The Continental Airlines 727 dropped out of the rain-shower and slammed into the runway with all the grace of an elephant falling off a freight train. The two heavy-set Micronesians seated on either side of me, who would have been nicknamed after major appliances had they been football players, clutched their open bottles of vodka as the pilot gave full power to the thrust reversers and stood on the brakes. The plane shuddered violently and came to a stop. One of the Micronesians grinned at me.
“Chuuk runway. Very short,” he said. “Water on both ends.”
Chuuk. There was that word again. (Rhymes with “spook”.) The pilot had used it when announcing our approach, but I’d thought the island was named “Truk” (rhymes with “stuck”, and in more ways than one, I decided later.)
“Why do you call it Chuuk?” I asked the Micronesian, who was dressed in shorts, sandals and a colorful Hawaiian-style sports shirt. “I thought it’s name was “Truk.”
“They changed the name,” he said. “Originally Truk called Chuuk, long ago. Now that we are independent country, we changed name back to what it used to be. All islands in FSM are changing names back to what they used to be.”
He gave me some more examples, but the name I was most interested in was FSM. A student of geography, this was the first time I had arrived in a country without knowing what country it was. It had not been for lack of trying. My lavish wall map of the world, produced by the U.S. Department of Defense, and which hangs in my office back in Colorado, showed something in the western Pacific called “Truk Islands” but gave no indication of whether this was a physical or political name. Adding to the map’s confusion were the words “Caroline Islands,” spread over a number of island groups. That name, at least, corresponded to what my ticket said: Truk, Caroline Islands, implying that Caroline Islands was the country, and Truk was part of it.
But covering a broad area in the western Pacific, including the Caroline Islands, was the name Micronesia, in large letters. I was fairly certain that Micronesia was a physical name, not a country. In Greek the word means something like “Small Islands.” This contrasts with nearby Melanesia, the word which refers to most of the southwest Pacific, and which means “dark islands.” That name, I knew, came from the extremely black skin color of the inhabitants in such places as Guadalcanal, Fiji, and Samoa. The third and final region of what some call “Oceania” is Polynesia, which means “many islands.”
But now I had yet another name to digest: FSM. According to the immigration form the stewardess had just passed out, it appeared that FSM stood for Federated States of Micronesia. That had a political ring to it, yet I found it odd that those words had never appeared on any of my maps.
“So is FSM the name of the country?” I asked the Micronesian in the Hawaiian shirt.
“Yes, we are an independent country now. Since 1986,” he added.
Well, that no doubt explained the maps. Map makers always seem to be the last people to get the word that something has changed. A nation only 7 years old would be hard pressed to appear on any maps. Coming here on the tail end of a business trip to Japan, I’d hardly given any thought to what Truk would actually be like. As the plane taxied over to the terminal I gave my imagination free reign.
First off, there was supposed to be a beautiful lagoon. “Truk Lagoon — largest in the world,” the travel guide had said. I wasn’t sure what a lagoon was, exactly. Sort of a bay, or cove, or inlet of some kind wasn’t it? OK, so even though I didn’t know much about Truk, I knew there was a big bay here. And I also knew that Truk had been one of the primary Japanese naval bases during World War II. That made sense. If you had a lot of ships to take care of, you’d want to put them someplace that had a natural harbor: a big bay. And wherever that natural harbor was, with the ships, well–the harbor facilities would have been built up around the shore, wouldn’t they? In fact, that’s where you’d find everything: the support systems for the naval base, the commerce of the island, the shops, the buildings. In short, the town. This was so obvious it required no thought. I knew that the geography of Truk had to start with an island containing a large harbor, and spread around this harbor would be the town.
I also knew that Truk was small, population-wise. The United States had done to the Japanese at Truk what the Japanese had done to the U.S. at Pearl Harbor: wiped out all their ships in one surprise aerial attack. The Japanese had surrendered the base, and the U.S. had never had any use for it, so after a brief moment as a pivotal location on the world stage, Truk had sunk back into oblivion: just an island with a big harbor and a lot of sunken ships sitting on the bottom. And there it stayed until someone realized that a big harbor with a lot of sunken ships would have a natural appeal to scuba divers. And it did. So much so that Truk is now considered the #1 wreck-diving location in the world.
- So that told me some more about Truk. There must be a pretty significant tourist industry here, similar to Cozumel, Mexico, perhaps. (Cozumel is one of the world’s top dive locations because of its reefs.) And wherever there’s a tourist industry, you can assume a certain amount of infrastructure. Someone would have come in and organized things for tourists.
That being the case, you could lay money that while the town itself might be spread out around the harbor, someone would have seen to it that there was a kind of “promenade” walk along the waterfront: a place for taking romantic strolls in the evening. And this waterfront walkway would be the prime real estate of the whole island. Souvenir shops would have grown up here, upscale nightclubs and outdoor coffee shops would abound. Probably there would be colorful local merchants with their wares set out for display: beads, blankets, shrunken heads, that kind of thing. Street musicians would ply their trade along this promenade. The sound of steel drums and calypso music (or at least its Pacific counterpart) would waft out of open doorways and courtyards. And virtually every hotel on the island would either be set facing this harbor–this “world’s largest lagoon”–or at worst would be located a half block away on a side street. That’s why I wasn’t too concerned what hotel I stayed in when I’d made my reservations. Truk being so small, all the hotels would of necessity be more or less within walking distance of each other, clustered along the waterfront. The dive shops would be there too. The biggest problem would probably be drunken tourists in t-shirts and sandals, frat guys probably, carousing along the promenade as they perused the bar scene and making so much noise it would be hard to sleep.
In short, I was picturing a combination of New Orlean’s French Quarter and Waikiki Beach .
“I recommend the Continental Hotel,” the travel agent had said. “It’s the nicest hotel on the island.”
Having never stayed at the nicest hotel on any island, I had asked for budget accommodations.
“Well, the only other hotel we would recommend would be the Pacific Grove hotel. It’s the best of the budget hotels.”
I was tempted to demur on that as well, because I’m not used to staying in the best of the budget hotels either.
“A lot of the other budget hotels, well, we just haven’t heard very good things about them,” she said, as if reading my thoughts. “There have been— problems…”
I didn’t like the way she said that last word.
