Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Prez

This past Sunday I took my usual lazy walk along our pathway down to the large Catholic Church that we call Mission. I arrived quite early and had ample time to relax in the shade beneath an awning overlooking the fabulous ocean view that stretched out before us. As a cool breeze swept through and triggered a droplet of sweat to fall from my brow, a woman came towards us and motioned my host father to follow her. He told me to get up and walk down to the lower section of the church compound. We were about half way down to the next level when he looked over his shoulder and casually remarked, “You are going to the meet the President now.”
I buttoned my shirt up properly and quickly brushed some of the glistening sweat off my forehead with my arm. I saw two men sitting near the side of a building in the grass. One of them was sitting on the grass conversing with an old woman and the other man was seated on a rusty anvil as he typed a text message on his cell phone. I had a general idea what Manny Mori, President of FSM, looked like from campaign posters; so even from a distance I surmised that he was the gentleman on the anvil. As we approached he put his phone away and stood up to greet us. He beamed a fresh white smile and heartily shook our hands. We exchanged the usual Chuukese greetings and then took a seat on a tuft of grass a few feet from the anvil. For the first few minutes the President talked to the others in Chuukese but soon turned his attention to me.
He suddenly looked me straight in the eyes and asked, “ So you are a Peace Corps, what is your specialty?” I began to respond, “I am a teacher at UFO Elementary School”, but he quickly cut me off and said “ No, No. That is what you do. I asked what is your specialty”. I thought for a moment and told him, “Psychology”. He chuckled and simply responded, “ Ohh, scary!”
Our conversation progressed and I told him that I was from California, near Los Angeles. He laughed again and joked, “Being in Chuuk is like being stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway in LA, not going anywhere” He then asked rather sarcastically if I thought I was actually learning anything valuable here in Chuuk. I was at first surprised by his apparent negativity about his own culture, but soon figured that he was just probing me with an clever interview tactic. I went into an extended spiel about all the great things about Chuuk and the valuable lessons that I have already gleaned from this unique culture. He did not comment on my praises of Micronesian culture, just slightly smirked.
My comparison of varying societal values veered our talk towards the differences between American and Micronesian culture. He mentioned how he is under a lot of pressure to modernize and Americanize the country of Micronesia. Micronesians are at a crossroads between their traditional ways and the ideals of American culture. This spurred me to expound all of my philosophical ideas about the pros and cons of modernization.
Modernization/Westernization/Americanization has been on the forefront of my mind lately and I have been pondering its effects on a daily basis. Before I joined the Peace Corps I was working in a social psychology laboratory that was focused on cross-cultural differences as they relate to depression and anxiety linked together by genetic variation. I came here with the purpose of rigorously observing the effects of a cultural environment on a person’s overall well-being. However, during my time in Micronesia I have slightly changed my passion in the field of social analysis as it pertains to the human mind.
I have become extremely interested in the effects of modernization. The fantastic advances in technology that enhance entertainment and make the tasks of life easy and effortless. The capitalist ideology that allows for limitless economic expansion and continuous advancement in business development. Medical discoveries that make the ailments and illness of our body manageable and treatable. Infrastructure basics like roads, electricity, sewers, buildings and simple services make everything run smooth.
However, many of these modern marvels of the human genius also have their downsides. The ramifications of an increasingly technology dependent society seem to irk me the most. Technology has made people reliant upon buttons and flashes to communicate instead speaking face to face and using. Endless hours can be spent tapping away at a keyboard or staring blankly into a blinking box. The beauty of the natural world is ignored and our concentration is transfixed on brightly lit screens and mechanical devices.
Media, especially movies, has had a profound effect upon Micronesians. They emulate everything they see in the movies. They want to act like, talk like and dress like all the actors and actresses that they watch in these films that they only slightly comprehend. It is true that people in America also admire and love celebrities, but the effects are strikingly apparent in a place like this where the differences are so stark. No longer do Chuukese wear traditional clothing, listen to traditional music, or do traditional dances. They wear doo rags and 2pac shirts, listen to Lil Wayne & Backstreet Boys remixes, and do the Soulja Boy dance. They seem to have this idea that America culture is better than theirs and want to do everything in their power to be just like Americans. Now don’t get me wrong, I love America and appreciate many things about its diverse culture. However, I do not want the entire world to be exactly like America. I especially don’t want the whole world to be like Paris Hilton and Justin Beiber.
Chuuk has a rich traditional island culture that dates back thousands of years. Unique methods of survival and a lifestyle full of crafty work and ingenuity have allowed these people to thrive for centuries. They have a community structure and tight knit bonds between themselves that far surpasses anything I have ever experienced in America. The American government has been frustrated that Micronesia has not shown any signs of economic growth in the recent decades. What they don’t understand is that most Micronesians are happy with their subsistence lifestyle. They just want to live a self-sustainable existence, and most do not thrive to make boat loads of money so they can build a mansion and drive a Mercedes. They are happy harvesting breadfruit, catching fish and maintaining their small farms.
Ok Ok, I will stop my ranting about modernization now. I have plenty to say about this subject and could write for pages and pages. However, I will save that for future blog posts when my activities have become more mundane and I am free to relay my philosophical ramblings.
The real purpose of this particular post was to talk about my meeting with the President of Micronesia. Our conversation was focused on this subject of modernization mostly and he asked a myriad of questions about my thoughts on the subject of moving towards a model of America. I fancy myself as proficient in the arts of rhetoric, and believe I spoke quite intelligently and made many convincing arguments to the President. He seemed a little surprised that I wasn’t advocating that Micronesia charge full steam ahead to transform itself into a Micro-America. I support the use of certain modern elements like infrastructure and medicine, but am hesitant to implant our media, style, and cultural values on a society that is already rich in tradition and community.
