Truk Lagoon: Graveyard in Paradise

Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia – November 1998

I swallow a lump of apprehension as the boat stops in the middle of the lagoon. The two guides drop anchor, casting predatory glances my way. They didn’t bother to introduce themselves when they picked me up at the hotel pier. They were forty-five minutes late and unapologetic. The younger guide tried to look down my sundress when I bent over to pick up my snorkeling gear.

I think back to what a friend in Guam told me. “Do yourself a favor and skip Chuuk,” she said. “The Chuukese are the meanest people in Micronesia, maybe in all of the Pacific.”

“It’s a free stopover, and I want to see the shipwrecks,” I said, my voice condescending. “I’ve traveled to third world countries before. How bad can it possibly be?”

She just shook her head.

When I stepped out of the rustic airport terminal, a group of women jeered at me. They all wore shapeless, hibiscus-printed dresses. I smiled at them. One of the women threw a coconut at me, which hit the pavement with a splat. The others clenched their fists and lurched towards me. My face reddened, and I jumped into a taxi.

The driver said nothing as we drove through Weno village. He maneuvered the pockmarked road, swerving to avoid the feral dogs that foraged through piles of garbage. By the time we got to the hotel, it was raining.

I peer into the dark blue water. An immense shadow ripples to the left of the boat.

“It’s a Japanese oil tanker,” the younger guide says. “Shinkoku Maru.”

His knowledge sets me somewhat at ease. He slips on a mask and flippers and jumps in. The other guide sits down and lights up a cigarette. I look up at the dreary sky, suppress a sigh, and then put on my mask and flippers. I hesitate for a moment, thinking of my bikini under my sundress. The younger guide surfaces. His eyes linger on my bare legs. I take a deep breath and jump in, sundress and all.

The sight makes me gasp. The tanker sits upright on the ocean floor. The gun on its bow is only a few feet below the surface. I’m disoriented by the clarity. Schools of fish weave in and out of the portholes. Coral carpets the tanker’s remains. A dainty pink jellyfish pirouettes by like some kind of aquatic ballerina. This graveyard has become a lush paradise.

Truk Lagoon was the site of two World War II battles. It’s the final resting place for about one hundred vessels – ships, submarines, and aircraft – and more than a thousand men. The lagoon is almost completely enclosed, which protects it from strong currents and makes it the greatest underwater museum in the world.

Some of my disappointment fades. I make a long lap around the tanker. I dive down and peer into the portholes. Ghostly arms seem to reach out, spooking me. I resurface and float face down for a while. It feels like I’m soaring through a liquid sky. I visualize what this would look like in full sunlight and feel another pang of regret.

I notice that the guide has surfaced. Feeling a twinge of panic, I swim towards the boat. Raindrops pelt the water. The guide waits for me, his hand grasping the ladder. He stares at me through his mask. I begin to climb up the ladder, but he pulls me towards him.

“Stay here until the rain passes.” He strokes the back of my hand and lowers his voice. “You’re my friend, right?”

I force the fear out of my voice. “I’m engaged,” I say with a fake laugh.

His eyes narrow. He lets go of my hand and looks away.

I pull myself up the ladder and into the boat. The other guide looks at me with disinterest. The younger guide climbs into the boat. He says something to the other man in Chuukese.

“Storm is coming,” the younger guide says to me. “We go to small island until it finish.”

I nod and wrap myself in my towel. I want to tell them to take me back to the hotel, but then I remember that I will probably never pass through Micronesia again. Maybe I’m just being paranoid.

The rain intensifies, soaking my hair and towel. I double check that my camera is in my waterproof bag. I’ve only taken one photo since I got here – a dim rainbow that appeared over the cement block apartment building across from the hotel.

We climb out of the boat onto the small island. A small building stands in ruins. The wind batters a couple of flimsy palm trees. Empty beers cans are piled onto the remains of a fire.

“Leave the things in the boat,” the younger guide says. “You won’t need them.”

