded through the water over to a sandbar about 100 yards from our spot. We snorkeled through the shallow water for a little while and then took off our gear when we got to the sandbar.
It was low tide and there was only about a foot of water that inundated the sandy knoll in the lagoon. I whipped out my Frisbee and tossed it over to Becky, it was out of her reach but she dove and grabbed it as she splashed softly into the water. This initial act of athleticism made us all realize how perfect this place was for flamboyant diving catches. We threw the Frisbee around and made acrobatic leaps without fear of any repercussions. The water was shallow enough to run through, but deep enough to cushion our falls. We spent about 20 minutes flying the disc through the crisp air as we stood calf deep on the sandbar. I then surveyed our surroundings and came up with a fantastic idea.
We were going to make history and possibly be the first people in the world to play a game of ultimate Frisbee while immersed in the water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We split up into two teams of four and began our game. We were free to push and pull each other around like rag dolls because there was no hard ground to harm us when we fell. We could dive like maniacs and implement novel defensive Frisbee techniques like splashing water at the thrower. It was definitely the coolest place that anyone has ever played a game of Frisbee. The timing, location, weather, environment and people made it the perfect situation to play the best game ever of ultimate Frisbee.
After our game of romping on the sandbar with the Frisbee we swam back to our home base and settled down to rest and drink some water. We were greeted by some of my other cousins who were cooking filets of fish on a fire made of dried coconut husks. They prepared a lime and soy dipping sauce for us and placed the freshly cooked fish on a large banana leaf sitting by the fire. We ate the fish and we were blown away by the mouthwatering taste and explosion of flavors. We all agreed that this was the best fish we had eaten in all of Micronesia and it only added to the amazingness of our day. We asked our cousins what type of fish it was and they snickered and replied with some complex non interpretable Chuukese words, they just assured us that it was just caught early that morning. It wasn’t until the next day that we were told what kind of fish we had been greedily devouring off the grill on the beach……Shark! They didn’t tell us at first because they were worried that we would be scared and not eat the fish, but they were pleasantly surprised to see our agreeable reaction to the delectable sea animal. I have eaten shark before, but this was shark on a whole new level.
As we finished off the shark meat, one of my cousins scampered up a large coconut tree and ripped off a few for us to drink from. I decided this was a good opportunity to work on my coconut climbing skills. I had scaled one before, but it was rather small and I felt I was up for bigger challenge. After some urging from my friends I started my way up the slender trunk. The notches in the tree were spaced very far apart and I struggled to find hand or foot holds to help me in my ascension. As I neared the top I began to lose confidence and I held my body closer and closer to the tree. This method was successful in calming my nerves and assuring my safety, but it was unfortunately also successful and scraping up my chest and arms. I reached the top, tore off a few coconuts, and then slowly descended the tree as I bear hugged my way down. I did make progress in my goals by getting up a larger tree, but I was slightly embarrassed at my lack of dexterity and confidence in the style of climbing. The correct form to climb a palm tree is to bow your knees out and use the arches of your feet around the curve of the tree. You are supposed to keep your arms fully extended and use your legs to propel yourself up the tree like a leaping frog. I attempted this method, but always began to slip and then resorted to my safe tactic of squeezing the trunk with all my might. At the end of the day, I was safe but came away with a bloodied up midsection. I hope to continue to work on my palm tree climbing skills and become a nimble monkey very soon.
We relaxed around the beach and rolled in and out of the serene water for a while as we soaked in the sun. My uncle then returned from his fishing expedition and arrived with a blob of flesh that looked like a gigantic octopus! On closer inspection, we noticed that it was actually seven octopi hanging off the same hook. The animals’ gelatinous fleshy tissue seemed to meld together in the hot sun and create one beastly globule of calamari. My uncle is renowned as one of the best fisherman on Tonowas and has a special talent for spotting octopi.
