Friday, October 23, 2009

Bringing you Up-to-Date

So that last post dealt with my experiences last weekend. Just wanted to give a brief description of how things are going presently.

This week we got a chance to have a few fun adventures. The rest of the island had only 2 or 3 days of school, breaking in the middle for a special election day and at the end for United Nations day. Although Peace Corps had a bit more class time, we still took time to enjoy life here.

Yesterday we went to a small island called Deketik (like deke tikitik, or small island) just off the eastern coast of Pohnpei, very close to our training site. We went to do more cultural and water safety training. We learned that weaving palm baskets takes patience and practice, and that lighting fires takes dry kindling and a lighter. The local way, of course. We also got a good chance to enjoy a day of sun and excellent swimming water.

That outing was great for several reasons. It was excellent to frolic with my fellow PCTs. It was fun to see my language instructors fishing while we wove our way through the mangrove roots and coral reefs of low tide. We also went right past the coastal community where I will live after swear-in (teach in Lukop, live a few villages away). Both Deketik and my home community have beautiful island foliage and look out over bright, clean water. Deketik has a beautiful white sand beach; my community, being on the main island, has a rocky and mangrove-y shore.

Right now I am two weeks away from my swear-in. That means that I have only two more weeks of official language and culture lessons, as well as only two more weeks living with my current host family (and near the 9 other M76 Pohnpei trainees). Today we are all in Kolonia for a day of running errands, and I'm about to leave Telecom to join them all for lunch. We've all gotten very comfortable with each other. November 6 will be a day of change for all of us, certainly. But the island is small and time flies, so I'm sure we'll be back together for our in-service meetings next spring before we know it.

And tonight I go to my first fundraiser. Hooray!

Kamadupw, the Sequel

Where we left off things were going well – sakau had begun, and the first of two dance troupes had performed. Large quantities of food were just being brought out, presented to the Nahnmwarki, and divvied up between the high titles and everyone else. Ruthanne—a fellow PCT—and I were both presented with a small feast consisting of a mix of local and imported foods. Granted, there is no way we could get through a whole fish, a piece of chicken, a hunk of taro, yam, and watermelon along with a mound of rice, a grilled hot dog, a pack of uncooked ramen, a bag of processed snack AND a sugar-infused beverage—tackling it alone or working as a team. So we ate what we could and passed the rest along to our nohnos later.

After eating we enjoyed another dance performance. In addition to the ever-popular salsa, this group performed a creative take on the electric slide. They also didn’t seem to mind when a few ladies from the audience joined them on the stage to do their own little boogie.

Next was the sugar cane presentation. Ladies brought in stalk after stalk of sugar cane, heave-ho-ing them assembly line-style and singing all the while. This display, to me at least, proved that Micronesians really don’t need to buy any of the imported, packaged & processed sugar that they use here. But imported ease is gradually winning out over traditional labor-intensive-yet-cost-effective items here.

By this point in the kamadupw I was getting tired of sitting. A couple of hours had passed, I had been fed, and I had thoroughly enjoyed the ambience and activities thus far. Ruthanne and I were sitting about mid-nahs and we felt like getting up and moving around, checking out the other areas where people were quietly visiting and digesting. But we were prevented from doing so from the alarming appearance of the men with the pigs.

Mind you, I had been warned about pigs at kamadupws. Jenny, one of the volunteers who have been here for a year, recommended bringing a plastic bag for when you get handed a charred hunk of pig flank. But here at this kamadupw were not already-dead, cut-up and cooked pigs. No, these pigs were live pigs, about 4-6 of them, hanging upside down with their feet tied to bamboo poles. They varied in size, the smallest was about the size of a Jack Russell terrier and the largest was so enormous that it needed a support strap to hold it onto the pole. Instead of taking the pigs into the nahs like all the other presented gifts, they were laid out at the entrance—which was a partially blocked view for Ruthanne and I, but a front-row seat for our friend and mutual trainee Nate, who was sitting right on the steps at the nahs opening.

