Story and Images by Erika E. Billen
The Gateway to the Sacred City
The sun rays broke through the top of the canopy, the rustling of old leaves, and the snapping of twigs on the forest floor as they were stepped on, those were the pieces of my adventure to the City of Nan Madol. I am one of the many young Micronesians that often wonder about the history of my people.
Armed with a book and a pen, I trekked among other ‘storytellers’ for a good 10- minutes toward our destination. The air smelled of weathered moss and moist earth—the occasional whiff of fallen breadfruit that had over ripened was also faintly present. Soon, one of the Nan Madol structures came into sight. We had not even broken to the coast, and history was already staring at me. We huddled into a loose group near that structure and our tour guide spoke out.
One thing that one must understand about meeting people here in Pohnpei is that modesty goes hand in hand with respect of our elders. Both of these elements are of paramount importance in our culture. I have been to other countries and I have seen the stark difference between their people and mine. In foreign countries that are heavily developed, everyone seems to be in competition on how much they know and have—here in Pohnpei, you can go months without knowing that the old lady with the betel nut-stained teeth and worn out skirt has traveled farther than you and graduated from a top university with a masters in neurobiology. It is only when you have sat there in the wee evening light enjoying a cup of sakau (or kava) with her that you will ever get a smidgen of her great stories and understand the level of modesty that has been sown into our cultural DNA.
The tour guide gave the same vibe, as he began by saying that he knew little when in fact the moment he had the group huddled at the entrance of Nan Madol, stories broke through that silent and stoic character. In his late 40s, he had on an aged brown t-shirt, jeans, boots, and a generic travel pamphlet. Most of us were in our early twenties and late teens with iPhones and borrowed cameras. Before he even began his stories, I had already crossed the water toward the beckoning scene of Nan Madol. The tide was low and my hopes were high about capturing the perfect shots and coming away from that historical site knowing more. I knelt at the entrance where the imprinted stones lay. Fading into view was the vision of my ancestors twisting the kava as another looked on from what looked like a seating area (figure 2) near the larger imprinted stone (figure 1).
Some of the stacked basalt “log” structures towered over me, while others were about my height. The level of cleverness and ingenuity that came into the construction of these megalithic structures has boggled the minds of countless people who have witnessed them. I myself found it exciting to be amongst it all.
The doorways through the walls were about waist-high and required you to bend down before walking through. Other people would have said that that was either a major architectural failure or that place was built for dwarves. In truth, I had learned before in grade school that those doorways were built that way because, as I had said before, it is of great importance to have modesty and respect and even more to show it before all the titles and common folk by bowing upon entrance. “Ihieng,” as the we would call it.
As I stood in the ruins of the City of Nan Madol, I could not help but wallow on the brimming realization that I was standing where my ancestors had stood before. The feeling was nothing short of proud. I remembered the many times I had heard and read the words ‘island pride’ thrown around in Facebook posts and beaten-down books that everyone overlooked. That moment, however, was summed up in those words. To think that they knew things back then that we do not know now forced me to wonder: “What else have we lost in the creases of time?” I climbed, shimmied, and crossed my way through the ruins. By the end of the trip, the alien sensation of the moment was one to note for life.
WHO WE ARE
“Where the heck is Micronesia?” I have heard that question more than once in my travels. Initially, I had no problem with explaining where I was from through the same dialogue over and over—but at this point I am driven to tell everyone where and who we are. I believe that we are a vital part of the world’s history and should be recognized. “Pohnpei met!” This is Pohnpei—where the land unites and identifies us. Nan Madol is part of the fiber in the twisted lines that tie us all together. Come and see the mystery, revel in the beauty of its enigmatic origins. Beauty does not need to be understood here—just admired. After all, this is Pohnpei, the land of beautiful mysteries.
IN A NEW LIGHT
Having been to Nan Madol before, I was certain that nothing would catch my attention this time around. However, I was completely wrong because I realized that I had grossly underestimated the scale of the city. My initial trip there was brief and admittedly, only for swimming and hanging out with my peers—this time around, I was there to see it in a different light.
The research we had done before the trip exposed us to just how many structures there were in the ancient city. At first, we were told that there were 92 miniature cities composing Nan Madol, and then there were 98, 127, and then back to 96. Then again, that must add to the beautiful mystery. I climbed one of the tall corners of the walls and looked out to see for myself the bits and pieces of a lost civilization.
From there, I had decided to further my exploration all the way out to the edge where I knew the rest of the expedition required a canoe—which I did not have unfortunately. I look forward to another trip, so that I may explore and experience Nan Madol fully.
OUR CITY, OUR IDENTITY
Nan Madol is one of the sites that we can use to describe our home when asked about it. As we travel, the most important part of what we bring with us as Pohnpeians is our identity. I am not talking about passports and IDs—I am talking about US. Many people of different ethnic backgrounds are easily identifiable, whereas, we are often mistaken as Hispanics, Indians or just all around not Pohnpeian. We, as Pohnpeians are different and proudly so. Nan Madol is a symbol of that, and I genuinely believe that when given the chance—the voice of our tiny islands will roar through the world and match the scale of the once colossal and majestic City of Nan Madol.
“Nothing whets the intelligence more than a passionate suspicion, nothing develops all the faculties of an immature mind more than a trail running away into the dark.”
― Stefan Zweig, The Burning Secret and other stories