living on the edge

After a day at sea, the small island of Satawal greets us on the horizon.

After a day at sea, the small island of Satawal greets us on the horizon.

Tiny islands in the world’s largest ocean. While they may be but specks on a map, within their shores the islands of Satawal and Ifalik are brimming with culture, color, and heritage. Satawal is the easternmost island in Yap State of the Federated States of Micronesia, and to the west lies Ifalik. Both these islands are small, miniscule compared to the expanse of the water around them. Both are beautiful. Both have people living on them who are very warm and welcoming. And life on both is walking a fine line of existence.

Children on the beach at Satawal took the idea of a welcoming committee to a high level.

Children on the beach at Satawal took the idea of a welcoming committee to a high level, not only yelling hello and goodbye, but remembering many of us by name.

People in this part of Micronesia have held on to their traditions. Traditional songs, dances, trades, and general ways of life are honored and passed down to the communities’ youngest members. However, marks left by the outside world are not absent. Boys wear sports jerseys, and girls can recite songs from even the most recent Disney movies. A stereo bellows prerecorded chants in a church as women sing along. While traditional boats far outweigh modern ones, outboard motors hang from huts, and a fiberglass boat or two sit in the background.

Two men prepare for the performance on Ifalik Island.

Two men prepare for the performance on Ifalik Island.

Neck pieces of petals and leaves contrast the turmeric-dusted skin of a performer on Ifalik Island.

Neck pieces of petals and leaves contrast the turmeric-dusted skin of a performer on Ifalik Island.

Songs and dances about the harvest and combat are performed not only for visitors, but also during important feasts and holidays. I cannot imagine the hours it must take to weave the flower and plant based skirts, necklaces and headpieces for the dance performances. Just before the dances begin, everyone is dusted with turmeric, giving their skin a rich yellow glow. The rhythms of chanting and movement range from almost meditative to humming with vibrant energy.

Heavy rain did not slow the dancing on Ifalik.

Heavy rain did not slow the dancing on Ifalik.

The dances on Ifalik included young girls whose vibrant expressions matched their colorful adornments.

Young girls on Ifalik Island happily danced alongside the older women of the community.

A short distance from the performances, women wove bowls, baskets, and bags from coconut palm leaves. Men made rope from coconut palm fibers, fishhooks from shells, and large sea-going canoes from mahogany and breadfruit wood. These important trades stay alive in the islands here and are integral to daily life, as people here rely on their surroundings for food. They grow bananas, yams, taro, breadfruit, and coconut on the land. They raise a few pigs and chickens. But mostly they look to the sea for their protein.

Women make baskets and bowls out of coconut palm leaves on Ifalik Island.

Women make baskets and bowls out of coconut palm leaves on Ifalik Island.

John has watched the construction of this canoe for the last two years.

John has watched the construction of this canoe for the last two years.

People from this part of Micronesia, and particularly Satawal, are well known for their traditional navigation techniques, without the use of instruments. They have long been a seagoing people and continue to travel between islands on their hand-hewn wooden canoes. They are masters at maneuvering these vessels. When needing to change directions, instead of tacking, a team of men quickly lowers the sail, hoists the mast and moves it to the opposite side of the boat, before raising the sail once more as the boat changes course. The tiller is a large wooden blade separate from the boat that is controlled by the hands and feet of the man at the stern. The orchestration of these movements is an art in itself.

A hand and foot operated tiller steers a wooden canoe off Satawal Island.

A hand and foot operated tiller steers a wooden canoe off Satawal Island.

Satawal is well known for traditional navigators that explore the Pacific waters in traditional wooden canoes.

Satawal is well known for traditional navigators that explore the Pacific waters in traditional wooden canoes.

Unfortunately, the waters outside Satawal are lacking large fish and the diverse marine life that is present around many of the Pacific Islands. Overfishing has wiped out the nearby food source for this small island, and so now, these canoes are not used only to explore other lands but to venture regularly to uninhabited islands to bring back food for the village. Ifalik currently is faring better, evident by the presence of fish and large molluscs around its nearby reefs. However, it only takes one cyclone or a change in fishing pressure to shift the delicate balance of self-sufficiency.

Banana trees (left) are among the fruit crops that line the pathways on Ifalik (right).

