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Traveldiary chapter 10 B [28. March - 28. April 2005] as PDF
(Micronesia: Kosrae, Pohnpei, Yap, Palau & Guam)
|Photos: Micronesia||More about the Pacific: South-Pacific|
Micronesia; the little islands in the northern Pacific
Spanish seafarers "discovered" them in 1521, little changed for the
next 150 years but after that, they have gone through a troublesome period,
when one island after the other was colonialised and
often by murderous means. After persuasion failed, the Spanish resorted to
force and sent even troops down, in order to support the christian missionaries who carried out forced
baptisms. The local population was dramatically reduced further by disease
brought in by missionaries and invaders - sometimes down to 5%. Afterwards, the
Micronesian islands were re-occupied and traded mainly between the Germans,
British, the Spanish again, then the Japanese and finally fell to the Americans
after WWII. Towards the end of the last century, most islands became more or
less independent. Despite self governing, they still rely heavily on
subsidies from their last colonial power, the
This and all the rest we've read about these remote islands sounded very interesting to us and we were curious, whether Kosrae, Pohnpei, Yap and Palau, the 4 islands we chose with our 'Continental Micronesia airpass' from Guam, still reveal some of this spirit.
Island hopping via Guam over Chuuk and Pohnpei, we saw many impressive atolls and islets from the plane, before reaching the island-state of Kosrae in the FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA, called FSM for short.
As it was Easter Monday, many island people returned from visiting their relatives and therefore wore head-wreaths or necklaces made of fresh flowers, which they got as a farewell present.
After landing at Kosrae, airport personnel wanted to re-direct us twice to the transit area, as it seems that not many tourists choose this island as a destination to stay. But our adventure started right here! On the simple baggage claim, with no conveyor belt, we were the only ones fetching such small luggage. All the islanders arrived with huge carton- or plastic boxes and cooler boxes (50x50x100cm) containing all sorts of gifts, including life-seafood. Not the flight, but the gifts are the main expenses when they visit family on a neighbouring island.
Outside the airport, the returning were being greeted by local singers and relatives and everybody, including us, received a fresh flower head wreath (called lei) as a welcome present.
Kosrae, with its widely visible landmark, a mountain crest resembling a "sleeping lady", is only about 110 km©÷ big and home to about 7'500 people, but there was no compact village. Everyone lived scattered along the road that circles ¨ú of the volcanic island. Even Tofol, the so-called capital, was just a collection of government- and service buildings.
For us, the
main attraction was the people, who always returned a smile, even when passing
by in their cars. Children were often almost posing in front of us, seeming
disappointed if we didn't take their picture. As it was the easiest to get in
touch with the people while walking along the street, we did so until our legs
hurt. Otherwise, we often used taxis as the few restaurants were all pretty
spread out. Taxis were cheap, but hard to find, as they were high in demand.
The number of cars was amazingly high for such a small island. Someone in most
families owned one, although many cars were often a bit crashed or had smashed
windows, if they were not missing altogether. Apparently they were being
It was not uncommon to see drivers opening the door while driving and we learned that they did this to spit out the red juice resulting from chewing betelnut. This habit was widespread among all island folks; even one immigration officer had a clump in his mouth when we arrived at the airport.
We almost never saw wooden houses, either they were built of bricks or more often: they were just simple shacks, assembled from rusty roofing material and anything else people had found. Just a few had still thatched roofs, most used tinroof again. As it never gets cold here, only wet, it was not necessary to have solid walls and the penetrating mosquitoes do not pose any malaria-danger here. Quite a lot of houses were abandoned; a sign of how many people had left the island to live somewhere else. The only visible "wealth" locals had, was in the number of children and so the population is growing again. In fact all over the FSM almost half of the population is younger than 15 years, while their life expectancy is around 61.
Micronesians are a bit more of a mixed race than before contact with
westerners. They look not quite as big and strong as Polynesians but are a
unique blend of Asians and Polynesians, the darker Melanesians and the European
races. Here, unlike in
An uncountable number of sometimes tiny little shops were dotted all around Kosrae's inhabited parts. Sometimes every other house sold a few things, often only some tins, chips or rice. With such an abundance of stores, it was hard for us to find out who sold what, as for example bread or water bottles, because tapwater was not drinkable.
We stayed at a guesthouse next to the Lelu-Ruins, which were the reminders of an ancient high culture. We were very lucky to be invited to a traditional Kosraen feast, organised by the owners of our guesthouse. We could sample many kinds of local food, offered on a big buffet with almost 40 different items. Most of them, like taro-root, breadfruit and cassawa, another starchy root, were special to us, but the spaghetti, spareribs and fried chicken-wings we left to the others, as there was also lots of seafood and meat prepared the traditional way.
