This is the second post in a five-part series covering the Island Hopper written by Dave Schaverien, a guest contributor to PointsNerd. You can follow Dave on Instagram at @davidschav
The Island Hopper
Part 2 – Pohnpei
My first of two 24 hour stops on this journey was in Pohnpei, which is both the name of the island itself, as well as one of the four states making up the Federated States of Micronesia.
Both Micronesia and the Marshall Islands are a party to the Compact of Free Association with the United States which gives citizens of these countries the right to live and work in the US without a visa (and vice versa). The Compact also provides for significant aid funding to be distributed to these countries in exchange for the US locating defence bases and installations on several of their islands.
This Compact leads to the common misconception that these islands are US territories like Guam or Puerto Rico, whereas in fact they are both independent sovereign countries recognized by the UN. Therefore, when entering Micronesia, you go through customs formalities the same as you would entering any other country. However, there are some commonalities with the US. For example, most people speak English relatively fluently in addition to their local language, and the US dollar is the only accepted currency in both countries.
The airport is located on its own island, just over a causeway from the island of Pohnpei. There seemed to be two types of visitors to Pohnpei, business travellers who represent a government or foreign aid organization, or alternatively divers looking to explore the reefs surrounding the island. The fact that I was in neither of these categories surprised almost everybody I spoke to. My immediate thoughts after driving into Kolonia, the main town on the island, was that it would be a struggle to fill 24 hours here. This fear turned out to be slightly exaggerated, however the town is certainly lacking in sights. The main sight in Kolonia is the Spanish Wall. It is literally just a wall. The Spanish built it in the 1880s to defend against an uprising by the locals, but today it serves as the boundary for a baseball field.
I also tried unsuccessfully to locate a series of old Japanese World War II tanks which were apparently located on somebody’s private property behind a hardware store. After this failure, I needed a drink and therefore walked to the Mangrove Bay Hotel where I unexpectedly met the Australian ambassador to Micronesia who was hosting an Australia Day event at the hotel. After thanking him and his staff for the work they perform (I am an Australian citizen by birth), I headed back to the hotel for some sleep.
The next morning, I took a tour to Nan Madol, which is the true highlight of Pohnpei. Nan Madol is an archaeological site on the far side of Pohnpei which is believed to have been an ancient city. How this site was constructed and by whom is one of the great mysteries of the world. The stones used in the construction are so large that even ten people could not lift one off the ground, let alone to the height of the structure. Whoever built it also faced the logistics of transporting these stones to the site in the first place in this remote corner of the Pacific Ocean. The remoteness is likely one of the reasons why so many theories exist regarding its construction, and why so much mystery surrounds all aspects of the site.
One of the best things about visiting Nan Madol is how few visitors there were. If this site were located anywhere else, it would be overrun with tourists, but instead there was only me, my tour guide, and a very small handful of other tourists. The entire site is much larger that the relatively small area you can explore by foot. If you are interested, I highly recommend searching YouTube and viewing some of the drone footage posted there.
My tour to Nan Madol was organized through my hotel. It was extremely expensive at US$115, but there are very few alternatives available to visit the site since it involves navigating to the other side of the island through unmarked roads that you would never find on your own, and then walking through a section of mangrove water. I’m sure it could be done independently, but with limited time and knowledge I begrudgingly paid the price they quoted me.
My guide and driver Clatwin was very sociable and gave me a great insight into the local culture, but she very much lamented the fact that I was not married and didn’t go to church. We passed by her house, church and former school on the way to Nan Madol. If you choose to do a Nan Madol tour, I recommend doing your research before going because you won’t find any information at the site.
Pohnpei has several curiosities which I found interesting. The first is that many cars are imported from Japan where the steering wheel is located on the right side of the car, which is the wrong side since Pohnpei drivers drive on the right side of the road. This leads to some scary moments whenever people are passing each other on the roads. Also all of the warnings in the car are shown in Japanese. The second curiosity was the number of billboards with unusual advisories such as eliminating salt from your diet or getting an HIV test. Unfortunately, there appears to be many health challenges on the island. One final pleasant surprise was the availability and high quality of tuna sushi and sashimi at several of the restaurants.
Pohnpei is a place of contrasts. On the one hand, the island has amazing natural beauty and scenery, but on the other hand, you can see evidence of relatively poor living conditions and environmental neglect. The photo I took below from the airport causeway captured this contrast perfectly. Unfortunately you see many sights such as large piles of scrap metal, or abandoned vehicles with tires missing and trees growing through them all throughout the island.
I struggle to find the right word to describe these kinds of conditions. It would not be poverty, because it seemed almost everybody had the basic necessities of life, but at the same time you can see the potential for the island to be so much nicer and picturesque than it is. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my short visit to Pohnpei and was excited to continue my journey to Majuro.