I’m flying to Kosrae (pronounced Ko-shry) at the far end of the Federated States of Micronesia today and then I’m going to work my way back westwards. Everyone refers to the country as FSM, but I’m struggling with this acronym. In the UK it stands for Free School Meals. I’m getting a foretaste of what is to come as, flying from Guam, we land first at Chuuk (say Chook) and then Pohnpei. (I’ve already covered the far end of the Island Hopper route from Honolulu to the Marshall Islands in the summer.) It’s cloudy, but there are rewarding glimpses of mountains draped in pea green jungle and swirling turquoise lagoons, the odd boat chugging across.
The Island Hopper flight is a pre-cursor of island colour. There’s a laidback holiday atmosphere, and as I’ve noted before in the South Pacific the locals dress up to travel. Many of the smiling women and some of the men wear long bead necklaces and crown their heads with artificial flower circlets. They are laden down with ‘carry-on bags’, the one per person rule is being flouted with gay abandon.
The stewards are being remarkably patient – I can see them clenching their jaws. ’Please don’t open the life jackets unless we have a proper emergency’. But they also have a sense of humour. ‘Try the local green tangerines. Then you won’t catch scurvy'. The pilots are in leisurely mode also. Some of the crew hop off at Pohnpei to get takeaway food. I would have too if someone had told me we weren’t getting lunch on board. Breakfast, but no other meal on a six hour flight. I’m sure there is logic there somewhere.
All the airstrips on these islands are built partly on reef, above the sea to the north-west, more sheltered side. I’m not surprised that the plane is over an hour late arriving at Kosrae. And I’m also not surprised to find that my lodge room is pretty basic, but this is luxury accommodation here. It’s half a cottage nestled between mangrove forests on a river and the sea. Simple, I don’t mind, it seems to have all the necessary facilities, but there’s an evil hydrogen sulphide type smell wafting around. I can’t decide if it’s coming from the bathroom or the mangrove forest. There are kayaks for the river and the mangrove channels and, what is touted as the best restaurant in Kosrae, Bully’s, atmospherically perched along a boardwalk at the edge of the river. Mudskippers and fiddler crabs maraud below.
There’s a narrow beach over the road. It’s rather marred by fortification with walls of sandbags, but there are the archetypal bent palm trees and the lagoon reflections of the clouds scudding across the blue sky are stunning. There are a couple of corrugated iron shacks snuggled in-between the trees. Primitive accommodation maybe, but definitely a room with a view. An impromptu roadside canteen has been set up close by in the back of a pick-up; rice and potfuls of thick hot fish and breadfruit soup.
I was going to take it easy today and catch up on some sleep, but it seems this is good weather for snorkelling. So I’m off on a boat with a long haired Puerto Rican guide called Carlos (his wife is a local), Ashley, an American anthropologist (the only anthropologist employed on Kosrae) and her boyfriend, Devon (who works in the banana leaf paper factory). I’m the only tourist; there aren’t many of those round here. Most of the lodge residents are here to work.
I wasn’t going to include Kosrae when I first planned this trip, but the little information available on the web described the island as The Jewel of FSM, so it had to be seen. Fortunately, my source was accurate . The view from the boat reveals that it is exquisitely gorgeous, with dramatic peaks, emerald vegetation spilling gloriously down the slopes. Trees line the ridges, a row of sentinels. The water is exceptionally clear and warm, but the coral is nearly all bleached out and there are just a few fish. And naturally, everyone but me sees the eagle ray and the stingray and the small shark.
My initial descent into the sea is far more eventful and acutely embarrassing. The leg of my costume catches on a cleat, as I leap out, and the whole of the back of the suit rips open. Luckily, I have brought a zipped Lycra bodysuit with me this year, in case the water is cold (or there are jellyfish), so I slip that on. I notice that there is a label that I haven’t yet removed - it says ’burkini’.
We snorkel for several hours, at a couple of buoys, Carlos determines that I shall see every small fish. There are alarmingly several crowns of thorns, so the reef is not going to recover without some help. Back at my lodge, Ashley offers to accompany me down the road to The Blue Hole, another, easily accessible from the shore, snorkelling spot. There are, in fact, two Blue Holes, one closer to land, though they might more accurately be called Murky Green Holes. Visibility is much less good here and there still aren’t hordes of fish. But there are large coral drop offs to circumnavigate and sea cucumbers galore.
The locals congregate to swim off the pier, though the women don’t remove any of their clothes. Bikinis are considered to be fairly shocking. The water is so warm it’s like being in a bath and Ashley and I sit, semi-submerged on the steps for some time, talking. Ashley is a mine of information about local customs.
There’s a sleeping lady (the emblem of the state) formed, by the peaks behind the main town of Lelu. Unlike a number of other sleeping ladies I’ve come across I can vaguely discern a body shape here, both (very pointy) breasts are clearly identifiable. I still haven’t worked out which way round she’s facing, and I don’t like to ask. Ashley says that the small motu, just offshore, is used to store the king’s bones. And the king himself has noted, in writing, that the women of the (relatively close) Marshall Islands use the cucumbers as dildos. They obligingly become hard when picked up.
We are joined by three more tourists from the lodge (so I’m not the only one this time). Roxie and Gabriel are med students and Kento, a Japanese student studying for an MBA in the USA. They are fascinated by Ashley’s stories and we all go back to Bully’s Restaurant to carry on the conversation over dinner. I’m delighted to see cocktails and gin and tonic on the menu. ‘They won’t taste like the ones you’re used to,’ warns the waitress. And apparently they’ve run out of tonic anyway. And soda water. The menu says that they are happy to order anything that clients would like, but it will take eight weeks to arrive - on the next boat.
