Pohnpei state (not to be confused with Pompeii) is the capital of Micronesia (only after some ferocious wrangling). The main town, where the airport is, is Kolonia and the administrative area is Palikir, one of the smallest capitals in the world, with only 7,000 people (all clear now?). Kolonia is the height of sophistication after Kosrae – the airport has booths and stanchions for orderly queuing.
My room is comfy and has everything I need, even though the décor was probably designed by Air Asiana – it’s all fairly drab. There is an overwater balcony with wicker chairs and a view across the bay. Pohnpei Harbour and the airport are over to the right. I wonder if the plane ever has trouble avoiding ships as it comes in. There’s an imposing basalt ridge and plug on the other side, Kolonia’s own Diamond Head.
Some yachts are bobbing in the middle. They’re not quite up to Monaco standard, but it’s very pretty. Even the wrecks dotted around the lagoon, (almost more than there are cargo boats and yachts) some World War II, some more recent, are prettily charming, glinting in the sun. Sushi from the bar below (it’s obviously the food of Micronesia), is accompanied by sunset viewing.
A rude awakening as the dive shop is just below my room and the surf dudes set off noisily at 7 a.m. ‘Surf’s up’. Today is spent mainly on the water. It’s ostensibly an expedition to Nan Madol ruins, on the other side of Pohnpei, but the tides aren’t favourable and most of the day is spent snorkelling or lounging on a pretty island beach, waiting for the tide to rise so we can skim over the reef. Neither is a hardship, except that it pelts with rain not long after we set off, and all my clothes have to be discarded.
The snorkelling is far superior to that on Kosrae. These are impressive living reefs. Our trainee guide seems to have missed the point however. ’I’ve seen a manta and a shark’, he informs us excitedly, as we swim back to the boat without any of us having laid eyes on either of these. The lagoon water is a continuing swirl of greens and blues and I’m running out of words to describe its magnificence. Maybe cobalt and aquamarine. We feed on coconuts and banana bread while we wait.
When we finally arrive, at four o’clock, our trainee is deployed to lead us. He knows very little, but the same has to be said of the guide books. As far as I can glean, Nan Madol is an ancient ruined city, unique in that it is built on 100 man-made coral islets. It is believed that the construction of the islets started in the eighth century, whereas the megalithic structures were begun in the twelfth century, at the same time as Angkor Wat. This was the ceremonial and political seat of the Saudeleur Dynasty, the first unifying dynasty in Pohnpei. We navigate numerous canals to reach the main ruins; one guide book grandiosely claims that Nan Madol is sometimes referred to as the Venice of the Pacific.
Today, it’s is a series of ruins occupying a space of 18 square kilometres. inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2016 and rarely visited by anyone. Apparently, they can’t even agree who actually owns it. That’s not the only mystery, as no-one can work out how the stone was brought here or how it was constructed. It’s made of basalt columns, the heaviest of which weighs 20 tonnes-it would certainly sink a canoe. The nearest basalt is on the other side of the island.
It’s a picturesque spot. We walk round the inner sanctum, scramble round the sanctum wall and wade round the outer fortification. There are piles of loose stones on the ground and artistically arranged in the water. An eagle ray gently whisks gently along to join us in the shallows.
No surf today- hurrah. So I get to sleep in. In fact, very little seems to be happening today. I can laze in bed and watch the sunrise over the lagoon. Micronesia is to all intents and purposes a USA overseas territory and the bar downstairs only sells pizza, burgers fish and chips and sushi. I specially don’t fancy sushi for breakfast, so I decide to sightsee in town and stock up on food there. I will save some money I rationalize. The resort receptionist looks astonished when I ask for a map. Because there is only one main road in Pohnpei and locals pretty much know the ins and outs of their place, no-one uses addresses.
It’s a hot and humid climb. mitigated by a view of the harbour (through towers of ivy clad trees). The pavement is non-existent most of the way- there’s a muddy track at times- and drivers hoot if as I so much as teeter to the edge of it. There’s a long line of slow-moving scruffy cars, which explains why pedestrians are rare here. Kolonia is strung out along this one main road. There are a few shabby warehouse type buildings, I’m not sure what they’re selling, it’s hard to tell.
