Bryan Vila spent six years working as a police chief in Micronesia. His experiences and adventures are vividly described in the book he co-authored with his lovely wife, Cynthia Morris. Bryan and Cyn were kind enough to answer a few questions regarding the Pacific Islands, ‘Micronesian Blues’, and their plans for the future.
Pasifika Tales: Training police officers in Micronesia sounds like a dream job for a former LA street cop. Did it turn out to be your dream job?
Bryan Vila: Living and working in Micronesia did turn out to be my dream job, but not at all in the way I’d been expecting.
After Vietnam, and then nine years working some of the toughest beats in L.A., it’s easy to become cynical. You see so much brutality, so many awful things that people do to each other, and you start to feel like nothing you do can make things better – so why try? But I’ve always been an optimist, so I was determined not to let cynicism win.
Micronesia certainly wasn’t paradise – it had its problems, just like anyplace else on the planet. But I regained my connection to humanity in Micronesia. Unlike the anonymity of urban policing, I got to know people, become a part of their communities, and finally feel like I was making a difference.
Living and working in Micronesia gave me back my optimism and my belief that even one person can bring about change. The lessons I learned about community policing there have stayed with me and influenced nearly every aspect of my work – first as a federal law enforcement officer and then as a professor for the past 25 years – since I left Micronesia.
PT: What had you been expecting before you boarded the plane?
BV: Ha! I remember having this ridiculous notion that my then-wife and I would be able to travel from island to island together by sailboat as I did my job. Of course, as soon as I got there and realized how enormously far apart the islands are, that dream was dead in the water (bad pun intended).
More generally, I initially viewed the job as a ‘paid vacation in paradise’. This idea got shot down on my second day in Micronesia, when a group of Chuukese police officers I was supposed to be helping to train almost killed me.
Other than that, I don’t recall having many expectations at all – just the excitement of a new adventure, which I’ve always loved. It was 1978. There wasn’t any Internet back then, and very little information about Micronesia was available at the library, so I couldn’t just look things up. That didn’t bother me at all – sometimes the very best adventures are the ones where you have no idea what to expect.
I went to Micronesia with an open mind, and a desire to learn. I think that’s the most important thing anyone can do when experiencing a new culture – or cultures, in my case.
PT: Ok, let’s get back to the day you arrived in Micronesia. Your initial thought?
BV: Hmm. I took the Island Hopper, which was an Air Micronesia Boeing 727 with reinforced landing gear. And when you took the Island Hopper, you didn’t just ‘arrive in Micronesia’. You stopped at island after island – Johnston, Majuro, Kwajalein, Pohnpei, Chuuk, Tinian – until you reached your final destination, which in my case was Saipan. Most of the runways were paved with crushed coral back then, so the landings were rough. We’d often land so hard the oxygen masks would fall down and the overhead storage bins would pop open.
It was all a bit surreal, especially because I’d been traveling so long by the time I got there that I was loopy with jet lag. On most of the islands, we’d have about an hour on the ground so I’d get out to stretch and take a look around. It was the middle of the night most of the time we were flying, but there were still people waiting to greet their loved ones with leis and mar mars everywhere we landed. I can remember watching them all curiously, listening as they spoke in languages I couldn’t begin to understand, and relishing the edge of a new adventure.
When I finally got to Saipan, I was surprised by the combination of incredibly beautiful natural scenery and the stark contrast of dilapidated man-made structures, most of them made of concrete or rusting metal. It looked pretty disreputable at first to an outsider, but after you’ve lived in the tropics for a while, you learn that there are three main colors there: blue, green, and rust.
I was also fascinated by the World War II relics – old tanks and fighter planes and bunkers and landing craft – scattered all over the island, since my dad had fought and almost died on Saipan during World War II.
But mostly, I remember that I really wanted a shower and a nap, and was relieved to get to the house where I’d be staying for the next couple of weeks. I didn’t even mind that the water that trickled out of the showerhead was red with rust…
PT: How difficult was it to adapt to so many different cultures?
BV: (Chuckles.) Well, I soon learned to apologize in nine different languages, if that gives you any idea. You can’t help but screw up when you’re trying to figure out 12 different cultures all at once.
But I loved that about Micronesia. I mean, imagine how boring Europe would be if all the countries were alike. The different cultures and languages are what make each island unique. Learning those languages, and participating in the culture, is what allows you to connect with people and become an ‘insider’. And insiders, not outsiders, make the most difference in any community.
So I learned the languages – or at least enough to get by. And I participated in the cultures. When the Pohnpeians drank sakau, I drank sakau. When the Yapese chewed betel nut, I chewed betel nut. I held hands with my burly cops on Kosrae, because that was the custom there, and I shook hands with as hard a grip as I could muster on Chuuk.
