Tag Archives: Federated States of Micronesia

A CHAT WITH… PAUL WATSON

Paul Watson is a British writer, football coach, and…a very nice guy. He is best known for serving as the manager of Pohnpei State football team. He described his ‘Micronesian experiences’ in a memoir ‘Up Pohnpei: Leading the ultimate football underdogs to glory’. Interested to know more about Paul’s adventure? Read on.

PAUL WATSON

Pasifika Tales: I have to ask… Why Pohnpei? 

Paul Watson: For the silliest of reasons, and quite an embarrassing one. As failed footballers, my flat-mate Matt and I decided we wouldn’t give up on our dream of playing international football and would try and find the lowest ranked international team in the world and get that nationality so we could play for them. Our searching took us to Pohnpei as they had never won a match of any kind. However, we quickly realized that we wouldn’t actually be able to naturalise as Micronesian passports are very hard to get and many Americans who have lived there decades and married Micronesians don’t have them. However, by coincidence the head of the Pohnpei FA had moved to London and when we met him he told us the team had stopped playing and what they really needed was coaching. 

PT: Had you known anything about the Federated States of Micronesia before you went there? 

PW: We did some reading of guidebooks, websites etc., but none of it really sunk in before I was there. This was 10 years ago and there wasn’t that much online about Micronesia. 

PT: So you land in Pohnpei… What’s the biggest shock?

PW: The rain! It’s one thing to read that somewhere has one of the wettest climates in the world, but quite another to experience it! Every time it rained it felt like the world was ending, but the locals didn’t mind at all. It took quite a while to not just accept the rain but come to enjoy it, but I miss it now, especially when I’m in the cold, English rain.

PT: Let’s focus on football for a moment. Can we say that you introduced the game to Pohnpei? How big of a challenge was it? 

PW: I can’t say I introduced football to Pohnpei. The game had been played there for many years on and off, in fact I was told it was introduced by a Ghanaian teacher called Thomas Tetteh back in the 1980s. The man who introduced us to Pohnpei, Charles Musana, had played and coached football on the island for 15 years. The issue was that football was just a small group of people playing informally – what I worked with the keenest local players to do was to create the first ever league and make things more structured. 

PT: Is football still popular in the Federated States of Micronesia? Do you follow it? 

PW: Absolutely! Despite a lack of any FIFA funding, the game continues to grow across Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap thanks to the hard work and dedication of individuals who want to give kids the chance to play the sport. I am still in touch with the guys in Pohnpei and was able to send out a coach called Chris Smith who did some amazing work last year in getting over 400 children playing regularly, introducing football into schools and training teachers so they feel comfortable running football sessions. 

PT: You described your experiences in your book ‘Up Pohnpei’, which I think is fantastic. It is an entertaining and very uplifting memoir. Did you want to show readers that it’s always important to follow your dreams? 

PW: Thank you! I guess the message is that you can follow you dream, however stupid it seems! I will always be glad I went to Pohnpei, even though it was a gamble and certainly left my financial situation difficult for a decade! 

PT: What are some stories or anecdotes that didn’t make it into the book? Could you share one or two?  

PW: A few things didn’t make it into the book but generally to protect the people involved, so still not sure I could tell the stories. One very safe anecdote that dropped out was the 5K Fun Run which I did alongside several of my players. I thought I was doing really well coming up to the final kilometer and then Roger Nakasone, our left-back and the fittest man I’ve ever met, sprinted past me giggling. He’d stopped to chat to some friends en route! That final part of the route everyone accelerated because there were so many dogs that started chasing you! 

PT: What happened after you had left the islands?  

PW: After we left, we left football in the capable hands of our captain and football leader Dilshan Senarathgoda, who visited Chuuk and Yap to run football workshops. The Federated States of Micronesia FA was set up, run by local people and ex-pats, and they put an application in to the East Asian Football Federation. Dilshan left the island to go to study in the US, but his dad, Vasantha, continues to run the game and teach it at the College of Micronesia and our former striker Bob Paul does amazing work training kids, while Steve Finnen and Albert Carlot help run the administrative side. 

PT: Getting back to Pohnpei. What was the biggest life lesson you learnt there? 

PW: I learned so much there, infinitely more than I ever taught anyone. Most of all I learned to take the time to understand different cultures and to respect that their values are different to yours. It may sound obvious, but it took a fair few glugs of sakau to truly embrace that! 

PT: Do you have plans to come back to Micronesia one day?

PW: I’d love to return, but only to visit. The future of the sport depends on local people and they need FIFA to step in to give them the support they need. I’ll always do anything I can to assist with getting there and will continue to try and help other coaches get the chance to experience Micronesia – it truly is a unique and wonderful place.

