Pohnpei Part I

As much as Saipan was an exciting adventure for me, it was really just a dry run for the ultimate goal of my brief but memorable island-hopping campaign: the mysterious island of Pohnpei. First, of course, some background. The reason you’ve never heard of the place is because it is a tiny spot in the western Pacific, northeast of Papua New Guinea and on the other side of the equator. It is part of the Caroline Islands formation and Pohnpei is the capital island of the Federated States of Micronesia. It differs from Guam and Saipan in some important aspects. First off, we (‘Merica) don’t own the place. It is an independant country, and although the US is a close associate, this was travel to a foreign country for me. Second, the people on Pohnpei and in the Caroline Islands are Micronesian instead of Chamorro. The most significant thing about Pohnpei, for me anyways, is that it is the home of the ancient ruins of Nan Madol.

I first heard of Nan Madol when I saw a documentary on the ruins, I think. When I came to Guam I was surfing Atlas Obscura when I found out that the ruins were just a short hop away from me. Nominally, anyways. I filed it away as a place I really ought to go and then spent the next three years dilly-dallying about it. I took one shot at it but travelling to Pohnpei was slightly more than trivial for me when I was on the submarine and it fell through. In limbo up at squadron, however, I spotted my chance and decided to take it. I actually went AWOL to take this trip, playing hooky from work on a Friday and travelling internationally without permission to make it happen. The upswing of all that is I only had a weekend on the island, which is far too short, and the only person I told about visiting the island until I was out of the Navy (like I am by the time this is posted) was my grandma.

I departed for the island early on a Friday morning. United is the only airline that regularly flies to the island in a short island-hopping route from Guam, to Chuuk (sometimes spelled Truk), Pohnpei, and back from whence it came. This plane only comes around three times a week, which gives you a indication of the interest in travelling to the FSM. The flight over, including the Chuuk stopover, is about three hours and is gorgeous. The Carolines are spotted all over with stunning coral atolls that look like they’d be treacherous to navigate by sea but are beautful from the air. Landing on the islands is other-worldly. Kudos to the pilots, because the runways on both Chuuk and Pohnpei are terminated on both ends by water and you could tell it took skill to set that plane down safely. The islands themselves are incredibly lush and I was glued to my window during the whole approach. Pohnpei is one of the rainest spots you’ll find and gets somewhere north of 25 feet of rain a year. Seattle gets something like 38 inches. The rain means central Pohnpei is usually surrounded by mist, with a cloud forest in the highlands of the island, and the rest covered with dense tropical rainforest. I considered Saipan to be a bit run-down, but my impression of Pohnpei is severly underdeveloped. You can’t even consider the largest city in Micronesia to be a one stop-light town; iPhones have reached the FSM, but stoplight technology has not. The lack of development (which is a good thing) and the jungle make Pohnpei look like an island lost in time and I wouldn’t have been all that surprised to see a dinosaur emerge from the edge of the runway, Isla Sorna-style.

After picking up my bag and surviving the toughest grilling I’ve ever gotten from a customs agent, I picked up my rental car (a Yaris this time) and headed to my hotel, the Cliff Rainbow. Driving in Pohnpei is a bit of an adventure. Like I said, there are no stoplights, which I am very much alright with, and also not much in the way of traffic laws in general, which I am also very much alright with. I think I saw one speed limit sign my whole time there, but everyone is kept travelling at a relatively safe pace by the sheer number of dogs, chickens, and small children occupying the street at any given time. I managed to go my entire weekend without hitting anybody or anything, but that was only by learning the ground rules: dogs have the right of way, and are none too eager to move. I got to my hotel in short order, checked in, and headed back out the door.