Thursday, September 29, 2011

My Spot on Top of Fefan Island

A Different View Of Pisar

Pisar (picturesque paradise)

weird underwater wonders

Jenna, Dan, Farrah and me. (at xavier high school)

Chuukese Recipe for Turtle Soup

Eating turtle may be frowned upon in most parts of the world. But I don’t live in most parts of the world. I live on a tiny island in the middle of the eastern Pacific Ocean. The islanders have been eating turtles for thousands of years and feel absolutely no guilt about munching on these big-eyed cuties. To them, it’s just another sea creature that is part of the bounty of the sea.
I am going to explain the turtle eating process in simple bullet point steps. It will be in the form of a simple recipe, so that if you are so inclined, you can make yourself a tasty batch of turtle soup in the comfort of your own kitchen (but after reading this, you might not want to). I hope you aren’t too offended by the gruesome nature of the turtle cooking process.
¯    If you spot a turtle when you are swimming in the ocean, don’t swim away. Approach the turtle from behind, grab its front flippers from the rear and yank them at a severely awkward angle. This will snap their bones and disable their maneuverability.
¯    Grab the turtle shell and direct its swimming pattern to the shoreline or to the edge of a boat. Hoist the turtle on dry land and flip it on its shell. It will not be able to right itself without your help.
o      I didn’t actually catch a turtle. We bought a fresh one for $10. However, this is the method of turtle catching that I have been told is the most common.
¯    Bring the turtle to your household or outdoor cookhouse. Keep fresh water running on the turtle so that he doesn’t dry out. Its important to keep it alive so that the meat doesn’t spoil in the sun.
¯    Supplies: two knives, a large pot, running water (or a big bucket), and banana leaves for a sheet underneath your operation
¯    With the turtle on its back and still breathing, begin the incision.
¯    Insert the knife into the soft spot of skin between the shell and the front breastplate. Continue incision along the edge of the shell and attempt to separate the breastplate from the shell.
¯    Cut the muscle, tendons and gooey stuff from the edge of the breastplate so that it is entirely separated. Rip the front piece off the turtle. Discard the breastplate.
¯    Now you are left with the open torso of a living turtle. Its lungs will still be pulsating and it may attempt to struggle. Assert your dominance and hold the turtle still while you continue the butchering.
¯    It is now time to disembowel the animal. Reach inside the open belly with your hand and pull out the large intestine. Although the animal is small, it still has a lot of large intestine that could be quite full. Tear out the innards and put them aside for later preparation.
¯    Continue cutting out pieces of the animals living tissue. The liver, bladder, and the rest of the intestines should be pulled out of the body cavity.
¯    At this point, blood will begin to spill out into the shell of the turtle. Scoop the blood out with your hand and put it into the pot. If you allow too much blood to accumulate in the body cavity, it will be difficult to see what you are working with.
¯    The next part is rather tricky. It is time to remove the hearts. Yes, these turtles have two hearts. One for the water, one for the air. When you attempt this critical procedure, the turtle will struggle intensely. It will squirm and shake with all its might in its final death throws. Cut the veins and arteries that connect the hearts and yank them out.
¯    WARNING: The absence of a heart still wont kill the turtle, its lungs will still be moving and its muscles will still be twitching. Although the cutting began almost fifteen minutes ago, the turtle will most assuredly still be alive.
¯    Sever the muscles along the back flippers and cut off the hind legs. Try to make the cut so that the two back legs are still attached to the tail. There are bones that connect these pieces, so it should be easy to keep it intact in one piece. However, separating the tail and legs from the body and shell can be difficult.
¯    Continue separating the tissue along the side of the turtle and work your way up towards the front flippers. The front flippers are larger and take more work to pull off.
¯    The chest area around the lungs contains the highest quality meat, so be careful about where you cut. Pull out all this meat.
¯    The last step is to behead the carcass. It will take a chopping motion with the knife to snap the bone that connects the head to the shell. Once the head is severed, the turtle can finally be pronounced dead.
¯    All of the turtle pieces should be placed in a large pot along with all of the blood. The large intestine can be placed in a separate container.
¯    Chop the meat into small pieces and do your best to separate it from skin and bone. Put the pieces back into the pot of blood.
¯    WARNING: the heart and chest tissue might still be twitching even after they are removed. The animal is cut into little pieces, but the pieces still don’t know that they are dying. They will still pulsate and throb with life.
¯    Slice the long intestine lengthwise and pull out the excrement. We don’t want to eat the stuff inside, but we do want to eat the intestinal lining. Wash the intestine with water and cut into small pieces.
¯    The throat of the turtle is a long tube that is lined on the inside with tentacle like protrusions. It looks like a floppy piece of coral inside the neck. Chop this up and put it with the intestines.
¯    Put all the chopped pieces into the pot of blood. Add a little bit of water, some garlic, a half a onion and cover it with the turtle shell.
¯    Cook for half an hour on an open flame.
¯    Pour into bowls and enjoy with a fresh chunk of pounded breadfruit!

A Smelly & Sloppy Crab Search

One of the only island food-gathering activities that I hadn’t participated in was crab catching. There are red crabs that wander around on the sea floor and pick at chunks of coral and debris, but I’ve been told that many of these types are poisonous and we have to be very careful about catching them. There are also humungous coconut crabs that scurry in the shadows and munch on coconuts. These are the largest land invertebrates on the planet and are also the only animal besides a human that can open a coconut. However, my crab hunting expedition was focused on finding the small brown mangrove crabs.
