23 May 2012

Man vs. Nature

Humans and nature have always fought to claim territory. Of course the battles between humans and humans have been bloodier, but the silent battle of nature is relentless and powerful. In many cases, man seeks to control nature and make it organized, subservient and to exploit natural resources for personal gain without concern for environmental ramifications. Every time I see a flower nudging up through a fissure in concrete, I am amazed at the immense will of this tiny life form.

Here on Pohnpei, the relationship between man and nature is more obvious. This transparency is due to how closely the two interact. There is, of course, a constant struggle for control, but there seems to be a more harmonious give-and-take. 

Driveways and outdoor gardens are lined with potted plants, either to control the size of the plant and keep it from spreading, or so that the plant can be sold or given away. People live closer to the land. They play and work in it.

Where there is forest, it is dense and plentiful. One day, I saw workers cleaning out a patch of dense forest from which the grave sites for the land owner’s family were revealed. I was told that the trees had not always been there, but that it grows in every year and then must be chopped down again.

There are no cemetaries here. People bury family on family land. Our landlord's parents are buried in a room attached to our neighbors' house. 

When I was little, spending summers in Traverse City, Michigan, I would make forts from natural materials. Once the fort was "constructed," I would find a swath of pine with which to sweep the forest floor to reveal a nice clean dirt floor (up to play fort standards). Most land-owners here take the same amount of care in the ground all around their home. To clear debris, they make and use 
outdoor stick brooms made of a bundle of the dried center ribs of palm leaves.

Forests take over abandoned cars, houses and the road around the island at rapid speed. 

Machetes are carried around to cut back the forest and reveal the road or path again. 

For years I've been saying that I am genetically designed to live in a tropical climate, with the length of my appendages being good for rapid body-temperature cooling. This is usually said through chattering teeth.

I am thankful. I feel blessed for the opportunity to live in this natural paradise. In terms of survival, there is no need for heavy clothes, plenty of food always in season, lots of seafood in the sea and fresh water falls from the sky daily. Nature provides everything the people here need. Meanwhile, the cargo ships provide what the people think they want, and across-the-board handouts diminish the potential for growth in an otherwise industrious society. Maybe that I why I love micro-loan programs. But I digress. Living here has made me feel closer to nature as well. I don't feel the need to cut it back, but my appreciation of the strength of the forest has intensified. Is it possible to root for both sides of opposing forces? Maybe only when the two are aiming for the same thing. 

20 May 2012

Cutural Heritage

Some of my favorite memories from Micronesia will be the displays of cultural heritage. It makes me a little wistful for my own strong traditions, like doing the hokey pokey. No, I do have stronger and better traditions than that, but not as unified. The intricate dances, stories, chants, songs and weaving that I've seen here on Pohnpei are all truly impressive. These photos are mainly from Culture Day and Yap Day celebrations.

Nan Madol and Kiproi Waterfall

From a young age my parents have instilled in me an appreciation of "old broken stuff".
It is a goal of mine to see all the sites of the Ancient Wonders of the World and Pohnpei, Micronesia has a mysterious and monumnetal treasure. Nan Madol is a tie for second of the ones I've seen thus far, so I've added it to my own list.

Nan Madol is about 2,000 years old and made of naturally-shaped basalt columns some of which weigh over twelve tons and it is a wonder how it's 30 foot-high walls and 20 acres of buildings could have been constructed.

Walking around the temple and some of the larger fortresses is fascinating, but to see the entire complex...

a kayak tour is recommended. Contact The Village Resort for an all-day tour that includes swimming with manta rays (I swam with eight!), a private island picnic, kayaking at Nan Madol and Kiproi waterfall.  

The condensed legend of Nan Madol says that it was constructed by two brothers over two-hundred years and the stones were floated from a far away land.

Kiproi Waterfall… Wow! 

Check with the local EPA to see if it is safe to swim at this, or any waterfalls on Pohnpei. 
Another adventure with great memories.

The grass seems greener

Tendencies to wish for things other people have are common human attributes. In the United States there is an entire industry based on charging people with white skin to sit in a high-powered easy-bake oven to darken and damage their skin. Here on Pohnpei, where people have dark skin, there are whitening soaps and lotions. Go figure. Wouldn't it be great if we all appreciated the fact that we are all made to be unique and exactly the way we should be and we didn't try to compare ourselves to others?

