Tag Archives: Federated States of Micronesia

A CHAT WITH… BRYAN VILA AND CYNTHIA MORRIS

Bryan Vila spent six years working as a police chief in Micronesia. His experiences and adventures are vividly described in the book he co-authored with his lovely wife, Cynthia Morris. Bryan and Cyn were kind enough to answer a few questions regarding the Pacific Islands, ‘Micronesian Blues’, and their plans for the future.

BRYAN VILA CYNTHIA MORRIS

Pasifika Truthfully: Training police officers in Micronesia sounds like a dream job for a former LA street cop. Did it turn out to be your dream job?

Bryan Vila: Living and working in Micronesia did turn out to be my dream job, but not at all in the way I’d been expecting.

After Vietnam, and then nine years working some of the toughest beats in L.A., it’s easy to become cynical. You see so much brutality, so many awful things that people do to each other, and you start to feel like nothing you do can make things better – so why try? But I’ve always been an optimist, so I was determined not to let cynicism win.

Micronesia certainly wasn’t paradise – it had its problems, just like anyplace else on the planet. But I regained my connection to humanity in Micronesia. Unlike the anonymity of urban policing, I got to know people, become a part of their communities, and finally feel like I was making a difference.

Living and working in Micronesia gave me back my optimism and my belief that even one person can bring about change. The lessons I learned about community policing there have stayed with me and influenced nearly every aspect of my work – first as a federal law enforcement officer and then as a professor for the past 25 years – since I left Micronesia.

PT: What had you been expecting before you boarded the plane?

BV: Ha! I remember having this ridiculous notion that my then-wife and I would be able to travel from island to island together by sailboat as I did my job. Of course, as soon as I got there and realized how enormously far apart the islands are, that dream was dead in the water (bad pun intended).

More generally, I initially viewed the job as a ‘paid vacation in paradise’. This idea got shot down on my second day in Micronesia, when a group of Chuukese police officers I was supposed to be helping to train almost killed me.

Other than that, I don’t recall having many expectations at all – just the excitement of a new adventure, which I’ve always loved. It was 1978. There wasn’t any Internet back then, and very little information about Micronesia was available at the library, so I couldn’t just look things up. That didn’t bother me at all – sometimes the very best adventures are the ones where you have no idea what to expect.

I went to Micronesia with an open mind, and a desire to learn. I think that’s the most important thing anyone can do when experiencing a new culture – or cultures, in my case.

PT: Ok, let’s get back to the day you arrived in Micronesia. Your initial thought?

BV: Hmm. I took the Island Hopper, which was an Air Micronesia Boeing 727 with reinforced landing gear. And when you took the Island Hopper, you didn’t just ‘arrive in Micronesia’. You stopped at island after island – Johnston, Majuro, Kwajalein, Pohnpei, Chuuk, Tinian – until you reached your final destination, which in my case was Saipan. Most of the runways were paved with crushed coral back then, so the landings were rough. We’d often land so hard the oxygen masks would fall down and the overhead storage bins would pop open.

It was all a bit surreal, especially because I’d been traveling so long by the time I got there that I was loopy with jet lag. On most of the islands, we’d have about an hour on the ground so I’d get out to stretch and take a look around. It was the middle of the night most of the time we were flying, but there were still people waiting to greet their loved ones with leis and mar mars everywhere we landed. I can remember watching them all curiously, listening as they spoke in languages I couldn’t begin to understand, and relishing the edge of a new adventure.

When I finally got to Saipan, I was surprised by the combination of incredibly beautiful natural scenery and the stark contrast of dilapidated man-made structures, most of them made of concrete or rusting metal. It looked pretty disreputable at first to an outsider, but after you’ve lived in the tropics for a while, you learn that there are three main colors there: blue, green, and rust.

I was also fascinated by the World War II relics – old tanks and fighter planes and bunkers and landing craft – scattered all over the island, since my dad had fought and almost died on Saipan during World War II.

But mostly, I remember that I really wanted a shower and a nap, and was relieved to get to the house where I’d be staying for the next couple of weeks. I didn’t even mind that the water that trickled out of the showerhead was red with rust…

PT: How difficult was it to adapt to so many different cultures?

BV: (Chuckles.) Well, I soon learned to apologize in nine different languages, if that gives you any idea. You can’t help but screw up when you’re trying to figure out 12 different cultures all at once.