I later enquired about the methods of catching octopi and got a rather riveting explanation from another local. The Chuukese method of fishing for octopi is as follows. First step is to find the octopus. This is particularly difficult because they camouflage themselves against the coral when a predator approaches. However, when you are sure that you have spotted and cornered an octopus then you must stab it directly in the head with your spear. Keep the spear inside the head and shake it furiously until their brains are scrambled and the creature lets go its grasp of the rocks. It will begin to float up and then you must remove your spear, grab it by the head, finger through its tentacles and stab the spear up through its circular fang encrusted mouth. Then you must deal the final deathblow to the octopus. Find the slit at the back of its head and violently yank until the head is turned inside out. After this coup de grace, you can ascend to the top and finally take a breath with your prize in hand. A partner should accompany you in case the octopus is huge and attempts to drown you with its tentacles as you try to subdue it. Remember, this entire process must also take place during the length of a single breath under water……these guys are badass.
We were all very excited about my uncle’s fishing expedition and wanted to learn how to spear fish for ourselves. We jumped in the boat and my cousin took us about 200 yards out to a point where the reef dropped off a little. He showed us all the basics of spear fishing and we all got to try our hand at it for a few minutes. The spears they use here in Chuuk work fine for their purpose, but are quite basic in their construction. Usually a long thin metal rod is taken out from the interior of a car seat and fashioned with a point on one end and an indented notch on the other end. Then a piece of rubber is tied in a circle with a small string attached to the end. You hold the small string to the notched end of the spear with your left hand and grab the body of the spear with your right hand. Pull back with your left hand and release with both hands when you are ready to shoot. The basics are pretty simple, but the process is harder than it sounds. There were a lot of us trying to learn to use one spear so we each only got a couple minutes to take a few shots. None were successful. Nevertheless we enjoyed snorkeling around the reef and reveling in the perfectly clear waters.
We came to the surface after a while and noticed that the weather had suddenly shifted. The tide had begun to rise and the current was now considerably stronger. Dark grey clouds were approaching us from the east and winds were now whipping over the lagoon. It became apparent that a storm was imminent. We hoisted ourselves back into the boat just as the rain began to splatter down. By the time we got back to our base camp, the wind was roaring and the rain was barreling down. The calm waters that we had waded in before were now a steady flow of white-capped waves spinning in the wind. The rain drenched us to the bone and we actually felt cold for one of the first times since being in Micronesia. The only refuge from the furies of the storm was to submerge ourselves in the warm waters below. We sunk ourselves in the water and took solace in the warmth it provided. It was a pretty amazing experience to seek ocean water in order to warm ourselves up. It definitely seemed oxymoronic and went against all of my innate instincts, but it totally worked. One of my cousins then walked out into the water with us holding a large steaming cup of coffee. Nothing like hot coffee and tropical waters to keep you warm during a storm. We spent the next hour or two sitting in the water and watching the rain drops “falling up” as Forrest Gump would say. This part of our Saturday excursion may sound dull and depressing, but it was actually refreshing and exhilarating. We had been getting baked in the scorching sun all day and it was nice to have a change of temperature for a while. It was such a unique experience that we all relished the moment greatly enjoyed the tempest.
The clouds began to disperse and we relaxed for another hour or so before deciding to head back home on our boats. Our day had been more than successful and we were all exhausted. We piled into the motorboats and started our trip back to Tonowas. The tranquil waters of the large lagoon had been upset by the storm and were now violently rocking and shaking. After about 15 minutes, my little old mama turned to me and presented me with a Tupperware dish full of the leftover rice and fish. She told us all to grab a handful of rice and form it into a ball in our hands. She then directed the boat driver to flank the side of the other boat that our friends were riding in. We pulled along side and unleashed a fury of rice balls at our unknowing and unaware buddies. I deemed these rice balls “Chuukese Snowballs” and we began a full on food fight as we bounced through the waves on our two boats back to Tonowas. We finished the rice and then began throwing fish heads and spam at each other. We finally ran out of food and had to stop our crazy antics when one of the others was almost thrown out of the boat by a big wave when he stood up to huck a rice ball at us.
