A Micronesia Diary: Home Is Like No Place There

5/24/17: Today we tracked down Dad’s old colleague Bumoon, with whom he taught at the school in Kanifay during our first year on Yap, starting in 1966. Like Chigiy, Bumoon was surprised and pleased by our appearance at his doorstep. When our whole family came out in 1998, we spent a memorable Christmas afternoon with his whole family.

Lonnie and Bumoon in the driveway

Christmas 1998 with our family and Bumoon’s

5/24/17: This building used to be Alaw School, where I attended third and fourth grade. My most vivid memory of Alaw is of our Palauan teacher, Mrs Rumy, getting fed up with the antics of me and another American kid, David Barry, and having us cut switches with which she whipped our asses in front of the class, no doubt to the delight of our Yapese classmates. I also remember my outrage that the principal, who happened to be my father, refused to intervene when I complained about this abuse.


Lonnie Graduates from eighth grade at Alaw in a Yapese thuw. His classmate, Ngaden, went on to become a doctor, but then died of hepatitis.

5/24/17: We first looked for Dad’s old colleague Bumoon yesterday, but he wasn’t home. Since he lives near the old Japanese airstrip, we went looking for the old airplane wreckage we played on as children. We found one I didn’t remember: a Nakajima Torpedo Bomber of the type that was used to destroy the US fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Zeroes we used to play on have deteriorated considerably in the intervening 50 years. As have we all.

All that remains of a Nakajima Torpedo Bomber, caught on the ground in a surprise raid.

5/25/17: The red clay of Tomil. Theo once told us that if you looked at the zoris (flip flops) gathered on a doorstep and saw one crusted with red, you knew someone from Tomil was inside.

Today we went exploring on the bumpy dirt roads of Tomil and Gagil, lurching through the villages of Wanyan and Gachpar, which were the centers of high caste power in the pre-Contact era. We also looked for the second old Japanese airstrip, which I’d never heard of before, and the remains of a Japanese lighthouse. We found signs for both, but not the things themselves. We did find the remains (basically just the engine) of another Corsair that had flown on a raid from Peleliu. The marker said it was seen going into a bombing dive that it never came out of. According to the marker by Tomil harbor (the main harbor for Yap) over 40 U.S. aircraft and over 140 men were lost in air attacks on Yap. I had not thought death had undone so many on Yap in WWII.

5/26/17: When we saw Bumoon on Thursday, he invited us to a family gathering the next day for a visiting relative who was returning to her home in Portland. When we showed up we were shocked to be introduced to another of our father’s old colleagues, Henry Worswick.

Henry Worswick still looks ready to rumble

When some of us came out in 2002, we looked for Henry but thought we were told he was dead. Apparently not. Henry was flabbergasted and deeply moved by our appearance too. He and Bumoon agreed that Dad was a great man, that they loved him deeply, and still remembered his face clearly. I didn’t point out that this “great” man had failed to protect his poor helpless little son from the Palauan witch with a switch, Mrs Rumy. I did tell Henry that when I was a little boy, he had the reputation of being the strongest man on the island, capable of walking into the toughest bars in Colonia and wiping the floor with all comers. Lonnie said we have a slide of him winning the weight-lifting contest at a U.N. Day celebration. (Micronesia was a U.N. Trust Territory when we lived here in the ’60s, so U.N. Day was celebrated. All the elementary students made flags to carry in the parade. For some reason I made a South Korean flag.)

Henry lifts a weight at a U.N. Day competition in the ’60s

Henry ducked these comments about his strength by claiming that his brother, John, was even stronger. Their father was an American GI who married a Palauan woman from I believe he said Peleliu. They moved to Yap in 1963. Through his mother he claims to be related to just about everyone in Micronesia. Once he and Bumoon had finished praising Dad to high heaven, they moved on to decrying the idiot politicians running the FSM, while we feasted on taro, yams, sashimi, barbecued chicken and pork, rice, spaghetti and much, much more. It was a splendid evening on Memory Lane.

When I got back to the US, Dad told me that Henry had been in prison when Secretary of Education John Mangefel told Dad about him. Mangefel said Henry was a good man who deserved a second chance, and he persuaded Dad to hire him as a teacher at Alaw. No wonder he worships the ground Dad walks upon! Dad didn’t remember what crime he was in prison for.

