Friday, February 18, 2011

Island Hopping [Part 2]: Chuuk

After stuffing myself with fast food and enjoying all the convenience of Guam, I headed back to the airport. I got to my seat, pulled a blanket over me, and tried to doze off for the entire 45 minute flight to Chuuk (rhymes with ‘book’, and means “mountain” in the local language).

Upon landing, the pilot welcomed all the delegates to the conference on economic development to the island. I’ll just mention that the stated purpose of the conference was to create a plan to overcome impediments to growth and to help revitalize the FSM economy. Only time will tell how effective the conference was, given that broad goal. It was attended by delegations from each of the States, the National Government, private sector representatives, banks and non-profit charitable organizations, as well as the Ambassadors from the U.S. and China.

After clearing immigration, our 11-member group was herded to the front of the airport for transportation. In my still groggy state, everything seemed chaotic. People were everywhere, shouting, pointing, and throwing luggage into various vans, pickup trucks, and cars. Eventually, we were loaded in a van, and joined a slow-moving convoy of vehicles along a bumpy dirt road through the center of town.

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Back in Yap, I had been told about the poor condition of the road. Though I had heard this several times previously, it really couldn’t prepare me. The road had massive pits in it, mostly filled with muddy water so it’s impossible to tell whether it’s a puddle or a sinkhole. Also, broad sections of the road were covered in water due to poor drainage. At one point in the drive, the van’s tires were nearly submerged in water. It literally looked like we were driving through a river or lake in between some buildings!

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Since there were no streetlights, the drive through town was mostly in darkness, so I couldn’t really get a sense of what the town of Weno, Chuuk was like. I saw glimpses of some buildings covered in graffiti and in various states of disrepair, while others looked respectable. 

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Most buildings, or complexes of buildings, were surrounded by solid wooden or metal fences with gates. I got the distinct impression that these were not just for show, but rather were necessary for security. Just on the drive through town, we passed by groups of imposing-looking individuals sitting in the shadows and staring at us intently as our convoy went by. It was a little unnerving, to say the least.

Eventually, our van arrived at our accommodations. Our group had previously reserved rooms at a couple of the numerous hotels on the island. Perhaps due to several other events scheduled that week, and the number of important dignitaries attending the conference, our bookings were mysteriously canceled. However, some last minute arrangements were made, with most of our group staying in a house on the outskirts of town. I was lucky enough to be befriended by one of our group, who found an available, unoccupied apartment. Here’s the view, outside the front door.

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It wasn’t the Hilton, but it was dry and we each got our own room. Learning to shower with a bucket and the trickle of water that dripped in from an outdoor water catchment took some getting used to though. 

At around midnight, the power went out. Actually, at around 9pm the entire island power grid went out. The lights and the single fan had been kept running by a backup generator at the apartment that had shut off. Apparently, the power goes out so frequently on Chuuk that most businesses and private homes run off of portable generators. At 6am, the generator kicked back on, and the fan resumed its gentle oscillations. All in all, the generator timer proved to be an effective alarm clock!

The apartment was across the street from the Truk Stop Hotel  (“Truk” is the former name of Chuuk). The hotel primarily caters to divers, since Chuuk is well-known for its many sunken Japanese warships that over time have become marine habitats. During World War II, Truk Lagoon was Japan's main base in the South Pacific theatre, with a significant portion of the Japanese fleet based there.

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At the hotel, there’s a dock you can walk out onto for a good view of the ocean, and an excellent waterfront restaurant. I had breakfast there and drank my coffee while looking out at water. Near the shore, the water was a blackish color, which when you looked closer you could see was caused by thousands of tiny sardines swimming around!

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DSC00059Inside the hotel, the walls are covered in various knick-knacks and local handicrafts, including this slingshot that the proprietor of the hotel said is used as a weapon since guns are illegal.

I’d heard that Chuuk can be a dangerous place for tourists, and my Lonely Planet guidebook to Micronesia said that under no circumstances should you go out at night. Also, other people had cautioned me to be very careful when I went out. Thankfully, I had no unpleasant incidents.

