Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Rainy, Rocky, Rickety Ride

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 Palau 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!”.
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.

Vacationing in the Mortlocks

“The Mortlocks” sounds like a doom-filled evil lair in the misty mountains of a fantasy novel. Its one of those words that seems like it should always be spoken in a strong sinister tone. Its two syllables are sharp and resonant. It reverberates in the mind like a rusty hinge slamming a castle gate. Its name does not conjure up peaceful beaches and calm lagoons. It doesn’t sound like any other Chuukese word, and is obviously of foreign influence. I would guess that some European captain spotted the tiny atolls and slapped the name of his great uncle Mortlock on them. The name may be off-key in describing these islands, but these islands are right on target for depicting the image of tropical paradise that most people imagine.
After our harrowing journey across the ocean, we were nauseous, wet and exhausted; but nonetheless it was impossible not to appreciate the beauty of the place that we had just entered upon. The low lying islands spread across the horizon and clumped together in little tufts of greenery. From a distance, it looked like there were a thousand small islands with narrow strips of water in between them. Furthermore, the islands appeared to be floating in mid air! It seemed like there was a gap of air in between where the water ended and the land started. As we got closer to the islands, the two optical allusions dissolved and we clearly saw the outline of long skinny islands in their proper place adjacent to the water’s edge. The curvature of the earth combined with the small stature of the islands created these tricks on our eyes.
Our Peace Corps friends Ben and Dan greeted us at the side of our ship in a small outboard motor boat. We climbed off the ship and started another two-hour boat ride through the rain. The rain was still pouring and the sea was still rough, but we were glad to be off the big ship. The rocking was much less severe on this little craft and we were also speeding along at a faster pace.
We entered through a pass in the barrier reef and came into the Satowan Lagoon. This lagoon contains dozens of tiny islands and 4 main islands called Satowan, Ta, Kuttu and Moch. None of the islands have an elevation over 10 feet. They are simply conglomerations of sand and coral that has built up on the edge of this lagoon. Eons ago, a volcanic island towered above the sea in this same spot. As time wore on, a coral reef built a circle around the island. The volcanic mainland succumbed to erosion and slowly melted into the sea. At the same time, the coral reef continued to grow and finally peaked its head above the surface. Rocks and soil eventually washed up on its shore and led the way for the flourishing of life. Coconuts and other plant life found their way to these sandy outcroppings by way of water or air, and laid a foundation to support animal and insect life. Eventually the island in the middle was entirely sunken and all that was left were the encircling islands. That is how ocean lagoon atolls are formed.
About 1000 years ago, some insane islanders decided to hop in outrigger canoes and float their way out into the great unknown of the Pacific Ocean. I’m sure many adventurers met their doom in search of new island homes, but after some time a group of lucky sailors stumbled upon this miniature archipelago. They settled down and began building a society to thrive in this remote sand spit. 1000 years after those native explorers discovered the Mortlocks, a trio of thrill-seeking youths found their way out to the islands. Their journey was also perilous, but was a cakewalk compared to the challenges that the early explorers faced. This triad of Americans were simply visitors who wanted to see the places where they fellow Peace Corps volunteers called home.
Our first destination was the island of Satowan. Ben Perdue is a fellow M77 volunteer who is teaching at the elementary school and learning the ways of the Mortlockese. His language skills are exemplary and he seems to be well integrated into his society, his only pitfall is clumsiness and a propensity to hurt his feet (more on this later).
Ben’s community had been preparing for our visit for quite some time and had set up a welcome party for us. As we stumbled off the boat in our sopping wet clothes, we were greeted by angelic voices of children serenading our arrival. We were ushered into a meeting hall and saw dozens of people sitting on the floor as a welcoming party. The locals covered us in maramars (flower necklaces and crowns) and we plopped down in our seats to enjoy the festivities. We were completely soaked and chattering our teeth along with the melody of their songs. We were appreciative of their hospitality, but we couldn’t endure the entirety of their performance in our current condition. After just a few songs, they cut it short and allowed us to eat. Becky and Julie were still nauseous and didn’t want to touch their food, but I was famished. I had barely eaten in 24 hours and eagerly ate a mounded plateful of fish, octopus, breadfruit and taro.