5/26/17: Henry Worswick, kept giving Bumoon’s dog, Boom Boom, tidbits from his plate and then exclaiming with enormous innocence, “Louis, your dog keeps following me. He must really like me!”

5/26/17: Went snorkeling again today. We got my swimming cap and mask adjusted correctly, so no Yapese Neti pot. I still had problems with confidence, dry throat from breathing through the snorkel, and cramps in feet not accustomed to using fins, so I still didn’t make it out to the best snorkeling areas, but I managed to see a couple of sea cucumbers and some gorgeous angel fish with broad bands of black and yellow and a long white streamer coming off the top fin. (Probably a Moorish Idol.) I gained some confidence in the process, so maybe next time I’ll make it out to one of the holes where the best snorkeling has always been.

5/27/17: I’ve been sleeping like a sunken log out here. It takes me a gradual while to rise to full consciousness every morning. I’d like to think it’s because my body is committing its full resources to fighting the cancer, but it’s equally likely that the experience of being here has been so immersive that it takes all my energy to process it.

In any event, we are in our final days on the island, and the next three evenings we’ll be dining with various folks. Tonight we dine with the governor. He was the first familiar face we met when we got off the plane, and he came over and shook our hands after Terry went up to him and explained who were. “Ah yes, Theo told me you were coming.” When we got through Customs and found Theo, he told us, “Tony said you guys don’t need to worry about paying for the apartment in Kaday.” Thanks, governor!

5/27/17: This is Gaanelay School, which I attended for first and second grade in a classroom in the far building. My only memory of Gaanelay is of learning how to read the hands of a clock. I want to think Luce Nelson taught that class, but I’m really not sure sbout that. Luce was our neighbor — a Filipina who was married to an American from Salt Lake City. She introduced us to the wonders of lumpia.

The mention of lumpia got a lot of love from my Facebook friends.

My sister reminded me that my time at Gaanelay is also the source of another favorite family story, which is about the time in second grade when I got up on the desk and mooed like a cow. I told her that I only remember the incident through the family story, but the more I thought about it, the more it came back to me: sometime before we moved to Yap some farm cousins taught me that cows don’t really say “moo” but more of a “merrrr,” and I was trying demonstrate this sound for Yapese kids who had never seen or heard a cow before, although memory tells me there was a single cow on the island when we were there in the ’60s. Who knows?

5/28/17: In the immortal words of Jim de Liscard, “Fuck fuck fucketty fuck fuck fuck!” Yesterday after Terry and I paid our respects at Dave Vecella’s grave, I had a seizure while we were driving to town to pick up Lonnie. I was able to warn Terrry it was coming and ask her to head back to the apartment. The seizure was very similar to the ones I’ve suffered in the past. I was conscious the whole time and was in partial control of my body. The major symptoms were shuddering in my chin and jaw, raling breaths, and uncontrollable contortions of the mouth.

It was mostly over by the time we got home, and I was able to slurrily ask Terry to feed me a dose of Zopheram, which is intended to nip seizures in the bud. Eventually she got me into the apartment and onto the couch. While I rested and she tried to figure out what to do next (Lonnie was expecting us to pick him up after a dive), I felt my chin and jaw start to shudder again, maybe a half hour after the first seizure. This time Terry was able to get a Zopheram into my mouth immediately, and sure enough the seizure abated.

Terry (my guardian angel) then drove into town where she could get cellular reception and called the emergency number at UW Medical Center. To my surprise and vast relief, the nurse she talked to said I was unlikely to have any further seizures before I fly back to Portland on the 31st. If I do have another seizure, I’m to seek immediate medical attention. Meanwhile we’ll do our best to make sure Terry is seated by me all the way to PDX, with the vial of Zopheram clutched in her fist.

So much for dining with the governor! This trip was always a calculated risk. I chose adventure over moving directly into a new treatment plan, although we tried to hedge our bets with the daily microdoses of chemo. Apparently that trick didn’t work, but we won’t know the full extent of the damage until I get my next MRI on Friday. The seizures aren’t a good sign, no doubt. But we’ll see what step comes next. Stay tuned. [In case you haven’t already heard, I should mention that the seizures were a kind of false alarm. The MRI actually showed that the cancer had diminished since the previous MRI.)

