26 July, 2011

Welcome To The Jungle ...

It is such a blessing, when in a foreign land, to befriend a native. My parents and I have been so blessed in our friend, Danny. Danny works in the Ace Office Supplies store in Kolonia. This is where we met him. He comes from pretty solid Pohnpeian stock, as I understand it. His mother’s family owns some land around Sokehs Rock. Sokehs Rock is the island’s most notable (or, perhaps, most noticeable?) natural landmark. It’s a very large rock with strong cliff faces to three sides, and it is visible from most everywhere on the island. Danny’s father’s family owns one of the islands situated just off the coast of Pohnpei. To own land in Pohnpei is a sign of wealth and status.

Danny is a very nice fellow. I met him shortly after my arrival on Pohnpei while doing some shopping at the Ace Office Supplies store. He offered to show me around the island if I was interested. I took him up on his offer.

Last Saturday, Danny took us to Kepirohi waterfall and to Nan Madol. Kepirohi is arguably the most beautiful waterfall on Pohnpei. According to the Pohnpei Ecotourism Travel Guide it is approximately 66 feet tall, 98 feet wide, and is made up of large, square basalt stones. There is a lovely little lake at the bottom of the falls where we went swimming. Most of it is pretty shallow, but just at the base of the falls it becomes a little deeper … maybe 6 feet deep or so. We had a fun time swimming in the lake and feeling the cool spray of the falls showering us on its plunge down the stone face of the basalt cliff. Danny climbed a third of the way up the falls. He said he can climb all the way up, and used to do it all the time when he was younger, but he doesn’t go to the top much anymore now that he’s getting older. I got about three feet above the water, but couldn’t climb any higher than that. (The rocks were too slippery, and I was too afraid that I would slip and crack my head if I got too zealous about the climb. It’s also not so easy to climb up against a wall of water that is crashing down.) It was so beautiful there. Thick tropical foliage surrounded us echoing the large stones that circled around the little lake. It was like we had entered an enchanted bubble where the world was pristine and quiet but for the sounds of the falls dancing on rock and water below, and birds singing in the trees. Sunshine would catch in the water creating little tiny rainbows and sparkles of light throughout the place. And the air was soft and cool and smelled clean and green. It was lovely.

Nan Madol is an ancient ruins site. It is a place shrouded in mystery and mysticism. It consists of a city with many Venetian-style canals built around and through it. The structures were constructed by stacking large basalt logs on each other in alternating patterns – kind of the way one would stack Lincoln Logs. The stone logs are huge and have a specific hexagonal shape to them. It is believed that the stone was quarried elsewhere and brought to the site by ancient islanders called Saudeleurs. The Saudeleurs were great magicians, and many Pohnpeians believe that they built the city by moving the stones into place with their magicks. There are, of course, variations of this legend, just as there are variations of practically every legend ever told. But, this is the gist and it seems to be the most common version of the story. The Saudeleur Dynasty ruled Pohnpei for some time with the seat of their power residing at Nan Madol. I have yet to learn what exactly happened to the Saudeleurs, or when it happened, to bring about their extinction. It is written that the Dynasty governed between 1000 and 1600 C.E. Nan Madol, itself, consists of 92 separate islands covering 222 acres. It was a center for both political and religious activities. According to the Pohnpei Ecotourism Travel Guide, Nan Madol is said to have been constructed between 500 and 1500 C.E., and included the residence and tombs of the royal family, servant quarters, a guest house for visitors and separate islands for funerals and storage. (The possible discrepancy in dates is another of the mysteries of this place.) The name Nan Madol means “land in between.” It has been speculated that this mystical city may have been a passage or border between our world and another world. Whether that is true or not, the ruins are quite beautiful. I can only imagine the city’s magnificence when it was in its full splendor.

Yesterday, Danny agreed to be our trusty guide again. We asked him to take us to the Pohnpaip Petroglyphs, and to a place that one of the Peace Corps volunteers referred to as the “Bat Cave.” It is a cave behind the Pahn Takai waterfall. Being a cave, it is a natural home to bats, but this cave also affords some amazing views of Pohnpei from behind the curtain of the cascading falls.

