Kind of like lionfish in the Caribbean June 21, 2012

“An invasive species, also known as an exotic or nuisance species, is an organism or plant that is introduced into a new environment, where it is not native.”-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Drove into “town” last night for dinner at the Truk Stop.  Get it? Truk Stop?  It’s like a play on words…I guess humor doesn’talways translate across cultures.

Anyway, I had a sashimi plate of tuna that had been swimming in the ocean as recently as two hours previous.  I was going to put in a joke about it getting fresh with me, but…. guess humor doesn’t always translate across cultures.

The drive into town is as harrowing as the drive out of town.  The ponds are still there; the crabs still scurry out, but wait, there’s more.  In daylight I got to see the place more clearly.  The degree of poverty was staggering.  I’m reminded of my trip to India.  But then what is poverty? And what does it look like to these American eyes?

In India, I remember the people living on the streets, in alleys, and even on rooftops.  When talking with Vijay, the stonecutter, I told him I was struggling with all the poverty I saw, and he asked, “What poverty?”  When I pointed to examples, he told me that’s just how it is.  That is the way of the world and how everything works.  “The man living on the tarp under the roof? That is where he lives.  That is where his father lived, and his grandfather before him.  It just is.  Americans look at what is, and they make judgements.”  Still, wouldn’t that guy be more comfortable  in a house when the rains come?

Anyway, it’s the same thing here.  The “road” skirts the lagoon in places.  A rusted out , stripped Suzuki rests on its roof, half submerged.  Naked children climb on it and jump into the bay.  It’s like some post modern water park.  People just stand along the side of the road, not really doing anything, just standing.  Homes are little more than tin roof shacks–some concrete, some wooden, all crumbling or sinking in the mud.  Chickens and urchin kids scramble around in the mud in front of the homes.  It’s like a a tropical Dickens novel where the Dodger and Twist are dark skinned and vaguely Asian.  Again, I was taken aback as I bounced  toward dinner in town.  There was guy from Kansas City in the truck with us.  He’s here volunteering as a support guy for a wandering dental clinic on the outer islands–more about that later.  As we bounded along, he kept saying how, “This place should be a paradise, but it isn’t”  He talked bout the failure of infrastructure and lack of basic amenities, and I was inclined to agree.

When I shared my observations with one of the Jesuit Volunteers here at the school, he reacted like Vijay back in India–“What poverty?”  He explained that if you asked anyone here if they were “poor”, even the families whose kids were cliff diving off abandoned Japanese transmissions, the answer would be a universal “no.”  There is no sense of poor here or poverty.  The concept doesn’t exist here. The culture is so communal that no one is ever without food or a place to sleep.

Most people don’t have jobs, but they all have a family plot of land with a few shacks on them, and the whole extended family lives on this compound.  The compounds have a communal cooking area where meals are prepared.  All compounds have some food growing on it–coconuts, bananas, taro, pineapple, papaya, bread fruit…..  There’s plenty of fish.  Everyone’s needs are met. As far as housing,  no one is ever inside.  Houses just serve as a place to sleep, usually on the floor.

Sure there are signs of status–electricity, concrete homes as opposed to wood, maybe a car or TV–but nobody cares.  It’s about meeting your needs, and everyone’s needs are met. Everyone is comfortable.

But there are jobs. Stores, hotels, the airport, the “bank”, all these and other places do employ people, but even that’s odd.  Father Rich told me that one of the worst things that happened in the islands is the cash economy.  “It used to be that the men in a family would go fishing.  If one of the brothers was sick, the others would share their catch with him.  Everything works out.  Now, the sick brother might say, ‘Oh I don’t need fish; I need fifty bucks.’  It’s affected the whole family system.  People with jobs try to hide their money and salary from their relatives.  Because everything is shared, culturally, your’e almost obligated to share your money.  When it was just fish or food, it all worked out. Now maybe my brother won’t spend his money wisely.  Next thing you know, he’s out of cash and out of food.  Hmmm…

I guess it’s even crazier on the outer islands where there is a still a chieftain system.  It used to be that when people collected fish or food, they would give a percentage to the chief and his or her family (Wait for a later entry to learn about the matriarchy on some islands.).  Now, the chief would meet his family’s needs and redistribute the food back to the people.  After all, he can’t keep all that food; it would spoil.  Well now, the chiefs want money.  Cash and coins don’t spoil in the coffers.  You got it, no need to redistribute the dollars and cents. The people now give more and get less if anything back.

“With  no natural predators, an invasive species may go unchecked and consume the resources in an area, possibly resulting in extinctions.” 

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Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Kind of like lionfish in the Caribbean June 21, 2012

  1. Bonnie Jacobson

    it’s been a while (years? decades?) since I’ve experienced your written word. The years have been kind to your talent. Keep ’em comin’.

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