We talked for about 20 minutes before we were interrupted by the triple clang of the church bells, which signifies the beginning of Sunday mass. We walked up the church together and then parted as he was marauded with crowds of smiling faces and outstretched hands. After church, my host father attended a meeting where the President was discussing church matters with the local priest. Apparently, he approached my father and asked inquisitively about my whereabouts. I guess he enjoyed our conversation and wanted to continue talking with me. Pretty cool. 

The Beard

I am not a hairy man. Despite my Armenian heritage, I am a surprisingly hairless individual. Following my ancestry, I should have bushy black eyebrows and a face full of curly black hairs. My chest hair should be bursting from the collar of my shirt and threatening to connect with my shaggy neck beard. However, I did not seem to inherit these traits of hairiness. Although I finished puberty before most of my friends started, they all could grow mustaches before I could. I have never, and probably will never, have a thick lumberjack beard that is fit to be a birds nest. I have been knocked on for my lack of hearty facial hair, however there have been some advantages. I don’t have to shave every day. I can usually just shave with soap in the shower, instead of lathering up with shaving cream and making a 10 minute process out of it. I always look clean-shaven and hygienic.
When I came to the Peace Corps, I decided that I was going to defy my natural looks and see if I could grow a beard. I was never willing to try in America because the first weeks would be too disgusting to tolerate. I had never gone more than a week without shaving in America, but in Micronesia I felt that I could go beyond my limits and let it flow. Over here in the boondocks, I really don’t care what I look like. I am already going to stand out and look weird because I am a little white guy in a sea of big dark islanders. So I put down the razor and let my splotches of facial hair go untrimmed.
At first it was rather gross. Small patches of hair are missing from under my chin and along my jawline. It looked like somebody glued little chunks of pubic hair on my neck and chin. However, as time went on, it began to become more legitimate. By the time I came to Chuuk, I could actually call it a beard. All of the pictures that I have posted on Facebook that you might have seen are from months 1-3 of growth. It was still in its beginning phases and was concentrated mainly on the neck. I don’t really have many pictures to prove it, but by the end of month four, it was a full-on beard. The growth had covered up the empty spots and I had a full face of hair. I plucked a hair from my chinny chin chin and approximated its length at well over and inch. I started getting food stuck in my mustache and licking it up later. Water would get caught in my beard and drip on my shirt as I stood up from the table. I could stroke my beard when I was in deep philosophical thought. My mustache even began to naturally curl upwards into a nice French looking curly Q.
I considered the possibility of growing my beard for the entire two years. I would return with a foot long bush of hair hanging from my face and look like I had been a homeless maniac for the last couple years. However, last week I cut it off. One reason is that a beard is not conducive to staying cool in these sauna-like conditions. The main reason was that I was I got a haircut. Once I cut my hair, then my beard was longer than my hair. That was too weird. The beard needed to go. Instead of entirely wiping it clean, I decided to leave some hair on my chin and mustache. So now I have one of those goatee/stache combos.
But do not fear, now I know that I can sort of actually grow a beard. I will let it grow for a few months before I come home. This way you can all see me with a rugged face that proves I have been living in a third world country for the last couple of years. It kind of seems like a standard travelers stereotype to return skinny, hairy and wise. I will see if I can keep up with these clich├ęd norms. 

The (Past) Glory Days Part II

The two main reasons for my success in sports have been my speed and my effort. My quick feet come in handy in most athletic events and give me an edge over most of my competition. My diehard effort and reckless disregard for my body’s well-being have also been helpful. I wouldn’t call it Napoleonic syndrome, but I have always figured that because of my short stature I had to try harder than most people to be successful in sports. I learned how to push myself to my limits and make my body go beyond its normal capacity. I often threw up in track or football because I would run until my lungs felt like they were going to explode, and then I would spew chunks to relieve the throbbing pressure. I have continued to play through broken hands, concussions and strained muscles. After the competitions are over, my body often thanks me for my efforts by slumping into a painful vomiting mess.
These two things, effort and speed, combine together to make me quite good at running track. Although it was never my favorite sport, I have to admit that it was my best sport. I was very good in high school and dominated until I decided to quit my senior year. I haven’t really done any racing since, but I have been able to use my speed in recreational sports and recently in rugby.
The Track & Field race in Fefan is kind of a big deal. In fact, it is probably the most important event on Fefan during the entire year. I am not exaggerating. Everybody is passionate about this island wide event. In the weeks preceding, kids missed school and failed tests with the excuse that they were practicing for the track meet. I was amazed to see the dedication and devotion towards this running showcase. Most people were doing two-a-day practices for months to prepare for the meet. The mayor granted an administrative holiday and cancelled school for Thursday and Friday. My island has a population of about 2000 people. Well over 1000 people attend this event each year. It is talked about year round and is the largest gathering on the island.
Needless to say, I was very confident about my chances at this upcoming track meet. My family had sent me track spikes and my Uncle Mike and Auntie Gail sent me track shorts that arrived the day before the events. I had not trained extensively for the competition like the other islanders, but still felt that I was going to be very successful. My biggest concern was my injured leg. After I was told about the track meet and urged to start training, I began to jog in the mornings and practice running with the group in the afternoons. However, I strained my quad in mid December and couldn’t sprint. My leg was healthy for about 3 days before I hurt my hamstring in the basketball game. This was two weeks before the track meet. I repeatedly tested the strength of my leg but was unable to sprint or practice running at full speed. All I could was simply jog and try to work off some of the Spam fat that I have accumulated over the last few months.