But I loved that about Micronesia. I mean, imagine how boring Europe would be if all the countries were alike. The different cultures and languages are what make each island unique. Learning those languages, and participating in the culture, is what allows you to connect with people and become an ‘insider’. And insiders, not outsiders, make the most difference in any community.

So I learned the languages – or at least enough to get by. And I participated in the cultures. When the Pohnpeians drank sakau, I drank sakau. When the Yapese chewed betel nut, I chewed betel nut. I held hands with my burly cops on Kosrae, because that was the custom there, and I shook hands with as hard a grip as I could muster on Chuuk.

One of my most appalling early screw-ups was on Yap. I was doing firearms training for the police officers there and thought I’d lighten the mood with a well-timed fart. I had seen people laugh themselves sick over a fart on Pohnpei, so I thought everyone would laugh and it would relieve a little tension all around. But I was completely wrong. On Yap, farting was considered seriously rude.

Another time on Pohnpei, I was invited to one of my local co-worker’s homes for dinner. When it came time to eat, they served me a whole boiled chicken on a plate, along with a huge chunk of yam. Then everyone watched and nodded and smiled as I ate. I was thinking that it would be rude not to finish it all, and I did my best but I just couldn’t do it. When I finally handed what little was left on the palm-leaf plate back to my host, she passed it on to the next person to eat. I was mortified when I realized that I had just eaten most of a dinner that had been meant for the entire family!

PT: Speaking of cultures. Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Palau, The Marshall Islands, Guam. Different islands, different folkways. How would you describe each of these places in a few sentences?

BV: It’s hard to sum up the differences in a few sentences, but I’ll try.

Let’s see. On Yap, people were quiet and reserved. They spoke softly and tended to jump at loud noises. Yapese villagers valued their peace so much that right after the dirt roads were graded each month, they’d go out and dig big potholes so people would have to drive more slowly. Yap was one of the most traditional of all the islands, so many men on Yap still wore the traditional loincloth, called a ‘thu’, and many women went topless.

On Palau, people tended to be extremely forthright. I would often join in on heated political debates at a beachside bar called ‘The Cave’ at night. For the most part, they were all in good fun – Palauans love a good argument. Stateside clothes were more the norm on Palau. I think many Americans would feel most at home on Palau, because the culture is more familiar than on the other islands.

On Chuuk, people greeted each other with crushing handshakes and the men tended to be tough and hard-drinking, despite the fact that the women had recently voted in prohibition when I was there (they scheduled the vote on payday Friday, when the men were drunk). Chuuk was also home to Xavier High School, where most of Micronesia’s new leaders had been educated by Father Fran Hezel. He was a wonderful force for thoughtful change in Micronesia.

On Pohnpei, the people were warm and welcoming. One thing that set Pohnpei apart from the other islands was sakau, a kava-like drink that plays an important role in Pohnpeian culture. Sakau ceremonies are used to honor people, for negotiations, to settle disputes, and other reasons. You can try sakau at a sakau bar or at the local cultural center, but I don’t think you’ll really understand the significance of it until you’ve participated in a local ceremony. In fact, Cyn and I chose to end the Kindle version of ‘Micronesian Blues’ with an informal local sakau ceremony on a remote hillside, because we felt it so strongly captured the feel and beauty and communal nature of Micronesian life.

In the Marshalls, people tended to avoid conflict. It’s important to be peaceful when you live on a low, flat, crowded atoll with people you’ll know all your life. But that doesn’t mean they’re meek; they’ve done a good job standing up for themselves for the past 40 years or so. They’re determined and stalwart.

Of course, when most people think of Guam and Saipan they probably think of World War II, since those islands played such a strategic role in the Pacific theater. There were still World War II relics all over Saipan back when I was there – and probably still are. The indigenous people of Guam and Saipan – the Chamorros – welcomed progress, but they also worked hard to preserve their unique blend of cultural heritages. Since the time of Magellan in the 16th century, they’ve absorbed different aspects of Spanish, Japanese, and U.S. culture. But they’re still very much their own people. I lived on Saipan for six years and loved it, although I spent about three weeks of every month ‘wheels up’, traveling all over the region.

Kosrae was the most communal, and most religious, of all the islands. Religion pervaded life there – I couldn’t even swim in the lagoon on a Sunday, because it was against custom. People would come over to my house to sit with me – even if we couldn’t communicate more than a few words to each other – just to keep me from being lonely. When I first got there, it was difficult to get used to, but I soon found myself enjoying being part of such a close-knit community. I especially loved participating in the communal singing – or maybe I should say ‘trying to sing’. Kosraeans have lovely, lilting, high-pitched voices, and I have this deep baritone voice, so it was always pretty funny when I joined in. I’d try to copy their tone, and end up sounding like a cross between Julia Child and Tiny Tim!