After the party, we were led to the house where we would be staying for the next few days. I was amazed to see how nice the place was! It was equivalent to an American house. It had tile floors, freshly painted walls, a cozy porch and a kitchen countertop. I was immediately impressed by the accommodations that they had set up for us. I was further surprised to learn that this house was all for us. The 5 of us volunteers would have the house to ourselves for the duration of our stay. An empty house is almost unheard of in Chuuk and I was shocked that such a nice place would be granted to us for our stay.
The condition of the house definitely impressed me, but the setup of the community blew me out of the water. Outside of the house was an exquisitely maintained pathway. It was the width of a single lane road and had a smooth sandy surface. It was flanked by carefully trimmed hedges and a rock wall. There was no trash scattered on the edges and there were no mud holes in the middle. The road ran in a straight line from one end of the island to the other. Telephone poles that ran electricity to the houses lined the sides of the road. People had landscaped front yards and houses made of concrete. Children rushed by on bicycles and skipped down the road. It was an island version of suburbia.
In my mind, I was expecting the Mortlocks to be quaint and traditional. They are so geographically isolated from everything else, that I thought they would have no choice but to maintain their old lifestyle. I was expecting to see grass huts and loin-clothed men. On the contrary, I discovered that in many ways the Mortlocks are better developed than the islands of Chuuk Lagoon. Apparently isolation does not mean that you are stuck in the Stone Age. These places had seemingly better infrastructure than my large island of Fefan, and they did it all with an island flair.
The Mortlock islands do have sandy beaches, but there aren’t as abundant as I was hoping. Sea walls line the shore where people live and the beaches are rather small. Everything is sandy, but it’s just not as expansive as I was envisioning. I guess that I am too spoiled by the beaches of Southern California that have sand that stretches the length of football field. The whole island of Satowan could easily fit on the sand of Newport Beach, and it would only cover the length of a few lifeguard towers. These are very small places, so I guess that it’s reasonable to have very small beaches.
Satowan does have one quirky tourist attraction that makes it special amongst the Mortlock islands. A dozen Japanese tanks are rusting alongside the road. These land-war vehicles seem out of place in the island landscape. The Japanese must have been expecting an American humvee invasion on this sliver of sand in the middle of the ocean. Good thing they were prepared with a fleet of tanks to protect themselves, hah. I bet the tanks never shot a single bullet. It’s even more ridiculous, because its not like they even had any room to move around. They could do a loop around the island in less time than it would take me to drink a beer.
We played basketball with the locals, walked to both ends of the island, swam in the warm waters, and just relaxed around the living compound. On our last day in Satowan, we decided to take a couple boats over to a small island on the reef and have a picnic. All of us Peace Corps volunteers and a handful of locals piled into a couple of motorboats and zipped our way over the picnic island.
We set up a camp base around the half constructed local houses that were already in place on the island. After only a few minutes of settling into the paradise isle, the other boys and I went out on a small fishing expedition. We brought a few spears and a large net to see what we could catch. I swam around for a while and didn’t see many fish that were of spearable size, however I did shoot one monster red fish. The majority of our fishing success came during net fishing.
This type of net fishing works by setting up a net along the edge of a reef and then chasing the fish into its tangles. The first person attaches one end of the net to the side of a coral embankment and then stretches it out along the sand. The rest of us are positioned about 100 yards away from the net. Once the net is set in a good position, we all start swimming wildly towards the blockade. It’s important to splash your arms and legs as much as possible because the objective is to scare the fish and force them to run into the net. We swim in a straight line and coerce the unsuspecting fish into the center. The fish think that they are escaping to freedom from the onslaught of sloshing limbs, but they are really swimming to their doom. They hit the seemingly invisible net and wrap themselves in its nylon tentacles as they struggle for survival. When we reach the net wall, it is amazing to see how many are stuck in the net. Our noises scare the fish far before we see them and force them into the net even before we lay eyes on them. Then we simply swim down, untangle the fish, and stab a spear through their eyes to keep them secured. At the end, we return to the boat with a skewer of flopping fresh fish. Using this method, we caught at least 50 or 60 fish that we feasted on when we returned to camp on the little island.