The serving order followed a pattern order in which we, the foreign guests were allowed to help ourselves first from the buffet, followed by the permanently staying (and working) guests, then the children of which the boys came first and then the girls. Next were the hosts and afterwards the invited family members.
As it is the custom on any celebration or other occasion like "first child births" or funeral, the inviting family did entertain their guests after the meal by singing and playing the "Ukulele", a Miniguitar. Very cute was also the traditional dancing performed by six small girls in the age between 2 and 5 in a hula style belly dance.
The easiest way to explore the island, was by taxi and together with Ivy who arrived the same day at our guesthouse, we took a cab to two waterfalls. We were happy that the driver also guided us the way to the rivers and that he stopped for us in a hamlet for an hour, whilst we wandered around and exchanged smiles with all the locals.
Ivy is a
young and incredibly well travelled lady from
here to dive, like most other tourists to Kosrae do.
Another 1'500 - 2'000 foreigners are coming either for business, as Peace Corps
volunteer workers or, unfortunately even today; as missionaries, that are
In a tourist brochure, it was mentioned that "we do not develop film and we do not X-ray film". Back at the airport, there was really only manual checking - no sophisticated scanning. Every piece of luggage was carefully searched by hand. We watched with amusement how long it took the safety inspector to find out how to open Brigitte's very compact sleeping bag and then put it back in place again. Obviously, we carried some unknown and unnecessary things to this island.
hours flight over some beautiful atolls, we reached Phonpei,
which is also part of the FSM. Again, we seemed to be the only tourists to
disembark. After learning that in these islands there is usually neither an
airport bus nor taxis waiting upon arrival of the few planes, we had this time
made a reservation for a guesthouse and were now being picked up by the owner.
We were pleased that the accommodation was centrally located and everything
could be reached on foot. The main
On our first impression, it looked like the people here were poorer than those on Kosrae. We saw more simple shacks and it was dirtier, but still there were many cars driving around.
The cleanest place was Palikir, the capital complex of the FSM. The nine buildings were completely modern, but the rooflines, the colour and shapes were reminiscent of traditional meeting houses.
All over the FSM, two out of three paid jobs are government jobs, as the American payments are mainly used to maintain a bloated bureaucracy.
As the islanders love to travel and are very social minded, it seems just normal that a delegation of 22 would go to a congress to a foreign country or another island, even if two of them would be enough to do this job.
The intention of the American payments was to give the local government the funds needed to create new industries in order to become financially independent. However, today the working moral is very poor, the islanders are not really interested to work hard, just to have a government job, where they arrive late but leave early, sounds more appealing.
other hand, Micronesians who got the chance to study abroad often did not
return as they found better employment opportunities in the
We heard from an Australian advisor, that a police officer in the FSM earns about USD 3'000 annually, whereas the highest ranking government officer would get paid USD 35'000 annually and most others something in between. Together with privileges, discounts and benefits like travel allowances, almost everyone gets up to five times more.
We don't know whether the poor working ethics was caused by suppression from colonialisation and christianisation that always dictated something else than what the people here wanted to do. Maybe they have just given up and now they want to take it as easy as possible and just smartly do as little as is being tolerated and take as much advantage of the system as possible.
Strong reminders of past high cultures, like Nan Madol here in Pohnpei are still visible and before invasion of the white man, all islands had been self-sufficient. Now, less and less food is being planted and the traditional Taro and Breadfruit is now mostly replaced by imported rice. Almost all vegetable and meat is imported as well, and this year, the people complained that they didn't get the delivery of easter eggs in time, as the cargoship was delayed. Not many chickens were running around the island these days!
that everything is being imported and that all meals are made of western
products, we were surprised that it was not very expensive to eat in a
restaurant. It was also pretty obvious, that the locals love to eat out as
well. Often we were surrounded by big families with children. For an average of
USD 7, we usually got soup, salad and a Japanese bento box with a variety of
tuna sashimi (raw fish), plus meat, fish and vegetable in tempura batter with rice.
That was certainly the part of Japanese influence we've liked that it had
survived. During the 30 years before the end of the Second World War, ¨ø of the
residents were from
afternoon, we went to
In a similar way, we saw many war relicts like tanks, bombed planes or shipwrecks. Those that lie underneath the water have become a money making attraction for the (foreign owned) dive operators.
The interior of the island is an inaccessible jungle of thick vegetation with mountains rising as high as 772 meters. Clouds often get stuck on them and therefore Pohnpei and also Kosrae are among the wettest places on earth. As the downpours are often short but hefty and occur during the night, it's not that bad and as usual where we go; there was more sun than rain.