Up until the day before the race, I was still unable to run at full speed and just stretched compulsively. However, on race day I was ready to go and felt that I could conquer the world. I went to sleep early the night before, stretched extensively, drank plenty of water and ate a boatload of bananas.
In the morning, I piled into a little boat with a group of other runners and zipped over the village of Sapotaw where the races were being held. We arrived at the stadium and saw our names on the Jumbo-tron as the Blue Angels flew overhead. Just kidding.  There is a lack of flat land on these little islands and it is difficult to find a place big enough to hold a track meet. A field of eight-foot grass was chopped down to create a makeshift track. The track was oblong shaped and miniature size, one lap was only 200 meters rather than the standard 400 meters. The surface was an uneven combination of rock, mud, coral, grass and dirt. It wasn’t the running conditions that I was used to back in America, but I was happy to see that they at least had a relatively flat place for us to run.
There were five teams competing in the games. One representing each major village group on Fefan and one representing the small neighboring island of Parem. UFO was clad in yellow, Sapotaw in blue, Fadhip in green, Saporeh in red and Parem in white. I wore a white Sigma Pi jersey and was proud to be representing UCLA. Although I live in UFO, I was running for Parem because my host mother is from there. Actually most of my village of Ununno was running for Parem because we have lots of family connections and the UFO team was almost overfilled with people from the villages of Fongen and Onongoch. The teams all gathered together and encircled the track for opening ceremonies. It was quite a sight to see this rainbow of colors surrounding the little dirt track under the blazing sun. I was very impressed to see the throngs of people that were in attendance and the noisy excitement that was permeating through the crowd.
Track meets in America are infamous for being behind schedule and sometimes can fall a half hour behind schedule. In Chuuk, time is only a mere suggestion and I assumed that the schedule would be only mildly adhered to. I was right. It started two hours late and by the afternoon, the pre printed schedule had no relevance to what was actually happening. I just tried to pay attention and ask a lot of questions to get an idea of what was going on.
Due to my hurt leg, I only signed up to run one event the first day. The 100 meter dash. The 100 meter dash is the quintessential track and field event and is considered the best measure of the fastest person in the world. Following suit, the 100 meter dash was the most important event at these games and the winner was considered the champion of the meet. This wasn’t my best event in high school, but I still won numerous races and felt that I could make a good showing here in Fefan. I stretched my leg religiously and warmed up in a similar fashion to what I remember from high school.
Before the day began, I made some rough calculations in my head about my chances at success in the race. Woodbridge high school was an average sized American school of about 2000 people. Coincidentally, that is the same as the population of Fefan. However, only about a third of these people are between the ages of 15-30, which put them in the range of competitive runners. And only half of them are men. So I figured that at most, I was in a pool of about 400 males to compete against. This made me very confident. In high school, even as a freshman I was in the top five fastest people in the school. By the time I was a senior and in my peak physical condition, I was maybe the fastest guy in the school and one of the fastest in the Irvine. By my simple calculations of odds, I should also be in the top five fastest people here in Fefan. Actually following my calculations, it is statiscally feasible that I could be the fastest man on Fefan!
I lined up at the starting line and did a final series of hops and stretches to get mentally prepared to run. I crouched down on one knee, rose up slightly and held by breath and awaited the “Tweeeet”. The man to left got out to quicker start than me and after about 20 meters he stuck out his right arm and blocked me from passing him. I ran as fast as I could and tried to make my gimpy left leg burn through the pain. But to no avail. I never caught the man’s outstretched arm and narrowly got passed at the finish line to end up with a third place in race with just 5 people. I placed third in 1 of 8 heats. That means I ended up twenty something in the overall standings. I was shocked. Not only by the cheating maneuver of the winner, but much more so about my poor performance. As I walked back to my Parem group of fans, they had prepared a cheer for me and yelled in joy incessantly as I approached. One lady ran out on the track and danced in front of me as the others sang a chant about “Aat en Merika”, Boy from America. They were ecstatic that I did so well, little did they know that I was mentally crushed by my defeat.
I had the goal of being the champion and placing first overall, but I didn’t even make it out of the first round. One of my friends from Ununno placed first in his heat, which was great, but I was a little disappointed because I had repeatedly beaten him in races over the last month when I had been healthy. My loss can be contributed to a number of factors. Only running with one leg, an arm blocking my path, particularly fast guys in my heat, my fat that I had gained over the last few months, but mostly my shabby lungs and aging muscles that have been out of serious practice for the last 6 years.
The next day my expectations had dropped slightly, but I still hoped for a day of redemption. I wore a shirt from Jamaica that said “No Problem” and figured that it was a good slogan to follow. I came to realize that this Track & Field meet was not about me. It was about the community. It was about the people here on Fefan. It is the only serious sporting event that they have year round and it is the one time when young athletes can thrive. I am only a visitor. Only a guest. Win or Lose, “No Problem”
The second day had only a couple of individual events, but was mostly comprised of various relays. Although I was faster than many of my teammates, I didn’t want to steal any of their glory and did not ask to be placed in any of the relays. Only a limited number of people can run and I felt it was important that everyone get a chance. Also, there are cash prizes for each race and many people are extremely motivate by these monetary incentives. In each race, 1st place got $8, 2nd place $5, 3rd place $3, and 4th place $1. The money was not a big concern for me. In fact, I just bought ice cream for little kids with all my winnings.
