Magic & Mystery in Micronesia
I said, "It seems an island man is always short of two important things-dry matches and a good sharp hook."
He smiled, turned to Francis and said, "Tell them they are welcome here."
Much like the Polynesians, hospitality and generosity are the cornerstones of the Micronesian culture. Francis laid lush floral wreaths on our heads, offered us woven baskets holding taro, fried breadfruit, and cups of raw clams, and sent an army of children off in search of the sweetest drinking coconuts.
The genders don't mix in public except for church and festivals. The men have boats to build and fish traps to set. The women have cooking fires to tend, taro patches to weed, and lavalavas to weave. The segregation is strict, but the arrival of what they call a "yachtboat" is a big event; excitement erodes discipline. Scores of bare-breasted girls and women hung back among the coconut trees, their eyes riveted on Diana.
The moment that Diana wandered from the boathouse, she was spirited away by the women. Her normal shyness was completely overcome by her fascination with the fine traditional weaving. She disappeared into the smoky huts, discussing back-strap looms, warp and weft tensions, dyes, native materials, and traditional patterns and their meanings. The lavalava is the female costume de rigueur and still a form of currency. Despite the enormous efforts required to weave one, Diana was given two as gifts. In return, we brought much needed medicines, rice, sugar, flour, and oil to shore the next day.
Like the neighboring island of Satawal, Lamotrek has an ancient seafaring tradition. Historical records indicate that for at least the last 500 years, sailors from Satawal and Lamotrek have regularly ventured as far as Guam and the Northern Marianas. My days were completely devoted to learning everything I could about the construction, maintenance, sailing, and navigation of their traditional proas. These oceangoing crafts are measured by how many giant turtles they can safely carry; a 13-turtle canoe establishes the upper end. I watched as men lashed hand-hued planks to a dugout hull with coconut sennet, then caulked the seams with breadfruit tree gum.
The village is divided up into five boathouses. These physical structures also confer social organization on the community. A young man might attach himself to a particular boathouse because he has a favorite uncle there or many friends. Even if he's too young to join the members in their tuba-drinking rituals, he will begin his education in canoe building, rope making, fish-trap weaving, and sailing; if he's particularly gifted, he might enter the secret society of star-path navigators. There's no conflict or competition between boathouses. In fact, one house may lend a team of laborers to another for a particularly big boatbuilding project. The important point is that sailboats are the physical, psychological, and even spiritual epicenter of their lives. I can relate.
Among the sailors, of course, there are virtuosos. Stanley is famous throughout Yap for building especially fast proas. He's now too old to tackle such ambitious projects, but many boat owners will sail their canoe to Lamotrek from outlying islands just to have Stanley "tune it up."
Stanley has his boys sail the proa back and forth in front of him. He studies the boat for several days. Then he directs a craftsman to adze away a quarter of an inch here, move the mast step an inch forward there, or place a rock in the bow to alter the trim. I sailed on a newly Stanley-tuned boat and the proud owner just smiled as we ripped across the waves.
I donated sail needles, thread, and hardware to one boathouse, and I demonstrated western stitching techniques to their sailmaker. For another boathouse I fixed a pile of broken spearguns and took the men out for a day of spearfishing on board Roger Henry. I made a point of dropping by to see Chief Joseph every few days to present a little gift of tobacco.
To repay Francis for his overwhelming hospitality, I took his group out for a day of very successful trolling in the turbulent waters to windward of the atoll. We feasted under the stars that night on thick slabs of raw wahoo and mahimahi dipped in coconut cream. Our days were so full that Diana and I only got to meet at night-that is, on the nights that the men would release me from my tuba-drinking duties. And duties they were, for every man is expected to participate in these bonding ceremonies. From 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., the men sip tuba while still working on their canoes. At 5 p.m., they go off to notch new coconut branches that drip sap into suspended containers. This fluid then begins to ferment into tomorrow's supply of tuba. At 6 p.m., every man in the village returns to his boathouse and spends until the curfew at 9 p.m. in a drinking circle with his mates. A single cup is passed from man to man. There's no sipping. It's down the hatch, and the cup passes to the next man. They are big men, and they sport bellies of which a Bavarian would be proud.
On Sundays, we sat on the floor of the crowded church and listened to joyous harmonies. After services, we shook nearly every hand in the village of 400 people. We were invited to eat in so many homes that we staggered back to our dinghy. Where Ant Atoll had offered us weeks of splendid isolation, Lamotrek provided weeks of total cultural immersion. It was exhilarating and exhausting.
