Menka Ruins

Tuesday dawned for us like many other mornings – cloudy with the threat of rain.   March is the wettest month of the year in Kosrae, but based on talking with the locals I’m not sure that it’s significantly different during the other times of the year.  One thing we never quite got used to was how a day could turn sunny, then cloudy and rainy and then sunny again within a few hours.

Still, the water that morning was very still, and I never pass up a chance for pictures.

Seeing the figure in the distance, we figured he was doing what we had done several times – going snorkeling in the Blue Hole.  It was a relatively short walk offshore (albeit through water) to get to the Blue Hole.  A close-up reveals that probably wasn’t the case.  It was pretty unusual for us to see the water so calm.

After breakfast, we made arrangements with the wonderful Maria to go on the Menka ruins hike.  Our experience with Mt. Oma had taught us that it really didn’t matter if it was sunny when we took that hike since the canopy of the jungle is so dense sunlight doesn’t make it to the ground anyway.  Since we were going to be in class for the next couple days and it looked to be a non-sunny day, Menka was what it was going to be.  We made arrangements to have a cab driver pick us up shortly after noon.

In the meantime, we did a little more exploring around the island.  We ventured into one of the Kosraean stores, which are rather quaint experiences.  The variety of products offered in one place is quite amazing.  This store offered everything from automotive supplies to frozen food.

Much of the packaged food is Japanese, but there are some occasional U.S. products.  Of course, the Japanese packaged food is all labeled in Japanese, so we didn’t know what a lot of the items were (and we weren’t brave enough to buy some to find out).

We also passed another gas station.  Again, no secondary containment, and a creek right behind it.

Around noon-ish, the cab came to pick us up.  We took the cab until the end of the road down in Utwe.  At that point we picked up another passenger – another tourist who was taking the hike with us.  I say “the end of the road” – I mean the end of real paving.  The road continues, but the road is in such bad condition and has so many potholes that there is a real mechanical risk to any car venturing that far.  That being said, our intrepid driver took us another few miles down the bumpy/rocky path to the entrance of the Menka National Park.

It was amazing to me that even in this remote area of the island, there were still houses.

At the park we met Salik, our guide for the hike.  The hike started off uphill, where we got a good view of the jungle canopy.  It was amazing to me how many colours of green there were.

Before long we descended to the jungle floor and the rest of our hike.  We were incredibly lucky to have Salik for our guide.  He is one of the few remaining people on the island to know all the stories and secrets of the jungle and the ruins, having learned them from his grandfather.  Throughout the hike he would point out plants and tell us the medicinal qualities – one that was like aloe and had healing properties, another that was similar to Pepto Bismol and would settle an upset stomach, one that could heal burns.  Another plant could be used to stun fish enough to get them to float to the water’s surface for easy fishing.  We got a botanical lesson every few minutes.

Salik also introduced us to the ka trees, the trees that were commonly used to carve canoes.  He also showed us how those enormous roots were hollow; and so you could bang on the side of them and make quite an impressive noise.  Salik said that technique is very common for those who have lost their way in the forest and need some help getting out.

Then, of course, there were the groves of the rainbow eucalyptus trees.  The picture doesn’t do them justice; there were many pinks and reds and blues beyond what you see.

One of the many beautiful flowers on the hike.

It was at least a two mile hike in the jungle to get to the ruins.  We had to cross the river five times.

It didn’t seem all that long, and we were there!

Salik told us that the Menka ruins were well over 1000 years old, and date back to when Kosrae was an animalistic culture and worshipped an animalistic goddess.   All the buildings were square in shape with an altar in one of the rooms.  Salik said that the goddess of the island ruled peacefully for many years, but eventually foresaw a time when the people would no longer worship her; so she retreated to the forest.

You can see the altar in the centre of this picture.

The stones were clearly hand stacked, nobody quite knows where the stones came from and how they got there.

One of the best things about the hike was that for a snack, Salik climbed into a nearby tree and brought down more of those divine green tangerines.  What a fabulous treat to have in the middle of the jungle!

The ruins are the site of a number of excavations; Salik took us to another location a short distance away.  They weren’t significantly different than the ones I have pictured, but we soon discovered the real reason Salik wanted us to move – he could see rain coming, and one of the archaeaological camps was the only place nearby that remotely offered shelter.  the four of us stood under a plastic tarp when it started to rain.

It rained.

And rained some more.

