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The Travel Desk

One Small Store

Two men, separated by more than 150 years, discover the folly of attempting Western-style capitalism in Micronesia.

Grocer. Boskoop, Netherlands, 1961. Nationaal Archief/Spaarnestad Photo/Stuifbergen.

On Dec. 10, 1842, sea merchant Andrew Cheyne sighted the Micronesian island of Pohnpei from 35 miles’ distance. According to Cheyne’s account in The Trading Voyages of Andrew Cheyne, his trading ship, a Swedish brigantine named Bull, hove to in “heavy, confused” seas. The Bull pitched and bobbed in the squally ocean, its crew of lascars and European seamen expertly performing the complex ballet of sails and wind required to slow a brigantine on a stormy sea. The Bull waited for less confused seas to approach the island.

Perhaps the ocean was trying to tell him something. But Cheyne, ever the straightforward Shetlander, didn’t see portents or omens in the natural world. He noted weather and wind, time and distance, income and expense. That was his job.

Cheyne wasn’t a captain like we think of captains. He wasn’t really the man in charge of the boat. He was just a guy who had borrowed a boat from some shifty Sydney merchants and taken as payment for his services a stake in the venture. The purpose of the venture was to traipse from island to island, gathering and trading in sea cucumber, tortoise shell, and sandalwood. If the exchange was good, Cheyne could turn a profit on these items in Hong Kong. If not, he still owed his business partners for the use of the boat.

The next day the ocean calmed and a canoe approached the Bull. A European man—Cheyne does not name him—offered to guide the ship to Pohnpei’s southern harbor, Rohn Kitti. This navigator was one of Pohnpei’s 50 or so resident runaway sailors whose main activities Cheyne describes as “murder, thieving, drinking, blasphemy, and lying.” This human flotsam and jetsam floated on the island like the scummy foam that froths up from the heaving ocean and drifts over the reef and mangrove swamps that skirt Pohnpei, warning foreigners to stay out.

The pilot that led Cheyne to his failure may have been the ill-fated John Gill, a carpenter who would be murdered by an even more degenerate castaway named George May one night when they drunkenly fought aboard an American whaler and fell overboard near Pohnpei’s vibrant blue-yellow-orange coral reef. May held Gill under the briny water until he drowned. Or maybe the pilot was John Brown or Joe Bates, both of whom would later attempt to murder Cheyne. Or maybe it was Jack Simpson, who was accused of stealing an anvil from Cheyne. For that, Jack Simpson was tied to the mast of the Bull and whipped. Or maybe the pilot was Cheyne’s chief nemesis, the Irishman Thomas Boyd, a man Cheyne would imprison twice, on two separate boats, who would sue Cheyne in Hong Kong for false imprisonment, whom Cheyne would accuse of forming a conspiracy of “runagates” whose only aim was to establish a stranglehold on trade on Pohnpei. Whoever piloted Cheyne through the narrow pass between the fringing reefs of the Micronesian island of Pohnpei, he wasn’t an angel.

The Bull wended its way to Rohn Kitti harbor and anchored in eight fathoms of mud. It was here that Cheyne decided he should start a business selling provisions to passing ships and procuring and drying sea cucumber for trade in Hong Kong. It was here on the shores of Rohn Kitti harbor that his business would fail.

 

Because the group of runaway convicts and castaways, “guilty of every species of profanity and crime,” was so loathsome to Cheyne, the Pohnpeians appeared in contrast to be “cheerful and happy and exceedingly well behaved.” Cheyne found other Pacific Islanders to be “extremely cruel, void of affection… wretches in every sense of the Word, degraded beyond the power of conception.” Maybe those wretched islanders just lacked a contrasting group of desperate deserters to make Cheyne see their good side.

The Pohnpeian word for “foreigner” is a warning and perhaps a piece of friendly advice on how to deal with them: mehn wai, which means “sneaky person.” Other words that use the same root word for foreigner or sneak: alcohol, sicknesses like the flu, a verb that roughly means “to creep through the jungle in search of sex.”

