Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Commute: Work to Home

By Mike

Back in Seattle, one of the things I enjoyed the least about my weekdays was the commute. I’d sit for hours and hours in bumper to bumper traffic just to make the trip from work back home. I’d inch forward on the highway, surrounded on all sides by motorists in various stages of road rage or boredom, or having very engaging conversations on their Bluetooth headsets. In Yap, traffic definitely isn’t a problem. From work to home takes less than 5 minutes. If I get stuck behind a truckload of people, or if I’m riding my scooter especially slowly and carefully after (or during) a rainstorm, its 10 minutes max. Sometimes, on the ride home, I’ll think about the Seattle commute and chuckle a little.

For the past couple of weeks though, my scooter has been out of commission due to mechanical issues. It needs relatively minor repairs (a new tire and battery), but getting replacement parts can be a costly and time consuming process since few are available on-island. It doesn’t help that my generic, made-in-unknown Asian country scooter mysteriously lacks serial numbers, part numbers, or identification markings of any kind. Usually what happens is that other scooters will break down first, and be sold and scavenged for spare parts to breathe new life into other island scooters. This race to stay ahead of entropy is Darwinian in a sense, but I fear my scooter may have lost.

Not a big deal. I have access to another vehicle, and Miranda is always happy to be woken up early just to shuttle me back and forth every day to work. Of course, I joke. In the morning, she’s still too sleepy to be happy.

Since it’s been so rainy lately (with Yap barely missing a tropical storm and a super-Typhoon), I’m grateful for the dry ride. Another benefit of being chauffeured around is that I can sit back, drink my coffee, and really have time to look at all the random landmarks along the way. I thought that might make a decent blog post, or at least a blog post with lots of pictures, which is always a fan favorite.

DSC00048So here’s the starting point, my home away from home, the Yap State Administration building. As I mentioned in the previous blog post, this used to be the site of a fort. Now, it houses many critical State government departments, like Finance and Budget, Youth and Civic Affairs, and Resources and Development. The Governor’s office is there too, across from mine.

DSC00046At the back of the building, there’s a small patio of sorts where government employees can sit and enjoy their lunch underneath the shade of a tree. There’s a clear view of the harbor, and the commercial dock where container ships are unloaded on a regular basis.

Right behind the administration building, on a tiny peninsula across the water, is the remains of the Cecilia. I don’t know much about the backstory of this once stately vessel, other that it has remained parked off-kilter at this spot for some time now.



Heading away from the Cecilia into the center of Colonia is another sign of the destructive power of age and weather. This vacant building is across the street from the Yap Cooperative Association grocery and household supply store, a couple of video rental shops, the FSM bank, and a restaurant. The mural gets very infrequent touch-ups, but was painted with care and good intentions.


Next to the courthouse used to be a vacant lot overgrown with vegetation. Over the past six months, there has been a great deal of work done to transform this space into the future Yap Living History museum. Every day, dozens of workers toil to build these structures using traditional methods and local materials. There is a men’s house and a stone platform for dances, to be eventually supplemented with a climate controlled building to house cultural artifacts.


Driving away from downtown, across the Ganir bridge, gives a picturesque view of the harbor on one side and Chamorro Bay on the other. In the evenings, kayak practice is held there. Longboats of locals and expats paddle their way to and fro across the water, joined occasionally by a homemade one-seat raft built from a folded sheet of tin roofing. After the bridge is a stop sign. Making a left brings you to a ‘bank’ where many pieces of stone money are kept, along a road that passes by the FSM petroleum corporation facility, where all the gas reserves on the island are stored.


Back at the stop sign, if you went straight instead of left, you’d pass by one of our most frequented stores. Alternatively called “Blue Lagoon” or “E.M.I”, this place sells a little bit of everything, and at fairly consistent prices. They even have a row of freezers that sells luxury edibles from the States like ice cream cones and TV dinners. We’ll sometimes buy a DiGiorno’s frozen pizza from there, but at $10, it’s a rare occasion.


On the other side of the street, people have built a few small homes on the waters’ edge. This one even features a deck on stilts.


DSC00062-1Also along the shoreline is a dock with a couple of small fishing/diving boats. You’ll often see boats similar to these zipping across the water beyond the reef, ferrying eager, wet-suited tourists to the numerous dive sites around the island.

Across from this dock is the “Pathways Hotel”, a self-described eco-tourism establishment where you can rent local-style bungalows with views of the bay.




DSC00063There are also some oddities along the way, like this spiritual reminder on the side of a church building. Many different faiths compete for the salvation of the souls of the people here.