Here’s where I started to feel a little less stoked on kamadupw-ness. One of the pigs was bleeding from the head a bit already, and I sensed that things weren’t going to get better from there. Ruthanne noted that maybe I should make my face look a little less like this was the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen, so I changed my look of foreboding into a forced smile. We both hoped that maybe the pigs would come in and go out, like the other presentations, but these hopes were in vain. The men began to slaughter the pigs right there.

Because of where I was sitting I couldn’t see the first pig get killed, but I heard it screaming (the term “bloody murder” comes to mind) and I caught a glimpse of the aftermath when they lifted it back up to take it away. The biggest pig was completely in my line of vision, but I had learned my lesson and was studiously examining the yams hanging across from me in the nahs at that point. NOTE: Yams and breadfruit are the major crops of the island, so the nahs was surrounded by a bunch of giant yams to be presented later in the kamadupw. Pohnpeian yams can grow to be very large, and I couldn’t help but notice that they, too, were tied to bamboo poles. Their large, tangled, brown root-ness with a spray of spiky green leaves on top to me were reminiscent of an army of captured trolls that would be sacrificed in the same way as the pigs before too long.

But even without looking at the swineocide, the sound of it all was enough to throw me into a bit of hysterics. For those of you who grew up near farms, I am sure you know better than I do that pigs make a lot of noise, much of it alarmingly human. I was not ready for this type of display, and I was trying hard neither to laugh out loud nor burst out crying. I noticed one of the men in the center of the nahs bemusedly watching my attempts to control my facial expressions. We men wai do funny things.

After the slaughter Ruthanne and I were in clear agreement that we needed to get out of the nahs before they started handing out the pig pieces. Her host family lives fairly close to the kamadupw, so we quickly fled there for reassurance and cribbage. Had we thought of it, we both probably could have done with a good cup of tea.

I did eventually come back to the kamadupw, and I noticed that my family had some good spoils—including a nice hunk of porker. I had heard horror stories from other volunteers of “hairy pig soup,” a popular Pohnpeian dish. So I was actually relieved to see the pig preparations for my dinner simply because my nohno cut off the skin for our pig and yam soup. As a cafeteria cook she has incredibly sanitary kitchen practices, especially by Pohnpei standards. Go Nohno!

By the evening I had gotten the shock out of my system and had begun to appreciate the rituals I had been permitted to experience that day. It’s really cool that I get to be here, and I guess it’s even fun for me to realize that in surprising ways. Soothed, I was able to enjoy my pig and yam soup and that evening’s movie selection—Babe: Pig in the City—with only a subtle laugh at the lovely irony of Pohnpeian culture.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mollie's First Kamadupw (Traditional Party)

[PART ONE ... time constraints have caused me to write this post in episodes]

In Pohnpei people get together to celebrate for all sorts of reasons; "Food, friends, and fun" is the Pohnpeian way. But there are different kinds of gatherings here -- for example, a birthday fundraiser (a raffle to raise money for a birthday person) is not the same thing as a birthday party (typically, an evening in which the extended family goes to the house of the birthday person to eat cake, ice cream, and pizza ... much like the US!). And neither of these typical Pohnpeian functions compare with the big kamadupws -- traditional celebrations held for the Nahnmwarki (the "king" or highest chief of the clan system in the municipality). Kamadupws are held in the nahs, or feast-house, of a family or community, for the benefit of the Nanmwarki and all those who attend.

Although this traditional kamadupw had been described to me and I had already seen pieces of similar celebrations over the past month, I got my first full taste of a kamadupw on Saturday (October 17, for those of you keeping track). My take on it? Well, I very much enjoyed myself and thought it was really, really great, until I got a heaping helping of culture shock and didn't love it so much. Let me explain.

