In the Shadow of the Sleeping Lady

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Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia – November 1998

It is said that long ago God became angry with Kosrae. He laid her on her back in the middle of the Pacific, where she went to sleep and became an island.

The Sleeping Lady’s form fills the truck’s bug-splattered windshield. I stare at the lush volcanic mountains that make up her body. A slight indentation in the head mountain gives the impression of a mysterious smile.

The hotel manager pulls the truck into the parking lot. She hands me a paper bag full of green-skinned mandarins. “I picked them this morning. Welcome to Kosrae.” She smiles, showing large, betel nut-stained teeth.

I thank her and follow behind as she leads me to my tiny bungalow. I sit on my front porch and eat a couple of the mandarins. I’m relieved to see that the other bungalows are deserted. An unaccompanied woman traveler always incites scrutiny. Or pity. She is someone who must be rescued from her solitude.

I look out over the ocean, which seems to unfurl and wrap itself around the globe. I feel like I could reach out and stroke its smooth rind. Gentle waves crest and fall, etching ornate grooves in the sand. I want to curl up on this distant shore and lose myself forever.

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It is said that Kosrae was menstruating at the time she was punished. In the dense jungle between her thighs a red soil can be found. Only the bravest men dared go there to collect this special soil, which they used to mix a paint for their canoes.

I’m awakened by soft singing. I lift my head and peer through the thin curtains. A woman sits with a small child next to a palm tree. Her black braid is as thick and long as my arm. I shake off my sleep and walk out onto the porch.

The woman smiles at me and picks up her child. She walks to the porch and sits down. I stiffen a bit, wondering what she might want. But the childlike innocence of her smile tells me that no one has ever been mean to her. Tears sting my eyes. Such trust in people vanished in me long ago.

She asks me about my life. My answers are short, evasive. I don’t want to talk about the busy life that awaits me, even though it is a good one. The impending marriage with all of its bewildering preparations. This kind of domesticity isn’t supposed to happen to women like me. I lean my head against the wooden railing and fall silent. After a while, the woman begins to sing again to the child. They hold hands and walk down the beach. I watch them until they shrink to tiny pinpoints, and then disappear.

At sunset I walk to a restaurant that’s situated in the middle of a mangrove channel. By the time I get there, darkness has fallen. Small lights illuminate the path across a wooden bridge. The restaurant is empty, except for a table of Micronesian women. I smile at them, but their faces are full of disapproval. I sigh and sit down at a table across the room. Once, I would have smiled sheepishly and tried to win them over. A lone woman traveler shouldn’t be perceived as a threat. I brush off their scorn and look out at the black night. Anxiety grips me when I think of the long walk back to my bungalow. I forgot that there are no streetlights here.

Eventually, curiosity gets the best of the women. “What brings you to Kosrae?” one of them asks me.

“I’m doing the island-hopping tour on my way back to America. I was just visiting my fiancé, who lives in New Caledonia.” I don’t add that it’s my last solo adventure before settling down.

At the mention of a fiancé, they relax visibly and smile. They offer to buy me a drink, but I decline. I’m about to lose my independence, but that doesn’t mean I have anything to say to them.

“Is it safe to walk alone at night?” I ask when I pay my bill.

“It’s fine,” the woman says with an amused look in her eyes. “But I will call someone if you’re afraid.”

“No, that’s okay. Thanks.” I walk up the path and turn down the lone road. The meager lights recede, and panic grips me. I walk gingerly, not wanting to trip. I stop for a moment and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Moonlight illuminates tall, slender palm trees that form a canopy over the road. A slight breeze rustles the palm fronds. They sound like the most delicate of wind chimes. My breathing slows. I have nothing to fear here.

A few minutes later, a truck pulls up beside me. My heart begins to race.

A man leans out the window and smiles. “The lady from the restaurant called me. Let me give you a ride.”

I hesitate for a moment. Now that my fear is gone, I want to savor my night walk. It would be rude to refuse his kindness, so I climb into the truck. The man introduces himself, giving me both his first and last name. I tell him mine. He asks me the usual questions about my life. I answer them in a monotone voice – I live in a big city, I work in an office, I am getting married soon. He listens intently, memorizing details. He will tell everyone he knows about me. He will be important for a few minutes, maybe even hours.

“I’ve come to see Lelu,” I say, changing the subject.

“The village will be quiet in the morning,” he says. “Everyone will be at the funeral in Utwe.”

“It must be someone important if everyone is going.”

“It’s a young man who killed himself. Second one this month.” He shakes his head. “The young men think they have no future. They see the videos from America and think they’re missing something. They lose their faith in the Lord.”

A contemplative silence fills the truck. When we pull up to my bungalow, he says goodbye, using both my first and last names. I search my memory for his first name, but unable to remember, I say, “Goodbye, Mr. Hamilton.”

His face slackens slightly, but then he shakes it off, as if used to visitors forgetting his name. I stand on the beach for a few moments and stare up at the strange constellations. I hurt that nice man’s feelings. It’s such a small thing to remember someone’s name. I lower my eyes and peer out over the ocean, searching for the horizon. Vertigo washes over me and then dissipates.

