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Life on a beach in Mogmog, Micronesia


In memory of 18-year-old Jimmy, who has since died


The weather was sunny and calm. Looking out over the cockpit windows of the little prop, I had an unparalleled view as we approached the world’s fourth largest atoll. Spectacular strings of tiny islands encased by glistening translucent reefs all curved around a lagoon, itself so great that it appeared as dark and blue as the surrounding Pacific Ocean. We touched down on a runway surrounded by coconut palms that cut the full width across tiny Falalop, Ulithi Atoll’s largest island.

I grabbed my rucksack and wandered into the crowd of bare-breasted, thu-wearing, brown skinned locals who all seemed to be hanging around out of boredom.

‘The plane is an event, a curiosity, just something to do’, explained Chad, a languid, heat-stroked 27 year old peace-corp from Pennsylvania, the only other white face on the island.

I left him in search of anyone that possessed a boat I might be able to hire to Mogmog Island. Luckily, the very next man I approached was indeed the same person as I had been given for a contact to look up when I arrived in Ulithi, not that I knew what he’d look like. He was Dr Arthur and he just happened to be at the airstrip to deliver a sick child for an airlift back to Yap.

‘Who are you, peace corp?’ He asked, unaware I was coming.

‘No, I arranged with the Council of Tamol in Yap to visit Mogmog. They didn’t’t pass on the message?’

‘No message’, he paused for a long time, making me feel momentarily uneasy so I pulled out the special yellow permit they gave me stating dates of travel to the atoll. What was going to happen?

‘I have a boat. First I will give you a little tour of this island and then we can take my boat in a couple of hours. Do you chew bettlenut?’

‘Sure!’

The boat bumped across the lagoon, riding waves that lashed us with stinging saltwater. It was a tiny boat, with just an outboard motor for power, me, five women and Arthur who wore only a blue thu (sarong-like piece of cloth wrapped tightly around the waist). After every wave, a crashing thud reverberated through each of us, paining our faces with silent expressions of discomfort. But there was a palpable sense of excitement for those returning to their island home and for me, just to be there.

Beach on Mogmog, Micronesia

* *

‘Remember the guy from Ulithi who dropped his spear gun underwater, dived down to grab it, then noticed his hand had disappeared clean off? Barracuda that one was. Don’t think we got his hand back.’ This was two weeks earlier while vacationing on the tropical reef-fringed island of Yap in eastern Micronesia. It was a dark and windy Pacific afternoon. The fronds of coconut palms were clattering violently above us and rain drops blew in sideways. I was sheltering on a sea-facing veranda chatting to Peter, a silver-haired 60-something American about the many search and rescue missions he had undertaken. He was the captain for Pacific Missionary Airlines, a tiny, though vital, two-plane charter operation ferrying sick and healthy outer-islanders to and from their atolls. They literally gave some of the most remote people on Earth a lifeline, people from the middle of nowhere.

‘What about that kid from Kosrae that got spear-gunned right in the heart fishing?’ quizzed Simon, a handsome young German mechanic for PMA on holiday with Peter’s family, recollecting another outer island fishing mishap.

‘They sawed off the spear, well, as much as they could anyway, leaving a little bit of it sticking out his chest. Feisty little guy. He got on the plane and put his feet up to relax, crossing his legs. The little spear stump was twitching every time his heart pumped!’

Don’t these people feel pain?

‘What about that guy from Pohnpei who accidentally shot the shark with his spear, right through its temple?’, Peter retaliated. They were trading war stories, ostensibly for my benefit, but it was clear that the oldest and most experienced flier, Peter, really had seen or airlifted it all.

‘Yeah, we took him because he had a shark bite on his leg. Crazy guy wouldn’t’t let go of his spear! Went back to the shark, held its snout with one hand and tried to wrench his spear out with the other, then he got bit!’

Do these people have no fear?