The bullying tone of his voice makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. My family only knows that I’m somewhere in Micronesia, a place they’ve never heard of. I think about my fiancé’s amused expression when I told him I wanted to do one last solo adventure before I settled down. “You don’t have to stop your travels for me,” he said. “They are a part of who you are.”

The two guides stand in a doorway and talk in low voices. The younger guide glances at me, a sly look on his face. He looks like a bored teenager who shoots squirrels because it’s something to do. The rain whips against me. My heart pounds, but I pretend that I’m merely annoyed by the weather. I tuck the hotel room key securely between my index and second fingers, point facing out, and curl my hand into a fist. I crouch in another doorway and put my head under my towel. If I make it out of this, I swear I will never travel alone again. I’ll stay in four-star, all-inclusive hotels, go on organized tours, and drink pina coladas. Or I’ll just stay home and take up knitting.

After a while, the rain subsides. Without a word, I walk to the boat. The guides follow me.

“Why your boyfriend not with you?” the younger one asks in a low voice. He has come up behind me.

“Oh, he’s back at the hotel,” I lie, hoping that gossip about an unaccompanied woman tourist hasn’t yet swept through Chuuk. “He hates the water.”

His shoulders slump. A wave of relief moves through me. We head back out to the lagoon, stopping at a submerged plane wreck. The younger guide doesn’t bother to put on his gear. He points at the wreck and then sits down in the boat. I jump in for a couple of minutes and then climb back out. They take me to another, smaller shipwreck. I make an obligatory lap and then get out.

“Are you finished already?” the older guide says. He looks almost crestfallen. “You got until noon.”

I shrug. My heart is no longer in any of this.

“There’s a nice, small island near Weno,” the older guide says. “We can go there if you want.”

I accept his offer in a final effort to be polite.

Mounds of shattered coral line the shore of the tiny atoll. They’ve been using dynamite to fish here. I swim a loop around the atoll, feeling a sudden sadness. The water is murky; fish skeletons are the only sign that life is possible here. I think of the dismal photo I took and know that I will rip it up. I walk gingerly across the beach of dead coral. The older guide walks up and hands me a pink shell. This gesture surprises me so much that I smile at him. He scowls and looks away.

“We can go back now,” I say, surprised at the sharp edge of my voice.

When they drop me off, I get out of the boat without thanking them. I walk up the dilapidated pier, my head held high. There’s no way in hell I’ll ever take up knitting.

*This travel piece was published in Eclectica in 2007*

**A couple of years after this trip, I happened upon a Moon Guide to Micronesia guidebook, which would have been the most up-to-date during my trip. In the section about Chuuk, there was a warning for women: don’t go there alone. It seems that even the Peace Corps had stopped sending women volunteers to Chuuk at that time. There’d been no mention of this in Lonely Planet, which was the guidebook that I’d used. I haven’t bought a Lonely Planet since.**

42 thoughts on “Truk Lagoon: Graveyard in Paradise

  1. This reminds me of an old man who picked me up in New England when I was a hitchhiking teenager, of two desk clerks in Mexico who knew I was alone and visited my room on the pretense of repairing the air conditioning, of a taxi driver in Bahrain when I flew there for an afternoon because I had to leave Kuwait before they would renew my visa. They’re oppressive, those moments when we see an assault brewing and begin to tread its imminence, when we negotiate–not with them, but with ourselves.

    • It’s easy for people to say that we were just being paranoid, because, after all, nothing ended up happening. But we know when we’re in danger. Oppressive is the perfect word to describe those minutes that seem like forever. That weight in the chest that suffocates you. And, yes, the negotiation: what will we do if…

      I’ve posted about this kind of thing before, but this is one of the most serious. Since I’ve had this blog, I’ve received a couple of comments here and there, from men, accusing me of only seeing this type of man in the world, of being negative. It’s hard to not be offended by this. The reality is that women can’t travel as freely as men. We always need to be looking over our shoulder.

