Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pound! Pound! Pound!

Fish, taro, bananas, coconut and breadfruit. These are the staples of the Chuukese diet. Before the onslaught of imported canned meats and bags of rice, the locals lived almost entirely off these native foods. One of the reasons that I think Micronesia is special is because of how they have utilized these foods to their furthest extent. Although Micronesia is poor, there is one aspect that separates it from most other 3rd world countries. In places like Africa, India and South America the biggest concern for the poor people is the acquisition of food. People are starving. On the whole, this doesn’t happen in Micronesia. There are very very few starving people.
            In my opinion, the lack of starving poor people is a function of three factors. First, there is an overabundance of rich natural food resources. The forest and the sea provide everything they need to thrive. The jungle is a natural supermarket full of exotic fruits and vegetables. The ocean is teeming with fish and tasty little sea creatures. Secondly, there is no problem with overpopulation. The square mileage of Micronesia (including the ocean) is approximately the same size as mainland United States. However, the population is only slightly over 100,000 people. That is less than half the size of my quaint suburban town in America. Lastly, the culture is built around collectivism and people share food. It is very rare that an individual lives far from family members. Family members will almost always provide each other with food.  Sharing of communal food is an essential part of island culture and seems to be pervasive in all the places I have visited. In rare instances, an outcast/drunk/criminal might be estranged from his family and go hungry some nights. Unfortunately for the economy, the vast majority of people are unemployed. Nonetheless, the vast majority of people are fed adequately. They can scrounge up local food and find a way to feed their families just fine.
            Specifically on my island, in my home, we eat a lot of imported foods because we are rather wealthy and can afford to buy expensive items. We still supplement our grocery store food with local foods on a daily basis. (I try to support the eating of local food). The main product that my family indulges in is breadfruit. The purpose of this blog post is to talk about the extensive process of making pounded breadfruit.
            Pounded breadfruit is referred to as “kon”. It is a yellowish mushy substance with an odd consistency. The kon is usually displayed in a rounded loaf that is wrapped in leaves. It has a rather bland taste and doesn’t excite many taste buds when eaten alone. However it is rarely eaten alone. Kon is best when dipped in things. Sauces, soups, coconut milk, spices, soy sauce, and pretty much anything you can think of. In a standard meal, it is used as a sponge to sop up all the leftover juices and drippings of the meal. When eaten in the correct circumstances, it can be quite delicious. We eat kon with almost every meal.
            My family always jokes about how I am more Chuukese than the other boys in our household because I like to eat kon more than rice. They load up on rice every meal and I load up on kon. It is more nutritious, tastier, and much more filling.
            Breadfruit grows on giant trees with leaves the size of a pillow. Breadfruit trees are prized for their strong trunks that are the best in the Pacific for making canoes. The oval shaped fruit can range from the size of an orange to the size of a small watermelon. The outside is bright green and studded with rough bumps. They ooze white sap and are often sticky to the touch. The inside has an off-whitish flesh with a chunk of seeds in the center. When you first encounter a ripe breadruit, it doesn’t look too appetizing. That is why it requires such an extensive process to make it deliciously edible.
            Now that I’ve laid down the basics of breadfruit, let me jump into describing the preparation procedure. I will describe it in a sequential manner with numbered steps, similar to a recipe in a cookbook. (Though you probably wont find any breadruit recipes in your standard Martha Stewart cookbook.) The process of pounding breadfruit is an ancient island tradition that has been passed down through the generations through the hard work of young men. It takes around 8 hours of labor intensive work and is usually performed by able bodied youth (15-30 years old).
Step 1: Collect Breadfruit.
            Harvesting breadfruit is one of the most exciting and interesting aspects of the process. You cannot wait for the breadfruit to drop on its own accord from the trees; by that time it is too soft and squishy. So we have to scale the trees and pluck them off the branches.  As I alluded to before, breadfruit trees are huge. Their massive trunks and towering branches are some of the mightiest in the jungle canopy. The branches often don’t begin until 10-20 feet above the ground and are not easily reached by amateur climbers. Luckily, the Chuukese are expert climbers. The men shimmy their way up the trunk and pull themselves onto the outstretched limbs. The tool used to snag the breadfruits is a very long stick with a smaller sharp stick tied at angle to the end. They wield this 20-foot floppy spike and poke the fruits until they break loose and fall to the ground. To watch someone hop around the top of a colossal tree carrying a humungous stick is quite astounding. However the locals are adept at this activity and seem to do it with ease. The climber will usually knock down 40 or 50 fruits and we will haul them back to the house. The traditional way to carry the harvested breadfruits is either tied together with vines or in palm leave baskets attached to a log of wood. (We usually cheat and just use a wheelbarrow)
Step 2: Set up Cookhouse
            The arena for pounding breadfruit is always an outdoor cookhouse. The cookhouse is usually a place with a thatched or tin roof, dirt floor and no walls. There is often a rock fireplace with some pieces of metal to give it a nice form. Wood is collected from the jungle forest or mangrove swamps. Red mangrove wood is the most ideal for burning. We also use coconut shells & husks, large hard dried leaves, and some small sticks. The wood is split with machetes and cut into appropriate sizes. (I chopped my finger pretty good last week while I was trying to break a log with my machete…ouch!!). We cover the floor with banana leaves to keep everything clean. Banana leaves are gargantuan by the way, they are about 2 feet wide and 8 ft long. The pot used for cooking the breadfruit is so ridiculously huge that it looks like something from a novelty store. It is big enough to cook Hansel & Gretel in and should probably be called a cauldron.
