Pohnpei Daydreams

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Pohnpei Daydreams

Jeffrey Jane Knoche

During the summer of 1996, I spent three months assisting the Office of Historic Preservation on Pohnpei,, by designing and building displays for the Nahnsehleng Maritime Center. While I was there, I kept a running list of the people and events that defined my journey, both personal and professional, and which provide the spark for stories to share now that I have returned. The following is just a sampling of the memories that I treasure when thinking of an island now so far away.

The smells and colors of mwarmwars:

Made of flowers, leaves and yarn. Wearing them at many celebrations. Learning from my counterparts how to make them, and keeping a carefully dried collection of them on the living room wall.

The stars:

Seeing the Southern Cross for the first time. Watching the stars and planets move across the sky and understanding for myself how navigators charted courses to distant islands using the night sky.

The living stars of the seacobalt blue starfish and tiny glowing sea creatures that sparkled as they washed up on the coral beach. Swimming with these stars and feeling magical when they stuck to my legs and arms.

The children:

Enthusiastic and openeager to share a mango or teach me a new word. Happily taking care of each other and helping their parents with housework by the age of eight to ten, and carrying the scars of skin diseases and/or minor accidents which were the badges of growing up in the tropics.

Learning about local foods:

Six different recipes, demonstrated by our Pohnpeian neighbor, for breadfruit from the giant tree outside of our apartment. Tasting fish fresh from the boat, discovering which reef fish makes the best sashimi, and which are taboo for different clans.

At feasts, long tables overflowing with huge platters were the best places for sampling new dishes. One feast, featuring roasted dogs, one male and one female, reminded me of my own pets back in Oregon.

An occasional craving for American foods meant waiting for the ship to come in with a brief abundance of imported produce, cheese, butter and wine. Getting by on Budweiser, rice and dusty cans of spaghetti sauce in between.

The dogs of Pohnpei: 

A short-haired set of mutts, lean and often mean. Sometimes a recognizable streak of Labrador retriever, Doberman or Welsh corgi. A set of puppies found nursing on an island under an overturned boat. The neighbors adopted one and promptly turned it over to me to care for, but she died after playing with a poisonous toad.

The most incredible day:

Climbing through mountainous jungle to a place where a giant breadfruit tree trunk had been transformed into a monstrous canoe. Falling on muddy rocks, wondering how I had ended up in a world that most people only know through the cameras of National Geographic.

Waiting for the canoe hull to be pulled down through the jungle by the village's men, their friends, and clan. Listening to a traditional chant that directs the ropes to be pulled in unison. A long, labor-intensive process with many stops as ropes broke and paths were cleared, producing not frustration but chances to rest and laugh and anticipate the party waiting back in the village.

A feast in honor of the god who protects canoes, Nahnsehleng, at the end of the day. Eight sakau stones pounded in unison invited all in the area to join in, and guaranteed that there was plenty of the special liquid to be distributed to the extended community.

Being a novelty:

Comparing cultures with my counterparts and my supervisor. Knowing that people were laughing at my tallness, my Americanness, my clumsiness in formal settings, and learning to laugh at myself.

Knowing that my skills in painting murals were appreciated by the people who shyly watched through the windows as well as those who came into the Maritime Center to smile and name the fish that I had painted.

Getting lots of attention and offers of help while using hammers and saws to build display walls and pedestals. Couldn't I find a man to do that for me?

Playing a Native American wooden flute at an evening picnic on a tiny island. Being honored weeks later when one of the chiefs told me he wished that he had a tape of my music so he could listen again and again.

The critters:

Termites, toads and geckos. All three of these came together in my apartment one night as the termites swarmed, the geckos feasted up high, and the toads were invited inside as I admired their enthusiasm for picking off the insects near the floor.

Lots of lizards, including a Pohnpeian crocodile handy for casting black magic spells.

My friends:

New and different people from Pohnpei, Australia, Japan, and the US. Some of us passed through a lifetime in three months, some may have already forgotten. I know that I will never forget the lessons that I learned about nature, tradition, family, and culture in my one summer in Pohnpei. And I will always be thankful to all of the special people who took the time to share their world with a funny American woman from the University of Oregon.


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