Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shitty Subtitles

A lot of the movies that I watch in Chuuk are pirated copies that can be bought in a package from an Indian store on Weno. These movies are usually videotaped versions from the theatres and have terrible sound and video quality. They also have subtitles that were obviously written by a half retarded translator with little understanding of the English language. Most of the time, the subtitles don’t even come close to matching the dialogue. The mismatch is often hilarious. Here are a few samples from Fast Five that I watched tonight:

Voice: You should break it off man
Subtitle: It is good to clean fishes

Voice: Your girl is way beautiful
Subtitle: She is less than lecherous

Voice: Thank you gentleman
Subtitle: Excuse me ladies

Voice: Watch out for her
Subtitle: You can take care with Viagra

Just a Spoonful of Sugar

I wish Chuukese people would watch Mary Poppins and hear her endearing song about how adding “just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine goes down”. I used to understand the lyrics as explaining that if you add a little bit of sugar, then the medicine will be tasty and easy to swallow. But the Chuukese need to take a different moral from the story. They need to realize that “just a spoonful” of sugar is enough. Not six.
I don’t think that anything I write down on this page will properly represent the enormous amounts sugar consumed in Chuuk. I would confidently make a wager with anyone that the state of Chuuk, particularly the people I know, have the highest per capita consumption of sugar in the world. Probably in the history of the world.
Sugar was not introduced to these islands until the modern era of colonization and I don’t know when it became so plentiful, but now it has become the mainstay of their diet. As opposed to many other tropical islands, there is very little sugar cane that grows here. Nonetheless they import it by the boatload. It overflows out of their drinks, cakes their counterops, sticks on their fingers and courses through their bodies. Sugar can be added to anything, and it often is.
Let me just throw out a few examples of sugar use that are commonplace in Chuuk. In most places it is quite normal to add some sugar to your coffee. Some people prefer one spoon and other prefer two. But in Chuuk, the average person will put somewhere between 4 and 7 heaping spoonfuls in a single cup of coffee. And the average adult will drink around 3 cups of coffee a day.
The overload of sugar in coffee is unhealthy, but understandable. What I cant quite wrap my head around is the insistence to never drink a glass of water that isnt clouded with mounds of sugar. My host family members will scoop the same half dozen spoonfuls of sugar into their water before gulping it down. They don’t do this to savor the taste, because water is almost never drank slowly. It is usually pounded down in a single gulp or two. The need for sugar is just normalized. I once saw my host brother spit out a sip of water from a glass that someone had brought him and yell in anger, “Met ei! ese wor suke”( “what is this! No sugar!”)
Sugar abundance can be problematic for adults, but the real issue that bothers me is with the kids. Kids have no limit on the amount of sugar they consume. Two year old babies drink coffee every morning, with the same ratio of sugar. My little host sister will throw a temper tantrum if you try to serve her water that isnt saturated in sugar. Candy is eaten at an amazing rate and shows up a lot more than you might expect in such a remote location.
The effects of this massive sugar eating bonanza are obvious throughout the community. The children of Chuuk are some of the cutest creatures on earth with their round features, big eyes and soft brown skin….until they open their mouths. The horrific portraits of children’s mouths are in stark contrast to their beautiful faces. Four year old kids have nothing but rotten brown stubs poking out from their gums. Black chunks of decomposing bone shards sit where their baby teeth should be. There is only a short period from about the ages of 8-20, where most people have a healthy set of teeth. At this stage, they have some of the most amazing smiles on the planet. Big white gems sparkle from their wide mouths. But eventually the sugar and betelnut wreak their havoc and turn mouths in blacken abysses of disgusting slosh with bits of fake gold spotted throughout.
The teeth are ugly to look at and put a stain on the beauty of these appealing islanders, but that is just aesthetic. The real problem is with diabetes. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that more than 50% of the adult women that I know have Type 2 diabetes. More than half of them! The men also have an alarmingly high rate, but the women are the real victims. Drinking the oil from tuna cans, using a centimeter thick pool of grease to cook a slice of Spam, and dousing everything in salt don’t help either; but the real killer is the sugar.
I teach a health class to my students and have been trying to bring the knowledge into their households, but I feel that it is to little avail. Really the entire purpose of teaching my health class to make them realize that sugar is fucking up their bodies. However, it is just too tasty. They know its bad, but they don’t stop. Ladies with diabetes go to the doctor and are told that they must control their sugar intake, but their habits don’t alter.
I am usually not very critical of the island folk here in Chuuk, but this is probably my biggest bone to pick with them. The sugar is over running their lives and its deleterious effects are creating a health epidemic.

Blowin' in the Wind

I am usually not a very big fan of the wind. In my experience, wind can do one of two things. When I am at home in Irvine, the only kind of wind that I get is the dusty Santa Ana drafts that blow through southern California every so often. These dry and arid breezes zip through my neighborhood, chapping my lips and blowing leaves around the yard. They don’t last long, and the only notable thing about them is that they provide a slight change in the mild and invariable climate. The other kind of wind that I know is a freezing mountain wind. This type of blustering current can chill me to the bone on a snowy day or force me to retreat early from a mountaintop vista. A little bit of rain or snow in the mountains is often refreshing and pleasant, but the wind is the kicker. When wind comes along, it ruins a good day of snowboarding or a hike through the woods.
But tropical wind is different. Tropical wind is a welcome friend that swings through the stifling heat and brings a much needed respite from the sweltering humidity. With no wind, the wet stagnant air seeps into your pores and covers you in a roasting blanket of miserable heat. A calm and clear day is often the worst kind of weather in tropical areas. No clouds to cover the sun and no wind to keep the air circulating creates a blistering sauna that sucks your energy out and leaves you as a lazy blob melting into the moist ground.
When the wind comes, a gust of vitality sweeps through the islands and animates the peaceful equilibrium. The palm trees sway their fluttering fronds on top of the wavering stilts that lean over the shoreline. The sea stirs and small white crests of waves slap against the oncoming breeze. Every animal and person is roused from their slumbering existence and energy flows through their veins.
One of my favorite things to do is to stand on the dock with my arms outstretched and stare into the face of the wind. It invigorates my spirit and provides a rare sensation….coolness. Wind is god’s air conditioning. We have no electricity here, so that means no fans, no air conditioning, no ice water, nothing cold at all. The only times that I have felt a glimmer of coldness have been when wind has been combined with wetness. I no longer fear or avoid the wind, now I have learned to embrace it with open arms and sweaty palms. Because after all, we all know that “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind

