Chuuk is a Wreck

The island of Chuuk in Micronesia is known for its shipwrecks. Not its hotel-wrecks or its town-wrecks. But it turns out to have a few of those latter items as well, unfortunately. It was once, I think, a pretty island. I mean, look at it: this shot is just an islet on the approach over the harbor and wow – we haven’t even hit the highlights of the place. Beautiful, right?
However, it’s been overrun by at least a couple of different armies, poverty and lately a bunch of guys who dress and sometimes act like thugs. If I had to sum it up for you, I’d say it’s like a saloon town in the wild west but with frangipani and very friendly little kids. I don’t know how that’s possible, but here it is. The men were throwing homemade live fireworks at our van on the way in since it was New Year’s Eve, for instance. The other divers here seem to love the place, but many of them are, I am afraid, pretty rough-edged people themselves. Not everyone of course, but it’s an odd bunch. The guy at the front desk is very nice though and so was my divemaster (macho, but nice underneath), so I really don’t know what to make of things. A complicated place, this Chuuk. To complicate things further it’s pronounced “Chewk” but the Aussies say “Truck”.

The hotel has seen better days, probably ten years ago, and while I know this is not a wealthy island with lots of resources, I still feel that people could make repairs successfully in some cases. A tube of caulking, some bleach, or just cleaning up other people’s hairs from the bathroom, for instance, would go a long way toward improvement. They managed this in villages in East Africa and Cambodia, though I admit, not so much in India, so I know it’s possible. As a result of my travels, I believe this lack of maintenance is not from being a subsistence culture but simply from a lack of caring for things when they are rotting, and shifting the responsibility off onto someone else someday maybe. The garden looks very fine, so someone has some pride in it, and they are carefully building a nice new museum next door. But the hotel rooms? Ugh. The towels stank of old left-in-the-wet-too-long and I was concerned about the insects that would enter in the night. Electricity was spotty in the first 30 minutes of arrival. It smelled so bad in this room that I went out and gathered a bunch of plumeria in hopes they would improve the situation. Unfortunately, three hours later the poor plumeria hadn’t made a dent.

When I arrived, I was wondering just how, exactly, this place would get worse. I knew it would, but I did not know just how it would happen. And then the bed was clammy. This is not easy to accomplish – plastic was involved somewhere, on top of the bedspread I’d guess. The remote control for the A/C went completely blank with its digital controls all wiped (battery problem, front desk closed) so it was stuck on a rather cold temperature with a strong fan, and blowing right on my head so hard my eyes watered. I was hoping the power would go out and take the A/C with it, but no such luck. Even directly in the path of the aircon, I tried not to breathe through my mouth because I could taste the mold spoors. If I moved away from the draft, it stank to high heaven of mildew, and the other bed, which also stank, was next to a jalousie window. That’s a louvered window that doesn’t close, by the way, with no screen, and it lets in mosquitoes. Whoever invented the jalousie window should be forced to sleep next to one in the tropics with no nets. Having already been eaten by half the bugs in Kosrae, I stayed away from this window to make the Chuuk bugs work a little harder. Unfortunately they were up to the challenge. The bathroom was, well, revolting with its floor vinyl split and starting to come up, and a shower that was half rotten. Thank heaven I packed shower shoes, but I was still so grossed out I didn’t shower for two days. There was no bottled water available for purchase after dinner and I had to take a pill with water they said they had filtered. I felt I was taking a poor chance. I didn’t get the impression that the maintenance on those filters was exactly A-1 based on the rest of the state of the place, but maybe the gardener’s in charge of it so it’s okay? My cases, bags and equipment was zipped as a precaution against roaches, but there weren’t any, even late at night when I suddenly lit the bathroom (preparing to jump). At least there was that saving grace. The sheets were so scratchy and the bed so clammy that it aggravated my bug bites. I had to go into the case again and get the anti-itch cream, then lock it all up again afterward. Obviously I was on high alert for ick.

But there wasn’t as much ick as I thought. Instead, there were drums. It was New Year’s Eve, and the whole place was partying. I was so tired I’d gone to bed early, which is unlike me especially on the last day of the year. I was awakened several times in the night even with my earplugs to the sound of homemade drums, made from garbage can lids, scuba tanks, whatever was metal and would carry sound. The drummers were decent and it wasn’t a din but rather a solemn straight rhythm. It was always just one guy with his improvised percussion walking past the room, down the path or along the beach. This continued for days. Eventually I came to rather like it.

The part that gets me about Chuuk is that the people are really nice, but it’s just hard to cope with this kind of mess. I hate to report on them like this because I know it would hurt their feelings. It’s funny to see big guys dressed up like they are about to knock over a liquor store get out of a car looking all tough and then go hug their mothers and sisters on the curb. But that’s Chuuk. Tough exterior and who gives a darn look, but somehow they do care. I wish they’d just realize that repairing things when they break is cool. Really it is! C’mon, Chuuk, try it! I could brush this under the rug and simply not tell you about it, but it made a real impact on my trip. There is no question that it changed my plans. I just couldn’t deal with this hotel any longer than strictly necessary – no diving is worth this kind of slime, I am sorry to say. So, I went for a dive in the morning and when I got back called American Express to request a change in ticketing: Guam, please, ASAP. There was a flight available two days earlier than my original ticket and I got myself a seat.

I hoped that perhaps as a former US Trust Territory, Chuuk would be decently wired. Nope. It’s still an island in the tropics, and not a current military base, so there is nearly no Internet. I didn’t have more than ten minutes’ cell phone reception through my stay, and you cannot make an 800 number call from Chuuk, even if you’re willing to accept the charges yourself. To say it was a challenge to reach American Express is an understatement: by the time I’d figured out a number that was considered dial-able, and gotten a hold of someone who could help, they could barely hear me, over a course of three phone calls on $10 prepaid cards (plural). It’s like being in 1998 – welcome to Chuuk, where the local time is approximately six hours and 15 years earlier.

