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Published: October 23rd 2008
At first it was no more than a dot on the horizon, a dark speck amid the vast blue of the Pacific Ocean, possibly no more than a trick of the eye. A few minutes later the dot had grown and filled itself with a colour that was unmistakably different from the only other one that could be seen in this landscape: it was the green of vegetation growing on an island. Soon our 9-seater missionary plane was circling Fais, a tiny raised atoll in the Outer Islands of Yap, the westernmost state of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). We passed tall cliffs against which the ocean threw itself, sending up white arms of spray clutching at the plane that sped overhead and hinting at the limitless power that lay within its waters. Then the violence gradually diminished as the cliffs sloped down into a long white sand beach lined with coconut palms, the see-through turquoise water lapping gently at its shores. The whole island, three kilometers long by one kilometer wide, was covered in greenery but right in the centre a grey strip, the runway, cut through the undergrowth, standing out so much from the rest that it became
the dominant feature when viewed from above. Just to the left of it as we flew, at the southern tip of the island, the 300-strong population lived in a motley collection of concrete, corrugated iron and traditional thatch houses. This was where I would be spending the next five days in an attempt to come to an understanding of what life is like in a tiny, isolated world whose boundaries, so close together, are totally defined by the ocean.
Getting to Fais from Vanuatu had required seven flights covering five countries over a period of eight days. The fifth stopover, Yap, an hour’s flight away from Fais over the unimaginable emptiness of the world’s largest ocean, was the largest and westernmost island in Yap state that hence gave it its name. Although larger than Fais it nevertheless dwindled into insignificance within seconds of taking off in the plane. Flying above these islands, it had been easy to see how FSM, a country which covers an area bigger than the United States of America, can have a total land area less than that of New York.
Upon my arrival in Yap I went to the offices of Pacific
Missionary Aviation (PMA), a non-profit organization which flies supplies out to the three of Yap’s ten inhabited Outer Islands which have airstrips whenever they can afford to do so. Apart from PMA, there was currently no other way to get to the Outer Islands as the boat which was supposed to service them once a month had been broken down since May and took three weeks for the round trip anyway.
A thirty-something American pilot called Vincent was sitting at the office computer when I came in. Having had something of a revelation a few years ago he had sold his house and most of his possessions and come out here to help the people of the Outer Islands. “It can be difficult out here,” he told me. “Back in the U.S. everything works well, everything happens on time. But here nothing does and it can be really hard to get used to.” Although friendly and chirpy, I fancied I detected a somewhat strained voice and a certain level of stress in his demeanour as though the transition from one society to the other really had been extremely testing for him. “Before I came here I used to be
your average American, nice apartment, nice car, home cinema system, great furniture… but hell, all that stuff just gives you more headaches at the end of the day.”
It transpired that the flight which, by email, PMA had said would take me to Fais, in fact could not leave because they did not have enough passengers or cargo. I mentioned the name Jesse Raglman which a Yapese girl working in Palau had given me as a useful contact and as someone who occasionally flew back to Fais. Vincent and his co-missionary Esther, who had recently arrived, both stifled giggles and looked down at their feet.
“Well, ok, give him a ring if you want,” Esther said. “Actually he wants to go to Fais too but even with both of you there aren’t enough passengers.” And like that, a ray of hope was born in my mind.
Having been born on Fais but sponsored by an American anthropologist to go and study in the USA, Jesse Raglman had since been FSM’s ambassador to Japan and was now a Senator of Yap State. “Ah-ha! You’ve come at last!” he exclaimed as I walked into an office in the State Legislature
building that was marvelously disorganized despite being so vast it should rather have been called a chamber. He was around sixty years old with an enormous belly but still quite mobile. He wore a pair of shorts and a V-neck T-shirt. A thin ring of grey hair circled his bald head and eyes that had a certain mischievousness to them looked out at me from behind thick glasses. As with everyone in Yap, his cheek permanently bulged with a mouthful of betel nut and his teeth and gums were stained from the bucket-loads of red saliva the habit produced. About once a minute he would turn away from me and spit out a vast quantity of bright red liquid into an empty coke can, the hole in the top of which he had somehow enlarged to facilitate this action. Other than vast amounts of spit, the habit also produces a mild euphoric effect which becomes not-so-mild if you chew three or four large nuts one after the other.
“Now we can get down to business,” he said, handing me a twenty-page A4 booklet entitled Fais Island Development Plan. “I wanted to go last week but they told me they couldn’t
afford the fuel without you here to pay for an extra seat.”
Slightly baffled, I told him what PMA had told me.
“Don’t worry about that!” he said with a vaguely irritated look on his face. “You and me are going to Fais on Monday.” I liked the sound of that.
“So why are you going to Fais?” I asked.