Step 3: Prepare for Cooking
            The neon green lumpy skin of the breadfruit cannot be eaten. Someone told me that it is poisonous, but I haven’t confirmed that statement with a taste test yet. Anyways, we need to skin the fruit so that we don’t ingest any of the sticky green gunk that covers the outside. We use old sink drain stopper thingies to skin them. The inside circle of these drain stoppers is very sharp and does a great job of slicing off the skin. One or two people will skin the fruit and then toss them over to another worker who will chop them into sections. The oval fruit is quartered and then pitted, so the remaining pieces are trapezoid shaped. These circular trapezoids are tossed into the giant pot and placed together tightly to maximize the use of space.

Step 4: Cook
            The bottom of the pot is lined with small palm leaves to avoid burning. The innards of the breadfruit with all the seeds are placed at the lowest level of the pot and will later be used for pig food. The skinned and portioned pieces of breadfruit are piled together on top. Two large buckets of water are then poured in the pot. The water line should be buried by breadfruit and not visible from the top. Then the pot is covered with black trash bags to keep in the heat. This is the only part of the process that I disapprove of. I assume they used to use leaves. I have tried to explain the harmful consequences of cooking plastic with our food but they don’t care. We keep a hot fire under the pot for about 90 minutes (depends on size of harvest).

Step 5: Pound!
            Large rounded cross sections of flattened tree trunks are used as the pounding surface. This hard wood can sustain the constant barrage of pounding and keeps it shape throughout the years. The pounding tool is a rock mallet. It has a carved handle and a convex smasher on one side. One person will pull out the cooked breadfruit and place each successive piece on the pounding board as we begin to mash it up. It begins as a wrist motion to smooth out the big pieces, but after a few minutes the pounders are in a rhythmic beat of clink, clank, clunk. It takes about 15 minutes of powerful pounding to get the breadfruit to the desired consistency. The pounders are dripping sweat after one round, their arms and shoulders are throbbing with fatigue, and their fingers are blistered. Usually a pounder will do about 2 rounds. These two rounds are exhausting.  The pounded mass of breadfruit is flopped around until it takes a smooth circular shape. An assistant takes the completed loaf to a wrapping table and the pounder continues on another round.

Step 6: Final Prep
            The warm loaf of kon can be presented it three typical ways. The most common is to be wrapped in breadfruit or taro leaves. Sometimes it is simply bundled up in plastic wrap. However, my favorite style is when it is put in a large Tupperware bucket and covered in coconut milk. This style is called “motun”. Motun is the typical gift given for funerals, weddings, births, parties, goodbyes, hellos and any traditional or church gathering.

Step 7: Eat
            Pounded breadfruit is the typical side dish in Chuukese meals. It serves the function of bread in American meals but is used in a variety of different ways. Dip it in your favorite sauces and enjoy!

This was a simplified and Americanized description of the breadfruit pounding process and I left out many of the difficult tasks like cleaning and wood gathering, however I think it presents a decent overview of what we do. Becoming involved in this activity is one of the primary ways that I have integrated into the culture. It is an integral aspect of the lifestyle and is a respected undertaking. The pounding of breadfruit not only provides a free tasty food for everyone to enjoy, but it also keeps alive an element of the traditional culture in island life.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

My Slice of Paradise

         In my last blog post, I gave a rather critical and detrimental account of Chuuk. However, I don’t want my descriptions of the conditions of dirty Weno roads to taint everybody’s image of Chuuk. So to counter my previous negativity, this blog will be dedicated to describing one of the most breathtakingly fantastically beautiful places on earth. The pristine island of Pisar is a close neighbor of grimy Weno, but it is an entirely different place all together.
            The school year was winding to a close and we needed a little vacation to kick off the summer in style. In addition, a few other American volunteers had finished their service and were heading home. These friends of ours are Jesuit Volunteers International (JVI’s). Together we form the young American volunteer community of Chuuk. We Peace Corps volunteers have a history of close relations with the JVI’s and we lean on each other for support. During our monthly meetings, we often rendezvous with the JVI’s and sleep over at their apartments on Weno. As a final farewell to our Jesuit friends, we all decided to spend a few days out on Pisar to relax and enjoy the wonders of tropical paradise.
