Tag Archives: Micronesia

WORKING IN PARADISE: BEST BOOKS (PART 1)

‘Micronesian Blues’ by Bryan Vila, Cynthia Morris

Having spent 9 years as a street cop, Bryan gets a job as a law enforcement specialist in Saipan. Soon after his arrival he discovers that the islands of Micronesia, although dazzlingly beautiful, will be quite a challenge.

This is a brilliant book! Exceptionally well written, funny, and very informative. Bryan recounts his experiences in a refreshingly honest manner, showing readers what it was like to be a police officer in Micronesia in the early 1980s.

‘The Coconut War: Vanuatu and the Struggle for Independence’ by Richard Shears

Richard, a journalist working for the Daily Mail, is sent to the Pacific to cover the war that has just erupted in the New Hebrides. Trying to deliver a good story, he is forced to manoeuvre his way through the complexities of the country’s politico-military situation.

Richard Shear’s account is a wonderful description of a foreign correspondent’s job. Even though it’s a history book, it’s far from being boring. Actually, it’s a page-turner that reads like the most interesting novel.

‘Solomoni – Times and Tales from Solomon Islands’ by Roger Webber

Roger, a fledgling doctor with a committed passion for helping others, travels to Solomon Islands to provide medical assistance to those in need. But as he quickly learns, treating people from a completely different culture is not always as easy as he may have thought.

If you are curious what it’s like to live and work in Melanesia, this is a perfect book for you. Filled to the brim with interesting facts and information, it will show you the real Pasifika; Pasifika like you’ve never seen it before.

‘Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals’ Trish Nicholson

To fulfil her youthful desire, Trish decides to apply for an overseas job in Papua New Guinea. After being chosen, she flies to the dragon-shaped island to work on a development project. At the time she has absolutely no idea what the realities of life for a development worker in Melanesia are.

When a foreign consultant comes to a faraway country to implement and guide changes, he must know it’s going to be hard. When that foreign consultant is a woman, she must know it’s going to be very hard. You don’t believe me? Just read Trish Nicholson’s engaging memoir.

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

What’s the easiest way to become an international football manager? Find a team bad enough you’ll be allowed to coach them. For Paul and Matt, that’s Pohnpei.

This hilarious book is a proof that if you can dream it, you can do it. Paul and Matt’s adventures show the different side of football – without big money, famous players, and magazine-perfect WAGs. Although their job is not always easy, it brings more satisfaction than winning the World Cup.

IDYLLIC MICRONESIA

‘Ujae Island was part of Ujae Atoll, which, like every coral atoll, was a thin ring of reef studded with islets surrounding a lagoon. Ujae sat perched between the inner lagoon and outer ocean, and I quickly understood that the essential axis of the island was ocean-lagoon, not east-west or north-south. Walking to the two ends of that axis brought me to the island’s extremes. The lagoon was calm, shallow, and so transparent as to be color-coded by depth; its beach was smooth, sandy, and fringed by houses. The ocean was violent, mile-deep, and impenetrably opaque; its beach was rough, rocky, and utterly deserted. There were two sides to this island, and they couldn’t have been more different.’

Peter Rudiak-Gould, ‘Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island’


‘After our first week in Palau, Bourne took us out on the Milotk, the thirty-six-foot Marine Resources boat, to the rock islands. Southern Palau is dotted with these unique islands. Some are extruded limestone formations, deeply undercut at the waterline from erosion and the rasping action of hungry chitons. The rock islands, their crowns covered with dense native vegetation, appear as giant green mushrooms growing from the water. Others are laced with beautiful white sand beaches, as close to tropical paradise as imaginable.’

PG Bryan, ‘The Fish & Rice Chronicles’


‘The picture in our dictionary showed an atoll as a small ring of sand and coconut-palms around a dead flat lagoon kept fresh by the ebb and flow of ocean tides through breaks here and there in the land. Marakei in the Northern Gilberts is indeed rather like that – a ribbon of palm-green not more than twelve miles round; the regular golden circle of its beaches, closed save for one tidal passage, encompasses a sapphire lake forever exquisitely at rest.’

Sir Arthur Grimble, ‘A Pattern Of Islands’


‘Finally, Kosrae loomed on the horizon. The island was lush ad green, with long stretches of sandy beaches and two large, pointy peaks that defined what locals called the Sleeping Beauty, for obvious reasons. It was so beautiful and serene – like something right out of a picture postcard from paradise – that I felt a great sense of calm and peacefulness wash over me.’

Bryan Vila, Cynthia Morris, ‘Micronesian Blues’


‘Beyond Nan Madol lay the ocean and several uninhabited islands on the horizon. The beauty of the place left us speechless.’

Paul Watson, ‘Up Pohnpei’

GREAT ANTHROPOLOGICAL READS ABOUT PACIFIC ISLANDS (PART 2)

‘Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands’ by Robert I. Levy

If you want to get to know Tahitians, you should read Robert Levy’s book. It’s as good as an anthropological study can get.

Levy visited Society Islands in the early 1960s and worked there for 26 months. During that time he lived among Tahitians and became acquainted with their distinctive ways of being. His publication covers a wide range of topics, from moral behaviour to love and relationships to personal psychological organization. It is a must-read for everyone interested in French Polynesia.

