Pohnpei Part VII

With an entire city to explore, we waded through another channel and approached the traditional seaward entrance of Nan Madol on the northeast corner. Like the several layers on Nan Douwas, the entryway featured several layers of seawall. Climbing to the high point on the outer seawall, you can look down into the churning surf at the entryway. Traditionally, sharks would be found here, “guarding” the city, and brave youths would jump off the seawall and into the water. If you survived, that was good luck. It would have to be. It’s actually right past this point that I paddled out the previous day, but I had no idea that the temple was just over the seawall. After exploring around this area we forged off to the city interior. Dave had been a little put out about having to contend with the largest crowd he had ever seen at Nan Madol. A group of teachers was on a tour, and we shared the ancient wonder with a whopping seven people.

Our first stop was Peinering and there we paused for some delicious honey and peanut butter sandwiches. High tide is ideal for traversing the city by boat, as I had attempted the previous day, but at low tide it is relatively easy if a bit muddy to make it around on foot. After our lunch break, sloshing into the city, the scene was mangrove swamp. But here in there, in gaps in the trees and rising out of the water, you catch a glimpse of the basalt edges that hint to something more. It was very cool to see the hidden city in a forest. Ankle-deep in mud, I really began to grasp the engineering marvel this city was. The city is not just the walls you see looking up; the city is also the foundation they would have had to put down to build their city on the reef. I am still stunned at their choice of building material. We think the statues of Easter Island are impressive, but these people looked at each other and thought to themselves “alright, so what if we did that, but, you know, an entire city.”

Looking back at the pictures, except for the temple and the seawall, most of the city these days looks like rocks in the jungle. It’s hard to grasp the grandeur of the place when you can’t see much farther into the jungle than twenty or thirty feet. But when the Mayan and Aztec ruins were first discovered, that is what they looked like as well, covered in jungle and largely obscured. By removing that jungle layer they unearthed massive temple and city complexes. I think you could pull off the same effect on Nan Madol and unearth a massive and majestic city.

Earlier, though, I said that the city of Nan Madol is still very much alive. In our tromping around, we actually got a bit lost and wound up exploring Pahn Kadira, the temple/palace of the Sadaleur ruler. On the island are piles of coconut husks, evidence of the people still coming to the island to hold meetings of secular and religious natures. The upswing of that is the people who own Nan Madol don’t really want it developed – although you can visit, a widescale development in the lines of Mayan ruins would take something away from the people who still live there. In its present form, Nan Madol is a mysterious and quiet place to visit. Making it more easily accessible to the outside world would help preserve it and get it the attention it deserves, but would take away some of its character.

To be a bit anti-climactic, after tromping around for a while we eventually figured out we were lost. We decided to head back in case we got stuck in Nan Madol. We made it though, and on the drive back into town we listened to the different mix-tape CDs Dave and put together for Leeah, featuring a heavy dose of 90s pop. We parted ways and I headed back to the hotel, where I got some dinner and then did some more souvenir shopping. My flight was at two in the morning, so I took a nap before heading to the airport. I arrived in Guam a few hours later and managed to make it into work on Monday, mysteriously more tan (sunburned) and having seen one of the greatest examples of ancient architecture in the world.

Pohnpei Part VI

Sunday morning was leisurely with a breakfast at the hotel restaurant. I was supposed to meet my guide, Kenji, at something like 10, so I got some gas and picked up some bottled water and headed over to meet him. When I got there, in addition to Kenji, I met Dave and Leeah. They are an incredibly cute couple and live on Pohnpei. Dave is an American with a deep love of Nan Madol, and Leeah is Australian with her speech peppered with “I reckon” and “mate.” We set off towards Temwen, Dave reading out of The Book of Luelan on the way. The family that owns Nan Madol has set up a small parking area with bathrooms. It is from there we set off on the trail.

Although they’re ruins, Nan Madol as a site and as a religious center is still very alive. We passed several small ruins nestled besides people’s houses driving to the start of the trail. On the path down to the center of Nan Madol moss-covered ruins rise out of the ground around nearly every corner. The trail is well-maintained, but I couldn’t find out if it was a recently made trail or an ancient one. We came at low tide, but at high tide this path would lead you over and around channels, winding through an ancient city. You start to break out into sunlight as the path crosses over an islet that was used as a military training ground. As we turned the corner I was telling some story or other when I stopped speechless and dead in my tracks. Eventually I composed myself to let out a quiet “oh wow.”

