Birthday on the Mountain

As Oau, Lioau, Nahlik, and I hiked up the winding mountain trail, I understood why we were being sent to represent the family at the old man's birthday party. The old man lived a kilometer into the rain forest and a quarter kilometer up the mountain. The trail was steep in places, and neither Nahnawa nor Luhen felt up to the climb. The task of presenting the family's offerings had fallen to the younger and the more able.

Nahlik had the heaviest load - a box of canned goods. Half way up Nahlik declared he was exhausted and sat down on a rock to rest. I gave Nahlik my lighter box and hefted the canned goods onto my head. No one here carries head loads, and this was exactly the type of situation for which head loading was intended.

I continued a slow climb up the mountain, with Nahlik just behind me. Lioau and Oau were somewhere well down the path - Lioau was working on getting all 180 pounds of her five foot two inch frame up the mountain. Along the way we passed homes scattered along the path, at each home a few children would stare at me, puzzled and frightened by the pale beast with a box on its head. After rising onto a basaltic ridge line, the trail veered left and down into a ravine. At the bottom of the ravine was a spring fed dip well and five children washing a large fish. The trail then climbed a short ways to the home of the old man.

Nahlik and I walked into the small bilevel compound. The lower level had a small open air nahs to the right and an open cook hut with a thatch roof to the left. Children and adults were milling about the lower compound exchanging greetings. The upper level, at the back of the lower level contained a cement block house. The house was situated at the-end of a spur of a ridge line off of Mount Dolotomw.

I turned towards the nahs where sakau was already in session. I recognized Thomas Miguel near the stone in use, and headed into the nahs with my head load. "Kaselehlie, maingko!" I said to the gathered elders. "Sang Nahngoro!" I explained. "Kohdo kang sakau!" responded Thomas. I approached the stone and was offered the coconut cup containing the sakau. Sakau is pounded plant roots, what the Polynesians call kava. Here in Pohnpei, and only in Pohnpei, we mash up the roots by pounding them on special basalt slabs. Also unique to Pohnpei is that the crushed roots are squeezed using hibiscus bark, making our sakau uniquely slimy. The drink is best when it is a thick, slimy, muddy concoction. I tipped the cup up and let a glug of the sakau slide down inside of me. The sakau was smooth, lacking any of the bitterness typical of young sakau. The sakau was almost minty and very thick, clearly top notch stuff. My tongue went immediately numb.

Definitely good stuff. I immediately knew that getting down off the mountain would be the far more difficult task. I snapped off a couple photos of the sakau session and then headed about the compound to seek out photo opportunities. Pohnpeians are much more relaxed about cameras and unposed shots than Ghanaians, and one can wander about freely taking pictures of near on anything and everything.

Around me was buzz of activity. Pigs making their final arrival, immediately slaughtered and prepared for the uhm, yams, breadfruit, and more sakau plants coming up the mountain path. On the upper level chicken and fish were being barbecued on a barbecue pit dug into the ground. Near the uhm women were preparing bananas, taro, and boiled yams. The uhm was still burning: a pile of basaltic rock on top of a wood fire. When the rocks are sufficiently hot, the pile is knocked down, the remaining burning wood is pulled hot, and food is placed on the hot rocks. Some rocks are put on top of the food, and then the whole pile is covered with a thick layer of banana leaves. The result is food that has the moistness of steaming and the charbroiling that one associates with a barbecue. After snapping off an assortment of photos, I went into the nahs to enjoy the sakau.

Oau and Lioau arrived, and Oau immediately began assisting in getting a second stone sukesuk: wet with sakau. I had settled in near a third stone, which was also about to go into use. I gave my camera to Lioau and went about looking for a pounding stone. I found one that was little larger than I had been using, but bigger is better.

With the arrival of the unpounded sakau at the stone, I sat down to pound. Few of the relatives there realized that I had been pounding for six months and knew full well what I was doing. They watched with amusement at the white man and a stone they knew was too big for beginner. All must have been betting I would get in a couple whacks and become exhausted. The head pounded triple tapped the stone with his pounder stone and then cried out "Sukesuk!" We then began whamming away at the sakau full force. My pounder was hefty and very level bottomed, an ancient, well- used beauty of a stone. The chuckling around me died out as the gathered elder relatives watched me keep apace of the Pohnpeian pounders. Part way through to sukesuk a Pohnpeian politely asked if he could take over for me, but I declined. My arm was unused to hefty stone and letting someone else pound was a welcome thought. I knew, however, that Oau and I were officially representing the family - family honor was on the line. I wanted Nahnawa to hear that he sent men to represent the family and not mice. I would pound through to sukesuk.

Upon reaching sukesuk, the head pounder cried out "Mwut!" With that the squeezer came to the stone. The pigs were ready to come off the uhm, and I went to take photographs. When I returned to the third stone, where I had pounded, I was offered an early cup of the sakau. I felt honored. A fourth stone had come on line and Thomas's brother slipped me cups passed to him from the fourth stone between cups I received from the third stone. Time passes nicely when one is drinking off of two stones.

At some later point a lovely young girl handed a china plate piled high with food. I suddenly realized I was hungry and left the stones to eat. I staggered half way towards the cook hut and then flopped down on a log. No way I was going to get down this mountain. The food was superb. Barbecue chicken, blackened reef fish, uhmed pork, taro, yam, banana and coconut milk, cabbage salad, white rice, festival rice, and chocolate cake. I was stuffed and ready to sleep when Oau came up and said, "Nrk, tai!"

I contemplated simply remaining on my log and living out the rest of my life there on the spur. Then I dragged my anesthetized ass off the log and staggered along behind Oau. The hike down the mountain was a prolonged slow motion fall interrupted by stretches of staggering. Sakau does not affect the mind, it is curious stuff. Only one's body is anesthetized. I wound up at the bottom of the mountain ahead of the rest of the sakaula crew. We had parked the car next to one of Wone's clear mountain streams, and I had surf trunks on for underwear. I stripped down to my surf trunks, ran across the basalt boulders, and threw myself into the stream. The cool water rushed and crashed over me, bringing a sense of control over my long lost limbs. For some people cold water enhances sakaula, for others it opens up the deadened nerves and revitalizes. That day I was revitalized by the cold water.

On the bridge over the stream children gathered and stared at the crazy white man. Oau, Lioau, and Nahlik arrived and they too watched the happy loon splashing in the water. I clambered out, shook myself off, and climbed into the back of the pick-up truck for the long ride home to Kolonia. There may be no easily accessible surf here, but I'll take sakau on the stone on Pohnpei any day to any place I've been in the states.