2 AM in Palau

It’s midnight in Palau and I’ve just had a can of Pokka Milk Coffee, in anticipation of my 2:30 – 5 am flight to Guam. Big mistake. My flight, the Continental Check-in woman informs me, was last night. Dammit Helen. Dammit. Apparently I was not clear in my communication with the travel agent, and didn’t double-check the time on my itinerary. After a brief flurry of profanities directed at no-one in particular, I managed to book a flight for Pohnpei leaving tomorrow night, so I will get to repeat the coffee and check – in process. Only this time I might actually get on a plane.

I waited 45 minutes for a taxi, and discussed the complexities of beer and human relationships with my driver (who drove 15 km an hour all the way back to my hotel). And here I am, in bed, wired on my Pokka. There is nothing good on television.

A bit about Palau then! Stunning is the first word that comes to mind. This is only my personal opinion of course, but they seem to have struck a balance between natural beauty, cultural preservation and development. The nation is home to stone monoliths, the rock islands, lush jungles, and the best Indian restaurant in this part of the Pacific (The Taj).

I spent a day with some local researchers out in the Rock Islands, often referred to as the “Eighth wonder of the world”. This archipelago of limestone has been slowly eroding around the edges for years, leaving behind funny, mushroom-like island tops covered in vegetation. And let’s not forget the perfectly clear, turquoise water all around – it really is what you picture when you think of “paradise”. The local conservation groups (and government) here have done an incredible job preserving the area. Despite grudging local politics and differing ideas on conservation, the area remains one of the most pristine in the Micronesia Challenge.

Eroded Island

After a bit of snorkeling, we headed to Ulong Island, the “set “ of Survivor Micronesia. There are a few benches left behind, but those are the only signs of modern civilization. Take ten steps off the beach, and you find yourself in thick, pungent jungle, waiting to swallow you up. A wade through the water, past some limestone caves, and you can look up, way up, to some ancient red petroglyphs. No one seemed to know much about them, aside from the story they told – a man and a woman were married, the woman fell in love with another man, and shit went down. Seems like people were having the same romantic problems thousands of years ago.

Boy meets Girl. Boy marries Girl. Girl falls in love with another Boy. Trouble ensues.

Boy meets Girl. Boy marries Girl. Girl falls in love with another Boy. Trouble ensues.

Another little gem of the rock islands is the Soft Coral Arch, a little part of one island that eroded right through to the other side, leaving a perfect underwater channel for soft coral growth. At one time, soft coral was abundant in the area, but El Nino in 1998 bleached and destroyed much of the coral life. The soft coral looks like it would be cushy to the touch, but is actually prickly and solid if you brush against it. And the colors. Well, just look at the picture.

A rainbow of soft coral

A rainbow of soft coral

Needless to say, I got horribly sun burned. (Yes, I put on SPF 30 repeatedly. I wore a hat. And a t-shirt. I still got burned). But it was 100% worth it. It was wonderful to see some more of Micronesia before heading home to Vancouver, especially such a beautiful part of the region. This is what the Micronesia Challenge is all about – preserving a unique biodiversity and culture that could never be reproduced. Thank you to PICRC for taking me out on the boat and letting me use their waterproof camera. And thank you to Surech, the new intern coordinator, who was the ultimate tour guide.

And now the photo upload function seems to have stopped working, so if you’d like to see more photos of natural beauty and wonderful people, go to

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=88185&id=507252737&l=6b593

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Hot Dog, anyone?

I’m not sure I will ever be able to look at a hot dog the same way again. I have never been a strict vegetarian, but I experienced something today that put me off meat entirely, for…I’m not sure how long.
As some might know, and some might not, Pohnpeian’s raise pigs to eat (the typical meat processed into hot dogs). They also, unfortunately, eat dogs. I understand that to some a dog is just like any other animal, and I suppose in some cases, a completely viable food source. However, having grown up knowing dogs as pets, I can’t help but cringe at the thought.
Today on my way to work, taking the same route I always take, I passed by a home preparing for a feast. To my horror and sorrow, I watched a man carry a dog, bleeding from the head, strong across a pole, to the fire pit. I’m sure I attracted a few stares when I let out a bit of a gasp. Or maybe it was a shriek. Of course I can’t remember now, but I could only imagine that this was one of the dogs I passed by every day.
Here, pets are kept for eating (unless you happen to be a crazy Mehnwei). Dogs are treated about as well as the rats that scurry through the lanes – most of them aren’t fed, and they’re often beaten with sticks and pelted with rocks from the time they are puppies. The dogs in Kolonia-town are mangy, sometimes hairless, with open wounds, doggy-STD’s and udders hanging to the ground. Bob Barker’s mantra clearly hasn’t made it as far as Pohnpei. Knocked out by heat during the day, these dogs can get vicious when the temperature cools down. They are especially fond of human ankles…and wouldn’t you be if you were kicked and abused your entire life?
If a dog has the misfortune of becoming well-fed and fat, they have a much higher chance of ending up on someone’s dinner table. Which, economically, makes sense, but in my cuddly mindset still seems wrong. Chickens, yes – they cluck their way through life not giving a damn about anything, and have no concept of loyalty or relationships. But dogs…they’re not just meat. They will do what you tell them, they’re (mostly) intelligent, and they can give their everlasting affection to a human. How can you eat your best friend?

