by Neil Poulin, SJ
September 2005 (MC #57) Cultural
This issue is a tongue-in-cheek account of the trials of an American Jesuit priest assigned to visit the Outer Islands of Yap in 1988. The author, Fr. Neil Poulin, died two years ago after serving on Yap for 35 years. We offer this as a memorial to the man and his wit, which brightened the lives of all who knew him.
We are in Yap State in the Federated States of Micronesia–on the map a few inches above the equator. Yap State consists of two realities: one improperly called "Yap Proper," and the other called "The Outer Islands", or, if you lean towards sentimental oversimplification, "The Neighboring Islands." (Can you really have a neighbor 600 miles away?)
Because of a plan made in Heaven (or so we assume), the two Outer Island priests, who are Outer Islanders themselves and take care of these places, were sent to the United States in the summer of 1988. Their going off left a gap in the ministry of Yap State–a gap 600 miles wide (and almost as deep). For the two remaining priests in Yap Proper (improperly called Yap Proper priests), it looked as if God had decided to play games with us. We shall have to fill that gap.
The difficulties are not small ones. First of all, the Outer Islands language is totally different from and unrelated to Yapese. We are stuck dumb from the start. The second problem may well be the ship itself. It has yet to be taken for a pleasure ship and it is unlikely it ever will be. It is to a cruise ship what a dump truck is to a Rolls Royce. I will be consigned to this ship for some seventeen days and 2200 miles (as I can swear to now that it is all over).
We will visit some eighteen islands scattered over a million square miles of ocean. The population of these islands varies widely; the most populous is Satawal with 600 people; then Ifalik with 500; a couple of islands have inflated populations because of the presence of an intermediate or high school. Several islands have 60 or 70 people; a couple have 100 or 150. There is one poor island with ten people.
Today (September 8) I got my boarding pass for the Micro Spirit. It is a very sick green color, which, I suppose, has something to do with truth in advertising.
One thing I find: a field trip starts before it starts. As soon as people hear you are going on a long field trip they start acting funny in your presence: they talk in those hushed tones you use when you know someone has just had a death in the family or first learns that someone has an incurable illness. "Is there anything I can do to help?" "I suggest you…." Plenty of ideas for the stricken traveler.
I have traveled on this ship before. It is called the Micro Spirit. It is like a cat in that it will not reveal its true identity – but it will give you hints. It is partly a nurturing mother (consoling), partly carnival ride (scary). And other things as well. Being on the Spirit is like being in prison with the possibility of drowning. A low-security prison–it is tempting to say a no-security prison.
You can tell the ship and the sea are not truly good friends. In an argument each tries to get its way. Enough to make you nervous. Like it or not, we have take the ship's side, and the sea can turn sullen and unreasonable. We hope they go on arguing until they tire of it and cool down, because if one side loses we know which it will be.
A field trip underlines and stresses how ordinary ‘ordinary' really is. On a ship of this kind not only do you not do anything for hour after boring hour; there is nothing you can do. Read the great Russian novels you've always wanted to get to? You risk jumping overboard.
But then, as I remember, there are magical moments. Someone shouts that he sees an island, still many miles off. And an island appears as an apparition–a mirage. As we near an island, it is like experiencing the six days of creation on fast forward. Having first sighted it, after a few hours, treetops emerge, then the outline of the land, then shore and grass and finally people on shore materialize–that is the sequence. We are present at the creation.
It is now September 16 and, not surprisingly, the ship has not yet left. So we wait. Death Row must be like this. Even if a set date is an execution date, there must be, after all, some relief in having reached it. When the appointed date comes and goes and you are still on Death Row, you do not experience the reprieve as a gift but as an annoyance. You are not off the hook. Your sentence still stands to be carried out.
The ship is in port but shows no signs of going anywhere. They are now dangling September 20 as a possible departure date. We remain incredulous. This could go on until they run out of new dates. As we look at the Micro Spirit lolling indolently at the end of her hausers, we think of Newton's melancholy observation about bodies at rest.
We did it! We left the Yap dock, not at 6:00 PM but at 6:55–at least on the same day as finally announced.
The first night on the ship is somewhat pleasant as you begin to get used to the noise and movement of the ship, which finally mesmerize you into a semi-drugged state. The sound the engine makes reminds me of the raspy whine of a butcher's meat-slicing machine.