These are very conservative, very religious people, thanks to the overzealous missionaries, and very little is permitted on a Sunday. Kosrae is not nick-named the Holy Island for nothing. You may not work, cycle, or harvest in any way. Even entering the sea is forbidden, in case you are thought to be fishing. Most of the dishes in the restaurant are off, I suppose making them constitutes work (like cutting down coconuts). And definitely no alcohol allowed – though what’s the point of gin without tonic anyway…?
So I’m getting my relaxation and sleep today.
I’m told that I’ve been really lucky with the weather. There isn’t really a dry season in Micronesia, just a relatively less wet season. Kosrae’s luxuriant vegetation and waterfalls are due to the abundance of rain. It’s poured for three months until the day before I arrived. So far the rain god has only appeared at night, during my visit. Very considerate.
Carlos is taking me on a sightseeing excursion today to learn about local history and customs. I’ve already discovered that Bully’s is named after a notorious local pirate who controlled most of the area and ran a mafia like protection racket. He was eventually disposed of (and fed to the sharks) by his long suffering ship’s cook. He left behind a wreck in the lagoon and, according to tradition, not one, but two chests of buried treasure, that have never been found. However, I’m told that crime is not common in Kosrae today. It is one of the safest places in the world as there aren’t any deadly fauna either: no crocodiles, snakes, or poisonous spiders.
I’ve optimistically requested a Round the Island Tour, but the road extends north just past the airport petering out into the jungle and south, about the same distance. So it’s an Up and Down Tour. The rest of the island is only accessible by trekking paths or boat. And they are already making plans to replace the southern portion of the existing road, as there is considerable coastal erosion. It is anticipated that the current road will at least partially disappear in the next big storm. (This accounts for all the sandbags in front of the lodge.)
I’ve been using a very old guide book, circa 1970s, as it was the only one I could find with any detailed information on FSM. This book refers to another hotel and cottages with a really beautiful beach. Carlos shows me where it is; there is no sand left here at all, just a few concrete remnants of the main building. I’m glad I didn’t try and book in.
The countryside is lush and tropical plants, mangrove, nipa and pandanus, draped in ferny neophytes, unsurprisingly, proliferate by the many channels. There are a few, towering sea almond trees with bulbous heads and small green fruits . Otherwise, there is little agriculture, other than the ubiquitous taro and tapioca. The fields, hillsides and banana plants are almost totally concealed by rampant vines. The locals have given up clearing the overgrowth away. They prefer office jobs or welfare payments to agriculture.
There’s an enterprising business in one of the villages making paper products out of banana leaf fibres. Most of the houses are modern style, the traditional pandanus thatch has all but disappeared. The schools and government buildings are large concrete construction and the officials live in bungalows with pretty flower gardens. As in Polynesia, the dead are normally buried in backyards. Nearly all the houses have well-tended, garland decorated tombs in their gardens. As it’s almost Christmas, there are also plenty of light strands dangling from the gutters, the odd inflatable Father Christmas and a more creative, pandanus tree, covered with spinning silver CDs.
Carlos knows everyone. He is fervently dedicated to his job, providing a highly animated and non-stop and informative commentary and steepling both hands as he explains the different stages of atoll formation. I’m relieved we’re driving so slowly.
We return to the lodge with the intention of taking a kayak on the mangrove channels, but my luck has run out; it’s raining. So I have a massage instead. The talented and gentle masseuse leaves me sleepy and relaxed and declares that there is no charge. ‘Just give me what you like’. Last, the now regular lively politics, philosophy and travel over a meal discussion with Kento, Gabe and Roxie. The fresh off the boat yellow fin sashimi is definitely the highlight of the menu. Kento has even given it the Japanese seal of approval.
It’s now so humid that my hair looks like a sci-fi space helmet. There are a family of silvery tarpons leaping in the river at breakfast. (I’m not sure what the collective noun for these would be? And I’m just popping down the road to check out the other reputable hotel (still standing) in Kosrae before I leave for Pohnpei. Carlos has told me that the Australian owners of the Nautilus won it for 150 dollars in a raffle. The previous owners were desperate to sell and couldn’t find a buyer.
The airport is another of those grit your teeth and get through it experiences I’ve come to expect from flying in the South Pacific. This one is especially trying, as there are no scanning machines for luggage or passports. Every item in each piece of luggage has to be examined separately. It’s a mesmerising slow-motion horror film, as jointed carcasses are removed from plastic crates. Each bloody chop is held up, rotated and deposited on the counter. The immigration man has to type in all the passport details. Every piece of electronics has to be tested for explosive residue. They are wiped meticulously. Then the little white slip is walked over to the one machine, inserted and brought back again – for each item.
And it’s another full flight. The Micronesians are on the move for the upcoming festivities. Fortunately, the islanders are unfailingly polite and respectful, even if they possess not of a shred of a sense of urgency. Also fortunately, I’m allowed two bags on these United flights. My combined bag weight currently comes to 60 pounds after all my recent additions. There is going to have to be a grand rationalization before I head back to South East Asia and other less forgiving airlines. The tannoy announcer has just informed us that our flight is running 12 minutes ahead of schedule (a miracle - that won’t last) and that hand-baggage screening will close in 15 minutes. Anyone not through in time will be re-booked on the next flight, which is four days later, on Saturday.
It’s the same crew on the Island Hopper, but today they are all either sporting Santa hats or elf caps with large pointed ears. My young American friends are on the same flight, returning via Guam. I’m sad to see them go. (They are planning a Star Wars Fest when they reach Guam.) They have been very welcome and entertaining company – and I’ve been given an invitation to Birmingham, Alabama.
Read more about Micronesia (FSM) here
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