Monday, March 2, 2015

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Map picture

Join me now while I tell you our tale of the lost city of Nan Madol. Well, I guess it can’t exactly be lost since our tour bus found it, but from our experiences it might as well have been. Anyway, back to our adventure! It includes having to traverse treacherous reefs just to gain entrance to the Island of Pohnpei, FSM. There was a lost pilot, or at least late, and then the long, long, long torturous ride which ended deep in the jungle on a narrow road which wanted to swallow our little bus. Intrepid travelers that we were, we set out upon a difficult walk through the jungle on a path that at times required that we cross swamps full of snakes and slimy things, and from which sticks seemed to protrude everywhere just waiting for us to slip and fall to our deaths. After an eternity, out of the mist loomed the lost city, but it was a tease because to reach the ruins, we still had to cross a water filled canal where the water level came up to our knees and which was filled with slippery rocks. Only the “true of heart” were successful at gaining entrance to the inner city, but our presence had “angered the gods,” since no sooner had we reached our goal, than the heavens opened up with a torrential downpour. This is a short description of our fateful day on Pohnpei. Let us hope that by the mere telling of the tale, that the gods are not more angered and take revenge on us lowly seafaring travelers who have now taken our leave and are now making a hasty retreat.

Having now removed the tongue from my cheek let me tell you about our remarkable experience on Pohnpei. Our ship was scheduled to arrive at the port of Kolonia around 11am on March 1st. This timing was somewhat critical because our excursion for the day involved our riding a bus for almost 3 hours, visiting the ancient city of Nan Madol, which required 40 minutes of walking, plus time at the site – and an absolute requirement from the local authorities that we depart the dock no later than 6pm. If you add all this up you can see that we did not have much time to spare. As luck would have it however, because of heavy seas the Captain had to reduce our speed for the sake of our safety and comfort, which meant that we would now reach our dock at noon. However, when the ship arrived at the point designated for meeting the required pilot, there was no harbor pilot to be found. As time moved by, you could feel the frustration rising when on the horizon appeared a small boat with an outboard motor chugging its way towards us. This was certainly not the usual “Pilot Boat,” but indeed it did bring our pilot. We still had to navigate the treacherous channel through the reef and into the harbor, and by the time the ship was finally tied up to the dock it was 1pm. In other words, there was barely enough time to make the excursion and be back in time to leave the harbor by 6pm. Soon there was an announcement that after “negotiations” with the pilot, he had graciously agreed to delay our departure time until 6:30. Now in my mind, arriving at the ship 30 minutes late almost guaranteed the pilot the opportunity to “negotiate” an agreement, or perhaps I am just too suspicious.

Our 90 minute ride started out on winding and narrow paved roads, but eventually morphed into even more narrow dirt byways. P1000643Along the way, we saw that this island was more improved than some of its neighboring islands. This is not surprising since the capital of the country is located here. On this island, people did not walk as much because small cars seemed plentiful. I saw signs of electricity, phones and cell phones, and water pipes. The houses were built of concrete with tin roofs rather than palm leaves, but looking into the interiors as we passed, all I saw were a table and a bed as furniture. Cooking was still done outdoors. When we arrived at the entrance to Nan Madol Park, our buses had to negotiate same narrow pathways before stopping for us to begin our journey into the jungle. At the head of the trail, was a small building with three toilets inside, one of which was missing a door in this one a local dog had taken residence. Now about 80 people had just arrived, and so a line quickly formed for the facilities. It became apparent that with only two stalls this would be a long process, so quickly, two of the women teamed up, with one going in to use the toilet without a door while the other spread herself to make like a door.P1000646 As one woman came out, yet another would go in, I must agree that this rather unusual solution greatly helped the situation.

I then begin to walk the 20 minute trail, and while I had seen pictures of it during our briefing the night before, I was not prepared for just how uneven the surface. It was composed of small pieces of broken coral interspersed with volcanic rocks. Even with my cane, I was having a pretty slow go of it. Then I came to a large swamp where the path over was a narrow wooden platform without railings which required crossing. The “bridge” consisted of three small logs that had been placed across the opening, and then nailed across the logs were small boards, some of which had rotted long ago and not been replaced. At each end of the bridge the logs had been placed on top of deep stone “steps” that first required you climbed up to reach the bridge and then to climb back down.P1000653 On either side of the bridge, was a slimy swamp in which I could see snakes and all kinds of critters. Even worse, through some phenomena, the swamp was filled with sticks that stood straight up out of the water and mud, so that if I fell, I would surely be impaled. As I was crossing one of these hazards, I suddenly had this image of Harrison Ford raising to yet another challenge in order to reach “the lost ark.” There were several such bridges, and while getting off one of them I slipped on a moss covered rock and fell onto one knee. In an instant my two “keepers” had me back on my feet without incident, only some small scratch which bled a bit.