“Well, basically I just want to talk to the people find out what the problems are, find out what they want doing and try to help them out. If I don’t know what the problems are then there’s nothing I can do to help.”
“And what do you think the problems are?”
His fingers went into his mouth and pulled out a reddish-brown mess, the remains of a betel nut, which he threw into a bin. From a small basket hand-woven from pandanus he produced another green oblong nut and cracked it open with his teeth. “Primarily a lack of self-sufficiency, which is linked to a loss of traditional values.” From the basket he produced a small bottle of lime powder made from coral and sprinkled some inside the nut. When chewed, the lime burns the inside of the mouth
slightly, aiding the absorption of the drug into the bloodstream. “If you lose your traditional values and forget about your culture then you’re no better than an animal, and these young people today - they really are animals!” He closed he nut, wrapped it in a leaf and popped it into his mouth.
At the time I had little idea what he meant by calling young people animals but he seemed genuinely quite disgusted by some aspect of their behaviour. I suspected that perhaps the young people on Fais had stopped wearing traditional clothing and it was this that annoyed him, believing himself somehow above them and exempt from their rules. I could not have been further from the truth, either in my idea that young people on Fais were not dressing traditionally, or in my labeling him as a hypocrite.
“Have you submitted this to the FSM government?” I asked, pointing at the Fais Island Development Plan. A brief flick through its pages had revealed a sensible but somewhat optimistic scheme based largely on maximizing the islanders’ exploitation of their own resources, keeping cultural values and traditions alive and turning Fais into an exclusive adventure tourism resort which a
small number of fee-paying tourists would be allowed to visit to learn about the islanders’ way of life. A part of me didn’t particularly like the idea of Fais becoming a resort of any kind but perhaps, in this changing world, something like that might, in the future, be the only way to keep Fais’ culture and traditions alive and prevent the young people from migrating elsewhere in search of jobs.
“Yes, but they haven’t replied. Maybe they don’t care. You see, I may be a Senator but I’m also an Outer Islander and therefore subject to Yap’s caste system. Back in the days before the Europeans arrived, the islands were always warring. When one group of people won in battle against another, they would subjugate them and become temporarily superior until someone else, maybe even the ones they had previously conquered, overthrew them.” He spat out an amount of red saliva that could have filled a small sherry glass. “At the time of European colonization the chiefs of Yap island ruled a vast empire that stretched over a thousand kilometers to Chuuk state in the East. The arrival of the Europeans stopped the wars and froze the constantly changing
hierarchy of islands and tribal groups; today the caste system is an exact replica of what it was on the day the Europeans arrived and Outer Islanders like me are the third and lowest caste. We’re forced to live in separate communities and have less rights and job opportunities. I’m just lucky that I got sponsored.’
“That’s awful,” I said in an attempt to show some sympathy. However, being fascinated by this sort of history, the history of small and unknown peoples and places, I felt the need to enquire more about it. “So how did the chiefs of Yap keep control of such a huge empire? I mean, presumably travel to Chuuk and even the Outer Islands of Yap was pretty difficult?”
“Not really. The Yapese were incredible navigators, probably the best in the world. Their canoes were fast and they were able to travel thousands of kilometers, navigating by looking at the positions of the stars, the shapes and sizes of the waves and the currents of the water. And its exactly like this that people still travel in the Outer Islands today! Anyway, back then long journeys were regularly made, definitely as far as Palau to quarry
stone for our money and almost certainly to South East Asia too.” Spit.
I had already seen the stone money he had mentioned. It sat on the ground outside many houses and lined the sides of the stone paths that connected villages on the island, huge circular wheels with holes in the centre through which a pole, branch or tree trunk (depending on its size) could be passed to facilitate its transportation by two or more men. The largest I had seen was two meters in diameter, but apparently there was one somewhere that was four meters wide.
Jesse did not move much when he spoke and his facial expressions changed little, but I detected a certain amount of passion in his voice when he spoke about his islands. This, combined with the fact that his jaw had sped up significantly in its mastication of his betel nut, led me to believe that he was enjoying himself and would be happy to answer more questions.
“And the stone money - do you guys still use it today?’
“Of course! Not in shops obviously but it still has a lot of value. If you commit a crime against someone you can
be forced to pay in stone money. You can also buy land with it, or people’s services, maybe if you need someone to help you build a house.” Spit. “When the Japanese occupied this island they used to smash the money if anyone tried to disobey them. When they arrived they counted thirteen thousand pieces but by the time they left they had destroyed about half of them.”
I shook my head in sorrow at this senseless destruction of such unique cultural treasures.
“Does anyone ever try to steal the money?’ I asked.