Dave Vecella’s grave

5/28/17: As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by the seizures, yesterday Terry and I paid our respects at Dave Vecella’s grave. Dave and his wife Terry and son Ryan (a source of constant amusement in our family) lived across the lane from us in 2002, and Lonnie, Ryan, Jolie, and I took the basic diving course from him. Jolie and I went on to take advanced diving from him as well. We became good enough friends that I was devastated to hear of his death in a tragic diving misadventure in 2008, about which we learned more details on this trip. I’ve thought of him often on this trip. If you google his name, you’ll likely find the memorial website his brother set up for him, bursting with testimonials from people all around the world who dived with him and got a dose of his pungent personality and warm sense of humor. I asked Ryan, who showed us the grave in their front yard, whether his Dad had ever given him the top secret recipe for Painkiller, a powerful cocktail that Dave served us on one of my last days here in 2002. Of course, he hadn’t, because he wasn’t expecting to die. Rest in peace, Dave, I miss your smiling face.

Dave in 2002

5/29/17: Thinnifel, family, and friends unleashed the Yapese magic on us last night. Some of this food I’d never tasted before, particularly the land crabs served in their own shells. The land crabs have been out in hordes on this trip, scurrying around with their claws held above their heads. Theo said he’s never sure whether the gesture is menacing or a friendly wave. It always looks menacing to me, but also a bit comical. I got out of the car yesterday and saw one scuttling away and raised my hands over my head and made claws out of them. It promptly raises its claws over its head in response.

Taro, plaintain, tapioca, crab, chicken, some kind of spring roll, and I don’t know what else

I asked Lonnie whether he really stuck his hand down a land crab hole when we were kids, and he said his theory was that you had a second to feel whether you were touching the legs or the claws. My theory is that you should never stick your hand in a hole inhabited by an animal with claws. Ah well, Lonnie still has all his fingers, although a giant hermit crab once took his thumbnail off. Like father, like son. Cody tried to pick up something curious in the mangroves around Nan Madol and yelped when it turned out to be a crab that drew blood when it nipped him.

Theo says that on Yap slobs are called crabs, because when crabs dig their holes they leave the dirt strewn at the doorstep. Who knew that slobs tasted so good? They were delicious, as was everything else. Home cooking at its finest. Kammagar, Theo!

5/29/17: The itty bitty gecko that lives in our upstairs bathroom came out of the drain to bid me adieu this morning. We leave tonight in the wee hours. Bye bye, itty bitty gecko, eat plenty of bugs, especially mosquitoes, grow big and strong, chirp your gecko song, multiply your tribal throng, and prosper and live long.

Itty Bitty Gecko

5/30/17: Yap is not only the Island of Stone Money, but also the Island of Stone Paths. A network of these paths connected the villages in pre – Contact days when the only mode of land travel was by foot. As we prepare to leave the island by more ethereal paths, we say Kammagar for the homecoming hospitality and Kafel to all our island friends.

Dad and I disappear down a stone path in days gone by

5/30/17: In case anyone is feeling really sorry for me because of the recent health blip or for Lonnie and Terry because they’re worried I’ll have another, perhaps it’s time for me to confess that benefactors upgraded us to the coddled class all the way to PDX. Chairbeds turn out to be a very, very comfortable way to fly the seven hours from Guam to Honolulu. Thanks Mom and Dad! For the first time in my life I was the first person off the plane. On the other hand we’ve been through Customs and TSA in all three terminals we’ve been through today (Yap, Guam, Honolulu), which is kind of a grind.

Coddled Class


The question on everyone’s mind

So, in the end, was it worth it? It wasn’t what I dreamed of, because in my dream I had recovered from treatment, and was able to hike and snorkel as much as I wanted to. But in terms of a trip down memory lane with people I loved, it was absolutely wonderful. I have no doubt that the experience gave a boost to my system, and that Yapese food and love of my family, American and Yapese, helped my recovery. Whenever I go out there, I feel it in my blood, but I also feel I’m always an outsider. Eventually I’d like to have some of my ashes spread out there, but that’s not something I need to worry about quite yet, seizures be damned.

You probably can’t see it in this picture, but Yap is over by my left elbow.



Micronesia: from Proust to Stone Money

5/17/17: The scent of flowers and foliage along a village path, the taste of tiny bananas and of sashimi in soy and wasabi, the weight of muggy air on my skin are enough to reduce me to a five-year-old stranger in a strange land again. It’s a state of mind I can only rediscover here.

