THE KAERU KID: My tales of the South Pacific

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series.

Nan Midol ruins­. photo by The Kaeru Kid

Pohnpei (Micronesia)
My reason, this time, for island hopping in the South Pacific was not to bake on the beach or soak in nature’s bathtub on the islands, but because of my interest in ancient cultures, and learning more about the people there. My destination was Nan Madol on Pohnpei; since the plane itinerary included Fiji and Guam, I also had an opportunity to visit those locations.

My couch surfer host was an American who was hired to implement wireless Internet service throughout the islands. We went to the Tattooed Irishman Restaurant overlooking the ocean. An expensive mangrove crab dinner was delicious. We sat with my host’s American friends who teach math and science at a local college. They told me the level of education for many is very poor, there are many large families, many teenage pregnancies, little ambition and much graft. They said many students go to college to get Pell Grant money, and when the check arrives, classes are practically empty as they celebrate by spending the money. The Americans told me U.S. aid money is wasted here. This illustrates how well meaning intentions can lead to greater problems.

There must be a way for the students to earn the money, rather than it just being given out.

It rains about 185 inches a year, which accounts for the abundant rainforests on the island.

I arranged my tour of Nan Madol (youtu.be/0PaKONo4pBM) at a hotel. A motorboat took me to a nearby islet where several kayaks were beached. I then visited Nan Madol, paddling the kayak, which an accompanying guide led. We silently entered the canals; it is easy to understand why some visitors label this area the Venice of the South Pacific. It was extremely hot and humid, with little wind in the canals discouraging visiting many of the sites, except the major ones. Nan Madol consists of mysterious structures built of huge, naturally hexagonal basalt logs. Someone said these are magnetic. Unfortunately, I did not have a magnet or compass to test this claim. Devil’s Postpile, which is located in Mammoth, Calif., boasts similar features.

Almost 1,000 years ago, ceremonial buildings, tombs and other structures were built from volcanic material, which weighs several tons. The area spans more than 200 acres, and was originally built by what is known as the Saudeleur Dynasty. The strategic placement of this material also formed canals between interconnected islets. It boggles the mind to wonder how ancient people were able to lift, transport and then construct structures from these massive basalt materials. It always amuses me to hear theories that they were built magically. Sometimes outer space aliens are invoked, as present day science cannot figure it out. We don’t give enough credit to human ingenuity and perseverance.

When Germany controlled the islands in the early 1900s, their governor, Victor Berg, opened one of the tombs and supposedly discovered two huge giant skeletons inside platinum coffins in 1907. The day after opening the coffins, he died, reportedly from sunstroke, but the locals attributed it to supernatural powers guarding the area. Superstitions about Nan Madol keep them from doing any exploring. This locale should be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Meanwhile, the relentless jungle growth is slowly deteriorating the structures.

Kepirohi Waterfall. photo by Kaeru Kid

The tour included walking to Kepirohi Waterfall, where one could take a refreshing dip, and then back to the lagoon for snorkeling to see manta rays, but we only saw one. Certified scuba diving is also available.

The Europeans, including the Germans, colonized Pohnpei in the early 1900s. The Japanese later colonized Pohnpei. World War II history buffs can find remnants from that conflict, but I did not have the time or interest to pursue those leads.

At someone’s recommendation, I ate at the Japanese hotel Joy. I had salad, soup, rice, sashimi, beef and chicken cutlets, all for only $7. Pohnpei is famed for having world-class pepper, white and black. The white is said to be spicier. Pohnpei pepper is so expensive that restaurants use imported pepper. Betel nut is sold in stores, and some people have ugly black-stained teeth and gum problems, which are the result of chewing this addictive stimulant.

Kosrae
I was finally on my way home. The airplane security measures included deplaning at every island stop while the passenger compartment is inspected. Passengers wait in wooden terminal buildings, and after about 45 minutes, are allowed to board the plane again. Some of the stops sell unique island merchandise, and passengers rush to buy these limited goods. In Pohnpei, pepper was a prized purchase.

At the Kosrae terminal, small packets of seasoned salt, tangerine-like fruits and banana chips were in high demand. Even the plane’s captain purchased some items, and so joining in the mass-buying hysteria, I purchased some of each. My daughter later told me the salt that I gave her was delicious.

My luggage had been checked through to Honolulu when a gate attendant told 10 passengers to disembark because of weight limitations, since more cargo than expected was loaded. I was included in this group. I had to purchase basic clothing, but fortunately because of the tropical climate, I only needed T-shirts and underwear.