I must digress for a second; this incident was so minor that I scarcely gave it a second thought. In a few minutes one of the crew members came over and wiped the scratches with an antiseptic wipe and that was it. WELL, someone filed an accident report and by the time I reached my cabin our room steward wanted to know how I was after my accident. All night and all day today crew have been inquiring how I am after my accident. I even got a note from the Captain about my unfortunate incident. As if this was not enough, the Expedition Leader phoned me this morning, and the Doctor came to find me at lunch to examine my “ouchie.” Believe it or not I got more feedback over a little cut than I did when I broke my darned shoulder!!

Back to the story, finally I reached the ruins of Nan Madol. Now I consider myself a reasonably educated and travelled person, but I had never heard of this place. So, if I may be so bold, allow me to quote what we were told: “Nan Madol is a ruined city adjacent to the eastern shore of the island of Pohnpei that was the capital of the Saudeleur dynasty until about 1628.The city, constructed in a lagoon, consists of a series of small artificial islands linked by a network of canals. There are nearly 100 artificial islets bordered by canals….Nan Madol was the ceremonial seat of the Saudeleur dynasty… and was the scene of human activity as early as the first or second Century. By the 8th or 9th century islet construction had started, but the megalithic structures seen today probably date from the 12th or early 13th century.”

When I say that we “reached” the ruins that is perhaps a little bit of an overstatement. We reached the place where the island stopped, and now a walk across to the main artificial islet was required. P1000667This walk was across a flowing channel with water up to our knees and was over a boulder strewn debris field which was slick. By now everyone knew that poor Lisa and I were just about out of juice and rather quickly the locals used a small boat they had available. Lisa and I walked into the water and sat on the side of the little boat and turned around to sit in it. It was partially filled with water and was slick as an ice rink with slime, but it took us across the canal which sure beat walking. Getting us out of the little boat and up the steep steps onto the artificial island required several large gentlemen but before long Lisa and I were standing before the main temple complex. Now we have good news and bad. The good news is that we were the last to arrive at the party and so almost everyone was leaving which allowed me to grab some photographs without anyone in my way.P1000682 The bad news was that the rains finally arrived!!!! We had been warned that this island had almost more rain than anyplace on earth. For this reason Lisa had not brought her camera, and I had elected to bring my little Lumix backup which I could quickly throw into a plastic bag if needed; well it was needed! We had a good old fashioned tropical downpour which lasted for the remainder of our trip. Now we faced having to go back over that long and treacherous trail, when the tour guides, feeling sorry for us convinced the operator of the little boat that had taken us across to the island, to take us all the way back to where we could hook up to a road that our bus could reach. So, we were treated to a 30 minute ride along the swampy waters which allowed us to see (through the rain of course) the side walls and canals of Nan Madol. On our way home our driver wanted to show us the local sting rays, and so he drove across a shallow muddy bank and the rays scattered like a flock of birds. Finally we arrived at a muddy embankment where we departed the little boat and with his help we managed to find a small shelter where we could wait for our bus. Now I should mention that at all times we were accompanied by a member of the expedition team who was in radio contact with the other buses and the ship.

We were so glad to see our bus, and we climbed on to join all the other soaked guests on our 90 minute ride back to the dock. We were the last bus to arrive, and the ship was anxiously awaiting our arrival so that it could depart before the bewitching hour. We just made it under the wire. It took a long time to clear the reef and in the interim, the weather had become worse with low ceilings and fog. By the time we were outside the reef and rolling in the ocean, it was quickly becoming dark. I looked outside, and to my amazement our pilot was climbing back into the little boat with the outboard for the hazardous journey in really lousy conditions back to shore. It would seem that there were perhaps good reasons for setting a departure time no later than 6pm for their safety. When I last saw the little boat it was disappearing into a low drizzle and breaking waves around the reef.

Today we have a break and a day at sea to recover before our next stop tomorrow at Chuuk.


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