Travel and Shopping Bronze Winner: Waiting for Your Ship to Come in? Don’t Expect Dinner

by Tom Bentley

Getting meal fixings on a tiny Micronesian island is a creative exercise.

I held the forlorn bell pepper in my hand, regarding its sad aspect. It looked like it had been hit as a hot ground ball to a ham-handed shortstop, and then microwaved for an hour. Despite Alice’s pleadings, I put it back on the shelf with its sorry companions. “No,” I said. “No way we are paying five bucks for a pepper that looks like someone sat on it for a week.” Not a reasonable conversation, but no conversation about what’s for dinner on the tiny Micronesian island of Kosrae was reasonable. At least not for us, for much of our year there.

Kosrae is a bitty blip of land, just a tiddlywink’s toss north of the equator in the broad Pacific. There’s a lot of beautiful blue around, but not much else. The island is about eight hours in the island-hopper air from Hawaii, but it’s not from the air that the food arrives. No manna here, just goods that arrive on a big ‘ol boat, once every six weeks. That is, if the boat’s not tied up in customs on some other island, or has broken down somewhere, or the captain missed a turn, because he was blinded by miles of empty ocean. Thus, in our year on the island, six weeks more than once became a couple of months.

Consider the chemical workings of a bell pepper in the belly of a boat stuck somewhere in a tropical climate for weeks on end. Even the stoutest pepper would lose its courage in those conditions, and thus when the boat would finally arrive, and the islanders would make their mad dashes to the stores to see what’s new, you wouldn’t exactly see what’s new, but what’s barely survived.

But wait, you say: you’re on a tropical island. Surely they grow lots of bananas, coconuts, pineapple. Indeed, indeed, wonderful bounties of those, a vitamin C lover’s retreat, more types of bananas than a spider has legs to slip on. But it’s just if you want to round out your diet, or maybe have some of the items that might have been staples in your suburban home. Take me, for example: big cereal eater. Love cereal in the morning. But the cereal in Kosrae hadn’t simply arrived late—it was something from Antiques Roadshow. Time and time again, I’d search for a box of cereal that hadn’t passed—no, lapped—its expiration date, sometimes by years. Impossible.

My foolish heart fooled me over and over, bringing home these ancient grains that preservatives couldn’t preserve in the blazing heat. All soft and woody, no taste distinction between box and flake. Notice I say soft, not dry and woody. No, cereal in the heavy humidity of a tropical island slumps, as do most dry things. Cereal has no defense, but I couldn’t learn not to buy it. We kept in in the refrigerator, so that I could preserve their museum boxes.

Shopping on a tiny island is a fascinating experience. There were only a few of what Westerners would consider grocery stores, and most of those were little shops with only a few aisles of goods. Thus it would be remarkable to go into the store and see an entire half-aisle devoted to Spam. One would never know that Spam came in so many flavors: Onion, Garlic, Spam with Cheese, Hot and Spicy—i would have bought some for sure if it came in Cheerios flavor. And the other half-aisle would be filled with absolutely inedible candies from China and Japan. You don’t know how someone could so shame the cacao bean that a chocolate bar could taste like vegemite.

So, if you tried to put dinner together, you might go to ALL of the island’s stores, trying to find mayonnaise here, canned beans there. A dinner’s ingredients could take hours to obtain: there were also a number of tiny roadside stands that sold goods from the family farms on the island, so you could pick up excellent tangerines at one, and perhaps napa cabbage at another. But they were open at very whimsical times, and if one of the other Westerners heard that there was something at a stand or a store—”cheese at Tafunsak!”—the rumor could sweep the island. And then your supposed friends could wipe out the entire supply before you arrived. Of course, you could always wait for the next boat.

Then there were the crazy disparities in price. I mentioned the lonely bell pepper. What about grapes at $15 a pound? A block of cheese at $35? But then you also had fabulous fresh yellowfin tuna at a fifty cents a pound, lobster at a two dollars. The mind and stomach reeled. There was a period where the boat was more than six weeks’ late, and the island was short on flour and rice, maybe the equivalent to being short of wheels on your car in the U.S. They were even in dwindling supply of the foul Chinese and Korean swill that passed for beer on the island, but that was a mixed sorrow. (That brings up another issue: there IS good Chinese and Korean beer—why did Kosrae only have this blemished grog, barely good enough to use on that wooden cereal?)

But my prissy Western ways did shift. Rusty, dented cans? No problem. Pickle sandwiches, no condiments? No problem. But the trick the Kosraean kids did with the dried Ramen noodles crunched up in the package with a bunch of dry Koolaid sprinkled over it? I had to draw the line.


Tom Bentley has run a writing and editing business out of his house for more than 10 years. He’s published many freelance pieces’ ranging from first-person essays to travel pieces to more journalistic subjects’ in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is a published fiction writer, and was the 1999 winner of the National Steinbeck Center’s short story contest; he has also won some nonfiction writing awards. His writing-related blog is at http://www.tombentley.com

One Response to “Travel and Shopping Bronze Winner: Waiting for Your Ship to Come in? Don’t Expect Dinner”

  1. Kumbaya Alert: Some Online Handshakes Are Really Helpful Hugs | * The Write Word Says:

    […] all my lies), but Traveler’s Tales just published another part of the story: Read about the 5-dollar bell pepper, and weep, weep for the children. (Or the cereal eaters—good God, the infamy!) This entry was […]

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