Lovers' Embrace

A few months ago, a fellow Peace Corps friend Ben came to visit with his brother Bill. They stopped by my classroom for the first period and made a guest appearance for the students. The timing was mostly good for a surprise visit, but there was one thing that they didn’t expect. At this particular time, my dog just so happened to be in heat.
            The scraggly white dog Vanilla came wandering into class as she often does, but this time she had a follower. A large black dog had been attracted by her pheromones and was close on her behind. I tried to shoo them out, but they just hid under the table. I decided to ignore their presence. However, their next action made this difficult to do.
            The black dog mounted Vanilla and started doing his rendition of bouncing on a pogo stick. Vanilla was not in the mood and tried to spin around and shake him off, but he was too firmly attached. They wriggled around on the floor in an awkward twist and then both stood up and faced away from each other. There was just one problem, they were still attached! These two dogs were now standing in the center of my classroom stuck together at their butts. His red rocket was firmly inside Vanilla and from this angle it was impossible to pull out. I didn’t know that this position was physically possible, but the visual evidence as a class demonstration was undeniably real.
Then they started to yelp and howl. We tried to get them outside, but in their tricky predicament they weren’t really able to walk. Nobody wanted to touch them, we just kind of hoped that they would pull apart.  We could all see what was going on, but nobody knew what to do about the situation. The students started giggling and we tried to move them out of the room and continue the lesson. We finally got them out, but their painful moans were still right outside the door. I tried to repress all laughter and go on with my teaching, but this was too much ridiculosity.  After the class period, I went outside and was dismayed to see that they were still stuck in their unfortunate embrace. It took more than an hour before the black dog finally dislodged and skulked off licking his wounds.

A Shack for a Shack

My host sister and her husband recently decided that they were going to move out of our house. We currently have 14 people living in our tiny abode and it is rather cramped. When space inside a household is overloaded, people usually don’t move too far. It would be unheard of for someone to move to another village or island. Land doesn’t work like that. Instead, they decided to renovate the ramshackled chicken coop that sits on the edge of our property. It is a partly concrete, partly corrugated tin house with metal screens and wooden doors. This is the standard type of house in Chuuk. However, this one was particularly shitty because nobody except chickens had ever called it home sweet home.
The first stage of renovation was demolition. This is by far the most fun part. I have always fantasized about going on a wrecking frenzy with a giant hammer on a car or old house. Well my dream finally came true. We tore the roofing off with crowbars and smashed the wooden framing to pieces. Most of the structure was already decomposing, so it crumbled into shards with a single strike of a hammer. I crushed pillars, pounded wooden beams and kicked down walls for an entire afternoon. It was glorious!

Man Overboard!

I took a quick boat trip across the strip of water that separates Parem island from Fefan. It was raining, but that wasn’t much of an impediment. The rain only effects daily business if it’s a torrential downpour. We dropped off our passengers and then leisurely motored around the channel between the two islands. My host brother BJ had a line with a couple lures hanging out the back of the boat to see if we could snag some fish. I sat on the front of the fiberglass boat and stretched myself over the prow. I was enjoying watching the clouds disperse and the sun burn its way through the grayness. You can see the horizon in all directions on the open ocean, so weather patterns unfold right before your eyes. As I was relaxing at the front of the boat imagining myself floating in the world of clouds above, the other guy at the back of the boat suddenly stood up. He put his sandals on his hands, casually said, “kene nomw” and then leaped off the moving motor boat. We were at least a mile from land, but apparently he felt like swimming. No land, no plan, no people, no worries. The carefree life of an islander. We sped away and watched as he turned into a little dot bobbing towards the shore on this peaceful rainy afternoon.

A New Twist on My Blog Style

I am going to attempt to write my blog posts in a slightly different style. Instead of spurting out long discourses about significant events that take place, I am gonna try to concentrate more on jotting down little anecdotes about random little things that happen in daily life. The shock and awe of living in Chuuk has worn off and I am not confronted by new and novel things around every corner. The adventure and discovery phase of my Peace Corps service has passed by and I have entered into a regular flow of things.
However, my regular flow of life is still starkly different from most people in the world and probably much different than anything you have ever imagined. The normality of my normal life is far from the standard definition of normal. Crazy and weird things happen every day. These are the things that really make my service special. I am going to do my best to write some down.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Little Taste of Culture

