02 August, 2011

Weekend Update

This week’s end saw the Federated States of Micronesia’s (FSM) Presidential Inauguration. The actual ceremony took place midday on Friday. Dad was given the day off since he is an employee of the federal government, so we all three got to go witness the event. It was held in the College of Micronesia’s (COM) athletic facility, which is where many of the larger cultural events are held on Pohnpei. Slated to begin at 10:00a it, of course, began around 10:40. (This is a phenomenon known as “island time.” Most anyone who has ever spent any time on an island will be familiar with this concept.) The President, Manny Mori, was elected to a second term. FSM presidential elections are organized differently than those of the United States. Here, senators are elected by popular vote in each of the four states. Then, the elected senators vote among themselves to determine who will be President. Once the President is elected, another statewide election is held to determine, by popular vote, who will fill the President’s now empty Senate seat. Everyone still with me?

Like most political events, there was a great deal of pomp and circumstance during the proceedings. Many dignitaries and officials were introduced and welcomed, each in their turn. This was a national event, so there were representatives from each of the island states: Pohnpei, Kosrae, Yap and Chuuk. There were opening and closing prayers by local men of cloth. Speeches were given by the governor of Pohnpei and by President Mori. I would like to say that I was both educated and inspired by these speeches, but the sound system wasn’t working very well, so I was only able to catch about every tenth word. I am sure that they were excellent speeches in content and delivery. There were also a few rousing choral performances by the Peidei Youth Singing Group. But the real fun happened after the official ceremony. Lunch was provided for everyone in attendance. As entertainment during the feast, different groups from each of the island states performed some traditional cultural dances and musical numbers. Most of these performances were really amazing to watch. They were also really nice reminders of the traditions that still exist within these island cultures.

The festivities eventually slowed to an end around 2:00 or so. Then came the mass exodus out of the COM campus and back from whence we came. Mom, Dad and I trudged along with the convoy back into Kolonia, and, then, back to the house. We didn’t really do much else the rest of the day. Mom has developed a nasty batch of fever blisters on her lower lip, and is suffering quite a bit from it. (Too much sun and surf last weekend.)

Saturday, we had all arranged a day of snorkeling at Black Coral Island. Mom, unfortunately, was still not feeling up to much of anything, so she stayed at home. Dad and I went with snorkel gear and beach towels in tow. We had to drive about 40 minutes to a place called Sen War where we would meet the boat driver for the carriage to the island. These were the directions we were given: “Keep driving until you see the two-story elementary school on your right, then turn right onto a road where they’ve been dredging the ocean. That’s where the boat will be.” In true island style, we had no problem at all finding the place. We parked the car, loaded our gear (and ourselves) onto the boat, and enjoyed the view as the boat sped us out to the little island. Costeln, our driver, deftly navigated the little motorboat through the channels and around the reefs. It continues to amaze me how rapidly and nimbly these folks can do this, especially during low tide when there are passages so shallow that one could wonder how the boat manages through them at all without getting stuck.

Black Coral is a tiny little atoll off the west-southwestern edge of Pohnpei. And I do mean tiny! The owner, with whom I spoke to secure the trip, told me the entire island can be traversed in five minutes. She wasn’t exaggerating. In fact, she might have been embellishing. It’s super tiny. And that is part of its charm. There are a couple of thatched roof huts, a central nahs, a little nahs that is more of an ocean overlook, an outhouse, and a couple storage buildings. In case you are wondering, a nahs is like a palapa. They are platforms with thatch or aluminum roofs where folks can gather to chew the fat, literally or figuratively. In simplest terms they are community or family meeting places.