I simply asked to run the one lap race, which was 200 meters and my most successful distance in my track career. I thought I was only going to run the individual race, but before one of the relays my name was called to run with one of the groups. Things suddenly got quite confusing.
I heard my name called in a list of Chuukese babble and went to go grab my shoes. When I returned with my spikes, I was told by somebody that I actually wasn’t racing. I didn’t mind too much and handed my spikes off to a friend to borrow. Then another person came up and told me that I was going to race, but in the second heat. I took back my spikes and stood in line with a group of guys. Suddenly, people were yelling my name and demanded that I come out on the track. Apparently I was running in the first heat. And I was the first runner. I walked up to the starting line without warming up or stretching and grabbed the baton. However, the official came by and did a spike check. I guess in the races around the track, it is illegal to have the spikes screwed into your shoes. So I ran over to grab the tool to despike my shoes. As I was unscrewing the spikes, another man passed by and told me that I would just run later. I assumed that jut meant that I would run in the second heat, so I sat down and idly started to take out my spikes. I watched the first few runners and cheered for my team as I worked on my shoes. The fourth runner on our team came to end of his lap and there was nobody to hand the baton off to. That nobody was me! They yelled my name and I jumped up with only one shoe on. I slipped the other shoe on my foot and zipped out onto the track. I ran as fast as I could and tried to make up the gap that was created by my absence, but it was no use. I ran through the finish line and we placed 4th. Lack of communication, confusing directions, and unfortunate circumstances led to an embarrassing baffle that was centered around my pasty white legs running around the track.
I was forgiven for my mistake and it was generally agreed that it wasn’t really my fault. Nobody mentioned anything to me in English or Chuukese that I was supposed to be running in that race. Nonetheless, I still looked like an idiot and blew it big time.
I still had one more chance at doing something great and making up for my previous follies. The 200 meter race was coming up soon. About a half hour before the race, dark clouds from the east descended overhead and dropped torents of rain on the thousands of track enthusiasts. It didn’t stop the action for long, but the track was severely changed. The dirt turned to mud, and puddles of water spotted the oval surface. It wasnt going to stop us though.
In this final race, I learned a few things about running track in Micronesia. There are a few elements that don’t exist in the American version of the sport. One is the condition of the track. Muddy, slippery, rocky, oddly shaped laps are the norm. At least a dozen people fell on their faces in the middle of races. There are also no lanes. The strategy is more similar to nascar than to a standard track race. Swerving in front of your opponent and fighting to hug the corners are expected. Flying elbows, shirt grabbing, outstretched arms, and tripping are also ok. During the two days of running I saw intentional tripping, grabbing of legs, elbows to the face, and cutting the corners of the track. All of these things make track and field a hell of a lot more fun to watch. But they make it much harder to run.
I shot out from starting line and ran about 20 meters before hitting the first mudpuddle at the turn. We were forced to swing wide and all jockeyed for position on the first turn as I narrowly avoided an elbow to the face. I made the turn in 3rd place and took off on the backside straightaway expecting to catch up. However, it was slippery and I never got up to full speed. The final turn was a doozie. The five runners were in a tight bunch and hit the turn at the same time. This was the muddiest spot on the track and we all slowed to a balancing position with both arms at our side to keep standing. I was gaining on the leader and was neck and neck with the 3rd place guy when I felt a tug on my shirt. The very tall last place runner grabbed my shirt and pulled me back. I put out my arm to avoid being thrown behind him also and we engaged in a vicious struggle for the advantage. We elbowed each other back and forth and fought for every inch. I edged him out at the finish line, but ended up in another disappointing placement. 4 out 5 runners in 6 heats. Once again, I was proven to be just mediocre.
My disappointing sporting outings taught me a few important lessons. First off, I am actually starting to notice that I am getting older. My muscles get sore and can be easily strained. I need to stretch extensively before engaging in any physical activity. I am not in my peak physical condition anymore. If I were a professional athlete, I would be in my prime at 24. But since I am just a lazy lounger, I can safely say that my physical prime passed me at about the age of 18.
Secondly, Chuukese are really fast. My odds making expectations were extremely off. These people can run. A lot faster than boys back in southern California. I have to give credit to their rigorous training regiment and natural born speed. Although I was slightly injured and chubbier than usual around the midsection, they bested me fair and square.
Thirdly, it is good to remind myself that I am simply a visitor these foreign lands and I should not be overly competitive about kicking ass in sports. I am not here to take the glory of the locals or prove my prowess amongst them. I should be happy just being part of recreational sports and enjoying the fun of physical activity.
That being said, I should admit that I do plan on dominating on the basketball court and being the champion of the track meet next year.


The (Past) Glory Days

            My recent sporting escapades in the beginning of 2011 were not as successful as I initially hoped. I consider myself an athletic guy and I tend to thrive in competition. Although I am five foot nothing and weigh less than my Chuukese grandma, I have been rather good at sports for the majority of my life and can usually hang with the best in whatever I do. I have never been the best at any given sport. I was a captain of my football team and had many memorable accomplishments, but I was never the best player on the team. I won dozens of races in track and received numerous accolades, but I was never the fastest man in town. I quickly learned the sports of lacrosse and rugby and gained starting spots within my first year of play, but I am far from dominant in either game. I can beat most people that I know in a round of golf, but I still have my fair share of shanks and duffs. I thoroughly enjoy basketball and often am the star of my team in pick up games, but due my shortness and whiteness I never quite made it to the NBA.