A traditional stone path in Kaday village

5/17/17: In case anyone was wondering whether our village accomodations are a grass shack, here’s a photo of our apartment building. There are two units. The other is taken by a couple of Mormon missionaries, one of whom has a British (or possibly Southern) accent. Our unit has A/C and two — TWO — bathroooms.

The apartment in Kaday

5/18/17: This is the house where we lived back in the ’60s. It was newer and fresher-looking then, and Dad soon had a thriving garden of bananas and papayas filling the yard. The old Government Compound, which was a mostly white enclave at the time, has been returned to the Yapese. I did see the old mango tree behind what was then the Nelsons” house still growing after fifty years. We didn’t look for the old tree fort.

The old grey house, she ain’t what she used to be

This is what our house looked like at the end of our stay in the ’60s. Most of that garden is now gone, although Lonnie thought he spotted some banana plants that may have been descendants of what Dad planted.

5/18/17: The various colonial powers that have controlled Micronesia over the years have left their imprint here. The Spanish left the Catholic mission and, if I remember correctly, a few words. (For example, “gato” for cat.) The Japanese left sashimi and the word sensei for teacher. The Germans left the German Channel, which connects Tomil harbor to Miil Channel in the north. They also left these radio towers, which transoceanic communication expert Bill Burns was able to discover were the physical anchors for giant radio mast that was shot down during WWI. As a kid I thought they were pretty cool, so tall and overgrown with plants, and while they look smaller to me now, the purpose Bill revealed to me makes them even cooler.

German Radio tower

5/18/17: I finally gave snorkeling a try for the first time this trip. For reasons yet to be determined my mask was leaky, so I got salt water up my noise, which as Terry put it acted like a Yapese Neti pot. I didn’t know I had so much mucous in me. Because of the equipment malfunction, I didn’t get out to the best part of the reef, but I still saw an assortment of butterfly fish, clown fish, trigger fish, wrasses, and a cloud of sand that was probably the defecation of a parrot fish.

5/19/17: Taro was the staple food on Yap at least until they started importing rice. Theo told us a Yapese joke that started out like a story, with an introduction asking us if we were familiar with the TV show about gold prospecting in Alaska. (He was impressed to learn that the show’s star, Jack Hoffman, is an old friend of our father’s, and that Dad gold-mined in Alaska with him in 1983.) Anyway, Theo told us a man once came to Yap to look for gold. He found a woman working in a taro batch in nothing but her underskirt. He told her he was looking for gold, and she said the Yapese equivalent of, “I’ve got your gold right here,” and lifted up her skirt. We’ve never heard him laugh so long and hard as he did after that punchline. As Cody said,” I didn’t put *that* much vodka in his drink.” But Theo’s laughter was infectious, and we all roared along with him.

Theo told us something else about women that was quite interesting. He said that traditional women’s tattoos were far up the leg, maybe on the inner thigh, and when a woman showed you her tattoos, you knew she was sexually interested. These day, women get tattoos all over the place, and the mystery is gone. It was only yesterday, as I thought about this conversation again that I thought of how on Yap, women’s thighs are considered highly erotic, because traditionally they were covered by the grass skirt. Breast were bare, so they weren’t considered erotic. Even in ’98 Terry and Jolie were warned about showing their thighs in the village. That didn’t seem to be as big a deal this time. The times they are a-changing. The only women you see going bare-breasted in public anymore are Outer Islander, although that may have been true in 1998 too. They are less exposed to Western ideas about propriety, I’d guess.

Terry helps Antonia and friends work in a taro patch. According to Yapese standards of kosher, not only are there separate taro patches for women and men, but only post-menopausal women are allowed to even set foot in a man’s taro patch. (There was perhaps more of a guideline than a rule.)

5/20/17: One of the things that I don’t remember from even fifteen years ago is the World War II memorials scattered around the island. We were driving around the municipality of Fanif the other day when we followed signs down a bumpy dirt road that eventually, without warning, became a single lane on a raised coral bed in a mangrove swamp. There we found these remains of a Corsair flown by Marine Major William Clay Jr as part of a squadron coming from Peleliu to strafe and bomb the Japanese airstrip on Yap. After they completed their mission Maj Gray looked for boats to strafe, but was shot down by anti-aircraft guns. Local villagers recovered his remains, and they were eventually repatriated and reburied in Arlington. The shot-to-hell Zeroes on the bombed-to-hell Japanese airstrip was a favorite childhood playground.

