THE TRUK ISLANDER, a 95-foot long copra and supply ship, pulled slowly away from the Weno dock to begin its journey to a group of atolls 180 miles west of the Chuuk Lagoon. There, at last, I would begin my Peace Corps assignment. I would start teaching school, something I’d never done before. I would live the whole time without electricity or plumbing, something I’d never done before. I would go shirtless and wear the brief one-piece loincloth traditional to the Central Carolines, something I’d never done before. And I promised myself I would whatever it took definitely learn to speak the language. Learning to speak a foreign language was also something I’d never done before despite four years of French classes in high school and college.
As the dock receded I waved to the three friends who had come to see me off, Volunteers waiting for another ship to take them to their islands. I had been on Weno, at that time called Moen, a vestige of some 19th century explorer’s mistake, for about two weeks. Weno had all the charm of a ramshackle but lively frontier town. Pick-up taxis with people piled in the back wove their way through pot-holed roads past quaint and musty stores in corrugated tin buildings with some inventory items that probably hadn’t been handled, or dusted, since first put on the shelves years ago. It had been an interesting couple of weeks. Weno at least had power and some plumbing. There were restaurants and stores with cold drinks, a few make-shift movie theaters, and several tacky bars that were best avoided. Most of the Peace Corps and ex-Peace Corps who had stayed in country, along with other Americans who found themselves in what was then called Truk, another mistake in transliteration, preferred places like the tin-covered-by-thatch roofed Maramar Hotel. It had a breezy, comfortable, screened-in restaurant where one could have a reasonably decent breakfast or lunch and look past the coconut trees to the broad Chuuk Lagoon, pretending the rusting hulk of a ship in the view was a war relic when it actually was some fishing boat run aground in a storm in the ’50s or ’60s. “Is that Somerset Maugham at the next table?”
Then there was the language. Chuukese was everywhere because well of course that was their language and in the 1970s, that’s just about all anybody spoke. We had spent ten weeks on the Big Island of Hawaii in training. The language portion for the training had been good. Four hours every morning of intense immersion, no English allowed. But in the end, we arrived in Chuuk with only a starting point. Actually learning to speak and understand would be up to each Volunteer. It was hard to get used to the sound of Lagoon Chuukese. Choppy and often spoken in a quasi-falsetto, it was hard for us to make sense of it. Then there was that thing with the Ns and Ls. The people of Chuuk could not pronounce the L-sound. It wasn’t used in their dialect, and when speaking English their Ls sounded like Ns. Outer islanders however, who spoke different dialects, had no trouble saying Ls.
THE TRUK ISLANDER headed for the Northeast Pass out of the huge Chuuk Lagoon, a 40-mile wide expanse with several mountain-tops poking up out of the sea all surrounded and enclosed by a single barrier reef. Physically, it was beautiful. In the bright tropical sun the greens of the islands and blues of the water were overpowering. As we slid along the Weno shore with the island of Fefen dropping off to port, the engines thumped reassuringly somewhere in the bowels of the ship and the smell of diesel mixed with the fresh salt air. Yes, I was off to my great adventure.
It took about an hour to reach the pass. We slipped out between the two flat reef islands on either side and headed into open ocean. The swells weren’t too bad, but it was easy to tell we were no longer in a lagoon. By the tim, dusk was approaching and I watched the mountain tops of the lagoon islands turn grey and shrink lower on the horizon.
The passengers consisted of only one Polowat family returning home to the island where I would be stationed, and a strange Lagoon Chuukese girl going out to one of the other islands on the ship’s itinerary.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was riding deck passage. I had purchased a pandanus sleeping mat, but there was scant room on the ship’s fan tail for it. Besides, the Polowat family was there and had practically made a tent from a sheet to help keep out the wind. I don’t think I even thought much about where or how I would sleep. I had been too busy enjoying the experience and watching the scenery.