Monday, February 6, 2012

The Definition of Paradise? Pingelap

**disclaimer: I sincerely apologize for my blogging hiatus, but after unlocking myself I am ready for a comeback!

December 2011
I had a case of Island fever. What are the symptoms of island fever you may ask? This may be the biggest white girl problem of all, "Oh woe is me I am getting a little too used to living on this beautiful, tropical island." But in truth, I was getting stir crazy; we are half way through the year, and as I become more familiar with Pohnpei the initial allure starts to wear a little. My cure? A trip to the even more remote island of Pingelap.On December 26th we arrived at the boarding dock an hour and a half early, thinking we would be among the first there since everyone else would be on island time.  We were wrong. The boat was swarming with people, chickens and pigs all who had arrived even farther in advance in order to secure their “seats” on the deck. On the deck are two cargo holds with platforms above and tarps rigged over them- under the tarp is where we would need to squeeze in and find a space that we could occupy for the next two nights. We put our bags down in a space the Jesuit volunteers so graciously shared with us, and went to watch the sunset from the back as the ship departed.  Our two day journey including a not-so-short detour through the underworld had begun. 

As soon as the ship left the lagoon we were at mercy of gigantic swells – no matter where you were on the ship you got wet. As the ship thrashed back and forth and waves splashed over deck making me feel like I was Deadliesty Catch I wondered if this was normal. We quickly took refuge under the tarp shelter only to find out that it didn’t keep much of the rain out either. Since we were some of the last to lay claim to any territory our quarters were cramped to say the least. To avoid losing any more valuable space and from puking everywhere, we had to lay down on entrance (at about 7 pm mind you) and remain for the rest of the journey. There was about enough space for your torso, legs were propped up on luggage. Being on the front of the deck we could feel each “rock and roll” as Scott so cornily phrased. The swells were relentless and every few minutes when there was a particularly large wave we were doused with water that forced its’ way in through the openings at each corner and the holes in the top.

Many hours of not sleeping later I was in dire need of using the restroom, a trip that would nearly cost me my life. By this time ropes had been added around the tarp to prevent it from blowing inward and smacking those on the very front and as an attempt to minimize the amount of water coming in. Therefore the task of getting out was like trying to walk (let’s be honest I ended up crawling) on a wet board balanced on a ball from which you have to do Cirque du Soleil tricks through ropes and tarp with the ease of a contortionist, while the wind causes said tarp to smack you in the head with unlimited force, before finally putting your foot on wet metal and gripping whatever you could not to go flying as the boat bounces haphazardly and huge waves do not hesitate to come aboard.  If I was on Deadliest Catch, what I was hunting was a bathroom. Fortunately I had Scott as my venturing companion, preventing many a face plant. After reaching the cabin where the bathrooms were supposed to be and finding all doors locked except the shower- I may or may not have committed some questionable acts while vowing not to consume any liquids for the remainder of our voyage.

The Caroline Voyager approaching Mokil at sunrise.

After surviving the trip back I tried to sleep in the rolling Sea World splash zone until about 4:30, when just after I had fallen asleep I woke up to what looked like an alien abduction. Unable to see anything but the blinding light of headlamps, I noticed that these extraterrestrials seemed to be packing their things up and the tent was no longer flapping wildly a mere half a food above my head creating thunderous crashes, but instead rested calmly. We had to be in a lagoon, thank god. My companions continued to snooze taking advantage of a steady bed, while I decided to give an encore performance and shimmy down the tent and ropes course once more to see what was going on outside. It would turn out we were anchored just outside of the lagoon of Mokil, but all that was to be seen was bright stars in what was otherwise pitch black surroundings. After exchanging pleasantries with a Mokilese man about their red sands and plentiful lagoon there was no going back to sleep so instead I took up fort on the bow with a pack of dry ramen and watched Mokil appear. I never saw an actual sunrise, but rather the stars started fading and the sun seemed to replace them, as if all of the stars decided to move together and form the sun.

The Mokilese coming to unload cargo from the Voyager. 

