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Where on Earth Is Pohnpei?

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.


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