Boarwalk to a WWII Memorial

WWII Memorial Marker

5/20/17: With Mom’s old co-worker (and LaVelle’s old boss at the post office), Carmen Chigiy. She says people don’t call her Carmen any more, they call her Old. Old Chigiy. She’s a spry 78, and she was delighted to see us. A blast from the past on a hot Sunday afternoon puttering around in her yard. As Lonnie said, once we left she probably wondered if it had all been a dream.

Old Chigiy and Me

Here’s Mom and Young Chigiy in the ’60s, along with Chigiy’s children of whom I only know Pnin on the left side of the picture. They must have been performing in a traditional dance that day.

5/20/17: We received a bountiful gift of fresh reef fish from a friend of Theo’s. On top of the cooked taro he gave us last night and the previous gifts of bananas and papayas, we won’t be starving anytime soon.

5/21/17: Sunset Park, at the end of our road, is famous for its fiery sunsets, but I like the subtler colors of this one. The slimy boat ramp is a dangerous way for swimmers to get out of the water. Terry and Cody have both lost skin in falls there, and Theo’s older brother, Stan, recently hit his head in a fall and was in a coma for three days and unable to smell for some time after that.

Subtle sunset at Sunset Park.

5/21/17: This traditional canoe is under construction to be sailed to Guam next year. First they lay down the keel, then they glue on the hulls, then the bow and prow, then they add the outrigger, then the ball-and-socket mast, and finally the sail. The Caroline islanders, which includes the Yapese, were great sailors who developed star maps to guide them, in addition to reading the currents, bird paths, weather patterns, and other signs that land was near. Theo said the navigator for the trip is from Satawal, the Outer Island where the traditional practice of navigation has been preserved into modern times, as memorialized in the book The Last Navigator.

Traditional canoe under construction. We mostly saw men sitting around, chewing betel nut, and talking. Theo said it takes a lot of talking to build a canoe.

5/22/17: Okay, kids, I know you’ve been waiting breathlessly for the money shot, so here it finally is. Most foreigners who have heard of Yap have probably heard of it because of the stone money. The pieces were quarried on another island, Belau, that’s a couple hundred miles away, and then hauled back at great peril on bamboo rafts. If people died on the expeditions, the money was more valuable. It was used for ceremonial things like bridal dowries and tribute. The larger pieces, like this one wouldn’t be moved when they were exchanged, and most villages had big pieces lining the path by the comnunity house or men’s house. Theo took one look at this picture and immediately spotted (because of the crisp edge on the hole) that it was cut with metal tools, not a traditional Yapese adze, which means it would have been quarried on one of the American trader  O’Keefe’s expeditions and therefore not very valuable by traditional measures.

The famous Stone Money of Yap. The hole was to put a pole through in case you wanted to move the piece, but in practice the bigger pieces were never moved, for fear that they would break.

The Yapese like to joke that these collections of stone money in the village are their banks.


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

Micronesia: An Introduction

When I was diagnosed with gliobastoma multiforme in December 2015, the first thing on my bucket list was a return trip to Yap Island, where my family had lived for four years from 1966 to 1970 (ages 5 to 9 for me). If I was able to do that, I thought it was also high time for me to visit the mysterious abandoned stone city of Nan Madol on Pohnpei, which serves as the entrance to the subterranean world in A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool, and was also allegedly the inspiration for Lovecraft’s R’lyeh, where Cthulhu lies dreaming.

Micronesia (meaning “small islands”) was settled by humans millenia ago, although anthropologists and archaelogists aren’t sure exactly when. Magellan discovered the Marianas Islands, including Guam, in 1480, but the islands became particularly important to Spain when the Spanish were looking for an alternate route to China and the Spice Islands in the 17th Century. Spain took control of most of Micronesia in 1885, but lost control of Guam to the US at the end of the Spanish-American War; the rest of their Micronesaian possessions were sold to Germany at that time. After WWI the Japanese were granted rights to the islands by the United Kingdom and the League of Nations as a reward for their naval support against the Germans in the Pacific during the war. In WWII the US fought its way across Micronesia, launching its atomic strikes against Japan from the Northern Marianas islands of Tinian. After the war the islands were designated the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which was administered by the US.