The Nan Madol you see in pictures in articles and the like in Nan Douwas. It is the tallest structure still standing in Nan Madol and visually the most impressive. The thing is breathtaking. From the trail you look across at the entryway to the ancient tomb and temple complex of the Nan Madol rulers, the Saudeleurs. Basalt walls rise over 30′ high around the entire islet. The complex has three layers: the outer wall, and inner wall, and a central tomb. Between the outer and inner walls there are two additional tombs. These tombs were excavated prior to WWII and the contents, including bones, have been lost. Once I could walk again, and after posing for a picture where the inscrutable expression on my face is pure joy, we waded across the channel and into Nan Douwas. We stopped at the ancient sakau stone at the entryway and reflected on the scene that had played out here for important funerals. Standing next to those walls is astounding as you look up at the corners still rising proudly over the city. Nan Douwas is kept fairly clear of trees, but is still covered by moss and some undergrowth. Walking into the center, I ducked into the central tomb as a light rain sprinkled us and lent atmosphere to the otherworldly scene.

Pohnpei Part V

I’ll skip the bit where I crossed one of the channels and traversed a treacherous span of mangrove roots in order to get a closer look at the quite well-preserved side of one of the seawall islets. It was getting kind of close to the time when I told the guy I rented the kayak from that I would be back, and I didn’t want to find out what Pohnpei’s emergency services team looked like. Getting back was a little bit frustrating at first. The adrenaline rush of adventure was wearing off slightly and I had a sunburn and my hands hurt from kayaking. My initial thought was to paddle beyond the reef line so my faithful kayak could actually float, but a glance at the afternoon weather ix-nayed that idea. I even got tossed from my kayak once crossing back onto the beach from the short span of “deep” water I had to cross, though I recovered and dried off quickly. The only really scary moment was when I was wading across the reef and heard a giant splash. Bravely, and probably looking a lot like a variety of action heroes, I leaped up into my kayak. This 6″ vantage point gave me a perspective on my own perceived manliness and a fairly large skate swimming its way to deeper water.

Once I got into the deep water of the mangrove forest and off the beach it was easy paddling. I took some time to admire the forest on the way back and listen to the birds and all the wildlife. On the way I ran across a man paddling across one of the waterways on a raft, very much Venice-style. He marked the first person I saw that day in all my adventures in the ancient city. That is pretty typical of Nan Madol. I was pretty beat by the time I made it back to MERIP but I hauled the kayak up the boat ramp, walked up the hill to return the paddle, and changed into some dry clothes I had brought. I had paddled into the ancient city and gotten my first glimpse of Nan Madol.

Also on Temwen island are some old Japanese guns at the melodious Dolopwuropwur Gun Battery. Since there were still some hours of daylight left after my paddling adventure I decided to take a look at the guns. I continued onto Temwen island from MERIP and found a place to park and started down the road identified by pohnpei-adventure.com. Eventually I found some likely-looking dudes I could ask for more exact directions and one man proffered up his teenage-looking sum for a guide (for a fee of $10). This, I was beginning to realize, is pretty standard for Pohnpei. Without much in the way of friendly signage, the only way you’re going to get around Pohnpei really effectively is with a guide. Maybe you can start to do without when you’ve gotten a better feel for the area, but if you’re cruising through on a weekend away from work, it is best to contact someone before you get to the island and arrange for someone to take you to where you want to go. Pohnpei-adventure has a rundown of a few local guides which is where I found Kenji, my guide for Sunday. The usual gig on Pohnpei is also to charge a few dollars ($3 is pretty standard it seems) admission for the sights, most of them being on private property. My first instinct was to forego guides, being that they cost money and all, but it’s a bargain at twice the price. The “admission” you’ll pay for Nan Madol is a whopping $7, and I paid a grand total of $50 for a very informative guide to show me around nearly all of Sunday. He was nice enough to drive and gave me a very tasty sandwich as well. The guides are worth it.