Overall, this was one of my favorite days of Peace Corps so far. Actually, it was one of my favorite days of my life. It fulfilled my dreams of stereotypical tropical paradise and amazed me with its indescribable beauty. The perfect relaxing day was also punctuated by ultimate Frisbee games in the shallow water, quick and ferocious storms, and a high-speed food fight to top it off. If any of you ever decide to come visit me out here in Chuuk, you can be assured I will take you on a trip out to these flawless islands.

Climbing Chuuk in Chuuk

On my first Saturday in Chuuk I decided to climb to the top of the mountain on Tonoas. Interestingly enough, Chuuk actually means mountain. So I was climbing the chuuk in Chuuk. As I mentioned before, the Chuuk lagoon and specifically the island of Tonoas was a naval base headquarters for the Japanese during WWII. The Japanese cut down all the trees and destroyed all the vegetation in order to build roads and buildings all over the island. We were hoping to reach the top of the mountain and climb a light tower to see a grand view of the entire lagoon. We planned the hike as just a few of us Peace Corps volunteers exploring the island, but it soon turned into quite an expedition. Julie, Becky, Naavid, Paul, Ben and I were going along with the current volunteers Andrea and John. But as our group came together, word spread like wildfire through the town that we were making this trek. By the time we started ascending the mountain, we had a crew of about 20 or 30 locals escorting us up the slopes.
Most of the people were little kids with no shoes that scampered up and down the paths with fascinating dexterity. The local children’s actions reminded me of my shepherd dog dude when we go on hikes; constantly running back and forth from the front of the group to the back to make sure that everybody is ok. The kids didn’t ever seem to drink water, never slowed down and traversed this rugged terrain with nothing more than a pair of shorts. We tended to stay on the path, but many of them just tromped through the jungle and tore through the vines and bushes that impeded their journey. 8-year-old boys were clamoring up palm trees and tossing us coconuts down to drink. It was very impressive and a little emasculating to see these little boys scale the mountain and trees with such ease.
I am not confident enough to bear hug the palm trees and squirm my way up a 50 foot trunk overhanging a cliff, but I did find one of the coolest climbing trees ever. It had huge vines drooping down and was half growing out of a rocky hillside. I leapt up and grabbed a hold of the vines to hoist myself up like Tarzan. I maneuvered around like a monkey for a while on the tree and ascended the highest branches reachable until I noticed some commotion down below. Someone yelled up to me that there were some great caves carved into the rock cliffside near the base of the tree. I slipped my way down the vines and went to check out the crevices in the mountain. Well, these were more than just crevices. The Japanese had built a network of caves and tunnels that went through the mountain. You could enter the cave on one side and after a little wandering in the dark; you would pop out on the other side of the mountain. I could definitely see the battle strategy employed with the use of the caves and admired the Japanese workmanship in construction of these caves. The insides seemed to be encased in crumbling concrete that at one time probably made these damp caves into sleek tunnels for storage and transportation. We played around the caves for a bit and the kids caught some birds with their bare hands in the dark. Once again showing how badass these local islanders are.
After a couple of hours of struggling our way through dense jungle, we finally reached the apex of the island. We came upon an old tower and climbed a rickety ladder to the top. From this vantage point we had a wondrous view of the lagoon and admired the pure beauty of our location. We truly are in paradise and times like this made us remember how lucky we are.
On our way down, we got a little reminder of why rain forests are called “rain” forests. It rains a lot. We were about half way down the mountain when the darks cloud came over our heads and let buckets of water pour from the sky. We were drenched to the bone within a few minutes but reveled in the clean and refreshing downpour. The only problematic issue was the effect when water mixes with dirt. It creates mud. Mud is slippery. Mud is especially slippery when you are walking downhill with sandals on. Needless to say, the rest of the trip down was a slippery sliding mess. We used vines and plants as handles to brace our steps but nonetheless spent much of the time on our butts in the mud. We decided to make the best of this and when we came to a clearing we cut some big banana leaves and fashioned them as sleds. We rather unsuccessfully slid down through the mud on our makeshift slides and dirtied ourselves up even more. When we finally reached the bottom of the mountain it was natural to go straight to the ocean. All thirty of us dove in the water with our clothes on to wash away to grime and mud that has splattered us during our descent. I turned on my back, floated in the buoyant salt water as the rain pit-patted on my face and once again reassured myself how lucky I was to be in such an amazing place.

