Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Future of Chuuk Lagoon?

Watch this video for two reasons:

1. See where I live
2. See what could happen

Rivers of Trash

The islands of Chuuk are very small and very isolated. As a result, waste disposal is a serious problem. In the last 50 years, western products have been introduced into this island paradise and brought a higher standard of living. However, these outside products also brought plastic, paper, rubber, styro-foam, and all kinds of wrappers onto the doorstep of the unsuspecting Chuukese.
The islanders have lived for thousands of years in a society where littering and pollution are non-existent issues. After you drink a coconut, you can throw it in the bushes and it will soon decompose. Foods are traditionally wrapped in leaves, which are easily disposable. Leftovers were recycled by the processes of nature. There was no reason to think of waste management. However, once they made the jump from leaves to plastic, they were unaware of the ramifications that their actions might provoke.
In recent years, the garbage and pollution in these islands has skyrocketed. And unfortunately there is no good solution. It’s obviously not good to throw it in the ocean. It’s obviously not good to throw it on the ground. It’s obviously not good to throw it in the rivers. It’s obviously not good to burn it. So what do we do?
You might say, “dig a landfill”. Well that would be a feasible option, except that the combined landmass of these islands is about the size of an average American landfill. These islands are in Micronesia. “Micronesia” means “small islands”. It is almost impossible to put trash in landfills because there is simply no land for landfills. We have steep mountains, taro patches, houses, and beach. No space in between.
On my island of Fefan, we are still rather rural and do not have an overwhelming problem with trash. However, the main island of Weno is visibly suffering. The streets are covered in mud and garbage. Every alley way is littered with trash and refuse. There are no trash cans, no trash service, and very little sanitation service. The garbage is simply piling up in all the cracks and crevices of the island.
This week while I spent a few days on Weno, I got a shocking example of how bad the situation actually is. A ferocious rainstorm came ripping through our lagoon and let down torrents of rain. My friend Naavid and I were returning back to the home of a local woman to sleep for the night and we saw her struggling with a stick near a small stream beside her house. The stream had overflowed and was pouring onto her property.
We trudged through the muddy puddles and offered to help her fix the problem. We soon learned that the problem was far more serious than we could have ever imagined. The stream was no longer a stream. It was a large pool of disgusting water encased by a compacted mishmash of trash. We began poking away at the blockage of garbage and dislodging pieces so that they could flow downhill. Naavid got a pick axe and I used a long palm frond stick. We went to work on this blocked up section of the stream and began tearing out all kinds of crazy things. With our tools we scooped and pushed the garbage from along the sides and down on the bottom. Naavid would swing the pick ax down and it would submerge fully into what looked like solid rock or mud. As he pulled back, chunks of compacted garbage would loosen up and flow down the river. What we thought was dirt, rock, and plants was actually piles of garbage. We dug and we dug. We stood in the middle of the river and worked intensely for over an hour. At the end of our efforts, we had lowered the water level by about 3 feet. That means that were at least 3 feet of trash stuck in the river!
I am not a very skilled descriptive writer and I do not think that my words properly describe the insanity of the scene that we beheld on this stormy day. I had no idea that a stream could be so encrusted and engorged with trash. The water was not only bloated with garbage, but the banks and bottom were actually made of garbage. This pristine island stream had turned into a shit-hole.
We fixed a 50 yard section of the river that day, but we only fixed a small fraction of the river. And we only fixed a small fraction of the problem. Pollution is a really serious issue, especially on these islands. I always knew that littering wasn’t a good thing, but I had no idea of its gargantuan effects until I saw it on a magnified scale like this. America is so big that we have enough room to stuff our trash into places that we don’t have to see it. They don’t have that luxury in Chuuk. As more stuff comes in, more potential trash comes in…..and it never leaves.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


"... people in Western civilization no longer have time for each other, they have no time together, they do not share the experience of time. This explains why Westerners are incapable of understanding the psychology of sitting. In villages all over the world, sitting is an important social activity. Sitting is not a 'wast of time' nor is it an manifestation of laziness. Sitting is having time together, time to cultivate social relation"                                                                          

- Andreas Fuglesang

*If there was a Olympic event for sitting....I think the Chuukese would be world champs.


