Mike here, finally getting around to doing some blogging.
After eight months on-island, I got to take my first business trip. From August 4th through 7th, I was in the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia (“FSM”), on the island of Pohnpei, for a trade policy and legal drafting conference sponsored by the European Union. Since no one else in the office wanted to go, I was given the opportunity to volunteer as legal counsel for the representatives from Yap. With all expenses paid (ticket, hotel, and per diem included), they could have sent me anywhere as far as I’m concerned.
The conference organizers booked the notoriously early, red-eye flight out of Yap at 4am. Since check in began at 2 a.m., Miranda just stayed up and drove me to the airport. There, we stood in line for a half hour with a half-dozen tired looking Japanese divers and one elderly Yapese man with a giant cooler. Eventually, some Continental workers appeared, and started the lengthy process of security screening. As luck would have it, the Japanese group brought two full trolleys of boxes and bags of diving equipment, that each needed to be opened and painstakingly searched in the interests of ‘security’. Next, they moved on to the Yapese man and weighed his cooler, which turned out to be 10 pounds overweight. Opening it to investigate, they were surprised to find an extremely large, extremely frozen fish! The man suggested he just chop off the head and take it as a carry-on, to everyone’s amusement.
Eventually, I got my ticket and flew to Guam for a two-hour stopover before continuing on to Pohnpei. After clearing immigration and customs as quickly as possible, I nearly ran through the terminal in order to reach the food court with its Burger King kiosk. To say the least, after seven months without fast food, the breakfast croissant meal tasted heavenly.
After a particularly bumpy plane ride, the Yap State ‘trade delegation’ consisting of myself, a State legislator, and three division heads of State government, arrived on Pohnpei in the early afternoon. Our hotel, Y’Vonnes, was located in the center of Kolonia, Pohnpei’s largest town (not to be confused with Colonia, Yap’s largest town), and was very clean. Luckily, I was able to snag a room all to myself, complete with a stove, fridge, and cooking utensils. As an added treat, there was a television with as many as 10 channels! The remote may have been broken, and the picture fuzzy, but it still felt like such a luxury.
Generally, Pohnpei is like a bigger, more developed version of Yap. It’s another jungle covered island, but since it gets more rain than anywhere else in Micronesia, the jungles are much denser. The roads are remarkably flat and pothole free, unlike those in Yap that are usually well worn and pocked with many craters. The stores and shops in Kolonia come in all shapes and sizes, but most have that typical appearance of fighting the constant battle between decay and repair.
On the first night, our group wound up being invited to a barbeque at the house of friend of one of our group. We bought some beverages at one of the local grocery stores; near the Spanish Wall, which is all that remains of a fort built there in the 1880’s. Appropriately, the store was named “Wall Mart”. It’s well organized shelves stocked with row upon row of mostly recognizable products was both shocking and comforting. There was ample, fresh produce and a large refrigerated section filled with all manner of steaks, sausage, and cheese. It really made me wish I had brought a cooler of my own to fill with all these goodies unavailable on Yap!
The barbeque turned out to be very enjoyable. We all sat underneath a “nahs” (pronounced ‘nass’), the Pohnpeian version of the Yapese koyeng, or palm frond thatched open-walled hut, and drank and chatted. Since the language native to Pohnpei is different from what is spoken in Yap, thankfully everyone spoke in English. Later in the evening, everyone moved into the house, where a huge feast was waiting for us. There was an assortment of pasta salads, local foods like breadfruit and taro cooked in a variety of styles, and a giant mound of barbecued ribs and chicken legs. The meat was very tasty. I was told the marinade included the famous Pohnpei pepper, a particularly spicy locally grown black pepper. Our host told stories about Pohnpei and gossiped about recent happenings in the FSM until late in the evening.
While chatting, I asked about a small greenhouse filled with flowers built close to the main house. I learned that is customary in Pohnpei for families to bury deceased relatives on the property of their home, and regularly place flowers at the grave. Driving through town, it was common to see these little household mausoleums all over the place.