Then it poured.

When the rain let up (note: it didn’t stop), we headed back to the trailhead.  Salik wanted to make sure we got back before dark, plus with the immense amount of rain we’d experienced there was a real danger of flash floods.  Hence, like with many other adventures on Kosrae, we got totally soaked.

It rained so much that we didn’t dare take the camera out for further pictures.  We were very grateful that we were wearing our Keen sandals, since they are about the only shoes in the world that you can wear and not really care if they get wet.

After returning to the trailhead, Salik wanted to climb a nearby tree to serve us fresh coconut water, but the amount of rain had been so great it was too dangerous to climb.  That was fine with us, though – we took the time to wash off our very muddy arms and legs in the river and wait for the cab driver to come pick us up.

While waiting for the driver, we learned something that we had suspected but nobody had admitted: that dogs are indeed used as food on the island.  We had noticed that most houses had dogs – in many cases you could call them pets – but they weren’t treated the same way as pets are here in the U.S.  Christina had also warned us about the possibility of packs of wild dogs on the island; fortunately we didn’t experience any.  However, we didn’t notice any vets on the island either, and there wasn’t exactly a spay and neuter campaign going on.  Christina’s host family’s dog had had puppies in December, and then had another litter as soon as the others were whelped.  Since the island wasn’t totally overrun by dogs, we figured they had to be going somewhere.  Sadly, that’s it.

We also encouraged Salik to keep learning the stories of the island from his grandfather so they wouldn’t be forgotten.  I don’t know that will be the case, though.  Salik is interested in leaving the island, and so is studying automotive technology in school.  Like many young people on the island, he is looking to leave to build something better, and then come back.

On the ride back to the Treelodge, we had a similar talk with our cab driver.  He was the same age as Salik.  His dream is to make it into the U.S. military, because “all the military people are rich”.  We found out later that all Kosraean men take the military aptitude test, and that it is a goal for many young Kosraeans to get into the military as a ticket to get off the island.

At the end of our cab ride, we went to Bully’s for our second movie night of the stay (don’t remember the name of the movie) and pizza.  It was very strange moving between the first and third worlds, all in the space of 20 miles.

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The first day of class

It was difficult to believe, but we were heading into our last week in Kosrae.  And there was still so much to do!  However, we had to take care of one thing that we hadn’t yet – visit Christina in her classroom!

Christina teaches five classes; she gave us the option of coming for the whole day, or coming in for just the last couple (around 11).  We had every intention of coming for the whole day, but I was still not feeling quite 100 percent, so we opted for the later time.

We really should have gone in earlier.  We hopped on our bikes to ride to school.  What started out as sunny weather near the Treelodge turned into a tropical downpour roughly a quarter mile from the school.  By the time we got there, we were soaked to the skin; and we could see Christina laughing at us from outside her third floor classroom.

The railing in this picture is blocking the bikes; you can also see that it’s been raining *very* recently.

Christina’s classroom!

On the wall she had classroom agreements for each class.  I was very impressed by this; I can think of a few teams in the working world that could have used this type of technique.

Soon it was time for class to start, and we got to watch Christina in action.

She started by going over the vocabulary words for the week, and then she introduced Roy and me, and had both of us say a few words to the class.  Then she set about the lesson of the day:  introducing The Best Part of Me.  It’s a photography/poetry project undertaken by a teacher here in the U.S.  She had her students choose a body part that was the “best part of them”, and had them write a poem about it.   The book is a compilation of those poems and pictures of the students.  Christina wanted to have her students complete this project as well.

She read a few of the poems, and then gave the students time to work on their poems in class.  While they were working, Roy distributed some of the candy we’d brought with us.

Before we made the trip, we spotted a copy of “Us” magazine in the store that featured the upcoming movie The Hunger Games.   Christina had taught the book the previous quarter and it had been very popular with her students.  We brought the magazine with us; and Christina kept the copy in her classroom and had hung the posters on the wall.

First, pictures of the teacher at work:

We just met with two classes that day, but it was clear that The Hunger Games magazine was a big hit.

During the day, Christina had an idea.  Since I was there with a camera anyway, would I mind taking picture of the students for their own version of The Best Part of Me?

It sounded like so much fun – it was easy to agree.  That also meant we were going to school for a couple more days that week!