Mangrove crabs live in the mangrove forests. Their existence is spent scouring the mucky swamps and salty sands to find tiny pieces of food. They make hundred of holes down by the seashore and have created a vast system of tunnels. Most of them are about the size of a baseball, but some can be larger than a grapefruit. Their coloration is mostly brown, but they also have shades of red, white and purple on the underbellies. These crabs have 4 sets of legs on either side of their bodies that stick out like a spider. Most have one large pincer claw and one smaller claw. Their eyes stick up from their bodies and they have tiny mouths under their hard carapace.
Chuukese people usually cook the crabs in a soup. Sometimes they mix it with coconut milk, and other times they just let the crab create its own tasty juices. The body of the crab actually has the majority of the meat, because the legs and claws are rather scrawny. They don’t taste like Alaskan King crab legs, but they are still a yummy treat.
The best time to catch crabs is at nighttime in the mangrove forest after a rainy day. When there is a heavy rain, the crab holes fill up with fresh water and the crabs venture out from their homes to search for food. My friend Ainer and I went down to mangroves on a cloudy Thursday night to see if we could snag a few. We brought flashlights and an empty rice bag. We didn’t need nets or spears or hooks, our hands would do the job.
I was giddy with excitement as we made our way into the forest. I was hoping to see crabs scurrying about in every shadow and racing across the mangled roots of the trees. From my experience in the sea, I knew that the night brought out a whole new cast of characters and entirely changed the environment that I have been accustomed to during the day. I was also looking forward to have another chance to marvel at the intricate root systems of the mangrove trees and observe the unique area where marine and terrestrial ecosystems collide.
Unfortunately, the crabs decided not to go out for their nightly stroll. We walked for almost an hour and didn’t see a single crab. We jumped over tree stumps, tight rope walked over water on twisted roots, and carefully trudged through muddy quagmires. A couple of times, I saw a crab right before he retreated into the darkness of his hole. I was dismayed by the lack of crabs, but I tried to take solace in the beauty of the midnight saunter.
We sat down for a while and thought about giving up and heading back with no crabs. But then we figured we might as well give it one more shot and go deeper into the forest. Our walk continued for another half hour before we got to a shallow puddle that was about 40 feet across. Ainer thought this was a good spot to find crabs and urged me to push forward.
The ground ahead of me was no longer brown dirt, but instead looked like grayish sand with about a centimeter of water on the top. I took one step on the grayish mud and sssquisshh, I sunk down to my knees in muddy sand. I wrenched my foot out of the muck and took another step, but again sunk knee deep into the sludge. I pulled out my other foot, but no sandal was attached to it. I had to stick my hand down into brown ooze and fish around for my $1 sandal. After about 5 or 6 slow steps, I finally got my foot on a root and pulled myself out of the quicksand. Ainer told me to just take off my sandals and go barefoot. I listened to his advice and didn’t put my shoes back on until we left the forest.
We walked around the edge of this puddle and slid deep into the soft mud more than once. I was constantly scanning everywhere around me to look for a sign of a crab, but so far I was shit out of luck. Then my light hit something bright and it reflected a shiny whiteness from behind buttressed root! My heart lit up with excitement, and I trudged over to see if it was a crab. My enthusiasm was soon crushed when I noticed that it wasn’t a crab, but rather the edge of a decaying diaper that was sinking in the mud.
As our trek through the mosquito infested swamp continued, we didn’t find many crabs, but we found plenty of diapers. Dozens of diapers. The white baby poop receptacles were bloated with water and looked like rotten marshmallows that had been dunked in a bucket of diarrhea. The mud splattered pink clouds and blue teddy bears that adorned the diapers didn’t do much to brighten their appearance.
Our motivation towards crab hunting was greatly curtailed by the piles of pungent poopy panties that floated by our feet. It wasn’t too appetizing to think of eating a crab that had been feasting on the decaying feces of our village babies.
We did end up snagging a few crabs on our way out and didn’t leave entirely empty handed. To catch a tiny crab like this, the trick is to approach it from behind. You must grab its lower abdomen between your thumb and forefinger, and try to keep your fingers out of the way of its angry claws. I only caught one.
I returned with my single crab and fervidly scrubbed myself from head to toe. I cleaned myself to the best of my ability and tried to sterilize the poop and mud that had seeped into my pores. Needles to say, I am considering retiring from my crab catching career and moving on to other forms of food gathering that don’t involve diapers.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

My Little Sister's Little Visit (Part 1)

My roller coaster of a summer was capped off by a wonderful visit from my younger sister Jenna. She is only 16 years young, but was ready to head off by herself and adventure around the world. Our family has always joked about how she is overly mature for her age, and this trip proved that she was indeed responsible and shrewd beyond her years. She traveled all by herself through Hawaii, Guam, and Japan to make this trip to see her big brother. She trudged through muddy roads, hiked through dense jungle, descended to the depths of the ocean, slept on hard floors, munched on fish heads, learned a new language, and endured everything with a smile on her face. Jenna had taken a fair amount of family trips to fun places around North America, but nothing compared to this trek to the middle of the Pacific. I don’t know whether or not it could be classified as a “life-changing” experience for her, but it was most assuredly a two-week stint that she will remember for the rest of her life. I think she decided to embark on this journey for a few reasons: to see something different from suburbia Irvine, to hang out with me, to experience a new lifestyle, to scuba dive, and to have some good material to write a kick-ass college essay.