PT: Where did you feel most ‘at home’?

BV: That’s easy. Kosrae. It’s funny that I ended up feeling that way, because at first I had found the strong religious presence and all the togetherness on Kosrae to be a little overwhelming.

But as I learned the language and the culture, the very togetherness I had initially found so alien and uncomfortable turned into a real sense of belonging.

We had a strong sense of community on Saipan – but it was mostly among the expatriates who worked there. We were sort of a community within a community. On Kosrae, I had begun to feel like part of the extended island family, and I enjoyed that.

I could’ve stayed – the Kosraeans had offered me land to stay there, which was very unusual as a foreigner. And there have been many times when I wish I had stayed on in Kosrae and lived in peaceful, uncomplicated tranquility. But my wife at the time was eager to get back to her job and her friends on Saipan, and I had a job to get back to, too. So we went back to Saipan on schedule. But I still think of Kosrae often and miss it.

PT: Now, the islands of the Pacific are often portrayed as paradise. But, as we all know, even paradise is not crime free. What did you have to deal with?

BV: More than I ever expected, that’s for sure. People are people, wherever you go, and sometimes people behave badly – very badly.

My first day on Kosrae, for example, I was confronted with a rape that had just taken place. Two young Kosraean men had raped two American Peace Corps women, and the Americans were understandably furious. To make matters worse, it turned out that one of the suspects was the younger brother of the deputy police chief, so the cops had been too embarrassed to do anything about it yet. I explained to them that we had to treat everyone the same, and I think it helped to have an outsider come in and make that call. We went and arrested both young men, who were tried and convicted under Kosrae’s new rape laws, which were based on the California and Oregon penal codes.

A while later on Pohnpei, a group of prisoners broke out of the local jail, shot the jailer in the back, stole the police jeeps and weapons, and then went to the local radio station, which they mistook for the island communication station, and shot and killed the DJ. I was on Saipan when it happened, and put together a ‘posse’ to go out and take care of things. But by the time we were able to get there, the Pohnpei police had the situation pretty much under control. All but one of the suspects was in custody, and one had been shot and killed when he opened fire on the Pohnpeian cops.

Another time, one of the magistrates on a small outer island of Chuuk and his family ran amok. They had been terrorizing the people on their island for a long time – raping and torturing and such – and eventually killed a 14-year-old boy in broad daylight in front of many witnesses. Everyone on the island was too afraid of them to do anything about it, so we went in and arrested them all. I have to admit I was pretty scared of them too, based on the stories we’d heard, but it turned out they weren’t nearly as fierce or as well-organized as everyone thought. It felt really good to be able to put those guys behind bars and restore peace to the island.

PT: Quite a few stories appear in your book, ‘Micronesian Blues’. When did you come up with this idea: ‘Oh I want to write about my experiences in the Blue Continent’?

BV: I’ll let Cyn, who actually wrote the majority of the book, answer that question…

Cynthia Morris: I remember the exact moment when the idea hit me. Bryan and I were friends at the University of California, Irvine, back when he was a new professor and I worked as a science writer there. One afternoon over coffee he said, ‘One of these days I’ll have to tell you about my experiences training cops in Micronesia’.

As a writer, I was completely intrigued, but we were both too busy to talk about it any further for a long time after that. In fact, I don’t think the subject came up for another two or three years, after we were married.

We would go for long walks along the beach near our house with a tape recorder on, and Bryan would share his stories from Micronesia with me. Pretty soon, I had boxes and boxes of tapes about his experiences in Micronesia to go along with the boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings, photos, and other memorabilia he had saved from his time there.

It was still several years after that until I finally was able to transcribe all the notes from our talks and start to put the story together. By the time I was finished, I knew I had something really special on my hands, because ‘Micronesian Blues’ is more than just a collection of funny tales from a remote part of the world. Bryan gained a great deal of cross-cultural knowledge and understanding during his six years in Micronesia, and his willingness to participate in local culture wherever he went serves as a great blueprint for people living and working in foreign lands. And, at the risk of embarrassing Bryan, I’d say that ‘Micronesian Blues’ is also a touching, beautiful story of a man who became whole again in a faraway land.