Bomb crater and wreckage of Japanese Zero from WWII

By the late ‘50s there was a worldwide uproar over the US’ failure to provide the TTPI any support. When JFK was elected in 1960, he responded to the criticism by sending Peace Corps volunteers to the islands, as well as hiring teachers and administrators to work on behalf of the TTPI. That same year, my father earned his Master of Education and started teaching. Not long after, he and Mom were looking for a place where he could teach and they could save some money. He thought about going to Perth in Australia, but he saw an ad in an education magazine looking for teachers for the TTPI. He says what clinched it for them was the final line: “No poisonous snakes.” Apparently the Daggetts across the street had taught in Africa for a time, and told tales of fending off snakes.

Bumoon, Dad, and Falatnug at Kanifay in 1966

Our family Christmas card in 1966 or 1967

So in the summer of 1966 we moved to Yap. Dad taught at two different schools, starting in the village of Kanifay. He was such a success there, that the Yapese Secretary of Educaton John Mangefel hired him to be the principal of Alaw, which was in the capitol of Yap, Colonia. Life on Yap was a formative experience for even the adults in our family. My parents had never been out of the country when we flew to Yap on a Pan Am propeller plane. My brother Lonnie was twelve, and it probably left the deepest imprint on him. He took his wife Terry out there in the late ‘80s and connected with some of the old crowd and some younger folks who became our main points of contact, particularly Theo (an old schoolmate of ours) and his wife Antonia (Yapese names, Thinnifel and Garek). By that point, the islands of the TTPI had become independent nations, although still dependent financially on the US. Yap was part of the Federated State of Micronesia, along with Pohnpei (formerly Ponape), Chuuk (formerly Truk) and Kosrae (formerly Kusrae). In 1998 our whole family, now expanded by three grandchildren, returned to the island, where Dad was greeted and feted as a legend out of the past. The governor of the time, Vincent Figir, admonished Thinnifel to watch over us, and he did a great job of it. In 2002, Lonnie and his family returned for six months in Theo and Antonia’s village of Kaday. Our niece, Jolie, joined them, and I came along for nearly three months.

Dad and Bumoon on Christmas Day 1998.

Family portrait on Christmas 1998

So it was natural for me to ask Lonnie if he’d be interested in another trip out there, and of course he was. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him and Terry. They did all the planning and organizing of the trip, and saw to my comfort when I was struggling to find the stamina to do much of anything that I’d hoped to do. It didn’t help that right before we headed out there, I was told that my cancer had returned and had spread, and I was put on daily “micro-doses” of chemo for the duration of our traveling. My oncologist wasn’t thrilled about the idea of my heading out to the middle of nowhere under these conditions, and warned me that the worst-case scenario was that I might have some serious medical problems and then be stuck waiting for a medical professional to accompany me on the return trip. Still, in the end, she thought that it was the right quality-of-life decision for me to take a trip that was very important to me, and she was hopeful that it would actually help me find the ground on which to resist the resurgent cancer. I also had three infusions of Avastin before the trip for good measure.

I had to have my blood tested three times on Yap to make sure the chemo wasn’t doing too much damage.

Anatahan (1953)

ANATAHAN was Josef von Sternberg’s final film, shot in Japan in 1953 on a partially self-financed micro-budget, with a cast that didn’t speak any English. The “real life” story (heavily modified from a book by one of the survivors) is set on the Micronesian island of ANATAHAN, in the Marianas chain, where a group of Japanese soldiers are stranded in 1944. They discover a beautiful woman named Keiko living with what they assume is her husband and the war they’re fighting changes nature. It plays like a silent film, with Sternberg’s own narration providing the only English dialogue. Sternberg creates an island jungle out of matte paintings, hand made foliage, and shadows. It’s very slow, very strange, and strangely beautiful. As Tag Gallagher says in a visual essay on the Blu-Ray, the movie is best appreciated by people who’ve been made fools of. That could be said of many of Sternberg’s films, which are almost universally about the mysterious humiliations of love and desire.

A Touch of Zen (Xia nü, 1971)

The first Blu-Ray I’ve bought (not counting the one included for free with the DVD of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In) is Criterion’s release of a new restoration of King Hu’s classic wuxia pian, which is one of my all-time favorite films. My film database says that I’ve now watched this movie four times. The other three times were videotapes or DVDs of marginal quality. The highest visual quality DVD I watched was a Chinese disk that had no English subtitles.