The following day, we hitched a ride on a motorboat and made our way towards our next destination of Lekinioch. The Lekunor Lagoon is adjacent to the Satowan Lagoon and is only a few miles across the open ocean. However, the ride was much longer because we had to exit the Satowan atoll at one of the passes in the reef. It took us almost an hour to get out of the lagoon and into the great blue deep. Once again, the difference between water temperament was obvious when we left the calmness of the lagoon. Waves splashed against the tiny boat and rocked us back and forth. Within minutes I was soaking wet and took off my shirt to cover my head, because it was doing no good covering my body from the water. On our way to Lekinioch, we dragged a couple of lures alongside our boat in hopes of catching some tuna. The fish weren’t biting that day, but it was still fun to give it a shot.
As we turned the corner around the edge of an island and entered the atoll, we were all taken aback by the beauty of the sight before us. The water was bluer than any blue I had seen before; and the island of Lekinioch formed a perfect crescent moon shape that half-encircled the tranquil waters. All of the islands of Chuuk are astoundingly beautiful, but something about Lekinioch makes it stick out as extra special. Its elegant curvature and pristine waters are unmatched.
This island is home to another one of my fellow M77 volunteers. Farrah is a kind and gentle woman, but has a rugged independent attitude that pervades everything that she does. She was the only girl to request an outer island placement, and was probably the only one who could handle it. Her house is situated only a few feet away from the ocean and the entire second floor is reserved for her. She lives up above her family and has a couple of pets that she is determined to raise with love and care. Its very rare for Chuukese to treat cats and dogs with respect and love, but Farrah is doing her best to lead by example and show everyone how great it is to have cute little pets.
The island of Lekinioch has a similar environment to Satowan with the manicured roads and well-maintained houses. However, it is slightly larger and the houses seem to be closer together. My positive impression of Mortlock infrastructure was further enhanced after walking around Lekinioch and seeing legitimate structures and pathways. The classrooms in the school were spacious and had full sets of desks for the students! They had a basketball court, a large grass field and a giant taro patch.
We spent the next few days lounging around Farrah’s pad and enjoying each other’s company. The locals brought us dozens of lobsters and we feasted on fresh seafood for days on end. It was one of those rare occasions where there is actually too much lobster to be eaten; I don’t think I have ever seen that happen in America. The food was fantastic and we ate like Chuukese royalty during our stay on the island.
We explored the beaches and spent some time on the outside ocean side of the island. Nobody lives on this side because its shore is rocky and the water level can vary greatly. Waves that have traveled for thousands of miles finally make land fall on this tiny ledge of reef and splash against the chunks coral that line the beach. With rising sea levels in recent years, the water has overflowed the rocky beach and seeped into the taro patch. This is a serious problem that has severely affected the livelihood of the Mortlockese.
We spent about 6 days on Lekinioch and probably only saw about 6 hours of sunshine. The weather was fierce and unforgiving during most of our stay. The wind was especially violent and one night a palm tree fell down and narrowly missed the house we were staying in. If it fell a few more feet the left, we would have been flattened by this toppled tree. My friends didn’t sleep well with the deafening wind and chilly air that swept through our house, but I slumbered like a baby. I love to sleep when its cold, and the rush of the wind was like a fan drowning out the background noise.
On one of the days, we decided to venture out into the drizzling rain and take a picnic to an island near the far end of Lekinioch. We hoped the rain would stop and prepared everything we needed for a fun trip to the small island. The highlight of this journey was the fact that we were going to canoe ourselves over there. This island is famous for maintaining the tradition of outrigger canoes, and we didn’t want to forgo the opportunity to try it for ourselves.