If the sakau is strong, you become the stillest thing in the universe, an observer of life from outside of life.

The King of Kitti was not, I’m guessing, the noble savage corrupted by these sailors, as Cheyne paints him to be. The King of Kitti was well versed in taking foreigners for what they were worth and tolerating their presence until they, inevitably, left. The King of Kitti was likely not interested in filing a formal complaint with the authorities in China or Australia regarding the group of foreign degenerates on his island, as Cheyne claims he was. Authority for the Kingdom of Kitti rested on the heavily tattooed shoulders of the king, not on the desk of a colonial functionary in a port town half an ocean away. And the king—again just a guess—knew how to use a foreigner in order to get the items he wanted: fabric, fishhooks, tobacco, bullets, and guns.

These kinds of items were prized enough by Pohnpeians that they frequently sent their young, unmarried girls to the ships to trade sex for them. This practice increased Pohnpei’s popularity as a port of call and a place to jump ship. It also increased the arsenal and nicotine dependence of the islanders. Cheyne doesn’t mention this aspect of Pohnpeian trade, but does remark on Pohnpeian women’s jet black hair wreathed in vibrant, fragrant flowers and their smooth, spiced skin, yellowed with turmeric.

There is still a King of Kitti, a pleasant old man whose main duties are to sit still at the center of the feast house, be powerful, and distribute the goods offered to him. The feasts and ceremonies Cheyne witnessed still happen. In Kitti, giant flat basalt stones are still lined up in two rows of three in the center of the feast house, each clanging with its own tone as shirtless men pound stone on stone, mashing up the thick, strong kava (called sakau) for the feast. The musical clacking and clanging of stones begins chaotically and then, as the kava turns gray and viscous, coalesces into one rhythmic song, calling the gods and people to the feast house. You can still join this song. You sit and mash the sakau root with the other sakau pounders around the ancient rock. But you cannot lead the song of the stones. The song just happens, as it has for centuries, when it happens. And when it is complete, you can still drink the sakau. If the sakau is strong, you become the stillest thing in the universe. An observer of life from outside of life. Everything, the ocean, the mango and mangrove trees, the barking dogs, the sweep of time, seems abstract and small because you also feel abstract and small. And perhaps there is a foreigner, a mehn wai, in this group of sakau drinkers. A teacher or a lawyer, someone useful but ultimately unimportant. They are welcome to stay and welcome to leave. What has remained, for hundreds of years, is the clang of the rocks. What has remained, through waves of sailors, missionaries, and invading armies, is the calm of the sakau root sinking into the drinkers, whether they bear a centuries-old title like soum or soulik or souwel or the simple title of mehn wai. They sneak into the ceremony, these interlopers, and they always sneak away again, one way or another.

 

Rohn Kitti harbor is no longer the favored harbor on Pohnpei. Today, the Kingdom of Kitti, one of five kingdoms on Pohnpei, is on the sleepy side of that obscure island. Only the local fishermen and a few insane surfers use its narrow passes to the ocean. And near where Cheyne likely built his store is a two-story cement building, an elementary school where my daughter attended first grade. From her classroom window, or, I should say, from her classroom lack-of-a-window, the ghosts of George May and John Gill still wrestle on the shallow reefs. At recess, the children kick up mud with their thin flip-flops and chase chickens around the place where Andrew Cheyne’s palm-roofed business likely stood. It was where, on Dec. 18, 1842, under light, variable airs, Thomas Boyd leveled his musket at the Pohnpeian chief who allowed Cheyne to build an outpost here. Boyd, as he shot the musket three times, screamed about a woman, but what he was really after was his livelihood. He had a good business going and didn’t want Cheyne muscling in.

