A Tour of Pohnpei

Kaselehlia! The images, descriptions, and sounds below reflect my own perspective gained from spending a year as a student missionary teaching high school at the Pohnpei Seventh-day Adventist School.

Enjoy the tour, and please direct any comments or questions to haunmarabbitketeuaardvarkorg replace animals with punctuation

Mark Haun, 22 February 1996

Go to: [ The School ] [ To See And Do ] [ Sound Bites ] [ Reading List ] [ Net Resources ]

Island Facts

The island of Pohnpei (6.97N 158.22E) lies about halfway between Hawaii and the Philipines in the recently formed country of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Here is a map.

Pohnpei is a "high" volcanic island, having a rugged, mountainous interior with some peaks as high as 2600 feet. It measures about thirteen miles across and is roughly circular in shape. A coral reef surrounds the island, forming a protected lagoon. There are no beaches on Pohnpei -- the coast is surrounded by mangrove swamps. Several smaller islets and atolls, many of them inhabited, lie nearby and are included in the State of Pohnpei.

More than 30,000 people live on Pohnpei, although nearly a fourth of these are immigrants from other nearby islands or foreigners (mostly U.S.) working on the island. English is almost universally understood, although Pohnpeian is more commonly used between native residents. The main town on the island is Kolonia, on the north side.

The most prominent feature on Pohnpei is probably Sokehs Rock. This huge volcanic plug is only one-fourth as high as some of the interior mountains, but its position looming over Kolonia harbor makes it a dramatic sight. Although it looks forbidding, you can actually climb up the back side quite easily, and the view from the top is one of the best on the island!


Sokehs Rock

Part-way up the side

At the summit

The view from the top

Pohnpei's airport

Pohnpei's climate is tropical and humid. Kolonia town gets about 195 inches (4.95 m) of rain per year. Further inland, the SDA School where I lived receives closer to 300 in/yr, and rainfall in the interior is estimated at over 400 in/yr, making Pohnpei one of the wettest places on Earth! This isn't as uncomfortable as it sounds. Clouds keep the temperature in the 80's during the daytime, and there is usually a light breeze. Once you get used to it (it takes a while), it's the perfect climate, just right, all the time.

Typhoons rarely hit Pohnpei; more often they are spawned in Micronesia and sent on to Guam. Every several years or so on average, a mildly damaging tropical storm or depression will affect the island. Strong El Niño events can cause prolonged droughts of many weeks or even months, as was seen in 1996.


Heavy rain at the SDA School

More rain

A rainbow above the school gym

Pohnpei's tropical climate keeps the landscape lush and green all the time. The heavy rainfall feeds a number of freshwater rivers and dozens of waterfalls, making the interior of Pohnpei one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Not surprisingly, this same climate breeds a lot more than just plants! Insects grow large here: cockroaches can grow to three inches, and it was a constant struggle keeping them out of the house. The spiders are large, too, but they stay out of the way. Mosquitoes, surprisingly, are not a big problem since the rain also breeds huge numbers of toads.

There are no dangerous snakes, animals, or insects, except for the centipede. Usually about six inches long, they can grow almost as large as one foot and carry a poisonous bite. Fortunately, they would rather live under rocks than in people's houses.


A mountain stream

River and rope bridge

A quiet stream surrounded by the rainforest

Lush foliage near a stream

A back road in the mountains

Sawartik falls

Sawarlap falls

Kepirohi falls

Liduduhniap falls

Lehnpeipoh (sp?) falls

Interesting multicolored flowers

More tropical flowers

A sensitive fern (closes when touched)

More tropical flowers

One inch tiles for scale. Roaches fly, too.

The poisonous centipede

A curious hermit crab

A green pet skink

Relics of Pohnpei's history are prevalent on the island. The most famous are the ruins of Nan Madol, which date back at least several hundred years to a time when the island was ruled by a series of tyrant kings known as the Saudeleurs. My first impression upon seeing these walls was of a huge log cabin, except the "logs" are solid basalt rock! The quarry site has been found far away from the ruins, and it is a real mystery how the builders managed to transport and put into place rocks weighing tons apiece.

More recently, Pohnpei has been occupied by no less than four major colonial powers, the most recent being the U.S. The Spanish claimed the island originally. Later, Germany gained control, but lost its claim after World War I. Between the world wars, Japan controlled the island and built numerous fortifications. During World War II, the Allies opted to bypass and isolate Pohnpei after intense bombing rather than mount a land invasion. Rusted gun emplacements, bunkers, an overgrown airbase, bomb craters, and several miniature tanks are among the remains of the war still present.