Investigation reveals huge bags of sweets, toys, tinsel and a couple of seen-better-days plastic trees in one. The aisles are packed with people dancing to Christmas pop music. No-one seems to be doing any buying. Another is festooned with the puffed sleeve floral dresses that are favoured by the local women. The alternative is a gathered skirt with a black embroidered frill at the bottom. They even have one of these framed at the airport, so it’s obviously a tradition they are proud of. The men don’t seem to have any dress customs they wish to adhere to. They wear western style uniform of tee-shirt, baggy shorts and baseball cap (worn, naturally, with the peak at the back).
A little further on there is pre-cooked food in plastic boxes out on display on trestle tables - rice and fish. There’s no sign of a fridge, so I decide to pass. A mini mart at a garage has Pringles and a few cans of spam and pineapple. ‘Happy Christmas,’ call some passers-by from the back of pick-ups.
I arrive at a sign saying CenterPoint – is this the middle of town? Some road workers in hi-vis vests are concerned and tell me I shouldn’t be wandering around. ‘You’re much too pretty’. I don’t follow up on their logic. I’m too weary and sticky. My chest hurts and I’m decidedly below par. My road working friends direct me back the way I came to a ‘supermarket’. It’s mostly filled with racks of bananas. The floor is covered with taro root; a lizard scuttles across it. The air con in Arnold’s diner is enticing, I decide to give up my quest, and I order an egg and bacon muffin.
Then it’s back to my waterside veranda. No tonic at the restaurant here either and tuna is off too. So tonight it’s wahoo poke. (Poke is raw marinated tuna with onion and whatever else takes the cook’s fancy). There’s a Kiwi surfer at the bar being refused any more alcohol on the grounds he’s already had enough. It’s the shortest day of the year back home in the UK. I’m glad I’m not there. I think.
Micro ants tend to appear at some point in most of my journeys and sure enough they’ve invaded my bathroom here in Pohnpei. There’s a trail from the ceiling, down the side of the door, so nothing too distressing. And today I was due to go out on the boat again, travelling to And Atoll, popularly, but erroneously (apparently) spelled “Ant”. It’s billed as an idyllic cluster of 13 low, luxuriant islands (part of the Senyavin group) some 30 miles away. However, there aren’t enough people who want to go, so they are only offering surfing. O yay! The surfers are the vast majority of residents. I can come and snorkel off the boat if I like. The weather forecast isn't very optimistic, I’m still feeling dodgy and I haven’t slept well after my poke. (There’s a risqué clause, but you know what I mean. It’s all in the pronunciation.)
It’s a good decision not to go out, it’s poured down all day (I can’t even see the lagoon it’s raining so hard) and it’s almost chilly enough to put a sweater on. I’m getting a little stir crazy, as the weather is now as dull as my beige and brown room. Strains of island music interspersed with some sort of house music waft in from the marina office and I can’t even sleep. The inevitable sushi for lunch means I have to settle for chicken and chips from Arnold’s in the evening. So it’s antsy rather than Ant in the end.
It has poured down, very loudly, all night and it’s still torrential rain. I’ve been chatting to an Australian surfer. She says it was really uncomfortable on the boat yesterday (good decision then) and all the surfers have been suffering fluey symptoms too. Air con, climate, some chemical who knows? But at least I’m not imagining it.
A final sashimi lunch. They’ve only got salmon left ( with coleslaw salad too) and it’s very good. A shame I didn’t discover this before. My bags have been loaded onto the bus before I realise that as a result of my chopstick inexpertise (yes-even here) I’ve spilled salad dressing all down my white tee shirt. I hurriedly give it a scrub under the tap. Now my shirt’s gone see through. I’ll have to try holding my handbag in front of my chest all the time. It’ll take a very long time to dry in the humidity. I'm picking up the Island Hopper to go on to Chuuk and the plane is, unsurprisingly, considering the weather, two hours late. (They still make us check in at the usual time).
Read more about Micronesia (FSM) here.
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