PT: I must say that your book is thoroughly engaging, highly amusing, immensely entertaining, and very thought-provoking. But it is definitely too short! Do you have any plans to write a sequel? If yes, when can we expect it to be released?

CM: Thank you! Bryan’s experiences really are pretty amazing, aren’t they? And this is just a small portion of his life story…

We actually do have plans to tell more of his story, and quite soon. We can’t say any more about it just yet, but a very exciting project is in the works.

PT: Will Bryan Vila ever come back to Micronesia?

BV: Absolutely! I’m looking forward to visiting again, hopefully sometime soon. I still have several good friends who live in Micronesia, and we keep in touch when we can. It would be good to see them again, and to see how much Micronesia has changed in the years since I was last there.

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‘MICRONESIAN BLUES’ BY BRYAN VILA, CYNTHIA MORRIS

‘Micronesian Blues’ is a travelogue-cum-memoir co-authored by Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris. It chronicles Vila’s sojourn in Micronesia, where he worked as a police chief and trainer from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.

MICRONESIAN BLUES

Summary

Having been a street cop for nine years, Bryan feels he needs a little change. So when he hears about a job opening for a law enforcement specialist in Saipan, he just cannot say ‘No’. Training police officers in a tropical paradise… How hard can it be? Well, quite hard, it turns out.

With six different governments, twelve different cultures, and nine different languages Micronesia proves to be a great challenge. But Bryan takes his assignment seriously. Travelling from Yap to the Marshalls, from Kosrae to Palau, he keeps busy teaching the Islanders and absorbing their fascinating way of life. And even the occasional riots or prison escapes can’t ruin his contentment. Because in Micronesia one always finds a reason to smile.

Review

I will start by stating that this is one of the best travel books you’ll ever read. Which is somewhat surprising, because on the surface it looks like just another memoir that describes someone’s experiences in a distant land. In other words, nothing special. But, as the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover (by the way, the cover of ‘Micronesian Blues’ is absolutely gorgeous!). In this case, that is so true.

The travelogue is co-authored by Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris. Well, as a matter of fact, it’s Bryan Vila’s story written by Cynthia Morris. Oh, what a perfect match they are! A match undoubtedly made in heaven. Let me explain why.

As you may imagine, it is never easy to recount another person’s adventures. Achieving someone else’s voice, sharing their point of view, and conveying their message is an incredibly difficult task. And yet Cynthia succeeded. She managed to show Bryan’s personality so well that you quickly forget he’s not the one who actually narrates the story. Everything – from the lively writing style she adopted to fantastic humour to vivid but not overwhelming descriptions – lets you believe you read a book penned by a man who’s been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale. Something like this is impossible to achieve, unless you are a very talented writer. Cynthia Morris definitely is. If it wasn’t for her, ‘Micronesian Blues’ could be just a title in a pile of other titles.

Of course, the book would have never come into existence if Bryan hadn’t decided to take a job somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His adventures and experiences are obviously what make the memoir so immensely interesting. Right from the beginning, he amuses readers with personal anecdotes and little snippets of his daily life in paradise. And he does so with a hefty dose of self-deprecation. You can’t help but appreciate his honesty when he relates his cultural mishaps and misunderstandings that not only make you laugh (hysterically) but most importantly let you understand the complexity of Micronesian cultures.

Speaking of which, I’m not quite sure who’s responsible for cultural context in the book, but the abundance of information regarding local customs, habits, traditions, and beliefs is just phenomenal. You get to know the region as a whole, and then you get to know individual islands. The authors wonderfully delineate the differences between the countries (FSM, the Marshall Islands, Guam, Palau, CNMI) and states (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae), unravelling the peculiarities of each culture. You will be surprised how diverse this lovely part of our globe is. But you can be sure that with a little help from Bryan and Cynthia you will understand it so much better.

Do I recommend ‘Micronesian Blues’? Wholeheartedly! It is a brilliant piece of travel literature that entertains, enlightens, and educates. You will learn a lot. You will laugh. You will enjoy every single second spent with this book in your hands. And then, after reaching the last sentence, you will want to read it again.

BEST BOOKS ABOUT FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA

‘Making sense of Micronesia: The Logic of Pacific Island Culture’ by Francis X. Hezel

This is a fantastic book that should be read by every single person planning to visit the FSM. Written by Francis X. Hezel, a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in this Pacific country since 1963, it provides all the necessary information regarding Micronesian culture, letting readers understand the often unfamiliar island ways.