            The island of Pisar is on the edge of the barrier reef and is flanked by a number of other small atolls. As the world’s gargantuan geological clock ticks away, the barrier reef is slowly accreting material and building itself into a legitimate atoll. Atolls are usually formed during the long process of island erosion and deposition. The birth of an island can take place in a variety of ways, but one of the most common types begins with an underwater volcano. Molten magma is twirling around below our earth’s crust waiting for a chance to pop to the surface and gasp for a breath of air. The magma gets that chance when there is a small crack or weak point in the crust (often along a fault line between tectonic plates). The lava squirts up and instead of being greeted by a gust of fresh air, it is engulfed by the surrounding ocean and quickly cools into hard rock. The melted rock of our earth’s interior repeats this process for centuries/millennia. Inch by inch the rock solidifies on top of the lower level and starts to form a large mound. This mound/volcano will eventually get big enough that it peaks above the surface. The process continues and soon enough there is a giant volcanic summit towering over the waves below. This volcano will continue to grow until the lava changes its mind and decides to spurt its sizzling juices in some other spot.
            Now we are left with one huge island. Over the eons, a coral reef begins to form around the edges of the island. As this coral reef is assembling itself, the island itself is beginning to fade. It is no longer reaching higher and higher with boosters of lava fueling its growth. Instead it is succumbing to the erosive powers of our planet. Wind, rain, water, waves (and in recent times, humans) chip off little pieces of this mighty island and slowly reduce it to rubble. The island sinks into the ocean and the reef around it continues to grow. The reef catches sand, soil, and minerals from the ocean and piles it up over the years. Sooner or later, the reef will develop into a circular ring of thin low-lying islands. These are atolls.
            The Chuuk Lagoon is in the middle stage of this lengthy geologic dance. It used to be one immense landmass, but is now a smattering of small mountainous islands. (In fact, the word “Chuuk” means mountain). I assume that the bits of land above the water were the former peaks of the giant volcanic island that once resided here. All that are left are the high points of that ancient isle. The barrier reef is almost completely enclosed and has a few small atolls that are popping up around the circle. Pisar is one of these nascent islands vying for its life against the oncoming onslaught of rising sea levels.
            On our boat ride out to Pisar, we were greeted by a peculiar optical illusion created by the barrier reef. The sea is totally calm, but along the horizon, white waves are crashing in the seemingly unruffled surface of the ocean. As I gazed at the panorama of milky waves splashing on an open sea, I couldn’t help but put myself in the shoes of a medieval sailor exploring the world. If I saw this site in 1491, I would have surely thought it was the edge of the world. The frothing white water was the edge of the precipice that took us off the ends of the earth and into the unknown abyss. Luckily, I’ve glanced at a map or two in my life and had no fear of falling off the tabletop of the earth’s surface. Instead of peeing my pants in fright, I simply smiled and savored the extremely unique vantage point that I was currently enjoying. 
            The small motorboat skipped its way towards the ends of the earth and our magnificent destination began to come into view. From a distance, the group of the three little atolls looked like clumps of green grass balancing on the tightrope of white water that was the border of our of known universe. As we came closer, the shapes of palm trees started to materialize and khaki colored beaches became visible.
The water below us changed from cobalt to aquamarine to powder blue in a series of cascading waves. If you think the ocean is just blue, you are sorely mistaken my friend. The waters around these tropical atolls are a rainbow of blues. A potpourri of pure periwinkle. A selection of shining sapphire shades. A trickster’s trunk of translucent tints. A hodgepodge of happy hues. A medley of mismatched manatee manes. (Ok, enough with the alliterations). You get my point, the variety of blues in the water will blow your socks off. No picture or amateur description by your author can do it justice. It is fantabulous.
The approach to Pisar is one of the most amazing sites that a human can ever hope to lay their eyes upon. The quintessential image of paradise is at your doorstep. The entrance to Shangri-La is only a few feet away. The pearly gates have swung open and heaven reveals itself in all its glory.  People dream of places like this. People fantasize about places like this. People pray for places like this.
Imagine another boring day as you are punching keys on your computer and twiddling away your life in your cubicle. Your desktop background depicts a serene island landscape with an outstretched palm tree leaning over the clear shallow waters of a warm tropical sea. Now imagine stepping into that picture and placing yourself in that pristine environment. That is Pisar. Pisar is the type of place that goes on calendars, travel brochures and posters. It is stereotypical tropical paradise.
The minute that I stepped off the boat onto the soft sand of our beach wonderland, I flung off my sandals and tore off my shirt. I never put them back on. There is no need to cover up or keep a swanky style in paradise. Just me and the island. That’s all I need.
The 13 of us volunteers were the only guests on the island. Two local men stayed in a hut on the far end of the beach and acted as caretakers, however their presence was hardly noticed. For all important purposes, the island was ours. There are two small bungalow sleeping houses and an outdoor cook area. One outdoor bath house and one indoor toilet. And the toilet flushes! There isnt a single toilet that flushes with running water on my entire island, but this little fleck of sand has a fully functioning plumbing system. Bravo Pisar management.
Although there were beds, blankets and pillows available; I decided to forgo these luxuries and sleep island style. I hunkered down on a huge hammock fashioned from old fishing nets and slept sound as a pound. The island breeze kept me cool and refreshed. For the first night since I arrived in Micronesia, I didn’t sweat in my sleep. I just swayed in the breeze and delighted in the crisp sea air.