    • Just finished reading your experience about Truk Lagoon. Really enjoyed it. A beginning blogger, I just posted a scuba diving experience I had years ago. Your water account is much better written than mine. Gives me something to strive for.

  2. That must have been petrifying, but I am glad you made it out okay. A girlfriend recently took a solo trip through India, and I was worried sick. This is probably the single biggest thing that stops me from ever travelling on my own – something I’ve always wanted to do.

    • Well, it was a learning experience and I’m still so grateful that I made it out of there. I used to want to visit every country on the planet, but since that trip, I’ve crossed many off my list, including India. Threat of being gang raped? Um, no, thanks.

  3. It’s been ages, decades – since I’ve traveled alone and this beautiful piece reminded me of those moments every one of us solo female travelers has ever had so vividly I have to slow my heartbeat after reading this. Yes – the husbands, boyfriends back at the hotel, the retreat.
    Having passed to the other side of 50, when we become almost invisible to men (whew! I say) I wonder how it would be for me now. I might have lost the taste for it. But I love reading about your adventures – thank you for the vicarious pleasure your great stories provide.

    • Hi Tricia – thanks so much for reading. I had some pretty intense flashbacks while writing this. I’m approaching middle age, too, and am relieved to have somewhat dropped off the radar. But in some places age doesn’t matter. Last week, a 50 year old Danish woman was sexually assaulted by several men and she was in the main tourist area of New Delhi. It was a wake up call to not get too confident in one’s invisibility.

  4. Fascinating and brave – knowing nothing of Chuuk I delved into Google images. On the tripadvisor set there is a picture of one of the locals steering a dive boat – he looks suitably surly.

    • Looked up the photo…yep that’s about right. The one of the little kid is priceless. Even the kids scowl. Out of curiosity, I looked up the hotel I stayed at. I’m shocked by the “friendly staff” comments. When I tried to eat in the restaurant, the waitress could hardly contain her laughter as she set my food in front of me. The cook even came out to watch and was laughing, too. Needless to say, I didn’t eat it. I spent the rest of my time in my room and ate junk food that I got from the corner shop a couple of houses (shacks) down. Even walking that small distance I was harassed by urchins. It’s been over ten years since my visit, though. Maybe it’s gotten a little better. I noticed that some people seem to come on small cruises. That’s the way to do it – stay off the island itself.

  5. I know I’ve complimented you before, but I’m sure you don’t tire of compliments. You are one of the few – and by few I mean one of two – travel bloggers whose posts I can make past the first two paragraphs and read until the end.

  6. Oh, wow. The fear set into me hugely while reading this post. Boy, was I afraid for you! Like seriously panting and out of breath at the same time as I was reading each sentence. Oh how much I am relieved to read that the day had ended safely for you. Very smart to not say goodbye or thanks to them because they might’ve still gotten ideas. Oy, this was a tough read. Every year that goes by, it seems the world is more and more in danger for women and children. Dangerous predators are everywhere and we should all be very careful. So very relieved that you came out safely – to then later married your fiance!

    [Hip-hip hoorah for Guam!] In regards to Micronesians, I had never heard of the Chuukese people being the “meanest”. But the men seem to be the most alcoholics. So your mention about the beer cans pretty much painted a perfect picture of how I had almost-always seen a group of Chuukese men together. Very much wish that didn’t sound prejudiced (or other similar word), but that was truly the case. And just recently, it had been in the Guam news that there was a gang rape of 2 under-aged girls by Micronesian men on Guam. That’s the first time ever that there’s been a gang rape. So scary, because I’ve only read of such frightening things happening in India (most frequently and recently, I mean).

    Although this was a pretty frightful bit of reading, it sure shows how wonderfully you write. VERY MUCH admire your writing and the vividness of how you put all the words together. Whenever I think of your writing, I’m reminded of how the apologist Ravi Zacharias had mentioned about how he thinks words can actually be more powerful than pictures can be. How talented you are that you do BOTH!

