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Kaselehlia! – A journey to the Pacific

By Michael Sitzman

Section: Arts

March 10, 2006

Friends, let me tell you about the weirdest trip I ever took. It was two-thousand miles past Hawaii to the island of Ponape, a two-day flight over the turquoise side of our planet. For long crossings, no body of water even remotely compares to the Pacific Ocean. I took Continental Airlines island-hopper shuttle between Hawaii and Guam, a six-stop bus-ride across the sea. People from the countless islands fly on it to visit family (usually for weddings or funerals);

or to Honolulu and Agana, Guam to purchase goods and sell their catch, since this is their only means of access to mainland markets. The cargo-hold is always chock-full of fish in ice-packed picnic coolers, oversized luggage bearing appliances and Western clothing, and hand-woven grass mats for the relatives.

Never heard of Johnston Island? Good;

the Government would prefer you not know. The site of high-altitude nuclear detonations in the 50s and 60s, it later became a nerve-gas disposal facility. Employees carried gas-masks 24/7 on this paved paradise, scarcely larger than the runway. A few spare, military buildings dot the edges. Thats all there is! When Continental was flying there until recently, you couldnt get off unless you were military. Darn.

Know what an atoll is? Its a ring-shaped necklace of low coral islands, the remnant of a sunken volcano. Id only seen views of atolls in old nuclear test footage. When I first stepped off the plane at Majuro, the second stop, in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, I looked across the lagoon imagining a mushroom-shaped cloud rising at any moment from the azure water

The worlds largest atoll, Kwajalein, measures eighty miles across. Continental stops at a U.S. airbase there;

you cant deplane there either if youre not military or a local bound for neighboring Ebeye island. Few would want to: Dubbed the slum of the Pacific, Ebeye is filthy and overcrowded;

a quick boat-ride from Kwaj, yet worlds apart. The population increases as off-islanders come to live with family, as the base provides jobs. They may work, but not live, on Kwajalein, where golf-courses, pools, and supermarkets create a surreal suburb at sea for servicemen and their families.

Then theres the Federated States of Micronesia: As big as the continental U.S.;

but if its thousands of islands were combined, it would be no larger than Rhode Island.

Pacific Islanders, you can imagine, are unfazed by distances. The planes passengers speak many island dialects, and gossip never ceases as passengers from neighboring and distant atolls exchange news and goodwill between seat-rows. When they cannot understand each other, they switch to (you guessed it) English. The people are smaller and darker than Polynesians, wearing flower head-garlands instead of lei necklaces, but their clothes are just as colorful. Its quite a flight.

Kaselehlia! is the universal greeting on mountainous Ponape. I tried chewing Betel-nut from a local palm-tree. Cracked open, sprinkled with lime-powder, and wrapped in leaves, it gives a coffee-buzz and a warm, spicy flavor. It also makes you salivate and spit red juice. I learned the hard way: Dont spit out of car windows;

it blows onto the car door and in your face. Locals just open the door a crack and aim downward. I learned something else the hard way too

Ponapeans call it sakau (kava-kava in Polynesia): A pepper-root pounded on a rock and served from a coconut-shell in a ceremonial hut called a nahs, it can turn your legs to rubber and make you unable to stand. I had some in town on my first night there. Big mistake. I stumbled back to my hotel, got lost, had to ask some little girl for directions, and then spent the whole night doing what many of you often do after a good party. (I dont mean hooking up.) I think Ill stick with Betel-nuts

Ponape is very traditional in other ways too. The islands five districts are still ruled by real chiefs: A nahnmwarki is a high chief, and a nahnken a talking chief, slightly lower. The districts are called Nett (say netch), Uh, Madolenihmw (dont even ask), Sokehs, and Kitti (kitchi), not to be confused with a kiti (kitty) which means dog! I learned those words the first night over sakau;

Not sure whether the words or the potion made my head spin more, but I know which one turned my stomach

My hotel, by the way, was called the South Park, its manager named (would you believe) Kenny! (Both pre-date the TV show.) American food there is inedible, and Japanese influence from WWII remains strong, so I ate sashimi (raw fish) all week.

The national capital facility could easily fit into our science complex. But ancient Nan Madol, a Venice-like lost city of stone, was the best place by far. I could tell you more, but it would be beside the point:

I hope youll all get to venture out into the world and see it. Pick a cool place and go. Mangle the language;

try the intoxicating local brew and get sick;

spit red juice into your own face and have a ball. The worlds yours and its waiting for you. Kaselehlia, Brandeis!

If you try, you'll find me
Where the sky meets the sea;

Here am I, your special island;

Come to me, Come to me.

Rodgers & Hammerstein
horseradish

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