Coming off our expeditious itinerary in Japan, itself a fast-paced culture, we were looking forward to unwinding on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. It harbors a wealth of natural beauty, and it’s a place I know well, having taught here four years ago. I was equal parts excited to show Jenna the island on which I had lived for a year and to re-experience a place that had such an impact on me.
For the most part, we enjoyed a different activity almost every day we were here. We started out by visiting with my host family in the island’s main town, Kolonia. I hadn’t seen them in four years, but it was just like old times as we went straight to Cupid’s, one of my favorite haunts on island, to watch the sunset. The next day, we ventured further out, going swimming at Nett Point, which is a short drive from town. The water there is blissfully warm and I was quickly taken back to one of the reasons I loved Micronesia so much: the sea. Later that day, we went to a birthday party and got to catch up with some of my old friends still on island and make a few new ones. The first time I came here years ago, one of the hardest things was figuring out this wild and foreign place: What is there to do here? …and more importantly: To whom do I need to speak to do it? Now that I know the place and some people, those questions seem to answer themselves. With our itinerary coming together after the party, we decided to hike up Sokehs Ridge to get a view of the island from above and in the process learned about Pohnpei’s involvement in WWII. The Japanese occupied it from WWI until the end of WWII, and there are still many relics of that time rusting away in the jungles atop ridges around the island, like huge anti-aircraft guns and batteries as well as cavernous bunkers. Of course, we got rained on the whole way up (as is the way, here in Pohnpei), but as soon as we got to the top, the clouds parted long enough to gaze down on some of my favorite fowl in the world, the white tailed tropicbird. The next day, we visited Liduduhniap falls, a place of deep sorrow for me, to pay my respects to a friend that was lost there five years ago. It was an eerie moment, as the sound and feeling of the powerful rumble of the falls seemed strangely out of sync with such a tranquil scene.
The following days we free soloed a fun three pitch climb up Sokehs Rock (which I downgraded from a 5.6 to a 5.2, climbing lingo for easy to easier), explored Pahn Takai Falls with its mist-like ribbon of water falling down over a hundred feet and bat cave, and got our first of three cooking classes on Pohnpeian fare, courtesy of our island host and friend, Andres. The next day was one of our favorite on island, as we linked up with another friend and his compadres to attempt the Six Waterfalls circuit, which took far into Pohnpei’s mountainous interior. The hike began about an hour outside of town on nearly the other side of the island and took us through thick rainforest, where every surface gave rise to growth as moss was growing on plants, growing on trees, growing out of the decay of the jungle floor below. Less than an hour into the hike we were rewarded with the first of the six waterfalls and, on average, every 15-20 minutes thereafter we’d come upon another stunning falls, the last of which required us to swim upstream through a fast flowing slot channel. The whole while, we trudged through the creek, slipping all over the place on algae-covered river rounded rocks, as a torrent of rain pummelled us from above. The rain was so strong, in fact, that the river levels rose, almost taking our packs away downstream as we waded upstream to the last waterfall, and on our way back out, forced us to traverse a felled log across the now tempestuous rapids of Lehnmesi River.
As if the waterfall adventure wasn’t enough, we were on the brink of going to one of my favorite places on the planet: Ant Atoll. Ant (or Ahnd, as it used to be written) is an uninhabited coral atoll some ten miles from Pohnpei’s coast. I had been there three times before and consider it, in combination with the other Micronesian atolls I’ve visited, possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. We actually got hooked up with a ride there by someone we met at the birthday party I mentioned earlier, and as it turns out, there was to be a fishing tournament there the weekend we wanted to go. This meant there would be a ton of people (a ton, for Ant, that is…I’d estimate around 70), and I also learned that the island is being developed into an eco-resort of sorts, a topic I’ve discussed at greater length in a previous post. I was skeptical of the crowds and the development but couldn’t pass up the chance to bask in Ant’s beauty once again. To our good fortune, those partaking in the fishing tournament, had a feast prepared that we were welcomed to, which naturally included the national obsession: Sakau. Sakau, kava (also known as kava throughout much of the Pacific), is a sedative that when consumed makes one feel slightly high but mostly calm and has been clinically proven to reduce short term social anxiety. Pohnpeian culture revolves around Sakau to such a degree that a Sakau cup can be found smack in the middle of the Pohnpei state flag. Can you even imagine a marijuana leaf or a beer bottle overlaid on the US flag!? I’m so glad that Jenna was able to see, taste, and appreciate the ritual that makes Pohnpei what it is…and she said she actually “liked” the taste of the muddy, peppery, slimy drink. What a gal! The rest of the time on Ant, we waded in its placid waters with reef sharks, small fish and live coral heads, witnessed two of the most jaw dropping sunsets in my life (that’s every evening on Ant), and got to visit with some interesting people. Unfortunately, the Sakau cup is not devoid of germs and we contracted what we believe to be strep throat from sharing it with 40 other Pohnpeians.