Because Chuuk is the most populous of the FSM States (with upwards of 60,000 residents), and Weno is where all the stores are located, many families come to town by boat from smaller neighboring islands to do their weekly or monthly shopping. As a result, the town is a sort of unofficial meeting place to sit and talk until all the shopping is done. People-watching is a common pastime, so if you ever get that sense you’re being watched, in Weno, it’s because you probably are.

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DSC00026Most of the  week was spent at the conference during the day. Here’s a picture of inside the school gymnasium where the conference was held. As you can tell, this was a parochial school. I’m uncertain whether the poster of Jesus was there before, or intentionally hung up for some added spiritual support.

The school was right behind a church, and around midday, I thought I heard mass being held.

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In the evenings, I attending several banquets and receptions.  One of these was at a beautiful resort called “Blue Lagoon”. Apparently, it was one of the first hotels in all of the FSM, and was built by Continental Airlines. It was right on the water, and looked a little like a condominium complex. Most importantly, there was a gift shop well stocked with local handicrafts for my growing collection.

One was the double-pointed weapon (the item below the shell turtle in the picture). The salesclerk couldn’t tell me much about it, though it does look like it could cause some damage in the right hands.

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The other (the topmost item), is a traditional Chuukese “love stick”. The story goes that each young man carves his own love stick, and carries it with him. Since men and women aren’t allowed to socialize in public, if a boy likes a girl, he’d carve one of these sticks and show it to the girl by way of an amorous advance. The girl will then remember the particular carvings and shape of the stick. Later in the evening, the boy will come to the girls’ house, and poke the pointed end into the thatched wall of her house. The girl then feels the stick, which identifies her suitor. If she wants some company, she pulls the stick inside the house, and has the boy come in. If she refuses, she would push the stick back out and dejected young man goes on his way. From what I can tell, it’s sort of a traditional version of Facebook!

All in all, my trip to Chuuk was an interesting and eye-opening experience. I always enjoy seeing new places and meeting new people, but I was very glad to head back home to Yap.

As a side note, after Chuuk, I took a slight detour to the island of Pohnpei, where the Chinese embassy is located, in order to obtain a visa for our rapidly approaching cruise around Asia. Nothing of particular interest in Pohnpei happened. The “Wall Mart” was still there, and I enjoyed a few days with nothing to do, except to relax. Here’s a view of Pohnpei harbor, with its numerous sailboats.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Island Hopping [Part I]: Guam

This month I (Mike) was invited to join the Yap State delegation to the National Economic Symposium held in Weno, Chuuk from Feb 7th through 11th. I’ll write in more detail about this conference in a subsequent post.

Chuuk Island is directly east from Yap, and getting there by airplane required a stop in Guam where the regional hub for Continental Micronesia is located. As it turned out, the flight schedule allowed for a 12+ hour layover there. Since we left Yap at 3:00am, some of our group got a hotel room and rested up. Even though I was pretty tired, the lure of all the amenities in fully-westernized Guam was too strong to resist.   

So, after our plane touched down, I raced through the terminal, immigration checkpoint, and baggage claim in record time. Not wanting to waste a precious second of sightseeing, I rented a car, and zoomed out of the parking lot with a squeal of tires and the faint smell of burning rubber. Well, not really, but I was anxious and impatient to start exploring this new place.

It did take me a while to get re-adjusted to driving again. On Yap I usually ride my scooter to and from work, and on occasion our little imported Japanese automobile (which I semi-jokingly refer to as “Miranda’s car”). But driving in Guam is a different animal entirely. First off, the steering wheel and all the controls are on the wrong side (the left hand side). More than a few a times I flipped on the turn signal only to accidentally activate the windshield wipers!

Also, driving in Yap is much, much simpler. There are no multi-lane roads, carpool lanes, bus lanes, circular roundabouts, one-way streets, or yield signs. Just look at the size of that street!

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In Yap, there is a road. Sometimes it is paved, sometimes it is not. The most complex traffic rule to obey is the self-explanatory “Stop” signs, of which there are a total of two in town.

