Monday, 22 September 2014

Visit to Another World, A Pacific Oasis - Kapingamarangi Atoll

Only upon entering the reef encircled lagoon did we begin to appreciate the enormity of our trip and the amazing place we had managed to arrive in. The Chief of the atoll zoomed up in his (evidently the atolls' only) small outboard powered boat to welcome us and point us in the direction of the Touhou islet and main village, we were still 6 miles away.

We dropped anchor and started the diplomatic process of seeking the Chief - Alpino Samuels' permission to stay for a few days. Alpino was reserved but friendly and gave us a bunch of coconuts as a gift. We gave him a pair of reading glasses, some spam and some fish hooks which we hoped would be useful. While we did not have a permit to be in the region, he kindly let us stay for some respite and to mend a few minor things on the boat after we had travelled continuously for 12 days. And what a place for some R & R! It was visually spectacular, postcard stuff with palm trees swaying in the refreshing breeze atop golden sandy islets giving way to aqua then turquoise then brilliantly blue water which were crystal clear, calm and immaculately clean.

Pacific Paradise

The atoll, 450nm from the nearest population centre, was inhabited by a pocket of Polynesians though now grouped geographically with the Micronesians of Pohnpei (part of the Federated States of Micronesia). Apparently populated by Polynesian castaways who had drifted some 1500nm from the east to form a self-sufficient community, Kapingamarangi is the most remote isolated island in the West Pacific. The Spaniards stuck a flag on it when they called the Caroline Islands theirs around the same time as snatching the Philippines. That all got traded after the US-Spanish War in 1899 to the Germans and consequently taken by the Japanese in 1914 when Japan was on a Pacific nation land grab. Then after WWII, it fell under the jurisdiction of the US as a Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. But all this trading of ownership did not change the locals way of life one iota. They still grew taro, coconuts, bananas and breadfruit, domesticated pigs and chickens to supplement their seafood diet, spoke their Polynesian language and used song to tell historical stories and teach the children about life on Kapinga. The Japanese did commercialise copra exportation but life on the atoll remained little moved from their traditional ways.

On our visit over 100 years after some German ethnographers studied the lifestyle of the 400 odd islanders, we could see that they had the same diet and relied primarily on their own gardens for survival. While a supply ship (unreliably) comes from Pohnpei 2 or 3 times a year, it only brings long life stores like rice, sugar, tea and coffee. The limited income of the islanders means that the locals live of their produce and enjoy the variety provided by outside food only occasionally. The demeanor of the people was also remarkably the same as historically noted, they were genuinely friendly but reserved, they did not speak unless spoken to. We thought back to Sulewesi in Indonesia where we were treated like rock stars and were virtually mobbed for photos. This was a very different experience. The people of Kapinga were dedicated to the cleanliness of private and public property with immaculate pathways and ensuring no rubbish was lying around. We noticed that the people were always working, whether it was cleaning, doing food preparation, making copra, fishing or building houses, people were occupied with their tasks. The kids meanwhile were busying themselves with jumping off the pier into the water, the biggest hoots being gained from the longest run up. It turned out that school was a 4 month rotation as the teachers were on the supply boat from Pohnpei and now the kids were on holidays until the ship came. High school kids were preparing to go onto the ship when it came, as they go to boarding school in Pohnpei for the next 4 months.

To carry on the work of the Germans, a group of American ethnographers spent time in Kapinga in the 1940s and '50s to document the life of the people for historic reference. We were lucky enough to meet Sakius George, an islander who was a former teacher, loved reading and was very interested in the history of the place and had a copy of the book written by the Americans. We borrowed the book and could not believe that 60 years after their visit, so much of the islander's life was the same, despite the influence of technology from the modern world and the international education afforded to many of the islands children. The book went through the history of the naming of the place, and found that the locals just referred to it as 'the land', but Polynesian interpretations of the name Kapinga-marangi broke it down 'to carry under the arms' - of 'the sky'. I suppose that being so far from anywhere else, it was irrelevant what you called your island, because there were not many other people to tell. The Americans found that the practice of story telling had been virtually lost after the 1920s when Christian missionaries arrived, banning the singing of non-religious songs. Sakius also talks about the loss of many of the islands' youth as they leave the island for higher education abroad in Pohnpei, the US, PNG or Fiji. He cited negative changes such as the loss of craftsmanship with the wooden canoes that were critical for fishing, where outside influences encouraged a change to fiberglass boats and the locals are losing their skills to fix the wooden canoes, rendering them without water transport in the event of a leak. The island has limited connectivity to the outside world, satellite internet is only provided sporadically through the primary school, the island has no mobile phone access and no real electricity. But reminders were around…like on the incoming tide, we were saddened to see a line of plastic rubbish floating to shore. None of this waste was sourced from the atoll (as they did not buy bottled water or polystyrene boxes) and had floated hundreds of miles to mar the otherwise spotless beaches. The locals are left to clean up the waste and either reuse it, bury it or burn it. A sign of the outside world impacting on life here; it's interconnectedness despite the vast tract of surrounding ocean dwarfing the atoll. Other reminders of the wider world included the sea level assessment station that had been erected by the University of Hawaii, presumably studying many islands in the Pacific for sea level rise. If the sea rose 1m, almost the entire habitable portion of this atoll would be underwater.