Kamadupws are all-day affairs all about presenting the best of things to the Nahnmwarki and then sharing the bounty with everyone else. Every attending family brings what they have to share (crops, prepared food, etc) and it gets split up, celebratorily. More or less, the higher your title, the better your spoils. But everyone eats well that day -- there's plenty to go around, and there's always tons of leftovers to take home. For our family's contribution on Saturday, my nohno (host mom) and I baked a couple of cakes in the kitchen of the high school, where she works every weekday. It was nice to see her workplace, and to use an oven ... not a typical appliance in a Pohnpeian house.

This particular kamadupw was held in a very festive nahs and yard of my nohno's sister on Temwen island -- a community just past where I live in which most of my nohno's extended family lives. When we got there -- fashionably late at 10:30 am, the Nahnmwarki was already present at his place of honor at the center of the nahs, and people were milling about outside and sitting along the sides of the nahs. (Every nahs is built with a 3-sided, elevated floor, with an honorable stage at the front, and an open wall at the back ... like a large gazeebo with the center and one wall cut out of it.) Women and children typically sit on the sides, people of honor sit on the stage, and young men congregate at the center of the nahs, where the sakau stones are.

When we got there, the ritual of sakau pounding was just beginning. [I have videos of the process, which will illuminate this, surely ... to be added later] Sakau is part of all Pohnpeian parties, and it is consumed both freshly made and bottled. The bottled sakau is more casual and tends to be the beverage/narcotic of choice at more general hang out nights, when people come together for bingo, a fundraiser, or on a neighbor's porch or nahs. Kamadupw sakau is the most ceremonial of all -- there is a set sequence of pounding, sometimes in unison and sometimes not, packing, wringing, and presenting the fist cup to the Nahnmwarki. To a foreign eye, sakau--a plant root--starts out looking root-like, becomes like thick, muddy water from ceaseless pounding and a bit of added water, and then gets packed into a long piece of fibrous bark like a huge, wet cigarette to then be rolled and wrung out until the plasma-y liquid fills a hollow coconut from which the participants drink and get a calming buzz. This process begins the proceedings, and basically continues throughout. I bet the Nahnmwarki can hold a lot of sakau!
After a bit, a local group of children and teenagers presented a few dances to the Nahnmwarki. [I also have and will post videos of these] In a long row of couples in color-coordinated local skirts and typical western clothing, the dancers presented a salsa dance and a hip-swiveling pop ditty. The best part about the dancing, to me, was the age range -- all the way from near-adults down to a tiny couple in which the boy wasn't quite tall enough to twirl the girl without hitting her on the head.

After the dancing came the food. A huge mountain of food was amassed on the stage, and then taken out again on large pallets.

[I must abandon this tale in the happy middle; await the startling--but really quite understandable--conclusion for the next time I have internet!]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On Safety:

After regaling you with random disease stories during a time of tumultuous weather in the Pacific, I feel that a reassurance on safety is in order. Therefore, you should know that we Pohnpei trainees had a visit from the PC Safety and Security Officer for the entire Pacific region last week, and he basically told us that where we are is the SAFEST spot in the whole of the Pacific Ocean. And here's why:

**Feel free to knock on wood during the entire reading of this post! There are always anomalies, and I do not want to tempt the fates with my self-assurance.

- Pohnpei is NOT in the typhoon belt.
- Pohnpei is NOT on a place where tectonic plates meet.
- Pohnpei IS surrounded by a double line of defenses -- dense mangroves instead of beaches and a sturdy ring of coral pretty much circle this little-island-that-could.
- The ocean outside of that tutu of coral is VERY deep.
Therefore, any and all earthquake/tsunami that happens in the Pacific must travel a great distance to get to Pohnpei. And once it gets anywhere near this high island, my surroundings diminish it to no more than a slightly higher tide and maybe some extra rainfall.

- The crime rate is LOW in Pohnpei, much lower for assault or other such disquieting events than other PC countries in the area.
- Pohnpei IS a clan-centered culture, and Peace Corps volunteers are de facto protected by this tradition because we become adopted into host families for the entire time we're here.

