Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…..well not quite, it was 2007. I was sitting at my desk on a Thursday afternoon when the phone rang and a guy was asking me if I could be in the FSM (The Federated States of Micronesia) by Sunday night. I laughed because after 20 plus years in the military I knew that things rarely happened that fast and I wasn’t even sure where the FSM was, I knew it was somewhere out in the vast Pacific Ocean. Fast forward to Saturday morning and I was boarding a Continental Airlines flight from Honolulu to Guam, continuing to Chuuk, FSM and ending in Pohnpie, FSM. The only way in or out of this place was a $1900 round trip ticket on Continental Airlines, now United Airlines.
If you harken back to the mid 2000’s we were all going to die from Avian Influenza which was going to be transmitted from a chicken in Vietnam or China and travel across the Pacific. We theorized that it would arrive on a plane or eventually hop from Island to Island across the Pacific. As luck would have it, I was a Medical Plans Officer and we were writing plans on how to counter the spread and examining ways the military could assist other U.S. Federal Agencies. It wasn’t the most exciting thing I had ever done but an all-expense paid trip to Pohnpie, FSM sounded good to me. I was going to meet up with some folks from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and participate in a workshop on Pandemic Influenza. While the bureaucracy churned out the paperwork, authorizations, signatures and plane tickets, I started to gather background on just what the FSM was all about and where it was.
The FSM is located approximately 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii and consists of more than 600 islands spread throughout one million square miles in the western Pacific Ocean. Although the area encompassing the FSM is large, the total land area is only 271 square miles. The islands vary from large, mountainous volcanic islands to raised limestone islands to small atolls. The islands of the FSM are divided into four states: Chuuk, Pohnpei, Yap, and Kosrae.
Traditionally, the FSM was a subsistence economy and even today the economic activity of the islands consists primarily of subsistence farming and selling its fishing rights to the highest bidder due to its territorial waters being some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Resource-poor and remote, the FSM has minimal development potential beyond fisheries and tourism. However, the tourism angle is hampered by the price of airfare. The majority of the population is ethnically Micronesian and, along with a few smaller ethnically Polynesian groups, is descended from the islands' original inhabitants.
The FSM is part of the Compact of Free Association with the United States. As a compact nation, FSM receives U.S. grant and program assistance and over $130 million in direct assistance each year until 2023 when the current agreement ends. Over 25 U.S. federal agencies operate programs in the FSM. The United States has full authority and responsibility for the defense and security of the FSM. Under the Compact, FSM citizens can live, work, and study in the United States without a visa. FSM citizens volunteer to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces at approximately double the per capita rate of Americans. Over half of every graduating high-school class joins the military every year. It amounts to a way out!
The Island (State) of Pohnpei is located halfway between Honolulu and Manila. The islands population is roughly 35,000. Kolonia is the only real town on the island that contains shops and services, the remainder of the island is composed of smaller villages and farmland/jungle. The center of the Island has a 2500 foot mountain which catches the passing rainclouds which then dump 384 inches of rain per year, creating a lush tropically forested environment. Most of this rain occurs during the hours of darkness. The island’s shoreline is skirted with mangrove forests and there are no beaches. A quick boat trip out to one of the smaller islands or reef inlets solves that problem.
Enroute, I stopped in Guam and changed planes. The flight through Chuuk, terminating in Pohnpei took on an interesting mix of passengers. Almost all the woman were dressed in brightly colored skirts and dresses and many were speaking a language I had never heard before. What was even more interesting was that most of them knew each other. It obviously wasn’t a tour group and I found it odd at first, only later would I realize just how small the world was that I was about to enter. We landed in Chuuk and were required to disembark so the plane could refuel. The plane stopped on the runway in front of the terminal which looked like an open air pavilion and I watched them drive the truck mounted steps out to the plane. I had never disembarked from a jumbo jet down a pair of steps before…I found it interesting.
Finally we landed in Pohnpei; it was very similar to Chuuk with the stairs and the open air pavilion style airport. As I made it out of the terminal it was after midnight on Sunday and it looked like the whole town was there for the plane’s arrival. I was told there would be a guy to meet me in front of the terminal and he would give me my rental car. No sign, no counter, no phone number.…just some guy. OK, leap of faith. I stood outside the terminal for a few minutes having a smoke and trying to soak it all in when a guy walked up and asked me for my name and then introduced himself, my rental car guy. He drove me over to my hotel, showing me where it was and then I dropped him off at his house. On the way to his house he pointed out the rental car office and told me to stop by the next day when I had a chance and sign the rental paperwork. I laughed and said really? That’s it? He assured me again and I was off to my hotel…..well it’s not like I was going to take the car anywhere, it wasn’t aquatic.
The next morning I got directions and drove over to the tiny US Embassy in Pohnpei and checked in with the Defense Attaché who coordinated all military programs and activity in FSM. This embassy was so small that it didn’t rate a military officer and they had a civilian in the position. We chatted a bit about expectations and goals and she said the US Ambassador would be over at the conference for some opening remarks in a few hours and she would welcome me them. She pointed me in the right direction and I drove over to the State Hospital where the conference was being held.
The FSM government employee’s we were working with were so welcoming and warm. We were greeted with leis made of wiliwili and betel nut and they organized activities almost every night as well as potluck luncheons during the conference. They were always making sure we were being taken care of. They were some of the most genuine and caring people I have ever met. Within a day I felt as if I was part of their family. Fortunately, they insured that the conference ended on Thursday, leaving us with a free day on Friday. I wasn’t flying out until late Saturday night, giving me almost two full days to see the island, plus whatever sleep time that would be sacrificed during the week.