Thomas Boyd’s Very Successful Business Plan

The ships would come. Whaling ships, years away from home with holds heavily laden with the rendered remains of enormous right whales. Smaller European merchant ships out of Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, plying the Pacific islands in search of sandalwood and sea cucumber to sell to the Chinese. They would come. They had to come—they require provisions, water, and women. And when they came, if they came to Rohn Kitti harbor, Thomas Boyd would row out to meet them. He would broker exchanges between the Pohnpeians and the ship. He would stand between the ships and the chiefs and take from them both, skimming just enough to annoy them but not enough to get killed over. Perhaps he would sneak up the mountain and dig up some poor farmer’s yams in order to sell them to a passing ship. This was a dangerous, but lucrative business. Even today, stealing a yam is a capital offense on Pohnpei—yams are important and surrounded with ritual and lore. They grow to epic sizes in the lush tropical soil.

The island has a kind of all-swallowing lushness, towering mango trees, walls of vegetation hanging off sheer cliffs, and thundering waterfalls.

Boyd’s business plan was three-pronged. Today we might call it “diversified.” One prong was the aforementioned legitimate business of navigating the harbor and serving as a middleman. One was the semi-legitimate business of collecting random harbor fees—charged for no particular reason and by no authority other than Boyd. And the third prong was the illegitimate business of convincing desperate sailors to jump ship and then bringing an armed boarding party to collect the runaway sailor’s clothes and effects and probably any other movable loot that a ship could stand to lose without getting too vengeful. Boyd’s business in brokering passages, goods, and deserters was booming. There was always an ex-convict, a bedraggled conscript, or some disgruntled, abused sailor who would rather take his chances on a tropical island.

But with those three shots at the Pohnpeian chief, Boyd’s business was at an end.

 

When you approach the island today, it is wrapped in a cloak of clouds. From the airplane window, it looks like a misty gray splotch in an impossible and seemingly endless blue—what one sailor described simply as “the blue above, the blue below.” But the blue is off-island. On-island, it’s rainy. It rains nearly every day of the year. The island is lush, green. It has a kind of all-swallowing lushness, towering mango trees, walls of vegetation hanging off sheer cliffs, and thundering waterfalls. A humidity that hits with the impact of a sailor’s punch when you step out of the plane’s cooled, recycled air. Today you don’t need a harbor pilot to enter Pohnpei, just a taxi from the airport. It’s easy: there is only one main road and it goes in a circle. Drive past the garbage dump, past the bombed-out Spanish church, past the dingy hospital, over a small bridge, turn a corner with a swamp on both sides of the road, and here you will see the ruins of my small store.

 

At the turn of the 21st century, I was pounding nails through a length of corrugated tin. It was a confused looking wall, stuck in a silver permanent wave.

All of the best families on Pohnpei seemed to have small stores and I wanted my new wife to have one, too. “Small stores” are little roadside stands that sell things like spam, corned beef, betel nut, rice, and something called “coco”—a mixture of unripe mango, sugar-free Kool-Aid, and soy sauce. This was my small store. I called it “Buddo’s Friendly Store,” a name I scrawled in pink paint across the wooden awning that opens out from the only opening in the shack. “Buddo” is a family name, a Scottish name that floated on the cold seas for hundreds of years, casting nets into the gray sea for a living. And now, on an island near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, in the Kingdom of Nett, in an area called Pahnimwensapw, I slapped my Scottish name on this 10-foot-long, 10-foot-high tin box. I was not intending to make a living off of this shack. For that I had my teaching job at the local college.

I was building this store because my adopted Pohnpeian family advised me that I should “find one wife.” I found one woman, Popo, and determined (against my adopted family’s advice) that I should marry her. My family didn’t elaborate as to why I shouldn’t marry her and I was of that Edenic temperament wherein telling me that I shouldn’t do a thing made me want to do it all the more.

All of the best families on Pohnpei seemed to have small stores and I wanted my new wife to have one, too.

