Micronesian Diary
Felicia R. Beardsley
Pohnpei State, FSM - October 1998


Pingelap photo

October 12, 1998

It has been a full week since I last wrote. We were making preparations for our trip to Pingelap Atoll, a fabulous trip that was a nice re-introduction to fieldwork. Caroline Islands Air wasn't sure if they wanted to fly two trips or three to Pingelap on Friday, the 9th. But, they had just put on three flights on Thursday and decided to add a couple on Saturday. So, Dionis and I made the decision to leave on Thursday and return on Saturday.

The weekend marked a very special time in the history of Pingelap. It was the first time the island hosted a celebration in honor of their Constitution Day, October 10. That is the day in 1944 when an American ship sailed into their harbor and announced (using a Pingelapese) that the war was over, that there was no more fighting. Preparations for the celebration had been underway for some time. Two ships were chartered by the Pingelap government to bring down the supplies sent by their fellow islanders living in Pohnpei, to bring their relatives and friends, and to bring anyone and everyone wanting to participate. Meanwhile, on Pingelap, the streets were cleaned, the women practiced special songs, mwaramwars were made by every household.

The flight to Pingelap is on a small airplane that seats seven passengers. The plane constantly vibrates with the hum of the engines. It is a relatively short flight (about an hour) that brings you down onto a rather short, bumpy runway. The airstrip on Pingelap is about 1100 feet long --- very short. The plane needs every foot of the airstrip to land. And to take off --- just watching it take off is utterly amazing, because it is not clear if the plane simply leaves the runway or actually lifts off when it reaches the end. I must have looked terrified when we took off Saturday, because the senator from Pingelap on board, as well as Retty, burst out laughing.

Photo of airplane arriving

We got to the island in the late afternoon on Thursday, October 8. Kondios and Jerry Knight from the survey office, and Retty (who had taken an earlier flight) met us at the plane. Kondios had already arranged for a boat to give us a tour of the lagoon. This is his island and he is very proud of it. He took us all over the lagoon. There are three islands in the atoll, all coral limestone bases, with a coral limestone plate visible in a small inlet on Pingelap Island. This is also the only atoll here with a mangrove. This was Teresa's first boat ride, and, like all firsts, it was scary. She did okay overall, and by the end of it was actually standing at the front of the boat looking at schools of fish, sea cucumbers oozing around, and a turtle swimming. This is the first time I have ever seen a turtle swimming in all my time out in the Pacific.

The lagoon is so clear and beautiful, with lots of corals and fish throughout. The islands are also quite beautiful. The population is not so large that it overruns the environment. In fact, the two islands at the north end of the atoll are not inhabited. They are covered with coconuts and a lot of pioneering strand-like vegetation; it gets to be quite thick overall and may present difficult passage if you don't have a machete on hand.

Tugulu is the smallest island; on the map, it looks like it is of fairly recent origin, the result of sediment build-up. There are no taro patches on it, which further suggests that it was not likely used for any sort of permanent habitation in the past (except of course during WWII, when the atoll population was shifted to these two northern islands by the Japanese, who established a base on Pingelap). The fact that there are no taro patches there also suggests that the underlying water lens may not be very well developed.

On the island of Takai, the second largest island in the group, there are isolated taro patches in the interior. I would hazard to guess that the lagoonward side of this island has undergone some coastal build-up/infilling/progradation, but that it is at least large enough to support a useable water lens (hence the presence of taro patches). This also means that there is at least a good chance that there are some prehistoric deposits on the island.

The third island supports the only village in the atoll, and it is located on the leeward side. Its population is something around 200 persons. There is a school that goes to grade 8, although there are probably not many students. The village itself consists of two parallel roads, one coastal and the other inland. At the end of the roads, on the south, is the church; at the north end, is the lagoon. Concrete houses line these streets, although I am told that at least ten years ago, most of the houses were pole and thatch structures, which are much cooler than the concrete houses of today. The taro patches of the community are in the center of the island, and are like many of the group taro patches I saw in Palau. It is divided into parcels, with each person owning so many rows. It is really quite beautiful when you get an overall view of the patch.

We stayed in the Chief Magistrate's house, on the second floor (where you could catch a nice breeze). It had a deck that you could look out over the main coastal road and see everything that was happening. It is also right next to the place where the ships land. The government chartered two ships for their celebration, and both landed early Friday morning. It was an event. They put out palm fronds along the path across the beach; women lined up along one side and sang as the people walked up the path, men stood by opening coconuts, and everyone shook hands, hugged and so on. The singing was really touching --- I don't know what the songs were (they could have been Protestant hymns, as this is the big religion on the island), but they were sung in the local language. They were positively beautiful.