One of the biggest disappointments about my experiences here in Chuuk has been the lack of traditional culture that I hoped I would find. When I discovered that I was going to spend 2 years in one of the most remote locations on the planet, I kind of expected that the culture would also be remote and untouched. I thought I might be living in a grass hut, wearing a loincloth and listening to the rhythmic beat of tribal drums. I imagined women in coconut bras and men with painted faces and fish bones through their nose. To my dismay, I quickly found out that these ancient traditions are long forgotten and have been replaced by transplanted western practices. A chief no longer wears a colorful headdress and elaborate jewelry to important occasions. It is more common to wear a T-shirt with a marijuana leaf and 2pac’s face along with a pair of Nike sandals and a NY Yankees hat. Group singing and dancing are relatively commonplace, but have nothing to do with traditional island life. The only songs I hear are either praising Jesus or promoting thug life.
I cannot blame the local people for changing their lifestyles and I cannot blame the westerners for abolishing the old belief system. The locals are in search of a better life and the westerners are trying to provide it. Their ideals may be noble, but their actions are misguided in my opinion. It is questionable whether or not any of the outside “benevolent” influences have actually brought greater happiness to the islanders. Some things like small bits of health care and infrastructure have been helpful, but other things like imported food, dependence on money, and obsession with American style have had deleterious effects.
 In addition, Christianity has dismantled all pre-colonial beliefs and practices. Songs can no longer honor the ocean or the warrior. They can only be sung in praise of God and the Church. Conservative morality has made the showing of skin taboo and the old form of local clothing is non-existent. Despite the scorching sun and stifling humidity, the women wear ankle length skirts or dresses with their shoulders well covered. Even though the heat is suffocating, it is not acceptable for most men to walk around shirtless. I spend more time with a shirt on than in America and my skin has become a pasty white hidden under my clothes.
I could go on and on about things that have frustrated me about the loss of “traditional culture” and the implementation of “global culture”. And I don’t want to just blame the church. Food corporations, media, government and a myriad of other influences have done just as much to alter the lifestyle of these islands.  The people have accepted everything that has come their way in hope of attaining a higher level of happiness and life satisfaction, but I am not sure that it has had that effect. In my opinion, these isolated island people and their ecosystems might have been better off without the influx of the outside world.
My disillusioned spirits were brightened last weekend when I attended the Cultural Day at Xavier High School. The students at Xavier come from all over the greater Micronesian area of the Pacific and represent a wide variety of cultures. The point of the cultural day was for each group to showcase its traditions through the performance of dance. My fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I were invited by our Jesuit volunteer friends to attend the festivities. The main reason I was excited was to see the men’s Chuukese Stick Dance that I had heard rumors of. This dance is supposedly one of the only relics that remain alive from a bygone era, but I hadn’t heard or seen a trace of it during my 18 months in Chuuk.
We arrived at the campus right as the performances were beginning. First, a group of Japanese teachers and students did a circular dance portraying the acts of farming. Next, the Pohnpeian girls came in huge numbers and did a slow call and response dance that involved small sticks tapping on wood. The Pohnpeian boys soon accompanied their friends and performed a rhythmic warrior dance. Some of the Philipino teachers and staff then did a fast paced exhibition of tippy toed prancing through long moving bamboo poles. I really enjoyed the peppy music and nimble feet of this dance. The Marshallese girls were clad in wide dresses that depicted their national flag and flailed their arms to the words of the national anthem. The Marshallese boys did something called the Mosquito Dance, where they insanely slapped all parts of their body at a dizzying pace to ward off the invisible pests.
Then the Chuukese finally did their famous stick dance. The boys worked in groups of four and smacked their sticks in a controlled pattern that was indicative of battle.  Chuuk Lagoon was infamous for a being a place of horrible warfare before colonization. The missionaries skipped over the lagoon islands for a long period of time because the warrior tribes were too fierce and scared away oncoming ships. Eventually the German warships arrived with powerful cannons and decreed a permanent peace amongst the warring tribes. Surprisingly, the canon-backed declaration was enough to convince the Chuukese to throw down their spears and abandon war forever. Now the dance is the only remnant of the hardened warrior culture that once thrived.
            The women from Yap came onto the stage with fabulous costumes adorned with bright yellow, green, red and blue. They had colorful grass skirts and island accessories draping from their necks. Their ornate outfits shook in a hypnotic motion as their hips swayed back and forth across the floor. A few boys joined them quickly and they performed a different version of a stick dance with the interaction between male and females. Their dance was wonderful and it seemed like each group was getting better and better as the show rolled on.
            The Palauans came next. The Palauns were one of the smallest ethnic groups at the school, but their presence was powerful. Powerful, exotic, energetic and wonderful in every way. The women went first and shimmied onto the stage in yellow body paint that they made from a mixture of coconut oil and turmeric. Their shiny banana colored skin was scandalously covered with pointy pandanus leaf bras and flowing palm frond skirts. The leader of the dance troupe bellowed out commands and her dancers perfectly followed every one of her moves. The woman at the center was pulsing with life and her excitable energy was transferred to her fellow performers and all the people in the audience. They did a ten-minute dance of pulsating movements and engaging wiggles before passing the torch onto their boys.
            The Paluan boys came out in a lined up in two straight lines off to the side of the stage. They wore only a thin loincloth that fell in the front and the back. Their legs were tattooed from hipbone to ankle. They each carried one jagged spear and a wooden paddle. The smallest boy in the group approached the microphone, and meekly said, “This is a Palauan war dance…and now I am going to say a few words to get my boys ready”
            He stepped away from the microphone with his head down and then suddenly burst into wild screams. He yelled at the top of his lungs in Palauan and the noise echoed to the clouds. The little man leaped in the air like a crazed monkey and came down smacking the floor with both hands. His face contorted with anger and intensity, his eyes surged with fury. Every sinew in his muscles was tensed and his veins popped to the surface of his skin. His frenzied war cry and unparalleled ferocity shook the crowd to attention.
            He straightened up, faced his regiment of warrior boys and shouted marching commands. The two lines of dancers began their thunderous march and pounded the ground with their feet and spears. The synchronized beat of angry stamps shook the ground and seemed to vibrate the chair I was sitting in. Then they assumed their positions on stage and began their savage battle dance. They smacked their thighs and chest so hard that hand prints were imbedded on their flesh. They stamped so hard that their heels were bruised. They yelled so loud that their throats were red with pain. The dancers continued this raging storm of fighting animation without a single lapse in intensity. These little boys gave the impression that they were spirited warriors ready for a deadly battle. They moved in perfect unison and pulled everyone into their trance of furious energy. Some of their moves were hip thrusts and air humps that caused uproarious laughter from the audience, but it never took away from the seriousness of the performance. The finale ended with a feigned surprise attack on the audience in the front row. The dancers picked up their spears and jumped towards the innocent spectators in a faked ambush. Then they got back in their straight lines and powerfully marched with a booming authority off the stage.
            The Kosraens did a couple of dances afterwards that were admirable in their musicality and choreography, but were unfortunately overshadowed by the amazing show from the Palaun girls and boys. We took a long intermission afterwards and ate dinner while awaiting the final performance. The end of the day was to be capped off by the most renowned dance in all of Micronesia. The Yapese Men’s Dance. Usually the dance is only performed in the men’s houses on their home islands of Yap. Most of those islands are highly stratified societies and men hold a special position in the culture. These dances are only to be seen by the eyes of mature men, and woman are barred from taking part in the festivities. The high school boys had to request special permission from their local chiefs back in Yap in order to be able to share this sacred dance with others.
            We had to wait until the sundown to see the performance because it is supposed to only be done at dusk. It is a dance of manhood and portrays manliness in the most literal way. It is an exhibition of man’s energy and shows his sexual power. Woman are not supposed to expose their eyes to such obvious sexual displays by Yapese men, but an exception was made in this situation for the sake of cultural awareness.
            A beautiful orange sunset faded into darkness and the boys were finally ready to start their show. They were dressed in elaborate costumes with colorful sashes and small loincloths. They had a hanging swoop of intertwined coconut husk that hung between their legs and attached in a clump at their lower back. The purpose of this would soon become apparent. The costume had many different parts, but it only covered a very small part of their bodies.
            The Yapese put on a fabulous performance with energetic movements and well organized steps. They would start a certain move at the center of the line and it would spread outwards to all the other dances like ripples from a wave. They hollered fiercely and worked their muscles to showcase their strength. Their display of warrior characteristics was impressive, but it didn’t quite stack up to the Palauns intensity. What really separated the Yapese from the other groups were their hips. These guys humped and thrust and twisted and shook in every direction possible. There was no mistaking what they were representing. It was an animalistic portrayal of copulating youngsters. Their hanging sash of frayed cloth accentuated every movement and swung high into the air with every thrust. After fifteen minutes of spirited humping and screaming, the Yapese marched off stage in a pool of sweat and the day of cultural performances had come to an end.
            I was invigorated after watching all these dances and felt a renewed sense of optimism for the preservation of traditional practices. Seeing all these differences performances was a great experience to compare the different cultures and remember that they all come from a rich history of ancient traditions. I was jealous that I wasn’t on stage with them shaking around in an incensed furor of cultural importance. We now live in a world where things like this are only done as spectacles and no longer hold the communal or religious significance of the past, but I am happy that they are still alive somewhere. 