One of my most appalling early screw-ups was on Yap. I was doing firearms training for the police officers there and thought I’d lighten the mood with a well-timed fart. I had seen people laugh themselves sick over a fart on Pohnpei, so I thought everyone would laugh and it would relieve a little tension all around. But I was completely wrong. On Yap, farting was considered seriously rude.
Another time on Pohnpei, I was invited to one of my local co-worker’s homes for dinner. When it came time to eat, they served me a whole boiled chicken on a plate, along with a huge chunk of yam. Then everyone watched and nodded and smiled as I ate. I was thinking that it would be rude not to finish it all, and I did my best but I just couldn’t do it. When I finally handed what little was left on the palm-leaf plate back to my host, she passed it on to the next person to eat. I was mortified when I realized that I had just eaten most of a dinner that had been meant for the entire family!
PT: Speaking of cultures. Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Palau, The Marshall Islands, Guam. Different islands, different folkways. How would you describe each of these places in a few sentences?
BV: It’s hard to sum up the differences in a few sentences, but I’ll try.
Let’s see. On Yap, people were quiet and reserved. They spoke softly and tended to jump at loud noises. Yapese villagers valued their peace so much that right after the dirt roads were graded each month, they’d go out and dig big potholes so people would have to drive more slowly. Yap was one of the most traditional of all the islands, so many men on Yap still wore the traditional loincloth, called a ‘thu’, and many women went topless.
On Palau, people tended to be extremely forthright. I would often join in on heated political debates at a beachside bar called ‘The Cave’ at night. For the most part, they were all in good fun – Palauans love a good argument. Stateside clothes were more the norm on Palau. I think many Americans would feel most at home on Palau, because the culture is more familiar than on the other islands.
On Chuuk, people greeted each other with crushing handshakes and the men tended to be tough and hard-drinking, despite the fact that the women had recently voted in prohibition when I was there (they scheduled the vote on payday Friday, when the men were drunk). Chuuk was also home to Xavier High School, where most of Micronesia’s new leaders had been educated by Father Fran Hezel. He was a wonderful force for thoughtful change in Micronesia.
On Pohnpei, the people were warm and welcoming. One thing that set Pohnpei apart from the other islands was sakau, a kava-like drink that plays an important role in Pohnpeian culture. Sakau ceremonies are used to honor people, for negotiations, to settle disputes, and other reasons. You can try sakau at a sakau bar or at the local cultural center, but I don’t think you’ll really understand the significance of it until you’ve participated in a local ceremony. In fact, Cyn and I chose to end the Kindle version of ‘Micronesian Blues’ with an informal local sakau ceremony on a remote hillside, because we felt it so strongly captured the feel and beauty and communal nature of Micronesian life.
In the Marshalls, people tended to avoid conflict. It’s important to be peaceful when you live on a low, flat, crowded atoll with people you’ll know all your life. But that doesn’t mean they’re meek; they’ve done a good job standing up for themselves for the past 40 years or so. They’re determined and stalwart.
Of course, when most people think of Guam and Saipan they probably think of World War II, since those islands played such a strategic role in the Pacific theater. There were still World War II relics all over Saipan back when I was there – and probably still are. The indigenous people of Guam and Saipan – the Chamorros – welcomed progress, but they also worked hard to preserve their unique blend of cultural heritages. Since the time of Magellan in the 16th century, they’ve absorbed different aspects of Spanish, Japanese, and U.S. culture. But they’re still very much their own people. I lived on Saipan for six years and loved it, although I spent about three weeks of every month ‘wheels up’, traveling all over the region.
Kosrae was the most communal, and most religious, of all the islands. Religion pervaded life there – I couldn’t even swim in the lagoon on a Sunday, because it was against custom. People would come over to my house to sit with me – even if we couldn’t communicate more than a few words to each other – just to keep me from being lonely. When I first got there, it was difficult to get used to, but I soon found myself enjoying being part of such a close-knit community. I especially loved participating in the communal singing – or maybe I should say ‘trying to sing’. Kosraeans have lovely, lilting, high-pitched voices, and I have this deep baritone voice, so it was always pretty funny when I joined in. I’d try to copy their tone, and end up sounding like a cross between Julia Child and Tiny Tim!
PT: Where did you feel most ‘at home’?
BV: That’s easy. Kosrae. It’s funny that I ended up feeling that way, because at first I had found the strong religious presence and all the togetherness on Kosrae to be a little overwhelming.
