There are 4 of us expats that had September/October birthdays, so naturally a joint birthday party was in order. To celebrate, a group of 12 of us decided to go camping for a night at Utwe Ma. Utwe Ma translates directly to “old Utwe” and used to function as the capital of the village of Utwe. As it stands, Utwe Ma is a small island about a 15 minute boat ride from Utwe marina.
Our group had tried to organize an Utwe Ma trip last year, but it was rainy for a few days leading up to the weekend and we had to cancel. This time we had sunny days leading up to the weekend, and throughout the morning skies were blue. About an hour before leaving there was a bout of torrential downpour, but lucky for us it didn’t reach as far as Utwe.
Our friend and Nautilus owner Doug gave us a lift on his boat from Utwe marina to Utwe Ma, and our plan was to get picked up the following afternoon. I wasn’t expecting much as far as amenities go, but I was happily surprised. There were somewhere between 5-10 local huts with elevated platforms for sleeping, a bathroom (with a toilet! It was just the kind you have to pour water into to flush), a basketball hoop and ball, and an obvious place for a fire pit.
That night we kicked off the celebrations with the drinks and food we had brought along. We had everything from crab to spaghetti to the camping food of utmost importance- s’mores. A couple of local guys were there trying to hook up the generator for a while, and they eventually got comfortable and decided to stick around for the party. Later on in the evening I saw a couple of the guys chewing betelnut, and decided it was time I finally give it a try.
Flashback to my first week in the FSM: I was riding around with Wayne in Kolonia and we stopped at one of the roadside stores (which is basically a shipping container with a window cut out and shelves inside). Wayne got out of the car and was back in the span of about 30 seconds. He threw a small bag of white powder into the center console and we continued on our way. I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions, but I mean, a small bag of fine white powder.. what else was I supposed to think it was? Surely my host uncle did not just purchase illicit drugs, at a drive-up store, like it was no big deal. Right? I mentally added that to my list of things to discuss with my fellow Peace Corps Trainees. What I soon learned was that no, Kolonia did not have a booming cocaine industry. That fine white powder was actually lime, used for chewing betelnut.
When I had it at Utwe Ma, the betlenut itself (which wikipedia tells me is actually called an “areca nut”) was opened up and hollowed out. My new local friends gave me pointers as I naively prepared the nut, filled it with the tobacco from a cigarette and some lime (the chemical, not the citrus) powder, wrapped it in a betel leaf, and plopped it in my mouth. The nut itself acts as a mild stimulant and more so when paired with the tobacco. The leaf is supposed to mask the taste of everything else, but it does a pretty poor job. Chewing the leaf also makes your spit turn red, which is super attractive when all of a sudden you’re spitting out excess saliva every 5 seconds. Betelnut is pretty common, but I was neither particular keen or reluctant to try it out, so I just never got around to it. In Kolonia both women and men chew, but in Kosrae you really only see men doing it. This was especially evidenced by the amount of entertainment our Kosraean friends were getting out of me chewing for the first time. Overall it wasn’t that bad (kind of like sakau… tolerable if only for the experience of it), and I had another one, but eh, the spit was kind of gross and I think the second one made me sick. My experience with betelnut will probably remain limited to ‘that one time at Utwe Ma’.
The next day we woke up with the sun and cooked beans, eggs, and coffee over the fire. An immediate trend we noticed was that everyone was feeling itchy and had red dots over some part of their arms/legs/face. I had been prepared for the mosquitoes, I had even been mentally prepared for all the crabs running around (I’ve developed an unsubstantiated fear of land crabs.. ugh), but none of us had been prepared for the sand flies. Tiny black creatures they are, you wouldn’t think they could pack much of a punch. Apparently they aren’t deterred by normal bug spray, and most of us had, without much success, fought them all night.
The only way to get away from the sand flies was to get in the water, so most of us spent the entire day out on the sand bar. I reapplied sunscreen 3 times, and still had the sunburns to show for it L. From at least 8-12 the tide was low enough to sit or lay in the water, and it wasn’t until after that that we actually had to swim. It was nice to have just our group there and not have to worry about wearing a normal swimsuit and showing too much skin.
Around 3 o’clock Doug dutifully returned to pick us up and we reloaded the boat with our bags and a significantly lighter cooler. A successful trip and fantastically fun birthday celebration for the books. I definitely want to organize another trip back, but a lot of us were plagued by sand fly bites for about a week after the trip. Danny, a PCV in Walung village said they get really bad right at new moon (when we went) and full moon. Oops.. lesson learned.