Kosrae — Marooned in Paradise

I’m writing to you from the island of Kosrae, 2180 km from Guam and 4560 km from Honolulu. Kosrae is the easternmost island in Micronesia. I landed here on March 6, planning to stay for three days. The night before my scheduled departure, the Marshallese government closed Majuro — my next intended destination — to all international travelers for a period of two weeks.

Okay, no big deal, I thought. Kosrae is a nice place. Kosraeans speak English and they’re friendly. I’ll hang out here for a couple of weeks before continuing my travels. There’s still plenty of time for me to visit the other island nations of the Pacific during April, May and June.

I made myself comfortable and enjoyed a little break from travel. Every morning, I walked through a mangrove forest to a water-side cafe for fresh fish, eggs and coconut. If you ever come to Kosrae, the Pacific Treelodge Resort is THE place to stay.

Kosrae is known as the Island of the Sleeping Lady because of the silhouette of its mountains. If you’ve seen the Disney movie Moana, this might sound familiar.

Kosrae is the least visited of Micronesia’s main islands. There’s one paved road that runs from the airport halfway around the east side of the island.

The rest of the island is beautifully untouched and unspoiled. The beaches are lined with palm trees. The estuaries through the mangrove forests are perfect for kayaking. The mountains are covered with impenetrable jungles. The water is clean both in the sea and in the forest streams. Yesterday, I saw four adult Green turtles while snorkeling on the reef.

There are no seasons here. The daytime temperature is 30°C (86°F). At night it drops down to 27°C (80°F). It rains every day for a couple of hours. The photo of me holding a taro leaf illustrates why I never travel with an umbrella. You can always find an umbrella when you need one.

There’s one more remarkable thing about Kosrae: There is no COVID-19 here. Micronesia started enforcing severe travel restrictions in February. I was one of the few tourists allowed entry because I’d spent the previous month in east Africa, where there had not been any confirmed cases of the coronavirus at that time.

Micronesia’s strict travel bans are understandable. Pacific Islanders have low resistance to outside diseases, such as measles or smallpox. The influenza of 1918 killed ~20% of the population. As of today, 185 countries and territories have confirmed cases of COVID-19. Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Kiribati are thankfully not on that list.

I went to church last Sunday. The only social distancing was that the men sit on the right side of the church, separated from the women on the left. As the service ended, I looked across the aisle and snapped a photo. See any face masks? Nope. On International Women’s Day, there was a celebration at the community center. No masks here either. It’s nice to know that life goes on as normal in some parts of the world.

There’s only so much time one can spend snorkeling, kayaking, eating, going to social events or relaxing on the beach. So, I went over to the College of Micronesia (COM) to volunteer as a guest lecturer. I got hired! Here I am explaining the tectonic collision between the Pacific, Philippine and Caroline plates.

As a teacher for the COM, I was given a spacious 2-bedroom apartment in faculty housing. (Another professor just returned to the US, so I moved into her vacant unit.) The apartment is about 20 meters from the beach. The COM pays my rent. All I have to pay for is my food, electricity and internet.

Unfortunately, after teaching for two days, I was out of job when the Micronesian government closed all the schools on all its islands as a health precaution. No worries, I thought. It was almost time for me to go back to the airport to fly to Majuro anyway.

But then, two things happened: (1) The Marshallese government extended their travel ban to Majuro. (2) With no customers, United Airlines suspended all flights between Kosrae, Majuro or any of the other Micronesian islands. Yesterday morning, the United agent at the Kosrae airport phoned me. Our conversation went like this:

  • Good morning, Dr. Zoa. This is Maureen at the airport. Remember me?
  • Yes, Maureen. I remember you. Kom fuhkah? (I’m practicing my Kosraean.)
  • I’m fine, thank you. I have some news for you about your ticket to Majuro.
  • Yes?
  • Your flight has been cancelled. There will be no more flights to Majuro.
  • Oh, okay.
  • And today is the last day that United will take any passengers out of Kosrae.
  • Really?
  • Yes, today is the last flight.
  • Where is the plane going?
  • To Guam, sir. From Guam, you could fly back to the states.
  • And there won’t be any more flights out of Kosrae? For how long?
  • We don’t know. Maybe a few weeks. Maybe a few months. No one knows.
  • And when is this flight leaving for Guam?
  • In two hours. Would you like me to hold a seat for you?
  • (… pause …) No thank you, Maureen. I think I’ll stay here in Kosrae.
  • Are you sure? There won’t be any more planes for … well, we don’t know.
  • I like it here, Maureen.
  • So do I. Welcome to Kosrae.

That afternoon, I started volunteering with KIRMA (Kosrae Island Resource Management Authority) and HPO (Historic Preservation Office). These are government offices that will remain open. The COM is kind enough to let me keep my apartment as long as I’m here.

So, here I am in an incredibly beautiful place. I have meaningful work to keep me busy. My internet isn’t fast, but it’s stable. The people I’ll be working with are smart, organized and friendly. I can live for a long time on fish and fruit. And I love coconut — of which I have an unlimited supply.

When I read the news about what’s happening in the rest of the world, it’s hard for me to get a feel for what you’re going through right now. Are you basically okay? Or is everyone tense and worried? It’s remarkable that there’s a small corner of the world that remains untouched by this global disaster. The only downside — and it’s a big downside — is that I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. It could be months.

If you were in my situation, what would you have said yesterday when Maureen offered you a seat on the last flight out of here to Guam?