Following World War II, control of Pohnpei and other pacific islands passed to the U.S. in the form of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Today the islands of Micronesia, including Pohnpei, are independent but still closely tied to the U.S., receiving millions of dollars in aid as part of the "Compact of Free Association." The Compact runs out in the year 2001 and the people of the FSM will have to vote to decide their future political status.


The ruins of Nan Madol

The German bell tower in Kolonia

A Japanese gun atop Sokehs ridge

Remains of an old Japanese hangar on Lenger Island

Fuselage from a Japanese plane

Inside a World War II bunker

On Liberation Day, Pohnpeians celebrate the end of the Japanese occupation

Despite western influences, traditional customs, values, roles, and skills still survive. Manufactured goods have supplemented traditional items in most cases. For example, outrigger canoes such as this one are a rare sight with the easy availability of fiberglass boats.


Fishing near Temwen island, Madolenihmw

Because of improved medical services and a consistently high birth rate, Pohnpei has experienced a sort of population explosion, especially in the younger generation. Almost half of the population is under the age of fifteen! Because of this, schools are crowded and quality education is in high demand.


Some children in Kolonia who wanted their picture taken

The School


Our school sign

View from the air

Another aerial shot

View from my house

The school is ringed by rainforest and mountains on three sides

The Pohnpei Seventh-day Adventist School is a K-12 institution operated by the SDA church and located about two miles outside of Kolonia. In 1993-94 we had about 200 students in the elementary and 150 in the high school.

Our school is unusual in that the staff is mostly made up of one year volunteers -- student missionaries from colleges around the world who take one or more years out of their studies to serve overseas. In 1993-94 I was one of eighteen volunteers who taught on Pohnpei.

A near-complete turnover in the teaching staff each year presents some unusual challenges for both the teachers and the principal, who must work with new people each year. Most of us were teaching for the first time ever, with no formal training in education (my background, for example, is in Engineering). In addition, it is not uncommon for teachers to have to make up their own curriculum as they go along (I did). Despite these handicaps, we are able to provide a high quality of education, and the SDA School is widely considered one of the best schools on the island. Part of the reason for this success is that the teachers here are mostly native English speakers, and good English language instruction is lacking in some of the other schools.


1993-94 Student Missionaries to the Pacific islands at their orientation in Hawaii

Miller Benjamin: SDA School Principal, fisherman extraordinaire, and all-around great guy

Miller's son

On a typical teaching day, I would wake up with the sunrise (conveniently at the same time year-round). This particular morning, everything inside the house seemed strangely reddish-orange, so I went outside with my camera to catch the show.


The clouds in Pohnpei seem unusually reflective

At 7:30 a.m., we would meet in the library for staff worship to prepare for the day ahead, both mentally and spiritually. Then, it was off to classes.

Teaching was a new experience and very challenging, especially for a naturally shy person like me. The students there face many of the same problems as students in the U.S. do: lack of support at home, the worst influences and values of modern Western culture (learned from videos), and a huge generation gap. Working with them was far from easy, and I found it vital to pray each morning for patience, love for the students, and wisdom. Some of my favorite Bible texts: Ex. 4:10-11, 2 Cor. 12:9-10, Psalm 139.

Of course, teaching has its funny moments too, like the time I had to interrupt class to vomit in the trash can (food poisoning from leftover chili gone bad), or my students' attempts at good English ("Mr. Haun, can you please 'on' the computers?").

My primary teaching responsibility was high school Computer I and Computer II, but I also taught Precalculus and Handbells. In the computer classes, the students learned basic word processing, spreadsheet, and database applications as well as some programming in the advanced class. Near the beginning of the year, work was completed on a new computer lab with 20 486SX-25 machines, replacing the previously used Apple II's! This lab is also used for all typing classes, and, time allowing, for community computer classes after school hours.


Unloading the new computers and other supplies -- no FedEx here!

The new computer lab

My Handbells class hard at work

Some of my students at lunchtime

Picking mangoes on a school picnic

Local dress day

The teachers didn't want to be left out!

My summer community computer class

After the day's last classes, there was always plenty of work to do: grading, making lesson plans, preparing tests and assignments, and cleaning classrooms. The teaching staff is also the janitorial staff, and we had rotating duties for sweeping the halls, cleaning the restrooms, and so on. One Sunday a month, the morning was spent on more ambitious campus projects: building new apartments, pouring new sidewalks, and remodeling classrooms, to name a few.

Also on the weekends, the teachers were expected to help out in various church activities. This could mean teaching a youth class, providing music during the church service, or spending the morning in Kapingamarangi village (part of Kolonia) singing and telling Bible stories to the local children.


