A Friendly Paradise in Micronesia

Even Japanese troops
couldn't bring themselves
to wipe out Kosrae

Story and photos by ROBERT W. BONE

The mountain range here is known as the Sleeping Lady..

KOSRAE, FSM -- Is there any place in the world today where you can visit a languid, unspoiled tropical paradise, where friendly, honest people live happily on what they produce, and where strangers are universally welcomed as friends?

Maybe not, but if there any destination that comes close to that kind of Elysium, it is this 42-square-mile dollop in the Eastern Pacific, one of the group of islands now under the political umbrella of the Federated States of Micronesia.

No one has yet found the treasure buried here more than 100 years ago by the notorious American pirate, "Bully" Hayes. Nevertheless, some try every year. And in this diver's paradise, many also descend to the wreck of Hayes' ship which was wrecked in the main harbor in 1874.

Today Kosrae's population of 6,000 or so manages to enjoy life without benefit of things like television, cell phones, or ATM machines. It does have some electricity and a modicum of regular telephones. As for bathrooms, facilities are at least flush, if not plush.

There are also few taxis, but that's not a problem. Just begin walking and someone will stop to offer you a free ride farther down the road.

Kosrae (pronounced vaguely "kosher rye") is also easy enough to reach, flying west of Honolulu on the island-hopper jet service of Continental Air Micronesia. Over the vast watery distances southwest of Hawaii, are groups of islands spoken of collectively as Micronesia. Many of these are flat, rather mundane coral atolls -- stepping stone anchorages such as Kawajalein and Johnston Islands, which have proven useful mainly as tiny U.S. military outposts.

Kosrae is the first "high island" to be encountered on such a route, a heavily-foliaged and extremely fertile mountainous volcanic place, whose three harbors served as welcome havens to Pacific wanderers in the nineteenth century.

It was known then, and is still popularly called, the "Island of the Sleeping Lady," because of a mountainous silhouette which seems to depict a supine woman blessed with rather prominent breasts.

In modern times, Kosrae has been internationally known mainly to dedicated divers, avid fishermen and the international community of wandering yachtsmen. It has also welcomed a few archeologists, anthropologists, naturalists and other academics who have found a culture and an eco-system worth studying and preserving.

But the island elders are now also looking to promote tourism. The fact that this is still a nascent industry, of course, will mean to many that now is the better time to go.

Kosrae's popularity with outsiders goes back to the 19th century, when members of the Yankee whaling fleet found the Sleeping Lady's amiable population and pleasant topography a welcome destination for rest and relaxation.

International pirates and American missionaries also found it fertile ground. More success was ultimately enjoyed by the latter. In a few short years, they managed to convert almost the entire population to Congregationalism, a church that remains dominant on the island today.

Don't look for any nightlife on Kosrae, either -- at least nothing beyond the Thursday night dinners at the Kosrae Village Resort. Children of the island often show up there to perform native songs and dancers for the diners. Otherwise the best entertainment is provided at church, where islanders sing old hymns in wonderful multipart harmony.

Kosraens speak their own language in daily life, but  English is required in schools, and most of the population knows it reasonably well.

When the first western explorers visited Kosrae, they found it ruled by a king who was honored by a group of loyal subjects. But it was apparent that this was a recent society, since there were some mysterious and sophisticated ruins giving evidence of a much more ancient and more sophisticated civilization.

The shoreline Ruins of Lelu are still in existence today and are now being carefully spruced up for the benefit of both scientists and casual romanticists who want to speculate on what life was like on the island several centuries ago.

Another set of ruins, less delineated and so far less well maintained, can be found after a long hike in the mountains. The Menke Ruins are said to be the center of the worship of the Goddess Sinlaku, whose word was law before the American missionaries came.

Today those who enjoy hikes will like the one through the rain forest to the Menke Ruins. But if you come expecting to find much evidence of any sophisticated construction, better save your experience for the more well-preserved and better documented ruins of Lelu. The rough Menke hike involves fording a meandering stream at least five times. On the other hand, the variety of tropical foliage and wild fruit found along the way will be more than enough compensation for the dedicated eco-tourist.

A natural experience all can enjoy is the outrigger canoe ride through the peaceful mangrove channels of Kosrae. These water highways cut through the forest of leaves and roots in ancient times, and they still can be safely navigated today.

Now part of the Kosrae Marine Park, the canals provide a guided experience through a world of seven different types of mangroves and other dense vegetation that grows along its edges. At low tide, one mangrove channel is an ideal method to visit the isolated village of Walung. A charming throwback to an earlier age, Walung refuses to have streets or any road connecting it to other parts of Kosrae.

At one point on the trip, you'll see a separate islet seemingly populated by hundreds of noddy terns. If your guide is Madison Nena, he will explain that the terns chose  this island to lay their eggs because it is far enough away from land to keep the monitor lizards from eating their young.

The monitor lizards, introduced by the Japanese, run up to six feet in length. They are supposedly harmless to humans, unless, as Madison says, you insult them! The reptiles were imported in an attempt to eliminate rats, but stayed to decimate several species of ground-nesting birds.\

The Japanese occupied Kosrae for several years prior to World War II. During the War, the allies bombed and successfully thwarted an attempt to build a military airfield, and in truth there was no airport at all on Kosrae until 1980! (Seaplanes used to come in occasionally in the harbor.)

Allied invasion plans were eventually discarded. However in one incident, an American frogman delivered by submarine managed to sneak ashore, steal a Japanese code, and then blow up a military radio station. The frogman was depicted by James Garner in the 1959 film "Up Periscope," now occasional seen as a TV rerun.

The remains of the radio station are still evident on the beach, a topsy-turvy curiosity available for casual exploration. Other evidence of Japanese occupation can be seen in several places throughout the island.

The civilian Japanese who occupied the island also fell under the amiable spell of the locals. Near the end of the war, and despite the shortage of food, they defied orders from Tokyo calling for the massacre of all the indigenous population. On the designated day, the local Japanese mixed in with the crowds of Kosraeans, frustrating the intent of military machine gunners who ultimately gave up the plan.

This "massacre that didn't happen" is still celebrated as a state holiday in Kosrae.

At high tide, some trees on Kosrae appear to be growing in the ocean, a possible effect of rising sea levels.  

This travel piece appeared in several publications:

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