Tag Archives: Pohnpei

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.

‘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.