Thursday, January 01, 2009
I can't believe that Kosrae is so close to Majuro and yet I've never taken the time to get over there yet. It's a wonderful little island (well, little is relative, it's got much more land area than Majuro) with warm hearted people. It's less than 2 hours by airplane from Majuro, yet it costs nearly $600 round trip to get there. Continental is the only international airline that flies through Micronesia, so they gouge prices accordingly. That said, they provide a good, prompt, reliable service, which is rare in a place where everything runs on island time.
Kosrae is a high volcanic island of mountains densely covered in tropical rainforest. At the base of the mountains are small planes of mangrove swamps where the 5 Kosraean villages are located. Kosrae is wonderful because at the same time it is both developed and undeveloped. It is more developed than Marshall Islands outer islands (it has hotels, postal, educational facilities, internet, and electricity), yet let less developed than Majuro (which means that life is healthier for the people and there is less trash). The land area is bigger and the population is smaller (about 8000 people in Kosrae state living on 44 square miles of land) so there are enough resources to support the people there without destroying the natural environment. It was wonderful, quiet, and paradise-like. At the end of 3 days I had made up my mind to definately come back to Kosrae for longer. The College of Micronesia campus there only employs one math teacher, but she may be gone during summer, in which case I'd love to teach a class or two for them and live there for a couple months if they'd have me!
When we arrived at the airport and came through customs, we were greeted with a big smile from Tetrick, who works at the Pacific Treelodge hotel where we were staying. The first and most confusing thing was that while the majority of cars in Kosrae are right-hand drive (Japanese Style), everyone still drives on the right side of the road (American style). This got particularly confusing because that means that when the church bus dropped me off on Sunday evening I had to exit right into the middle of the street. Anywhere else, this might have been a problem because of oncoming traffic, but not in quiet Kosrae where two!
The Pacific Treelodge, where we stayed, was a perfect place to relax and unwind. It is located on a causeway that connects the main island to Lelu island, the home of the ancient Kosraean royalty. The rooms at the Treelodge surround a shady mangrove swamp which fills up at high tide and empties at low tide. The first thing we noticed in the swamp were funny little animals that were half fish-half amphibious with bulging eyeballs. They would sun themselves on the rocks at the water's edge while proping up their bodies with their two fins on the sides (using them like feet!) If we got too close, they would quickly run across the surface of the water to a new location. The Bully Hayes restaurant is behind the hotel at the end of an elevated boardwalk through the swamp right on the water's edge. The breakfast and lunch plates were only $5 and everything was cooked fresh and local. The fish was the day's fresh catch, the vegetables were grown locally and the bread was made from scratch. It was amazing!! Kosrea is known for it's very sweet green tangerines (which none of the other islands in Micronesia grow locally) as well as local bananas.
My friend Mike was feeling sick, so he stayed in the room while I went out to swim at the Blue Hole. It's a famous hole in the reef with wonderful coral structures and aquatic life, but unfortunately I never found it because the tide was too high. It had been beautiful and clear when I took off for the Blue Hole, but after my swim the rain started coming down in torents. I took shelter under the roof at Bank of FSM and it didn't take long to stop.
When I got back to the Treelodge the sky was clear agagin and there was an outrigger canoe at the restaurant for guests to use. Sepe, the manager of the restaraunt said she would go out in it with me, as I didn't mind that she wasn't wearing any underwear. She's a cute little round lady with a hysterical sense of humor. When she tried to get into the boat she fell in face first and dunked her head into the water. The other waitresses were laughing hysterically with/at her. We got ourselves all sorted out and paddled out across the water under the majesty of the tall mountains. Unfortunately, as soon as we got to the middle of the water, the skies opened up again and soaked us thoroughly. There is a wet price to be paid for all that fantastic greenery!! I felt so bad that Sepe still had to work for 6 more hours in wet clothing that I went back to my room to find a dress I could loan her. I had 2 dresses with me, but Sepe and I do not exactly wear the same size clothing. She is short and round and I am at least a foot taller. The one that fit was made of stretchy fabric and hugged every curve. She was reveling in how ridiculous it looked and showed it off to all the other guests who came for dinner that night. She said she felt like she was going to the prom. ha ha ha!