It should be noted that the author doesn’t focus on the FSM only, but on the vast area from Palau to the Marshalls. Drawing on his first-hand experience, he describes the peculiarities of each nation’s character, explains attitudes and real-life behaviours of the inhabitants, analyzes the patterns of values and sets of beliefs. The result? Educational, enlightening, very entertaining publication that is a true joy to read.

‘Nest in the Wind: Adventures in Anthropology on a Tropical Island’ by Martha C. Ward

Martha C. Ward’s book is a must-read for people who are interested not only in Micronesia but also in anthropology, ethnography, or cross-cultural communication. It is a comprehensive study of customs, traditions, habits, practices, beliefs, behaviours, and attitudes of the Pohnpeian (yes, the author devotes her attention to the Pohnpei State) people.

Although unbelievably detailed and insightful, this is not an academic publication. It’s actually an engaging account of one woman’s discoveries in the tropical paradise, written in a pleasant and very appealing way.

‘Micronesian Blues’ by Bryan Vila, Cynthia Morris

Bryan Vila’s memoir that chronicles his adventures in Micronesia is undoubtedly one of the best books ever written about this beautiful part of our globe. Vila, together with Cynthia Morris, managed to create a compelling narrative that wonderfully explains the realities of life not only in the FSM but also in the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, the Marshalls, and Guam.

Delivered in a light-hearted and humorous manner, the story provides the most interesting, little-known facts about Micronesian cultures – Chuukese, Kosraean, Yapese, and Pohnpeian among others. By no means is this an anthropological study, nevertheless one may learn quite a lot from Bryan’s experiences (good and bad) in a foreign land. Thoroughly engaging from start to finish!

‘Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia’ by Jonathan Gourlay

Jonathan Gourlay is an outstandingly talented writer, so it comes as no surprise that this little collection of essays about his sojourn in Pohnpei is such an enjoyable read. It’s hilariously funny, extremely revealing, and unusually honest.

Micronesia was Jonathan’s home for 11 years – during that time he was neither a local nor a complete stranger. As he presents his point of view, he shows the Pohnpeian way of life from a new, very interesting perspective, making readers realize how difficult it is to adapt to an entirely different culture. You can’t help but marvel at Jonathan’s writings, and his book is well worth your time and attention.

‘Up Pohnpei: Leading the ultimate football underdogs to glory’ by Paul Watson

Can a book about football serve as a source of knowledge about Micronesian culture? Well, Paul Watson proves it can. His memoir about coaching the Pohnpei’s national soccer team is an amusing, inspirational read that unravels a few things you may not have known about the islands and their inhabitants.

Of course, with its strong focus on sport, the title may be a little disappointing for those who expect to find here an abundance of information regarding the FSM. However, despite this (minor) drawback, it’s still a book that sheds some light on the country that receives very limited coverage in literature.

BEST LAUGH-OUT-LOUD BOOKS (PART 2)

‘Where the hell is Tuvalu?’ by Philip Ells

When a young lawyer from the City of London suddenly ends up in one of the smallest countries on the planet Earth, where literally everything is new and different, you can be sure that’s a promise of great fun. Philip Ells’s memoir certainly doesn’t disappoint. His unforgettable experiences are depicted in a candid, casual, and very jovial manner, which is both engaging and extremely pleasurable to read. What can I say… No one does humour quite like the Brits!

‘Gallivanting on Guam’ by Dave Slagle

Although somewhat controversial among Chamorro communities, this is an interesting book. It’s not only very insightful in terms of providing valuable information regarding Guam, its history, culture, and traditions but also highly amusing and – this may come as a surprise to many – really well paced and plotted. And even the fact that the travelogue has some flaws cannot ruin your reading enjoyment.

‘Micronesian Blues’ by Bryan Vila, Cynthia Morris

Bryan Vila’s memoir is the most hilarious account of a cross-cultural adventure you can find. It has absolutely everything a good travel book should have: entertaining story (it’s a page-turner that reads like a novel), vivid descriptions (yes, you can almost feel the tropical breeze), fascinating insights (it teaches, informs, enlightens), fantastic sense of humour (oh, see for yourself). This chronicle of one cop’s experiences in a foreign land captures attention, making readers roar with laughter.

