The Mystery of Yap

     Do you know of any destination in the world where the airport code is the same as the name of the place? Welcome to Yap! Situated between Guam and Palau in the Federated States of Micronesia, this tiny island paradise is unknown to many…

     If you want to learn more about the Yapese culture but you can’t afford an exotic trip to the Western Pacific, don’t worry! This blog will introduce you to this magical place of stone money, flying fish, fruit bat soup, and topless islanders with betel-stained teeth who never stop smiling… It’s the true island feeling you’ve always dreamed of.  So “Mogethin”! You already know how to say “Hello” in Yapese .

Rai

     We often hear the phrase “Money is just paper”. It is light and colored, and looks almost the same in all countries. But what if money is made out of stone, it is heavy and costs more if someone died because of it? That’s exactly the case on Yap.

     Yapese money, also known as “rai” was first invented on the island of Palau when a man tried to carve a stone in such a way that it would resemble the shape of the moon. In order for him to carry it, he had to carve a hole in the middle of the disk. The Yapese embraced the idea and soon it became their official currency.

     According to the article  “The Stone Money of Yap: A Numismatic Survey” , the money ranges from a foot in diameter to about ten feet or even more. The value is determined by how the disk got transported to the island. The more difficult and hazardous it was, the higher the value. 

     The supply is now fixed since no more rai are being carved or imported from the neighbor islands. What matters to the Yapese is not the quality of the disk’s carving but who the owner is and how they got it.

     Even though the US dollar is their de facto currency, one can still buy property on the island using rai that has a high value to the Yapese. There are around 6,800 rai scattered on the island and its inhabitants know the owner of every single disk. They don’t move the money because every inch of Yap is private property and that accounts for a certain etiquette among the islanders. More about that fascinating code of behavior, coming up in the next post.

The Betel Nut (Buu)

     If you do some research on the title of this post, you would find that the way most people describe this part of Yapese island life is wrong. Because betel is a leaf that grows on a betel vine. This special leaf is then chewed along with the Areca nut which is the seed of the Areca palm tree found in tropical areas such as Yap. 

     The reason why this betel nut combination is so interesting is not only because of its symbolic meaning in Yapese rituals but also because it is a psychoactive drug. In small quantities, it has the effect a cup of coffee would normally have. But since the Yapese may mix in tobacco with the betel leaves, it quickly becomes addictive. 

    According to Wikipedia, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regards the chewing of betel and areca nut to be a known human carcinogen. And it has indeed proven to be cancerous. Another powerful quality that the nut has is that it can stain your teeth for life should you become a heavy user. The Yapese start chewing betel and areca at a very early age and thus their teeth are permanently colored red or orange which in ancient civilizations was considered attractive.  But the nut is also believed to be a good remedy for bad breath and cavities as well as a natural stimulant and a medicinal source. 

     Even after reading what the betel nut combo can do to you, there is one thing you should know: If you are lucky enough to visit Yap, and the hospitable islanders offer you the nut, you should take it, relax and have a chew. This is how you will be welcome to the island, it will show you that you are accepted and esteemed. 

    The Habele Outer Island Education Fund explains that since the buu is hard to grow, it is cherished by the Yapese as treasure. The same source also tells that most people keep it hidden, because there is an obligation to share it if you have it so people stash some of it in their homes. So if someone asks “fang halai buu” (give me betel nut to eat) or “fang haluch buu” which means give us betel nut, you should think fast! The one who is not willing to share it is called a “moegloech” or stingy person, “while those who give away their buu too readily, are labeled “hachperang” for their efforts to win favor or approval by showing off.” 

     Yapese people chew betel nut as a way to socialize or when they need to focus and think before speaking at meetings. They offer betel nut as a sign of goodwill to guests and the core message is to slow down. Your best bet as a newcomer is to share what you have and enjoy the buzz which is an essential part of the true island experience.

