Friday, May 13, 2011

What Am I Actually Doing?

I have previously documented the fact that I have been extremely bored some days and often spend extended periods of time in solitary contemplation. This down time is intrinsic within island culture and honestly doesn’t bother me at all. I am the king of relaxing and embrace the peace that comes along with a life of chilling.
On the other hand, my time over here is jam packed with mind-blowing experiences and piles of work. I haven’t really talked about the work that I am actually doing over here very much and I figure now is a good time to relay some of that information. At this particular junction in my service, I have a full schedule of activities.
My primary occupation is to teach English. However, the difference between Peace Corps and other volunteer teaching programs is the aspect of secondary projects and community improvement. Peace Corps Volunteers are not only supposed to fulfill their duties of the assigned job, but in their free time it is expected that we will work for the betterment of our local society. Some volunteers are overwhelmed with the challenges of teaching and do not pursue secondary projects. This is actually relatively common, because teaching in a place like this is extremely stressful and difficult.
Although I have a full plate of responsibilities with my teaching job, I have taken the time to get involved in a wide variety of secondary projects. Probably too many. Lots of these projects are actually the brainchild of my host father in Chuuk, who is a motivated visionary with a million ideas for social improvement. We have teamed up together and began to undertake all sorts of projects to help our islands.
When I arrived in my site here at UFO, I was handed a secondary project that was already underway. My predecessor had funded the construction of a large water tank and I was given the responsibility of overseeing its completion. This has been a painstakingly slow process, but it has been chugging along and will hopefully be finished in the next month or two.
Beyond the water tank, I also created a farming project for the students at my school. We have been teaching them about farming and growing food at a local garden. There have been a few complications with this project, but I look forward to revising its structure and implementing it on a larger level the following school year. I have spear-headed and handled this project primarily as a means to involve parents in their children’s education while at the same time teaching the kids a valuable cultural skill.
Those are my two projects that have actually come to fruition and are already up and running. However, I have ambitious goals and am working on a variety of other things. One of these is the establishment of a vocational/trade high school. Micronesia has a massive lack of professionals with technical skills and their economy and infrastructure are suffering because of it. Nobody knows how to fix computers, cars, boats, houses, roads or buildings. Nobody has any technical skills because there is nowhere in Micronesia where they can learn them. There is simply no avenue for them to pursue that type of education. I want to change that.
I attempted to found this school on a national level as a replacement of a prestigious school that shut down last decade. But I ran into some political, educational and religious obstacles that made it too difficult to tackle. So I geared down my aspirations a bit, and am now looking to establish this school simply for the state of Chuuk. The Department of Education has given my host father and I permission to draft a proposal for the establishment of this trade school. They are in full support of the idea and have funding available to make it happen. We are currently working on writing the proposal and should know the results of our efforts sometime this summer.
Another large-scale project that I am working on with my host-father is the building of the first public restrooms in the state of Chuuk. There is not a single public restroom on the main island of Weno and no trace of bathrooms on any of the other islands. Some of the restaurants have toilet facilities, but they are only reserved for paying customers. The stores, gas stations, and other businesses don’t provide any type of restrooms. As a result, the alleyways and corners of Weno are rather disgusting because they are filled with human waste. This is not only a concern of personal comfort, but more importantly is a significant environmental issue. To address this problem, my host father is starting a business to build toilet facilities in the busiest parts of town. For a small fee, people will be able to use these clean bathrooms and not be forced to find a secluded corner or run off into the bushes. I drafted the business proposal and we already have staked out the land for the site. The contract should be signed in the next couple of weeks and construction should begin this summer.
In addition to providing public bathroom facilities, we want to expand this business plan to include trash disposal. I think we are going to start primarily just with recycling, because that is the only way we can make any money out of it. We are going to work with the local EPA to establish a recycling program on Weno. It will be based off the same system that we have in America where you get a nickel for each can that you recycle. There are a huge number of intricate details that need to be worked out for this project to actually be successful, but I am determined to do everything that I can to make it happen. I have recently gotten in contact with some other folks that have started recycling programs in the other states of Micronesia. We will try to work with their business plans and see if we can change the tide of trash disposal in Chuuk. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of an alteration in the mindset of the locals and make them realize the positive effects of recycling and waste disposal.
I also have just become involved in a project of sustainable land management in my community. We are going to replant trees throughout the island to protect our natural environment. We will plant mangroves to protect the shoreline and keep the salt water from encroaching on our taro patches. Also, we will be replanting large trees on the slopes of the jungle to prevent future landslides. Mudslides have destroyed much of the watershed area and trees are the best method of prevention. I will be attending a state meeting to write the guidelines for this project. I hope to be in charge of it in my community and make it primarily focused at my school.