            I am just making the point that I although I am not an extraordinary athlete, I am a pretty damn good one. Whenever I have not excelled at a sport, I have left it behind. In baseball, I sat on the bench for a few games in little league and decided to quit the next year. In soccer, I was benched for a school Harvest cup game in 5th grade and frustratingly moved away from that sport. I grew up playing tennis, but then got whomped in a few matches when I played in real tournaments; now tennis is just a holiday game. At the end of my Junior year in high school I ran in the CIF finals for track, but realized that the peak level of competition was over my head. I would never be a serious college star, so I hung up my short shorts and never returned to the track. I broke my hand during my sophomore year and missed half the basketball season. When I returned to the team, I had lost my starting spot and was relegated to cheering section. I soon after decided to permanently sit in the cheering section and basketball just became a recreational sport. I do not consider myself a quitter because it is impossible to play half a dozen sports at once and I had to make decisions about which ones to concentrate my energy on. However, the moral of the story is that I do not like it if I do not excel at a sport. I hate to sit on the bench. I hate to admit that I am inferior to my competition. I am an inherently competitive guy and always want to succeed.
            I have previously described how I have dominated the basketball scene here in Micronesia. Although the average Micronesian is strong, quick and aggressive; due to the lack of basketball resources they do not have the refined skills that most Americans have obtained. In pick-up games I run the show and drain shots from all over the court. I tend to do quite well in America, but over on these islands my game has been elevated to a new level.
            I was invited to play on a team representing Parem in an island-wide basketball tournament. We had a bye the first game and the second game the other team forfeited. As a result, we were immediately placed in the semi-final game. The other teams had plays, ran presses and had relatively good uniforms. Our team was a mishmash of random players from different villages and most of us hadn’t ever played with each other before. Due to my previous island experience, I expected to be the star of the game.
            I was the starting point guard and was cheered raucously by a surprisingly large crowd of a couple hundred as I walked out onto the court. The opening tip off came to me and I hurried down the court with the ball but threw a bad pass that was quickly stolen. Next possession I split two defenders and drove to the middle of key to pull up and take a shot, but a big man swatted my shot to the moon. I began to hustle back on defense, but my hamstring sharply cramped up and I slowed to a jog. Although my leg was tender and weak, I wasn’t going to sub out within the first minute of the game. A couple of plays later I airballed a 3-pointer. I ran back on defense and stole the ball from behind as the other player dribbled up the court, but I then missed a wide open lay up coming down the other way. This was the story of my game.
            I hobbled off the court after the first quarter and asked to take a break to stretch my leg. I returned in the second half, but was just as terrible. I had lost my quick step, my shot was off, and my confidence was blown. We miraculously won the game, but I scored zero points and only came away with a hurt leg.
            The next game was the championship. I was determined to make a better showing of myself. Hundreds of people were watching the competition and I was the most popular attraction. A white guy playing in Chuuk! This was something to see. Everybody wanted to see how I would perform. I came early to the court, practiced my shot and warmed up with a few pick up games. I drained most of my shots and kicked some ass.
Once again, I was the starting point guard for the game. My leg was feeling ok and I felt ready to go. This time I was confident that I would be in the zone and showcase some of my talents. However, things didn’t quite go as planned. I once again played atrociously. I missed shot after shot, threw a couple bad passes, and got blocked by the same guy twice in a row. After the first quarter we were down by almost 20 and I was subbed out. I never returned. This infuriated me. I watched as our team got thwomped by the opponent, but the coach wouldn’t give me another chance to play. He saw me play like crap two games in a row and he figured that my time was done. I don’t speak much Chuukese and couldn’t exactly make a coherent argument for why I should be able to go back in. I just sat and frustratingly watched as we got crushed in the championship game. It was the first time in a long time that I was benched in anything, and it pissed me off. But I guess I cant really complain, although I knew in my heart that I could change the game around and play at a much higher level; I didn’t do anything previously to show that I would help. So basically, basketball was a bust. However, the following week was the big track meet.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My Church on a Hill (The view looking the other way is actually way cooler)

The Boys of Chuuk

Some of My Peace Corps Buddies

New Years ( Bangin’ Pots & Bloody Guts)

To celebrate the coming of a new decade, we decided to slaughter a pig. This particular porker was a hairy black middle-aged animal. He wasn’t too large, however he had a ginormous tumor on his front leg and his time had come. I missed the execution preparation, but I arrived just in time to see the death blow. Two men were holding the pig and another struck him in the heart with a sharp knife. At first it appeared that he stabbed him in the throat, but actually it was a precise slice directly into the heart. The pig slumped down and died immediately as blood squirted out of his punctured chest.
His leg with the tumor was hacked off and thrown into the bushes, where the dogs greedily fought over its throbbing flesh. Within a minute of the heart stab, the dead pig was carried away from the killing floor to the outdoor cookhouse. We set up a butcher table on the ground made of tin roofing covered with banana leaves. The next step was to de-hair the little swine and get him ready for chopping. We had boiled a large pot of water to help with the process. The hot water was poured on the carcass at appropriate increments to make the hair detach easier. Two men tore its hair off with short quick knife scruffs as if they were scraping old paint off a wall. I was quite surprised to see how easily the hair seemed to slide off the pig and expose its smooth pink skin.