‘But then there was Bailey Alter, or as we called him, Salty Otter. He went missing in his little boat for 40 days off Ultihi, drifting by himself into the open ocean. We searched and searched for weeks but he didn’t show up. Anyway we were out one day on a charter when we spotted him in his tiny white boat 75 miles offshore with a boat full of fish; sashimi, dried out snapper, a turtle, bottles of water, the lot. We had him picked up by another boat, he was happy as Larry, said, “I had a great time. I knew you’d come!”’

Feeling curiously inspired to find these hapless islanders I made plans to visit little Mogmog Island, seat of the high chiefs of Ulithi atoll. It was said that Mogmog remained utterly traditional, somehow resisting the onslaught of western society. And by all accounts its fishermen were slightly crazy.

‘Why do you want to visit Ulithi?’, asked Julius sternly, a puffy-cheeked islander with a mouth like a graveyard of decayed, reddened teeth – the signature of a lifetime of bettlenut chewing. I was at the very official sounding Council of Tamol on Yap. In fact it was just the concrete-floored living space of this Ulithian ex-pat who was the one to grant permission, after a short interview, to anyone seeking to visit his far-flung atoll. I guess you could call this the Ulithian Embassy.

‘I want to write about their culture’, I began, not expecting to be interviewed just for the sake of visiting an island. There was an awkward silence until I blurted out something like, ‘I love Micronesia’, nervously. Realizing this man had to be impressed, I quickly told him about past trips to Micronesia, of neighboring cultures and traditions, hoping it might elicit some kind of pride in his own island and, ultimately, the permit.

‘I hope you will enjoy our islands and tell your people at home about us’, Julius half-smiled while signing a bright yellow A4 document that gave me right of passage.

‘I will arrange things with the chief of Mogmog so that you will have a place to stay’, he said, finally releasing some emotion back into his morose nut-dulled face.

But I had been dying to find out, ‘How many permits did you issue last year?’

‘Less than twenty’, Julius answered immediately without checking.

‘How many were for tourists?’, I labored.

‘I don’t know. I think it was all Japanese marine biologists. They come to study turtle populations.’

* *

The remote and seldom-visited bowler hat-shaped island of Mogmog sits triumphantly at the top of this enormous coral atoll, Ulithi. Of the four inhabited islands on Ulithi (out of 40), Mogmog is home to roughly 150 people and the highest ranking chief. I had read that if this chief said jump, the whole atoll jumped. Ulithi is in itself a remote place, located east of Yap in the midst of Micronesia and is ‘home to some of the world’s most isolated people’, according to Lonely Planet. And despite its anonymity, this obscure atoll played a crucial role late in WW2 when it became the American staging post for the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. At one point over 700 ships were anchored in its vast lagoon.

We’d been ploughing through the choppy lagoon surf for about 40 minutes, passing deserted islands, pristine white sandbars and shallow reefs when, approaching Mogmog, all the women removed their tops, exposing their breasts. It was done without any fanfare or inhibition. What, I wondered, was going on!

When Mogmog appeared, the water beneath our little boat changed from blue to turquoise and we swiftly pulled up onto a superb white sandy beach. The topless women disembarked, taking with them their bags of rice, medicine, flavorings and bettlenut. The only other man on the boat, Dr Arthur, was waist deep in the water busy securing the vessel, so I climbed out onto the sand, intensely aware I was the only person wearing western clothes. Wide-eyed islanders gathered behind the bendy grey trunks of coconut palms, arms crossed apprehensively. Who was this white man and what did he want?

It transpired that Julius, my bettlenut chewing permit-giver had forgotten to radio ahead the message that I was coming and would need a place to sleep. (There was nowhere to stay, no hotel, guest-house, hostel or campsite. But happily, there were no tourists either).

So I ambled around in circles on the sand, procrastinating about meeting the chief. Meanwhile a group of girls walked fearlessly along the sloping sand towards me playing a guitar and singing – they wore colorful leis around their foreheads. The gathering crowd of men and boys wearing only their colored thus, stared down at me. The topless women disappeared with their bags, the singing children carried on along the beach and then I was left completely alone. I began to feel a bit deserted so made nervous motions to appear confident and busy when really, such forced expressions only serve to make you appear more lost.