 I got into a canoe with the three other girls and we set out on our two-mile sea voyage across the lagoon. I sat in the back and was in charge of steering the course and navigating our way. I have paddled plenty of canoes, kayaks, and rafts; so I was fairly confident of what I was doing. Paddle left, go right. Paddle right, go left. Use the paddle as rudder to make sharp turns. I thought that these basic skills would keep us on a straight path. I was sorely mistaken.
An outrigger canoe doesn’t respond the same way that a single bodied vessel does. The effects are much more delayed and are amplified with slight adjustments. We zig-zagged our way through the lagoon and never seemed to be able to keep a straight path. We even spun in a full circle at one point. When we were in deeper water away from the island, I became even more confused about what was happening. All four of us were paddling on the right side and we were still veering right. I then stuck my paddle in as a rudder while the others paddled on the right, and we still veered right! This was quite perplexing because the wind was blowing to the left. All signs said we should be heading straight left, but instead we were floating rightwards the whole time.
My only explanation was that the current was flowing contrary to the wind and was forcing us towards the right. Everything was further complicated by the obvious inefficiency of our paddles. The heads of the paddles weren’t much bigger than the handles and they didn’t move much water when dragged through the sea. One of my friends said it was like paddling with coffee stirrers.  For the remainder of the ride, we all paddled on the right and I continued to use my oar as a rudder to try to keep us on a decent path. We finally made it to the picnic island, and were greeted with laughs by our friends who had arrived ahead of us. My pride was restored a little bit when we switched canoes for the return trip. The other group was having even more trouble than we were and fell way behind our pace. Maybe I am just making excuses, but I don’t think our navigation woes were really my fault.
It rained the entire day on our picnic and we never got the sunbathing, beach games and island fun that we expected. Since it was raining, my friend Naavid and I decided to go spear fishing. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold and rainy outside, because below the water the temperature is always warm and welcoming. Naavid goes fishing more than I do, and he wanted to show me the way that he goes spear fishing. He ventures outside the lagoon. The fish are bigger and the more plentiful out in the wild waters of the Pacific.
I was hesitant of this strategy because I had been on the outside edge of the reef before. It did not seem like a friendly place. Waves crashed hard on a ragged coral surface that was less than a foot deep. At a certain point, he assured me it would drop off and we would be in a magical underwater world with hundreds of fish. I trusted his instinct and followed him out to the edge.
We walked carefully for about 15 minutes across sharp coral and spiky sea creatures. At one point, I looked behind us and noticed one of the locals standing on the edge of the sand watching us. I took this as a bad sign. He was probably thinking, “what in the hell are these guys doing?!”. He sat down and enjoyed the show of these two Americans foolishly venturing out to the edge.
We got to the point where the whitewater of the waves was splashing on our ankles and Naavid told me to strap on my fins and get ready. We were only in 6 inches of water and I was very skeptical of our success at this juncture, but I figured I would give it a shot and I put on my mask & snorkel. We only had about 50 feet to go before it appeared to drop off and we would be past the wave break and into calmer water. Naavid and I flopped on our bellies and began to swim out past the waves. The first large wave knocked off my mask and spun Naavid in a circle. But we were determined. We continued to swim against the pounding waves, and they continued to beat us back. After about 1 minute of fighting the whitewater, we stood up in the shallow water and looked at each other’s bloody stomachs. We both knew it was a failure.
We slowly trekked back across the prickly coral and Naavid told me about how his side of the lagoon was different. The waves were calm there and it was never a problem to get past the breaking point. The water would only slap at your ankles and not drive your chest into chunks of coral. I believed him, but was not enthusiastic about trying this again. Swimming outside the reef didn’t seem appealing after this disastrous attempt.
We returned back to Lekinioch and ate another tasty lobster feast. As we were preparing for bed, Ben went outside to go brush his teeth. He had no flashlight and only a bottle of water. He turned around the corner of the building and tripped over a pile of windowpanes that was lying on the floor. The glass cut a deep gash in the top of his foot and blood spurted everywhere. Soon the ground was covered in red rivers of trickling blood and we hurried to bandage up his foot. The Peace Corps medical kit provided all the emergency supplies we need to stop the bleeding and sterilize the wound, but we were still worried because the cut was deep and might require stitches.