“The Pacific Grove will be fine,” I’d assured her.
But I suspected it wouldn’t really matter. Everything would be close together, and I’d probably just to get used to going to sleep with the sound of steel drums and calypso music, regardless of the hotel.
With these pleasant thoughts, and a fairly good understanding of what kind of place I was arriving in, I stared out the window as the plane taxied over to the terminal. It was nighttime, and not possible to observe this new country as closely as I wished as we exited the plane, but even so I was a bit surprised.
The Continental 727 jet was the most modern thing in the vicinity. A somewhat rusty boarding ladder had been pushed up against it, and it appeared the rusty boarding ladder was the second most modern thing. The airport building itself was a rough log and thatch affair. As we lined up at the immigration desk (a four-foot high log turned on end with a huge Chuukian in uniform behind it) I found myself engaged in a conversation with the two Americans in front of me.
Nine of out ten of the passengers on the plane were Micronesians and the rest were scuba divers. These two, Michael and LaDonna Shea, were Americans who lived in Hawaii. They were staying at the Continental Hotel, the “nice hotel.”
“I’m staying at the Pacific Grove,” I explained.
“Where are you from?” asked LaDonna.
“I’m from Colorado,” I said. “A little town called Dillon.”
“Dillon! You mean Summit County?”
“Yeah, you’ve heard of it?”
“Heard of it! That’s where we’re moving in three months. We bought a condo in Breckenridge.”
Suddenly I was very popular with Michael and LaDonna.
“Who are you diving with?” asked Michael.
“Blue Lagoon Divers.”
“So are we!” said La Donna. “They leave from the Continental Hotel. Maybe we’ll be on the same dive boat, or we can have lunch together or something. You can tell us what it’s like to live in Summit County.”
“Not much to tell,” I said. “It’s heaven. You’ll love it. Very different from Hawaii though.”
“That’s what we’re hoping for!”
We said goodnight and just then a Micronesian came up to me, noticing my luggage tags from the travel agency that, in accordance with directions, I’d affixed to my backpack.
“You go Pacific Garden?” he asked.
“Yes, are you my driver?” I had been told by the agent that my “transfers’” were included, which means transportation from the airport to the hotel, and back again.
“Yeah! You hop in, OK?” He motioned me towards an ancient Nissan mini van. The rusty boarding ladder still held second place as most modern thing on the island. A huge roar filled the air and the 727, all aglow and with lights flashing, accelerated down the runway and lifted off into the clouds.
The boarding ladder was now in first place, and I was beginning to worry. So far I hadn’t seen the lagoon, the town, the promenade along the waterfront, or any other sign of civilization. I had only seen a log and thatch airport and a rusty boarding ladder. The aging minivan took me only about half a mile down a pot-hole marked road, and all I could see on either side was jungle. No lights, no houses, no Kentucky Fried Chicken. I remembered a year ago, when I’d arrived in Peking late at night, we had at least passed a Pizza Hut.
We turned into a parking lot by a two-story building, surrounded by jungle on all sides. “Pacific Grove!” said the Micronesian. “This your hotel.”
I got out and walked up the concrete steps to the entrance. This wasn’t what I’d been expecting at all. Where was the waterfront? Where were the side-walk vendors and the street musicians? Where were the T-shirt shops? I pushed open a rickety wooden door at the top of the steps and walked inside. Behind a counter was a young Micronesian girl, in a purple dress. She was not unattractive, but there was something about her almost zombie-like. She was neither friendly nor unfriendly, just…indifferent. A lazy ceiling fan turned slowly, blowing the humid night air around. There was nothing else in the “lobby” except the check-in desk itself. The girl with the purple dressed accepted my voucher and escorted me down the hall to my room, and then said goodnight. It seemed the mere act of living was exhausting for her.
I turned the key and walked in. It was a very plain room, but it was not small. In fact, it was a suite: with a little kitchenette, a table, a bathroom, and an adjoining room with two twin beds. I guessed the temperature to be about 110 degrees and if I’d turned the shower on it would have lowered the humidity. There was a dubious air conditioner in the upper corner of the bedroom. I turned it on, and it began to come to life, slowly, reluctantly, obviously disturbed at having to take on such an impossible task so late at night.
There was even a tiny balcony opening out from the bedroom, but outside I could see nothing. Just the blackness of a tropical night, and jungle everywhere. There was no ocean, no lagoon, no waterfront promenade, and no town. The palm fronds came right up to the balcony itself. I listened to the night for a few moments, and fancied I could hear jungle noises: monkeys, parrots, crocodiles, that kind of thing. But then I realized it was just the squeaking and growling of the tired air conditioner.
I had been told by the minivan driver that I would be picked up at 8:30 the next morning. There was a restaurant of sorts in the hotel: kind of a Micronesian version of a midwestern truck stop. Bare walls, bare tables, bare floor. It was as if the architect was unfamiliar with any building material other than cement blocks, and the interior decorator had seen no way to improve on that look.
There was very little on the menu other than ham and eggs so I had ham and eggs, served by a 500 pound Micronesian waitress in a delicate cotton dress. After breakfast I walked around a bit, The sunlight and heat, at 8:00 in the morning, were almost overpowering and I realized I would need to buy either a hat, or a pair of sunglasses. A few minutes later I decided I would need to buy both. A store was conveniently located across the street from the hotel: the two together representing kind of a jungle oasis. It was a clothing store, and was also of the cement-block school or architectural creativity. The dresses were much the same as I’d seen on my waitress: pastel, light, frilly, cottony things, of a “one size fits all” variety.
I had just time to go back to my room and throw a few things into my daypack before meeting the minivan downstairs. I was looking forward to leaving the Pacific Grove hotel because I knew that the van would take me into the town: the town with the waterfront promenade, the tourist boutiques, and the souvenir shops. I was tired of being marooned out in the jungle.
