Facts and Factoids

  • The Federated States of Micronesia is commonly known as FSM.
  • The Federated States of Micronesia (literally Small Islands) is a country spread across 1500 miles of the western Pacific Ocean. It comprises more than 600 of the Caroline Islands, but only 65 are inhabited.
  • Its part of the even larger area of the Pacific, known as Micronesia, which also incorporates Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru. Micronesia, as a whole, is known as The Islands of the Seven Seas.
  • The flag is light blue, with four white stars, These represent the four islands that make up FSM. The blue field represents the Pacific Ocean.
  • FSM sits just north of the Equator around 7 or 8 degrees.
  • The total population is around 100,000 people.
  • FSM is home to the longest-running humanitarian airlift in the world. At Christmas, every year, the US Air Force, opertaing from Guam, parachutes donated gifts and humanitarian supplies to many of the tiny dotted islands. Operation Christmas Drop has taken place every year since 1952.

Who Colonised Micronesia?

  • The islands, inhabited by Micronesian and Polynesian peoples, possibly since 1000 BC, were colonised by Spain in the seventeenth century (not formally until 1886). Germany then purchased them from Spain, in 1898. They were seized by the USA, after World War II.
  • The four island states: Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk and Yap, which form the FSM, became an independent country in 1986.

Is Micronesia a Part of the United States?

FSM is an independent country, but has an association with the U.S.A, who administer the country. The U.S.A. is responsible for the defence of the FSM (there is no Micronesian army) and the currency is the U.S. dollar.

Is Micronesia Safe to Visit?

The islands of Micronesia are generally considered to be safe. However, women are particularly advised to exercise caution when travelling alone in secluded areas. specially in Chuuk, where crime rates are higher than in the other states; the advice is stay off the streets after dark on Weno (the main island). But I didn't have any problems.

As in many of the poorer Pacific islands there is a lot of litter.

Where to Visit in Micronesia?

Micronesia is one of the least visited countries in the world. It only receives around 30,000 tourists a year. But it's well worth the trip. All four states have different attractions:

  • Kosrae is wild and very beautiful
  • Pohnpei is great for surfing, snorkelling and the ruins of Nan Madol
  • I was warned to be careful in Chuuk. The urban areas are not very atractive - and there is heaps of litter, especially on some of the island beaches. but the wreck diving, in the lagoon, is world renowned.
  • Yap is culturally the most interesting with its pointy roofed houses, enclosed villages and stone money (rai). There are also world war relics, great snorkelling and visits to see the manta rays.

Getting to Yap

And today I’m off to Yap, the last of the states of Micronesia. There must be potential for really bad puns there too. From Chuuk I have to go back via Guam, so I leave Micronesia and come back again. It’s a long day, with a six hour wait at Guam Airport before I board exactly the same plane and sit in exactly the same seat.

A bare breasted grass skirted lady, slips a flower garland round my neck to cheer me up after enduring yet another queue for immigration. There are three Russians standing just behind me. The male is typically tall, well turned out with dirty blond hair. His wife/girl friend is like a delicate china doll with dark hair in bunches. She seems to be having a good sulk. Their little boy is hovering between the two of them and deciding that his father is the better bet for entertainment at the moment. Finally, bed at 2 a.m.

Manta Ray Bay Resort

Things are looking up all round. I slept well, if not for long enough and even though, I discovered to my surprise that I have a waterbed. It’s a little lively, but it seems quite comfortable. My room is lovely and everything works. It’s yet another lagoon view. The hotel is called Manta Ray Bay Resort and it’s definitely a place with a theme (or two). There are photographs of the (many) mantas of Yap, all named; I like Newbie for a juvenile best. The rooms are all called after fish (I’m barracuda - read into that what you will). There’s a hand-painted manta sea scene on the bed throws. Manta shortbread biscuits are supplied and even the towels on the bed have been artfully crafted into a manta shape. The restaurant and bar is atmospherically housed on a hundred year old schooner moored by the dive shop.

Betel Nut

And I’m engaged in a tour of the island with my guide Theo. He carries a small holdall with him everywhere. It transpires that this is crammed with betel nuts. The chewing isn’t as prevalent in Micronesia as it used to be. It causes the teeth (except the gold ones which are still seen as a sign of wealth here) to become red and stained, and making it looks as if the gums are bleeding. Theo says his mother gave betel to him while he was a child, to keep him warm while she worked in the fields. so he became addicted.

And he’s disgruntled because his wife wants to grow flowers in the garden, rather than more betel nut palms. I can see why he would want to grow more, as the nuts in the bag are diminishing at a rate of knots, but at least he waits till I’m looking the other way to spit. And he’s a relaxed and attentive guide, if not fully appraised of all the historical facts.

What to See on Yap, Micronesia

There are, of course, Japanese bunkers, planes and guns from World War II to be seen, but I’m more interested in the Yap culture, which is uniquely fascinating. This is Indonesia meets Samoa. In complete contrast to Chuuk the main island  is almost (not quite) litter free. The roads thread through nipa and mangrove swamp, like Kosrae, but here they well maintained and are neatly lined with crotons, hibiscus and other tropical delights. The villagers stay quietly out of sight.

Yap Villages

The roads skirt the villages and they are entered via a network of stone paths which criss-cross the island. There are traditional, very tidy, woven long houses, with their pointy roofs, meeting houses for the men (with the best breezy views out to sea) and community halls. Slabs of stone protrude from the ground around all of these. They look like gravestones, but they are back rests for the men while they sit and rest or talk.

