Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My Two Different Worlds

I roll over in my mound of fluffy pillows and wrap the goose down comforter closer around my body and drift off into carefree sleep for another couple of hours. Later in the morning, I awake lazily and walk across the varnished oak hardwood hallway to turn on the high-pressure showerhead that will soon revitalize me with its soothing warm waters. As I am picking out a shirt from my overstuffed closet, my nose picks up a faint waft of bacon. The succulent bacony goodness draws me downstairs to the kitchen where a sizzling breakfast of omelets, bacon and bagels awaits me. The TV is chattering in the background about the relationship debacle between Tom & Katie, and my dog Dude is crouching happily at my feet.  I grab a newspaper, pour a glass of fresh orange juice and take a seat on a softly padded dining room chair to leisurely enjoy the morning…Obviously I am not in Chuuk anymore.
I made the 6000 mile, 36 hour journey across the vast expanse of the Pacific back to the place that I used to call reality. I did a little experimentation with time travel and leapt back 24 hours in time as I crossed over the international dateline. It felt like a snippet of Bill Murray’s movie Groundhog’s Day when I got to experience July 2 twice in a row. It took me four connecting flights and a few cocktails, but I finally arrived back home sweet home.
I had said a temporary goodbye to plates of canned mackerel, cold bucket showers and the sweltering heat of the tropics and hello to grande burritos, cold beer and the comforts of suburbia. My first order of business once on American soil had been mentally mapped out for months; I drove directly to In n’ Out burger and feasted on a juicy double-double animal-style no-tomato. My first five meals followed a meticulously planned itinerary. After In n’ Out opened the flood gates, I munched on a platter of tacos for dinner, shoveled down a mound of bacon and cheese for breakfast, indulged in some more spicy Mexican for lunch, and capped it off with a hearty meal of steak and potatoes. As my vacation wore on, my culinary palate would continue to explore all the varied possibilities that stocked supermarkets and limitless strip malls could supply.
Before returning home I had read about and heard the harrowing legends of overwhelming culture shock that returned Peace Corps volunteers often encounter. The readjustment back to the world of technology and overabundance can sometimes inundate the senses and cause nervous breakdowns or harsh disillusionment. In my case, the transition wasn't too difficult. I didn't forget how to drive a car, my toilet was still in the same place and the sun still rose in the east. New stores had popped up, contemporary music was blaring from radios, and every single human being was ticking away on an Iphone; but overall everything was just how I remembered it.
Although I handled the shocks of modernity rather well, I have to admit that when I stepped into a Target megastore I was a little taken aback and had to sit down for a moment. My heart started to pump rapidly and my breathing became shallower as I stared down the endless lines of easily accessible consumer luxuries that were plastered across the shiny white warehouse. An entire aisle dedicated to spatulas and a half dozen rows of soap just seemed a little bit ridiculous to me.
My three weeks in the states never left me an idle moment. I was being shuffled from person to person and allocating my time the best that I could to accommodate the constant requests from friends and family. I went on errands with my mom, played golf and pool with my dad, hung out with my siblings and chilled with all my buddies. At the OC fair I gorged on some greasy treats and then rocked out to a Matisyahu concert. We tasted deep-fried Oreos, cool-aid, and Klondike bars along with chocolate covered bacon and the infamous Caveman: a 4 pound smoked turkey leg wrapped in a full pound of bacon……mmmm, delicious artery blockage.
