Change is Afoot in Paradise

From the first breath of thick warm air we took walking off the plane and down onto the tarmac at the Pohnpei International Airport, to the sweat pouring down our backs waiting interminably at the immigration counter, to the smells and sounds and sights that set in as we drove through the island capital, Kolonia, everything felt almost exactly the same as it was the first time I arrived here, way back in 2011. But the longer I’m in Pohnpei, the more it’s become apparent that even on this little island, a place hardly anyone has heard of, in the middle of nowhere, however slowly, change is happening.

A host of factors contribute to Pohnpei’s slow rate of change, principally its geographic isolation from western (or eastern, for that matter) influences. Vast swaths of ocean distance it from any major landmass, the closest of which being the northeastern coast of Australia, a mere 3100 km (almost 2000 miles, roughly the same distance across the United States) away to the south and 5000 km away from mainland Asia to the west. As a result of this solitude, the island retains much of its pre-colonization traditions and rituals, such as a high degree of communalism and it’s obsession with Sakau (kava). However, like many other remote Pacific islands, Pohnpei has been forced to engage with a number outside cultures over the last 100 or so years. The Spanish were the first to find its shores in the 16th century, but it wasn’t until 1889 that they claimed it as part of the Spanish East Indies. Shortly thereafter, as a result of the Spanish-American War, the Germans occupied it in 1899. With the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, ownership of the island was passed over to Japanese hands, and then as a result of yet another war, WWII, American occupation began. The country known as the Federated States of Micronesia finally gained its independence in 1986 but still relies heavily on the outside world for aid, vis a vis hundreds of millions of dollars per year from the Compact of Free Association with the US and fishing contracts with other nations. As such, Pohnpeian people and customs have become a fascinating assemblage of western, meets eastern, meets islander.

Since I was last there in 2012, the island is very much the same. Pohnpei still has the same enchanting jungles fed by some of the highest rainfall in the world, reaching nearly 200 inches per year in the drier areas and double that at it’s highest elevations. Those rains also endow Pohnpei with the same spectacular waterfalls it’s always had; for an island less than 10 miles wide, it has an unfathomable 37 charted waterfalls, with countless more simply unmapped. Moreover, the frequent and prolonged deluges engender a mangrove forest blanketing the island’s coastline, choking out any possibility for tropical beaches to draw tourists from afar. Yet, the water in the lagoon created by a coral reef haloing the island is the same beautiful water, still clear as glass, placid as a summer’s day, and still warm as only equatorial seas can be. Pohnpeian people are still the same Sakau loving, legend-has-it speaking, generous and warmhearted people they’ve always been as well. Much is the same in Pohnpei that has always been in Pohnpei, but some things are on the move.  

Pohnpei is not as remote or perpetual as some of the outer islands surrounding it like Pingelap, Pakin, or Kapingamaringi, but even in those places, change is materializing with solar powered internet connecting even the most far-flung of peoples. In fact, since Pohnpei island is home to the national government of the FSM, it sees more than it’s share of outside influences. One such influence is capitalism. To quote one of the movers and shakers on island, “Pohnpei would have been a great communist country. Everyone wants to work for the government. And everyone is ok doing without money if it means they have what everyone else has.” Would have been, being the critical words there, as a loose system of supply and demand economics drives the island’s modest private sector. The one noticeable change therein is a newly developed bar/restaurant/hotel/marina called Mangrove Bay. When I heard about this place, I figured that it would take business from existing operators around the island who are already struggling to turn a profit, and I was right. The family of a friend of mine owns the PCR Restaurant and Hotel and, having lost the Pohnpei Surf Club to Mangrove Bay, has seen a marked drop in sales, and they are not the only operation suffering at the hands of Mangrove’s success.

Why is this happening? Well, it’s because Mangrove is simply better. The dock is in a better location for the surf club’s runs to the famous (in surfing circles) P-Pass surf break, everything is eye-pleasing right on the water, the hotel is the nicest and newest on the island, and their sushi restaurant is both banging (having come from Japan, that is a real compliment) and affordable. I had a chance to meet the owner of Mangrove Bay, Kumer Panuelo, and asked him about the change his establishment was stirring on the island. He didn’t have the unabashed profiteer persona that we’ve come to expect from successful developers in the US; I could tell he was sore that his enterprise may be having an adverse effect on any of his neighbors. That’s the Pohnpeian way, the island way, really, in that everyone looks out for everyone else’s interests in addition to their own. More than one person I spoke with on island said Kumer is known for having never turned down an opportunity to do someone a favor. When pressed, Kumer said that his business’s mission is to provide a service to the people of Pohnpei – expat, and local alike – and that, having put, “a lot of thought and money and time,” into this project, he feels blessed that it’s as successful as it is.