I have also been asked by a congress representative to help him revise the infrastructure improvement plan for our island of Fefan. We will be meeting sometime over the next month to work on the details and go over the priorities for change. I don’t quite know what my role in this plan will be, but I have been told that my input will be highly valued and they want as much help as I can give them.
As if this weren’t enough, there is one idea that is burning inside me and just waiting to happen. I want to build a basketball court. It was my goal to build a basketball court before I even joined the Peace Corps, and to my pleasant surprise it was the most popular idea in my community when I arrived here. I have discussed it with dozens of people and most of the community is very supportive of the idea. I might be a little biased because I love basketball, but I think this would be a wonderful project that would cement my legacy in this village. However, I might have to wait a little bit before I dive into this project because I’ve got plenty of shit to handle right now.
My current existence is very paradoxical right now. In some ways I am the most bored that I have ever been, but in other ways I am more busy than I have ever been. All at the same time I am building a water tank, coordinating a farming project, founding a high school, constructing public restrooms, developing a recycling program, protecting our local forestry, writing a infrastructure plan, and hoping to build a basketball court. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, I am also teacher.

Mosquitoes Mosquitoes Mosquitoes

Hatch in a scummy pond of stagnant water, suck the blood of innocent animals, transmit disease, lay eggs, and then die. This is the life of a mosquito. In my opinion, the mosquito is quite possibly the worst creature on this planet. They serve no positive purpose whatsoever and are a pest to our existence. I honestly believe that the world would be a better place without mosquitoes.
Often people make that claim about flies, spiders, or snakes, “I hate spiders, I wish all the spiders in the world were dead” However, this is a short sighted and foolish exclamation. Every part of nature is involved in an intricate web of interaction and codependence that we often overlook because we are sitting high and mighty on the top of the food chain. Its true that spiders are creepy crawly creatures that scare the bejeezes out of people and can sometimes deliver deadly bites. But if all the spiders in the world were destroyed, we would be in big trouble. Insects like flies would dominate our planet and their numbers would run rampant. We need spiders to eat other insects and keep the delicate balance of nature stable. I may be blinded by rage, but I think that there would be no significant negative impacts if all the mosquitoes in the world were destroyed. No more malaria or dengue fever, no more itchy bites, no more buzzing pests in your ear.
I have always had a hatred of these buzzing little pests. I must have tasty skin or suffuse an appetizing odor from my pores. Mosquitoes love me. I have yet to meet another individual who has been plagued by these bugs as much as I have. If you have ever been on a camping trip with me, you can attest to this fact. I get eaten alive even when I am slathered in bug spray.
Living in the tropics has taken my relationship with mosquitoes to a whole new level. These small islands in the warm tropical belt of our planet are breeding grounds for mosquitoes. They are ubiquitous at this longitude. It is rare to go more than a few minutes at night without seeing or feeling the presence of a mosquito.
One interesting observation that I have made is that the proportion of mosquitoes on an island is inversely related to its size. The smaller the island, the more mosquitoes it has. I thought that the relationship would be opposite because big islands have more water, more animals, and more space. However, I was wrong. The smallest islands tend to be swarming with mosquitoes and the larger ones are bearable.
Mosquitoes have become such a regular part of my existence that I refrain from complaining and just let them go about their business. (Well, I guess that I am complaining right now). They are woven into the fabric of life and are unavoidable, so what the hell, just live with ‘em. But living with them can be difficult at times.
I was motivated to write this blog at this moment because I just returned from cutting firewood in the mangrove forest and had a particularly gruesome experience with these bugs. I was only in the swampy ocean side forest for an hour or two, but I received upwards of 40 mosquito bites in that time. My legs, feet and shoulders are covered in itchy bumps. This event has only been surpassed one other time in my life when I was camping in the Sierra Nevadas and we ran out of bug spray. I returned from the trip with over 80 bites. My body was a mess of irritated pink swollen lumps.
The one good thing about receiving a multitude of mosquito bites is that I think I have built up an immunity to their poison. Of course they itch, but I have developed fabulous self-control with scratching. I can usually resist the urge to claw at the bite with my fingernails. I sometimes employ a strategy of rubbing the area around the wound instead of making direct contact with the bite. I am convinced that this has a serious effect on the growth and development of the sore. The mark of the blood-sucker usually just lasts a few hours, and very rarely stays for more than a day. I assume that my lack of scratching and religious application of hydrocortisone (anti-itch cream) are the keys to keeping this problem manageable.