“No one can. Everyone knows who owns which piece.” I had already noticed that on Yap, being such a small community, everyone knew everything about everyone else: I could never remember the name of the village I was staying in but when I told people that I was camping on a beach owned by a man called Joaquin (everyone in Yap owns a patch of land, some including a tiny stretch of beach), people would invariably know who I was talking about.
Jesse continued: “Even when a transaction is made, the money is rarely actually moved, just like when you make a bank transaction in dollars or
“And I guess the bigger pieces are worth more?”
“Sometimes but not always. Actually, the value of the money lies in its history, in the difficulty of the journey that brought it back to Yap from Palau. If people died on that journey it gives it extra value and the more people that died, the more valuable that piece of money.”
“Anyway,” he said, “have you been to the Council of Tamol to get your Outer Islands permit?”
I had indeed been in touch with the Council, which one was required to obtain a permit from at the fee of $5 if one wanted to visit the Outer islands.
“I have, but the permit’s not ready yet,’ I told him. “I’m going to pick it up and pay the $5 on Monday.
“$5!” he roared. “Why on earth are you paying $5?”
“Er, I think it’s just the fee for the permit,” I stuttered.
“Nonsense, there’s nothing in Fais’ laws that says you have to spend anything.”
He picked up the phone and started dialing.
“Jesse, who are you calling?”
“Please, I don’t want to cause any problems, they’ve been very helpful to me and…”
it was too late, someone from the Council had already picked up.
“Hello, it’s Jesse Raglman speaking. I have my friend here who says you’re trying to charge him $5 to go to Fais. I don’t want him to pay anything….What?! I don’t care if it’s written in the Constitution, it’s not the law of Fais, we don’t want outsiders paying to come to come to our island unless it goes directly to the island, and anyway, this guy’s my friend…. What do you mean you didn’t know he was my friend? I’ve been waiting for him for two weeks so we can go to Fais together….I don’t care about the law….Ok, the law says that $5 must go into a special bank account. I want you to give me the details of the bank account right now….No of course you can’t, because it doesn’t exist, does it?” he yelled down the phone before hanging up. I felt sure that this guy would get us on a plane to Fais one way or another.
It was Friday evening and I left, having arranged to meet him on Monday morning at the offices of PMA.
The next day, while wandering
along a stone path and passing the men’s house in the village of Nimar, someone yelled out to me, “Hey! Want a beer?” Like that the course of my evening was decided; I went over to find a group of Yapese men sitting on the floor drinking as they had been without rest or sleep since the previous day. Some had slightly bloodshot eyes but in general they seemed remarkably lucid and friendly.
“So what do you do?” I asked one called Leo. He, like several of them, was clinically obese. The shelves in the shops I had been into so far had been lined with processed foods, spam, corned beef and tinned meat, and the health problems caused by them were all too evident on this island.
“I drink,” he replied, “and in my spare time I’m a policeman.” The others around him chuckled, exposing their bright red teeth and gums.
“And what abut you guys?” I asked the others.
“We don’t work - we just go out fishing sometimes and sell the catch for beer money.” Again everyone laughed. I found it somewhat saddening to hear them laugh while talking about such an empty lifestyle.
An older man
took a swig on a can of beer and added, “Yes, we sell our fish for beer money then buy back the worst bits processed and in a can.” I had the impression that he found the situation less amusing than the others.
Later that evening an extremely drunk Leo went to borrow a jeep from the police station and drove us along a track that led up the biggest hill on the island, just outside their village. We stopped at a large thatched roof shelter and went in.
“We’re going to drink here from now on,” Leo told me.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because down in the village you’re not allowed to shout, but here we can do whatever we want.. It’s like that in every village on Yap - if you run or shout in the village, people have the right to tie you up, beat you and start a fire under your feet.”
“Jesus Christ! Does that still happen?” I asked, shocked.
“No, because everyone respects the law. Also, no women are allowed to drink with men, but here we can invite some women from other villages,” he said with a conspiratorial wink. “A couple are going to
come later. But if the women from our village catch them they have the right to shave their heads. If you see any women with shaved heads, that’s the reason.”
I stayed with them until about seven in the evening but when several huge plastic bottles of vodka were produced I took it as my cue to leave. The evening had left a lot of questions in my mind. Was alcoholism widespread on Yap or had I just happened on something of a rare event? And what about in the Outer Islands? Another thing that was playing on my mind was the apparent contradiction between their seeming happiness and friendliness and their alcohol addiction. And on top of all this was the fact that they had abandoned their traditional way of life and were willing to ruin their health by drinking and unhealthy eating while at the same time neglecting the laws that had traditionally governed their society. I resolved to question the people from PMA about all this and hoped that I would find nothing similar on Fais.
On Monday morning I arrived at the airport, the floors and pavements of which, like so many public places in Yap,
were painted red to hide the stains from the constant spitting of the population. To my joy I found that PMA had decided it would be possible to take us to Fais, that day and pick us up on Friday.
