December 27, 2017: First Impressions and a Hike
After a slight mechanical delay, United Flight 154 took off from Majuro, Marshall Islands bound for Pohnpei, Federated States of Microniesia. But first, we had a semi-secret stop: the US Army’s remote island base of Kwajalein. While technically part of the Marshall Islands, it is completely run by the US military. Only those with military orders were allowed to stay on the island. Local Marshallese were allowed to disembark at Kwajalein in order to be immediately transferred to the nearby island of Ebeye, which is run by the Marshallese government.
We were on the ground for about 30 minutes where the Army did a sweep of the plane. Then the crew played the (very annoying) safety video again and we took off. An hour later we broke through and clouds and Pohnpei suddenly appeared! Huge green mountains were covered in seemingly untouched jungle.
After landing, I walked into the airport, which actually had air conditioning. I cleared immigration and got picked up by my hotel shuttle. The ride took all of 5 minutes and went through the town of Kolonia. My hotel was called the South Park Hotel. While it definitely needed a lot of TLC, the views were spectacular. I asked about tours to some nearby ruins called Nan Madol. I was quoted $90/person, which seemed really steep for a half-day tour. They pressured me hard to book by giving me misinformation, but I didn’t commit.
Based on a recommendation from my hotel, I caught a $1 taxi ride (all rides are $1 in town, but you have to share the car) to Sokehs Island. The driver dropped me off midway up a large hill with awesome views of town.
I then walked to the top of the hill reached abandoned Japanese WWII guns. While walking around, I met a group of surfers up there and a guy named Matt who has been to 152 countries. He was on his way to 3 more Pacific Island nations including the Marshall Islands. I hitched a free ride back to town with them.
Brigita, my Swedish friend I met in the Marshall Islands, and I decided to get dinner together for the 3rd night in a row. On the way, we asked the cab driver how much it would cost to have him drive us around the island for a day. He said $85 total- half of what the hotel was quoting me for just Nan Madol. We agreed to all meet up at 9 AM.
After dinner I said goodbye to Brigita and went to bed early.
December 28, 2017: Around the Island
The next morning, I woke up and walked over to Brigita’s hotel but the cab driver didn’t show.
We called up the taxi company and a different driver showed. He said the last driver got too drunk last night and lost his car keys. This driver took us to the office and we then got into a much nicer car with Geoff, one of the managers who took us around. Geoff spoke better English than the cab drivers. Due to their history with the US and the Treaty of Free Association, many Micronesians speak excellent English with a perfect American accent. Geoff actually spent most his life in Neosho, Missouri where many Micronesians live. Chain migration clearly explains the number of Micronesians there, but nobody I talked to knows why Neosho became a hotspot. Geoff recently moved back to Pohnpei with his wife.
Our first stop was Palikir, the nation’s (but not the island’s) capital city- about 20 minutes out of town. It is a planned capital and only has some government buildings, a Mormon church, and the main university. We stopped at the President’s office in the hopes of meeting him. His secretary said that, unfortunately, he was home. Had he been around, we certainly would have been able to meet him. Geoff said he runs into the President all the time in the grocery store.
The Mormon Church has been very successful in Micronesia. For decades, the various Pacific Islands have been a battleground for various missionary groups. Originally, it was the Catholics, but now Mormons and Baptists are the most successful- although moderate Protestants still are currently the majority. On Pohnpei, there were no less than 5 Mormon Churches. Becoming a Mormon in Micronesia seems like a pretty good deal. In exchange for converting, the Church apparently will give you all your food, so you don’t have to work. Also, due to a lack of Mormon temple on Pohnpei, the Church will fly you out for an all-inclusive trip to Manila in order to get baptized. Geoff said that Muslims are also making inroads on Pohnpei. Last year, two Muslims arrived. Now, they have a mosque and have converted 40 members. It seems that religious loyalties are shallow, but superstition runs deep.
20 more minutes down the road, we stopped at a random home along a riverbed. This place, called Pilen Seleur, is home of giant marbled eels. The locals are members of the Eel Clan and consider these eels to be not only sacred, but also part of their extended family. For $3/person plus the cost of a can of mackerel, the clan members will help you feed the eels. I stood in the knee deep water and waved the slightly open can of mackerel. The enormous eels slithered out of their hole over to me and around my legs. We also tried to catch them, but they were too slippery. Brigita got bit by an eel, apparently a very rare occurrence. The entire encounter lasted about 30 minutes.