Although Pohnpei’s private sector is in the hands of the few, I feel pretty good about Kumer Panuelo, a man of integrity and morals, bold enough to act on his creative vision, being one of those few. Having worked here as a small business development consultant, I can attest that that is what the island needs – creative minds and gumption. I’ll be honest, too many of the business plans and forecasts I worked on were for the same two things: taxi companies and corner stores. I consistently bemoaned this fact and always counseled my clients to think outside the proverbial box and do something different, to find a niche that inspired them and to pursue that passion with fervent determination. Few listened. Kumer, however, is someone who would have agreed with my advice. His is a prime example of what it takes to make a successful business in Pohnpei. Not to mention, he is one of the most generous guys on the island.

In fact, it was Kumer who gave us a ride to Ant Atoll for the weekend. One of the most spellbinding places I’ve ever been, Ant is an uninhabited ring of islands, a necklace of emeralds suspended in an azure sea, about 10 miles off the coast of Pohnpei, holding in its center a lagoon as clear and pristine as any in the world. I’d been to Ant a number of times before and every time I came to appreciate it more and more. When I heard that Ant had been passed to a new owner and was being developed, my heart sunk, and blood pressure rose. The first I heard of this was at an expat party shortly after arriving on island. Some there lamented it. Others offered apparent ambivalence. It was said that many of the trees and underbrush there that made Ant so pleasantly bucolic were gone and in their place were a few huts. I was hoping the haters, of whom I was a part, were simply overreacting and that a few huts couldn’t be so bad.

Everything looked the same as I remembered as we motored around the outside of the atoll and through the pass. Entering the lagoon, the late afternoon sun shimmered off the water like a liquid mirror and basked the palms bending out over the thin white strip of sand in flashes of cerulean sunlight. This was the Ant I remembered. This was paradise. As we approached the shore I was too busy snapping shots of Jenna’s radiant smile against this magical backdrop to notice that what awaited us on Ant was much more than just “a few huts.”

Jumping down from Kumer’s boat, my feet sunk deep into the sand and saw a crowd of people there on the beach, including one rather heavy set man in a white T-shirt and weathered baseball cap. I had no clue who he was, until I heard another passenger on the boat whisper, “That’s Rosa…” The big man of Ant was there welcoming all the boats arriving that day for the annual Pohnpei Fishing Club tournament, and I promptly approached him with the customary bow of acknowledgement and respect, followed by, “Kaselehlie maing and kalahngan en kumwi for letting us stay on your island.” Now close enough to notice, I was taken aback by his bright blue eyes, a trait quite uncommon in Pohnpeians. Rosa invited us to set up our tent wherever we wanted and to join them later for dinner.

Walking through the encampment, my heart plunged lower and lower into my gut as the fears of the island losing its primitive luster became a reality with each of the new buildings we passed. Mind you, the last time I was on Ant, there were exactly zero buildings. Now, just in the primary area, there was a large, two-story hut, two single-story medium-sized huts, a lookout tower, a bathroom and shower, and at least three other larger open-air buildings (nahs) that looked to be cooking quarters or general use areas. Moving west down the island away from the commotion of the fishing tournament crowd, we came upon another couple nahs and a bathroom, near which we decided to set up camp. The shadows were lengthening by that point, so we headed to the tip of the island for one of Ant’s technicolor sunsets. As we passed under a palm leaning so far out over the beach it seemed to defy the laws of gravity, I noticed three more huts and another bathroom. All told, there were 15 new buildings on Ant, and oh…it now has wifi.

For the vacationer that opts for an all-inclusive resort, this may still seem more than a bit rustic. But in my opinion, one of the factors that made Ant so special was its untamed, exotic feel. As we walked back from what was admittedly one of the best sunsets Jenna or I had ever seen, I lamented the changes, saying, “It’s just not what it used to be,” a too oft echoed sentiment of times gone by. We reassured each other that we’d make the best of it, since there were all these interesting people to visit with and all this delicious food to share.