‘UP POHNPEI: LEADING THE ULTIMATE FOOTBALL UNDERDOGS TO GLORY’ BY PAUL WATSON

‘Up Pohnpei: Leading the ultimate football underdogs to glory’ is Paul Watson’s memoir about coaching the Pohnpei football team.

UP POHNPEI 

Summary 

Paul and Matt have always dreamt about playing international football. But how can you make it into a team when you are not the next David Beckham? Well, the easiest way is to become a citizen of a country with a team bad enough you will get a chance to play. A quick search and… Pohnpei sounds like a winner.

When it soon becomes clear that naturalization may be a little problematic, Paul and Matt decide to search for an alternative option. Coaching? Why not! With little hesitation, the two friends leave cold Britain and head for tropical Micronesia.

With one of the world’s wettest climates, a disastrous football pitch, and a population whose obesity rate is 90 per cent, Pohnpei turns out to be a less than ideal place for football. But with a little bit of will and patience, everything can be achieved.

Review

‘Up Pohnpei’ is an eclectic mix of personal, sports, and travel memoir. You would think these can’t go well together, but I can assure you otherwise. Paul Watson created a very fine combination that will make you laugh, ponder, dream, and believe that you can reach for the stars if you only want to.

There is no denying that this book is about football, or soccer if you prefer. But don’t let this put you off. Yes, the references to this particular sport are probably on every single page, but the story itself is much deeper and much more multi-layered that you would expect.

First and foremost, it shows you that impossible can usually be turned into possible. Recounting his adventure, the author provides us with a high dose of motivation and hope. His own dream, so improbably unrealistic, came true. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t without problems, but he managed to achieve what he had wanted. Inspiring others to adopt this never-give-up attitude seems to be the underlying theme of the memoir. And that’s beautiful, because if we learn to follow our hearts and fulfill our goals and ambitions, then we will be genuinely happy people.

Paul Watson is very straightforward and honest in telling his story. When he describes his fruitless efforts and dozens of small failures, you admire his determination. When he shares his struggles to attract sponsors, you feel his disappointment. When he reveals his longing for his family back home, you understand his pain. You get drawn into his world the minute you start reading the first chapter, because you know it is real. His emotions are on full display, so you quickly get the impression that it’s not Paul Watson – the author of the book, but Paul Watson – my mate whom I’ve known for a very long time.

This shows how talented Paul Watson is as a writer. His wit and sense of humour – which come through on every page – make the memoir a light-hearted yet thought-provoking piece of literature, while his descriptive but not overwhelming style ensures it reads really well.

And where in all this is Pohnpei? The islands (not only Pohnpei) are as vivid as photographs. The author not only depicts the places he had a chance to visit and see, but also – or more importantly – provides insights into the local cultures. He explains various customs and traditions and delights readers with his very own observations. By no means is his account an anthropological study, but it presents quite a few interesting facts about the islands of Micronesia you might not have known.

All in all, if you are looking for an enjoyable, engaging, and uplifting  book, ‘Up Pohnpei’ will be a terrific choice. All the more so if you are a football fan. But I would recommend it most for all those people who tend to forget that everything is about belief. Remember, if you can dream it, you can do it.

‘NEW FLAGS FLYING: PACIFIC LEADERSHIP’ BY IAN JOHNSTONE, MICHAEL POWLES

‘New Flags Flying: Pacific Leadership’ is a book edited by Ian Johnstone and Michael Powles. It documents the political history of fourteen Pacific Island nations.

NEW FLAGS FLYING

Summary

After ruling the Pacific Islands for a hundred years, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA decide to grant independence to most of the states.

The change from being colonial subjects to self-governance turns out to be harder than anyone could have predicted. Local politicians try their best to lead their countries into this new chapter in history. 

Review 

Politics is not an easy subject to broach. It is often mundane and not very ‘accessible’ to an ordinary person not particularly interested in affairs of state and diplomacy. But this book deals with it in the most engaging way possible. Ian Johnstone and Michael Powles created a gripping read you, quite honestly, are not able to put down.

First and foremost, I have to praise the language, which is simple, uncomplicated, and easy to understand. The authors could have used fancy (and rather mystifying) political jargon and inundated us with professional terms and expressions, but then the book wouldn’t be intelligible to all people. It would be a title addressed exclusively to experts. I am glad that Ian Johnstone and Michael Powles chose a different path and decided to aim the volume at general audience who simply would like to familiarize themselves with the political history of the region.

