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Voyaging Between the 'Lost Islands' of Micronesia

June 18, 1989|GEORGIA I. HESSE | Hesse is a San Francisco free-lance writer .

TARAWA, Marshall Islands — They came in straight across the reef, through the tortured water that was turning red around them. Tiny black dots of men holding their weapons high above their heads, moving at a snail's pace, never faltering. Some of them, miraculously, made it. Many others did not.... There began a terrible carnage which will always be associated with the name Tarawa.

--Maj. Frank Hough

"The Island War," 1947

A pale, translucent blue-green sea laps softly against the blinding white of the beach on Betio on Tarawa atoll. The indifferent forces of wind and wave have eroded tanks and blockhouses and are working on memories.

Where in 1943 machine guns and sniper bullets blasted away, a hand-painted sign reads: "Twisting, rock 'n' roll, island nites."

Tarawa. Butaritari. Jaluit. Pingelap. Truk. Mogmog. These are hardly household names. Nor are Nanumea, Funafuti, Pulap, Satawal, Ifaluk, Oroluk and Pohnpei (formerly Ponape). Even the lands to which they belong--Kiribati, Tuvalu, Micronesia--sound a mysterious litany, as if they were invented by the same people who gave you Oz and Never-Never Land and Gont.

In the turbulent days of World War II, Kiribati was known as the Gilberts, Tuvalu as the Ellis Islands. Both were floating outcrops of the United Kingdom. During the past century, Micronesia has waved the flags of Spain, Germany, Britain, Japan and, as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, the United States.

These remote dots are scattered across the vast blue from Fiji in the South Pacific beyond the Equator and north to the Philippine Sea. They are as perfect as a cliche: By day the palms nod lazily over the empty white beaches and cerulean sea; by night, one stands at the bottom of a bowl of stars.

Intrepid Travelers

On this excursion I sailed aboard the world's first expedition passenger ship (commissioned in 1969), Society Expeditions' Society Explorer, which catered to 98 passengers who seemed to have a high tolerance for the vagaries of adventure travel.

If I had not been an advocate and enthusiast of adventure cruising before, "Project Lost Islands" would have converted me. Just rereading my water-, beer- and salt-stained notes sent me reeling back in time.

On a glorious April morning at Pingelap, Pohnpei state, one of the Federated States of Micronesia, I padded along the jungly path to the school. I found it deserted, and a hastily scribbled notice on the blackboard: "A big red ship has come." It seemed that every one of the island's 500 inhabitants had rushed down to the beach to ogle the strangers.

I read eight posted General School Rules, of which my favorites were: "No writing and despising schoolhouse as well as school properties" and "No unreasonable yipping at school compas ."

Some environmentalist had stuck up a notice that said: "Everything must come from someplace, Everything must go someplace, Everything is related, There's a limit, Pass it on."

'Visitors From Sea and Sky'

The roar of a small plane landing on a dirt runway disturbed my reverie. "It's a very big day," said a small boy who ran up to hold my hand. "We have visitors from sea and sky."

I revisited Nanumea atoll, Tuvalu, and took my place on a mat for the feast: suckling pig garnished with plumeria blossoms, taro, breadfruit, sweet potato steamed in coconut cream, banana fritters, irresistible (and unidentifiable) delicacies as full of vowels as of flavor-- fakalala , falifulata , faosi faolaoa.

Too soon, it seemed, the handsome thatched houses began to fade into tropical dusk. The drums quieted, the lagoon grew black, the tides swelled and it was time to return to the ship. The birders had seen 15 beauties (including ruddy turnstones and fairy terns), and all of us had fallen in love with the Nanumeans.

I visited the sands of Pulap and Satawal and the state of Truk. They are islands of canoe builders and navigators, geniuses who sailed (and still can sail) by the stick charts that made possible the long, treacherous Polynesian migrations as early as the 5th Century.

Tony, one of the islanders who acted as guides, showed off handsomely crafted giant canoes like the one in which he commuted for five days to Yap to attend high school.

On Jaluit atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands, the town is tawdry. From a sand bar one slips underwater to commune with regal angelfish, feather stars, two-humped wrasse and, cautiously, black-and-white-tipped reef sharks.

Legendary Builders

Then there was the mysterious city of Nan Madol on Pohnpei. Long ago, so long that not even the oldest turtle remembers, people sailed from Kosrae in search of a new home and, following the advice of an octopus, came upon a tiny coral islet. Over the years they built it bigger and bigger until it assumed the towering volcanic shape it shows today.

In ancient times Pohnpei was ruled by a line of kings, the Saudeleurs, who left as evidence of their power a city of giant basalt "logs" built on 80 artificial islands.

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