When we were going to bed Thursday night, the women were practicing their singing at the church, so the town was filled with their singing. It just lulled you to sleep --- that and the sound of the waves. I slept better there than I have in Pohnpei. Maybe because of the darkness, the quiet, and the sound of the ocean.

October 13, 1998

Micro Glory at anchor
Micro Glory at anchor at Pingelap

The official Constitution Day ceremony began on Friday, the 9th of October. It was a very solemn occasion, and very touching (at times, it made me want to cry). Early in the morning, the two ships carrying those from Pohnpei docked just outside the reef.

Photo of celebrants arriving Photo of celebrants arriving

Everything was readied to accept these people: palm fronds were placed in a colonnade of sorts up the beach, along the path those disembarking from the ships would take; the women lined up along the path and began to sing the most beautiful songs for those disembarking; the men lined up and opened coconuts for those coming ashore. There were lots of greetings exchanged, many people returning to the island after too many years away. It was quite a sight to behold.

Photo of celebrants arriving Photo of celebrants arriving

Later in the afternoon there was a solemn ceremony with many speeches given, more singing, and afterwards, a large picnic. Lots of food was handed out.

On Saturday morning, there was a fishing tournament, followed by a picnic on the northern two islands. It rained a slow rain during the morning; the rain is good for the fishing, I am told. And the catch was plenty. The boats were out trolling, with tuna (Yellow Fin), skip jack (a relative of tuna), and wahu caught. Some boats also brought in some very pretty reef fish.

One of the funniest happenings was during the fishing tournament Saturday morning. Two boats ran out of gas and had to borrow gas from other fishermen. One of those boats carried the airline pilot. He got no end of teasing after that --- what sort of pilot doesn't carry a gauge?! He claimed innocence, because he was not the boat operator, the senator was. It seems that the second tank they took with them (the one they thought had gas in it) actually contained water. What is even more funny is that it said "water" on the side of it! And to top it all off, they had a very poor catch.

Retty had obtained permission for us to wander around the island freely. So Jones took us (mainly me and Teresa) around the inland side of the taro patches and told stories about growing up on the island. Retty took us along the side of the taro patch nearest the town; here we saw a very sparse scatter of prehistoric artifacts. And Teresa and I took off later to walk to the end of the island along one of the paths. She didn't like the end of the island --- too much rubble and a bit scary, as it was all jungle. The path, however, was a raised coral structure; it wasn't clear if it was a recent improvement of a traditional path, part of the traditional path, or perhaps a Japanese improvement of a traditional path, or a Japanese path altogether. We were in search of the Japanese base that was somewhere at that end of the island. At any rate, we didn't find it.

Later, we took yet another path that went through the interior of the island and ended at the south end as well. Again, we didn't find the Japanese base, but as we were returning we ran into Retty with a guide who did take us to the Japanese ruins. A fabulous sight, with about three or four foundations: one a bath house, one a generator house, another an official type building, two pillar-like entry posts, two water cisterns, and another small foundation out of our sight. The foundations were pretty broken up. Our guide said that the damage was done not by nature but by people looking for coconut crabs. On our hikes through the jungle we saw hermit and coconut crabs. Teresa was very proud of herself because she picked up a hermit crab; she was a bit scared of the coconut crabs, however, as they are big guys.

The jungle had pretty well engulfed these remains, with plants growing on, in, and around the foundations. You had to adjust your eyes in the half sun/half shade lighting to really see the foundations; otherwise, they simply disappear into the surrounding vegetation.

We spent some time looking for a prehistoric site that Jones said is somewhere down at this end of the island, but we never found it. We returned to town by way of the beach strand, which is outside the jungle. It felt good to be in fresh air again; the jungle is so stifling. Our guide caught a mangrove crab --- the first of its kind ever caught on the island.

Overall, Teresa did quite well on our adventure. She got a little scared in the jungle, especially of the coconut crabs (just their appearances mainly). But she also was brave and picked up a hermit crab on her own, and told me about it later. She was noticing all the hermit crabs on the ground; I didn't see them at all! She was really good on the boat ride around the lagoon (our tour of the place) and even started looking for schools of fish, sea cucumbers and stuff.

She even touched fish --- the fish that were pooled together for the fishing contest during the Constitution Day celebration. There was a fishing contest to see who could bring in the most fish, then all the fish from the tournament were pooled and divided equally across the island. All those special people who had attended the celebration also received fish --- we did, as well as the Pohnpei State governor, a senator, and a few other people. Our return flight had the governor and senator on it, and us; in fact, the governor even gave Teresa and I a ride home, as our taxi had not yet appeared.

Next: Kitti