My island of home of Fefan is one of the most geographically isolated places on the planet. If you try to find it on google earth, you will undoubtedly spend a few minutes scanning through numerous images of dark blue ocean before the tiny specks of land that compromise Micronesia come into view. If you zoom in far enough you will find the Chuuk lagoon and can see the outline of an island called Fefan that looks like a contorted chicken leg. It’s about as far away from everything as anything can be.
However, there are some places that are even further off in the boonies. There are places that are even harder to find on a map. These places take days of travel by boat and plane to reach. One of these places is called the
. Mortlock Islands
The Mortlock islands are a string of small atolls that have developed in the far southern region of Chuuk state. We currently have 5 Peace Corps volunteers stationed in the Mortlocks and I felt it was a damn good idea for me to go visit them. Two of my other volunteers Julie and Becky also liked the prospect of checking out the Mortlocks. I could have easily been placed on one of these tiny atolls and I was dying to see what it was like out there. The people consider themselves Chuukese; but the lifestyle, geography, language and culture are all variations of what I consider normal Chuukese.
I spent about 2 weeks on my vacation to the Mortlocks, but my activities were plentiful and I have loads of information to relay about my adventures; so I am going to split it up into a couple of blogs. This first entry will focus on the ship ride on our way to the Mortlocks. You can be the judge after reading my blog post, but I feel that the extreme nature of this ship expedition deserves recognition on its own.
I arrived back in Chuuk from my vacation in
on the morning of July 11th. I had been on a red-eye flight and didn’t sleep a wink the previous night. I stumbled out of the airport in a sleepy daze and slowly trudged over to the Peace Corps office through the steamy heat of the island sun. I slumped down in a plastic chair and let my listless limbs flop to my sides. Within 2 minutes of sitting down, one of the volunteers burst in the door and exclaimed, “You’re leaving for the Mortlocks in less than 24 hours, get ready!”. Palau
I gathered my wits together and decided I should probably try to return to my house on Fefan for a night so that I could pack up and properly prepare for my sea journey to the outer islands. I found a boat ride and made it home by dark. As I was sorting through dirty clothes and puttering around my room, I got a call from another volunteer telling me that the ship was delayed. We weren’t leaving tomorrow.
Although I was excited for my trip to the Mortlocks, I was relieved to find out that I had a little bit of time to relax before shipping out. However, there was one problem. We didn’t know when the ship was going to leave. There is no schedule for the ships. The ships run on Chuukese time, which means that time has absolutely no relevance. The ships leave when they feel like leaving. It depends on when they are packed up, who is coming on the ship, what the weather is like, and a dozen other factors that are beyond my comprehension.
We heard a rumor that one of the ships might leave on Friday the 15th, so we planned to come to Weno on Thursday and wait for the actual departure time. The random nature of the ship schedule lived up to its reputation and we were putzing around in the muddy streets of Weno for a few days before we actually left. On Thursday, we were told that it would leave on Friday. On Friday, we were told it would leave on Sunday. On Sunday, we were told it would leave on Monday. On Monday, we were told it would leave on Monday. We left on Monday.
Our vessel for this ocean voyage was nicknamed the Kilo-1. It appeared to be an old Japanese fishing boat that was adapted to carry cargo and passengers around the tiny islands of Chuuk. This was no luxury cruiser. It was obviously not designed to cater to the needs of passengers. There were no seats or benches, no water or food, and very little standing room. There was a tarp strung across the front of the ship to protect from rain and a small section in the back with a roof. All in all, it was a decently sea-worthy craft, even though it seemed to have been made in 1838 with scrap metal from a defunct fish-canning factory.
The maximum capacity of this watercraft was probably around 30 people. We had over 50 people along with thousands of pounds of cargo. People found space in between oil barrels and on top of rice bags. Every inch of the ship was filled with something. And unfortunately, we were the last items to wedge our way onto the floor space of the ship. This meant that we had the worst spot possible. Even though we were patiently waiting for the ship’s departure longer than anyone else, we didn’t quite understand the logistics of getting a proper placement on the ship and were stuck with the unwanted leftovers. We settled ourselves down on the starboard side of the ship. We had no cover from the rain or sun, but at least we had fresh air and room to stretch our legs.