Jenna walked off the plane and into the humid air of Chuuk early on a Monday morning. The airport has a movable staircase for unloading the plane, and the passengers disembark in plain view of everybody. Jenna was the last person off the plane and mistakenly walked the wrong way on the runway. She was chased down by an airport attendant, who showed her the proper path through the doors. I spotted my little sister through a chain link fence and was amazed to see how much she changed. My first thought was, “ O wow, my older sister Julie decided to come instead!” Since the last time I saw her, she had her braces removed and has continued to grow into a beautiful young lady. I was awestruck about how much she resembled her older sister. I laughed because she was clad in tight yoga pants and a hoodie jacket, not exactly island wear. I leaned against the rusty chain link fence and bid hello to Jenna as she stood in line for customs. We were both so excited to see each other and our faces lit up with delight.
My Peace Corps friends and I covered her in shell and flower necklaces. I think we had about 10 necklaces to adorn our new guest with. I threw her big black bag on my shoulder and we started our two-block walk to the Peace Corps office. Her bag had rolling wheels, but those would do no good on the muddy roads of Weno. Carrying it on the shoulder was the only way to go. We strolled in the hot sun towards our office and Jenna got her first peak of decrepit Weno. However, the crumbling buildings, piles of rubble, and sloppy walkways didn’t seem to faze her at all. She didn’t even comment.
The first night we headed down to the far end of the island to stay at the fanciest hotel in Chuuk, the Blue Lagoon Resort. There are only 3 hotels in all of Chuuk, and Blue Lagoon takes the cake as the nicest. It is the only place with an authentic island atmosphere. It has rows of palm trees spread over fields of green grass that stand adjacent to a small sandy beach. The property juts out on a small peninsula and is surrounded by ocean on all sides. Our room had a fantastic view of the lagoon waters and the outlines of the tiny islands that spread across the horizon. We were only about 50 feet from the ocean and had a nice patio to enjoy our relaxing environment.
Our main purpose in staying at Blue Lagoon was to do some serious scuba diving. I have been in Chuuk for almost a year now and still have not experienced its world famous scuba diving. I haven’t had the time or money, but the visit of my little sister was a proper occasion to finally get down under the sea and see the mysterious ship wrecks from WWII. We were eager start scuba diving, but we decided to wait a couple days before we began our underwater adventures. A couple of my Peace Corps friends were still around and we thought it might be a good idea to take a hike with them.
The following morning, we awoke and prepared for what we expected to be a mild walk to another end of the island. We were planning on going to Xavier High School. Xavier is the most prestigious high school in all of Micronesia, and students come from all over the Pacific to attend. It is the crown jewel of Chuuk and stands on a hill by itself overlooking the lagoon. The school and its neighboring Japanese lighthouse are some of the main tourist attractions in our state, and we figured we should check it out.
One of my other Peace Corps friends told us that the walk from Blue Lagoon to Xavier would only take about 90 minutes. We planned on departing in the late morning and being back well before dark. We would simply saunter through the jungle and be back in time for a late lunch. Wellll, being in Chuuk we should have remembered that nothing ever goes to plan. The walk was not a simple 90 minute stroll.
We left the resort and started our trek on the muddy streets towards Xavier. The roads in this part of town were even more deteriorated than in the downtown area. The street was skinnier and no construction work was being done to renovate their crumbling remains. The roads were covered in water and we walked ankle deep through puddles for a mile of so, but fortunately it was less muddy and more watery than most of the roads in Weno. The road continued to get skinnier until it resembled the rocky remains of the road on my home island of Fefan. A road had been built out of coral chunks 25 years ago, and no maintenance had been done since the late 80’s. It was walkable, but it was hard to imagine how a car could traverse these stretches.
As we continued our walk, the surroundings became more rural and less polluted. I was pleasantly surprised to see this side of Weno. My picture of Weno is garbage filled mud holes with grafitti covered fences. But this side of Weno was much nicer. Well not nicer economically. But nicer in its feel. It was more like the rural islands of the lagoon where we live. The jungle was still alive and the people lived off the land. Small streams trickled under the road and short waterfalls fell from the rocky cliffs. Locals were collecting taro and carrying their produce back to their thatch meeting houses. It was refreshing for me to realize that not all of Weno had lost its traditional lifestyle.
Our path dwindled, the forest became denser and before we knew it there were no more houses to be seen. We had entered the only uninhabited coastal region of Weno island. This little stretch of intact forest only went for a few miles and there were dozens of paths that winded through its streets. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t know which of those paths to take. We tried to stay on a straight route, but there were some forks in the road and we took a wrong turn somewhere. At one point, the path took us directly into a barbed wire fence. We were confused about the fence because we could see that it only stretched for about 100 yards and didn’t enclose anything. We disregarded the warning and tiptoed our way around the edge.
We were gaining elevation and the path was getting worse with every step. Our feet were sludging through mud and the backs of our sandals were splattering the wet dirt all over our backs. More and more forks in the road came into view and we had lost confidence about which way to take. My friend Dan wanted to climb higher and I wanted to head downwards. We followed his direction for a while, until we came to a clearing and realized that we were at least a mile from the shore. At this point, he yielded to my urgings and we slid our way down the mountain. We came down to flat land again, but this area was a boggy marsh. There were pathways through the muck, but there was no way to avoid the mud. We squished our way through the mangrove roots and finally came to solid ground.
