Unspoiled Kosrae: Micronesian island near the end of the world

05/10/2014 12:00 AM

05/08/2014 4:08 PM

The sun came up behind the mangrove trees, a brilliant orange-pink that spread across the sky. And right on time, at 5:30 a.m., the birds started calling — a melodic chaos of chirps, whistles and singsong cries so loud they almost drowned out the crashing surf just yards from my front door.

Morning in Kosrae, Micronesia.

But you’ve never heard of Kosrae — right?

Probably because if you have gone to Micronesia at all, you’ve headed for Kosrae’s better-known neighbors, Guam, Palau, Yap and Chuuk (Truk).

And that is exactly why Kosrae is special. It’s unspoiled, untouched, its reefs undamaged. It’s the kind of place you say, “Gee, wish I had gone there 20 years ago.” Except, 20 years ago is now.

There’s a story from World War II that says it all. At the end of the war, when the occupying Japanese forces were ordered to kill the locals, the soldiers warned them instead, then mingled with them so nobody would consider shooting.

Wander into someone’s yard and you risk being invited to dinner, or at least being showered with food to take home. Even the feral cats here are friendly.

Kosrae (pronounced ko-shrye) is the easternmost of the 607 islands dotted across a million square miles of ocean that make up the Federated States of Micronesia (called simply FSM). It truly is in the middle of nowhere — 2,800 miles southwest of Hawaii, 1,500 miles east of Guam and a scant five degrees north of the Equator.

Though many islands in this part of the world are flat atolls, Kosrae has tall, serrated mountains and looks like a mini Hawaii or Tahiti. It’s tiny, shaped like a triangle and barely 15 miles across at its widest.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to reach — nine hours on the United Airlines “island hopper” jet from Hawaii. But remoteness is what preserves Kosrae’s charm.

You don’t come here to lie on the beach. There isn’t much, frankly. And you don’t come to do the latest pseudo adventure. There are no zip lines, no steep downhill bike rides. Or to shop. There’s not a single craft shop on the island. What you do here is scuba dive, immerse yourself in the culture and meet the locals.

There is more than enough here to keep visitors busy, ranging from hikes and fishing to visiting a clam farm and the Kosrae museum and, always, snorkeling and scuba along with my favorite, sampling the intriguing island food.

“The local women are out hunting slugs. Would you like to see?” an island friend asked me a day or two after I had arrived.

Game to try just about anything that is not still moving, I figured, sure, why not?

It was low tide and the two-inch deep water seemed to spread forever, studded with coral rocks that had been worn smooth by countless waves.

Louisa Musrasrik was already part way out to a rise where the coral rocks, when submerged, form a shallow reef. The islanders walk these reefs from the time they are toddlers, so she, at 66, was sure-footed.

By the time I caught up, she had already found half a dozen round, shallow, cone-shaped critters that sure didn’t look like any slugs I knew, but could be easily pried from the rocks with your fingers.

“I cut them into tiny pieces and boil them for a long time. You need a crab, also, for flavor. Then I add coconut cream and a bit of salt,” Louisa said. “Come back this afternoon and you can eat some.”

And five hours later, I did, indeed, return to a pot of creamy broth studded with tiny bits. They were a bit chewy but tender, like bites of calamari, and thoroughly infused with the flavor of the coconut.

In my further search for tidbits barely out of the ocean, I ate clams on the half shell, sponge innards, crab and, of course, fish.

But the best meal I had all week was something that looked to me a bit like yellowtail snapper and is what locals call “rabbitfish.” It had just been caught in a net. The cook at Kosrae Village Ecolodge pan fried it and served it with slices of lime.

Double, no, triple yum.

I was staying at Kosrae Village, with its nine traditional palm thatch cottages just feet from the ocean. When I mentioned to part-owner Katrina Adams how surprised I was to find a decent, paved road on the island, she said the 29 miles of paved roads were built with money from the United States. In 1979, Kosrae, along with three nearby islands, formed the Federated States of Micronesia. Eight years later Micronesia and the United States implemented a Compact of Free Association that gave the U.S. military access in exchange for money.

Kosrae’s share bought badly needed new roads along with some questionable things like an addiction to soda pop and potato chips. The island does not have the highest rate of obesity and diabetes in the Pacific, as has been incorrectly reported, but fat children and diabetes do exist.

The original compact grant is in its downsized second phase, leading to a scramble for new income. Enter the push for tourism.

But still, it’s not like the place is overrun. Kosrae, with a population around 7,500, averages 1,000 tourists (not counting business visitors) a year. It could comfortably handle twice that in its 33 resort hotel rooms.

Of course, during my week, I went scuba diving. Someone once said, “If Fiji is the soft-coral capital of the world, then Kosrae is the hard-coral capital.”

Indeed, the coral here is special. I floated in water so clear you could see a boat 150 feet away. In crystal shallows, I skimmed blankets of antler coral, huge brain coral studded with multicolor Christmas tree worms, anemones with clownfish the size of my hand (the largest in this part of the Pacific) and six-foot-tall pink pillars that the locals call “castle coral.”

Honestly, I haven’t seen hard coral this healthy since the best of the Caribbean in the early ’70s.

During the rest of my week on the island, I drank kava, had a hand-sewn skirt made for $35, hiked through a primeval looking forest of giant Ka trees (the hardwood used locally to make canoes) and more. But one of the neatest experiences was church.

Going to Sunday church services on Kosrae is quite special.

The church in the village of Tafunsak is large, with cool, white floors and high ceilings. Women sit on the left, men on the right. The service, in the lilting Kosraen language, is punctuated by singing — high-pitched chorals from women in white lace dresses, answered by soft tenors from the men.

It’s that choral singing that you don’t want to miss.

Virtually everyone on the island belongs to the Congregational Church, whose services are little changed from those performed by founding missionaries in 1852.

For the missionaries, the time was right. Disease introduced by pirates had decimated the population and the locals were more than ready for change. So, the day of rest is taken seriously here. Men must swim wearing shirts, women in skirts. There can be no work that breaks a sweat, which means, among other things, no cooking.

And that leads to Sunday Soup — a tasty porridge of rice or breadfruit, coconut and fish, which the local ladies get up before dawn on Sunday to make.

My friend Grant Ismael took me to his mother’s house that Sunday. We started with the soup, thick, with chunks of tuna and crab, and creamy from the rice and freshly strained coconut milk. There was a plate of freshly cooked taro and breadfruit, both of which come off like potato but tastier. And we finished with homemade banana pie that tasted, surprisingly, like apple.

That night, after a brief dip in the ocean, I had absolutely no trouble falling instantly asleep with the sound of the crashing surf in my ears.

Yes, of course, I’m already thinking about going back. I understand that happens a lot.

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