A weekend in Hollywood at the fancy five-star W hotel was probably the most polar opposite place I could possibly imagine from my village in Chuuk. My friend Brad rented a multi-thousand dollar suite and invited everyone we knew to party the night away. The scene at the rooftop pool best exemplified the swanky affluence of the place. Silicon breasts strutting around in 6 inch heels were fawned over by throngs of gold watches and perfectly gelled hair that showcased the full glamour and beauty of Hollywood. On the menu, there was a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne modestly priced at a measly $75,000! Yes, you heard me correct, that price has three zeroes following it and could be a down payment on a nice house.
The urban sprawl of Los Angeles spread out in all directions from the poolside vantage point and provided a fitting background for the boundless affluence that was represented by the hotel. As the night wore on, we partied to the max and rumor has it that one of my buddies may or may not have impulsively thrown a champagne bottle at a ten thousand dollar pane of ornately decorated glass and shattered it to pieces. I’ll leave that up to your imagination.
I did my best to take advantage of the amazing things about living in the developed world and drank my fair share of beer, took 20 minute showers, slept in until 11 everyday, and ate tasty foods until I felt like I was going to pop. A good amount of my time was spent shooting pool and darts in my garage while listening to old records and playing dice with my friends and family. I also played a couple of rounds of golf and to my pleasant surprise found out that two years of not touching a golf club might have actually made me a better golfer. The sport of golf is all about staying mentally calm and focused, and I guess that countless hours of relaxation in the islands have trained my mind to be impervious to distraction.
Most of my trip home was wonderful, except for the actual reason that I made the trip back to America. I came home so that I could be the best man in my big brother’s wedding and watch him marry the beautiful love of his life. Unfortunately, fate had different plans and threw in a monkey wrench that forestalled the wedding. On the night of Independence Day, Jim was riding in the back of a pickup truck and when it came to a stop he went to hop out of the back but slipped backwards and smacked his head on the asphalt. The fall knocked him unconscious and he began to bleed out of his ear. The next few days were spent in the ICU and it was determined that he had a fractured skull. There was no permanent long-term damage, but the short-term damage was severe. The prognosis for recovery was a long and difficult road of nausea, sleepiness, pain and confusion. Following doctors’ orders and the feelings of the family, the wedding was postponed. However our spirits were brightened as time wore on because Jim made miraculous progress and was back on his feet in a matter of days. He is still not 100%, but fortunately is stronger and healthier than anyone could have imagined. This freak accident put a serious damper on my trip home and dashed away the official reasons for me to leave my post in Micronesia, but all that really matters is that my bro is ok.
The scary situation with my brother and the emotion that racked our family gave me a clear illustration of why I love America. It’s not the lighting fast technology, comfortable beds and delicious food. The reason that America is the best place on earth for me is because of the people that live there. My family and my friends. That's what I truly miss about home. I can rather easily handle the lack of material goods, infrastructure, entertainment and comforts in Chuuk, but the lack of my family and friends is the real challenge to overcome.
On the flip side, the people of Chuuk are what really matter to me there. My fellow volunteers, my host family and the people in my community are what make it genuinely special. The unbelievable beauty and carefree lifestyle are great, but the people make the difference.
In many of my conversations with Americans about my experiences in Chuuk, the question was asked about which place I like better, Chuuk or America? As I pondered this question and weighed the pros and cons of the lives that I live in both places, I came to an interesting conclusion. My trip to California made me realize two things: I love America and I love Chuuk. Being home made me appreciate all the fabulous things about America, but at the same time it made me appreciative of my life in Chuuk. These two parallel universes that I inhabit could not be much more of opposites, but somehow I honestly and truly love them both. 

