The House There No More. A Former U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer Returns To Chuuk by John W. Perry

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By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, July 04, 2001 - 7:11 pm: Edit Post

The House There No More. A Former U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer Returns To Chuuk by John W. Perry

The House There No More. A Former U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer Returns To Chuuk.

by John W. Perry

(Text from Pacifica, the inflight magazine of Continental Micronesia.)

I shall return. --Gen. Douglas MacArthur

Peace Corps: A Federal government organization, set up in 1961, that trains and sends American volunteers abroad to work with people of developing countries on projects for technological, agricultural, and educational improvement. --The American Heritage Dictionary

Chuuk: An island state in today's Federated States of Micronesia.

As the motorboat neared Udot, a remote island in Chuuk's giant lagoon, a flock of black-naped terns crying krep! krep! krep! swooped over an eroded boat pier, welcoming me ashore like a squadron of World War II (WWII) aircraft on military parade. At pier's end, sandwiched between the island's mangrove-infested shoreline and forested highland, lay Penia, a tiny Chuukese village where in 1967 I had trained to be a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). I had not been back in over three decades.

Unlike Gen. MacArthur, who promised the Filipinos in WWII that he would return to liberate their islands, I had never promised the Chuukese of Penia that I would return to visit them and, truthfully, I never expected to return until a magazine travel-writing assignment took me to Chuuk. Except for a guide and a boat driver, both Chuukese, I returned alone, carrying a notebook and memories.

I first came to Chuuk as a Peace Corps trainee during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, a year after the first PCVs arrived in Micronesia in 1966. From Weno, Chuuk's main island, a leftover WWII naval barge motored me to Udot, where a dugout canoe carried me to Penia, an Udot village completely unknown to foreigners. In Penia I heard my first Chuukese words, ran annim (good morning), saw my first Micronesian sunset, and drank my first coconut, fresh from the tree.

Now, for the first time since 1967, I stepped from a boat onto Penia's pier, which many years before had served as a concrete pathway into the village for 30 young Americans fresh from collage. Like the other trainees, I participated in language studies, swimming exercises, and outdoor-toilet construction projects. Everyone quickly learned that the human intestine's best friend is a nearby outhouse, especially when diarrhea is as frequent as rain. At training's end, the Penia-trained PCVs were assigned elsewhere in Micronesia, most as English-language teachers. I was sent as a journalist to Micronesia's Marshall Islands.

As news spread through the village that a "Penia trainee" had returned, a crowd of Chuukese gathered to welcome me. "Do you remember me?" asked Betty Becker who in 1967 worked as a young clerk in a one-room store that sold matches, mosquito coils and canned food to the trainees. She had an apology to make: During a heavy rain in 1967 a wet trainee without an umbrella bought a can of corned beef from her store. Short one cent, he asked for one-penny credit until the rain stopped. She refused -- no penny no beef -- and made the poor, hungry man walked back to his house and return with one cent. "I had never heard about credit," she confessed. "I didn't know what credit was until the Peace Corps came. I'm sorry I made that American go get a penny in the rain for corned beef. Was that you?"

"No," I said. "I always hated corned beef. I ate canned tuna."

Like myself, most Peace Corps trainees in Penia had never lived on an island where people spoke a different language, used kerosene lanterns instead of electric light bulbs and ate fish, breadfruit and corned beef instead of T-bone steaks and pork-and-beans. The Peace Corps' Micronesia recruiting poster for 1967 pictured a young boy climbing a coconut tree beside a blue lagoon; it read: "Come To Paradise!" Who could refuse? As expected, few people in my Texas hometown had heard of Micronesia; the town drunkard said it was east of Florida. To me, Micronesia seemed as far away as the moon.

Standing in Penia's pathway, I answered the villagers' personal questions about my post-Penia life. Do you have children? (No); Do you have a wife? (No); Do you still go fishing? (No ); Do you still eat canned tuna? peanut butter? (No). True, I wasn't a great success.

"I was young when I came to Penia," I said, "and today" -- pointing to a graying beard -- "I return much older." My guide translated the mini-speech and everyone looked at me closely: yes, plenty gray hairs!