Unlike in Yap, people in Guam tend to drive faster than 25 mph. In most cases, much, much faster. As I puttered along in the right-hand lane at my ‘normal’ rate, I received many dirty looks from other motorists who sped by me unthinkably fast. Some must have been going at least 50 mph, which just seemed crazy to me. Other aspects of driving I had simply forgotten about through disuse, like using a turn signal (preceded by turning the windshield wipers on) to change lanes.  Additionally, at every intersection in Guam, there are these boxes strung above the road with little green, red, and yellow lights on them. When I first saw one, I laughed aloud and said, “Oh yeah! I remember those!” Thankfully, I also remembered what those colors represented, and avoided any accidents.

My first stop in the early morning hours was the Worlds’ Largest       K-Mart, open 24-hours a day.

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Since I hadn’t slept all night, I wandered around the store in a daze. The brightly lit, clearly labeled and well organized aisles and aisles of goods was more than a bit overwhelming. Everything felt so familiar, yet also so alien. It was an extremely weird feeling for me, part nostalgia and part disappointment. I found myself wondering why anyone would need 15 different kinds of peanut butter, or soap powder, or non-stick aerosol cooking spray. While there were so many choices of things I wanted to buy, there wasn’t anything I actually needed (or would fit in my luggage, like a giant television, or stay fresh for a week, like their entire produce section), I wound up not getting anything!

With my stomach grumbling, I left the megastore and headed out in search of food. Soon enough I saw the telltale golden arches gleaming like a beacon in the distance.

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I ordered a huge breakfast of a 2 Breakfast Burrito combo, and 2 Sausage McMuffins. While most Americans would hardly classify McDonald’s as ‘food’, for me, that first bite was heavenly. Embarrassingly, I let out an involuntary “mmm!” so loud I received some strange looks from the other patrons. They must have thought I was crazy. As a side note, the menu was slightly different than in the US. Instead of hash browns, most people ordered rice on the side, and there were little bottles of soy sauce on all the tables.

After stuffing myself to the point of being unpleasantly full, I drove around some more, just taking everything in. I can best describe Guam as a sort of oceanic Las Vegas, minus the casinos. There are all sorts of luxury hotels, restaurants, and retail outlets along a main strip in the downtown area.

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For the wealthy tourist, there were ample opportunities to part with their sackloads of cash. The sidewalks were crowded with people, mostly Asian tourists, all milling around and buying things. I looked in some windows, which was about all I could afford! Of these places, I understand the establishment seen below is quite popular with the ladies.

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Spreading out from the downtown area are a variety of shops all crammed together in multi-story buildings alongside the roads everywhere. It reminded me a little bit of my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, with its numerous parking lots and strip malls. At one point, I talked to a Guam resident, who said that there has been an recent explosion of development in the area due to the massive US military buildup as personnel from Army and Navy bases in Japan and elsewhere are being relocated to Guam. It has been a real boon to the local economy, and has brought an influx of new jobs in the construction and retail sectors. 

Later in the day, I stopped at a little public park along the waterfront. There were some people swimming in the ocean, and I was tempted to jump in. The beaches were clean, and unlike Yap, were all open to the public (without a fee) and covered in actual sand instead of crushed coral.

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It was turning out to be a beautiful sunny day. I lounged on the beach a while looking out at the ocean, but tried not to get too comfortable. I was so tired, I was terrified that I would close my eyes for just a second, and wake up in the dark possibly several days later!

I roamed around a little more, but was really just killing time. For lunch, I stopped at Chili’s. I wasn’t hungry, but I felt like there would be too many times back on Yap where I would have kicked myself for not eating there when I had the chance. Their famous baby-back ribs were excellent, but try as I might, I still couldn’t finish them.

Afterwards, I headed back to the airport, and wound up waiting around for several hours until the flight. All in all, it was really good day. I felt refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to tackle whatever Chuuk was ready to throw at me. Or so I thought at the time…  

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