Slowly, Mokilese men and in some cases teenagers began coming out to meet the boat since the lagoon was too shallow for the ship to enter. We had to clear off the top of the cargo hold so that a crane could begin moving supplies including food, kerosene, gasoline, and one very sick pig. During this process we learned that the Captain was planning to depart Mokil at 10 am instead of the planned 6pm and therefore we would not have enough time to get off and explore Mokil before it was time to leave. We sat deep in disgruntled thoughts about missed opportunities and feeling stir crazy on the boat when suddenly a Pohnpeian boy flung himself off the edge of the boat. One local boy jumping ship was the only cue Scott needed as he quickly made his way to where the boy had jumped and released the urge to flail himself overboard he had been stifling since we embarked on our journey. Mike, Molly and Matt were soon to follow, and our fellow ship companions were thrilled to see menwai doing front flips, back flips and barrel rolls off of every surface of the boat. After all cargo had been unloaded and our friends returned aboard we headed for our final destination of Pingelap.

A Pingelapese man deep in contemplation waiting to get
off and see his friends and family. 

The only reason anyone has heard of Pigelap is because many of its inhabitants suffer from a rare form of color blindness called achromatopsia in which people can see no color, only shades of grey. No concept of color exists for them, not even in their dreams. On our second day in Pingelap the Mayor told us the two theories of how this high concentration (1 in 10 compared to 1 in 30,000 as it is in the rest of the world) of colorblind people came to be. The first story is the Pingelapese legend in which a ghost man, who was ½ human and ½ ghost and therefore saw in shades of gray, came to the island and immediately fell in love with the Nanmwarki’s wife and demanded to lay with her. The Nanmarki refused, and the ghost man said that if he forbid his wife to sleep with him then terrible things would happen to the island. The Nanmwarki  prepared his warriors and boarded his island in ships, and again refused. Then the ghost man brought a terrible typhoon to the island, wiping out most of the population. Alas, he and the Nanmwarki’s wife were together and had three colorblind daughters, one who moved to Mokil, one who remained in Pingelap, and one who died.
There are similarities between the legend and what historians believed to have happened: in 1775 Typhoon Lengkieki hit Pingelap, which being a mere 10 feet above sea level suffered irreversible damages. Ninety percent of the population perished, with most of the survivors passing soon after due to starvation. The Nahnmwarki was believed to have this achromatopsia and when his island needed repopulating he was the one to do it, making this once rare condition extremely prevalent. While it is almost cruel to think of people not being able to see well in the sunlight when they live so close to the equator, achromatopsia does grant them the ability to see better at night then people who have normal vision. So on an island with no electricity, it is not a complete lose-lose situation, especially since it makes them better night fisherman.
The number of people living with achromotopsia is most likely on a decrease in Pingelap since more and more residents are moving to Pohnpei and even the United States, and are marrying outside of each other.

December 31, 2011 New Year’s Eve 8:50 pm
Once again I have slacked on my documenting duties, but I cannot honestly say that I am sorry for I just had possibly four of the best days of my life. They have been a picture of perfection: sunshine, hiking, swimming (with sharks!), snorkeling, sandy (and hidden) beaches, deserted islands, aquamarine waters, fresh local food, new friendships, a nice tan, drinking coconuts, star gazing  and plenty of sexual innuendos to round it all off.  We arrived at Pingelap at sunset on finally calm waters, and as I rushed to the side of the deck to see land- I saw several fires ablaze to greet us and I knew this trip was going to be amazing.  As we crammed twenty people with hundreds of pounds of supplies and luggage into one tiny boat powered by a 15 horsepower motor, the boat barely clearing the surface of the water, Pingelapese shouted from shore holding maramars, while we turned and waved back to the ship to those continuing their journey to Kosrae.

After climbing out of the boat into complete darkness save for the one fire still ablaze, we could see no one but see shapes of small children splashing in the water. We set our heavy bags down amazed that we had finally reached our destination, and we didn’t even have time to worry about what to do next because Aida Ernest, the cutest woman in the world, appeared out of nowhere with a little lantern and mwaramwars for all of us. She then led us to a small cart where we put our bags and after providing us each with a coconut led us down the path to where we would be staying. It’s about a 5 minute walk from where we landed on the beach to where we would be sleeping, we could see nothing but Ida’s little lantern and would have to rediscover the island in daylight. Ida led us to two little local huts on the beach, next to the small airstrip. Scott and I took the more local of the huts, with just a leaf roof and no walls, while Joe and Mike slept on mattresses in a screened in house. After Ida and her husband Elias helped us set up our sleeping foam and mosquito nets we hung out on the beach next to the causeway which was thriving with nightlife since people had come to see the big ship arriving. After an exhausting journey, it wasn’t long after we ate the hot meal Ida made for us that we nestled into bed.