I found her in a sakau market—a new kind of money-making venture wherein the sacred hallucinogen goes for $1 a cup. She was taking money at the market. When I handed her my cash, we looked at each other and my adopted mother said, “Well, here’s one single lady.” And there she was—a woman of Pohnpeian-Portuguese-Scottish-Spanish-German-Japanese descent—an islander born after the Age of Sail, after the waves of merchants and missionaries and military men came to Pohnpei. What followed that look was a complex but exciting ritual of sneaking around at night, meeting in secret, and making eyes at the sakau market while someone was singing, inevitably, strangely, Pohnpeian versions of Juice Newton or Creedence Clearwater Revival songs. Dating on Pohnpei is strictly nocturnal, non-public and, for me, very tiring. So a few weeks of sneaking around led to a “local” marriage of convenience. I asked her father to let her come live with me a hundred yards down the road and up a hill in a termite-ridden former bar called “Green Bay.” Now I had found one wife. Then I was advised that I should open one small store.

I wonder, now, if this was a kind of joke. I wonder now if it is a time-honored cultural pastime to watch foreigners fail at business on Pohnpei.

After I built the store, they said “We will make one small party for you.” And they did. It was a small party because we didn’t kill a pig or dig up a Toyota-sized yam from the mountainside. We didn’t invite any chiefs or kings or any of the myriad titled men and women. It was one small party we made after building one small store. We drank sakau that left our souls numb and our bodies inoperable. My father-in-law dialed his Casio keyboard to the pre-set beast of Country-Western #3 and wailed along in a voice that was somehow both falsetto and deep bass. I flipped on some Christmas lights that I had haphazardly thrown on the little metal shack. I was going to make a tidy little living for my new wife with this small store.

The Business Plan of Buddo’s Friendly Store

First of all, there was never a business plan.

I wanted the store because I assumed my wife, Popo, would be bored. We barely spoke a common language and so I determined, upon considering the outlines of her life, which did not include a career or study or any kind of hobby that I could understand, that she needed a store. Of course, she didn’t have a store before she met me and was probably content enough. So add, “assuming your wife would like a store” to the list of reasons not to build a store.

Here’s how Buddo’s Friendly Store operated: I drove two miles into town, bought soda and rice and various other items in bulk, dumped that stuff in the store, and sold the goods for a small markup. The only thing my store had that others did not was a fancy cash register I purchased on eBay. The cash register appeared lost, like it had intended to go to a more legitimate business and taken a wrong turn. Otherwise, the store was just a couple of shelves of canned mackerel in tomato sauce, Spam, and hard candy. Of course, since the same stuff could be had down the road for less, the markup couldn’t be too great. Our profit margin on a case of, say, Sunrise cola (made in China) was so small that if we drank just one of these super-sweet, slightly carbonated beverages ourselves instead of selling it, we were in the red. The only reason someone might actually purchase a nearly flat and very warm Sunrise cola from Buddo’s Friendly Store was if they were too lazy to go somewhere else to get it more cheaply or if they had no ready cash and were related to my wife. Then they could buy it on credit.

I should mention that everyone in Pahnimwensahp is related to my wife.

The Pohnpeian term for credit is “pwei pwand” which translates directly as “pay slow” and is one of those cultural concepts that the word “credit” doesn’t do justice to. This credit isn’t tied to any market or regulated by any central bureaucracy. This credit is a cultural idea; a way of socializing, a way of earning and showing status. Even when Cheyne was setting up his business, the thought of buying and selling meant little to Pohnpeians—especially among family members, such a concept would have been bizarre. On Pohnpei you borrow and owe favors. You take and you owe. You give and you accrue status. A powerful chief doesn’t own things so much as have the ability to give many things way. Bring him an entire harvest of yams and he will give it all away, because he can. Likewise, Buddo’s Friendly Store did not actually sell very much, but it certainly gave a lot away.

Buddo’s Friendly Store was a little tin money suck that vacuumed up cash but, for a while anyway, fed an extended family of at least 50.