‘New Flags Flying’ provides considerable insights into a time when Pacific Island states were undergoing colossal changes. Recounted by leaders who were a main force in shaping the events, the book is a scrupulously honest depiction of the countries’ journeys to independence or self-government. Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, Tofilau Eti Alesana, John Webb, Sir Tom Davis, Dr Ludwig Keke, HM King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Hon. Young Vivian, Sir Michael Somare, Hon. Solomon Mamalon, Sir Peter Kenilorea, Hon. Bikenibeu Paeniu, Sir Ieremia Tabai, Fr Walter Lini, Kessai Note, John Haglelgam, Sandra Sumang Pierantozzi, Hon. Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, and Dame Carol Kidu share their personal experiences of taking their people into a very uncertain, at least at that time, future. The stories they tell – very emotional and thought-provoking – disclose not only the hopes and ambitions they had but also the struggles they had to face. Because no other part of our globe is more vulnerable to challenges and difficulties than Oceania; just as no other part of our globe demonstrates more resilience and ability to cope than those little islands do.

The interviews are accompanied by comprehensive commentary, background information, chronological summaries of significant events, and old photographs, which make the book even more interesting to delve into.

Now, although the title will be a fascinating read for every person who loves the Pacific Islands, for the Islanders themselves it should be of extra special value, as it contains lessons they can and ought to draw from. Why not use the past to improve the present and shape the future? Pacific policymakers should have this book sitting on their desks.

‘New Flags Flying’ is a great piece of literature. I can only congratulate the editors on the job well done and tell you that their work is definitely worthy of your time and attention. I could not recommend it more!

‘MICRONESIAN BLUES’ BY BRYAN VILA, CYNTHIA MORRIS

‘Micronesian Blues’ is a travelogue-cum-memoir co-authored by Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris. It chronicles Vila’s sojourn in Micronesia, where he worked as a police chief and trainer from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.

MICRONESIAN BLUES

Summary

Having been a street cop for nine years, Bryan feels he needs a little change. So when he hears about a job opening for a law enforcement specialist in Saipan, he just cannot say ‘No’. Training police officers in a tropical paradise… How hard can it be? Well, quite hard, it turns out.

With six different governments, twelve different cultures, and nine different languages Micronesia proves to be a great challenge. But Bryan takes his assignment seriously. Travelling from Yap to the Marshalls, from Kosrae to Palau, he keeps busy teaching the Islanders and absorbing their fascinating way of life. And even the occasional riots or prison escapes can’t ruin his contentment. Because in Micronesia one always finds a reason to smile.

Review

I will start by stating that this is one of the best travel books you’ll ever read. Which is somewhat surprising, because on the surface it looks like just another memoir that describes someone’s experiences in a distant land. In other words, nothing special. But, as the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover (by the way, the cover of ‘Micronesian Blues’ is absolutely gorgeous!). In this case, that is so true.

The travelogue is co-authored by Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris. Well, as a matter of fact, it’s Bryan Vila’s story written by Cynthia Morris. Oh, what a perfect match they are! A match undoubtedly made in heaven. Let me explain why.

As you may imagine, it is never easy to recount another person’s adventures. Achieving someone else’s voice, sharing their point of view, and conveying their message is an incredibly difficult task. And yet Cynthia succeeded. She managed to show Bryan’s personality so well that you quickly forget he’s not the one who actually narrates the story. Everything – from the lively writing style she adopted to fantastic humour to vivid but not overwhelming descriptions – lets you believe you read a book penned by a man who’s been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale. Something like this is impossible to achieve, unless you are a very talented writer. Cynthia Morris definitely is. If it wasn’t for her, ‘Micronesian Blues’ could be just a title in a pile of other titles.

Of course, the book would have never come into existence if Bryan hadn’t decided to take a job somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His adventures and experiences are obviously what make the memoir so immensely interesting. Right from the beginning, he amuses readers with personal anecdotes and little snippets of his daily life in paradise. And he does so with a hefty dose of self-deprecation. You can’t help but appreciate his honesty when he relates his cultural mishaps and misunderstandings that not only make you laugh (hysterically) but most importantly let you understand the complexity of Micronesian cultures.

Speaking of which, I’m not quite sure who’s responsible for cultural context in the book, but the abundance of information regarding local customs, habits, traditions, and beliefs is just phenomenal. You get to know the region as a whole, and then you get to know individual islands. The authors wonderfully delineate the differences between the countries (FSM, the Marshall Islands, Guam, Palau, CNMI) and states (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae), unravelling the peculiarities of each culture. You will be surprised how diverse this lovely part of our globe is. But you can be sure that with a little help from Bryan and Cynthia you will understand it so much better.