Anyways, we marched on up to the battery. My newfound friend was largely the strong silent type, but he got me strait to the guns and I would never have found them without him. I have seen a WWII Japanese gun emplacement or two in my day at this point and I was pretty impressed with this one. The whole place is overgrown, having been presumably just abandoned after WWII, but you can still see that it was built to last. The roof has disappeared, but the walls are still sturdy with some impressive masonry. There are four large guns up there, largely intact if suffering from some decades of disuse. Around the site are various alcoves for storage and the site is worth the very short hike. It also features a stone lookout tower that has crumbled away somewhat. The view is obscured by foliage, but it is easy to tell that the location would have been commanding and easily defended if it had been invaded. After I marched around and took plenty of pictures my reserved friend lead me back to the main road and we parted ways.

After a well-earned shower and spending some time nursing my sunburns (I should know better), I decided to hit the town. Pohnpei doesn’t have a bar scene, or at least one that I found. As I was driving around, I noticed several bamboo shed-lookin’ things with a pool table inside, so maybe I missed out on the local culture by not visiting one of those. Instead I visited the Mangrove Bay Bar, which is on the bay and is part of the Mangrove Bay Hotel complex. It was quiet, but the highlight, besides watching a middle-aged Australian dude chat up a local girl, was a drink called the Pohnpei Screwdriver. I ordered it only because it had “Pohnpei” in the name. I then spent the next five minutes watching the construction of one of the most carefully crafted beverages I have ever seen. Your local speakeasy got nothin’ on this. The drink itself featured, among other things, island limes squeezed before my eyes. Garnish was provided by several more strategically placed lime slices. It came out pink and slushy, served in a goblet, and with a maraschino cherry on top. I don’t usually wax poetic about booze, but believe me. If you’re at the Mangrove Bay Bar, get the Pohnpei Screwdriver. Shortly after that I headed back to the hotel to turn in for the night. I did swing by the Joy Hotel, being the only place I identified with a gift-shop type place where I could buy silly touristy crap. I picked up a box thing that I think is meant to store a betel-nut “kit.” I picked it because it said “Pohnpei” on the side. A day well spent, I slept soundly.

Pohnpei Part IV

“Nan Madol” translates into “the spaces between,” which besides being one of the first facts you discover in a quick internet search refers to the channels between the islets of Nan Madol. The city was built on a reef and is made up of man-made islets that are surrounded by a constant comparison to Venice. The seawall I keep referring to is the outer wall of a series of large islets that compose the outermost ring on Nan Madol. Further up the seawall I eventually came across a channel that gave way to the city proper. This gap in the seawall was spanned by two lines of rocks that extended from the wall and into the channel. I think these were wave-breaks to reduce the effect of the ocean on the thoroughfares of Nan Madol. I spotted these first and as I turned the corner I spotted my first distinct islet. I was ridiculously excited about this little thing. My first glimpse of the seawall when I turned the corner in the kayak had my heart racing, but that corner didn’t have the log-cabin style architecture (it was boulder stacked very neatly on other boulders). Further along the seawall it transitioned to well-stacked basalt columns, but turning the corner to see the islet was my first real “wow, this is Nan Madol” moment, and that feeling just kept getting topped as I continued in this city.

The islet that I spotted and had been swooning over was Peinering. It rises out of the surrounding channels and is completely log-cabin style. From ankle-deep mud, you look up at walls ten feet high. The main entrance is on the side opposite the sea, and the wall has crumbled in one corner. The islands are not entirely basalt; they are constructed with basalt walls but the in-fill is coral. This coral is extremely sharp. This proved very difficult to navigate in flip-flops, and I recommend that anyone visiting Nan Madol wear close-toed shoes. The next day I wandered around the city in tennis shoes that drained easily and those worked well, but those tennis shoes wound up in the trash once I got home. I think a solid pair of reef shoes would be ideal.

I asked my guide the next day what he thought the floors originally were, since no one credits the ancient Ponapeans with the invention of the tennis shoe. His theory is that on top of the coral in-fill there would probably be a layer of smaller gravel and then a final layer of dirt or sand. The topmost layer would serve as the walkable surface. In the intervening centuries the normal course of erosion has washed it away.

