Micronesia is a paradox of a country. It's spread out over a huge swath of planet, yet it's sparsely populated with little land mass. It's in the middle of nowhere, yet it holds a wealth of German, Spanish, Japanese, and American culture. It's one of the newest independent states in the world, yet it has a history and culture spanning thousands of years. And while you'll find CNN and broadband Internet connections in one part of the country, you'd be hard pressed to find a radio, or even a paved road in other parts...
Location, Geography, and Climate
The Federated States of Micronesia span two time zones and over 1,000,000 square miles of territory in the Pacific Ocean, just north of the equator, but the total land mass of all Micronesia's islands is smaller than the non-island Rhode Island (or for those of you on the world stage: larger than Liechtenstein, smaller than Luxembourg). The federation consists of four states: Kosrae, Yap, Chuuk, and Pohnpei. Only Kosrae exists as a single island; the remaining three states have outer island and atolls under their jurisdiction.
Micronesia is not close to anything, and not all that easy to get to. The closest airports in Micronesia are 1,800 miles from Tokyo and 2,800 miles from Sydney and Honolulu. Continental is the only U.S. carrier that travels to Micronesia, with connecting flights from Guam to each of the four major islands.
From a geography and climate standpoint, the islands are fairly diverse while sharing similarities. Covering as much territory as they do, the States are home to a stunning variety of aquatic life, from corals to giant clams to manta rays, bottlenose dolphins and schools of stingless jellyfish so thick they limit visibility. The coral reefs that speckle the island chains create natural lagoons protecting wildlife while enhancing visibility to create a diver's paradise. Thick rain forests cover the larger islands, home to frogs and toads and insects, fruit bats, lizards, and even the occasional deer.
Micronesia lies at the southern tip of the Pacific typhoon belt, and as such sometimes suffers the fury of an occasional tropical storm. The rest of the time the temperature fluctuates between high 70's and high 80's with light breezes and rain. Despite high rainfall (up to and over 300 inches in some places), light tropical clothing is the norm for travelers. The typical water temperature is around 80 degrees as well.
The many islands that make up the Federated States were first inhabited by migrating Polynesians and Asians. While it's undetermined exactly when they first came, linguistic and archaeological evidence puts first settlement at somewhere around two to three thousand years ago. The islands, developing distinctly but in constant contact with one another, reached a cultural peak in the second millenium A.D. The Nan Madol ruins of Pohnpei and the Lelu Village ruins of Kosrae predate the Portuguese 'discovery' of the islands in 1525.
It was indeed the 1500's, Europe's age of exploration, when the Portuguese made the first European contact with Micronesia. Soon after Spain, doing what they normally do, claimed rulership over the islands and governed them as a colony until 1899, when they were sold in bulk to Germany... all except Guam, which somehow fell into U.S. hands.
The Germans ruled Micronesia until 1914, when the Japanese military decided that the islands would be a nice place to take control of. In the thirty years between their takeover and the U.S. bombing the living shit out of their navy, more than 100,000 Japanese migrated to the islands.
Oh yes, the U.S. did indeed bomb the shit out of the Japanese navy. The aptly titled Operation Hailstone resulted in a good portion of the Japanese fleet sinking to the bottom of Truk Lagoon. When World War II was over the United Nations created a Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, consisting of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The United States was designated the Trustee of the new cooperative, with the understanding that the islands controlled their own destinies as accepted by the U.N. Security Council.
In 1978, with the Northern Marianas now a commonwealth of the United States, four of the five major island states of Micronesia, Yap, Pohnpei, Kosrae, and Chuuk voted by public referendum to form a federation and declare independence. The fifth, Palau, decided on separate independence. Micronesia obtained complete autonomy after a transitional period, entering into a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1986.
This compact is similar to commonwealth status (e.g. Puerto Rico) in some respects: citizens of the islands can visit the United States without visas or passports and vice versa, and the U.S. is responsible for Micronesia's defense and a significant amount of fiscal aid. However Micronesia elects its own leaders, is not subject to U.S. law, and is considered an autonomous state by the United Nations, to which it was admitted on September 17, 1991.
Government and Economy
The government of Micronesia is based on the governing laws of the Trust Territories. The unicameral legislature is comprised of fourteen congressmen, four of which could be considered "senators", one per state, elected to four year terms by state. The remaining ten could be considered "representatives", elected to two year terms by population districts. The President, currently Leo A. Falcam, is voted into the position by the four "senators", although a constitutional amendment would set up direct election by plebescite. There are no formal political parties in Micronesia... all current office holders are designated as independents. Local government is often tribal, and the state and federal governments make every attempt to respect local sovereignty and customs.