We spent the days frolicking in shallows and snorkeling around the colorful reef. The coral out here was more spectacular than anything I have ever seen. Its untouched beauty and endless variety set it apart from the average diving sites. Pisar is so remote that no dynamite fishing, oily refuse, or mechanical pollution has disturbed its pristine natural habitat. The wonderful shapes and configurations seem like they are right out of Dr. Seuss’s imagination.
One day, we decided to make a little trek and wander out to the edge of the barrier reef. The crashing waves were only about a half-mile away and we could actually walk most of the way. We waded through a strait of low water and then emerged on a rocky outcropping that stretched towards the waves. This wide rocky pathway led us to the far perimeter of the reef.
It was reminiscent of my Southern California home to see real white-capped waves pounding into the sea. Unfortunately for all you hopeful surfers, I don’t think this spot would be very suitable for your purposes. The waves crash on a hard coral base that is only about 1 foot deep. Even if you could keep your balance, I don’t think you could avoid being slammed into the ragged rocks.
We were enjoying the waves and gazing into the thousands miles of open ocean ahead of us when we noticed ominous dark clouds heading our way. Within a few minutes, the wind picked up and the face of an imminent storm was rearing its ugly head. The rain came ripping through the air with reckless abandon. It was a hard stinging rain that stung the skin as it struck. The roaring wind made the rain come in sideways and tear into our backs with its prickling pellets of water. We were weary of making our journey back in this kind of weather, so we had no choice but to wait out the storm. The waves increased their intensity, and clouds continue to dump their buckets of condensed moisture. We laughed deliriously and beckoned the storm challenge our strength. It threw all its might at our beckoning cries and then dissipated as quickly as it came.
The black clouds gave way to white wispy trails of moisture and soon the power of the sun shone through and warmed our sopping bodies. The rate of change in tropical weather continues to astound me. A cycle of sweltering sun, then tempestuous winds, followed by torrential rains, and back to blistering heat all within a half hour period. The constant change is exhilarating and always gives you something to look forward to.
Somedays I find myself caught up in the problems of teaching/community improvement and forget how luck I am to be in such a fantastic place. Taking little vacations like this out to Pisar are a stark reminder of how utterly amazing my environment is. I live in prototypical tropical paradise. I am one fortunate son of a bitch. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

My Bi-Weekly Commute

Kerplat! Kerplunk! I spring up out of bed as the small smack of a creature hits my shoulder. As I sit upright on my blue yoga mat mattress, I quickly survey my surroundings to see who was the aerial perpetrator that that rousted me from my sleep. I fumble for my flashlight on the ground next to me and shine it around to find the culprit. Two small geckos are lying motionless by my side. I slap the ground next to them, and they scurrying away up the wall. These two diminutive reptiles must have been fighting on the ceiling above my head and jostled each other until they both tumbled down towards my slumbering self. Maybe they were in pursuit of a mosquito or maybe they lost their body temperature and had no more energy to cling to the moist ceiling. Regardless of their intentions, they were my wake up call early on this Friday morning.
I glance at my watch and see that it’s only about 5:00 am. The sky is turning from an inky black to a grayish blue as the rays of the sun begin to cast their early morning light on my tropical abode. I hear the crowing of roosters and think about how many of the locals are rising out of bed to start their morning chores. Luckily, I’m a lazy fellow and feel no inclination to rise from the floor and embark on my day of work. I assume that I have another couple of hours to curl up with my pillow and enjoy the pitter-patter of the light rain outside. In a few minutes, it increases to a thundering downpour that rattles our tin roof. I happily resume my sleep and take in the natural symphony of liquid tunes.  No music soothes my soul like the sound of rain.
Around 7ish, I rise again from my sleep to the usual sound of baby screams and clanking pots. I have no need for an alarm, because the noise of a dozen people living in a single household is sufficient to wake me on a daily basis. For the next hour, I sit on my paint bucket throne in the kitchen and drink coffee with my family. The rain is coming down in torrents and we all speculate that there will be no school today. When it rains anytime after 7:30, the children of the village wont venture from their houses for fear of wetness and school is almost undoubtedly cancelled. Its kind of a ridiculous tradition because it rains on a daily basis here, but I don’t have the power to change their minds. 8 oclock rolls around and we are rather certain that there will be no school. I consider the day ahead of me and am inclined to do more than lounge in my room and read a book all day. I feel the urge to partake in guilty pleasure. I want a taste of civilization. I think of eating ice cream, sipping a cold soda and dinking around on the Internet. I decide that I want to go to Weno.
My host father commutes on his boat everyday to the main island of Weno because he works for the Department of Education and has to be in the office everyday. If I ever want to make the voyage, I can easily hitch a ride with him. It varies depending on circumstances, but on average I make the trip every couple of weeks. I try to refrain from the cravings of modernization and stick to my rural lifestyle on my little island of Fefan, but every once and while I am impelled to visit the outside world.