The Sakau Experience
The guys took me out to a sakau house one night. Sakau is the local narcotic drink made from the roots of the pepper shrub. Pohnpei is also world famous for its pepper. The pepper roots are pounded on a stone and the pulp is collected and then squeezed through hibiscus bark. The resulting juice is then mixed with water and served in a coconut shell or a bowl, similar to kava. The sakau was not visually appealing, it looked like water from a mud puddle and had a chalky/woody flavor and a bit of a gritty consistency. They suggested that I just close my eyes and drink . Eyes closed!
After two cups of sakau my lips and tongue went numb, that same feeling you get after the dentist shoots you full of novocain. Conversation among the group slowed, maybe due to numb mouths but likely due to the narcotic effects. After a few more cups we were off into silent contemplation. They took me back to my hotel room where I drifted up the stairs and melted into my room. It was much different than drinking alcohol where your coordination and balance is thrown off. Sakau caused me to mentally separate from my body. I was still physically in possession of my body, I was walking fine but my thoughts were in a galaxy far, far away.
I woke the next morning with no trace of a hangover, but from what seemed like a very deep sleep, a sort of buried alive sleep. Interesting evening. I had seen sakau for sale in many of the local shops. It was all locally produced and sold in clear plastic jugs and reused liquor bottles. Unfortunately I never asked what it was and did not know what it was until the Sakau experience when they told me you could buy it anywhere and what to look for. Well for obvious reasons I went to seven different shops on Friday night looking for sakau, there wasn’t a bottle to be had anywhere! The sales clerk in one of the shops laughed and told me that they always sell out of sakau by noon on Friday and they wouldn’t have any more until Monday afternoon……go figure!
Off the southeast coast of Pohnpei lie the ancient ruins of the once great city of Nan Madol. Constructed of basalt pillars atop the tidal flats and reef, this city was an important political, social and religious center. It is believed that construction began in the 7th century and continued until the 16th century. When the Europeans began to colonize Pohnpei , Nan Madol had only recently been vacated.
We hired a boatman who took us out to visit the site. The boat had twin 60’s mounted on the back and we hammered across the water to Nan Madol. He wasn’t wasting time! Almost all visitors arrive by boat as the overland route is near impassable. We entered through a break in the seawall and arrived at the central plaza of Nan Dowas built with basalt pillars that are 25 feet high. The entire city complex is composed of 80 artificial islets with basalt rock structures built upon them. The resulting canals which twist and turn through the complex have led to the moniker “Venice of Micronesia”. I was completely in awe of the place. Its construction is mind boggling when you see the structures built of basalt rock columns/logs which was quarried inland and likely transported by bamboo or mangrove rafts. I immediately thought of the pyramids in Egypt as a comparison to the level of construction difficulty.
As we departed Nan Madol we headed out to a tiny atoll for lunch and some snorkeling. I took a quick look around the atoll, it was so small I could throw a rock across its width and I could see end to end lengthwise. It was like a sandbar in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I was having thoughts of Vanuatu, global warming and Al Gore? Wanting to get some snorkeling in, I ditched lunch and jumped in. It was a National Geographic moment! There was no need to scuba dive here. The water was crystal clear and visibility was forever. There were fish everywhere on the pristine reef and the seagrass swayed slowly on the ocean floor. It was hands down the best snorkeling I had ever done. I only wished we would have had more time…..
Around The Island and Some Good Eats
There is a road that circles the island that is in pretty decent shape but there are no gas stations outside of Kolonia, where gas was $5 a gallon payable in cash on the barrelhead. I spent a day driving around the island stopping off at various sites to take photos, explore and chat with the locals. It was interesting to see signs to the effect….the next 20 miles of road were built by the Government of Japan, this section of road brought to you by the People’s Republic of China and oh by the way look at our huge embassy out in the middle of nowhere! Such is politics and the costs nations bear for access and influence.
Hike Up Sokehs Rock
I hiked to the top of Sokehs Rock which had an awesome view of Kolonia and a bunch of war relics at the top. I had fun checking out the remains of a concrete bunker, a 6 inch naval gun as well as a pair of anti-aircraft guns and the remains of a searchlight platform. Maybe there should have been a sign here that said these war relics provided by the Emperor of Japan and the Imperial Japanese Army. Anyway, I had the entire place to myself and took plenty of photos. The rental car was a bit worse for the wear after climbing up the steep, rutted gravel road to get to the trailhead….but hey, it’s a rental!
Mangrove Crab. Wow! These crustaceans were huge, tasty and cooked to perfection. We placed our order at the restaurant the day prior and they sent some local kids out to the mangroves to catch them. We arrived for dinner and they were cooked for us within hours of being caught. One of the guys I was working with from Atlanta, Ga brought a cooler of them home he liked them so much.
Fresh Sashimi and Super Cheap
Sashimi. Super Wow! As I mentioned earlier in the post, the FSM is home to some of the best tuna fishing grounds in the world. The Chinese operate a 25 boat fishing fleet and packing house out of the harbor in Kolonia where they pay a princely sum to rape the territorial waters of the FSM…I digress. Back to the Sashimi….I ate it raw, seared, with wasabi, hell I ate it every chance I could. I am confident that I could have functioned as a human thermometer after the trip. This stuff was $50 a pound grade that I occasionally ate in Honolulu. A plate of sashimi was $8. In one place I ordered raw sashimi and it was served it to me in a large bowl, there must have been 2lbs of fish in the bowl for $8.
The overall experience was super. I was given the opportunity to help this small nation, in the end they returned more than I could have given. It was a great chance to see a part of the world that I would have never considered visiting. Luckily, it was the first of many trips that I would eventually take to this part of the Pacific Ocean!