After class, Roy and I stopped by the hospital (it was across the street from the school) to settle our bill.  We found out later that getting 10 days’ worth of antibiotics without paying was very unusual.  It’s standard practice to only give locals enough medicine to get them through to the next business day so they can make it to the pharmacy and pay up.  However, two days prior on the Saturday they’d given us 10 days all at once.

I took a quick picture of the pharmacy on the way to the cashier.

The total for the antibiotics, the cough syrup, checking in and the doctor visit?  The princely sum of $9.00.

Fortunately, this was the last day of my major symptoms, and weather permitting (which it wasn’t always), we had plenty more adventures to go.

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Another day of rest

We woke up on our second Sunday to another grey and cloudy day.  It was very fitting, particularly since activity is discouraged on Sunday.  We had planned to do some snorkeling, but the weather precluded that.

So, considering we are who we are, instead of resting, we decided to go for a bike ride.  First we stopped by the Sigrahs, where we found Christina on Skype with Jennifer, and Heisey overseeing.

The computer geek’s services had also been requested.

We stayed and visited for a while, but then the Sigrahs started stopping what they were doing and started bringing out all kinds of food and fruit.  It was lovely, but that wasn’t the intent of our visit.  So we thanked them graciously and went on our way.

I still wasn’t feeling totally 100 percent, so we decided to take it easy.  Of course, for us that meant a 14 mile bike ride.  We stopped at one of the laydown yards that the construction company had.

One fascinating thing to note if I haven’t before – all the utility poles?  Are metal.

We cycled all the way from Lelu, up around the top of the island, through Tafunsak, and finished up near the airport.  Near the marina there was a nice picnic area that had some thatched huts and barbecues.

It’s a perfect place for people to get together.   It was so very strange to wander around both the marina and the picnic area – there wasn’t a soul to be found, even though it was on Sunday.

Of course, it was a seven mile bike ride back to the Treelodge.

Then we rested for the rest of our Sunday.

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The welcome feast

The main reason I wanted to get my voice back was because of Saturday night.  Christina had told us that Cia had arranged for a welcome feast for us!   We would be able to meet the family – and in Kosraean terms, that meant the whole family.  Christina also told us the food would be yuc na pwacye (delicious).

We were told to be there by about 6, and we got there shortly afterwards.  This was one of the few occasions that I made sure I conformed to all Kosraean dress norms, making sure that I wore a skirt that fell below my knees and a top that covered my shoulders (I had not yet been able to find an appropriate Kosraean skirt of my own).

We recognized the immediate family (of course), but then were introduced to more.  And more.  And more again.  Soon after, Aliksa announced that it was time to eat.  He asked Morgan, Cia’s dad, to say grace.  Afterward, as the honoured guests, Roy and I were allowed to go first, followed by Christina.

There was a lot of food.

And more food.

And more food!

If you’re wondering, yes, that’s fah fah on the right of the last picture.  Cia’s father Morgan, being the “senior” ranking man in the family, had the privilege of making the fah fah for the feast.

After Roy, Christina and I got our food, then all the men served themselves, and finally the women and children.  It is traditional in Kosrae to take your shoes off before entering a home.

We ate outside, which is standard in Kosrae.  Really, not much happens inside.  The food was served there, but almost all was prepared outside in the cookhouse.  There is a fridge and a stove in the house, but due to the prohibitive cost of power only the fridge is used regularly.  We ate outside because – well, there isn’t a table inside.  Most Kosraean homes that we saw had very little furniture.  The Sigrahs’ home had two couches, a TV stand (with TV), and a desk.  There was a dresser/armoire in Christina’s room with a mattress and box spring, and another bedroom had a mattress only.  All other rooms were bare, and most everyone sleeps on the floor.   The Sigrahs had a tent set up in front of the house that covered the table and many chairs, and that is the social hub of the house.

The food – the food was wonderful.  Sukiyaki and crab and ribs and chicken and and and…..plus they made sure to have some green tangerines for us because they had heard we really liked them (and insisted we take the rest home).   The plate of watermelon?  For me because they’d heard that I’d devoured the watermelon after the Mt. Oma hike.  This is a good example of the “coconut wireless” on Kosrae – word just gets around about who you are and what you’re doing.

But what really made the evening special came after dinner.  Once we had finished eating, Aliksa announced that it was time for Remarks.  I didn’t know what Remarks were, but based on the seriousness that everyone got quite, I figured that there were very important indeed.

