Pohnpei High


Our driver Arlo winds down his window for the fifth time in as many minutes and spits out another blood red jet of liquid onto the road before returning to our conversation. He’s clearly well skilled at soaking the roads of Pohnpei with his projectiles, as the deep unsightly stains on his front teeth testify. They’d look bad on a 70 year old, but Arlo is a fresh-faced young lad barely into his twenties.





Chewing betel nut is a national pastime in Pohnpei, the main island of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Until around 50 years ago betel nuts were hard to come by and were considered a luxury import, with no native betel trees on Pohnpei. Then someone had the idea of planting the trees on the island and within a few years local supply was plentiful and the price of betel nuts plummeted. Now Pohnpeians can buy 40 nuts for a dollar and as a result you’re unlikely to see many people lighting a cigarette, with most adding a few shreds of tobacco and a pinch of lime to their betel nut and leaf and chewing the concoction on an almost non-stop basis, pausing briefly to emit their jet of coloured saliva onto the island’s red-stained pavements.




The betel nut has a harsh, bitter flavour and most first-timers will spit the mixture out long before any of its magic powers are released. While the betel itself acts as a mild stimulant (“It makes me feel alive” Arlo tells me with a broad smile), it is the tobacco in the mix that ensures that Pohnpeians are well and truly hooked on their betel nuts. I ask whether he could go a day without chewing betel and Arlo confesses that he did have to manage without once when taking a flight to a neighbouring island. Chewing a steady supply of tobacco leaf got him through the day.




If betel provides a caffeine-like buzz, Pohnpei’s famous home-brew is an altogether more potent beast. Driving along the island’s pot-holed main circuit (Pohnpei has few roads beyond the 53 mile loop that hugs the island’s coast) a coolbox with a bottle full of murky brown liquid is a common sight. This is sakau, another essential element of local culture and a fairly potent sedative with hallucinogenic potential. While traditionally used by elders to get themselves into the right frame of mind to tackle difficult issues (the potential for a sakau bar in the British Houses of Parliament should be explored), the mud-like drink is now enjoyed at all levels of island society. Business is frequently conducted over sakau and it is around the sakau table that the island’s bush telegraph system plays out.




The potent mixture is made by grinding the roots of the sakau tree and passing them through shredded hibiscus bark, which gives the substance its slimy texture and its earthy (as in muddy) consistency. Rituals surround every stage of the sakau process, as I discover on a hike through the rainforest. As we descend a steep muddy slope we pass two men coming up the hill carrying a fairly large tree, roots and all. A villager explains to us that they only use the roots of the tree for sakau and discard the rest as soon as they reach the village several miles away. To carry only the roots and not the whole tree into the community would be seen as showing serious disrespect to the elders.




If you come to Pohnpei you can choose whether or not to dabble in these local vices. Whether you encounter sakau and betel nut as a casual observer or a willing participant, you’ll no doubt discover just how important they are to the way of life of the ordinary Pohnpeian.


You can get the Pohnpei included in your RTW here