The next day was Sunday and I walked down the road about 1.5 miles to the Mormon church. It's a beautiful new building and I couldn't have gotten a closer hotel. There were some adorable children outside playing when I arrived (I was about 30 minutes early) who greeted me. The members were very friendly and made me feel very welcome with them. It helped that my friend Heather served her mission in both Marshall and Kosrae and is
like a local celebrity with the members. Because I'm her friend, I automatically became their friend. Thanks Heather! When I went into the chapel, the children followed and surrounded me. One adorable 7-year old girl had brought her tiny pet hermit crab with her to church and was playing with it. The church service was in Kosraean, but my new friend Permides translated for me. Her husband is the branch president and at the opening of the service he introduced me to the congregation, saying, "This is Britt Mitchell. She is from the Marshall Islands even though she is white." I got a kick out of that. The primary children presented the program for church and they were so well organized and they sang wonderfully. It was just too cute for words!
Kosrae is one of the most religious countries in the world. Part of it is due to their interesting history. After many thousands of years without wester contact, in the 1850s, Whalers, traders, and pirates came to Kosrae. One of the most infamous is Bully Hayes, and American pirate accused of stealing cargo, women, and selling people as slaves to other islands. His boat, the Leonora, sank in Utwe harbor on the South Side of the island, and his treasure is rumored to be buried somewhere around Kosrae. Mishima, one of my students at CMI who grew up in Kosrae warned me not to look for the treasure because bad things happen to those who do. Anyway, Bully died at sea during a fight with his cook years later and I'm sure that the Kosraean people breathed a collective sigh of relief at the news. Whaling and trading boats brought diseases such as smallpox to the island in within just a couple of decades, the native Kosraean populations were reduced from 10,000 people down to just 300. Congregational missionaries in Boston were concerned about the sinful exploits of the whalers and pirates and concerned for the welfare of the native people's souls. So they sent missionaries out to the islands in the late 1800's to try to undo the damage being done by their seafaring compatriots. I'm not sure how much success they had with the seafarers, but they had remarkable success with the local people, and as a result, every single Kosraean still alive after the epidemics was converted to Christianity. Kosraeans today are known for their religious devotion, wonderful choral singing, and kindness. Sunday is a strict day of rest in the country. Nothing is open on Sunday and both Fishing and Campfires on sunday are illegal. Mishima also told me that if the police see smoke ascending from your yard on a sunday they will come by and kindly ask you to put your fire out.
That afternoon we joined up with Ray and Jill, two other teachers from Majuro who also happened to be spending their break in Kosrae to go down to Sipyen waterfall with Salik, a local guide and ecology expert. In majuro we don't have any mountains or fresh water streams and thus no waterfalls, so this was a real treat. It was stunningly beautiful up there! The next day we went back down to Utwe with Ray and met up again with Salik to explore the Menke ruins, which are on Salik's families land. The origin of the ruins are still clouded by mystery, but they date back to the time before the arrival of the missionaries when people went up to the mountains to worship the Sinlau, the Goddess of Breadfruit. What remains are hundreds of two-roomed structures made from rocks many of which have mounds of rocks inside. Their exact uses and origins are unknown, but Salik said that a German archeological team is coming for 2 months in February to study the site and results will be published online.
The morning of our final day in Kosrae I hired a local guide, Hamilson, to take me to Lelu ruins. These ruins are a former palace of Kosraean royalty and are really impressive. The site was abandoned when Kosraens converted to Christianity, but the ruins are surrounded by Lelu village where may Kosraeans still live. In some ways, Kosrae was very lucky to be relatively small and off-the-beaten-path because it spared it from being a Japanese or American stronghold during WW2 (thought the Japanese did fortify some of the hills during the war) and has kept it free from much of the contamination and pollution of industrial development. By the time to leave, I wasn't ready to go! But I'm sure that I will be back. There's a possibility that perhaps local shipping or fishing ventures might take passengers between Majuro and Kosrae and it's worth a try to find out.