‘Tokelau: A Historical Ethnography’ by Judith Huntsman, Antony Hooper

There are very few books about Tokelau, which is reason enough to reach for Judith Huntsman and Antony Hooper’s title. Plus, it’s a really valuable piece of ethnohistory that not only examines the archipelago’s traditional lifestyle but also elaborates on its bygone times.

In nine chapters, the authors try to explain how Tokelau’s past relates to its present, and in what way it shaped the nation’s indigenous culture. Their focus on all three atolls makes the book an exceptionally comprehensive and equally enlightening study.

‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea’ by Bronislaw Malinowski

This is yet another classic in the canon of Pacific Islands non-fiction literature. Bronislaw Malinowski was, without the slightest doubt, one of the most influential social anthropologists of all time, and his works are still today regarded as groundbreaking in their field.

In this particular book, the author investigates the complex trading system conducted in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. Since the publication of his account, the Kula Ring has gained much attention, however no one has ever described it in such meticulous detail as Malinowski did. A truly fantastic volume!

‘Tungaru Traditions: Writings on the Atoll Culture of the Gilbert Islands’ by Arthur F. Grimble, Henry Evans Maude

Sir Arthur Grimble is perhaps best recognized for his memoir that recounts his time in Kiribati and Tuvalu (formerly the Gilbert and Ellice Islands), where he worked after joining the Colonial Office. Not many people know, however, that he also wrote another book – an immensely engaging ethnography based on fieldwork he carried out in the Gilberts.

‘Tungaru Traditions’, which was edited and published by Henry Evans Maude, provides significant insight into Gilbertese culture: customs, habits, rituals, practices; social organization; history; and even mythology. Not only is it compelling but also very pleasantly written.

‘Traditional Micronesian Societies: Adaptation, Integration, and Political Organization’ by Glenn Petersen

Glenn Petersen’s publication is one of the best books on Micronesia ever penned. It is extremely thorough and yet surprisingly detailed. The clearly structured content is presented in lively prose that is quite appealing even to those who aren’t very fond of academic writing.

The author describes Micronesian communities, aiming his attention at their organization around interlocking lineages and clans. This theme constitutes the focal point of the study. Petersen scrupulously explains the significance of this unusual social system, so that readers can fully understand the complexity of the Pacific’s northwest region.

MICRONESIA BY BRYAN VILA

Micronesia. Where to go? What to see? What to do? Bryan Vila, one of the authors of a truly fantastic book called ‘Micronesian Blues’, gives his recommendations.

Go diving

Diving in Micronesia is spectacular. Chuuk lagoon is popular among divers because it contains more than 100 sunken, mostly intact Japanese ships and about 270 planes. It’s considered one of the best wreck diving destinations in the world.

But my favorite place to dive when I lived in Micronesia was in the blue holes in Palau’s huge reefs. The marine life is amazing, like something out of a movie. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. And it’s a lazy dive, you just fall off the side of the boat and drift slowly and quietly downward next to the reef face, watching as colors and critters and life swims around you.

Visit Nan Madol, Pohnpei

Nan Madol off the eastern shore of Pohnpei is an ancient compound/city made from huge, terribly heavy basalt ‘logs’ that was under construction for centuries. Construction probably began in the seventh century A.D. In its own way, Nan Madol is just as fascinating as the pyramids of Egypt, but without the hordes of tourists and hawkers selling souvenirs (or at least not back when I lived in Micronesia – I hope it hasn’t changed).

I remember that as you arrive (by boat) there’s this enormous plaza with 25-foot-high basalt walls. But the really impressive thing is that all the basalt that was used to create it and the other buildings at Nan Madol was brought to Pohnpei from neighboring islands on bamboo rafts – or maybe under them. I don’t know that anyone has solved the mystery of how a culture without a wheel could move such heavy objects so far over that kind of terrain.

Attend local events

The best way by far to experience Micronesia is to get to know people and participate in local culture. This isn’t hard to do if you’re polite, inquisitive, and respectful. Most Micronesians are friendly and welcoming.

Listen, smile, and be genuinely kind. Learn some of the language wherever you are. Read up on the culture, so you’ll know how to behave – and remember that proper behavior varies a lot from island to island. Once you get to know people, you’ll probably be invited to a local event. If this doesn’t happen, it’s OK to ask politely if you may join in a feast, a ‘real’ sakau ceremony, or some other activity.

Micronesian feasts are incredible – be sure to bring your appetite. They typically feature traditional foods such as cassava, taro, giant yams, giant chestnuts, fish, pigs, turtles, giant clams, mangrove crabs, coconut crabs, pigeons, lobsters, and – in Palau – crocodile. You will not want to eat again for a week!

Whatever you do in Micronesia, remember always to be mindful that you are the outsider there, and it’s up to you to fit in. For example, in Micronesia, things don’t always happen on schedule, so don’t complain when the shark dive you signed up for is three hours late. Savor the opportunity to sit back and observe a truly unique world, a sky that goes on forever or a sunset even Van Gogh couldn’t imagine. You can’t always get what you want, so don’t whine, just improvise. It’s part of living in the middle of the Pacific.

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.