‘Solomon Time: Adventures in the South Pacific’ by Will Randall

Will Randall’s book is an odyssey well worth your time. This rather improbable yet true story of an English teacher who travels to the Solomon Islands with the object of fulfilling a dying man’s wish could not be any more delightful. A wonderfully constructed narrative is embellished with humorous anecdotes and amusing scenes that are simply too funny not to be read.

‘Up Pohnpei: Leading the ultimate football underdogs to glory’ by Paul Watson

This is a book with so many layers to it. It takes readers to the magical island of Pohnpei to show them how passion, determination, and belief can make the impossible possible. It embodies the true spirit of sport, letting people discover the sheer joy it brings. But most of all, it makes everyone laugh. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable, inspirational (beyond words), heart-warming, richly comic travelogue written for love of the game. Beautiful and entertaining!

BEST LAUGH-OUT-LOUD BOOKS (PART 1)

‘The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific’ by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux never fails to deliver a compelling story. His travelogue – which is a truly wonderful journey across the Pacific Ocean – provides fascinating insights into the islands of the Blue Continent, giving readers a chance to absorb its undeniable charm. This informative, enthralling, witty, and – most of all – genuinely funny account captures attention right from the beginning. It simply could not be written any better. Ultimate reading enjoyment is guaranteed.

‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific’, ‘Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu’, ‘Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story’ by J. Maarten Troost

J. Maarten Troost’s ‘South Pacific trilogy’ is everything you’d ever want from travel literature. Not only do the books let you ‘experience’ different cultures, but they also give you the opportunity to see them through the eyes of another human being. The author’s adventures keep you absolutely riveted, and his astonishing sense of humour makes each story a pleasure to read. Phenomenal work!

‘Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji’ by Will Lutwick

Finding love in a tropical paradise… How cheesy is that? Well, Will Lutwick proves that even such ‘ordinary’ story can be turned into a thrilling and highly amusing narrative. This thought-provoking memoir is a real page-turner. Finely created with a good dose of jocularity and intelligence, it not only entertains but most of all enlightens and educates.

‘Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia’ by Jonathan Gourlay

This is a truly wonderful, brilliantly written collection of essays. Even though some of the stories deal with quite serious subjects, Jonathan Gourlay’s wit and delightful wry humour lighten the overall tone of the book, making it almost hilariously funny. One thing you should bear in mind: this is not a title for very young readers!

‘Bula: Sailing Across the Pacific’ by Bryan Carson

Bryan Carson’s travelogue is pure entertainment, nothing more and nothing less. It’s a fantastic adventure story written in a light-hearted manner that makes you smile from the very first to the very last page. If you have ever dreamt about cruising the Pacific, hopping from island to island, and meeting new people – this is a book for you.

FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA BY JONATHAN GOURLAY

Federated States of Micronesia. Where to go? What to see? What to do? Jonathan Gourlay, the author of ‘Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia’ gives his recommendations.

Visit Nan Madol

If you have made it to Pohnpei, you will see the ruins of the ancient city of Nan Madol. Anyone with even a passing interest in Oceania will have heard of it. Nan Madol hasn’t quite captured the imagination the way that Easter Island has, but that’s okay. It just means that Nan Madol is less-traveled. The best way to get the full impression of Nan Madol is to tour the ruin’s many waterways in a kayak. (The usual tour also involves a trip to some nearby waterfalls and a coral atoll. All-in-all, a good day out.)

Visit Sakau Markets

The easiest place to sample Pohnpeian sakau (a kava drink made from pepper root) is at one of the local markets (‘market’ really means ‘bar’). I prefer markets in Kitti on the south side of the island and away from the main town of Kolonia. In Kitti the markets are usually on the side of the road, so you get the added entertainment of being able to watch traffic. Markets are the best place to meet and talk with Pohnpeians in a relaxed atmosphere. Just don’t blame me for what may happen in your stomach after a night of sakau.

Visit The Cloud Forest

The mountainous interior of Pohnpei is incredibly lush. It’s one of the rainiest places on earth. It’s so humid that even without rain you feel like you can drink the air. Get a guide to show you the many waterfalls or even do an overnight hike across the island. Your guide should be able to relate / make up some awesome legends about all the various topographical features. When you’re done with the hike, go snorkeling on one of the atolls that encircle the island. Then go get drunk at a sakau market. If you do this and it wasn’t one of the most intensely colorful days of your life then you lead a much more colorful life than I do.

