It took some time for me to reflect and fully articulate all of the feelings that came out of being in Ulithi. Making sense of the experience from a distance has aroused more questions in some areas and brought clarity to my own ambitions in other ways. Working along side this community was an absolute privilege and shifted some of my perspectives forever. I’d like to share a bit of what this trip stirred up inside of me. Perhaps this very personal account will shake you in some way too.
Arriving on a disaster torn atoll – far more damaged than I could’ve imagined – with roughly a hundred attentive Ulithians at the tiny airport smiling and waving with anticipation or our arrival, evoked a sublime heartache in me, which I fought to stifle in order to walk off the plane with some appearance of dignified excitement. Taking our first steps on Falalop was just as humbling. My mind wandered back to the clothing drive Cabrillo students had put together months before in Santa Cruz in the wake of Typhoon Maysak. The t-shirts and used board shorts we sent felt insignificant as we wandered between thrashed, highly unlivable homes and obliterated fishing boats. The conditions were absolutely tragic. I hadn’t realized that picking up the pieces to return to a usual life would take years for this community. Still, one could note the beautiful pioneer flowers sprouting from dismembered branches as a sort of symbol of regrowth.
Despite the destruction and seemingly endless work on the horizon, the Ulithian people had a sincerely graceful way about them. Confined by the scarce living spaces and resources left behind by the storm, the communities were pulling together with remarkable positivity and making it work. Genuine in tone and intention, Falalop’s community welcomed us for the following few weeks with open arms.
Our first few days on their island were full of introductions and community meetings. There was a formality about this process that I hadn’t anticipated, but came to understand later. Aside from being in no place to entertain visitors, this community, among others in the Atoll, has a rich culture that they work very intentionally to keep alive. As visitors, we were vigilant to be sensitive to cultural differences. Our team had quite a bit of oral and literary preparation on Ulithi culture before arriving, in order to relate and be sure we wouldn’t step on any taboos. For all I’m concerned, you can do all the research in the world on another culture, but until you sit with it and feel its vibrant pulse, you’ll only be aware of it through your own lens.
Prior to arriving, my own lens was an awareness of the separation of sexes on this Atoll. I had traveled to Fiji years before and remembered feeling unsettled with a clear inequality between genders. Obviously, Fiji is culturally different than Ulithi, but I had mentally prepared myself to bite my lip and look past the context of differences I wouldn’t agree with through a western mindset.
The separation of men and women in both division of labor and physical realm at any given time was apparent. What took more time for me to gauge was how much power the women held in their communities. The separation didn’t seem to be a disadvantage for anyone and is more in place to accommodate a complicated cultural perception of sex and relationships. Ulithi women hold an extensive knowledge of plants and fish and an incredibly impressive set of skills, ranging anywhere from collecting and keeping medicinal herbs to propagation gardening to weaving intricate lava lavas on a loom. These women are soft-spoken but wildly empowered in themselves and in their culture. As this truth revealed itself to me, my western lens began to dissipate and I came to understand the separation in cultural context for practicality.
I recall our first informal meeting with the Ulithi students on our team. I brought over my Ukulele as a sort of icebreaker and we plopped down on the grass one late afternoon on Falalop. I sang a couple of songs, joyfully strumming the Uke as our Ulithi team watched and tapped their knees in percussion. Their ages ranged from sixteen to twenty or so. Austin, a Ulithi boy, asked me if he could play a bit. I handed him the Uke and we all watched as the most beautiful songs began pouring out of him. His cousins on either side of him were singing in profound harmonies as he played. I exchanged glances with some of the American team in amazement. We learned later that most of the island’s instruments were lost in the Typhoon and Austin and his cousins had been aching to make music ever since. After that day, the Ukulele became not just a thing that bonded us, but for me, an important avenue on which I could relate to our Ulithi team. Naturally, music transcends culture and language barriers, and I am grateful that it connected us so deeply and effortlessly.
Another memory for the ol’ bank: hopping out of our boat at Piig Leilei to conduct a couple size frequency surveys. I paired up with Miles that day – another Ulithi boy who totally had the surveying methods down and was a better free-diver than anyone on the American team. We laid down our 10-meter transect line underwater while charcoal colored clouds rolled in quicker than I’d ever seen. When I I surfaced to call out a couple of coral measurements to Miles, it was dumping rain. The horizon was white with mist and wet chaos but the ocean beneath us was a warm enveloping cradle – completely calm and unstirred. Miles came up for a breath and asked if I was okay. “This is amazing!” I howled. He looked confused and asked, “Really?”
Later, the tide dropped and the waves picked up. We were all getting a bit scuffed up by corals as we persisted through our surveys. Meanwhile the water was surging with amplified power and waves were breaking right onto our site. It was awkward diving a mere two or three feet to measure lengths of corals in between white water intervals, all while trying not to accidentally kick any of them. We would just let our bodies go limp when the waves rolled through, letting them float us over the coral wonderland just inches beneath us. Feeling the power and gentleness of the sea simultaneously is such a humbling experience. I felt like the ocean was looking out for us.