In the far west of the Pacific Ocean, more than 600 islands form a haven for diving, ruins, off-road driving and a truly rustic getaway from the usual tourist-trap beaches. Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk and Yap make up the four island states that are the Federated States of Micronesia.
Previously governed by the USA, the terms of Micronesia’s current independence allow citizens to live and work in America indefinitely. Currently both an independent sovereign island nation and an Associated State of the United States, Micronesia is an island that very much sways to its own beat while holding on to close US ties.
The agreement works both ways and benefits both countries – with the terms of their independence, Micronesia is full of young citizens who can migrate to the wealthier and far more developed USA; this has made it a recruitment hotbed for both the US Army and wandering Mormons.
Literally in the middle of the ocean, and far from most places one might typically travel to, Pohnpei becomes a reasonable place to visit with the help of frequent flyer miles, a relative proximity to Japan – which makes it a popular destination for Japanese divers – a quest for off-the-beaten-track travel and a bit of time off.
Leaving from China, my flight route began from Beijing to Osaka, then from Osaka to the US-territory of Guam. From Guam, an aeroplane island hopper delivers travellers to various destinations within the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
After a brief stopover in Chuuk, Pohnpei was finally reached. Like I said, you need to really want to get there; it’s not for the traveller who craves easy flights and hassle-free routes.
ARRIVING ON THE ISLAND
Setting foot onto the soil of Pohnpei, one thing is immediately clear: things don’t go very quickly on this island. It isn’t a large place, and is more or less circular in shape; it takes about three hours to drive around the entire perimeter. It could take far less, but well-paved streets aren’t a major feature of Pohnpei.
With things running on the American side of the road, driving in these parts is best done with what I can only describe as a generous amount of both trepidation and necessary but unfounded overconfidence. If you’ve only ever driven smooth streets with functional traffic lights, you’ll learn, and you’ll learn in the same way the island operates: slowly and inconsistently.
For the purpose of navigating these streets, my partner and I came up with a code that was timely in those pre-election days. “Trump!” he’d cry, each time I veered dangerously right. “Easy now, Sanders!” he’d warn if I steered into the far left. I’d eventually manage to stick right in the middle of those treacherous and unpaved paths – more-or-less dead centre, or the Clinton of Micronesian roads.
You’ll absolutely need a Jeep or an SUV for this terrain. Potholes and difficult turns are everywhere, and while the patient locals give you plenty of time and place, it’s a challenge for the easily unnerved, or the inexperienced driver (for some context, I belong to both categories).
If you don’t drive, local taxis are available with the help of your hotel. It was here that we discovered one reason behind the slow and unsteady way of island life. Sakau, the local moonshine made from the Kava plant, is not only present, it is plentiful. Upon closer inspection, each driver we encountered had a similar combination of glazed eyes, a preference for not speaking and questionable coordination. Despite this, not a single accident was seen in the week spent on Pohnpei. What might be alarming to a visitor is simply the way of the island to the islanders.
Far more clarity and less worrisome traffic lie underwater. Pohnpei, and other destinations in Micronesia, are delightful diving destinations. Rent your own boat and dive instructor, and head out to the deep, soothing azure of the Pacific. A world apart from more popular spots, you needn’t share the ocean with other humans; in our four days of diving, we encountered no one else and the only unpleasant encounter was with an alarmingly aggressive and hungry triggerfish.
Pro-tip: They defend their territory in an outward V-shape, so if you manage to piss one off, swim away instead of up or down (assuming you’d like to keep your fingers intact).
EVERYTHING IS RUINED
An archaeological site of ruins, Nan Madol means ‘spaces between’ and is one of the world’s remaining mysteries and sites of great intrigue. Along a lagoon, the UNESCO heritage site of Nan Madol is made up of stone walls and tidal canals. Paying a small access fee to the family whose house lies outside this area, your visit needs to take the tide into consideration; enter early enough and a path is available to your adventure. Linger too long, as I learned the hard way, and your path is quickly consumed by the rising ocean.
The history of Nan Madol is rich and deep, dating back to 1628. Fill yourself with knowledge about these historic ruins before venturing on and seeing it for yourself. In today’s world, it’s difficult to imagine a place more secluded, historic, and surreal than this.
Head higher for a spectacular view and more history with Sokehs Rock – a hiking trail takes you to the peak of the island where you can sit out in the sun, exploring World War II Japanese guns while watching the island hopper you arrived in land and take off, connecting the various islands – a combination of sights which inspires the greatest sense of true travel and adventure I have known yet.