19 May 2012

Better Than the Brochure

Ahnd is a string of atoll islands outside of Pohnpei's lagoon. It is a one to three hour boat ride from Kolonia and well worth the effort. We went camping for three days and two nights with a group of friends. It was amazing!

We each took a meal slot, so I only had to prepare and clean-up from one meal and was served the rest of the time. It was pretty much like car camping as we brought coolers and chairs and had ice for our beverages.

 Kumar's boat

setting up camp 

                                                          catch and release coconut crabs

deluxe tree fort

tent with a view

hammock - the best way to sleep in the rainforest.

The interior of the island is floored with moss-covered corals.

beach butt

father daughter swim

the common kitchen

nap time

The snorkeling is unbelievably spectacular and worth the trip to Micronesia in and of itself.
There are many different crabs and one hitched a ride into the tent on my skirt only to be put off by my screaming like a little girl as it tried to pinch me in the dark. I felt the need to write large letters in the sand "You wish you were Here!", so I did.
We will take home great memories and a few seashells too. 

18 May 2012


Part of the allure for us to move to this small tropical island is that I would be able to stay at home with the kids and spend more time with them. I am not working, but have set several goals and projects for myself to accomplish while here and the following projects have allowed me to enrich my own life while interacting with local people and attempting to provide a catalyst for positive change. The following is a list of the projects I've worked on while living here for ten months:

I set up a (simple blog-like interface) website for my daughter's school.  Current progress: Last week was the third meeting in a row to be cancelled because the school administration (who asked for the meeting) forgot. In November I gave the passwords and a lengthy admin tutorial so they could populate the site with content, but they changed something and need another tutorial.  www.pohnpeisdaschool.com.

Before moving here to Pohnpei I contacted Girl Scouts to see what was available on the island for my daughter. The director of Girl Scouts of America in New York contacted me herself and we had a few telephone conversations where she told me of her efforts to get Girl Scouting going here. She has visited the island a few times and sent someone to live here for four months to work on setting scouting up, but all the efforts fizzle when they leave. I was told to contact specific women on the island who were involved but not proactive about Girl Scouting here and to not go around them. When I arrived in Pohnpei Girl Scouts was not an established organization and the women were all suspicious of each other about the missing $25,000 sent to them three years ago by Girl Scouting headquarters. I tried for many months just to gather this group of women as a board of directors, but they have varying degrees in their level of committment. Together with Whitney Hoot and Cori Jo Jahnsen we have created the Leadership training and resource guidebook, a Girl's handbook, a year full of challenges, several events and six troops. Foreigners tend to come here, try to change things quickly by throwing a bunch of money at a situation and then leave. Girl Scouts is about giving girls opportunities to try and learn new things. I have learned to slow my expectations and progress rate so that the local women involved feel confident in the system we created and want to follow through with it. We created a Peace Corps Response Volunteer proposal so the organization can have a dedicated person involved and continue.
Fingers Crossed. www.facebook.com/girlscoutspohnpei and www.girlscoutspohnpei.blogspot.com .

I am currently writing a grant to NSF (National Science Foundation) and NEH for funding to document the critically-endangered language of Mwoakillese. I connected an American organization Living Tongues  to partner with IREI (Island Research Education Initiative) in the endeavor of documenting the island language and disemminating the data through a dynamic website with a word search function, linguistic anthropology photo journal with idioms-to-direct meaning translations and an audio dictionary with wave form harmonographic display. It is a very good thing the grant will be reviewed by experts before submittal because the more I research about linguistics, the less I feel I know. How is it possible to spend five months focused on a subject only end up knowing less than before beginning?

The Rotary International Club of Pohnpei approached me to create a playground proposal: www.pohnpeiplayground.wordpress.com . From what I hear, the playground money is being raised from off-island donations and  the forecast is positive for building the only public playground. Not everyone in the menwai (foreigner) community are happy about the playground deisgn or proposed materials so hopefully there will be a community survey to reimagine the equipment and a community-based fundraiser so locals feel a sense of ownership and help to take care of it. The last time a playground was built, the entire thing was dismantled to be used for firewood and the poles for plumbing, sad.