Pwei pwand has killed many a Pohnpeian business, but Buddo’s Friendly Store was particularly susceptible to running aground. This was because Popo is the youngest of 11 children, more or less, depending upon which version of the family tree you accept. The way pwei pwand functions is that your relatives come to your store and you give them your goods. The storekeeper dutifully writes down what was taken on a yellow pad and keeps a tally of what is owed. If the relative is older or more important than the store owner, then re-payment of pwei pwand is at the discretion of the borrower. Since neither my wife nor I had age, title, or status, we could not ask for payment. (My family title came below all other titles save that which might be bestowed upon a man who had been hit by a car and suffered serious brain trauma.)

Even when the pwei pwand system worked, it was not particularly gratifying to me as a businessman. For instance, one of Popo’s brothers-in-law worked for the island’s electric company. Every two weeks he brought his paycheck to my store and cleared his credit of expensive, marked-up rice, soda, corned beef, and Spam. I would give him the change from his paycheck. His money would be gone in a day or two and he would begin the pwei pwand cycle again. I was going into debt supplying the store and he was going into debt buying from the store—Buddo’s Friendly Store was a little tin money suck that vacuumed up cash but, for a while anyway, fed an extended family of at least 50.

 

Andrew Cheyne was, like me, a powerless little skiff adrift in a great economic ocean. Unlike me he was brave and stubborn and capable of fixing his position with a sextant and a clear sky. Some might scoff at setting up a business among a band of heavily armed drunkards and murderers. Not Cheyne. He vowed to face down the vagabonds and “remain at all costs.” He correctly deduced that the sailors living on Pohnpei were threatened by his proposed business at Rohn Kitti harbor. He incorrectly assumed that the ex-sailors and escaped convicts living on Pohnpei feared having their crimes reported to the authorities in Sydney or China. Men like Thomas Boyd understood that nobody much cared what they did short of murdering a European and even then, justice would not be swift and stories could be told that obscured the truth.

But Cheyne was just 25, with a clear, righteous sense that if a group of no-good ruffians told him he couldn’t do something, by God he would set about doing it with even more fervor.

Cheyne saw gold in those gross little phallic echinoderms and risked life and limb to use them to achieve his dream of becoming, basically, the laird of Kitti.

Cheyne was the bastard son of the younger brother of the Laird of Tangwick in Northmavine, Scotland. This laird, John Cheyne, took Andrew in as one of his own, educated him, and left him 15 pounds sterling when he died. Using this money, Cheyne sought his fortune in the Pacific, traveling as supercargo between Sydney, Samoa, New Zealand, New Hebrides, New Caledonia, and New Guinea. While a boy at Tangwick, Cheyne observed his adoptive father’s business: fishing tenants would bring in hauls of cod and ling to be cured at Tangwick. The ling was then shipped to Norway and sold, where a certain portion of Cheyne ling became lutefisk, to the gastronomic delight of the Norwegians and no one else. Each step of this business, from tenant fisherman to continental merchant, profited the laird. The fishermen paid the laird to use the boat and the drying facilities; the laird earned a percentage from the haul. It is exactly this type of business that Cheyne wanted to set up on Pohnpei.

Perhaps it was memories of skinning, rinsing, drying, and salting cod on the Shetland shore that caused him to be so attached to trying the same business with sea cucumber on Pohnpei. Sea cucumber still carpets the shallow waters off of the reefs of Pohnpei. They are disgusting little black loafs of pre-historic animal life, a form of life that is barely recognizable as life. They taste disgusting when eaten, as Pohnpeians do, fresh, cut into tiny pieces, and stuffed into a bottle of cheap Filipino rum. But Cheyne saw gold in those gross little phallic echinoderms and risked life and limb to use them to achieve his dream of becoming, basically, the laird of Kitti.

The Business Plan of the Prospective Laird of Kitti

Cheyne sent the Bull to Hong Kong to sell sandalwood and acquire goods for trade while he stayed on Pohnpei and set up his business. The Bull was to purchase the fish hooks and guns the islanders liked in order to use them to trade for the things the Chinese liked. Meanwhile, Cheyne employed a series of the same bunch of men who were actively trying to kill him to gather and cure sea cucumber at various stations around Pohnpei and its surrounding reefs. He gave goods and money to Pohnpeian chiefs for a promise that they would, in return, bring him tortoise shell.

