Drinking with the Prince of P'Pass

Stu Nettle
Swellnet Dispatch

Yesterday I met the Prince of Palikir Pass. He knocked on my door just after midday and I let him in. We spoke for a while and he is indeed a prince, his father being the King of Sokehs, the region of Pohnpei that includes Palikir. He explained the terms of his monarchy as he ripped the top off a soft pack of cigarettes. The Prince smokes Marlboro filterless.

We talked business for a while on my porch but as it was a Friday afternoon anxiety was setting in. “What are you doing now?” he asked. I had no plans, the surf had dropped below measurement, the sun was soon setting, I’d vaguely thought about ordering tuna ngirri with Asahi and watching the shadows lengthen across the bay.

The Prince had a better idea. “Have you ever drunk sakau?” he asked.

I told him I hadn't. The Prince's eyes lit up with an idea. “You'll love sakau. Come with me.”

We hopped into his four wheel drive and together we drove to the old section of Kolonia. The Prince knew everyone on the island, he'd turn left across oncoming traffic, stick his middle finger up at the approaching car and the driver would laugh and hit the brakes or maybe he'd mock a car crash. Whatever their reaction it was jokes all 'round. The Prince would yell friendly greetings out his open window and passerbys would wave their hands over their shoulders.

The Prince explained how he'd just returned from Ethiopia where he'd attended a UNESCO conference. He'd been dry for two weeks. “No sakau in Addis Ababa!” We parked across the road from what looked to me like a sparsely planted banana orchard. It was ringed by a wooden fence with chairs and tables set up haphazardly inside of it. “Welcome to the sakau bar!” said the Prince enthusiastically.

Sakau bars such as this are set up all around the island of Pohnpei. And while the sakau ritual holds cultural significance in Pohnpei it's also used as a social lubricant by the common people, and no time is that more apparent than on Friday nights when the hard working islanders just want to relax and be among like-minded folk.

“The guys who like to talk about politics, they sit there” said the Prince pointing to a troupe of stiff-backed drinkers, before pointing to an empty table. “While the musicians they'll come and they'll sit over there. Everyone has their clique.”

“What do you like to talk about?” I asked.

“Oh, we're the wise ones...mainly we talk about girls,” he said smiling while gesturing for me to sit.

I was introduced to Jun, who's a lead singer in an ACDC cover band, and then almost immediately another fella, also called Jun, who's the vice president of the local bank, sat down to join us. The trio spoke Pohnpeiian for a few minutes, easy in each other’s company while the Prince nodded to every new face that entered the sakau bar. He was a man among his people.

Then he turned toward me and spoke English. “You don't have to have every helping of sakau, you can say no, and you can even spit some out if you don’t like it. If it was for an event there'd be customs to observe but there are none so drink up and enjoy!”

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Make yourself comfortable...

The Prince took the first swig from the coconut cup, swallowed then exhaled loudly. He passed the cup to me and let his shoulders slump. I looked into the grey water then took two big mouthfuls as the others watched on smiling.

Sakau in Pohnpei is the same as Kava in Fiji or 'ava in Hawaii, it also has a few other names in the places it's drunk around the Central Pacific. It's all produced in a similar way, the roots of the Kava plant are beaten to a pulp then drained and either drunk straight or mixed with additives. The Prince proudly insists Pohnpeiian sakau is stronger than that of other countries. “We use younger plants so it's more potent plus we mix it with hibiscus to make it taste better.”

And the taste wasn’t nearly as bad I expected, much like slightly soapy water with a touch of grit and a hibiscus high note. I said yes to the next helping and the helping after that. Meanwhile the Prince and the two Jun's cajoled each other good naturedly. They were regularly interrupted by others who called by the table and asked questions in the local dialect. It didn’t take a degree in anthropology to discern what was unfolding, time spent in bars around the world was enough to recognise the communal release of stress, of worries being relieved by sharing them with friends.

Despite being the only honky in the sakau bar I didn’t feel foreign. I also didn't feel the least bit conspicuous. You can chalk that up to the sakau high which creates a wonderful feeling of harmony. In the past, chiefs would use sakau to avoid bloodshed, to bring warring tribes together and settle their differences peacefully.

The Prince laughed when he told me about surfers at Pailikir Pass. “I paddled out there thousands of times, fished it since I was this high,” he gestured to his knee, “and I had no idea it was a perfect wave. All I see is whitewash!” Everyone at the table roared.

“You should’ve made it exclusive,” I said jokingly. “Made us surfers pay for it. You’ve heard of Fiji, right?”

The Prince laughed and then drew a line through my jest. “You know, it wasn’t locals who created the situation in Fiji, but others who came later. We are just happy that surfers come and enjoy Pohnpei.”

However, it’s not just surfers that come to Pohnpei and the topic causes some consternation at the table - at least as much consternation as could be mustered through the sakau fog. The trickle of Asian tourists is steadily increasing and the men are wary. They know tourism can solve Pohnpei’s unemployment problem but they also know how it would alter their little island. There’s been talk about big hotels being built.

“If they ask for a loan through the bank I’m going to deny them,” says Jun the bank worker laughing as he imitates stamping an official form. The Prince told me the locals recently had a reprieve. The airport runway was extended but the work stalled before it reached a length where larger planes could land. “The jumbos would roll right off into the lagoon!”