Suddenly a 12 year old boy called Clyde introduced himself in excellent English and explained he was taking me to see the chief. I had prepared for this moment, to meet the man in charge of the whole atoll and shower him with gifts. It had happened in one way or another many times over on my travels through Oceania but there was a mystery about this island for I knew little about it. (The usual channels of research yielded very little information, even the major guidebook authors hadn’t come out this far).

After being made to wait five minutes outside Chief Antonio’s house while he righted himself from a toilet break, a bare-breasted female translator escorted me inside to meet the old man. He was a slightly jaundiced looking frail and immobile old man, sat squarely on his floor (many old Pacific islanders live out their dying days propped on the concrete foundations of their ancestral home, potty to one side, cane the other, barking out orders to their offspring) and had a yellowing beard, the sure sign of a heavy smoker. He wore his skimpy red thu and lay propped up on the floor ready for his meeting with this foreigner.

It felt like the second interview, only this time it was of serious importance – this man was akin to royalty on Ulithi. I was seated directly in front of him and his cane. Through the translator he asked, ‘What is the purpose of your visit? Do you work for a magazine or a newspaper?’, this was a strange question to open with. Julius had asked it too. Had this island been burnt in the past by some renegade journalist?

‘I’ve come to visit the island and learn about its people. I am just a sightseer’, I said carefully, for not only were my words were being translated but I’d assumed that reverential tone one takes around crowned heads or very important people.

With villagers, Mogmog island‘What do you want from this island?’ he probed ominously with a face robbed of emotion.

Was this really happening? Was I really sitting here being grilled by this guy?

‘I heard about the excellent fishermen here. I just came to find out more’, I said in a more upbeat tone, hoping to appeal to another side of him whilst producing a carton of 200 cigarettes from my bag. That made his otherwise lifeless eyes light up with joy: suddenly the mood lifted and I felt accepted.

‘Can I stay with a local family?’ I asked tentatively, now that he was already smoking one of the cigarettes.

‘Who was on your boat when you came over?’

‘Dr Arthur and some girls.’

‘Then you will stay with him. It is arranged.’

As I was getting up to leave, I was curious to know if the chief liked the brand of cigarettes I had produced but my translator simply said, ‘He will smoke anything.’ And judging by his beard, he did.

‘You cannot go near the turtle killing house when we have turtles and you cannot take pictures of women without their permission’ he ended, through the abiding woman.

The whole meeting took no longer than it would to check into a five-star hotel and with the chief’s parting warning, Clyde emerged from the trees and escorted me to Arthur’s hut. My week in the middle of nowhere had begun.

Arthur was a good-sized man with a friendly face, podgy childlike cheeks and spoke excellent English. He was worldly-wise too. As the official village doctor, part of his state-funded studies in earlier years saw him travel around Europe, Australia and America with medical delegations.

‘I went to Heathrow one time. I remember it well because the man at immigration didn’t recognize my passport. He thought it was a fake. He said he had never heard of The Federated States of Micronesia! So that took some time getting into your country.’

Fancy that. Getting to Mogmog hadn’t exactly been a walk in the park either!

I sat next to Arthur as he swung gently in his hammock, looking tired and airing his big brown belly. ‘I am 49, I think’, he said without any hint of curiosity. Most elder islanders always added, ‘I think’ after guessing their ages. Traditionally birthdays were not celebrated, however the younger generation were perfectly aware of their ages, perhaps as a result of schooling. His girls prepared some fish which I must have eaten before falling fast asleep in a hammock.

‘I don’t know why, but when I eat feesh it makes me so tired’ he told me later.

Several hours passed and I awoke to the sounds of chickens grazing the white coral floor for scraps. The hut was deserted.

‘Andee. Andee are you awake? You wanna chew bettlenut?’

I had been dozing, dreaming about chickens scratching my hair. It was Jimmy, the charismatic 18 year old nephew of Arthur, here to dress me in a thu and take me to the evening’s basketball game.

‘Take this nut, it’s a big one’ he offered, smiling. It was a big green nut about the length of my thumb but fatter. He cracked it in half with his teeth, placed half a cigarette inside then squirted some fine white powder over the top.