Tonoas Time 10/21/10

I am working my way through Phase 2 of my training and learning the language rather quickly. My knowledge of Chuukese in only one week has far surpassed my mastery of Pohnpeian in 5 weeks. I am spending the majority of my days learning Chuukese in a classroom type setting, but my extra efforts are what really make the difference. Unlike Pohnpei, I have a strong drive to learn to the language and a purpose behind my education. I will be using Chuukese for the next couple years of my life, so I better learn it fast. The faster I learn it, the more comfortable I will be and the better time I will have in Chuuk. Knowing the language will facilitate my job as teacher and community developer, but more importantly it will allow me to become part of the society. I will be able to understand conversations and communicate on an intelligible level. As of right now, I feel like a half-brained idiot stumbling my way through simple phrases and making a fool of my self-trying to talk to anybody. When I master the Chuukese language, then I will truly be immersing myself into the culture.
Luckily I have a family that is extremely helpful in facilitating my language learning. My mother is a teacher and attended college in America, so she is a great resource to explain the differences between the languages. My father and brother are also adamant about helping me learn Chuukese and constantly teach me new words and help me with pronunciation. Most of my family speaks great English, however they usually try to talk to me in Chuukese to force me to acclimate to the foreign language. I am often confused and have to wait for them to get frustrated and then translate to English, however I think the system is working quite well. I am catching on to Chuukese faster than the rest of my peers and my family is a big part of it.
I usually carry around a little notepad to jot down important phrases and words in. I have a larger notebook that I take notes with in class each day, but my small personal pad is reserved only for essential language basics. In class we spend about 4 or 5 hours each day going over vocabulary and translations. I have learned a lot of words, but it is still difficult to put together a coherent sentence. There are only four of us in the class and our teacher can give us individual attention, which is particularly helpful for pronunciation and clarification of usage.
The best thing about my language class is its location. We do our classes in an open-air semi-circle structure that is approximately thirty feet from the ocean. It is sometimes hard to concentrate on my teacher when he is flanked by a pristine view of calm blue water and scattered tropical islands. The lagoon waters are an array of blue hues with a hint of white coral beneath the surface. A cool ocean breeze often flows through our class and reminds our senses of our fantastical location. We spend our breaks gazing out at the beautiful site or just lying down and relaxing in the shade of a mango tree.
After class we often stroll down the coast and take a swim in the deeper waters off the edge of old Japanese airstrip. The water is deep here and you can dive off concrete edges of the busted old war ruins. Anytime that any of us take a swim, we are never alone. Usually a group of about 20 kids will pick up on our idea when they see us walking and follow us over the swimming spot. They will just leap in with their clothes, or sometimes strip naked and hop into the water. None of the locals really have bathing suits, so normal clothes or their birthday suits are the preferred fashion for swimming. I haven’t been swimming everyday, but I hope to increase my frequency and spend more time in the water. Unfortunately, there aren’t really any beaches on Tonoas. It is entirely surrounded by rock walls along the coast constructed by the Japanese. It is still beautiful and easily accessible, but it takes away from the classical beach scene that I hoped to have. Who knows, maybe Fefan will be different.
