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.  

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