The next step was to delve into the intestinal depths of the slain beast. An incision was made near crotch and continued up through the rib cage. A spurt of warm blood splattered on the man’s face as he exposed the guts of the animal. He was unfazed and didn’t even stop to wipe the dripping blood off. He gouged the inside of the belly and tore out chunks of the innards. He was quite adept and pulled out the guts with surgical precision as one large blob of bloody gelatinous slop. As the pile of slimy intestines lay on the banana leaf table, I did my best to identify each of the digestive parts. Its been a while since I studied the excretory system, however I was successful in pointing out the liver, gallbladder (I think), kidneys, stomach, large & small intestines, as well as the testicles and other reproductive junk. The testes and gall bladder were discarded to the canines, but the rest was saved for the soup. We had another huge pot of water boiling on the open fire to throw the pieces of flesh. The intestines were the first lucky swimmers in the steaming pot of death. Also, the empty stomach cavity contained a large pool of bubbling blood that was scooped out and put into a different pot.
Now that the pig was officially gutted, it was time for the dismemberment. The throat was sliced and the lifeless head of the little animal flopped backwards as the last of the blood seeped out from the edges. One of the little boys giggled, because it made a juicy squishy noise as he stuck his finger down the severed esophagus of the pig. The head was tossed into the pot and we moved onto the limbs. One of the front legs was already gone because of the tumor, so the butcher only had to take off three legs. Each of the limbs was separated from the carcass and then the core of the body was divided into three small sections. Every single part of the pig was boiled in one pot together except the gallbladder, tumor, tail, and the pigs special twig & berries.
Over the next hour, we periodically took out parts of the pigs and chopped them up for the next stage of preparation. The less desirous pieces (intestines and other junk) were chopped into small pieces and put in a pot. Eventually this pot would be filled with water, soy sauce, garlic, onions, salt and the bowl of pigs blood. It turned out to be a brownish maroon colored pork soup that burst with tasty flavor. I think it was the blood that gave it the extra special kick.
The other pieces were sliced into 4 inch chunks, except for the bones and ribs that were already it nice manageable sizes. The pieces were then cooked in a large wok style pan over an open flame. The wok was full of soy sauce, sugar, salt, garlic and onions. It took about 5 or 6 rotations of pieces before all of it was cooked. Then the head was thrown in to simmer as the night wore on. This method of cooking was extremely successful and made the pork succulent and delicious. It was by far my favorite way that I have eaten pig over here, and most probably my favorite way of ever eating pig. We grubbed the meat in a big circle of men that gathered around inside the cookhouse. Everyone eats from a common plate with their hands, everybody scoops pieces of meat up into their mouths along with handfuls of pounded breadfruit.
The killing and cooking process took about 5 hours and it was dark by the time that we started to eat. We continued our cookout and grilled about 40 pieces of chicken on the fire. We also communally ate the chicken as it came off the grill, but the majority of the meat was saved for later. When an animal is slaughtered or a feast is prepared, the food is spread all around the community. The meat was shared with neighbors and friends that night and all the meat of the pig would be eaten within 24 hours.
After we chowed Chuukese style, we moved on to the next phase of new years celebration. Drinking. Although drinking is often seen as taboo in Micronesia, exceptions are made for new years. Just like in America, New Years is a time when the booze flows and emotions run sky high. This night we decided to stay away from the 151 rum and stick with the local alcohol of choice. Its simply called “yeast”
Yeast is a pretty good name for the drink, because that is basically what it is. One bag of yeast, two bags of sugar and a paint bucket of water. It is mixed together and allowed to sit for anywhere between 5-20 hours. The ratio of sugar to yeast can be varied slightly to adjust for taste and alcohol content. The proof of this alcohol is stronger than beer but not as strong as liquor. It probably hovers between 15-20% pure alcohol content, which puts it in the range of most hearty wines.
Due to the simple ingredients of yeast and sugar, the substance becomes a milky white liquid with interspersed chunks of soggy bready crumbs at the bottom. It looks like spoiled milk. Which is ironic because it also tastes like spoiled milk. It is sour and bitter but has a tint of sugary goodness. The standard method to imbibe this local specialty is in a large circle of men. One man, often the chef that procured the concoction, will scoop servings for each person and disperse them as he sees fit. Usually a coffee cup is filled halfway up and each person is expected to swig it in one sip. Its like a giant shot of rotten ice cream that has been sitting in the sun for a few days. In my time I have pounded my fair share of beer and booze, so despite the unpleasant taste I was able to keep up with the boys. Actually, the taste did grow on me and I actually slightly enjoyed it for a moment.
I sat around the smoldering coals of the pig fire and munched on remains of meat as we downed the bucket of yeast. There were about 15 Chuukese men and one little white guy in a pow wow circle bringing in the new year. It was far different than my usual drinking circle of friends back in America, nonetheless I enjoyed it for its unique ambiance and style. We finished the yeasty pot of firewater around 9pm and still had a while to go until the clock struck 12. At this point, the group was unexpectedly plastered and began to scatter off into the dark. Unfortunately, a fight broke out between a couple of the guys and the night took a turn for the worse. The mood was ruined for many of the guys and it put a damper on the festivities for all us. However, I followed a few guys that decided that it was an appropriate time for a change of venue. We wandered down the pathway and stumbled upon another smaller circle of yeast drinkers. We proceeded to sip on yeast at a slower pace now and await the midnight celebration.
There are no TV’s on Fefan so Dick Clark wasn’t there to lead us in a countdown as we watched the ball drop on time square. To add to the confusion, no two clocks in Chuuk ever tell the same time. Some are slow, some are fast, some just don’t work at all. People often wear watches, but they are simply style statements and serve no apparent function. (I will have an extended rant on the concept of time during some other blog). My point is that nobody actually knew exactly when midnight hit. But at sometime around the beginning of 2011 a loud banging on the church bells echoed through the seaside village. We shook hands and acknowledged the new year, but I didn’t hear any elated screams, spontaneous kisses, or fanatic shouts. After the bells, silence fell again upon the night and all we could hear was the chirping miniature violins of the crickets. And then it began…….
