A Micronesia Diary: From Nan Madol to the Mnuw

[Most of this is from my Facebook posts during the trip, with some cleaning up and additional material — e.g. the Mnuw story — taken from the more verbose private journal I was keeping at the same time.]

5/9/17: My brother, Lonnie, his wife, Terry, and their youngest son, Cody, and I left Portland and made our way to Honolulu via San Francisco. In Honolulu we met up with Lonnie and Terry’s oldest son, Ryan, who has been living in Hawaii for two years.

The Byers Boys in Honolulu

5/10/17: We have arrived in Pohnpei via Majuro and Kwajalein, both of which are part of the Marshall Islands, which is one of the major island groups in Micronesia. I’d never been to any of the Marshalls or to Pohnpei before today. Kwajalein is still a top secret military installation, most recently testing anti-missile defense, and we weren’t allowed to take photos, even from the airport. But we have made it to our first destination, which is also in tomorrowland, since we crossed the International Date Line between Kwajelein and Pohnpei.

5/10/17: Although this is my first time in Pohnpei, it is providing the familiar Micronesian experience. The island is substantially bigger than Yap, and the population seems much larger (indeed, it has 30,000 people compared to Yap’s 10,000) and the traffic in Kolonia much busier. Still, they probably don’t get many tourists here, and when we went looking for food after we checked into our hotel, there wasn’t much to choose from. We finally settled on the Cafe Oley, where I tried to order sashimi, except they had no fish. So three of us ordered chicken curry, which apparently overwhelmed the kitchen. Eventually a middle-aged woman showed up to the rescue. She stopped at our table to thank us gratefully. The five of us could well have doubled their income for the month. The curry was good, and when they failed to bring my orange juice I was happy to switch my order to iced tea, which they seemed to have in abundance. You have to be prepared to make adjustments in the islands. So far, so good.

And that’s not even getting into the long wait for refueling on Majuro due to equipment failure. One of the common refrains on Yap is that it’s easy to install a system, but foreign donors rarely think about maintenance.

5/11/17: Unfortunately, my worst fear has come true: the micro-doses of chemo are still enough to wipe me out, not to mention the long plane flights, radical change in time zones, a long hike in hot, humid weather, and wet sandals from wading through a canal. Consequently, I took a fall at Nan Madol today. The worst damage was a scraped shin and bruised ego, plus diminished expectations of what I’ll be capable of on this trip. It was still an interesting visit, which I’ll post more about after a shower and a nap.

I was tripped by Chulhu!

5/12/17: I’m in no shape to explain Nan Madol tonight, but it’s an ancient stone city on Pohnpei, built by an earlier wave of immigrants than the current inhabitants. Our driver today, Wilson, said the surviving structure was a courthouse, and the tiny cell in it was a prison. He told us a lot of interesting stories, mostly about his own life. My sister-in-law, Terry Byers, pictured below, was instrumental in making sure I survived the ordeal of getting back to the car after I ran out of steam. I’d probably be sleeping with the ghosts of Nan Madol tonight, if it wasn’t for her. Love you, Terry!

My wonderful sister-in-law.

5/12/17: This was the Pohnpeian man who drove us to Nan Madol. His name was Wilson. He admitted that he wasn’t much of a tour guide and claimed it was because he dropped out of school in the third grade when his grandfather offered to teach him how to fish instead. He’s been off island once, when he went to Maui for two years to pick pineapple. He’s 59 years old and has five children and at least one grandchild. He may not have been much of a tour guide, but he was very amiable to talk to. Also amiable when I got into the driver’s seat by mistake. Dang these Japanese-made cars!

Wilson studies the enigma of Nan Madol.

5/12/17: We had to wade through water to get to Nan Madol, which is on an islet of its own. At high tide you can’t get there on foot. The children greeted us with cries of Hello! while their parents requested an entry fee of three bucks apiece. Pohnpei should probably be doing more to protect this amazing historical site, but right now its remoteness is its best protection. I didn’t see any grafitti, but I bailed out quickly after my fall and didn’t explore the whole complex. Lonnie thought you could probably see more of it by kayak at high tide, because there’s a lot of little islets in the complex, which is why it’s been called the Venice of the Pacific.

The kids of Nan Madol.

5/12/17: Chaos and confusion at Pohnpei Airport. The Chuuk flight is either overbooked or overweight. We’ll discover our fate in a half hour, but supposedly we have preference because we have connecting flights from Chuuk. It’s an adventure! [The problem ended being that we hadn’t confirmed our flight all the way to Yap, but despite moments where it wasn’t clear what our fate would be, we made it on board.)

