Micronesia – the mysteries of a vanished civilization and living with sharks at an atoll

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125706Pohnpei Island, Micronesia

20.10.2017

After sailing for twelve days in amethyst colored waters and crossing 1200 nautical miles (around 2200 km) we see the silhouette of an unreal island. The water glitters in the morning sun. A chain of sharpened green mountains, covered in equatorial flora, floats before our eyes like a mirage. We have finally reached our first destination – Kosrae Island, Federated States of Micronesia – a small piece of land long 15-20 km, situated in the middle of nowhere.

2018-05-29 13.41.50Kosrae Island

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124417Tofol Bay

 

MICRONESIA

Interesting to know…
The geographic area of Micronesia includes several countries: Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and more. These are all small atoll countries populated by people who came from Asia nearly one thousand years ago. They have similar cultures and their life is closely connected to the ocean. Their society has complex hierarchical structures.

 

Federated states of Micronesia

Capital: Palikir, Pohnpei Island

Area: 702 sq. km, the country has four states – Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae. It has around 600 atolls and islands

Population: around 100 000 people

Language: the official is English with many local languages being spoken around the islands

Currency: United States Dollar

Religion: Christianity

State system: the four federate states are in a free association with the USA, which are in charge of the military and the finances. Up to 1968 the Micronesia states had been American territory.

2018-05-29 13.40.42

We drop anchor at a small closed bay in the most eastern of all states – Kosrae. Immigration authorities check us, all goes smoothly and we head to the land. The owner of the boat Mr. Windy had booked two rooms at a resort so we lock up the boat and start walking on the streets of Lelu towards the hotel.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124447The church on Lelu Island

As it always happens, every time after we have spent long time at sea, all things seems really beautiful and enchanting. The sight of green colors makes us jump with joy. The town consists of old, spacious, maybe a little shabby, brick buildings. There are a few stores that don’t sell much stuff. Most people drive second hand cars imported from the USA. Everything is green – banana plants, coconut palm tress, hibiscuses, betelnut palms… There is an air of forgetfulness, abandonment and silent dissolution that envelop this far Kosrae paradise. May be this is the main reason why many of its inhabitants go to Hawaii or USA and never come back. In addition it is very easy for them to do so as they don’t need visas to go there.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124425Typical Kosrae house

I keep wondering: what is the feeling of being born in the middle of the ocean, on an island that is just 20 km long, with the closest land being 500 km away? The mentality that these circumstances mold has to be very different than the one people, who live on a continent, have.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124508Kosrae man

Lelu is very small. It used to be the old capital, home of nobility who lived in a town fortified by basalt rocks. It is located on a close-by small island connected to the main one by bridge. We see fruit eating bats flying in the sticky wet air. Entering the supermarket the crew is dazzled by the prices displayed in American dollars. Pumpkin is 5 USD, chips is 4,50 USD, most of the vegetables are 3 USD or more. The stalls on the street sell cakes, some local vinegar sauce and small betel nuts. We treat ourselves to cinnamon sweets to celebrate our arrival.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124404Walking around Lelu with Aska

People seem to be really nice. They look at us curiously and greet us cordially, though they are not so expressive and spontaneous as the Vanuatu people. Most of the women are corpulent, dressed in long black embroidered skirts. Their faces have Filipino or Polynesian kind of traits. Most of the people have black hair and slightly Asiatic eyes. Their skin is moderately dark and they remind us a lot of the Kiribati people.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124442The girls are sleeping

The crew heads to the resort where the owner of the yacht has booked us rooms. It is withing ten minutes walking distance. We are so elated by walking on solid ground, by being at the hotel and having the opportunity to relax by the pool, rest in the luxurious rooms or chill by the ocean, that Mr. Shushtari and I manage to go for a walk only in the late afternoon. The asphalt road leads us to Tofol, the administrative capital consisting of several building scattered among exotic trees and flowers, two-three shops, a bank and a police station. When we head back some people offer us a ride to our “Nautilus Resort”.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124454The hotel

21.10

We manage to rest well at last. It is a blessing to sleep without your body being rocked and moved from side to side on the bed, and without the wind blowing strongly and flapping the sails at your ears, and also without the constant noise of the power generator.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_141147Kosrae coast

Time to hitchhike in the afternoon, direction north. A nice guy with a pick-up takes us. He visits the massive old Protestant churches in Tafunsak village and then goes to the port and the airport, which is situated on a picturesque bay. This island is a real beauty!