Last night we sliced 60,000 lbs of baloney. As you sleep, the night so penetrates your brain that you think the engine itself is inside your skull. And the ship–in the role of nurturing mother–rocks you to sleep. Once you are asleep, it continues to keep rocking you until, at various times during the night, it rocks you awake.
We are to reach Ulithi at about 5:00 AM. By 6:00 we are near Asor, having gone around the atoll to avoid going through the east. John Rulmal, a deacon, rescues me from the ship in his boat, which pulls up alongside at about 6:45. John tells me they are waiting for Mass in Falalap. Had the Seoul Olympic Committee witnessed our dash to Falalap, I'm sure they would have forced a gold medal on us. John treats the ocean as a mere nuisance, not to be taken seriously.
About 11 or so the ship arrives at Falalap. They are unloading all kinds of things: rice, food stuffs, metal roofing tins, as well as improbables–thirty foot telephone poles which do their own stevedoring by just floating to shore.
By 5:00 PM we go to Mogmog; more offloading strange things. I will say Mass here, as it turns out, at 8:30. Sessions of the obligatory tuba must come first.
John Soglith, who is sight translating the Scriptures of the mass, startles everyone by shouting out, "What's the word for ‘mercy' in our language?" Some possibilities are shouted back and Mass continues. We had a nice meal with Doctor Anna after Mass, and I returned to the ship around 10:00 PM to bob up and down until morning.
About noon we left for the island of Fais, which is all alone some sixty miles east of Ulithi. We get to Fais at 6:00 PM. Fais is both treacherous and beautiful. It has no reef, which means the ocean waves come into shore unchecked. Even when the ocean seems relatively calm from our miserable ship, it is another matter when you step into the ship's 25 ft boat to go ashore. There are two oceans: one for big boats and for little boats. As soon as we are in this boat we realize we are in for a harrowing experience. There is a clever tactic for getting to shore and, in your terror, you hope you have a clever boatman who knows it. You ride towards the shore with the waves, now and again hitting one slantwise to avoid head-on contact. At some point nearer the shore the helsman skirts around a big wave where the white water stops, then turns the boat parallel with the shore, in the trough of this wave.
Like the Pope, you are tempted to kiss the ground–but for different reasons. I find my contact person is not here; he's in Yap. But a young man named Moses, a catechist, takes me to the church where we will have Mass. It is getting dark. By Mass time (7:30) it is pitch black. A lantern is placed on the altar and it is the only source of light in the church. People file into the church in the darkness. Standing at the altar behind the lantern, I am facing a Black Hole. I am saying Mass for the Black Hole from which a full- throated hymn suddenly blasts forth. As people come forward for communion like Nicodemus, out of the darkness into the ambience of my lantern's light, I gather there are a lot of people here. The ship has moved to another (safer) location and we have to spend the night on Fais. Moses provides a very nice army cot, and I slept in the church. With the lantern still burning very low altar, it must have looked like my own wake.
At 6:00 AM someone rang the church bell to call people for the Angelus. They come to church in numbers for this, so I thought I had better get out of my shroud lest I alarm the faithful. I sat in a chair as if I, too, was at my regular devotions.
I had a cup of black coffee. There is no sugar, kerosene, rice or cigarettes on the island. This ship we are on is bringing them supplies.
We left Fais at 11:00 AM for Woleai. You find yourself getting sensitive to all the various timbres of the sounds the ship's engine makes. Each gradation of the noise tells a different story. At 5:15 on Sunday morning, the sound changes so much it wakes you up. The sign is that we are slowing down. We are about to witness a comic opera. Our ship has spotted another Taiwan fishing boat. It is apparently just drifting, with its crew asleep. The Micro Spirit sneaks up on it from behind and trains the ship's searchlight on the deck of the Chinese vessel. A crewman, fast asleep up to that point, is seen to leap into the air when the light hits him and then run into the cabin. We hear the command to man the police vessel. So the FSM police and the Yap State police with their rifles are getting into their boat. By this time it is getting light and we can see every thing clearly. We are all lining the railing. The Chinese vessel comes within 30 feet of our ship, and we can see a man wearing only undershorts, standing in the bow and unfolding a piece of paper. He shouts out "Captain!'' to our ship and begins to read from his paper. He reads out "C- – T – – 2- – 6- – 0- – 0.'' This is evidently his permit number. Someone from our ship (not from the bridge) shouts back in a joking way, "No good numbah!" When he hears this, and with terrible shock in his voice, he shouts, "What?!!'' Everyone on our ship laughs because it is obvious this man doesn't know who's talking to him nor how serious his situation may be. By now our boarding crew is on their ship while papers are checked. And the crew held at gunpoint. After a few minutes the boarding party returns with two huge tuna the Chinese have given them, and the adventure is over. The fishing boat revs up its engines and scoots off. Once again the Micro Spirit shows its menacing side.