Do I recommend ‘Micronesian Blues’? Wholeheartedly! It is a brilliant piece of travel literature that entertains, enlightens, and educates. You will learn a lot. You will laugh. You will enjoy every single second spent with this book in your hands. And then, after reaching the last sentence, you will want to read it again.

A CHAT WITH… JONATHAN GOURLAY

Jonathan Gourlay is the author of a fantastic travel book-cum-memoir called ‘Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia’. Here you can read what he thinks not only about the country but also about his book.

JONATHAN GOURLAY

Pasifika Tales: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you end up in FSM?

Jonathan Gourlay: There are many places to start – causes distant and proximate – that led to ‘ending up’ on Pohnpei. (Is there such a thing as ‘beginning up’? Feels more like that.) The easiest answer is that I saw an ad for teachers at the College of Micronesia – FSM in a magazine when I was stacking the magazine rack at the now defunct Borders book store. It was the 1997 equivalent of a random click off a Twitter-feed. Anyway, I was a recent graduate with a Poetry master’s degree and no real plan for the future. I guess most foreigners who wind up living on Pohnpei for a length of time aren’t doing it as part of some greater scheme that leads to a lucrative career (or, if they are, they have made a miscalculation.) Though I suppose I was a little bit different from other ex-pats in that I didn’t have a clear agenda for being there. I mean, I wasn’t there to convert or help anyone. I understand that it is a bit problematic that I am proud of the fact that my reasons for being on Pohnpei are mysterious even to myself.

PT: How would you describe the country? What are its main characteristics?

JG: I have to stick to the island of Pohnpei, where I lived for eleven years. Though I was exposed to the other island cultures in the Federated States of Micronesia, it would be difficult to describe each one. So, how would I describe Pohnpei? I don’t know. I was paradoxically better equipped to answer that question after being there for two weeks. By the time you spend a decade on a place, every description seems a bit superficial. So… Let’s see… It’s an island…with a really cool fringing mangrove swamp…and a great psychotropic, super-kava drink called sakau…and somehow, when I think of it now, the colors seem more vibrant than regular colors and the tragedy and comedy more extreme and everything is both exciting and boring at once and the whole place is saturated with a kind of magic…except that, of course, it isn’t. It’s just another place you can go.

PT: And how would you describe your book?

JG: The book is called ‘Nowhere Slow’ and it consists of 15 essays, some short, some long. I hope that the book is a ‘deep culture’ kind of book. That is, from the perspective someone who lived within the family and clan structure of the island, who spoke the language pretty well, and who grew gigantic yams on the side of a hill overlooking an ocean bay that was sometimes so blue that it was really some other color than blue. So, the book isn’t a travel narrative. There’s death and sex and marriage and sakau and babies and a guy who actually bit his own finger off, but no hotel recommendations.

PT: Do you think you created an actual portrayal of the islands and their inhabitants?

JG: The book is, I hope, as true to my experience as possible and therefore as clear-eyed a picture of Pohnpeian culture as a mildly-intelligent guy can get in eleven years of living there. Considering the question of ‘actual’ brings us awfully close to a kind of ontological quicksand where the nature of truth is suspect (as it should be) and the right of one observer (me) to portray the truth of a culture is equally suspect (as it also should be). The best I can say is that the book portrays my true experience of the culture.

Certain experiences on Pohnpei may be more likely to happen to me than to someone else. For instance, I love swearing and dirty words and sexual puns. It’s the spice of life! So a lot of my experience in sakau markets on Pohnpei consists of swearing, dirty words and sexual puns. Does that mean that it is ‘true’ that Pohnpeians are particularly enamored of dirty jokes? No. (Though, in my opinion, yes.) All we can realistically say is that juvenile minds tend to congregate together and laugh, whatever the culture.

PT: What’s your favourite memory of that place?

JG: The first thing that comes to mind is my friend Maryallen punching me in the shoulder. She did this often, in a friendly yet firm way. Generally as a response to some idiotic life-choice I had made or one of the aforementioned dirty jokes. Maybe I just miss Maryallen. (By the way, I call her Fingerlynn in the book which is another dirty joke that she would hit me for if she were not 5000 miles away.)

So, Maryallen punching me and probably the birth of my daughter are my favorite memories.

PT: Did you learn anything during your stay in Micronesia?

JG: I’m tempted just to say ‘no’ and leave it at that. But that would be disingenuous and you’re so nice to be asking questions of me. Also, I wrote a short article called ‘What I learned on the island of Pohnpei’ when we launched the book, so I guess I should refer you there.