During our strolls around the villages, we noticed that dogs hardly ever barked at us, but we wondered why the locals advised us to take a stick along, to protect ourselves from the dogs. In the meantime we know the truth, that the saying bears:"dogs that bark, don't bite!" Heinz had to experience one that didn't bark!
On the outskirts of Kolonia was a settlement of Polynesians that were relocated there after a drought on their island. They had specialised in producing handicrafts, which they tried to sell to the few foreigners visiting. Unlike in Asian countries, no-one; not a single person tried to lure us into their handicraft shop, that all were set up so modest, most bypassers would not have noticed them at all.
What we did
notice, not only here, but also in Kosrae and later
similarity with Kosrae and later in
Pohnpei is famous for another drink: Sakau. It¡¯s mildly narcotic but powerfully paralysing the muscles, but not necessarily the brain. Apparently it is much stronger here, than its Polynesian counterpart Kava, made from pepper shrub root that is pounded on a stone and squeezed out, then served in a coconut half.
When we got to taste some of the milder stuff in Tonga years ago, we found it pretty awful, but the funniest was the description of this brown broth in our travel book: "Kava looks like used dishwashing-liquid, but dishwashing-liquid would probably taste better, as it has at least some food content in it!"
Again, after a week we went on. As there were no control towers on the airports of those small islands, they reduced the risk of collision by communicating by phone with the other islands. So, if a plane had taken off from one, no other plane was allowed to leave the neighbouring island for the next 15 minutes or so.
stopped briefly in Chuuk and then in American Guam.
Even though we just changed plane there, we had to go through
After another hours flight, we reached the State of Yap, which is considered to be the most traditional part of the FSM. As soon as we had passed immigration, we were greeted by a teenage girl, wearing only a colourful grass-skirt and a flower necklace. She placed the traditional flower wreath on our heads as a welcome sign. Two minutes later, we got a second one, this time from the young lady that represented the guesthouse we were booked in and who had come to pick us up - in western clothing!
At first, we were surprised to find men and women wearing this traditional dress not only walking on the road, but also in shops, restaurants and banks or driving in their cars. It's just their normal way! We found it delightful, that the natural way of wearing "next to nothing" could survive at least in some westernised corners of the world and not only in some remote hill-tribes. Apparently, if it comes to ceremonies and traditional dancing, the loincloth, lava lava and western clothing are being replaced by a grass-skirt only by everybody, also for the main-islanders - no T-shirts there! Westerners often joined in as well, we heard.
Through some other tourists that were brave enough to attend catholic church at 8 a.m., we learned that even the teenage girls assisting the priest as "Ministrant", wore only a grass-skirt and flower necklaces. As not many people had shown up at eight, the churchbells were rung stronger and stronger and an hour later the mass could start with quite many people dressed the traditional way. It seems that people are late not only for work, but everywhere.
As the same dress code applied to foreigners and locals alike, Brigitte could have taken her T-shirt off, not only when we went to the beach, but she always kept her skirt on, so nobody was turned on by her 'sexy thighs'.
To protect their valued
traditions, the islands of
The government recently started to encurrage all of its citizens to wear traditional clothing again every day.
The state of
To the Yapese society, it was as important as gold is of ours. Although US Dollar cash is used today for most commercial transactions, stone money and also shell money, are still of considerable value to the Yapese. Today, it's mainly in use to trade land or as an exchange-gift between parents of a young couple when they start to live together, which here is equivalent to getting married.
A collection of stone money around a meeting house, as found in every village, is called a money-bank. Stones are seldom moved, because who owns what, is common knowledge. A particular piece of money might be owned by someone of another village, just as shares or gold in the West only change ownership but not location. Often the little path to a house or the entrance, were decorated by stone money and we got the impression it was everywhere, sometimes even lying in the bush. According to statistics, there were only about 7'000 pieces left today, but there were many more before, as the wars and missionaries destroyed a lot of them.
Another characteristic of
We often had difficulties understanding what people said because everyone always had such a clot in his mouth, even those working in offices or on the phone. But when they smile, they expose a nice row of red teeth.
We went out again to stroll through the villages to meet the people, but we were almost a bit disappointed. Contrary to the previous islands, here most houses were concealed behind bushes or fences and so were the people. Most locals were rather shy and nobody came out smiling and waving when we passed. They didn't have quite the same charming mentality and we remembered having read, that they had different customs and looks, because they originate from a different tribe than the people of the other FSM islands. The skin of the Yapese was quite a bit darker and this was the only state, where they had a rigid caste system, even if the matrilineal inheritance system resembled the one of the other Micronesian islands.
