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Where on Earth Is Pohnpei?

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."


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