As I write this–mid-morning Sunday–they say we have spotted two more fishing boats. Will we ever get to Woleai? I think we've had enough of this for one twenty-four hour period and I'm grateful to hear that these last two got away. Despite all this Gangbusters business, we arrived at Woleai more or less on schedule–about three in the afternoon on Sunday.
The Woleai Lagoon is exquisitely beautiful. The water is an ethereal blue-green and looks like some liquid gem. Getting to shore omits all the terrors that Fais specializes in.
How kind these people are! Not just here in Woleai but everywhere–even on the ship they seem to gentle and generous and kind. Nice qualities. They have every reason to spurn my broken, tongue-tied ministry. Am I really doing anything valuable or good? They seem all right without me here and, in fact, end up ministering to me. Let them tend to some priest-Yahoo who also needs to learn God's ways with men. And we learn this first from each other–not just people from priests. In this context I feel like an Idiot Prince being led through ceremonies that I myself have robbed of their true value. Perhaps as we go on, I will see and experience a different perspective on all this. I do not mean to say that I am depressed, I am not. It is rather an interesting and unexpected form of enlightenment. About a number to things: church, people's gifts, ministries. Every now and again God alerts the local churches to their gifts and convinces them of the utter importance of their using them, by sending in the clowns.
We had Mass on Falalop, Woleai, at 7:30 PM. This was preceded by a good number of confessions (the Clown's job). I began Mass in English (the antiphon) then we had a kind of macaronic duel, with each side trying to guess what part of the mass the other was up to. I said, for example, "Lord, have mercy." They answered something, but it didn't seem to be "Lord, have mercy." But I had to go on as if it were (aware as I was that they didn't know what I had said in the first place). The duel went on. The Creed never panned out–unless that's what they said at the Gloria. It was like that. The Dalai Lama, had he been the celebrant, would have been at little more disadvantage than I was. The catechist who read the gospel (while the Idiot Prince just sat there ) had a rich, sonorous voice. He sounded like Richard Burton. After him I sound like George Bush. Embarrassing.
We were told that the ship was going to leave at 6:00 AM for another island in the lagoon. First to Wottegai, an island of about 100 people. No one knew we were coming, so we met with all the preparation that goes with such knowledge. The native style church is about 60 feet from the shore in a very pleasant setting. Except for the flies. Enough to drive you crazy. (Fly problem also on Falalop.) An American lawyer on board attended Mass there and asked me seriously if there was a special rite for the Mass in Woleai. He was disappointed on hearing that I was merely shooing flies away. But Wottegai! Flies, flies; nothing but flies. I put on my cassock as a priestly Star Wars Defense Shield. It soon looked as if it were polka-dotted.
Finally, people came and we had Mass. Once again, my "contact person" was on another island, and we didn't accomplish anything that couldn't be accomplished by pointing. There was no response of any kind during the Mass–even at parts you would think they would be familiar with. Only the hymns came at more or less appropriate points. The first hymn showed no signs of stopping. After a few times around I became familiar with it myself and spotted a few places like exits an a freeway where they might end it; but they would speed by the next exit ramp. It finally did end, and that was the last I heard from them until the next whirl on the freeway.
After Suliap we went to our last stop in Woleai. Falalis. Another Mass in another local church. The doorways of these local-style churches are designed for the coming and going of dwarfs. You have to crouch to enter. The light inside is comparable to a bat cave; but, just as bats do, you get accustomed to it after a while and it seems no worse than the light in an expensive restaurant. Falalis, too, had matters in hand. Everything went smoothly, with Scripture in the Outer Island language and a leader for the people part of the responses. After Mass I baptized a little girl and blessed an expectant mother. Then back to the ship.
