French adventurer Jean Lescure has spent the last ten years sailing around the world on his 50.ft. yacht “Isatis” visiting many out-of the-way places. On a recent trip throughout Micronesia he stopped on Ngulu, an atoll about sixty miles south of Yap. Hampered by the lack of wind he spent three weeks visiting the Thirty-one Ngulu islanders and working on his boat. This is an account of his stay.
Shortly after noon the yacht “Isatis” dropped anchor in the Ngulu lagoon. Captain Jean Lescure and crew member, Evelyn Manangan had made the crossing from Yap the night before. They planned on making the trip much earlier but had to wait out a typhoon in Yap. But now the sun blazed high in the sky and the welcoming party was on its way to meet them.
Unlike the other Caroline islands the “Isatis” had visited, the two young men sent to I greet the yacht traveled in a speedboat and not a canoe. Use of the canoe had declined with the introduction of the speedboat since the islanders found the speedboat much more convenient to use in their twenty-mile- long lagoon.
Islands such as Satawal where there is no lagoon rely on the canoe to go the great distances they need. Ngulu’s large lagoon is fringed by a rich barrier reef making it easy to fish.
One only needs to walk to the water’s edge and swim to a good fishing spot. The lagoon itself is full of sea life. After ten years of sailing to some of the most beautiful and abundant waters in the world, Lescure was impressed by the richness of the Ngulu lagoon. Full of lobsters, turtles and fish, he compared it to the Red Sea and the Maldives and rated it as one of the most abundant lagoons in the world.
As the speedboat approached Lescure reflected on what he had learned of the island. While in Yap he had met the chief of the island and had asked permission to visit the atoll. The chief had asked him to deliver some mail since mail delivery is sporadic and done by any means possible.
Reaching the yacht, Mario. a 26-year-old fisherman hoisted himself on board followed by a younger companion. Mario – sort of an assistant chief – was in charge in the chief’s absence. After amenities and delivery of the mail, Mario suggested a safer anchorage at a nearby island within the lagoon. “Isatis” was presently anchored in extremely deep water and was not very well protected.
Deciding to move, the crew pulled up the anchor and followed while the young men led the way in their speedboat. Once safely anchored the foursome spent the afternoon speaking about the island and its people. Lescure learned that the reef ringing the lagoon was notorious as a final resting place for ocean going vessels. But times had changed since the American brig DASH had gone aground in the late 1800s. Now it was mainly fishing vessels that wrecked. Also, fishermen and sailors do not have to contend with attacks from the islanders like they did then. Now they are met with a smile and if they’re lucky a few lobsters.
As nightfall drew near the men left with promises to return the following day. Waking from their first night in Ngulu, The sailors were eager to explore the island. Swimming to shore, they spent the morning on the uninhabited island, hiking and looking for shells.
Situated 60 miles south of Yap, Ngulu atoll is made up about seven or eight islands spread out around a 20-mile-long lagoon. Ngulu is also the name of the largest and only inhabited island. The smaller islands are used for food gathering and hunting. One island has a small banana plantation while others are used to hunt turtles, gather bird eggs or coconuts and hunt coconut crabs. The island the two were exploring was used to hunt coconut crabs that flourish there. In addition it is also used as a staging ground for fishing the nearby reef there.
Wanting to begin work on the yacht. The crew returned to the boat to prepare to varnish the interior. At dusk Mario returned to the yacht heading a contingent from the island. Unlike his experience on the other Caroline Islands Lescure had visited, this group included women and children. He later learned that four of the people in the group would spend the night on the island hunting coconut crabs. Lescure observed that the women of Ngulu had much more freedom than their counterparts in Lamotrek and Satawal. This was probably due to the small population size. With only twelve men on the island, the typical Yapese norms may prove impractical. The group greeted the couple with shell necklaces and five large lobsters. Possibly because of the overabundance of lobsters, the crustacean is not a favorite among the inhabitants and they declined an invitation to eat with the sailors.
As in the other islands he visited. Lescure offered the group cigarettes, sugar and coffee. This would be divided up among the population and was sort of an offering for the use of their island. In Lamotrek and Satawal this was offered to the chief who divided it up according to the number of members in each family. In the absence of the Ngulu chief, this was offered to the group. Lescure also offered toys to the children who were delighted.
Conversation centered around the islander’s lifestyle. The men had caught some turtles that day but had to wait until the chief arrived to kill them. The killing of turtles is regulated by the chief. No turtle can be slaughtered if the chief is not present.
Mario spoke of a large tourist ship that would visit the island in a few weeks. The chief had informed them of the visit in a letter that Lescure had delivered the previous day. He had given instructions to clean up the island and prepare a dance for the occasion. Speaking with a tinge of pride, Mario informed them that. there was much work to be done. Soon the conversation lagged and the group left the yacht to deliver the coconut crab hunters to the island. The boat would return for them in the morning.
In the next two weeks, the islanders only came to visit occasionally as they had much to do to prepare for the dance. This proved helpful as the crew of the Isatis worked hard to get her in top shape too. The two ocean travelers spent their days anchored to their boat, scraping the old varnish off and painting the new varnish on. It took them ten days to complete the interior of the boat working long hours. Occasionally they would take a break when Lescure would go fishing for a few hours in the afternoon. The monotony of the job was broken up by a visit one evening of women from the island. They had come to demonstrate how to weave the grass skirts they wore.
Time passed quickly and days turned into weeks. The couple continued to work on the boat. One day, the islanders even got into the act helping Lescure put net on the lifelines. They worked from morning until dark.