As our boat departed, I remarked to the girls that I didn’t want this to be a run of the mill boat ride. I either wanted it to be beautifully smooth or insanely terrible. The first two hours of the ride were fantastic. We stuck our heads over the railing and felt the tropical air wisp past our faces. The hot sun was abated by the rushing wind, and smell of saltiness filled out nostrils. We were ecstatic to finally be on our way. The waves inside the protected lagoon were calm and the weather looked promising. We tried to look on the bright side of things and enjoyed the open air that our shitty seats provided. The spirit of adventure was pumping through our veins and everything seemed to be going perfectly. And then we left the lagoon…..
Outside of lagoon was the
Pacific Ocean. The endless horizon of blue and the unpredictable power of the largest body of water on earth was beckoning us towards her. We entered her bosom with smiling faces and enlivened attitudes. That was all about to change.
As we navigated our way through the break in the barrier reef, the change in water was immediately noticeable. The waves surged and the boat began to rock. No longer was a thick wall of coral stifling the ocean currents and calming the powerful swells of the Pacific. We were now at the whim of the open ocean. The sea controlled our destiny from this point forth, and she decided to put us to the test.
The sun dropped its bulbous yellow face behind the silhouettes of the lagoon islands and we bid our homes goodbye. In the distance, we looked towards the south and saw a grayish haze block out the sky. This murky sheet of gray was obviously a rainstorm and we were heading right at it. The open ocean provides an uninhibited view of everything around you and it is an interesting experience to slowly watch yourself approach a massive storm. You can see the rain from miles away, but it seems like an eternity before it comes. We stood on the side of our rickety little fishing boat and stared into the face of our doom that lurked its gloomy head in front of us.
We thought we were ready for the rain. Following advice from others, everything we brought on the ship was waterproof. We packed our clothes and valuables in watertight paint buckets. Everything else was securely stowed in waterproof bags or could handle wetness on its own. We each had a raincoat and the girls also had waterproof rain pants. We were as prepared for a storm as well as we could have possibly been. Or so we thought.
We entered the tempest at sunset. The rain began to fall lightly at first. Strong gales of wind breezed past us, but the rain was not intimidating. We snuggled up in our rain jackets, and were ready to wait it out. After about an hour, the drops of rain got bigger and the rain intensified. The wind was still blustery and the sea was getting rougher. Walls of water rumbled towards our little ship and we rode them from peak to trough. I played a mind game with myself and tried to predict what part of the wave we would hit and how much we would rock as result. The waves were enormous and forceful, but they weren’t erratic or turbulent. We swayed and shook, we rolled and wobbled, we lurched and staggered our way through the mountains of water. The waves tossed us around like a floppy rag doll in the arms of a toddler throwing a temper tantrum.
Our path reminded me of driving a car on a really hilly road. As you go over each hill and drop down over the crest, your stomach drops with you and it feels like a moment of weightlessness. We felt that sensation, but there was also constant rocking side to side. Imagine driving on a hilly road as the earth beneath you was swinging across like a pendulum. The stomach drop feeling happens up and down, and side to side. If they could harness this unique sensation, they could make a hell of a roller coaster. Also if they could harness this unique sensation, they could make a hell of a lot of people sick.
The human body likes to stay at equilibrium. One consequence of losing this equilibrium is the onset of nausea. Dizziness, queasiness and sadness often follow. I popped a couple of Dramamines before the ride, and I kept myself together pretty well. But I cant say the same for most of the passengers. Dozens of people were vomiting constantly. Many of them were able to get their puke over board, but many of them were not. After a few hours of insane ship rocking, the floor of the boat was covered in a slimy residue of bile and half digested fish. Yummmmmy.
Becky and I never lost our cookies, but our friend Julie was suffering severely. She fell victim to the swaying of the ship and was miserable for the duration of the voyage. Every time she tried to stand or sit up, her sight would wobble and her stomach would grumble. Her only solution was to stay lying down. However, this presented a serious problem. We were outside with no cover from the pounding rain, and she had no choice but to lie on the sloppy deck and endure the wetness.
When the rain was at its heaviest, I took refuge under one of the roofs in the back and tried to avoid the onslaught of water. It provided some shelter, but the rain still found its way in. The wind whipped the rain through the open doors and windows and drenched everyone inside. It was slightly drier than outside, but by no means dry. The passengers who were crammed in the back took pity on us outsiders and allowed us to share some of the shelter, but there was very little room and we had to stand. I stood in the back for hours on end and chattered my teeth as the cold rain spattered on my back.