The rain started falling just as we were leaving the house to meet Danny. I think I was the only one who was happy about this. I love being in the rain, and being in the rain in a jungle is an extra special treat for me. However, I seem to be in the minority on this topic … at least within the tiny tour group of me, Mom and Dad. As we drove to our destination the rain fell, then the rain stopped, then the rain fell, then the rain stopped. (Perhaps we were driving in and out of the cloud’s radius?) The road to the falls was a very steep uphill one. Dad’s little island car, the Mitsubishi Toppo, has very little power when it comes to hills. So, halfway up, Mom, Danny and I got out and walked while Dad drove the car the rest of the way up to the parking area. It was raining then. And it continued raining as we got the car parked and headed into the jungle on the path that would lead us to the waterfall. The path was a very narrow one, and quite a steep uphill climb. The footing was tricky with vines and rocks littering the trail. Add to that the fact that it was raining and you might be able to imagine the slippery disco that was our trek up this jungle mountain. Mom and Dad were such troopers. They were ill equipped for rainy hiking. Neither of them had a raincoat. Both of them were trying to hold onto umbrellas – closed at this point. Mom was wearing flimsy flip-flops, and Dad was wearing Crocs. One of Mom’s flip-flops broke at the very beginning of the hike. The piece between the toes ripped out of the sole. Luckily, I had my trusty collection of safety pins and Dad had his trusty multi-purpose tool, so we were able to pull a MacGyver maneuver and mend her shoe on the spot. (This was the same way I mended my friend’s broken flip flop in Naples, Italy several years ago. Piece of advice: Always carry safety pins.)

So there we were slipping and sliding up the mountain, groping at vines and tree trunks and each other for stability. Rain was steadily pelting us so that we looked like a bunch of drowned rats scrabbling through the jungle. Higher and higher we climbed. Eventually Mom decided she’d had enough. We had been hiking for quite a while in these conditions, but were still only about halfway to the falls. We could see the waterfall across the valley that separated us from it. It was beautiful, but it would be quite a bit further to get to it. So, in deference to Mom, we turned around and headed back down the way we came.

If we thought going up the mountain on a slippery muddy path was an adventure, going back down proved to be twice the challenge. There were a few instances of some of our party pounding the trail with their butts, but we all made it back down free of injury or any real insult. As we were nearing the exit point of the trail, Mom’s other shoe broke, so we had to rig it up like the first. Amazingly, she didn’t have any trouble from either of them once we mended them for her. By the time we reached the car again the sun was emerging and the clouds were parting. Oh well. We’ll try this hike again when it’s not so wet. Besides, Danny talked to a woman near the falls who told us that there is another shorter hike that will take us to the cave, so we’ll go that route on our next visit. I know that Mom and Dad were probably not bowled over by the experience of hiking in the rain, but I had a grand time!

Next stop: Petroglyphs! So, in case you are wondering what the heck a petroglyph is, it is basically an ancient rock carving/drawing. There is a large dome made of stone in the middle of the jungle here on Pohnpei. Apparently it is, at least partly, hollow inside. No one knows where the entrance to the inside is, but the outer roof extends out of the earth like a stone terrace. One can walk along the top of the dome (or mosquito net as the locals called it). There are lots of pictures engraved in the surface of this outer dome roof thingy. There are depictions of swords and daggers and feet, some people and animal shapes, and other shapes that we couldn’t definitively identify. The carvings are very primitive, and are, undoubtedly, very old. No one seems to know who created the petroglyphs or exactly when. But they are really interesting to see. In addition to the carvings, the view from the mosquito net is phenomenal: Panoramic jungle foliage crowned with halos of wispy clouds. Gorgeous! There was another muddy hike to get there, but it was much shorter and much, much tamer than our previous foray into the jungle, so we were able to boogie through it easily.