       Besides the actual school and community work that I am supposed to be doing here, I came into this Peace Corps experience with two main goals. Goal one: climb a coconut tree (check). Goal two: spearfish all the time. I have been unable to spearfish at my site for one main reason. When an important person dies in Chuuk, they have ritual funeral observances. As part of the culture, a “mechen” is put up and entrance into the water is forbidden. No swimming, no fishing, no nothing. I leave in an island paradise surrounded by picturesque coral reefs and clear water, however I am restricted from interacting with it. It’s like someone putting a plate of delicious food in front of you and saying, “ You cant eat this”. It can be frustrating sometimes. This time period of funeral observances can vary depending on the individual who died, but it can extend for up to three months. Unfortunately, during my first 6 months on Fefan, a few important people died. As a result, we have had “mechen” almost the whole time that I have been year. Just last week, the mechen was finally raised and the sea was once again open for business!
                  Finally I was allowed to dive into these crystal clear waters and try to impale little fishies with a spear. I admire spear fishing for a variety of reasons, but I mainly appreciate the manliness of it. It just seems like the most badass way to catch a fish. Me and my spear against the fish. No tricks, no technology, just man vs. nature.
The spears used here in Chuuk are rather simple. It is a singular metal rod with a sharpened tip on one end and a notched end on the other. A piece of large rubber band called “coobie” is tied together with a loop of string that acts as the propulsion for the spear. You hold the spear in one hand with your thumb in the loop of the rubber band. Your other hand is tightly holding the string loop on the notched end of the spear. When you are ready to shoot, you release your back hand and open the palm of your hand on the spear. Whoosh! The spear rockets zips through the water towards the unsuspecting fish and you are left with the rubber band in your hand and a skewered fish on the spear.
                  In America, sometimes spears are three pronged and have attached rubber bands. But this is Chuuk. We do things simple around here. It is not uncommon for spears to be made from scrap metal pieces salvaged from cars or other machinery. As long as its sharp and straight, then it’s A ok. I bought myself a couple single prong spears with the hope that I will make spear fishing a regular habit. I figured that if I bought two, then it would increase my chances of getting someone to come along with me.
                  After the mechen was lifted, one of the local teenagers came by and asked if I wanted to go out on the reef and spearfish with him. Of course I did! This was the chance I had been waiting for. I have a bag of brand new fins, mask and snorkel that have been sorely neglected in this water world that I live in. I swooped up my gear, slapped on some sunscreen and hurried my way down to the dock. It is standard practice in Chuuk to bring some food along with you when you go fishing. We packed up a Tupperware of rice, some soy sauce, some hot sauce and a chunk of pounded breadfruit wrapped in leaves. The food is designed to be accessories for the sashimi that we expect to feast upon on the boat.
                  Down at the dock, I hopped in a boat with a couple of other guys and we paddled a little ways on the reef. A large group of kids were swimming around the dock and piled onto our boat to hitch a ride around. We were soon a floating playground for more than a dozen little kids. After we got to a good spot, I left the kids to their own amusements and flung myself into the warm water.
                  It had been months since I had been in the water and I had almost forgotten the magnificent beauty of ocean life. The coral reefs are alive with color and overflowing with fascinating spectacles. There is a wondrous array of coral with life bursting from every crevice. Oftentimes, people mistake coral for rocks and forget that they are really living animals. However, one would be hard stretched to mistake this display of vibrant life for mundane rocks. Coral comes in all shapes and sizes. Some of the coral looks likes hundreds of fingers trying to press through a rubber balloon, but cant get past the first knuckle. Other coral looks like huge lumpy yellow brains billowing on top of each other. At the base of these humungous brains are branch like formations that look like small leafless trees punctuated with tiny holes. Shades of reds, yellows, blues, greens, purples and all the colors of the rainbow streak across these miniature animals. The polyps pile on top of each other and form remarkable configurations of intricate patterns.
                  The coral is only one part of the reef system. The more amazing part is the abundance of life that swarms around these underwater wonderlands. Fish of every imaginable type are fluttering about as they nibble on the tips of the coral upshots. Some have stripes, some have spots, some have dots, some have swirls, and some have whirls. The fantastic colors of the fish are the only thing that can outshine the marvelous coral reefs.
                  Although the coral reefs are wonderful to behold, I was not down there to observe the scenery. I was in the water for a reason. That was reason to catch me some fish. I soon realized that spearfishing is not very easy. In fact, it is really hard! Time after time I would have my spear aimed at a small aquatic creature and release my hurtling spear with the expectation that it would strike him it his belly, but it would miss. The fish would squiggle out of the way at the last moment. He would feel the vibrations of my quivering spear and zoom off in the opposite direction. Even when I would have my spear tip within a few feet of the prey, they would still find a way to escape. I was playing in the fishes home court, and they were winning.
                  By the end of the day, I had only caught a couple little reef fish that were smaller than my hand. We eagerly grubbed these morsels of raw fish along with a few others on the boat, then a throng of naked little boys came clawing after our leftovers. My first spear fishing expedition was a failure numerically, however it was a huge success in other respects. I finally broke the barrier and achieved one of my goals. I will continue to work on my spear fishing skills and hopefully will soon be a pro. 

