Where on Earth Is Pohnpei?
Published: December 2011
By Brad Leithauser
Way way out in the middle of the Pacific is a small, perfectly charming island to which no one you know has ever been. Next question: why?
How was the island of Pohnpei created?Native legend tells a circuitous tale of a hero named Sapkini, who, while leading a group of settlers across the sea, enlisted the help of an octopus named Lidakika . . . and so on. I prefer a creation myth that goes something like this: One day, God erected in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, just above the equator, one of the most beautiful islands on the planet. He gave it lofty palm trees and rugged, rain-forested hills and reverberating waterfalls and parti-color coral reefs and miles of golden beach. And He surveyed His work, saw that it was good, and then, as a deliberate afterstroke, removed the beaches.
Pohnpei has virtually no beach. Instead, it has pebbly shores or mangrove swamps or gray basalt cliffs. This doesn't mean the swimming isn't superb, in warm and tranquil bays, colorful tropical fish below you, colorful tropical skies above. What it does mean is that visitors to Pohnpei don't spend time lying on the sand. It also means the island has been spared those irrepressible growths— souvenir shops, high-rises, fast-food franchises— that flourish on pure sandy soil. Had God not removed the beaches, Pohnpei today would have lost its untrammeled splendor. Half a mile of sand would change everything.
On Pohnpei, the lack of high-rises and chain hotels doesn't mean a lack of amenities. It's possible to eat and drink well, to sleep in comfortable and even sublime surroundings, to sightsee with ease and confidence. Fifteen years ago, the island changed its name: it used to be Ponape. Either way, Pohnpei currently occupies an agreeable middle zone between the built-up and the left-to-itself. A simple roll call of "present" and "absent" items is revealing. Some of the things the island offers: a community college; tour operators for diving and hiking; car-rental companies; Japanese and Filipino restaurants; tennis courts. And some it doesn't: a movie theater; a golf course; a decent coffee shop; a designer boutique. The world is full of once-pristine tropical havens that encourage tunnel vision in the visitor (If only I look this way, rather than that, averting my gaze from those eyesores, I can believe myself in heaven . . .). Pohnpei encourages you to approach with eyes wide open.
Getting to Pohnpei is a real undertaking. An island-hopping flight west from Hawaii requires most of a day. Fly southeast from Japan, and it's the same thing. Likewise from Australia or New Zealand. Pohnpei belongs to the widely scattered Federated States of Micronesia, which includes the archipelago Chuuk and the islands Yap and Kosrae. It's one of those little green jewels— the emeralds of the Pacific— that are a long way from any sizable landmass.
But the getting there can be uplifting. The two-hour flight from Guam to Pohnpei was the most magical of my life. The day was crystalline and all the colors of the planet had been simplified— purified— to variations of white and blue. A clear, bottomlessly blue sky, over a clear, bottomlessly blue ocean— and, between them, hundreds of dense, white cumulus cloudlets scattered below the windows of the plane. The patterns of light and dark, of cloud and cloud-shadow, suggested a colossal checkerboard— a game for the gods, extending over hundreds of miles.
Whether the journey is smooth or bumpy, half the pleasure in going to a remote place like Pohnpei derives from the odd people and odd errands encountered on the way. On my trip I met a devout young man who, after hours of study, looked up from his Bible to inform me that his home was a tiny island some 200 miles from the tinier island where his wife and three children lived. "Do you see them often?" I asked. "Oh yes, at least twice a year, God bless them," he replied.
I later met a Californian contractor whose specialty was artificial surfaces for tennis courts. We were standing on a hotel veranda under a ravishing sunset, with tall, icy drinks in our hands. The heavens glowed with great swatches of flaming velvet, and the sea was a luminous field of gold and pink. "I'll tell you one thing," he confided, "this is the last time they drag me to a dump like this."
One way or another, the determined traveler eventually lands on Pohnpei. You reconnect with your baggage, pass through the bright and higgledy-piggledy capital of Kolonia with its rusty signs and somewhat run-down merchandise, and— if you've been well advised— take a short drive east to the Village hotel, which nestles on an abundantly overgrown slope. You will have exchanged one sort of aerial view for another. The Village's thatched-roof, open-air restaurant stands more than a hundred feet above the sea. The hill descends through bamboo and palm trees into mangrove swamp, plunges into the shallow waters of a coral reef, and plunges again into an intense oceanic blue. The restaurant is a perfect spot for unfolding maps or tourist brochures you picked up on the way— just the place to plan an itinerary.