After we climbed back down from the Petroglyphs and washed our feet in a sweet little brook, we loaded our soggy, muddy selves into the car for the return trip home. On the way, Danny suggested we make one last quick stop at a nearby local site called Lizard Rock. We didn’t really know what to expect when he said it was ‘where the Lizard came out of the rock and got stuck there’. Being good Americans we just smiled and nodded at him and told him to show us the way there. Turns out Lizard Rock is a natural rock formation that looks like an alligator emerging from stone. It corresponds to an island legend about a Lizard Woman (half alligator and half human woman) who was cast out of heaven. This is the story as it was told to me: She was cast out of heaven, and emerged on earth from this particular mass of stones. The Lizard Woman had two daughters. (It was not clear to me if her two daughters came with her or if she spawned them after her ejection from heaven.) The daughters were human and very beautiful. They would often bathe themselves in perfumed oils of white ginger and other tropical scents. When they did so oil would wash away down the river and into the sea. A king near the sea saw the oils on the water. When the heady scents reached his nostrils, he became enchanted. He sent folks to search out the women who bathed in these mesmerizing oils. Surely they would be as beautiful as the scents that kissed their skin and hair! The daughters were captured by the king’s lackeys, and enslaved by the king. The Lizard Woman was furious and went in search of her daughters down the winding river (which symbolizes her slithering pursuit) toward the sea. The king, upon learning the Lizard Woman was on her way, sent minions to burn her house. (This part got a little fuzzy in the telling. I am not sure how she was burned in her house while she was out looking for her daughters, but in any case, her house was burned and she was in it, and she died.) The daughters, seeing the smoke above their mother’s house, knew that she was dead. They, then, escaped to their mother’s house and joined her in the fire. The end. Okay, so it’s not a super happy story, but it’s a fun landmark. The Pohnpeians who own the land on which Lizard Rock resides - the police chief and his family - had some local artists come and paint the rocks with the images of the Lizard Woman and her two daughters. It is nestled aside a clump of large boulders that create a path to a scenic overlook area. More spectacular panoramic views … these of jungle on one side and sea on the other. The chief’s daughter, a woman named Joyce, was there at the site and told us the story. She was a really congenial and charming lady. It was good fun, and a great end to our day of touring.

I’m not sure when it’s going to happen for sure, but I think Danny’s going to take us on a hike up Sokehs Ridge next. There is reportedly an abundance of beautiful flora and winged creatures on that trail. There’s also another waterfall nearby, so we’ll probably try to stop by there, too. And, of course, we have to make a return trip to the Bat Cave of Pahn Takai. I will, of course, be sharing all of these adventures with you here as they happen. Just stay tuned. Same bat time. Same bat channel.

24 July, 2011

Swimming with Sharks ... and Other Adventures

Today was quite an eventful day. Dad, Mom and I arranged a kayaking and snorkeling trip through The Village resort. We arrived at The Village a little before our 8:30am arrival time. I had assumed that it would just be us when I called and booked the trip earlier this week, but it turns out we were joined by another fellow and his two daughters. The fellow’s name was Bill. He works for the federal government, but in a different department than Dad. He’s been on island for about a year already. His daughters, Ashley and Amber, were visiting for summer vacation from San Diego. Ashley will be entering 8th grade when she returns. Amber turned 17 yesterday, so they were celebrating her birthday. Fortunately, they were nice folks, and we enjoyed their company.

Kayaking was scheduled for the first part of the day. This was necessary so that we could make sure to get the boats in the water before the tide receded. We had two [awesome] guides, Jay and Bernard. They loaded up the kayaks in one boat, and us in another and took us out to one of the little islands that rest just off of Pohnpei. My mother does not really like water. We made sure to tell the folks at The Village this when booking the trip. She rode in a tandem kayak with Dad. They were pretty funny at first, with both of them trying to paddle, usually in opposite directions. But pretty quickly they were making good time and rowing in sync with each other like old pros. I was very proud of them. The rest of us had single kayaks. Bernard was our paddling guide. He deftly navigated us through several mangrove channels. It was really beautiful, but also slightly treacherous at times. The overgrown mangrove root systems could get a little grabby in some areas making maneuvering the kayaks through the already tight spaces even more challenging. This, of course, was half the fun. The water was very shallow, too, since the tide was on its way out to sea, so there were a few spots where the kayaks would get temporarily stuck on the bottom. Good times and good fun … and hard work, that paddling! I loved it, though. It put me in mind of buying my own kayak sometime in the near future.