Everyone in Chuuk has the same boats. An open-air white 15ft fiberglass frame with a 2-cycle Yamaha outboard motor. If it weren’t for slight variations on interior color and differing types of ropes, every boat in the Chuuk lagoon would be indistinguishable. Our boat is about 20 years old and full of patches, but it runs smooth and gets us where we need to go. A flat seat is fashioned from evenly spaced 2 x 4’s and resembles the bottom of a large packing crate. We all pile in and sit cross-legged on the slats of timber that separate the gaps of the “bench”. Bags, sandals, and other goodies are tossed in the front of the boat and the passengers sit towards the back end. The pilot stands in the back and operates the boat with a twisting handle similar to standard motorcycles.
Oftentimes the little voyage is a calm and serene coast through the crystal clear waters of our lagoon. The setting sun reflects rainbow sherbet colors of orange and pink off the shimmering water and the lush green islands provide a picturesque backdrop to the ocean paradise. It is always a wonderful reminder of the utter beauty that surrounds me in my dreamland of this tropical lagoon. However, on this particular day the boat ride was quite a different type of experience. Many times it is a rough riding adventure through pelting rain and splashing waves.
The locals of Chuuk often dread this boat trip and complain about the wetness and turbulence that often accompany the commute, which is totally understandable because they have been forced to undertake this trip for their entire lives. Conversely, I love it! The boat ride is one of my favorite things about Chuuk. When I am bouncing along the waves and being tossed around like a rag doll on the open seas, I often imagine that I am on an amusement park ride and zooming around on an ocean roller coaster. On stormy or windy days, the small boat is at the whim of the Poseidon. We ride up the crest of a swell and shoot into the air, everything inside the boat (including the people) momentarily defies gravity and lifts into the air. The next moment we come crashing down in the face of the oncoming wave and we thump to the bottom of the boat. Water sloshes over the front of our boat and sprays us with its salty spit. The stinging rain batters against our faces and the blustery wind beats against our bodies.  It’s a chaotic and unnerving 30-minute trek, but I usually have a smile plastered across my face the whole time.
As we draw closer to the island of Weno, the breeze dies down and the water becomes calmer. The wind usually blows from the Northeast and Weno acts as a barrier when we approach from our Southwest route. The last 5 minutes of the sea excursion are a much-needed respite where the seas are tranquil and the wind is not as much of a burden. When we are within a half-mile of the shore, the two story buildings and giant shipping tanks become visible through the green mat of foliage that enshrouds the island. At this point, everything still appears beautiful to the untrained eye. There is nothing to dissuade the magical image of a pristine island paradise. However, as the shoreline comes into a closer view, the true character of Weno starts to take shape.
There are no white sand beaches or rocky cliff sides along the seashore. There are no sprawling resorts with fancy swimming pools and bow-tied butlers. There are no children bouncing beach balls or beautiful sunbathing women. There are no charming tiki hut beach bars or paddling surfers. The picture of stereotypical island paradise fades away from your mind and you are greeted with the crumbling dirty reality of Weno.
We zoom passed the first dock area and catch a glimpse of the broken down ships that are lying ineffectually by the deteriorating concrete waterfront. A pathetic collection of half sunk ships stick their bows out of the water, refusing to fall entirely below and be forgotten forever. A huge rusted tanker lies on its side nestled up against the navy built jetty that looks like a hastily dropped pile of giant concrete jacks. Our boat takes a wide turn and we pull around the jetty into the market place harbor.
The motor slows to a crawl and we coast towards the shore. About 50 feet from land, the operator cuts the motor and we use large sticks to navigate our way to our docking point. I hop up on the bow of the boat and use my 8 foot stick to press against the shallow ocean floor and guide us carefully onto shore. The water is now a murky grayish-brown, but as I look down from my vantage point the bottom of the water is clearly visible. Its not a clean sandy bottom, and its not a colorful bloom of coral. The bottom is entirely covered in a mishmash of cans, plastic bags, and all kinds of refuse. It looks like the top of a garbage heap at a large landfill. Endless piles of trash cover every inch of ground.
I push my way through this gobbledygook and direct us to the rocky land ahead. I position myself to sit on the front end of the boat and when we are close enough I leap off the end of the boat with the tie-rope in hand. I scamper over the slimy rocks and pull myself up onto the hard cement anchorage. I tie the rope onto a shard of rebar that is sticking out of a chunk of broken cement and then return down the slippery rocks to help the others disembark. Women, children and old folks are all able to scuttle across this filthy rocky outcropping and arrive safely ashore. I am continually impressed with the nimble footedness of these islanders. Chuukese grandmas with arthritis are more sure-footed than half the American’s that I know.
The rugged boat ride is over and now part two of the Weno experience is just ahead. The roads! The roads are like a slice of smelly Swiss cheese that has been dunked in rotten chocolate milk. It looks like bigfoot projectile vomited a line of chunky muck. It looks like a bowl of intestine filled menudo that has been crusting in the sun.
I have traveled through many third world countries and seen my fair share of shitty roads. I’ve navigated through the hectic mayhem of Indian streets and gone over the cracked asphalt in South America, but nothing compares to the roads of Weno. Referring to them as roads is a generous statement. A muddy mess of holes that kind of follow a straight line is a better description. If a group of kindergartners had a contest to create the sloppiest road possible, I still think the crappiness of Weno roads would trump all the competition.
