Americans Helping Americans Abroad

And mine is Satawan.

Robert Perodeau marek okon gTa2C4x9pSY unsplashAs a boy, I would hear trains rumbling through my central Massachusetts neighborhood, and I longed to go where they were headed. Never having set foot west of the Housatonic, the chance to go to Micronesia with the Peace Corps sounded divine, and the cherry on the sundae was the preparatory eight weeks of training in Hawaii. “Nanosecond” wasn’t in my vocabulary, but that’s how long it took to accept the offer.

New Horizons

Truk (Lat. 5.2841 N, Long. 153.6492 E) was then part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, now part of the Federated States of Micronesia, with a pact of free association with the U.S. At age 21, I was sent there to teach English in 1971, one of some 40 Peace Corps volunteers. Evelyn (the woman who eventually became my wife) was among them.

During two years in Truk, I learned to be self-sufficient, and while I made no impression on the Trukese, they made a big one on me. Could people living on such small islands be so happy and welcoming, with a hardy ran annim (good day) to everyone they passed? Could anything be more pleasing?

I was in the minority, an intruder, yet the host families were patient with us, cheerful and generous with their simple dwellings and meager food sources. This was comforting for someone so far from home, with only scanty connections with the U.S. We learned to acculturate to our surroundings and gained more from them than they from us. We realized that we Westerners didn’t know everything, that we weren’t the experts. We were changed.

Even Newer Horizons

In 1974, Evelyn and I married, and we were hired to teach English in Iran, part of a technology-transfer project. It was our first foray as a married couple, and an experience like this can dash your marriage on the rocks or cement you forever. It did the latter in what was the land of limitless hospitality. A few words in Farsi would break the ice everywhere. We made friends from countries near and far and were invited into Iranian homes. Our families back in the States reciprocated, receiving travelers from Iran. Our crowning achievement there was climbing Mount Damavand (18,500 ft). It took our breath away (in both senses of the word!).

Robert Perodeau 1

But one day in 1979, armed guards rousted us from our apartment and placed us in a hotel, one that eventually was hit by a weapon. We were one of several hundred involved in the technology-transfer project, and we were being asked to leave because the Shah’s reign had ended. That first night, I slept under the bed and Evelyn slept in the bathtub.

In the hotel, they fed us royally, and guards attached to the new ruler (Khomeini) watched us to ensure our safety and our departure. I couldn’t help but notice that these guards were watching a war movie. One of the American women had a lamb in the hotel, and I never knew whether she got the poor baby back home or whether it was confiscated and eaten soon thereafter.

We were on Pan American Freedom Flight No. 7, with volunteer crews, and one of the last to leave Iran. This was February 1979. As we were preparing for take-off, guards boarded the plane, presumably looking for someone, and I believe they removed a passenger. We then left for Frankfurt, assuming we would be there only temporarily. But there was to be no return to Iran, and two days later we flew home to Philadelphia. Whew!

The Aftermath

As our careers progressed in the U.S., and with two daughters in tow, the years in remote places dimmed. Today, Iran is virtually closed to Americans. But the memory of Truk over 50 years ago, particularly Satawan Island, kept floating around in my head. It took formal shape when my daughter Jackie completed her Ph.D., and I promised her a trip so she could see where her mother and I had started out.

Truk (now Chuuk) was closed to outsiders during Covid. My entreaties to the tourism office were met with “closed,” until November 2022, when it was “maybe soon.” Finally, it happened, and in 2023 my daughter and I did it. Off we flew, landing just a quarter of a mile from my first abode on the main island as a 21-year-old volunteer. Our goal then was to get to Satawan and back in time to catch our return flight 10 days hence.

Yet Another Adventure

Robert Perodeau 2Daughter Jackie and FriendsTraveling by inter-island ferry, our scheduled 14-hour trip took 20, with a friendly crew of betel-nut-chewing hands catching tuna to dice and douse with lime (instant sushi). Never mind the thousands of varmints aboard, which we ignored, because we were on our way to Satawan!

This island is 1.5 mile wide by a quarter of a mile, a crescent, with perhaps 2000 inhabitants, a good percentage being students at a high school. Through emerald-green waters we approached the island where we were treated like royalty. In response to my attempts to speak long-dormant Trukese, people would break out in smiles.

We met people we had known a half century prior, like the eldest girl in the host family, now the matriarch. Her extended family stretches to Portland, Oregon, one being the young boy who had kept an observant eye on us, the fair-haired woman and dark-haired man living in their midst a half century ago.

The standards of hygiene and cleanliness on the island had improved, and we stopped to shake hands and say ran annim ami, good day, friend. But cars that had been there long ago had died and were left as junk. The roads are now in poor condition, no longer maintained by the U.S. Navy, but there aren’t many places to go.

A Fishing Trip Like You’ve never Seen

Robert Perodeau 3Our ship anchored off Satawan under a full moon.A striking remembrance from life on Satawan was the la-leu. One night, under a brilliant full moon and a magnificent Milky Way, some 50 of us made our way from Satawan by boat and canoe. The men had constructed a net of palm fronds, some 200 feet in length by 6 feet in depth, weighted down with coral, with ropes leading from each end to the shore. It was stretched over a number of boats about 100 feet offshore. One man was posted beyond the raised net, watching for a glimpse of the silver reflection of fish.

As the school approached, he blew a strident and incredibly eerie tone through a conch, and immediately the men on boats dropped the weighted net, and those on shore began to haul it in. Then a melee of men and fish in the tens of thousands, the catch being done by hand, non-stop until all sacks were filled, and boats and canoes were laden with fish.

Then, a sprint back under a cold rain shower to the islanders awaiting the bountiful catch. I noticed the Chinese trawler tied to the same reef when coming and going (a portent of things to come in that part of the world). The catch was divided equitably among all families, regardless of their size or participation. The entire island ate fish throughout the night. Lacking refrigeration, there was no time to lose.

The End?

Heading back to the main island was fraught with obstacles: “Impossible, local runway is closed. Impossible, no ships sailing.” Finally, we got accepted on a special trip with tight scheduling, getting us there in time. With only a day to spare, our ship set sail, fortunately (regrettably?) in time for our flight back home! My daughter loved seeing where her mother and I had taught 50 years ago. But now, what trip shall I promise my younger daughter?!

In memory of Evelyn Ready Perodeau, RPCV Micro 11, RIP May 19, 2018.


Robert Perodeau is principal, Evergreen Executive Source, LLC, executive recruiters to the non-profit sector for over 30 years. His website is https://www.egreensource.com