These carts are what Pingelapese use to move things around the island. 

This is where we stayed: Neime Hotel, Pingelapese for "taste it." We were the
 first guests of the first hotel on island. 

Aida, the sweetest lady I have ever met and owner of the hotel.

We woke early the next day to discover dohnas (fried dough balls) and instant coffee available- two things which are high commodities and very expensive. While we were enjoying our morning morsels, our Jesuit friends had come to find us. First thing on the agenda: see the island. We walked down the main path, towards where we landed and discovered many abandoned houses overgrown by jungle, beautiful in their loneliness and chipped bright paint. After a walk in the sunlight, a cool dip was in order. The tide was so far out you had to walk a far way on the reef before reaching a sudden drop off into clear blue water. We were sharing this oasis with about 30 children, which turned out to be the entire elementary school. We hung out there for a couple hours; Scott amusing them with his human tricks and flips while Molly and Sam sang Christmas songs.  

Aio sarawi kasalel; a beautiful church we stumbled upon on
our walk around the island.

These two men sat and chatted while looking at the anchored Voyager,
which only visits once or twice a year.

Some children playing during low tide. 

We had some free time in which we needed to find a way to entertain ourselves without electricity:
meet Mike and Scott, otherwise known as Mary-Kate and Ashley. 

Volunteering is really rewarding. 

Local outrigger canoe

This is the heaven some of us walked to.
 The next few days were full of snorkeling, hiking, walking to deserted islands during low tide, boat rides and lying in hammocks. We closed each day in a way that makes it sound like I am putting out a personal ad:  a walk on the beach during sunset followed by star gazing. It was the most at peace I have felt in a long time.

Scott's brute strength snapped this local oar in half. 

On our last full day in Pingelap Scott was invited to go fishing early in the morning with Elias, Aida’s husband, and his brother. Scott was allowed to bring a plus one and sweetly invited me to come along. I was excited to use the line fishing equipment I got for Christmas and popped up at 5:30 to wash up before our excursion. Sadly, I soon found out that in Pingelapese tradition women are not allowed to fish outside the reef, which is where the men would be going to troll for tuna. There are many things I have had to sacrifice being a woman and living in this culture, but since I had been fishing so many times before in Pohnpei, the thought that I could be restricted from this had never crossed my mind so it was a hard blow.

Since I was up so early anyway I decided to go see the sunrise on the other side of the island. Pingelp at dusk is actually quiet eerie, my imagination was running wild as I walked past the remains of once vibrant houses. I had just turned down a small path when suddenly a huge black wild boar crossed my path, I swear there was drool dripping from his tusks- I quickly threw myself back into the jungle to hide until the coast was clear. When I could no longer hear the panting of the beast I crept out of the prickly bush I had landed in during my cowardice. As I made my way down the path I realized that there were no longer any houses, but gardens. These neatly planned and well-tended to gardens, each had a black human shaped figure wearing a dark moo-moo, a scarecrow. As I meandered down the path intrigued by these figures, I came to a fork and realized I had taken many twists and turns already, and was unsure of my way back. Still curious I peered down one branch of the fork to see a three headstones shaped like ghosts peeking out of the jungle. That’s when I made my getaway.

Sunrise on the landing strip.

Once I was safe in my familiar territory I went to the end of the causeway which was full of people sleeping right on the runway, to watch the rest of the sunrise.  I watched some kids play slap-ball and wondered what it would be like to be a volunteer on an island like this, with barely more than 200 people, minimal electricity, water shortages and very little contact with the outside world. I wondered if I would be able to handle that kind of challenge if given the option. It’s been nice to have internet and be able to go into town and eat at restaurant every now and then, but maybe I want even less development and even more of a challenge?

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