“What made you change your mind?” I asked Vincent.
“Well we found several people who want to go to Ulithi, so we’ll be stopping there first, and we’ve got enough cargo for it to be worth going on to Fais too.”
“Yeh, we’ve got a new pilot and we need to take him on some training flights so we decided to do it then.”
I wondered whether this was a hundred per cent true, and whether Jesse had had a hand in securing our flights. He was clearly very pleased with himself too, and had the whole waiting room in stitches of laughter with silly jokes and anecdotes that came one after another without end.
“What are you two going to do out there?” an Ulithian woman asked me.
“I haven’t got a clue what I’m going to do!” Jesse butted in. “He’s the only one with a definite plan!” he joked, pointing at me and chewing vigorously
on a betel nut. It couldn’t have been further from the truth, as I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do there other than try to learn about the lives of the people.
On the plane I sat in the co-pilot’s seat next to Vincent and decided to voice the concerns that had been born in my mind on the evening I had spent with the people of Nimar.
“I’ve got something I need to ask you,” I said. “Is alcoholism a big problem in yap?”
“Sure is,” he replied. “Almost everyone drinks and smokes marijuana.”
“And what about the Outer Islands?”
“On Ulithi lots of people drink, but on the other islands the chiefs don’t allow it. Maybe some people brew tuba in secret, it’s like a drink they make from coconuts, but in general they don’t drink. I think it’s more common on Ulithi which is far more developed than the other Outer Islands - they even have a car and electricity in some parts.”
I was very glad to hear that. To my mind it indicated that tradition remained stronger on Fais than it did on Yap.
“It’s so strange,” I continued, “they
seem so happy but they have these addictions - alcohol and betel nut - and addiction isn’t something you usually associate with happiness.”
The conversation paused briefly while he relayed some information back to the office in Yap over the radio. “It’s an exterior happiness that they show you,” he answered me afterwards, “but there’s a lot of stress within their culture.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well they have to deal with the caste system, which is a really terrible thing. Then there are lots of really strict rules to do with the segregation of men and women which just add to the stress.”
I found it a very interesting idea, and one that I had not previously considered, that people might be able to be happy while at the same time having a certain level of underlying unhappiness in their culture itself. It certainly seemed to explain the contradictions which had up until now been confusing me. I had thought that perhaps the alcoholism had developed due to the shock of contact with the West, the realization of how small and undeveloped their society was in comparison to the world around them. But then there had always been the
betel nut addiction; alcoholism had just been added to that when it became available.
I had always thought that indigenous people were happier before contact with the outside world but perhaps in some cases, the cases where they had a particularly violent or strict culture, having it watered down somewhat might not be a bad thing. The idea explained how the ex-cannibals I had met in New Guinea could be such warm, friendly people now. Some of them had previously believed all inexplicable deaths, such as those from disease, to be caused by sorcery; each time someone died, the sorcerer had to be found and eaten, even if it was a friend or family member. The stress and paranoia this belief must have caused is unimaginable and perhaps having it dispelled by contact with the outside was not such a bad thing. The question is whether the adverse side effects of this contact, such as the alcoholism and loss of traditional values I saw on Yap, are worth it.
All this thought led me to a question that is probably impossible to answer with any degree of authority without doctorates in anthropology and philosophy: why on earth did some cultures
ever develop in a way that could cause unhappiness in the first place? Surely it goes against not just natural selection but also plain common sense? The cannibals of the Pacific and the human sacrificers of the Ancient Americas are prime examples of what I am talking about but I am also referring to such things as the segregation of men and women in Yap, the Japanese obsession with honour that sometimes leads to suicide and, perhaps the most incomprehensible of all, the human race’s obsession with war and empire building. Are these examples of self-destructive tendencies in our species inevitable by-products of intelligence? I would say they are not. I can see no possible reason to link the two together. Perhaps, however, I can offer some evidence in support of a better theory. None of these self-destructive tendencies were found in purely hunter-gatherer societies; they were simply too busy searching for food, going about the simple business of keeping themselves alive like every other species on the planet but which modern humans have exempted themselves from. The ability and the need to wage war or commit human sacrifice was never there in these hunter-gatherer societies. Perhaps societies which formed
agriculture-based settlements acquired more free time and resources, leading to the formation of civilizations and the need for population control or expansion in search of more resources and at the expense of other peoples. In short, perhaps human sacrifice, cannibalism and the segregation of men and women developed over time as necessary forms of controlling population booms, and our society’s obsession with war is a natural extension of the desperate hunt for more food and resources that began thousands of years ago with the first agriculture-fueled population booms. This would certainly seem plausible on Yap island, which, at the height of its empire, had a population density of almost one thousand per square kilometer.
