Mog Mog

I always wanted to travel the remote islands of Micronesia and after my adventures around the islands of Indonesia came to an end in 1993, the time was right. My first trip to Mog Mog was carefully planned as I did for all my trips. A good plan is better than no plan but none of my adventures went entirely as planned and had to be improvised at some point. Mog Mog was no exception.

After days of visiting government offices around Yap to obtain all the permits and signatures required for an outsider to visit the outer islands, I boarded the small missionary plane bound for Flalap, Ulithi for the first time. As we flew over the large Ulithi lagoon I saw many small atolls that make up the island chain. “Which one was Mog Mog?” I wondered. As the plane got lower I noticed several people on one atoll run to a motorized canoe and took off as fast as the little boat could go. They appeared to be following the plane. “That must be Mog Mog”, I thought. All the paperwork, signatures, permits, and approvals from Yap are going to pay off and they are sending a boat to meet me at the airport. At least that was the plan.

The plane circled around Flalap before lining up for final approach. This was to warn everyone on the island to stay off the runway for the next several minutes. I was in the copilot's seat and pulled out my camera for an aerial picture of Flalap.

"Did you get a good picture?" Asked the pilot over the headphones. "I can circle around again if you want another picture."

"No, no, it's good," I answered in total surprise from the pilot's offer.

Once exiting the plane I noticed the small, one room, open-walled building that was the terminal. A roof on four posts is what it really was. In the room, as well as every other shady area around the runway, sat people who came to watch the plane land. I walked over to the room and noticed an older gentleman who appeared to be very sad.

We started talking and became instant friends. His name was Servan Gieor and was from Mog Mog. He came to Flalap with his daughter who entered the plane that I just exited on her way to a far off island for high school.

Servan offered to take me to Mog Mog. Meeting Servan was a lucky coincidence because no one was waiting for my arrival. In fact, no one knew I was coming. “What were all the permits for?” I wondered.

The small, motorized boat heading for Mog Mog had six passengers including myself. The captain ran the little engine to its max. The waves were large even though we never left the Ulithi lagoon. When the boat was on the crest of a wave I could see the distant atolls that I flew over earlier that day. Smack. The motorized rowboat flops to the trough of a wave and all that could be seen in every direction were walls of water. Over and over again the boat drops off the crest and smacks the bottom of the wave with such force that each time I was surprised the boat held together. I have no love for small boats so this trip seemed to take forever.

The missionary plane flew over the boat on its way back to Yap. I watched the plane and could imagine Servan's daughter looking down at us from the plane just as I watched them earlier. Mog Mog must have been getting close because, with a nonverbal cue, everyone took off his or her shirts. Mog Mog is a very traditional atoll and non-traditional clothes were not allowed.

Upon arrival we went to the men's hut. It is tradition to give a verbal report in the men's hut every time a boat returns from a trip. The report still has to be given even if there is no one in the men's hut to listen. This time the men's hut was full and I wondered if it was because of me. Servan told me that the Chief must give his permission for me to stay and this would be after the men discussed the issue. “What were all the special permits and signatures in Yap for? Nothing.” I finally answered my question. The discussion, entirely in the local language which was foreign to me, ended and I was told that they decided I would stay with Servan.

Servan had another daughter and two sons, all younger than the daughter who just left. The older of the two sons was named Kelly and spoke very good English. His teacher was the only American Peace Corps worker to teach on Mog Mog.

Kelly became ‘my little partner’ as I called him and he was happy to have the title. As the days went on, Kelly showed me the island and introduced me to everyone. He was my history and culture teacher and translator.

An interesting note here: For my other adventures to remote places if anyone spoke English it was the children and they would be my translators when talking to the adults. In Mog Mog all the adults spoke good English and always surprised me with their use of formal words to describe simple issues; and the children of Mog Mog, with the exception of Kelly's few classmates, could not speak English.

Every time Kelly and I walked around, a dozen more kids quickly joined us. I always brought pieces of candy to hand out and a snack for all to share. One walk I brought a bag of peanuts. The children were eager to try this strange snack. I noticed the kids were chewing the shell as well and realized that they were not familiar with peanuts. They were familiar with peanut butter, however, and they noticed that there was a picture of a jar of peanut butter on the peanut bag and commented that there is a picture of a peanut on the jar of peanut butter.

One day the children came to me very anxious to take me to the beach. On the beach were three large sea turtles lying on their backs. They were still alive but not for much longer. Mog Mog was the traditional chief island of the Ulithi island chain. One of the traditions involved the catching and eating of sea turtles. If a sea turtle was caught on any of the Ulithi atolls then it must be brought to Mog Mog to be slaughtered. The head chief would do the honors and give a portion of the meat back to the people who caught the turtle to bring back to their island. The remaining meat was distributed to the people of Mog Mog. The elders told me that, when they were young, the sea turtles were caught a hundred at a time. Now three was considered a good catch.

Another traditional food for Mog Mog was coconut crab. The crabs were a foot to a foot and a half long. Their claws were tied shut and the crabs were hanging from the roof over the picnic table, which was used as their dinning table. They were kept alive for days until we were ready to eat them. Then they were tossed into the campfire to be cooked. It was the best food I ever had.

The next day a hunting trip was formed to take us to a nearby, uninhabited island to catch more coconut crabs. The women showed me their method to find the coconut crabs. It went something like this, "See that branch in the tree. The rain would run off that branch, land on the ground right here. We need to go this way two feet, turn left one foot and dig right at this spot." I didn't understand the method but they dug in that spot and found a large coconut crab. They quickly dug up five or six more using the same method.

