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Pohnpei & Ant Atoll, FSM, May-June 2004

We're leaving Pohnpei tomorrow for the Solomons, so are writing this to summarize our experiences here. We arrived on May 19 and spent the first few days getting oriented and taking care of some business. We obtained visas to visit Australia which will enable us to spend up to a year there after our next arrival, which fits very well with our current plan. To get the visas we had to have chest X-rays ($3 each), a physical by the Australian Embassy's recommended doctor, and show proof that we have an income and won't have to take jobs away from Australians. The same Australian Embassy handles Papua New Guinea business, and gave us Visitor's Permits for PNG which we hope will save us from the considerable delay and anxiety of having our passports sent by PNG officials to Port Moresby for processing. We never like to be in a foreign country without our passports, and sending them to the unpredictable officials of a government infamous for its corruption does not appeal to us. We got our mail and magazines, and balanced our checkbook. We started shopping to determine where the best buys were and where hard-to-get things were available. (We never did find gingerale for passage-making, tonic water, sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds.)

The American influence is still strong here. Our government is providing big bucks to the FSM government under a "Compact of Free Association" which is just being renewed for another 20 years. There are American chain stores like Ace Hardware and NAPA, and American brands are common in grocery stores. American culture is dominant - music, clothes, videos, etc. - just as it is in almost every country we visit. However, here for the first time we see a significant influence from the Far East. A baseball cap that says "Giants" is probably for the Tokyo team. Some items in grocery stores have no English on the package, and may be from the Philippines, Korea, China, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, or somewhere else. We bought a "siopao" at a fast-food counter (sweet meat, egg & sauce inside a pale white pastry - pretty good) and the cook did not know where it originated. Of course there are locally grown foods like bananas and yams, but we did not find a marketplace specializing in those items. We found problems with both availability and quality of fresh vegetables like tomatos, carrots, onions and letttuce which are almost all imported via container ship. At least Jerry can get plenty of bananas here and we've been enjoying plantain again after several months without having it available.

This is the first place we have seen large numbers of people chewing betel nuts. These are the fruits of a particular kind of palm tree, which are simply cut in half, wrapped in a piece of leaf with some lime (powdered coral) and popped in the mouth to chew. This is usually a big mouthful which makes talking difficult. The habit is addictive, similar to tobacco I suppose. Users have to spit frequently, and many shops post signs saying "Please do not spit Betel Nut on the floor." Maybe someone should start promoting cuspidors again? Taxi drivers who chew are often opening their doors to spit while driving, which can be disconcerting to passengers. The lime dissolves tooth enamel, so chewers soon have very bad teeth. We have trouble understanding why it is so popular with both men and women, but it is. In fact, the chewing habit seems to start fairly young. Nuts are available (ten cents each) at almost every little shop by the wayside, more prominently displayed than candy. We haven't been tempted to try this yet.

We had been having difficulties starting our engines, and finally bought two new starting batteries here. The difference is significant, and we feel happier knowing we can get both engines running quickly if necessary. A shifter control wire came apart too, but was fixed with some creative jury-rigging by Jerry and our friend Keith of "Stardancer II." Jerry also changed oil and filters and made some other adjustments, so we hope we won't have to worry about our engines for the next few months. He also did some wiring work (which never seems to be completely finished) on lights and power outlets.

In and around Kolonia we visited the small local museum, saw the old stone wall built by the Spanish, saw a German bell tower that was not bombed during the war, and visited several craft shops. After seeing Kolonia, we hired a taxi driver to take us around the island with Keith & Shayle. The driver had his own ideas of what we should see, and didn't take us to some of the sights we requested (petroglyphs), but we still had an interesting ride and saw a lot. We had a pleasant walk to one nice waterfall, and drove by the main government complex which is fairly new and nicely designed. This very fertile island is not heavily populated, and there are large areas which could be converted from jungle to gardens. However, this has been happening some (people have been clearing the rainforest to plant kava to export) and the environmentalists are attempting to educate the younger generation so that some of the rainforest will be left and the soil will not all go into the sea. The population is increasing, so as the roads improve more people will move to new lands. Japan is funding and supervising a major upgrade of roads and bridges in the southern part of the island. Although the Japanese occupied the island in WWII, there seem to be no hard feelings now, and Japanese tourists are frequently seen.

We ate at several restaurants, with the (Japanese) Joy Hotel our favorite. Jerry liked their "oyako donburi" (chicken & egg atop rice). He also tried their Pohnpei pepper steak. They grow and package their own unique pepper here. The sashimi (raw yellowfin tuna) is very high quality and not expensive in any of the restaurants we tried. On Saturday nights they have traditional dancing at one of the restaurants (free outside). Most of the dancing was Polynesian, but we did see one Micronesian dance and enjoyed the entire show. A couple of the islands here in the State of Pohnpei do have Polynesians living on them and many of them have migrated to Kolonia and live in their own villages here. We took some walks, including a hot climb up the ridge which dominates the harbor. On top are two anti-aircraft guns and an anti-ship gun from the Japanese occupation. The grounds are now nicely maintained as a sort of park with many flowers, though the guns are rusting away. On top is a real rainforest, since it rains almost every day, sometimes very vigorously.