We leave now (about 4:00 PM) for the island inhabited by turtles. The ship will "plant''(that's the word they use) trochus shells in this lagoon. Maybe to keep the turtles company. From Woleai to Pikolot should take 24 hours with nothing to stop at in between.
This is our sixth day at sea and it is as if the sea has claimed us–we belong to the sea. I find it difficult to think of land. Even the small islands we stop to seems less like land than brief, curious interruptions of the sea. Like a puddle in the road is part of the road and not a separate body of water. I wonder if the notion of reincarnation is not the result of people having a great sea-voyage experience to another place while the sea itself works its magic on their mind and blots out memory of the past. So people, because of the charm the sea has put on them, confuse a "previous existence" with what the sea has wiped out, merely an "earlier experience." It makes sense to me.
At 11:00 AM they say there is a small boat from Satawal out in front of us. They often come here for fishing. Only 53 miles of open ocean from home! They are in a 20 ft. fiberglass boat with a 25 hp motor. They are near West Fayu to fish, then go home. We slowed up; people talked to them a bit as they circled our ship; someone threw two packs of Winstons into the water; they swooped around, nabbed them neatly from the ocean, waved goodbye, and were off. Amazing people of the sea. They have compasses where their better judgement should be!
Dinner tonight featured mackerel, which was all pattied up to make it look like hamburger. Only a fool would fall for it. The food (except for breakfast when they will scramble eggs for you if you ask) is generally of the sort that you associate with prison riots in movies. They will probably bring a couple of turtles back to the ship tonight so that will surely turn up on the menu in some form or other. I have already been warned about the ensuing diarrhea (perhaps someone wanted more for himself). They are likely barbecuing them on the beach; then they will bring them out to the ship.
At 6:00 AM we are at Satawal. By 7:00 I am ashore and whisked to the church, which is a short distance away. About 600 people live on Satawal and they have not seen a priest since January. I was in the confessional from 7:15 to 9:45 AM. And a disagreeable confessional it is! A piece of half-inch plywood about three feet by five nailed to a 2×4 frame with a kneeler on the people's side and a chair on the priest's. A number of small holes are drilled through the plywood forming a perforated circle about the size of a dinner plate, like the holes on a speaker. The trouble was, you could not see through it to tell if anyone was there or not; and trying to hear through it was like trying to eavesdrop on a conversation in the next room of a motel. I almost chose this time to go mad.
The Mass was like what Masses have been like. Except that we had two marriages in the middle of it. After Mass I baptized twelve babies, every one of which looked exactly the same age (except for one who was born the very before we arrived). Maybe there's some agreed upon date to have babies on Satawal. I was on my rounds from those confessions until it was about 1:00 PM, when I heard the ship was waiting for me. If there was anything I did not want to miss it was this ship, while on Satawal, 600 miles east of Yap. Nice people you understand, but still….!
At 6:00 PM we are approaching Lamotrek. I have always regarded Lamotrek as the most beautiful of the outer islands and I am not disappointed this time. At 6:30 I am on shore. I will hear confessions tonight to save time in the morning since they want to leave here at 8:00 AM–but of course they won't. So I had another hour of confessions in another pitch dark church. Pitch dark except for an interesting little lamp that looked like a small sardine can with oil in it and a burning wick floating somehow. That surely is not what it was, but that's what it looked like. It gave the confession area a certain mystical glow and I, in my white cassock, appeared the warmly lit guru. Can't do anything on the island tonight–there is no electricity. A local man offered to take me back to the ship so I wouldn't have to wait for the ship's boat.
Back on the ship, at 9.30PM I see a bright fire on the beach–the only light you can see on the island. Beautiful. Disembodied–as if a patch of darkness itself were burning.
An announcement at 5:45 AM calls my name and says a boat is waiting to take me to shore. I had been on the deck. I rush back to my cabin–‘our' cabin–to get all the things I needed. There is now (has been since Fais) a Satawal couple and their little girl staying in this cabin with me. Every few days a new baby has appeared as well. There are now three. It was dark but I could see there were babies strewn around the floor. The mother was also in the middle of the floor, and I had to step carefully (and awkwardly) around her. Any misstep might result in inadvertent infanticide. But I made it without turning on the light. I went ashore at 5:50 AM, or so they say. There are more confessions and we finally start Mass at 6:45. Another ‘no frills' Mass. After Mass I brought communion to seven sick people in various parts of the island, ducking in and out of their elfin doorways. Enough of this could give you a permanent stoop.