I could be more proactive about mosquito avoidance, but I am kind of lazy. I ran out of bug spray a couple of months ago and I don’t use a mosquito net even though I have one. It’s kind of unwieldy and would dominate the space of room, which is the only private space that I have. I do light mosquito coils every night, which slowly burn a noxious smoke to deter the mosquitoes. I also have a ritual where I kill one mosquito in my room before I go to bed.
Now lets get into some details about numbers. Two nights ago, I went on a killing rampage in my room. I killed 32 mosquitoes in about a 10 minute period. I clap 3 or 4 with my hands and was surprised that I killed them so easily, so I decided to go on a search for the lil buggers. Over 30 became victims to the smack of my palms before the night was over…..I still got half a dozen mosquito bites that night in my sleep.
When you hear me make these claims, don’t disregard them as exaggerations or the whining antics of a mosquito sufferer. To the best of my reasoning, I think I have settled on good approximations of the number of mosquito bites that I get. On a standard day, I usually get between 10 and 20 bites. Sometimes I only get 5, but sometimes I get a hell of a lot more. I can confidently say that in a 24-hr period, the average number of mosquitoes that bite me is around 15. My Peace Corps service is about 800 days. If I extrapolate upon my average bite number and assume that it will stay relatively constant I can come up with a total number of bites. My calculations show me that in the duration of my time in Micronesia I will have a cumulative number of approximately 12,000 mosquito bites. The number could really be anywhere between 10,000-15,000, but I think that 12,000 is a good enough guess.
Yes, this sounds unbelievable, but its true. Mosquitoes love me, and because they love me so much….I hate them.

Antios! (Spears, Sharks & Sleeping Snacks)

Antios means glasses in Spanish. However, the Chuukese have adopted the word from the Spanish missionaries and applied to fit more appropriately in their world. The language of Chuuk is infamous for doing this. Micronesia has been host to a flurry of colonizers and foreign influences over the centuries and each has left its mark. They borrow words from Spanish, German, Japanese, and English and butcher their pronunciations and give them odd definitions. Kinas instead of glass, which means mirror. Taaksee instead of taxi, which means car. Piiroom instead of broom, which means to sweep. I could go on an on with this examples, but the point is that this happens often in Chuukese. The funny thing is that most people don’t realize that they have borrowed these words from other languages and don’t believe me when I try to explain that they are foreign and slightly misused. Antios is a prime example of how things get lost in translation. It means dive mask and also spear fishing at night. This blog post is about the latter, my first experience of spear fishing at night.
I previously described how my dreams were finally realized by getting a taste of what its like to stab a fish in the head with a spear. I have come to the conclusion that spear fishing is the only way that fishing can actually be considered an athletic activity. Dropping a line in the water and reeling in a fat fish can be exhilarating, but few would argue that it is a true sport that requires extensive physical exertion. Spear fishing is quite different. Its exhausting! You swim for hours on end without breaks and are constantly testing your limits of diving to new depths. At the end of a spear fishing expedition; my feet, legs, arms, hands, fingers and body are aching.
Not only do I consider it to be the only form of athletic fishing, but its also gotta be the manliest way to fish. O wait, I lied. I have seen videos of rednecks catching giant catfish by sticking their arms in the swamp with a chunk of meat in their hand and having the humungous catfish chomp onto their forearm. That is by far the most hardcore badass way to catch a fish. But spear fishing is the next craziest. Its you against the fish. Man vs. nature with only the simplest of weapons. Catching fish with a line or a net is really a form of trickery and deception. With spear fishing, you stare the little innocent aquatic creature in the eyes as you kill him.
Our fishing restrictions were lifted a few weeks ago and I have been getting out on the ocean much more than before. This is good for two reasons: fishing is fun, and I get to eat a lot more fresh fish. I will elaborate more about the various fascinating methods of fishing in another blog. The Chuukese are quite clever with many of their techniques and their ideas deserve to be shared with all you folks…another time.
Antios is far different from spear fishing during the day. There is one aspect that makes it better and a few that make it worse. The foremost reason why antios is better than day fishing is that it’s a hell of a lot easier. It’s easier because many of the fish are sleeping. All you have to do is find the sleeping foes and roust them from their slumber with a metal shaft through their belly. You can literally point the end of your spear inches from the fish sometimes without it stirring. This aspect of sneaky timing solves the problem that I described before about how fish are amazingly fast and elusive. I have to admit that it’s a little unethical. It’s like stabbing a guy in the back or killing him while he’s in bed; but hey, it works. The movies have taught me that the best surprise attacks are always at night.