Banana trees (left) are among the fruit crops that line the pathways on Ifalik (right).

It is such an honor to visit places like this. The songs are enchanting and the dances exhilarating to watch. A downpour in Ifalik during the performance did not deter the troupe of women ranging from women in their 70’s to girls of 4 or 5. Their singing became louder and movements more energized as the rain pounded harder. As I walked through the quieter parts of each village, people invited me to look into their homes, told me stories of their lives and asked questions about mine. The people here seem truly healthy and happy. To have a connection with them, however brief, and the place they call home is to have a small taste of what it would be like to live in an island paradise. As tempting as it is to romanticize that picture beyond my idyllic visit, there’s little question that I’m not tough enough to live the existence that these beautiful people do. And I wonder how much longer they will be able to hold on to their lifestyle as well, as conveniences of the modern globalized world and real time food security issues are ever-present realities just beyond the horizon. It’s my hope that their heritage and way of life is able to withstand the pressures of both.

Veronica (left) lives in a thatched house with seven family members, steps from the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean on Satawal.

Veronica (left) lives in a thatched house with seven family members, steps from the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean on Ifalik.

 

darkness. beauty. resiliency.

The Sankisan Maru's broken bow.

The Sankisan Maru’s broken bow.

Chuuk (Truk) Lagoon is a tranquil and beautiful place. The warm blue waters are inviting and the lush green landscape provides a beautiful island home for a lucky few. As we entered the lagoon, it was hard to picture this place as a backdrop for a major battle during World War II, but it was just that. It was here that US troops, in Operation Hailstone, took out one of Japan’s major naval support and supply centers in 1944. During those two days of fighting, 41 ships were sunk and 70+ planes were shot down. They now litter the bottom of this tropical lagoon, making it the wreck diving mecca for SCUBA divers the world over.

A staircase on the outer decks of the Fujikawa Maru.

A staircase on the outer decks of the Fujikawa Maru.

Looking up from a lower hold on the Fujikawa Maru.

Looking up from a lower hold on the Fujikawa Maru.

Not long after we arrived, the rains came, blanketing the landscape in a cold grey. As I entered the water on our first of three wreck dives, the grey from above transitioned into an eeriness below. I have been diving on wrecks before, but never ones on which people had died, and this weighed heavily on me. This lagoon is a mass grave for countless Japanese as well as an underwater museum for World War II history. It was equally dark and fascinating. Three wrecks frozen in time: the Fujikawa Maru, Sankisan Maru, and Shinkoku Maru. Broken bows, blasted hulls, and dark rooms greeted us. Medicine bottles, broken china, plane parts, truck frames, and countless bullets lay scattered through the holds and decks. Each played a significant part in Japan’s action against US forces. The Shinkoku Maru was actually one of eight tankers that served to refuel forces in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Not far away, an upside down but intact Zero fighter aircraft lay on the sea floor.  Each of these has a story, whose final chapters are set under the clear waters of a Micronesian atoll.

A truck frame on an outer deck of the Sankisan Maru.

A truck frame on an outer deck of the Sankisan Maru.

WWII artifacts are frozen in time on the Sankisan Maru.

WWII artifacts are frozen in time on the Sankisan Maru.

A Japanese Zero aircraft at rest on the sea floor.

A Japanese Zero aircraft at rest on the sea floor.

But the stories of these ships and planes did not end as they settled into their permanent home under the sea. These implements of war are now the substrate of glorious underwater gardens. The bow gun of the Shinkoku Maru is encrusted with soft corals wafting back and forth with the current. The crevices of her hull are the homes of crabs and cardinal fish. Diverse corals have formed large colonies throughout the Sankisan Maru. Algae and sponges provide habitat for fishes and invertebrates on the Fujikawa Maru. The metal framework of each of these structures is now a Technicolor display of life and a living example of how nature will continue where our part of the story leaves the scene. This is evident on these magnificent artificial reefs and on the islands, once riddled with bombs and covered with airstrips. Coconut palms and breadfruit trees now cover the islands and provide once again a serene place for the people who call them home.

Brain corals established on the bow of the Sankisan Maru.

Brain corals established on the bow of the Sankisan Maru.

Coral colonies and marine life now make their home on the framework of the Sankisan Maru.

Coral colonies and marine life now make their home on the framework of the Sankisan Maru.