We grew quite close to Francis and Bibiana, his wife, and their three gorgeous children. Bibiana begged Diana not to leave. But Francis is a sailor, and when the fortified trade winds veered to the east, he agreed that it was the right weather window for fetching Guam. That is, after one last party.
When it was finally time to go, we set the mainsail, raised the anchor, and started to pull for the outer pass. I looked back to the beach to see several dozen people blowing their conch horns, singing, and wildly waving goodbye. I was deeply touched, and I was sad to see these kind people, struggling for their physical and cultural survival, fade beneath the horizon.
I've spent my life traveling. I've learned that I should never compare one people or place to another, for they simply are what they are. However, I'd be hard pressed to name another cruising destination that offered more miles of pristine beauty, more unfamiliar cultures, and more open-hearted hospitality than this seldom-visited outpost of the North Pacific.
Therefore, I'd like to propose a new acronym: Henceforth, let "F.S.M." stand for the Fabulous States of Micronesia.
Alvah and Diana Simon continue to cruise in the North Pacific. But they've traded in the sunblock for sweaters and seaboots as they explore the colder coastlines of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Keep track of their progress via Alvah's blog, The Roger Henry Files, at CW's website (www.cruisingworld.com).
The F.S.M. at a Glance
The Federated States of Micronesia is the largest entity to be carved out of the old United Nation's Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. The nation, part of Micronesia, is divided into four states: Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk, and Yap.
Geography: A total land area of a scant 270 square miles, of which Pohnpei accounts for half, stretches east to west for over 1,700 miles. Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Chuuk are considered to be in the Eastern Caroline Islands; Yap is in the western Caroline Islands. Kosrae and Pohnpei islands are large, mountainous, and forested. Most other islands are on raised or emerging atolls, which are small, low-lying, and only marginally fertile.
Population: The nation's 105,000 people inhabit only 65 of 607 islands. Approximately 85 percent live in Pohnpei, at Chuuk Lagoon, and on Yap island. The vast majority are Micronesian. A small number of Japanese, Chinese, and American business people complete the community.
Language: There are eight indigenous languages. Japanese, Chinese, English and 18 other languages are spoken.
Currency: The U.S. dollar is the nation's currency.
Cost of living: The cost of living is moderate to expensive.
Ports of entry: The F.S.M. ports of entry are Lele Harbor, at Kosrae; Kolonia, on Pohnpei; Weno Island, at Chuuk Lagoon; Colonia, on Yap island; and Ulithi Atoll, in Yap. Stops on outlying islands prior to initial entry are prohibited. Complete clearance procedures are required for each of the F.S.M.'s four states.
Visas: Visas are not required for U.S. citizens and a 30-day visa will be issued when you arrive if you do need one.
Permits: Apply for a cruising permit in advance. Contact the Chief of Immigration via mail (P.O. Box PS105, Palikir, Pohnpei, F.S.M. 96941) or telephone (691) 320-2605; fax: (691) 320-7250). This office will fax you an application.
Climate: Temperatures average 80 F year round. January through March is the almost-dry season. The rest of the year is wet by any standard. Pohnpei records rain on 300 days a year.
Winds: The northeast trade winds prevail from October through May. The southwest monsoons occur from June thought September. Strong southwest gales are possible in August and September. Typhoons have been recorded in every month of the year. However, the period from December 1 through April 30 is considered relatively safe. The western Caroline Islands hold the world record with an average of 19 typhoons per year!
Supplies: Food, fuel, and propane are available at Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk, and Yap. Be sure to carry plenty of cash; Kosrae, for example, has no ATM, and the bank there has no mechanism whatsoever by which you can obtain cash.
Resources: Moon Handbooks Micronesia by Neil Levy (6th ed., $18; www.southpacific.org/micro.html), a comprehensive travel guide packed with essential information for the sailor and backpacker alike, offers particularly good history and culture sections. Landfalls of Paradise by Earl Hinz and Jim Howard (5th ed., $50; www.landfallnavigation.com) is ambitious in scope: It covers the entire Pacific, and the information specific to cruising in the F.S.M. is accurate and helpful. Noonsite is a website (www.noonsite.com) that offers cruiser-specific background information and current details relating to entry, health issues, customs, quarantine, and the like. The F.S.M. Visitors Bureau official site (www.visit-micronesia.com) offers travel, accommodation, and event information on a state-by-state basis. A.S.