Nowhere Slow: A Dirty Dictionary

Jonathan Gourlay begins to lose himself at a sakau market on Pohnpei, but is saved by a slap.

My rain-damaged Pohnpeian word journal begins with the word temeh temen or “remember.” I carried this word journal on my nightly outings to the try-me-first sakau market, a ramshackle bar that serves strained and mashed hallucinogenic pepper root at $1 a cup. By the time you’re on your third cup of sakau, the sun has set, the stars are out, the Casio keyboard is set to number 84 country western, the man behind the keyboard is wailing like a castrated goat, and all is well with the world, then your relaxed state of mind will ooze into the rest of the scene: the string of Christmas bulbs snaking up the wooden posts and onto the tin roof of the sakau market are relaxed; the pigs scrounging around in the dirt for mango rinds and cast-off Cheetos are relaxed; the babies in the small store sucking on shrimp chips are relaxed. Everything is happy and at peace. Here are your friends, these grubby farmers, fishermen, teachers and senators. You have just learned four different ways to say masturbation. Life is good. Remember.

Four ways to say masturbation in Pohnpeian:

Suk uh ngehi – means to pound yourself. It is similar to sukusuk, which is to pound sakau root. It is even more similar to sukumahi which is to pound breadfruit. In fact, if you are ever pounding breadfruit it’s best not to discuss it.

Fingerlynn – Roughly all Pohnpeian women’s names end in “lynn” (pronounced “lean”) Jaylynn, Ailynn, Beautylynn, Goodlynn, Badlynn – so if you can’t find yourself a real “lynn” then you have to rely on Fingerlynn.

Kumutina and Kendipina are also proper names. Kumutina is a feminized form of kumu which refers to the palm of your hand. Kendip means to “spit,” so Kendipina refers (for those who need it spelled out) to the spit one might desire to put on one’s kumu were one a man who desired to suk uh ngehi. There is no direct translation for these names, though I would like to suggest “Palmolive” as a possibility.

Sinking into my slow sakau-induced reverie, I contemplate the angelic face of Sweety (well, Sweetylynn, but we just call her Sweety). She’s a young Pohnpeian mother of two with enormous eyes and a face that could adorn the walls of some ancient Egyptian temple built for a god of peace. She isn’t drinking sakau, just sitting on a rock covered with a piece of cardboard in the corner of the market. This is a perfectly comfortable seat to any Pohnpeian, but years of pampering with couch cushions have left me handicapped and unable to sit on rocks. What’s she doing there? Perhaps she’s keeping an eye on her husband who is sitting across the market ignoring her with every fiber of his being.

I note that Sweety is wearing pants. Beware of Pohnpeian women in pants; they are looking for a fight. A common, much feared, move in a fight is to attempt to lift your opponent’s skirt and show the world her underwear. Therefore, a well prepared Pohnpeian woman wears pants for fighting.

The sakau market faces the road, for entertainment’s sake. Most of the sakau markets in Kitti, the chiefdom where I live in Pohnpei, face the road. The road, or at least the pavement, is new and interesting to us. Other chiefdoms prefer to contemplate the jungle or the ocean, but here in Kitti we prefer the fascination of the road. For instance, a large woman in a bright red muumuu is now slowly shuffling the overgrown blacktop. She is as solid as an oak. Her steady, slow, bobbing walk reminds me of a sailboat far away at sea.

A wiry farmer, Soum, begins to teach me about types of bananas. Soum is not his name, it’s his traditional title. I’m not sure what his name is, but he is one of many Soums that I know. He writes puhl maht or “boiling banana.” in my notebook and tells me to pronounce it over and over again. He wants me to ask our sakau server for some. I hate boiling banana. Boiling bananas taste like chalk and are quite distinct from the more familiar “edible banana.” The thing is that you have to boil them before you can even entertain the notion of masticating them. Still, I like to entertain Soum, so I ask for some. The sakau market server, a high school girl, looks like she wants to scratch my eyes out when I ask her for boiling banana. Then she cracks up. When I say puhl maht, you see, it sounds like wuhl maht or “stinky dick.” I just asked for a plate of stinky dick. Hilarious. I instruct Soum that “What’s up bouncy bouncy?” is a formal American greeting.