A CHAT WITH… JONATHAN GOURLAY

Jonathan Gourlay is the author of a fantastic travel-book-cum-memoir called ‘Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia’. Here you can read what he thinks not only about the country but also about his book.

JONATHAN GOURLAY

Pasifika Truthfully: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you end up in FSM?

Jonathan Gourlay: There are many places to start – causes distant and proximate – that led to ‘ending up’ on Pohnpei. (Is there such a thing as ‘beginning up’? Feels more like that.) The easiest answer is that I saw an ad for teachers at the College of Micronesia – FSM in a magazine when I was stacking the magazine rack at the now defunct Borders book store. It was the 1997 equivalent of a random click off a Twitter-feed. Anyway, I was a recent graduate with a Poetry master’s degree and no real plan for the future. I guess most foreigners who wind up living on Pohnpei for a length of time aren’t doing it as part of some greater scheme that leads to a lucrative career (or, if they are, they have made a miscalculation.) Though I suppose I was a little bit different from other ex-pats in that I didn’t have a clear agenda for being there. I mean, I wasn’t there to convert or help anyone. I understand that it is a bit problematic that I am proud of the fact that my reasons for being on Pohnpei are mysterious even to myself.

PT: How would you describe the country? What are its main characteristics?

JG: I have to stick to the island of Pohnpei, where I lived for eleven years. Though I was exposed to the other island cultures in the Federated States of Micronesia, it would be difficult to describe each one. So, how would I describe Pohnpei? I don’t know. I was paradoxically better equipped to answer that question after being there for two weeks. By the time you spend a decade on a place, every description seems a bit superficial. So… Let’s see… It’s an island…with a really cool fringing mangrove swamp…and a great psychotropic, super-kava drink called sakau…and somehow, when I think of it now, the colors seem more vibrant than regular colors and the tragedy and comedy more extreme and everything is both exciting and boring at once and the whole place is saturated with a kind of magic…except that, of course, it isn’t. It’s just another place you can go.

PT: And how would you describe your book?

JG: The book is called ‘Nowhere Slow’ and it consists of 15 essays, some short, some long. I hope that the book is a ‘deep culture’ kind of book. That is, from the perspective someone who lived within the family and clan structure of the island, who spoke the language pretty well, and who grew gigantic yams on the side of a hill overlooking an ocean bay that was sometimes so blue that it was really some other color than blue. So, the book isn’t a travel narrative. There’s death and sex and marriage and sakau and babies and a guy who actually bit his own finger off, but no hotel recommendations.

PT: Do you think you created an actual portrayal of the islands and their inhabitants?

JG: The book is, I hope, as true to my experience as possible and therefore as clear-eyed a picture of Pohnpeian culture as a mildly-intelligent guy can get in eleven years of living there. Considering the question of ‘actual’ brings us awfully close to a kind of ontological quicksand where the nature of truth is suspect (as it should be) and the right of one observer (me) to portray the truth of a culture is equally suspect (as it also should be). The best I can say is that the book portrays my true experience of the culture.

Certain experiences on Pohnpei may be more likely to happen to me than to someone else. For instance, I love swearing and dirty words and sexual puns. It’s the spice of life! So a lot of my experience in sakau markets on Pohnpei consists of swearing, dirty words and sexual puns. Does that mean that it is ‘true’ that Pohnpeians are particularly enamored of dirty jokes? No. (Though, in my opinion, yes.) All we can realistically say is that juvenile minds tend to congregate together and laugh, whatever the culture.

PT: What’s your favourite memory of that place?

JG: The first thing that comes to mind is my friend Maryallen punching me in the shoulder. She did this often, in a friendly yet firm way. Generally as a response to some idiotic life-choice I had made or one of the aforementioned dirty jokes. Maybe I just miss Maryallen. (By the way, I call her Fingerlynn in the book which is another dirty joke that she would hit me for if she were not 5000 miles away.)

So, Maryallen punching me and probably the birth of my daughter are my favorite memories.

PT: Did you learn anything during your stay in Micronesia?

JG: I’m tempted just to say ‘no’ and leave it at that. But that would be disingenuous and you’re so nice to be asking questions of me. Also, I wrote a short article called ‘What I learned on the island of Pohnpei’ when we launched the book, so I guess I should refer you there.