Continuing a theme, I took an embarrassing number of photos and selfies on Peinering, not knowing if I would manage to see a finer example of Nan Madol architecture. The islet features at least two smaller structures made of basalt and rising to about waist height. My initial thought on seeing these was “brick pizza oven,” harking back to the Italian connection. I might not have been too far off; Peinering was used for the production and storage of ceremonial coconut oil, so these structures had something to do with that.

Standing in one corner of Peinering and looking out over the channel and into the mangroves, I spent some time really trying to imagine what the city must have been like in its heydey. Coming in from the sea you would have seen a towering seawall hundreds of yards long and dozens of feet high. Paddling in on your canoe you would have entered a city of nearly a hundred islets, criss-crossed by channels. Nan Madol was the center of the culture and home to a God-king, and it was a city of priests and ceremony. The average Ponapean in modern times lives in a house, but you’ll still see (as you traverse steep slopes in your Yaris) examples of the traditional thatched architecture put to various uses around the island. A newcomer would have transitioned from his village of thatched huts to a city of stone temples and palaces. If you gained a vantage point, you would look out over more than a hundred acres of city, the smells and sound of the sea mixing with those of coconut oil and ceremonial chants and all the normal chatter, highlighted in the bright tropical sun. It would have been beautiful.

Pohnpei Part III

So I set off into the great unknown! Here I was! Patty Weeds! Adventurer! Now with that exciting intro, time for more geography. The Nan Madol ruins are on the eastern side of Temwen Island, which is off the southeast corner of the mainland and earns its island status due to a small (10′ wide) channel crossed by the Temwen causeway. The MERIP facility is shortly before the Temwen causeway and the causeway is on the opposite side of the island as the ruins. So to get to the ruins I had to kayak around the island. It is largely a very lovely kayak trip. It was a bit choppy at first, but as I got into the lee of the island and in the mangrove swamp it was smooth paddling. The current was too strong through the 10′ channel for me to paddle through, but a nice man who happened to be fishing helped me haul my kayak over the causeway. The paddling took me about an hour, but I am not exactly in paddling shape, and I stuck a little too close to land, leading to several groundings. It was a nice illustration of how a mangrove swamp reclaims land and helps cement the shoreline of an island, but not a good illustration of boatsmanship, which I was embarrassed about. The paddle features views of the ocean and mountains and mangrove islands (I’m always somewhat bewildered that mangoes don’t grow on mangroves) and dizzying array of bird and aquatic life.

Eventually I made it. Reconstructing the event later, I managed to paddle right past the entire southern edge of the seawall of Nan Madol (obscured, as it was, by mangroves) and eventually landed at the southeast corner. I had turned a corner and this time was faced with ocean & reef instead of mangrove. I looked up and to my well-trained seaman’s eye it was evident that a rain squall was about to hit (large dark clouds are a dead giveaway), so I pulled my kayak onto the beach and ducked into a gap in the trees and then there it was. Construction on Nan Madol started somewhere around 700 years ago. The rocks that make up the architecture of Nan Madol are basalt, and since these rocks don’t appear on Temwen, that means the rocks were quarried somewhere else on the island and transported. So that means every time you look at a stone at Nan Madol, someone put that there. The legends say it was constructed by two magicians using dragons. Having been there, facing that seawall, I see how that theory seems the most reasonable.

The seawall I came across is still impressive. Nan Madol has been abandoned for about 400 years, and this seawall has suffered from four centuries of tropical cyclones and no maintenance. Still, massive boulders stacked 20′ high is a daunting sight now and must have been mind-blowing in its prime. Not knowing the extent of Nan Madol at this point or how much of it I was going to be able to see, I took my time in this nook. It was raining anyways so staying in the jungle was a pretty alright option. I clambered over the wall in my flip-flops and got my first look at the classic Nan Madol log-cabin-but-with-basalt architecture. I took an embarrassing number of selfies with various bits of rock and eventually noticed it had stopped raining, so I decided to continue on my kayak.