A Little Time with My Big Brother

Its already been well over a month since my brother came and went from his vacation in Chuuk, and the weeks since have been filled with mayhem so I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write about our adventures, but I feel its necessary to at least give a short summary of what happened during his visit to my islands in Micronesia. Most of the things we did while he was here were similar to when my little sister came the year before, so for the sake of brevity and repetition I will keep it short and just run over the basics of what happened.
The first thing on our agenda when my brother Jim arrived in Weno was to do what 99% of the tourists coming to Chuuk want to experience, wreck diving. The Chuuk Lagoon is world renowned for the being the best wreck diving spot on the planet. 56 enormous Japanese warships are lying in the shallow blue waters and being slowly enveloped in a sheet of multicolored corals that defy the imaginative bounds of an acid tripping artist. These behemoths of steel are littered with bullets, bones, and artifacts leftover from the battles of WWII. The mix of history, tragedy, and beauty make these scuba diving sites a unique destination.
We stayed at the Truk Stop Hotel and did four dives to the depths of the ocean. Schools of brightly hued fish danced around us as we perused the wreckage of these historic hulls. War cannons, wine bottles and crumbling walls are being continuously welded together in colorful clumps of living rock. In the warm tropics, the elements of nature quickly smother anything in their path. On land, the vines and plants twirl around derelict objects and swallow them into the belly of the jungle. Under the water, polyps of coral slowly carpet all surfaces and bury them in warped bungles of rainbows.
On one of the dives, my brother and I forgot our flashlights but decided to blindly follow our guide into the bowels of the ship. Inside the lower hallways of the ships, darkness dominates. A hand in front of your face is just an invisible blur of blackness and the only line of sight that you have is from the sliver of light that is emitted from a flashlight. With the help of our scuba guide’s beam of light, we snaked our way through scarily narrow passages and went deeper inside the maze of tiny tunnels. We came to an open room and our guide turned around to direct us inside. He pointed his beam at a ledge and shook it to tell me to move over there so that Jim could come and fit inside the room. I sat on the rusted slab of metal and watched Jim maneuver his way into the small opening. The guide then shut off his light and darkness once again blinded us. Suddenly the light appeared with a flash at the ceiling about 10 inches above my head. My eyes followed the beam and nearly popped out of my head as I looked up to see a human skull staring me in the face! I was so startled that I shot backwards and banged my elbow on a table behind me. The guide pointed his light at the table and I saw a pile of cracked bones under my forearm. Talk about dramatic effect, this guide knew what he was doing.
Later that night after the skeleton incident, I spent my first evening ever in a Chuukese bar. The Hard Wreck CafĂ© has the ambiance of a friendly beach dive bar and fulfilled all my fantasies of what normal alcohol consumption should be. Bluesy rock was playing over the speakers and a couple pool tables kept us entertained. A local guy named Ketani had just returned to Chuuk from Olympic trials and was in a jubilant mood. He picked up the tab for the entire bar and kept the drinks flowing faster than we could drink them. Hanging out with my brother while shooting pool, drinking whiskey and listening to Chuck Berry…wow, this felt just like America.
After Jim was introduced to Chuuk with a stint of diving, we headed to my rural island of Fefan to spend a week with my host family. Jim got a healthy dose of bucket showers, canned fish, concrete mattresses, and buzzing insects during his stay. On one of our hikes up the mountain we took a sideways detour through the jungle and came to a mysterious place that I had never seen before. A black crevice in the slanted face of a rock left an opening of about 18 inches. Following the lead of some of my local friends, we slid down into the damp darkness and found ourselves in a rounded series of tunnel caves. These battle trenches were fashioned by the Japanese and formed mazes throughout the mountain. We wandered through the circular rock holes and found three gigantic artillery cannons poking their nozzles out of various cave entrances. Empty shells bigger than my thigh were scattered along the ground.
The huge guns and secret caves were impressive, but were outshone by the reckless mayhem brought on by the little kids who came along on our hike. They ran through the dark caves like maniacs and waved their hands wildly in the air. They weren’t just being playful, they were rousing the bats! Thousands and thousands of bats. Bats swarming and shrieking in frantic flocks trying to escape the clutching hands of tiny island boys. Jim and I crouched in horror and crept our way along, but the little boys laughed in glee as their faces were pelted with these flying rats. We emerged from the caves and each of the boys had a handful of furry creatures that they attached to their shirts. The bats happily clung to their shirts and curled up in peace for the rest of the hike.
Since Jim was a male, I was able to take him along on fishing outings and teach him a few island methods of catching fish. My specialty is spear fishing and I did my best to impart any knowledge to help him along in his efforts. He nailed a few fish and seemed to really enjoy the hide and seek game of finding camouflaged sea creatures. The spear fishing was a lot of fun, but our serious fishing excursion was a day of tuna trawling that I arranged with a local fisherman. To find the schools of tuna, it is necessary to go outside the lagoon and into the deep blue waters of the Pacific. The flocks of sea birds are the targets you must follow in order to know where the fish are. The tuna circle around balls of small bait fish and huddle them into clumps near the surface. Sea birds can spot the commotion of tiny fish trying to escape the jaws of tuna and we can spot the sea birds.
We were luckless for most of the day and spent a lot of time chasing faint hints of white specks on the horizon, but late in the afternoon we finally came upon a real swarm of birds. We dropped our lines and motored around in circles hoping to snag some big fish. There are no fishing poles in Chuuk, your hands have to do the work of pulling in the fish. When we felt the first tug on our line, Jim and I joined together and starting hauling in the big fish. A few seconds later, our boat operator screamed “Poko!” (shark) and grabbed a hold of the line to help us pull faster. A dark mass of six-foot flesh could be seen snaking its way towards our boat at a blistering pace. We were in a race with the hungry jaws of shark. At the last moment, we yanked the fish out of the water and the shark dove under the stern of our little boat. The next fish we caught was also being pursued by a ravenous shark and once again we narrowly escaped his thieving jaws and brought our catch aboard safely moments before it was engulfed by the cartilaginous beast. Our day would have been considered unsuccessful by fisherman standards, but was a wonderful success by sightseeing standards. Besides the predatory sharks circling our boat, we saw two pods of leaping dolphins and more than ten whales. These humungous gray mammals spouted high in the air and splashed their tails to amuse us throughout the day.
To cap off Jim’s trip to Chuuk, I took him to what I consider to be the most beautiful place on earth, Pisar Island. I have previously gone into extensive detail about the paradisiacal aspects of Pisar, so its suffice to say that we had an amazing time soaking up the sun and floating in turquoise water on our isolated beach paradise for a few days.  It was a perfect end to a delightful visit and rounded out Jim’s impression of the islands in Chuuk. He got to see the muck and mayhem of Weno, the unparalleled underwater spectacles of scuba diving, the rural jungle lifestyle of my island, and the pristine heavenliness of Pisar.