So rest assured, dear family and friends, that I landed in the safest speck on the map, and I am very happy to call it home.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

From the Sick Bay...

Hey Team!

So, the news is that I'm "sick." This weekend I was interrupted from my regularly scheduled activities to experience a whole slew of maladies from which I had been previously protected. A strong immune system is a blessing, folks, and don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got til it's gone...

Sunday it was flu symptoms (fever to weak stomach & everything in between); I hadn't had the flu in I-don't-know-how-many years because of the flu shot. (Folks who have the option, get your flu shots! This kind of grossness is not fun.) Monday it was general malaise (no complaints here). And then on Tuesday is when it started to get interesting.

On Tuesday I started to become polka-dot Mollie. Little pink dots started to spread from my arms and legs to the rest of me -- my host nohno was sure that it was a remnant of my fever, and my host sibs repeated inquisitively, "You sure it's not mosquito?" Largo the PA says it looks like measles. Wednesday the PCMO came out and said "Viral" ... which means "Contagious! Get her away from the other trainees!"

Which is why I now write from Kolonia. On Wednesday evening I was exiled to the PC "Sick Bay"--possibly aka "PC Hotel" if the phone number key on the wall is to be believed. Everything about my temporary digs are very hotel-like: nice big-mattressed American bed & pillows, air conditioning, hot & cold running water shower & sink, mini-fridge & microwave. There would be a TV, but it's at PATS with the trainees. Other than the security bars+padlock on the outer door, which are more prison than Hilton, I feel right at home, if a little bored.

The plan is for me to wait out the pink spots. When they fade, I get to go home/rejoin the others. I don't feel sick other than that, so my days have been spent thinking of ways to waste time. I read and sleep a lot. I "cook" in the microwave and take hot showers. I should have brought a deck of cards. I have to admit I was getting quite bored. But then the PCMO said I could go into town! So here I am, looking for company on the computer (just like procrastinating thesis, eh?).

The results:
-Mail: Before I left the PC Office, I picked up letters from the Parentals and from Erin. Hooray! Those will be great company later tonight! Do expect prompt replies, since letter-writing will be an excellent use of time.
-Gmail: many of you sent me news. Thank you!
-Gchat: I got to talk to Mom and Misa and Miekes and Reed and JHsieh! Real conversations! (Well, almost real) Which means I got news from all corners of the US and from all my lovelies. All news was welcome and wonderful, but JHsieh wins for most joyfully surprising -- one of my favorite theater boys, Matt DaSilva, joined CityStep! When I heard that news it was like two pieces of my Harvard life merged and and I got a happy from a very long way away.

So, satisfied for company, I will venture into Kolonia in search of food and birthday presents for my host family -- Nohno's birthday is Oct 15, Pahpa's is Oct 16, and niece Vannett's is Oct 27.

In terms of things I haven't shared, there are tons of photos that I am sure I will figure out how to post somewhere, somehow. FUN things I've been up to are:
- A weekend in Nalap, a nearby picnic island, two weeks ago. The 10 Pohnpei volunteers had a little holiday while the other groups went off to their new homes at the end of Phase I.
- 2 weeks of language training. Things are going much better, and we're having lots of fun/learning a surprising amount of dirty words in Pohnpein. (For example, it is possible to say "intercourse" instead of "explode" if you pronounce it improperly, and the words for "God" and "bathroom" are identical but for an elongated syllable)
- Zero impact from the tsunami/earthquake that started in American Samoa. Some people have been asking, so I wanted to ensure everyone that we are quite safe here on Pohnpei.
- A sleepover at my friend Ruthanne's host house this past Friday night, during which I took my first proper island bucket shower. Am now, officially, a Pohnpeian lady.

Therefore, moving into the Sick Bay is a step back in terms of acculturation, but it is very relaxing and welcome. Let's think of it as a health vacation? I'm looking forward to getting back to full-strength immunity so that I can keep learning in and out of my training classes.

Hope life finds you all well!