One man showed me his method to find sea turtle eggs. We walked on the beach until we came to a spot. To me, the spot looked the same as every other spot. He said, "The turtle came out of the water here... and walked over here... and... There. I'll dig there." He dug with his bare hands and sure enough, several feet down he found sea turtle eggs. While sitting in the hole he just made, he tilted his head back, crushed an egg in his hand over his mouth and drank what came out. I watched him drink twenty or more eggs before I decided to go see what else was happening.

I found another man from our hunting party constructing a snare with string. Sometime in the past someone released chickens on that uninhabited island and the chicken's descendants were still there, but now they were very hard to catch. He waited patiently with his snare set up thirty or more feet away. When a chicken steps in the snare he would have to pull the string. Chickens were walking all around the snare but I didn't have the patience to wait for the capture.

Others were getting the cooking fire ready for the feast. We had a great meal later that day. I limited my food to only bananas and coconut crab but the meal also included wild vegetables, turtle eggs, and even a wild chicken.

Every night Servan and I drank tuba. I guess that tuba could also be called coconut tree wine. At first the taste is terrible but after the second glass it tastes great. I went with Servan numerous times to prepare the tuba and he taught me the process.

First you need to find a coconut tree with a new branch where coconuts would soon grow. The branch is wrapped tight with sting. Three times a day he would visit his trees and cut a thin slice off the end of the branch and tie a coconut cup under the fresh cut branch. The sap would drip from the branch into the cup. The inside of the cup must never be scrapped clean because that is how the tuba ferments. By the end of the day all the sap is collected and had already had enough time to ferment. All the collected tuba must be consumed that night because if it is left for the next day then it would too powerful to drink.

Every time I passed the men’s hut I noticed one old man sitting and diligently working on something. My curiosity finally got to me and I asked what he was making. I then got a crash course on the traditional art of coconut rope making. Coconuts are placed in a pond for months and then dried. The little strands of fiber are then pealed from the coconut husk. Months are then spent rolling the strands together between the hand and upper leg. Every once in a while he added another few strands and continued rolling the rope on his leg. It took a very long time. His legs were smooth, all the hair had been pulled out and probably mixed into the rope he made in the past.

Each time I visited Mog Mog I would give my camera to Kelly and he would take all the pictures. When I returned the next time I would bring back a copy of all the pictures Kelly took on my previous trip. The island was very excited when I did this. Three of the times that I returned with pictures I discovered that one of pictures was of someone who had died since my last visit and I had the only picture ever taken of that person. The family was grateful to have a picture of their loved one.

Over the next decade I probably made 20 trips to Mog Mog. I was considered part of Servan’s family and everyone on island knew my name. One elder told me, “There have been other outsiders to come to Mog Mog but you are the only one to return a second time.” This must have helped strengthen my relationship with the people.

I met Servan because he was sending his daughter to a far off island for high school. I didn’t know it at the time but that island turned out to be the same island that I decided to call home years later. His daughter became my student at the college and she kept me up to date on the people of Mog Mog. It has now been years since my last visit and Servan has past away.

Read more of "My Adventures" on the top right of this page.

Servan
My little partner, KellyA whale washed onto the reef.One of my trips to Mog Mog I recognized the face on the cover of the airplane magazine, so I brought her a copy.Sea Turtles.Santa came to Mogmog, but in Mogmog he comes on New Year's Day, flying over in an old WWII bomber, and drops the presents out with a parachute.


Read more of "My Adventures" on the top right of this page.



8 comments:

George said...

On July 23, 1945 and on board a troop ship, U.S.S Granville we stopped at a Navy Recreationa Island they told us was Mog Mog Island. We went ashore and about all there was to do was drink beer and lay in the sand. I didn't see any island natives.
George Dalin georged307@gmail.com

EW Johnson said...

You're correct. I was told that the natives were all moved to a different island (I forgot which island) and Mog Mog was converted to a recreation island during WWII. I believe I was told that it was for officers only. Is that correct? There is still an old bulldozer on the island (not sure if it is American or Japanese) and there are still lots of WWII beer bottles as well. I've seen a few pictures from that time and was surprised how many U.S. ships were in the Ulithi Atoll.

EW Johnson said...

Eric,
When I was there, enlisted men used the island also. As an AMM1/c, I pulled liberty on the island on July 23 and 24th We had left San Francisco on June 26 so it was a relief to get off the ship. I was in CASU (F) 11 and we were heade for Okinawa where we would maintain land based Navy aircraft. It took a total of 45 days from Frisco to Okinawa.
George

John Nemecek said...

Hi, is there any other web link to more of your photos and films from the Mog Mog Island, please? Would very much appreciate to learn more about the place. It's been my life long dream to visit islands of Micronesia, however have never done so, due to such a great distance from my homeland of the Czech Republic in Europe. Would love to hear from you. Thank you. Yours sincerely, John Nemecek, Czech Republic, E-mail: info@nemecek.com

EW Johnson said...

Hi John, Sadly my greatest adventures were before the digital camera so I don't have many pictures. You can see my latest adventures here:
http://saipanpictures.blogspot.com/

richard ehrbar said...

MARCH 1945 ON OUR WAY TO OKINAWA
WE HAD A BEER PARTY ON MOM MOG
I REMAMBER A CEMATARY WITH A SMALL
WOODEN FENCE AROUND IT WAS TOLD DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING AT THE GRAVE SITE. LANDED APRIL 1 1945 ON
OKINAWA
RICHARD EHRBAR US MARINE

Anonymous said...

I was aboard the USS Yorktown and went to Mog Mog a few times. The beer was not all that good and I sold my beer chits for a dollar. Softball seemed to the favorite recreation of the Yorktown crews.
R. D. Harding

EW Johnson said...

Thanks Richard and R.D.
I enjoy hearing pieces of history like those.