Aliksa then formally introduced Cia’s father, Morgan, to us again (we’d met Morgan several times by now), and said that he would officially welcome us to the island.

Morgan then spoke for several minutes.  He started by thanking us for coming to Kosrae, to see our daughter and to see Kosrae.  He thanked us for coming and for giving the family a reason to get together.  He explained that the last time the family had gathered together had been for a sad reason – two months ago, Cia’s and Aliksa’s five year old daughter, Alicia, had suddenly  passed away – and he thanked us for coming to Kosrae so we could give the family a reason to get together for a happy reason.  He talked about how happy he was that we could share in Christina’s life there, and that he hoped we would see many wonderful things in Kosrae and have a wonderful vacation there.

Then Morgan introduced Cia’s side of the family – we met Kino, our tour guide from Mt. Oma again, as well as the nurse from the hospital who I had seen that morning, as well as many, many others.  We shook hands and greeted each one, but the elders in particular we made the effort to get to them, shake them with both hands and say, “Kulo ma la lap”.   (Thank you very much.)  Most of them didn’t speak English, but I think in particular the older women at least appreciated the effort.  Here’s a picture I took of the two matriarchs I took later in the evening.

(We found out from Aliksa as he was giving us a ride home that night that he’s a direct descendant of the last king of Kosrae – a great-great-grandson, I think.)

After Morgan finished, it was Aliksa’s dad’s turn – Tatsuo.  Tatsuo didn’t speak much English, but formally indicated that his eldest son would speak for him.  The eldest son re-iterated all the things that Morgan had said, and then introduced all the members of Aliksa’s side of the family.

There was a bit of silence, while everyone looked at us.   Or more precisely, everyone looked at Roy.  It became clear that Roy was expected to make some Remarks as well.  And just like that, he stood up and made some.   He thanked the family for welcoming us with such a wonderful feast.  He thanked them for welcoming Christina into their home and their lives.  He told them what a beautiful island Kosrae was and how there were so many things the US could learn from the way of life there.  He told them that he felt we were all blessed by being at such a gathering with such wonderful warm people.  All the while, Roy got smiles and nods, so I think he said all the right things.

Then – and then – they sang for us.  The whole family.  Morgan told them what song, and they sang for us.  They sang us welcoming songs and friendship songs and traditional songs.  All in five part harmony.  I don’t think I will ever forget the harmony.

The only part that was not traditional was when they finished singing, I asked if they would all pose together for a picture so I could always remember the night.

They did, and I will.

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Hermit crab theatre

Saturday morning brought plans for excursions for all of us.  Christina came by for breakfast before heading out with some fellow WorldTeach teachers to climb Mt. Mutente – the second highest mountain on Kosrae.

We were lucky that the Treelodge had wifi, though somewhat unreliable.  When we found it worked, we took advantage of it.  Therefore, Christina found the following scene when she came for breakfast:

“You travel all this way and I *still* find you on your computers?” was her question.  We’re not quite sure we saw her point.

After breakfast, Christina headed off to conquer Mt. Mutente.  Roy and I had another errand to run.  Since our hike to Mt. Oma, my voice had rapidly deteriorated to the point where I could barely eke out any squeaks.  Whispering was driving me crazy.  I’d given it a couple days to get better on its own, but with some major plans for that evening, I decided to bring in the big guns.  So, after breakfast Roy and I cycled to the Kosrae hospital in search of antibiotics.

I had actually been proactive and been to my doctor prior to the trip, and had a Z-pak filled ready to go.  Unfortunately, it was ready to go sitting on the kitchen counter in California, where it wasn’t doing any good.

On the way to the hospital, we stopped to take a safety picture.  This is one of the office buildings in Tofol.

I was pleasantly surprised by the hospital experience.  The buildings were standard for the rest of Kosrae, and fortunately I didn’t have to wait long before being registered.  The nurse took my blood pressure and asked about my symptoms, and then it was only about five minutes before I got to see a doctor.  She told she that she hoped the rest of our trip to Kosrae would be wonderful.

On the registration paperwork, I had indicated that my address was in Lelu.  When the doctor came in he wanted to know where in Lelu, because he lived in Lelu and he didn’t know me (he was satisfied by the answer that I had only been on the island for a week).  He gave me a pretty standard examination, then gave me a prescription to be filled and told me the pharmacy was right around the corner.  He told me to enjoy the rest of our trip.