We kept driving counter-clockwise around the island. Eventually, Geoff took us off the main road and around some rough side roads. We parked at a home, paid the local family $3 and walked over to the gigantic waterfall in their backyard. All the local children were swimming in the pool below the falls.
Continuing counter-clockwise around the island, we reached Nan Madol, the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Constructed sometime between the 7th and 13th centuries, Nan Madol served as the capital of the Saudeleur Dynasty which ruled all of Pohnpei for centuries. In the year 1628 the demi-god Isokelekel conquered Nan Madol then abandoned it. The site was built with megalith stones, but it is still unknown how the stones got to the site. Local legend states that twin sorcerers moved the stones using levitation.
For most likely defensive purposes, the ancient city was built on about 100 artificial islands filled in with coral. There is neither fresh water nor food grown on the artificial islands. Nan Madol is about 7 square miles- an inconceivably large area for a temple-city. For comparison, the Mayan capital city of Chichen Itza is only 1.9 square miles. I was only able to see a small portion of Nan Madol on my visit, but the scale of the site is obvious and beyond impressive.
After parking, we paid 3 different locals (2 landowners and the local king) a total of $7 for access to the site. Then we walked through the jungle for 15-ish minutes and eventually reached a canal. On the far side, was the largest temple. We wandered through the temple, but without any signs or brochures, we were only left to wonder what happened here. Geoff said that the local legend is that the temple doubled as a prison and that the thunder god was once imprisoned here for having sex with a local girl. Being the thunder god, he obviously escaped. We strolled around for another half-hour or so before swimming then walking back to the car.
We stopped at another epic waterfall about 5 minutes from Nan Madol before heading back into town.
Along the way, Geoff noticed a water cooler plopped in front of a random house. That, he said, was code for them selling kava. Kava is a drink made from a local root that causes a psychoactive effect. The effect is distinct from both alcohol and marijuana. Despite its effects, kava is not addictive and is legal in almost every country in the world. The World Health Organization considers consuming kava a low-risk to health.
I decided to try it and purchased a used rum bottle filled with kava for $6. Geoff says he normally drinks half the bottle, passes out, then drinks the other half. I decided to play it safe and drank about one quarter of the bottle. While I didn’t get overwhelmed by the effects, the most obvious symptom was numbness of my tongue. We then drove back to town and rested up before dinner.
Continuing the trend, Brigita and I once again got dinner for the fourth consecutive night. Here, we talked about our lives and our futures. She has really lived and hopefully I can live a life as fulfilling and adventurous as hers. Not only was she able to travel to so many countries, but she also was able to make enough money to live comfortably and have a family- two things I would like in my future. We vowed to stay in touch.
December 29, 2017: The Parade
The next morning was my final day in Pohnpei and Micronesia. The flight left around 3pm but I had pretty much run out of things to do in town, so I wandered.
In the neighborhood near the hotel, I heard some banging. Followed it and it came from the port.
The noise turned out to be the island’s Christmas Parade…on December 30th. The islanders- donned in red Santa hats- sat in ragtag pickup trucks.
They banged on steel barrels and prepared to throw out candy to the children of Pohnpei on a 7 hour-drive around the island. I asked who was running the parade and was told it was the mayor. Five minutes later, someone grabbed my hand and took me to meet the mayor of Kolonia- a very large shirtless man.
The mayor said I can join the parade in any truck on the journey around the island. I said I will go as far as the end of town and then would jump out. At 10 AM, the parade left and I got in the truck with the least amount of banging –I wanted to save my hearing. We cruised through town and chucked candy and chips at the children lining the streets. 20 or so minutes later we were at the far end of town and I jumped out of the slow moving truck.
I then walked back to the hotel, gathered my belongings and headed to the airport.
Micronesia was truly wonderful. While this island lacked the beaches one would expect in a tropical paradise, the culture, jungle, and food (fresh fish) more than made up for it. I have heard that the other states of Micronesia: Chuuk, Kosrae, and Yap all offer different experiences. I would be very keen on returning to explore the other islands.
If anything, this trip taught me about what type of life I would like to live. I met over 7 people who had been to over 130 countries. These people gave me advice on how to live out and accomplish my dreams. It is possible to travel, have a career, and a family, but it takes dedication, a continued sense of adventure, and a willingness to sacrifice other aspects of your life. I left inspired and ready for more adventures.
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