Safe Islands … for now

The United Nations has 193 members. 175 of these countries have confirmed cases of the Coronavirus. This leaves 18 countries — plus a few territories and dependencies — which are not yet infected with Covid-19.

These 18 uninfected countries include 20 or so Pacific islands. These islands are small and isolated. They have few mineral resources. The islanders survive on a little bit of tourism and what their children send back from jobs overseas. The Solomon Islands is the most populous with 650,000 residents. Only 1,620 live in Niue. In all, there are almost 2 million people living on these virus-free islands.

In February, when the first news of Covid-19 was reported, these islands imposed severe travel restrictions. By closing their doors to international travelers, they prevented the arrival of Covid-19. I was the last tourist allowed to deplane in Kosrae. After that, United Airlines cut its island-hopper service, This week, I received the following Level 4 Travel Advisory from the US Embassy:

U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period. U.S. citizens who are considering returning to the United States should work with United Airlines to make travel arrangements while flights are still available. There is an April 13 flight with seats available. The U.S. government’s ability to arrange dedicated repatriation flights is not sustainable indefinitely.

Once again, I must choose between staying in Kosrae or leaving. I’ve followed the news about the shutdown in the US. Friends and family have emailed stories about sheltering at home. I’ve reviewed every country’s travel restrictions. My traveling days are over — at least for a while. I emailed the US Embassy that I’m going to stay.

With no Covid-19, life in Kosrae is somewhat normal. This week was Kosrae’s annual Cultural Festival, an event with a parade that shows off local traditions and culture. About a quarter of the island’s residents turned out to say hi to each other, see one another’s growing children, exchange fruits for fish, and show off their new pickup trucks.

The parade was held in front of the high school gymnasium. The pickup trucks were decorated with flowers, bananas, fish and coconuts. Children and their parents waved and threw flowers, bananas and fish to the spectators. (It’s bad enough to be hit by a fish. I’m glad they weren’t throwing coconuts!) After the parade, whatever was left was bartered or sold. I was sorry to see a Green turtle hanging on the fishmonger’s truck. There was also music, free soup and drinks.

To stay busy and to make myself useful, I volunteer at the high school. Last week, I took the junior class on a field trip to Wiya Bird Cave. Here they learned how this lava tube was formed and all about the Swiftlets that live here.

Other field trips have included visits to the last Ka (Terminalia carolinensis) Forest in the world and some of the remnants of Japan’s occupation and defense of this island during World War II.

Several readers of this blog have asked for some basic information about Kosrae, which I’ll include here:

  • Population: 6,600. There are an additional 7,000 Kosraeans living abroad, mostly in the US.
  • Area: 110 km2, about the same size as the city of San Francisco
  • Highest point: Mt. Finkol at 634 metres (2,080 feet)
  • Religion: Mostly Christian, with a few Muslims
  • Currency: US dollar. Credit cards are accepted and ATMs are available
  • Nearest populated island: Pohnpei, 554 km (344 miles) from here
  • Most famous person: Pirate Bully Hayes (1827-77) whose treasure is still buried here somewhere
  • Visa requirements: US passport holders can stay here as long as they like, be legally employed, and own a business. The only thing I can’t do is buy land.
  • Language: Kosaean is unique to this island. It wasn’t documented in written form until the 1970s. If I learn to speak this language, I’ll be able to converse with about 9000 other people worldwide. Fortunately, English is also widely spoken here.

Kosrae is remote and isolated, but also friendly and beautiful. Until the Coronavirus gets here — and it probably will — this will be a good place to live, work and play. There’re many people whom I’d like to share this place with. Unfortunately, that’s impossible given the current travel bans on entering Micronesia. So, I’m going to be here alone for a while. How long? I don’t know.

I will close for now with this thought: Shakespeare composed some of his most enduring work, including King Lear, during the plague of 1605 and 1606. Newton discovered gravity and invented calculus under quarantine. With the resources of the internet, I hope that everyone who is sheltering at home can find a way to be creative and productive during this time. It’s the only way to stay sane.

Peace, blessings and good health to all. May this crisis end soon, Until then, may you enjoy being with loved ones. I miss you all.