After an hour or two of wandering through the soggy forest, we emerged back into civilization. We walked through some local front yards and the people stared at us in wonder. We were covered in mud and looked like a confused bunch of dirty Americans who had just popped out from a mysterious journey. Well, we were a confused bunch of dirty Americans who had just popped out from a mysterious journey.
A man approached us and talked to us about where we were going, he happily told us that we only had about 2 minutes until we reached Xavier. Jenna’s spirits were lifted and we picked up our pace towards our destination. After about 15 minutes, Jenna asked how come we weren’t there yet. I laughed and told her that the man’s 2 minute prediction meant absolutely nothing. Two minutes in Chuuk can mean anywhere between 30 seconds and 1 hour. Time is all relative.
Finally, after three and half hours of walking, we arrived at the Xavier High School Campus. We met up with our JVI volunteer friends who were teachers at the school. They fed us a meal of PB&J with salad. Our faulty planning did not include a meal plan. Luckily, we had friends.
We went to the roof of the school and looked over to the peninsula where the Japanese lighthouse stood. It would have been about a 45-minute walk (in real time) to get to the lighthouse. We calculated our timing and figured that we wouldn’t have enough time to get back to Blue Lagoon before dark. We walked all this way and didn’t even have time to see the main attraction.
Our friends told us that there was a shuttle bus that drops the students off at their houses around the island, and we could hitch a ride back to Blue Lagoon. We had a couple hours to kill while waiting for the bus, so we took a tour of the school campus. It truly was a great school and deserves its place at the top of Micronesian academic institutions. The main building is a former Japanese communication center, so the walls are about 2 feet thick and it has huge steel doors. There is a giant grass field and a couple of outdoor basketball courts. They have dorms, a church and houses for the teachers to live in. Local houses representing each island state are built along the cliffside overlooking the ocean. And a wooden chapel with trellised walls points out to the blue waters of the pacific. It looks like the coolest place on earth to go to church.
As the sun descended in the sky towards its final resting place behind the silhouetted islands, we hopped in the back of a pick-up truck and began our trip back to the hotel. We drove the opposite way from whence we walked, so we got to circumnavigate the island of Weno. It was my first time seeing the far side of the island, and once again I was surprised by the difference from the main part of Weno. On this northern side, the road was nice! It was paved with black pavement and our car drove faster than 8 mph. It reminded me more of Pohnpei and less of Chuuk.
We finally got back to our hotel after dark and passed out quickly. We were exhausted from our hike around the island. It was much more of an expedition than we expected and we didn’t get to accomplish everything that we wanted, but nonetheless it was a great time. I finally got to see all of Weno, and Jenna got a full introduction to the geography, lifestyle and sites of Chuuk.
On our second morning, Jenna and I woke up and got ready for a day of scuba diving. We were planning on doing 2 dives down to the shipwrecks at the bottom of Chuuk Lagoon. Towards the end of WWII, the Japanese navy was pulling its ships back towards their homeland and Americans were crushing their forces along the way. Many of Japan’s warships had retreated to a safe base in the Chuuk Lagoon. This lagoon was the headquarters of the Japanese Navy at this point in the war. Dozens of ships, planes and bases were scattered in the calm waters of this remote lagoon. The Chuuk Lagoon was a seemingly impenetrable fortress. It was encircled with a coral reef fence and had only a few easily-defendable passes. It could not be attacked by water. Unfortunately for the Japanese and fortunately for the US, we had other ways of attacking besides with ships.
On back to back days in late 1944, the Americans undertook “Operation Hailstorm”. We dropped tons and tons of bombs all over the lagoon. The US airforce destroyed the bases on Tonoas, Weno and Etten. We sunk the majority of the ships and crippled the Japanese Navy. This battle hasn’t retained fame like Okinawa and Guadalcanal, but its significance should not be underestimated. After this point, the Japanese were crippled beyond repair and the war effort diminished thereafter.
56 ships and a few planes now lie at the bottom of the shallow Chuuk Lagoon. These war remains have served as breeding grounds for blooms of coral and throngs of fish. Sunken ships are the ideal places for sea life to thrive, and the ships in Chuuk are no exception. It has the largest collection of shipwrecks in the world and is renowned as the best shipwreck scuba diving in the world.
Jenna and I were lucky enough to have the chance to see this underwater cemetery of Japanese war wreckage. We are both inexperienced divers, but we both have our PADI certifications from when we took a trip to Jamaica a few years ago. I reviewed a few of the basic techniques with Jenna and we were ready to go. We rented some gear and got on a boat to dive down and see the ships.
All of the ships we saw were between 40 and 100 feet below the surface. Each one of them were enormous vessels that used to be cargo ships or war boats seventy years ago. Immediately as we pointed our heads downwards and descended into the dark depths, we were greeted by the immensity of the shrouded ships on the sea floor. I slowly floated down to the ships dock and began my journey of exploring this morbid underwater museum. The coral was more fabulous than any other I had seen before. Purple tipped fingers with translucent tentacles sprouted from railings, orange and pink striped leaves flopped with the current on the deck, electric blue worms dangled from the doorways. The colors and variety of the coral outcroppings is beyond description. I cannot even begin to describe all the wondrous variety of shapes, colors, and types of plantlike animal growths that covered the decaying remains of the ship. Red rimmed bowls with yellow bubbles clumped along the rusted poles, orange and green webs of interconnected strings stretched across the walkways, a pile of blue spaghetti noodles laced over a yellowish brainy lump of polyps. Everywhere I looked, I saw more fabulous and unbelievable types of coral. We were in an alien forest of underwater foliage. The best science fiction writers couldn’t describe a more fantastic and otherworldly environment. The random crayon doodles of a bored student and the wild imaginary creatures of Dr. Seuss were thrust into reality in a wonderful display of life on board this ancient ship.