School Success Story

Teaching can be very frustrating sometimes. I often wonder how big of an impact I am actually making on my students. Am I really helping them? Am I really doing something to make my school a better place?
Last week, I got a tangible result that showed my success.  6 out of 9 of my 8th graders passed a prestigious private high school entrance exam. The test is very difficult and has a ridiculously low pass rate. Last year, one student passed. Zero the year before, and zero the year before. This year, 2/3 of the students passed.
This is the ultimate satisfaction for a teacher. Students improving and students succeeding. Admission to this private high school puts them on a fast track to success. Needless to say, I am overwhelmingly excited. In just a short time, I have already been able to have a significant impact on my students.
The teachers and community have been showering me with compliments and applauding my efforts, however credit should also be given to my predecessor Ben who worked with these same students for 2 years. Together, our efforts have produced a graduating class that is more successful than any other in recent memory.
I attribute the success on this test to two reasons. First, I made every single person take the test. I even forced my 7th graders to take it to practice for the next year. Immediately, the chances of success are higher because there are simply more test takers. Secondly, I held special test preparation classes after school. The math teacher and I would hold the 8th graders after school and get them ready for the series of high school entrance exams. Test taking strategies and exam specific theories were stressed during these classes. The students were actively involved in the classes and seemed to appreciate our effort.
The final product: most of our students admitted to a fancy school. I am really happy and my confidence in ability to improve my school has skyrocketed. Improvements can happen, and this is proof. 