We descended from the plane after an hour-long flight and walked over to where a crowd of about thirty people awaited us outside a small concrete room and a thatched-roof shelter that constituted Fais airport. Slightly lighter-skinned than those of Yap proper, they were almost all in what I will call semi-traditional dress. The women were topless and wore brightly-coloured and patterned pieces of cloth around their waist that covered their legs like a bath towel. The men and children of both sexes wore a
plain blue or red piece of cloth in one of three styles: either as a loincloth which covered the genitals but left the buttocks exposed, or as a loincloth which hung down at the back and front, covering both, or in the same style as the women, like a bath towel which covered the legs almost down to the ankles. The latter was more popular with teenagers and young adults, hinting at the beginning of a break from tradition.
“Do they make them themselves?” I asked Jesse as we walked away from the airport with an entourage of shy but friendly followers, one of whom had insisted on carrying my bag for me.
“Yes, but the thread is usually flown out from Yap by PMA,” he replied, preparing a betel nut as he walked. “We used to make them from grass but now that we have the thread we don’t need to.”
“And when do young girls stop wearing the same on as the boys and start wearing the colourful one?”
“It’s called a lava lava. When they reach puberty they start wearing it. Back in the old days the children didn’t wear any clothes, and then when they started
to get some hairs down below they would have to go to the Chief and ask his permission to start wearing clothes, a lava lava for women or a thua for men.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “Are we going to see the Chief now, to ask permission for me to stay here?”
“Actually the Paramount Chief died a couple of years ago. That’s part of the problem now - there’s no one to lay down the rules, exercise some authority. There are three villages, each with seven chiefs, but there should also be one Paramount Chief and there isn’t.”
“What sort of problems is it causing?”
“Well the other chiefs aren’t doing their jobs properly. Each one has their own job to do -a messenger chief, a food chief and so on. If you catch a sea turtle it’s a real delicacy. You’re supposed to take it to the food chief who then shares it out with everyone, but nowadays people just keep it for themselves. If someone else finds out they have it they’ll usually ask for some and be given some, but that’s not how it’s supposed to work.”
“And why hasn’t there been a new Paramount Chief since the old one died?”
“Because no one wants to take his position. So I’m going to try and encourage someone to take up the role, to unify the other chiefs and the people. For this island to find its place in the modern world it’s imperative that we keep hold of our traditions and culture, and for that we need someone to enforce them. Keeping our traditional values alive is key to our self-respect and the respect of others.”
What an incredibly forward-thinking attitude. All too often in isolated parts of the world, development plans are of the “build a road, build a school and let them figure out the rest’ type and have little thought for the culture. Sometimes they even actively try to eradicate it, a primitive, embarrassing sign to others that the government does not exercise complete control. Jesse, however, knew that Fais would have to join the modern world some time but he wanted it to do it on its own terms, rather than just being assimilated into mainstream culture.
Having crossed a couple of fields we arrived at the school, two rectangular concrete buildings at right angles to each other and with a large area of grass in front.
“Is it just a primary school or doe it have secondary too?” I asked.
“It’s just a primary school,” Jesse informed me, “but not like the ones you have in England. Here we’re not very strict about what age you start or finish school. Sometimes people can be in their early twenties when they finish primary school.” He raised his eyebrows at me and gave a small, red-toothed grin.
“And where do the pupils go after primary school?”
“Well, either they start helping their parents full-time or they can go to the secondary school on Ulithi. If they want to carry on their studies after that then they have to go to Yap.”
We walked to the other side of the grassy playground then across a makeshift basketball court before finding ourselves on a narrow path overhung by tall trees, the shade of which felt almost ecstatic after our fifteen minute walk through the burning midday sun. A few paces and we turned off to the right, quickly arriving at a little clearing in which stood a three-room house that was a mixture of concrete, metal and thatch.
“This is my nephew’s house,” Jesse announced. “he’s just been medevacced to Yap but it’ll be fine for you and me to stay here.” I had not heard the term “medevac” before but I guessed it stood for medical evacuation.
Seven people were currently living in the house - a woman of about forty, two girls in their early twenties, one of about ten, two boys in their early teens and a baby girl. We all sat down around a wooden structure with a thatched roof in front of the main house. and one of the girls brought Jesse and I a coconut each and hacked the top off with a machete. The sweat was still pouring off me so I thanked her profusely, tipped back my head and drank for about ten seconds until the shell was empty. During my stay in Fais I was offered so many coconuts that I only drank water on quite rare occasions but I still remember that first one as being the sweetest ever; sometimes they just taste like slightly sweet water, but this one had such an immense, full flavour that it was like the liquid version of an extremely fresh, sweet, homemade cookie that fills your mouth with waves of gluttonous pleasure at every bite and has been baked using the perfect recipe, possibly by an aged great-grandmother who is the only remaining guardian of the knowledge of how to produce such unhealthy wonders.