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124410Hitchhiking around the bay

The insides of the island are wild. There are just four main villages on the coast. Life is being modernized under the influence of USA. Anyway people still keep various local rules and customs.

In the evening we are visited by a group of Americans from the Peace Corps who live and teach English here. Everyone sits at the table and we spend the night drinking beers and chatting about what it is to live on such a secluded and not touristic island.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124518The churches of Tafunsak

22.10

Today is Sunday. The streets are empty. Everyone went to church. Kosrae is mainly Protestant and people are very religious. On Sunday they follow the rules strictly and no one drinks alcohol, goes fishing, sings, dances or does anything in general. All the shops and offices are closed. Many people go to a restaurant after the mass. Some families come to our “Nautilus Resort” to eat pizza and hamburgers.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124526Dancing with the staff at the hotel

It is time to go back to the ship. After reaching the bay we start shouting at the boat hoping that Seba who is there will hear us. After some time local people come to us and ask us to not make loud noises because their children will see us and will start themselves behaving disrespectfully 🙂

Mr. Shushtari and I decide to stay on Alabama as there are no cars on the streets today and respectfully no reason to even try to hitchhike. In the evening the Americans come with a bottle of pineapple wine distilled by them.

23.10

It’s my birthday today. I recall my last two birthdays – the last one we spent lost in the jungle of Sulawesi Island, Indonesia with no food or water (though on my birthday we found water and made a party for the occasion), on the one before it, we were under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, India. It is the tree under which Buddha got his enlightenment. All this makes me wonder: what exciting thing will happen this year? Marcello comes carrying a bucket of ice-cream as a gift. The crew prepares pizzas and salads for lunch. In the evening we are invited at a hotel to perform for an Italian woman married to an American who has lived many years on the island. That is how I will spend my birthday – performing gypsy songs and dances on an island in Micronesia.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_141141Lagoon

The restaurant is built on a wooden platform in a mangrove forest. The owner Maria comes from the same town in Italy as Marcello and greets us joyously bringing us many sodas and beers. To our utter surprise not long after comes Kuncho he is a Bulgarian (as we, Magy and Mr. Shushtari, are) who has an American citizenship. He has spent the last 22 years on Kosrae, has a wife and nine children. We are the first Bulgarians he meets for the time he’s lived here. We too have met just a few Bulgarians during our journey so our joy is overwhelming. We can’t stop talking.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124430Together with Kuncho – the Bulgarian “discoverers” of Micronesia

The show has begun. All the foreigners who live on the island have come here to see something new and different, as life here might be pretty monotonous. Our repertoire this time consists mainly of songs and dances. Marcello sings many Italian songs, which brings joy to the owner Maria. At the end, when he was supposed to blow fire, something happened and the kerosene covered his beard and caught flames – all to the audience’s horror. The fire is not easy to put down so Marcello jumps head down in the mangrove river next to the hotel.

We all start laughing in order to decrease the arising panic. He goes out of the river and bows as if this is part of the show. Luckily Marcello’s face is a little burned but relatively OK, so we all sigh with relief.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124502Local people have prepared their own show for us too – singing traditional songs

Instead of cake Maria serves us pizza, as she is an Italian :). And there is a candle in the middle of it – it’s for my birthday. The feast begins. At some point Kuncho takes us with his Jaguar to the dock, playing loudly Jimmy Hendrix while driving. That’ how this memorable day ends.

24.10

Micronesia hides unsolved mysteries – ancient ruins dating back to 16-th century that belonged to a civilization long gone. They are on Lelu Island – just opposite to where Alabama is anchored. We go to see them with the French pirate Seba and the Argentinian Alejo. When we reach them it turns out the ruins are quite impressive in size and are everywhere around the island, but remain hidden from sight by the jungle, the houses and the streets.