Black Coral Island does not have sandy beaches. Its ‘beaches’ are composed of broken coral and shells. There are reefs extending out in all directions, making the water around the island very shallow. The one exception is a channel separating it from another small atoll (which is also, technically, part of Black Coral, but is owned by different people). The water here is crystal clear and a blue that could make Sinatra’s eyes seem the color of dirty mop water. The owner told me that this channel is a spawning area for grouper fish. It’s also a protected area, so fishing is restricted. All this makes for a lovely place to snorkel … especially for those who are new to snorkeling and who are trying to combat a fear of being in the ocean (like, er, me.) And it was a wonderful day of snorkeling. The channel is so cozy and so clear, that I felt totally safe there. I was even able to snorkel along the reef walls out in the channel all by myself. (Those of you who know me well will know that this is a huge accomplishment.) Dad had a good time snorkeling, too, though he managed to sneak in a few hammock breaks, as well. There were lots of fish to see in this spot. We saw varieties of triggerfish, tang fish, butterfly fish, angelfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, and wrasse. We swam amidst a school of tiny silverside fish. I even spied a flounder hiding on the sandy ocean floor. There were some beautiful specimens of coral, too: Bright orange, cobalt blue, emerald green. Neon blue starfish were lurking everywhere. They are absolutely gorgeous creatures. And some of them were so big that each ‘finger’ was almost a foot long. I had a grand time.

At around 2:30p we finally decided we’d had enough fun for the day. The tide was coming in and the water was getting rougher, the current stronger. We’d had several hours of sun and snorkeling, and were getting a little tired. (It was the new moon, too, so I was fasting for the day. Lots of sun and surf and no food make for a tired Melanie.) We climbed back onto the island following our last round of snorkeling, and plopped down in our chairs to dry off and to watch the waves of the incoming tide roll into the channel. Almost as soon as we sat down, I spotted it: A fin in the water. And in the shallowest section, too, swimming exactly where we had been only moments ago. It was another young black tip reef shark. This fellow was only 3-4 feet long. I think maybe it got lost among the reefs during the tidal transition. It swam along the edge of the island and made its way directly out to the wider channel. I lost sight of it then. I didn’t see any others after that. I kept wondering if I was going to see any sharks during this trip to Black Coral. I was keeping my eyes peeled for them in the channel and in the half-hidden hollows of the reef walls, but didn’t see any until I spied this lone little shark from the shore. I wonder what will happen if/when I actually see a shark while I’m in the water? I hope that I will be able to control my panic instincts and appreciate the moment. But mostly I hope I don’t have a heart attack, or, worse, soil myself. I guess I will cross that bridge when I come to it, eh?

This is probably the best place in the world for me to work through my shark phobia. The island is protected by a circumferential reef, which means that the only sharks that inhabit these waters are the requiem, or reef, sharks. These sharks are generally harmless so long as they are not provoked. They seem to have a symbiotic relationship with, or at least a mutual respect for, the islanders, and share the water with them freely. There are no known records of shark attacks on the island. Plus, these sharks tend to be smaller than some of their deeper water relatives. So, if I’m gonna hang out with sharks, these are the sharks with whom I wanna hang. Sounds pretty safe and simple, doesn’t it? Now if I can only convince that irrational part of my psyche, I’ll be in business. If any of you have any thoughts on how to work through phobias, I’d love to hear them!

The boat ride back was even more beautiful than the ride to Black Coral. The sky was amazing. A great expanse of clouds stretched out over the ocean as if they were trying to join Mother Ocean in a seductive samba. They were varying shades of white, gray and silver like abalone shells, and reflected in soft shimmers on the water’s undulating surface. I think it may have been the most beautiful daytime sky I’ve ever witnessed. Truly amazing. Sadly, my camera was stuffed way down in my gear bag beneath practically everything else, so I wasn’t able to capture this beauty. But photos of Father Sky never are as brilliant as the real thing, so I will let your imagination create this magnificent sky for you to enjoy when you need something beautiful to ponder. May it bring you joy.

Sunday Dad and I went to The Village for brunch. Unfortunately, Mom still wasn’t feeling too well. Then we went to the cinema to see Cowboys and Aliens. Hopefully Mom will be healed and happy by next weekend’s adventures.

All in all, another fun weekend in Pohnpei. Thanks to my parents I have been getting to sample some of what Pohnpei really has to offer. And, thanks to me, they have been getting to experience more adventure (and exertion!) than they’d likely do on their own. Stay tuned to see how we three misfits manage to forage and splash our way through this tropical paradise.

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