Ben slept fine that night and barely complained of any pain. He didn’t think stitches were necessary, and it would be a lengthy ordeal to try to get him into Weno where he could get stitched up. He figured he would just tough it out, and then get checked out when we went in the Chuuk Lagoon the following week. The only thing that disturbed him was that one of his toes below the cut was droopy. It hung below the other toes and he couldn’t make it move. The pain wasn’t a big issue, but this droopy toe was something worry about.
Upon further evaluation, we would eventually learn that Ben had severed a tendon in his foot. He went to Pohnpei for medical inspection by our Peace Corps doctors and then was sent to Manila in the Phillipines to have foot surgery. The tendon has already healed over and now they will have to connect it to the adjacent toe tendon. The surgery will fix his droopiness up just fine, but who would have thought that a misstep while brushing his teeth would lead to such an extensive medical procedure.
On the final night in Lekinioch, we planned our final stage of the trip on the island of Oneop. Naavid is the Peace Corps on Oneop and has fully adopted the local lifestyle. Actually, we have jokingly told Naavid that he is more local than the locals. He came to these islands with certain ideals about how he wanted to live, and he is sticking to them regardless of what people think. He only eats local food. He makes things out of palm fronds. He fishes daily. He hasn’t shaved or cut his hair. He hasn’t put on shoes. He rarely wears a shirt. And he uses the ocean as his bathroom.
Although Naavid tries to live the traditional lifestyle to the fullest, he is ironically placed in one of the nicest houses in all of Chuuk. His 3-bedroom mini-mansion is fully equipped with a private bathroom and indoor shower. He has a jumbo flat screen TV and furnishings that make it seem like America. His personal style is traditional, but his surroundings aren’t.
I was extremely excited to stay on Oneop because Naavid had promised me some fantastic fishing adventures. We were going to give it another shot spear fishing outside the reef and we were also going to go trawling for tuna. I have been dreaming about reeling in a giant tuna since the day I found out I was coming to Micronesia, and I have yet to have a chance. Naavid guaranteed it would happen.
We were discussing our plans for our tuna-fishing trip, when Naavids father notified us that there was a change in the boat schedule and we had to leave for the Chuuk Lagoon tomorrow. Our fishing plans were scraped and our time on Oneop was unfortunately cut short. We took a walk to the end of the island and watched the sunset on a beautiful sandy beach. This sandy tip of Oneop was my favorite spot in the Mortlocks and provided a wonderful ending to a fantastic trip.
The next day, we lugged our stuff onto a motorboat and chased down the ship so that we could get aboard. We were some of the first people on the ship and got fantastic seats. This boat had more roofing than the previous one and we had comfortable benches to set up a living space. There were 6 of us volunteers returning to the Chuuk Lagoon on the ship, and this time we were prepared for the worst. Fortunately, this return trip was smooth sailing. We did have to spend an extra night onboard the ship because it anchored in Satowan lagoon to wait for a morning departure, but it was beautiful weather so we were happy as could be. Our 40 hour ship ride coasted into the center of Chuuk and our Mortlock adventure had come to a close. The end of this ship ride also marked the end of my summer island hopping adventures around Micronesia. Palau and the Mortlocks provided stark contrasts to my lifestyle on Fefan and I feel that I now have a better grasp of island culture in the central pacific.

Playin’ in Palauan Paradise ( 7/14/11)

I love Chuuk. The people are wonderful, and its blue waters and lush jungle are fantastically beautiful. However, it’s missing a little bit of the charm that most other tropical paradise vacation destinations display. The lack of infrastructure, sandy beaches and plush resorts unfortunately put Chuuk a notch below most other island getaways. I wanted to get a taste of that cushy lifestyle that I’m missing, so I decided to depart from my island home and take a trip to Palau.
