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.**

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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