Some guys drink; some guys gamble; this guy–he’s skirt chaser. -Dante Benedetti
I went chasing skirts recently. Now, I’m not a skirt chaser in the traditional sense…anymore. Those skirt chasing days are far behind me. I’m talking more about a quest.
You see here in Micronesia, almost all the girls wear these skirts. The designs are beautiful.. Some are floral, some are needlepoint, others are appliqué. They are simply beautiful. But they are also a source of wonder and a bit of a mystery. Now before I start sounding creepy, let me explain. The Chhukese place a great emphasis on cleanliness which is most impressive on an island where it rains several times a day, there are no roads or sidewalks, and mud is the common denominator in all things. That said, the girls all sport these pristine skirts all day and during all kinds of activities. Going to church—better put on my immaculate skirt. Off to class–I think I’ll wear my flawless floral skirt. Practicing for track an field events–I think I’ll wear my new skirt for that. And they’re spotless–I have no idea how.
I asked some of my students, where I might find one of them for presents when I return to the States, or maybe even for me–they are lovely, and I bet they’re comfortable for dancing……never mind. I’ve asked several times, “I love that skirt. How can I get it?” only to be met with sideways looks. Not because they think my wanting to get a skirt is odd in any way. Rather because the question is itself odd. The answer is almost always, “I made it.” or “My mom made it.” Asking where I might find “That skirt” is erroneous–this is it. There are no others. I can’t get this skirt or that skirt–and if I want it–well you certainly can’t have “my skirt” The differences of languages crop up at this point, and my question is ridiculous, peculiar, and more than just a tad inappropriate.
Let me rephrase my question, “Where can I get a skirt like yours? I would like to get some as presents.” –Much better, Mr. Chris.
The girls tell me that the markets downtown sell them, but don’t go in by myself. “You’re not Chukese. They’ll think your rich and charge too much like you’re a tourist. You should take a Chuukese with you.” So it’s set, on Saturday, Ruffina, Lillian, Dai Dai, and Lillian’s brother, Wilson, will all pile into the school’s truck, rumble on down to Nepakos, and take me skirt shopping.
Okay, I’ve been to the markets in Thailand. I’ve been to the markets in Nepal…and Honduras…and Mexico…and India; this is a whole different beast. Those carry with them an air of the exotic and romantic that hearkens bak to some earlier adventurous time. Picture Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Knew too Much” wandering through the open air market in Morocco or Indiana Jones being chased through the stalls in the Egyptian marketplace. This has a wholly different flavor, but not without its own charm and romantic appeal.
The markets are individual shacks where all manner of goods clutter the shelves. 50 pound bags of white rice (is there any other kind), are stacked next to a box of slippers (flip flops). Laminated flowers to wear in your hair are beside cans of SPAM. Shrimp chips from the Philippines are next to banana leaf packets fille with puu (beetle nuts). And draped over shelves, or on a hanger on a nail in the wall are skirts and mumus. It’s not like there are racks of skirts. Maybe four or five to choose from in the whole store. No tags; no sizes; no two the same; all gorgeous; all handmade. There was a mumu that I thought of picking up for my daughter, but I couldn’t be sure of the size. I knew one of the girls working in the store. She was another student, and her Auntie owned the place. “Just get her measurements, Mr. Chris, and my mom can make a mumu for her in her size.”
Which brings me to the second mystery. How are they making the skirts? The craftsmanship and detail are amazing. The needlepoint designs in the fashion of Pohnpei are incredibly intricate. The appliqué skirts popular on Chuuk have complex arrangements of various cloths and patterns. These are made on an island where electrical power is unpredictable. These are made in a place where access to a sewing machine must be limited at best. Then there’s the question, what happens when the machine breaks down? I haven’t seen too many Singer repair shops on Weno. There’s not even drinking water in the hospital. I wonder if there are broken and derelict sewing machines under the abandoned cars rolled into the lagoon. “But Chris,” you’re thinking, “perhaps these were all hand-stitched by Micronesian peasant women in their compounds.” My retort is…get real. I know this is the third world, and time stands still, but this is also the 21st century and no matter how still time stands, there is no way for someone to make a skirt from scratch, gather food, pound breadfruit, and cook the family pet in one day. It can’t be done. There’s got a be a sewing machine somewhere–I just don’t know where it is.
We visit several shops, and word must have gotten out that Americans were in town looking for skirts. When walking out of a grocery store where we made a water stop, we are greeted at the door by some women with bags skirts. Mine are 20 dollars… Mine are only six…This one like Phonpei… This one Chuukese. All of them unique. All of them lovely. Here, I decide that the skirt chasing is done. Looking at the skirts in front of us, I make some choices. I just hope it’s okay, because two seconds later I saw another–unique–different–one of a kind, and self doubt crept in. But money changed hands and the deal was done.
I hold one that I bought up to my waist joking, “Does this make me look fat?” Laughter and embarrassment. “Mr. Chris, we are outside.” The Chuukese are a shy people, and no, the skirt did not make me look fat. My beer belly did–when coupled with my boisterous wisecracking, I looked mighty fat indeed. The ugly American skirt chaser had captured his quarry.