Last month, PREL staff member, Sonja Evensen, got on a 9-seater airplane and flew out to the remote island of Fais. Part of the Carolinian Island chain, Fais is part of Yap state, in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Here are some of her stories and images from her unforgettable trip to this beautiful place.
1) Can you briefly explain how does one even GET to Fais? What kind of transportation did you need to take?
I have dear friends in Yap, whom I’ve known since the early 80’s (Jane was my former Job Corps student)—and I was thrilled to be able to go back to Yap this year. My friend’s husband Jesse is from Fais, and I’ve always been curious about going to an outer island—mainly because it’s more traditional, less touched by the Western world.
When I mentioned to Jesse that I’d like to go to Fais this time, he said it ‘could be arranged’. I could stay with his sister. I also had to get permission from the Council of Chiefs as they don’t allow tourism. That problem was quickly resolved as Jesse explained that I was family. Yet, I had no idea how challenging transportation would be. There is a cargo ship that travels throughout the FSM and comes through maybe once a month. The travel dates were hard to pinpoint, and it would be many hours on the boat, and there would be no way to get back until the next month. Then I learned about Pacific Missionary Aviation. (PMA). That is an interesting story in itself, involving a former German Nazi official who regretted his ways an d who decided to do something to help people. He set up PMA there.
I got in touch with the pilot (through a friend who knew him) and asked when flights might occur. I found out how challenging it was to secure dates, and I was worried about being able to fly back on time to catch a connecting flight back home. He suggested that the most “sure thing” would be to arrive around the time of the Ulithi (neighboring island) High school graduation-as many parents from Fais would want to attend their child’s graduation. I couldn’t find out the dates though, as no one knew, not even the Yap Department of Education. Finally, though, I was given dates and the pilot suggested I could get on a flight to coincide with those dates.
It is a 9 seater plane and the schedule is variable, depending on what they decide to do that morning. I went to the airport three times that day. I paid $1 a lb. for the 50 lbs. of excess baggage that probably included 30 lbs. of water. When people from Fais learn you are going, they quickly assemble things to bring along. I was given a bag of food supplies and a spear gun. I had a supply of canned goods, shoyu, kimchee sauce, cooking oil, flour and rice, some supplies related to their water supply (Madi drops, water testing kits and Water for Life handbooks), and gifts for the chief (cigarettes) and candy for the kids—as well as some other things I thought might be practical (fishhooks, duct tape, medical supplies, toothbrushes, soap, mosquito punk, lantern, matches, lighters, T- shirts and children’s books)
2) What was your first reaction when you arrived on the island?
I realized that people were coming to get me and I didn’t know anyone, so I was a bit apprehensive. It was brutally hot and I was ever-so- thankful for the welcome crew that met me at the airstrip, with coconut in hand, lei, and an umbrella to shade me as we walked in the midday sweltering heat. I carried about 30 lbs. of water with me from Yap so I was very grateful for the wheelbarrow assist. I was told there was no water there and I didn’t want to deplete their supplies. (No one seemed to be able to tell me if there was water, or if the trees grew back after Typhoon Maysek, or that there was very little food.). I was relieved to see lots of trees. Somehow I feared that there would be no shade, at all, and my Yap friends tell me that everyone who comes back from Fais comes back very black.
Quite a gathering of curious children came out to play under the plane, and even more people ducked out from under the trees. I was thinking, ‘I’m the freak show’ but I was so interested in everything, and equally curious in return. I’m somewhat embarrassed yet excited. We walked and walked and walked along the winding pathways until I arrived at my home.
3) How has the drought affected Fais? What did the people of the island do to adapt?
The catchment systems in the homes are very low. One of them showed me that barely a trickle came out. They drink lots of coconuts but even coconuts are running low and you have to go farther and farther to get them.
The European Union, among others, kicked in with assistance to dig a well last year. Fais is a raised island, not as flat as Ulithi and the other atolls, so there is groundwater. Satawal and the Eastern islands are worse off.
In the beginning the chief monitored the water use at the community faucet and they were careful with water. That is not the case now, even though they are still at risk.
Most go to the community water supply and bring water home in containers. Most shower there. Some shower in the ocean and rinse off with fresh water at home. Some also bathe only at home.
Most people used water from tanks to wash dishes, but they use the water over and over until it gets dirty. Some still do laundry in the ocean, but more use fresh water. The random set of people I met and interviewed believed there is enough water.
4) Climate change is a very loaded term. Did you find that people on Fais used this term and understood its meaning?
When I asked if they heard of Climate change, some were not sure. (However, that also could be that they were shy to speak English. One person said: “Something about El Nino. Less rain.”
I also asked “What does conserve mean? Not sure. Save water? What does that mean to you, what do you do differently? (Most not sure—or didn’t know how to explain it).
Many of the men had attended community workshops, maybe a year ago. They even showed me their mugs that bear the words: “conserve water.”
I asked the health board chair to recall the workshops and he said the most memorable thing he learned was to conserve water, but he wasn’t sure how to describe that. He said, “Before, we used to use water from the tank but now they take water from the well.” He also said they learned about climate change but he asked me to explain that again. He knew the “sun was strong and the climate was not the same as before.
5) What do you think are the top 3 challenges facing the community on Fais?
