Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ponhpei, Micronesia

I could tell you that Pohnpei is an island a couple thousand kilometers northeast of Papua New Guinea, but that would probably not tell you much. There are thousands of islands in that part of the Pacific, but few have a population large enough to warrant an airport. Pohnpei boasts a population of 34,000 and is the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia.
Arriving on the island from sea, the first thing you notice is Sokehs rock.

Although it’s a volcanic island, after a few hours of exploration you’d think it was made primarily of mud; Pohnpei is one of the wettest places on earth. The rich, well-watered soil gives rise to lush vegetation covering the entirety of the land. The place is an emerald expanse of green foliage. The inhabitants must constantly fight back the encroaching jungle plants.
Although the town of Kalonia is large, it lacks a distinct “downtown.” I spent a few hours wandering the streets, looking at shops and trying to find a restaurant open before 5pm. The shops were surprisingly well stocked with goods from the United States, China and Japan. There were no local products of any significance, unfortunately.
The island was discovered in 1595, but no European set foot there until the early 1800’s. The native population discouraged any visitors. Some did eventually manage to settle there and by the late 1800’s, the Spanish held claim to the island. The name of the capital, Kalonia, is derived from the Spanish word for colony. The Germans possessed it for a while then the Japanese took over in 1920. While the previous occupiers built churches and trade missions, the Japanese established a military presence. American forces all but ignored the island during the war, however. Japanese citizens were forced to leave after the war and their works were abandoned.
Despite being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, Pohnpei does not have any beaches. The hills come down to the water’s edge where mangrove swamps take over. A barrier reef surrounds the island, protecting the coastline and discouraging the early explorers.
With a diameter of about twenty kilometers at its greatest point, it does not take long to drive the road encircling the island. Getting into the hilly interior, though, requires a considerable trek. I contented myself with road travel. I made a few sorties off the main road to find waterfalls, though.

Missionaries were the first to make any real inroads on the island, and their presence is very clear today. Ever few miles, there is a large church. Some are easily a hundred years old while other are large, modern and pristine. Only two radio stations can be picked up on the island (and only on the north side). One plays music while the other is a mix of Radio Australia and American televangelism broadcasts. Sadly, the televangelists get more airtime. 
A typical old church.
Some of the touristic sites have signs indicating their presence, but once off the road, you’re on your own. Finding my first waterfall required dealing with a forking road. Thankfully, there were usually a few locals nearby to point the way. The path to the falls was well marked with a sort of monument. No sooner had I left my car when a man approached me and asked if I was going to see the falls. He then asked me to pay the one dollar entrance fee. I upped the ante by asking if he had coconuts for sale. He agreed to three coconuts for a dollar. They would be a welcome drink after my hike to the falls.
The entrance fee was well worth a dollar if only for the well maintained path. The caretakers had planted broad, red leafed tropical plants and flowering Hibiscus on both sides of the narrow trail. It was a pleasant, although wet, walk.
The falls consisted of two cascades. The upper falls poured into a large basin that looked just right for swimming; in fact, there was a ladder leading up from the bowl. One end of the edge of that basin, however, dumped into the next falls, making the edge rather dangerous.  The lower falls were easier to photograph as I was able to get close to the water’s edge. There’s something so alluring, so primeval, about a jungle waterfall.
Liduduhniap waterfall is a gem in the jungle.
I drove along the western side of the island, moving slowly over the old pavement, avoiding people walking alongside the road. Much of the road had jungle growth creeping onto the surface, which made for an interesting visual effect. Wherever a few homes clustered close to the road, there was usually a little convenience store, which was little more than a booth with a window from which to pick the items you wanted. They sold only the basics, no sign of touristic crafts or local products.
I spotted the sign for the pepper farm in time to turn off the main road and head down the side road. The intersection had a few homes so I expected a full scale plantation. Eventually, I came to a small sign that said “Pohnpei pepper farm.” I was still in the jungle and the only building was a family dwelling not much more advanced than a shack. The road continued, however, so I kept driving. I came upon a low stone wall, so that was very promising, although the plant life had remained unchanged. The road came to an end at what was obviously a farm. It was a poultry farm, however. There were no signs of any farmers and no signs of anything that looked like a pepper vine. Mind you, I’m not exactly sure what a pepper vine looks like, so I could have been standing in the middle of grand pepper station. With no one around to speak with, I drove back out to the main road.
My next stop was the abandoned city of Nan Madol.
When Europeans found it, some thought lost Greek sailors built the place more than two thousand years ago. Admittedly, the stone structures are impressive, but nothing like anything built in Europe.  Constructed with of alternating layers of prismatic basalt, it looks like something made with old Lincoln Logs.  Archeologists date the structures to the thirteenth century or older. This long-abandoned city consists of a series of small, artificial, stone islands adjacent to the island of Temwan. 
Getting to the location was a bit of an adventure by land. I managed to find one sign leading off the main road, but had to get assistance from locals after that. When I found the final sign leading to the site, an old woman came tottering out of her home looking for a one-dollar entrance fee. It seemed a bit cheap, but I didn’t argue. She instructed me to drive down the road to the site. A few minutes later, I found a sort of parking lot with two other vehicles. The only thing I saw was a large farm house and several people milling about. One of the men approached me.
“Is this Nan Madol?” I asked. He smiled and said it was. “I was expecting something ... older … and made of stone,” I said, gesturing to his house. He laughed and told me I had to take a path on the other side of his house. He then asked me for three dollars. “I already paid the woman up there.” Apparently she was collecting tolls for driving over her land, not for the entrance fee. “So, how do I know there’s not someone down there looking to collect more money from me?” I said, pointing down the path. He shook his head and smiled. I paid the three bucks and began my hike.
I walked only a few paces down the jungle path when I noticed the first wall, overgrown with vegetation. It was high and dry on land, not in the water. Did they build on land, or has the water receded  leaving this bit high and quite dry?

