Reflections of a recent returnee to Pohnpei:
- Basketball games every afternoon, not just with guys my age but with speedy, sharp-shooting 20-somethings who won’t give away anything to a geezer. If you are lucky enough to have one of them on your team, you might win a game or two. But even without them, you’re playing with old friends. Afterwards, the return home with shirt sweat-soaked and lips parched. What a way to prepare for dinner!
- Walking into a US Embassy reception at a local hotel and being able to greet nearly everyone by name while making the rounds of the tables. Warm hugs–the kind that last several seconds, not the greeting-of-peace type. “We missed you.” (Yeah, I know. I missed you, too. More than you’d believe.)
- English mass on Saturday evening for the international community in a church that is nearly full. As you approach the mike to tell old friends how wonderful it is to see them all again, the mike fights back. It starts barking before going off into a horrible buzz, letting us all know that the sound system is going to be a problem. So you ask the people in the back of the church if they can hear you. No response–no heads nodding up and down or sideways. Maybe they didn’t even hear the question? So you begin bellowing from deep inside the thoracic cavity so you can be heard. Meanwhile, any sentiment you might have hoped to express is lost. Ah, the contingencies that so often confound us and are such a part of life in the islands!
- Sunday morning and two masses in Pohnpeian. An hour’s drive to the first village, where the mass is to be held in an old meeting house while the church is being renovated. While seated in the presider’s chair, you’re distracted by a lurid drawing some teenager did on a piece of plywood used to cover a hole on the platform. You carefully watch your footing as you descend the rickety stairs, sans sandals, to distribute communion. Afterwards you drive a half hour to the next village where order and industry prevail in a packed church and hymns are sung with gusto. Afterwards, lunch is brought out on trays and sakau is pounded. You arrive home at 3 PM, seven hours after you first set out. You know for sure that you’ve been somewhere and done something!
- The unexpected? There’s always a big element of that in the islands. Driving back from Sunday mass in the village, you hear a loud pop and feel the car swerve. You think that perhaps you just hit a boonie dog and are dragging the carcass. No, it feels more serious than that as the car slows and the thoo-womp, thoo-womp begins to sound menacing. When you stop, you find that the rear left tire is not just flat; it’s thoroughly shredded and the rim is exposed. You can’t even find the release for the trunk to search for the spare. But as you stand there pondering the damage, two cars stop. Then another one. With a flurry of Pohnpeian orders, many of which you don’t understand, cars empty, two women take charge of the stranded vehicle, and a young man across the street is dragooned into service. It takes them six minutes to change the tire before you’re on your way home again. Maybe this sort of thing happens at times on US highways, you think–but here you can expected this sort of response to the unexpected.
- A couple days later you find yourself having a long breakfast with one of your best friends and his family. This is followed by an appointment with the new US Ambassador and her staff, and lunch with the president of the local college. All these are opportunities to sound off on practiced themes, maybe even to have some little impact on island policy. You’re tempted to take pride in the fact that people want to know what you think.
- You spend afternoons sorting through the folders of the many file cabinets in what was once your office. As you flip through the contents of the folders deciding which to save and which to toss, you reflect on the fact that you’re doing the same with your memories. The memories are all warm, but the trivial ones are discarded with a smile. Others can’t be flipped off so lightly because they’re of accomplishments and the generosity of coworkers. So you keep shuffling back and forth to the file cabinets. Where else could you work up a full seat carrying folders from a file drawer to your desk? Here desk work offers the illusion of strenuous exercise, especially if the aircon isn’t working and the windows are jammed shut.
It’s great to be back.