The day of the dance arrived and the dancers waited anxiously for the ship’ s arrival. It appeared around eight a.m. with the Ngulu chief on board. Shortly after anchoring, he came ashore to participate in the dance. As soon as the ship sailed into sight, Lescure recognized the ship as the Society Expedition. a 250-ft. cruise ship. He had met the ship on four earlier occasions, twice in the Antarctic and also in South Georgia and Comore 1sland off the coast of Madagascar. It came as no surprise when the captain invited him on board. After a short tour and a drink it was time to go ashore for the dance. For all the preparation the dances took barely an hour. The dancers had performed a stick dance and the dance of the navigator. Then just as suddenly as they had come, the tourists left.
Invited on board for lunch, Lescure and Managan welcomed the change of diet. For the past few weeks they had their fill of lobster, coconut crab and fish but now craved fresh vegetables. After a lunch of sausage, salad and vegetables they relished the cold ice cream they had for dessert. Meeting with old friends, they finally said their good-byes and went back to the island.
The cruise ship sailed that afternoon and a melancholy mood settled on the island. Speaking with the chief that afternoon it was decided that they would kill the turtles the next day. Lescure had decided to postpone leaving until the following day. Learning of Lescure’s plan to stop on the northernmost island of the lagoon the chief mentioned his desire to send some men there to turtle hunt. The small speedboat the community had could only make it one way because it did not carry enough gas to make the trip back.
Lescure offered to tow the speedboat up to the island and alleviate the problem. The chief agreed and the expedition was set for the day after the feast.
The islanders slaughtered three turtles for the feast with the festivities taking all day long. The men took a break for a meeting of the community leaders which included the chief and the elders of the island. They discussed the prospect of lifting a ban on tuba drinking which had been in effect. The ban was imposed two months earlier when two young men had gotten too loud and boisterous after drinking a tad too much. In light of the community’s downhearted mood it was decided to lift the ban in honor of the feast.
In addition to the ban, the leaders decided that the young men were to be fined for their indiscretion. They were fined five turtle shells for their shenanigans.
The next morning the expedition got under way with the “Isatis” towing the speedboat. The contingent of hunters included one female who came along to cook. Manangan spent her time helping the woman collect bird eggs and cook while Lescure went fishing with one of the men. Each with his own duty, some went to collect bananas while others gathered coconut crabs.
After lunch a couple of the men went to the other side of the island to look for signs of turtles. Not finding much the hunters decided to go elsewhere. The chief and one hunter went to a nearby sandbar to spend the night hunting for turtles. The next morning the speedboat went to pick up the turtle hunters with their catch of two turtles. Spending their day much as the previous day, the group gathered food in a variety of ways, some fishing, others hunting and the women collecting. By five p.m. the Ngulu Islanders had collected enough food and were ready to head home.
The group bid farewell to the sailors and sped back to the atoll in their speedboat. Shortly, the wind began to blow for the first time since the yacht’s arrival. It was a slight northwest wind but it was blowing. It was sunset when the crew pulled up the anchor, set the sails and headed back to Yap with memories of one of the most unique and beautiful atolls in Micronesia.
Ngulu. The mere mention of the name can conjure images of a shimmering turquoise lagoon, gently swaying palms, and islanders bedecked in beautiful tropical flowers.
Nowhere in this picture are tourists traipsing around with cameras in hand, but this was the case on this tiny isolated island recently when the Society Explorer cruise ship stopped there. What a scene it was for the inhabitants when the 250-foot ship sailed into sight, the ship, about one-fifth the size of the island carried more than three times the population of the island. Virtually a floating city the ship boasts a fully equipped health club including exercise equipment, sauna and shower. That’s not to mention the swimming pool, hospital and beauty salon. What did the islanders think when they toured the elegantly decorated dining room. From their vantage point in paradise, did they crave for this pseudo utopia or were they happy to return to their pristine environment content with their glimpse of the Western world?
For most of the 31 inhabitants of Ngulu this proved to be their only glimpse of the Western world. Sixty miles south of Yap in the Caroline Islands, Ngulu receives very few visits from outsiders. Until just recently, the only ship to stop there with any regularity was the Micro Spirit which only stops occasionally. Now there is also a fishing boat from Yap Fisheries making the trip to this isolated atoll. Add to that a few adventurous sailors every once in a while and you don’t have much contact with the outside. When Lescure recently visited the island, he said. “As soon as we arrived some young men came out to meet us. They were eager to talk to outsiders and came to visit us a few times a day.” So it must have really caused a stir when they learned that a “large boat with fifty tourists” would visit their island.
In fact. the islanders spent three weeks preparing for the mysterious ship, making new grass skirts, cleaning up the island to an immaculate state, stringing necklaces for the wealthy tourists to buy (someone had heard that this was the thing to do) and practicing every day for the dance that they would perform for these visitors to paradise. What a letdown it must have been when the ship arrived, anchored and discharged its human cargo only to reboard them a few hours later. The islanders didn’t even have a chance to sell their necklaces.
And what about talking to the tourists and sharing a little time together? All their carefully made plans were dashed when the ship slipped out of sight. Feeling cheated they returned to the day’s tasks of gathering and preparing food. They had received a bit of money for the dance. But they had expected a little bit more – more human interaction, not just a business transaction. Maybe they had expected too much, but then what did they know of the Western concept of time and keeping to a schedule? Perhaps they found solace in the fact that they still had some visitors on the yacht “Isatis.”
In a situation like this one wonders who benefits most – the wealthy passengers aboard the cruise ship who pay dearly for the opportunity to glimpse paradise or the islanders who observe these visitors from paradise. I can’t help but think that each sees something more in one another… yet neither quite sees reality.
Reproduced from an article originally published in the PDN’s Islander Magazine October 2, 1986