This was a solid plan except that it relied on three groups of people Cheyne never should have trusted: drunk castaways, Pohnpeian chiefs who didn’t really care about Andrew Cheyne or his business, and the incompetent sailors on the Bull.

The castaways tasked with curing sea cucumber did not work like Shetlanders. Or work at all.

The Pohnpeian chiefs never gave Cheyne any tortoise shell—instead they sold what they harvested to other foreigners and doubled their profits. To the chiefs, Cheyne’s goods were nice but contained no obligation to give him anything in return. On Pohnpei, you give gifts to a chief and the chief gives them away; this transaction is the way power flows.

The crew of the Bull returned with the wrong goods from Hong Kong: a bunch of nautical items that islanders had no use for and which could not be traded for sandalwood or tortoise shell.

A different man would have cut his losses as soon as the Bull returned with its load of ship’s chandlery. Not Cheyne. He turned the business over to his chief officer, Mr. Mackie, while he traveled to Hong Kong. Mr. Mackie lived well on Pohnpei using Boyd’s business plan. He ate the provisions Cheyne had left for him to sell. He charged harbor fees to passing ships. He did very little else but wait for coconut water to ferment into a tasty toddy.

When he came back to Pohnpei to find that Mr. Mackie had squandered his investment, Cheyne finally gave up. The whole Pohnpei venture, including the monthly rent Cheyne owed his bosses for use of the Bull, left Cheyne $3,068 in debt (about $90,000 dollars today).

 

Eight days into the Bull’s stay on Pohnpei, Boyd fired three times at the chief who allowed Andrew Cheyne to build his store near the harbor. The store was on land that Cheyne thought he had purchased and the chief knew he had lent. It was his land to lend. It was not anyone’s land to sell: every rock on the island belonged to some family, every scrap of jungle had a name, and nearly every Pohnpeian had a traditional title that linked them to that land and its history. But the chiefs were happy to accept his payment, knowing full well that no amount of fish hooks and red fabric could change the fact that everything on Pohnpei is borrowed: borrowed from ancestors, borrowed from the gods, borrowed for a short time until you are cast into the first heaven and wander about as a ghost.

Everything on Pohnpei is borrowed: borrowed from ancestors, borrowed from the gods, borrowed for a short time until you are cast into the first heaven and wander about as a ghost.

Pohnpeians were and are, in my experience, very rarely demonstrably excited or surprised. This may be because the rituals they practiced in 1842 are still practiced. Those rituals, though changing and involving much more Jesus, orange soda, hip-hop dancing, and rice with ketchup than they previously did, still mark important life events, defuse arguments, and assuage enemies. There is no need to get emotional, there is a ritual for every occasion. It is impossible to imagine the chief freaking out even as bullets whizzed by his head. He probably felt embarrassed for Thomas Boyd and his naked, likely drunken, display of emotion.

According to Cheyne, Boyd screamed at the chief about a woman who had run to the chief for protection after Boyd beat her. Cheyne wrote about the incident years and lawsuits later, so who knows the truth of the matter. He says that Boyd shot his musket and it “missed fire” and the bullet lodged in a coconut tree. One of Cheyne’s men hit Boyd in the head with a rock. The Pohnpeians tied and dragged Boyd to the Bull where he sailed in chains as a prisoner to Hong Kong.

 

I don’t remember when Buddo’s Friendly store finally stopped selling anything. It can’t have been open longer than a few months. I had maxed out a credit card building and supplying the store and had no more money to sink into it. Once I had abandoned it, my little tin store by the side of the road began to serve another purpose as a love shack. Or at least a sex shack. One of my sisters-in-law began to sleep in the store and one of the local schoolteachers began to stop by the store in the dark of night for an hour or two. I had moved about 20 feet away from the store to a cement house that I rented from a brother-in-law because my marriage was falling apart. The mixture of a stressful marriage and living in a mangrove swamp had made me loopy, angry, and unhappy. It wasn’t exactly the swamp’s fault but the swamp didn’t help my feeling that I had sunk to whatever the end of depression is—a heavy, confused place like the heavy, confused oceans that sometimes surround Pohnpei.

