Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Students After a Volleyball Tournament

Some Yapese Boys preparing for a traditional danc at Xavier

Basketball Court Groundbreaking

Last Saturday, my community held a big celebration for the groundbreaking of the area for the construction of our basketball court. Although the fundraising money is still far from reaching our goal, they are eager to get started on the preparation of the land. They want everything to be ready for construction when the money and materials arrive. The actual pouring of the cement and erecting of backboards is the easy part. A half dozen guys can do that in a week or two. The real work is turning the jungle into a nice piece of flat land.
There are 16 huge trees that need to be cut down and uprooted in the area. Towering coconut palms and thick trunked breadfruit trees stand in our way. Chopping down the trees is not too much of a challenge, but the uprooting presents a lot of problems. We don't have bulldozers or heavy machinery to pull the base of the trees from their deep homes in the rock soil. Days of shovels, pick axes and ropes will get the job done. I don't know the exact mechanics about how they are going to make it happen, but the locals seem confident that they have a scheme to get those trees out of there. However, whenever I try to pry for more details about the exact process, someone will usually shake his head and just say “its going to be very hard”.
I have seen trees get cut down, so I can basically imagine how all of that is going to happen, but I am much more confused about how they are going to manage to create a giant piece of flat and solid land. The area is full of volcanic boulders and lumps of tightly packed dirt hills. It slopes severely down to one side towards the back. If we had bulldozers we could just crunch the hillside off and push it into the gaps. But all we have are shovels. So the men are going to slave away at the rocky ground and move the land with the power of their arms. They will crack the rocks with hammers and carry the shards to the lower part of the area. A rock wall will be erected on the edges of the land and a mixture of dirt and smaller rocks will fill in the center. This backbreaking process will probably take a couple of months of serious work. I keep voicing doubts about the feasibility of making this jungle spot into a legitimate basketball court on a strong slab of land, but the locals continuously alleviate my fears with reassurances of their abilities. One guy said to me, “Look around at our houses. Do you see how they are built? For everyone of those houses, we made the flat land out of the mountain” So they do know what they are doing, it just seems like a lot of work.
During my service here, I have been involved in three major projects and have had three groundbreaking ceremonies. My water tank and distribution system was a laborious process with very little community support. It was like pulling teeth to try to beg people to work or come to meetings. It was probably the most beneficial thing I could have done for their livelihood, but they still didn't give a shit. I also did an agriculture project for the students to farm, and the groundbreaking was a good success. Lots of parents and community members showed their support in the beginning, but after a few months enthusiasm faded and the success of the project faded with it.
            But this court is different. The people want this court. They really want it. I have not had to ask for meetings, they have been called and organized by the locals. I have not had to convince people of the benefits of this project, they have inundated me with constant requests for its construction. The project is being led from the inside. Its not just a gift given to these people. They are working hard for it. This is how Peace Corps projects are ideally supposed to go, I hope mine continues on this stellar path.
            The groundbreaking ceremony drew hundreds of people from the community and all the important leaders. We gave speeches and ate food like at every Chuukese meeting, but the events at the actual site were much more interesting. The groundbreaking was undertaken with three separate styles (god, tradition & America) that together comprise the identity of the modern Chuukese people. First, there was a lengthy prayer involving the Deacon and Catechists to bless the area. They read lines and lines of blessings before sprinkling holy water across the ground. Next, one of the chiefs led a slow march in a circle on the court. He chanted ancient island sayings and asked for permission from the sea and the mountain. It was a display of cultural tradition (itang) that I have yet to see during my time. Finally, another one of the chiefs popped a bottle of champagne and squirted the bubbles into the air.
            The time frame to finish my project is slim and the people will have to work tirelessly to finish it quickly. I also have to continue to seek funding from my American friends and families in order to have the money to complete the project. For this to happen, everything is going to have to fall in place and work smoothly. While I understand that the words “work smoothly” are unknown in dysfunctional Chuuk, I am an optimist and think that the desire and motivation of the people will lead to timely success on this project.