There were a couple of things I noticed on my fourth viewing that I hadn’t noticed before. One was the moment of Miss Yang’s decision to bear Scholar Ku’s child. It’s pretty obvious in retrospect. She’s tending to Ku’s mother, who has a cold, and the mother is complaining, as she does constantly, that Ku will never get married and thus the family will die out. Heavy sigh. Cut to Miss Yang’s face as she makes a decision. I’m not sure whether the seduction scene is the very next scene or not. This film is very much about traditional Chinese values, and I think we’re supposed to admire Yang for her willingness to help the Ku family continue for another generation. She even bears him a boy! But one of the odd things about the movie is that she shows no maternal feelings whatsoever. Are we supposed to understand this as part of her attempt to break her attachments to the world, which is fundamentally a matter of religion, specifically Buddhism? Even when she leaves the monastery to protect Ku from the bad guys pursuing him, it’s cast more as a decision to protect him than to protect their child. Well, it’s possible that this is a continuity point that got lost in the mad rush to finish the film once the investors started getting impatient with how long it was taking.

The other thing I finally noticed is that when the evil Eastern Depot Chief Commander Xu duels with the Buddhist Abbott Hui, Hui eventually smacks him right on the third eye with his palm. There is a bloody mark left over the third eye. This is when Xu starts having the psychedelic visions of the Buddha that finish off the film. Does Hui’s blow open Xu’s third eye? This line of thought led me to think more about the “touch of Zen” in the story. Hu says that he himself was not a Buddhist, but he had a scholarly interest in Zen and wanted to incorporate some of those ideas in a wuxia film to try to deepen the meaning. In a short essay that’s included in the Criterion package, he talks about how he discovered that “translating the concept of Zen into cinematic terms posed a great many difficulties.” He doesn’t delve too deeply into what these difficulties were, but only notes that “Zen is something that can’t be explained but only experienced.” This would explain why the ending is so elliptical and ambiguous, but I began to wonder what connection between wuxia and Zen he had seen to begin with. The idea that Hui could release a transcendental vision through a violent blow seemed to my mind like a contradiction of the tenets of Buddhism.

Screencap from A Touch of Zen

What struck me is that the classic wuxia story is of the great swordsman who has grown tired of being embroiled in the conflicts of the jiang hu — the criminal underworld outside the normal rule of law where those who oppose corrupt Imperial politics are forced to reside. In the classic wuxia story, the weary warrior seeks to remove themselves from this world of conflict, but they always discover that there’s no escape. As in film noir (or Westerns like Shane or Unforgiven where the gunman tries to retire to a quiet life without killing), the past has its hooks in them, and it will come hunting. This basic fatalistic plot is very similar to the Buddhist attempt to escape the cycle of samsara that keeps us imprisoned in the world of illusion and impermanence. A Touch of Zen combines the two concepts/plots, in fact, when Miss Yang, who is a great swordswoman embroiled in conflict with the Eastern Depot (or imperial secret police — essentially the Gestapo) tries to remove herself from the cycle of vengeance and power struggles by retreating to a Buddhist monastery.

One of the things the movie doesn’t resolve is whether she is ultimately successful. The last we see is that she’s been pulled out of the monastery by the need to protect Ku (who also has their baby with him). But what about Abbott Hui? He warns Miss Yang that if he achieves nirvana, it will be up to her to protect Ku. This seems to imply that he feels he’s on the verge of achieving nirvana. The ending, which show him striking Buddha poses, seems to confirm that he has now done so. But again, isn’t it a contradiction that he has done so while embroiled in a violent conflict with an evil villain? Maybe that’s what King Hu was trying to acknowledge when he protested that he wasn’t really a Buddhist and that it’s impossible to convey Zen cinematically. Or maybe what he was trying to show was Hui escaping the cycle of struggle for power by achieving nirvana, so achieving what all great wuxia heroes want, but through leaving the entire world behind rather than through final victory with the sword. Nirvana is the ultimate retirement from the jiang hu. But is Miss Yang now stuck in the role of Ku’s (and their child’s) protector? The Chinese title of the movie, Xia nü, is translated as “The Chivalrous Maid.” She’s been that throughout, but now it comes to define her existence.