Playschool is Monday through Friday 8am to 12 noon. My son Alexander was too young (not yet three) to attend preschool, so we invited two of his friends to join us in leaning-based play. We have morning meeting and alternating 20 minute activities with a snack and lunch break. We are adventurers and learners and friends all together. We play pretend and learn about restaurants or post offices or the bank by pretending to run one. We love to learn memorized order facts like the days, months, alphabet, ordinals, etc. with hopscotches. It is a visual, audible and kinetic way to play-learn new things. We build things (spaceships, cars, trains, houses, forts and boats) out of boxes. We go on adventures. We go on little hikes and visit the library across the street for storytime and we make yummy snacks together. It is a mess that I clean up everyday, but I love it. I have seen all three students grow and learn to use their words with each other to resolve disputes. It is pretty amazing and I get to be home with my family and raise my kids while providing social interaction too.

I suppose I enjoy being busy and I will look forward to having new projects to start on when we arrive at our next adventure. I like to think I have helped in some small way. I at least feel better when I try.

Pictured here are three two-year-olds washing local apples. We later made ice coconut-apple ice cream from the tart little apples and ate it at the birthday party we organized for our best stuffed animal friends.

 Going on a bear hunt, we're not afraid.

Girl Scouts Pohnpei troop #1 friendship circle

27 April 2012

A silent hello and an American salute

There are culturally appropriate ways to greet people that differ from place to place. Here in Pohnpei, Micronesia, it is proper to say good day and to ask about the other person and their family's well-being.

When in passing, it is good to give a head bow. It is both a greeting and a sign of respect. The head bows from the neck at a 30 degree angle with a slight sideways turn and the other person will return the greting. It is quite an amazing unspoken form of communication as it is so efficient, both parties feel respected and it usually results in smiles. 

Whether I am a passenger in a car or walking on the road, I head bow to people we pass. It is a solid momentary connection made in a fleeting moment. 

The American Salute is a term a friend made up for when a person driving a Japanese car tries to engage the turn signal, but since it is on the opposite side of the steering wheel, they end up turning the windshield wipers on. I have, of course, done this myself numerous times, but in the spirit of commraderie, I enjoy seeing others do this as well.  

Experiences are a series of tiny happenings that taken out of context do not support the same conclusion as the whole. These small moments are my favorite part about traveling. A head bow here, an American salute there and my attitude about my day can change. What is the written equivalent of a head bow? 

Maybe the head bow means something like, "Go in peace and with my blessing for a fortunate life. That is at least what I intend and what I get out of it. 

23 April 2012

Fish out of Water

I think Jamie and I had been married for about a year before she ever saw me in khaki shorts. It just wasn't part of my wardrobe. I had also never owned a pair of sandals, and I certainly wasn't the kind of guy who wore Hawaiian shirts.

This has all changed since we've lived in Micronesia. Here, I have four pairs of khaki shorts, about six Hawaiian shirts, and a pair of sport sandals, because frankly, it's too hot and humid to wear much of anything else. In the U.S., I would usually wear a tie when teaching, but here, even the thought of it makes me break a sweat. The only people that I've ever seen wear ties here are Jehovah's Witnesses. It's how I know to shut the curtains and pretend that we're not home.

In about a month, we'll be heading back to the United States, at which point it will be interesting to see if I can remember how I used to dress. My clothes are all in boxes in a storage unit, socks and all. When I put them on, will it still feel like an expression of who I am? Physically, I don't really think I've changed, but it will be interesting to see if the clothes still fit.

In my adult life, I've lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, southern Oregon, Michigan, Moldova, and a small town in northern Illinois. Each time I move, pieces of myself get left behind. I don't just mean the friends that I've made in each of these places, but rather, if ever there's something that I want to change about myself, what better time than when moving to a place where nobody knows me? Every new address is a blank slate.

Fundamentally, I'm the same person that I've always been, but every time that I've moved to a new place has provided an opportunity to refine how others see me, which ultimately affects how I see myself. Habits get left behind. The things I do for fun may dramatically change from place to place. In some cases, what I do for a living has also been vastly different, which also has a large impact on how others see me.

In Chicago, I was an ambitious and dedicated film student who also worked as a repairman for the telephone company. In Los Angeles, I was a musician and an aspiring screenwriter who worked miscellaneous office jobs to help pay the bills. In Oregon, I was a documentary filmmaker. In northern Illinois, I was a graduate student. In Moldova, I was a Fulbright Scholar. In Michigan, I was a freelance writer who also taught night classes. In Micronesia, I am a writer/college instructor who wears shorts, sandals and Hawaiian shirts every day. I might not have even recognized this person eight years ago.