Micronesia trades with the U.S. dollar, with few exceptions (see: Yap), but it can be difficult to find banks, so having cash on hand is a must for travelers. Most of the citizens of Micronesia either work for the government or a subsistence fishers and farmers. The country has no real exports other than various handmade crafts, and relies heavily on grants from the U.S. and tourism to drive the economy. Micronesia has a decent infrastructure, but its remote location and relative obscurity have hindered the tourism industry, leading the industry more towards adventure trips and diving expeditions than tropical getaways.
Micronesia is home to around 135,000 people, inhabiting only 65 of the 607 islands in the Federation. Small pockets of Filipinos and other Asians can be found, but most of the inhabitants are indigenous to Micronesia, with Polynesian or Asian roots. More than fifty percent of the population live on either Pohnpei or Chuuk, and the population on those islands is rising rapidly as westernization continues. Yap and Kosrae have seen limited growth, and both states still have populations around 10,000 each.
English is the official language and the language of commerce among the people, but with such a meld of culture, there are eight other major languages: Chuukese, Pohnpeian, Yapese, Kosraen, Ulithian, Woleaian, Nukuoro, and Kapingamarangi. "Ran allim", "Len wo", "Kaselehlia", and "Mogethin" can all mean "Hello" depending on where you are, so it's a good idea to stick to English. The overwhelming majority of the population is Catholic or Protestant.
The largest of social problems facing Micronesia is the clash between modernization and tradition. The culture and history of the Micronesian people is told through dance and song, but a significant youth movement, influenced by the shrinking outside world, has no interest in following the ways of old. Handmade outrigger canoes are being slowly replaced by fiberglass models. Imported canned food, once considered a luxury item, is becoming more commonplace, and the staple food, taro, is now considered a low-class meal. An yearly outmigration of 2% of the population does a modest job of keeping modernization at bay.
Places (Kosrae, Chuuk, Yap, and Pohnpei)
Kosrae (pronounced Kosh-rye) is the easternmost of the Federated States, and is the only state without outer islands. The island came into its own in the 19th century when it became a Pacific whaling port. Along with the whalers came missionaries, turning Kosrae into the most devoutly religious of the islands, and pirates like Bully Hayes, whose fortune is rumored to lie somewhere in the depths around the island.
Kosrae is known as the Sleeping Lady, as the side profile of the island makes it appear as though the tip of the island is made up of top half of a reclining woman (with extra stiff nipples!). Kosrae is home to the Wiya Bird Cave, several sunken whaling and Japanese naval wrecks, a giant clam farm, and the Lelu Village Ruins, similar in mystery and construction to Nan Madol. The island's proximity to Hawai'i and Guam have made it an attractive location for tourists, but the island of 7,000 remains relatively rural and primitive, with the exception of FSM Telecom, the country's telecommunications provider. Blessed with a desirable Internet country code (.fm), Micronesia has given FSM Telecom the go-ahead to sell domain names (much like Tuvalu).
The Kosraens celebrate thirteen holidays, several of them handed down from the federal government and most of the rest Christian in nature. Unique to the island, however, are the Kosrae State Fair (held the Thursday before Thanksgiving), a festival similar to Yap Day, and Liberation Day (September 8th), marking the American liberation of the Japanese-occupied states during World War II.
Yap is the most westernly and least modernized of the states, situated between Guam and Palau in the Western Caroline Islands. The state consists of the main island Yap Proper, where the capital Colonia is located, Tomil-Gagil, Map, Rumung, and ten smaller islands all situated within a coral reef. Like the rest of Micronesia, there are also several uninhabited outer islands under the flag. Because of it's western location, Yap was mostly unaffected by Spanish and German rule. Although English is the official language, Yapese, Ulithian, and Woleaian are spoken.
Life on Yap is exactly what you'd expect it to be on a "primitive" Pacific island. The Yappese spend their days farming and fishing, weaving baskets and other crafts. Most men wear loin cloths, most women grass skirts (and often not much else), live in thatched huts and cook over open fires. Dancing is the island's pastime, used to pass down tribal history and legend from generation to generation, taught to both men and women at an early age. Special dances are rehearsed all year and performed only once, on Yap Day, an island holiday of great importance only recently opened up to public viewing.