    • Hi SF – Thank you so much for the compliments on my writing. That’s sad about what happened in Guam. I lived there for a short time many years ago. I never felt unsafe, except sometimes because of drunken military guys from the mainland US. The Micronesians (Chamorro, Palauan, other FSM) I spoke to seemed to have a low opinion of the Chuukese. When I took this trip, I really tried to keep an open mind, but sometimes there are places that are simply hostile and no amount of smiling can make it better.

  7. My dear friend, your guardian angel has to gallop to keep up with you and your travel agenda. I admire your bravery! Most people think that having adventure is sitting by a pool in a 5 star hotel. That is NOT an adventure – it is a holiday. Adventures are dangerous and test our mettle. No question – your quick wits and firm voice were a factor in your escape, for escape it was!! While we live in a time of connectivity and mobility, it seems that travel is being curtailed.

    History seems to grant the great adventures to men. But there are those wonderful women (and I’m certain that there were more than was recorded) that defied the odds. Think of Jeanne Bare (1740-1807) The first woman, disguised as a man, to circumnavigate the world.

    Once again, you have given me a whole new research project! Many thanks!!!

    • Your comment about relaxing by the pool in a 5 star resort made me laugh out loud. Don’t forget about disobedient lounge chairs and treacherous cocktail umbrellas! 😉

      I highly recommend the book Maiden Voyages: Writings of Women Travelers which is edited my Mary Morris. You’ll discover many more women who defied the odds. Alexandra David-Neel, Boxcar Bertha, Maud Parrish, Mary Kingsley… Jeanne Bare isn’t in there, however. I’ll have to look her up.

  8. “I take a deep breath and jump in, sundress and all” – you just brought me back to so many places.

    It took me about 4 months of living in Mexico to figure out that I had to change, and drastically so. I had to bury the friendly, open, gentle girl that I was and instead grow a rigid spine and adopt a don’t f*** with me face. I’ve found that most people don’t believe it though when I tell them how men, and often even women, can behave so terribly.

    • I know that face of which you speak. I’ve seen it in the mirror. Whenever I visit my family in the US, they comment on my “hardness”. Except for those few who have also traveled a lot on their own.

  9. I think that we can feel danger deep inside … it comes straight from the stomach. It’s not being paranoid, it’s just natural to be scared sometimes. (but you’re really brave, now i know!) This time i don’t need images to imagine and feel what you’re describing. Cris

    • Hi Cris – You know what I mean about the gut feeling. 😉 Sometimes I regret not having any photos of the trip, but, apart from the shipwrecks, it really was an ugly place. Cheers, Julie

  10. This is so horrible Julie, men often say we invent this things but they do happen and
    so mean of that lady throwing a coconut at you. One place I don’t want to visit ;).
    I love the relationship you have with your husband, he lets you travel and be you.

    • You know, before this trip I always thought that if I was nice enough and smiled a lot, the locals would like me. Now I know that there are some places where foreigners are simply not welcome. Which is fine. If a culture wants to be closed, I can respect that. But we need to know this before we try to visit, so if we still decide to visit, we can prepare ourselves. Had I known it would be so awful, I would have stayed in the luxury resort and used their dive company, even though it was a lot more expensive. What really annoys me is when guidebooks and travel videos state that places are friendly and safe when they are clearly not. People are so afraid of being called un-politically correct. It’s not un-politically correct to respect a local culture’s wish to be left alone. By the way, I looked on the Lonely Planet website and NOW they have a travel warning for Chuuk.

      • Yes is all about culture, I have learned more through your blog than some of the books and travel pages. I am glad they changed it, so sad what happen.

  11. Good grief, I read the whole thing! Couldn’t stop! I’ve been in a few of those situations myself. Bad feeling. This is a beautifully written account of the adventure. I don’t read travelogues. I read this! Chuckle. You’re not only fearless, you’re one hell of a writer! 🙂

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