I wouldn’t be surprise if 12th century peasant horse-carts paths were superior to the roads on Weno. I would rather drive through an open field or down a dry riverbed than traverse these roads. I don’t know how it is possible, but the roads are even worse than a plain dirt road. I learned to drive on the rocky terrain of mountain dirt roads in the Sierra Nevadas, but even that experience couldn’t prepare me for the problems that Weno roads present.
I have been told that 20 years ago, the road system was legitimate on Weno. The streets were paved with asphalt and they ran smooth and straight. Cars could drive comfortably and people could walk on the sidewalks. Its hard to picture that reality when you look at Weno today. There is very little solid ground that remains of this once “mighty” road. The majority of the road is comprised of either mud or water. The holes cant even be considered potholes because they are much to expansive to fall in that category. The street is a series of giant holes filled with water and muddy passages that connect the dry spots on the side of the road. The holes are so big and so wet that we often joke that it might be easier to travel by canoe than by car.
I blame the pathetic condition of the roads on two factors. Bucket loads of rain and shoddy maintenance. These islands receive hundreds of inches of rain a year and the ground is saturated in water. The water funnels down from the mountainsides and settles on the strip of flat land that the road runs through. So it is understandable that the excess of water causes problems for the road. However, if they had built a functional sewer system or drainage structure, that probably would have helped. The water doesn’t run off the sides of the road, it collects in the middle of the road.
Alas, there is hope for the future. Recently, they have begun a massive project to renovate the roads and they are slowly making progress to make them respectable. The main task right now is getting rid of the groundwater underneath the road. Big bulldozers and cranes have been digging deep ditches in the middle of the road and suction machines are slurping out the liquid from down below. This does seem like a good place to start, but I am not convinced that it is sustainable.
They have even started to build new sections of road that are smooth, straight and pure. This is definitely a positive trend. However, I am slightly disappointed with what I have seen so far. They haven’t seemed to learn from their mistakes. The new roads have totally inadequate drainage systems. One large section lacks any type of drainage and is entirely submerged in water when it rains. Im not an engineer, but I do have common sense. My common sense tells me that if you have a problem with too much water on the roads, then you need to make sure that the water doesn’t sit on the road. The new roads in Chuuk don’t follow this logic. They slant inwards. Yes, instead of being slightly sloped outwards so the water flows out into the gutters, the roads are sloped slightly inwards. This obviously causes water to gather in the center of the road and only increases the problem that we already have. Also, on the one section of new road that was completed a few months ago I have already noticed an unnerving observation. The edges are covered in about 2 inches of putrid mud. They aren’t cleaning the streets. They have no street cleaners and apparently no plan to keep them clean.
 The government is working hard to repair these roads and I truly hope that they are successful. Tourism, business and modern life cannot function without a quality system of roads. I am trying to remain optimistic about the progress and hope that this is the first step in creating a viable infrastructure in Chuuk.
Despite my grumbling, there are some upsides to the road conditions. Cars are always driving at about 10 miles an hour, which prevents the bone crushing crashes that we see in America. Also there is only one main road that runs through the heart of town. It is quite easy to catch a ride with someone because they are always going in your direction. And I have no fear of kidnapping because I can always just hop out of the car if I felt threatened.
Although the infrastructure is poor and Weno has the notorious reputation of being a ghetto/violent place, there are many redeeming features. The people are wonderful. I have never been around a group of more hospitable and friendly folks. As I walk down the road, I am greeted by a dozen hellos and an endless sea of smiles. People actually care how I am doing, and take the time to ask. If I step in a mud puddle, shopkeepers will invite me into their store to wash my feet and take a rest. I am accosted by requests to stop and drink water, eat breadfruit, or just sit and relax. The unpleasantness of the roads is offset by the pleasantness of the locals.
Plus, I often have fun navigating through the muddy mess on a walk. I feel like I am in the video game Frogger. I take one step at a time and have to make a decision at when I reach each spot. At each point, I have the option to go left, right or forward and there is some obstacle blocking my way if I make the wrong choice. One hop to the left over the mucky puddle of water, three steps forward on the fringe of cement, two steps to the right to avoid the muddy quagmire ahead, one small skip over the bundle of rebar and I arrive safely 10 feet farther along on my journey! It can actually be quite entertaining and I sometimes challenge myself to traverse the most difficult territory. I have to admit that I am slightly impressed with the skills I have acquired of crossing muddy patches of land. 
There are a few full-scale grocery stores and dozens of small businesses that sell random items for the everyday shopper. One section of the street is littered with open markets that sell local foods and products. There is very little tourism besides scuba divers, so there are no gift shops or “I Love Chuuk” t-shirts strewn across town. The buildings vary in their quality, but most are built of concrete and are smattered with layers of graffiti. The electricity comes in waves, but most people have legitimate water sources on Weno. Food is sold in street stalls and some of them have places to sit down, but there are very few restaurants.
After tiptoeing through sludgy surface of town for 15 minutes, I finally arrive at my destination. The Peace Corps office. We share a building on the edge of town with folks from the local radio station and the office of Public Affairs. I unlock a ten-foot swinging gate topped with barbed wire and enter into the compound. First I go through a rickety wooden door, then unlock a pair a glass doors, then punch in our secret code on the lock to the thick metal grating and wrench open the heavy gate, finally I turn my key in the door for the volunteer lounge and enter into my little haven.