Colors of the Ocean

I was sitting near the dock the other day, staring at the sea as I often do, and I realized that the ocean is not simply blue. Describing the complexity of the sea with a single word just doesn't do it justice. So for fun I decided to count how many different shades of color I could pick out in the ocean scene in front of me. I started near the shallow shore and followed my line of sight past the coral reefs and into the open depths. I came up with 13 distinct colors of the water. Here is a list of the precise scientific and indisputably correct names of the colors:

1.     Baked Lay’s Potato Chip
2.     Winterfresh Mint Mouthwash
3.     Tanqueray Sapphire Gin
4.     UCLA Bruin Baby Blue
5.     Fluorescent Booger Snot
6.     Superman’s Spandex
7.     Underbelly of a Gecko
8.     Smurfs’ Blood
9.     The Cover of My School Notebook
10.  Just Got Punched in the Face
11.  Marge Simpson’s Hair
12.  Some Swedish Guy’s Eyes
13.  Gooey Blueberry Pie

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Solar Lights for My Village

My service in Peace Corps is coming to a close in the next few months, but I am trying to take advantage of the time left and do my best to contribute to my island community in any way possible. I know that many of you are already aware of my basketball court project and have contributed generously to fund its construction. The building of the court is moving along nicely, but they still have plenty of work to do in order to transform a jungle hillside into a legitimate basketball court. I will keep you all updated on its progess as it nears completion.

The majority of my attention is focused on the construction of the court, but as a volunteer I often have half a dozen community development projects happening simultaneously. One of the projects that I am working on now is providing solar lighting to the people of my village. We currently have no electricy on our island and most people spend their evenings and nights in darkness.

I wanted to address this issue of lack of power and lighting on my island, so I began to search for options to alleviate the problem. I have extensively researched solar technology and discovered a reliable and efficient type of small solar lamp that would be affordable to the people of my community. Through a partnership with a local NGO and the Kopernik foundation, I have put together a fundraising effort to bring light to my village.

If you visit my website at http://kopernik.info/en-us/proposal/light-remote-fefan-island-micronesia you will be able to see a description of my project and have the opportunity  to donate towards the cause. As with the basketball court effort, I do not expect all of you to personally contribute large amounts of money for the project. Instead I hope that you will help spread the word and let other people know about the website and project. So please take a look and feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.