Although it is easier to pull in a big catch of fish during the nighttime, there are a few drawbacks. It can be kind of scary. One of the reasons is the darkness. It is really really dark. The only sight that you have is the beam of light streaming from your flashlight. If the light is off and you are underwater it is pitch black all around. On land, a flashlight sends light in a specific direction but it also spreads outwards and illuminates the surrounding area. Underwater, this spreading effect is greatly diminished. The flashlight is just a straight beam of yellow light.
You may be saying, “Johnny, don’t be such a baby, are you really afraid of the dark?” No, I am not afraid of the dark. I am afraid of what’s in the dark. Primarily sharks. I told myself and everyone else that sharks don’t scare me. I assured all the naysayers that a stinkin shark wouldn’t frighten me. I’ve dove with great white sharks in South Africa and lived to tell the tale.
Well, I recant some of boastful claims of fearlessness. Sharks can be damn scary. Especially when you don’t know they are swimming alongside you in their dark ocean realm. You can be wading along unknowingly until you flash your light to the left and see a vicious sea beast darting towards you.
In my first night expedition, I saw 4 sharks. They were all relatively small, but big enough to take a chunk of my leg or face. These cartilaginous carnivores are not instinctive man-eaters; on the other hand they are not known to be picky eaters. Their real objective is fish. Unfortunately, the method of spear fishing that we employ provides the most blaringly obvious shark target that you can imagine. When you catch a fish with your spear, you have to keep it with you as you continue fishing. We wear a thin wire belt called a “fot” that is used to carry the fish. You poke the sharp end of the wire through the fish’s eyeball and slide him onto your belt. These half-dead bleeding fish are thus securely attached closely around your waist.
Everybody knows that sharks like blood. In the water, we are swimming around with a bushel of bloody squirming fish that leave a smelly trail to attract the sharks. It is easy to imagine why sharks might be interested in us. It is also easy to imagine a shark attempting to grub a bloody fish but missing his mark and instead chomping a hunk of flesh from you hip. This does happen on occasion.
Although I never feared for my life when these sharks approached, I have to admit that my heart palpitations went through the roof and adrenaline pulsed through my veins. I would try to keep extra close to my fishing partners each time that I spotted a shark. I figured that they might know how to handle one if he really did make an attack. After watching their tactics, I noticed that sharks are attracted to the light. So the best method to get them off your trail is to shine your light in their face at first and then direct it somewhere in an opposite direction. The shark will often follow the direction of the light.
Darkness can be scary for another reason as well. It’s easy to get lost in the dark. As I mentioned before, without a light it is pitch black in the water. The only things I see are my own light and the beams of light from my fellow divers. Sometimes we would get distracted searching for fish and wander away from each other. When this would happen, I would come to surface and search around for a faint glowing spot in the dark abyss. I could usually find this relatively easily and then swim towards the light. However, one time I came to the surface and saw nothing.
Clouds had covered the sky and rain was drizzling down. It was black below the water, and black above the water. I couldn’t see land, I couldn’t see our boat, and most importantly I couldn’t see a light. Ominous thoughts of being lost at sea or drowned by a giant squid came creeping into my mind. I treaded water in the eerie coal- black night and frantically searched for a glimmer of light in the vast expanse of darkness. After a few minutes of worrying, I spied a flicker of white through the sheet of descending moisture. It was far away and at first I thought it was too distant to actually be the other fisherman; but I hoped for the best and sped my way towards the beacon. As I approached, the light became clear and I saw that my partners were making signals with their flashlights. I caught up with the group and vowed to never let myself get separated again.
The final challenge of spear fishing that I was faced with was the depth. I am a decent swimmer, but by no means am I above amateur status. The deepest that I have ever dove is to the bottom of 10-foot swimming pools (besides scuba diving). My lung capacity is worse than it should be and I have no special skills at holding my breath. However, spear fishing took me to the limit—props to Sports Chalet slogan (Ironically, I actually bought all my diving equipment at Sports Chalet).
In my first night of spear fishing, I dove to depths that I never thought possible and held my breath to the point that I thought I would explode. I was intent on doing my best to keep up with the locals and prove to them that I was worthy of be taken along on their spear fishing outings. I prefer to fish on the shallower parts of the reef where I only have to descend 5-10 feet. But the big fish are in the depths, so its necessary to get down to snag the real prizes.  If I couldn’t get down to the level of the fish, I was a worthless spear fisherman. I have no precise measurements of how deep I actually dove, but I know it was in the range of about 20-25 feet. I popped my ears several times and stayed down as long as my body would physically allow. The locals would dive to this depth and spend twenty seconds swimming around on the ocean floor perusing for fish. There is no way that I could have done that. My lungs are not ready. However, I have heard that diving depth and lung capacity can increase rapidly with repeated practice. I know of individuals that claim to free-dive down to 100 ft.