A Day in The Life

I am at a transition point in my 27-month service. The first few months were pure excitement. Adventure and exhilaration were around every corner. Everything that I saw and did was special and new. Each day I was surprised to find a unique thing about the culture or an oddity that I never expected to encounter. I was accosted by awkward situations and inappropriate behaviors. Everything was weird, but everything was exciting.
            The novelty has begun to wear off and I have become accustomed to many things that I would have viewed as crazy a few months ago. My curiosity about many things has been satisfied and I am no longer a deer stuck in the headlights. In many ways, you could say that I have integrated into the society. I understand the language fairly well, I follow the local customs, and I have even adopted the mannerisms and style of the locals. I still have leaps and bounds to go in my integration process, but I have made it over the first hill and am now comfortably acclimated to my environment.
            It is a very good thing to be integrated into my community, however there are a few downsides. I no longer feel like I am on an adventurous voyage around the world. The initial na├»ve enthusiasm has worn off and things go along at a relatively normal pace. It is no longer an adventure, its just life. But its still a pretty weird life.
            I am going to attempt to give a general overview of a standard day of mine here on Fefan. The details will be dumbed down and most of the embarrassing and foolish interactions will be glossed over, but I think it will give my readers a basic picture of how I live. In some ways my life may seem extremely dull, but when I look at it from a larger perspective I realize that my life is anything but dull. My activities are falling into a routine, but my existence is not very routine. I still live in a 3rd world country on a tiny island where the lifestyle, language and culture are far different from anything that most of you will ever experience.
            I usually wake up at around 6:30 am. I don’t use an alarm and I seldom look at a watch. My internal clock accompanied by crying babies is suffice to make sure that I awake at an appropriate hour. The first activity of the day is usually one of three possible things. They each take about 30 minutes. Option 1: I do some exercise/working out type stuff. Pushups, situps and rubber band stretchy things. Option 2: I do my meditation/ breaking exercises that I learned from the Art of Living program. Option 3: I sleep some more. Unfortunately, I have been opting for number 3 more than I would like. My body is still staunchly resisting the normal hours of sleep that most of the world adheres to. My muscles and mind are still accustomed to the lazy college life of noontime breakfast and midnight escapades.
            At about 7am, I step out of my little room and saunter over to the bathroom. Depending on my selection of morning activities and level of sweat dripping off my body, I will either take a shower or wash my face. When I say take a shower, it’s probably not what you imagine. I used to envision showers as a relaxing time to let the warm water trickle on my head as I relished in the steam-filled ecstasy of a soothing escape from the pressures of the outside world. Showers are no longer a sought after experience that calms the soul and warms the body.
There is a large bucket on the ground full of cold water that comes from a spring up the mountain. I dip a smaller bucket into the big bucket and pour it on my head. The first few buckets are a shocking wakeup call and I barely refrain from shrieking each time that I do it. After several well placed bucket pours, I scrub myself from head to toe. Especially toes. Feet get incredibly disgusting here in Chuuk because sandals are always worn and mud is a common foe. Then a few more cold buckets to wash off the soap, and I am good to go. Unimaginable conditions for some people, but normal life for all of us.
Then I make myself a cup of instant coffee and sit down on my favorite chair (its actually a large paint bucket). I rarely drank coffee in America, but I had no choice but to adopt the habit over here. People of Chuuk love coffee. They drink coffee at all times of the day. It is the standard social invitation to ask someone to sit down and drink a cup of coffee. I am given a boiling cup of coffee every time that I enter anybody else’s house. Nobody seems to care that it is 700 degrees outside and everyone is dripping sweat. A hot cup of coffee is a constant mainstay at all homes in Chuuk. And its always instant coffee. I have yet to see a coffee machine anywhere and the stores don’t even sell normal coffee grounds. Even though the Chuukese are coffee aficionados, I don’t think that most of them even know that coffee is usually made in a different way from just scooping a spoonful. Ooooh, that reminds me. I need to explain how they make coffee. The standard cup of coffee in Chuuk consists of three heaping tablespoons of sugar, two spoonfuls of powdered creamer, and a half spoonful of coffee. I will not go into detail about the excessive sugar intake of Chuukese, I will leave that for another blog about food. Suffice to say, they use a lot of sugar. I tend to stick to a one, to one, to one ratio.
I sit on my little bucket chair and talk to my host father or whoever else is also sipping a cup of Joe in the kitchen. On a regular morning, about 5 neighbors will come in and drink a cup of coffee. We are rather wealthy and always have coffee, so our house is kind of a free coffee shop for friends and family. The Chuukese have an odd custom of drinking their coffee (besides the obscene amounts of sugar). The normal method of drinking coffee is with a piece of bread in hand. You dip the bread in the coffee and munch down the soggy remains. On occasion, donuts or crackers replace the bread, but the general process of saturating a doughy product in a cup of coffee is called “pechan”. It is very popular. After my coffee, I eat a little bit of breakfast. Breakfast usually consists of rice along with some other main course. That main course is ramen, tuna, spam, or some fishy type product.
At around 8am, I exit my house and walk across the path to our school building. Luckily, it is very close, the building is actually visible from my bedroom. School doesn’t start until 8:30, so I hang out on the porch of our office and watch as the students and teachers trickle in. I smack the rusted iron gas tank that we use as a bell at 8:15 and then once more at 8:30. The teachers of my school are usually all on time, which is extremely rare for schools in Chuuk. However, students are often very late and come straggling in until around 9 o’clock.
Our class schedule is divided amongst 45 minute periods for each subject. I have a free period during the 1st session and sit in on the class of 6th grade language arts to help out. The kids slowly struggle through some exercises for a while, then I go out and ring the bell to start the next period. I have a 90 minute period with 8th grade first. My 8th graders are wonderful and quite smart. They are very attentive and well-behaved. I speak almost entirely in English during their class and have been making my lessons more difficult as the year has progressed. My next 90 minute period with the 7th graders is a little more strenuous because they lack the focus and motivation of the other classes. I try to do similar lessons with both grades, but usually end up reverting to something simpler for the 7th grade.  I won’t go into details about school functioning at this juncture, that can also wait for another blog post.