The trade conference was interesting enough, but I won’t bore you with all the tedious details. Basically, the purpose was to look at ways for the FSM to increase exports and invest in infrastructure in order to survive after the Compact of Free Association with the U.S., which annually funnels over $97 million dollars into the country, ends in about a decade. That’s right, U.S. readers, those are your tax dollars hard at work in Micronesia, building schools, providing health care, keeping government afloat, and paying my salary.
The conference was held at the national government complex in the nearby town of Palikir. About a dozen various government buildings, including the office of the President, the legislature, and the Supreme Court, were scattered around an acre of well-manicured lawns literally carved out of the dense jungle. Since it rains so much, covered walkways connected each of the buildings. If it wasn’t for the many flags and the official seal of the FSM posted conspicuously at every entrance, you might think you’d wandered only the campus of a small-town community college. The buildings were fairly new, included a number of clever architectural details reflecting the uniqueness of each of the FSM’s member states. For example, in front of all the buildings were faux-stone pillars representing the “rock” of Pohnpei, along with other parts of the buildings that featured replicas of Yap’s famous stone money.
Probably one of the best things about the Pohnpei trip was the number of very unique and reasonably priced handicrafts available for purchase. On Yap, unless you know someone in the village who make them, you’ll wind up paying outrageous prices for handicrafts at hotel gift shops and art galleries that primarily caters to the absurdly wealthy tourists that occasionally stop at the island in their mega-yachts. Scattered all around Kolonia were little shops lined with all manner of wood carvings (including the manta ray and a depiction of one of the gods of the outer islands of Pohnpei shown here), jewelry made from turtle shell, and an assortment of woven wall hangings both large and small. Since this might have been my first and only trip to Pohnpei, I bought back a lot of wood carvings souvenirs to give our house in Yap a decidedly Micronesian atmosphere, as well as a traditional skirt that Miranda had asked for.
No trip to Pohnpei is complete without trying the local beverage, called sakau, which is made from the root of the kava plant. The root is pounded into powder in large stone bowls, then wrapped in a particular bark grown only on Pohnpei, which is then used like a tea bag to infuse water with the essence of kava. Bottles of the stuff are sold all over the island, but I was warned that I should buy from a known reputable vendor. Thankfully, one member of our delegation had friends or relatives living there, who were able to provide us a few safe bottles. It looked innocuous enough, having the exact whitish color of a pina colada. The smell was very strong and not particularly pleasant, and it had a powerfully medicinal taste and the texture of a mouthful of silt. By the time we neared the bottom of the first bottle, there was an intense debate as to who would drink the sludge-like dregs that remained. I was duped into believing that this was the ‘best part’, but was thankfully able to keep the slurry of powdered root down. Unlike alcohol, sakau has no obvious mental effects, aside from a general feeling of calm. If you were drinking it sitting down, you might think that it’s “not working” or that you got a “bad batch”, that is, until you tried to stand up and wound up falling on your face. You see, in addition to an initially shocking numbness in the mouth that leaves you feeling like you just left the dentist after a particularly rough root canal, you still get all the physical symptoms of being drunk. The effect of sakau was described as causing your left leg to go straight and your right leg to go left. However, being ever mindful of moderation, I was able to get the full experience without going overboard. To say the least, I slept soundly that night.
On our last night in Pohnpei, the conference organizers held a reception at a great restaurant with an amazing view of the harbor and the largest mountain on the island. The food was excellent, including a large platter of beef ribs that was a real treat considering the lack of cows on Yap. Afterwards, we retired to the hotel. The next morning, after doing some last minute souvenir shopping, we headed back to the airport for our departing flight. We again transited through Guam, where I over-indulged on my last chance of eating at Burger King for a while, and eventually arrived back on Yap Island safe and sound.
In short, I fully enjoyed my time on the island of Pohnpei. It was a memorable experience, and I sincerely hope my first time there was not also my last.