Literally, that was.  The pharmacy was down the hall and around the corner.  I handed my prescription over and received 10 days’ worth of antibiotics and some cough syrup.  The pharmacist carefully went over the instructions for me and told me that he hoped I felt better and that I would enjoy the rest of my visit to Kosrae.

(You probably noticed a trend here.  Everyone in Kosrae is that nice.  Of course, since there are virtually no tourists on the islands, it’s not difficult to peg us from not being around there.  But everyone would ask where we were from, tell us how they knew Christina, and wish us a wonderful trip.)

Once getting back to the hotel with my medication prizes, we changed and did a little snorkeling, but I wasn’t feeling quite up to par.  Since it was one of those rare days when it was beautiful all day, we didn’t want to waste it.  So my wonderful understanding husband set me up on a beach not far from the hotel and let me explore my camera to my heart’s content while he did some beachcombing.

This bird was at least 50 yards away.

Some views:


Proving we were there:

Then, for my zooming pleasure, Roy found some hermit crabs for me.   I tried to capture how the dominant one asserted themselves and chased the others off.  This was about ten feet away; I had a great time playing with the lens.

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Rapid Islands

It was early afternoon by the time we were finished with the cultural demonstration.  In pondering what we wanted to do for the rest of the day, Christina suggested taking us to someplace she had often visited – an area just off Lelu, known as the Rapid Islands.  They’re named such because they are eroding, well, rapidly.

It was a quick bike ride to the edge of Lelu, then wading through a narrow channel to get to the islands.

This is one of my favourite pictures.  That’s a large piece of styrofoam he’s floating across the channel.

We found a friend almost right away.

We then came across some of Christina’s students who attended her literacy program at the elementary school.  They were building a fort.  I took this picture when they didn’t know I had the camera.

Christina said, “Smile for the camera!” and that’s when the signs came out.

Then it was on to what we were there for – finding shells!  Christina had quite an impressive collection, so Roy and I were hoping to find a few of our own.

While we were looking for shells/corals/cool rocks, I took some time to take a few pictures.

These pictures are really good examples of how cloudy and yet how sunny Kosrae can be all at once on various parts of the island.

Roy had a great time finding shells.

That last tree was one of Christina’s favourites; we stopped there and had a snack while watching the sun peek in and out of clouds and the surf endlessly roll in.

We found a number of hermit crabs, often in shells that we thought we were going to take.  Actually, we’d had a couple experiences already where we had brought shells back to the room and placed them outside, just to have them grow legs (literally) and leave overnight.

Christina found a larger shell that also had an inhabitant.  This was one of the larger ones we saw on the trip.

Hours went by quickly, and it was time to leave the Rapid Islands and we waded back across the channel.  But not before a couple last pictures.

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A cultural experience

We’d learned from our visits to the Visitors Center that a tour group of Japanese students was visiting Kosrae on Friday.  Grant (the head of the Visitors Center) had invited us to come at the same time so we could experience all the crafts and learn more about Kosraean culture.

At the appointed hour, we were there.  Actually, we were there early.  Grant let us stay for the meetings of all the locals before the students arrived (which were conducted half in English, half in Kosraean).  Soon enough, the students were there, and were first taken on a walk up a nearby hill to get a clear view of Lelu.  The guide for the hike?  No other than Hamilson Philip, our “guide” for Mt. Oma.

The Japanese students.  On the way up the hill Hamilson also demonstrated how to set a wild boar trap and pointed out the rainbow eucalyptus trees (they are rather spectacular and I have better pictures of them in a future post).

Hamilson hamming it up for the cameras.

Another of the locals also enjoyed attention.

After walking back down the hill, we went to the Visitors Center, where there were crafts being made.  The setup was very similar to what we’d seen at Utwe Ma.

Making fah fah which we both liked:

They also had an oom:

And woodcarving and weaving.  All of the weaving (the different materials) come from the coconut tree – different fibers from different parts of the tree.

After the displays, we went back to the Treelodge.  The students had already visited there; and for the occasion, Mark and Maria had pulled out a boat made from a ka tree.  We learned more about the ka trees on a couple hikes later in the trip.

The other notable thing from that morning – we did buy the wall hanging that we’d been visiting for the last several days.  One thing we didn’t consider until after bringing it back to the Treelodge – it wasn’t going to fit into any of our luggage (checked or otherwise).  A detail to be dealt with later.

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