What I Learned on the Island of Pohnpei

To celebrate the launch of our new ebook Nowhere Slow Jonathan Gourlay shares some lessons learned from eleven years on the island of Pohnpei.


I will never be able to fall asleep on a cement slab. Or comfortably sit cross-legged for any length of time. Most Pohnpeian families have a plastic chair for the elderly or American visitors. Common Pohnpeian chairs: car batteries, overturned buckets, cinder blocks, rocks, and (at least once) my collection of Charles Dickens novels.

In the feast house, try not to get invited onto the platform with the chiefs and leaders. You will be sitting cross-legged for hours and you can only get up to pee when the chief does.

The mildly narcotic pepper-root concoction called sakau is central to Pohnpeian culture and history. If you drink really strong sakau (where the root has aged in the ground for many years) the feeling is like someone has put a gun to your head and told you to relax.

When a Pohnpeian woman is wearing pants, she is ready for a fight. The first move in any girl-fight is to expose the underwear of your adversary. This is worse than breaking bones.

Quick Pohnpeian story: A bus of high school students flips over. Nobody is hurt. Upon returning home, a student tells her parents “Don’t worry, nobody saw my underwear.”

The most difficult question to answer is “Why did you go?” I don’t even have a good fake answer for this: I don’t know. I was only planning to be there for a year. Leave me alone. Why do you do stuff?

Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia is available for Kindle and Nook.

I had never heard of Pohnpei or Micronesia when I came across an ad for the College of Micronesia in the “International Employment Gazette” at Borders. The librarians at the Philly free library had to go deep in the stacks to find me a book on Pohnpei. The book was written by Gene Ashby, a man I would later share an office with for eight years. Gene died in — I can’t remember the year, because time is like that on an island. I miss him.

There’s something so final about leaving the island. It is a kind of death. I feel like a ghost or a dream of the man who lived on the island. That ghost is now sitting in Connecticut, dreaming of the island. I am a ghost twice removed.

To indicate you are laughing in a Pohnpeian-language text or Facebook message, type akakakakak.

The flora of the Pohnpeian jungle is actually preferable to pills when dealing with congestion, fever, diarrhea, constipation, burns, grief, back-pain, jealousy, and boils (to draw out the pus, but not to prevent them.)

It is easier to be a single parent on Pohnpei than it is in America. When you live with an extended family as big as a village, there is always daycare. Your kid may be with a troop of other mostly naked children in the jungle, but she is safe. Just remember to de-worm her regularly.

Once my daughter threw up a six inch worm near the feet of the college’s Biology professor. He was very excited about the specimen.

I had a microwave and an oven, so I provided cakes and popcorn for the village kids. For birthdays, we put a piece of cake in a Styrofoam cup and plopped some ice cream on that. No spoons; just go for it.

You can’t change who you are by moving to Pohnpei. Americans who arrived depressed, alcoholic, wanted for crimes/tax evasion, or failed poets pretty much stayed that way. You can never outrun yourself, I guess.

When we came back to America, my daughter was in second grade. She told her teacher that her favorite food was chicken heart.

One day my wife’s family fed my favorite nephew a cooked dog penis as a joke. It was the kind of thing that would happen on the “joke day” of a ten-day funeral. Also, people will put feces in the sakau water — this may cause a cholera outbreak. That’s how far some people go for a practical joke.

I didn’t like to eat the dogs, but this was mostly because they were disgusting, scraggly, feral, in-bred beasts. They were not pet dogs, OK? On my way to work in the morning, I would often see them on the side of the road stuck, post-copulation, looking like a guilty push-me-pull-you.

The relationship of the U.S. and Pohnpei since WWII has been, basically, colonial. Pohnpeians have been fighting in the U.S. military since Vietnam. My Facebook stream is full of former students taking pics on military bases in Afghanistan.

Pohnpei has some great hand-painted public service billboards. There was a safe sex billboard with a happy condom playing basketball. This condom advised us to “Just Wear It!” Another was an anti-drunk-driving billboard with a car ramming into a house and the words “Stupid Fun!” underneath. One that caught my imagination was a car on a lonely, straight road and the phrase “Marijuana: It’s a one-way road to nowhere.” But Pohnpei’s road are circular — so you always end up where you begin. This is another, less-straight, way of going nowhere. And Pohnpei’s drivers are drunk on sakau, which causes them to drive super slow. So if we were on a road to nowhere in Pohnpei, it was a circular road and we were going nowhere slow.

Anyway, that’s what inspired the title of the ebook you can purchase, download, and enjoy right here.

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.