POHNPEI, Micronesia—They call it "the lost city of the Pacific," but in truth Nan Madol has never been "lost" in the sense of having been hidden from European eyes.
Whereas places like Chichen Itza in Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru deserve the description, not having been discovered by Old World explorers until long after they'd arrived in the New World, Nan Madol was located almost as soon as whalers began visiting Pohnpei in the 1820s.
It wasn't hard to find: Nan Madol, 92 man-made islets topped by buildings in various stages of ruin, stands in the tidal flats just off tiny Temwen Island, on the edge of the reef that surrounds Pohnpei a few kilometres from shore. Narrow stretches of water separate the islets, giving rise to the description of the place as "the Venice of the Pacific."
Like most visitors I took a boat ride to Nan Madol from one of the lagoon-side resorts on Pohnpei, stopping for some snorkelling in the gin-clear water along the way.
As we negotiated the islets' "canals" prior to landing we saw that the city was built behind walls of naturally formed, hexagonal basalt pillars (weighing, we were told, up to five tonnes each) that had been stacked horizontally, log-cabin style.
After the walls were built, explained Philip, our guide, the space inside was filled with coral rubble to bring it above water level and thus create the islets.
"This all took place, archeologists believe, between the ninth and the 15th centuries," he said, adding that local legend has it that the massive stones were flown, as if by some sort of magic, from the quarries on Pohnpei. The more mundane explanation is that they were floated over, and indeed divers have found some stone "logs" in the lagoon between Nan Madol and the mainland...stones, they say, that must have fallen off of rafts.
In its heyday Nan Madol was the royal and religious headquarters of the Saudeleurs, the tyrannical dynasty that ruled Pohnpei. "They were overthrown by the Nahmwarkis, probably in the 16th century," said Philip. "After that, Nan Madol went into decline."
From here the royals and priests — estimated to number about 1,000 — ruled the 30,000 inhabitants of Pohnpei. Several islets, known collectively as Madol Powe or the mortuary sector, are given over to burial tombs. Other islets had special purposes, such as canoe building on Dapahu, and central kitchens on Usennamw.
It was a pleasant way to spend a few hours, walking the ruined streets and sailing the "canals," but everyone leaves by dusk. Our guide explained, "There's a legend that you'll die if you spend the night here." He added, philosophically, "But it doesn't say when you'll die, and I suppose everybody dies sometime..."
Visitors are warned, too, not to disturb the stones on pain of death, and here again there's a story. It tells how in 1907, when the island was part of Germany's far-flung empire, the Prussian governor died of a mysterious ailment after starting to excavate a burial site.
Pohnpei is part of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) in the western Pacific Ocean, just north of the equator.
For more information go to the FSM Visitors Board website at visit-fsm.org.
Micronesia: peaceful beach hides bloody WWII past
PELELIU, Micronesia — Cal, a U.S. Marines veteran from Minnesota, stands on the white sand of Orange Beach. "Last time I was here I was crouching and running for cover," he says. "I made it. So many of my buddies didn't. I was 20-years-old."
That was in 1944. It was the beginning of the U.S. attack on Peleliu, one of the bloodiest — and least known — battles of the Second World War.
Today on Orange Beach and Amber Beach and White Beach the sands are pure and soft and the palm fronds bend in the gentle trade winds. The only reminders that this was once hell on earth are the rusting hulks of a few U.S. landing craft, half buried in the sand but still visible at low tide.
Inland a little ways the jungle has grown thick and deep again over earth once burned white by phosphorous bombs. Water fills the craters gouged by the shells that pounded the tiny island from a fleet of warships offshore.
I stood with Cal on that once blood-soaked beach and, in my mind, heard the words of a young American corporal in a letter written to his sweetheart. "Say hello to Rev. Peterson," he wrote. "Tell him my faith is reasonably intact... He won't have to preach to me about hell any more. I've just been there."
The hell of 1944 is now a peaceful island of 600 people, mostly fisherfolk. It's also a time capsule of the war in the Pacific, a living history museum. At every turn you find reminders: rusting tanks, crashed fighter planes, grenades, mortars, bazookas, machine guns, bayonets, handguns, water canteens...
Ten thousand soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army held off U.S. Marines and Army here for 10 weeks, starting September 14, 1944, in an action that General William Rupertus had said would take "three days, maybe two."
But the Japanese fought almost literally to the last man. When it was all over the Americans had taken only 18 prisoners. The rest perished, many in the network of caves that the Americans sealed with explosions.
I stood in an unsealed cave, the entrance blackened by flamethrowers, and examined the contents: pill bottles and other medical supplies on a ledge, a few rusting helmets, a skeleton wearing remnants of a uniform, a machine-gun loaded with a belt of ammunition...
The battle cost 1,800 American lives (with a further 6,500 wounded.) And the awful thing is that they, and the Japanese defenders, probably died in vain, for historians say that by late 1944 U.S. bombing had reduced Peleliu to a negligible threat to the planned invasion of the Philippines. Even at the time, Admiral "Bull" Halsey suggested that they simply bypass Peleliu, but Admiral Chester Nimitz ruled that the island must be taken.
Two much more pleasant reasons for visiting Peleliu are its beaches and scuba diving. For scuba enthusiasts Peleliu Wall, off the southwest tip of the island, is one of the world's finest dives, an abrupt 270-metre (885-foot) drop.
Peleliu is in the Republic of Palau, part of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) in the western Pacific Ocean, just north of the equator.
For more information go to the FSM Visitors Board website at http://visit-fsm.org/visitors.