After school I sometimes hold extra class for my 8th graders to prepare them for high school entrance exams. If there is no extra class, then I chill on the office porch for a little while and watch the kids play volleyball and Frisbee. I bought them volleyballs and Frisbees. There is no lunch time, school just ends around 1ish. All of us teachers usually gather together in one of the classrooms and eat lunch together. Everybody brings one item and we all eat together potluck style. Well, Chuukese potluck style. No plates, no forks, no spoons, no cups. Just piles of food that we grub with our hands. We usually have canned mackerel, pounded breadfruit, rice, and a mystery item of either tuna, ramen or fish. This is a tradition that I fully support. One thing that makes our staff special is that we eat together and socialize after school. Most other teachers at other Chuukese schools hurry home and never interact with their fellow teachers. We have a tight bond here at UFO school. That is partly due to the fact that most of us are family, haha.
The after school hours from 2-6 is the variable time in my schedule. On Tuesdays, I gather all the students, staff and parents and go work on our farm down the road. The agriculture project is going well in some regards, but the plants are struggling to survive.  On Wednesdays, I usually walk down to the next village and work on my language skills with my tutor/mentor. Our sessions are supposed to be 2 hours, but we often talk longer about social issues or philosophy or some current state of affairs. My language tutor is quite a brilliant man and I am lucky to have him as a Chuukese mentor.
The hours of 2-6 are what I would usually consider my hours of boredom. However I have come to embrace boredom. In fact, one of the main reasons that I joined the Peace Corps was to be bored, haha. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. I have very rarely been bored in my life. I am an extroverted person and always seek the company of others to play around with. I have always been surrounded by friends, family, TV, video games, sports and a wide variety of activities to keep me busy. I wanted to get away from all of that for a while and be bored. I wanted to have time to myself. I wanted to have time to think, to read, to write, and do nothing. Well now I have plenty of that time.
Ideally I would fill these hours with basketball, hiking and fishing. However, each of these has its obstacle. The closest basketball court is a 45 minute walk. Fishing has been forbidden because of funeral customs. I do hike sometimes, but I have to find the right guy to be my guide. It’s not kosher for me to wander off in the jungle by myself. Since I cannot engage in any of these activities on a regular basis, I revert to simpler things. I read a fair amount. Though my room is a sauna during the day time and is not very conducive to comfortable reading conditions. I sometimes study Chuukese, sometimes lesson plan, and sometimes nap. However, usually I do nothing. Nothing usually involves sitting.
I sit a lot. I sit and listen to conversations that I barely understand. I sit and stare at trees and ponder their chemistry and growth patterns. I sit and think about things. All kinds of things. My usual themes are about spirituality, philosophy, science, sociology, friends, family, food, and many other things that relate to my wild experiences on this island. I used to be an avid extrovert. It was hard for me to sit and listen to a conversation without butting in and saying my two cents every few seconds. In America, I was constantly talking and constantly doing. In Chuuk, I am constantly thinking and constantly chilling.
In the afternoons, I sometimes walk around my village and check the happenings of the locals. I might find something fun to do or I might find a scalding cup of coffee to burn my parched tongue. I will often play with the kids and mess around with them in their games of rocks, sticks and other local materials. I like to walk down to the dock and look at the ocean and the surrounding islands. Whenever I am in a mental slump, I walk down to the ocean and remind myself of the amazing beauty that I am surrounded by. I can never be sad for long because I simply have to give myself a little jolt and take heed of my surroundings. I am in a place that most people dream about. I have tropical rain forest everywhere that I look and stunning coral reefs encircle my island paradise. I may be bored, but at least I’m bored in paradise.
Around 6pm, the sun drops below the horizon and darkness enshrouds the island. Luckily, my family has lights. We recently installed solar power, and use a generator when a rainy day hasn’t provided enough energy to power our solar panels. However, this is very rare for my village. Most people have no power source. No lights, no nothing.
In the evenings, I usually eat a meal of rice along with some meaty type product. More often than not, it is a canned meat such as spam, mackerel, tuna or corned beef. My host mom is pretty good about spicing up our bland canned meats with veggies from the local gardens. Lately, we have been eating the produce from my little garden in front of my house. Makes me feel pretty cool.
After dinner, I usually sit on my bucket and talk with my host father for a bit. He is a well-educated man that speaks perfect English. He is very concerned about social improvement and we always discuss different ways to help our schools or community. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I am fortunate to have someone who is motivated to make things happen and work for a better society. We have been working on all kinds of ideas like public restrooms, trade schools, farming projects, school changes, infrastructure improvements and many others.
We have a 4 inch portable DVD player that is usually up and running most nights. The kids of our house, and often of other houses as well, come and gather around the little screen to watch some American movies. Most Chuukese don’t understand what anybody is saying in the movies, but they still love them. Slap stick humor and hardcore action movies are the most popular. I probably watch a movie 2 or 3 times a week. I try to abstain from making it a nightly habit.
Depending on my movie watching preference, I will go into my room between 7-9pm. I flop down on my yoga mat/mattress and read until I fall asleep. My eyes tend to droop down and close between 9-10pm on a nightly basis. I have insanely vivid dreams and actually look forward to the obscure adventures that my dreamworld brings me every night. I drift off into dreamland and await the craziness of the next day.
As I alluded to before, I have simplified my daily routine to a standard model of living. I want to make sure you understand that my life is still crazy. I still have weird experiences on a daily basis. I still learn new things every day. I still see something or hear something that I have never seen before on almost a daily basis. I am still a confused young man in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.