The strange part, to me, is that only my family knows the whole story and how these pieces all fit together. Most of the people I knew in Illinois had no idea that I am a musician and have been playing guitar, among other instruments, for a very long time. On the same token, most people here have no idea that I hold a journeyman's license for low-voltage electrical work or that I directed a documentary seven years ago that was accepted into the Austin Film Festival. In some ways, these all seem like very different lives.   

With that said, I feel extremely fortunate that I have these opportunities to have such different experiences. Each time we move, much like the decisions that involve dividing our possessions into storage, donations and trash, I have the opportunity to do the same thing with the characteristics that define myself, to reevaluate what is important to me. For this reason above all others, I believe that change can be a very good thing. When you put yourself in a new environment, that which remains constant is yourself, but by leaving perceptions and expectations behind, you also have the freedom to grow into the person you want to be.

Life itself is a work in progress.

21 April 2012

Food Shopping

"The boat is in!" A phrase like this might not mean much to you. I know that before we moved to Micronesia, if someone told me that “the boat is in” I would have felt a mix between indifference and confusion, as in “Why tell me that?” Now when a friend calls, texts or IMs me to tell me this very phrase I feel a strong sense of urgency verging on panic. I've got to get to the store before all the good stuff is gone.

Food shopping in Pohnpei is like going on a treasure hunt without the clues. There is no one-stop shopping, so to knock out a shopping list requires several store visits. Different stores seem to stock different things or if they have the same things, the prices are quite different. Items found one place at one time are not guaranteed to be there a second time. It is almost as if the supplier is different every time. It is possible we receive rejects. Like, “This is not selling well. Get it off our shelves and send it to Micronesia – they’ll eat anything.” I am just guessing, but I would not be surprised if that was an actual quote. That is the only way I can explain turkey tails. Turkey tails are very popular here and as you may imagine, they are at least 90% fat with bits of hidden meat.

Food prices are at least twice that of the U.S. It is $6 for a pound of butter, so I don’t cook much in the way of French cuisine here. Cheese is about $8 for 8oz, so that is a rare luxury. Flour is about $5 for a 5# bag, but like most imported items, it is not always available on island. A common phrase is “stock-up” meaning if you see it, get a lot of it because you might not see it again. This enkindles a food hoarding impulse that is amplified by the fact that other people are stocking-up too. There are four bags of popcorn in my fridge right now so I won’t run out for a while. I once bought three bags of a stir-fry vegetable that looked decent. I found them to be quite good and went back to buy six more bags. That was many months ago and I have not seen anything comparable since. For some reason I can always find frozen okra and canned beets. Food donation centers in the U.S. seem to have the same inventory right down to the expired goods. By law, stores here are expected to pull expired items from the shelves and place them on separate shelving labeled “Expired – Not for Human Consumption – Animal Food”. This does happen, but without a task force insuring adherence, many regularly shelved items are outdated. Check the packaging.

Most everything needs to be kept in the freezer or refrigerator or it will spoil in the heat and humidity or bugs will get into it. Not having a separate freezer is a major disadvantage. 

Wall-Mart is not a knock-off of the hyper-consumerism superstore. It is a small version of a western style grocery that is located next to an historic landmark called ‘the Spanish Wall.’

Most local stores do not have signage. Why put a sign up if all your family and friends already know where your store is?

A store I call “Hut Mart” is actually known locally as Simon’s. Thatched roof local markets sell fish and locally-grown produce. I will arrange my meals around what I can find locally and fill it out with imported items such as rice or bread I bake from imported flour. Surprisingly, there is not always fish for sale or coconuts and bananas. I wondered why local items are frequently out-of-stock even within the right growing/fishing season. The market owner told me that when someone in the fisher or farmer persons’ family has a payday (every two weeks) or a social security check (at the end of the month) they don’t need to work and take a few days off so there is little brought into the market.

You can find local eggs for $5 a carton. This is surprising; I guess the value of fresh local eggs justifies the highest egg prices I have ever seen. The other option is $3.50 for one to two month old imported eggs (without an expiration date). Pohnpei is known for its black pepper, but is sells here for $5.25 for two tablespoons, so it is far more expensive than imported pepper and locals can’t even afford it.

Ellen’s market will grind the hard coconut (copra) from the shell – which sure beats me taking 30 minutes to work up a sweat doing the same thing. Simon’s market will fillet fish for a nominal fee. The local food is spectacular such as taro root, breadfruit, 32 different varieties of bananas, pineapple, starfruit, cucumbers, purple sweet potatoes, avocados, papaya, pumpkin, mangos, limes, bok choy, insanely spicy miniature chiles, small eggplant and a green leaf called ging ghan with a peppery taste.

