The Clark Expedition
to sample life in another culture, sharon clark chooses a remote pacific hideaway
The Micronesian archipelago of Truk would have fired the imagination of Joseph Conrad: several dozen luxuriantly tropical isles, linked only by fuel ships that traverse the intervening waterways once every few months, bearing provisions ranging from cigarettes to rice. Moen, the second-largest island, is a roughhewn American outpost and is graced, improbably enough, by such rare fauna as Sharon Olivia Clark. It's a long way (about 8000 miles) from Norman, Oklahoma, where Sharon earned her degree in sociology; from St. Louis, where she later read manuscripts for a publisher of medical texts; and from Los Angeles, where she was living when she decided to strike out for more exotic regions. Inviting us along for the ride, Sharon went native earlier this year to experience life as it's lived on an "island paradise" in the Pacific and to teach English to local high school students. The quality of life on Moen, Sharon quickly discovered, is very different from that in the States: "Home" is a Quonset hut (so is the classroom where she works); transportation on the otherwise impassable roads is by motorcycle; and the mercantile community in her village consists of a general store, a commissary where frozen meat is sold, plus three other establishments that deal in canned goods. The climate is idyllic; the temperature averages 85 degrees and the lagoons are bluer than blue. Yet since our return to the States, Sharon wrote (Moen can't be reached by telephone) that there's trouble in paradise -- a circumstance she attributes to the American Government, which administers Truk under a trusteeship. In addition to introducing the tin can and other pollutants, American culture has done much, in Sharon's opinion, to undermine the Trukese way of life: "Instead of helping the natives develop their fisheries, the Americans are giving them Government jobs and turning Truk into a bureaucratic welfare state. We've taken our economy and set it down on top of theirs. The locals accept this, but with undertones of resentment." And the presence of the Peace Corps, she feels, does little to counteract the effects of this subtle colonialism: Too few of the Corps men are involved in the crucial fishing industry. What aggravates the situation and gives the future a gloomy cast, Sharon says, is a lack of communication between the administrators from across the sea and their charges -- who, she claims, "act sluggish when they're around the Americans, giving them the mistaken impression, after a while, that the islanders are all lazy." Sharon recognizes, however, that the American way of life, which seems so out of place in Truk, is her own: "I've learned that I don't really groove on the 'simple life' -- much as I hate to see it destroyed. I like to see cars moving on four-lane highways. I miss the movies and skiing trips; I even miss the changes in climate." Sharon is also frustrated by her teaching job: "It's difficult to find reading matter in English that's relevant to these kids." Accordingly, despite her affection for the islanders, Sharon is planning to return to the States. But she doesn't regret her adventure; it's given her a new appreciation not only of America's fast-paced culture but also of the need to apply the brakes on occasion and take time out for a self-renewing interlude of ease--South Pacific style.
Photography by Bill Figge, Ed DeLong