I continued down the path of built-up stone and coral. I knew my three dollars was a good investment as this walkway took some considerable effort to build. In some places, there was water on both sides and small wooden bridges to let the briny water pass through. Despite the afternoon sunshine, it was quite dark in that mangrove swamp. The occasional fish that splashed and darted away as I approached, turned out to be mud skippers. They would climb onto the rocks to sun themselves!
Finally, I broke through the trees and saw some of the Nan Modal structures rising up from the water. The path took me directly to the largest of the walled islands, a sort of temple burial site. I could see a couple of tourists on the island, but I was a stone’s throw distance away on the mainland with no boat apparent. The canal was only waist deep, but I did not trust wading across with my camera gear at risk. I hoped that there was a boat somewhere nearby which I could employ for a tour.
One of the mysterious islands of Nan Madol.
The two tourists came into sight and called out to me to cross over. They had waded across and assured me that it was navigable.  The local woman with them waded across to help me with my camera bag, but I was still apprehensive. I capitulated and, with my bag balance on my shoulder, waded across the warm water to the steps of the islet. It was then that the local woman asked for three dollars as the site entrance fee. “What about the three dollars I paid to the guy back there?” She told me that was just for walking across the land. Sheesh. I gave her three bucks and began my exploration of the ruins.
The island had a large outer wall and smaller inner wall, surrounding what looked like a small tomb (which I later learned was the case). The large wall held a number of openings, which had either collapsed or had been filled in at some point. The central tomb had a very small passage leading to the water, from what I could see. Outside the inner wall, I saw further evidence of this water passage.
Beyond the little island on which I stood, smaller structures rose from the water, now overgrown with vegetation. Some had stone walls; others were just platforms where, I imagine, wooden structures once rested. I could see the surf beyond the boundary walls. I wondered how much effort it took to collect the great stones around me, sail them to this little corner of the island, and construct these great structures with no metal tools. The Polynesians were masters of watercraft and the island provided an abundance of food, but the scale of the project was daunting. 