The WonderNut

As a little kid, I hated coconuts. To me, coconut was just a crappy flavor that would get artificially added to candy or deserts to make them have a nasty after taste. The dried flakes of old coconuts and the chemically altered flavor additives that characterized coconuts in my experience were overrated and overused. Every few years, my dad would pick up a coconut shell from the grocery store as a novelty and we would stab its hole with a screwdriver and drink the few drops of sweet liquidy milk inside. Then we would crack it with a hammer and unsuccessfully struggle to pry out little bits of the hardened white meat to snack on. It was better than the dried flavoring stuff, but it still didn’t knock my socks off.
My hate of coconuts was further entrenched when I took my first trip to Hawaii. I stumbled upon a large brown oval in the bushes while playing with my cousins and someone told us that it was a coconut. I was confused because I thought coconuts were small round shells, I didn’t know that they had these thick husks surrounded them. We desperately wanted to see the white goodness inside, so we tried to crack it open. I had no idea how hard this would be. I smacked in on the ground with all my might and was disappointed to see that it was totally intact. We then spent the next hour doing everything that our little hands and minds could come up with to break open the husk of the coconut. We threw it off a 3-story building, we crunched it on the corner of sidewalks, we pounded it against walls and slammed it into the ground repeatedly. The coconut was unfazed. It stayed inside its hardy covering and only had some slight dents to show for the brutal abuse that it had just taken. We eventually gave up and let the mysterious center stay a mystery.
My opinion of coconuts took a 360 degree turn when I came to live in the islands. I now have the utmost respect and love for the coconut. I consider it one of the most resourceful things on the planet and put it near the top of the greatest creations in the history of the universe. The coconut is amazing in so many ways and it deserves a little praise from a former hater.
Before I get into the laundry list of useful things you can do with a coconut, let me first explain the life cycle of a coconut. It’s a versatile nut, buts its life story is the only thing that is more amazing that its uses. It changes form many times and has some sneaky tricks up its sleeve that allow it thrive all over the tropical world. Its durability and flexibility have given it the chance to spread to all over the planet and serve as the basis for live in many of those areas. Without the coconut paving the way on oceanic exploration, people would never have had a chance to survive on most of the islands in the world. The coconut has usually been the first colonizer and the hardiest survivor on most islands. It settles in its little niche and sets the stage for live to flourish.
One of the reasons that coconuts are such famous explorers is that they have a special talent that makes them especially good at ocean travel. They can float. Their thick fibrous husk is impermeable to water and acts a life raft for its precious cargo inside. A single coconut can travel across a vast ocean and endure typhoons and tsunamis without drowning in the depths or spilling its guts. They have used this skill to float around the globe and wash up on any chunk of dry land that they come across. Once they find a spot of sand or coral to call home, then they can begin the next step in their life.
A coconut is self-contained reproductive unit. It doesn’t need to be fertilized. No need for the birds and the bees to spread its pollen. It doesn’t need to match egg and sperm to create offspring. It just needs some sunlight and a little bit of water. Once the coconut finds a nice resting spot on a sandy beach, or rocky hillside, or pretty much anywhere then it can begin growing. Now the milk and the meat inside the nut can begin a magical transformation. They change themselves into a foamy core that will act as the nutrient base for outward growth. The milk soaks into the foam ball and the meat lends itself to the expansion of the nutrient rich core. (The foam ball is also delicious, and some people joke that it is Chuukese ice cream)
Small squiggly roots spurt from the bottom of the husk and dig into the ground. From the wide end of the coconut, a green stem will sprout from right above the knobby point. Feeding off the ball of yummy foam and the things its can gather from its tiny root base, the stem will begin to expand. Its long stalk will split after about a foot of growth and leaves will start to take form. The baby palm fronds splinter exponentially and soak up the sun. It’s at the point of a recognizable plant now and can build off the photosynthesis. Eventually, the thin green stem will harden into a tree trunk and the roots will overwhelm the nut. The tree will consume its mother nut and lengthen its trunk. By the time that the tree is 5 or 10 feet tall, it will have a bushy top with wide palm fronds flailing out on all sides. The top of the tree will almost reach full size and maturity when the tree is still short, but the coconut palm still has plenty of growing to do. The trunk of the tree will stretch and stretch until it’s a towering twig in the sky. The gigantic skinny trunk wont grow in girth, only in length. It shoots upwards for years until it finally reaches its stereotypical shape of a toothpick with a spiky broccoli on top.
These spectacular swaying trees are the quintessential image of paradise. The picture of a lonely white sand beach with overhanging coconut trees can be seen on calendars, postcards, book covers, desktop backgrounds and a thousand other things depicting the elusive beauty of an exotic vacation. Their odd looking shape and outstretching leaves are famous around the world for showcasing the wonders of tropical paradise. A full grown coconut tree is undoubtedly wonderful to look at, but it serves many other purposes beyond providing aesthetic pleasure.
The trees roots hold sand in place and prevent erosion on the seashore. They also do the same job on steep hillsides and prevent landslides. On nascent atoll sand spits, they provide a base for sand and rocks to gather and eventually build into a real island. They act as breeding grounds for numerous birds and provide nourishment to lizards, bugs and other animals.  And they also act as great umbrellas to protect from the scorching sun or pouring rain.
The island natives around the Pacific have built their livelihoods around this fantastic tree and have come up with an endless number of uses for its nuts, leaves and wood. The trunk wobbles in the wind, but is sturdy and strong when fashioned into timber poles. Its wood is used to make frames for houses and all kinds of furniture. The huge fronds are great at keeping the rain out and have been used for thousands of years as rooftops for houses. A simple weaving and overlapping maneuver can tighten them together and a sturdy mat to deflect water. They can also been fastened together to make the walls of a house. Their leaves can be used to make skirts and other clothing accessories as well. There are many other novel uses for the leaf and trunk, but the nut is the real star of the show.