If I don’t swim after class, I will often go and play basketball. There is only one functional court around the village. There is a plywood backboard, a rim with no net and a cracked cement slab to serve as the court. Nonetheless, the halfcourt nestled in the bushes in usually crowded with onlookers at about 4pm everyday. I walked by once after taking a swim and was hailed to hop into a game to show them if I knew how to play. I ran around barefoot and only played one game that day, but I assured them that I would return the next day with shoes and play for real. The next day after class I strapped on my old running shoes and hustled down to the court. There were about 20 guys surrounding the court, but as I approached they immediately put me in the next game without having to wait in line. They were all very anxious to see if I was any good at basketball. Well it turned out that on this day I was good….really good. I was as hot as I have ever been in basketball. It was one of those days where everything that I threw up just seemed to find its way into the basket. I was nailing outside shots, slashing across the middle, and spinning towards the basket. To put it simply, I dominated. I scored the majority of my teams points each game and we won about 15 games in a row until we finally had to stop when the sun went down. I had wowed the local players and I think solidified myself as a hot topic around the village. Since that first afternoon of playing, people come up to me everyday and ask I am going to come play basketball. I probably wont ever repeat my amazing performance of my first outing, but I am still quite happy to have found a thriving basketball community that I can fit right into.
My reputation around the village has also been inflated by a few other incidents. Church is the center of the community here and is the essential social element that unites everybody in the village. Pretty much every single person attends church on Sundays and most people go at 6am every day of the week. So on our first Sunday, it was a rather big deal that 4 new white folk were coming to church for the first time. It also happened to be a special time at the church because they were doing a pulpit exchange with some visiting pastors from across the island. After the services, we all came together in a common room and had a feast. We ate all types of fish, taro, rice, fruit and dozens of other local foods. As the meal was wearing down, singing and music started. A choir of young kids and teenage girls sang some religious songs along with a few others. At one point, the beat picked up and everyone in the room started getting involved. They started a chorus together and suddenly called up each of the volunteers to do a dance in front of the group. Everyone did their little diddy and I was the last one to be called up. I strutted and jigged my way up to the front and did some of my wacky hopping flailing that characterizes my not so rhythmic dance style. I ended by spinning around, smacking the floor and striking an outstretched pose. The crowd burst into laughter and clapped furiously to applaud my efforts. Apparently my dance moves made somewhat of an impact on the locals. Numerous people congratulated me for my great dancing and the crowd of teenage girls giggled and blushed when I approached them after. One person remarked that I was already breaking the hearts of these young girls.
The legend of Johnny Hunter was further enhanced by some creative rumors about the scar on my head. Nobody has approached me about my scar and I haven’t received any questions about its origin. I think it is taboo to be blunt and ask about the scar, but nonetheless it is apparently a hot topic. Today I was told the story that has been running through the village. It is now believed that I was in New York on 9/11 and an errant shard of one of the planes sliced a gash in my head. Hahahaha. None of my fellow Peace Corps friends started this rumor; it simply grew out of the minds of the local people. A host sister of one the volunteers even asked them if they could watch the movie about 9/11 because they thought that there might be footage of me in it.  During the last 20 years I have made up numerous crazy stories about how I got the scar just to amuse myself, but I have never thought of anything so ridiculous and unlikely as this. I give credit to the creative mind that put together the pieces and figured out the true origin of my scar. In Chuukese culture, I am now an American hero movie star that narrowly escaped death during the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Truckin my way to Truk (Chuuk) 10/12/10

I have been assigned to spend the next two years of my life in the state of Chuuk in Micronesia. Chuuk (formerly Truk) is the most populous state in the FSM and is composed mainly of large lagoon with small islands scattered throughout. There are a few outer atolls and smaller lagoons such as the Mortlocks, but the Chuuk Lagoon is where I will be located is the heart of Chuuk. Chuuk has the infamous reputation of being the problematic area of Micronesia. In a speech to us a couple of weeks ago, the US Ambassador referred to Chuuk as a “spectacular failure.” On of my host brothers on Pohnpei likened Chuuk to the “hood of East LA”. It has the negative stigma of corrupt government, mismanaged education system, rotting infrastructure, and violent citizens.