Feet Fighting

Chuukese boys are extremely athletic. When they grow up, they often end up as blubbery balls of sloth that are too lazy to swat the flies on their face. But when they are young, they are sculpted statues of chiseled muscle. They have a combination of strength, speed and balance that has been cultivated by generations of island survival tasks. I have seen little boys that climb better than monkeys, swim better than sharks and eat faster than ravenous wolves. By the time that they reach puberty, the veins are bulging in the brawny biceps and their stomachs have taken on the consistency of a brick wall. They dig, chop, pound, climb and fish every day of their lives, and after a while it begins to add notches of slim muscle across their little bodies.
Remote island life on a forest hillside doesn't provide many opportunities to play sports. So they have found other ways to showcase their athletic ability. My favorite way is the feet fights, which they called nifot. The boys place their hands on the ground and flip their bodies upwards as stiff as a pencil. They kink their legs into ready position and then charge. Epic battles of upside down kick fighting ensue where they try to knock the other guy down by kicking him off balance. These brown balls of muscle scuttle around in a circle of heckling onlookers and splay their legs in wild kicks against the shins of their opponents. When one goes down, a challenger immediately takes his place and fights to dethrone the reigning champ. It kind of reminds of me of chicken fighting in the swimming pool, but this is way more badass.
There are few things that make this sport truly unique. Firstly, the ability to walk on your hands is no easy task. Actually it is really fucking hard. I have tried a number of times and been laughed at mirthlessly by crowds of muscular tots. I tend to think I am a little above average in my strength and coordination, but compared to these boys I am a hopeless fool. When your manhood is challenged by an 8 year old who proceeds to take it, smash it and then spit on its pathetic carcass, you don't exactly score very high on the confidence meter.
I remember one time when I was a little kid and I saw my Uncle Mike walk on his hands across a hallway. That five feet of hand walking was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I was awed by the fact that he could have the balance and strength to do such a thing. The other America that I saw walk on their hands was a fellow volunteer named Julie. Julie is a collegiate level gymnast and has been training for 15 years to gain the skills necessary to maintain such a careful balance. Julie and Mike are highly esteemed in my book of coolness for their hand walking, but from what I have seen over here, I think they would loose easily to most of this island boys.
The other thing that makes the feet fights so surprising is that pretty much every single boy can do it. Even the little tikes seem to do it with ease. They flip up and can walk around for minutes at a time without noticeably struggling at all. Its not a skill reserved for the rare athletic specimen. It's a universal talent.
When I worked at an elementary school back in Irvine, most of my students  were either too fat, too scared, too nerdy or too rich to play much of anything. Their chubby McDonald’s bellies and manicured toenails were in stark contrast to the chiseled abs and calloused palms of my students now. I would bet a $100 that not a single kid at my elementary school in Irvine could walk on his hands for more than 5 seconds. I would also bet that same $100 that you couldn't find more than 5 kids in my Chuuk elementary school that couldn't walk on their hands for 5 minutes.
After interacting with the youth of Chuuk and observing them in action, this is my conclusion about their athleticism in comparison to Americans. The average Chuukese athlete is a hell of a lot better than the average American athlete. But the elite American athletes outshine the elite Chuukese athletes by a longshot. If I chose a random person from Chuuk and a random person from America, I could almost guarantee that the Chuukese guy would kick his ass. . If there was a battle royale with barehanded combat, the Chuukese would wipe the slate with Americans because of the superiority of the majority.  But if I took the best athlete in Chuuk and matched him against Lebron James, I could almost guarantee that Lebron would dominate in any sport they played. That's why America is number one in Olympic sports and is atop the world in athletic competitions. But the Chuukese do hold an edge in some categories, and I don't think it's a good idea for Michael Phelps to challenge a chuukese teenager to a fight (with hands or feet).

Rainbow Moon

The other day I saw one of the most beautiful scenes in the history of the world, but I didn't have a camera with me so I thought I would write a little blurb about it to keep the picture alive:

            It was an average equatorial afternoon, and the drizzling rain had just begun to fade away. The clouds parted over the ocean and the birds emerged from their dripping nests with songs of springtime. I glanced to the south and was stopped in my tracks by the miraculous sight that was unfolding in front of me. As the wispy clouds floated away in the warm wind, the edges of a rainbow began to emerge. Sprouting from the leafy green mountainside, a great arch of color glided through the sky and melted into the waters of the lagoon. The sparkling colors materialized into distinct lines and made an unbroken archway across the tropical landscape. Beneath the apex of the vibrant rainbow shone the white orb of a daytime moon in its full glory. With palm trees in the foreground, mountainous jungle on the left, turquoise water on the right, and a full moon as its crown, the rainbow elegantly framed a heavenly scene.