“And if they ask for a loan to lengthen the runway I’ll deny them too!” said Jun to much laughter.

I sensed that encroaching development was a common topic around this table, but fortunately it’s still so distant that it can easily be batted away with a joke and another round of sakau.

9pm feels like midnight in Kolonia and the sakau drinkers slowly begin to dissipate. The Prince and I stand to leave and I quickly have to sit back down again. “Don’t walk too fast and try and hold onto things,” someone suggests helpfully. I thank whoever said it, slowly push up on the table, lean against a palm tree, then aim for the door.

The Prince helps me into the car before starting it up and rolling his way through the old part of Kolonia, our headlights illuminate mangy dogs and teenagers smoking on street corners. The Prince waves at all of them.

Comments

goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 4:33pm

Which one of those guys is you Stu?

boxright's picture
boxright's picture
boxright commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 4:38pm

ha ha ha

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 8:45pm

Take your pick. By that stage we were all princes.

Ash's picture
Ash's picture
Ash commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 5:32pm

"much like slightly soapy water with a touch of grit and a hibiscus high note", all would be connoisseurs should take note, it's not the delicate grit and soapy water taste to look for it's the hint of hibiscus.
“Don’t walk too fast and try and hold onto things,” is the next thing to note very carefully
Gotta love that.
Cheers

Island Bay's picture
Island Bay's picture
Island Bay commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 6:13pm

That was good.

lucky-al's picture
lucky-al's picture
lucky-al commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 7:09pm

nice one, stu! did the prince tell you why he attended that unesco conference?

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 7:49pm

Hey Al!

The Prince was the driving force in getting Nan Madol heritage listed with UNESCO. Like the Moai of Rapa Nui or the Great Pyramids of Giza no-one knows how or why the ruins at Nan Madol were constructed.

"We often have anthropologists and archaeologists pass through," said The Prince, "but none of them have solved the mystery."

"I like it that way."

crg's picture
crg's picture
crg commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 7:34pm

They sound like a fun bunch...I'll be sure to share a cup or two with them if I win the P-Pass comp!

I'm not cheap,
But I'm free.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 8:54pm

'Despite being the only honky in the sakau bar'

I loved that bit especially.

1173

misa003's picture
misa003's picture
misa003 commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 9:37pm

Good report Stu. I was wondering what made you look a little "Peaky" on Saturday morning at the Bank of Guam. Now I know what a sakau hangover looks like. Cheers Mike

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 10:08pm

Ha ha...I found there are no sunglasess dark enough to hide from a sakau hangover. But funnily enough, driving around the island listening to cheeseball reggae kinda helped.

Pleasure to meet you Mike.

Nick Bone's picture
Nick Bone's picture
Nick Bone commented Monday, 12 Dec 2016 at 10:16pm

Haha. As i was readong at the start i was about to jump too the comments to ask if this was similar to kava.

Its weird. I kinda enjoyed the taste of Kava. Like a dirty water taste like you described. I was pretty fucked next day but. I think you gotta get used to living on 'kava time'

I am the bone

Ontheroad's picture
Ontheroad's picture
Ontheroad commented Tuesday, 13 Dec 2016 at 12:10pm

Ha.. loved this story, and the Prince sounds like he's earned his title. Havn't been to P-pass, but i'd be interested to see how they handle the development compared to indo or other hot spots (that and the fact I wouldn't mind trading this egg nogg for a sakau and 1ft of snow outside for their warm right-hand shacks).

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo commented Tuesday, 13 Dec 2016 at 12:16pm

Those new flights have started to PP eh ?

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Tuesday, 13 Dec 2016 at 1:12pm

You got it. Just begun. Not sure how much it's gonna change on the ground there, it's still very hard to get to the waves, but the reduced flying time is something to be thankful for.

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Tuesday, 13 Dec 2016 at 2:19pm

Great tale.

Cheers

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Tuesday, 13 Dec 2016 at 2:38pm

You get any waves ?

Photos ?

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Tuesday, 13 Dec 2016 at 3:00pm

Yeah first two days in the 4'-5' range and a wave count that was sky high, then slowly tapering from there. Couple of those days had blazing sunshine and little wind so we returned to the wharf after all day on the boat swaying like pirates and basted like pigs on a spit.

Good times.

fitzroy-21's picture
fitzroy-21's picture
fitzroy-21 commented Tuesday, 13 Dec 2016 at 3:04pm

Nice Stu.

Have had Kava numerous times when in Fiji & Vanuatu. Vanuatu brew was best and strongest. May have to go sample some of Pohnpei’s finest.....just to compare of course.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Tuesday, 13 Dec 2016 at 3:05pm

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Fella called Ralf (Swilly pic)

tsunalu's picture
tsunalu's picture
tsunalu commented Tuesday, 13 Dec 2016 at 9:07pm

Hey stu,
I used to share kava with my principal in Nauru in the mid 90's. Usually I would walk out but a couple of times I went 'legs up', funny thing is you arms work fine.

Sakau always had the rep of being the strongest in the Pacific also Vanuatu Kava

The cloud break story needs telling from locals like Ian Muller, Tim McBride, Mathew Light and some of the Suva and Pac harbour crew. This story is always told from the rich American point of view.

Aa hui hoe

spencie's picture
spencie's picture
spencie commented Wednesday, 14 Dec 2016 at 9:58am

Entertaining read!

easterly