I suppose the reason I have some reticence about this question is that there is a kind of trope out there that island cultures are super mysterious and maybe more ‘in tune’ with nature or something and therefore have something to ‘teach us’. But this idea seems kind of noble-savage-y and maybe paternalistic. That’s not to say that one doesn’t learn something very valuable from trying to understand other cultures – quite the opposite! I guess I advocate approaching these other cultures as humans from earth rather than some mysterious or more ‘primitive’ creature. Not that you meant the question in this way, of course. So I’ll shut up now.

PT: Would you like to come back there one day?

JG: Yes. When Maryallen is too old to punch very hard.

PT: The Western World vs. Pohnpei – what’s the difference?

JG: Well, it’s all just the world, right? And basically people are living their lives and it’s a great experience to be able to share this life with other people and meet new people and sometimes kiss them or slap them or share a joke or have a conversation.

That’s another dodge. Sorry. I have to warm up to try to answer this question. Accept the following with a grain of salt or a whiskey flask of sea cucumber:

  • Western societies have families. Pohnpeians have penenei – that’s between 50 – 5000 people with whom you have a familial relation.
  • Western societies have funerals. Pohnpeians have 10-day-long parties.
  • Westerners explain actions with psychology. On Pohnpei, shit just happens.
  • Westerners barely remember Juice Newton’s hit ‘Queen of Hearts.’ On Pohnpei, groups of young men line dance to it for talent shows.
  • Westerners make little orange fries out of yams. On Pohnpei, yams are the size of compact cars.
  • Westerners show up at an agreed upon time. Pohnpeians show up when they are supposed to show up.

That’s all I can think of! I’d also love to plug a recent article I wrote that goes some way to addressing this question. The article considers what a Western sailor thought about Pohnpei in the 19th century and compares this to my own similar experience there. The article is called ‘One Small Store’.

‘NOWHERE SLOW: ELEVEN YEARS IN MICRONESIA’ BY JONATHAN GOURLAY

‘Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia’ is a travel book-cum-memoir written by Jonathan Gourlay. This compilation of short stories recounts his adventures in the Federated States of Micronesia.

NOWHERE SLOW

Summary

In 1997, Jonathan travels to the island of Pohnpei to teach English at a local college. Immediately after arrival, he finds himself in an entirely different and quite strange world, where time stands still, sakau flows, Juice Newton’s ‘Queen of Hearts’ is a hit, and one can say ‘masturbation’ in four different ways.

Yet – despite all these oddities – he chooses the country as his adopted home, marries a Pohnpeian woman, and becomes a father of a beautiful baby girl. But the Pacific islands are no paradise. Jonathan quickly learns that there are troubles around the corner, and that as an outsider, you just can’t go completely native.

Review

This is yet another book that is simply too short. Jonathan Gourlay definitely knows how to create an immensely interesting narrative, so it’s a shame you cannot enjoy his tales a little bit longer.

‘Nowhere Slow’ is a memoir. It is also a fantastic travelogue that investigates the country’s culture, customs, and traditions. However, if you imagine this publication to be your ordinary story about one person’s sojourn in a tropical paradise, you are very much mistaken. First of all, it is a collection of essays. Second of all, the organization of chapters is mostly non-linear. The book doesn’t follow the author’s adventures in chronological order. Instead, the tales are arranged thematically, and every chapter revolves around specific subject matter, such as Pohnpeian language, Jonathan’s marriage, or his visits to the feast house. Although you may think otherwise, I can assure you that this unconventional structure doesn’t create any confusion. Actually, it makes the whole thing even more intriguing.

On a par with the excellent composition is the author’s writing style. Gourlay’s sense of humour – and, believe me, it is brilliant – shines through every page. His wit and ability to change even the most mundane, banal topic into an engaging tale is simply astonishing. It is impossible to grow bored while reading his book. It draws you in. Just like that.

Now, it may seem that living in a foreign country for 11 years basically makes you a local. It does. To a certain degree. This account shows how difficult it is to understand other cultures and accept the existing differences. Jonathan got to know the ‘Pohnpeian way of life’, nonetheless he wasn’t able to fully adapt. His essays are a wonderful source of information not only about Micronesia but also about its inhabitants – one can learn quite a lot about this amazing part of our world. It’s fair enough to say that this compilation is a unique portrait of the FSM as seen through the eyes of a ‘local stranger’.

‘Nowhere Slow’ is a thoroughly entertaining book that scores high on all fronts. The story is amusing, compelling, very insightful, and incredibly well written, so you will not regret reading it. There is just one thing you ought to bear in mind: this is not a title for a very young audience.