Do It Yourself

Regardless of the quality of the final product, people like to do things for themselves. Many fathers would rather sit on a shaky three legged stool handcrafted by their teenage son in woodshop class instead of buying a commercial stool. Most men want to trust their instincts to find directions instead of consulting a map. Some people like to draw personalized birthday cards instead of opting for the store bought variety. When hard work goes into something, it just seems more special.
            The same principle applies to food. The harder you work to obtain your food and prepare you meal, the better it tastes. Somehow the effort that you put into your meal magically seeps into the food and gives it an extra kick. Take crab legs for an example. These are often regarded as one of the finest delicacies in the culinary world. But the tasty meat is encased in a rock hard shell that was created specifically to keep hungry mouths away. It takes a frustrating ordeal of bloody fingers and squirting juices to pry out a single ounce of the white meat. When you slide that tiny piece of succulent flesh into your mouth, your taste buds explode and you savor every millisecond of delicious goodness. The painstaking finger slicing maneuvers to procure that little piece of tastiness greatly contributed to the mental sensations of taste. Have you ever had a heaping mound of pre pealed crab meat? No, you probably haven’t. People don't want it that way. You would get more meat in your belly, but the experience wouldn't be as wickedly delightful. For some reason, it wouldn't be as good.
            I have reaffirmed my belief in this illogical human tendency during my eating experiences in Chuuk. The cuisine of isolated islands is not much to brag about and no food channel specials will ever be done about Chuuk, but I have had some wonderful dining experiences because of the work that has gone into the meals. When you chase a fish through the ocean and stab it with your own spear, the fried slivers of soft meat are amazingly tasty. When you spend 7 hours transforming breadfruit into pounded loaves, each bite gives you great pleasure. When you raise and take care of a pig for a year, it butchered flesh is all the juicer.
            When I go back to America, this feeling of self-subsistence will probably fade away after my first trip to grocery store. The immediate gratification of buying a block of cheese and a slab of bacon will probably outweigh the pleasure I would get by curdling my own cheese and butchering my own pig. Eating perfectly grilled steak and masterly sliced sashimi at a restaurant will probably make me forget all about the joy of chasing my lunch with a spear. But for now, when I have no choice but to work hard for my food, I will take solace in the fact that it is a little bit tastier because it was hard to get.

My Swimmin Hole

When I first came to my home village here on Fefan, I was slightly disappointed that there wasn't a spacious white sand beach to greet me on the shore. We have a scraggly looking dock and splotches of seashell encrusted beach, but it’s not exactly the perfect swimming sanctuary that I had imagined. Eventually my disappointment gave way to appreciation when I realized that my dock is actually one of the best casual swimming areas in Chuuk.
On Weno, the water is polluted with smelly diapers, Styrofoam cups and raw sewage. Tonoas and most of the high volcanic islands are surrounded by swampy mangrove forests and have rare access to clear water. The outer islands in the Mortlocks are home to the picturesque images of paradise, but the water is laden with poop and is often too shallow to swim.
But my spot on the dock is clean, clear and deep. You can dive off the concrete platform and plunge into a warm pool of salty refreshment. No mud to sludge through, no pollution to barf on, and no sea grass to wade through. We have coral clumps and sloping sand. It is pretty ideal.
While the swimming conditions are heavenly, the locals have a couple of peculiar thoughts about taking a leisurely swim. Surprisingly, a huge number of people do not know how to swim. In a place where swimming is literally a matter of life and death, I don't understand why it is avoided by so many. A lot of the women seem to have a fear of the ocean. I have met more people in my village that don't know how to swim that all the non-swimmers combined in my life up to this point. Kind of weird
The other thing that is odd about their swimming habits, is that they don't want to swim when its hot outside. They don't see the logic in cooling off with a nice dip when its 100 degrees outside. I will be sitting near the dock with a group of kids as we are slopping through our own personal puddles of sweat and I will suggest taking a swim to cool down. Three sets of angry glances will shoot me down and they will quizzically ask, “why I would ever want to go for a swim at a time like this”.
No, the islanders don't like to swim when its hot. They only want to swim when it rains. Against all logical arguments, they only have a desire to refresh themselves in the calm waters of the Pacific if they are already covered in rain. As a result, I have rarely had the wonderful opportunity of swimming under the blazing sun of the tropics. Rather, my experiences in the water almost always take place during a torrential downpour.
And lastly, after you swim, you must immediately shower with fresh water. If you do not promptly shower, your soul will be consumed by the sea ghost and you will be induced with involuntary craziness that will ultimately lead to death. Fun huh? Their stubborn belief in the sea ghost supercedes their fanatical obsession with Jesus and spooks me a little bit because of their fervent reminders and constant warnings. 
So I have come to understand the islanders’ attitude towards swimming as this: avoid swimming if possible, if you must swim make sure that it is cold and rainy outside, after swimming be sure to rid your body of the fatal spirits of the sea gods.