Yap is best known for the giant stone coins used in trading. Known as "fei" to the Yapese, these coins can reach 10 feet in diameter and weigh over a thousand pounds. Quarried long ago on the island of Palau and transported back to Yap, the value of the coin is based on the size of the coin and the peril of the sea journey to bring it back. Oddly enough, most of the coins are never moved. Many of them sit in a bank for the stone money, and ownership simply changes hands. Some of the more wealthy citizens place the money outside their huts as a status symbol.
Formerly known as Truk, Chuuk consists of seven separate island chains, and gets its name from Truk Lagoon, a mammoth reef-enclosed lagoon that has become a diver's haven. The lagoon spans 40 miles in any direction, reaching depths of only about 300 feet. As usual, giant manta rays and coral reefs are among the aquatic sights to see, but Truk Lagoon also houses another fantastic underwater trove. A raid by U.S. forces in February of 1944 sent several airplanes and more than 60 vessels of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s Fourth Fleet to the depths of the lagoon, creating what has eventually become an underwater historical park. The islands themselves is still speckled with signs of Japanese occupation as well: fortified caves and tunnels, numerous military buildings, an airstrip, and a lighthouse.
Perhaps the most interesting cultural tidbit of all Micronesia is the legend of the Chuukese Lovestick. Traditionally made from a piece of wood, a young Chuuk man would carve his own special design into the handle and present it to a woman. At night the man would jab his lovestick through the hut walls of his lover and wake up her up with its sharp point (without alarming her parents). She would again feel the handle in the dark, and by recognizing the symbols carved in it, she would know that it was him. If you missed the blatant sexual innuendo in this Chuukese Lovestick Story, there is little hope for you in the future.
The Garden Island of Micronesia is home to Palikir, the Micronesian capital, and as such is home to the governmental offices and foreign embassies. Oddly enough, although the country's capital is Palikir, the capital of the island and the cultural and economic center is Kolonia. Because of its strategic location, Pohnpei was subjugated by everyone with a claim on the island, and is home to German churches, Spanish walls and forts, and Japanese military fortifications.
The size and shape of the island has allowed a lush tropical rain forest to grow, and although the island is only 13 miles across it boasts two spectacular waterfalls and over 20 rivers. There are two major landmarks of note on Pohnpei. The first is Sokehs Rock, a Devils Tower-like formation that rises more than 1000 feet above sea level. Though the peak looks formidable, it is easily assailed from the interior of the island, offering a spectacular view of the island and surrounding seas. The second is the ruined city of Nan Madol, known as the Venice of the Pacific. Built around 500 AD, the ruins consist of a number of artificial islets lined with slabs of basalt built up into "log cabin" temples, forts, and staircases.
Only one U.S. airline services Micronesia, and requires a stopover in Guam or Honolulu. However, U.S. citizens do not need to go through customs to enter Micronesia due to the Compact Of Free Association. Duties and departure taxes still apply. Be prepared to fly for a long time... a flight search from Boston to Pohnpei gave a travel time of around 56 hours remaining in U.S.-associated territory, 38 hours with a stopover in Japan. Crossing the International Date Line can also add some fun scheduling confusion to a Micronesia trip. Even if you are American, bring a passport or birth certificate for proof of residence, as each of the islands has separate customs checks.
Major credit cards are accepted at most businesses, as are traveler's checks. Cash will be necessary to barter with locals and on trips to the less modernized areas of the country. Shops close for an hour at lunch, bars usually close early (10 pm), and retail outlets in general are a mixed bag on weekends: some open normally, some with reduced hours, and some not at all. Many restaurants serve traditional cuisine, featuring fish and crustaceans, papayas, breadfruit, bananas, yams, and taro, all caught or grown locally. For the less adventurous or more homesick, many restaurants cater to international tastes, offering everything from prime rib to fajitas to sake. Sorry, no McDonald's. Tipping is generally discouraged, although the U.S. 15% gratuity is becoming more widespread on Pohnpei.
U.S.P.S. rates apply for mail, standard U.S. electrical outlets are the norm, satellite television is available on Chuuk and Pohnpei. Transportation between islands is provided by boat, more distant islands by plane. Taxis can be found on the major islands, and a somewhat-reliable bussing system exists on Yap.
Sources are too numerous to list. Most information here is common sourced; some is gathered from conflicting sources, taking from whichever sources seemed more official. http://www.visit-fsm.org/ was a major source of information, some facts and figures were culled from the CIA World Factbook. For additional sources, run a Google search on "Micronesia", "Pohnpei", "Yap", "Kosrae", "Chuuk", and "Truk Lagoon" and take the first ten results from each. Flight information from continental.com.