I tried asking the woman her name but got no response. I tried again and this time she just smiled and looked away.
“Her name’s Patricia,” one of she girls said shyly.
“OK. And what’s your name?”
“OK, Arlene, my name’s Eddy.”
She just smiled and looked away.
“And what’s your name?” I tried one of the boys. This time there were giggles from him and his brother and the one who I had asked the question received a playful slap on the arm but gave no answer.
“They don’t speak any English?” I asked Arlene, assuming they had not understood my question.
“They speak a bit, but maybe they’re just shy,” she replied in English that was surprisingly good. Where on earth had she learnt that?
“Aaah, I see. So what are their names?” I felt a bit embarrassed pushing for their names when they had opted not to tell me but guessed that really they wanted me to know. Besides, how could I possibly have lived with them for five days without knowing their names? That could have been even more embarrassing, so it was now or never.
She pointed to the other girl in her early twenties. “That’s Darling,” she said.
“Yes,” Arlene said, the hint of a smile flashing across her face. That was one name I did not plan on using in spite of all the effort I had put into finding it out.
After my clumsy interruption she continued naming her family members from oldest to youngest: Malcolm, Damien, Louisa and Teresa. They all gave Western-sounding names, but, I later found out, everyone also had a local name. Long, difficult to pronounce and impossible to remember, these were what they used in conversation amongst themselves.
Jesse took out his bag of betel nut and began to prepare his next fix. I did the same - I had already developed quite a liking for this bizarre habit. Everyone's eyes fixed on the bag of perhaps fifty large, green, oblong nuts so I decided to offer them round. I had bought several bags to give as presents too but would have felt a bit self-conscious handing them over so soon after my arrival. Better to wait and give them as presents to people I've got to know rather than payment to people I've just met.
"Do you have betel nuts on Fais?" I asked Arlene. It was beginning to seem like conversations over the next five days would either have to be conducted with her or with her acting as an intermediary.
"We do but they're really small," she said, showing a bag of tiny, shrivelled nuts less than a tenth the size of the ones Jesse and I had brought and absolutely unrecognisable as the same species.
"Strange - why are they so much smaller here?" I enquired.
"They take a few years to grow to full size, but the people on this island can never wait that long," she said.
The conversation switched into their local language and I sat back, listening, watching, chewing and spitting. From gestures, glances and the way everyone was taking turns in talking to Jesse, it was clear they were asking him questions about me, curious but too shy to enquire directly.
After around half an hour Jesse got up at announced that he was going to walk around and talk to some people, while Arlene and a friend of hers would take me on a tour of the island.
We walked past the school on the main path, following it for around ten minutes until it led into some crop gardens. People we passed would stop their work to look at me, and those nearer to us would approach and question the girls, presumably about me. After we had passed through the gardens the path led into an area where the undergrowth was much denser, perhaps even bordering on what could be called jungle.
Coconut palms, breadfruit trees and banana trees were everywhere. "Who owns them?" I asked. "Individuals or the community?"
There was a pause. I had not addressed the question to anyone in particular and I think both of them were shyly hoping the other would answer. It was, however, up to Arlene, as she realised that her friend was not going to respond. "Different people own each one," she said. "The ones just back there are my father's but these ones belong to our neighbours." Over the next five days I was to learn that you could point at any coconut palm, anywhere on the island, ask anyone who owned it and they would be able to tell you without thinking.
The path disappeared and for a few minutes we had to pick our way through some bushes and trees before suddenly we broke free to find ourselves standing on cliff tops on which lay scattered various rusting metal cogs and wheels. Right on the edge stood an old metal tower, roughly four metres tall and resembling a miniature electricity pylon, and away from it for a couple of meters led the remains of a rail road that were too narrow to support a passenger-carrying train.
"Where did these come from?" I asked, this time looking directly at Arlene in order to avoid the strange pause that would follow if I left the question open to anyone.
"The Japanese left them here," she replied simply. Even she, the most talkative person I had met so far, would not say anything to me other than the briefest possible answer to my questions. The Japanese occupation of Fais was something I had heard of but knew very little about. I decided she probably was not the best person to ask about it though - perhaps Jesse would be able to fill me in on a few details.
They led me back into the bush and for about fifteen minutes we struggled through it in a different direction, eventually emerging into a clearing peopled by monstrosities. Several vast, ancient, ugly, crumbling machines stood looking down on us, appearing so suddenly and looking so out of place in this environment that I almost had the feeling of having been ambushed. One of them, roughly five meters tall, could have looked like a giant washing machine. The huge empty, round hole in the front could have been the door of the machine or a great howling mouth, its serrated edge the sharp, jagged teeth of a vampire and the tree growing on top a bizarre hair cut.