Can any observer be impartial? Does the very act of observing change the behavior of the observed? Was Margaret Mead projecting her own repressed sexual fantasies onto those she thought to be primitive others or are the Samoans she made famous really free-loving partner-swapping sexual adventurers?

The woman in the red muumuu sails near us. She smiles at us. Her teeth are a vivid mix of gold caps and red betel-nut stains. Without warning, Sweety leaps from her rock and jumps on the woman. She scratches her face. The woman screams and topples over into the tall grass with a painful thud. Viewed through a sakau-haze, the fight is abstract and bizarrely distant.

It occurs to me that I ought to do something. Then it occurs to me that this is not my culture. When it serves my needs, I try to play the Not My Culture card. I have lived here for ten years, married here, had children here, killed pigs here, grown yams here… the name I am known by, Souwel, is a title from the clan that lives in a gorgeous piece of swamp and jungle and mountain called Pwudoi… but when the fighting starts, I want to become an Outsider.

There are no more screams, but a lot of labored grunts and whacks. The wailing keyboard music stops. None of us in the sakau market jumps up to aid the fat middle-aged lady in the red muumuu who is about to have her underwear exposed to the world and who is likely permanently scarred by Sweety’s sharp nails. I glance around, waiting for someone to take charge, hoping not to get involved. Soum stands up and yells at the two grown women tussling in the grass. He’s a high-titled person, leader of a kousop or clan. The fact that he is here witnessing this is suddenly very embarrassing for the younger men, especially Sweety’s brothers. They walk over to the fight and pull Sweety off the larger woman. Sweety does not resist. Apparently, she’s made her point.

The bloody and shaking woman begins to yell at Sweety. Luckily I have my dirty dictionary, so I catch a lot of the great invective being spewed. Mostly it has to do with the size and cleanliness of Sweety’s genitalia. I learn a new word that means, roughly, “the state of being fixated on someone’s underwear.”

“Sweety did the right thing,” Soum whispers to me, when things have quieted down a bit.

Sweety’s father, who is well into his Viagra years, has been running around with the big lady in the red muumuu. They were seen driving down the road together in his pick-up, in broad daylight, with her sitting in the passenger’s seat as if she belonged there instead of his current wife, Sweety’s mother. The problem is not that he’s having an affair, but that he is doing it wrong. He’s not sneaking around as he should be. It’s insulting. People are talking. So Sweety put on pants, sharpened her nails, and did the moral thing. Her attack is a way of telling her father, without confronting him, to give his affairs a semblance of secrecy.

The fight has scared away my relaxed sakau feeling. I am seeing things far too clearly and crave the fuzzy, distant feeling of being sakau-drunk. My little blue journal of useful words is inadequate armor to keep Pohnpei at a distance. I have no missionary zeal or anthropological interest to carry me through this night, no agenda to comfort me: I’m here to collect data or I’m here to bring the Good Word.

I’ve literally ingested this place, drank its dirt, gone as far as I could into into its culture. Scratches and skirt pulling my new normal. Two grown women fighting on the side of the road has become the moral thing, the right thing. My former self, with its strange, foreign notions of right and wrong, has slunk away like an eel into the swamp. I am Souwel. And I have built Souwel out of the words of a dirty dictionary. Those lurid scribbles are who I am now. Rather than an agenda or an armor to protect my old self, the words are a destructive force; they have shattered the distance between observer and observed.

Souwel,” calls Soum. “Have a slap with me.”

“Slap” is slang for a shot of cheap rum. A slap is the perfect thing to put us right.

“I need more than a slap, I need a punch,” I say. Everyone laughs.

I buy a bottle of Tanduay “rhum” from the Phillipines and pour two shots into plastic cups.

I hold the glass up and toast: “Get on top of me!” Soum taught me that toast. It’s not a real toast, it’s just something Soum thinks is funny.

The keyboard player launches into the next high-pitched song. I like this song. It’s the one about the tree in the mangrove swamp that looks fine on the outside but is rotting on the inside. It’s about being in love with an unattainable woman or maybe it’s about being afflicted with tuberculosis. I can’t quite translate it. Still, it’s the perfect song.

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.