I had a bit of a discussion with the chief, the medic, the health board chair, and the Peace Corps worker there. After my own observations and talking to them, it seems that Food security and water security are primary challenges. They also had health issues, even live cases of Leprosy. There were a number of water-borne diseases and childhood diarrhea and skin infections.
However, in further discussions, it also seems that leadership may also be a decisive factor in how things are managed for future security. Currently there is no paramount chief. The lack of alarm toward a finite resource (water) or the lack of action taken in fixing pipes for leaks may possibly due to the 1) tendency not to worry about the future and 2) not perceiving the risk as high; as “help will arrive”.
6) What was your biggest personal challenge during your stay on the island?
The heat was a big challenge for me. I sat around in a stupor for part of the day, unable to even read a book. So I’d get up early and go for a swim, and lie under the thatch hut like everyone else did, and then move around in the evening. I was given a choice to sleep under the thatch instead of on the cement floor (with 6 women and all the children) and I took it because it was cooler. (But really, I appreciated the few moments of privacy)
I was always worried about doing something inappropriate, and I was pulled aside and gently corrected about how I sat. Women need to cover their legs past their knees, and always sit politely, which is something I’ve never done and it’s a hard habit to break. On my first day I was given a beautiful hand-woven lava-lava. One night I was sleeping in the hammock under the thatch roof and got a little chilled, so I pulled it over me like a blanket. I was also told that was not how to use it. Another night, the rats stole my belt that I used to hold it up, so I had to look for something else I could use. I don’t know what else I may have done. Spoken too loudly? Sat among men? I think I may have erred by sitting next to the chief, but no one corrected me.
I kidded that I felt like a baby, and had to get instructions in how to dress, and how to help with food preparation. I was useless with a machete but pretty good at pounding breadfruit, which was a lot like pounding poi.
I was lucky to befriend Carla, who married into the family. She is from Pohnpei, but although she had been there before, she was still a bit of an “outsider” so we bonded over the experience. She was kind and gentle and helped me so much. I could ask her questions and double check my interpretation of things.
Food was a small challenge, but anything is doable in the short term. Had I known that food was in such short supply, I would have brought more. The canned goods I brought were eaten right away. The Kimchee sauce was consumed in 1.5 days. One day we ate flour mixed with sugar and boiled. I ate turtle eggs, not because I liked them, but I was hungry. But the next day there was lobster, so no complaining, (well except for the flies). Fishing is a must; as there is no refrigeration so it has to be eaten quickly. And as quick as you can stuff it in your mouth, since the flies are brutally fast. We kidded about naming the island Fl-ais)
Truthfully, the bigger challenge was coming home. I love simplicity. Granted, it’s easy to say that when I only experienced subsistence living for a week. I came home and avoided going to the store at first. When I went, I was somewhat disgusted. About 99% of the stuff was useless. It really makes me question my lifestyle.
7) What surprised you the most about your time? Were there any stories that you heard which stood out?
The soft-spoken demeanor of people and their kindness was remarkable. All are hospitable; they offer food even if there is none. After hello, there is always an offer of rice.
It wasn’t really a surprise, but since there is no TV or lights, storytelling is still a big thing. Therese told us stories about the legend of Fais. There were 3 sons who went fishing every day, but somehow their mother always managed to bring home food, even though the island was not plentiful. So they decided to trick her and follow her. The two elder brothers got in the canoe, but the youngest one hid, and they put coconuts in the boat to fool the mother. The youngest son watched the mother enter the ocean, dive, and bring up food from an island underwater. But because he did that, she turned into a bird. One day, they pulled up the whole underwater island and it was Fais.
I loved how the kids played with everything and anything. The beautiful children’s books I brought were written in Ulitihian. The pictures were entertaining for a moment, but then they used the hardcover books to bounce shells off of, as part of their game.
The pages were glossy so that saved the book from being smoked. Yes, paperbacks are great to bring along, and the chief usually likes getting a newspaper. They grow their own tobacco but they have no rolling paper. So the Peace Corps guy said that he thought about setting up a small library, with a ‘smoking section’. The section with the damaged books so they could use the pages to roll their cigarettes with.
I’m sure it was unusual that an older lady like me would want to swim for recreation. There were little shore break waves so I swam out there. Some of the boys were playing on a log so I decided to help them to catch a wave with it. They were really good in the water and caught on immediately.
The outer island ship arrival is an Event. It’s usually spotted on the horizon the day before and people start gathering on the West end of the island as it approaches. Armed with wheelbarrows and plenty of manpower to unload, the small boats ferry in passengers first, then supplies. It was low tide and everyone took a walk over the reef to get in. Supplies were big bags of rice, flour, other dry goods, and sometimes mats and a pile of spear guns.
8) Would you go back to the island if you had the chance?
Yes. I would be better prepared. I’d know what to bring. I would love to see those kind people again, people who were so endearing after such a short amount of time. One of the friends I’d like to get to know better is Alice, the young girl who took me on a tour of her favorite spots. We didn’t talk much but she showed up on my last day with a lei and said she would miss me. There is a lot of unspoken communication that just happens. Especially little Fiona, who just seemed to appear everywhere I walked, with that beautiful smile of hers!
I nearly cried when I said goodbye to Therese, who to me was “Mother Therese”. She was worried when I went swimming too long, or if I was away for a while. She always had food ready and cared for everyone with such kindness.