As we drove down what I later discovered was Truk’s only road I had a better chance to observe my surroundings. Here and there were other concrete-block buildings, but whether they were private homes, or businesses or ammunition lockers was not clear. Scattered about were bamboo cottages, with palm fronds on the roofs and heaps of garbage in the yards. It was as if garbage collection was the primary industry of the island, and each family competed fiercely against its neighbors to attract the most landfill material into their lawns. Around these lawns could be seen various collections of Micronesians: black, large, and lethargic. The women were attired in those same bright cottony dresses. The men were more nondescript, often in jeans and Hawaii-style short sleeve shirts.
After about ten minutes the incidence of these structures increased and soon I realized that we were passing through a downtown. One of the cement block structures said “post office.” Another said “Bank.” Both had piles of garbage in front and half a dozen Micronesians lolling about aimlessly in the parking area.
And I could see the ocean here, too. There was even a port facility, with a small, rust-enshrouded freighter tided up for provisioning. But almost immediately we were back in the jungle again, driving counter-clockwise—it seemed—around the island. I hadn’t yet seen the famous lagoon at all. A fork in the road appeared and the minivan went right. Half a mile further on we passed a sign that said “Continental Hotel,” and then everything changed. The grounds became landscaped. The grass was mowed. The bushes were clipped. We pulled up to a series of low, modern wooden buildings. I thanked my driver and hopped out. This was a garden-like setting, and quite beautiful, with gracious palm trees and a pristine beach with waves lapping against it: the way it’s supposed to be on a Pacific island. Passing through the low buildings I came to a rough wooden dock with several motor launches tied up to it. I know something about boatbuilding and I noticed that these motor launches were made of plywood: the cheapest and most unlovely method of boat constructions. And they were painted orange and black, like Halloween decorations.
And all about them, waiting on the docks, were… Japanese.
Here and there were a few Americans and Micronesians, but the Japanese outnumbered everyone.
The Micronesians organized us into the several boats, and I was sorry to see that Michael and LaDonna were on a different one. My boat held two Micronesians (the crew), four Americans, and six Japanese.
One of the Japanese, a slender and attractive middle-aged woman, was seated next to me as we pulled away from the dock.
“Ohaiyo Gozaimase!” (Good morning) I said to her, and she turned towards me in surprise.
“You speak Japanese!” she asked.
“Iye. Tisai no,” I said. (No, just a little.)
“Ah, you mean ‘sukosi’. ‘Sukosi’ no.”
I thanked her for helping me with my Japanese. I realized I must have said “No, just a small,” instead of “No, just a little.”
The dive boat accelerated as it cleared the dock area, and I climbed up onto the cabin top to better see the view. The water was calm, and the sky was clear. The sea was dotted with half a dozen other islands, some only a few miles away, others on the horizon. These were the kinds of islands one expects in the tropical Pacific: lush, jungle-covered volcanic slopes jutting out of the water and forming soft cones and precipices. Palm trees at the water’s edge, underlined with wide, deserted sand beaches on which the waves were gently lapping helped complete the scene.
The three other Americans joined me on the cabin top, once they’d gotten their gear sorted out. They introduced themselves to me. There was Sally and Ed, from Beverly, Massachusetts. And John, from Houston. I’m not usually the slimmest person on a dive boat but the other three Americans were huge. I don’t mean huge by Micronesian standards, but huge compared to most divers. The six Japanese were of course thin as reeds.
Sally and Ed were a married couple in their early thirties. Bob was about my age, I guessed, and was a furniture salesman. “Do you got a buddy yet?” he asked, and I quickly accepted.
“I’m out here with three friends of mine,” he explained. “They all own dive shops back in the states. But this is my first dive trip, so I’m kind of a beginner. That’s why they’re off on their own boat, doing a really deep dive. Over 160 feet. I said no thanks! We’ve been out here for 4 weeks now. Only two weeks more to go! How long you here for?”
“Four days only,” I said.
“You kidding? Only four days? You came all the way to Micronesia for only four days?”
“Well, I’m just stopping off here on the way back from a business trip in Japan. I figured as long as I was in the area I might as well do some diving.”
“Get out ‘o here! Hey you guys, my buddy’s here on a business trip. Do you believe this shit! Some guys have all the luck…”
Although this was Bob’s first diving vacation, it was such a long one that he’d already accumulated almost as many dives as I had in my whole life. We were roughly comparable in experience.
“Only problem is,” said Bob, “I’m what’s known as an air wolf.”
“You’re in luck! I’m an air wolf too!”
“Hey, we can form our own air-wolf pack! Ha ha!”
So I was feeling more comfortable as the launch cruised towards one of the nearby islands at about fifteen knots.
Bob had been in Truk almost a week and knew something about the area, and the dive sites.
“You can’t believe how lucky you are with this weather. For the last five days it’s been stormy out here, with really big waves, and the water was all churned up.”
“Say, that reminds me. I thought there was supposed to be a lagoon in the island. I thought that’s where all the sunken ships were, and we dived in the lagoon.”
“Hell, boy! This whole thing is the lagoon! We’re in it. So are all these islands! Truk Lagoon is the biggest in the world. You can’t even begin to see across it.”
So that explained why there was no nice little bay with a promenade and so forth. I learned from Bob that a gigantic ring of coral encircled all the Truk islands, and that everything I was seeing, clear to the horizon, was still inside that lagoon. That’s why there was very little surf on the beaches, and that’s why Truk was such a great harbor for the Japanese. The main island, the island we were staying on, was called “Mouen,” The other islands had other names, but all of them together—inside the lagoon—were called the Truk Islands. And the “State of Truk” was one of about seven states that make up the newly-formed “Federated States of Micronesia.”
Everything was beginning to make sense.
“So where are we going today?” I asked Bob.
“The Fujikawa Maru. It’s really neat. There are fighter planes—Japanese Zeroes—in the hold.”
Bob had already been to most of the popular wrecks and was able to play tour guide. He also was able to explain something about what had happened here during the war.
Apparently the Japanese knew there was going to be an invasion, but they thought it was still a few days off. They’d moved most of their warships: carriers, battleships, and cruisers, out to sea. But the merchant ships, the freighters, were trying to unload their cargoes before leaving. They thought they would have time, and they were wrong.