Sometimes the most fun happens when it’s least expected. I had to stay for three days before the next flight arrived. Someone recommended the Pacific Tree Lodge Resort. Fortunately, it had rooms available with free Wi-Fi. The owner, Mark, who is originally from Tennessee, came to the airport to pick me up and even stopped at a store so I could buy a few necessary clothes and toiletries. Their restaurant served great food at fair prices, so I ate all of my meals here, except for one at Kosrae Nautilus Resort, where room prices were higher ($125 vs. $85) and the food not as tasty. Nautilus had a pool that I probably wouldn’t have used. As an example of prices, a mangrove crab dinner at Tree Lodge was less than half of what it cost in Pohnpei. Maria, an Italian tourist stayed here, ended up marrying Mark, and they now have a delightful son. Scuba diving here is said to be excellent and the resort maintains a dive shop.

The average rainfall is more than 400 inches. It would come down in buckets, but when it stopped, the sun would frequently shine, making it quite hot and humid.

I learned many interesting things about Micronesia. I heard that an auditor was needed to prove to foreign governments that their standards were being met in Pohnpei. Government officials were required to meet certain education levels, but I was told that the auditor found fictitious schools listed for the majority of the officials. The officials’ solution was to fire the auditor. It’s not as corrupt in Kosrae, but many people have no work ethic.

The United States also provides tens of millions of dollars of aid each year, but I have been told that just a portion of it actually benefits the commoners.

They say breadfruit, bananas and coconuts grow wild here, and there is plenty of fish in the ocean. A protected habitat for fish has been suggested as the catch size and fish are getting smaller. The same is also happening to a once large turtle population.
Missionaries ruin paradise. Almost everything closes on Sunday; there’s no maid service, fishing or a number of other activities.

One guest told me he had removed his shirt on the beach to sun himself when someone told him to put his shirt back on. He gave them a middle finger salute in reply. Missionaries also forbid dancing, singing and have instilled their own moral codes. Women were forced to dress conservatively, according to missionary standards and society went from matrilineal to patrilineal.

One guest who lives on Majuro told me that Chinese mother ships have Chinese crews, but a U.S. captain because U.S. treaty allows fishing rights. They send out nets that are miles in length and use sophisticated sonar and helicopters to scout for schools of fish. He said bribes are paid so that overfishing is overlooked. The nets capture all aquatic life and much of it is discarded. He also told me he has encountered islands of plastic waste that are miles in diameter. Fish collect under them and ingest some of the material and it goes up the food chain.

Mark, a couple of other guests and I went fishing, despite the choppy waters. Yours truly provided chum because of mal de mer (seasickness), while the other two guests each caught nice-sized wahoo that we ate back at the resort.

On another day when the rain let up, I took a bicycle trip to a close-by area that has ruins that are similar to those found on Pohnpei, but are not quite as elaborate. We also saw stones with circular depressions where roots similar to kava were ground up, called suhka. In Pohnpei, it is called sakau. During the ride, I saw many discarded appliances, such as washing machines and refrigerators strewn next to the road, as well as many abandoned vehicles. There is a prominent mountain range called Sleeping Lady, and one needs little imagination to figure out the prominent features that led to its name.

On my last day, Maria took me to an interesting, small museum. I learned about pirate Bully Hayes, who lived on the island and supposedly hid his treasure here. Legend has it that a Japanese company started to build a sugar mill here when they struck something. All work was canceled; the workers returned to Japan and the Japanese owner was said to have become quite wealthy.

I enjoyed Kosrae the most of all of the islands I visited on this trip, and it was due to serendipity. The plane island hopped back to the states and stopped in Kwajalein, which was bombarded during the Pacific War. This is now a top secret island. Island workers live on an adjacent small atoll, and must leave the island at end of the workday and return early the next morning. The only ones allowed to stay on the island are the military and civilians with top-secret clearance. This island is the Reagan Test Site, where ballistic missile testing is carried out. We were not allowed off of the airplane, whereas we were required to disembark at every other stop. From Kwajalein, we flew to Majuro and then to Honolulu, ending my tales of the South Pacific (for now).

Again, I have to apologize for losing most of the photos, but I did upload them to Picasa before I lost them. If you are interested, you can view them here: http://bit.ly/Kt014i. Hit the slideshow button on the upper left for easiest viewing.

 

Las Vegas Tidbits

The Mob lives on here in Vegas, at least as museum-type attractions. The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement has recently opened in the downtown area at 300 Stewart Ave., a few blocks east of the California Hotel. The cost of admission is reasonable, at $18 for adults, $14 for seniors and $10 for locals. I felt it was done very well, and two to three hours can swiftly pass while viewing the exhibits and watching the videos. The current narcotic warfare in Mexico resembles our bootlegger past. There is a similar mob attraction located in the Tropicana Hotel, but admission is $28 for adults and $25 for locals. A visit there earlier was fun because it allowed customers to interact with a Robert De Niro look-alike and other characters, but recent financial troubles may have reduced the live interactions. It’s too bad that the two couldn’t have combined their resources, since I doubt many visitors will want to visit both places. Both are interesting and at least one warrants a tour, if not both.

The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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