As we were all figuring out where to best position ourselves for an evening of conversation and potluck dining, Rosa asked for everyone’s attention – as the big man at this type of gathering, it’s his place to give a speech before the spread is unveiled. Leaning against a coconut tree, I listened to Rosa lay out his thoughts on the island he’s inherited, what he’s done with it, and his vision for its future. He said he’s been offered great sums of money to sell the island*, but he’s turned them down. He said when he took stock of the island two years ago, yes, it was beautiful, but there was waste washing up on it’s shores, and its lagoon was being over-fished. He explained that he’s outlawed fishing in the lagoon and made clear that the corals there are to be left completely undisturbed, given the interdependence of the two. A small team of men are now stationed on the island to maintain the encampment and monitor the lagoon, and although this will contribute to the degradation of the ecosystem there as a result of the waste they generate, there is really no other way to enforce his “no fishing in the lagoon” policy. He pointed out that clearing out much of the underbrush from the developed areas creates a healthier environment for the island palms (though at the same time, diminishing coconut crab habitat), and removing the old, dead coconuts from the tops of the trees near the buildings would increase safety for people visiting the island. If you’ve ever been sleeping under a tall coconut tree and had one fall frighteningly near you, smacking the ground with a loud thud (as I had that weekend), the validity of this idea becomes apparent rather quickly. The bathrooms he installed are all at least 100 feet from the lagoon, which will help keep it void of human waste which otherwise would have likely been dropped closer to the water and shamefully, without a cathole. And lastly, he mentioned that the wifi on island will hopefully be a boon to tourism in Pohnpei, one of the most sustainable forms of economic development available to such a place. As Rosa was winding down his remarks, he mentioned that he wants Ant to be the same for, “his kids, and their kids, and so on down the line.”

Hearing all this made me rethink my initial renunciatory reaction to all the development that has been carried out since I had last been there. I figured that if there were going to be 70-odd people on Ant for a fishing tournament, there had better be bathrooms, or else that water is going to get nasty and quick.  And if the lagoon had indeed been overfished, a sentiment echoed by a former fisherman-turned pastor I spoke with later, having a few people stationed there really wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. In generations past, Ant had a small population living on it, much like the neighboring atoll of Pakin (population 40 +/-) has today. To my mind, conservation of the island and its lagoon is of paramount importance, and although I get the impression that Rosa wouldn’t mind eventually turning a profit bringing eco-tourists here, I also believe he values the island’s future more than the potential to profit from it. That, and his willingness and desire to work to conserve the island as the priceless natural treasure that it is, are all I can really ask of him. Similar to how my skepticism shifted with respect to Mangrove Bay’s effect on Pohnpei’s economy, my heavy heart was lightened by knowing that people who shares my values, the values that I believe will be beneficial to the island in the long term, are there acting on them.

So often, change is met first by skepticism. But once we integrate that which has changed into the paradigm through which we experience and understand the world, that change, that heinous thing that we were ready to brandish pitchforks and knives over, starts to feel more normal. Such is the case in realms as disparate as economic development and conservation of natural resources. In both cases, compromises had to be found in order for beneficial changes to take place. Sure, Pohnpei and Ant are sublime, tropical islands, but they’re not utopias. No place is. And in order for the world in which we live to become a better, more thoughtful, tolerant, cooperative, peaceful place, we have to be willing to change not only that world but also our minds.


*About a year ago, Larry Page, co-founder of Google, visited Pohnpei on his massive $45 million yacht and later spent time on Ant. Surprisingly little can be found on the Internet regarding his visit (shocking, I know) but it’s said that he came here to relax on his 193 foot long, bright white, floating megamansion and evade the paparazzi. Rosa alluded to Page offering him a huge sum of money to buy the island, but he turned it down, saying that he wanted to preserve the island his way. (He mentioned nothing about the fact that, by law, only Pohnpeians are allowed to buy land in Pohnpei, but that’s beside the point.) But when I saw Rosa in the Guam airport on our way to Korea, he mentioned that he’s still looking for sponsors…apparently Larry isn’t returning his emails….shocking, I know.

Sunset on Ant

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