            My trip to Palau was primarily motivated by the visit of a friend from America. My friend Melissa is a jet-setting traveler who has pretty much gone everywhere in the world, except Micronesia. She wanted to check the Pacific off her list of fabulous places to visit, so she decided to jump on a plane and cruise half way around the world to see me and check out my Peace Corps living style. Her trek was even more impressive because she came all the way from Spain, which I think is about as far away from Chuuk as any other point on the planet.
            We planned to spend a few days in Chuuk and then head over to Palau for a week. Before she arrived, I mapped out a precise itinerary of what we were going to do while she was in Chuuk. She would spend a couple days at my home family site on Fefan and we would also spend a couple days on the small picnic island of Pisar. I organized a massive trip with the volunteer community of Chuuk and booked boats and rooms for our stay.
I came into Weno on Thursday night, so that I could be there to meet her at the airport on Friday July 1st when her flight arrived. I posted on her facebook wall “I’ll see you in 24 hours!!”.  Within minutes, I got a long distance call from Melissa. She said, “I don’t think I’m gonna see you in 24 hours, I’ll be lounging on Waikiki beach in 24 hours.” I quickly replied, “no no, you’re wrong. You aren’t factoring in the time change. You’ll be here tomorrow”. Melissa thought for a moment and then explained, “24 hours is 24 hours, and my plane isnt leaving Hawaii for another 48 hours”….she was right.
The detail that my lazy mind seemed to glaze over was that Friday July 1st in Chuuk is Thursday July 1st in America. In actuality, Chuuk time Saturday July 2nd is America time Friday July 1st.  She was not arriving in Chuuk on Friday. I totally blew it.
I smacked myself in the head a few times and then readjusted our plans. We had to cancel the Pisar trip and only had time to go spend a couple days at my site on Fefan. However those few days on Fefan went very smoothly. She did very well dealing with the difficult conditions of my lifestyle and adapting to the cultural norms. The extra long skirts and awkward bucket showers irked her a little bit, but overall she did wonderfully and everyone really enjoyed her visit. She brought some souvenirs from Spain and my village/family was ecstatic. They couldn’t decide whom to give the gifts to, so they had a raffle full of dancing and laughs to auction off the prizes. My host father was so impressed by the soccer ball that Melissa bought that he wanted to mount it like a trophy and keep it safe on our wall forever. He felt it was extremely special because it was the only item they owned from the exotic far away country of Spain. I convinced him that it was meant to be played with, and the kids happily stormed out to kick it around.
On the morning of our flight to Palau, a serious storm was raging through the Chuuk Lagoon. Palm trees were swaying and the tin roof was rattling like a tuneless tambourine. The clouds were evacuating their bladders and drenching Chuuk with little pellets of H2O. The rain was flooding down from above and gave no indication of slowing down. Our first worry was about the possibility of a cancelled plane, and our second worry was about the harrowing boat trip ahead.
We wrapped our luggage in trash bags, covered ourselves in rain jackets and waddled down to the dock. We piled all of our stuff onto the boat and began our journey across the rocky sea. We bounced, bumped and bobbed our way through the angry ocean. The rain pounded on our backs and the sea splattered in our eyes. Mother nature did all she could to slow us down, but our rickety ship sliced through the waves and finally made it to Weno.
Despite our rainy weather gear, we were drenched to the bone. After we unloaded from the boat, we took our stuff over to a dry spot and began to organize our dripping baggage. I rifled through my backpack to grab my wallet and made a terrible discovery…. I forgot my passport!!!
The simplest and most important travel essential was left in a Ziploc bag sitting on my table back on Fefan. Once again, my absent-mindedness had thrown a monkey-wrench into our travel plans. I panicked for a few minutes, ranted around like a lunatic for a bit, then gathered myself together and thought of a plan. I found some locals from my island and they helped me call a lady from Fefan who could grab my passport from my room and bring it to me safely. Luckily, our flight wasn’t until the early afternoon and my passport arrived in my hands with ample time left. We were soaking wet and still skeptical about our plane being cancelled, but at least I had my passport.