“What really screwed them up,” explained Bob, was that they had five different air strips on different islands in the lagoon. They had about two hundred fighters based here. But, get this, the pilots slept on a different island from the airstrip. So they weren’t able to scramble their fighters in time. The pilots had to cross the lagoon to get to their planes. I mean, we’re talking really STUPID! When the American fighter squadrons arrived, they found a whole fleet of sitting-duck merchant ships, and the fighters still on the ground. So the first thing they did was bomb the runways so the fighters couldn’t take off, then they just took their time destroying everything else. There was no opposition. It was a turkey shoot! The original plan had been for the Americans to come in and invade Truk and occupy it. But the fighters did such a great job of blowing the place off the map, that the Americans just ignored it for the rest of the war. There was nothing left to occupy! Ha ha!”
We had come up into the lee of one of the nearby islands, and the crew anchored the dive boat about a hundred yards from shore. The islands themselves all seemed uninhabited. Even Mouen seemed deserted from a distance. I looked over the side of the boat and was startled to realize I could see part of the wreck! Two of the freighter’s masts rose up from the abyss to within about ten feet of the surface.
The Chuukese dive master gave us instructions, and in we went. This was my first time diving without any wet suit whatsoever—which many people do—but was also my first time diving without a dive watch. I’d given mine away as a gift in Japan, finding myself one gift short in an awkward social situation, and had hoped to replace it before diving. But I wasn’t concerned. Bob had not only a dive watch, but a full dive computer. As long as I stayed with him I’d be OK.
We swam together down the anchor rope until soon the outlines of the giant freighter could be seen, listing to port about ten degrees. The visibility was not as clear as what I’m used to in the Caribbean, but no doubt that had something to do with the stormy weather of the last few days. Coral had grown quite heavy on the ship, which was good because when you’re diving, coral is one of the main things you’re there to see. Sometimes old ships are scuttled deliberately so as to form artificial reefs that soon become covered with coral much to the pleasure of scuba divers. But no artificial reefs were needed in Truk Lagoon, with over 60 Japanese ships lying on the bottom.
Once the group had reached 75 feet the dive master signaled us to level off, and he then guided us further down into one of the ship’s holds. This one was empty, but a passageway connected it to another hold, and each of us swam through. The new hold was the one littered with the zero fighter planes. They weren’t in very good condition: wings, fuselages, tail-assemblies, and cockpits, were scattered about and it seemed likely an explosion had been involved.
There was one plane still intact and sitting right side up. The glass cockpit cover was missing though, and this let me see in and examine the flight instruments. No coral had grown over them, and I could read some of the data. There was no indication, though, of the plane’s actual position: 90 feet under water. It’s designers had not thought to include a depth gauge.
Back on the boat, and on the way to the next dive location, Bob asked the dive-master if we could stop and snorkel a bit at the “upside-down fighter,” and we did. This was another zero fighter, turned precisely upside down, resting on the sand bottom at a depth of about twenty feet. This was too deep for me to reach with a snorkel, but the water was clear and we could swim above it, enjoying the view.
After this snorkel break we headed for the wreck of the Kensho Maru. Cruising between the islands while sitting on the boat’s cabin top, Bob pointed out the palm trees on shore.
“Geez, you know what I think when I see palm trees like that, on a tropical island?”
I think there’s probably Japs hiding up there. I want to take a machine gun and just spray ‘em for Japs. You know why I think that?”
“Because in all those old war movies, you know, those John Wayne movies, there’d always be Japs hidin’ up in the palm trees, ready to jump down and kill the good guys when they walked past. So now, I see palm trees like that, I think there must be Japs up there. I know it’s crazy, but it’s all that conditioning from watching those late night movies on TV!”
I was a bit disturbed to be talking about killing Japs, with six Japanese divers on board with us. The noise of the motors covered our conversation, but it still seemed impolite. Sally and Ed came over and joined us.
“You know I was wondering,” I said, “what it must be like for these Japanese divers. I mean, here we are diving on these sunken Japanese ships, and they were sunk by Americans, and here they are sharing a boat with a group of Americans. I mean, you have to wonder what they’re thinking. Are they mad at us, on some level, do you suppose?”
“Hey,” said Sally. “This whole thing was their fault. They started it.” She looked petulant, like a grade school girl complaining to a teacher about someone else having knocked over the fingerpaints.
“Yeah,” said Bob. “And doesn’t it just make you want to take a machine gun and spray those trees over there? There’s just gotta be Japs up there, right!”
I had to admit that I would have enjoyed shooting a machine gun at those trees myself, but that was only because it’s so much fun to shoot a machine gun.
I needed to get to my dive bag and put on some suntan lotion, but the bag was just past where the Japanese were sitting.
“Sumi masen!” I called, over the sound of the motors. “Are wa, misete kudasai” I said, pointing to the blue bag.
“Hai!” said the nearest of the Japanese.
“Arigato,” I said as he handed it over.
“Hey, you speak Jap?” said Bob.
“Just enough to get in trouble,” I apologized. “I just came from Japan, remember. I was there on business.”
“Oh, right,” said Bob.
And that was the end of the conversation about shooting the Japs.
“You know,” said Ed, lying down on his back on the cabin-top and soaking up the sun, “this is the life. All my friends are back in Boston freezing their butts off, and I’m lying here in the sun in the South Pacific. Man, I’ve always wanted to go to the South Pacific, and here I am. I finally made it. Shit! This is just too good to be true.”
“Well,” I said hesitantly, “this isn’t exactly the South Pacific…”
“Huhh? What do you mean this isn’t the South Pacific? The hell it isn’t! Where do you think we are, the North Pacific? I don’t THINK so! Ha ha!”
“I’d call it the Western Pacific. But the problem is we’re north of the equator. As long as we’re north of the equator you can’t really call it the South Pacific.”
“No kidding? This isn’t the South Pacific? You mean all this time I thought I was finally taking a vacation in the South Pacific, and I’m not?”
I didn’t want to ruin his vacation.
“Well, the point is you’re in the tropics. You’re on a tropical island in a coral lagoon in the Pacific Ocean. And your friends are freezing their butts off back in Boston. That’s what counts.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He sounded kind of sad though.
“Look, now you have a reason to come back. You have something to look forward to!”
“Hey, you hear that Sally? We have to come back next year ‘cause this isn’t the South Pacific. You up for coming back next year?”