Pohnpei's size is ideal for the short-term visitor— not so small that its snugness grows claustrophobic, not so large that you can't see most of it in a week. The island is roughly circular, and I was told that it would take about three hours to drive around it, a distance of some 50 miles. In fact it took me all day, but then tropical wonderlands like Pohnpei were meant to inspire a sense that saving time is a waste of time.
Driving on the road— on the road, the single, coast-hugging thoroughfare— is a slow business. This is due partly to ruts and potholes (much of the road is unpaved) but chiefly to pedestrian traffic and what I suppose could be called quadrupedestrian traffic. For in addition to schoolchildren with notebooks under their arms, old women wearing the bright floral Mother Hubbard dresses favored throughout the island, and young men shouldering loads of wood, I also encountered languidly suicidal dogs, irascible roosters, a black pig leading a troop of black-and-white piglets, cats, and various lizards and toads. (You may also meet up with scuttling nocturnal crabs.)
I traveled clockwise. Twenty-five minutes from Kolonia I parked the car at the turnoff for a site called Pahn Takai. After a half-hour hike, I reached a limestone cliff that combines a thin, ropy waterfall with an immense bat cave. I was the sole sightseer. Just me and a million bats— what could be better?The scene cried out for an easel and paints, for a modern-day Gauguin adrift in the Pacific. With their jumpy flight, the dark bats looked like sullying flaws against the blue sky, while the waterfall threw up a stately and immaculate veil.
From Pahn Takai, I careened down roads that thwacked my car's underside (each thwack cheering me with the thought that the car was rented), eventually reaching Sokehs Mountain, a low hilltop that once served as a Japanese lookout and fortification site. World War II soldiers stationed here left behind artillery guns and storage magazines. The guns are rusted, of course, robust trees having sprouted up within what used to be the arc of their bullets' deadly swing, and the entire site is steeped in the heavy-handed irony that Nature— that irrepressible ham— specializes in. Butterflies dart among a profusion of blooms. The place seems to confirm the heartwarming notion that in the battle between man and man it's the flowers that win in the end.
Once you leave Kolonia, you've left Pohnpei's only real town, and as you circle the island you'll find that restaurants are— to put it mildly— thin on the ground. The wisest course is to pack yourself a lunch. In various brochures Pohnpei bills itself as "Micronesia's Garden Paradise," and on its roughly 130 square miles you're never very far from something that's spectacularly abloom, situated against a background of green hills or blue ocean; it's hard to go wrong with a picnic on Pohnpei. I lunched within sight of Sahwarlap and Sahwartik, the highest falls on the island, then drove on to the mangrove swamps of Pwudoi Sanctuary.
I confess to a deep fondness for squishy terrain— bogs, marshes, swamps— and a boardwalk through a mangrove swamp strikes me as especially enticing. To begin with, there's an unearthly beauty in those flooded trees that rise up from the water on bent knees, as though the whole packed crowd of them were prepared to march right out of the muck they call home. And then there's the grateful sense, as you saunter on dry feet through an inundated world, that somebody went to a lot of trouble to make this possible for you. It's a domain that belongs to frogs, eels, fish, crabs: a private club of which you're not a member, and, for that reason, you feel all the luckier to be given a look around. Yet Pwudoi also showed me hints— floating beer cans, a submerged bicycle tire— of Kolonia's nearness. I'd completed my circuit; I'd seen the island.
I'd seen the island, yet all day long I couldn't help being aware of something looking over my shoulder— the mountains of the interior. They loomed behind me, silently insisting that they (those highlands out of which Pohnpei's innumerable streams and cataracts tumble) were the island's real heart. I made arrangements with a local travel outfit for a two-day cross-island hike.
My intention was to traverse the spine of the island. I would climb some 2,500 feet to Nahna Laud— "Big Mountain"— with my hiking companion, John, a friend who lived on Pohnpei. All of Pohnpei would lie at our feet. We would leave early in the morning and camp out overnight.
