Island Life

After almost 11 months, I’m still in Kosrae, a tiny island in the western Pacific 550 kms from any other island. Life here flows in an unhurried way. The roosters wake me for my morning exercises. There are coconuts to be collected and cracked open. The neighbors have a new baby. I hitch into town for supplies. During a mid-morning deluge, I take shelter inside the post office. A friend tells me that his father passed away last night. In the afternoon, we do a lab experiment in Chemistry class. Dinner is served at the funeral, followed by singing at the grave site. When the funeral is over, the dogs stop barking. The stars are brilliant in the evening. This is island life.

Although Kosrae has colorful festivals and celebrations, readers of this blog have emailed to ask what an ordinary day is like in Kosrae. Where do people go and what do they do? Sure, the beaches are beautiful and the jungles are full of birds and waterfalls, but what do the mundane parts of Kosrae look like? To answer this question, here are a few photos of where I go on a typical day.

This is my apartment. I live upstairs. Behind is a mangrove-shaded beach.
The school where I teach is in Sansrik, a mile from my apartment.
Each village has a few small shops. Here’s where I get my hair cut for $6.
Kosrae’s main grocery store is in Lelu, next to the NAPA auto parts store.
This dish provides Kosrae’s internet service. I pay $194/month..
Kosrae’s post office has a US zip code 94966. delivers here!
This is the hospital where I got my Moderna vaccine this morning.
Kosrae’s high school is the biggest building on the entire island..
The ATM at the Bank of FSM likes my debit card.
American missionaries built Kosrae’s first church in Lelu in 1852.
The Ace Hardware store is well-stocked. It even has a lumber yard.
The power plant provides Kosrae with electricity for about 40¢ per Kwh.

Kosrae continues to be Covid-free thanks to the travel ban that’s been enforced since last March. Although people can’t come here, ships and planes make regular deliveries of mail and supplies. That’s how the Covid-19 vaccine arrived here last week. This morning, I walked into Kosrae’s hospital to ask if it were possible for me to be vaccinated. The answer was an immediate “Ahok!” meaning “Yes!” I signed a piece of paper and rolled up my sleeve. A nice lady in a blue dress jabbed me with the Moderna vaccine and gave me a card instructing me to return in 30 days for shot #2. I had no appointment. The whole operation took about two minutes. That sure was easy. The rumor is that when FSM has vaccinated 70% of its population, the travel ban will be lifted. Although I don’t know when that will be, that’s when you can come visit Kosrae!

I learned a bit of history this month. During WW2, Kosrae was occupied by Japan. On January 18, 1944 American bombers began their raids on the Japanese military bases here. The Americans sank a few Japanese ships and strafed their airstrip. Although there are no records of Japanese casualties, two Kosraeans were killed. Everyone else ran into the island’s rugged interior. For the next 19 months, Kosraeans hid in the forests and in caves until the American flag was finally raised over Lelu on September 8, 1945. This month marked the 76th anniversary of the start of Kosrae’s liberation. In typical fashion, Kosraeans gathered to memorialize Liberation Day with songs and a feast. The rain didn’t dampen the festivities. Although I can’t share with you the delicious fish soup that was served, here are two songs sung for the Memorial.

As a side note, the man shown above under the rainbow umbrella is named Steiner. His grandmother was one of the two Kosraeans who died on January 18, 1944. His father was later elected Kosrae’s first governor after FSM became an independent country. Steiner is my landlord. Steiner’s wife Ayone is Lelu’s singer-songwriter — which I’ll tell you more about now.

During the week, it’s business as usual. On Sundays, everything and everyone stops for church. There are at least a dozen churches on Kosrae and they’re well-attended. Each village fields three or four choirs. The hymnals imported by the missionaries all fell apart decades ago. So, each village has a singer-songwriter who composes new songs every year. The result is a unique form of “island gospel” that blends traditional Congregational hymns with Micronesian rhythms. Although there are 602 islands in Micronesia, Kosrae is the only island that creates its own music this way. I attended Kosrae’s choir competition on New Years Day. Here are some short snips of their songs. Which choir do you like best?

Lelu choir: “Be Happy and Sing Praises”
Lelu choir: “Heaven is Filled with Joyful Music”
Malem choir: “He is my Lord, the King of Kings, the Alpha and Omega”
Pohnpei choir: “Sing a Happy Song Praising the Lord God”
Tafunsak choir: “Most Wonderful is God on High”
Tafunsak choir: “Sing Together and Give Thanks”
Utwe choir: “Glory to His Highness”
Walung choir: “Follow the Star”