The nuts begin as strawberry sized clumps hanging from the underneath the base of the palm fronds. There is no shell inside, just a soft husk of pliable tissue. These soft balls are often chewed for pleasure in place of betelnut or tobacco. The nut will grow along with its brothers and pass through many stages that can all be utilized in different ways. When they are the size of grapefruits, a shell will begin to materialize inside the green husk. This soft shell builds up water inside and turns it sweet. This is the first stage that they are good to drink. They must be picked and then chopped open with a machete or large knife. The milk is tasty, but it hasn’t yet reached its prime.
Depending on the species of tree, the nut will change from a green to an orangish color as it matures. It will go through a gradual process of turning its sweet milk into a solid meat on the inside of the shell. The nutshell will begin to harden and turn dark and thick. The coconut is good to drink from all points between the grapefruit size and when its shell becomes brown and rock solid. To get a good drinking coconut, you must climb the tree and pluck it from the branches. If the coconut falls to the ground, it is too old and no longer full of sweet juice.
Climbing a coconut is an amazing feat of human achievement. No other tree, with the exception of maybe a redwood, provides such a challenge. They can be a hundred feet tall and no wider than your thigh. There are no branches or notches or knots to use as footholds. Its like climbing up a flagpole. To climb one of these towering sticks, you must straddle it with your legs and hop up like a frog. It’s a different type of climbing from anything that I have ever attempted. All my childhood training of scampering up trees and up cliff sides gave me absolutely no preparation for trying to go up a coconut tree. But island boys can do it with surprising ease. They will slide up and down these things at a blistering pace and come down with a feast of tasty coconuts.
The milk of a coconut is nutritious and hydrating. It is full of chemical goodies for our bodies that outdo most fruit juices. I figure that its milk is so healthy because its made to nourish a newborn tree and has all the fixin’s to make sure it grows up strong. Its also surprising how much liquid can be contained in a single nut. Some nuts can hold around a liter of water inside them. After drinking a coconut, you can slice it in half with a machete and scrape the thin layer of gooey meat that is starting to develop on the inside surface of the shell. It is soft, delicious and is the perfect desert after a bellyful of coconut milk. Slurping down some juice from a coconut is refreshing and wonderful, but it still isnt the best part of a coconut.
The most resourceful stage of a coconut is after it has fallen down from the tree. Hundreds of coconuts can fall from a single tree and create large piles around the base. The nut will be covered in a tough exterior and colored a dark brown. It will now follow one of four different paths: float out to sea, start a new tree, deteriorate into mush, or be picked up by a human. Lets now quickly run through the list of things that humans can do with a fully matured coconut, or taka.
The husk must first be pried off before the coconut has any real purpose beyond being used as a projectile weapon or rounded chair (In Chuuk, I actually sit on coconuts more often than real chairs). As I described before, it is not easy task to get the husk off a coconut. Its powerful suit of armor is its best form of protection and allows it to be so successful, but it also presents a challenge to a hungry islander. Luckily, we have machetes. Repeated hacks with a giant machete blade can puncture through the husk and split the nut in two. Or if you want to get the hard round shell out intact, then you have to use the machete in a different manner. You can carefully slice around the edges of the nuts and eventually carve enough of the husk away to be able to peel it off, or you can use the machete to shave a sharp stick. Jam that stick deep into the dirt so that its point end is firmly pointing up into the air. Now you can smash the coconut down onto the sharp spike and twist the nut backwards to pull of a small portion of the husk. With a few repetitions of this delicate and dangerous process, you will be left with a softball sized brown nut.
The leftover husk is often thrown away, but it can also be used for many purposes. Its fibrous interior can be weaved together to make sturdy ropes. It can also be used as a rough sponge to scrape and clean. But one of its best uses is in the fire. If you tear away thin layers of the inside fiber, it works as great fire starter kindling because it is thin and dry. If you toss the whole husk onto a fire, it will smolder for hours and create a searing bed of hot coals. The inner nutshell of the coconut is even better for burning. When it ignites it lets loose a poof of flame and flares up in a hot ball of fury. Wood can be scarce on some small islands, but the husk of a coconut provides all that you need to make a flaming inferno.
The true prize of the coconut is still encased within the hard brown shell that we have just pried from its protective covering. This rounded orb has three dots on its top that give it the eerie look of a human face. Two eyes and a mouth. The best way to pop it open is not with a screwdriver and hammer, but rather a well placed smack with the backside of a machete. You don’t need to cut the nut open, its only necessary to put pressure in the right spot to send a crack circling around the equator and splitting it into two perfect halves. A little bit of milk will be left and you can lick it up, but the goal of all this work is to get at the meat. The centimeter thick white meat that covers the inside walls of the coconut is often called copra. It is securely attached to the inside of the shell and can be taken out in two ways. You can cut it out with a knife, but this is much more difficult than you might imagine because of the curviness. The best way to extract the white gold is to grate it out. The contraption that we use is called a poiker and has a serrated piece of metal sticking out from a small stool. You sit on the stool and scrape the copra out into a bowl below the stool. It can be a tiresome process, but the end product is often worth the work.
Copra was the driving force behind the European colonization of the Pacific islands. The shaved bits of coconut meat were a valuable luxury that could be turned into many different products. Soaps, scents, cooking oils, body oils, hair oils, flavors and many other things could be created from a bag full of copra. The international trade of copra brought western civilization flocking to the Pacific, but the importance of copra for the islanders goes far beyond the material wealth that is supposedly brought them. Copra or taka can be used for all those products that I just mentioned as well as for food and medicine. They pour water into the bowl of grated coconut shavings and then squeeze out the liquid into a separate bowl. Now it actually looks like milk. This milk can be used as the base for pretty much any food made on the islands. And it doesn’t taste anything at all like the disgusting coconut flavored crap that I hated as a kid. This fresh coconut milk is rich with flavor and adds a tasty kick to all our dishes.
Food is the foundation of Chuukese life, and coconut is the foundation of Chuukese food. Therefore, coconut is the foundation of Chuukese life. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Tale of the Chuukese Chanuukun