We sailed with "Stardancer II" (an Australian boat) to Matalanim Harbor on the southeast coast and anchored there for a few days to see Nan Madol. Previous cruising boats had reported theft there, so advised us to go with a "buddy" boat and visit the ruins at different times. Nan Madol is a one mile by one-half mile complex of 92 artificial islets and canals, on which large stone buildings were built. It was the political and religious center of the island. Construction started before A.D. 232 and continued for 1500 years, but it was deserted before the Europeans arrived in 1820. Some of the basalt pillars used are 25 feet long and weigh 50 tons, so cutting, transporting and building must have required many men. Some of the walls still stand 25 feet high. It must have been an impressive fortress city in its prime. We saw a similar city of stone ruins on Kosrae, and as far as we know these are the only examples of substantial old stone buildings in the Pacific. (There are coral platforms and defensive walls in some other places.) This civilization, which built so well, vanished without any written records, and its oral history has been mostly lost because of diseases and missionary influences. Now the ruins are still impressive, but mysterious and deteriorating.

(view photos of Nan Madol)

From Matalanim we sailed to Ant Atoll, about 15 miles west of Pohnpei Island. It was a beautiful sail off the wind, with a twisting pass and strong currents at the end, but we were anchored by early afternoon. Ant is uninhabited, though to go there we had to get permission from the family which owns it. When we arrived we discovered more than 8 fiberglass "longboats" herding bonito into nets. It was an exciting operation, but the Attorney General who arrived the next day said it was illegal. We only saw a few individual fishermen after that. On the weekends a few family boats brought their kids to the beach for picnics, and a couple of dive operators brought their divers to the beach near us for lunch, but we were left alone. We were able to snorkel, clean the bottom of our boat, do some boat maintenance projects, and have quiet parties with Keith & Shayle on some evenings. The snorkelling was interesting with many more giant clams on the reef than we'd ever seen before and we saw a Moray Eel, a large sting ray and a yellow & green pillow-looking sea biscuit-type "thing that we'd never seen before." Plus we saw the normal colorful tropical fish, colorful tubeworms and colorful soft and hard corals. It was the most peaceful place imaginable, and we hated to leave. We finally left on June 17 after ten lovely days. We caught a 3' wahoo on the way back to Kolonia - very exciting since we hadn't caught a good fish for a while.

We reanchored back in our old spot in Pohnpei's main harbor, near the big town of Kolonia. It was rainy, so we topped up our water tanks and did our laundry. We finished stocking up. We do not expect to find a good store for the next five months. Here the stores are pretty good, except the entire island was out of rice and flour for a couple of weeks. The container ship finally arrived and the stores are now restocked. We bought food to give away and trade as well as for ourselves. We also got full propane tanks and diesel tanks, since the availability of those is also questionable. (This might be viewed as a "good investment" since if Bush and his oilmen friends have their way the price of fuel will continue to rise.) Multihull purists would definitely consider our boat overloaded, but we just think of it as being prepared.

It is midsummer here near the equator, and Nina especially is feeling the heat. She calls it "too hot to wear a t-shirt." Jerry only wears shirts when going to town. We use a fan over our bed on nights when there is no wind or we need to keep hatches closed on account of rain. The breezes will be better once we are at sea, so we expect to be cooler as we sail across the equator. We had a strong squall here on the 21st, which damaged some roofs and trees in town. Our anchor held, but a boat which had been anchored here for eight months dragged its anchor and nearly ran into us. There was no damage to any boat, but we were reminded of the unpredictability of weather and that we must be vigilant. The following day when we returned from town we had to walk over two fallen trees (one toppled an electric line) and there were several banana trees that had fallen. When we got back to the boat we found that the strongest gust had been 38 knots. There is a tropical storm way northwest of us, a tropical disturbance has just passed north of us and is strengthening, and it is time for us to move south to avoid possibly serious weather. We were ready to leave a few days ago, but waited for the strong winds and 9' seas outside the harbor to subside.

(view photos of Pohnpei)

Our next destination is the island of Tikopea in the eastern Solomon Islands. Our position here is 7N 158E and Tikopea is at 12S 169E. The distance is 1313 nautical miles as the frigate bird flies, but we will not try to go in a straight line because south of the equator we are almost sure to find trade winds blowing consistently from the southeast. Our strategy is to get far enough east before crossing the equator to have easy sailing (a reach) in southeast winds south of the equator. We may get very near to Abemama Atoll in Kiribati before crossing the equator. North of the equator at this time of year we expect winds to be fairly light and variable in direction, sometimes allowing us to sail directly east. Also, there is an "equatorial countercurrent" which may help us eastward at one knot or more, somewhere in the latitude of 3N-5N, though it is not easy to find and not always present. Since the rest of the area has currents flowing westward at one knot or more, it will be worth trying to find and use the countercurrent.

To make the officials happy in the Solomons (and that is always our first task when entering a new country) we must go to an official check-in port before going to Tikopea. We will go to Lata, on Nendo Island in the Santa Cruz Group, hoping the officials there will check us in fully and not require us to go to Honiara, Guadalcanal. It is a long way upwind from Guadalcanal to Tikopea, and we do not want to do that much beating into the trade wind and current. From Lata we will have to sail 200 miles upwind to Tikopea, which will be a pain with the wind on our nose, but we'll get there eventually. Of course you know (as one of our friends wrote) our plans are drawn in the sand and will probably change with the next tide.

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