Hell or High Water (2016)

Apparently it’s not doing well at the box office, but I thought Hell or HIgh Water was a kick-ass little move — emphasis on the little. On the surface it’s about two brothers — one responsible, one wild — who go on a bank-robbing spree in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, but what it’s really about is the cracker social class the two brothers are from. As a portrait of hard scrabble, impoverished rural life in America, it’s quite good.

I was nagged by the thought that in some ways it was about Trump supporters. The Texas Ranger played by Jeff Bridges (always a favorite of mine) is a racist who thinks his racist insults are jokes, but he truly loves his Commanche-Mexican deputy, so the movie forgives him. To the film’s credit, it gives the deputy one of the most powerful speeches, as he talks about how the descendants of the people who took the land away from his people are now having the land taken away from them in turn — but by banks instead of an army. It’s a powerful statement about the corporatized death of the American Dream that also acknowledges that the American Dream was a form of robbery to begin with, transferring land from the natives to the immigrants.

Chris PIne as the “good” brother hides his sensuous beauty behind a haggard, downcast look for most of the film, and he’s great in a shifty, morally-ambiguous role. Bridges is great too, of course. I thought this one was much better than similar films such as Cold in July or Out of the Furnace.

The Get Down (2016)

I loved The Get Down — the new Netflix series produced by Baz Luhrmann — set in the Bronx in 1977, when disco was at its peak and rap was still underground. It’s a kind of musical, with several of the characters trying to make their mark in disco or rap. It’s also a powerful exploration of the racism behind the blight in the Bronx at the time and the political compromises (and, indeed, corruption) required to dig out of the rubble. Great music, great performances, great characters, poignant history, powerful drama. The Rolling Stone article I’m linking to talks about how various Bronx musicians, including Grandmaster Flash, who is a (highly-mythologized) character in the series, were brought on board to help with the period detail, stories, and music. It’s a labor of love, and as I say, I loved it.

The Reckless Moment (1949)

I finally got to see Max Ophüls’ second film noir, The Reckless Moment. It hasn’t been available on home video in recent years, as far as I can tell, so I had to wait until Noir City showed it. Like Ophüls’ first noir, Caught, it’s a female-centered story, but it’s more of a traditional noir in examining a middle class suburban family sucked into a nightmarish underworld of crime via underage sex and murder. The Czar of Noir City, Eddie Muller, calls both films “domestic noir,” and he thinks The Reckless Moment in particular is neglected both because the protagonist, played by noir superstar Joan Bennett, is a woman and not a tough guy detective, and because the story is based on a Ladies Home Journal story by Elizabeth Saxnay Holding, not a hard-boiled crime story by Hammett, Chandler, Cain, or Woolrich.

The Reckless Moment is unusual because it makes a sympathetic character out of the blackmailer played by James Mason, and in fact hints at an adulterous love affair between Mason and Bennett, whose husband is away on business throughout the movie. Caught is also unusual for a Hollywood movie in the way it presents an adulterous affair as the happy solution to an abusive marriage. A sophisticated approach to adultery became Ophüls’ signature after he returned to Europe in the ’50s.

Microbe & Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil, 2015)

Microbe and Gasoline was very sweet. It’s the best thing by Michel Gondry I’ve seen since The Science of Sleep (2006). (There are three in that time period that I haven’t seen yet.) It’s a coming-of-age story about two dreamy, sensitive, inventive, misfit adolescent boys growing up in the Parisian suburb of Versailles, where Gondry himself grew up. The first part is about their conflicts with bullies and family, and in the second part they build their own goofy, Gondryesque motor home and try to escape their problems with a road trip into the French countryside.

The two boys have distinct characters, with Daniel (called Microbe because he’s small for his age) a self-doubting, romantic artist (c’est moi!) and Theo (called Gasoline — Gasoil in French — because he’s always fixing engines and smells like it) the self-assured, pragmatic mechanic. Gondry embraces the unresolvable contradictions in life, as when Daniel and his brother listen through the wall to their mother moaning and can’t tell whether she’s crying or having sex. The mother is played by an anorexic Audrey Tautou, who nails the role of the anxious, neurotic, overly-doting mom. It’s episodic and wandering, like a good road trip, but it gets home eventually, with a nice slingshot ending that suddenly switches to the beloved girl’s perspective.