A local man shows us the entrance and somewhat respected by the ruins leaves. People here believe that the place is filled with different spirits and don’t visit the ruins, especially at night. We are taken over by the spirit of the ancient civilization. Thick tall fortress walls surround us. They are made by roughly cut basalt columns. There are tombs, places for ritual intake of kava, giant stone blocks that weigh 20 tones. It is still a mystery how people here managed to build such huge constructions as well as why and how they disappeared.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124535A fortress wall

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125554Around the ruins of Lelu

Walking around the labyrinths of the covered in corals streets we see other people of the crew together with the anthropologist Ashley and a group of young teachers. Next destination is the factory for paper made of banana stems – an ecological project for sustainable development of the island. Then all ten of us squeeze in the Ashley’s car and go to see a near-by waterfall. The road leading to it goes through real equatorial jungle, which had taken over the abandoned houses of locals who moved to live in USA. The citizens of Federate States of Micronesia can travel and work freely in America.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124359

The waterfall is amazing. We shower under its powerful stream and Alejo finds a flower that behaves like soap and makes foam when put in water. We go back to Alabama in the evening to find Marcello at the boat who all day stayed there to take care of the burns on his face from yesterday.

25.10

Obtaining the permit to travel around Micronesia takes time so we have to remain some more time here before heading to Pohnpei Island – our next destination. Aska and I go to the history museum walking among the rainbow trees. They carry this name because their bark is colored as a rainbow. It is quite hot and the sun is strong. When we are back we see a fat fish, its head resembling  that of a dog, in the lagoon. It looks like a balloon fish, which can double or triple its size when in danger.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_132319Rainbow trees

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_132259

Finally the authorities grant us the permit – not without some precious help from Maria (the owner of the restaurant where we performed).

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_124435A hut in the rain

The crew organizes a farewell party on Alabama and Maria, her family and the American teachers join us. Ashley and Nick even plan to come to Pohnpei with us. It is amazing how we made all these cordial friendships for such a short time. Maria has prepared some special meals – eggplants fried in eggs and bred-crumbs and pumpkin pie. Ashley has brought several bottles of home made pineapple wine. Everyone is enjoying their time and laughter, songs and cries of joy echo in the silent bay. After the party we prepare to embark immediately. The anchor is weighed and Alabama sails in between the corals, heading to the open sea.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125630The farewell party

26. – 28.10

We sail on motor while waiting for some small storm or any kind of wind . Finally it starts blowing from the north in the afternoon. The big sail (Genoa)  is set and then the mizzen (for which we constructed a system of three ropes and rolls, attached to the boom) follows. With this new installment the sail is fully stretched in a beautiful way and doesn’t flap for the first time. A small whale jumps in and out of water next to us for a short time and then it disappears swiftly.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_131847Setting the sails

The wind is changing all the time the next day. We set the sails, then haul and use the motor. Next to us appears Pingelap atoll. Everyone is very excited as no one in the crew has ever seen an atoll – the dream of every westerner: corals, white sands, coco-nut trees, crystal clear water. It is interesting to know that people on this specific atoll have some genetic disorder and everyone of the inhabitants see in black and white. The atoll is secluded and ships stop here once every six months. What is it like the feeling of being born and raised here, seeing the world in black and white?!

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125636Pingelap Atoll

Sadly we cannot find our way around the “fortress wall” of corals, surrounding the atoll from all sides and respectively can’t anchor inside it. The strong current, the big waves and the lack of time due to our upcoming meeting with Mr. Windy, the owner of the boat, lead to the decision to continue. Chagrined we watch the atoll fading into the distance.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125713

There is no wind the next day. The boat advances on motors. Around us all is blue, blue and some more blue. Later we see Mokil Atoll – a low, covered in palm trees land, consisting of three small island again surrounded by corals and giant waves. While the boat goes around the atoll we find ourselves at a spot where thousands of small black birds fly over the sea eating the leftovers from a tuna fish feast. After circling around few times we catch a big yellow fin tuna and part with the beautiful atoll.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125732A rainbow

29. – 30.10

Already close to Pohnpei Island, which is surrounded by corals, we navigate through the many canals and markers showing the shallows. Everyone is vigilant and Alejo even climbed the mast – as did the observers at ancient ships.

2018-05-29 13.43.10Between Kosrae and Pohnpei

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_132309Close to Pohnpei

The boat is first anchored next to the airport, but every island in Micronesia is a separate administrative unit and we need to pass all custom, immigration and sanitary checks, so Alabama is moved closer to the port. As the boat enters yet another canal and moves next to a mangrove forest there is an Alabama surprise… The motor works, the axle spins but the yacht doesn’t move. We have lost our propeller! Luckily the place is safe and we can drop the anchor. If this had happened in any other place the result would be a ship wreck.

For an obvious reason there are wrecked ships everywhere around us. Before entering the bay there also were some big ships on the outer edge of the coral. Here we see five twisted ships and a few smaller yachts. We inform the authorities for the incident and go to fetch them our documents with the dinghy.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125717Shipwreck in the corals

No one is allowed to leave the boat the next day as the authorities first need to give us permit. They are not very enthusiastic in doing so and prolong things to the early afternoon. They don’t let us meet Mr. Windy at the airport. Good that the officers at the port send a taxi to take him. He soon appears at the small dock of “Mangrove Resort” where the boat is anchored. Tom, Aska and Marcello disobey the orders and go to meet him with the dinghy.

It is the first time to meet Mr. Widny –  a joyous Korean, over 50 years old, with a very pleasant personality. He brings gifts – Japanese sweets and over 200 meters of 20 inch thick (!!!) rope. People show him around Alabama and he is being told about our latest adventures. In the evening we have a feast of sushi, beer, sweet talks and singing songs.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_132142Alabama anchored next to Pohnpei Island

31.10

Mr. Windy rents a car to go around the island. The main town Kolonia is fifteen minutes walking distance from the marina and is a little bit bigger than Lelu on Kosrae. Respectively more people live here. There are no tall buildings and the surroundings are nice and interesting. Many shops sell the traditional black embroidered skirts, which are the preferred outfit of most of the women here.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_131831Traditional embroidered skirts

There are food stalls on the street. The two landmarks are a church tower with a bell – reminder of the times when the Germans lived here ( Micronesia was first colonized by the Spanish, then the Germans, followed by the Japanese and finally the Americans) and an ancient wall from the times of the Spaniards.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125646The old German bell tower

Most of the people are Catholic so there are many Catholic churches on the island. Here, as was in Kosrae, the locals seem very friendly. They are slightly corpulent, always smiling. Women have long black hairs with combs in them. People here love chewing betel .  As well as parties if one judges by the shouting and the music during night. We find some striking resemblances between the people here and the Kiribati citizens (other Micronesian people) – the festive spirit, the slightly criminal atmosphere and the passion for fishing.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125625

Afra and I go to the hospital because she feels some pain in her gall-bladder. After waiting for the whole morning a Nigerian doctor finally sees her. Then all the ladies from the crew hop on Mr. Windy’s rented car and embark on a journey around the island.

The equatorial nature is very beautiful. Pohnpei is the biggest island of the Federated Micronesia States. In fact, together with Kosrae, these are the only two proper islands with hills and central mountain part. All the rest are atolls.

In an hour driving on the not so good asphalt road circumventing the island, we reach the biggest landmark – the mysterious ruins Nan Madol. They belong to a civilization vanished centuries ago. Little to nothing is known about it. The ruins are impressive in size and belong to UNESCO’s heritage list.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_132218Nan Madol’s ruins

We go on a separate island on a bridge and start looking where to turn. There are no signs and all is in thick jungle. Our group reaches several shabby houses and the owners charge us 3 USD per person to enter. Ancient stone pathways lead us through a mangrove forest to the heart of the complex. All that is left are several temple buildings and parts of the fortress walls. All buildings are made with huge six sided basalt blocks.

Some speculate that the ruins date back to 11-16 century A.D. and belong to the Atlantis people. Our journey continues till the evening as we go enchanted around the artificial coral island, built in the middle of the mangrove jungle.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125609LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125618LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125656Nan Madol

After visiting the ruins we go to a traditional establishment for drinking “sakau” as the locals here call the kava drink. Everyone drinks a cup or two of the dribbling liquid surrounded by locals who are already under its influence, some of them drinking alcohol too. In the evening Mr. Windy takes us to a Japanese restaurant and treats us to Udon noodles.

01. – 07.11

The next week is spent anchored in the marina of “Mangrove Resort” enjoying the Micronesian life together with Mr. Windy who is charmed by the crew, the yacht and our uncommon way of life. The heat is unbearable and all is sticky. On top of it equatorial rains pour all day long so most of the days we sit at the marina’s bar and work on the blog.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_132153LRM_EXPORT_20180529_131916Baseball fruit – it is the first time we try it

Nick, one of the Americans who hitchhiked the yacht at Kosrae suddenly decides to continue with us to South Korea thus leaving his life here. We enthusiastically accept him as a new member of the crew. In addition he is really nice and sweet.

