Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pohnpei: It takes a Village

I bet you've never heard of Pohnpei before, even though it used to be a U.S. Trust Territory and it contains a former U.S. national landmark, the ancient site of Nan Madol. Pohnpei (formerly spelled Ponape) is actually the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia--which include  Chuuk, Yap, and Kosrae (heard of them, right?)--which became independent of the United States in 1986. It’s another one of the many Pacific islands that were occupied over the years by the colonialist flavor of the month—Spain, Germany, Japan, the United States.

Oh yeah, it's a Pacific island
We chose to stop in Pohnpei, which lies well east of Palau and just a bit north of the equator, about halfway between Manila and Hawaii, for 5 nights because John’s parents had taught at the community college there in the early 1980s. We had wanted to visit them at the time but never got around to it, so it’s been on our list for quite a while. It made a really nice stop on our island-hopping route to Hawaii.

The flower-filled island has a population of about 34,000, with the main town, Kolonia, a hub of small commerce, especially humming right before Christmas. There are a few places to stay, but during our Internet research we were fortunate to have come across the star of the show, The Village, a 20-bungalow wooden inn that sits on a hill overlooking the sea, several miles outside of Kolonia. It’s a beautiful place—just what I imagine when I think “Pacific island.”

Once I saw the palm-thatched roofs of the cottages that splash down the hill from the reception area and restaurant, I knew we were in the right spot to spend a happy Christmas in the Pacific. The cottages are large, with big screened windows on all sides (no glass) and mosquito nets draped over the beds. An added bonus was the really good food served in the open-air restaurant, including fresh-from-the-sea tuna (both grilled and as sashimi), mahi-mahi, mangrove crab, and a tasty morsel called plum chicken. There was also a pretty decent wine selection and a nice Jamaican beer (!) called Red Stripe, which we drank a lot of. I am still a bit disappointed by the lack of fruit variety in the Pacific islands—mostly bananas and pineapple, though we were also able to enjoy papayas and soursop (the latter best served as a major ingredient in delicious soursop daiquiris).

The Village, surrounded by tropical forest
Closest thing to icicles in this part of the world
At The Village we met another visiting couple, Tom and Anita (Tom was working on a road project in Chuuk, an island about which he had almost nothing good to say), who were renting a car for the day and invited us to tag along with them. So we spent part of the 24th with the local holiday shoppers, though we passed on the ubiquitous t-shirts and shorts and gravitated instead to the island handicrafts—fish carvings, wooden and shell mobiles, and seashell-decorated items. Most women on Pohnpei wear colorful mumus or calf-length flowered skirts, and most of the people we met were pretty friendly. 

We also drove out to another part of Pohnpei, Sokehs, and hiked up the hill on a rough gravel toward the top. The views along the way were great, but we eventually had to turn back because the trail got too muddy—Pohnpei gets a huge amount of rain (300 inches in some places), and the wettest season was just ending. Oh well, more time for Red Stripes back at The Village.  

We had a really great Christmas — two days of Christmas, in fact. The first day (the 25th on the island) we did a combined snorkel/hike/kayak trip to the highlights of Pohnpei: snorkeling with huge, amazing manta rays, hiking to a gorgeous waterfall where we swam in the pool at the base of the falls, and kayaking through the ruins of Nan Madol. In between we had a bento lunch (served in a banana leaf) on a small island with some of the finest sand we’ve ever stepped in.

Lincoln Logs at Nan Madol
Nan Madol is more than 1,000 years old and is made up of 92 man-made islets built of basalt columns. Lots of hard labor went into building up the structures, apparently constructed during a 500-year period of rule by the dictatorial, outsider Saudeleur dynasty. As with many ancient structures, it’s difficult to fathom how the heavy stone columns were transported to the area and used for building with limited means of transportation and technology. An impressive site for sure.

Blue-tailed lizards dart around the pathways
Christmas dinner back at The Village was a filling meal of prime rib and Yorkshire pudding with carols playing in the background. A beautiful way to spend our first Christmas day on Pohnpei.

But wait—there was another one! Because the island is on the other side of the International Dateline from the United States, December 26th in Pohnpei was actually Christmas day in the United States. And that’s when we got the best Christmas present of all—our first granddaughter. Congratulations to Tyler and Kelly on the birth of little Scarlett Sophia! We were on pins and needles while we awaited news from San Francisco, made especially difficult because my global phone doesn’t work in Pohnpei (ironically, it’s the only time we’ve wanted to use the phone and the only place it hasn’t worked!). But we eventually got the news, and Tom & Anita shared a bottle of champagne with us to celebrate. It was also an interesting coincidence—29 years ago we sent a telegram to John’s parents in Pohnpei to announce the birth of their grandson!

Our final two days on the island were spent working on our projects (back to reality), made easy by the beautiful view we had as we toiled away on our computers, and taking some walks in the local area. At one point we were approached by a young guy named Dwayne, who spoke a little English and invited us to come with him to his home a short ways away. We weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into, but we went along. Turned out he just wanted us to stop by where his family was gathering for a post-Christmas celebration so we could exchange greetings. It was kind of awkward so we left pretty quickly, scratching our heads about what that was all about! Perhaps a little too much of the local island drink, sakao, had been consumed.

Today we fly to Honolulu for our last island adventure. We’ve been to Hawaii many times before, so we feel like we are really saying goodbye to the less-trod path we’ve followed over the past 4 months—only Hawaii, San Francisco (where we’ll meet our new granddaughter), and London still remain on the agenda before we return to New Jersey in mid-January.

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