Our plane came on time and we took a short connecting flight to Guam. Arriving in Guam was quite a shock for me. From the plane, I saw skyscrapers, golf courses and swimming pools. I saw streets, factories, and light posts. I saw infrastructure. This was something that I hadn’t seen in almost a year. Just walking through the white walled airport was a disorienting experience. The signs of developed civilization and clean legitimate buildings gave me a jolt of reality. I had forgotten all the luxuries of the modern world and even seeing little glimpses of them was rather shocking.
If the tile floors of the Guam airport impressed me, I was in for quite a surprise when we arrived in Palau. We checked into the Palau Royal Resort and I seemed to be transported into an entirely different universe. White clad bell-boys carried my bags, garden lights cast a romantic yellow glow on a fish pond, and a fully functioning elevator carried me up to my 5th floor deluxe hotel room. I wasn’t in Chuuk anymore.
The luxurious amenities of our hotel and the breathtaking ocean view of our room made it one of the nicest places that I ever been in my life. Tourism in Palau is designed for a Japanese crowd, and as far as I know, Japanese like nice stuff. We spent the next couple days just lounging around the hotel grounds and soaking up this opulent lifestyle. The mud of Weno streets seeped out of my pores in a warm shower and I allowed myself to unwind in these lavish surroundings.
On one of the nights I hung out with Peace Corps volunteers and caught up with all my friends that I met in our training sessions. I was taken aback when they casually argued about which bar’s happy hour we should go to that night. I hadn’t been to a bar in a year, and the idea of having multiple options was baffling to me. I had a great night drinking with my Peace Corps buddies and sharing stories of our experiences. They live a very different lifestyle than we do in Chuuk and it was interesting to compare our adventures. After our drinks, I strolled down the exquisitely paved roads of Palau and marveled at the well-maintained infrastructure. The city of Koror was no different than an American city. Roads, banks, bars, restaurants, hotels, and stores. Wow.
 One of the things I liked best about being in Palau was the food. In Chuuk, food options are very limited. Local food or canned meat pretty much covers every meal. But Palau has cuisine from all over the world and is especially famous for wonderful seafood. I ate pounds of sashimi and dined at the best Indian restaurant that I’ve ever had. (and Ive been to India).
However, one of the Palauan delicacies stood alone at the top of all foods. BAT. Not just a few cut-up pieces of bat, but a full fruit bat. A large black bat with a two-foot wingspan. (Hair, head, and wings included for no extra charge) An entire bat was just plopped in a broth and served in large bowl. Now, Ive put a lot of weird things in my belly. I’ve chewed on turtle fat, chomped zebra flesh, sucked on crocodile chunks, grubbed dog ribs, and slurped snake wine. But nothing compares to this bat. This bat takes the cake as the most ridiculously appalling and disgusting foods that I have ever let enter my mouth.
I tore away at the hairy skin and tasted a bit of its gangly chest eat. The texture was rather gamy and reminded me of eating small birds like quail, but it tasted like liver with a trashy after taste. It tasted just like what I would imagine a rat tasting like. I guess that makes sense, a bat is basically a rat with wings. My friend Melissa fancies herself as an amateur food connoisseur and really enjoys eating exotic foods, but the bat was a little overwhelming for her. She didn’t want to scrape off the flesh for herself, so she asked for me to cut her a bite and put it on her plate. She closed her eyes and looked away as I prepared a nice piece for her. Melissa jumped back and screamed when she opened her eyes and saw the severed bat head staring at her with pointed fangs and open eyes. It was a dirty trick by me, but it was also pretty hilarious.
Melissa and I decided that we wanted to get out of the city and really get a stereotypical beach paradise vacation. We found a small resort located in the rock islands that would be a perfect place for us do to all the activities we wanted while enjoying the unruffled serenity of beachy relaxation. We zig-zagged through the small islands and made our way out to Carp Island Resort. From our quiet bungalow cabin at carp, we had easy access to the three most famous things about Palau. Diving, rock islands, and jellyfish.