I can only recall that time in spurts of piercing images. Here’s one: my sister-in-law’s scowling, painted face as I scream at her.

One morning, I was suddenly overcome with anger and began to yell at this sister who had turned what was once Buddo’s Friendly Store into a shack of ill repute. I tried to kick her out of her new bedroom in the store but in no culture is it OK to scream that your sister-in-law a whore on the side of the road, even if everyone knew whose car was parked in front of the tin shack at night and who was inside and what was going on. I see now, from a distance, how she might take offense.

She looked like she was going to scratch my eyeballs out. I didn’t much care, desperately unhappy and unhinged as I was. I probably wanted her to scratch my eyes out; I don’t know. I kept screaming at her and we drew a little audience of cousins and other relatives on the side of the road in front of the erstwhile store. Did someone hold us back? I wanted to fight her—somehow it seemed like such an insult that not only had I sunk all my money in this losing proposition but that it was now being used to carry on an illicit affair just a stone’s throw from where my newborn daughter slept; which might have been no big deal if she had just come and asked me if she could sleep in my store. But that would have meant she had to acknowledge that it was my store. I certainly thought it was my store. Cheyne thought he had a store too. Lots of foreigners think a lot of things on Pohnpei, I suppose.

“Do you think this store is yours? We allowed you to use the land and build the store. You can’t tell us what to do with it.”

The police came. The police were also relatives, of course. And I still would have fought her just to fight someone. But an elder brother arrived—the kind of elder brother who possessed authority and a machete that he would gladly use if I were to touch his sister. He was angry and also the last person you ever wanted to see angry. Some men are such a pile of work-built muscles and testosterone that they seem to inhabit a totally different gender from mine. He was one of those men. I realize now that it was probably only out of some kind of grudging respect for me that he didn’t whack me in the head with his machete. Instead he fixed me in a stare, in front of which I withered. All the fight had fled from me.

“Jonathan,” he said, “do you think the land is yours? Do you think this store is yours? We allowed you to use the land and build the store. You can’t tell us what to do with it. You rent this place. You’re a tenant. This is ours.”

And so I retreated. Apologized. Years later, with a calmer, less confused mind, I see this for what it was: the truth. The store wasn’t mine, even if the debt was. Even my wife was, in some sense, merely borrowed from the family. She is back with her family now, happily single and store-less again. The only thing I claimed from that swamp was my daughter. And even though she lives with me thousands of miles away in America, that was just another borrowing. She’s growing up and away and texts behind closed doors these days, as American teens do, becoming herself awkwardly but independently.

I stayed on the island many more years, but never again felt the need to build anything on it. I happily borrowed my time there, rented my place, even took a higher title for a while, and now, nearly six years since I left, there is little on Pohnpei to mark the years I spent there; anything I ever did or owned has sunk into the swamp and been forgotten.

Of course, this is true of all of us: borrowed time, borrowed space, borrowed breath; we have a lease on life, not a title. But on Pohnpei the lesson of impermanence is in every lap of the waves. Each flutter of wind through the green umbrella of the banana trees. Every clang of the stones in the evening, calling sakau drinkers to their root. Time is somehow flatter on the island. Time happens all at once. Time is always over and it is always just beginning. Nothing changes because nothing lasts. There are always mehn wai in confused seas, heaving to near the island, waiting for a way ashore. There are always foreigners on Pohnpei, building their stores, hatching their schemes, forming their plans. As it was since ships started to arrive, so it shall be. To them, I am sure Andrew Cheyne would join me in saying: good luck.

Jonathan Gourlay is the author of the e-book Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia. He is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and ESL Director at the University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut. More by Jonathan Gourlay