They got three stop signs, two police officers, and one police car…..Arlo Guthrie
The Federated States of Micronesia is broken up into states–Yap, Kosrai, Pohnpei, and Chuuk (often called Truk because the U.S. navy seamen couldn’t proounce “Chuuk”). Each state is comprised of several islands. Each populated island is broken down into municipalities. These municipalities are divided further int0 villages villages. I’ve been living in the Municipality of Sapuk, on the island Weno, in the state of Chuuk. So I guess a municipality is sort of like a county in the states, but calling Sapuk a county is like calling the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts as described in “Alice’s Restaurant” a metropolis. There aren’t three stop signs on this entire island, and I’ve only heard rumors that police officers exist. They’re kind of the Micronesian
equivalent of bigfoot. I’ve seen some blurry pictures, but no one has ever captured one in the wild.
Tourists in Sapuk are either lost or World War II buffs. The school where I work was once a Japanese communication center/bunker. On the next hill to the east of the school is a lighthouse which the Japanese built with slaves pulled from the Sapuk populace. Plunked down on a hill in some family’s yard sits an enormous, rusted out coastal defense gun being slowly reclaimed by vines and bushes. Down on the water is a dilapidated Japanese pier where ships once docked and today locals fish and swim.
The area is rife with relics from the war, and there are some people interested in seeing them. Today as I was reading on the porch, two different groups walked through to check the place out. A Japanese tourist asked to take my picture. It was all I could do to keep myself from chanting “We’re number one! We’re number one! Whose bunker is it now, b–ch!?!” But Superego came to the rescue and vanquished the evil Doctor Id. I just smiled for the snapshot and returned to my book.
I hiked through the jungle yesterday with some other teachers and the brother of one them–an army major between deployments. He was on a break from seeing current warfare up close and was checking out remnants from past wars. We schlepped up to the lighthouse and climbed to the top to check out the view. As we trekked through the forest, we passed several family compounds on our way through the brush and up the hill. The lighthouse isn’t set aside or fenced in protected as a historical monument like it would be in the States. It’s just there. You can walk up to in and in it and and up to the top for a commanding 360° view of the eastern half of the island and the lagoon and the Pacific beyond.
Wait a second, did I say you can just walk up? There was one slight caveat. While we were sitting atop the lightouse taking in the view, a guy with a machete approached us saying that this was his land and he wanted five dollars from each of us in way of a toll. This is a common practice here. There is an assumption that anyone who is not an islander has money. Fortunately, Jay, one of the other teachers lives in Sapuk and speaks Chukese. He negotiated with the guy. He told him that we in fact had permission from the actual owner who has given the school access to the property. After a few minutes of back and forth that I could not understand, the man accepted two dollars from Jay to cover everyone and left. Now I know some people out there who might get indignant at this–“If I were you, I’d tell that guy off!!! You were in the right!!! Why did you give him anything?” I’ll tell you why. We were in a jungle, and he had a machete.
All in all we spent about an hour on top of the lighthouse. The view was stunning, but rain clouds over the water looked indecisive as to whether they were moving toward us or going to veer off in another direction. It’s like that here, you can see the weather coming, but it is unpredictable with the all the winds. Discretion being the better part of valor, we headed down. Two of us made our way along the forest path through Sapuk and headed back toward campus while the others headed to the Japanese dock for a swim.
Now the last thing I want to do is create the image that the people of Sapuk are knife wielding extortionists–not at all. This guy was an anomaly, and in no way did I ever feel truly threatened. On the contrary, most of the Sapuk locals are friendly, always offering smiles and waves, and in general a happy lot. It hasn’t always been that way. For years Sapuk was known as one of the more crime-ridden areas in Micronesia. Over the past few years through the work of community members–individuals and organizations like Xavier–it is now one of the safer municipalities.
Ambling down the path, I come across more compounds and am greeted with nods, waves, and “neonowas anim (good afternoon).” Children will sometimes follow behind me. They ask if I have a camera and want me to take their picture, more often than not they throw a peace sign, or a hang loose sign–thumb and pinky extended from a fist. It’s like a reflex. Men and women ask me “Where you going?” or “Where you come from?”. These questions come out of sincere curiosity not a space like–“Hey, stranger, what are you doing in these parts?” It’s jovial and almost innocent. Among most of the population I’ve encountered, there is a lack of fear, suspect, or cynicism. I often find myself bracing for it. I feel my defenses rising only to find that there was no reason. I don’t know if this comes from being somewhere where I am the minority or if it’s just years of living a culture where sarcasm has replaced wit and all too often is mistaken for intellect.
All through the villages, people are getting ready for the “Sapuk Games.” I mentioned in an earlier dispatch that Micronesians do not live day to day, but rather event to event. This is one such event. These are held every four years to coincide with the olympics. It’s a track and field competition among the four villages, which I will now attempt to spell. I was asking a colleague how to spell the names of the villages, and he told me
with a laugh–“No one ever writes them down.” Anyway here goes Nukunap (New-kah-rahp), Winipis (Wid-eh-peas), Kanonii (Korory), and Ir (Ear). Not only do the games tie in with the olympics, but I have also been told that they commemorate the date that the Japanese, who dislocated the residents during the war, returned them to Sapuk.
As forest gives way to concentrated collections of compounds so a village is defined. Walking into Winipis, I find all the residents lining the side of the road as people of all ages, from young children to teenagers to adults run down the road, racing each other, practicing handing off a stick or water bottle for a relay race. All members of the village who wish to participate can, and those who don’t participate come out in a show of support and community unlike anything I have ever seen. Everyone is out. I’ve watched a few of the villages practice over the last few weeks (Smart money is on Winipis or Kanonii), and I’ve been amazed at what a bonding event even the practices are. People bring food and water for the runners; people cheer and laugh; small children run around while the older folks sit in the shade and watch.
Some villages come up to the school’s campus to use its field for practice, and it was here I saw a cultural phenomenon that one would never witness in the States- especially at a sporting competition. A young girl from Nukunap was by far one of the fastest runners on their team. She could not have been older than nine, but was outpacing twelve-year-olds. When it came to running, the gods smiled upon this child. She was in a race and right behind an older girl. She had come from behind and was fast upon the heels of the leader, but she didn’t pass. The supposition came out that the reason for not passing was that the older girl in front was an older relative, and it would not be culturally acceptable for the younger child to overtake an older family member. I don’t know if this was the case or not, but to even have that possibility enter the equation speaks tomes.
Continuing back through the crowds, from time to time I would hear calls, “Mr. Chris!” or “Hello, Mr. Chris.” Some of the time these came from some of the summer program students who recognized. But often it came from people completely unfamiliar to me. One man said as I walked by him, “Thank you, Mr. Teacher. Thank you for coming here.” Micronesians are known for accepting people as family. I’ve often talked about the communal nature of the culture. I have co-workers here who are doing home stays and refer to their hosts as “Mom and Dad”. They talk about their brother or sister or aunties when referring to the extended family living in the compound. The culture can absorb you and draw you in in a way that I’ve never seen when travelling other places. Sure, people everywhere are warm and welcoming, but it’s different in Chuuk, in Sapuk. It goes a little deeper; it resonates more like the harmony of the singing in my last post. One of my fellow travelers put it this way, “Paul Gaugin’s paintings make a lot more sense to me now.”
Below are some random shots taken in and around the municipality of Sapuk.