One good thing I can tell you about, beyond the diving, is this: people are mostly nice. Now, understand that there are some bad guys in Chuuk. They style themselves just like gang-bangers in LA and Stockton and I guess they think they are pretty bad-ass. Crime is scary here, I understand, and I was advised not to leave my hotel, especially after dark. But those guys aren’t everywhere. The ladies are very kind, the children are sweet and always smiling, and some of the men are nice too. For example, they came to replace the very bad smelling towels with some that also smelled bad. They had apparently run out of fabric softener/freshener and that’s why the smell wasn’t covered over by perfume. After I told them again that I really couldn’t stand it, the housekeeping ladies went on a little mission to find me some better towels and they succeeded. What showed up was nice smelling – good thing too because I finally ended sleeping with a towel over my head to thwart the A/C. The lady waiting tables at dinner made a good recommendation and told me about tonight’s fresh fish, which was pretty tasty. The pancakes the next day tasted like last night’s chicken, so do stick to the grilled fish if you visit. The guy at the desk saw that it was getting late, I had not eaten, and he came over to make sure I didn’t miss dinner. And he helped me make my phone calls to AmEx, which would not have been accomplished otherwise, I am certain. Sam, my divemaster, came over to the hotel to check on me when I was feeling ill after the first dive. He was worried I might have a decompression illness so he came by to make sure I was okay and said to come get some oxygen if it was not clearing up. Down deep, these people are still caring like the islanders I met in Kosrae. It’s the superficial parts and the bad eggs that need some tending to.

If Chuuk ever cleans up, and I hope it does, it’ll be because of the good hearts in its people.

Junkyard or neighborhood?  Hm.

Junkyard or neighborhood? Hm.

Just next to the hotel, life is not easy.

Just next to the hotel, life is not easy.

It's beautiful if you only look at the silhouette.

It’s beautiful if you only look at the silhouette.

The main road - really.

The main road – really.

The hope of frangipanni

The hope of frangipanni

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2 Responses to Chuuk is a Wreck

  1. Kiki says:

    What an insightful read. However, there are points in your rant that I found dismissive. You spend most of your letter bashing your hotel room,could you have tried a different room? Or a different hotel for that matter?

    To be fair the island you stayed on is, dirty. But, for the most part your complaints of Chuuk are shallow. 1. They dressed contrary to my liking. 2. They couldn’t fix my room 3. I heard stories of violence.

    It is an impoverished state, made so, as you specified, by the hands of foreigners who, like yourself, have been telling them to change for generations.

    Give ’em a break. A trip to Chuuk should be immersive. If you had comforter problems wear your clothes to sleep. Leave an open window with the AC on to get the smell out.

    Be grateful that you are in the company of fine people who even in their hardships, still treat you with utmost respect and hospitality.

    • Hi Kiki –
      I re-read the blog post again based on your comments. First, I am glad that you point out the excellent character and kindness of many of the Chuukese people. They are certainly good folks and I realize I have perhaps not given them enough credit for their kindness, of which there was plenty. However, considering the dirt and the state of things, I believe I did give the place a break and credit for treating me well personally. The people there absolutely did help me, and I appreciate that.

      You can think it shallow if you wish, but my comments about people’s dress and crime come from years of travel experience and personal observation. When I see people dressed like they are gang members, as some Chuukese were, after years of seeing gang violence in California where I lived, I get concerned. Where I lived, you have to commit a murder to join those gangs. It’s not that it wasn’t “to my liking” but rather that when I see that kind of dress, long basketball shorts, long t-shirts, mono-color dress, and new ballcaps with tags still on, I assume there’ll be a crime soon, because there has been in my neighborhood, many times over many years. I haven’t seen that dress anywhere outside the US and its immediate borders before going to Chuuk. The stories of violence I heard were from neighboring people in Kosrae and I was told clearly by the people at my hotel, and the driver from the airport, that it was not a good idea to leave the grounds at night. Those aren’t just stories – they are warnings – and since I am traveling alone, I listen. Violence may not happen, but if enough people tell me to watch out, people who live there, then I need to listen.

      I have traveled all over the world, stayed in huts, campgrounds, “fine” hotels with fleas and fifth-floor walk-ups with scary shared bathrooms in the hallways. I’ve slept in my clothes, with rubber bands even, as needed, and in fact did sleep clothed in Chuuk, after realizing how clammy the bedding was. It’s not as if I don’t know that things sometimes get dirty. In many places it’s not easy to fight the dirt. Mildew is especially hard on an island, I know. But if a place is charging $200 a night, while they might not be able to fix the a/c mildew, they need to at least use a little bleach on the shower, I think. There were no other well-recommended hotels on the island; this was the most expensive in Chuuk and supposedly the nicest. Doing small, inexpensive things to keep a place clean is the least a hotel can do if they are going to charge those kinds of rates and advertise themselves as “the best”. Cleaning the griddle in the restaurant is feasible. Elbow grease doesn’t cost extra and should be used in such a situation. I make no apology for that opinion. I was even harsher towards the hotel in the mountains of India that was full of fleas – unlike the nice people in Chuuk, they didn’t even pretend to care about it. To answer you, specifically, the hotel was full, there were no other rooms to try, and the desk clerk informed me they were all pretty similar in smell. The windows were open, and in fact could not be closed to keep out the insects, and I had the a/c on full blast for hours but it didn’t help much.

      I don’t believe in sugarcoating a situation, and if people visit Chuuk, they should know what they are getting into. It can be an amazing experience, and it may be a far better one if you know what you’re coming into and have adjusted your expectations accordingly.

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