Theo tells me that the villages here are still very traditional. Most Men wear the th’us”, a type of loin cloth and women, urohs, the traditional brightly coloured dresses or grass skirts (bare- breasted) for festivals and ceremonies, though there are a few villages where this is still everyday wear. All the land in Yap is privately owned and we have had to acquire permission in advance to visit everything on our itinerary.

Theo has also carried a small branch with him throughout. In Yap, you should never enter a village without anything in your hands. If you have nothing, then it is understood that you have nothing to do there and have ill intentions. The world wide web tells me that carrying one green leaf will suffice, but apparently the internet is wrong and one leaf alone is viewed as insubstantial and the bearer therefore someone asking for trouble. So maybe there are observers, even though I can’t see anyone.

Yap Stone Money Banks

I’ve read about the Stone Money Banks located throughout the island. Massive pieces of Stone Money (roughly circular with a hole in the middle) line stone pathways in the villages, so displaying their wealth. Here, size does matter as each piece has a value based on where it came from and how it was made. Many of them were quarried in Palau. (The hotel soap is Yap money shaped, with a hole in the centre, and so are their pizzas!) I happily wander the stones I have been given permission to visit. It’s quiet and serenely beautiful. Only lizards, crabs and butterflies accompany me on my excursions along the moss covered paths.

The slight fly in the ointment are the over excitable dogs that roam the roads, as in much of the Pacific, singly or in groups. (I can feel a Yap pun coming on here and I’m desperately trying to avoid it.) On the return journey Theo asks me what I will have for dinner. He says that one of his favourite meals is fruit bat. I don’t think it’s on the schooner menu.

Manta Safari

This is a serious dive resort, the dive boats are smart and extremely well organised, (roofs with no holes to boot) and it promises a lot of its dives. To reach the reef we have to slowly navigate the very narrow channels through the mangroves that divide the four flattish, main islands of Yap. The banks are alive with tiny, scurrying red crabs.

Because I’m the only one not diving I have my own snorkel guide, Joe, in attendance. And he is very attentive. He brings me drinks, carries my bag and escorts me along the reef for a front row view of the manta rays and the reef sharks. He grabs my fins and twirls me around, pointing me directly at the mantas to take my photos, as they sweep gracefully into their cleaning station. (The wrasse on the reef nibble away the parasites that inhabit the manta’s wings, so the mantas tend to favour spots where they know the fish gather). Joe is also a betel nut addict. He and Nico, the dive guide, are sharing a Rasta bag full of the nuts, which they open and inject with lime powder. They spit into the sea, which isn’t quite so interesting and not very alluring. ‘Caring is sharing’, smiles the captain.

A Swell of Sharks

Later, Joe hangs grimly onto my fins again, this time to make sure I don’t get swept onto the reef while I’m shark watching outside the lagoon. There’s a huge swell on and I’ve been told to float in the water until the divers have finished – the boat at anchor is not a comfortable experience. I’m even feeling a little queasy bobbing about in the water. No wonder this site is called Vertigo. I’ve taken so many pictures on my thrilling big animals of the sea safari that I’ve exhausted my fresh battery. My butler dispatches my camera to the boat for me. And naturally eight sharks immediately swim right up close. How do they know? Nevertheless, it’s been an exciting trip and a surprise contender for Uepi’s thrilling snorkelling crown.

Dinner in the schooner bar. The Russian family I saw at the airport are at an adjacent table –we’re on nodding terms now.

By the Pool

There’s a sunbathing area next to a small shallow pool (with mantas painted on the bottom, of course). Space is tight and it faces east, so sunny spots are at a premium. There were four Germans on the dive boat yesterday and as soon as we had docked one of them headed for the only bed still in the sun and put her towel on it…I had planned to spend as much of today in the sun as I could and I’ve succeeded in beating the Germans to the optimally placed bed. But the forecast suggests that the weather isn’t going to comply.

I’ve noticed that there’s a brass ship’s bell to ring if you want to be served. Very nice. Though not to be confused with the bell on the top floor of the schooner which indicates that you intend to buy for everyone in the bar. There are also two working (loud) cannons on the schooner. They fire those when it’s happy hour.

Colonia with a C

I was going snorkelling today, but there’s been a continuous downpour again all night and the weather forecast is all doom and gloom. I’m told visibility won’t be good and it will be cold. Naturally, it stops raining as soon as I have made my decision to cancel. But it’s still very damp and muggy. My sarong is still really wet and it’s been hanging up to dry for three days.

I saunter into town (Colonia with a C) but that takes five minutes. There are four general stores in a row in one direction. The rickety shelves, cans, hands of bananas and racks of cheap clothes are now a familiar sight. Towards the port are a handful of restaurants and the local version of a mall. This is a lime green roofed corrugated iron building containing a variety of dilapidated shops and offices. It’s very sleepy and I’m not sure that anything is open. There’s no sidewalk through town, but the few cars are careful to drive slowly round me. I consider walking further, but I can see some dogs prowling in the distance. And I don’t have a stick.

Leaving Yap

My flight on to Palau goes at 11 pm. There’s a leaving garland too. And at the airport I’m talking to a flower bedecked family seeing off their son, who is returning to college. They insist on presenting me with a flower crown as well. Also seated close by are the Russians – the lady is smiling today.

Read more about Micronesia (FSM) here.

Getting into Kolonia, Pohnpei

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.

Home in Pohnpei

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.

On and In the Water

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.

Nan Madol

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.

Downtown Kolonia

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.

Where are the Food Shops in Pohnpei?

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.

Wahoo Poke

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.

Antsy

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.)

Confined to Barracks

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.

Leaving Pohnpei

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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