As most of the islands in
the Pacific have a coral reef around them, this protects the little land very
well from a rough sea. But not of winds. Although
quite rare in this region, there was a typhoon hitting
Talking of solid houses: thanks to the help of our neighbours we have had in Pohnpei, we were very lucky to get a two room apartment in a modern building that usually only goes to foreign consultants or government guests. The complex housed several offices, two banks, a supermarket and restaurant. This building was literally the village centre of Colonia. The whole village was superbly set in a beautiful landscape surrounded by water and connected by causeways around various bays.
Just 100 meters up the hill was the telecom office, which offered telephone and internet access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as in each FSM capital. This was pretty amazing, considering that restaurants mostly closed at 8 pm and that at this time, everything got real quiet for the night.
On the small airport building, the traces left by the typhoon, were still visible. The only thing that was repaired, was the tinroof, but even the lamp necessary to inspect the luggage, was just put in position above the table prior to inspection. It wouldn't have needed much money and effort to fix the small airport properly, but probably they were just waiting that the Americans or another nation would give them the money to build a new, more sophisticated one.
Whereas the first few
flights were called "Island Hopper" and 80% of our fellow-passengers
had been islanders, the flights from Guam via Yap to
Upon arrival in Palau, we noticed that Continental
Micronesia was not the only airline serving this destination. The airport was
also much bigger and equipped with modern finger-docks, air-con, proper
immigration booths, restaurant and duty free shop. Last year (2004)
We wonder how exciting this
place feels to those "reality show tourists', but for us, who compared it
to FSM islands, it felt too western and not romantic at all! There was often
'bumper to bumper' traffic and too many big shops. Almost all businesses in the
private sector, were held and operated by Asians, that
made up ¨÷ of the population, most of them came from the
Also here, the entire
native population would starve to death if they didn't get boat-loads of
imported food. Unlike in the Polynesian und Melanesian parts of the Pacific,
there were no markets where we went in
Planting fruit and
vegetable on these tropical islands would have been so easy but it seemed too
much of a hassle to them. Despite all this, we could find good and reasonably
priced food in those restaurants that were frequented by the locals and the
Asians who settled here. The luxury resorts gearing for divers and package
There, we got a whole house by the beach to ourselves, and as there was no restaurant, we could order meals that were cooked by the owners. Initially, we were told that the meals were being cooked with ingredients available on the island and naively, we meant to have heard "ingredients from the island". So, we secretly hoped for some local food. But after getting boiled sausages and army-biscuits for breakfast, we realized our misinterpretation. Soon we knew that the only thing we would get fresh, were fish and crab - if someone caught any. Everything else was imported. After a boat had called in the next day, our nutrition got healthier and improved even more after a full moon night made it almost too easy to catch crab. So, about a dozen landcrab and a delicious coconut-crab landed on our plate.
We did several walks all around the island, which was very pleasant as the roads were well shaded and there was almost no traffic. We passed trough a forest of many impressive fig trees and pandanus and also many porous limestone formations. We were impressed by the huge number of landcrab that appeared before sunset. We also spotted some monitor-lizards and small monkeys, which are unique to this island. It is believed that they were brought here as pets but after they outnumbered the humans several times over, they became a pest!
As Angar is Palau's only island that is lying outside of the protective reef, the waves were thundering up some blow-holes in various places, except on the west coast, which had an own small reef.
After drinking the juice of a coconut, we cracked the nut open (easy, if you know how) and put it in front of our veranda in the hope to attract some coconut-crab. It worked out surprisingly quick. An army of small crabs arrived, protected with a shell borrowed from sea snails, in which they could hide if in danger. As they grow, they change shells until their own 'shell' is hard enough. Unfortunately, the biggest we had seen, was the one on our plate, which was about 25 cm long. The ones we saw in the garden, were 0,5 - 10cm long, but apparently full grown adults can get as big as 1 meter.
During WWII, Japanese and
American both thought that this tiny island was important in order to win the
war. The local population was at least evacuated before fierce battles
occurred. Americans built a 2,2 km long airstrip into
the jungle within 30 days only. This is almost across the entire island. At
least it leaves some space left and right of the runway, not like on
Today still, many of Angaur's beaches and jungles were littered with war relicts rusting away slowly. On one spot, there was such a concentration of crashed war-planes, they called it "plane cemetery" but as they were made of aluminium and plastic, the material does not disappear.
After another wonderful
scenic flight over the Rock-islands, where Heinz could even sit next to the
Aussie bush-pilot, we spent another two days in the hustle and bustle of Koror,
before catching a plane to
By the time we landed in
Those who want to shop till they drop, won't be disappointed. It was certainly not a holiday destination we would choose and now we were glad that, later the same day, we could board a plane back to Cairns (Australia chapter 10 A).
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