On Lamotrek there is a frigate bird on a perch near where we go ashore. I don't know if he's tied to, or merely retired to, this perch. He has the market cornered on awkward looks. He's all put together with coat hangers and his beak is too long–looks like a specialized tool a dentist might use. But he has a wonderful hauteur. He's oblivious of all the commotion going on around him–people coming ashore, boxes and baskets and cases of good parading by him. He just doesn't enter in. But he interests me because I think he's a mystic–field trip ship or no field trip ship, nothing interferes with his inner serenity.
It is after 10:00 AM and we haven't moved an inch. They are still loading copra from Lamotrek. Changing people, too. A field trip is like a long run on Boardway; the cast keeps changing. We of the Original Cast feel a certain proprietary superiority to the young ingénues who have come on mid-season. At 10:30 AM we leave Lamotrek for Elato–only about ten miles west. Not many people there.
Elato is a very lovely island. The church is local style but does not have elfin doorways. It is comforting to walk into a church out here standing upright. It is also brighter inside.
My cabin mates are a source of some wonder. They have access to all kinds of things to eat and drink (or chew). And they must be related to half the people on the ship. This cabin is like a caravansary. They are always offering me coconuts or bananas or fish or chicken or breadfruit or taro or boiled water or betel nuts or rice. A constant stream of people stops by for one or another of their wares–including the crew. Outer Islanders seem to be eating at all hours of the day and night. If you walk around the ship, no matter the hour, you will surely run into a little picnic-like spread of food on the deck floor and, of course, be invited by the ‘picnickers' to join them. My cabin mate told me they have caught two large wahoos from the back of our ship. Even if he doesn't have it himself, he keeps track of all things edible on the ship.
About noon we reach Fachalap. There is a lagoon but the pass is too narrow, so the ship cannot go in. The sky is dark and it is raining a bit. We have to go in on the ship's boats. It is a bit rough, very splashy on the heaving ocean but quieter once we are through the pass. There are three islands in the lagoon, only two inhabited. These are: Fachalap (spelled Farualap for unknown reasons) and Pig (spelled Pigue for obvious reasons). I asked what the people from this island are called–Pigues? Are the children Piglets? No one answers. Most of the field trip party went to Fachalap first and that is where most of the work was to be done. I went to Pig first and had Mass there. About sixty people live on Pig. After the Mass, when I was waiting for the boat to take me to Fachalap for another Mass, I saw the lawyer in our party talking to a group of them. He is processing War Claims. I asked the catechist if there were any claims on this island, and he said no one in this whole lagoon over heard of World War II until it was over. This might give you some idea of where we are!
After Mass I baptized a small child and was asked to take communion to a sick person. I asked the catechist to put a host in the pyx for me while I got some other thing ready. Outer Islanders, when speaking English, frequently exchange ‘g' and ‘h'. This catechist did so with startling theological overtones. As he gave me the pyx he said, "I put one ghost in it." It took me a moment to realize that it was his English and not his theology that was faulty.
At 5:00 or 5:30 AM we are at Ifalik. It is two islands together, joined by a sand bar. Just before 6:00 AM the Field Trip Officer blasted over the PA that the first boat was ready to go in (which it is not) and they are waiting for Father Poulin. I didn't expect this and had to throw everything I needed together (careful not to step on the babies on the floor) and dash down to the service deck. Thank God I was in time to wait ten minutes! They were just putting the ship's boat in the water. From 6:15 until 11:00 AM I was hearing confessions, saying Mass (very interesting singing) and baptizing babies with crazy baptismal names. I made them change Merina to Marina, saying that merina is a kind of sheep. But I was helpless before twins who were named Lilianty and Aliandy. What is one to say? Another one they slipped by us was a girl named "Hansel." If I remember correctly, they do not have things right. Yet, who am I to suggest they name their girl Gretel? Finally I had eight sick calls to people scattered all over both islands. Whatever happened to localized epidemics? I must have walked a mile and a half. The catechist leading me around told me one woman was blanked out. I asked him what he imagines I could do for her. What he meant to say is that she is blind–not blanked out.