Why Yap is So Cool

     There are many things which are common on Yap but very unusual to any outsider. For starters, where on Earth can you get truly happy people to greet you with their red betel-stained smile? Where can you see topless women talking on cell phones? And what gives the Yapese their genuine politeness and their love and respect for one another?

     Something interesting about politics on Yap is that elders hold supreme power on the island. When they give orders that concern the community, everyone obeys. Because if they don’t, they can banish them. And that is a major problem. Why?

     Every inch on Yap including the surrounding ocean water out as far as the reef is private property. Some say it takes about three minutes to walk from the center of the island’s capital, Colonia, to the outskirts but every time you take a walk in any direction, you are trespassing someone’s property.

     This is the secret ingredient in their all-get-along recipe. In order for you to get where you need to go, you should be nice to people so they can let you walk on their land. Locals say you have to ask permission if you see anyone on your way. They will always let you pass but you have to be polite and ask before you walk through people’s yards. How cool is that?

Dress Code and Best Behavior

     Yapese culture is indeed intact. Even though the island is open to tourists, all visitors are expected to respect the traditions and norms of Yap. 

     For example, all Yapese women are required to always cover their thighs when they are in public. They are bare breasted which is as fine as men wearing no shirts. But when it comes to showing your legs in public, it is very inappropriate and disrespectful.

     Therefore the Yap Visitors Bureau recommends that bathing suits are only worn for swimming, on a boat or by the pool. They say long shorts or sarongs are fine, as are jeans or slacks but men should not wear shorts that are “too short”. Walking around town in skimpy or transparent attire will put you on the radar and you will not feel welcome on the island.

     Women are also expected to sit properly. Squatting in public is considered improper and disrespectful.

     If you decide to take a stroll at night, make sure you have a light with you, especially if you plan to enter a village. Walking with no light in the dark is a sign that you are looking to cause trouble. 

     Last but not least, do not walk around villages empty handed. The Yapese would think you are visiting the area with no purpose but to cause trouble. The Visitors Bureau advises that  a small branch (Muteelpaaq) would do if you don’t have a handbag to walk around with.

How Do You Get to Yap

     There is only one airline with service to the island of Yap and that is Continental Micronesia. Its flights almost always go through Guam. You can also fly to one of the cities close to Guam- Manila, Palau, Hong Kong or Koror, and continue to Guam from there. Continental Airlines Micronesia have a very enticing offer for travelers with enough money and time on their hands. The service is called the  “Island Hopper” and it gives you the opportunity to “hop” on all of the major islands in Micronesia. You leave Honolulu, Hawaii, and stop in most of the islands in eastern Micronesia en route to Guam. Flights are scheduled three times a week so plan accordingly.

     If you decide you don’t want to fly directly into Yap International Airport, you can fly to Guam and get to Yap by boat. Speedboats are the main means of transportation between the islands. Canoes are also used but they take up to three times longer in travel time. You can also take the filed trip ship but it only operates twice a month. Same vessel goes to the islands of Ulithi and Fais. If you plan on visiting Ulithi, you have to make arrangements with the Chief of the island (Piiluung (Yapese for Chief) Ignacio Hapthey) who resides on Yap. Once you have the Chief’s permission, you can also take the Pacific Missionary Aviation plane which is usually used to transport doctors and patients from the remote islands but you can charter it and get to the island of your choice.  But remember, you can’t just show up on the island unless you’ve notified the Chief about the purpose of your visit.

Houses and Dances

     According to the Official Micronesia Travel Guide, Yap has two villages that are worth a visit. They are the Balabat Villager and the Okau Village. The villages of Yap are still used as meeting houses by the elders to discuss community matters.

     Each village is divided into family groups and a large family group has three types of houses.  The community house is the largest, it is a wooden structure with a steepthatched roof and open sides, where everyone gets together to dance sing and count their stone money. Then the nuclear families each have a sleeping house which of course is where the family sleeps. The third is the men’s club house where community decisions are made. 