Although its reputation is by no means sterling, I am confident that these rumors I have heard are highly exaggerated. The majority of the negativity stems from the problems on the main island of Weno. It does have a fairly high crime rate and its infrastructure sucks. However, I am going to be on the rural farming island of Fefan. Fefan along with the rest of the lagoon islands are safe, clean and happy. They have remained rather undeveloped and maintained their traditional roots of island lifestyle. I am in no danger of violence or crime and the lack of roads, electricity and facilities does not bother me. The only thing that might irk me is the crappy education system. I might become frustrated when I realize the lack of resources and misallocations of money in my school when I arrive. But I will cross that bridge when I come to it. As of now, I am very happy with my placement in Chuuk and am assured that its disapproving naysayers are simply ignorant. In my opinion, it is a beautiful paradise that is just struggling with its adjustment to the modern world.
Nonetheless, my trip from Pohnpei to my current location was no walk in the park. We were supposed to leave on Saturday October 9th at about 2pm. I left my Pohnpeian host family at about 9am and drove to the Kolonia to the airport. There were 21 Peace Corps volunteers plus a few staff members departing that day to the respective islands, so it was quite a production to coordinate us all. Everybody had about 100 pounds of luggage and had just given tearful goodbyes to their Pohnpeian friends and families. When we got to the airport, we realized that our flight was actually scheduled for 3pm, so our 11am arrival time was a little premature. It was fine though, because we were cherishing the last moments with the other volunteers that were about to ship out to specks of land in the vast ocean. We played games, said our goodbyes and went through security to board our flights.
As we were waiting in the terminal, a big storm burst open in the sky. The sky suddenly turned dark, thunder cracked and the rain poured down in torrents. The plane was scheduled to arrive in about 5 minutes, but we became worried that it might not be able to land in this weather. Sure enough, a man walked in after about 20 minutes and reaffirmed our premonitions that the plane was not able to land. It had passed over Pohnpei and continued on to Chuuk and Guam. The rain had stopped by now and the skies were clear and blue. We were kind of bummed but laughed it off and continued to revel in our last moments as a group together.
After about an hour or two of waiting, we were told that the plane would come back around 8pm and fly us to our locations as scheduled. We had no problem with this scenario and got a ride with our stuff back to the Peace Corps office then scattered around the city of Kolonia to grab some dinner and drinks. We went to local café; ate burgers, watched sportscenter and drank some rum. It was actually pretty fun to get a little liquored up and watch sports before I headed out to the undeveloped jungles of Chuuk. We joked about whether or not the flight would be delayed again and even threw out the crazy idea that we might arrive at the airport again and have our flight cancelled at the last moment.
Right before we left for the airport a second time, we received news that the flight was delayed further and wouldn’t come in until around midnight. So we strolled down to another bar and got ourselves mentally prepared for a long flight ahead. The rain started up again and our fears were recurring about flight cancellation. However, we received no more bad news and crammed into a few vans with our gigantic pieces of luggage to drive to the airport. We drearily waited in line with the other cranky passengers and waited to check in once more for our midnight flight across the great dark ocean. As we were approaching the front of the line, an airport officer stood up in front and announced “the flight will arrive on time and depart at 12:30 am…….but it wont be stopping in Chuuk”. The flight was planning on skipping over our destination in Chuuk and flying straight to Guam. All of the other volunteers needed to go to Guam before they took smaller flights to Yap and Palau, but the 7 of us were supposed to just take the 45 minute puddle jumper over to Chuuk. I guess not.
We booked flights for the next night, said goodbye to our friends and went to go find a hotel in Kolonia for the night. Luckily, the majority of the worldwide tuna convention attendees had just left town so we were able to get a room at Yvonne’s (the same place we stayed our first night in Pohnpei). The Chuuk volunteers decided to down a couple bottles of rum and try to enjoy our stranded endeavors for the night. We awoke the next morning and spent the entire day doing nothing at all. We slept, used computers and slept some more. Our flight wasn’t until 1 am the next morning, so we had plenty of time to waste.