The coral bouquets were magnificent, but they were only one of the attractions to this deep-sea amusement park. The fish were the actors in the show. And the show was overcrowded with a wild cast of characters. Giant orange fish with purple spots wandered through the ships wreckage, rainbow colored fish with parrot beaks pecked at the algae on the coral clumps, flat black fish with orange and blue lines traipsed through the water. The fish were not only huge in size, but also huge in number. Schools of silver mackerel spun circles around our heads, groups of pointy nosed blue fish darted back and forth, and crowds of shimmering brown skinned swimmers danced in the clear waters. A giant dog-toothed tuna came within inches of my face and reared its ugly fangs at us as it passed. A gigantic spotted blowfish lazily floated underneath an old pipe. Three eagle rays glided past us and twirled around the towers of the ship.
I was impressed with the beauty of the fish, but I have to admit that only one thought was running through my mind the whole time I was down there….I wish I had my spear! This would have been the best spear fishing of my life. I could have come back with a hundred fish as big as my forearm. Not only were there thousands of large fish down here, but they weren’t scared like the fish on the surface. Up on the top levels, a fish feels the vibrations of my swimming and darts away before I can get with 20 feet of him. But down here it’s different. Nobody fishes for these guys. They have no fear. They will swim right in from of my face and barely react when I reach out to grab them. If I had a spear down there one time, I could feed my village for a month.
The flocks of exotic fish and collections of reef growth were truly amazing, but the real reason for diving in the Chuuk Lagoon is to see the eerie graveyard of Japanese war remains. The ships themselves are quite a site to behold. The multi-leveled decks, cargo holds, thick towers, anti-aircraft guns, engine rooms, and living quarters all hold dozens of fascinating antiques to admire. There are artifacts left scattered all over the surface of the ship. We saw wine glasses & bottles, shoes, typewriters, plates, knives, forks, bowls, tables & chairs, and even a human femur bone. These left over items can be found all over the ship in corners or sometimes right out in the open.
To see the real details of the wreckage, you have to go into the hull of the ship. Into the dark recesses of the mysterious cemetery. We followed the flashlight of our guide and delved deeper into the Japanese mausoleum. In the dark rooms of the ship, the only light you can see is from the beam of the underwater flashlight. Everything else is pitch black except for the narrow area illuminated by the light. Inside the rooms, there are many decaying artifacts and objects to inspect. All types of war materials and standard living supplies are still scattered around. A cleaning crew hasn’t come through to tidy up in about 70 years, so everything is left exactly as it was when the bombs struck and the ships sunk.
In one of the ships, it seemed like each one of the rooms was a breeding ground for tiny fish. I do not know what type of fish there were, but I do know that were a seemingly infinite amount of them. Little guppies smaller than a pinky finger crowded the darkness of the rooms. Walls of tiny fish impenetrable by the eye were blocking all the doorways and window. Millions upon millions of these baby fish surrounded us on all sides when we entered the gloomy rooms.
We touched 20-foot guns and looked at the remnants of the powerful engines. We swam through a gaping hole caused by a torpedo and entered into a large cargo hold that contained 4 airplanes. The ship was so big that airplanes were inside it! The gas masks of the pilots were still in the cockpits and most of the glass was cracked or missing.
Unfortunately, we did not have an underwater camera, so I cant show you evidence of these breathtaking shipwrecks. You are just gonna have to take my word that they were amazing. Or you can come see for yourself. Thousands of dead bodies, dozens of ships, and millions of sea creatures are waiting for your prying eyes.
I mentioned this once before in my blog and I encourage you to watch the video about the imminent disaster that is awaiting these ships and the Chuuk Lagoon. The hulls of the ships are corroding quickly and are on the verge of collapsing. When this happens, millions of barrels of oil will spill into the pristine lagoon waters. It has been estimated that it could be larger than the BP oil spill. The ships will be destroyed, the reefs will whither away, the fish will die and the people of Chuuk will suffer horribly. Experts have predicted that this event will take place sometime between 2010-2015. Already, oil has begun to leak from the ships. They say that the real danger is when a typhoon or big storm hits, this could be the straw that breaks the camels back. All of the oil could come gushing out at once and become one of the biggest natural disasters in human history. So, hopefully we can do something about it before its too late…..

My Little Sister's Little Visit (Part 2)

The second phase of Jenna’s vacation here in Micronesia was to see “real life” conditions of how islanders live. We were going to venture from the cushy hotel comforts and spend a week with my host family on Fefan Island. Jenna has grown up in affluent conditions with little difficulties in her life; she hadn’t ever experienced anything like what she was about to see. However, I was confident that she would be able to handle the poverty stricken foreign environment with respect and humility. She had been on plenty of camping trips, so she knew how to rough it for a few days. My brother and I have assured that she was raised up as a tough and tumble girl, so I figured she could pretty much handle anything. She’s a smart little cookie, and my general philosophy has always been that she can do anything that I can do.
