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.**