“Twist my arm,” said Sally.
The next dive, on the Kensho Maru, was similar to the first. There was a big deck gun up near the bow, which made it seem like a warship, and down in one of the holds we saw several sets of beautiful Japanese porcelain place-settings, still intact and not even touched by the coral. The smooth surface of the porcelain apparently gave no purchase for the coral to grow. Several of the divers found an open doorway that led into a black void, and went in. I went in with them, but kept my hand on the door-frame so I could find my way back out. I looked around and could only see blackness. We were 100 feet under water. And I’d used up most of my air already. I swam back out, happy to let others explore whatever was inside.
That was it for diving for the day. Back on board, the dive boat headed to the dock. After two deep dives the body has so much nitrogen built up that further diving poses a risk of the bends.
But I wasn’t up for going back to my cement-block hotel in the middle of the jungle. The grounds of the Continental were utterly lovely: not too built up and modern, but nicely manicured and almost park-like. The hotel had been set out near the end of a small peninsula which terminated in an expanse of beautiful sand beach. Palm trees waved in the gentle trade winds, waves lapped calmly against the shore, and across the water could be seen several of the other islands, their volcanic shapes rising up out of the sea. It was the kind of place where you’d expect Bloody Mary to come walking up, barefoot, and begin singing about the attractions of “Bali Hai,” while passing out floral lei’s and chewing beetle nuts.
So I stayed there the rest of the afternoon, reading my book out on the sand point, which I had—surprisingly enough—all to myself. They say night comes quickly in the tropics and this one certainly did. I’d just had time to admire the sun going down when almost immediately the stars appeared, and it was dark. Even so, I stayed awhile longer, looking out at the water. Occasionally I would see a motor launch heading out from Mouen and setting a course for one of the outer islands, and I would wish that I were on it. I could only assume that those outer islands would be more interesting than the one I was on. So far I felt like I hadn’t really touched the culture of Micronesia. I hadn’t really made contact with the people. All I’d done was behave like a tourist: arrive by plane, and go scuba diving on the wrecks. But the chance of any meaningful contact seemed remote. The Chuukians themselves had their own language, and spoke English only hesitantly, and sometimes incomprehensibly. On the ride from my own hotel–on the other side of the island–there didn’t seem to be anything going on. Mouen was just a collection of concrete-block houses, with palm fronds for roofs, and garbage piles for front yards. I’d passed a couple of small grocery stores, a post office, a bank, and a few vegetable stands. That was it! And the continental hotel wasn’t exactly a center of culture either. It’s layout consisted of half a dozen two-story wooden buildings, each containing about ten rooms. There was a restaurant—with a beautiful view of the water through the palm trees—where I’d had lunch with Ed, Sally, and Bob, but lunch hadn’t lasted that long. And now it was nighttime, with no where to go but back to my hotel: just a clearing in the jungle.
I slipped my Tevas on as I reached the park-like, grassy peninsula, and begin walking towards the hotel, where I knew I could get a ride. That was one nice thing about Chuuk. Any car will take you anywhere, for 50 cents. Or at least that’s what Bob had told me.
A small group of native Chuukians were spread out on the grass, under one of the palm trees, and facing out towards the ocean. I noticed a large pyramid of Budweiser beer had been built there, nearly three feet high. Obviously they were having a party. Then I noticed that lying down with her back up against a palm tree was LaDonna.
“Come join us!” she called out, recognizing me.
“Looks like you need some help with this Budweiser!” I said as I sat down on the grass.
“Here’s one for starters,” said a young man, an American perhaps in his thirties, with his back against another palm tree. He tossed me an unopened can and I took a long drink before setting it back down on the grass and looking about me to see who was in the group. There were five large Chuukians, the American who’d tossed me the beer, and LaDonna.
“Where’s Michael?” I asked.
“He went back to the room to get a sweater,” she said. “We’re having a farewell party for Dan.” She nodded towards the American.
The facts came out quickly enough. Dan was the Attorney General for Chuuk State. His tenure was up tomorrow and he was leaving to take a job with a private law firm in Guam. These Chuukians must have been friends of his.
“I was just telling them about my job,” explained LaDonna.
“What is your job?”
“I fly 747’s for United.”
“You’re a pilot?”
“Uh huh. I’m first officer. In a few more years I’ll be a captain.”
I talked to LaDonna about flying for awhile, as the Chuukians worked their way through Mt. Budweiser.
“I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of a woman named Emily Howell?” I asked.
“Sure, she’s famous. She was the first woman to ever be an airline pilot in America.”
“Well, get this. Emily Howell used to be an FAA flight examiner. She gave me my instrument flight test and signed my logbook.”
“Wow, that’s really cool!”
Michael returned with his sweater and talked for a few minutes. Then Michael and LaDonna said good-bye to the group and left for dinner. So it was just me, the Attorney General, the five large Chuukians, and Budweiser Mountain.
A moon had come out and moonlight scintillated on the waves as they rolled somnolently against the beach. There was no wind and the palm trees along the shore were still, as if asleep. And Budweiser Mountain was rapidly becoming just a foothill.
Then the toasts began.
“Here is to Dan, my friend. A man who cared about the people.”
“To Dan. It was a pleasure to know him. It was a pleasure to work with him. It was a pleasure to…ah, well, it was just a pleasure!”
“I would like to toast to Dan, who made a difference!”
“Uh, Dan,” I said as an aside. “Who are these guys exactly?”
“You don’t know? I didn’t introduce you? Whoooah. Everybody, hold on a minute. I have to introduce you to our friend here. Say, where are you from exactly.”
“He didn’t say where he’s from!” said one of the Chuukians. “Maybe he has something to hide!”
“I think he’s from the Soviet Union. Maybe he’s a spy!” said another.
“I am a spy!” I confessed. “And I am from the Soviet Union! But the only problem is, there is no more Soviet Union! That’s why I came to Micronesia. Maybe you guys need a spy?”
“Well, anyway,” said Dan, “even if you’re a spy it doesn’t matter because I’m leaving. This here is Fritz,” he said, pointing to one of the huge Chuukians on his right. He’s the chief of police for Chuuk state. And this man here is Hans. He’s the head of the Department of Justice. And this here is Tomba, he’s the deputy attorney general. And over there is Atudo, he’s my chief of staff, my assistant.”