There’s also a couple of junked cars along the road. All those vehicles with mechanical issued that aren’t able to be repaired eventually have to wind up somewhere. The easiest place is wherever you can park it. When we first arrived, the silver van below was mostly concealed by plants and crawling with vines. A while ago, some of that growth was machete-chopped back, revealing the wreckage of several other cars that had been completely reclaimed by the jungle.


It’s not just old cars that become homes for jungle plants. If left unattended, I wonder how how long it takes before these discarded shipping containers grow a leafy green outer layer? Only time will tell.


DSC00068To get to our house in the Talguw area of Rull Municipality, you have to climb a steep hill up a road not quite wide enough for two cars. Even in tiny subcompact Japanese imports you still have to be careful not to tumble off the edge of the concrete while passing another car. This area seems to be the territory of many chickens, that dart across the road (who knows why?) without regard for life or wing. There’s also a pack of local dogs around, who look up at you with sad eyes and a bark or two, but are mostly harmless. At worst, a particularly lazy or stubborn mutt will refuse to yield the middle of the road to a car. Many dogs each year are injured by cars in Yap.

At the base of this road is a little fruit and vegetable stand. They sell a variety of local produce, including taro and bananas.


DSC00069-2Up the hill, near this apartment complex, appropriately named “Blue Lagoon” (not to be confused with the grocery store of the same name, but it is owned by the same company), I was stopped by a pair of our friendly neighborhood missionaries. I had decided to walk home that day to take these pictures, and got caught in a rainstorm, and was huffing and puffing up the hill. They asked if I was a tourist, since I probably looked the part with my camera and rain jacket! After assuring them that I did indeed live here, and knew where I was going, I went on my way.

DSC00070-3Down the street from the house, I pass by the USDA Forest Service branch office. Seeing that familiar sign in the same colors and font as all the various National Park signs back in the US always makes me remember my youth, trekking through the wilds of New Mexico on some Boy Scout backpacking trip.

Finally, it’s back to home sweet home: Government Quarter #37. By this time, I was covered in mud from the shins down, but that didn’t stop my loyal pal Peanut from bounding out of the jungle to greet me with so much enthusiasm you’d think he hadn’t seen me for years.


No matter how it goes, I always enjoy seeing this sight at the end of every day.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Law Day 2011

By: Mike

On July 12th, I had the honor of serving as a judge for a high school debate competition that was part of the National Government “Law Day” on Yap. This annual event since 1991 has brought together students from each of the four States for a series of friendly debates over issues of legal, political and economic significance important to the FSM as a developing nation. This year, these future lawyers and leaders argued the pros and cons of a controversial issue: Whether the FSM Constitution should be amended to allow a State to secede from the Federated States of Micronesia.

IMG_0093The debates were broadcast live on the radio throughout the FSM, but given this potentially contentious topic, the event was also well attended. People from across the island converged on the Yap State Legislature building where the debates were held and filled it nearly to capacity.

Even though my work frequently requires me to go to the Legislature for meetings with Senators or to participate in public hearings, I hadn’t ever stopped to just look around the place. The building is up on a small hill, with a stone stairway rising to the front door. I was told this hill is actually the foundation of a former Japanese government complex from when that country held Yap during World War II.


At the front of the building are a traditional raised stone platform and a few pieces of stone money surrounded by local plants and flowers. There are also a few small stone statues as a visible reminder of the Japanese influence.


As a side note, I learned that the entire peninsula where the Legislature and most of the State government offices are currently located used to be underwater! Both the sites of the Legislature and my office at the State Administration building (which itself is built on top of an 8-to-10 foot high brick and mortar foundation from a centuries old Spanish fort), used to be “donguch”, the Yapese word for tiny bits of land that jut out above the waterline. I’m sure there’s a more technical description. At some point in the recent past, the area between these points was reclaimed from the sea and connected to the natural shoreline, which is actually near the center of the town in Colonia.

A little later than the scheduled start time for the debates, the spectators and participants went inside the main chamber of the Legislature where the Senators usually conduct their business. For the occasion, the entire room had been decorated with sweet-smelling flowers and palm fronds which added to the festive atmosphere.

Model SailCanoeSeated in folding chairs beneath a miniature sailing canoe that hung from the ceiling of the chamber were a varied assortment of high school students brought along to cheer on their respective teams, politicians and bureaucrats from all branches of government, and what seemed to be nearly every lawyer and judge in the entire country. It was gratifying to see that some parents brought their young children, who patiently sat and listened to their friends or relatives competing in the event.

