Tag Archives: Jonathan Gourlay


‘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.



‘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. 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.


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.


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



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.


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.