I was back in the ship by noon. We will leave soon, look for pirate ships, and finally arrive at Woleai once again. Ifalik is the only place so far where it is overcast, not to say rainy, all the while we were there. Because the chief has determined so, there are no motorboats on the island. Traditional canoes are all over the place, but you will not find a fiberglass boat or a motor here.
There is always the sound of some kind of motor going on this ship. Even when the engine is idle, as it is at the moment, the baloney slicer or something like it is going. It becomes a kind of "white noise" and comprises a semi-conscious element in your very life. As if it is part of a life-support system–stopping the noise amounts to pulling the plug and we all die. It penetrates your subconscious so thoroughly that only at times do you become aware of it–like becoming aware of your own breathing or your pulse. Also the body is conditioned so by the basic movement of the ship (a more or less gentle sway) you can honestly feel this when you are not even on the ship. A number of times I have felt this swaying, as a physical thing, when I was sitting down hearing confessions or even standing at the altar. As I mentioned before, the sea and the ship own us, possess us.
A few months ago the Spirit seized two Taiwanese ships in Sorol, southeast of Ulithi. They had four reef fish in their hold, but they were there to fish–their lines were in the water. They had no permit. Both vessels were seized, their crews transferred to the Spirit; members of the Spirit's crew sailed the two ships to Yap. They were fined $80,000, which means about $20,000 a pound for the fish they had! The lesson: "Don't fool with the Micro Spirit. It's small but terrible."
I just shaved with water from the sink in our cabin. Judging from the color of it, I believe it comes from Golden Pond. "The things that don't kill us make us stronger," to quote Hitler or someone like him.
Talk about "all things to all men." This ship caters to almost every human need. On board are medics (sometimes doctors), hospital workers checking out the local dispensaries, tradesmen, copra buyers, a lawyer, a surveillance team monitoring hundreds of miles of ocean; and last but not least, a priest who cannot speak the language but can perform essential and fundamental rituals. There are also the people from Fisheries who were so involved with the fate of the trochus shells. Now add to this grab bag another role for the Spirit. Church! I just came back from the treatment room where I baptized a six month old baby boy who is being taken to the Yap hospital. He has whooping cough and needs more help than they can provide for him on his island of Lamotrek. We had the full ceremony: candles and oils and everything. The Micro Spirit makes a fine church. The parents had the confidence to call their child "Sereno." That's nice.
Back on the ship after a day in Woleai. I have just finished one of the more wretched experiences of my life. After Mass in Falalop again (another Burton-Bush Mass), I offered to go around for confessions of the sick. Mass ended about 6:00 PM, and the catechist told me there are five sick people and entrusted me to two kids to lead me around. Not one of these people lives within cannon shot of another–and, on top of it, there are not five sick; there are nine. For the first half hour it was light, but then darkness fell like the curtain on the last act. We were already walking from the middle of the island to one end and then we had to go almost to the other end. These islands are small if you compare them with Montana. But walk them in the dark, in the rain (halfway through our trek it began to rain) and you realize how relative the terms "small" and "large" are. This was like Boot Camp–walking through puddles, slipping on the mud–and no idea when it might end. Through jungles and bypaths, and eight of the nine places had elfin doorways which I'm just not designed for.
We are now poised for our move to Eauripik–65 miles away. We will leave here at 2:00 AM to get to Eauripik, as they say, at a good time. Well, there is no good time to get in or out of Eauripik. We get there at 9:00AM. It has a totally hostile reef. The ship's boat takes you up to the reef, then you walk over very difficult coral for the length of several city blocks to get to shore. It is low tide and nothing can approach the island.
Later, on deck, waiting for the others to come on from shore, I was talking to two sailors on our ship. One of them is from Satawal, the island famous for its navigators. The sky is jet black–no star, no horizon. I asked the one from Satawal what traditional navigators do in a situation like this. There are no stars to be seen; nothing is visible. "What do the great navigators do?" I asked. "They use their compasses!" My idols have clay feet.
We are still heading south, commissioned by the police to check out down to latitude 6. So now we are primarily the Avenging Angel and only later will we revert to being a less glamorous fieldtrip ship. If too much of a good thing is bad, what shall we say of too much of a bad thing! Like this ship. The whole party seems tired of it long before it's over. We still have two or three more days. On top of it, for several days now the Yapese are out of betel nut. Now that's serious.