At the start of the event, officers from the Yap State Police ceremoniously entered bearing the flags of the individual States and the FSM. The National Anthem was sung by a student in both Yapese and English. The music of the hymn was much more upbeat than the U.S.’s dated “Star - Spangled Banner”, and the lyrics were just as inspiring: “Here we are pledging with heart and with hand, full measure of devotion to thee our native land. / Now all join the chorus let union abide, across all Micronesia join hands on every side. / We’ll all work together with heart, voice, and hand, Till we have made these islands another promised land.”

IMG_0098After the anthem was a brief invocation from the pastor of the Yap Baptist Church, followed by introductory remarks. As with most government functions, all of the esteemed government and traditional leaders in attendance were identified by name and applauded. The Chief Justices of the State Court and the FSM Supreme Court each then gave speeches about the importance of these debates. One speech gave a brief history of how secession often led to costly, violent conflict. With those thoughts in mind, the Judges encouraged the debaters to firmly argue their positions, but to be ever mindful to still be respectful to one another.

Throughout the actual debates, all of the teams did a remarkably good job. Many of the students clearly have promising careers in politics or law ahead of them, not only because of the clarity and persuasiveness of their arguments, but also the passion they showed in delivering them. Faced with a audience full of  friends, family, and high ranking leadership, there were a few nervous stumbles by the competitors, but even compared to experienced public speakers, they all performed admirably.

Given that the audience was full of many actual government decision makers, those teams arguing in support of a constitutional amendment allowing for secession never once backed down from raising even the most sensitive issues. These teams pointed out that most in the FSM first consider themselves to be Yapese, Pohnpeian, Kosraean, or Chuukese, and rarely (if ever) “Micronesian”. They stressed that each island has distinctly separate languages, traditions, and customs. They even boldly declared that the experiment of national government had failed. Teams arguing against allowing for secession emphasized the financial benefits of unity (including the negative effect that secession of a State might have on the financial support provided to the FSM by the US), the impact on the FSM in the eyes of the international community, and gave many other compelling arguments.

Throughout the day, teams argued for and against the stated proposition in round after round of debates. In the end, their efforts were judged on the quality of their arguments, the evidence presented, and their delivery. Here, one of the judges prepares for the debates to begin.


After the total scores were tallied up, the Yap State team came in at a very respectable 2nd place, with the grand prize going to the debaters from Pohnpei.

Winners of the competition received scholarship funds for college. If their performance in these debates is any indication, I have no doubt that in several years they will be well-prepared for positions of responsibility and leadership.

Perhaps a few of them will even consider a career in practicing law within the FSM. While I would never, ever advocate for any college-bound student to take up lawyering in the U.S. (where the for-profit legal education industry happily churns out far too many poorly prepared lawyers to fight over too few jobs), there is drastic and immediate need for home-grown litigators and legal advisors here. The current practice of importing lawyers from abroad is expensive and unsustainable in the long run, and the best alternative is to start developing the future lawyers of the FSM at the earliest possible age.

I sincerely hope that Law Day will contribute to that, and that some of participants take up the call of justice, get their legal education, and are persuaded to return back home to contribute to the development of their country as a whole.

Whatever dreams they pursue, I wish them all the best and much success.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Pohnpei and Back Again

By: Mike

The best cure for the “Island Fever”, even if just a temporary one, is simply getting off Yap and experiencing something different.

On a lowly public servants' salary it's pretty cost prohibitive, but once in a while there's the opportunity for some business travel. This plum perk is highly sought after by many government employees, even if only for the chance to eat a quick Burger King meal while transiting through the Guam airport. Luckily, last week I was able to snag a travel authorization for a brief visit to the capitol of Micronesia, the island of Pohnpei (wikipedia Link).

My trip had a shaky start, as I almost didn’t make my flight leaving Yap. In the last minute rush to pack, I forgot that check-in begins at 11pm even for a 2am flight! Arriving at the airport a reasonable hour before flight time, I found a mostly deserted ticket counter and a solitary, tired looking worker who calmly informed me that I wouldn't be able to board. Another late coming passenger helpfully pointed out, "Don't you know this is the A.G.?" who responded with a blank stare, a slight shrug, and reiterated that check in had closed. If the worker had a little sign saying “No Check In” I’m sure she would have much preferred just lightly tapping it. The look of sheer terror on my face at the thought of missing this important meeting must have been plain. With me looking as ashamed and apologetic as possible, the worker took pity on me. She called the pilot to hold take off while I literally ran out to the plane. Avoiding eye contact with my fellow passengers, I finally boarded and unsuccessfully tried to sleep.