Only my opinion on the matter. It was horrible to see, but I know it happens frequently. I can only hope I don’t have to witness it again. And thank goodness I do my own cooking, so I can ensure that only tofu gets into my food for as least the next few months.

Pay Attention While Driving

I’m sure many of you, at one time or another, have had to sit in the passenger seat while I drive. You probably all have varying opinions of my style, ranging from “appropriate” to “oh f***”. Admittedly, I participate in occasional bursts of speed and road rage – one of the things that excited me most about coming to Micronesia was being within walking distance of everything. I was getting sick and tired of the Hwy 1 traffic at rush hour, driving to and from work, to and from downtown most days. I was not let down – rush hour in Kolonia, Pohnpei is about 15 minutes long. It happens once in the morning when everyone drives in to town, and once at around 5, when everyone leaves.
There are no traffic lights on this island, and few stop signs – traffic “suggestions” abound, and rules are a pleasant after thought. Rush hour is controlled by the heroic officers of the Pohnpei Police department, who stand in the middle of the three primary intersections, with whistles in their mouths and white gloves on – I suppose to ensure that you can see where their hands are pointing. The whistle noises are constant, a melody tooted in tune to a flurry of hand gestures. The officers look like they are performing a ritual traffic dance – a few of the pro’s have real smooth style, using their whole bodies to control the flow. Some of the newbies look downright uncomfortable, and are fully affronted if you need to drive straight when they are signaling to the left.
Snail-like is the most adequate way to describe the typical driving style here. For someone who typically drives 80 in the 50 zones, slowing down to 15 miles per hour was a shock on the system. Go any faster though, and you will feel like a reckless endangerment to the dogs who poop in the middle of the road, the elderly people who can’t seem to identify where the sidewalk ends, and the children who just don’t care. (Side note – the local schools read out daily bulletins, which my teacher friends share with me for a regular dose of humor. Every morning, the bulletin reminds students to walk SINGLE FILE on the left side of the road. Every afternoon, teenagers stream in group of six or seven down the center of the street, mindless of the cars trying to navigate around them). “Look both ways before you cross” never really made it big here.

Of course there is always an upside to taking it slow. It gives you plenty of time to read the bumper stickers that pepper many of the rundown cars. Two of my favorites include:

“Don’t Let Your Kids Grow Up To Be Dropout”
Yes you read it right. I haven’t figured out yet whether they meant it to be ironic. The dropout rates on Pohnpei are high, and whoever wrote this sticker must have been among their masses.

“I Eat Karat”
A sticker designed by my lovely friend Lois at the Island Food Community, a group promoting the cultivation and use of local food. Karat is a local kind of banana, thicker than what you are used to, with bright orange flesh. It is pronounced “Karatch”, or when said quickly, cratch. I leave it to you.
Having fallen in love with the idea of bumper stickers, I have designed a sticker, and a matching button, which will be used in our upcoming awareness campaigns for biodiversity. I just got word two days ago that the funding for campaign materials has been approved by AusAid, making it the first grant I have ever successfully written and received. WOoohoooo! Currently the stickers are set to read “I (Heart) Biodiversity” – simple and far-reaching. Of course, I know there are plenty of you out there with creative ideas, which I would love to hear!! Any creative concepts for Biodiversity Awareness Bumper Stickers? Correct English is no longer necessary.

PS: I will try and get pictures of these bumper stickers and police officers just as soon as I track down the cord for my camera.

SPAM and Kool-Aid, anyone?