“So, like, what you’re saying,” I said, “is that it’s unlikely anyone’s going to give us grief for drinking beer out here on the beach?”
“Ha!” said Fritz. “That’s my department. I enforce the law here on Chuuk. But it’s OK. I brought the beer!!”
They grew serious again, and there were more toasts. Finally the five Chuukians stood up, and joined arms, and began swaying in kind of an inebriated dance, and singing a Chuukian song: “Aaaaah waaaaah ooooooooooo tttaaaaaaa uhhhhhhhh aaaaaaa oooooh” they sang.
“Ah, c’mon guys,” said Dan. “Don’t start in with that Chuukian crap!”
“Aaaaah waaaaah ooooooooooo tttaaaaaaa uhhhhhhhh aaaaaaa oooooh.”
“That’s a real toe tapper, isn’t it,” Dan said to me over his shoulder.
“Aaaaah waaaaah ooooooooooo tttaaaaaaa uhhhhhhhh aaaaaaa oooooh” Even the palm trees began to sway slightly in the night air.
“You see why Micronesia was able to be conquered by four different nations…” said Dan.
After the singing there were some more toasts. The general theme seemed to be that Dan really had done a good job, and had tried to make a difference, and they were all sorry to see him go. Finally I delivered a toast of my own.
“Before I came here,” I said, “I was trying to find out what country this was. Was it Micronesia? Or Caroline Islands? Or just Truk? Or what exactly? Well, no one knew what country this was. Even in Guam they didn’t know what country this was. Well, I just want to say that even though no one knows there is a country here, I am very glad to have discovered it, and even more glad to find there are people here who care about their country, and who are trying to make it better. So, here’s to Dan! And here’s to all of you!”
Well, that was the right note to hit, apparently. The Chuukians got up and came over and hugged me and said I was their friend forever and if I ever needed anything on Chuuk I was just to ask.
“Hey, I know what we can do for our friend here,” said Hans. “This is your first visit to Chuuk. I bet you want a girl. No problem. I know lots of girls. I will bring you a girl tonight at your hotel room. Where are you staying? What’s your room number? I will bring beautiful Chuukian girl to your room tonight. How many girl you want? Three? Four? No problem. I bring you beautiful Chuukian girl. Don’t worry. No charge. You my friend, OK?”
So where was this guy when I was single?
“It’s OK,” I said. “I’m married man. But you know, there is something maybe you could do for me, if it’s possible.”
“Anything you want, you just ask.”
“Well, I was wondering what it’s like on the outer islands? I see these boats going back and forth to the other islands, and I was wondering…”
“You want to go to one of the other islands, which one?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter. I just was curious…”
“OK. Here’s what we do. My nephew lives on the island of Fefan. That’s way over there, you can’t see it now, but during the day you can see it way over there. You can go out there tomorrow night if you want. You can stay with them on the island.”
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. This was too good to be true. A chance to see the outer islands, and actually stay with real islanders!”
So we arranged that Hans would have his nephew meet me at the dock after I was done diving tomorrow, at 4:00 pm, and we continued working our way through the Budweiser. Everyone was getting pretty drunk, and suddenly Fritz started talking about an episode that had happened several years ago, when he was an assistant prosecutor.
“It was that case on the island of Tonoas where this villager attacked another villager with a machete. Well, I was the prosecutor. And the whole defense was built around claiming self-defense. You see, the victim had gotten drunk and come into the guy’s house and was trying to steal the guy’s wife. So the defendant took a machete and started hacking away!
“Well, as the prosecutor, you see, I said to the jury ‘yes, he had to defend his home, but what he did was beyond a reasonable standard! That’s what I said: ‘Beyond a reasonable standard.’ I won the case! The jury agreed. You see, that’s what I said. I said that hacking a guy with a machete was ‘beyond a reasonable standard!’ and the jury agreed. It was my first case. I did a good job on that case. I established a principal you see. And the principal was that attacking someone with a machete is not reasonable. That was a good thing, I think. It’s good that the villagers understand that now.
And of course as soon as one started reminiscing like this the others started in as well. Occasionally they would quit speaking English and lapse in to Chuukian.
“Do you understand Chuukian?” I asked Dan, as the others were talking.
“I understand it more than they think I do!”
Suddenly Fritz, the head of the Chuukian Department of Justice, got mad and started yelling at Tomba, the Deputy Attorney General. They both jumped to their feet and it looked like a fight was going to break out. Dan tried to calm them down, but Fritz was getting angrier and angrier.
Fritz finally said: “That’s it! I’m going to get the police!” and started stomping off.
Dan jumped up and grabbed him by the shoulder.
“C’mon Fritz, we don’t need the police here. We’re all friends. Consider it a favor. to me. Consider it a going away present. Don’t call the police!”
Fritz allowed himself to be calmed down and soon we were all drinking beer again. As soon as I had a chance, I whispered to Dan: “Uh, Dan, I kinda thought you guys were the police!”
“Well,” he said, “actually, heh, heh, we are! Hey Hans! Show our friend here your handcuffs. You guys got your handcuff?”
Hans and a couple of the other Chuukians reached in their back pockets and pulled out shiny handcuffs.
“A lot of times these guys come on some fight or something going on and they have to handcuff everybody. So they always carry their handcuffs.”
“Does that happen a lot around here?” I asked.
“It’s been awhile since we had to use the handcuffs,” said Hans. “OK, you guys. Maybe we should just go into the hotel and handcuff everybody, like we do with the normal prisoners,” he said.
“And the women?” said Tomba.
“Heh, heh. Let’s just do what we normally do with the women!”
By 11:00 pm we’d worked the Budweisers down to the bare grass and the party started breaking up.
“C’mon,” said Dan. “We’ll drive you back to your hotel.”
I don’t remember much about the ride home, and it’s not impossible I fell asleep in the backseat, but eventually they delivered me to the Pacific Grove hotel, and I was just conscious enough to set the alarm for the next morning.