After our adventures in tiny boats, we loaded the kayaks and ourselves back into the motorboats. The guides then transported us to another little man made island for lunch and some shallow snorkeling. This island was chosen specifically so that Mom would get a chance to try snorkeling in a shallow easily navigated area. (Which served Dad and me well, too, as we were all brand new to snorkeling.) When I made the trip arrangements we were assured that we could do our snorkeling in a location that was shallow enough for us to be able to touch bottom and where there would be a very gradual slope into the ocean. Turns out, they took us to this first location just to get mom in the water as preparation for taking us on to two other popular (and not shallow!) snorkeling sites. (My guess is that Bill made his arrangements later than we did, and The Village decided to try to accommodate both our parties in one excursion. It turned out to be a blessing for me and Dad, and Mom was fine with it, so there was no harm done.) Mom was very brave as she took her first forays into the water. She was able to put her head under water (almost unheard of for her!) and stay there for several minutes at a time. She did have some moments of panic, but she didn’t let them stop her from trying again. Jay and Bernard were fantastic at staying by her side and giving her support and advice. The rest of us took a little time examining the underwater inhabitants of the shallow reef.

After about a half hour of this “warm up” snorkeling, we climbed back into the motorboats and were whisked away to the next snorkeling site. This site is what is popularly known as Manta Road. It is, in case you didn’t already work it out, where manta rays can be found, and even has a popular manta ray cleaning station where, according to the Pohnpei Ecotourism Travel Guide, mantas go to have tiny fish eat "parasitic insects and leftover food which cling to the mantas' skin and gills". It’s about forty or so feet deep, if I heard the guides correctly. Mom sat this one out without a second thought. I was feeling very nervous about the idea of being in ocean this deep, but was considering it. Then I hear mom ask Jay, “What was that fin?” “Sharks,” he said, smiling. Crap. That shattered all of my considerations. I wasn’t ready for sharks. I have been working very hard on reprogramming myself to release my ridiculous phobia of sharks, but I wasn’t ready to jump in the water with them on my very first day of snorkeling. Bill and Amber had already gotten in and were out snorkeling. The notion of sharks stopped Ashley in her tracks, too. She was still willing to get in, but only with her dad nearby. He, however, wasn’t willing to swim back to the boat to get her. She was, naturally, bummed. But Jay said he’d take her out to her dad if she wanted. She was considering this as we saw the shark fins again. This time I saw them too. They were small. I have been researching the reef sharks that are native to this area, and I am pretty sure they were immature black tip reef sharks. Jay confirmed that they were probably no longer than his arm. They didn’t strike fear in me when I saw them, so I decided that I would consider getting in the water if my Daddy would go with me.

It was settled, then: Jay, Ashley, Dad and I would all swim out from the boat together. We all held hands (Dad and Jay on the outsides of our troop) as we swam toward the area where the mantas were. This was, incidentally, where we had seen the little sharks. As we swam, I tried to keep my eyes forward, but underwater, and focused on my breathing. (Snorkeling is still a little awkward for me as I tend to be a pretty consistent nose breather.) As we got closer to the mantas I saw a school of Rainbow Runner fish. For some reason that set off my panic button, and I started having trouble breathing. My head and chest were pressurizing. I was trying to tell the others in our human chain that I needed to turn around. I was squeezing my dad’s hand like crazy to try to get him to understand that I needed to get out of the water, but he didn’t realize I was in distress. Finally, Bernard, who had joined Bill and Amber out over the mantas, looked up and saw my building hysteria. He asked me if I was okay, and I shook my head emphatically, “NO!” He swam over straight away and grabbed my hand and helped me get back to the boat. About half way back, Dad realized that I wasn’t beside him anymore, and came to join us. I swallowed and snorted a lot of water during my freak out. I got a terrible headache from the pressure in my head and chest. It was awful. And I was embarrassed and frustrated, because I had been out where the mantas were, and had managed to not even see a single one! Dad saw several. The other snorkelers were still out there. Dad and I joined mom to watch the others from the safety of the boat, and to allow me to recover from my anxiety.