I have 3 bags of broccoli in my freezer. Two giant canisters of oatmeal, and three bags of apples in my produce drawer. Seven onions. A bag of tomatoes which I am trying desperately to eat before the mold takes over, but I think I am losing the battle. Why the broccoli in the freezer? Because they were the last 3 bags on the island, and I wasn’t about to pass those up, no siree. The moment I got the text message (“There are veggies at Ace, I repeat, there are Veggies at Ace”), I was off like a flash. Only seven hours on the island, and already the broccoli was almost gone.
For those of you who have idealistic notions of the abundant, juicy produce available in tropical climes, let me set you straight. Farming is not a big thing here. I can’t say I know all the reasons why, though I have been told it has something to do with pigs and sakau, which are more important products – squealing swine and intoxicants consume a lot of time and money. As a result, there are no large scale attempts at sustainable local produce. Our veggies and fruits come in on ships – often, they’re already past their prime by the time they hit the shelves. But that doesn’t stop us from running shop to shop on a desperate search for some lackluster vitamins. Because you don’t know how long they will last, and once it’s gone it might be WEEKS before the next shipment comes. Fairly soon, you will scrounge for that last bag of moldy carrots, and watch as the remaining packs of juice are lined up to give the illusion of abundance.
This situation leads to the bags of broccoli stuffed in my freezer. I thought I could control it – I thought I was strong enough to escape the hording mentality that starts to claw at people here. NOPE – if I don’t buy all 5 boxes of pop tarts NOW, then I may not be able to eat them for WEEKS! I must have ALL the pop tarts! ( I can’t remember if I actually like pop tarts – but I sure don’t want to be stuck without them if there are none on the island!) I know I won’t win the race against the vegetable mold, but it won’t stop me from buying those shiny cucumbers when they hit the shelves.

Miam Miam SPAM!!

Miam Miam SPAM!!

This lack of vegetables does not seem to phase the locals as much as it does us Mehnwai (ridiculous white folk). They are much happier to eat delicacies like corned beef and SPAM – the effects of WWII are still prevalent. Ramen is also a favorite, especially when mixed with Kool-Aid powder. No, I’m not kidding. Even some of the adults like their sour raspberry noodles.
Luckily, one thing that does grow in abundance here are bananas, and they’re practically free. They’re tastier than the bananas at home, and especially good since I can have them without thawing them first.
The question that comes to my mind: What happens if one day, the boats stop coming?
Happy eating!

Plant a tree for the earth you dream of

I feel like I’ve missed so much, having only started here after settling in for two months – I only have 4 months left of Micronesian story to tell. Of palm trees and SPAM, crystal waters and red spittle on the sidewalks. It is a paradox of beauty and strange habits – but the strange habits are the best part, because that’s what makes this Pohnpei.
For anyone who doesn’t know yet, I run a capacity building internship program, with 10 interns spread throughout the islands of Micronesia. I am supposed to be teaching them the skills they will need to be the conservation leaders of tomorrow. Some days I think that I learn just as much, if not more, from them. They are bright, capable, passionate individuals who work with spirit to preserve their islands and their cultures for future generations. People might complain about “the youth today”, and in fact I’ve heard that frequently here. But let me tell you that the youth today in Micronesia will do just fine, thank you, if we give them the chances they deserve. The same goes for youth all over the world – in the face of adversity and doubt, they prevail to do amazing things, the things “adults” won’t do.

A few weeks ago, Sayuri (my co-coordinator) and I approached the principal of the biggest local highschool

The gang and their sapling (Photo courtesy of Tanja)

The gang and their sapling (Photo courtesy of Tanja)

to ask him if we could work with the students to plant trees on the campus. There are few trees for shade within the fence of this campus, and most students can be found huddled under these trees to get away from the noon sun. We thought the idea of a ‘legacy garden’, trees that would provide fruit and shade over the next few years, was a great way to involve students in their local environment. Apparently, the principal disagreed – I’m sure Sayuri and I both thought he was going to nix the idea entirely. There is no need for trees here, he said – they are all over this island (quickly being deforested, I will note). And the students, they are all bad kids. They will destroy your saplings. If you plant trees near the fence, it will make it easier for them to escape. Kids today, I tell you…kids today are trouble. After 30 minutes of coaxing and visualizing, we had him convinced that we would plant the trees, and if they should be destroyed, well then it was our own darn fault for thinking too much of Kids Today.

Getting down and dirty

Early on a Saturday morning, “Kids today” gathered at this highschool, in their new matching t-shirts, and planted 50 saplings. Each of these youth signed their names on a small sign attached to wiring around the saplings – there must have been at least 150 signatures. Despite the early hour, the rising heat, and the dirt (EEWwww!) – all those kids today showed up to plant a tree with their name on it. Those saplings are still standing a few weeks later. I hope, for the future generations of motivated youth, that those trees are standing tall and proud ten years from now.
I am humbled.