The day of the hike began with blasting sunshine, and we wisely got started before the heat rose. We were three: a guide, John, and I. Given how tricky the terrain was— how narrow and tortuous and overgrown the paths into the hills— perhaps it's to our guide's credit that he got lost only once. Unfortunately, he got lost right at the outset of the hike and didn't figure out exactly where we were until it ended prematurely, some seven hours later.
For a time we scrabbled up a steep, rocky streambed on our hands and knees in the rain. Kolonia is surpassingly rainy— it gets about 190 inches per year— but in the highlands there are places that make Kolonia seem arid. Some of the wettest land on the planet is here. As you ascend into the hills you enter a misty, mossy, finally insubstantial zone where firm-seeming branches— branches you might reasonably look to for support as you climb— have a way of turning to meal in your hands; it's a good place to take a fall.
John and I did just that at every opportunity, thereby amusing our guide— who amused us by meeting each new fork in the path with a look of canny assurance. Amusement helped fend off exasperation, which was gaining the upper hand by the time we wandered down to the road from which we'd begun.
I worry just a little about short-changing my reader by having failed to reach the top of Big Mountain. I'm tempted to write something like: When I stood on the summit of Nahna Laud, gazing down upon the planet's largest ocean, I understood at last the precise nature of the mysterious force that has magnetically pulled great Western artists like Paul Gauguin and Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson to the Pacific. Paul, Herman, Robert— their ghosts surrounded me as our campfire crackled and the stars emerged.
Only the fact that we failed to reach the mountaintop keeps me from writing this.
On my drive around the island, i had deliberately bypassed Pohnpei's greatest attraction, the ancient palace of Nan Madol, so I could give it my full attention later. It's a marvel, and there's nothing like it anywhere else in the Pacific— or anywhere else in the world. Located on a series of man-made islets threaded by canals, these ruins are sometimes fancifully called the Venice of the Pacific. They are imposing and inspiring enough to demand their own special day trip; they are much more than "one of the sights."
Who built Nan Madol?How?And when?Two things can be confidently asserted about the builders. They had grand visions. And they had strong backs. Vast amounts of stone— stone by the mind-boggling, back-cracking ton— went into its construction.
Apparently Nan Madol was erected over several centuries, hundreds of years before Europeans found the Pacific. The dark basalt forming the columns probably was not available in the immediate area; it would have had to be transported, astoundingly, by raft. This was accomplished on a scale sufficiently titanic to raise dozens of structures, sprawling over 150 acres. Here stood the palaces of royalty, the houses of their retainers, temples and priests' dwellings. One writer has conjectured that, in terms of the total man-hours of labor they represent, these ruins stand behind only the Great Wall and the Pyramid of Cheops.
Not surprisingly, the climate of Pohnpei, with its occasional hurricanes and its relentless, tenacious invasions of boulder-thrusting vegetation, gives short shrift to even the most colossal monuments. Today the whole complex is a strew of broken columns stacked like logs, a blend of jumble and jungle. To restore the place to anything resembling its former glory requires another sort of monumental task: a prodigious feat of historical imagination.
I visited the ruins twice. The first time I went with a tour guide, who adeptly set out what's known about the place. I felt closer to the spirit of the ruins, however, when I arrived by the "back entrance"— when John and I made our way through jungle and mangrove swamp in a borrowed kayak. This route has the advantage of gradualism: the ruins steal up on you, seeming to build themselves out of the jungle. Of course the truth is otherwise. It's the jungle that has, for centuries now, been building upon the ruins.
Little wonder that Nan Madol has fostered among Pohnpeians a notion that their island was once inhabited by giants. These days, it seems inhabited by giants in another sense: unfortunately, as on so many islands in the Pacific, obesity has become an endemic health problem.
Food on Pohnpei is a curious blend. The years under Japanese rule (1914-1945) have left their culinary stamp. Sashimi is ubiquitous, particularly tuna— fine, pink, generous slabs. Rice and miso soup are common. In general, the Asian food on the island is good and healthful.
The worm in the apple— so to speak— is that there is no apple. First-time visitors to small Pacific islands are often bewildered to find precious few vegetables and fresh fruits (except for the island's cash crops, bananas and pineapples). Ironically, soil that nourishes jungle thick enough to require a machete doesn't necessarily lend itself to steady agriculture.
