Friday, January 02, 2009

Pohnpei!



Pohnpei is the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia, and landing at the airport in Kolonia was like coming to civilization after the quaint airport experience at Majuro and Kosrae. The airport even had electric doors that open when you step in front of them!! Kolonia reminds me very much of Majuro, though not as crowded. It has an island-urban feel to it. They have one main department store, "WallMart" (not affiliated with the American superstore) which is like a
disorganized version of Majuro's main department store, Payless. Pohnpeians seem similar to Marshallese in their culture and the amount of western influence they have let into their lifestyles. The part of Pohnpei island outside of Kolonia is much more rural, but since I was only there for 2 days, one of which was a holiday (New Years), I didn't have the chance to get out to the other side of the island much. I had great hopes for finding tropical fruits which are cultivated in
small plantations outside the city, but Kolonia was devoid of any healthy produce, either local or airfreight. What a disappointment!

Whereas the driving situation in Kosrae was a little confusing with most cars having the driver sitting on the right side yet the car driving on the right, Pohnpei is downright confusing because about 50% of the cars are right hand drive while the other 50% are left hand drive. But everyone still drives on the right side of the road. I'm glad I'm a pedestrian, because after living in countries where both sides of the road are utilized, I would be completely disoriented!!


Because there were no ATM's in Kosrae, I was in dire need of some cash, so I took a stroll into town from our hotel through the villiage of Porokiet. It is a section of Kolonia that is a center for imigrants from the Polynesian island of Kapingamarangi (an outer island of Pohnpei in the very South). Their culture is really unique. While Kolonia's Pohnpeian population mostly lives in modest houses with German style (dating back to the German Colonial period of their history), the Kapingamarangi people live very much more outdoorsy lifestyle. Their houses are only for sleeping, but their cooking, washing, and leisure activites mostly take place outside. It was really intersting to walk though this pocket of unique culture. Plus it gave me about 15 minutes to work on wrapping my tongue around the pronunciation of Kapingamarangi. Try it, can you say it 10 times fast?

Bank of Guam was already closed for the holiday and their ATM (the only one on the island of course!) was down due to an electricity problem. That made me nervous! The next day when I returned it was still not operating, with made me even more nervous. I knew that I needed to pay a $15 departure fee at the airport, which was more cash than I had, and with New Year approaching the bank was sure to be closed. Luckily later that day the ATM was functioning, and I breathed a big sigh of relief. There was nothing to do but be patient. So Mike and I headed out for Sokehs Island and Sokehs Rock (see picture), which is not far from Kolonia but far enough to have a quaint, rural feel, and magnificent views of the northern part of the island. During the Japanese occupation of the island, they had militarized Sokehs mountain and there are still relics at the top. It is a steep climb, but worth the effort. On the top of the mountain we found an old bunker with a 6-inch diameter cannon(see photo), 2 large Japanese AA guns, and at the front of the mountain, spectacular views of the reef, Kolonia, and Sokehs Rock (a sheer basalt pillar extending upwards from the island's edge. The taller peaks in the background were enshrowded by clouds from which they wring the rain, making Pohnpei one of the wettest places in the world (annual rainful averages 400 inches!) While we were there, the rainfall was minimal, which was very, very lucky.

Pohnpei and Kosrae islands were formed from Ancient volcanoes just as the Marshall Islands were, but the geographic differences are vast. In the case of Pohnpei and Kosrae, they are tall volcanic mountains surrounded by a barrier reef. In the case of the Marshall atolls, the land is on TOP of the barrier reef, and the mountain in the middle sank long ago, forming a lagoon. So in contrast to the Marshalls, where the lagoon is surrounded by the small islands (in a ring shape), Pohnpei and Kosrae are Islands surrounded by lagoons with reef (that is still submerged) separating the lagoon from the sea. Chuuk on the other hand, is an atoll in formation. Its barrier reef supports outer islands while the 11 small main islands poke out of the middle of the wide lagoon. Perhaps Majuro had some middle-of-the-lagoon islands thousands of years ago, too!

That night was New Years, and there were plenty of loud explosions happening outside. People party with their families on New Years in Pohnpei, so everything was closed early. We really had to search hard to find a bite to eat at dinnertime. So we stayed in the hotel and watched a 30-Rock marathon and waited for 12pm. We were so exhausted from all the hiking that we were tempted to celebrate New Years in Majuro’s time zone so that we could go to sleep an hour earlier. But we kept awake until midnight, toasted (Mike with his contra-ban Budweiser (sale of which is prohibited in Pohnpei between Christmas and New Years) and me with my Sprite) and then slept soundly. Not the most exciting New Year I’ve ever experienced, but not the worst either!


The next day we explored a bit and saw some old parts of the city including the Spanish Wall (pretty much all that’s left of the Spanish Colonial period of Pohnpei's history), and the old German Belltower, which was very beautiful. Upon closer inspection, it still had a nativity inside, along with a a life-size paper-mache giraffe, ox, and llama, and wooden life-size cutouts Santa and Rudolph. It struck me as totally funny that Santa and Rudolph apparently participated in the events of the nativity according to Pohnpeian tradition. The whole display was such a characteristically Micronesian mix of both beautiful and tacky, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! My flight left that afternoon for Chuuk, the next island I was scheduled to discover.

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