Its no palace or beachside bungalow, but we all love our little home away from home. The office has hundreds of books, medicine, mailboxes, a fan, a water tank and most importantly two computers with Internet access. This is our time to poke out heads back into the real world. I usually have a list of tasks to do and don’t have much time to flutter away on Facebook, but I try to make time to check up on the happenings of my friends and family back home. I will often spend a few hours glued to the computer without noticing how much time is ticking away. At about 4pm, I gather up my belongings and head back out into the sweltering heat or drizzling rain. I am often shocked when I first step out into the sunlight and remember that I am not in America, I am in Chuuk.
I trudge through the sopping streets and quickly purchase a few necessities and luxury items from the store. At about 5pm, I pile back onto the boat and head back towards my island of Fefan. I really do enjoy my time on Weno, but every time that I leave I thank the lord that I don’t live there. I love my little rural island and am quite happy to be separated from civilization by that small gap of water. My bi-weekly commute is over and I settle back into my serene existence on my speck of land in the vast Pacific Ocean.  

Graduation Festivities

The end of the school year is a very different experience when viewed from the perspective of a teacher. Back when I was a student, the arrival of June was a monumental event. Impatient young minds twiddled their thumbs and jittered in their chairs with eager anticipation. Daydreams of sandy beaches, camping trips, and lazy mornings overtook the importance of memorizing the quadratic equation and date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Unhindered freedom and sunny afternoons were all that students could think about. “Summer time and the livings easy…..”
            For the first time in my life, there was no climactic culmination to the end of a school year. I didn’t jot down a countdown of days to graduation. I didn’t hop up and down with giddy excitement as the last bell sounded. I didn’t throw my books in the air and scream the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”.
            The end of the school year came and went. And instead of my usual feelings of enraptured joy, I actually felt kind of sad. I was sad to see my students leave. I was sad that my work was done. I was sad that my short stint of helping these kids was over. I was sad that I wouldn’t see their smiling faces every morning. I was sad that school was over.
            This sadness was a novel sensation for me. It is true that I felt wistful and bittersweet when I left high school and college. The end of high school was a turning point where I left the friendships, comfort and glory of normal life behind.  I would have liked to spend another couple of years in college and live the wonderful life of freedom and partying.
            Although this school conclusion was far different from any of my past experiences, I still managed to have a good time the last few weeks. Organizing and planning for the Open House was a pretty fun job and I got plenty of laughs in the process. However, I wanted to do one last things for my 8th graders to show them how much I enjoyed having them as my students. As I have already alluded to, my 8th graders were an awesome bunch of kids and I was sad to see them go. I wanted to send them off in style. So I decided to institute another common practice from American schools. End of the year party!
            Living in a tropical paradise does have its advantages. One of the advantages is that there are beautiful pristine beaches everywhere you look. Here in Chuuk, a party at the beach is always called a picnic. I convinced all of the other teachers to chip in and have an 8th grade picnic.
            I wanted it to be a special experience, so I nixed the idea of doing it here on our island. I wanted to make a trip out of it and go somewhere special. There are much nicer beaches on the surrounding small islands, and I offered to cough up some dough for the gas to motorboat our way over there.            We had a staff meeting and discussed all the particulars. If you have ever been to a Chuukese meeting to plan something, you will know what I mean by particulars. Food. Nobody cares about anything but food. Food is the centerpiece of Chuukese social live and therefore is the centerpiece of Chuukese social events. In a typical planning meeting, we will spend the first 10-15 minutes discussing timing, places, and all the important things. The next two hours will be entirely focused on food. I love food, so I have no problem with this obsession.
            Our beach location changed a few times because of untimely circumstances. Our first option was vetoed by the parents because they were worried about the sea ghost. Our second option was blocked due to funeral restrictions. So on the night before the picnic, we finally found a suitable place that was free of angry aquatic apparitions.
            On the morning of the picnic, I took a rushed trip to Weno to buy a bucket of ice cream. Ice cream is a special treat in America, but in the unrefrigerated sweltering heat of Chuuk it becomes a delicacy. It has to be consumed on the day of purchase, because it melts in a few hours even if its packed in a cooler. But melty ice cream is almost as good as frozen ice cream. In fact, they don’t call it eating ice cream. Its called “uun ice cream”, which means to drink ice cream. It is also common practice to use bread as a spoon to sop up the dripping creamy goodies. Although we just dip our rolls in ice cream soup, its still an amazing indulgence.
            We spent the day frolicking on the beach, taking pictures with my waterproof camera, and do all the beachy type things that a group of young kids would want to do. It was a really fun day and I was happy to spend one last jovial days with my kids.
            The actual conclusion of our school year was the graduation ceremony. Don’t quote me on these numbers, but I can assume that less than 10% of Chuukese students graduate from high school. So in essence, the accomplishment of passing 8th grade and graduating elementary school is equivalent to the significance of a high school graduation. And a high school graduation is like graduating from college in US. The point I am trying to make is that 8th grade graduation is a big deal.
