Chuuk, Caroline IslandsIn my mental world map, the Pacific Islands were the last major region to be filled in. I knew all the continents and the positions of their countries as a school-age child; but even into my teenage years, the islands of the Pacific were but the vaguest notions -- names in old books, pictures of exotic-looking natives, woodcuts of exquisite birds now extinct. My parents' library had an old book on cat's-cradle games from all over the world, including a few from the Caroline Islands. In my favorite childhood book, The Wonders of Life on Earth, there were diagrams of the cycle of volcanic islands slowly transforming into atolls.
I suppose I was not much different from many other Western children in the sorts of fantasy images I conjured up: grass huts set amid coconut trees; savage natives, naked or nearly so, but with fabulous ornaments; fantastic birds; fruits of flavors unimagined in my own country. But how many of those children grew up to continue reading and learning about faraway places, as I did? And how many actually went beyond merely dreaming of one day visiting such places?
So far as I have been able to determine, only one airline connects this part of the world to the rest of the globe: Continental. There is an island-hopper flight from Honolulu, circling through several Micronesian islands in a loop, alternating directions on alternate days. I have only found two published travel guides on the region of Micronesia: one by Lonely Planet (of course), the other by Moon Guides. Even the world Wide Web has less information about this part of the world than any other destination I have researched. This of course served to attract me all the more strongly.|
Chuuk (or "Truk," on older maps) markets itself as a dive destination. On the license plates is the slogan, "World's Best Wreck Diving." The Japanese Navy had a rough time here during World War 2, and their losses in ships and aircraft translate to gains for reef-dwelling marine life. The Chuuk sections of the travel guides mainly focus on diving as well, and even other travellers I encountered said that there was nothing to do there but dive. Travel guides also made it seem as though Chuuk was a more dangerous place than other parts of Micronesia.
I don't dive. What was I doing here? I find that travel guides are often wrong, especially when they portray a place negatively. I was sure I could find ways to keep myself occupied here and have a good time.
As it turns out, there are a couple of sites in the Chuuk lagoon shallow enough for snorkeling; and the best part is, there is no current at these spots -- note in the picture that I am not wearing any fins. Just swim in a leisurely breaststroke. One of these spots is Patrol Boat 34, seen in these three pictures, which the dive operators seem to have renamed "Suzuki Maru." As the picture shows, it is well on its way to becoming a reef; many species of corals have colonized it, the most abundant of which is a white, cauliflower-like form. Coxcomb oysters have also colonized the wreck, and can be seen especially just aft of the midships, and on the winch. Like all tropical reefs, "Suzuki" is also home to an array of colorful fishes, most of which are unkown to me, since I mainly know terrestrial biology, but part of the great Indo-Pacific fauna, the most biodiverse in the world.
There is no one island named Chuuk. Chuuk is in one of the later stages of atoll development: the original volcanic island has been eroded down to several small nubbins, all enclosed in a lagoon by a barrier reef. Each of these nubbins has its own name, and the name Chuuk refers to the entire complex. One of the more distinctive islands within Chuuk is Etten, often nicknamed the Aircraft Carrier Island. The Japanese (using native labor) reshaped the island into an airstrip, and the altered shape remains to this day. Just off the shore of Etten Island is a downed Mitsubishi Zero, also shallow enough for snorkeling. A spire of coral rises nearby. When I passed over the coral spire, I saw a great school of sergeant major (Abufdefduf saxatilis), a black-and-white striped fish.
I was told that the lagoon is such an intergral part of life in Chuuk, all Chuukese grow up boating and swimming from an early age. The main town is on Weno Island, and so people from the other islands regularly travel back and forth in motorboats. And wherever there is much boating, there is much fishing. Tuna is one of Chuuk's main exports. And for those who eat shellfish, Chuuk offers a special treat: mangrove crab (Scylla serrata). This is a very big crab, with claws nearly as large as those of Maine's lobsters, and particularly succulent flesh in the space between the gills and legs. It can be found at the open-air market across the street from the Post Office, and comes bundled in banana stems.
While at the market, you can also try drinking coconuts, that universal refreshment found throughout the tropics. Different countries prepare these in different ways; in Chuuk, the bottom is cut flat to allow it to stand, and they will cut the top off and hand the coconut to you -- drink from it like a cup. When the water is gone, you can break it open and scoop out the meat, too. Be sure also to try the local bananas, smaller and shorter than the kind in Western supermarkets. You may also wish to try the breadfruit dumpling, a doughy mass of mashed-up breadfruit, sold wrapped in breadfruit leaves. Breadfruit is grown in every backyard here (as are bananas and coconuts), and may be thought of as a typical Chuukese food. True to its name, breadfruit's flavor and texture are like bread dough, and nutritionally, it is a starchy carbohydrate, more like bread than fruit. It is also very filling; one person cannot possibly eat a whole dumpling in one meal.
Do not simply pick fruits along the road. Though they may appear to be growing "wild," every fruit and nut tree here is owned. If you do walk along rural roads, you will also see fields of giant swamp taro (Cyrtosperma merkusii), another important food.
The travel guides say that in order to see the diversity of Chuukese culture, it is essential to leave Weno and visit the other islands in the lagoon. The easiest is Tonoas Island, which in Japanese times was a complex of military bases. The Chuuk Visitors' Bureau can arrange a tour of these sites. At the old Japanese seaplane base, structures such as these bomb shelters can still be seen. Nearby is a more recent structure, an abandoned high school; one can catch glimpses of the Tonoas Islanders watching from among the deserted buildings. Tonoas has two peaks, whose Chuukese names translate as "Head of a Man" and "Head of a Woman;" during the War, American attack planes would fly up the valley between these to bomb the Japanese bases.
Just how far off the beaten tourist track is Chuuk? My tour guide was in fact none other than the Director of Tourism, Mason Fritz. (Don't be fooled by the German-sounding name; he's native Chuukese all the way.) His office knows all about dive sites, and World War 2 historical sites; but I had in mind some rather different ideas. Chuuk is home to a rare bird, the Truk monarch (Metabolus rugensis), very distinctive in that the male is pure white with a bit of black on the face, the female black, the juvenile a rufous brown. What I really hoped to see, though, was another bird, the Truk greater white-eye (Rukia ruki).
Micronesia is a devoutly Christian country. Unless you are part of an organized dive tour, don't expect to do much on Sunday. On the other hand, church is a big part of the local culture; if you care to experience it, there are ample choices -- this picture shows Logan Memorial Church, a Protestant church in the village of Mwan (the "w" is almost but not quite silent); my software does not adequately show the detailed lattice of the balcony railing and roofline fretwork. There are also Berea Evangelical Church, at least 2 Catholic churches, as well as Adventist and Latter Day Saints.
I was hard pressed to find an appropriate souvenir. I am past the stage of life to be interested in cheap, touristy imitations of traditional woodcarvings. At this stage of my life, I am more interested in collecting the music of the different countries I visit. Fortunately, I was able to find a CD of Chuukese musician Rechuuk; he is on MySpace, where most of his friends and followers there are Micronesian. This particular album is full of what sound like steel guitars, not surprisingly, since every Chuukese to whom I spoke mentioned having been to Hawaii.