Kosrae bore three children, two sons and a daughter. Before she was laid to sleep, she told the oldest son that he was to live in Lelu, which means “lake”. The other son was to live in Tafunsak, which means “half wood, half human”. And her daughter was to live in Malem, which means “half lady”. Her daughter’s child was to live in Utwe, which means, “where things come from”. And this is how the four villages of Kosrae came to be.

The rising sun casts a shadow over the Sleeping Lady’s slopes. Now it seems that her smile is sad. I turn and cross the stone causeway that leads to the small, man-made island of Lelu. In the thirteenth century, Lelu was the capital of a vast Pacific empire. It was the home of the King and all of the aristocracy. It is one of the archaeological wonders of the Pacific.

I walk through the village, looking for the ruins. A woman sits on a pandanus mat, a large bucket in front of her. She wrings soapy water out of a sarong. I smile and wave. Her glare hits me like a slap, so I look down at the road. She’s not obligated to be nice to me, and I feel presumptuous for expecting her to.

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Large basalt walls appear at the end of the road. I step between them. Stillness hangs in the air, though I can still hear faint noises from the village. I walk through the crumbling maze, running my hands along the porous rock. Banyan trees have woven their roots through the gaps in the walls. Empty beer cans are strewn along the sides of the path. The place smells faintly of urine. My steps are timid, self-conscious amid such ancient grandeur.

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I kneel in front of a hollowed-out stone that was once used for grinding sakau, a sacred drink. Rainwater has pooled in the long, banana-shaped groove. A dog emerges from the foliage, startling me. Most of its fur is gone. Just in front of me is someone’s back yard. Angry voices – a man and a woman – erupt inside the house. A baby begins to cry. I stand up and look for the way out.

The sun is high in the sky when I begin the long walk back to my hotel. Tonight I leave for the Marshall Islands, my last stop before Hawaii, and then home. My solo wandering days are nearly over. This thought fills me with an unexpected relief.

A white truck pulls up beside me. The man offers me a ride, desperation in his eyes. I shake my head. His shoulders slump, but he smiles and waves as he drives away.

The Sleeping Lady lies exposed in the afternoon sunlight. A figure of perpetual immobility. I look out over the ocean and wonder if the men who killed themselves felt the shores constricting around them like a noose.

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25 thoughts on “In the Shadow of the Sleeping Lady

  1. We are fortunate to have an opportunity to read your previous posts. So good! I envy you your solo travels as I would never have the courage to undertake them alone. Perhaps in my next life!

    • Thank you, Patricia. It does take a some courage, but after you get over it, solo travel is great. I still sometimes travel without my husband.

  2. Thanks for the story. That’s definitely a part of exploratory travel…discomfort, fear, the odd cold look. I’ve had my own experiences too. More happy accidents than accidents though. Stay safe.

    • Hi Colin, thanks for stopping by. I’ve had some serious close calls while traveling either alone or with only one other woman. Women always need to be more vigilant and we also get more scrutiny. I’m finding that it isn’t getting much better with age, but that doesn’t stop me! 🙂

  3. Oh Julie, this was extraordinary. Hope, despair are but different threads of time. We grasp the moments, but they are but borrowed. Weaving the story of an island into our modern day precision was thoughtful, creative and brought a profound sense of forward momentum. We are propelled into the future, even as we struggle to understand our present.

    “I do love that tune – but really, I must go home. I only meant to stay for a few minutes.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

    • Thank you. 🙂 Time works differently in the South Pacific islands. My years in New Caledonia went by so slowly, but since I’ve been in Europe, time has been slipping away. It’s strange, because my life is no busier here in the “modern” world.

      • And the older you get, the more it will seem fleeting. My sister believes that it goes back to Einstein’s theory of relativity and the aging process. My theory – the more you embrace who you are, the more you live. The more you live, the faster time goes by. Whether there is any science behind that, is debatable, but it works for me. A great post – loved reading it through a couple more times…

  4. Wonderful read! Always enjoyable as your way with words truly transport me there. Have a nice break!

  5. I really enjoy this Julie, did not now about this beautiful Sleeping Lady in Kosrae, I even had to look it up in the map, glad you are taking time to relax and recharge. For me this post is so poetic.

    • Most people haven’t heard of Kosrae or even the country of Micronesia. All of the states of this tiny and very remote country are fascinating and have their own personality, even though they aren’t all friendly. I’m so grateful that I had the chance to visit.

  6. Hi! r u O.K. & safe with the flooding Danube?… Thanx for your comment and keep us posted, please! My very best, friendly hugs & à bientôt! Take care! Mélanie

    • Hi Melanie – We’re totally fine here. The city had many days to prepare, so no major problems. I’ll post some photos in the next couple of days. 🙂 Warm Wishes!

  7. The Sun’s fading here and all I want to do is slow right down for the evening. So much more to Pacific Islands than just beaches and reefs, and your slow winding journey back to the States (getting close to a decade ago now), seems to touch on their presence well as being more. I notice you still get to do a bit of solo traveling where you are now in Europe, so there’s still plenty of freedom still left in those feet perhaps. All the best with any upcoming new adventures, with/without companions of the road.

    • Thank you, Sean. You’re not so far away from that island, relatively speaking. The freedom is becoming more precious with age. So much gratitude for every new journey.

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