I knew there was a Japanese battery somewhere near Nan Modal, but I saw no clues indicating where it might be. I stopped some teachers on their way to school and discovered that I was very close. They told me to take a road just a stone-throw away. The road was not very road-like. It was more a cart path leading into a very dark jungle. The ruts were not too bad, though, so I ventured in. I drove carefully for about a kilometer when the road branched. The path leading up the hill was much too overgrown while the path leading down was cluttered with large rocks. I started down but soon abandoned my car to go on foot. Just around the bend, I discovered two homes; a normal island-style house and a more traditional "outdoor house" that was open on one side. I asked the fellow there if the Japanese guns were somewhere nearby. He went to the other side to fetch his brother-in-law, the owner. 
Robert, my guide, stands inside his outdoor house (a three-sided living and working enclosure).

Robert, a police officer on the island, agreed to guide me to the battery. I didn't think a guide was necessary, but I was very, very wrong. We walked back past my car to the road leading up the hill. It was so overgrown that he needed his machete to cut through. When we reached the top, he pointed out the first of four gun emplacements. It was totally hidden by the jungle but the entrance through the overgrown concrete was a visible. 
Abandoned Japanese battery overlooking the southern part of the island.

We toured the other three batteries. I wondered at the effort it took to build the fort and haul those great guns up the hill on an island that was mostly jungle seventy-five years ago. Although it was nothing like Nan Modal, it still took considerable effort. In the end, the guns were never fired. 

Robert pointed out what I thought was a mound. It was a mortared stone cone with steps leading up the side. From the top, I could see the hollow, unfinished interior, but it's purpose escaped me. My guide didn't know either. We took a different jungle path down, Robert whacking the jungle back with every second step. He lead me to an ammo bunker built into the hillside. The walls were a foot thick and it once had heavy steel doors. The interior was small, maybe the size of a small bedroom. It was now the home of a few hundred bats ... who excited flew out as I approached.

We continued back toward his home were we saw a small artillery piece and what could only have once been a shrine. The Japanese had also left him two great cisterns. One had a hole blasted in it's side—apparently the soldiers had converted it into a defensive position—while the other was still being used to store water for Robert's home. 

Not far from the Nan Madol site, I found the gorgeous Kepirohi waterfall. It was a short walk through the jungle and well worth the trip to the other side of the island to see.
The gorgeous Kepirohi waterfall on the south side of the island.

The dive master relaxing after the first dive of the day.
One of the biggest attractions of Pohnpei is for the diving. The atoll has many beautiful coral formations and I was fortunate enough to get two days of diving in while I was there. On the first trip, my fellow divers and I drifted through an underwater grand canyon near Ant Island. The tide was flowing so we had only to hover in the water and let it carry us along that great wall of coral. 

We stopped on the island for lunch afterward. We were in the middle of nowhere. There was no sign of civilization from horizon to horizon. I was just starting to appreciate this degree of isolation when another boat came around the island. The beached and a dozen locals decided to picnic right next to us, ha, ha! 

Being on Ant, I had an opportunity to explore a real deserted isle. As I made my way into the interior, I spotted the biggest hermit crab I've ever seen crawling over a fallen branch. His shell was the size of a baseball. I grabbed him to take him back to the beach for a proper photo. While most hermit crabs are somewhat shy, this one wasted no time coming out and letting me know what he thought of my plan, by grabbing my fingers with his pincers. Before he could grab me, I tossed him toward the beach, but he fell short. I spent the next several minutes trying find him in the brush, but he eluded capture a second time. That was one impressive crab!

It's tough to know which is more photogenic, the island ...
Inside a Pohnpei jungle.
... or the surrounding atoll.
Spectacular sky over a mirror-calm sea.

Despite its famed diving, Pohnpei does not get many tourists (mostly due to the excessive cost of flights). The hotels are rather worn and the choice of restaurants is limited. One exception is The Village, an eco-hotel built back in the seventies that is still going strong. The rooms are individual huts built along a ridge. The result is that each cabin feels like it's alone in the jungle.
One of the jungle dwelling of The Village hotel.

See more photos of Pohnpei here.