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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