After about ten or fifteen minutes, I managed to calm myself down and give myself a good pep talk. I felt ready to try again. Jay came back to help me, and, sandwiched between him and Dad, I managed to make my way back out into the ocean. I was much calmer this round. I kept my breathing nice and steady. I looked around as I went … well, at least a little more than last time. I saw the school of Rainbow Runners again, as well as a school of Needle fish. Then Dad motioned for me to look down, so I did. There it was. It was magnificent. A manta ray was gracefully twirling and swirling in its beautiful open-mouthed dance just beneath us. And I saw it. I watched it for several moments, then decided I was ready to go back to the boat again. I felt vindicated to myself. I did it. I got in the water … twice. And I rose above my fear. And I was rewarded with the gift of this spectacular manta ray ballet. (There were apparently at least seven mantas twirling around there, but I only saw one since I was too chicken to broaden my scope of vision. But one was enough, thank you very much.) When we all got back on the boat, Bill asked if any of us had seen the shark down below the mantas. Thank goodness I had not. He said it was about five or six feet long, and was just chilling down there. He said it was the biggest shark he’d seen since he’d been here, and he scuba dives. My guess is that it was a white tip reef shark. I remember reading that they tend to just lounge about on the bottom of the ocean or under the reefs whenever they aren’t hunting. Either way, I am glad to know that I knowingly swam in water with sharks; that there were even adult sharks in there with me, and most importantly, that I didn’t see any of them while I was in the water.

We left the mantas to relocate to another popular snorkeling point. This place was called Mwand Pass. There are several of these passes around Pohnpei island. These are channel breaks in the reef surrounding the island, which create these really phenomenal living reef walls that act kind of like hallways from the inside reef area out to the ocean proper. One brochure we have describes the passes like this:

“Towering up on either side of the channel are huge ledges of coral. Looking over these ledges, one can view a beautiful white sand bottom beneath crystal-blue waters.”

I was initially not planning to get in the water here. I was feeling tired and had already taken some pretty big steps for me. But, Dad was going in, so I decided to take a quick swim to check out the reef. I am glad I did. Once again, I was flanked by Dad and Jay as I set out from the boat. This area was entirely different from Manta Road. Even though the water was about three times deeper here, the reef wall provided a sense of protection and orientation. I only explored it for a little while, but I felt comfortable enough to even release the hands of my supporters. I saw several different kinds of reef fish, but I couldn’t tell you what any of them were. They were beautiful, though. Jay pointed out some giant clams. And the reef itself, the coral and seaweed and other living structures were just amazing to behold. When I got back in the boat I really felt like I had accomplished so much. I was really quite proud of myself. This was our last stop of the day, and I felt like I finished the day with no regrets. It was a very good day.

We returned to The Village, had a bite to eat, and came home completely knackered. Now I am typing this in bed, nursing a sun burn (despite repeat applications of sunscreen) and a massive headache that I can’t seem to shake. And, still, it was worth it. A very good day.

I'm baaaacckk.

Well, thanks to several of you expressing disappointment in the blog's hiatus, I have decided to resume with my writing. Of course, this also makes me happy since I was miserable not writing. I will, however, try to be careful to censor myself more than before. Please bear with me as I work on instilling filters for my thoughts. Those of you who know me know that I am not very good at filtering.

So, perk up your ears (er, eyes) and get ready for more entries to come. And THANK YOU to everyone who sent me such kind words during the hiatus. You all rock.

10 July, 2011

Regretfully ...

I am sad to inform that due to some unintentional circumstances I will be taking a hiatus from writing on this blog. I have not yet decided if this hiatus will be temporary or permanent. For those of you who have been gracious and supportive enough to keep up with these entries, I would like to sincerely thank you, and to let you know that having you travel with me has been one of the best parts of the journey. If you would still like to hear from me, you can reach me via email or facebook. If I have managed to offend any of you in the writing out of my feelings and impressions, then I whole-heartedly apologize. I wish you all continued blessings on your own personal journeys.