Nottingham-based football coach Chris Smith updates us on his travels in Micronesia, where he’s aiming to transform the world’s worst international football team...
Pohnpeians have a great ability to dress up manual labour as a cultural experience. I worked this out when, for the second time in a couple of weeks, I was sat at a low, stone table pounding a pepper root to make the traditional drink sakau. They are having a better time than me, firstly because they are laughing at the pwetepwet (white) boy making a mess of things, and secondly because they actually enjoy drinking this slimy, mud-flavoured concoction from a shared coconut shell, waiting for the numbing of their mouth to slowly spread to the rest of the body.
However, I’m not complaining. I’m just enjoying being part of this evening. I’ve been invited to a feast by Kacy – arguably the best football player on this small island – to celebrate his aunty’s birthday with almost a hundred of his extended family. It seems my white privilege hasn’t spread as far as Micronesia and I’m relegated to the lower ranking sakau table, while the Namikis (chiefs) from various parts of the islands take pride of place on their higher rank stone. My immersion is eventually ruined by the sight of the chiefs ceremonially shotgunning cans of beer; like many places, Micronesia is walking the thin line between strong traditional culture and creeping modern influences.
Overall, I think I’m fitting in quite well. My timekeeping has declined to fit the pace of “island time”, I’ve come to accept tropical downpours as a normal day to go about my business, and I’m becoming reacquainted with the almost forgotten act of just turning up at people’s house unannounced whenever I want something.
If anything, life is quite comfortable. It’s actually ridiculously easy to forget I’m in one of the most remote parts of the world I’m ever likely to visit. I find myself constantly forcing myself to remember. Thankfully, I don’t need any reminders to appreciate the beauty of this place, whether I’m hiking up to the highest point of the island to look out over the vast Pacific Ocean, finding incredible swimming spots while exploring the rainforest, or kayaking the tropical lagoon. Actually, even just taking a walk, drive or look in any direction.
But visiting Nan Madol put this all into perspective for me. Nan Madol is on the opposite side of the island, a distant 45-minute drive away, and is the ruins of an ancient city built of giant stones connected by a network of canals. Very little is known about the place, yet locals avoid it through fears it is haunted. I was already blown away exploring the jungle path towards the ruins, but seeing such a magnificent structure in such a picturesque setting was surreal.
I’m lucky enough to have seen comparable places like Pompeii and Angkor Wat, but I had to push past thousands of others on the way, whereas here we were alone. Exploring every structure, island and canal for hours, impressed how these stones even made it here, then standing on a 15m-high ruin, staring out to the glistening blue ocean to the sandy islands covered in palm trees scattering the distance, there is no choice other than to feel remote. If I were anywhere else in the world, I wouldn’t have an inch to move; people would flock to this place.
Although I’m trying to enjoy my time here, I can’t hide from the fact my presence is driven by a desire to build something for the future. Football is growing here and it’s great to help create more opportunities.
I’m glad it didn’t end as early as it threatened to. My initial visa application was inexplicably rejected until a timely (two hours remaining) intervention by the state governor saved me for another month. Still, I’d wasted enough of my time and effort to leave me with just four days to arrange my showpiece end-of-term youth tournament.
Thankfully, just a few well-timed e-mails encouraged over fifty children to walk, often several miles, to our field and proceeded to show me how bright the future of sports is in Pohnpei. Let’s hope I can help them achieve everything they deserve.
Heading into my last five weeks, I’m looking forward to launching the island’s first youth soccer league and escaping the relentless downpours by introducing indoor futsal to our players. Maybe there’s time to fit in a few more trips too. Isn’t this the time of year football managers are supposed to be sunbathing on a desert island?
Kalanghan, Pwohng Mwahu!
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