The up side is that I am now a more efficient shopper and more creative with my meals.  When I return to the U.S., I may live at the local farmer’s market, but I will also miss the fresh tropical bounty.

16 March 2012

Six Waterfall Hike

Having been told by many people that the six-waterfall hike is exhausting yet spectacular, my visiting father and I jumped at the chance to join a guided tour. We met our tour guide and four additional guides at the trail head at 9:20am and began our venture through the rainforest. The air, like most of the island was clean and crisp accented with a tropical-flower sweetness. Spotlights of sunrays found the forest floor to highlight the roots we used as stairs on the steep roller coaster terrain.

Thirty minutes into our journey the sky darkened and rain bounced from leaf to leaf down through the canopy and onto the heads of our 16 fellow hikers. Our spirits were not dampened, but lifted by the cool rain presented in time to clear the sweat from our eyes.

Two hours into our journey we found the first waterfall. I have always been awed by waterfalls, even man-made ones at botanical gardens, which in no way could compare to the beauty of a real waterfall. We pressed onward to the second waterfall, which literally took my breath away. I have used the term “breathtaking”before, but never truly experienced its effects until that moment. It was pouring rain at this point and the camera that replaced the one that was stolen does not fit into the underwater housing, so sadly, I have no pictures of it. I do have the enduring memories of swimming up to the waterfall and having a head massage in its course. The second waterfall is my favorite waterfall of all time. A combination of the surrounding beauty and composition of rock and water and the mini caves behind made it serene to the soul and exciting to the senses all at the same time. After soaking up the negative ions for a good twenty minutes, we pressed onto the third waterfall where we found the majority of our party camped on the bank of the river having a water and snack break.

Three and a half hours into our journey found us traveling along the slimy and slippery edge of the river we had crossed. The third and fourth waterfalls were, of course, all magnificent and a fifteen to twenty minute walk between each. It was a bit further to the fifth

waterfall and a welcome opportunity to rest for a snack and water.

Four and a half hours into our journey found me swimming with all my strength (and then some)

against the river’s current to get to the sixth waterfall. It was well worth the extreme effort as the last waterfall was powerful and awesome.

The current was really coming in strong and after swimming to and then climbing up to get a better look, we decided to ride the current back to where we left our bags. We were surprised to see how much higher the water had risen. There was no longer a flat bank to walk along and our guide had to bushwhack the plants along the side of the river searching for a path along and up. We all realized too late that two members of our party were still across the river and the current was dangerously fast. It was a flash-flood and looking at the sides of the cliffs on either side of the river told us what we neglected to see before, that the river can rise well over twenty feet above where we were. As our guides frantically tied a rock to asmall rope to throw across the river which to then send over a larger rope with a waist lasso to bring our fellow hikers back across the river, a member of our group on our side lost his footing and went rushing down river. I was the furthest along the "path" at this point, but my brain only thought of my default phrase which apparently is ,“Holy Shit!”. I said this a couple of times before yelling for the rope, but there was no way I was going to be able to reach him. In an act of supreme

bravery our guide dove into the rapids and swam like a fish to grab the guy and bring him to shore. At this point the rope was of some help, but we quickly needed to redo efforts to get our other friends across the now angry river. I don’t know how, but our guide managed to swim across two more times to save our friends, who had a difficult time in not drowning while crossing. I am happy to say that I was able to give them each a helping hand out of the water. It wasn’t really needed, but I at least felt better being able to do something.

Seven hours into our journey found us climbing up a small steep and slippery waterfall to get out of the river basin. It was harrowing to say the least for someone who is not into extreme danger adrenaline sports.

Eight and a half hours after we began, we stumbled out of the forest a group bound together the way only those who have faced disaster and survived together could.

Would I recommend the hike? Maybe, with the caveat of choosing a dry day (good luck with that), an excellent guide (shown left), friends you can trust, great gear, a quality first-aid kit (and someone who knows how to use it) and plenty of food and water.

This picture of our group was taken at the beginning of the day. We did not take a picture at the end, just imagine all of us covered in mud, totally exhausted and happy to be alive.

Would I go again? No, I think I’m able to cross that activity off my to do list. Since our adventure we have heard a few stories of peop0le who have died on that hike and I am counting my blessings to have made it through unscathed.

I will always remember that day and all the people with whom we shared the adventure. Thank you everyone, we made it through together!