It was the same crew on the dive boat. Bob had allowed me to leave my scuba gear in his room, and he brought it now, huffing and puffing up to the dock.
“Where are we going today?” I asked him.
“The Nippo Maru! It’s my favorite wreck in the whole lagoon.”
Later that day I wrote in my diving logbook:
“Nippo Maru Wreck, Truk Lagoon, Micronesia. Depth: 116’. Visibility: 40’. Dive Time: 22 min. Best wreck dive yet, and deepest dive ever so far. Water much clearer. Both regulators started free-flowing upon entering water. Was able to fix them as Peter showed me how to do in Australia. Experience is starting to pay off! Saw barracuda during descent. On ship we found a complete Japanese tank, with gun turret and everything! Also, more china, and a lion fish. Ship listing heavily to starboard.”
And after the second dive:
“Fumitzuki wreck (Japanese Destroyer), Truk Lagoon, Micronesia. Depth 109’. Visibility 30’. Dive time: 25 min. First dive on a warship. Lots of guns, torpedo tubes, depth charges, etc. Sake bottles were all over the deck. Live shells for anti-aircraft guns still by the guns. First time decompression stop actually required, according to buddy’s dive computer.”
I had become accustomed in Australia to stopping at the fifteen feet level for three minutes, as a practice decompression stop during the ascent. “It’s good to get in the habit of it,” my sister Beth had explained. “Even if you never actually need to do it.”
But on the Fumitzuki dive, Bob (my buddy) had grabbed my arm as we began our ascent, and kept me close to him. This seemed odd. It wasn’t until we were back on board that he explained.
“I wanted to make sure you stayed level with me,” he said. “As soon as we started up the dive computer said we needed to do a deco stop. First time that’s ever happened to me!”
“Me too,” I said. “That was my 33rd open water dive, and it’s the first time I’ve ever had to do one.”
“Not surprising though,” said Bob. “That was our second dive today over 100 feet! Our nitrogen build up is probably pretty serious.”
“Yeah, hope no one lights a match near us!” I could almost feel my body bleeding nitrogen gas off into the air, or at least I fancied I could.
I’d run into Hans at the Continental coffee shop during our lunch break. He’d explained that his nephew couldn’t take me out to the island that evening because there was a big celebration in town. This was Chuuk’s independence day! But we were on for tomorrow. Hans’ nephew would pick me up at my hotel room at 2 pm. Also, Hans told me there was going to be a big going-away party for Dan tomorrow morning at 10:00 at the Continental Hotel. “You must come!” said Hans.
So I spent some more time on the beach, and finally hitched a ride back to my hotel in the back of a Toyota pickup, sharing the space with two large Micronesian women in colorful cotton dresses. The next day, Saturday, was Chuuk’s independence day. Or rather, the independence day for the entire Federated States of Micronesia. There was a fairground of sorts a short distance from the middle of town, and I arrived there in the back of another pickup, at about 9:30 on the way to Dan’s party at the Continental. I wanted a closer look at the celebration. Several thousand Chuukese mingled about, standing in the hot sun, or sitting up in the branches of trees, or even sitting cross legged on the ground. The women were even more colorful than usual because about half of them had large, brightly painted umbrellas to shield them from the heat. In the arena itself (the middle of the fairgrounds) there was a track meet of some kind going on, and foot races were being held. Everyone shrieked and yelled as the racers approached the finish line, and then a new set of racers queued up and were off. As I was wandering around the fairgrounds I came to a rather large ditch, with muddy water and debris in the bottom. It would be quite a detour to try to go around it. Several Chuukese teenagers—boys and girls—standing nearby noticed my dilemma.
“Jump! Jump!” they cried, so I of course had to jump, especially so in this atmosphere of athletic competition, and I just barely made it across. They clapped and cheered for me, and I felt I’d done my part to advance American/Chuuk relations, at least for the moment.
When I finally arrived at the Continental Hotel for Dan’s party I was dismayed to find there was no party. No one knew about a party. No one had heard of a “Dan.” It was as if I’d dreamed the whole thing. I should have taken that as a warning.
But the beach and the grassy lawns under the palm trees were as pleasant as ever, so I lingered there awhile, finally getting drawn in to a Chuukese volleyball game where I did well and perhaps helped American/Chuuk relations that much more.
But by 2:00 pm I was back in my hotel room in the jungle, waiting for Hans’ nephew to pick me up and take me out to the exotic and enchanting “outer islands,” where I would spend the night in a grass hut. This was going to be the highpoint of my whole trip. Perhaps the high point of any of my trips. By 2:30 he had not arrived. I kept waiting. By 3:30 he had not arrived.
By 7:00 I finally decided he wasn’t coming. I was heartbroken. I’d spent my last day in Micronesia hanging out in my hotel room. I could have gone diving! In fact, I was mad as hell. The more I thought about it the madder I got.
My plane left just after noon the next morning, and I arrived early, disgusted with the whole country and glad to be going home. At the ticket counter I asked the attendant if I could change my seat assignment. My ticket indicated I held a center seat and I was hoping for a window. She checked her paperwork.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said. “The seats are all reserved and I can’t change your seat assignment.”
I set down my carry-on bag and went over to the restroom. The restroom door was padlocked.
A car drove up and Dan, the departing attorney general, got out. Fritz and Tomba were with him.
“Hi Dan!” I called. “Are you on this flight?”
“I sure am!” he said amicably as he strolled over. “You want to sit together?”
“I wish we could, but the plane’s full, and I couldn’t even change to a window seat.”
He looked at me strangely. “This flight is almost completely empty, and anyway it’s open seating. They don’t have seat assignments.”
We said good-bye to Fritz and Tomba and walked up the rusty boarding ladder and into the gleamingly-modern Continental 727. It was too abrupt a transition: like going from medieval times into a space ship. The air conditioning almost knocked me over. Dan and I took seats together near the front. There were no more than about twenty other passengers.
Dan leaned back, stretched out, and gazed up at the ceiling.
“I’ve never been so glad to leave anywhere in my life,” he said. “This has got to be the number one shithole of the world. What a totally f_cked-up country!”
“Well how ‘bout all those things you said the another night on the beach, about liking the people and everything?”