People who theoretically ought to be eating salads and oranges and peaches have embraced a diet of imported junk food: cookies, potato chips, tortilla chips. I spoke at length with an American doctor on the island who told me that the life expectancy among Pohnpeians is distressingly low, and that their poor diet is accompanied by diabetes and hypertension. Hypertension on this idyllic, slow-paced island?The cliché about Pacific islands is that they're a slice of paradise. It's sobering to learn that paradise may not be good for you.
Of course, such concerns aren't likely to touch the short-term visitor too deeply. You come to a place like Pohnpei to savor the sights of a lovely, largely unspoiled island. Even so, you can't help being aware of a sense of jeopardy. A former U.S. Trust Territory before the creation of the Federated States of Micronesia, Pohnpei has had its economy propped up by America for decades. Threats of reduced federal subsidies, in combination with Pohnpeian ambitions for greater financial autonomy, pose a troubling question: Will the island succeed in developing while keeping its beauty intact?Like so many jungle environments, Pohnpei's magnificence has a paradoxical quality— it speaks both of hardihood and vulnerability.
Near the end of my trip I hiked to another set of Japanese ruins. The rusted artillery pieces, deep in sun-dappled jungle, poked their long barrels like necks through the foliage, suggesting a browsing, dinosaurian gracefulness. I might almost have stepped into some Land of Lost Time. Pohnpei may be an endangered world, but it had succeeded in evoking an extinct one. Moments like these are worth crossing the globe for.
An addendum on the question of Pohnpei's diet. During my flight home, I sat next to a man who had ordered a vegetarian meal that didn't seem to please him. He pushed the food here and there with his fork. "I have a problem," he confessed. "I'm a vegetarian who doesn't really like vegetables."
"And how did you find the food on Pohnpei?" I asked him.
He brightened. "Couldn't have been better."
Divers will find Ant atoll, eight miles off Pohnpei, to be the best place for barracuda and shark sightings. Bring binoculars to view seabirds such as brown noddies and red-footed boobies. After a day's activities, clean up with coconut-oil soap packaged in pandanus pine baskets, available from Ponape Coconut Products (691/320-2766, fax 691/320-5716). For more information, check out www.microstate.net/pohnpei.
The Village Five miles east of Kolonia; 691/320-2797, fax 691/320-3797; doubles from $90. The author's favorite. Twenty thatched-roof bungalows and a small, white-sand beach.
South Park Hotel Kolonia; 691/320-2255, fax 691/320-2600; doubles $85. The new wing's 12 rooms have verandas with views of the Sokehs Mountain cliffs.
Joy Hotel Kolonia; 691/320-2447, fax 691/320-2478; doubles from $90. Its 10 modern rooms have air-conditioning, the restaurant serves Japanese food, and reliable outfitters can arrange scuba trips and boat tours.
Tattooed Irishman 691/320-2797; dinner for two $45. The Village hotel's open-air restaurant. Meet for drinks at sunset, and stay on for mahimahi amandine.
Namiki Restaurant Main St., Kolonia; 691/320-2403; lunch for two $6. Traditional Pohnpeian and Philippine take-out food at good prices. Try the tapioca root boiled in coconut sauce.
Sei Restaurant Kolonia; 691/320-4266; dinner for two $17, no credit cards. An airy, wood-paneled spot for vegetables, meat, and fish, all prepared teppanyaki-style (flame-fried at the table).
PCR Hotel Restaurant & Bar Nett; 691/320-4982; dinner for two $30. Unfettered by regionalism: dishes range from sushi to Neapolitan spaghetti with octopus and green peppers.
Micro Tours Kolonia; 691/320-2888. Owner Willy Kostka and his American mother and Pohnpeian father will take you for a Japanese bento-box picnic at the Nan Madol ruins, trolling for mahimahi beyond the reef, or on a complete tour of the island on a 23-foot Yamaha boat.
Iet Ehu Tours Kolonia; 691/320-2959. This company-- the name means "here's one"-- is run by Pohnpeian Emensio Eperiam and his niece, Anna Santos. They're friendly and flexible, and they'll organize just about any outdoor activity.
-- KATY MCCOLL