The Chuukese folk are avidly religious. The Church is the center of life and steers the beliefs and actions of most of the islanders. The Church’s influence has been so profound and widespread that it has succeeded in supplanting almost all traditional beliefs. The locals have no remnants of ancient religion or pre-colonial belief systems. Traditional island clothes, dances, stories and cultural practices can sometimes be spotted masked in a Christian sheath of censorship. But even that is rare. For the most part, the Chuukese have done away with ancient beliefs and adopted the western ideals of Jesus and ecclesiastic system of thought.
            However, there is one archaic conviction that has not been tossed by the wayside. There is one thing that they have continued to believe and continued to fear for thousands of years. They have accepted the Christian God and its conception of reality, but they have not allowed this singular legend to slip through the cracks. The fear of this thing has been so deeply engrained that they have refused to throw it in the pile of defunct traditions. For some powerful reason, this belief has endured. I am speaking about ghosts. Specifically the sea ghost, locally referred to as a Chanuukun.
            I heard stories of the sea ghost from the first week that I arrived in Chuuk. I enjoyed the stories and listened with interest as old men recited tales of the horrible fates that have come to foolish water goers. There are many versions of stories involving the Chanuukun, but most of them involve somebody getting punished for disturbing the peace of the sea. If you upset the balance of the ocean, the female sea ghost may come to you and work its deadly black magic against you. I liked hearing these stories, but I didn’t really believe that they were true. I just thought it was fun to hear about some real indigenous beliefs. My overanalyzing logical brain has long since stripped away childhood fears of ghosts and monsters .
            A few months an ago incident occurred. There have been varying stories to explain the reality of the situation, but I will explain how it was relayed to me. A young boy was visiting the lagoon from the outer islands of Chuuk. He was out on a picnic on a small uninhabited island with his family and friends. The child was being kind of wild and making all types of loud noises and splashing around in the water. His mother warned him to quiet down, but he simply wandered farther down the beach and out of earshot so he could continue his frolicking in the ocean.
            That evening when they returned home from the picnic, the boy’s mother noticed scratches on his forearms and chest. She asked the kid what they were from, but he wouldn’t respond. She just figured he hurt himself on some coral and was embarrassed to admit his clumsiness. The next morning, the boy awoke and was terribly sick. He had a horrid fever and was too weak to rise from bed. This sickness wore on for days, but since the hospital was a lengthy boat ride away and is infamous for its shoddy care, they decided to take care of him at home.
            The family was grief stricken and didn’t know what could have caused such a severe onset of this horrible sickness. The boy became more and more ill, until one night he called his mother to his bedside. She sat near him and he beckoned her to come close so he could tell her a secret. The mother knelt down and bent her ear towards the boy. In a raspy and ailing voice, the boy whispered, “mother, I am scared and must tell you something. The other day at the picnic when I went to play by myself, I saw a woman. She came to me in the water and gave me these scratches for making too much noise in the sea. And then she warned me that if I ever ever told anybody about our encounter, I would die” The next morning, the little boy was dead.
            News of this disaster spread like wildfire and my host family was talking about it all the time. The boy died on my host mother’s home island, so she was particularly in tune with all the gossip. A couple of days later, I was preparing to go out spear fishing at night with a friend. My host mother looked at me with terror in her eyes and told me not to go. She said the Chanuukun is known for going after visitors or foreigners and it was unsafe for me to go in the ocean. Her reaction irked me a little bit, but in the end I disregarded it. I didn’t believe in ghosts and I certainly wasn’t scared of some imaginary mermaid lady, so I wasn’t gonna let it ruin an exciting spear fishing expedition.
            It was a moonless night. The blackness was overwhelming. Clouds covered the sky and not even a star could be seen. A slight drizzle trickled down, but it wasn’t enough to be cause for concern. I slunk into the liquid blackness and followed the stream of light beaming from my buddy’s underwater flashlight. We followed the far edge of the reef and worked our way eastwards away from the island. After a couple of hours of swimming, we were beyond the point of being able to see land in the stark darkness of the night. The rain picked up a bit and everything became bland with a blanket of black.
            I came up to adjust my mask after a deep dive and heard something as I peeked above the surface. It was a woman speaking. She was speaking faintly in Chuukese. Through the rain and confusion, I couldn’t quite understand what she was saying, but I was quite sure that it was a young woman’s voice babbling in Chuukese. I looked around in a circle and tried to get my bearings. Could it be from a house back on land? No, that was impossible because I was far away from the shore and the wind was blowing in the opposite direction. Could it be from a boat? No, women almost never go fishing. Especially not at night and especially not in the rain. I figured I was just light headed from  oxygen deprivation and must be imagining things.
            I dove back down and continued my fishing. A couple of minutes later, I came back to the surface to take a big breath and reaffirm to myself that the voice wasn’t real. But it was. I heard the same voice again. This time it was louder. I still couldn’t figure what she was saying, but it was unmistakably real. Now I was scared. My mind began to race with a million explanations, but none of them made any sense. It could only be one thing talking to me in the deep dark night of the lonely ocean…Chanuukun!
            I spun in a circle and frantically searched for a sign of anything. I was fidgety and nervous. Was this ghost really coming after me? No, I didn’t believe in ghosts. It couldn’t be. I must be going nuts. I dove back under and rapidly swam towards the glowing figure of my fishing partner. I needed to ask him if he also heard the voice. I tried to get his attention, but he was busy doing his business below the surface and I couldn’t get him to come up and talk. I once again popped up above the water and brought my head into the warm misting air. The sound that greeted me will haunt me for years. Ahhahhhaaahhh …..eeehheeheee!! A witchlike cackle echoed in my ears and then faded into a girlish giggle. The evil undertones replaced by innocent happiness shook me to my core. I hurried to my partners’ side and refused to pull my head out of water for the rest of the night.
            You can interpret this story however you want. My rational brain is still trying to conjure up explanations, but nothing seems plausible. I have tried to disregard it as a hallucinatory episode, but every time that I tell the story I get shivers down my spine and my eyes begin to water. The ghost might not have been real, but the fear was real.
Maybe the Chanuukan has refused to fade into forgotten obscurity for a reason. Maybe its presence has remained for a reason. Maybe pastors, parents and politicians believe for a reason. Maybe it still patrols the reefs of Chuuk Lagoon and preys on unsuspecting victims.
Or maybe we are all just crazy!