A strange language, conservative cultural expectations, weird food and poor living conditions were awaiting her at my site; but nonetheless she was excited to see a new type of existence. I briefed her on a few things to be prepared for and taught her a few basic Chuukese words. She had a supply of ankle length skirts and sleeved shirts so that she would stay under the radar and keep in line with the conservative Christian customs that permeate our society. She had recently acquired a taste for fish, so the seafood options weren’t intimidating for her. The idea of sleeping on the ground and taking bucket showers also didn’t seem to bother her. In fact, she didn’t seem to be worried about anything. She was ready.
On our half hour boat trip back to my island, the wind picked up quickly and rain clouds came hovering our way. We hurriedly put Jenna’s luggage inside trash bags and protected it from the rain. We skipped along the white-capped waves in our tiny boat and weaved through the swells of ocean that came barreling towards us. The rain clouds above us turned on their faucets and unloaded a flood of showering droplets. The salty sea splashed in our eyes and the rainwater drenched our backs. Eventually, our boat arrived at the crumbling concrete dock of Ununo village and we stepped onto the solid ground of my island abode.
Although it was pouring rain, we were greeted by a flurry of eager young children who were chomping at the bit to meet my American guest. Following their usual manner, they were all too shy to introduce themselves to Jenna, but they all watched closely and giggled as she plodded her way up towards my house. We passed the rusted crane remains on the dock and entered through the towering coconut tree corridor that lines my coral encrusted pathway. The rain slowed its heavy drip and we continued winding our way into the jungle where my house sat on the edge of a small hillside.  Curious eyes and whispering voices chattered through the town as we approached my house.
Jenna and I climbed up the rock staircase and crossed the threshold into my family’s property, Nomwekiin. She glanced at the shabby remains of my once fruitful garden and noticed the palm thatched local house that sat in our front yard. We entered into the dryness of my household and Jenna was introduced to the rest of my host family. All of the kids were too shy to say hello, except the little baby, who uttered in a tiny voice “Helwo, Im Mary”. My other sisters would soon overcome their shy nature and become virtually obsessed with everything that Jenna did or said.
We ate a meal of chicken, rice and lot of local foods. Jenna got to try her first taste of breadfruit. During the next week, I think she ate breadfruit prepared in 5-6 different ways. In addition, she tasted bananas that were cooked in 7-8 various styles. Breadfruit and bananas are the main staples of our diet, so they are quite creative in making tasty combinations of varied consistency and coconut milk mixtures. Jenna was gastronomically adventurous enough to try everything that was put in front of her. She wasn’t a big fan of the breadfruit & taro, but I think she enjoyed the bananas and fish.
Luckily, in Micronesia its not necessary to finish everything on your plate. It is proper manners to try anything that is given to you, but it is entirely ok not to finish it all. Oftentimes for new guests, it is impossible to finish the entire mound of food that is thrust in their face upon first arrival. For Chuukese, the best way to show hospitality is an abundance of food; so as a result, half a dozen plates piled with food are placed in front of the guest when they arrive. However, leftover food never goes to waste here. Either someone will happily grub your extra food or it will be fed to the pig/dog. No waste, its all eaten by someone or something.
The next day, we just relaxed around my house and she got to know the family. Jenna has a knack for playing with kids, and all the children of the community immediately fell in love with her. Her biggest attraction was bracelet making. She brought a large supply of colorful strings to weave bracelets with. At her job in America, she works as a camp counselor and has taught hundreds of young kids to make bracelets, anklets and necklaces. At first the kids were slightly hesitant, but once they saw how easy it was and how cool the finished product was, they all wanted to make one. And when I say all, I really mean all. Not just all the kids in my family, all the kids in the village. Within a day, word had spread about the wonders of Jenna bracelet making. By the second night, there were 10 kids at our house. On the third night, more than 15 came knocking at the door. As the week wore on, fully-grown adults and teenage boys even came by to weave jewelry for themselves. Jenna was putting on a full-blown clinic. Every night, a new group of enthusiastic children would come to our house with a plate of bananas or a bag of fish as a gift. They would timidly ask if they could also be allowed to make a bracelet, and we would happily let them into our weaving circle.
Bob Marley and Rastafarian style is extremely popular here in Micronesia and the majority of the kids wanted to make bracelets of red, yellow and green. Jenna would ask what colors they wanted to use, and their impatient voices would yell, “ I want Bob Marley!” She eventually ran out of those colors and had to convince the kids to try different color combinations. Jenna not only taught these kids to make their own jewelry, but she also helped them speak English. In order to be given the materials for bracelet or necklace making, the kid would have to ask in English, “Please, I want to make a bracelet/necklace/anklet.” Her bracelet classes were extremely popular and I am sure she will be remembered for years by the youth of Fefan.
On Sunday, we took a walk through the other villages in my UFO triad on our way to church. I live in Ununo, and the other villages are Fongen and Onongoch. Together we make the community of UFO. The church is at the far end of the far village and it takes about 45 minutes to get there. Jenna strutted along in her gaudy purplish Mumu and had a chance to see the other houses and villages of my island. Our church is an amazing site to behold on top of its hill overlooking the ocean. Its shimmering white face reflects the sun out towards the crystal clear blue waters of the lagoon. The islands of Faichuk point their smooth curves above the horizon and create a beautiful backdrop to this mammoth religious edifice.