‘Cocaine!’ he joked. ‘No, no. Dis da lime from da coral. We put eet inside for taste.’

He wrapped it up inside a piece of green leaf which is apparently responsible for the red color in your spit later.

‘Now you chew!’, Jimmy offered, clearly proud of his creation.

I stuffed the nut in my mouth and began chewing, immediately releasing disgusting flavors as earthy and barren of taste as you can imagine, like gnawing on the side of a tree. It looked as though I was chewing the way a cow munched on grass; rhythmically, systematically, without enjoyment.

‘You chew jish everyjay?’ I asked, now barely able to speak properly myself – my mouth was bubbling with so much red saliva.

‘Everyjay! Now we put on your thu. Come wid me.’ I followed him to an empty room where he produced a twelve foot long piece of red cloth and mumbled, ‘Take off your shortshs.’

This was my official baptism into island culture, my own rather tightly wrapped red thu. I guess the best way to describe it is a cross between a nappy and a sarong, but the locals are hugely particular about how it’s wrapped. Anything short of their complicated folding and tucking ritual will be ridiculed; get it right and you’ll be wrapped so tight as to restrict all blood flow to your nether regions, but get it wrong and they’ll look at you like you’ve interrupted a funeral in drag.

‘Dats perfect! Feel tight?’ Jimmy asked after firmly locking me in place with the cloth. By now my face had gone as red as the thu around my waist and the saliva in my mouth.

At the basketball court, barefoot women sported hibiscus skirts: their breasts flopping and juggling around in the air as they stretched and jumped throughout the game. Men wore colorful leis around their heads and others had carefully knotted green fronds around their biceps making them appear both strong and imposing and yet gentle and serene too. Everyone had a cheek-full of bettlenut and when they spat out the red discharge of nut fragments with heaps of saliva, they’d compete with one another for the longest spurt.

Around sunset, Jimmy took me for a swim with his friends in the surfy lagoon, washing off our exertions from the day. There was no running water or showers on Mogmog. I asked about their fishing.

‘We spear feesh with our guns. First we sail to our spot then dive down, holding our breath. We can go under for a long time’, Jimmy said as we bobbed up and down in the waves. As Mogmog is the highest ranked island in the local caste system, they have fishing rights to some of the best reefs in the atoll.

‘What about sharks?’ I asked. Pacific islanders are famously indifferent to sharks of all sizes.

I kept thinking about that crazy fisherman fighting the shark just to retrieve his spear!

‘If we spot a shark, first we all find each other in da water den we move toward da boat together.’

‘Safety in numbers, right?’

‘It is team work. We all trust each other.’ Living on such a small interconnected island where most people seem to be someone else’s brother or cousin anyway, trust was implicit.

‘Have you ever had any trouble with sharks?’

‘Dey go for our feesh mostly. When we are spear feeshing we collect da feesh onto a line and drag it behind us in da water. If da line with our feesh is too close to our body den sometimes da shark mistakes us for da feesh. But if dey are really hungry dey bite us too. Normally dey don’t like our taste though!’ he said, grinning.

After some barbequed fish and rice for dinner and more bettlenut, Jimmy took me to the little white-walled church just behind the beach to sit in on their choir practice. It was Friday night and here I was sitting on a pew listening to a dozen school children sing their hallelujahs in the Ulithian language with flowers around their heads in the middle of nowhere. What a wonderful moment.

After practice everyone retired to their huts for bed. Arthur gave Jimmy and I some mats and a blanket to sleep on in the village medical hut, a generic concrete-walled structure which had the feel of one of those foreign aid donations that looked totally out of place on traditional Mogmog. Nonetheless, it was my home tonight and we slept side by side on the floor, opening the door for a breeze and a better view of the full moon. We stayed awake for an hour or two feeling a mild high off the bettlenut we were chewing and chatted about movies, a recent hurricane and Christmas.

‘What was your best ever Christmas present?’ I asked.

He paused for a moment, weighing up his answer. Then he said, in a typically deadpan Ulithian response, ‘A box of bettlenut.’

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