“Oh, those guys were my friends. What else could I say? Let me tell you, I spent $150 of my own money for booze at that party. For my own going-away party, I buy the booze! OK, no problem. But get this. On the way back after we dropped you off, the guy in the back seat says ‘Dan, how ‘bout we stop at the liquor store and you buy me a bottle of vodka?’
“Well, geez, what am I going to say? So we stop at the liquor store, I buy a bottle of vodka, and as I’m paying for it, the guy says ‘Dan, can I have the change?’
“You see what I mean about this country? They’re all totally worthless!”
“Wow, that’s incredible! I can’t believe even a close friend would try to bum off you like that.”
“Close friend, hell! I didn’t even know that guy! Chuuk got it’s independence in 1986 and the country’s been going downhill ever since. We’re talking free-fall here.”
“Well what should be done about it?”
“There’s only one thing that would work. Chuuk should be a territory of some country that can organize things. When the Japanese owned this area everything was pretty good, from what I understand. Before the war, of course, when the Japanese became militaristic. Anyway, you’re the tourist. What was your impression?”
“Well, one thing I noticed, on that road that circles the island, every driver seems to know the location of every pothole. They slow down in advance, and they drive to the side just at the right time. And alongside the road you’ve got all these people standing there staring. They just stand and stare. And they watch the cars slow down and drive around the potholes. Yet no one seems to consider the possibility of fixing the potholes. It’s like standing and staring is the only thing they’ve got energy for. If you put all that unused manpower to work, you could fix every pothole on the island in less than an hour.”
“It’ll never happen,” said Dan. “They just don’t give a shit.”
“But I don’t understand. Don’t they notice the trash? Don’t they think it looks ugly?
“As long as it’s in someone else’s yard, they don’t care.”
“But it’s in their own yard! It’s in every yard!”
Yeah, that’s true. Even if its in their own yard they don’t care.”
“You know, Hans’ nephew never showed up yesterday at two o’clock. I waited all day in my hotel room. He never showed up. He never called. Really pissed me off.”
“No surprise. They operate with a Micronesian concept of time here.”
“Yeah, I was prepared for that. I never gave myself more than a 50-50 chance of actually getting to see one of the outer islands. But I was still bummed. I wanted to see Micronesia as it really is, not just the artificial tourist view here on Mouen.”
“Hey, let me tell you something. You had an appointment with a Micronesian at 2:00 pm and you were going to go off and see the real local culture, right?”
“Well, if you ask me, you got what you wanted. A Micronesian not bothering to show up for an appointment, and not giving a shit about even calling to let you know, well that’s the essence of Micronesia. You got a better taste of this shit hole by sitting in your hotel room all day then you could ever have gotten by visiting one of the outer islands.”
“Now that’s assuming you wanted a taste of the real Micronesia. If what you actually wanted was beautiful beaches and swaying palm trees and friendly natives, you could get that right at the Continental Hotel. Or for that matter, you could have gone to Maui!”
I could see his point. What would I have found on the outer islands? More garbage? More rusted out corrugated tin roofs? More indifference and apathy? Probably.
Poverty and living conditions on Chuuk were worse than anything I’ve seen in North Africa. Even in the squalor of the Tangier slums, people still care about their homes. They still try to keep their own space neat and orderly within broad limits. In Micronesia they don’t even try. What should be—what could be without that much effort—one of the most beautiful spots on the planet has become one of the ugliest. From a distance, nothing is more breathtaking than a Micronesian island and lagoon. Close up, the sights makes you want to jump the next plane to L.A.
“Is it like this everywhere?” I asked. “I mean, I don’t want to judge all of Micronesia by Chuuk. And I don’t want to judge all the Pacific islands by Micronesia. How ‘bout Melanesia and Polynesia for example?”
“Well, I’ve never been to Melanesia so I can’t speak to that, but I’ve traveled all over FSM, and quite a bit in Polynesia, and it’s the same everywhere.”
“OK, but maybe this is just the symptom of a third world country.”
“Look, I’ve been to Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Indonesia, all over. This is the worst by far,” said Dan. “The Pacific Islands are as low as civilization gets. You’re talking poverty, indifference, apathy. The people are lazy, venal, dishonest. They’re just totally f_cking worthless. Every expate I know who’s lived in the islands ends up leaving mad—mad at somebody, or some group, or just the whole system. They leave feeling abused and hurt.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of how I was feeling last night.”
“Just like I said, you experienced the soul of this country real fast.”
I looked out the window and could see the surf pounding against the coral reefs: lush green islands sun-swept amidst the trackless blue of the Pacific.
“You know,” I said, idealistically, “the real way to do these islands is with a sailboat. You could go anywhere, find the places that hadn’t yet been so corrupted by civilization.”
“The real way to do these islands is with a B-52,” said Dan.
But I clung to my own vision . An attorney general is going to see some of the worst parts of society by nature of his job. A guy who stays at a cheap hotel in the middle of a jungle isn’t going to see much to be impressed with either. Somewhere among these vast islands—if not Micronesia than at least Polynesia—there must still be native people living in harmony with their environment. Rejoicing in, and being a part of, the beauty of the South Pacific.
But another part of me was not so sure. When these islands had been populated with a stone-age culture there may have been less trash, but the natives actually ate each other. This was the epicenter of cannibalism, after all. Now civilization had intruded, but the native people had not been raised up by it, despite generous foreign aid in the last half century. Instead one form of ugliness had been replaced with another. Perhaps the only way true tropical paradise can be achieved is the Hyatt way: building a multi-million dollar hotel with stunning landscaping—restoring the site to something even more beautiful than it had originally been. 500 years from now would that be our ultimate success? A complete restoration of nature, even our cities redone as parks? The whole earth pollution free? Grafitti free? Technology could certainly do it. Whether the human race could muster the will and solve its problems of crime, poverty, and so forth was another question. But it was pleasant to think of that as our future, rather than the other one now on display in Micronesia. The plane began its descent into Guam, a U.S. territory, and as we dropped down low for our approache I was pleased—for the first time—to see a string of beautiful high rise resort hotels perched on the high cliffs, set lushly among well-tended tropical gardens. I was glad to be returning to this version, at least, of civilization.