Later that afternoon, we went down towards my dock and played a few games of volleyball. Our court is a small section of the coral road that is the only spot wide enough to string a net across. The ground is uneven and rocky, and the haggard pieces of a net are strung across the road attached to palm trees flanking the court. The conditions of play aren’t ideal, but its still a lot of fun. We lost a couple of times and then went down to the edge of the dock and sat on the grass to watch the sunset. We gazed at the expanse of blue ocean and absorbed the beauty of our tropical surroundings.
The following day, we decided to undertake a serious journey. We were going to attempt to walk around my entire island. Fefan is a very small chunk of land, but it is one of the largest islands in Chuuk. So circumnavigating it on foot is one of the longest walks that anyone can do in the entire state. I had gone “pwen ni fenu”/”around the island” once before when I first arrive here (I think there is already a blog about it, so I wont go into too much detail).
The walk took about 6 hours, so my estimate is that the circumference of the island is about 12 miles. We passed through all four major village centers on the corners of the island: UFO, Fanhip, Sapore, and Sapota. I climbed a few trees, scampered on some large boulders and marched my way along the worn road that goes around the island. Supposedly, this road was once navigable by automobile in its entirety. But those days are long gone. Now it takes a stretch of the mind to imagine a car traversing these narrow rocky pathways. However, there are fairly easily conquered by walking.
On the far end of the island, we played for a while on the red sand beaches. Legend has it that these beaches used to be white, but a huge battle took place at this location and stained the sand with the blood of fallen Chuukese warriors. Our walk took us by monstrous mangos, gnarly rooted mangroves, towering breadfruits, picturesque bananas and droopy-vined banyan type trees. We saw dilapidated tin shacks, colorfully painted concrete houses, and palm frond huts. The coast was lined with either dense swarms of dark mangroves, peaceful strips of white sand, or black rock walls that separated the lush green land from the turquoise sea.  The street was full of naked children, sweaty one-toothed men, and plump tottering woman; as well as mangy snarling dogs, skinny oinking pigs and tiny multicolored lizards. We got to enjoy the full diversity of my island paradise and see just about everything that it has to offer.
A couple days later, we did another strenuous hike to top of the mountain. In previous blogs, I have already described this trek through the jungle to the grassy fields at the summit, so I wont go in detail about every facet of the walk. As I mentioned at previous times, hiking in my jungle is not a walk in the park. It is not a leisurely stroll on a manicured path. It is a backbreaking climb through dense tropical rain forest. It should be more aptly called trail-blazing rather than hiking, because most of the time we are not on a trail. I have been to top of the mountain more than 10 times, but I have never taken the same path on my ascent. Random lines of pre walked ground and trampled underbrush are often visible, but many times we are hacking with a machete through walls of bush to take every step.
The difficulty level of the hike varies every time that I climb the mountain, and luckily this particular one fell right in the middle. It was an arduous journey with wrong turns, slippery rocks and thick plants in our faces; however we didn’t come home with bloody legs, exhausted limbs, and mud spattered cheeks. It was demanding enough to present a tough challenge for Jenna, but it was easy enough to be enjoyable and lighthearted.
My good friend and trusted forest guide, Ainer, led us up to the mountain on this sunny afternoon. We were also followed by four 10-year old kids and my faithful dog that never leaves my side. We slashed through vines, jumped over roots, treaded on grass, ducked below branches and slowly roamed our way towards the peak of our tropical summit. We stopped a couple times to drink coconuts and look out through the jungle canopy to see the sparkling blue water below.
After about 2 hours of hiking, we finally emerged into sunlight at the grassy field on the mountain. From this vantage point, we were blessed with one of the most fantastic views ever seen by mankind. The entire 40 mile circle of the lagoon reef could be seen on this clear afternoon. Dozens of tiny emerald islands were spotted across the vast blue sea. We sat down and let the breathtaking beauty seep into our souls.
The color constrasts of sky, ocean and land were overwhelming to the senses. Jenna and I started at one end of our viewpoint and counted all the different shades of blue that we could see in the water. We stopped counting when we got to more than 10. I don’t think that Crayola has even been creative enough to make up silly names for the hues of blue that were shown in this ocean landscape. Jenna remarked how this was firm proof to her that the ocean was not just “blue”. The ocean was hundreds of blues, greens and everything in between.
And the ocean was only one aspect of the heavenly panorama that stretched before us. The swirling of clouds and variations of color in the sky was equally amazing. Usually, you have to lie on your back and look upwards to see the clouds, and all you can see is the type of fluffy cloud that is directly above your head. When you have an unimpeded ocean expanse in front of you, the sky becomes a whole new wonderland to explore with the eye. There are no buildings, or mountains, or trees to block your site. The horizon can be seen in all directions. Just by gazing outwards, you can see several layers of different kinds of clouds that whirl together in an artistic display of milky white splotches. The vast displays of assorted cloud types are best viewed during a pink & orange sunset, but even during the daytime they are an amazing site to behold.
The concoction of blues in the water and the twirling cloud levels in the sky are stunning, but personally I am charmed by the endless assortment of diverse plants & trees. I love to sit and look at the thick mat of thriving life that covers every inch of our tropical islands. Once again, when you look closely you will notice that the forest is not just green. It is a myriad of greens and browns that meld together in a magnificent display of verdant coloration. The numbers of colors is almost equivalent to the number of living creatures that call the forest home. Wait, no. That is probably a lie. There is a lot of stuff living in these forests.