Penia remained much as I remembered it, though the shoreline, once sandy, was now congested with mangrove trees and typhoon-proof, concrete-block houses had replaced the wooden homes. Hand-washed laundry still hung from clotheslines made of fishing line and wives and mothers still cooked on kerosene stoves. At night, kerosene lanterns, like in 1967, brightened Penia's houses. There was no running water: People still drank rain water fresh from the sky or dipped from catchment tanks.

To me, the most noticeable change in Penia was the absence of the wood-framed houses the Peace Corps had built in 1967 to house the trainees. What had become of them? "Blown away by a typhoon," someone said; "Gone long ago," said another. All that remained of my tin-roofed, plywood house was a concrete foundation. Gray as a rain cloud, it resembled a huge, horizontal tombstone without an inscription.

I stood on the abandoned foundation -- "the house there no more" -- and spoke to the villagers, mostly women who had stopped hanging laundry and men who had stopped building a concrete house. "Over here," I said, walking to a foundation corner and nodding my head in sleep, "is where I slept." Everyone laughed. "Here" -- walking to the kitchen area -- "is where I ate tuna." Everyone laughed again. "And over there," I said, pointing to a distant breadfruit tree, "is where I used the benjo," a Japanese-introduced word for toilet. Everyone laughed loudly.

Stepping down from my former home's foundation, I entered a tin-roofed dwelling where Chuukese had gathered to shade themselves from the midday heat. "That woman with a baby wants to meet you," said my guide, nodding toward a lady sitting on the dirt floor and breast-feeding a child.

"Do you know me?" she asked, turning the child's face toward me. "I helped to cook the food for your house."

"I remember a little girl who carried pots and pans larger than her body," I said.

"That was me!"

She held my hand until the baby began to cry, frightened by my beard. When we released hands, I turned toward the waiting motorboat and walked out of the mother and child's life and, for the last time, out of Penia.

"The family that cooked for your house in 1967," said a villager as I boarded the boat, "named one of their sons John, after you! Did you know that?"

"No," I said. "I didn't. Does he like to fish?"

My guide pushed the boat from the weathered pier, poled it into deeper water, and shouted "Let's go!" in Chuukese to the boatman. A puff of engine smoke blew toward Penia as the outboard motor propelled the boat into the lagoon. I turned and waved farewell, the same farewell waved many, many years ago.

By Joey Iwo on Thursday, February 27, 2003 - 7:50 pm: Edit Post

What a remarkable story. I am from Chuuk and I wasn't born during your first arrival in Chuuk. Will you ever go back and visit Chuuk? How old are you anyways?

By Pon Tao on Monday, March 03, 2003 - 10:06 am: Edit Post

What phrases do you know in Truk, where are language learning rescources

By Pon Tao on Monday, March 03, 2003 - 10:06 am: Edit Post

What phrases do you know in Truk, where are language learning rescources

By Pon Tao on Monday, March 03, 2003 - 10:06 am: Edit Post

What phrases do you know in Truk, where are language learning rescources

By Sven Beck ( - on Sunday, April 24, 2005 - 10:18 pm: Edit Post

I lived in Truk as a TT dependent (1958-61) and have great memories of Moen (Weno). I would like to visit again, soon.

By georgeangell ( - on Friday, October 27, 2006 - 6:25 pm: Edit Post

I trained in Truk the summer of 1967, right out of N.Y.U. I remember there was a 40% attrition rate. I hated it. I was later assigned to Ponape where I taught English As a Second Language. My room mate was Alan Burdick who later married a Ponapean girl. Did you know Nancy Toft? I was dating her at the time. I would love to share some stories of those times -- so long ago. George Angell

By Anonymous ( - on Saturday, January 27, 2007 - 12:54 am: Edit Post

Thank you for visiting. It shows that somewhere in the back of your mind there are still some memories of your time on Udot. I was six years old at that time and enjoyed running after the volunteers trying to be one of them. I'm not from Penia thou, I'm from the neighboring village to the west.

By Sheila ( - on Thursday, March 22, 2007 - 1:48 pm: Edit Post

wakaiooh.... i miss my island of udot....... i miss my family back there.... who ever this is please keep our island clean cuz i heard that our island of chuuk is getting bad... and i don't wanted to get worst well thanks...... iwe pwan jok kapwongs ngonuk....

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