"Yes, this was part of the mine."
"My father remembered when they first arrived," Joe told me, talking about the Japanese. He was a slightly overweight middle-aged man with a kindly face and an appealing smile. He had approached me on my second day on Fais and was far more open and talkative than anyone else I had yet met. "They came and they pointed their guns at us. They said, 'There's something on this island that we want and that you know nothing about. It's of no use to you so we're going to take it.' Of course they were talking about phosphate, but no one on Fais knew that back then. Anyway, they mined it from 1938 until 1944 and destroyed a third of the island. Even today, it's impossible to grow any crops on that part of the island."
"And that's exactly what we need to change," Jesse added, "How can we become self-sufficient if we can't even make use of our own land? It's one of the main points in my development plan. With a bit of government funding we should be able to make that area fertile again." I guessed in the end it would be a showdown between the government's unwillingness to divert money to a tiny, isolated rock in the ocean and Jesse's ability to make a nuisance of himself until he got what he wanted.
"Who worked in the mine?" I asked.
"The Japanese forced the people of Fais to work in the mine and grow food for them," Joe answered. "It was a difficult time. When the Americans invaded the Japanese got the islanders together and tried to use them as a human shield. Luckily they surrendered in the end."
Jesse put his hand on a box and used it to help himself stand up. "Time to go to the beach," he announced, raising his eyebrows momentarily and offering the faintest trace of a smile. Joe, his son and I grinned and Joe nodded knowingly. I had been informed on the evening of the first day that people on Fais viewed it as inappropriate to have a toilet in their house, so the bushes lining a certain beach were where everyone went. "Going to the beach" was recognised across the island as a euphemism for the toilet.
That evening Joe and his family offered to have me over for dinner and his wife cooked one of the best meals I have ever eaten - fresh octopus fried in pig fat and spiced up with extremly hot red chillies and the leaves of a local plant. After the meal we sat on the concrete floor of the house Joe had built himself and smoked strong, locally grown tobacco wrapped in the paper of an old newspaper that had been flown in on the PMA flight.
"The people want him to be the new Paramount Chief," Joe's son, Joseph, told me, pointing at his father. "His mother was related to the old Chief, so that makes him eligible." I had never heard of this before - a hereditary title that was handed down matrilineally.
"Don't you want to be Chief?" I asked.
"No, if I become Paramount Chief I'll have to move over to the other village, but I like it here. And anyway, being Chief isn't like it was in the old days. If people were walking on a path and the Chief came the other way, you used to have to step aside to let him pass. If he wanted a coconut someone used to have to go and pick a whole bunch - that's extremely heavy, you know, especially when you're hanging on to the top of a tree with one hand, ten metres above the ground, and trying to break off a huge bunch of coconuts with the other hand! And to make matters worse, coconuts that were destined to be drunk by the Chief weren't allowed to touch the ground, so the poor man couldn't simply cut them off and let them fall - he had to carry the whole bunch on his way down with just one hand! Of course once he got to the bottom several other men would help him carry them to the Chief."
I laughed heartily at the idea then continued my questioning: "Why would you have to move if you became Chief?"
"Because the Chief has to live in that village over there," he said, waving his hand dismissively. In my guided walks around the island I still had not worked out exactly where one village began and the other ended. There were three on the island, all clustered together, and there was absolutely no gap in the housing between any of them.
"Do you have relatives in the other villages?" I asked, hoping that I was not barraging him with too many questions on different subjects.
"Of course we have a few, but we don't really visit each other much. People from one village don't really hang out in the others. We visit the next village slightly more, but the far one - you really need to have some specific business to go there. Anyway, ours is the smallest village and everyone else says we're rubbish!" He threw back his head and laughed, giving the impression that he really did not care in the slightest.
"Why is it that you don't visit the other villages much?" I pressed.
"I don't know," the reply, "that's just the way it is."
At the end of the evening my feelings were mixed. I liked Joe very much and he had shown me great kindness, even inviting me for a lobster breakfast the next day, but I also felt sad that he would not take up the role of Chief. Of course it should be his right not to have to move house, uproot himself, but the lack of a Paramount Chief was one of the island's biggest problems, and the one that Jesse viewed as being in the most urgent need of solving.
The next morning, with a stomach full of lobster but a head slightly groggy from a night partly spent battling a giant spider and an even-more-giant centipede in my room, I headed over to the school where one of the teachers had invited me to sit in on an English class.
"Ok, so who's done their homework today?" the teacher asked.
No hands went up. There was silence for a second but it was soon replaced by laughter from most of the students at the amusing lack of response.
"Ok, let's go through it as a class," the teacher said, grinning too.