…Which led us to our next destination: Pohnpei State Hospital. After hoping that it would “just go away” for day and a half without luck, we spent a few hours and $10 each to be seen and receive a prescription for Augmentin, an all-purpose antibiotic. After a day of taking, we felt markedly better and were able to use our final day on island to visit the world’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, the megalithic island temples of Nan Madol. This place, a cross between Atlantis and Stonehenge, was just certified by UNESCO on Monday, and when we arrived we found a group of college students being led on a walking workshop by a National Geographic explorer who is visiting the island. Nan Madol is a prehistoric “city” of more than ninety man-made islets of the coast of Pohnpei, many of which have large, complicated structures on them composed of basalt rocks, columns and coral fill — some stones weigh as much as 90 tons. Together, the islets formed a powerful administrative and religious complex from which the island of Pohnpei was ruled for several hundred years by a line of tyrannical monarchs called Saudeleurs. In terms of anthropological sites, this is one of the most fascinating and astounding I’ve ever heard of, given the shear size, number, and movement of these massive stones. How were these things moved? No one really knows. Legends have it that sorcerers used magic to fly the stones from all around Pohnpei and assembled them in Nan Madol, or possibly a huge chicken helped in the construction. But most current theories have the pillars being taken from a basalt tower (Pwisen Malek) on the opposite side of the island and floated many miles around the perimeter of Pohnpei to the site of Nan Madol. The shear size and number of these things is mind boggling and, given the primitive technology of the times here, this is one of the most astounding archaeological sites in the entire world. Later that day we swung by Keprohi Falls, the island’s most recognizable of it’s umpteen waterfalls, and said our thank yous and goodbyes to everyone who has made our time here so special. It was an emotional goodbye again, but with significantly less fan fare than last time.
All told, we were in Micronesia for about two weeks, went on three hikes, saw nine waterfalls, once, again, ate a ton of delicious food, were blessed with some priceless cultural experiences, and spent a magical weekend on an enchanted outer island…all for a paltry $700. It helps to have friends in far off places, and it was really great getting to catch up with everyone there and make some new friends. Visiting Pohnpei was vastly different from living and working there the first time. When I was there in 2011-2012, although I had significant international experiences under my belt, Pohnpei was by far my boldest move. Since then, I’ve traveled solo in numerous countries for months at a time and coming back to Pohnpei, I wasn’t nearly as overwhelmed. Much of that had to do with the fact that, this time I knew the island, it’s people, and really felt at home here, still, even four years on. Although the island is changing, it’s still the same Pohnpei I fell in love with years ago, and the changes are really, upon reflection, for the best. And the best part of coming back to Pohnpei? Jenna was able to experience and appreciate this place and these people that had such an impact on me.
It’s tough to really sum up Pohnpei in a couple sentences, but one day, I was sitting in the sweltering house, sweat beading up on my forehead, waiting and wondering if the taxi would ever come, when the rain started and continued unabated, and squads of stray dogs started fighting and barking wildly outside, I was left wondering, “How did I make it a whole year here?” Then later that very day, I was sitting at Mangrove Bay bar, sipping on a refreshing lime-flavored something or other, as the sun set ablaze the towering clouds over Sokehs island and a cool breeze blew in off the lagoon, listening to some pacific reggae beats ripple through the air, thinking, “Why would anyone want to leave?”
Next Stop: Chuuk! Wait, that’s only a stopover…Guam! No, that’s a layover too…Shanghai! Oh, right, that’s a 10 hour overnight layover…Tokyo, again!? Nope, that’s just the way the airline miles route takes us. Next stop…wait 30+ hours for it…South Korea!!