    The community houses are very important.  Usually, there is one community house for men and another one for women. The men’s houses, called faluw, are typically situated near the water. The functions of men’s and women’s houses have changed, but taboos still apply. Always ask permission before approaching or taking pictures.

     Dances happen in the community houses on weekends and since Yapese people are very private, in order for you to observe a traditional dance, you should arrange a visit to one of the community houses through one of the village elders.

     Elders teach the village youth stories and how to communicate them through dancing. A dance is known as “churu” and each performance tells a Yapese story. For example, there are dances which explain the Japanese occupation in Yap and then the US occupation during World War II. For a video of a traditional dance, click on the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gRRxn8Fsek

Baskets

There is something else that’s very unique to the Micronesian culture of Yap. The islanders use special handwoven baskets to carry all their valuables and betel nuts. There are different kinds of baskets for men and women, some are used to carry infants and others are used to carry food. How big the basket is usually shows the status of its owner in the village.

As was mentioned in the post about proper behavior on the island, there is a certain etiquette for baskets also. For example, any time a native walks into another Yap village, carrying their basket shows they have gone there in peace. If you’re a visitor, carrying a green branch with you would signify you’re not looking for any trouble. And remember, it is very rude to touch someone’s basket without asking for permission first.

Flying Fish

     So what is a flying fish? A fish that has wings and flies? Well, pretty much, only that its “wings” are called pectoral fins. According to Wikipedia, in order to glide upward out of the water, a flying fish moves its tail up to 70 times per second; then it spreads its pectoral fins and tilts them slightly upward to provide lift.

     Flying fish love tropical and subtropical waters. That is why they can be found in Yap. Different countries have different ways of catching flying fish. In Yap, they are usually caught while flying, using nets held from outrigger canoes. The Yapese light torches because they know flying fish are attracted to the light. Fishing is thus done only when there is no moonlight.

     Fishing on Yap is seasonal. “Roahroah” for example is Emperor fish which can also be found in Yap, and it’s caught during the summer when ocean waters are calm and the Yapese do bottom fishing inside lagoons. When flying fish are in the lagoon, at first only one canoe goes out into the water. The men who can make magic are on that canoe.  The ritual goes that a local magician or the men who know magic put it in the channels. Then people usually wait about a month before anyone can go out fishing.

     When they fish the first fish of the season, the whole Yapese community goes. Women pick breadfruit and bring it to the Men’s House in return for the fish the men have caught. If a magician’s spell on the waters does not bring fish, the Yapese blame him, not the ocean, and the magician can stay in the Men’s House for up to a month.

    

Fruit Bat Soup

     There is a variety of local food on Yap which includes several different kinds of crab, lobster, snapper, tuna… Fish is the second major Yap export along with betel nuts. But the Yapese also eat fruit bats.

     One of the traditional dishes in fact is fruit bat soup with coconut and ginger. The fruit bats are also called flying foxes because they are furry and do look like foxes but they feed on fruit and flower nectar.

     If you are looking for an extreme culinary adventure with a Micronesian delicacy, look no further. Some of the five-star Pacific resorts, offer fruit bat soup which is now rare and expensive. Fruit bats are only found in Micronesia, and with the introduction of Western diet on the islands, the soup has become much less popular.

     The recipe below is from The New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook (Jean Hewitt, 1971) but it is a bit different from the traditional Micronesian fruit bat soup where the whole bat is served on the plate.     

• 3 fruit bats, well washed but neither skinned nor eviscerated
• Water
• 1 Tb finely sliced fresh ginger
• 1 large onion, quartered
• Sea salt to taste
• Chopped scallions
• Soy sauce and/or coconut cream

1. Place bats in a large kettle and add water to cover. Add ginger, onion, and salt. Bring to boil and simmer 45 minutes. Strain broth into second kettle.

2. Take bats, skin them, discard skin. Remove meat from bones. Return meat and any viscera fancied to the broth. Heat.

3. Serve, liberally sprinkled with scallions and seasoned with soy sauce and/or coconut cream.

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