The next major feature I came across as a I paddled northeast along the seawall was a coral lagoon (later identified as Namwenkau). The reef line is fairly far out, and since the tide was out I spent a lot of time dragging my kayak behind me as I walked through ankle-deep water. In this section the seawall formed a horseshoe and the shallow reef gave way to a deep pool surrounded by coral and mangrove. Eels were sacred to the people of Nan Madol and I spotted more than a few on the reef and in this pool. As I saw each one I made sure to say a little thank-you mentally for letting me hang out on their turf. It’s always a good idea to curry favor with the local animal deity when paddling through ancient cities.

Pohnpei Part II

My first move on Pohnpei was a tactical mistake. I was super excited to see Pohnpei and I knew I might never have a chance to go back, so I was trying to cram as much into this adventure as possible. The website pohnpei-adventure.com is brilliant and an absolute must for Pohnpei research. Having looked up a likely-looking falls to explore, I had copied down some directions. With those in hand I set off from the hotel to try to find the place. This ended with me not finding the falls. There is one main road that circumnavigates Pohnpei. Branching off from this road are smaller unnamed roads that lead up to people’s houses and the like. There are not a great deal of landmarks or roadsigns. The instructions on pohnpei-adventure are therefore written along the lines of (in this case) “drive over the bridge and proceed 10.4 km, and then turn right.” Although the Yaris’ odometer was in miles, I figured that as long as I ballparked about six miles the rest would be fairly obvious. It isn’t; the instructions from the website are excellent but you need to actually follow them instead of guestimate. My ballparked six miles plan was thwarted by the several roads branching off in the vicinity. I explored a few of them, and have come away with a new appreciation for the mountaineering capabilities of the Yaris. After attempting as many of the roads as I could along a two-mile stretch of road, and finding no obvious “last house on the right” I was willing to try, I gave up and headed back into town. So, lesson for you: once you land, go out and get these Eco-Adventure Guides, and then go from there.

In the morning I woke up to birds singing. I’m telling you man, Pohnpei is the lush tropical island you think of when you think of lush tropical islands. Buoyed by my feathered friends I wandered over to the hotel restaurant to have breakfast (I went with “the islander” omelet, which is a corned beef fried rice omelet. There is no better breakfast than an corned beef fried rice omelet). Some rain really nailed down the lush tropical island theme. The hotel also featured several dogs that hung out on the grounds, who were at this point fairly bedraggled. When I stopped to pet one he was mostly surprised that I would pet him.

Watercraft for rent.

Before my 10.4 km adventure of the previous day, I had managed to talk to a guide for Nan Madol, but he wasn’t available until Sunday. I was entirely unwilling to wait that long, and since I expected to go on foot to Nan Madol on Sunday I decided that on Saturday I would approach by sea. I had read on pohnpei-adventure.com that it was possible to rent a kayak at a place called MERIP. The directions were again “drive over the bridge and proceed X km,” but this time when I set off I was armed with a metric conversion. It took about an hour to drive to MERIP and this time I was aided by a sign for Nan Madol at the crucial turn to the left. A little further down the road I came across a rather large compound that is currently mostly a church and formerly the Pohnpei Agriculture and Trade School. The MERIP building itself is located at the bottom of the hill down a gravel road and was smaller than I expected. Since I had also expected (hoped) that there would be a convenient “NAN MADOL KAYAK RENTAL” sign or something, I was disappointed to find MERIP closed and no touristy kayak rental cabana in sight.

Undeterred, I looked around and in the shed next door, I found a man, accompanied by his family, working on a car. I asked him about kayak rentals and he directed me back up the road to a roadside store. I got back in my car and headed up the road, where I saw another man. I asked this man if he knew anything about roadside stores and kayak rentals. He apparently knew what I was talking about, because he got in his car and told me to follow him. Upon our arrival to the store, he had a conversation in Pohnpeian as I tried to not look silly. They had no kayaks. But I was to follow another man, and this man took me to his son. His son, it turns out, works at MERIP (I think), and was anyway willing to rent me a dusty but very serviceable ocean kayak for the Pohnpei-Adventure reported price of $10. He asked me when I thought I would return so he could make sure to call for rescue if I didn’t get back in time.

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.

Driving on a main road.