It started slow at first, a slight murmur of sound far in the distance. Then it got louder, I could hear the faint hollers of young voices and the rhythmic clank of metal objects. Then it got louder! Coming around the bend of the road I heard a mob of youngsters marching down the path. They were making a raucous, booming, bellowing noise that reverberated off the top of every tree and the bottom of every rock. Dozens of kids, almost everyone in the village, were in the group parading down the path at midnight. The kids were all equipped with some sort of sound making device. Pots, pans, plates, jugs, buckets, gas cans, bottles and all kinds of random objects were being pounded on with sticks, forks, spoons and rocks. A few of the older kids in front would scream a chant in Chuukese and all the followers would echo “Happy New Year” and bang on their drums “bum buda bum buda bum bum bum”. These call and response yells would change from time to time, but would usually end in harmonious roars of “Happy New Year” or “Abbe Nuu Eer” with the Chuukese accent.
As I heard this monstrosity of noise pass by, I hopped up from my drinking circle and ran to go join party. I had been warned that something of this nature was going to take place. People had told me to buy candy just in case. The real purpose behind the midnight parade of noisemakers was to receive candy. They hope to awake all the people in surrounding houses and receive sugary treats as payment for their clink clanking of pots. I approached the crowd of kids and when they saw me coming they slowed their marching band, they all looked at me with curious eyes. I knew what they were curious about. I pulled out small candies from my backpack and threw them into crowd. The kids screamed with joy and immediately surrounded me with outstretched hands and eager cries of hunger. I was amidst a sea of senseless screamers and just threw my candy into the air. After I exhausted the majority of my candy supply, I joined the procession and marched along with the amateur orchestra of homemade kitchen instruments.
We skipped and bounced down to the shoreline and then danced by the beach before turning back and parading back up the path. Along the way, I was handed a large silver platter and a serving spoon as my drum. I banged my plate and screamed those lyrics with all my heart, but my sound was still lost in the crazy noise that surrounded me. We went up and down the path about 4 times, dancing and singing the whole time. When we would get to the dock, some people would sit to relax and others would hop around with jubilation. I threw out the rest of my candy periodically and wandered with the group until about 4am. The noise subsided and I finally collapsed into my bed a few minutes before sunrise.
My New Years day was not spent idly watching college football and lounging on a couch. However, I still had the familiar January 1 feeling of exhaustion, dehydration and nausea. The biggest problem with drinking yeast is that yeast is a living creature. When it goes in your stomach, it often continues to grow. The whole next day I had a belly of gurgling jolts as a loaf of bread was rising in my stomach. I relaxed around the house throughout the day and listened to the passing children. O yes, the kids were still marching. They took a break from about 4am-9am. But right after breakfast, they began the candy grubbing adventures. The banging of pots and the high pitch screams of young children awoke me that morning. The parade of kids went on for the entire day. They would walk to the dock, turn around, and go back up to the end of town. They continued this cycle until sunset, making the same amount of noise the entire time. Although I became slightly annoyed by the persistent cacophony of metal clanks, I have to say that I was impressed with the consistency and dedication of these kids to continue their antics at such an intense pace.
Well, this concludes my first holiday chronicles in Micronesia. Christmas and New Year’s were nothing like American holidays, however I came to appreciate the unique traditions and celebrations that take place over here. I enjoyed the festivities and learned a lot about Chuukese culture in the process.
Considering that this was New Years and I experienced a lot of drunkards, I think that this is the most appropriate time to transition into a description of alcohol consumption in Chuuk. 

ALcohol in Chuuk

Alcohol is one of the most pervasive drugs in the world. Almost every country in the world consumes this liquid intoxicant and it is generally accepted as “ok” in most cultures. It has been around for thousands of years and taken a myriad of different forms. Beer, wine and liquor are the most familiar beverages, however there are dozens of other drinks that can be made from just about anything. Jesus drank wine from the grail. Zeus sipped on golden goblets of ambrosia. King Arthur chugged mugs of mead. Hemingway practically lived on whiskey and gin. Ron Burgundy pounded a glass of scotch before each broadcast. Throughout the annals of time, a large majority of the world population has enjoyed the effects of alcohol. This left over by-product of a sugary chemical reaction has been a staple in society for centuries.
I like to drink alcohol. I like the effects and think it is great way to relax and have a fun time. It allows people to overcome their inhibitions & fears to freely express their desires, thoughts and needs. It acts a social lubricant to loosen the societal restraints that often restrict us and it also opens up new avenues of thought and excitement. However, there are many downsides to this potent substance. It causes lots of problems.
In my personal definition, I believe that a drug is any external substance that alters the normal functioning our bodily systems. And all of our bodily systems are controlled by the brain. Most drugs that we ingest; whether they are Tylenol, marijuana, cough syrup, cocaine, or Prozac all act on only one aspect of our brain. They either inhibit or excite certain parts of neurons that control the release of neurotransmitters. Each of these drugs/medicines only interacts with a single section of our brain. Alcohol is different. Alcohol has an effect upon five different neurotransmitters in our brain. That is why it has such an all-encompassing effect upon our well-being. Our vision is blurred, our balance is swayed, our speech is slurred, our pain receptors are dulled and a number of other functions of our body are temporarily changed.