I suppose the reason I have some reticence about this question is that there is a kind of trope out there that island cultures are super mysterious and maybe more ‘in tune’ with nature or something and therefore have something to ‘teach us’. But this idea seems kind of noble-savage-y and maybe paternalistic. That’s not to say that one doesn’t learn something very valuable from trying to understand other cultures – quite the opposite! I guess I advocate approaching these other cultures as humans from earth rather than some mysterious or more ‘primitive’ creature. Not that you meant the question in this way, of course. So I’ll shut up now.

PT: Would you like to come back there one day?

JG: Yes. When Maryallen is too old to punch very hard.

PT: The Western World vs. Pohnpei – what’s the difference?

JG: Well, it’s all just the world, right? And basically people are living their lives and it’s a great experience to be able to share this life with other people and meet new people and sometimes kiss them or slap them or share a joke or have a conversation.

That’s another dodge. Sorry. I have to warm up to try to answer this question. Accept the following with a grain of salt or a whiskey flask of sea cucumber:

– Western societies have families. Pohnpeians have penenei – that’s between 50 – 5000 people with whom you have a familial relation.

– Western societies have funerals. Pohnpeians have 10-day-long parties.

– Westerners explain actions with psychology. On Pohnpei, shit just happens.

– Westerners barely remember Juice Newton’s hit ‘Queen of Hearts.’ On Pohnpei, groups of young men line dance to it for talent shows.

– Westerners make little orange fries out of yams. On Pohnpei, yams are the size of compact cars.

– Westerners show up at an agreed upon time. Pohnpeians show up when they are supposed to show up.

That’s all I can think of! I’d also love to plug a recent article I wrote that goes some way to addressing this question. The article considers what a Western sailor thought about Pohnpei in the 19th century and compares this to my own similar experience there. The article is called ‘One Small Store’.

‘NOWHERE SLOW: ELEVEN YEARS IN MICRONESIA’ BY JONATHAN GOURLAY

‘Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia’ is a travel book-cum-memoir written by Jonathan Gourlay. This compilation of short stories recounts his adventures in the Federated States of Micronesia.

NOWHERE SLOW

Summary

In 1997, Jonathan travels to the island of Pohnpei to teach English at a local college. Immediately after arrival, he finds himself in an entirely different and quite strange world, where time stands still, sakau flows, Juice Newton’s ‘Queen of Hearts’ is a hit, and one can say ‘masturbation’ in four different ways.

Yet – despite all these oddities – he chooses the country as his adopted home, marries a Pohnpeian woman, and becomes a father of a beautiful baby girl. But the Pacific islands are no paradise. Jonathan quickly learns that there are troubles around the corner, and that as an outsider, you just can’t go completely native.

Review

This is yet another book that is simply too short. Jonathan Gourlay definitely knows how to create an immensely interesting narrative, so it’s a shame you cannot enjoy his tales a little bit longer.

‘Nowhere Slow’ is a memoir. It is also a fantastic travelogue that investigates the country’s culture, customs, and traditions. However, if you imagine this publication to be your ordinary story about one person’s sojourn in a tropical paradise, you are very much mistaken. First of all, it is a collection of essays. Second of all, the organization of chapters is mostly non-linear. The book doesn’t follow the author’s adventures in chronological order. Instead, the tales are arranged thematically, and every chapter revolves around specific subject matter, such as Pohnpeian language, Jonathan’s marriage, or his visits to the feast house. Although you may think otherwise, I can assure you that this unconventional structure doesn’t create any confusion. Actually, it makes the whole thing even more intriguing.

On a par with the excellent composition is the author’s writing style. Gourlay’s sense of humour – and, believe me, it is brilliant – shines through every page. His wit and ability to change even the most mundane, banal topic into an engaging tale is simply astonishing. It is impossible to grow bored while reading his book. It draws you in. Just like that.

Now, it may seem that living in a foreign country for 11 years basically makes you a local. It does. To a certain degree. This account shows how difficult it is to understand other cultures and accept the existing differences. Jonathan got to know the ‘Pohnpeian way of life’, nonetheless he wasn’t able to fully adapt. His essays are a wonderful source of information not only about Micronesia but also about its inhabitants – one can learn quite a lot about this amazing part of our world. It’s fair enough to say that this compilation is a unique portrait of the FSM as seen through the eyes of a ‘local stranger’.

‘Nowhere Slow’ is a thoroughly entertaining book that scores high on all fronts. The story is amusing, compelling, very insightful, and incredibly well written, so you will not regret reading it. There is just one thing you ought to bear in mind: this is not a title for a very young audience.