The class was chaotic, so much so that I simply could not tear myself away and opted to stay and observe three rather than one. Although the twenty or so students each had a desk, most of them did not have books so there was a lot of sharing which naturally encouraged chat, not just when they were supposed to be working but even while the teacher was talking. Pupils would just get up and wander outside at random and the teacher did not even attempt to exercise any control. The books they did have were ancient and the courses within them so draconian that I was astounded that anyone on the island had managed to learn any English at all. There was little or no explanation of grammar, but rather a large number of exercises and sets of sample sentences that were in no way connected to one another and made little sense even a stand-alone sentences. The language in the books, and consequently the language the pupils were producing in the lesson when they did actually do some work, was of the "my uncles pen is in my sister's bathroom" and "I crawl in my garden" type. Halfway through Jesse's head popped round the door. "Ah! I see the head teacher's checking up on you!" he said to the teacher, knowing that I also was one.
"The books seem quite old," I suggested to the teacher during one of the breaks.
"Yes," he said, "they're really awful. But we can't get anything better."
"So how do the kids learn to speak such good English if the books are so bad and they do so little work?"
"Some of them do the work, they're just shy to admit it. Also they learn a hell of a lot from films - we have a generator in the far village and show films every now and then. Also if they go to Yap or the other Outer Islands they have to use English because the people there speak different languages."
Judging by the level of their English and the level of the lessons, I guessed they picked up most of their language from films.
"What about you," I asked, "did you train to be a teacher?"
"No," he said, "we don't have any qualified teachers here. The teachers are just the ones who've been to University. Even if they didn't finish University they can teach. Rose, for example, she only did one semester at University on Yap."
I arrived back at the house to another lunch of fried octopus awaiting me. There was a man on all fours on the dining area fixing something, his thua fixed not quite tightly enough and exposing the top of his bottom. Arlene, whose tone of voice was usually soft and gentle, more or less roared at the man in the one of the harshest, coarsest batteries of what sounded like reprimads that I have ever heard. He rapidly lifted up his thua and rearranged it.
Halfway through the meal a man turned up with a bunch of brightly coloured fish and gave a couple to me as a present. I thanked him profusely and tried to offer him a packet of cigarettes in return but he just shyly shook his head, smiled and left as quickly as he had come. It was one of many similar acts of kindness I experienced during my stay on Fais; I was reminded, as I so often am when staying with remote or traditional groups of people, of the hospitality, even towards unknown and uninvited strangers, that has been mostly lost in the West.
"Do they have to go far to catch the fish?" I asked Arlene.
"No, they just catch them in the reef."
The coral reef which surrounded the island stretched for several kilometres in all directions.
"What do they use?"
"Spears, nets or spear guns." I had seen the spear guns in some of the houses, makeshift wooden implements with a rubber band that propelled the spear forward when released.
"Do they ever fish outside the lagoon?"
"Yes, they often go out in their canoes as well."
"And you, do you go out fishing?"
"Not usually. Most of the time women just work in the garden or make meals."
The next day we went down to the beach to watch two men setting out in their brightly painted canoes. They were small, with only one man in each, but I could see a four-man canoe floating slowly past, far out at sea.
"That's from the far village," Arlene informed me. "We don't have any of the big ones in our village."
She took me back to the house past two men hacking away at a tree trunk and another carving a paddle from a small branch.
"I guess they're making a canoe," I said.
"Yes," Arlene replied, "but it will take them a month."
"We'll miss you when you're gone," Arlene said to me on the morning of my departure. The other members of her family nodded. It was the first time any of them had said anything that indicated they were overcoming their shyness; I felt sure that had I stayed longer, more barriers would have been broken.
"I'll miss you all very much," I replied. I would. Despite their reservedness and inhibitions, these quiet, kindly, gentle people had made me feel so at home that I could almost not bear the thought of leaving them.
I hoped against hope that bad weather would delay the arrival of the PMA flight by just one day but it did not. When the time came I shook hands with those who I had begun to befriend, waved to the others and climbed onto the plane.
"Did you achieve your goals?" I asked Jesse.
"Well, I talked to everyone, I've got a good idea of what they want doing and what I want to do, so yes, I suppose I did. Anyway, I'll be back on the next flight to continue my work," he said, the tiny world I had called home for the last five days now a rapidly shrinking dot behind the plexiglass of the airplane window. Would I ever return? I sincerely hoped so, indeed I felt that I would almost NEED to because I would miss it so much; almost never had a place had such an affect on me as Fais did. But after leaving a place that I liked I always felt that I would want to return as soon as possible, and as the weeks and months passed the need would diminish and my itchy feet would always carry me on to new pastures rather than returning to the old.
And what would it be like if I did return in the future? Of course I could not say, but with Jesse watching over it I felt sure it was in good hands.
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