Child Safety

I come from the safest suburban city in all of America. I grew up in place where crime and poverty were foreign concepts as rare as djembe drums and blue whales. I went to schools where slapping your friend on the arm would cost you a trip to the principals office. I lived in a family where running with scissors and putting your hand in the lawnmower were discouraged.
            But just like everything else, the concept of safety is very different here in Chuuk. Fingers get chopped off with machetes. Infected wounds spread like wildfire. Poisonous spiders are shooed off the dinner plates. Little kids start fires. Fights are brushed off as minor interruptions. And every human being has a two-foot knife in their hands at all times.
These things being said, you might think that Chuuk is a very unsafe place. On the surface it seems to have all the symptoms of danger and instability. But somehow, all these things we fear in America don't cause all the terrible effects that we imagine. Lots of knives + dangerous work + no rules + safety precautions= peace and happiness? This seems counterintuitive and oxymoronic, but that's how the formula works out. People live their lives and they are happy, things just flow along with a sense of relaxation and carefree demeanor, instead of blowing up in mayhem.
Once you realize that the hulk-like half-naked man with a tattooed face who is walking towards you with a machete is not on a rampage of murder, but instead is going to retrieve you a coconut, your anxiety level about the safety begins to wane. Once you see the dexterity of a teenager chopping a tree with a knife, you realize that training from a young age maybe isnt such a bad idea. Once you taste the succulent juices of a freshly caught octopus, you realize that having a reckless abandon for safety and sticking bare hands into the den of a powerful creature isn’t too crazy.
My little sister Katherine serves as the best example of the disregard for child safety, but relative prosperity and happiness that ensues (for now at least). Katherine just turned three years old and can do pretty much whatever she wants. The problem is that what she wants to do would be considered insane by most babysitters and preschool teachers. Two quick examples give a good summary of how Katherine is allowed to live her life.
 The other day I saw her walk into the house from outside. She had a cigarette stuck behind her ear and was carrying four in her hand. The waddling baby girl then plopped the cigarettes on the table next to her father and then went after a snack. She opened the jar of sugar, licked her finger and began to eat handfuls of plain sugar. Minutes later she was crying in a puddle of her own pee. 
I came home from school the other day, and found Katherine in the front yard doing some weeding with a butcher knife. Surprisingly enough, this was not an unusual sight. She is given a large knife on almost a daily basis to amuse herself as she wacks away at the grass. It's a good way to waste the hours. But today she was double wielding knives. One huge kitchen knife and one small machete. She then popped her head up and screamed at the top of her lungs waato masis!!! (give me some matches). If this scene was happened upon by an America social services worker, Katherine would most assuredly be taken to protective custody. Seeing an unsupervised toothless baby (her teeth are rotted out by sugar) with two knives demanding matches might be cause for concern. But this is a normal scene in Chuuk. Things like this happen all the time. And call me crazy, but I still feel pretty damn safe.