To our pleasant surprise, our 1am flight was on time and whisked us away towards Chuuk. We only arrived about 38 hours late and crawled into our hotel rooms at about 4am on Sunday morning. The hotel was actually fairly nice and we were happy to get hot showers and air conditioning. It was my first hot shower since I’ve been here and I don’t expect to get another one any time soon. We struggled out of bed in the morning and went out to see the beautiful sites of Weno! I now got a better idea why nobody is clamoring to come to Chuuk. Weno is not a picturesque tropical city. The roads are decayed and flooded. You never drive for more than 25 feet of flat pavement. Potholes, ponds, quagmires, refuse and mud compose the majority of the streets. It is difficult terrain for any vehicle to traverse that is not a 4 x 4. The buildings are crumbling and it seems like unfinished construction projects are ubiquitous. It pretty much resembles any third world city you will run across. However, it does have its charming points. It is in the middle of a pristine lagoon of tranquil waters and majestic views. The island is covered in lush vegetation and has punctuated spires of rock protruding towards the billowing clouds in the sky. There is also one very nice hotel/dive shop called the blue lagoon. This place embodies the stereotypical tropical paradise resort. Wooden condos are placed on grassy knolls next to clean beaches with palm trees reaching out over their shores. It provides a stark contrast to the dirty bustling city a couple of miles away.
After an afternoon of getting acquainted with Weno, we jumped on a boat and zipped a few miles over to the neighboring island of Tonoas. Tonoas is the location for my 5 week part two of session of training. Here on Tonoas, I will be undergoing intensive language classes and acclimating to the Chuukese lifestyle. My island Fefan is only about a mile away and can be seen from outside my house, but I probably wont go there until my actual service begins in mid November. Tonoas is my home until then. Tonoas (formerly Dublon) is famous for being one of the major Japanese naval headquarters during WWII. The entire island was cleared of all trees and vegetation and made into a fully functioning Japanese war base. The ruins of the Japanese bunkers, communication centers, gun towers, roads, airstrips, and buildings are scattered throughout the island. They are mostly reclaimed by overgrown bushes and eroded from the salt and sea of the Pacific, but their presence is undeniable. The Japanese also conglomerated most of its navy in Chuuk lagoon towards the end of the war. Then in a massive attack called “Operation Hailstorm”, the US bombarded the lagoon and sunk most of the ships. It was a crushing blow to the Japanese and put them on the run until the end of the war. The attack sunk over 70 ships along with countless planes. For the convenience of the modern scuba diver, these wrecked vehicles became hotbeds for coral growth and have created the best wreck dives in the entire world. Fortunately, I am scuba certified and totally plan on exploring the sunken ships in the depths around my new home. The bulk of the wreckage is between Weno, Tonoas, and Fefan; so I am perfectly situated to take advantage of these sites.
My time in Tonoas has been short, but I have enjoyed it immensely. On Pohnpei, the villages are up on the hillsides in the jungle and vast stretches of mangrove forest surround the shore. Most of the time, I forgot I was on a island at all. On Tonoas, there is no doubting that you are on an island. My language classes are in an outdoor building about 30 feet from the water. The language teacher is in the foreground, and in the background I can see miles of tranquil blue water and a few lumps of green outcroppings amidst the sparkling sky. The houses are smaller, the amenities are fewer, the cars have vanished, and the people are more sparse; but nonetheless I enjoy it more than Pohnpei already. People are living a slightly more traditional lifestyle and seem to be more in touch with their ancestral roots. I live with a wonderful family with a mother, brother and father that all speak perfect English. My mother attended college in the US and now teaches at the elementary school, my father works at the hospital in Weno, and the other members of my family all seem to bright shining young people. It is kind of nice to have a much smaller family than in Pohnpei, I will have much more alone time and not be constantly bombarded with sakau drinking and the screams of young children. I will immensely miss my Pohnpeian family and already am sad about abandoning the innocent hearts of little brothers and sisters, but I have to admit that it is more relaxing to be on Tonoas. Tonoas is similar size, similar population, similar location, and similar population to my island of Fefan; so this is a good warm-up to get me ready for my final location. I am working hard to learn the Chuukese language and hopefully will be a pro in no time.