I was very uncomfortable in my standing position, but considering the condition of my friend Julie, I was in no place to complain. She couldn’t come stand in the back, because standing induced immediate vomiting. We all soon discovered that our “waterproof” jackets weren’t very waterproof at all. By the middle of the night, we were totally soaked. If we had jumped in the water, we wouldn’t have been any wetter. And the rain never relented. It continued to pour down on our heads as the wind chilled us to the bone. I attempted a strategy of standing up and leaning over the side so that the violent wind would dry some of my wetness. This was slightly successful in drying me off, but it also froze me stiff. My best bet was to stand in the back or lie in the rain with Julie.
We came equipped with some remedies to help us handle the uncomfortable circumstances. We knew that it would be hard to sleep on the ship, so we brought a baggy of sleeping pills. Benadryl, Tylenol PM, and Dramamine are all supposed to cause sleepiness. Just as I learned that my “waterproof” jacket wasn’t very good at keeping me dry, I learned that “sleeping” pills weren’t very good at putting me to sleep.
I started with a few Dramamines and a Benadryl. Then I remembered that in the past I have not been easily susceptible to sleeping medications, so I figured that I should take more. As the rain storm raged on, I knew that I would need plenty of help falling asleep so I took 2 Tylenol PM. This I more than the recommended dose, however I felt that I my extraneous circumstances provided ample reason to pop some extra pills and zonk me out. Being awake in these conditions was miserable, so I desperately wanted to go to sleep.
I alternated between standing in the back and lying in the rain for the remainder of the night. My mind was fuzzy and my body was aching, but I couldn’t force myself to fall asleep. I took another Benadryl and tried to lie down again. Nothing happened except that I got a lot wetter. In my delirious state, I reached in my bag and swallowed one more Tylenol PM. I was sure that this overdose of sleeping pills was not enough to kill me, but it was surely enough to put me in a sleepy coma for the ship ride. Then again, maybe not. My mind was like a hillbilly flea circus and nothing made sense. I slipped in and out of reality, but never into sleep. The rain was too hard, the wind was too strong, and the waves were too big. I never slept.
I peered at someone’s watch and noticed that it was almost 5am, which meant the sun was about rise. Hooray! The bright warm sun would burn through these clouds and warm my skin with its summery rays. All I had to do was wait another couple of hours and my wet rocky ordeal would be coming to an end. To my utter dismay, the sun never even seemed to rise. The sky turned from black to dark gray, and that was the only change. The rain didn’t slow down and the waves didn’t diminish. The storm did not go away with the onset of a new day.
Even though everything around me was covered in puke and the swaying of the ship did not encourage a hearty appetite, I am not accustomed to not eating for extended periods of time. I needed sustenance. The only food that we brought was crackers and peanut butter. I grubbed it greedily in the morning and then slumped back into my muddled state of consciousness. At lunch time (or what seemed to be somewhere in that vicinity), I ate an apple that I had been hoarding in my bag. It was delicious. The apple was probably the best part of the trip.
Actually, the best part of the trip was towards the end when I saw a fantastic phenomenon of nature’s bounty. The storm began to settle in the afternoon and now only a faint drizzle trickled on our faces. I was still soaking wet and the break in the clouds only slightly perked my spirits. But through the break in the clouds, I saw something wonderful. Another blackish-gray cloud was visible on the horizon, but this wasn’t a rain cloud. In fact it wasn’t a cloud at all. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first, but soon I realized it was birds. Lots and lots of birds! I don’t know if I have every seen a million of anything all at once. But if I ever have, this was the time. The birds formed a wall of fluttering dots that stretched for miles. I was too far away to tell what type of birds they were, but I could see them diving, ducking and dodging. Initially I thought that they were feasting on a school of fish down below, but I came to the conclusion that a ball of fish could not be big enough to attract this many birds. These birds weren’t just eating, they were migrating. My only plausible explanation for this absurd number of birds was that they were on a massive migration. It was one of the most amazing natural occurrences that I have ever witnessed and I couldn’t help but feel that it portended something special at the end of our long and arduous journey.
On second thought, I was under the influence of a mishmashed jumbo cocktail of sleeping pills….maybe I was hallucinating.