About an hour later, I was in Guam. During a brief layover, I had a thoroughly tasty airport Burger King breakfast, and then it was onward to Pohnpei. DSCN1000I’d been there a couple of times before, so I knew my way around the town of Kolonia and the FSM National Government campus in neighboring Palikir. I picked up my baggage, and got the keys to my government-rented car, a ridiculously fancy mini-SUV. Since the airport is located on its own little island, I zoomed towards town across a newly paved causeway surrounded by water on both sides, with the smooth face of Sokehs Rock towering above the green jungle tree line in the distance.

I was glad to reach my hotel, as moments after, the sky grew dark and let loose with a typical downpour of rain that lasted long into the night. Pohnpei gets much more precipitation than Yap, and is considered the most rainy State in the FSM (one of the local music groups, made up of resident ex-pats, is even called “Wetter Than Seattle”) . Having been awake for far too long, I collapsed into sleep to the tinkling sound of raindrops hitting the hotel’s tin roof.  

Throughout the week, meetings were scheduled with the Attorney Generals of the other FSM States. The original venue was at the National Government office complex up in Paliker. After a half-hour drive up there on a twisty, slick road through the jungle, I discovered that the power was out across the entire capitol! Instead of sitting in the dark, we decided to move to the Pohnpei State AG’s office back in Kolonia. Not only were the lights still working, but I noticed this building was much more spacious than our office in Yap. The Pohnpei A.G., another ex-pat, told me that it used to be the State Governors’ office, and had been given over after receiving a fresh coat of paint in the colors of the FSM.

Pohnpei State AG Office

The Governors’ current office is located in an extremely modern building across the street, generously donated by the Chinese government.  This huge building is a noticeable landmark in downtown Kolonia, partially because its cleanliness stands out among the other much older and less well maintained structures. I joked that perhaps China would be willing to make a similar gift to Yap!

Pohnpei State Capitol

I tend not to talk about work much on this blog, but it's worth mentioning that the purpose of these A.G. meetings was to hammer out the details of the legal framework for a centralized tax authority. Basically, we're helping to build the FSM equivalent of the IRS. It’s a massive and much-needed project that was put into motion several years back, long before I even came to Yap. Since I'm no expert on tax law, its been a real learning experience for me. I found it to be both interesting and a little daunting. Given the scope of the endeavor, the far reaching financial implications, and the extreme political sensitivity of what is being proposed, I think that all of the A.G’s recognized the somewhat historic nature of this challenge.

As a side note, it's not that the FSM is absolutely resistant to change. In theory, many improvements are wholly supported. However, any grandiose ideas on paper need to be tempered with the practical reality of extremely limited resources and technical know-how. If it was simply a matter of some egghead copy-and-pasting US law into the FSM codebooks, change would be much easier to achieve. But I digress...

When the day’s work was done, there was ample free time to enjoy the recreational opportunities of the big city. Seeing a movie in an actual movie theater was high on my to-do list.  Featuring two medium-sized screens flanking a popcorn stand (with ‘real’ movie theater butter), this little theater usually had large groups of teens standing outside waiting for the next showing.

Pohnpei State Movie Theater

I saw “The Hangover II” in a theater with about 30 or so Pohnpeians. They loudly burst out into laughter at the slightest joke, cheered during the action scenes, and whistled wildly at the sight of brief nudity. One guy several rows behind me, apparently on a date, actually called a friend in order to describe in great detail one of the funnier scenes. No one seemed to mind in the least. It was a much different experience than the US, where even a hint of a cough or cellphone ringtone can bring chilly sidelong glances. Even though it was an R-rated movie, many couples brought their young children, who roamed up and down the aisles, completely disinterested in the on-screen antics.

Another reason I like coming to Pohnpei is the food. There is a sizable port just outside of Kolonia that keeps all the stores and restaurants well stocked with fresh (well, relatively fresh, given shipping times) meats and produce. Menus usually have steak and seafood combination plates, half-and-full rack orders of Brontosaurus sized BBQ pork ribs, and of course, fresh fish. I tried some of the “Pohnpei style” tuna sashimi, which was marinated in a spicy Pohnpei pepper oil with onions and garlic. It was delicious, especially when paired with a frosty bottle of Corona (a “luxury” beer unavailable on Yap) complete with a slice of a local lime. On my daily food stipend, I stuck mainly to a tiny, out of the way restaurant at the Joy Hotel.