A Different Kind of Diversion

Many things about my personality have changed during my island isolation. And much of this change has been due to how I spend my free time. Our work and responsibilities often take up the biggest chunk of our waking hours, but what we do in our free time really defines who we are and how we develop. The unfamiliar circumstances of my new life in Chuuk have shaped the manner in which I pass the empty hours and this has in turn influenced how I think, behave and live.
One of the main purposes of leisure activities is to escape from the pressures of a difficult life. There are problems in everybody’s life. The extent and severity of those problems might vary greatly, but the emotions and feelings that are produced are rather universal. Whether it be desperate starvation or an annoying traffic jam, people all over the world share the same emotions that spur from problems. Anger, frustration, depression, anxiety and sadness are a part of each and every person’s daily life.
If we accept the inevitability of these unfortunate events, we can surmise that the way that we deal with these inescapable issues determines our level of happiness. How we decide to internalize these situations and make sense of them in our minds is the key factor in our measure of life satisfaction. When faced with one of life’s troubles, we have the choice to attack (anger), accept (sadness), or avoid (?).
Being a “glass half full” kind of guy, I usually tend to opt with the avoidance choice. I am not sure if this is the correct approach because the effects can vary significantly, but it has worked out for me pretty well so far. But the “so far” of my life has been relatively limited. I have lived a privileged life of comfort and joy with very few serious problems that have plagued my existence. However, during the last year and half I have finally felt some of the mysterious emotions that are a constant companion in many people’s realities. I have felt loneliness, frustration, depression and a million other things.
Being in a strange foreign land, I have been forced to find new ways to deal with these problems. When the inefficiency of school frustrates me, or the social isolation depresses me, or the collectivism smothers me, or the failure of plans angers me, or the lack of luxuries disappoints me, I must find a way to pull myself out of the slump and back to a pleasant state of existence. I am not the type to brood or mope. If I am in a bad mood, it usually doesn’t last long. I scheme around until I find something that diverts my mind and makes me forget my troubles.
In America, there are an unlimited number of ways to do this. Our society is built upon it. We slave all week at jobs that we hate and then splurge in fun activities on weekends and nights. Technology, infrastructure and the media make sure that we have plenty of options to block out our problems and float into a complacent milieu of happiness.
But in Chuuk, none of those things exist. I cannot drink a case of beer when I want to relax. There is no Internet to distract me and pull me into its endless web of entertainment. I don’t have a TV to switch on and melt my mind into a contented blob of satisfaction. My family and friends are thousands of miles away and are unable to provide their cheerful company. My island is the size of a mountainous golf course and has no space for football fields, baseball diamonds or tennis courts. The standard leisure activities are simply not available for me.
So as a result, I have found different ways to spend my free time and pump up my gloomy spirits. And I have now come to realize that these new ways of pulling myself out of the dumps are actually probably better than the habits I developed in the states. There are three main things that I have learned to do when I am at a low point.
One of these is reading books. I have always wanted to be a book reader. I like books. I enjoy the stories and love letting my imagination get lost in the words of a fantastic tale. I also am a huge advocate of learning from books. There is an unlimited amount of information in books just waiting to be discovered. I am constantly striving to expand my knowledge of the world and absorb as many things as possible, and books are the really the best place to start.
            I have these romantic notions about books, but most of my life I have been kind of a hypocrite. I claimed to like reading, but never really did it. Sometimes I would read 10 pages before falling asleep at night, or skim over a class text to glean the important points. But overall, I was pretty lousy when it came to book reading. My problem was that there were just a lot of other options, and settling down to read a book was not on the top of my list. When an unfilled space of time came around, I would go through a list of possible activities depending on my current attitude. I might call up a buddy, or go play a game of basketball, or watch a movie, or play a video game, or shoot a game of pool, or hang out with the family. But reading a book was probably about number 9 on my list of fun things to do. Naturally it usually got ignored as an option and was demoted to the lowly position of “should-do’s”.
            All of that changed when I came to Chuuk. Suddenly all of my options from 1-8 were out of the picture. Book reading fell into the open slot and finally got its chance. And boy did it take advantage! I have been on a reading rampage. From fiction to facts, I have been pouring over dozens of books and filling my mind with a million thoughts. Having a kindle (before it recently broke) was a convenient helper because it allowed me to have a hundred books in the space of one. Also all of the classics (past copyright dates….before 1920 something) are all free. So I can peruse the famous passages of literary distinction and load up on tidbits of all the so-called required reading. Besides the old books, I have also been running through a good selection of new stories and non-fiction. I try to balance my reading between enjoyment and learning. I always am reading at least 2 books at the same time (sometimes more than 5). One is a good story that will suck me in and take me to a new world, and the other is an interesting compilation of facts that will stimulate my thoughts and expand my intellectual understanding of everything. This system does a good job of keeping me entertained and learned.
            When the stifling heat of my room is too much to handle or the prospect of loafing around isnt appealing, I look to a couple of other options to clear my slate of negative emotion. Spending time with little kids is another one of my failsafe methods to avoid sadness. Children are always happy. They are bursting with excitement and an eagerness to explore their little worlds. The smallest mishaps prompt hilarious outbursts and the faintest changes create a flood of happiness.
            In my tiny island community, kids are everywhere. I have an entourage of midget followers that stick to my tail anywhere that I go. Sometimes they are hanging off my shoulders and other times they are skipping circles around me. I play silly games with them, twirl them in the air and go along with their funny childish activities. A contorted facial expression will bring a flurry of giggles from my baby sister and a casual toss of a ball will send a throng of tiny ones scattering around.
            I have a little sister of my own and I did work at an elementary school for a while, but this is really the first time that I have been completely surrounded by children. I joke with my other Peace Corps volunteers that my only friends are old men and little kids.  I spend a lot of time with these munchkins and I almost never walk away with a frown on my face.
            The other thing that I do to take my mind off my worries and relax is to simple sit. Sit in silence and do absolutely nothing (except thinking and looking). This is something that I never ever did in America. Once in a blue moon I would spend 2 minutes by myself enjoying my surroundings, but it was a rare occurrence. I am an extrovert and constant activity is what I seek. But that has begun to change.
            I am now entirely comfortable sitting in silence and doing nothing at all. This may sound boring, but in actuality it provides a fabulous opportunity to observe the world around you that you never knew exist. This reality is always there, but we very rarely slow down enough to notice it. I am speaking of the universe outside of human activity. Beyond the conversations of friends, underneath the rush of modernity, below the buzz of the media, and outside the manufactured net of human activity. This is our world. Planet Earth. Mother Nature. The other 99.9% of stuff that happens without involving us.
            My tranquil island environment makes this much easier to appreciate than in a bustling metropolis or crumbling ghetto. I can sit on the soft grass of the dock under the shade of palm tree and peacefully gaze at the tendrils of rippling water wisp on the glassy surface of the sea. My home has a thick coat of tropical trees and plants that explode with greenness and overwhelm the senses with smells of budding flowers and exotic fruits. If I listen closely, I can hear a hundred different conversations of invisible twittering birds that flutter through the trees. The horizon stretches forever in all directions and melts into sticky swirls of orange and pink that ooze over the clouds like the runny yolk from a broken egg. At night, the twinkling stars are unimpeded by smoggy pollution and glaring streetlights so they are able to shine through with their brilliant radiance and light up the sky in a dazzling display of glowing freckles.
            Truly observing the fantastic beauty of the natural world and allowing myself to become a part of this mysterious evolving creation is an experience that always humbles me. I am blessed to be living in such a stunningly gorgeous place and forcing myself to appreciate my surroundings is a good method of bringing me back to a high level of happiness. The world is an amazing place, and my trivial problems float away when I view them in the broad spectrum of this beauteous planet. I tell myself, “no worries, the fucked up world of civilization that is troubling you is only a speck in the vast web of reality. Just relax and enjoy the ride.”