It is true that it’s much easier to catch fish at night. I caught about a dozen on my first night. My subsequent outings have been a little bit less successful, but also sharkless. I hope to continue my spear fishing ventures and hone my skills to become a respectable diver. I will do my best to find my way to the water and take advantage of this delightful aquatic ecosystem. The reef is amazingly beautiful and the fish are bountiful, I expect to spend plenty of time splashing around in my pristine underwater paradise.

The Ingenious Little Fisherman

In our modern world, fishing has developed into an international money making operation that is undertaken by giant ships with mechanized equipment that swoop up hundreds of fish in one attempt. However, fishing can still be a very simple process. It is often regarded as one of man’s simple pleasures.  My little host brother showed me a first hand example of just how simple (or complicated) fishing can be.
He is a 9-year-old boy and doesn’t have many possessions, let alone a fishing pole and all the goodies to go along with it. The other day he asked if I wanted to go fish with him down at our dock. I said that it sounded like a great idea, but I didn’t know how we were gonna do it. We didn’t have any equipment or bait. He spewed some quick Chuukese phrases at me that sounded like jibberish and tried to tell me not to worry about it. I trusted his instincts and followed along.
He rummaged through some old stuff in a shed and pulled out a line and hook. That was good start. No rod, no reel, no worries. This is Chuuk, we don’t need those kind of luxuries, haha. We sauntered down towards the ocean on our way to a little fishing expedition, but I couldn’t help be a little bit worried that we didn’t have any bait. How were we gonna catch fish with no bait?
Well, he had an idea. He wandered around on the rocky sand for a bit and started picking up little rocks and shells. I didn’t really know why he was doing this, so I didn’t bother to help me. After a few minutes, he came back to me and showed me his bounty. These weren’t just little rocks and shells, they were hermit crabs! Now I started to comprehend his logic.
We then walked out towards to the dock and on our way, we spied a smaller hook on the ground. This hook was much better suited for our purposes. We scooped it up and settled down on the dock to begin our operation. Unfortunately we forgot a knife, so we had no way to cut the line and put on the new hook. I tried to bite it off, but the line was fairly thick and my teeth couldn’t snap it. Of course, my little brother had a solution. He found a pointy rock and smashed it on the line a couple of times. It snapped off nicely and we were back in business.
In spite of this success, we had another issue to deal with. The hermit crabs were encased in tiny carbon created fortresses that were impenetrable to our bumbling fingers. Well, he also had a resourceful way to solve this problem. He discovered a heavy rusted piece of iron along the shoreline and used it as a hammer to crack the shells. The baby crabs’ homes were smashed and they were left wriggling on the ground exposed to the light for the first time. My brother picked the wormlike crab up and ripped off his pincher claws; then he tore the body in half and was left with just a itsy-bitsy morsel of soft flesh to use as bait.
We skewered the tiny chunk of crab on the hook and tossed it into the water. Immediately, we noticed another issue that we had overlooked. The line wasn’t heavy enough to sink to the bottom. He resolved our dilemma quickly by fastening a small cylindrical piece of hard coral to the line. Now we had a sinker.
We dropped the line into the water below our feet and a flurry of miniature fish swarmed around the false food. We were looking directly down at the fish and could see every one of their movements. When one of the unsuspecting fish would attempt to grub the crabby tissue, he yanked the line and snagged a little fish. We repeated this process a few times with other pieces of cracked crabs and had our selves a catch of a few tiny fish.
This was satisfactory, but the fish were almost too small to be edible and weren’t very impressive. However, I had not yet seen the full extent of his plan. He killed the little fish by biting through their brains right above their eyes. This ceased their struggling and made them easy to work with. We didn’t have a knife, but again he had a plan. He found a shard of broken glass and cracked it a bit more to give it a sharp edge. He used this razor sharp portion of glass to filet the baby fish and produce two little chunks of fresh fish flesh.
We then used these little pieces of freshly caught fish as our new bait to try to catch real fish. We now used the 50 foot length of line to cast out as far as we could. The best way to cast without a pole is to swing the line around like a lasso and let it fly. This actually works surprisingly well.
The sun went down shortly thereafter and we didn’t have time to pull in a real big fish, but I was thoroughly impressed with the operation. We went from absolutely nothing to a full fishing enterprise. We used discarded lines and hooks. We used rocks and glass as knives. We used hermit crabs and baby fish as bait. We used all of the ingenuity that a couple of amateur fisherman could scrounge up.