Whenever I take the time to simply watch the trees and concentrate what’s happening, I am always surprised by the inordinate amount of activity that is taking place in their branches and leaves. Thousands of bugs, birds and lizards are twittering about their daily business on these forest giants. The creative growth patterns and wide range of appearances continue to fascinate my imagination. The jungle is booming with life and if you really pay attention, you catch a glimpse of whats really happening in this biological micro-universe.
After enjoying the Pacific panoramic for a while, we started our journey downwards. The return trip from the top is always easier for two reasons. It is downhill and it’s a hell of lot easier to find the path. We got back home and plopped on the cool floor to relax our aching bodies. We had been pushing our bodies pretty hard the last week and were both physically exhausted. We went to bed early that night and spent the next couple of days lounging around my village.
I had some school responsibilities to take care of and had to attend a couple of meeting. It was no problem for Jenna to spend a few hours alone because she had already established such strong relationships with my host family. They all wanted to spend as much time as possible with Jenna and were constantly worried about when she was going to leave. She helped them speak English, played games with them and did all the little things that youngins like to do.
The last activity that we did was a walk through the mangrove forest. The main reason for going into the mangrove forest is to cut firewood or catch crabs. If you are not doing either of those things, its not too fun to hang out in. The swampy salt water is swarming with mosquitoes and the sloppy mud squeeges between your toes. It is a dark eerie marsh with scraggly trees that are home to millions of bugs. However, the reason why I like to go the mangroves is to look at the roots. The roots of mangrove trees are one of the most astounding things in the natural world. They can thrive in salt water and stick out above the ground. The base of the trees is usually suspended above the water and is held up by an upside down basket of enmeshed root systems. Their twisted fingers and tangled tails seem to be able to take any obscure form. The roots can be flat, tall, long, thick, skinny, straight, twisted and just about anything else that you can think of. They sometimes wrap together and form clumps of what looks like brown wart covered noodles that twirl in a pile. Other times they project upwards and form a bed of spiky sticks in the mud. These demented strands of wood are a natural oddity that never cease to arouse my curiosity and perk my interest in the mystery of biological world.
The only thing that we didn’t get to do on Fefan was go swimming. At this time, we were under the restriction of a cultural funeral observance that disallows fishing and swimming around our community. So unfortunately, Jenna never got a chance to swim on my island. Fortunately, they are some much better swimming spots in Chuuk. And fortunately for us, we were going to the best one.
I’ve told you about Pisar before. Pisar is the closest thing to heaven on earth that I’ve ever seen. Pisar is the place that you have a background picture of on your computer desktop with a palm tree hanging over a sandy beach. Pisar encompasses all things that a daydreaming mind thinks of when imagining a tropical island paradise. It is an isolated island with soft sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and comfortable hammocks. Its warm waters are overflowing with colorful fish and vibrant coral blooms encircle the far edges of the sandy sea floor.
I gathered some of my Peace Corps and JVI friends, and we planned a trip to spend a couple days out on our personal atoll. We bought some food, hopped on a boat, and motored out to the edge of the lagoon. The water was as smooth as could be and I sat on the bow of the boat and leaned over the front as we zoomed headlong into the beautiful blue ocean. During this hour of contemplation while scanning the seas, I had some personal revelations about how I want to live my live and what I want to do with my future. (but that description can wait for another time).
We slid into the shallow waters surrounding Pisar and I leapt out of the boat and pulled her up on the sand. We unloaded our stuff into the bungalow area and then set upon a rigorous schedule of relaxation and chillin. I took off my shirt and shoes when we arrived and vowed to not put them back on again; this has become a Pisar tradition for me that I hope to continue upon my future visits. We immediately dove into the water and waded around in the warm shallows until the sun began to drop behind the clouds. We all sat in knee deep water together and watched as the sky turned orange and the clouds lit up with reds and pinks. This was surely paradise. This was what most of you imagined Jenna would be doing while on vacation in Micronesia. This is what most of you wished you could be doing right now.
We snorkeled around the coral, did some spear fishing, and walked out to the crashing waves on the reef edge. We collected sea shells, climbed coconut trees and gazed at the stars at night. I lounged in an inner tube and let the current float me in a circle around the island. We did a lot, but at the same we did a lot of nothing. That’s the beauty of relaxation. And Pisar is the perfect place for relaxation.
Overall, I would say that Jenna’s trip was a smashing success. It was a refreshing change for me to see a loved one from home, and really gave me a new perspective on my life as a Peace Corps. We got to scuba dive and see unbelievable shipwrecks enshrined in arrays of colorful coral. We got to spend a week on my island and have my “real” family from home finally meet my “host” family from Chuuk. And we finished it all off with a relaxing picnic on an island of our own.
I cant tell you exactly what Jenna thought of the whole thing or what she enjoyed the most, but I am pretty sure she had a great time. What I can tell you is that she made an amazing impact in her short time here. My volunteer friends loved her and were impressed by how mature she acted the whole time. My family adored her and my community wont stop talking about her. My little host sister’s continue to mimic her actions and have already started arguing about who is going to be the first one to go visit Jenna in America some day.
Now my adventurous summer of island hopping, visitors coming and traveling has come to an end. Im back in school and concentrating on all my secondary projects. Im back to the life of a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia.