Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia – November 1998
I’ve never seen a beige sky before. A monochromatic haze has absorbed the sun. The light is grainy and muted, like the sakau coursing through my blood.
The guides, Wilbur and Ivan, steer the outrigger canoe through the labyrinthine canals. A wall built from massive basalt stones looms before us. No one ever talks about the “Lost City” of Nan Madol, which is on the remote Micronesian island of Pohnpei. It’s one of the world’s archeological mysteries, and yet no one I know has ever heard of it. I’m the only tourist here today. The silent landscape gives the voices of doubt permission to speak – why can’t you just go to Disneyland or Vegas like normal people? Why are you always running away?
Wilbur jumps out of the canoe and pulls it onto the grassy shore.
“Nan Douwas. Burial place for the priests,” Ivan says. He tucks a fresh betel nut into his cheek.
I hand him my camera and climb onto the roof of the crypt. His eyes widen. “The scientist man who dug up this place died the next day,” he says. Wilbur nods and backs away from the tomb.
“Can you take my picture?” I hold my arms out, palms up, and stare up at the sky. I prefer an abrupt, mysterious death to slow decay, ruin, and exile. All of the things that befell this once powerful civilization. The things I try to outrun every day. A soft wind rustles, and I hear, you cannot escape yourself.
I jump down and stoop low to walk inside the stone tomb. A damp stillness envelops me. I crouch in a murky corner, reach into my backpack, and pull out the bottle of sakau. I take a deep breath, take a swig, and force it down before my throat can rebel. It’s like drinking a medicinal mud puddle. The grit chafes my throat. The herb numbs my mouth. I wait for the wave of artificial calm to wash over me before I venture out.
Wilbur and Ivan stand on the shore,as impassive as stone idols, while I snorkel around the remnants of towering sea walls. Holy men and kings once strolled down these paths. It is said that an escape tunnel was built from the middle of Nan Madol to the open sea, though divers have never been able to find it.
A ray of light pierces the water, illuminating a lone blue starfish. The ray expands and the sun’s warmth caresses my back. I resurface.
The tiny, man-made islets dot the shoreline like the dorsal fins of an immense sea serpent. A corner of the courtyard wall, still intact after centuries, rises from the water as straight and regal as a ship’s bow. Even in ruin there is majesty.
I float on my back and stare up at the sky. A few fluffy clouds are all that’s left of the haze. A vast silence fills my mind. Many have said that I seem lost, but I’ve always been able to find my way. Maybe everything will be okay after all.
Wilbur and Ivan beckon me back to shore. The tide is receding. We must leave now, or we will be trapped.
As the canoe rounds the final bend, I look over my shoulder one last time. Nan Madol shimmers and then vanishes, taking with it the remnants of my despair.