5/13/17: Welcome to Yap. This is the old District Administration building, where my mom used to work in the ’60s. Thus she was witness to Lonnie being knocked unconscious by a live wire on the roof of O’Keefe’s Saloon next door. The ambulance crew put a sheet over him to protect him from the rain, but Mom interpreted it in the Western way and almost had a heart attack. He claims he didn’t notice the wire because he was distracted by the sight of Claudia Giltinan swaying by. That’s not a favorite family story, oh no.

The old Dist Ad building is now the Yapese Supreme Court building.

This is the same building in the ’60s

5/14/17: At the corner store in Kaday, where we had a barbeque with Theo and his son Marnie and grandson Little Theo this evening. The ribs, taro, and rice tasted just like home. Marnie’s Pohnpeian wife, Judy, minded the store. Tomorrow she’ll help me get my blood drawn for some tests to see how I’m handling the microdoses of chemo. It’s good to have connections out here. One of the women who runs the hotel was able to figure out that we weren’t the usual tourists just from the questions we weren’t asking and the people we know, including her old basketball coach, Thinnifel.

There’s a greater mindfulness about trash than there was even fifteen years ago.

5/14/17: When the Micronesian islands became independent nations in the ’80s, several of them reverted to their native names. Palau became Belau, Ponape became Pohnpei, and Truk, sick of “dump truck” jokes, became Chuuk. Yap did not revert to Waab (sometimes spelled Waqab or Wa’ab, with the or apostrophe representing a glottal sound that doesn’t exist in English.) Yesterday Lonnie asked Theo why they didn’t, and Theo said, “Of course when we speak to each other in Yapese, we say Waab, but I don’t care what you call it. You can say Yap, or Pay, or Waab, whatever you want.” This seems like a quintessentially Yapese attitude to me. They are very proud of their traditional culture, but there’s an inward-facing quality to that pride: Yap for the Yapese. Theo also said that if he meets someone from Yap who tries to speak to him in English, he gets really irritated. He responds in Yapese to let them know his preference, as if to say, “Have some pride in your own culture, don’t pretend you’re something else.”

5/15/17: We’re moving from the hotel to an apartment in the village of Kaday today. Not sure what our internet access will be after that. I’m sure we’ll find it where we can, but it’ll likely be less frequent. Meanwhile here’s one more dawn over Chamorro Bay. Named after the Chamorros the Spanish imported from Guam partly to quell an uprising there. They brought in Pohnpeians for the same reason.

Sunrise on Chamorro Bay

5/16/17: The Mnuw is an old Indonesian sailing vessel that set out on a three hour tour (a three hour tour), only to be stranded on Yap, where the Manta Ray Resort turned it into a restaurant and bar. It’s also the one place on the island where we can find microbrew — an amber and a gold. The Manta Ray has a dive shop called Yap Divers, and divers love their middle class luxuries. Me too!

The Mnuw

The restaurant features a graphic (poster or t-shirt, I forget which) that translated Mnuw as Sea Hawk, which is enough to catch a Seattle football fan’s eye. There are no raptors on Yap, so we asked Theo for the story. I’m sure I’ve gotten some of the details wrong, but I hope I captured the gist of it.  He said the name was actually from a legend about a giant mythical bird. The story is that two brothers set sail on canoes with their two sons. After sailing far from Yap they happened upon two steep islands in the middle of the ocean, and the brothers agreed to explore  each island separately, in case one of them was killed. So each climbed one of the rocks, as they appeared to be at first, but they soon discovered that they were the eyes of a humungous bird. The bird lifted out of the water, and one of the brothers and his son was killed in the process. The other was lifted far into the air and into heaven (I’m not sure whether this was a Christian overlay on an old legend, or whether the Yapese had their own traditional concept of paradise.)

Theo talks stories

The brother and his son lived in paradise for a while, but eventually they began to miss their family and village. So they wove a rope out of coconut fiber and descended back to earth on it. When they got back to their village, they tied the rope off so they could climb back to heaven when they wanted to. Eventually, however, through some mistake (or I almost think the Mnuw told them to never do this one thing, so of course they went and did it), the rope was cut. The legend says that these people were from the region of Loess, and to this day the people of that region, which includes Kanifay, are teased about losing the way to heaven.

Thinnifel tries on my bush hat on the Mnuw


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