Yours truly, working on computer class grades

Mixing cement for a new sidewalk on campus

Our [mostly] brass ensemble playing at church

Outside church: leave your zories (footwear) at the door

Inside the church: stained-glass depiction of Matthew 25

The community meeting house in Kapingamarangi village

Telling a Bible story, Kapingamarangi village

The kids love to sing!

I lived on campus, along with all the other teachers. Four of us lived upstairs in this apartment after the building was completed in November. We did all of our own cooking, gradually progressing from spaghetti and mashed potatoes to more interesting dishes. Once in a while we got to try traditional Pohnpeian foods, like spear-it-yourself reef fish! The funny hats we're wearing were given to us by the women in the church upon our return from a men's spearfishing trip.


My house

My roommates and I after a fishing trip

Some reef fish that we speared

Things to see and do

Once in a while, we actually found some free time for hiking or weekend trips to nearby islands. A favorite short hike is the trail up Sokehs Mountain, the ridge behind the famous Sokehs Rock. Many old guns, bunkers, and bomb craters from World War II are still easily found in the midst of the rainforest. Other favorite places to visit are the many waterfalls on the island.


My friends and I exploring a Japanese bunker

Wading across the channel to Nan Madol

A few of the nearby atolls and reef islets can be reached by boat in a few hours, and they make good places to spend a weekend getting away from the stress of school. Just tie up some hammocks, put up a rain tarp, and you're all set. Listening to the quiet lapping of small waves in the lagoon while sitting on a pristine beach and looking up at a dark equatorial sky with no other people for miles around is an awesome experience!


It rained all day and all night...

Old wooden dock at Black Coral island

Sunset at Ant atoll

Pohnpei's latitude vividly demonstrated: Stars whirling around Polaris about seven degrees above the ocean, Ant atoll

Southern constellations setting behind palm trees, Ant atoll

Here are a few more "experimental" pictures taken around Pohnpei.


The circle-island road at night

A palm tree on the school campus

In June, between regular school and summer session, I had the opportunity to take a trip on the Micro Glory, the Pohnpei State government's outer island passenger ship. For only $15, you can take a week and a half long trip to such places as Sapwuahfik, Nukuoro, and Kapingamarangi atolls, if you are willing to provide your own food and sleep on a hard plywood floor packed with people. This is not for the faint of heart!

The people living on Nukuoro and Kapingamarangi atolls are actually not Micronesian, but Polynesian. Life on these islands is much more traditional than on Pohnpei.


The Micro Glory in Pohnpei harbor

A thatched house on Nukuoro atoll

The end of the year came all too quickly for me. The people and the island really grew on me, and I made so many good friends. Leaving them all behind was hard! But school calls. Some day, if I get the chance, I will go back.


A Pohnpeian sunset

A sadder sunset from a plane window...

Sound Bites

These are currently available only in .au (Sun audio) format. If your platform can't play .au files, send me email.

Language

"Kaselehlia Maing" -- a formal greeting (9k)
"Kaselel" -- an informal greeting (6k)
A portion of a sermon in church (Pastor Smehl Gallen) (150k)

Music

The SDA School Choir (360k)
Another selection by the school choir (400k)
A women's choir singing in church (95k)
My handbells class playing for the annual Christmas program (435k)
The bell choir again, this time at graduation (160k)

Other

Bible stories and singing for the kids in Kapingamarangi village (660k)
A condensed version of the above (300k)
A gecko chirping and other tropical nighttime sounds (70k)

A Pohnpei Reading List

Sources for further study of the island, its history, culture, language, geography, and people.

On the Net

Pohnpei

* Alex Zuccarelli's
Pohnpei, Between Tide and Time is unquestionably the best online resource.
* The official site of the FSM visitors board.

Micronesia and Pacific Islands in General

* Neil Levy's Micronesia Handbook provides access to the full text of this useful travel guide and a collection of links covering the region.
* Federated States of Micronesia (CIA World Factbook information)

Social and Economic Issues

* Micronesian Seminar, a research-pastoral institute run by the Jesuits of Micronesia, publishes a series of bulletins and sponsors forum discussions on social, political, and economic issues in Micronesia.
* Bank of Hawaii's Economic Report for the Federated States of Micronesia (July 2000, PDF file)

Language

* Ethnologue: Languages of Micronesia

History

* Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific, a fascinating look at inter-island travel long before the first western contact with Micronesia.

Telecommunications

* The FSM Telecom Corp. provides telephone and now Internet services on Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae.
* www.fm is no doubt one of the Net's shortest web addresses. Even though the .fm domain belongs to the FSM, their delegated registrars will happily sell you a .fm domain name, no matter where you live.
* Peacesat: Pan-Pacific Education and Communication Experiments by Satellite

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Last updated 6 March 2001 by Mark Haun
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