A Pacific island Sabbath

The writer discovers a modern-day paradise where some laws of the Torah are enforced as laws of the land.

September 25, 2007 11:41
A Pacific island Sabbath

banana 224. (photo credit: Alissa Everett/Katrina Adams)


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Some people dream of life on a tropical island, complete with blue lagoons, palm trees and coral reefs. Others have opposite visions of the ideal place to live: a community where religious norms are respected and Sabbath observance is the law of the land. Strangely enough, there is a spot where all these coexist: the Micronesian island of Kosrae. The Federated States of Micronesia, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines, is one of Israel's most loyal supporters in the United Nations. Yet despite Israelis' penchant for traveling all over the world, they overlook this friendliest of tourist destinations, with its curious reminders of the Jewish state. For example, a prominent sign on a church facing one of the island's main roads proclaims, quoting the prophet Isaiah: "Give glory to the Lord and declare his praises in the islands." It is oddly heartening to read a proud declaration from the Bible so far from home; but on further reflection, the context is actually more appropriate to Kosrae than to Isaiah's old stomping grounds in the barren and dusty hills of Judea. After all, what did the prophets or psalmists of ancient Israel know about islands? One thing is certain: The Micronesian islanders certainly know how to praise the Lord. Every Sunday, Kosrae's churches are filled to overflowing with enthusiastic worshipers, just about all of whom are members of amateur choirs which sing hymns for the assembled congregants. Synagogue-goers peeking inside on the Sabbath - albeit the Sunday version - would see a familiar sight: men and women sitting separately, in different sections. Another aspect of Kosraean society that would gladden the heart of many Orthodox Israelis is the fact that Sabbath observance is enforced by law: It is illegal, for example, to fish, travel in boats, collect shells or do any manner of work related to the sea, which provides most of the inhabitants' livelihoods. Even taxi service, which is what passes for public transportation on the island, does not operate on Sundays. "Of the four states of Micronesia, Kosrae is the one most influenced by the fundamentalist teachings of the Christian missionaries," explains Doug Beitz, the Australian-born owner of the Kosrae Nautilus Resort, the air-conditioned hotel that boasts the island's only swimming pool. "The separate seating in church reflects the Congregationalist customs of past centuries." In fact, the missionary influence on the island is so strong that cooking on Sundays is virtually outlawed as well: Smoke from the outdoor stone ovens is plentiful on erev Shabbat (Saturdays), in preparation for the Sabbath meals, while none at all is visible on the day of rest. (Of course, there may be such a thing as taking prohibitions too far: It is illegal in Kosrae to consume alcohol on Sundays, even in the privacy of one's own home.) The mitzva of hospitality is also deeply rooted in the culture. As in other Pacific island cultures, the practice of welcoming guests with a formal kava ceremony is no longer commonplace: It is a rather painstaking process involving pounding the slightly narcotic kava root into a powder, then straining it through the stalk of an iris plant and drinking the unappetizing result from a polished coconut-shell cup passed around the circle of participants. But the friendly smiles and genuine warmth of the Kosraeans is much in evidence, as they share whatever food they have, or bestow the gift of a fan during an unintelligible (to foreigners) sermon in stultifying heat. The expats living on the island - a handful of Anglos seduced by the ultra-relaxed lifestyle - have their own tradition of hospitality: Visitors and tourists are welcome on the weekly "sunset cruise," a Thursday evening ritual involving convivial conversation over drinks and sushi on a gently swaying boat anchored in the tranquil harbor. If you really want a kava experience, someone will arrange it; or you can buy powder to take home (kava capsules are sold in Western health food stores as a natural tranquilizer). Naturally, Kosrae, lying in the warm Pacific waters just north of the equator, offers everything one expects from a tropical island, and even more. The stunning coral reefs provide extraordinary snorkeling and scuba diving and glimpses of uncommon marine life, such as manta rays. The islanders take great care of their precious natural resource: A perimeter of orange buoys warns vessels to steer clear of the fragile reef, while guiding divers into the depths. As remarkable in their own way as the corals are the lush and serene mangrove channels, just aching to be explored by kayak or outrigger canoe. Paddling gently in the brackish water, one feels enveloped in a sense of tranquility that seems to emanate from the vegetation that surrounds and shades the narrow conveyance. Even the least adventuresome traveler can sit back and enjoy a waterborne trek into the interior, while the canoeist does the work. Even when venturing into the thickest undergrowth, no dangers threaten the explorer: Not only does Kosrae have no venomous snakes, the island has no wild animals at all, except for boar. Thus, rainforest hikes are undertaken in eerie quiet, never interrupted by chattering or scampering monkeys, and only occasionally broken by the call of a bird or punctuated by the babble of a brook. Such excursions may require no more than modest exertion but are well worth the effort, yielding vistas of valleys evoking a prehistoric world, flowers of delicate beauty, small bulbs that when squeezed emit a gel beneficial to hair and ruins dating back to forgotten times. (Christianity has totally erased any memory of ancient religions, beliefs or practices, except for the vague knowledge that the skulls of kings, after the flesh had decayed in special vaults, were once consigned to underwater grottoes.) Nighttime activities similarly hearken back to pre-modern times. Kosrae, with a total population of 8,000, has no bars, nightclubs or even movie theaters. Restaurants are basically limited to the hotels, where the menus are kashrut-friendly, featuring an abundance of fresh fish. Rice is also a staple of the local diet, although it is not a native crop but rather a legacy of decades of Japanese occupation. The good news is that even a limited menu does not mean there is no worthwhile culinary experience to be had. At Kosrae Village, the island's eco-friendly resort, owner Katrina Adams brings a touch of gourmet class to her fusion cuisine. A brilliant example is the breadfruit dill soup, which transforms a starchy, pedestrian staple into an unexpected delight. All of the baked goods, from the herbed breads to the delicious desserts, are made on the premises. Another treat that can be arranged through your hotel is a native massage. Kosraean massage is unlike any you are likely to have experienced: It involves a lot of gentle thumb pressure along the spine and sternum and is used as a healing technique in the practice of indigenous medicine. "We use massage, together with herbal medicines, for all sorts of conditions," says Ruth, who learned the art from her mother. "It eases aches and pains, and is helpful during pregnancy and delivery." It certainly is just what the doctor ordered after a long flight. Kosrae is staking its hopes for increased eco-tourism on its unique treasure: the Terminalis carolinensis tree (so named because these were once the Caroline Islands). The island is home to the only stand of these giant trees in the world. Reaching to heights beyond the vision of spectators' craning necks, their most remarkable attribute is huge, rudder-like appendages that sink their own roots and fan out from the lower trunk. Seeing them requires a special guide and a short boat ride followed by an arduous walk through a muddy swamp. Eventually, access will be made easier. But in the Pacific islands, things move at their own - sometimes frustrating, sometimes bemusing - slow pace. Together with its beguiling natural beauty and welcoming demeanor of its inhabitants, that is precisely where Kosrae's charm lies.

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