At some point the propeller is fixed and attached back. Like this we manage to take Alabama out of the reef barrier and Mr. Windy can feel the pleasure of sailing with the yacht. In the evening we need to go back to the bay as there is no appropriate place where we could anchor the boat.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_132206Sailing around

The next evening Mr. Windy treats us to a farewell dinner at one of the hotels and then leaves content to South Korea where he will meet us again in one or two months.

The next two days are spent fixing Alabama, buying provisions for the journey, sending packages by mail and walking around the island. Sometimes kids come to the boat to visit and play with us. We also become friends with immigrants from the Kapingamarangi Atoll, which is a week sailing away. They all love drinking and having fun.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_131840Local house

08.11

It is decided to visit the close-by Ant Atoll for few days before we leave the country. None of us has ever been on an atoll and the idea to dive all day in the uninhabited lagoon lures us. Sadly the atoll is privately owned and we have to pay 10 USD per person and 35 USD for the yacht if we want to visit it. The expanses of our travel are covered by the owner so we decide to allow us the pleasure.

2018-05-29 13.44.46

The atoll is 25 nautical miles away (around five hours of sailing). We start at noon and “fly” with 9 knots. Earlier Sebastian has climbed up on the top of the mast and has installed a wooden block, swaying dangerously while doing so. This allows us to set all four sails. Shortly the boat enters the s-shaped canal entering the atoll.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_131903In full sails

Interesting to know…

Atolls are low coral ring-shaped islands and have a lagoon in its center. They are formed when a volcano sinks and then corals grow on its rim for thousands of years. Atolls exist only in the tropics and subtropics.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_131823Ant atoll

The crew maneuvers the boat skillfully inside the narrow channel, paying extremely close attention to not crash into the coral walls on both of our sides. Luckily there are many buoys and navigation rods so we enter the lagoon safely. The water is crystal clear reflecting the thin land covered in coconut trees, glittering under the last sun rays. The silence is broken only by birds singing. Otherwise Alabama is engulfed in silence, floating over the cone of the sunken volcano.

To witness the sunset in the atoll is a truly breathtaking experience. The lagoon gives one the feeling of being in a micro-world that is teeming with life but is at the same time protected by the force of the ocean. It is such a joy to be here!!!

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_132108On an expedition with the dinghy

09. – 13.11

Days at the atoll are magical. Here one can: dive over the colorful corals; gather coconuts; jump in the water from the roof of the boat making a somersault in the air, listen to the surrounding silence or intoxicate oneself with the surrounding colors.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_131950The atoll’s ring. Ponapei island could be seen in the distance.

The atoll is uninhabited so we are the only people inside the lagoon, except some motor boats, which pass by quite seldom. While we are gathering coconuts in the jungle many animals come to take a look at us – rats, birds, crabs… they probably have seen very few humans before. We feel like we are in a reality of harmony between all living things, as if we are in another dimension. This is one of the most remarkable places we have ever dived at. Steep coral walls go as deep as 15-20 meters under the water. Colorful fish pop out from every hole in it. The corals are amazing: some resemble human brains, others crystal forests or doughnuts.

To our utter joy the lagoon is filled with reef sharks some of which are more than one meter long. Diving with the sharks gives one an adrenaline rush even though these ones are not dangerous for people. The sharks themselves are not afraid at all and some are curious and come closer to take a look at us. We also swim with sea turtles. It feels like one can stay here forever and forget that time even exists.

One of the days Tom and Sebastian take me to the top of the mast tied with ropes. The view towards the reef makes me dizzy with its beauty.LRM_EXPORT_20180529_125546

After spending a week in paradise it is time to go back to Pohnpei and prepare for the last leg of the journey. There are 1500 nautical miles to be crossed in order to reach our next destination – the Japanese island cluster Ogasawara, which is located north of the Mariana Trench.

In the left afternoon we are back and spend the last night calmly. Some of the crew get drunk with a home made coconut alcohol, which they sell at the bar of the marina. It is being served in big buckets.

14.11

Final arrangements: filling the reservoir with sweet water; buying tons of vegetables; washing clothes and sheets (one needs to save fresh water when sailing so no laundry and even no showers most of the time); surfing the internet for the last time; checking out of the country.

We are ready and will sail the next morning. In the evening a Japanese fisherman coming from his boat anchored near-by comes to visit us and brings a big bag of soda drinks. Last quiet night.

LRM_EXPORT_20180529_132227Alabama crew

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