The rock islands of Palau are a geological wonder. This type of unbelievable rock architecture can only be seen in a few places on our planet (I’ve seen one of the other’s in Hailong Bay, Vietnam ; ). They are often referred to as karst limestone formations; more simply just called rock islands. The remnants of shells, coral and other sea creatures have been piling up on the ocean floor for billions of years. Over the millennia, tectonic movements caused this ocean floor to shoot to the surface. Exposure to the elements along with the slow secretion of chemicals from the rocks have caused the bottom of the rock outcroppings to erode. The result is a multitude of mushroom-shaped rock piles. To make it even more remarkably wonderful, the teetering mineral deposits just happen to be situated in tropical latitudes that are ideal for plant growth. So what we see now are hundreds of green mushrooms spattered across the southern waters of Palau. It truly is a magnificent geologic wonder (go google a picture of Palau, because my shabby descriptions don’t do these islands justice).
The rock islands are beautiful to behold, but most people come to Palau to see the beauty of what lies below the water. Untouched coral blooms and throngs of fledgling fish swarm the waters around Palau. I got a Peace Corps discounted rate and took a day trip of scuba diving to see the sights from an underwater perspective. It was spectacular! In my opinion, the main thing that makes Palau scuba diving special is the abundance of fish. Thousands of fish with a thousand different colors cascaded in front of my face as I carelessly floated through the warm waters of deep-sea paradise. The highlight of my scuba diving trip was the sharks. Lots of sharks! I saw at least 15 long, sleek, cartilaginous predators perusing the waters around me. These sharks were much larger than most that I see when I’m spear fishing, but they also seemed a lot less scary. I think that is primarily due to the fact that I didn’t have a buffet of bleeding fish strapped tightly around my waist.  Having shark treats attached to your hips does make their presence a little more ominous. Luckily, I was just observer this time and not a competitor.
Melissa and I rented a kayak and paddled around the islands in search of a diving spot called Turtle Cove. We never found the turtles, but we did enjoy a leisurely kayak trip and some crystal clear snorkeling. On the last day of our Carp island experience, we soaked up the last rays of sun lying in our hammocks and then took a boat for our final adventure. We bid goodbye to the lonely island paradise that was our home for a few days and looked forward to fun ahead of us. The fun ahead of us was all about jellyfish.
These aren’t just any ol’ jellyfish. These jellyfish are special. Very special. These are stingless jellyfish. You can touch them, poke them, stroke them, and put them on your face without the slightest worry of injury. They have been isolated in a salt-water lake on one of the rock islands. In this little lake, there are no predators. So the jellyfish have adapted and no longer have a need for stinging chemicals. These jellyfish live with only jellyfish, and it doesn’t do any good to sting your fellow jellies. The evolutionary oddity has created a jellyfish haven. This lake is full of jellyfish! I expected to see some jellyfish floating around in small pockets of the lake, but I was sorely mistaken. It was teeming with jellyfish. Millions upon millions of jellyfish called this place home. As I swam through these jellyfish hordes, squishy little invertebrates accosted my arms, legs, face and body. I used to hate jellyfish, now I love them. 
My Palau expedition was a much needed break from Chuuk and gave me a fresh perspective on my life here. Melissa’s visit made me look at my lifestyle in a new light and actually made me appreciate it more. I realized how well integrated I am into the society and how comfortable I feel with this type of life. The modernization of Palau gave me mixed feelings. On one hand, I wonder, “how come Palau can do it, and Chuuk cant?” Palau is turning into a little America and is pushing full-steam ahead into modernization. There are a lot of benefits to this ideology. On the other hand, seeing the Americanization of Palau made me appreciate the rural aspects of Chuuk. We still maintain some of the traditional lifestyle and are able to thrive in our undeveloped island landscape. In truth, that is one of the main reasons why I joined the Peace Corps. I wanted to prove to myself that people can live without all the advents of modernization. Our satisfaction in life is not entirely dependent upon the material items that we possess and the luxuries that we can afford. People can still live very happy lives without Iphones, reality TV, and McDonalds. Maybe even happier……