Summoned by the ringing of the enormous bell we made our way to church, the service of which unfortunately was all in Kapinga, but we could pick up on the gist of it and the passion presented in their harmonic singing of hymns came to us as the new (ie post-Christianity period) story telling and was a treat to listen to. Reverend Yoster was kind enough to translate for us, as he invited us to speak to the congregation at the end of the ceremony and we thanked them for their warm welcome. We were invited to Rue – the Pastors' house for coffee after the service. We could see the locals houses, which were thatched palm leaf roofing supported on four poles to protect an un-walled living space below. Sometimes an elevated platform was installed and covered with woven palm leaf mats, the open walls certainly enable air flow which was crucial as the searing heat of the day abated. I had brought along a banana cake that I had made, and Rue gave us a gift of a pumpkin which almost made my eyes pop I was that excited to see fresh food!

We enjoyed snorkeling the channel that gave access to the lagoon, as the currents and tide ran through at a fast speed. We saw a plethora of fish schools like parrot fish, trevally and mackerel, sharks and we were treated to a view of an inquisitive spotted eagle ray as it flapped its wings to come and investigate us. The range of colour of the water was like an entire box of pencils, with all the blues, aqua greens and finally yellows of the shallow reef exposing themselves depending on the depth of water and range of coral below. Just stunning.



As nighttime would fall and the glimmers of pink in the sky disappeared to give way to a canopy of stars, the island would fall silent as there was generator driven electricity for lights in only 3 places (the church, the primary school and the chiefs office) and everyone was to go to sleep. The bell was rung at 8:30pm and again at 6:30am to mark the end and start of the day. A few fires flickered on shore from the remnants of dinner as the sound of the crashing waves on the outer reef was all we could hear.

While we only spent 4 days at Kapingamarangi, it will always hold a special place in our memory and we feel so very fortunate to have been able to visit another world, so far from anywhere where modernity has not yet wiped out the culture of the islanders.

22/9/2014

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8 comments:

  1. Great going guys. Wish we were with you. Velella back in Johor Straits. Family visit. Then? Undecided.

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    1. We will send you our routing info, there is so much sea to cover in the east bound leg, but you two are so salty and seasoned it would be a snack! Enjoy the Indian food of the Strait! Yum!

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  2. Great read and beautiful photos. I'm doing some informal research into Kapingamarangi as this is the atoll where my uncle was reported MIA and later KIA during WWII. Evidently the Japanese had a facility/occupied the island when his plane spotted a ship being unloaded there, reported it and went in to attack it on March 9, 1944. It must be a very different and peaceful atoll today. Beautiful! Thanks!
    Skip Anderson - skipnlois@yahoo.com

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    1. Skip, what a fascinating connection you have to the Atoll. It is a most picturesque and pristine place today, a far cry from the war years. I will send you an email with more information, I also have lots more photos and a name of one of the islanders who you may like to write to. Thanks for ready! Regards Kate

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    2. Great read. Thank you for sharing. I for one came from that beautiful island of Kapingamarangi atoll. It always good to hear about my home and my people. As I was reading your story I couldn't help but got choke up a little. Some day I will go home!

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    3. So great to hear from you, you can also watch this short video and about halfway through you will see some familiar islands and water shots:

      http://meridiansahoy.blogspot.com.au/2015/03/th-epic-journey-east-sailing-video-3.html

      If you didn't gather from our post, we loved it there and also hope one day to return. Where do you live now?

      K

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  3. What's the population on such a little island?

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    1. The revered local that we spoke with said there was about 400, however up to 200 high school children spent half the year living off the island while they went to high school in Pohnpei. A beautiful place and one we hope to return to one day.

      K

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