            And I’ve got to admit, they do a pretty damn good job of putting on a graduation ceremony here in Chuuk. For all my complaining about the educational system in Micronesia, I have to say that these folks know how to do graduation. In America, the ceremony usually has a couple of speakers and a diploma conferring event. In Chuuk, at least at my school, it’s a hell of a lot more.
            We practiced for two weeks to prepare for our graduation. At first I thought this was a ridiculous waste of time and didn’t understand how we could possible fill up the time of two weeks to practice for graduation. But they had a lot in store. The main difference with Chuukese graduation ceremonies is the songs. Lots of singing.
            During the ceremony, we had 3 students speak, half a dozen other important people in the community spoke, and we and sung 6 songs. The songs serve the purpose of interspersing boring speeches with lighthearted energy and perking up the crowds interest. They already had a slew of songs that they usually sing every year, but they wanted to add one more to the repertoire. They asked me what song I recommended. Well, I didn’t have to think long before coming up with the most clichéd graduation song of my generation, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day.
            The graduation went wonderfully and my 8th graders went out in style. I am sad to see them go, but I also feel proud. I know that I have touched the lives of these kids. I know that I have at least a little impact on the future ahead of them. 

Opening of the House

The staff at my school (and most of the staff at all schools in Chuuk) have one universal complaint. The parents aren’t involved enough. The community doesn’t care about education. Parents aren’t overly interested in their children’s education. This situation is slightly comical to me because I dealt with the exact opposite problem in America. I had to physically guard the school property from prying parents and overzealous guardians who couldn’t bear to have their kids out of their hands for a few hours. I had angry tutoring clients who were upset that I was only giving their children an hour of homework each night instead of two hours. In my short stint as a teacher/tutor in America, I had my hands full with doing my best fending off parents from meddling too much in their children’s education. In Chuuk, we practically beg the parents to give a hoot about their child’s education.
I have done two things to try to alleviate this issue. First, I started a parent/student farming project. This has been moderately successful so far and has perked the interest of many parents. Recently, I took on another task that I felt would integrate the parents into school and make them feel part of their children’s education. This year, I started the 1st Annual UFO Elementary School Open House.
Most schools in America have yearly get togethers called Open House and Back to School Night. Both of these events are essential for involving the parents. They let the parents understand what the kids do in school and catch a glimpse of the learning environment. In my opinion, having an open house was the perfect way to make parents and the community more involved in school activities.
None of the teachers, students, or parents had ever heard of anything called Open House. It was a novel idea to them. It was my responsibility to explain the rationale behind the event and plan the functioning of the shindig. I have been a part of a dozen open house’s in my school days, so I felt I had a pretty good idea about what should happen.
I laid down two main reasons for having an open house. One: involve parents in school. Two: let the kids show off what they’ve learned. These two ideas resonated well with the staff and students of my school, and before I knew it they were all on board and excited to try it out.
Actually they were more than excited, they were ecstatic and kind of got carried away. For the final two weeks of school, we basically did nothing except prepare for Open House. Normal class instruction was cast aside in favor of practicing plays, singing songs, and making presentations. The activities were all academically based, so it was far from a waste of time. I was still trying to prepare my kids for finals, but they were wholeheartedly focused on perfecting their Open House performances.
I knew how American schools pulled off an Open House, but this isnt America. I wanted it to be done with a Chuukese flare. Which implies a few things. It would be during daylight, the organization/schedule would be ambivalent, and lots of food would be involved. I was ok with these island additions, and pushed full steam ahead to make it happen.
Each grade prepared two activities. Plays, math competitions, spelling bees, science posters, social studies presentations, and short reviews of class material were the most popular ideas. Our classrooms are dark, shabby and nothing sticks to humid concrete walls; so we didn’t mess around with decorating our rooms. We decided we would do it outside and forgo the usual cliché’s of wall-art, macaroni picture frames, and colorful poster boards.
The majority of my efforts were focused on helping the 8th graders perform the play “Stone Soup”. The story is about a group of soldiers who slyly convince a group of poor villagers to make them a wonderful soup. We made paper hats, collected some local vegetables, and scrounged up all the props that we could come up with.
The day of Open House came along and it was an exceptionally beautiful sunny morning. There wasn’t a drop of dew in the sky to dissuade parents from making the short walk to the school building. The staff and students met up early in the morning and put the last minute touches on our event. There was still a lot to take care of and we barely organized everything in time for the flood of parents to arrive. We kicked off the event at an arbitrary time somewhere in the vicinity of 11ish. The exact timing of things in Chuuk is utterly unimportant. Time is merely based off the position of the sun and the length of time since the last meal. So when the sun was high and late morning hungry started to creep upon us, we called the throngs of people together and started the festivities.
The afternoon performances were a hit and the community really enjoyed seeing the students all pepped up for their routines. It was sloppily organized and could have been put together with better precision, but overall it was a great success. The kids had the chance to exhibit their hard work and the parents got an opportunity to see education in action. The teachers loved having Open House and are already planning for next year.