Fishing Frenzy (1/16/12)

The reef surrounding my village has been off limits to fishing for over 5 months. It is a cultural tradition to restrict fishing in respect of important people who die in the community. The ritual is done to honor the dead and also acts as a conservation measure. I have often been frustrated because the majority of my time in Chuuk has been during times of “mechen”. I have been unable to touch, swim or fish in the beautiful calm waters that lie at my doorstep. It is awfully ironic to be completely surrounded by warm inviting ocean and not be able to go near it.
The fishing restrictions may be a hindrance to my personal enjoyment of the lagoon, but they really do serve a legitimate purpose. Chuuk is overpopulated and extremely small. If all the islanders went fishing every single day then the fish, octopus, clams and all the bounty of the sea would be depleted. The reef would become over fished and unhealthy. The Chuukese survive on the resources of the ocean, if these resources are misused then people will suffer. The vast majority of people do not have jobs, so they depend on the ocean and jungle to provide food and sustenance for their families. The tradition of “mechen” is basically an informal law to control the resources of the sea.
This past Thursday, I saw first hand the power of these restrictions in restoring the fish populations. The mechen was opened and a fishing extravaganza began. The chief decreed that at sundown the wooden poles in the ocean would be pulled up and the fishermen could once again plunder the seafloor. On the first night of the opening of the mechen, a huge group of spear fisherman will be the ones who get the first chance at the unspoiled grounds. I was invited to join the fishing party and I gathered at the waterside as the final glimpses of sunlight faded behind the clouds.
In the darkness by the dock, a crowd of men had come together to await the signal to begin. We idly stood together for about a half an hour and then split into different groups on the motor boats. The chief gave the signal and we all piled into the tiny boats. 9 other fisherman jumped in my boat and we crept our way out to sea.
The sky was pitch black and the moonless night spread darkness to every corner. The line between land, sea and sky was barely visible. Everything was just black. The only visible area was the stream of light shining from the man with a flashlight at the front of the boat. He shouted commands to the operator as we veered around the big chunks of coral and came to resting point.
We dropped our makeshift anchor and strapped on our snorkels and masks to ready ourselves for our adventure. Men then started flipping over backwards and diving into the black sea to search for the unsuspecting fish victims below. A series of glowing orbs now floated along the surface and showed the location of the fishermen. I grabbed my 5 foot metal rod and giant rubber band and then plunged into the water.
It had been a long time since I had gone into the black depths of the night sea, but I was happy to be back and felt at home immediately. I kicked my fins and started on my journey to find the sleeping fish at the bottom of the sea. The great advantage of spear fishing at night is that the fish are usually sleeping or very lazy. You can often bring your spear tip within inches of the slumbering fish and then shoot its shiny point into the gut of the aquatic creature.
It is kind of a sneaky way to go hunting, but it’s not without its challenges. The utter darkness and mysteriousness of the open ocean is daunting on the nerves. Your only line of sight is the beam of light from your flashlight and everything else is unknown. A hungry shark, or poisonous urchin or stinging jellyfish could be two centimeters from your head and you wouldn’t know it (and they often are). Shark bites, infectious scratches and unknown injuries are not uncommon.
Holding your breath and diving to great depths also presents problems for the mind and body. Staying under water until you feel like suffocating is part of the game if you want to find the biggest fish. Your mind wants to come up quickly, but your body will be the ultimate judge of when its time to swim to the surface. Overcoming the anxiety of your mind to hold your breath for long periods of time is a difficult task, and its one that I have yet to master. My spear fishing prowess would increase ten fold if I could stay down for a couple minutes while searching for fish.
Finding the fish is also not easy. They may be sleeping, but they are also hiding. They hide in rocks, coral, seaweed and anything else on the sea floor. Fish are infamous for being great at camouflage. Their skin color, design pattern and body shape are all evolutionarily designed to blend in with a particular environment. Some look exactly like a blade of sea grass, others look like a patch of coral polyps and others look like sandy bottom. I will often look directly at a spot and not see a fish, then my partner will come up beside me and shoot at a chunk of coral and pull out a fish. To me there was nothing there, but his eyes are trained to seek out the fish and find them in their best hiding spots.
At one point I noticed a swaying black mass underneath a rock. At first I thought it was a large leaf, but after diving lower and getting a clearer view I confirmed that it was a giant fish. I dove down, got flat on belly and look the fish in the eye. I held the spear shaft with my left hand and pulled back the rubber band with my right. Then I released and shot the spear through the center of the fish. It wriggled in a violent series of twists and yanks and did all it could to release itself from its death trap. But it was too late, the spear was through its midsection and would not yield to the power of its fins. The big black fish retreated farther under the rock and made it almost impossible for me to pull him out. I called over to one of my buddies and beckoned him to come help. When he arrived, he shot his spear into the head and then we were able to pull it out. Two crossed spears sliced through the body and made it easy to wrangle the beast from his den. I pulled out my spear and then repeatedly stabbed it into the head of the fish. I was trying to pierce his skull and crush his brain. If I let the fish live, it would be thrashing on my belt and attract sharks. I scrambled its brains and he finally stopped struggling. I then stuck my wire belt through its eye socket and attached him to my waist. It was by far the biggest fish I have ever caught in my life. He was a vertically flat looking creature about 20 inches long and 8 inches thick.
A little bit later on, I found a red fish in the center of a small coral clump. I speared him at a downward angle, but could not easily pull him out because of the awkward position. I decided to dive down and pull him out with my hand. As I began to reach into the rock hole, I retracted in a burst of fear as an eel slithered out into the crevice. The eel pecked at the dying fish and tried to wrap around the carcass. He was trying to steal my fish! I was smart enough to refrain from putting my hand within the eels grasp, but I was stumped about how to get my fish out and avoid the eel. Eventually I captured my prize by sliding the spear through the other end of the coral clump and picking him up by hand. I retrieved my fish and left the eel hungry and angry.
I pulled myself onto the boat after a few hours of fishing and was proud to show off my plentiful belt of fish with the giant at the center. I was dismayed and impressed to see the giant mound of fish that the others had gathered. I had speared about 15 fish during the night and was happy with my catch, but the locals had each got more than twice as many. We counted the fish and totaled 300 from the 9 of us. That means each of them caught about 35 fish. However, my big boy was the monster of the bunch and still garnered me some praise.
We motored back to the dock and were greeted by throngs of people. The fish were thrown onto the grass and piled up with the others. The two other boats had similar numbers of fish, and together the mound equaled close to 1000 fish! A giant pile of multicolored fish sat on the dock and awaited the chief’s approval. He allowed a large number of them to be barbecued immediately and a fire of coconut husks was erected on the dock. We charred the outside of the fish and gorged into their fresh meat. They had been cooked hastily and most were still raw inside. It was like eating seared seafood. Crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside. I sat with a dozen other men and tore at the flesh of the fish while stuffing breadfruit into our mouths. It was a savage feast of epic proportions.
Two days later, the majority of the fish were prepared together in a giant feast. The entire village came together and ate a huge meal of fish, breadfruit and taro. Speeches were given and advice was shared before we all dug into the meal. The opening of the mechen and the feasting that followed was a perfect exhibition of the collectivist community lifestyle that prevails in Chuuk. Everyone obeyed the chiefs orders and avoided the sea, then the able bodied men worked together to round up a massive amount of fish, then everything was shared equally amongst all the community members. Nobody dared to break tradition and keep things for themselves. Life here is not about the success of the individual, it is about the thriving of the entire community.