If "Micronesian Blues" were a work of fiction, I'd probably mutter something critical about the outrageously colorful characters and the improbable nature of some of the events that take place throughout the book.
But “Micronesian Blues” is nonfiction. The exotic cultures, gritty humor and crazy incidents – Bryan Vila experienced it all in his six years as a police trainer in the Pacific. He tells his story now with the help of Spokane writer/editor Cynthia Morris.
Today, Vila is a professor of criminal justice at Washington State University, but in the late 1970s, he was a burned-out street cop in Los Angeles, looking for something different.
When he heard about the job in Micronesia, he jumped at it. Working as a police chief and trainer on some remote tropical islands sounded like a paid vacation in paradise.
But from his first bumpy flight aboard an island-hopping “Air Mike” (Air Micronesia) jet, Vila quickly learned that his life in Micronesia would be replete with adventure and challenge, but certainly not with ease.
Micronesia is comprised of some 2,000 tiny islands scattered over a vast expanse of the western Pacific Ocean.
In the late 1970s, the islands were making the transition from U.S. Trust Territory to independence, and Vila’s job was to help develop law enforcement protocols and train local police forces throughout the islands. He had to deal with six different governments, nine languages, and 12 cultures.
His daily commute might involve a 1,200-mile flight across ocean waters from one speck of land to the next, or a cross-island jeep ride through thick jungle.
Crime-fighting was varied, too. Even in what looked to be a tropical paradise, there were riots, gang violence, rapes and murders.
The training aspect of Vila’s job included providing new recruits with target practice or physical-training regimens, and introducing veteran officers to role-playing exercises – sometimes with unexpected results. He even flew a couple dozen Micronesian officers to Alaska for an intensive three-month police academy program.
His work also meant working around cross-cultural barriers – misunderstandings and false assumptions that might have been funny if they hadn’t posed genuine threats to the communication so vital to police work.
Vila knew it was important to gain trust by participating in the local culture. In his off-hours, he spent time with his co-workers, and learned how to drink sakau, the potent drink of Ponape, and to chew betel nuts while on Yap. He ate fafa on Kosrae and consumed fruit bat soup on Palau.
Vila’s stories, even now that they’re decades old, still contain important lessons.
Cross-cultural police training is happening today at an unprecedented rate – in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other global hot spots. A postscript lays out Vila’s thoughts on the value of cross-cultural police development in the service of international reconstruction efforts.
It isn’t every day that lessons are presented in such a wildly entertaining way!
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com.