But as I learned the language and the culture, the very togetherness I had initially found so alien and uncomfortable turned into a real sense of belonging.
We had a strong sense of community on Saipan – but it was mostly among the expatriates who worked there. We were sort of a community within a community. On Kosrae, I had begun to feel like part of the extended island family, and I enjoyed that.
I could’ve stayed – the Kosraeans had offered me land to stay there, which was very unusual as a foreigner. And there have been many times when I wish I had stayed on in Kosrae and lived in peaceful, uncomplicated tranquility. But my wife at the time was eager to get back to her job and her friends on Saipan, and I had a job to get back to, too. So we went back to Saipan on schedule. But I still think of Kosrae often and miss it.
PT: Now, the islands of the Pacific are often portrayed as paradise. But, as we all know, even paradise is not crime free. What did you have to deal with?
BV: More than I ever expected, that’s for sure. People are people, wherever you go, and sometimes people behave badly – very badly.
My first day on Kosrae, for example, I was confronted with a rape that had just taken place. Two young Kosraean men had raped two American Peace Corps women, and the Americans were understandably furious. To make matters worse, it turned out that one of the suspects was the younger brother of the deputy police chief, so the cops had been too embarrassed to do anything about it yet. I explained to them that we had to treat everyone the same, and I think it helped to have an outsider come in and make that call. We went and arrested both young men, who were tried and convicted under Kosrae’s new rape laws, which were based on the California and Oregon penal codes.
A while later on Pohnpei, a group of prisoners broke out of the local jail, shot the jailer in the back, stole the police jeeps and weapons, and then went to the local radio station, which they mistook for the island communication station, and shot and killed the DJ. I was on Saipan when it happened, and put together a ‘posse’ to go out and take care of things. But by the time we were able to get there, the Pohnpei police had the situation pretty much under control. All but one of the suspects was in custody, and one had been shot and killed when he opened fire on the Pohnpeian cops.
Another time, one of the magistrates on a small outer island of Chuuk and his family ran amok. They had been terrorizing the people on their island for a long time – raping and torturing and such – and eventually killed a 14-year-old boy in broad daylight in front of many witnesses. Everyone on the island was too afraid of them to do anything about it, so we went in and arrested them all. I have to admit I was pretty scared of them too, based on the stories we’d heard, but it turned out they weren’t nearly as fierce or as well-organized as everyone thought. It felt really good to be able to put those guys behind bars and restore peace to the island.
PT: Quite a few stories appear in your book, ‘Micronesian Blues’. When did you come up with this idea: ‘Oh I want to write about my experiences in the Blue Continent’?
BV: I’ll let Cyn, who actually wrote the majority of the book, answer that question…
Cynthia Morris: I remember the exact moment when the idea hit me. Bryan and I were friends at the University of California, Irvine, back when he was a new professor and I worked as a science writer there. One afternoon over coffee he said, ‘One of these days I’ll have to tell you about my experiences training cops in Micronesia’.
As a writer, I was completely intrigued, but we were both too busy to talk about it any further for a long time after that. In fact, I don’t think the subject came up for another two or three years, after we were married.
We would go for long walks along the beach near our house with a tape recorder on, and Bryan would share his stories from Micronesia with me. Pretty soon, I had boxes and boxes of tapes about his experiences in Micronesia to go along with the boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings, photos, and other memorabilia he had saved from his time there.
It was still several years after that until I finally was able to transcribe all the notes from our talks and start to put the story together. By the time I was finished, I knew I had something really special on my hands, because ‘Micronesian Blues’ is more than just a collection of funny tales from a remote part of the world. Bryan gained a great deal of cross-cultural knowledge and understanding during his six years in Micronesia, and his willingness to participate in local culture wherever he went serves as a great blueprint for people living and working in foreign lands. And, at the risk of embarrassing Bryan, I’d say that ‘Micronesian Blues’ is also a touching, beautiful story of a man who became whole again in a faraway land.
PT: I must say that your book is thoroughly engaging, highly amusing, immensely entertaining, and very thought-provoking. But it is definitely too short! Do you have any plans to write a sequel? If yes, when can we expect it to be released?
CM: Thank you! Bryan’s experiences really are pretty amazing, aren’t they? And this is just a small portion of his life story…
We actually do have plans to tell more of his story, and quite soon. We can’t say any more about it just yet, but a very exciting project is in the works.
PT: Will Bryan Vila ever come back to Micronesia?
BV: Absolutely! I’m looking forward to visiting again, hopefully sometime soon. I still have several good friends who live in Micronesia, and we keep in touch when we can. It would be good to see them again, and to see how much Micronesia has changed in the years since I was last there.