Around 11:00 AM we must have reached latitude 6 because we have now changed course and are heading west. Spotted two purse-seiners. They also spotted us and, being very fast, sped off in different directions without our catching them. Probably American–they have helicopters on board. Around 6:00 PM another one. Small Taiwanese. It tries to get away by running in a zigzag pattern in front of us, and we can see the cook's big pot of rice as it tips over during one zig, then his coffee pot turns over during a zag. Poor guy. From our bridge someone fires a twelve-gauge shotgun and the Taiwanese stop. For all their antics they have a permit also–and no one knows a word of English. We are turning into a ship of fools and I am tired of this policing a million miles of Pacific Ocean.
About 1:30 AM we found another one. This was something else again. He seemed to stop but just as our boarding vessel neared, he turned out all lights (thus violating international laws of navigation) and took off. We yelled "Stop" several times but he kept on going. So we and the ship's boat gave him chase. This went on for three hours. He is small and more maneuverable, but the Spirit is faster. He kept making changes in direction, and we would have to follow in big clumsy circles. He was also trying to ram the ship's boat. We kept our beacon on him all the time. The ship's boat with police kept up with him and even circled him, but they would not give in. About 4:30 AM, one of our crew with the boarding team managed to jump on board–and after him a couple of policemen eith their guns. They said the crew members were trembling. They found the Captain in the wheelhouse with a blanket over his head. They told him to turn on the radio (to talk to our ship) but he didn't (or pretended not to) know any English. They finally found a switch and turned the light on. Of course, they are not registered and have no permit. We have seized the ship, which members of our crew (and two policemen) will occupy until later today. We are now involved in pulling in their lines, which extend over 80 miles of distance. We are taking half and they are taking half on the Taiwan ship itself. It is 8:15 AM and we are nowhere near Sorol, our next island. We have been constantly at sea since 7:00 PM Monday–it is now Wednesday. For the past four hours we have been at these lines, winding up thousands of feet of line by hand. We will probably still be at this absurd task when the world ends with a whimper.
It is 12:30 PM and we have another purse seiner. This Pacific is like a shopping mall parking lot. This one says he has a permit but it is not on board. We check it out with Pohnpei. Meanwhile we just sit here, dead in the water.
It is 3:30 PM and we have just begun to move. All day the ship has been like a New York tenement on a balmy July night–children playing noisily, people chatting on the front stairs. No place to go; nothing to do. I am so numbed by it all that I don't even know what happened to that purse seiner and, frankly, I don't give a damn. Had Dante known of the Micro Spirit, he would have added an eighth circle to Hell.
Since 6:00 we have been pulling in their fishing lines, using the ship's crane. There seem to be millions of feet of fishing line. At about 6:45 we have met with our captive ship. We will now take the crew of the Taiwanese ship on the Spirit (except for their chief engineer). Their captain is weeping. They are our prisoners. Officers from the Spirit will take their ship back to Yap. It's been impounded. Our police shot out their radar antenna last night. I don't know what navigation aids they have on the ship. It turns out, at least until Sorol, they are following us–we are their navigational aid.
We should reach Sorol (with its ten people) about ten o'clock, ending 63 hours at sea since we left Eauripik.
I have just returned from saying Mass on the island of Sorol. Talk about Fantasy Island! It's a fairly large and quite beautiful–but how these people can live here without going quite mad is beyond me. Four young women, a girl of about six, and three infants attended the Mass. The three men, the only other adults on the island, except for a sick old man, were busy with the ship. With Sorol I finish my field trip duties. We have to go back to Fais, but that is only to pick up passengers for Yap.
At 4:30 PM we are in Ulithi. After what we've been through, it looks like Manhattan. At night there are actually electric lights. My cabin mates, Henry and Rita and the expanding number of kids, have gotten off here. There is a pall over the cabin–no more restaurants, head start center, news gathering agency. The caravansary is closed and it is sad.
Just as this field trip seemed to start before it started, it also seems to end before it ends. As we keep dropping off people, it's as if a little lifeblood is slipping away and we are left with the remaining few of the Original Cast to close the show. It has been a long run despite the lack of rave reviews. We will be in Yap tomorrow and perhaps forget the sea ever happened to us.