Pohnpei Trip - Joy Hotel

This unassuming operation is owned by a Japanese family, and also serves as a hostel for many JICA (the Japanese version of the Peace Corps) volunteers. The kitchen cooks up a variety of fish and noodle dishes, along with a popular bento box lunch special. I found myself drawn to this place nearly every day, in order to enjoy one (or two) of their famous pastrami or roast beef sandwiches. Actually, I don’t know if they’re famous, but if not, they should be. Without a doubt, these heaping piles of thinly shaved meat, lightly seasoned with Pohnpei pepper, on a freshly baked, non-sweetened (as most are on Yap) bun were one of the highlights of my day.

At random intervals throughout the week, power would suddenly be shut off to various parts of the island. Everyone I talked to seemed assured that these were scheduled blackouts, but no one had seen the schedule. Without warning, lights went dark, cable TV service shut down, and air conditioners stopped functioning, followed by the deafening roar of personal generators rumbling to life at many private homes. At my hotel (which didn’t have a generator), this caused an instant migration of guests from their rooms to several outdoor picnic tables and local style huts around the property.

Pohnpe Covered Hut

One weekend afternoon, I decided to hop in the car and explore the area outside Kolonia. I had hopes of finding my way to Nan Madol (wikipedia Link), a centuries old complex of giant stone ruins out in the jungle. I’ve wanted to visit Pohnpei’s major tourist attraction for some time now, but due to the heavy rains, I was told it was better to go there during a drier season or low tide, unless I wanted to wade waist deep through swampy water. Instead, I gingerly wound my beast of a rental car along jungle bordered dirt roads, through small villages and settlements that dotted the banks of Pohnpei’s numerous bays and inlets. A newly built bridge spanned one of these, but was constructed many feet above the existing road, providing a good vantage point to pull over and snap a quick picture.

Pohnpei State View From Nett Bridge

Further down, the road wound along the shoreline and passed by a little local-style cantina. Kayakers were preparing to hit the water, and a few families were enjoying lunch in the shade of the palm frond roofed patio. I stopped and sat at a table near the waters’ edge, and listened to the sound of Pohnpeian conversation all around me. It sounds much different than the Yapese chatter I’m used to, but it was just as incomprehensible to me. A cool breeze blew across the bay, and I sat back and just enjoyed the scenery.

Pohnpe Panorama 2

Later that afternoon, I drove higher up into the hills where a certain village was known for its beautiful wooden carvings and other traditional handicrafts. I bought some souvenirs for Miranda, including a shell necklace and a small pendant carved from ivory nut. I stopped for a bit near an overlook that provided a sweeping vista. Anchored off the coast far out on the horizon, I could barely see a huge U.S. Navy vessel with a steady steam of support boats ferrying personnel to Kolonia for a port call. I learned that many military personnel were on island for a humanitarian mission of educational and construction projects, just in time for the 4th of July celebration hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Pohnpei. In addition to a patriotic BBQ of hot dogs and hamburgers, a slow-pitch softball game was held between the Navy and the Pohnpei locals, who soundly defeated the seamen.

Pohnpe Panorama

Before leaving Pohnpei, Miranda had requested that I bring back a supply of Pohnpei pepper. This powerful seasoning is sold in most every store, but the freshest variety comes right from the source, a little pepper shop in Kolonia. Even if I hadn’t known where it was, I could have just followed my nose. The tangy, unmistakable scent wafts out of the building, and is almost overpowering inside. Red eyed workers precariously stacked rack upon rack of drying pepper corns, while an ancient grinder in the corner rumbled out black, white, and a mixed blend of ground pepper. I bought several bags, which even though they stayed sealed in my luggage, gave all my clothes a well-seasoned aroma.

Pohnpe Pepper Stand

Though I did thoroughly enjoy this visit to Pohnpei, I was nevertheless anxious to return home to Yap. I was glad that another potentially week-long meeting scheduled back to back with the tax meetings didn’t require me to stay the entire time.

It was nice to roam unfamiliar locales with an anonymity that is impossible on Yap (where everyone knows the AG, or at least ‘that white guy’), and see something different even if slightly familiar, but I had a previously scheduled appointment with Miranda that week that absolutely couldn’t be missed. I’m lucky to have an easy-to-remember wedding date (7.7.07), and would have had no excuse for missing my anniversary! So, with that deadline in mind, I headed out to the airport as the rain again started falling, a fitting end to my brief visit to Pohnpei Island.