My point is that alcohol is a very powerful drug. Its deleterious effects are often overlooked because it is so deeply engrained in the fabric of our civilization. It is an expected mainstay at most social occasions and is kosher for any adult to drink. People often ignore the terrible ramifications that can result from alcohol. People fight. People yell. People fall. People crash. People kill. People punch. People scream. People cry. People embarrass. People pee. People make a lot of mistakes and do a lot of ridiculous things that they would not do when sober. Alcohol strips away our conscience and sometimes leads to terrible consequences.
Experiencing four years of college fraternity life has given me a pretty good picture of the pros and cons of alcohol consumption. I have seen the range of good and bad effects. Although I recognize the harmful outcomes of drinking in many situations, I still believe that its positives outweigh its negatives. During my time in Chuuk, my opinions have begun to change.
Alcohol is not drunk in the same way over here. People don’t drink casually just to let off some steam and relax. The idea of just having a few beers to hang out with your friends doesn’t really exist. When people drink, they DRINK. The most popular drink in Chuuk is “Grand Award 151 Rum”. The 151 in the name means that it is one hundred fifty one proof, which means that it is 75.5% pure alcohol. Most standard liquors are 80 proof or 40% pure alcohol. Grand Award is twice as strong.
You might think that since this type of booze is so strong that they would heavily mix it with other drinks. No. They only drink it with water. I have tried to explain to people the advantages of mixing the 151 with other drinks like juice or soda, but they don’t seem to understand. They like their alcohol hard and fast. Plenty of other types of liquor are sold in the stores, but I haven’t seen a single Chuukese person drink any other type besides “Grand Award 151 Rum”. Like I said before, they aren’t drinking for the experience of sipping on a cocktail. They are drinking with the intention of getting plastered.
Alcohol is illegal in Chuuk. Officially, it is banned by the government. But just like every other law in Chuuk, rules are made to broken. It can still be found in most stores and seen on most street corners. However, there is a 50% tax on alcohol. I don’t quite understand how the situation makes sense thought. Alcohol is deemed illegal by the government, but they still collect a 50% luxury tax on its sale.
The most curious thing about drunks in Chuuk is their uniform behavior. Its as if someone mandated that every time a person gets wasted in Chuuk, they need to follow a certain set of behavioral guidelines. Here are the standard rules. 1. The alcohol needs to consumed in a secretive manner. Sipped in water bottles in dark corners behind trees is most ideal. 2. After consumption is complete, there is no need to be secretive. 3. Go into a public area. Walking down paths and roads is most ideal. 4. As you walk, it is necessary to scream at the top of your lungs. Not just any scream. It must be a particular type of scream. It sounds like “waaaheeeee”. 5. When people notice your screams, it is now time to yell profanities. It must always be the same obscene phrase (I don’t really know what it means, but Ive been told that its bad). 6. You must continue the screaming and cursing until one of two things happens. Either you fall on your face and pass out. Or you get in a fight. 7. You must fight someone for no apparent reason. (Number seven is optional, but is fairly regular).
It amazes me how people seem to adhere to these guidelines. It happens on Weno, Fefan, Tonoas and probably all the other islands. I don’t know how this style of drunkenness spread to all of the islands, but it did. The stumbling screams on the road are usually only done by one person at a time. I assume that it is after that person has been separated from their drinking circle. Maybe they got booted out because they are the drunkest, and they want to go show the world that they are drunk. Now I may be exaggerating that every single drunk person follows these rules. This identical behavior can be observed most of the time, but other people do get drunk and restrain themselves a little bit.
Some people can handle their alcoholism in a more controlled manner. I already described the production of yeast and its slightly milder effects. Sometimes people drink beer. And sometimes people make a local drink called “tupa?” from palm trees. There are no bars and no clubs. Drinking is always done secretively. Also, drinking is almost exclusively done by men. It is very rare for a woman to drink. I am sure that it happens, but it is probably a lonely affair behind closed doors.
The worst part of alcohol in Chuuk is the fights. Chuukese are usually very peaceful and reserved. They are a quaint island folk that spend most of their time relaxing in the shade of coconut trees. They are overwhelmingly generous and exhibit unparalleled hospitality. Strangers are treated as friends, and friends are treated as family. However, deep beneath this happy and relaxed exterior is a raging pit bull ready to bite. When the men drink booze, this angry dog comes to the surface and often results in fights.
These fights are sometimes minor and just involve sloppy punches and drunken grappling on the round. However, they can be much more serious. Machetes and knives are omnipresent in Chuuk and often find their way into drunkards’ hands. Knife fights are common. Death by knife fights is also common. I am relatively confident that around half of the adult males that I have met in Chuuk have been in a knife fight sometime in their lives (they have the scars to prove it). In addition, every single person knows someone personally that was killed in a knife fight. These fights almost exclusively happen between two drunk guys, but sometimes are the result of revenge. Most of the time, the fights take place on Weno between men from different islands with rivalries. I have seen fights in my time here, but luckily none of them involved knifes. I am just happy that Chuukese haven’t discovered the destructive power of guns.
Booze is looked down upon by most of society because of its propensity to cause problems within the community. All of this drunken debauchery is countered by a fervent faith in religion. Almost everybody, even the drunk fighters are extremely religious. Some attend church every day of the week, and pretty much everybody goes on Sundays. A man might perform his tirade of drunken screams on the road on Saturday night, but he sure as hell will be at church on Sunday. Drinking is considered a sin by the church. As a result, it is looked upon with disdain by most of the community. That’s why it is usually done in secret. However, it is hypocritical how they hide the act but publicly display the behavior that ensues. It is a twisted system of piety and sin mixed up with alcohol, death, praying and forgiveness.

As Homer Simpson eloquently put it, “Alcohol, the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems”